Now that final exams are over, the real test begins for the Huskies.
Coming out of the break, UConn stands undefeated at 9-0 and ranked No. 10 in both polls. By all accounts, the start of the season has been a tremendous success for the Huskies, who have already shown an impressive resilience in tight games while boasting a serious National Player of the Year contender.
Looking to build on that success, UConn resumes its season tomorrow night with a showdown against Pac-12 power Stanford, and then after a pair of games against Washington and Eastern Washington, the Huskies will open conference play against Houston on New Years Eve.
The team has a lot of positive momentum going into the next phase of the season, but before we look too far ahead, lets take a moment to evaluate what we've seen so far to better understand where this team is headed and what needs to be addressed going forward.
Best Player: Shabazz Napier
Shabazz Napier gets an A+ for his work so far this season. Napier is averaging 15.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, leading the team in all three categories while garnering some significant National Player of the Year buzz.
He's also been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week twice already this season, and lets not forget about this piece of magic he authored earlier this month at Gampel Pavilion.
Shabazz Napier and efficiency are two words I never thought I'd write in the same sentence, but I guess if you're good enough to make every shot, you may as well take every shot.
Most Improved Player: Niels Giffey
Here's another sentence I never thought I'd write: Niels Giffey may have a legitimate chance of making it in professional basketball.
The improvement of Niels Giffey this season compared to last season has been nothing short of remarkable. Despite coming off the bench, Giffey is the team's fourth leading scorer with 9.8 points per game, and he is shooting an unthinkable 70 percent from the field and 67 percent from behind the arc. The guy almost never misses, and it's actually begun to reach the point where if Giffey misses a three, people are genuinely shocked.
Giffey's passing, defense and tenacity have always been there, but his improvement on offense has transformed him into one of UConn's best players, and he is a huge reason why UConn is still undefeated at this point.
I don't think I'm alone in expecting big things out of Omar Calhoun this season, so given what we've seen already, I think its fair to say that Calhoun's sophomore season has been a bit of a letdown so far. The numbers aren't bad, Calhoun is averaging 9.3 points per game, but he has gone through a number of extended cold stretches where his shots just weren't falling, and too many times so far Calhoun has disappeared at times when the Huskies could have used him.
His shooting percentages tell the whole story. Calhoun is shooting only 37 percent from the field and 32 percent from behind the arc, and that's despite taking 16 more shots than Giffey. I'm not saying that the Huskies should necessarily bench Calhoun in favor of Giffey, but Calhoun really needs to find his stroke and get those percentages back up.
The other player who could use some improvement is freshman center Amida Brimah, although I don't mean to use the phrase to imply that he's a disappointment. By the contrary, Brimah has become one of the most exciting players on the team, and his propensity to block shots in the most epic fashion possible adds a dimension to UConn that we haven't seen since Hasheem Thabeet patrolled the paint.
In terms of his basketball development, however, Brimah is still a baby. He only just started playing organized basketball a couple of years ago, and at this point in time his offensive prowess is nearly non-existant. He's also a surprisingly terrible rebounder, but while I don't expect him to become Hakeem Olajuwon overnight, he has the tools and the motor to become great, and I expect we'll see Brimah become a much better player by the end of the season.
Frankly, we all knew this duo wasn't going to set the world on fire this season, but if either could do a respectable job holding down the center position in UConn's lineup, the team would be in much better shape. That hasn't happened, and so far both Olander and Nolan have been virtual non-factors on both sides of the ball.
Nolan is averaging 3.1 points and 2.2 rebounds per game in 13.8 minutes, despite starting every game, and Olander is averaging 2.6 points and 1.1 rebounds in 8.8 minutes of action off the bench. Their season lowlight came against Florida, when the two players combined for two points and one rebound before each fouled out after 11 minutes.
Personally, I don't care if Nolan and Olander don't score another point for the rest of the year, UConn has plenty of other guys who can do that. What the team really needs is for those two guys to guard the rim and grab some boards, and hopefully in the next month or so we'll see some improvement in those areas.
