NCAA Basketball

College Basketball Preview: Louisville vs. Connecticut

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(23)Louisville Cardinals @ (5)Connecticut Huskies
Gampel Pavilion – Storrs, CT
Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011
Time: 12:04 pm EST
TV: BIG EAST Network (WHAS-TV/Ch. 11 in Louisville) Mike Gleason, play-by-play; Bob Wenzel, analyst.
Radio: WHAS (840 AM) Paul Rogers, play-by-play; Bob Valvano, analyst. (also SIRIUS ch. 121, XM ch. 141)
Series History: UofL trails 4-5 (2-2 in Louisville, 2-1 in Storrs, 0-2 neutral)
Officials: Bob Donato, Brian O’Connell, Roger Ayers

Last year’s UConn team was fortunate to reach the NIT and lost seniors Stanley Robinson, Jerome Dyson and Gavin Edwards. Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun had a decent recruiting class coming in, but no one thought they would be a top five team in the country sitting at 17-2 overall at this point in the 2010-2011 season. However, despite being picked to finish 10th in the coaches preseason poll, they are a legitimate force to be reckoned with.

Led by National Player of the Year candidate Kemba Walker and the strong inside play of big man Alex Oriakhi, the Huskies find themselves in prime position for another BIG EAST regular season title, championship and possible number one seed in the NCAA Tournament come March. Connecticut’s only losses were on the road, a three point defeat at Notre Dame and a 78-63 dismantling at the hands of league leading Pittsburgh.

Walker and Oriakhi are the only two Huskies averaging in double figures scoring with 24.4 and 10.9 points per scrap, respectively. Their third leading scorer, freshman guard Jeremy Lamb has really begun to pick up his game. He led UConn with 24 points in their win at Marquette on Tuesday, becoming the first Husky to lead the team in scoring not named Kemba this season. Lamb has now scored in double figures in four consecutive contests, averaging 16.8ppg over those four.

Next up on the scoring totem pole at 8.4 points a contest is Lamb’s freshman backcourt mate Shabazz Napier. Napier dishes out 3.3 dimes a game, second on the team again only to Kemba Walker (4.3). The only other real threat Connecticut has offensively is another freshman, a 6′ 8″ forward from Oak Hill Academy, Roscoe Smith. Smith is scoring 7.6 points a game and is second on the team in rebounding behind Oriakhi’s 9.0 average, grabbing 5.5 boards a contest. Smith also leads the team in blocked shots, sending an average of 1.7 shots a game back from whence they came.

Connecticut’s three seniors, Charles Okwandu, Donnell Beverly and Kyle Bailey see a combined 25 minutes a game and contribute just over five points per contest.

But as is always the case, UConn doesn’t really win games with their offense, they do it with their defense. Once again the Huskies find themselves among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots, 2nd at 6.7 a game and is 14th nationally in field goal percentage defense (.384). The Cardinals are going to have to make the extra pass and take, and MAKE open shots to have a chance in this one.

From Louisville’s perspective I think Kyle Kuric is going to the be the key to victory. Kuric, when he isn’t hitting (or taking) shots is about the most pointless player on the court. However, given UConn’s size advantage underneath, Kuric is the only legitimate chance the Cardinals have of drawing the 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year in New Hampshire – Oriakhi – out of the paint on the defensive side of the ball. Kuric, along with the rest of Louisville’s shooters, is going to have to knock down the shots when they are available.

It is going to be a very tough task to leave Storrs with a win, a win that barring a complete meltdown would all but punch the Cardinals Dance ticket before February even gets here. However, Louisville under Rick Pitino has been the best team in the BIG EAST at playing on the road over the last five seasons. During that timeframe, the Cardinals have won more road games in BIG EAST Conference play than any other league team (25; one this year, four last year, eight of nine in 2008-09, and six in each of the previous two years; the next closest team: Pittsburgh with 23 road wins). Overall, the Cardinals have a 28-14 record over the last five years on their opponent’s home court and they have won 18 of its last 29 on the road, including five against Top 25 ranked opponents.

Last year the Huskies were 8-1 in Storrs in BIG EAST play, the lone loss coming at the beaks of Louisville. It’s a stupid prediction, but I’m going with the upset here. The Cardinals have played horrible the past two games, and it’s time the shooters snap out of it and carry them to victory.

Louisville 74, Connecticut 71

** Saturday will be Coaches Vs. Cancer day so look for coaching staffs around the country to be sporting their sneaks in support. **