Wednesday, February 28, 2024

March Madness 2023: UConn was really good at start of season and is even better now as it heads to Elite Eight

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UConn was never No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll or the USA Today Coaches poll, mostly because Purdue beat the Huskies in a race to the top of those weekly rankings and then stayed undefeated longer. But on their way to a 14-0 start featuring 13 double-digit victories — among them a 15-point win over an Alabama team that went on to secure the No. 1 overall seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament — UConn did move to No. 1 at KenPom.com, and once the Huskies got there in December they were never again lower than sixth in the sport’s most-referenced predictive metric.

My point?

UConn has always been really, really good — even when it went 2-6 in an eight-game stretch during the Big East portion of its schedule. If you had forgotten as much, you were reminded of it Thursday night when the Huskies absolutely demolished Arkansas 88-65 to advance to the West Regional Championship.

“We’re exactly where we thought we would be earlier in the season — playing for a chance to go to the Final Four,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley.

That chance comes Saturday — against Gonzaga.

T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas will be electric.

UConn is the lower-seeded team in the game but should still be favored — partly because of those previously mentioned super-strong computer numbers, but also because it’s reasonable to argue nobody is playing better in this NCAA Tournament than Hurley’s team. The Huskies’ three wins have come by 24 points (Iona), 15 points (Saint Mary’s) and 23 points (Arkansas). Nearly everything has been easy.

Against Arkansas, UConn led by double-digits barely 10 minutes in, by 17 at the break and never let the Razorbacks threaten in the final 20 minutes. It was a total beatdown, the kind Hurley famously promised in 2020.

“People better get us now,” Hurley said then. “That’s all. You better get us now. Cause it’s coming.”

Rest assured, it has arrived.

The Huskies are No. 3 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 13 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Houston, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, is the only other team that’s also in the top 13 in both categories. UConn can punish opponents from the perimeter with Jordan Hawkins and Tristen Newton or overwhelm them around the rim with Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan. On Thursday, they shot 57.4% from the field while holding Arkansas to 31.7% shooting. Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman never really had a chance to even think about removing his shirt.

“[UConn’s] pieces really fit well together,” Musselman said. “[They have] two centers (Sanogo, Clingan) … along with perimeter shooting, and then Newton gives them length, and then [Andre] Jackson’s ability to pass from the small-forward position [is impressive]. There’s not a lot of small forwards in college basketball that can have seven assists [like Jackson did Thursday]. He’s a point-forward. He’s not really a standard small forward. And they cut really hard. I thought … their offense was just as effective as their defense, which is what their metrics tell you, [that] they’re really good on both sides of the basketball.”

Those numbers don’t lie.

They were reinforced Thursday.

And now, in Year 5 under Danny Hurley, UConn is just one win away from returning to the Final Four for the first time since 2014, and only three wins away from what would be the programs’ fifth national title. Will the Huskies get it done? As always, time will tell. But what the computers have been telling us since December is that UConn is definitely good enough to do it, and the Huskies once again showed us just how good while eliminating Arkansas with zero issues in this Sweet 16’s most dominant performance to date.

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