Justin K. Aller
After losing two straight the Huskies have to stay mentally focused in the coming weeks.
Up until this point, it's been all cherubs singing and beautiful rainbows for UConn basketball.
They beat Michigan State. They beat Notre Dame on the road. They could have beaten NC State on a neutral court and probably should have beaten Marquette at Marquette. They had played well each and every game, even in their losses.
That start led to a well-deserved five year extension for UConn head coach Kevin Ollie and a renewed sense of optimism in the program, despite the uncertain future of the entire athletic department.
And then came the Louisville game.
It was hard to imagine the Huskies beating a team with the talent level of Louisville. They are deep and they play a relentless style that can wear down even the best competition. In order to beat Louisville, you almost have to catch them on an off night. For the first half of the game, it appeared UConn might have done that.
Then a rested Peyton Silva, who had sat most of the first half, led a charge in the second that thoroughly baffled and completely flustered the Huskies. It wasn't just that they were outscored and out rebounded at every turn. Louisville's relentless pressure seemed to take the will out of the team. For a five or six minute span in the second half, when the lead ballooned for Louisville, UConn was caught just standing around watching rather than being an active participant in the game. Guys went in for uncontested layups or dunks, beat Husky players down the court on the fast break, and pretty much did whatever they wanted to do, at one point prompting the always subtle Jay Bilas to scream into his microphone "Louisville is just carving UConn up right now."
The loss was expected, but the shell-shocked reaction to Louisville's A-game was disappointing. It was the first time all year where, for a long stretch of basketball, it looked like the Huskies were playing two speeds lower than their opponent. Again, Louisville can do that to you.
Unfortunately, some of that play translated over into the first half of the Pittsburgh game. More than getting out-hustled, like they did in the second half against the Cardinals, UConn was simply manhandled in that first half against the Panthers. It appeared that the only way a UConn player would get a rebound was if the Panthers, out of pity, handed them the ball.
And that leaves us here, questioning what happens next. It leaves the program at the first cross roads of the season. It puts Ollie's squad, and Ollie's already impressive debut season, in possible peril.
Porter and Meacham made their picks for the rest of the season. I believe they are both in the ballpark of what should happen. UConn should end up as something like a 19- or 21-win team, especially considering how easy their schedule is in comparison to previous years where UConn's slate featured home-and-home sets against the Big East's top teams.
But this is the most important stretch. This is where the season can run off the tracks. This is the first really BIG test for Kevin Ollie. He and his players can't let this snowball. They can't let this get out of hand.
This season was always hanging by a thread. The first strands of it came undone vs. the Cardinals. A few more tugs and everything can come apart.
The schedule should help prevent that from happening. UConn's next five games are against Rutgers (XL Center), at Providence, USF (Gampel), at Seton Hall, and at St. Johns. Clearly, the toughest game of that set is at MSG against the Johnnies, but they are all winnable games. They are also all losable games, especially right now.
This season is as much about the mental as it is the physical. We know the parameters. There is nothing but pride on the line each and every night. If it were a normal year, UConn's carrot for success would be pretty obvious. Even with wins against MSU and ND, they'd probably still need another quality win or two to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, and they'd need to avoid any "unforced errors" by losing to teams they should beat. That incentive isn't there. No bubble for the Huskies this year. No...anything.
These have been two tough losses in a row. The Husky's spirited comeback against the Panthers gives one hope that the fight is still in them, but this is the first time Ollie is going to have to lead his team through some adversity. Right now, a two-game losing streak isn't that big of a deal. It is, however, if it turns into a five or six game slide, or a record of 2-10 over the next 12 games.
This is about the snowball. UConn is on the top of the mountain right now. A push could put its season rolling towards the bottom of a ditch. Ollie has shown himself capable of a lot these first few months. He must now show he can help this squad back away from the edge as quickly as they came upon it.