The top-seeded Connecticut Huskies (29-3) have been ranked first or second in the AP Poll for 11 of the last 14 weeks. Dating back to the 1999 national championship run, they boast a 21-4 record in their last seven NCAA Tournament trips. They are big and bad—and that's not even a Marcus Williams laptop joke. They led the country in blocked shots for the fourth straight season behind 6-foot-10 forward Josh Boone and 6-11 center Hilton Armstrong, the 2005 and 2006 Big East Defensive Players of the Year.
Connecticut is second in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.378). They have two of the most talented players in the country in forward Rudy Gay (15.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and point guard Marcus Williams (11.7 ppg, 8.5 apg). And you can't overlook that UConn beat their opponents by an average of more than 15 points and outrebounded their foes by more than 10 boards with a national-best of 45 per game.
"No team arrives for the regional semis with a better chance to win a Final Four than UConn," says ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, repeating a commonly-held opinion.
So the Washington Huskies (26-6), who haven't advanced past the Sweet 16 in 53 years, are doomed, aren't they? Not so fast, Kibbles & Bits-breath.
After getting knocked off in the Big East quarterfinals by the do-or-die Orangemen of Syracuse, UConn led 16-seed Albany by a mere point at halftime. The pale Huskies avoided leaving a steaming pile against the Great Danes, the first-time entrant, with 6-of-10 shooting from the arc in the second half. With the help of a pivotal call, they survived a scare versus eighth-seeded Kentucky Sunday. After the Wildcats had sliced a 13-point lead down to two with three minutes remaining, Denham Brown allowed a pass to roll through his hands and down his back, before knocking it out of bounds. But the officials reversed the call despite replay evidence pointing to a Kentucky possession.
Williams penetrated for a layup and a foul, and his miss was put-back by Armstrong for a four-point swing that proved to be the difference. UConn skated from the Philadelphia sub-regional, 87-83, for the short trip to the Washington, D.C. Regionals. Armstrong came up with three offensive rebounds off of missed free throws in the final four minutes for the slightest of rebounding margins, 35-34.
"Hilton had a couple of big offensive rebounds," Boone, UConn's leading rebounder (7.0 rpg), said afterwards. "Marcus took over the game. We knew it would take everybody to win this game."
Williams, the junior catalyst with a career assist rate of 8.12, tops in Big East history, has led UConn in scoring with a 20.5 average in the two tourney wins. Without him nearly doubling his regular-season scoring average, the Huskies might not have advanced to face their West Coast counterparts. He was 6 for 10 from the field and 8 of 9 from the line against Kentucky, with 16 second-half points. In the first round, the penetrating specialist was 7 for 11 from the field, including 5 of 7 from the arc.
But Jim Calhoun, Connecticut's Hall of Fame coach, was quick to point out another match-up problem. Brandon Roy, averaging 24.5 points through the first two rounds, will be a strain even for UConn, which the coach believes to be the deepest team in the country.
"They have Roy, who is a guard, and we have no one like him," said Calhoun, who is fourth in career wins amongst active coaches behind Bob Knight, Lute Olson and Mike Krzyzewski. "He's a tremendous basketball player. He plays with tremendous poise. He can do more than most players.
"When you watch Roy play, from a coaching standpoint, he's everything you want a player to be. We're going to have a tough time matching up with him."
Connecticut will have a home court advantage of sorts at D.C.'s Verizon (formerly MCI) Center. "UCon"—as rivals have called them after Williams' suspension for trying to pawn laptops that were stolen by others at the campus—has a 9-1 record in the building, including a 4-0 record in NCAA Tourney games and a 4-0 tally against Georgetown in Big East action. But Calhoun, who pursued Jon Brockman and Spencer Hawes, dismissed the notion of a clear East Coast supremacy, complimenting the Northwest hotbed of talent and the Pac-10 in general.
"I'm amazed how good the basketball is and how much more similar it is to East Coast basketball," said Calhoun, before mentioning the UW, UCLA and Arizona as examples of aggressive teams.
"I think Washington can be categorized as a physical team. I wouldn't have said that a few years ago."
While much has been made of UConn's size advantage, it might be deceptive. Washington battled the bigger Illini to a rebounding standstill and twice beat UCLA, whose physical play and strong rebounding helped propel them to the No. 2 seed in the Oakland Region. Against Kentucky, Boone had a total of two rebounds and zero points (0-for-3), including a free throw attempt that fell two feet short of the rim. Armstrong struggled with early foul trouble, finishing with five rebounds and 10 points in a limited 21 minutes. Neither one blocked a shot.
The Montlake Huskies made some crucial defensive adjustments to hold Illinois' all-conference forward James Augustine scoreless in the final 15 minutes. While Mike Jensen came through defensively, Brockman was noticeably absent, saddled with three early fouls, a busted lip, and some freshman frustrations. While a put-back or two from him would be a bonus, the purple Huskies will need a better rebounding game from him for whatever number of minutes he plays.
