UConn's "Big" Problem

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sp

An in-depth look at how UConn's frontcourt reached its current decrepid state.

Over the past two years, UConn has been saddled with arguably its worst frontcourt since the program first rose to prominence under Jim Calhoun, and now that the Huskies are eligible to return to the postseason, the team's lack of beef up front is looking like a potentially fatal flaw that the other elite teams in the country could potentially exploit.

UConn does have probably the best backcourt in the nation, and there is something to be said about being the No. 2 three point shooting team in the nation, but for years UConn was known for its elite big men, and it's no accident that the program led the country in blocks every year from 2002 to 2009.

So what the hell happened?

UConn's current frontcourt situation is a product of the cumulative effects of the NCAA sanctions levied against the program, the uncertainty surrounding Jim Calhoun's future and eventual retirement, a couple of key misses in recruiting and some bad luck.

The scholarship reductions meant that UConn has had much less room for error in recruiting and couldn't afford to make any mistakes. The NCAA Tournament ban and the collapse of the Big East made it that much more difficult to bring talented players aboard at all, and the unexpected departure of several veterans all at once put the team in a crisis that it never could have planned for in advance.

So how did we get here? The following is an in-depth look at each of the big men who have come to UConn over the past four years, starting with the 2010 recruiting class. For the purposes of this article, I'm focusing on players who primarily play power forward or center, so even though they could technically be considered big men, I'm not going to touch on Niels Giffey or Leon Tolksdorf.

With that being said, read on and just imagine what could have been had circumstances been different.

2010

Roscoe Smith

Any discussion of how UConn's frontcourt reached its current state needs to begin with Roscoe Smith. Regardless of everything else you read throughout the rest of this article, remember this: Had Roscoe Smith stayed at UConn, the Huskies would be just fine, and the team would be in a much better place.

Have you seen Roscoe Smith's numbers this year? They are absolutely insane. Smith is currently the nation's leading rebounder, averaging 13.8 rebounds per game, and if he finishes the season at his current pace he will finish with numbers not far off from the historic totals posted by players like Blake Griffin (14.4 in 2008-09), Tim Duncan (14.7 in 1996-97) and Shaquille O'Neal (14.7 in 1990-91) during their college careers.

To put it into perspective, during his two years at UConn, Smith averaged 5.2 and 3.4 rebounds per game in his freshman and sophomore years respectively. Not surprisingly, he was much better known for his lack of shot clock awareness than he was his rebounding prowess.

Smith transferred to UNLV following the 2011-12 season, and while the reasons for his transfer were never made entirely clear, it was rumored that he left because he wanted to play small forward instead of power forward, and the looming postseason ban probably played into his decision too.

Evidently, during the year he sat out at UNLV, Smith hit the gym and made a concerted effort to work on his offensive game, as opposed to his defense and rebounding. Kevin Duffy had a great piece on Smith and Andre Drummond earlier this week, and his account of how Smith basically worked to turn himself into Kobe Bryant was one of the more fascinating nuggets in the story.

From Duffy:

He was in the gym alone while UNLV was on the road. He added 10 pounds of muscle. As a scout team player, he often mimicked the opponent's best player, concentrating much more on offense than defense or rebounding. He said the coaching staff put him in situations that "allowed him to be confident." He also said he rarely matched up with eventual No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett.

"I was working on being a big guard - on my handle and my shot," Smith said.

How this process resulted in him becoming Dennis Rodman, I have no idea. It's impossible to say whether this would have happened had he stayed at UConn, but there is no doubt that his presence would've helped fill a major gap on this roster, and as a senior he would have likely been a leader who players like Phillip Nolan and Kentan Facey could have looked up to.

Regardless, it's absolutely mind boggling how much better Smith has gotten over the past two years at UNLV. Ultimately what's done is done, and it's nice to see Roscoe doing well, even if it is in a different team's uniform. Unfortunately the same can't be said for another player who left UConn prematurely...

Enosch Wolf

Enosch Wolf's career took a while to get going, and just when it seemed like he was ready to turn the corner, it all blew up and that was that.

