Is it time to panic yet?
After opening the season 17-2 and vaulting itself into the national rankings, UConn has gone just 1-3 over its past four games, with the lone bright spot a two-point victory at 10-14 Seton Hall.
But despite the Huskies' recent rough stretch, each poor performance comes with it a built-in excuse. It took two overtimes for Louisville to knock UConn off. Syracuse is a top-25 outfit and a bitter rival (even if they don't know it). The Pirates had just obliterated said Orange team a week earlier, and there was also likely some hangover effect at play after two straight losses. And St. John's, despite its ho-hum 14-9 overall record, has emerged as a pre-NCAA tournament giant killer, with the Huskies becoming the Johnnies' fourth top-13 victim at MSG.
All things considered, it's easy to simply write off UConn's recent struggles as just that. It's the Big East; these things happen. Especially to a team with five freshmen.
But the losses aren't as troubling as the way in which UConn has lost. After dominating early-season opposition with a Kemba-centric offense, the secret is out on how to handle the Huskies, and each of their past four opponents have used the same blueprint to great effect.
Once again, a zone defense (this time, a 3-2) completely threw UConn's offense out of whack. With three defenders placed up top to close off any lanes for which their quick guards to blow through, and their big men once again providing little relief in the post (St. John's outscored UConn in the paint 40-18), there was no way the Huskies' offense could keep up with the Storm's high-powered attack, which shot an unreal 71 percent in the second half.
The zone has long been the bane of Jim Calhoun-coached offenses, but now it has become an absolute crippling force, something that could knock off the Huskies' comeback campaign before they even hit postseason play. Not only does it limit the effectiveness of its lone star, Kemba Walker -- who finished another ugly shooting night (4-for-16) with 15 points -- and exploit the Huskies' razor-thin frontcourt -- after Meacham dared to say positive things about him, Charles Okwandu finished with 0 points on 0-for-0 shooting and two or three fumbled catches in the post, making everything right in the world once again -- but it forces the Huskies to work arduously on every offensive possession.
Earlier in the season, Walker was getting to the rim purely off of his out-of-this-world athleticism. There weren't many screens or fancy offensive plays. It was just Walker beating his man, and then the rest of the defense, off the dribble. Now, it takes the entire shot clock, and a whole lot of aimless passing, for the Huskies to get off a shot, and even then, it's not usually a good one. As a result, the Huskies, and especially Walker, are exerting a ton of energy with little to show for it -- except for the toll that it takes on them, physically.
For the past two-plus games leading into Thursday night's showdown (Louisville only went into the zone late in the game), opponents have exploited that glaring flaw, choosing to fall back into a zone to keep Kemba in check. But the Johnnies took things to another level. Not only did they eschew even the thought of manning up on defense, they pressed almost the entire length of the court and also pushed the ball on offense whenever they could, annihilating the usually transition-happy Huskies in fast-break points, 27-2.
UConn's defense is certainly to blame in this most recent defeat; a team doesn't hit almost three-quarters of its shots in a quarter without the help of a few blown assignments from the defense. But the issues start on offense. The Huskies again struggled to get to the hoop, with Walker shooting just 0-for-1 at the rim and 0-for-2 in the paint, which forced them to rely on tougher, lower-percentage shots; they were able to compile a respectable 22 foul shots, but could connect on just 60 percent of them. And St. John's took advantage of the mistakes and misses by pushing the ball up the court, never easing up on the gas pedal and ultimately running the run-and-gun Huskies into the ground. (The Johnnies also piled up the same amount of freebies but missed just two.)
The result was what appeared to be a perfect storm for St. John's (see what I did there?), an isolated incident where the opponent simply "out-worked" the Huskies and rode some hot shooting to a big win -- something it has already done to three other top-ranked teams in the new year.
But in truth, Thursday's defeat looks like just another example of teams exploiting UConn's fatal flaw, and something that could derail the rest of the season from here on out if it can't find a solution ... fast.