Key Stat: UConn leads the nation with 46.5 percent shooting from three-point range
This probably won't come as much of a surprise given Napier and Giffey's numbers, but UConn is the best three-point shooting team in the nation so far this year, averaging 8.9 threes in 19.1 attempts per game.
Other Key Stats:
Points Per Game: 78.1 (75th in the nation)
Rebounds Per Game: 35.6 (Tied for 192nd in the nation)
Points Allowed Per Game: 64.6 (Tied for 43rd in the nation)
No. 21 Overall, No. 33 Offense and No. 35 Defense.
Future Outlook: More evaluation needed.
UConn is in a solid position heading into conference play, and barring some kind of catastrophe I think it's safe to say that the Huskies will ultimately make it to March with a favorable tournament seed. Once they get there though, I have to admit that I'm a little worried about the team's chances of reaching the Final Four and winning it all.
Generally speaking, each of the teams who have won the NCAA Championship over the past decade have had a couple of things in common. While they've all had their own strengths and weaknesses, none have had any particularly glaring weaknesses like UConn has with its frontcourt.
More importantly, each championship team this past decade has been led by at least one solid NBA player and have usually also featured one or two other guys with the talent to earn a look in prominent roles. Here's a list of the past 10 champions and you'll see what I mean.
- 2003 Syracuse: Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick.
- 2004 UConn: Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong, Denham Brown, etc.
- 2005 UNC: Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Sean May, Marvin Williams.
- 2006 and 2007 Florida: Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer.
- 2008 Kansas: Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich.
- 2009 UNC: Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green.
- 2010 Duke: Nolan Smith, Mason Plumlee?
- 2011 UConn: Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb.
- 2012 Kentucky: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb.
- 2013 Louisville: Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva, possibly others to come.
If you go through that list, you'll see that the 2010 Duke team is really the only outlier who won the championship without any significant NBA talent (the jury is still out on Louisville). Everybody else had at least one guy who'd go on to become a solid contributor at the next level, and usually one or two other guys that got a shot too.
This is where UConn may have a bit of a problem. As talented as Shabazz Napier is, and as awesome as he's played so far this season, I think most people would agree that he isn't a sure thing as a pro prospect. The same can be said about DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright, neither of whom are currently listed on NBADraft.net's 2014 Mock Draft (though Daniels is listed as a second round pick in 2015).
The reality is that if this team is going to win the championship, it's going to eventually have to overcome an opponent with some serious NBA potential. Duke has Jabari Parker, Kansas has Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Perry Ellis, Arizona has Aaron Gordon, Michigan State has Keith Appling and Gary Harris and Kentucky has everybody, and if UConn is matched up against any of them come March, its going to find itself seriously outgunned.
It doesn't help that UConn is, for all intents and purposes, an unbalanced team with some major flaws. Outside of Daniels, the frontcourt is dangerously thin, both literally and figuratively. Brimah is great at blocking shots, but is still a non-factor in the offensive game and struggles to grab rebounds. Olander and Nolan can't stay out of foul trouble, and Kentan Facey evidently hasn't shown coach Kevin Ollie enough in practice to warrant playing time over either or them yet.
Facey's continued development will be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. He was the best high school player in New York last year and expected by many to be a major contributor on this team, so his lack of production to this point has been somewhat disappointing. At the same time, Daniels was also a highly touted recruit who struggled to get his footing at the college level, and he eventually figured it all out, so we shouldn't write off Facey just yet, especially after his promising performance against Maine in which he grabbed nine rebounds in 18 minutes of play.
Perhaps a better comparison would be Breanna Stewart. Like Facey, she was one of the top recruits in the country coming into last season, and like Facey, she initially struggled to make an impact at the college level. But once she regained her mojo, she transformed into the best player in the country and lead the Huskies to a national championship.
If Facey can make a similar jump by the time March comes around, then he could help close a gaping hole in the Huskies lineup and give UConn a serviceable frontcourt to pair with the best backcourt in the nation. Right now I'd take UConn against just about anyone else in the country, but with a legitimate frontcourt, they'd become an undeniable threat to win the title.
It's been a fun couple of months, here's to hoping the next quarter of UConn's season is as exciting as the first.