For the first two years of his career, Wolf barely saw any action on the court, usually subbing in only after the game was well out of reach. Last year, however, Wolf finally cracked the regular rotation as the back-up center, and fans had high hopes that the 7-foot-1 Wolf might finally be turning into the player most expected him to be when he first arrived on campus midway through the 2010-11 season.

But then, Wolf was arrested after he got into a physical altercation with a female student, and just like that, Wolf's career at UConn was over.

Following his arrest, Wolf was charged with burglary in the third degree, criminal trespassing in the first degree and disorderly conduct, and he was immediately suspended from the team indefinitely. The charges against Wolf were eventually dismissed, but when coach Kevin Ollie lifted Wolf's suspension, he did so on the condition that he return as a non-scholarship player.

Faced with the prospect of having to pay potentially $48,000 in tuition as an international student to remain at UConn, Wolf instead opted to return home to Germany, where he signed with Telekom Baskets Bonn to begin his professional career.

So how has Wolf been doing? Since joining Telekom Baskets Bonn back in Germany, Wolf is averaging 1.9 points and 0.1 rebounds in 3.9 minutes per game in the German League, along with 2.4 points and 1.3 rebounds in 5.8 minutes per game in Eurocup action.

Needless to say, the early returns on Wolfs pro career have not been good.

Michael Bradley

Michael Bradley's career at UConn never really got off the ground, and after redshirting his freshman season and then missing his entire sophomore year due to injury, Bradley transferred from UConn having never logged a minute in a Husky uniform.

Since leaving UConn, however, Bradley's career has been a mind-bending odyssey of NCAA madness. He initially hoped to transfer to Western Kentucky, but after the NCAA declined his appeal to play immediately (which was asinine, since he was coming off a broken ankle and hadn't played in two years) he decided to enroll at Vincennes University, a two-year college near the Indiana/Illinois border.

Bradley finally made his college debut late in the 2012-13 season, playing in nine games for Vincennes while averaging 2.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. His team reached the Final Four of the NJCAA Tournament, but after the season, Bradley announced that he would be transferring once again.

Bradley finally found a home at Samford University, a Division I program in the Southern Conference where he is classified as a junior and is currently averaging 3.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. After such a long and winding start to his career, it's nice to see Bradley finally finally get a chance to play, but if we're being honest, Bradley probably wouldn't have been the answer to UConn's frontcourt issues even if he had stayed.

Now, that leaves us with the only big man from the 2010 recruiting class who actually stuck around.

Tyler Olander

Tyler Olander has had an interesting if not unproductive career. When he came to UConn before the 2010-11 season, he was a local product of E.O. Smith High School who gave the Huskies size and solid basketball instincts but was lacking in athleticism and needed time to develop more as a player.

As a three-star recruit, I don't think anybody really expected Olander to ever become a star, but after making an impressive leap between his freshman and sophomore year, Olander has largely plateaued as a player and still doesn't give UConn much in terms of offense, rim protection or rebounding proficiency, which it badly needs right now.

The numbers tell the whole story. Here are Olander's year to year statistics dating back to his freshman year:

  • Freshman: 0.7 points, 1.0 rebounds, 39 games, 21 starts, 9.6 minutes per game
  • Sophomore: 4.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 34 games, 9 starts, 17.6 minutes per game
  • Junior: 4.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 29 games, 26 starts, 21.6 minutes per game
  • Senior: 2.3 points, 1.3 rebounds, 11 games, 0 starts, 8.4 minutes per game

What strikes me is that over the past four years, Olander has received a remarkable amount of playing time while at the same time contributing very little. It's true that Olander does a lot of things well that don't translate onto the stat sheet, but it's also telling that since he arrived on campus, UConn hasn't been able to find a big man who could supplant him in the lineup.

To be fair, Olander is not a center and has been playing out of position for the better part of two years. During his sophomore year, when he was allowed to play power forward while Drummond and Alex Oriakhi anchored the paint, he looked much more comfortable on the court, and the fact that he played 17.6 minutes per game despite competing against Drummond, Oriakhi and DeAndre Daniels for playing time shouldn't be downplayed.

