Coming into this season, I felt strongly that this year's UConn team had a unique blend of talent, experience, quality role players and coaching to be a contender in a year with no true favorite. Even though last year's team struggled to rebound, I thought improved play from Tyler Olander and Phil Nolan plus contributions from Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah would at least close the gap and give us a little bit of punch in the front court.
After the game against Houston, preceded by a subpar performance against Washington and a home loss to Stanford, it appears as though I was wrong.
I am trying really hard not to overreact in the wake of Tuesday night's disaster, but this isn't an isolated event. The reality is that this team eeked out wins against Florida, Maryland, Indiana and BC. They were down at times to Boston University and Washington. The steamy pile of a first half that they plopped down on Tuesday in Houston is a difficult sequence to live down, particularly for a team that is a few bounces away from already having 4-5 losses.
It feels easy to dismiss that horrendous first half by pointing out the 9 p.m. EST tip-off on New Year's Eve. With attendance reported to be around 4,000, the crowd atmosphere could not have been very uplifting. After experiencing conference games at a sold out Carrier Dome or Verizon Center, Shabazz Napier and company found themselves in Houston for a conference game against a team whose best days came and went in the early 80's. Surely it must be a little bit of a letdown. For Houston, this isn't exactly their Super Bowl either, that would actually be the two times this year when they get to face the reigning National Champions from Louisville. Nevertheless, Houston was way more excited for Tuesday's game than the Huskies were. You could tell by the way they celebrated once they sealed the win.
After this season, I would like to look back on this Tuesday's game and say it was a turning point. That losing to Houston and running a 20+ point deficit crystallized the need to play a full 40 minutes every time out regardless of who the opponent is. It would be nice to laugh about how worried we were when, 13 games in, UConn had six games with long stretches of unacceptably poor play.
For that to happen, it starts with our coaches and falls on the leaders of the team. We have had confidence in Kevin Ollie because he was able to motivate last year's team which was banned from the NCAA and Big East tournaments and essentially had nothing to play for. Why has this year's squad shown a tendency for long stretches of undisciplined play?
The team's veteran leaders, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, need to inspire more intensity and focus into the team's preparation and game day execution because whatever they are doing right now just isn't working. Those two need to put it on themselves to make sure this team avoids train wrecks like Houston and Stanford as well as the near disasters at Washington and MSG.
The other, less fixable – and therefore more troubling – problem is that our frontcourt is really, very vulnerable. None of Phil Nolan, Tyler Olander or Amida Brimah have proven to be capable of much and freshman Kentan Facey has barely been able to see the court. For long stretches of the Houston game, Kevin Ollie was playing Giffey and Daniels at the 4 and 5. Yikes. DeAndre Daniels, our only dangerous frontcourt player, has shown a propensity to disappear for minutes at a time. This allows defenses to be more aggressive on the perimeter, and we get to watch our guards jack up contested shots.
More so than I had thought, this team will live and die by Shabazz Napier. This is not a stunning or groundbreaking revelation, I just really believed that UConn could beat teams like Houston even if Napier wasn't playing well. I thought Calhoun and Daniels would be more dependable than they have been and that the frontcourt would be slightly better than terrible. Wrong on all accounts.
UConn is 11-2 behind Napier and I'm excited to see what's in store for the season. It's just a shame that this team can't be more balanced. Still, if Shabazz can get hot at the right time, this is still a very dangerous UConn team. Best case scenario looks something like Joe Flacco in the 2013 Playoffs – streaky but talented player has the best run of his life when it matters the most. It could happen.
The 2013-14 UConn Huskies are still a very talented team, and one that I still believe in. They woke up for the second half of the Houston game, even taking a lead towards the end. In a little over seven minutes, it was pretty remarkable to watch them wipe away an 18 point halftime deficit. The only problem is that at one point WE WERE LOSING BY 21 POINTS TO MOTHER EFFING HOUSTON. While that first half was completely unacceptable, there is nothing they can do now but move on and be ready to play this Saturday at 4 p.m. in Dallas.
SMU is next on the schedule. One of Kevin Ollie's close friends and former coach, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, roams their sidelines. The school is hosting its very first game at the newly renovated Moody Coliseum and it's sold out. This SMU team is no slouch either, they're 10-3 and only seven spots behind UConn in the KenPom ratings at 47. UConn walks into a hostile environment against a quality opponent on Saturday and really can't afford to leave Texas without a win. Harvard, Memphis and Louisville comprise three of the next four games on the schedule, and UConn can ill afford to have dropped three of its last five going into that stretch. Who would have thought before the season that the SMU game would be this important?
Our games against the ‘middle class' of The American have become a lot more important. If Houston can beat us, you better believe that the coaches and players in the locker rooms at Temple, SMU and even the directional Florida schools think they can too. Having UConn on the schedule offers the lesser teams in our conference the opportunity to grab a marquee win, they are all going to bring 110 percent.
Being such a target is a new role for the Huskies – a role they must adapt to quickly. The Big East had other teams to shoulder the load so that nobody could get particularly amped for UConn with Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown, Villanova, etc. also on the schedule. If this year's Huskies can't bring intensity into every single conference match-up, we're screwed.
Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier each felt personally culpable for the Houston loss, but it's all lip service until we see a more focused Husky team take the court this season. The very best UConn teams separated themselves from the pack because of great leadership and character. These two, along with Coach Ollie, need for this to be a turning point to the season otherwise we will have to significantly lower our expectations. This isn't Notre Dame or Pittsburgh, the regular season is not the end all be all for UConn. If the Huskies can learn from their mistakes then hopefully we'll see them make a run in this critical stretch of the season.
The stakes have been raised – here's to hoping.