If you're looking for a headline from yesterday's UConn victory over new American "rival" UCF, here's one for yah: Welcome to the party, Mr. Brimah.
It's impossible to talk about anything else other than what the big man did against a Central Florida team that was essentially bullied all day by the long arms of UConn's first-year big man.
I had a chance to witness the show live, and what a show it was. Brimah played by far the best game of his young college career. We've seen the flashes - the dunks, the blocks, the imposing figure standing in the middle warning opponents to find an alternate route to the basket - but the flashes faded nearly as quickly as they appeared. That's because Brimah has been a foul machine.
Despite the fact that he's clearly the only UConn big man with any semblance of talent or ability to impact a game, keeping him on the court was virtually impossible for head coach Kevin Ollie. Brimah's minutes were dictated by his ability to play strong, clean defense, meaning he spent most of his time on the bench.
Yet, Saturday at Gampel, Brimah was able to stay away from major foul trouble, meaning those flashes, for one night anyway, became a flood light.
The numbers are pretty damn impressive: 20 points, 8 rebounds, 5 blocks. Being there live and in person, however, I can tell you his impact was much greater.
Just as great shot blockers do, Brimah altered a hell of a lot more shots than he blocked. His presence in the middle meant UCF players routinely made a move toward the basket, saw Brimah standing and waiting, and decided another course of action was warranted. When they did drive inside, the shots were usually high-arcing types that clanged off the side of the rim. It was an obvious defensive presence that immediately went away when Brimah left the game.
The rebounding by Brimah was also pronounced. The big man had six offensive rebounds. Most of them were on missed layups by his teammates, many of whom are still struggling to finish around the rim, and resulted in important put backs. He was just taller than everyone else and put himself in great position for the ball. He was only credited with two defensive rebounds, but if they gave out assists for those he would have gotten about 10. There were plenty of times where his box out allowed one of his teammates to swoop in and snag the ball.
What was clear in watching the game against UCF is that Brimah's presence on the court is vital to UConn's overall success this year. It's not just the fact that he has the ability to make plays on the low post. It's his energy.
We've all lamented the fact that, at times, UConn's effort has seemed to wane. It's not just fan complaints either. Everyone from the coach to the leaders on the team have talked about "effort" at one point or another. With Brimah, that's not an issue. He's at full-throttle all the time. Even when standing on the sidelines he's jumping up and down like a kid who just received a trampoline for Christmas.
Sure, that unbridled enthusiasm has been part of the problem. The "go, go, go" attitude has usually resulted in dumb fouls and a seat next to Ollie. But if UCF was a sign of things to come, then maybe Brimah is learning how to control or channel that enthusiasm. If he can stay on the court the way he did Saturday, UConn's fortunes against teams like Memphis and Louisville and whomever they play in March may be completely different.
Couple of other notes from yesterday's game:
*I thought Shabazz Napier played really well, despite shooting poorly most of the game. He got to the line alot more, didn't settle for jump shots, and really picked the UCF defense apart with his passing. This team is infinitely better when Shabazz has a night where he only scores 14 or 15 points but dishes out 8-10 assists, rather than nights where he has to score 27.
*DeAndre Daniels was also a lot more aggressive, especially grabbing rebounds and taking the ball inside. He missed some gimmes (like the entire team), but I love the mindset of taking his man to the rim. When you see Daniels live you realize what a big man he is and how good some of his low-post moves are. It makes you salivate for a time when Daniels realizes, truly realizes how good he can be. But on a night when he only shot 4-10, to come away with 13 points and seven rebounds was huge.
*I don't know that I'd call this UConn's most complete performance of the year, but it felt like their most...democratic, shall we say. You had four guys score in double figures and nine score overall (some of that was in garbage time, but I'll take it). Except for a few minutes in the beginning of the first half and then the beginning of the second, when UConn had their usual sleep walking moments, I thought the ball movement was much better. They made the right pass and got a lot of nice looks at the basket because of that. If they keep playing with the same kind of intensity, they can regain some of their form that's been lost the last month.
