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Notre Dame 70, UConn 67: A very short March in the offing

Kemba Walker went nuts for about six minutes because Mike Brey is an idiot.

Brey insisted on not playing a 2-3 zone for much of the game, despite the fact that UConn averages -0.753 points per possession against the zone (roughly).

Brey insisted on putting in the lights-out Ben Hansbrough back in the game with four fouls with 9:00 to play, despite the Irish pretty easily maintaining their eight-point lead. Hansbrough fouled out less than 10 seconds after re-entering, rejuvenating the crowd and bringing the Huskies to life.

And for the next five minutes, it was all UConn, all the time. One of the best sequences of the season - I would say even better than the rolling of Kentucky in Maui - saw Kemba hit 3-pointers, drive for layups, get to the free throw line.

In other words, Kemba Walker showed why he can be the most transcendent player in the country - so long as you insist on trying to play man-to-man against him.

But as legions of after-school specials have taught me, with every high comes a crash. Notre Dame's Tyrone Nash scored on a 3-point play at the under-4 timeout to halt the run, the Irish FINALLY went back to the zone, and UConn only scored one more basket in the final four minutes (a Jamal Coombs-McDaniel putback after a missed 3 by Shabazz Napier).

So thanks for the brief moments of awesome, Mike Brey, but my brain would have appreciated it if you could have just not been an idiot for five minutes.

The last 10 minutes were pretty much a microcosm of the 2010-11 season, as UConn looked great, then faded. Notre Dame beat the Huskies by three points for the second straight time this year, and Jim Calhoun's charges dropped yet another winnable game by coming up small in the clutch.

With the regular season over, it's time to pretty much acknowledge that this team isn't likely to do much this month. We all know that UConn has a problem, and we all know it ain't getting better. If you had any lingering doubts (Porter), hopefully the last three minutes of today's game pushed you over the line.

The Huskies simply cannot score against the zone. It's not coincidence, it's not an anomaly, it has to do with the makeup of the team and the style of offense UConn plays. If you play zone, you will get 25 seconds of Kemba or Shabazz dribbling and launching a low-percentage, off-balance 3 off the dribble. There's no ball movement, no sets run to get a spot-up shooter open (because we don't have any shooters), no post hits (because we don't have any post players). Nothing.

It's why UConn will be exiting the Big East tournament on Tuesday or Wednesday (or Thursday against Notre goddamn Dame if we're lucky), and why they will probably be heading home for good within a week of Selection Sunday.

UConn is what it is at this point - extremely average major-conference team with some nice wins, a very good point guard, some of the worst shooters around and no inside game. Echoing a comment I made at the end of the open thread:

The Huskies won 21 games this year. Improved over last season’s nightmare, and such. But consider:

  • The Huskies were 4-9 this year against the other probable 10 NCAA Tournament teams in the Big East. The four wins were Marquette (which didn't play much zone), Georgetown (which didn't play much zone), