The Syracuse Orange will take on old Big East rival Connecticut at Madison Square Garden tonight as part of the Jimmy V Classic. The history between these two teams speaks for itself and while this game won’t have the feel of a Big East Tournament game, it does mark an important bounce back opportunity for Syracuse. A win on a neutral court over
a mid-major Connecticut would also pad the résumé. To preview the game, we caught up with Aman Kidwai over at The UConn Blog.
TNIAAM: You guys are 6-2 to start the year. What's worked well and what hasn't?
The UConn Blog: Broadly speaking, Jalen Adams and Terry Larrier have worked really well. Adams has that UConn lead guard DNA in him and Larrier is an athletic wing who looks like a really smooth scorer most of the time. After losing all of last year's front court, Kevin Ollie has cobbled together a passable one by committee that hasn't produced much offensively but is doing okay on rebounding and defense.
What has not worked well is offensive strategy, which seems to disappear at times for long stretches. This has been a bit of a hallmark of Ollie teams, unfortunately, especially when they don't have a pure point guard presence. New to the fold is the struggles of the defense, which has quite simply allowed too many easy chances to opponents. At times it can really clamp down, but there are a lot of lapses.
TNIAAM: You guys are fifth from last in the country in assists per game, why so much one-on-one?
TUC: As stated above, the offense strategy seems to disappear for long stretches, leading to aimless passing around the perimeter followed by hero ball once the shot clock runs low. It is not necessarily by design, though UConn's best players are best is iso situations, but that's no way for an entire offense to operate.
TNIAAM: After the Arkansas game, KO referenced a lot of selfish play. Has that turned around in the last two close wins?
TUC: Not really. The same issues have plagued the team as it skated by lowly Columbia and Monmouth in OT. Jalen Adams has had to basically take over to make it happen.
TNIAAM: How do you feel about UConn and Syracuse keeping the rivalry alive? Do you feel it has less meaning now or does the rivalry still have some staying power?
TUC: I think it's great! I don't feel that the change in conference has changed its significance, it just means this is the only meeting and not one of two or three in the year, so it may have even increased.
The fact that this year neither team is particularly strong, and that this was the case last year may be the only thing that has taken any juice out of the matchup, but hopefully that's just a cyclical issue for both sides.
TNIAAM: If this is another missed tournament year, will KO face any hot seat pressure?
TUC: He definitely will, and already has even with this 6-2 start. Given the Arkansas, Monmouth and Columbia performances, it's easy to understand why so many are angry. I'm pretty generous about the 2016-2017 season since two of the team's three best players were injured in the first four games, but this struggle is really hurting Ollie's rep and confirming a lot of themes we have seen across his tenure.
TNIAAM: Medium to long-term, where does this UConn program seem to be headed?
TUC: Hey man, how about dinner and drinks first?
(Note: Sure, meet you before Gonzaga and Villanova tip tomorrow?)
I am not in the camp that thinks Ollie should be fired right now, and feel like he's nicely recovered from the disaster that was the mass exodus of this past offseason. He brought in some good guys this year and 2018 recruiting seems to be going well. I think he's putting a good team together and has a solid staff as well. If he can clean up his in-game coaching, I think the program is in fine shape.
Ollie is working under different circumstances than his predecessor, most notably that he's in the AAC and not the original Big East, so matching Jim Calhoun's success in his first years ever as a head coach is a tough task, but I think this can get back to being the perennial tournament team with potential for a deep run every couple of years that we have come to know and love.
TNIAAM: Prediction time: who wins, why and what's the final score?
TUC: UConn will most likely be missing Alterique Gilbert, which is unfortunate since he's been a key player for the team and serves as that pure point guard type which I mentioned above that helps keep the offense afloat. Without him, UConn's offensive struggles are likely to continue and this may not even be as close as last year's game. I'll give Syracuse the edge, 75-70.
Excited for tonight’s game? Think the Orange will bounce back? How will you be celebrating? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
I’ll also be at MSG and will have updates via twitter — give me a follow @JamesSzuba if you’d be inclined to said updates.