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UConn 61, Villanova 59: This team is the real deal

I'll admit it: I had my doubts about this team. Oh, I thought they were very, very good, or at least had the potential to be, but that doesn't mean I thought they deserved a top-10 ranking. On paper they had earned it, but when I turned on the TV, I didn't see a top-10 team staring back at me. Even after the huge win at Texas  last week I felt the Huskies were more lucky than good. If Rick Barnes could coach his way out of a paper bag then we would have spent the last week blasting Roscoe Smith and wondering what might have been. But that was all before today's game, because now, the doubts are gone: UConn deserves to be mentioned with the big boys. This is a top-10 team.

I could not and would not have said that after the loss to Notre Dame. The Huskies had dropped two of three and none of the supporting cast were playing at the level UConn so desperately needed. The team's youth and inexperience looked more and more like a fatal flaw and a long, slow slide out of the polls and into irrelevancy seemed very possible. 

Today's win changed that. It wasn't a pretty game, but UConn fought through. Down for most of the second half, the Huskies never quit, instead slowly wearing down Villanova until Walker could do his thing and seal a victory. UConn shot 35 percent and they did not get a lot of style points, but they finally made me buy in 100 percent by proving once again (and this time against legit Big East foe) that they can hang tough with anyone, grind it out and make plays when it matters.

That does not mean UConn's perfect -- far from it. There are flaws here, and everyone knows what they are: Lack of depth in the front court, no consistent offensive threat besides Kemba Walker, poor perimeter defense and a tendency to get killed on the offensive glass. Plus, there is the youth. Based on the level of play it can be easy to forget, but 92 of the 200 minutes UConn players logged today were played by freshman and with the exception of Walker, every player that truly matters to UConn's success is either a freshman or a sophomore. 

Do I think this team is going to win a national title? Of course not. Barring some sort of miracle hot streak I doubt they'll even have a legitimate shot at a Big East title (especially since you can probably pencil them in for another terrible week like the Pitt/USF/ND one at some point). But I do not think they're overrated anymore. They're good, and though they'll probably have the occasional misstep or off-night, they're not going anywhere.

A few random thoughts:

  • Both teams had poor shooting numbers today, and I think it might be fair to attribute some of that to the odd timing. However, I think most of the credit needs to go to UConn's defense, which has been consistently insane this year. Yes, the Huskies give up a lot of 3's, but if a team is cold from beyond the arc (like Nova was today), they're going to struggle.  Just ask Corey Stokes, the senior guard is averaging over 16 points a game this year. His line today, 0-6 from the field, 0-3 from behind the arc, 3 points. 
  • I wonder if it would be possible to lie to Walker and tell him that there are perpetually two minutes left in the game. I feel terrible for even starting to criticize him, but he had another rough outing efficiency wise (6 for 18). However, that problem seems to disappear as soon as we get down to the wire. We've seen it several times now: Kemba does not miss shots late. There is no one else in the country I want taking my last shot.
  • Jeremy Lamb. Goddamn where did he come from in the past few games? I've liked him a lot but he has EXPLODED. He had 14 points on 6-12 shooting and 8 rebounds today. More of that please.
  • Same for Alex Oriakhi. He still has trouble finishing, but he put up his third double-double in four games today. He's the anchor down low. I still maintain that since Walker is going to get his points and do his part, Oriakhi's play is going to be the real determining factor in how well UConn will perform. Keep up the good work big man.
  • Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith both had quiet nights offensively, but they played solid defense and didn't turn the ball over. That can be enough as long as one of the other freshmen steps up like Lamb did today.
  • It was nice to see the kids back in Gampel in front of a real crowd. It's a huge difference maker and I have no doubt that UConn loses this game on the road. Good work students.
  • The Huskies are off until Saturday when they host Tennessee. Meacham and I will be in the building as part of the Volvo promotion. There will be some sort of blog meetup. I'll fill you in on the details later in the week.
  • We have Kemba Walker and you don't. That is all.