What’s an NCAA Tournament without some controversy over who belongs and who doesn’t, over whether a conference was slighted or rewarded to excess? Saint Joseph’s is one of six Atlantic 10 teams in the field, a number that dismayed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. UConn is one of just four entries from the American Athletic, which can’t comprehend how SMU got left out or how fifth-ranked Louisville got relegated to a No. 4 seed. So there’s conference pride at stake in this meeting between Saint Joseph’s, the Atlantic 10 Tournament champion, and UConn, runner-up to Louisville in the AAC. UConn knocked off No. 1 overall seed Florida back in early December and has won nine of its last 12 with two of those losses to Louisville. Saint Joseph’s dropped its last two regular-season games before rebounding in the conference tournament.
The Huskies have one of the more dynamic players in the tournament in senior guard Shabazz Napier, the AAC Player of the Year and a finalist for at least four national awards. Napier fills up the stat sheet to the tune of 17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. Two other players, junior forward DeAndre Daniels and junior guard Ryan Boatright, both average in double figures at 12.5 and 11.8 ppg, and senior Niels Giffey can provide a lift from behind the arc, where he’s shooting 52.5 percent. The Huskies go eight deep with players averaging double-digit minutes, which could provide a distinct advantage in this matchup. Amida Brimah, a lean 7-footer, from Ghana by way of Miami, went for 14 points and seven boards in the AAC title game against Louisville while matching his season-high of 31 minutes; but he’s a freshman and remains a work in progress.
Phil Martelli’s “Iron Hawks” operate in stark contrast to the norm as all five starters average at least 31.8 minutes per game. Four of them also average double figures in scoring, with senior guard Langston Galloway, the AAC Tournament MVP, leading the way at 17.5 points. He’s followed by Ronald Robert Jr. at 14.4, DeAndre Bembry at 12.0 and Halil Kanacevic at 10.7. Kanacevic, a 6-foot-8 facilitator, also leads the Hawks in assists at 4.4. It’s always a challenge for Saint Joseph’s to keep from stifling itself with turnovers. The Hawks have committed 72 more than opponents on the season for a minus 2.2 margin. And then there’s the matter of free throws. Galloway shoots 82 percent from the line. No other starter is better than 65.4 percent, a weakness that challenges the team’s tourney longevity.
Outlook: Superior depth, free-throw shooting bode well for Huskies. Prediction: UConn, 65-60.
Tipoff: 6:55 p.m. Thursday • First Niagara Center • TV: TBS • Radio: TBA