*Speaking of easy shots, Brimah's stellar night was really important because, had he not performed that well, this game would have been closer. The numbers say UConn shot over 46 percent for the game, but if you really look at the numbers their usual scorers had bad, bad, bad shooting nights. Shabazz was 3-10, Daniels 4-10, Boatright 3-8, Kromah 2-8, and Giffey was 3-7. It wasn't because of stellar UCF defense either. A lot of those shots were open ... UConn was just missing, like they have been the last few games. There was a lot to like about Saturday's win, but the team's best players continued to struggle with their shot, and that needs to be corrected before they tackle Memphis and Louisville.
*Brimah was the clear star of the game but I thought Phil Nolan was decent. He ended up with 8 points and 5 rebounds. Honestly, can you expect any more from Phil Nolan? If he gave UConn that kind of effort from here on out, they'd rightfully be thrilled.
*On the flip side, the biggest complaint I have about Ollie's coaching right now is his insistence on continuing to run Tyler Olander out onto the floor. The man is horrific. He just simply can't contribute much of anything. Whenever Olander was on the floor Saturday, something bad happened for UConn. Interior defense went all to hell, bad fouls happened, and it usually ended with UCF making a run. Look, I understand Olander has to play because Brimah, despite this game, has shown an inability to stay out of foul trouble and Nolan isn't good enough to stay on the floor for 20+ minutes. But the man shouldn't be anywhere near the starting lineup. Everytime he's on the court, bad things happen. Olander needs to be Option 3 for big men. If Brimah is in foul trouble and Nolan is being beat up, THEN give Olander a shot. Besides that, he shouldn't see the floor.
*The most glaring negative, however, was Omar Calhoun. Dear Lord ... he was hideous Saturday. He provided nothing offensively and was a complete waste on defense. In 14 minutes he accounted for two turnovers, no points, and two rebounds. UGHHHH! It's clear Ollie has no faith in him. He was inserted early in the game, where he subsequently got lost on defense, giving up an uncontested three, then went down the other end and made no effort to get into the flow of the offense. He was pulled quickly and you could see Ollie and he having a less than enjoyable conversation on the sidelines. From that point forward it seemed like Ollie was trying to find the right spots in which to inject Calhoun in the game. It sort of reminded me of a baseball manager, trying to get a talented but struggling reliever in a game where his team has a big lead. Get him some confidence, get him on track, in a game where he can't really do any damage. It still didn't work for Calhoun.
I don't know what's happening to him, but he's simply disappeared at this point. You can see his teammates are both frustrated with him, and trying to build him up. I hope, for his sake and for the teams, he is able to figure this out. He has talent, but he's so far down into the abyss right now, it's hard to see him coming up for air.
*On a personal note, I haven't been back to Storrs in a while (going to the XL is, unfortunately, easier for me) and I was disappointed that the weather didn't allow for a lot of walking around (by not a lot, I mean none). It's funny how so much of the campus has changed since I went there, especially with the addition of the Mansfield Center, which used to be Store 24, Husky Blues, and a bunch of crappy little stores I never frequented, and yet it still felt very similar. Walking out of Gampel felt like old times. Myself and even a few friends made our way over to Ted's afterwards for a few drinks (when I was at UConn our favorite spot was the Civic Pub, but that's gone now) and it was fun to see that place hasn't changed at all. However, we definitely have. I remember being a student at UConn and seeing some of the older guys come back trying to "relive" their youth and thinking "wow, that's sad." Last night, while I had no intention of trying to relive anything, I definitely saw a few of those "looks" thrown our way. I also saw some kid thrown out for showing his fake ID, which made me laugh for some reason.
All in all, I hope to get back up there again soon to walk around a bit more and maybe spend time at that Mansfield Center. But, for this trip, some wings at Bidwell Tavern in Coventry (always a favorite), two beers at Ted's and Amida Brimah's coming out party were just fine...
Bring on Memphis and Louisville!!!!!