I’ll keep this intro short and sweet since I’m typing it on my iPhone.
First, I’d like to apologize for the bad format, but again, I’m on my iPhone and I also play college tennis, and we’re about to get our own match started so I have limited time on my hands here.
It’s time for one last preview of the biggest game since 2007. Mac Cerullo, the sports editor for the Daily News of Newburyport and SB Nation’s The UConn Blog, was kind enough to stop by and answer some questions about his Huskies just a few hours before tipoff.
1) UConn, as the 7 seed, was certainly not the favorite to win the East region. How did the Huskies get here to North Texas?
MC: Well, I think the obvious place to start would be Shabazz Napier. He leads the team in just about every statistical category, steps up his game in key moments and can pretty much hit any shot on the court. But more than that is the way the team has collectively stepped up its game on defense. That last game against Michigan State was just unbelievable, Adreian Payne should have destroyed UConn’s frontcourt, but the Husky bigs managed to pretty much keep him out of the paint all game by double and triple teaming him, and Keith Appling was pretty much a non-factor.
They did the same thing to Villanova too, only instead of forcing them out to the line, they pretty much dared the Wildcats to go to the hoop all game. Villanova, being the three-point shooting team they are, threw up a bunch of contested threes anyway, and that pretty much sunk them.
The last key reason the Huskies are here though is definitely their free throw shooting. UConn doesn’t exactly have a history of being a great free throw shooting team over the years, but this year’s team has been pretty much automatic at the line. That helped them hold back Iowa State’s comeback and it will undoubtably help them if they wind up in a close game against Florida tonight.
2) We all know about Shabazz Napier. What, above all else, does Napier do that makes him so valuable to UConn?
MC: He does everything, and that’s the key. He can score, he can pass, he can defend, he can knock down free throws, he can get to the hoop, he can knock down threes, and he has no fear. Seriously, ever since his freshman year, Shabazz has become the king of what I call the “no, no, no, YES!!!” shot. He will sometimes take shots so bad and ill-advised that you’ll throw up your hands in frustration the moment the ball leaves his hand, and then he’ll make the shot anyway. This one right here from two years ago was probably the ultimate example of that (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QI21mttyO48
), but at this point pretty much nothing could surprise us. His shot selection has improved, for sure, but he can hit any shot from anywhere on the court, and there’s no defense that can guard a player who can do that.
3) Napier is a great talent, but Scottie Wilbekin is among the nation’s best on ball defenders. How much are you looking forward to watching this matchup, especially considering that he wasn’t healthy in the first matchup?
MC: I’m really interested in seeing how this matchup is going to go, and it’s true that Wilbekin’s absence at the end of the game earlier this season probably had a big impact on the way it ended. Here’s the thing though, if Napier’s shot is falling, then he’s going to score 20 points no matter what. He’ll hit his three-pointers, get to the line and probably knock down most of his free throws. If his shot’s not falling, then that could be trouble, because Wilbekin isn’t a guy that you can just toy with and he’s not going to let you just go wherever you want. Napier will have to get the ball to his teammates in good spots if that happens, which he obviously can and has before.
4) Other than Napier, who on UConn would you be most worried about stopping if you were a Gator fan?
MC: DeAndre Daniels is like a powder keg, only you can never be sure of when he’s going to explode. When he’s on his game, Daniels is one of the most dangerous players in the country and can beat you inside and out. He can get to the rim, he’s quick, he can rebound the ball and he’s a great three-point shooter. The problem is that for whatever reason he can’t seem to play at that level with any consistency, so if you’re fortunate enough to get the bad DeAndre Daniels, it will make your lives a lot easier. But if Daniels gets hot, watch out.
5) Niels Giffey has been quite a threat from outside this year- he literally makes every other three he puts up. Against a notoriously tough Gator defense, how much do you expect his outside shooting to be a factor?
MC: It will be a huge factor. Niels Giffey really transformed his game this past offseason and has become one of the best three-point shooters in the country. He does a lot of other things well too – he’s a great defender and always seems to be in the right place at the right time – but if Giffey gets an open look, more often than not he’s going to knock it down. The tricky thing for opposing defenses is that you can’t really double up on Giffey or put too much focus on him, because if you do that then Napier is going to kill you, or Ryan Boatright, or DeAndre Daniels, all of whom are also great three-point shooters.
6) Lately, Patric Young has been an unstoppable force in the paint. How do you think UConn will try to stop him? What kind of success do you think they’ll have?
MC: Patric Young is terrifying, and the fact that he got both Phil Nolan and Tyler Olander to foul out in their last matchup while pretty much rendering Amida Brimah a non-factor was something no UConn fan has forgotten about. That being said, Olander doesn’t see much time anymore, and Nolan and Brimah have both improved a lot, especially on defense. I mentioned Adreian Payne earlier, he was a guy who by all accounts should have annihilated UConn on the glass, but he didn’t. Why? Because Nolan, Brimah, Daniels and Giffey wouldn’t let him get anywhere near the paint. If UConn is going to deal with Young, they will probably need to take the same approach. The fact that it worked against Michigan State makes me feel a lot better about UConn’s chancestonight
. It won’t be easy, but at least we know it can be done.
7) Much has been made in the Gator media about the four seniors- Wilbekin, Yeguette, Prather and Young- being desperate and having experience. This is their last chance, they’ve lost 3 straight Elite 8’s and now they want more than simply making the Final Four. But UConn has its own senior leader in Napier, with a national title in his back pocket. Who do you give the experience edge to?
MC: I don’t think this game is going to come down to experience, because at the end of the day both of these teams have been through a lot and understand the stakes. Florida has a team of tough, experienced seniors who have enjoyed a lot of success and now want to go out on top. UConn, meanwhile, has already been to the top, but then fell into a valley so low that a lot of people thought the program would never be the same. Between Calhoun’s retirement, the postseason ban, the death of the Big East, a lot of people thought that was going to be it, but these guys stayed, believed, worked hard and now they’re back with a chance to reestablish UConn’s place at the top of the college basketball landscape.
At the end of the day, this game isn’t going to come down to which team has more at stake or who is more desperate, it’s going to come down to who plays better.
8) What type of game do you expect to see?
MC: It’s going to be a tough, physical, hard fought game, one that I expect will have a lot of twists and turns and will ultimately stay close until the very end.
9) Score prediction, and why?
MC: Florida may be the best team in the country, but UConn will have the best player on the court in Shabazz Napier, and I’ve seen enough of this team to be confident that if it’s close late, UConn will have a chance to win. My prediction, UConn wins 68-65.
Best of luck to you guys, you guys have an incredible team and hopefully tonight’s game will be one for the ages.