It comes one year — and one round — later than expected, but we are finally getting an Arkansas vs UConn matchup in the NCAA Tournament.
After avoiding a second-round meeting by getting upset by New Mexico State last season, the Huskies now have a date with the Razorbacks in the Sweet 16.
UConn, a 4 seed, used a dominant second half to pull away from 5 seed St. Mary’s 70-55 on Sunday, a day after Arkansas knocked off top-seed Kansas in dramatic fashion.
Tip off is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. CT Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and it will be televised on CBS. The winner will advance to the Elite Eight and face the winner of UCLA-Gonzaga for a spot in the Final Four.
In order to reach their third straight Elite Eight, though, they must first get through UConn. Here’s a closer look at the Huskies, who are making their first Sweet 16 appearance since winning it all in 2014…
Up and Down Season
Just looking at the win-loss results of UConn’s schedule, it’d be easy to confuse it with either of the last two Arkansas basketball seasons. The only difference is that the Huskies’ highs and lows were arguably more dramatic.
UConn won its first 14 games and climbed to No. 2 in the AP Poll in late December. Included in that start was arguably the most impressive non-conference stretch in the country, as the Huskies beat five straight high-major opponents by double digits and only one of the games was at home.
All five are KenPom top-75 teams and reached the postseason (two NCAAT, three NIT), so the stretch has held up — especially considering one of the wins was an 82-67 beatdown of No. 1 overall seed Alabama.
However, UConn followed up the 14-0 start by losing six of its next eight games. Some of the losses were excusable, like the Xavier losses that bookended the stretch and a road loss to Marquette, but there was also an ugly 11-point home loss to St. John’s and Mike Anderson mixed in.
After spending five straight weeks in the top five, the Huskies nearly dropped out of the AP Poll entirely, bottoming out at No. 24. They rebounded strong, though, and have now won 10 of their last 12. The only two losses were against NCAA Tournament teams: a 3-point road loss at Creighton and a 2-point loss to Marquette in the Big East Tournament.
Had it won just a couple of those games in its midseason skid, UConn (27-8) would be much higher than a 4 seed — and the metrics indicate it should have been anyways. The Huskies are No. 4 on KenPom, No. 5 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index and No. 8 in the NET rankings, but the NCAA Tournament selection committee slotted them at No. 13, making them the top 4 seed in the field.
Arkansas Basketball Must Defend the Perimeter
Those who watched UConn’s second-round win over St. Mary’s got a glimpse of what makes it such a dangerous team. The Huskies knocked down 10 of 22 shots from beyond the arc, including eight of their last 12.
It wasn’t an anomaly, either. UConn relies heavily on 3-point shooting. The Huskies are shooting 36.1% from deep this season, which ranks just 72nd nationally, but they can really hurt you with the sheer volume they take. They rank 36th nationally in attempts (25.1) and 30th in makes (9.1) per game, the latter of which leads the Big East.
What makes it even more scary is UConn can make them in bunches. St. Mary’s actually led for much of the first half, but a trio of 3s in the final three minutes — including one at the buzzer — helped the Huskies take a one-point lead into the locker room.
In the second half, it was still a one-possession game before UConn knocked down five 3-pointers in the span of about seven minutes. In the blink of an eye, the Huskies’ lead had ballooned to 15 and they were able to cruise to a win.
There are also several different players Arkansas must be aware of as shooters on the perimeter. Four different Huskies have at least 99 attempts from beyond the arc and each of them shoots at least 36.9%.
Joey Calcaterra averages only 14.5 minutes, but is a sharpshooter UConn uses off the bench. He’s knocked down 44.4% of his 3-pointers and about two-thirds of the total shots he’s taken this year have been from deep.
The two highest volume 3-point shooters are Jordan Hawkins (95 of 251) and Alex Karaban (61 of 149). Hawkins’ 2.88 made 3s per game ranks 30th nationally and leads the big East. Tristen Newton brings up the rear at “only” 36.9%, but he carried UConn in the first half against St. Mary’s by knocking down all three of his attempts — including the one at the buzzer.
UConn’s Dominant Big Man
Despite those numerous perimeter threats, UConn’s best player is a big man: Adama Sanogo.
Listed at 6-foot-9, the Mali native is not particularly tall, but he is solidly built at 245 pounds, which makes him tough to handle on the post.
Although not overly athletic, Sanogo is excellent with his back to the basket and has a nice touch. That helped him score 24 points on 11 of 16 shooting against St. Mary’s and 28 points on 13 of 17 shooting in the first-round win over Iona.
