Shades of 2011

Chip Somodevilla

Someone had to go ahead and say it- this years UConn team has a lot of similarities to the regular season underachievers who captured our hearts and managed to win eleven tournament games in a row in 2011.

It's easy to forget now, but when the 2010/2011 regular season for the Big East Conference ended, no one had UConn winning ... anything.

I remember how it looked right before the BE Tournament started that year. UConn lost its final game of the season at home to Notre Dame 70-67. It was their ninth loss of the season, their second in a row, and brought their record to 1-4 in their final five games.

All of it meant that UConn would play on the first day of the BE Tournament and, with a loss to lowly DePaul, could have put themselves on the dreaded bubble (although that was always a long shot).

I watched that Notre Dame game with a friend of mine at a local bar, and I remember walking out thinking to myself, "This team isn't going anywhere."

I was just a tad-bit wrong.

UConn went somewhere alright ... they went on to cement the phrase "5 in 5" in our minds forever, and then followed that up with an amazing run to an NCAA championship. From the end of the regular season through the rest of March, UConn turned what was shaping up to be a disappointing affair into one of the program's most memorable seasons, ever.

Why bring this up now, aside from the fact that it doesn't take much to get UConn fans talking about Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, and the road to imortality? Because this year UConn seems to be in need of some Formula 2011.

There are some obvious similarities between the team UConn leads into this postseason and the one that entered 2010/2011 with little to no expectations. They are dominated by an exceptional guard who seems forced to carry both the scoring and leadership load without much help from his teammates. They have some very talented players who just don't seem to understand how to play consistent basketball. They struggle on the offensive end, especially against zones, but are usually very solid defensively. They won some big games against big opponents early but seemed to fade as the season progressed.

That was what UConn looked like when Kemba was putting on his Husky uniform each night, and it's how the team looks with Shabazz at the helm right now.

Of course, there are some distinct differences. UConn was bigger and a little deeper in 2010/2011, and not nearly as bad on the boards. This incarnation of UConn has more upperclassmen on which to lean, with juniors and seniors taking the bulk of the minutes.

Kemba's UConn played in the rough-and-tumble Big East. Shabazz's Huskies play in the top-heavy American, with great teams up top and bad teams down below.

But the feel for this team, as the season moves into survive-and-advanced mode, is all the same. They seem to be fading at the exact wrong time. They seem to be a one-man show, in desparate need of a legit, top-line second option. They seem primed for a quick end to their March dreams.

It doesn't have to be that way, however, as Kemba and company showed us all. I think this team can turn it around, and quick. They just need a few things, like someone to play the role of Jeremy Lamb.

Remember, Lamb was a freshman struggling through his first year at UConn when, suddenly, late in the season, the lights came on. He scored 25 late in the season against Marquette and averaged 14.2 points per game in the BE Tournament. In the NCAA Tourney, Lamb got even better, increasing his scoring to more than 16 a game as he picked up some of the slack as Kemba, clearly fatigued from playing the hero role all year long, saw his averages drop a bit.

There's no question Walker was the team's best, most indespensable player, but without Lamb there are no trophies, no celebrations.

If UConn is to win some games here in March, someone needs to pick up the role of Lamb and run with it. The two most likely candidates are Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels. Both of these guys have been rollercoaster rides this season, hitting some nice highs and plunging to some bad lows. Unfortunately, neither one is playing well as the AAC Tourney starts up.

Over the last 14 games, Boatright is for 45 for 141 from the floor, which equates to about 31 percent shooting. He's averaged a little over 3 three point attempts a game while his turnovers per game have averaged around 3. He's been able to get to the line a good amount and his rebounds and assists have remained solid, especially considering his size, but there's been no way around the fact that the Boat Show hasn't lived up to the hype.

Daniels is ... well ... Daniels. We've run through the numbers quite a bit this season so no need to do it again. In fact, one of Daniels' best games came in one of UConn's worst losses in the past two decades-a 17 point, 8 rebound effort against Louisville as the Cardinals were blowing the doors off the Huskies. However, before that, Daniels was his usual inconsistent self, failing to record double digits in either scoring or rebounding in the previous four games.

We know how talented both of these guys are. We know they can put up big numbers and create serious matchup problems for the opponent. And, as Lamb once showed, we know the worm can turn in a positive direction pretty quickly.

It's going to have to in order for the Huskies to actually make some March noise.

After those two, UConn needs its role players to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Niels Giffey, Amida Brimah, Lasan Kromah, Phil Nolan, Tyler Olander, Terrence Samuels, and even Kentan Facey all need to play good basketball. In every sport, championship teams need at least one game where the surprise player steps up and has a big impact. In 1999 I remember UConn's defensive specialist Ricky Moore scoring at will in the first half of the championship game against Duke. I remember Taliek Brown having a big game against Pittsburgh, scoring 13 points with a lot of assists and, of course, hitting a half-court shot to help win the 2002 Big East Tournament Championship. I remember Rashad Anderson scoring 28 points against Alabama in the Elite Eight of the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

Point is, someone not named Shabazz, Boatright, or Daniels is going to have to come up big in a big spot. Someone is going to have to have a game no one saw coming. That's how you win in March. It takes everyone.

And finally, the entire team is going to require an infusion of toughness. They've had it in spurts this year, but they need more of it now. That game against Louisville was an example of the Huskies getting punched in the mouth and having no desire for any more. They are going to have to want those games ... crave those moments ... and thrive on taking on the best of the best. In 2010/2011, Kemba and UConn seemed to revel in the idea of taking down the best the Big East and NCAA had to offer. Pittsburgh? Bring 'em. Syracuse and that zone? No problem. Louisville and Rick Pitino? Sounds fun. That's what this team needs ... a little swagger. That got knocked out of them a bit as the season progressed. They need to find it, fast.

I don't know what the next few weeks will bring. Quite frankly, there's a part of me that's pretty pessimistic. UConn's offense has been bad for a while now, and the Louisville game was the low point.
Sometimes, when a team is fading at the end of the year, there's no turbo button to push. Sometimes, they just fade away completely.

Maybe that happens starting against Memphis. Maybe beating the Tigers, on the road, for a third time this year, is too much to ask. Maybe that lands UConn an 8 seed in the Tourney and an unfavorable matchup. Maybe the Huskies have won their last game of the season.

But it doesn't have to be that way. We've seen Husky teams enter March Madness with big questions. We've been down this road before, and we've seen Husky greats step up and produce.

Why can't that happen this year? Why can't it begin against Memphis?

No reason I can see.

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