You knew it was going to happen. UConn lost its first game of the year Wednesday night, falling to the Stanford Cardinals 53 to 51. Stanford gets the victory, but UConn deserves a big assist, playing the worst half of basketball I can remember any Husky team playing ... ever. The death of UConn's early undefeated season was made possible by a lethal combination of careless play, horrific shooting, bad rebounding, and mind-numbingly bad decision making. UConn made only five field goals in the second half. Five. Let that sink in for a second. Overall they were 6-22 on three point attempts. They were 19-60 overall for the game, which is about 32% against a team noted for not really being very good defensively.
The individual numbers are equally bad. DeAndre Daniels had representative stats (15 points, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks) but much of that was accumulated in the first half. He went long stretches in the second without doing anything of value whatsoever. He looked like the old Daniels ... tentative, willing to sit back and watch things happen, especially when it came to rebounding the ball. Ryan Boatright continued his bad season with another putrid performance. He was 3-11 for 7 points, one assist, one rebound. He did what Boatright has done almost all year long: take ill-advised shots, fail to run the offense, and play stupid basketball at crucial points in the game, like literally handing the ball to Stanford on one possession deep into the second half with UConn up only a point. The real goat of the game, however, was Shabazz Napier. If there was ever a game to remind us all about the two sides of Napier, this was it. The first half was good Napier. He was terrific. He was passing, setting his players up for good shots, leading the offense in what seemed like an efficient manner. In the second half he was downright horrible. The last few possessions of the game, Shabazz was simply looking to make ESPN highlight reels again. It was selfish, me-first basketball ... ironic since his shoddy, lazy play was the primary reason why UConn found itself in need of another prayer being answered.
What's so disappointing about this loss is not the loss itself. UConn wasn't going undefeated, plenty of good teams got knocked off on this "first game after finals" night, and Stanford isn't a horrible team (they're not good, but they're not horrible). What's disappointing is this game would be palatable if UConn just hadn't played well from the start. If the rust of being off for so many days was evident from the first tip on through the rest of the game, you could chalk it up to the circumstances. After all, these games right before the holidays are always difficult for these kids, who are just getting done with tests and looking forward to festivities with family and friends.
However, UConn played pretty well in the first half. They did a good job of breaking down the Stanford zone, held their own on the boards, shot pretty well, and played very good defense. At the half, UConn was shooting 41 % while Stanford was just over 30 % for the game. It might not have been the best basketball we've seen from UConn, but it was pretty good. At the end of the game, Bob Knight, who was calling it for ESPN, said it seemed like UConn came out of the locker room thinking they had already won. That's the sense I got as well. It was as if they didn't expect to see the Cardinals take the court. This is the biggest issue facing this team right now. It's bigger than their continued inability to rebound, because part of rebounding is consistent effort. It's even bigger than the fact that they have no inside game whatsoever (Philip Nolan and Tyler Olander are criminally bad at basketball, especially on the offensive side of the ball where they should be expelled for even thinking about trying to shoot the ball or score in any way). No, the biggest problem is this team playing down to its opponent. The biggest problem this team has is that it quits playing for large segments of the game. That's unacceptable. That falls on the players, many of whom are veterans. That falls on Napier, who is suppose to be the leader of the team. And, yes, it falls on the coaching staff. It's shocking a Kevin Ollie team has this kind of flaw, especially when hustle and determination were the staples of last year's team.
UConn lost. It happens. It was bound to happen, and it's going to a few more times this year. The problem isn't the loss. The problem is why UConn lost. They handed this game to a mediocre, at best, Stanford squad. They deserved to lose. Now, the question is, do they learn from this defeat the lessons that were so evident during many of their narrow wins? We'll see.