He’s been efficient all year, shooting 60.5% from the floor, and leads UConn in scoring at 17.3 points per game. He even added a 3-point shot to his game this year and is 17 of 48 (35.4%) from deep, but it’s worth noting that he’s taken only one 3-pointer this postseason (two Big East Tournament games and two NCAA Tournament games) and hasn’t taken more than two in a game since Feb. 11.
Sanogo — along with 7-foot-2 freshman Donovan Clingan — is also a big reason UConn is one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The Huskies have the third-best rebounding margin in the country at plus-9.3 per game and average 13.1 offensive rebounds, which ranks eighth nationally. According to KenPom, they have the second-best offensive rebound percentage in the country at 38.8%.
Through two games in the Big Dance, Sanogo has 21 total rebounds, including eight on the offensive end. He averages 7.5 rebounds this season. That said, he’s not much of a shot blocker, with only 26 blocks in 35 games.
If that description — a solidly built, but not overly tall big man from Africa who can really score and rebound while not blocking a lot of shots — sounds familiar, that’s because Arkansas faced someone like that twice this year and once last year: Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky.
Tshiebwe is 15 pounds heavier, but has the same listed height (6-foot-9) as Sanogo. He’s a more prolific rebounder, but their scoring is very similar.
After getting dominated by Tshiebwe last year, when he had 30 points and 18 rebounds, the Razorbacks handled him much better this season. The Mitchell twins — Makhi and Makhel — played a huge role in limiting him to 7 points and 7 rebounds in Arkansas’ win at Rupp Arena.
In the rematch at Bud Walton Arena, Tschiebwe did have a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds, but most of that came in the first half. The Razorbacks effectively shut him down after halftime, holding him to no points and four rebounds in about 10 minutes before getting him to foul out.
What UConn Basketball Fans Are Saying
For a peek behind enemy lines and how those outside of the Natural State are feeling about the Arkansas vs UConn matchup, here’s a sampling of posts on The Boneyard, a free message board site for UConn basketball fans…
“I like the matchup. Arkansas has a ton of talent with at least 3 NBA players on the team in Anthony Black, Jordan Walsh, and Nick Smith. Ricky Council is their leading scorer and Davis is having a big tournament scoring the ball. The team is incredibly athletic but really young with a lot of one on one scoring, using their athleticism for pull-ups and attacking the rim. They don’t shoot it well at all from three.
Jordan Walsh is like Jackson with his athleticism and defense. He doesn’t have any of the passing Jackson does but he’s even longer and maybe even a better defender. He’ll be on Hawkins.
Those 5 players I mentioned are in that 6’3-6’7 range. Once again they’ll have no answer for Sanogo and Clingan, their big guys are the Mitchell twins who our bigs should feast on.”
“They’re the rare team with guards as big as ours.
Thankfully they cant shoot, so we should be able to just out-efficient them like Alabama did twice.
Clingan will be indispensable in this game guarding the paint.”
“Jordon walsh is not half the defender Jackson is. He is long and robotic. I have seen most of their games. Uconn should handle arkansas easily. Very poor 3 point shooting and sloppy unforced turnovers. Very good matchup for uconn”
“We can’t foul on drives. This team is a 4x better St. John’s. They are going to try and kill us going to hole.”
“Don’t want to upset the mojo but I just booked a refundable hotel room and car in Houston.”
“I’ve watched Arkansas quite a bit this year. If UConn plays well, they’re going to beat Arkansas. If you can defend (defense includes getting the rebound and holding them to one shot), they’re not going to make a lot of jumpshots.”
“Very athletic team that can beat anyone and also lose to anyone. They’re dangerous since they have a high ceiling.
The 2nd half against against Kansas, who I thought had the best overall team, was a thing of beauty. It should be a fun game to watch with all the dynamic players. UConn wins a close one.”
“Unfortunately for Arkansas, Corliss “big nasty” Williamson is not walking through that door. Lol
They are very talented. Looked just as talented as Alabama last time I saw them. Uconn by 7”
“Let’s see if Ricky Council is dumb enough to try to dunk on Clingan. We may see it. He’s a high flyer in the mold of AJ.”
“Where’s Arkansas rank on D? Will our 3 point shooters (Hawkins, Newton, Joey C, Karaban) get clean looks. I like our chances if they do.”
“They have more fans because they live in Arkansas, a uniquely irrelevant place with trailer parks aglow by the synchronized flashes of Razorback sports as dogs bark, beer cans spurt open and the ritual screaming of domestic fights, screen doors slamming and tires angrily churning gravel fill the air.”
Check out our full preview of the upcoming Arkansas vs UConn matchup:
Here are some highlights from UConn basketball’s second-round win over St. Mary’s in the 2023 NCAA Tournament:
More coverage of Arkansas basketball in the NCAA Tournament from BoAS…