NCAA Tournament West Region: UConn’s possible second-round opponents

UConn will face New Mexico State in its home opener in Buffalo on Thursday night, hoping to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2015-16 season. If successful, the Huskies will see either the No. 4-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks out of the SEC or the No. 13-seeded Vermont Catamounts out of America East.

Vermont Catmounts

Although Arkansas will be favored in this game, Vermont has what it takes to pull off the upset. Winner of regular-season championships and America East tournaments, Vermont has made the NCAA Tournament three of the past five seasons and the fourth time overall under head coach John Becker. They may also have their most complete squad in years.

Vermont cruised through its conference tournament, averaging 36.7 points in winning margin. The Catamounts are 21-1 in their last 22 games, winning by double digits in 19 of them. Simply put, the America East wasn’t enough competition for Vermont, and the Catamounts will be a popular upset pick to defeat Arkansas in the first round.

UConn matches UConn well on paper. The two teams are actually similar in terms of roster composition and style of play. Both UConn and Vermont are led by 6’8-inch men who usually hang near the edge and use their frames to build muscle. in tough buckets. Two-time America East Player of the Year Ryan Davis also became a reliable deep-shooting threat during his senior season, hitting 42% from behind the arc. This could make things difficult for Sanogo defensively. Vermont will likely try to get Sanogo as far away from the paint as possible, likely with a high ball screen at the top of the key where Davis actually goes out for a three instead of rolling to the basket. Defense communication and early recognition will be major keys for the Huskies if they see those looks.

Both teams are also led by a primary point guard – RJ Cole for UConn and Ben Shungu for Vermont – who score in clusters and have a good sense of the game. Shungu is relied on more, but both can fill it and know how to execute an effective and methodical attack. UConn is 291st in Kenpom-adjusted tempo, just three spots below Vermont.

Rounding out their starting five is Isaish Powell, who plays closer to the basket than Tyrese Martin but has a very similar build at 6-6, 220 pounds. Justin Mazzula is a stalwart fifth-year senior guard who doesn’t take many shots (5.4 per game) but makes high percentage (50% FG) and also limits his turnovers. Joining Shungu and Mazzulla in the backcourt is Aaron Deloney, a reliable sidekick to Shungu who offers experience, ball handling and solid three-point shooting (41%).

Vermont is also a legitimately deep team, with nine guys averaging at least 13 minutes per game, eerily similar to the Huskies’ playing time distribution.

UConn fans would certainly prefer not to play in Arkansas, but this Vermont team has the pedigree, the experience and the talent to surprise people. UConn will have to hit the boards and use their superior athletic ability to steal points from the Catamounts in order to advance.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Of the two possibilities, the Razorbacks clearly present the toughest game for UConn, and an interesting game at that. Arkansas plays a very different style to UConn, sitting 28th in a tempo adjusted by Kenpom, leading to plenty of quick buckets.

Led by two All-Sec first-team members in power guard JD Notae and forward Jaylin Williams, Arkansas loves to run and create havoc defensively. Notae is an extraordinary shot-maker, possessing an innate ability to score in any situation and regardless of the defensive gaze thrown at him. He finished second overall in the SEC with 18.4 points per game. He’s also an elite defenseman, leading the conference with 2.2 steals per game. Williams is fourth on the team with 10.5 per game, but first in rebounds (9.6) and third in assists (2.6), proving to be an indispensable centerpiece for Eric’s team. Musselman at both ends of the field.

This dynamic team likes to disrupt the flow of the game by deploying a press and going out on the break. They usually run an eight-man rotation and like to spread teams out as much as possible, with Williams in the middle. Six different Razorbacks this season have averaged more than eight points per game. They are a poor three-point shooting team, however, finishing in the SEC last three at 30.7% from deep.

Notae and Williams are the undisputed leaders on this team, but Arkansas has four other guards who can fill the stat sheet. Stanley Umude and Au’Diese Toney are both 6’6″ and have each scored over 20 points several times this season. Toney is not a three-point threat (8 in total made on the season) but chooses to making a living near the rim, he uses his elite athleticism to catch oops and shoot fouls near the basket and has the highest free throw percentage on the team (80.4%) as well as the most Umude is a South Dakota transfer and former Summit League 20+ ppg scorer who is Arkansas’ third option, and is the Razorback’s most consistent three-point shooter at 37.1 %.

Along with Umude and Toney, lightning rod graduate Chris Lykes, who spent four seasons in Miami before joining the Muss-bus, helps hold down Arkansas’ backcourt. Lykes hasn’t had the impact many thought, but with almost 1,500 points to his name, he’s definitely someone you can’t overlook.

Arkansas is a team that can really frustrate their opposition and run with the best of them, as evidenced by their wins over Kentucky, Auburn, LSU (twice) and Tennessee. UConn is going to have to slow this game down and not let Arkansas confuse them with their length and dogged ball defense. If the Huskies can handle the pressure effectively and not let this game become a rolling fest, they have a chance to win.