Jamaal Williams, who had 18 points in last year's Sweet 16 tilt with Louisville, has made some serious defensive contributions. After setting a Husky NCAA Tournament record with five steals against Utah State, he has a total of seven. Versus Illinois, he had seven rebounds and three swats, countering their size with good positioning, not to mention 10 points.
"These have been two of the best defensive games I've played in a while," said Williams, who's crossed paths with Marcus Williams on the southern California AAU circuit. "I'm just trying to be active and do what the coaches ask of me."
With UConn running an offense similar to Washington's and others they've seen, the man they call 'Maal thinks it will be a case of reacting to their personnel and not some unusual attack, like Georgetown's.
"We've just got to defend guys' tendencies instead of trying to guard sets and plays," said Williams. "It will be kind of like playing against an Arizona team where you focus on individuals."
Six UConn players averaged nine or more points during the regular season, but the only double-digit dippers in the Tournament have been Marcus Williams, Brown (15.5), a 6-foot-6 guard, and the 6-9 Gay (13.5). Both Gay, the leading scorer prior to the postseason, and Rashad Anderson, the swingman who provides the bulk of the bench scoring (12.8 ppg), had unusually quiet games in the first round.
"With (UConn) you can name five or six players that you don't want to go off," said Bobby Jones, the UDub's defensive spark who thinks he'll start on Gay, with Roy on Brown and Justin Dentmon on Marcus Williams, the lefty. "I'll probably be a little bit on (each of them). Each players brings something different to the game…whoever I'm sticking, I just need to know what their strengths and weaknesses are so I don't have any let-ups.
"I believe in JD—he's been playing defense against us all year," said Jones, noting that Dentmon went up against Nate Robinson in the off-season. "He's not going to back down from any challenge. You've seen that all year. But if he gets tired, I will definitely be right there ready to do it. I'll be foaming at the mouth, just anticipating getting my chances to stick with (Williams) too."
The degree to which Washington is able to create turnovers will be a major predictor. The northwest Huskies' trapping and double-teams have flustered the best of them. Outside of Marcus Williams, the northeast Huskies have had some problems, with a team assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.18 in the Tourney, compared with the UDub's 1.33. Washington has posted a 16-7 advantage in steals during the opening rounds, whereas UConn has been victimized for 18 steals to their 13 takeaways.
If Washington can stay out of foul trouble, especially the forwards, it could help negate Connecticut's season-long advantage from the line. The pale Huskies have attempted over 300 more free throws than their opponents on the season, with a 30-18 advantage against Kentucky.
The purple Huskies, who produced more points from 3-point range than UConn this year, will need to shoot well from the perimeter. After knocking down a dozen treys versus Utah State, the UDub was 5 of 15 from the arc against Illinois, tying the Oregon game for the fewest 3-pointers in the last eight games. Washington is 17 for 42 from downtown (.405) in the Tournament, while UConn is 12 for 29 (.414). But after a hot-hand against Albany and in the first half Sunday, Connecticut missed their last seven attempts. Kentucky climbed back into the game by hitting 7 of 14 triples in the second half.
Roy, who watched seven or eight UConn games this season, thinks his Huskies have the advantage of having seen their foes play more often. In addition to learning their style and tendencies, it has helped demythologize one of the best teams in the country.
"I would say watching them play Villanova, smaller lineups and dribble penetration would probably be their biggest weakness," said the player who has shown he can beat anyone off the dribble. "Villanova was kind of cutting them up a lot. I am not saying that we have the guards that Villanova has but we feel that we can penetrate them a little bit and hopefully have their big guys collapse and try to kick it out to the shooters. They don't have a whole lot of weaknesses, but they are beatable."
The northeast Huskies were beaten for 28 points by the UK's Patrick Sparks, who was 4 for 9 from the arc. Though he's an excellent shooter, Sparks is not a catalyst on the same level as BRoy.
"It will probably be one of the big keys to the game to be able to knock down some shots from outside because they've got those big shot-blockers in there and they play such good defense," said Ryan Appleby, who delivered on both 3-ball attempts on Saturday. "We're going to have to hit some shots to relieve some of the pressure for the rest of the guys that penetrate so that they can get to the rim and finish."
For the Washington Huskies, who have taken the best shot of Arizona's Marcus Williams and have shut down one D. Brown, the challenge might not be as insurmountable as many think. Since the opening weeks of November when they were unranked, the original Huskies have fed off the notion of being overlooked and underappreciated. The latest disrespect will only add fuel to the fire.
Yesterday they got word of yet another snub. When the four finalists for the Naismith Trophy were announced, Adam Morrison was the only athlete outside of the Big East and ACC. Roy was left off in favor of Gay, who had eight points in the first round and almost as many turnovers (3) as rebounds (4). Villanova's Allan Ray, another player whose combined numbers don't compare with Roy's, made the list along with sharpshooter J.J. Redick.
Roy, ever humble off the court, will likely have something to say on it.