UConn searching for signature win, but beating Duke will be difficult
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he was not satisfied with how his team played against Elon on Monday night. What particularly grabbed Krzyzewski’s attention was that the Blue Devils, in their first game in 12 days, did not do “hard things” such as diving for loose balls and communicating. In the end, it didn’t really matter, because Jahlil Okafor had one of the best individual performances in recent program history, scoring 25 points and grabbing 20 rebounds in a 13-point win.
Contrast that with what transpired when Connecticut struggled at home against Yale on Dec. 5. The Huskies made only two of their 11 three-point field goal attempts, grabbed just one offensive rebound and got just six points from leading scorer Ryan Boatright in a one-point loss that snapped a 13-game winning streak against the Bulldogs that dated back nearly three decades. After the game, his team's third straight loss, UConn coach Kevin Ollie said his team was “at the bottom right now.”
Those two games help illustrate the vast gulf that exists between the Blue Devils and Huskies as the teams prepare to meet Thursday night at Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. Duke played sluggishly at home and still beat an inferior opponent by double digits. UConn also didn't play well despite also being on its home floor against a less talented team, and lost.
On most occasions, this would be billed as a big-time matchup between two marquee programs with championship pedigrees. But at this point, the second-ranked Blue Devils are operating on a much higher level than the Huskies. Duke boasts the top offense in the country, owns one of the most impressive wins of the season (by 10 points at then-No. 2 Wisconsin on Dec. 3) and has made a more convincing case as a national championship contender than any team other than No. 1 Kentucky.
Okafor is a big reason why. The freshman center has more than lived up to his status as the nation's No. 1 recruit by playing Wooden Award-worthy ball through the first month of the season. Entering Thursday, Okafor is leading his team in scoring at 18.0 points per game and is shooting 65.5 percent from the floor, fifth-best in the country, while using a team-high 29.8 percent of available possessions.
The 6-foot-11, 270-pound freshman has also excelled on the boards, gobbling up 19.2 percent of available offensive rebounds during his floor time (which ranks sixth in the country) and 19.4 percent on the defensive end. Okafor’s play so far has already stoked debate over his place among the best low post players Krzyzewski has coached.
Against the Huskies, Okafor could be pitted against Amida Brimah, a 7-foot, 230-pound sophomore center who excels at protecting the rim -- his 11.7 block rate ranks 27th in the country -- and is coming off a 40-point, 12-rebound outing in a 21-point win over Coppin State on Sunday. He won’t be able to put up those numbers against the Blue Devils, but can he at least make things difficult for Okafor?
According to Synergy Sports technology, Okafor has scored an average of one point per possession on 82 post ups this season, while Brimah has yielded 0.61 ppp while defending 18 post-ups. Huskies guard Ryan Boatright said Brimah is eager to square off with Okafor.
“He’s not scared of anybody. He’s extremely competitive,” Boatright told the New Haven Register. “He’s tired of hearing all this hoorah about Jahlil. He’s excited to get a shot at him. I tell him just be confident, go out there and play your game and the game will take care of itself.”
While the matchup between Brimah and Okafor is intriguing, Boatright, who averages 18.9 points per game, and his fellow guards will also need to hold their own against Duke’s backcourt. Freshman Tyus Jones is not going to getting rattled in a high-profile game, and senior guard Quinn Cook, after widespread offseason speculation about how he would coexist with Jones, has emerged as one of the Blue Devils' top offensive threats, scoring 14.3 points per game while posting a team-high 139.5 offensive rating.
The Huskies' defense is the 30th-most efficient in the country, according to kenpom.com, but their offense may not be able to keep pace with Duke's, which scores 120.0 points per 100 possessions, tops in the nation. Through seven games, UConn ranks 77th nationally in offensive efficiency and is shooting just 29.2 percent from three-point range. The Huskies will need to do a lot better than that to have a chance against the Devils.
As for the broader implications of this matchup, UConn has yet to notch a nonconference win against an opponent ranked in KenPom’s top 60. A victory on Thursday would qualify as a signature win, and the Huskies are running out of chances to get one; Thursday's game is their last scheduled matchup this season against a ranked team. As for Duke, this is its last real test before opening ACC play on Jan. 3, and a win would further cement its candidacy as the leading national challenger to Kentucky.