The TCU game didn't exactly go according to plan, but you don't have to wait till next year (or the Texas Bowl) to wash the taste out of your mouth. Even without star PG Isaiah Taylor, who is out the next 4-6 weeks with a broken wrist, Texas basketball has gotten off to a strong 5-0 start, including two nice neutral floor victories over Iowa and Cal. They face their toughest test of the season so far on Sunday, when they go into Storrs to face the defending national champions, who are ranked No. 24 in the country.
Kevin Ollie's boys came out of nowhere in his second season as UConn's head coach, becoming the second lowest seed (No. 7) to ever win a NCAA championship. Their toughest game actually came in the first round, when they needed OT to escape a 10 seed (St. Joseph's). From there, they drew a full house, beating a 1 (Florida), 2 (Villanova), 3 (Iowa State) and 4 (Michigan State) in consecutive rounds before defeating another low seed (No. 8 Kentucky) who had hit their stride at the right time in the national championship game.
The Huskies lost three key players - Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey - from last year's team, but they still return enough talent to where they should be a real challenge for the Longhorns. They have a 3-1 record and are coming off a second-place finish in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic, where they lost in the championship game to a scrappy and seemingly much improved West Virginia team. UConn hasn't played in a week, so it will be interesting to see if Ollie adds any wrinkles to deal with the size advantage Texas has upfront.
The identity of the team hasn't changed, as they are an athletic team with multiple guards who can run pick-and-rolls and get to the front of the rim. Senior PG Ryan Boatright has taken the reigns from Napier, while several talented younger guards are trying to figure out the pecking order behind him. They don't have a lot of scoring upfront, but they have a number of shot-blockers who can match-up with multiple positions and move their feet on the perimeter. They may not be as good as last year, but they are more than capable of beating Texas at home.
PG - Ryan Boatright - The Boat Show is a walking advertisement for the benefits of playing four years in school, as he has turned himself from an out-of-control scorer as a freshman to a savvy floor general as a senior. He is the head of the snake for UConn - he leads the team in points, assists and steals and they don't have much of an identity when he isn't on the floor. Generously listed at 6'0 175, Boatright has elite speed and he will likely try to press the Texas guards and speed up the tempo of the game.
SG - Rodney Purvis - A highly-sought after transfer from NC State, Purvis is still shaking off the rest after sitting out all of last season. You can see why he was a McDonald's All-American - at 6'4 205, he is a well-built combo guard with an NBA body who can play above the rim. If he can get comfortable in Ollie's system and expand his game as a shooter, playmaker and defensive player, he raises this team's ceiling. For now, you don't want to let him get a few easy baskets in transition early and build his confidence.
SF - Daniel Hamilton - The younger brother of former Texas great Jordan Hamilton, Daniel is a little farther along than his older brother at the same point in his career. He shoots a lot, but he isn't shooting every single time he touches the ball either. At 6'7 190, he's a long and athletic wing with a fairly complete offensive game, who can shoot, dribble and create for others. He still makes a lot of freshman mistakes, but he's a very talented player who has a chance to have a much better NBA career than Jordan.
* There is also another Hamilton - Isaac, a 6'4 sophomore at UCLA. You always want to maintain a positive relationship with your players in the NBA, especially when they have multiple younger brothers coming up behind them!
PF - Kentan Facey - A 6'9 210 sophomore forward who runs the floor, blocks shots and fights on the boards. He's not a guy you have to worry about on offense. UConn prefers to go small with a more offensive-minded player at the PF - if they can survive defensively while playing four perimeter players, they will have a much better chance at swinging the upset.
C - Amidah Brimah - There's a lot of Prince Ibeh in Brimah's game. At 7'0 230, the sophomore is a very long and very athletic shot-blocker whose best offense is catching the ball and dunking it. His emergence as an interior defender was one of the keys to UConn's championship last season and he should provide an interesting challenge for the Texas big men. He averages 5 blocks and 4.2 personal fouls per-40 minutes of playing time, so the idea should be to get into his chest, use some pump fakes and get him off the floor.
PG/SG - Sam Cassell Jr. - Ollie played for 13 different NBA teams, so if he did nothing but recruit the kids of his former teammates, he would probably have a pretty solid coaching career at the college level. Cassell, a junior college transfer, is a little bigger than his namesake at 6'4 185, but he seems to be more of a scorer, averaging 6 FGA's on 29% shooting through his first few games at UConn.
SG/SF - Terrence Samuel - A 6'4 200 sophomore who can swing between all three perimeter positions on defense but is still trying to find his offensive game. UConn doesn't have a ton of depth, especially on the wings, so that could be a huge advantage for Jonathan Holmes.
PF/C - Philip Nolan - One of the holdovers from last season's team, Nolan is a 6'10 240 junior big man who plays defense and hits the glass. He has added a little jump-hook to his arsenal, but he might not be able to use it against Texas, one of the only teams who can match up with his size on a second unit.
Keys To The Game:
1. Tempo - This is going to be a theme all season - if the Texas guards can take care of the ball and get it inside, good things will happen. Even with Brimah, UConn doesn't have the size to handle the Texas front-line, which goes 6'10, 6'9 and 6'8 and brings 6'10 and 6'11 off the bench. Those guys know what to do with the basketball, so the key is getting them the ball in a situation where they can do something with it. Boatright will likely try to speed up Javan Felix and get the game going up-and-down, where the Huskies lack of size isn't as much of an issue.
2. Boatright vs. Felix - This could be a game where you really miss Taylor, as Boatright is one of the fastest guards in the country and Felix doesn't have the size to make him pay on the other end. You probably want to put DeMarcus Holland on Boatright and force the other perimeter players on UConn to beat you, but they have the size to hurt some of our smaller guards. How the Texas coaches use Holland on defense will be an interesting story-line all season.
3. Jonathan Holmes - Not many teams in the country can deal with a 6'8 240 senior at the SF position and UConn is no exception. That's one of the things that makes this team so exciting - if Texas plays to their strengths, there's not much the other team can do. Rick Barnes can make other coaches adjust to him this season.
Remember to set your alarm clocks on Sunday, as Texas and UConn play at 11 AM Central on ESPN.