Wednesday, January 14, 2004

UConn vs UNC Preview

Before UNC beat a tough Georgia Tech team on Sunday, Connecticut romped then-ranked No. 6 Oklahoma. It was the Huskies best defensive performance of the year, holding Oklahoma to just 27 percent from the field. Head Coach Jim Calhoun’s team certainly demonstrated why it is on top of the college basketball polls. While the Tar Heel players are becoming more familiar with Roy Williams's system and playing better, the Huskies are also no longer the same team that squeezed by Yale in the season opener and lost to Georgia Tech in November.

In last year’s contest, UNC jumped out to 20-3 lead over UConn, which proved critical in a three-point UNC victory in the Dean Smith Center.

“We were extremely disappointed with how we didn’t win the game there last year,” said UConn Assistant Coach Tom Moore. “Not taking anything away from UNC, but we didn’t feel that the type of team we had last year, which was a final-eight type of team, should ever be behind 20-3 ... I think it will be a strong incentive for us to play much better.”

Calhoun’s teams have a history of slow starts in games. Two years ago, a struggling Tar Heel team traveled to Storrs, Conn., and held a 11-2 lead before being demolished by Caron Butler and company.

Both teams have topnotch talent and athleticism, but UConn has a significant advantage in its frontcourt with four athletic guys listed at 6-10 or taller who can shoot and rebound. It will be interesting to see how Omeka Okafor and Sean May play against each other. These two big men are at the top of their game. UConn freshman Charlie Villanueva is the first player off the bench, usually replacing starter Josh Boone. At 6-11, Villanueva has the skills of a guard, which make him the most talented freshman in the nation. The Huskies have not lost with him in the lineup. Calhoun’s biggest team ever should pose mismatches all game, but the guard play will be the most exciting to watch.

The Backcourt Matchup

Ben Gordon is Calhoun’s best jump shooter since Ray Allen. The 6-2 Gordon squares up, is on balance and releases the ball with perfect form, which is why he has made half of his three-point attempts this season. He has the athleticism to match his skills. His explosiveness was on display when he soared in the air for a windmill dunk against Ball State a few weeks ago, bringing the fans to their feet.

Gordon’s backcourt mate, Taliek Brown, is a four-year starter at point guard and fits Calhoun’s uptempo style. Both guards are from New York, Gordon from Mount Vernon and Brown from Queens. How well does UConn’s backcourt match up with UNC’s backcourt?

“I think it is a really good matchup with two exciting players on both teams,” said Gordon via e-mail.

“It’s four very good players, and they all bring different things to the table,” Moore said. “Ben Gordon obviously offensively and with his quickness and his explosiveness is good. Taliek might be the best defender. Raymond might be the quickest with the ball and putting pressure on you. Rashad is the strongest and best around the basket and might be the best scorer.”

Judging by last year’s game, the difference was McCants’s 27 points and Okafor remaining in foul trouble. Also, Gordon missed all of his three-point attempts on his way to just 5-19 from the field.

Felton’s offensive ability is far superior to Brown, but look out for a solid offensive performance by Gordon on Saturday. From a fan’s perspective it is going to be fun to watch because both teams thrive on an uptempo game. Moore said sharpshooter Denham Brown, along with guards Rashad Anderson and Marcus Williams, might provide UConn with more depth than UNC. Connecticut’s backcourt might be able to wear UNC’s backcourt down, Moore said. However, UNC fans could argue that Melvin Scott, Jackie Manuel and David Noel provide plenty of depth. Either way, look for high intensity from both teams from the tipoff.

“Last year we got down so far and had to work real hard to get back in the game, but had no margin for error,” said Taliek Brown via e-mail. “I think we will go into this year’s game determined not to let that happen again.”

UConn: Not Always a National Power

Since the days of Head Coach Frank McGuire and scoring machine Lennie Rosenbluth, UNC has been a national powerhouse. McGuire, a New York native, recruited so many players from the New York area that the newspapers called it the underground railroad in reverse. Once Dean Smith took over, he recruited some New York players, but not as many as McGuire. In recent years UNC hasn’t had any New York players, losing some recruits to teams such as UConn like Taliek Brown and Gordon.

“I looked at UNC, but I chose UConn because it was closer to home and being closer to my family made it an easy decision,” Gordon said via e-mail.

Brown also said being close to home made it an easy choice, but this shows how far the Husky program has come. UConn was winning Yankee Conference titles when UNC was winning ACC titles. It wasn’t until a decade after it joined the Big East in which UConn became a national powerhouse like UNC. That 1990 season, UConn made it to the Elite Eight, losing to Duke in overtime on a Christian Laettner buzzer beater.

If there was a day that marked UConn’s turnaround, it came on Jan. 27, 1990, where it played at its new on-campus home court, the Harry Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies beat No. 15 St. John’s in the new 10,167-seat gym in Storrs, Conn. The Hartford Civic Center seats 16,294, and is located in downtown Hartford, about a half hour from the UConn campus. Since Gampel Pavilion opened, home games have been played in both gyms. The Civic Center is more of a professional atmosphere with the Hilton and a few restaurants open. It has a large jumbotron and steep seating in the upper and lower decks. Fans in the nosebleed section are better off watching the game on television.

“UConn has actually been booed in the Civic Center because they are it for the state of Connecticut,” said Matt Eagan, who is in his third year covering the men’s team for the Hartford Courant. “So people take it hard when they don’t play extremely well.”

About 2,400 tickets are distributed to the Connecticut students for all home games, Eagan said. Gampel Pavilion is consistently more noisy than the Civic Center because it has a collegiate atmosphere. Some students sleep in tents the night before big games because there is general admission seating in Gampel Pavilion. And as Eagan says, “It’s Storrs, Conn., in the winter. It gets cold.”

Game Day

Both teams had a chance to win the games they lost this season, so expect a nail-biter toward the end of Saturday’s game. With UConn, there is a revenge factor and proving they are the nation’s best team. With UNC, there is pride and the possibility of moving up in the top 10. UConn will have to come out strong and keep the crowd quiet if it doesn’t want a repeat of last year. UNC has to shoot the ball well and try and get Okafor in early foul trouble.

Should UConn win? Yes. One thing is likely: both teams will be pumped up.

“North Carolina is a magical name for basketball fans, coaches and players,” Moore said. “As soon as you get down in that area you realize how important basketball is there – how they manage the game, how the administration manages the game, the fans, the newspapers and media are first class. So when you go into that environment you can’t help but have the juices flowing more than other regular season games.”

This story first appeared at in January 2004. Rashad McCants hit a 3-pointer with 6.2 seconds left to give UNC a 86-83 victory over No. 1 UConn.