I do just want to add that while Olander often gets a bad rap (heh) for some of his off-court mishaps, he was without a doubt one of the most fun players to interview on the 2011 championship team and was the subject of one of my favorite stories ever, along with Niels Giffey. I know this is totally shameless self-promotion, but seriously, read that article, you won't regret it.

2011

Andre Drummond

The most hyped recruit in UConn basketball history may not have lived up to expectations in his lone season in a Husky uniform, but since leaving Storrs, Drummond has set the basketball world on fire to emerge as one of the most dominant young big men in the league.

In his second pro season, Drummond is averaging 13.2 points and 12.6 rebounds per game and is on pace to become the fourth youngest all star in NBA history, behind only Magic Johnson in 1980, Kobe Bryant in 1998 and LeBron James in 2005. Drummond also captured the hearts of millions (or at least a few Grantland writers) when he struck up a brief summer fling with Nickelodeon actress Jeannette McCurdy, and according to Duffy, after he signed his $7.39 million rookie contract, he also bought his family a new house and a dog named Roscoe, because obviously.

Now, there's no point in speculating any kind of scenario where Drummond sticks around through his junior year. He made the right call jumping straight to the pros after one year, and even if he did come back for one more year, it's a virtual certainty he would've gone pro and likely been the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft.

But just for pretend, can you imagine if Drummond had stayed? Let me list what UConn's starting lineup would be if he did, and just think about what this team might have done.

Excuse me, I think I might need to go change my underwear.

DeAndre Daniels

Thank God for DeAndre Daniels. The five-star recruit from Los Angeles initially struggled to adjust to the college level, but late last season he put it all together and has been been the team's best frontcourt player ever since.

Daniels is currently UConn's second leading scorer with 13.5 points per game, and while his rebounding numbers aren't what you'd like them to be at 4.5 rebounds per game, he is a threat to score from anywhere on the court, fits into the offense well and is a capable defender.

Unfortunately, Daniels is also on the skinny side and doesn't give UConn the beef it needs in the paint to keep opposing players from driving to the basket. That wouldn't be a problem if the Huskies also had a dominant player like Emeka Okafor or Hasheem Thabeet patrolling the paint, but since Daniels is the only real option UConn has up front at this point, his weaknesses tend to get exposed more often than they would if he had help.

2012

Phillip Nolan

Now, here's where things really fell off the rails for UConn. After the 2011-12 season, Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley all decided to transfer, and then the Huskies also lost Andre Drummond to the NBA. In the blink of an eye, UConn's entire frontcourt rotation was gone, and the Huskies badly needed to find someone who could step in and fill the void.

It's easy to say that UConn should have done better than Phillip Nolan, but keep in mind, with a postseason ban looming, the Big East falling to pieces and all uncertainty swirling around Jim Calhoun's future, getting anybody to commit to UConn at that point was probably easier said than done. Also, by the time shit started to hit the fan, it was already pretty late in the recruiting season and a lot of the blue chip prospects UConn really could have used had committed to other schools anyway.

At 6-foot-10, 205 pounds, Nolan was the No. 24 ranked power forward in the country according to ESPN prior to committing to UConn. Whether he was the guy UConn needed or not, he is the one who said yes, and for better or worse the Huskies are counting on him going forward.

I do still believe that Nolan could develop into an impact player for UConn, but to this point that hasn't happened. So far this season Nolan has started every game but one at center, but he is only averaging 3.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in 13.6 minutes per game. The main problem for Nolan has been staying out of foul trouble, he has committed a team high 29 fouls in the team's first 11 games – nearly three per game – and that has largely been a product of his inability to effectively protect the rim.

Nolan is still a young player, and he could definitely afford to bulk up in the gym a bit more, but my guess is that if he can keep his foul numbers down and stay on the court, the rest of his numbers will steadily improve. We saw a glimpse of this against Washington when Nolan scored 8 points, pulled down 5 rebounds and only committed one foul in 13 minutes off the bench.

Ideally Nolan will experience a late season renaissance like Daniels did last year, but for now I think the best we can hope for is that he can become a more effective defensive player and rebounder as the year goes on. As it happens, the same can be said for another young big man on the Huskies roster...

