Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
UConn is a middle-of-the-road team this year, and Kevin Ollie deserves a ton of credit for it.
A friend of mine put the game against Marquette in as perfect a context as possible: if you didn't care about the outcome, it was a great game to watch. I, myself, cared. I'm sure you did, too.
In the end, Marquette handed UConn it's third loss in four tries against what I would consider to be really good teams (the win against Michigan State and close losses to New Mexico and NC State, being the three others). In any other year, that would be cause for alarm. Heck, we'd be talking about what's wrong with the team, and if you look around some people are. That's a product of gloriously high expectations. I use the word "gloriously" because you only set expectations high if you've attained them consistently in the past. The UConn fan base's assumption that all games should be won is a testament to the incredible legacy left by one Jim Calhoun.
But it's also a huge credit to Kevin Ollie. Why? Because this year kind of feels like any other UConn year... and it isn't. Not by a long shot.
For the most part UConn has done what many other UConn teams have previously -- played quality teams close, winning a few, losing a few, and, with relative ease, flying through their cupcake non-conference December schedule like hot knife through butter. Sure, the double overtime against Quinnipiac was a tough watch, but every Husky team has had a similar near hiccup. I remember the Emeka Okafor-led team needing a desperate comeback against Umass during their championship year because the offense could only muster something like 19 points in the first half. Those things happen.
So, like most Husky teams before them, Ollie's group came through that "easy" part of the schedule unscathed. Here's the thing, though. For this team, this year, I'm not convinced there is an "easy" part of the schedule. This isn't a normal UConn team in a normal UConn year. That's why getting his team to an 10-3 mark with no embarrasing loses on the resume is already an impressive run for Ollie.
Shabazz Napier is, without a doubt, the most frustrating player I have ever watched at UConn. I have never been so in love and so completely sick of one player, often within the same game. But the guy can flat out play. He's talented. He can do pro-level stuff. He can take it to the next level.
So can Ryan Boatright, although, as a sophmore, he's still a little unpolished and looking a lot like Kemba Walker at that stage, still unsure how to balance being faster than everyone else with not being out of control at the same time. Yet, he's a dynamic offensive player and a complete pain defensively.
And then ... well, then you have a fairly thin squad.
I think Omar Calhoun will be very good, and he already does some nice things, but he's a freshman and he plays like one a lot. That's not a knock, it's reality. Few freshmen enter college and dominate. The ones who do usually go on to do the same at the NBA level. There are growing pains. He's having them. That's natural.
I like DeAndre Daniels and believe he can be more than what he's shown, but right now he's simply an average player with spurts of above average play. Tyler Olander has all but disappeared, Niels Giffey and RJ Evans are nice complimentary bench players, and Enosch Wolf is, again, a "solid" contributor.
That's it. That's all you have: two very talented guards, a freshman, an inconsistent sophomore forward, and a bunch of "ehhh." They can't rebound, aren't loaded with three-point shooters, and aren't the most athletic bunch the nation has ever seen. Yet, with all that "ehhh," UConn has still won 10 games, still beaten MSU, and still taken some very good teams right to the wire.
Why? They play HARD.
They play from whistle to whistle. They seem to be all-in from first tip. They dive on the ground, they scramble for loose balls, they defend until the shot clock expires. They do all of that, relentlessly. That's coaching.
Of course you have to have the right, dedicated players. Niels Giffey can't be a "give it 110 percent every game" if he's only concerned with the fact that he is still coming off the bench or not getting what he believes to be a "fair" shake. It starts with the kids...but it takes the coach to bring it out of them.
Last year's disappointing UConn team had that unfortunate feel of a group less interested in playing basketball and more interested in being basketball players. Maybe that's natural. They lost their emotional leader (Kemba), had just won one of the most improbable championships in college basketball history, and some (Jeremy Lamb) were already searching for apartments in NBA cities. Add in Andre Drummond, who never married a fiery competitive streak with his skill as a player, and the team's lack of focus and energy was downright scary at times. This team looks nothing like that. It scraps, claws, and fights for everything. Maybe that's what less talented teams are suppose to do. Maybe, but many don't. And few have the same circumstances following them around as does UConn.
There's no possibility of a postseason game this year. No Big East Tournament. No March Madness. No Dickie V "Diaper Dandy" monologues. What there is is a lot of games on ESPN U, a lot of "nothing to play for" comments in the media, and lot of negativity around the program and university athletic department in general (every commentator feels the need to remind us that UConn is about as desireable as a red headed step child with a clubbed foot right now). That's a lot to take on with an average roster and a bear of a schedule.
There is still a lot of basketball left to be played, and I have felt from the beginning that Ollie's greatest test as a coach will come next month, after a few more losses like the one against Marquette, with a couple of blowouts thrown in, and the realization that the season will end quietly. That's when motivation will be hard to come by. But getting this team up for every game day now is no simple task, yet Ollie has made it seem so.
I'm not sure this team should be 10-3. I'm not sure they should be taking a good, if not inconsistent, Marquette team into overtime on the road. But, it feels like they should. Right now, it kind of feels like another average UConn year, and Ollie should be cheered for that.