By Brent Blum, CycloneFanatic.com ColumnistFollow Brent on Twitter @BrentBlum
It didn’t take long for Iowa State to find out their opponent in their first trip back to the NCAA tournament in seven years. They get none other but the defending national champions.
Let’s get one thing straight. This UConn squad is a far cry from the team that won the title 11 months ago in Houston. Gone is Kemba Walker, who supplied the energy and toughness for the Huskies -both traits they really lacked this year. They went 20-13 on the season and were just 3-7 in road games. They had an awful stretch at the beginning of conference play where they lost eight of 10 games, but have since been a bit better towards the end of the year and in the Big East tournament, where they were eliminated by Syracuse 58-55.
They are still an incredibly talented team that will obviously be a big test for the Cyclones. When they focused basketball, few teams are as streaky or talented.
Guards: The Huskies are paced by 6-foot-5 swing-man Jeremy Lamb. The slightly built Lamb is silky smooth and can score in a variety of ways. He puts up almost 18 points per game at an efficient 48 percent from the floor. Lamb is not afraid to put it on the floor and draw contact despite his skinny frame.
Lamb’s 3-point shooting dropped off once conference play started. He shot a meager 28 percent from distance during Big East play. Lamb is a future NBA first round selection and was part of the USA under 20 team last summer. Expect Chris Babb to be draped over Lamb all game long.
The second member of the Husky backcourt is sophomore Shabazz Napier – who coincidentally was mentored as a youth by former Cyclone Will Blalock. The 6-foot-1 Napier averaged a shade under 13 points per game. Napier often dominates the ball and has extremely questionable shot selection and major turnover problems. Some would categorize him as a “chucker.” He shot a woeful 33 percent from the floor in conference play. He is not afraid of big moments though and is extremely quick —my guess is that Chris Allen would get the assignment on Napier, but Bubu Palo could play significant minutes to combat his quickness.
Lamb and Napier will likely not leave the floor. They average well over 35 minutes played each.
UConn brings dynamic freshman Ryan Boatright off the bench, but he will play the majority of minutes at the third guard spot. He is listed at just 6-foot and 160 pounds, but that is generous at best. His game is most compared to Allen Iverson, albeit a very poor man’s version of AI. Very few players can get to the basket as well as Boatright. He averages 10.5 points on 43 percent shooting. He is also a capable outside shooter, making almost 40 percent of his long range attempts.
With Babb likely assigned to Lamb, the speed of Napier and Boatright is a difficult matchup for the Iowa State guards, namely Scott Christopherson and Chris Allen – who have struggled keeping the quicker type guards (Myck Kabongo/Pierre Jackson) out of the lane at times this year. Don’t be surprised to see some Iowa State zone because of that reason.
Posts: If you look at any NBA Draft projection you will see UConn center Andre Drummond as a top five pick in next year’s draft and you might say, “Who? And Why?” Drummond is a workout all-star. He has Blake Griffin like hops on a 6-foot-11, 250 pound frame. The potential in this guy is amazing. Think a taller, bulkier more explosive Perry Jones III. Unfortunately for UConn, he has been extremely inconsistent and has shown very little development in his freshman campaign. He averages 10.2 points and eight rebounds on 50 percent shooting. Most of his offense comes on dunks and put-backs. He lives on the backside of the defense and looks for lobs at the rim. He has virtually no post-up game yet at this stage in his career. But at almost 7-foot with his jumping ability, he can generate a lot of problems anyway.
The other post that contributes is 6-foot-9, 240 pound junior Alex Oriakhi. Oriakhi averages seven points and five rebounds. He has been a HUGE disappointment this year for UConn. The former McDonald’s All-American saw his numbers drop in all areas from last year’s NCAA championship season. He has looked very disinterested at times and it’s been a mystery why he hasn’t produced like he has his first two seasons at UConn. Oriakhi when on his game can be a force in the paint and especially on the boards. He is an NBA talent that mirrors the rest of this UConn team, extremely talented, yet inconsistent.
Sophomore Roscoe Smith has been starting of late and is a solid role player that adds size at 6-foot-8 205. He is not a prolific offensive threat, but can knock down a jump-shot if left open. Smith puts up 4.5 points and three rebounds, a drop-off from last year’s numbers.
DeAndre Daniels (6-8) and Niels Giffey (6-7) come off the bench and add a little bit of punch from the perimeter. Daniels was a top 10 recruit last year out of IMG Academy, but hasn’t been the solid producer they expected. Over half of Daniels’ shots come from behind the arc, yet he connects on fewer than 25 percent of those shots. Giffey is a “glue guy” who can do a number of different things. The German national only took 55 shots all year, but is their most accurate 3-point shooter at 42 percent (9-for-21).
Drummond, Oriakhi and Smith have size that can be problematic for Iowa State, especially on the glass. Oriakhi is the biggest threat to make a capable low-post move, the others are best in the clean-up role. At 6-foot-6, Melvin Ejim may have his hands full combating the size of UConn, but in the same light, Iowa State’s speed from the post spot can be an equal issue for UConn.
Jim Calhoun has to be having nightmares about Royce White, because I’m not sure Drummond and Oriakhi have the lateral speed to stay in front of White on the perimeter, where Smith and Daniels don’t have the size. Obviously Royce will be the X Factor like he usually is. UConn plays mainly man-to-man defense and their guards like to get up tight on opposing guards to cause turnovers. But their guards lack size which equates to very poor defense on the three point line (UCONN is secon worst againt the three in the Big East) – where we all know Iowa State excels.
Iowa State/UConn will be one of the premiere match-ups of the opening round games. The spotlight will be on the Cyclones. And we all know the 400 pound animal that awaits if the Cyclones get by the defending champs.
Thursday can’t get here soon enough.