You don't have to look far to figure out what ails the UConn mens' basketball team.
Focus your eyes right underneath the basket and, whoever is there with a Husky jersey on, waving his arms around like a man caught on fire, is most likely part of the problem.
Talking about UConn's front court woes is the low-hanging fruit. It's obvious every single game. Amida Brimah is the only "big man" the Huskies have who can impact a game on the low-post, but he plays the center position like a bull in a China shop. One gets the sense that standing in line at the cafeteria next to Brimah could get dicey if he decides he wants to cut in front. Chances are you'll end up on your back with a face full of meatloaf special while Brimah stands over you, arms and hands outstretched, pained look on his face, asking everyone around him "What did I do?"
Phil Nolan has what coaches like to call a "motor." Problem is no GPS ever came with the package. The string bean big man has the unique ability to be all over the court at once, but never, ever in the right place.
Tyler Olander? Oh, Tyler. What can I say about him. To sum up my feelings on his game, I'll simply explain that I've decided to replace the word I use most while watching Tyler play with his last name. So, if you're at a game and you hear someone screaming "What the OLANDER was that?" or "You have got to be OLANDERING kidding me," or perhaps "MOTHEROLANDER," you'll know who it is.
So a debilitating lack of talent and consistency on the block has plagued this team for going on two years now, and UConn hasn't helped itself by playing lackluster, unmotivated basketball at times (first half against Houston, anyone?), but there is another problem with this team, one we haven't spent enough time talking about.
Coming into the season, it appeared the Huskies weren't just talented and experienced at all the right places. It looked like Kevin Ollie had a lot of depth. This team was going to throw a lot of talented players at you, from gritty veterans to explosive freshmen. Sure, UConn's best players (Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels) were all going to play the bulk of minutes, but Ollie would have his pick of quality role players.
That hasn't come to fruition. Not at all.
Basically, if Napier, Boatright, and/or Daniels have bad nights, UConn is guaranteed to be in an absolute dogfight for a win. And considering both Boatright and Daniels have been maddeningly inconsistent so far this year, and Napier has had his share of "what is he doing?" moments, that's exactly the situation the team has found itself in over the last month or so.
The game against Harvard, an important and needed win for the Huskies, was a small window into the team's role-player woes. The Husky bench provided four total points, all from Niels Giffey, nine rebounds (four from Giffey) and one assist. Every time Ollie went to his bench, it was almost like subtraction by addition.
Yet, one game doesn't tell the tale. The individual ineptitude of the role players does.
I'll leave the "big men" out of this because, clearly, whether Nolan, Olander, or Brimah are starting or coming off the bench makes little difference. They all pretty much provide little in the way of contribution, except for Brimah when he's able to avoid foul trouble, which is never.
The biggest culprit is Omar Calhoun. A starter at the beginning of the season, Calhoun was expected to take off. This was to be his time to shine and establish himself as the next big thing at Storrs. After all, as a freshman last year he averaged more than 30 minutes a game, 11 points and nearly four rebounds. Talented players are only suppose to get better with experience, right?
Calhoun's year thus far has been a nightmare. He's averaging 7.1 points a game, 2.1 rebounds, and less than an assist a game. In 15 games so far, he's only had five double-digit point games, and three came in the first three games of the year. In his last six contests, he's scored 3, 3, 12, 0, 5, and 0 points, respectively.
The numbers, however, tell only a part of the sad story.
Calhoun's defense has been as bad or worse than his offense, so much so that Ollie has admitted the shooting guard's dramatic decrease in playing time is directly attributable to his struggles on that side of the ball.
He gets beat by his man almost all the time, doesn't help defend on the perimeter, and has the most "stand and watch" moments of anyone on the team. I don't know what his problem is-injury, confidence, lack of grit-but this is not the same guy we saw last year.
This isn't just about one player's struggles. Calhoun was expected to be more than a role player. He was supposed to be a top contributor. He's, instead, been a complete non-factor, and that has hurt this team immeasurably.
Niels Giffey, on the other hand, was looking like the elixir to Calhoun's problems. He came out of the gate like a madman, hitting threes like Larry Bird, making plays on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, and contributing to UConn's early undefeated run.
For the first month of the season, leaving Giffey alone at the three point line proved to be a fatal mistake for the Husky's opponents.
Yet Giffey's stellar beginning has faded lately. He lost his starting spot to Lasan Kromah, has only one double-digit scoring effort in the last seven contests, and is averaging a little over six points and three rebounds a game. Now that Giffey is coming off the bench, he's clearly their best and most potent non-starter option, but whereas before Giffey was an absolute spark plug, his contributions have been limited of late.
Most disappointing is the fact that Giffey seems reticent to shoot the ball unless he's wide, wide open. A few times in the last three or four games the Berlin Bomber has gotten the ball behind the arc with room to shoot, but because a defender was closing on him he's passed up the chance. Giffey is tall enough and has a sweet enough stroke to make shots even when someone is in his face. He needs to be more aggressive when it comes to finding his shot. He needs to sink more threes for UConn to be successful.
The rest of the bench has gotten no time on the floor. Terrence Samuel, who showed some signs of being a contributor early in the season, has played a total of eight minutes in the last six games, giving the Huskies zero points, zero assists, and one rebound. Kentan Facey, perhaps Ollie's most lauded recruit this season, besides stealing Rodney Purvis away from NC State, has been a ghost. Facey got 12 minutes against Detroit and 18 minutes against Maine. Besides that, he's averaged around two minutes a game with six "did not play" games under his belt.
Look, this team is still going to go as far as its stars can take them. If Boatright and Daniels were playing consistent, high-end basketball, and if Brimah could figure out a way to stay on the court without fouling everything that moves, much of this wouldn't matter much.
However, few teams have all their players play well throughout the course of the season. That's why role players are so important. That's why a bench is key.
Lasan Kromah emerging as a viable starter has helped mitigate some of this, but as the games go by, the struggles of Calhoun and even Giffey, and the complete no-shows like Samuels and Facey, are beginning to create real cracks.
Yes, the front court remains the biggest problem area. Yes, the need for 100% effort is still there.
But if UConn continues to get no-shows from the rest of the roster, it's going to have a quick exit come March.