UConn Looked The Part Of A National Title Contender In A Destruction Of Arkansas

LAS VEGAS — After wins over Illinois and top-seeded Kansas during the opening weekend of the 2023 NCAA Tournament, the Arkansas Razorbacks were a “hot” team in college basketball circles. Eric Musselman’s club struggled to live up to lofty preseason expectations in 2022-23, but the Razorbacks seemingly put things together in two impressive wins. Beyond that, the Arkansas roster many prognosticators loved in the preseason includes multiple future NBA players and, with recent history on its side after Elite 8 runs in both 2021 and 2022, it was easy to see the Razorbacks as dangerous despite the No. 8 seed in the West Region. However, Arkansas ran into a buzzsaw on Thursday evening in a Sweet 16 matchup against the UConn Huskies and, in a hurry, the Huskies sent a reminder to the remainder of the field that they are contender-worthy with an 88-65 destruction.

If anything, UConn was equally impressive during the first weekend, pulling away from a plucky Iona team in the opening round and cruising past a St. Mary’s team that was beloved by computer models throughout the season. In the opener of the first-ever NCAA Tournament Regional in Las Vegas, though, the Huskies wasted absolutely no time in putting the pedal to the floor and showcasing sky-high upside.

The pace of the game was torrid for an afternoon tip-off in Las Vegas, though UConn forced Arkansas to blink first. The Huskies began to establish pace and physicality from the opening tip, generating impressive shot quality and execution in the process.

Then came the first of multiple haymakers from UConn in the form of a 14-0 run. Before Arkansas finally dented the scoreboard again, the Huskies took a 34-17 lead that was complete with off-the-charts offensive numbers.

UConn scored 34 points on its first 20 possessions of the game, a pace that would be impressive regardless of opponent and circumstance. The Huskies shot 13-of-21 from the field and 4-of-8 from three-point range in the first 12 minutes, securing six of the team’s eight missed shots on the offensive glass to boot.

“We got off to a fast start offensively,” said UConn head coach Dan Hurley. “We were really sharp, our passing was sharp. And I thought we just had a great mix of creating openings for our shooters, feeding Adama and Donovan in the ball-screen game, in and then the low post. We were coming at them from so many different places offensively. I think we just had them on their heels and when we did get defensive rebound opportunities we were able to create some things in transition. I just think we were able to get them on their heels like straightaway in the game.”

From there, the Huskies shot 61 percent in the opening half and scored almost as many points in the paint (24) as Arkansas scored in total points (29) before the break. UConn didn’t ride a performance of individual brilliance to that lofty baseline either, as the Huskies relied on trademark balance and force to effectively generate any shot they wanted in the first 20 minutes. Throw in the fact that Arkansas entered the game with a top-15 mark in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, and the impressive nature of the showing comes into focus.

With a comfortable halftime lead, the temptation may have been there for UConn to pedal off to start the second half, but the Huskies did the opposite. In fact, UConn produced a 14-2 run to take a 62-33 lead with 15:44 to go, opening the half by making five of its first six shots and generating four assists in short order.

Admittedly, no team could reasonably maintain the torrid pace established by UConn in the first 24 minutes, and the Huskies did emerge from a timeout with their worst stretch of the game. Arkansas scored the next ten points, ratcheting up the defensive pressure, and UConn’s ball security issues emerged for a short period. The Huskies commit a turnover on nearly 19 percent of possessions this season and, if there is an Achilles heal for what is a top-five offense in the sport, that is it. Still, the storm passed and, when UConn broke two straight presses for open three-pointers, the team’s advancement to the Elite 8 was all but secure with more than ten minutes remaining.

UConn’s 29-point lead early in the second half turned into a 23-point margin at the final horn but, even with several minutes of cruise control to the finish, the Huskies scored nearly 1.3 points per possession and limited the Razorbacks to less than a point per offensive trip. While the offense deservedly drew the headlines, UConn held Arkansas to just 32 percent shooting with more turnovers than assists.

Jordan Hawkins, a wing with an NBA future, led UConn with 24 points, while big man Adama Sanogo anchored the Huskies inside with 18 points and eight rebounds in only 24 minutes of action. Even with those considerable contributions from standouts, it was also a night of balance for UConn, with the team shooting 57 percent from the field with an egalitarian offensive approach and nearly a 50 percent offensive rebound rate.

“I thought obviously we just played pretty much exactly to our team identity,” Hurley said. “We played elite defense. Offensively the 22 assists, the inside, the outside, and the rebounding dominance, and really where we are right now is exactly where we talked about where we would be, when we got together. After we lost the first-round game last year we met in the boardroom, we sat together and said this is where we’re going to be. We’re exactly where we thought we would be. And obviously we’re thrilled to play one more to go to the Final Four.”

On one hand, this level of carnage against a quality opponent would be noteworthy in any context. Arkansas was a No. 8 seed in the field, but the Hogs entered the evening at No. 18 in the country in KenPom’s advanced rankings. This was also a well-coached opponent that, while the Razorbacks did struggle, was not violently overmatched from a talent standpoint. Instead, it was an effort that should raise eyebrows across the country, at least for those not already plugged into UConn as a national title contender.

Those familiar with advanced metrics were already clued into the Huskies. After all, UConn was No. 4 in the country at KenPom before the tournament began, even as the Huskies earned only a No. 4 seed. The Huskies truly dominate on the offensive glass, grabbing 39 percent of missed shots for the season, and the team’s elite offense is at least approached by its defense with a top-15 national mark in efficiency. UConn wasn’t the most consistent team during the regular season, as evidenced by eight losses, but the Huskies seem to be peaking at the right time and that was already the case before Thursday.

“We had a really tough January, but we play in a really tough conference,” Hawkins said. “We knew we had to flip the switch. When it hit February, I think that’s when things changed for us. We started to play better. We knew that time was coming where guys had to step up. And we have a team full of guys that could step up.”

Since Feb. 1, UConn is No. 1 in the country in adjusted efficiency, per barttorvik.com. Those numbers did not include the picture-perfect showing against Arkansas, and the Huskies were effectively co-favorites (at least in the betting market) to win the West Region as of Thursday morning. That isn’t to say that UConn isn’t vulnerable to a hiccup along the way, as any team would, but in a season marked by whispers of parity at the top and the absence of true dominance, the Huskies do possess the kind of ceiling outcome that most teams in the tournament can only aspire to over a single 40-minute window.

The Huskies will advance to take on the winner of the nightcap between No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 3 Gonzaga, with UConn seemingly out of place against a west coast opponent in Las Vegas. Still, the UConn faithful will likely be out in force in Sin City, and fans of the Huskies accurately wear the confidence that their team can match the ceiling of any squad in the tournament.