David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
The Huskies dropped games to Georgetown and Cincinnati, but the play of DeAndre Daniels bodes well for the future.
UConn isn't as talented a team as Georgetown. Without Shabazz Napier, they probably aren't as talented a team as Cincinatti. Both of those teams are playing meaningful games for spots in the Big East and NCAA tournaments. They have everything to gain and lose each time they take the court.
UConn doesn't. They have heart. They have pride. They have themselves for which to play.
As with everything this season, UConn's performances against Georgetown and Cincinnati were admirable, especially against the Bearcats where, after two straight overtime games (one double overtime) and without their leader and best player (Napier) it would have been easy to throw in the towel.
They didn't. They played to the last. They left it all on the court.
But they lost.
And, despite all the positives, they lost bad. Against Georgetown, they had a seven point lead in double-overtime and let it slip away. In Cincinnati, the Bearcats did everything but hand UConn the game in the last few seconds, but RJ Evans and then Ryan Boatright handed it right back.
It's hard to get too annoyed with a team that plays so hard and with such guts when all they are doing is playing out the stretch. But a loss is a loss and it sucks, no matter what's at stake.
Yet, since this season always had an expiration date of early March, the future is what always has mattered.
Whether UConn made the right choice with Kevin was the most important questioned answered this year, and I think it's safe to say the answer is yes.
From the ashes of these last two heart stabbing games, however, comes the possible answer to another question that will impact next season, when UConn's year has no definitive cut off date: can DeAndre Daniels become an impact player.
In these last two games, the answer would seem to be yes as well.
Daniels has been the enigma of the season. Shabazz and Boatright have been the stars, Omar Calhoun has been the freshman showing loads of promise, and the team's short bench has proven to be what role players should - valuable assets that know what they do well and what they don't.
Daniels, however, has been the big question mark. At times he's looked like a star. Then, sometimes in the same game, he'll look like a bench player pretending to be a starter.
We have known the talent is there. It will show up in flashes. He'll have a game where everything clicks and he'll look like one of the better forwards in the game. Then, he'll disappear, seemingly fading into the background and content to let the two guards (Boatright and Shabazz) do the tough work on offense and defense.
It's been that kind of up-and-down year, the kind that makes you wonder whether Daniels will ever tap into his talent and become a Ben Gordon-esque player who, after years of only scratching the surface of his talent, exploded to help UConn win a national title, or a Stanley Robinson, doomed to always wonder "what if" about his ability.
But over the last two games, Daniels appears to have turned a corner.
Against Georgetown, Daniels took the matchup against the Big East's best player, Otto Porter, to heart. He didn't back down. On the contrary, he outplayed the league's best, scoring 25, grabbing 10, and looking every bit Porter's equal. Had you not know anything about the two before that game and just watched, you would have thought Daniels was the more highly-regarded star.
Then, with Napier out against Cincinnati, Daniels poured in 18 points, 8 rebounds, and was UConn's best option on the inside. With Boatright unable to connect from anywhere other than the charity strip, and with no one else really providing offense, Daniels was UConn's most effective player.
Neither performance was able to carry UConn to victory, but both showed that, perhaps, UConn's most mysterious player is starting to figure things out. Daniels looks like he's beginning to realize how talented he is, and how versatile he can be. That bodes very well for next year.
Look, none of us know what will happen once the season ends. Young men with the NBA on their mind can make unexpected decisions. It's highly unlikely that anyone but Napier will jump to the next level, and even he isn't a guaranteed defection, but if he does go, Daniels' progression as a player becomes even more important.
Boatright is a dynamic, energetic, and damn entertaining guy to watch. The things he can do for his size amazing. Yet, his height will always limit what he can do on a court. Daniels, however, has all the tools. He's tall, long, athletic, and can shoot (although not a great shooter). He's proven he can even play out of position at the four spot against larger, stronger competitors and hold his own.
If Shabazz is gone next year, Boatright and Daniels will be expected to be the team's leaders. If Daniels is truly a star in the making, UConn will feature three top-tier guys on the court next season - Boat, Daniels, and Calhoun - all with a different skill sets and talents to bring to the team. And if Napier comes back? Then the Huskies will have four impact players.
With a deeper roster and a new, somewhat easier conference, that would bode very well for the team's ultimate success. If Daniels, however, is more like his mid-season self, throwing in two clunker games for every good performance, UConn could struggle to be more than a middle-of-the-pack team balancing itself on a season-long bubble.
So, yes, UConn lost two crushing battles, ones that hurt, even in a year where wins and losses make little different. But, if what has come out of those losses is a better, more confident, more committed DeAndre Daniels, UConn might have helped themselves win the war next year.