Huskies' ability, depth are Final Four-worthy

Originally Published: January 27, 2006
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

Marquette coach Tom Crean pretty much summed it up.

His Golden Eagles had just defeated previously unbeaten Connecticut, but Crean still raved about the Huskies. He talked about their talent and mentioned how Connecticut had a lot of guys who were going to make a lot of money in the NBA.

And that is exactly why it will be stunning if the Huskies aren't in attendance in Indianapolis on the first weekend of April.

Final Fourcast
Duke, UConn, Texas and Michigan State all have something our experts believe will send them to Indy. But who would win that theoretical Final Four? Story

Why they will make it:
Duke's inside/out threat
MSU's Big Three
UT's good hands guy
UConn's talent

Jay Bilas has eight other suggestions for Final Four contenders. Story Insider

Sure, the whole talent-gets-you-to-the-Final-Four theory isn't exactly rocket science. The reality is that the top seeds are such for a reason. Teamwork and good college players work fine in January and February and might even win you a conference championship. But from mid-March to early April, having future NBA players is paramount to survival.

With games having fewer possessions and defense being played a little tighter, it helps to have players who can create their own shots and get points at critical junctures of games. It isn't coincidence that the past five NCAA championship games were all won by the team that had more legitimate NBA players.

• Last season, North Carolina had Sean May, Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams and Rashad McCants (while Illinois had Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head).
• In 2004, Connecticut had Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon.
• Syracuse's 2003 team had Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick.
• The 2002 Maryland team had Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Chris Wilcox and Lonny Baxter.
• The 2001 Duke team featured Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Chris Duhon and Jay Williams.

With the exception of perhaps the 2003 Kansas team that lost to the Orange, no NCAA runner-up had as much talent as the champion.

On many levels, Connecticut is this year's North Carolina, a team loaded with the most raw talent. Rudy Gay and Josh Boone appear to be certain first-round picks for the NBA draft if they leave school after this season. Hilton Armstrong could sneak into the first round, as well. There isn't quite as much talent as there was on last season's Tar Heels team -- Williams, Felton, May and McCants all were among the first 14 players selected -- but coach Jim Calhoun certainly has more options than most coaches.

When Gay is ready to play, he's explosive and is close to unguardable. Armstrong and Boone are both long, athletic big men who are difficult to slow down. Point guard Marcus Williams -- who missed the first semester because of his role in the attempted sale of stolen laptop computers -- is the guy who gets things going.

Having amassed a stockpile of talent, Calhoun isn't afraid to use it. He shuffles players in and out of the game at seemingly every dead ball. This season, eight Connecticut players average at least 16.5 minutes per game and 11 players average at least 11 minutes per game. Nobody averages 30.

By comparison, no other team currently in the top five has more than nine players averaging double-digit minutes. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who traditionally has a very compact rotation, has seven players averaging at least 10 minutes per game and four players who average more than 30 minutes per game.

Denham Brown is a perfect example of how deep the Huskies are. The Toronto native is very good. He's experienced, having played a role on the 2004 Huskies team that won the national title. And he would start for a lot of high-major programs. In Storrs, he comes off the bench.

Connecticut takes advantage of its depth by pushing the ball whenever possible. The Huskies are fourth nationally in scoring (83.2 points per game) and third in scoring margin (+19.9). Maybe the most amazing thing about the way Connecticut plays is that the Huskies try to fast break even off of made free throws.

Getting back to prevent transition baskets is the No. 1 priority for a team playing the Huskies. And it has to continue for all 40 minutes, because Connecticut is relentless. In many cases, that ability to run wears down opponents. Sure, they'll get back for a half or for 30 minutes, but the Huskies almost always make a late push. Last weekend, UConn used a second-half surge to break open what had been a pretty close game against Louisville. On Wednesday night, the Huskies outscored an improved St. John's team by 15 after the break.

In addition to Connecticut's sheer talent advantage, there are two additional reasons to be bullish on the Huskies.

The first is that Calhoun's team appears to have adjusted to Williams' return. Connecticut seemed listless and out of sync in its loss at Marquette. Calhoun tried combination after combination against the Golden Eagles, but nothing worked. The Huskies seemed disinterested and never figured out that Marquette's Steve Novak could shoot a little bit. Afterward, Calhoun was furious and said that Gay was just an ordinary player.

When the Huskies defeated LSU by only one point in their next game, it appeared that Connecticut might be vulnerable. That feeling didn't last long.

Since then, Connecticut has had the look of an elite team. There was an 11-point victory over Cincinnati, a 17-point win over Georgetown, an eight-point win at Syracuse and a 13-point victory at Louisville. The Huskies followed that up with Wednesday's 16-point margin over St. John's.

Are the Huskies invincible? Certainly not. There isn't a team in college basketball that is. We'll know more about the Huskies by mid-February because they have an extremely difficult upcoming six-game stretch that includes games against No. 10 Pittsburgh, at No. 11 Indiana, versus No. 24 Syracuse, and then three consecutive road games at Seton Hall, No. 6 Villanova and No. 13 West Virginia. It's a stretch that will certainly prepare Connecticut for the NCAA Tournament.

On track to be a No. 1 seed, the Huskies should spend the tournament's first weekend whacking some poor No. 16 seed and then thrashing a major-conference bubble team, which means the Huskies will have two ostensibly challenging games in a place like Washington, D.C., Atlanta or Minneapolis to book a trip to Indianapolis.

It's just hard to imagine a scenario in which the Huskies aren't there.

Talent. There's just so much talent.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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