For a while, it looked like Connecticut wasn’t even going to make the NCAA Tournament this season after being ruled ineligible last year. But after a rough start in the new American Athletic Conference, the Huskies are back in the rankings at No. 19, and they’re virtually guaranteed a March Madness invitation — as long as they beat Rutgers on Wednesday.
Shouldn’t be a problem, right? UConn opens as a 17-point favorite at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies are 12-3 straight up and 11-4 against the spread since dropping their first two AAC games, while the Scarlet Knights are 4-11 straight up and 6-9 against the spread over the same span. The last time the two teams met in Piscataway, UConn pulled away in the second half to beat Rutgers 82-71 as a six-point favorite. All the signs are there for another win Wednesday (7 p.m. tipoff).
Beating the spread is another matter. But the Huskies (23-6 straight up, 15-12 against the spread) have gone 7-2 against the spread as double-digit favorites. The Scarlet Knights (11-18 straight up, 12-15 against the spread), meanwhile, are only 2-4 against the spread when getting at least 10 points. That includes each of their last four opportunities. Most recently, Rutgers lost by more than 40 points to both Louisville (-21.5) and Memphis (-14.5), both of which ran up the score at home to break the 100-point barrier.
The Huskies might not score that many points Wednesday. They’re built more for defense, sitting at No. 12 on Ken Pomeroy’s Division I efficiency charts. On offense, UConn plummets to No. 79. Mix that imbalance with one of the slower paces in college hoops (No. 223 overall), and it’s a Huskies team with a 16-10 under record — including 10-4 at Storrs and eight of their last nine overall.
As they say, defense wins championships. The Huskies are an intriguing commodity at 50-1 on Bovada’s NCAA Championship futures, and the advanced stats at Team Rankings give UConn a 38 percent chance of at least reaching the Sweet 16. Those stats are from the full season, though, and the Huskies have played much better over the past two months.
If anything, missing out on the postseason last year and stumbling out of the gate this year have made it easier for the Huskies to beat the odds. They’ve got all five starters back from a team that won 20 games last season but didn’t get any March Madness rub because of poor academic ratings. Point guard Shabazz Napier (26.4 PER) is one of the best players in Division I, and his coach, Kevin Ollie, knows a thing or two about point guards. He even uses two of them in his backcourt, playing Ryan Boatright (17.4 PER) alongside Napier and letting them both distribute the ball. This rebuilding Rutgers program (No. 143 offense, No. 224 defense) isn’t very well equipped to stop Napier and Boatright from doing their thing Wednesday.
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