For five glorious minutes on Saturday, Andre Drummond remembered that he is the most physically dominating specimen in college basketball. Then he got hurt. Such is the way of things with UConn basketball in 2012. Drummond didn't practice today, thanks to that same injury, which sprained his ankle, took him off the floor for a key segment of the Syracuse game and kept him from scoring when he did return. Neither did Jeremy Lamb, who is being bothered by a toe injury. According to twitter reports both of UConn's potential lottery picks have been seen around campus wearing medical boots, which is not, as they say, ideal.
UConn is now through the toughest part of its schedule, having limped through a four-game gauntlet that sent them to Big East heavyweights Georgetown, Louisville and Syracuse. The Huskies lost all three of those games (and picked up a win against a deflated Seton Hall along the way), but if there is such a thing as losing in the right direction, that's what they did. The Georgetown game felt like the offensive nadir of the Jim Calhoun era, and on the road without their coach the team seemed to quit while Louisville blew them out. But against Syracuse things felt different.
Yes, UConn did lose by 18 points, but it sure didn't feel like it. The Huskies looked as good as they have in a month, fighting back repeatedly, efficiently attacking the zone and denying Syracuse access to the paint. Unfortunately for the Huskies, Syracuse, a team that shoots 35 percent from beyond the arc, shot a blistering 62.5 percent and that's the type of number that makes it almost impossible to win games. It wasn't necessarily UConn's defense -- and yes, this UConn team, like all UConn teams, could guard the perimeter better -- it was just Syracuse's night. They hit open shots, they hit contested shots, they banked in 3s. If you can name it, they hit it, so when Drummond, who finally looked like the weapon we all hope he can be, went down it was too much for UConn to overcome.
I feel comforted though. Unlike the Louisville or Georgetown games I didn't feel like I was watching a bad team play basketball. Syracuse is one of the best teams in the country and UConn played like they deserved to share the court with them. The two teams will meet in Gampel in two weeks, and barring another they're-hitting-absolutely-everything shooting barrage, I like UConn's chances.
But that's still two weeks away, so where does UConn go from here?
First up is a date with DePaul at Gampel on Wednesday. It's not clear if Drummond will be good to go, though that would be nice since the Blue Demons' one and only weapon is big man Cleveland Melvin. This should be an easy win for the Huskies (DePaul is still DePaul) and it'll knock them back to 6-7 in the conference.
After that the Huskies host Marquette. UConn will never implement my dream of flex scheduling, but if they did I would take the Gampel slot away from DePaul in a heartbeat and force the Golden Eagles to play UConn in Storrs instead of Hartford. This might be UConn's most important upcoming game momentum-wise. Win it and UConn sets itself up for one of its patented late-February runs where they rip off five or six wins in a row, get talked about as the "hottest team in the country" and vault themselves from an eight to a three seed in two weeks. Marquette is good and has historically given UConn trouble, but UConn has far more talent. No game on the schedule worries me as much as this one, and it'll say a lot about where UConn is headed.
That's followed by a trip to face a down Villanvoa team. They're not good, especially not by Villanova standards, but they can be dangerous and UConn has really struggled on the road. I'll feel a lot better about this if UConn is coming into it on a two-game winning streak.
That sets up the Syracuse rematch, and assuming the next two weeks aren't an exact replica of 2010 I feel good about that. It'll be Gameday, it's a night game at Gampel, UConn has shown it can match up with the Orange. It's far from a guaranteed win, but it's a good shot.
The season is rounded out with a trip to Providence (easy win) and home against Pittsburgh for a senior-less senior day. Pitt is tough to project, but that has the makings of a great matchup with two teams that struggled through January only to catch fire late fighting to bolster their resumes.
More than any games though, the biggest factor for UConn is probably its bench, more specifically if Jim Calhoun is on it. The reports about Calhoun that have surfaced indicate that he's feeling better, though still not up to coaching. George Blaney has done yeoman's work filling in, but getting the real deal back will be a boost.
One final aside: people may chatter about UConn being on the bubble, but you shouldn't believe that (barring a loss-to-DePaul level collapse). It's a down year for the bubble, UConn has the No. 1 strength of schedule, they're ranked 21st in the RPI, have five wins over Top-50 RPI teams and have nie OOC wins over Florida St. and Harvard. The RPI is an incredibly flawed statistic, but it's flawed in UConn's favor.