Discover more from The UConn Fast Break
Gameday: No. 4 UConn vs. No. 8 Arkansas | 7:15 p.m. on CBS
These two teams are set to put on a show, as both rosters are loaded with talent and athleticism.
On Monday, Jim Calhoun met with the UConn Huskies before they shipped out to Las Vegas, offering words of wisdom and encouragement for the current members of the program he led to prominence.
“It was special to hear from him,” Alex Karaban said. “To get his experience, to get his insight on our team, and to tell us how good of a team we can be, is something special…we took it to heart.”
The Huskies may be 80 minutes away from Houston, but they need to get through the next 40, and a formidable opponent stands in the way.
The fourth-seeded Huskies (27-8) will take on 8-seed Arkansas (22-13) at T-Mobile Arena. The Razorbacks are coming off a 72-71 upset of top-seeded Kansas and looking for their third straight trip to the Elite Eight.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said he expects a physical contest between two talented teams.
“[UConn is] relentless on the glass… They're a physical team… A lot of teams will send three to the glass and two back…almost every possession they're sending four to the glass,” he said.
UConn head coach Dan Hurley sees an even matchup.
“It should be an unbelievable challenge for us against an Arkansas team that’s playing like the top-10 team they were projected to be in the preseason,” he said.
The Razorbacks, who reloaded with 11 new players in the off-season, are led by junior guard Ricky Council IV (16.1 points) and senior Makhi Mitchell (5.5 rebounds).
Hurley’s squad will need to avoid the slower starts it has been able to overcome in the first two rounds.
“When you're UConn and you're playing in the first round of the tournament, maybe even the second round, there's a lot of pressure on you, the pressure of the brand that you carry…hopefully some of that pressure has been alleviated and we can go out tomorrow and let it rip,” Hurley said.
“I don't think we can afford to have a slow start versus these guys.”
Sweet 16 Preview
The game is taking place at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, tip-off will be at 7:15 p.m. and televised on CBS.
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -4, over/under 139.5
Keys to the Game
Win the Glass
The Huskies come into the battle with a plus-9.3 rebound margin, the third-best in the country. Karaban says their tenacity comes from how they practice.
“We know it’s going to be a battle on the boards,” he said. “We need to stick to our identity, which is rebounding and toughness.”
Hurley said it’s going to take a disciplined effort.
“I don't know that we have maybe quite the same level of athleticism. So we've got to be more fundamental in terms of putting a body on a body, being in inside position, and then being really physical at that point…it's going to be a war when the ball goes up tomorrow on the glass, no doubt.”
Hawkins vs. Smith
Each team possesses an elite shooting guard coming into this game. But both of them, UConn’s Jordan Hawkins and Arkansas’ Nick Smith Jr., have had some tournament struggles.
Hawkins is averaging 12.5 points in two NCAA games but has yet to score a point in the first half.
“He’s one of the best pure shooters in college basketball,” Musselman said. “He has a quick release, a pure release. … He does a great job of constantly moving. When the ball moves, he moves.”
Smith (12.6 ppg in 16 games) has just six points in two tournament games. However, the potential NBA lottery pick remains a dangerous threat.
“He’s an electrifying player to watch,” Hurley said. “We are preparing for him like we have to guard one of the best scoring guards in the country.”
If Hawkins can get going, UConn’s attack becomes nearly unstoppable.
“It's hard for teams to be able to guard the 3-point line and also guard the dominant forces we have inside,” Andre Jackson said. “We have a lot of different tools and a lot of different guys that can affect the game in different ways.
“It's definitely hard to prepare for us.”
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Presence in the Paint
The combination of Donovan Clingan and Adama Sanogo has created a constant low-post threat that few other teams can come close to matching. Over the last two games, Sanogo’s averaging 26 points and 10.5 rebounds, while Clingan’s averaging eight points, seven rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and countless altered shots in backup duty.
“They basically have a backup who is a starter on every team in the country,” Musselman said.
The Razorbacks counter with a potent backcourt that knows how to attack the rim and features five of the team’s top six scorers. They have size, strength, and depth with guys like Council, Smith, and Davonte Davis.
“We are going to have to do a better job of keeping their dribble drivers and their attacking guys out of the paint,” Hurley said.
Like many previous games, the Huskies have the edge in all categories besides free-throw rate, whereas the Razorbacks are able to get themselves to the free-throw line pretty consistently.
With Arkansas’ defense allowing nearly 19 personal fouls a game, UConn will have to seize opportunities to get to the line and make hit foul shots to make it hurt. Defensively, the Huskies maintain an edge in most key categories as well besides steals per game.
UConn has been dominant in the paint and on the boards, but the Razorbacks are a tough and highly-rated team defensively as well. The Huskies will need to keep playing smart and work on avoiding turnovers, which they’ve done a better job of lately.