After some inconsistent play throughout much of the regular season, the UConn Huskies Men’s Basketball program has risen to the challenge down the stretch. UConn faced their toughest challenge of the season on Tuesday night when they matched up with #8 Villanova at the XL Center. From the opening tip to the final whistle, it was one of the most exciting games of the season for the Huskies in front of more than 15,000 fans in Hartford (one of the best UConn crowds in recent memory). UConn played one of their most consistent games all season with high energy and grit for the entire 40-minute game, with contributions up and down the rotation. With under a minute left, UConn was able to overcome a 4pt deficit thanks to Tyler Polley‘s sharp-shooting, very strong defense, and a massive game-winner from the heart and soul of the team, R.J. Cole. When the buzzer sounded, the students stormed the court and a message was sent out to the college basketball world: UConn is back and coming for you.
This has been a rollercoaster season for the Huskies, filled with what ifs and stretches of forgotten identity. Tuesday night was their 20th victory of the year and arguably their most complete game played in several weeks, if not all season. Being back in the Big East means a tough game almost every single night in conference play and as a result, a number of close losses in which UConn was one or two plays away from securing the W. Earlier in the season, this would have been a close loss filled with questions. Since their several week COVID pause in December and into January, UConn is 11-3 with their losses coming to Creighton (by 4), Villanova (by 11), and Xavier (by 6). They have gone on a revenge tour the last week, beating Xavier and Villanova in their 2nd matchup and if they can beat Creighton on March 2nd, will have avenged their losses. If the season ended today, they would be a #3 seed in the Big East Tournament, which gives them a really strong chance to improve their resume for the NCAA Tournament (currently a 4th or 5th seed).
Throughout the season, UConn has shown signs of being a top team, but hasn’t put it all together until recently. They started the season off strong with a great showing in the Battle for Atlantis with a huge victory over now #3 Auburn in OT (their only loss for most of the season), followed by a 4pt loss to Michigan State (shorthanded with Whaley out) and then a nice rebound victory against VCU. Despite cold streaks, awful layup percentages, and foul trouble (looking at you Adama Sanogo), UConn has been able to lean on it’s defensive intensity and offensive rebounding to keep them in games when the offense disappeared. We’re seeing a more complete UConn team this past week because they have continued their defensive identity while also limiting their cold streaks offensively. As they get more confident individually and as a group, more layups are falling and their offensive game has improved.
A great example of the improved offensive game was Tuesday night. More specifically, there was a turning point in the game after Dan Hurley was ejected for a ridiculous 2nd technical (an entirely separate rant). The technical free throws and possession led to a 6pt swing for the Wildcats with hardly any time coming off the clock at a pivotal time in the game with 4ish minutes left in the first half. At a different point in the season, that deficit could have led to forced shots and digging a deeper hole on the offensive end, but instead, it led to a nice offensive run with smart shots and increased defensive intensity to pull back tied. The confidence the team has in each other was obvious and it led to an incredibly strong performance against a top tier team with tons of experience. The signature win will only help to continue building the team’s confidence down the stretch.
Another shift that was interesting to watch and gives this team a new dimension going into the postseason was Andre Jackson as the baller handler. He athleticism and speed helped UConn get out in transition and for the most part, he was able to take care of the ball without his tendency for silly turnovers. The new twist of Jackson running point more often puts Tyrese Martin and R.J. Cole in better spots to get their shots and definitely gives the offense an energy boost. It also gives the opponent different looks and allows Cole to have more energy down the stretch for the big bucket at the end. Jackson has always been praised for his athleticism and speed, but now it feels like he’s more comfortable using that to exploit the opponent. He is a strong passer and the more he has the ball in his hands to facilitate, the more engaged he is on the offensive end. He can’t run point every possession, but as a change of pace, it’s great.
Overall, UConn is peaking at the right time and is back to being relevant again. If their strong play continues over the next few weeks, they have a real chance to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament in a year where the field is pretty wide open. If they can improve their seeding and grab a #4, maybe even a #3 seed, they will have a good chance at making a 2nd weekend appearance and perhaps even beyond. Tough and gritty defense with a strong big man inside and a veteran point guard who isn’t afraid to take the big shot at the end. Sound familiar?