Sunday, December 21, 2008

UConn vs. Gonzaga

What a game out in Seattle. UConn took an early 11 point lead, but the 'Zags controlled the next 16 minutes, outscoring UConn 44-22 to take a 57-46 lead. AJ Price led the Huskies back, hitting for three's in the last 12 minutes, including a leaner over Jeremy Pargo that tied the game at 74. I know you have seen it by now, but here's the video.

The play of AJ Price was so important for the Huskies. He finished with 24 points (including 6-9 from deep) and 10 assists, but more importantly he "only" had four turnovers and went 6-8 from the line. Price had been struggling with turnovers in the earlier in this season and was shooting a crisp 36% from the line coming into this one. UConn really needs Price to be their go-to guy and their creator on offense, and he hadn't been either to this point.

What made this win even more impressive for the Huskies is that they basically did it without Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien. Thabeet was in foul trouble the entire game and eventually fouled out in the first overtime. Adrien was largely ineffective as Gonzaga's length gave him issues all game. He finished 3-10 from the floor, with the majority of those misses within five feet where he is normally automatic. Combined, Thabeet and Adrien finished with 17 points, 10 boards, and 1 blocks (which is 11, 10, and 3.5 off their season averages).

Even when Thabeet was on the floor, he was not a factor. When Thabeet was in the game, Mark Few went with a five out offense, meaning that Thabeet was matched up on Josh Heytvelt or Austin Daye on the perimeter. For the most part, when Heytvelt was in the game, they left him at the top of the key. Great coaching move by Few for two reasons. One, they were able to run Pargo and Demetri Goodson off of ball screens (more on this in a second). Two, if Heytvelt was in the corner, it would have been much easier for Thabeet to slough off of him and block shots coming for the weak side. If there was penetration from the other side of the court, be it the wing or the corner, Thabeet would have been able to get to the basket and defend the shot at the rim, knowing that proper defensive rotations combined with the length of the pass to his man in the corner would have given a UConn defender a chance to get out there and get a hand up on the shot. But with Heytvelt at the top of the key, Thabeet couldn't help off of Heytvelt because it would have left the big man with a wide open shot (he got a few, but only hit one).

Another reason that it was good for the 'Zags to have Thabeet out of the paint is that they had a size advantage at every other position. Matt Bouldin, Austin Daye, and Pargo all got touches in the post against smaller defenders, and they all were able to get easy baskets when this happened.

Back to the screen and rolls, it is usually an achilles heel for the Huskies because none of their big men are mobile enough to get out and force the ball handler wide off of the screen. So Calhoun made a change. Instead of relying on the big man to help, he had the guy guarding the dribbler play him tough and force him to take a bad angle off of the screen, then have Thabeet (or Adrien or Gavin Edwards) hug the man setting the pick. Then the guard would sprint under the screen to prevent the dribbler from coming off the corner hard and penetrating, trying to bait them into shooting a three. This worked because neither Pargo or Goodson are great three point shooters.

What I didn't understand in this game is why Few didn't stay with the five out offense. Down the stretch, as UConn was making their come back, Gonzaga was playing with a guy in the post. Sometimes it was Daye, sometimes it was Heytvelt, but there was always someone there. This meant that instead of easy drives to the rim, Gonzaga was not getting as much penetration and were settling for perimeter jumpers. They hit some, but were not nearly as dominant.

I'm also not sure what happened to Pargo between halves. He was the best player on the court in the first half, getting to the rim and making shots or setting up teammates. But in the second half he looked a step slower and had a couple of bad turnovers, including one with Gonzaga up one and 1:30 left on a stupid 60 foot pass when he was trapped. He came out at one point early in the second half and it looked like he might have been hurt or cramping up, so I'm hoping that's what it was because he was no where near the Jeremy Pargo we have seen so far this season.

Another way that Gonzaga built up there lead was by playing the Huskies in a 1-2-2 zone. UConn could not figure it out for a while. It was especially effective when Heytvelt was out of the game. Daye and Micah Downs were playing the back line, and since they are both tall and long, they gave the Huskies bigs a ton of trouble finishing down low, but also created the mismatch on the other end. The Huskies eventually figured it out down the stretch by running cutters through and utilizing a high-low with their posts, so the 'Zags switched back to man, which the Huskies are clearly more effective against.

The star of this game for UConn might not have been Price. Gavin Edwards had a phenomenal game off the bench. He finished with 14 points and 12 boards, grabbing 7 huge offensive rebounds. If he can become a threat off the bench, he makes the Huskies so much better because it would mean they don't need to rely so heavily on Adrien and Thabeet.

UConn's best line up is going to eventually be when they have both Stanley Robinson and Jerome Dyson on the floor. Calhoun's system is most effective when he has athletes, and despite how good the Huskies are, they are not nearly as athletic as they have been in the past. Robinson made a few good plays in this game, but Dyson was really the game changer, especially on the defensive end. He came up with three big steals in the second half, and had a couple great finishes on the break. When UConn found themselves down by 11, it was the play of Dyson and Price down the stretch that really got the Huskies fired up and brought them back.

It was a really good sign for that Dyson is becoming more of a glue guy. He was UConn's go to player for a year and a half before his suspension. During the suspension was when Price stepped up and became one of the best guards in the country. When he came back, it seemed like he was pouting a bit by the lack of touches he was getting on the offensive end, to the point where UConn was a better team without him on the floor. Dyson finished with 21 points, 9 boards, 4 assists, and 3 steals.

Gonzaga may have lost this game, but they proved how good of a team they are going to be. The most impressive player on the floor was Stephen Gray. He is normally known as a three point shooter, but he was able to get the ball to the basket and score. Gray finished with 23 points, but most of them came in the first 35 minutes as he struggled to get looks down the stretch.

One last thing of note about Price's shot. A lot of people are saying it was a circus shot, but watch the clip, it really wasn't. Price is usually leaning in on his jumper, and since Pargo didn't really try to block the shot, Price got a pretty clean look. I'm not saying it was a high percentage look, but it really wasn't as much of a prayer as it is being made out to be.

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