Let's start at the end -- well, not exactly, but let's start with 7.6 seconds left, with freshman Ryan Boatright on the free throw line. UConn was trailing No. 22 Florida St. 71-68 and the terrifying prospect of a 1-2 showing at the Battle 4 Atlantis was all too real as Boatright stepped to the line for three free throws in his first collegiate game. Sure, it was in November, but it's tough to imagine a higher-pressure situation for a college debut and Boatright came through, calmly sinking all three free throws.
Boatright recorded 33 minutes on Saturday and made one thing clear: the Huskies are a different -- and better team -- when he's in the lineup. That was expected, at least partly. It was clear from the first exhibition game that Shabazz Napier desperately needed a backup. Walk-on Brendan Allen did serviceable work, but wasn't going to be able to play serious minutes for a national title contender, and although Jeremy Lamb could fake his way through being a point guard, the offense slowed to a crawl when the preseason All-American wasn't able to work off the ball. That left Shabazz playing 35+ minutes per game, and while UConn could get through most of November like that, it wasn't going to be sustainable (just look at how Napier performed in the final minutes against UCF and FSU. The guy needs some rest.)
But yesterday Boatright showed he is going to bring much more to the table than 10 minutes of rest for Napier. His presence changes the entire look of the Huskies, and does so for the better.
Undersized at a (generous) 6'0" and 160 lbs, Boatright's game is predicated on speed, which he has in spades. Watching him, I found it all too easy to draw comparisons to Kemba Walker circa 2009: a lightning quick guard who can get to the rim at will and more importantly frees up his backcourt mates (A.J. Price and Jerome Dyson for Walker, Lamb and Napier for Boatright) to get much better looks on the perimeter.
Now, it's easy to get ahead of ourselves after just one game -- and UConn still has plenty of problems (for starters: finishing off opponents) -- but when UConn's offense was clicking yesterday it looked miles ahead of anything the Huskies displayed in the opening six games. On several occasions Justin has highlighted Lamb's hesitancy to get to the rim, which leads to UConn's all too familiar "pass it around the perimeter for 25 seconds" offense. If Boatright continues to attack the basket like he did yesterday it's going to go a long way toward ameliorating that problem, which in turn will lead to defensive breakdowns that will give Napier or Lamb better looks from the perimeter, or make it easier for them to work the ball into UConn's weapons in the front court.
Again, it was one game, but it was a (relatively) big one. According to Ken Pomeroy Florida St. has the 4th-most efficient defense in the country, they were ranked, and while they'll probably fall out of the polls after two losses, they won't be unranked for long. In the face of that Boatright had the best freshman debut I can remember and left a significant mark on a team that is not only different with him in the lineup, but significantly better.