Forget the offense, Connecticut has been locking it down on D.
Offense is exciting, we get it. Big point totals equal big interest. Let’s be honest, as much as Connecticut’s wins over Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas have caught national attention, guard Kemba Walker’s assault on the Division 1 scoring title has been equally as enticing for the media and fans. Lost in the midst of this point producing palooza however has been the underlying theme to the Huskies success: defense.
According to Synergy Sports Connecticut ranks among the nation’s elite in point per possession allowed (.794) and opponent field goal percentage (38.2%), showing the greatest level of success on two-point field goals (40.3%) where they post the 8th lowest mark nationally. This is due in large part to the combination of aggressive style the team plays and the long, athletic, interchangeable parts on the roster, which allows the Huskies to rotate and switch men with a high degree of success.
It starts in transition where UConn has the greatest degree of success thanks to the fantastic open floor speed the team possesses. Guards like Walker, Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb are quick enough to slow the initial fast break, forcing opposing backcourt players to slow down or pick up their dribble. In cases where this first line of defense fails, the Huskies are loaded (once again) with shot blockers in Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Charles Okwandu. Even in instances where these three aren’t swatting away shot attempts, they alter a tremendous number of field goal tries and act as significant deterrents in the middle for fast breaking teams, often forcing teams to take a lower percentage shot rather than risk going all the way to the basket.
In the half court set versatility reigns supreme for Jim Calhoun’s squad. UConn is so tough to play against as an offense because of its ability to rotate and switch defenders without suffering a significant drop off in effectiveness. In many instances depending on the opposition, the Husky defense resembles a four-high offense with Oriakhi anchoring the middle while the four remaining players rotate seamlessly on the perimeter. While Walker and Napier are quick enough to contest most shots and cut off driving lanes, the key pieces here are players like Smith, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, Lamb and Niels Giffey, long athletes that alter shots consistently. This man to man offense works with the same principles as Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone, length and quickness are utilized to force the opposition further away from the basket and Connecticut has both characteristics in abundance.
This length is equally as important in regards to the Huskies ability to defend dribble drive offenses. When opposing guards attack off the dribble they are immediately collapsed on, not so much a double-team but rather with an additional defender applying enough pressure to the ball to force a reaction. This method, combine with the athleticism and versatility on the floor allows the Connecticut defenders to trap in the paint without sacrificing their ability to defend a kick out. This meeting of intelligent, aware defense with superior length has allowed the team to hold opponents to 28.6% shooting in spot-up situations, one of the lowest marks in the country.
For all of its shot blocking prowess, the Huskies lack an elite individual low post defender on their roster – rather relying on the same collapsing effort they utilize to counteract dribble penetration. Connecticut is one of the top shot blocking teams in the country, not simply because of the athletic nature of their big men, but the opportunistic nature in which they play. An tremendous number of the team’s blocks come as a result of help defense, coming from the weak side or behind the opponent after a move to the basket has already been initiated. It’s an effective method, but does on occasion hurt them against big men who excel at reading the defense, leaving the team susceptible to perimeter shooters rotating behind the play (UConn ranks 180th nationally in opponent three-point field goal percentage).
Ironically enough, for all of its defensive prowess and the necessary physical attributes in its players to pull it off, Connecticut struggles to defend the pick and roll. The same aggressive nature that makes this team so tough to score against in most settings makes them easy to score against when running this play with an experienced guard. Hedging on the initial screen isn’t a problem for Connecticut big men, but they often overplay the ball handler, failing to recover quickly enough on the roll man, leaving an unbalanced defense that is suddenly playing a man down. Luckily for the Huskies few teams at the college level run this play effectively enough, or often enough to prove a major matchup problem. With that said, teams may want to keep this in mind should they meet this squad in the postseason.
Of course, at the end of the day, the scoring potential and firepower that Connecticut features will continue to trump the surprising defensive prowess it has shown. Even in higher scoring games like the Huskies recent 82-81 overtime win over Texas in which the Longhorns shot the ball well, UConn made their opponent work for every single point. This isn’t necessarily an attribute that will bring home a national championship or even a Final Four appearance, but in conjunction with an offense spearheaded by Kemba Walker’s tremendous start, this team is dangerous and capable of pulling off some major wins.