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Game 13: St. John's at Connecticut

The defending NCAA National Champion Connecticut Huskies (11-1, 1-0 BE) will host St. John's (7-5, 1-0 BE) on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, hoping to deliver a bit of home-cooked payback to the Red Storm.

Last year's senior-laden Johnnies took out a few years of frustration on the Huskies, beating Kemba Walker and crew by a score of 89-72. It's still the same year, but it's a new season. The Red Storm are now the youngest team in the NCAA by some metrics, playing a pair of juniors and five talented freshmen.

The current Husky team is tournament-seasoned and added a trio of talented contributors, and haven't lost much of a step since the Bronx guard's departure to the professional ranks. They're still big, they still defend, and they will be an imposing challenge on to end 2011.

Preview of the Huskies, Keys to the Game, and predictions, below the fold.

Mood Music: The Black Keys, Run Right Back (video, opens in new window)
Tip Off: 12:00 PM, Eastern
Vs: #9 Connecticut Huskies (11-1, 1-0 Big East)
Location: XL Center, Hartford, CT
TV: SNY | ESPN3 Radio: Bloomberg 1130 | Sirius: 94 | XM Radio: 190
Opposition blog/ message board: The UConn Blog | UC Huskies

Pomeroy page ($)

See also: 5 questions with the U Conn Blog | D'Angelo Harrison beginning to find his on-court swagger

From the Archives/ Time Machine

St. John's has gone 3-10 against Connecticut in the past 10 seasons, but have a two game winning streak against the Nutmeg State's flagship school.

The 2011 graduating class's first match against the Huskies: 1/9/2008 was a 81-65 blowout by U Conn. From that recap:

Last night, St. John’s Red Storm went to the University of Connecticut’s Gampel Pavilion to be used as target practice. Bad passes, poor shooting, and inept help defense helped the Johnnies lose by 16 points in a game that wasn’t even close after about 6:00 of game time.

It would be nice to think that this thrashing by the Huskies is a one time thing, but U Conn tends to whoop up on the Red Storm like the first person killed in a splatter-filled horror movie—dismissively easily, thoroughly brutally.

And from AJ Price: "We saw they had six or seven freshmen. We knew how we were last year. We knew we could get them rattled."

Last Year: Though the Red Storm had beaten a struggling U Conn team in the Big East Tournament, defeating an inspired Husky team 89-72 in the regular season on the Garden floor and having Coach Calhoun say that the Red Storm "outplayed and outworked" the Huskies was a nice treat.

Storm Warnings: St. John's

So at the edge of the new year, the Red Storm are 1-0 in the Big East after a thorough 91-67 pasting of the Providence Friars at Carnesecca Arena to kick off conference play. And the Huskies are 1-0 after squeaking out a win over South Florida. In Hartford, the Red Storm face a far stiffer challenge than they did against Providence on Tuesday.

Reader Joamiq points out this nugget from the Newsday, linked in the Media recap:

Yes, the Friars (11-3, 0-1) still shot 48.3 percent from the field, but they committed 20 turnovers, contributing to St. John's big advantages in points off turnovers (34-11) and fast-break points (26-10).

St. John's scored well in the set defense as well, but remember that that gaudy score was built on easy turnovers, fast runouts, and lax defense that St. John's will not see from Connecticut. Providence allowed easy, unbothered transition looks to the Red Storm, and struggled to handle the Red Storm's pressure.

Not every team will be as permissive as the Friars were. But if St. John's can find a way to impose their will on the Huskies, like they did last year, the team might be on its way to surprising and exciting relevance.

Storm Warnings: Connecticut

Jim Calhoun is currently serving a three-game suspension for "failing to create an atmosphere of compliance in his program" after Yahoo! Sports uncovered payments to a former recruit, Nate Miles. To make the punishment mean something, the NCAA made the suspension, levied last February, effective for the start of Big East play.

Conveniently, the first three U Conn games are South Florida, St. John's, and Seton Hall - three teams picked in the bottom six of the conference. Luck of the draw for Connecticut, who turn to veteran assistant George Blaney in their time of no Calhoun.

U Conn returns many pieces from last year's national title winner, and added a likely lottery pick to the squad in Andre Drummond late in the summer. The Huskies have good wins over Florida State, Arkansas, and Harvard. The team lost to a talented Central Florida team.

Strengths/ Weaknesses

Husky Strength: Interior defense. Opponents shoot 36.3% against them inside the arc, second best in the country. Their defense places a premium on forcing opponents away from easy shots, and funneling them into a thicket of shot blockers. This year's trees: Andre Drummond (2.7 blocks per game) and Alex Oriakhi (1.3 blocks per game), with help from Tyler Olander and the wing length of Roscoe Smith and Jeremy Lamb.

Husky Strength: Offensive rebounding. Those same trees are active in getting after their teammates' misses grabbing 41.8% of available offensive rebounds, eight in the country. St. John's will struggle to keep them from making an impact on the glass at that end. Drummond is particularly deadly on the glass, and Oriakhi is active as well.

Husky Weakness: Defensive rebounding. Opponents have a chance for putbacks and second chances off of their misses. Despite their size, the Huskies aren't in position to end possessions. They don't always box out on the defensive end. This has been a long time feature of the Husky defense.

Husky Weakness: Three-point defense. Knowing where the opponent is shooting from (outside of the paint) hasn't helped the Huskies defend the three. They give up 36.4% shooting from outside the arc - more than they allow inside the arc. It could be an issue of height (with two sub-six footers playing the guard spots at time) or a lack of recognition when going under screens.

The Five Points, or, Keys to the Game

Win the transition game. St. John's runs the risk of being blown out if U Conn gets a transition game going. To keep them from running, St. John's has to take care of the ball and minimize turnovers - especially on the perimeter - and get back in transition defense. (It's helpful to challenge shots when on defense, as well.) And if possible, St. John's needs to generate fast break points off of turnovers, trapping, and fast outlet passes after Husky shots.

Defend Shabazz (#13) and Jeremy (#3). Jeremy Lamb is the obvious star of the Huskies - a preseason AP All American and a member of the USA's under-19 international team, he gets the majority of opponent's attention. Coach Dunlap said as much this afternoon. "Awareness of where he is at on the floor [is necessary] – three quarter-court, coming across half court – I think you have to be within an arm’s reach of him and you can’t forget where he is at." He shoots 40% outside of the arc, 60% inside, and is very effective in transition.

But Shabazz Napier also takes a number of shots and makes bullet passes to the big men inside, who can't create their own shots. Bothering Napier can change the whole complexion and cohesion of the Huskies' offensive attack. Cutting off his passing lanes makes him into a streaky shooter.

Keep the Huskies off of the offensive glass. Connecticut is good at blocking shots and at grabbing their own misses, but they do not excel at rebounding the other team's misses. There will be second chance opportunities available, and the Johnnies have to convert those chances to win. Keeping the Huskies off of the glass will cut down on their chances to hype up the sold out crowd with dunks from their stars.

Hit the tough shots. Points will be at a premium for D`Angelo Harrison and Maurice Harkless; they will need to hit a number of difficult and/ or contested shots against the Huskies.

Stay on the floor. With seven players on the roster, and some intimidating big men, God`sgift Achiuwa needs to stay on the floor as much as did against Kentucky, where he logged 38 minutes and scored 18 points. And the rest of the team needs to be on the floor as well, not watching on the bench after foul trouble.

Prediction: This is a tough game for the Johnnies. The Huskies could struggle to gain separation, and a hot D`Angelo Harrison could burnish his legend with a great scoring effort for the win. I wouldn't bet on that. Huskies win, 73-62.

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