In one of the most intriguing matchups of the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament, Jim Calhoun and No. 9 seed UConn (20-13) will look to down No. 8 seed Iowa State (22-10) Thursday night at 9:20 p.m. EDT at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. TBS will air the game with Leslie Visser and Bill Raftery, joining Verne Lundquist on the broadcast.
While UConn is coming off a national championship run last year that culminated with a victory over Butler, Iowa State is making their first appearance since 2005. The Cyclones have made 14 trips to the Big Dance including one appearance in the Final Four (1944) and an Elite Eight berth in 2000. In 2005, the Cyclones took down (8) Minnesota, before falling to top seed UNC in their second game.
Last year the Huskies won their final 11 games en route to a Big East Tournament Title and an NCAA Tournament Title. The third seeded Huskies knocked off (14) Bucknell and (3) Cincinnati in Washington D.C., before getting by (2) San Diego State and (5) Arizona in Anaheim. After only winning by two (65-63) in the Elite Eight, UConn had to overcome a 10-point halftime deficit to fend off (4) Kentucky 56-55. The Championship Game was nowhere near as stressful, as Jim Calhoun celebrated his third career title after a 53-41 victory over (8) Butler.
The 2011-12 edition of the Huskies is a far cry from the UConn squad that won the national championship a year ago. While the program did lose Walker and three seniors who played smaller roles, the bigger problem this year has been inconsistencies from the remaining pieces of the championship squad.
Sophomore guards Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier have led the team offensively all year and have been the team's best options in trying to replace Walker's production. Lamb is a big-time NBA prospect as he leads the team with 17.7 points and has added 4.9 rebounds and 1.75 assists per game. Napier leads the team with 5.8 assists and over four free throw attempts a game, to go along with his 12.7 points per game. While the pair both have the ability to take over games, they've struggled to consistently be aggressive and work together in the confines of Calhoun's offense.
Freshmen Andre Drummond and Ryan Boatright have both lived up to their billings as well. Drummon arrived on campus as one of the top players in his class and showed why with 10.2 points and team-high 7.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. His much smaller classmate has averaged 10.5 points and 4.1 assists when he's been in the lineup. Boatright has missed nine games this year and has struggled to get into the rhythm of things, after two seperate suspensions due to NCAA investigations.
Captain Alex Oriakhi has been one of several players who have struggled mightily after facing high expectations. The junior forward has managed to average 6.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in 33 games after averaging 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds as a sophomore. Role players Roscoe Smith and DeAndre Daniels have also struggled, as the Huskies primary three bench players (Tyler Olander) have provided little support for the starting five.
Former top prospect Royce White has blossomed in his first season at Iowa State. The dynamic Minnesota transfer has led the Cyclones with 13.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists and .9 blocks per game and has helped completely turn the program around under second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg.
Fellow transfers Scott Christopherson and Chris Allen have joined White in helping Iowa State make the quick turnaround. Christopherson started his career at Marquette, but the junior has found a home in Ames, Iowa; he's second on the team with 12.5 ppg and leads the team in 3-point field goal percentage (45 percent) and free throw shooting (89.5 percent). Allen is also a redshirt senior but is in his first year as a Cyclone after beginning at Michigan State. The 6'3" guard has averaged 11.8 points and connected on a team-high 72 made 3-pointers.
Redshirt junior Chris Babb (a Penn State transfer) and sophomore forward Melvin Ejim round out the starting lineup for Hoiberg's squad. Junior college transfer Tyrus McGee adds another veteran presence off the bench as Hoiberg has led the team a 15-17 team when he took over in 2010, to a fourth place finish in the Big 12 this year.
The key to Thursday night's matchup will likely be the paint. While UConn has slightly more size with Drummond, Oriakhi and Olander, the Huskies frontcourt have allowed more physical and hungry teams abuse them throughout the season. If Oriakhi and Drummond can hold their own and keep the rebounding totals close, UConn should be able to move on due to their superior backcourt.