2013

Amida Brimah

Although Brimah is still a baby in terms of his basketball development, the 7-foot big man is absolutely oozing with potential and already looks to be a major recruiting coup for Kevin Ollie and the UConn coaching staff.

Brimah has only been playing organized basketball for a couple of years, but if there is one thing he can already do very well, it's block shots. Brimah's arms are like giant fly swatters, and whenever an opposing player drives on him, you can feel the energy in the arena pick up as the crowd eagerly anticipates the potentially earth-shattering rejection that Brimah has become known for.

Seriously, some people can block shots, but Brimah crushes souls. He sends shots back harder than The Lone Ranger bombed at the box office. Whenever Brimah blocks a shot, it's like detonating a nuclear warhead in the paint. Naturally, opposing players who'd prefer not to wind up on SportsCenter have learned to be careful when approaching the big man, and as a result Brimah has probably altered just as many shots as he's actually blocked.

That being said, while blocking shots are an aspect of basketball that comes naturally to Brimah, he's still getting the hang of some of the more subtle aspects of the game. For instance, Brimah is still figuring out where he needs to be on the floor in a given situation, he's still learning how to recognize and react to certain plays, he still fouls too much, and despite being such a big, tall guy, he's a strikingly terrible rebounder.

Brimah is averaging 3.0 points and 1.9 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game to go along with 28 personal fouls, and interestingly enough, he has blocked the same number of shots (33) as he's scored points so far this year. He did just get his first career start against Washington, scoring four points, grabbing three rebounds and blocking two shots, so hopefully the increased role is an indicator that the coaches feel confident in Brimah to consistently protect the paint.

There's no doubt that while Brimah's game isn't all there yet, he is everything that UConn needs right now and he has all the tools to become a special player. If by season's end Brimah has developed a level of defensive and rebounding prowess to match his shot blocking instincts, then he will completely transform this UConn team and give the Huskies a legitimate chance to compete for the National Championship.

Kentan Facey

Lastly, there is Kentan Facey, who was the best high school player in New York last year but has so far struggled to adjust to the college level.

Facey has only played in seven games this season and is averaging 1.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in 7 minutes per game in those contests. By far his best game of the season came against Maine, when he grabbed nine rebounds in 18 minutes of play against what was admittedly one of the worst teams in Division I. Outside of that, the 6-foot-9, 200 pound power forward has largely been a non-factor.

I like Facey a lot, I'm a little disappointed that he hasn't cracked the team's rotation, but he's still a young player and it should be pointed out that like Brimah, he has only been playing organized basketball for a couple of years. I have no doubt that once he bulks up and gets the hang of things, Facey is going to be a great player, but with Daniels holding down the fort at power forward, the Huskies can afford to give Facey the time he needs to develop.

The bottom line

UConn recruited four big men in its 2010 recruiting class. Of those four players only one is still on the roster, and that one player isn't all that good. Worse yet, out of the three who did leave early, one never played a minute at UConn, another barely contributed before leaving under extremely unfortunate circumstances, and the third went on to become an elite rebounder for a different team.

The two big men brought in as part of the 2011 recruiting class turned out much, much better, but unfortunately the program didn't get to witness the greatness of Andre Drummond until after he left for the NBA. When you add it all up, that's six players who could've been upperclassmen on this year's team, but only two remain, and only one – Daniels – is a viable option who can be counted on to contribute regularly.

As many times as UConn has struck gold while recruiting guards, it has struck out just as many times on bigs. It doesn't help that the frontcourt was disproportionately hit by transfers after the postseason ban came down, and if we're being honest, unexpectedly losing four frontcourt players in one offseason, all towards the end of the recruiting period, is a lot to overcome.

It's too early to be sure exactly what the Huskies have coming through the pipeline – Brimah looks to have superstar potential, Nolan and Facey both need more time to develop and who knows how Rakim Lubin will play when he arrives on campus next summer – but the fact of the matter is that time isn't a luxury that the Huskies have right now, and if UConn is going to win the national championship this year, someone is going to have to step up and grab those big rebounds at the end of the game.

So who's it going to be?

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