To preview the Terrapins men’s basketball matchup against No. 18 Connecticut tonight, The Diamondback exchanged emails with Tim Fontenault, sports editor of The Daily Campus, Connecticut’s independent student newspaper. These excerpts are edited for clarity.
The Diamondback: The Terps, as you might know, lost starting point guard Seth Allen and are playing a big lineup as 6-foot-5 Dez Wells is the Terps’ shortest starter. So I was wondering how you thought UConn’s talented guards (Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, Omar Calhoun) would play against bigger, longer defenders. Do you think they’ll be able to use their quickness to get into the lane a bunch or could the Terps’ size advantage give them trouble?
Tim Fontenault: I don’t think the UConn guards are going to be intimidated by the Terps’ taller lineup. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are almost always the shortest players on the court, but they are two of the most confident players in college basketball. Neither is afraid to pull up and take a long-range three and both will drive the lane whenever possible. I have watched UConn basketball my entire life, and never can I recall a guard duo that was as confident in its abilities as Napier and Boatright. They’re used to playing against taller, stronger players both in games and in practice. Having Omar Calhoun back healthy is quite the luxury, as he gives UConn an outside shooting threat who can also fight his way to the boards. UConn is now deeper in the backcourt, having added freshman Terrence Samuel and transfer Lasan Kromah to go along with German duo Niels Giffey and Leon Tolksdorf, both of whom appear to have improved in the offseason. The Terps may have the size advantage in the backcourt, but there’s a reason why UConn’s backcourt is being pegged as one of the best in the nation.
DBK: Absolutely. It’ll be great for Terps fans to see Napier and Boatright because good guard play is always fun to watch. It’s also interesting that you mention depth, because the Terps really don’t have any. They’ll probably use a seven-man rotation, they could go to eight with freshman center Damonte Dodd, and their only reserve perimeter player is freshman point guard Roddy Peters. So with that said, knowing coach Kevin Ollie and the Huskies, do you think UConn might press to try to exploit the Terps’ thin roster and shuffled backcourt?
TF: I think UConn can exploit the Terps’ depth, or lack thereof. Like I said, UConn has seven players that can play effectively around the perimeter, and a couple of them, particularly Calhoun and Giffey, can play effectively closer to the hoop as well. The frontcourt is the biggest reason why UConn is only No. 18 to start the season. UConn has lacked a dominant inside presence in recent years, but sophomore Phil Nolan is earning a lot of respect within the Huskies’ locker room. After the suspension of Enosch Wolf last season, Nolan stepped up and played above expectations. Tyler Olander has been reinstated following some off-court issues. Although Nolan will likely overtake him as the starting center, Olander still gives UConn depth down low, as do two incoming freshmen, Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah. Facey, the Gatorade Player of the Year in New York last season, has been cleared to play by the NCAA after confusion about his eligibility. But Brimah has been the big story, along with Nolan, in the preseason. The Ghanaian 7-footer has blocked seven shots in two games and hustles down the floor with the same energy as Napier and Boatright. Then, of course, there is DeAndre Daniels, who will start at the four for the Huskies. The junior is entering a season that begins with the question, “Is Daniels going to be a Husky next year,” as his NBA Draft stock rose dramatically at the end of last season. He will likely be UConn’s leading scorer this season. The Terps’ lack of depth may be a factor in Friday’s game, as UConn can rotate all 12 players.
DBK: Yeah, I’m definitely expecting depth to be a factor, especially considering that it’s the season’s first game. I’m excited to see Daniels in action, too; he appears to be a unique talent. And the potential Evan Smotrycz-Daniels matchup is really intriguing to me because Daniels seems to use his athleticism while Smotrycz is an admittedly unathletic stretch four. Are there any matchups that peak your interest for Friday night?
TF: I’m really interested to see the matchup on the post between presumably Phil Nolan and Shaquille Cleare. Like I said, the frontcourt is a question mark for UConn entering the season because we have yet to see Olander or Nolan step up in their careers and be the guy down low for the Huskies. I’d be surprised if Nolan doesn’t get the nod on Friday, and while Cleare has 50 pounds on him, Nolan seemed to become more and more comfortable against stronger centers late last season. In my opinion, UConn is a dominant big away from being a legitimate contender for the Final Four. Nolan will have a tough test Friday night, and a strong performance could make the difference for the Huskies.
DBK: Got a prediction?
TF: It’s going to be a close game, but I think UConn is going to win. Depth can go a long way in a matchup like this, and the Huskies have the depth to outlast the Terps. The size is not going to be a factor, as Napier and Boatright face bigger, stronger competition in practice all the time and have been the smallest players on the court throughout their careers. The crowd could also play a factor, as UConn has a strong, loyal alumni base in the New York area. It’s going to be a fun start to the season, with UConn pulling out a 73-68 victory.
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