Matchup: Providence (11-5, 2-2 Big East) at Connecticut (11-4, 2-2)
Rankings: Providence, #47 in Pomeroy Ratings (9th of 16 in Big East); Connecticut, #29 (7th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Connecticut, 83-73 in 73 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 20%
Watch when: Providence has the ball. The Friars' excellent offense (39th overall at 1.11 points per possession, 26th adjusted due to playing the 29th best opponent defenses) should be an interesting test for Connecticut's very good defense (47th overall, holding teams to 0.93 points per possession).
Key Stat: Connecticut entered the game having limited its opponents to 37.4% shooting on two-pointers, the second-lowest figure in the nation. That number is directly related to Connecticut also being second in the nation in both block percentage and effective height. The relationship between those three figures is a fundamental tenet of basketball—tall defenders on the interior prevent teams from getting high-percentage looks around the basket, and can alter and block two-point shots. Connecticut's 7'3” center Hasheem Thabeet is the chief contributor to the Huskies' prowess against two-pointers.
Result: Providence, 77-65 in 69 possessions. Two-pointers didn't prove to be the problem for Connecticut. It was that other kind of shot...
What We Learned: The Huskies defense can be exploited on the exterior. Without a viable three-point attack, it's difficult for Connecticut to get back into games.
Seminal Play: With 4:32 remaining in the game, Friars guard Dwain Williams hit a wide-open three-pointer from several steps beyond the arc, then turned and motioned for the noisy crowd of 13,719 at the XL center to quiet down. The shot, Williams' fifth of six three-pointers on the night, gave Providence a double-digit lead, which the Friars maintained the rest of the way.
“At one time I was screaming at him to pull it out, and he just teed it up and knocked it in, and he looked at me and winked,” Providence coach Tim Welsh said. “I had to laugh—the little shit. He's amazing, he really is. He's got ice in his veins.”
Statistical Lesson: The first half provided a perfect example of why effective field goal percentage is a far more telling metric than its standard counterpart. While Connecticut shot 52% in the opening period to Providence's 41%, the Huskies led by only two points. The Friars hit six three-pointers to Connecticut's two, however, giving them an eFG% of 52 versus the Huskies' 56. That smaller differential does a much better job of explaining the tight score.
Quotable: “Did Jerome Dyson play tonight? I'm not sure.”
—Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, referring to the invisibility of Connecticut's leading scorer, who took just six shots and tallied only five points in 31 minutes.
The Details: Providence Game Plan/Connecticut Game Plan
HARTFORD, CT—Providence uncovered Connecticut's chief area of weakness on Thursday night at the XL Center—the perimeter. The Friars launched a torrid assault from long range to put down the Huskies' vaunted defense and dared Connecticut to do the same on the other end, a formula that created a shocking 77-65 blowout victory.
Collectively unconscious from behind the arc, Providence hit 14-of-24 three-point shots to stun the large crowd that expected an easy Huskies victory. The display by the Friars continued a blazing stretch begun in their last game, a victory over South Florida on Saturday in which they were 13-of-21 from deep.
“When you go 14-for-24, you're going to demoralize teams with the three,” Providence coach Tim Welsh said. “That's beyond big-time.”
Connecticut's highly-regarded defense entered with the second-lowest field goal percentage against on two-pointers, and that trend continued, as Providence shot only 32 percent from inside the arc. But the Friars proved to be an entirely different offense when firing from long range, as the team's stable of shooters found the space to launch in comfort when they stepped further away from the basket.
On multiple possessions, Connecticut's guards were caught inside trying to help on penetration or were too slow to rotate after rapid ball movement. The majority of Providence's looks from deep were uncontested, and the Friars' dangerous marksmen did not fail to capitalize, as guards Brian McKenzie and Dwain Williams combined to hit 10-of-13 from three.
“It's beyond surprising and disappointing,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said of his team's effort. “It's three, four steps beyond whatever I could possibly imagine. I certainly know of no lower point this year.”
The Huskies controlled the game in the first half, and it was only Providence's six threes that prevented the Friars from being down by more than two at the break. But the contest swung dramatically in the Friars' favor early in the second half, when Providence coach Tim Welsh decided to avoid trying to match up with the Huskies' superior size and instead go with a smaller, quicker, tougher lineup. After Welsh subbed in 6'8" junior forward Jonathan Kale for 6'11" center Randall Hanke with 16:44 to play and the Friars down 38-37, the team's 2-3 zone defense clicked into place.
Upon entering, Kale immediately blocked a shot and grabbed a rebound. On the next possession, Williams knocked down an open three-pointer that began a short 7-2 Friars burst. The team never trailed throughout the rest of the game.
“We had to put some more physical players in, and that's why [Kale and senior forward Charles Burch came in],” Welsh said. “They're tough old veterans, they know how to play that defense, and they just put their body in there and made it tough. I said make them shoot over the top of you.”
The Friars did exactly that. Knowing that the bigger Huskies like to pound the ball inside and drive to the hoop, Providence packed the paint with its zone and forced Connecticut into uncomfortable shots from the outside. The Huskies entered near the very bottom of Division I in percentage of shots taken from three, and carried a sub-par 34 percent mark on treys as a team. Yet they took 11 three's in the second half and made just two of them—both coming in the last minute during garbage time. Connecticut didn't fare much better on two-point shots after halftime, either, and finished with a meager 27 eFG% in the latter period.
“We pinched the middle a lit bit more because they were attacking the middle and that really breaks the defense down,” Welsh said. “That's coaching 101, against the zone you gotta find the gaps. So we decided to take away that, and make them shoot the ball from the outside even more.”
Burch, Kale, and 6'8" forward Geoff McDermott were able to take Connecticut's monstrous front line out of the game with physical play and strong defensive rebounding. The Huskies' 7'3" center Hasheem Thabeet and 6'9" forward Stanley Robinson combined for just 10 shots and eight rebounds, while McDermott had 11 boards by himself and largely controlled the interior.
“That team came in here and took us over physically and emotionally, and didn't let us play,” Calhoun said. “[They] just took over the basketball game, and they took over our entire basketball team.”
Providence also took over the tempo. With the Friars' zone especially difficult to penetrate, the Huskies were forced to slow down their fast-paced attack to the more plodding speed at which Providence likes to play. The Friars gradually built their lead up over the course of the second half, and extended it to as many as 20 in the last two minutes before Connecticut made the final score more palatable.
“I knew that they like to slow the tempo,” Huskies point guard AJ Price said. “They're very methodical in the way that they play the game. I knew it could be a dangerous game.”
Williams led all scorers with 23 points, while his fellow assassin McKenzie added 20. McDermott, the Friars' skilled point-forward, had an outstanding all-around game, adding 12 points and six assists in 39 minutes. Forward Jeff Adrien led the Huskies with 16 points and a game-high 15 rebounds.
The loss dropped Connecticut under .500 in Big East play at 2-3, while Providence picked up a huge road win, and its third straight Big East victory after dropping the first two conference games. The Friars have now won two games in a row over the Huskies in Hartford, as well. If Providence can keep shooting even close to the rate it has from three-point range in its last two games, the Huskies won't be the last Big East power that the suddenly-dangerous Friars defrock.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.