I hope I'm not breaking any news when I tell you that UConn has been struggling of late. The Huskies have lost two of their last three games, and in the third, a win over South Florida, the Huskies needed overtime to defeat the Bulls.
It is important to keep this stretch in context: both losses came on the road to ranked teams and the Huskies still have about as good a resume as anyone could have asked for thirteen games into the season. Still, it is hard to ignore the feeling that if the Huskies don't get back on track soon, what can still be seen as a rough patch will instead be looked on as the moment where a promising start transitioned into a long, slow decline.
The question then becomes, what do the Huskies need to do to get back on track? The answer I see is pretty simple, and it's the same thing the Huskies have needed to do all year. All season long, we've talked about the three things that UConn needs to do to win: First, Kemba Walker needs to play at the high level we've all become accustomed to. Second, Alex Oriakhi needs to give the Huskies a forceful presence in the paint on both sides of the floor. Third, at least two, and ideally three or four of the four key freshmen (Roscoe Smith, Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey), need to have productive nights.
The first of those, Walker's performance, has been the most reliable. Even in his worst game of the year -- against Pitt -- Walker poured in 31 points (on 10 of 27 shooting) and picked up five steals. It's also the most important, because if Walker can't get it done, the Huskies won't either, but since he's been getting it done so far, all's good.
The third, the performance of the freshmen, was the place where I expected the Huskies to struggle the most, but to their credit, the group has performed well in 11 of the 13 games. They didn't play especially well in the Pitt loss, but it was their first road game, so it wasn't much of a surprise. I didn't see the South Florida game, but they struggled there too (the four of them went a collective 4-22 from the floor). I'm not overly concerned though, Napier, Smith and Lamb all bounced back and played well against Notre Dame, and to be honest, with this many freshmen playing key rolls, I can live with occasional off-nights (South Florida) or struggles against good teams (Pitt).
What I can't live with is the Huskies' biggest problem: the lack of production from sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi.
There's a lot to like about Oriakhi. He has the build and potential to be a powerful force inside and by the time he leaves UConn, I fully expect him to be a dominant big man. It's not an accident that we call him "Baby Adrien" around here, and considering how much we love Jeff Adrien, that's high praise.
Walker may be UConn's best player, but I'd argue that if UConn wants to be a success, Oriakhi is their most important. Walker is going to get his points, but he (and the rest of the UConn guard corps) are far more effective when opposing teams have to worry about stopping the Huskies in the paint as well. Since I think we can all agree that Charles Okwandu is never going to be the answer, that means UConn can only be at their best when Oriakhi is.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. UConn's best stretch this year came in the Maui Invitational, where Oriakhi averaged 15 points and 11.6 rebounds. It is no coincidence that his best two games were also UConn's best two wins. Against Michigan St. he put up 15 points and grabbed 17 rebounds (nine offensive) and the next night against Kentucky he scored 18 points and pulled down 11 boards in 37 minutes.
Outside of Maui, the story has been completely different. In the 10 other games, the big man is only averaging 9.1 ppg and 7.4 rebounds. Plus, his only double double came in the first game of the season against Stony Brook. The story has only been worse since UConn started Big East play. As the Huskies has struggled, so has Oriakhi, averaging only 7.6 points (he didn't score a single point against Notre Dame) and a measly 3.3 boards.
It's been frustrating to watch Oriakhi struggle, if only because we saw exactly what he can do back in November. Kemba Walker has been the best player in the country, the freshmen have been as good as you can ask freshmen to be. If UConn wants to compete at the level they did in Maui, it means that Oriakhi needs to play like he did there.
If Oriakhi is going to return to form, today's matchup with Texas would be a great place to start. The Longhorns are a dangerous team, and two of their three biggest weapons are in the front court. Freshman Tristan Thompson (12.1 ppg, 8 rpg) and senior Gary Johnson (11.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) are going to provide tough matchups for UConn, and if Oriakhi can't provide an answer for them, it could be a very unpleasant afternoon for the Huskies.