No. 3 Connecticut at No. 15 Louisville Saturday, 9 p.m. ET
UConn is gathering steam and starting to look like the team I thought it would be without the suspension of Marcus Williams. Now that Williams is back and getting into basketball shape again, the Huskies look like what I thought they would be all along -- the most powerful team in the nation. Duke has a better record, is more fluid and has two legitimate Player of the Year candidates, but UConn is scary with potential, size, depth and athleticism.
The key to this team's performance is Marcus Williams. When he is completely back in game shape, Williams is one of the best point guards in the nation. He is an extraordinary passer, perhaps the best that has ever gone through UConn.
Although most point guards can handle the ball and get you into your offense, Williams gets you scores. When Josh Boone runs the floor, Williams finds him and delivers the ball. When you beat your man and there is a quick opening, Williams threads it. When the situation calls for creativity, Williams is the creator. He brings the whole package together and puts a nice bow on it. With a well-conditioned Marcus Williams running the show, UConn is a national championship favorite and will continue to get better.
The guy Williams can most influence is Rudy Gay. Gay is one of the very best players and talents in America, but he is still just scratching the surface of what he can do. Williams can provide him an outlet for his abilities and can bring the best out. Rashad Anderson is the other beneficiary of Williams' presence. He is now healthy and is firing away without conscience, and that is a good thing.
UConn has more weapons than any other team. With Gay, Anderson, Boone, Hilton Armstrong, Denham Brown, Jeff Adrien, Craig Austrie, Ed Nelson and Marcus Johnson, the Huskies' coaching staff has the ability to go in a lot of different directions with a lot of flexibility. In fact, the difficulty might come from shortening the bench to eight core players.
Louisville is injured and beaten up right now. The young Cardinals have been slapped around by Pittsburgh, the burly team of the Big East, and upstart St. John's, which will improve rapidly under Norm Roberts. The Cards played without Taquan Dean and lacked a mature leader as a result. Louisville is still searching for an identity and a go-to guy. There is a similar feel to this team as there is to Kansas; you know this team will be very, very good, but when?
Inside, Louisville is strong. David Padgett can run and he is skilled and hungry. Juan Palacios can step away and can be a matchup problem, and Brian Johnson can rebound and defend. The problem is that all have been injured and are behind in their development -- individually and with this team.
Louisville's guards are solid, with one of the best shooters and defenders in the nation in Dean, although he is hobbled. Dean could barely walk against Pitt and was a key with his inability to close out to shooters on ball reversal late in the game. Brandon Jenkins is a good guard who can defend and rebound, as well as hit open shots, and Terrence Williams is a freak athlete who put up 25 against Pitt. His athleticism is staggering, as he can get to the rim and above it any time he wants. Andre McGee is quick and fast, and Chad Millard can really shoot it when left open. However, Louisville is not as good, yet, as the sum of its parts.
Key matchup: Marcus Williams and Taquan Dean. Dean is the key to Louisville's ability to fight this team, and Williams is the key to UConn's dominance. Williams is taking another step toward becoming the best point guard in the nation, a label I have slapped on Rajon Rondo of Kentucky. Dee Brown of Illinois is the only other choice, and it is a tough one. By the end of the year, Williams will be in that discussion.
Key stats: Rebounding, 3-point shooting and blocked shots. Louisville cannot allow second shots to UConn, and cannot allow the bigger Huskies to play volleyball on the glass. Similarly, the Cardinals need to hit shots from the perimeter, whether in transition or in the half court, to balance out the Huskies' size and talent advantage. UConn will block and change a lot of shots, and Louisville cannot afford to shy away from attacking the Huskies and the rim.
X-factors: Terrence Williams and Rashad Anderson. If he gets started and looks for his shot, Anderson could get 25 in Freedom Hall. Similarly, Williams is the kind of player who can just play and get some stick-backs and transition scores. He could also be reluctant to challenge the shot-blockers of UConn.
What to watch for: Watch Williams and his passing ability. He sees the game at a slower pace than most other players and he can really distribute the ball. If you watch Williams, you will be watching the absolute key to UConn's national title chances. Also watch Armstrong and his improvement. There is not a big guy in the nation who has come as far as Armstrong has come. He has made himself into an NBA player.
Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.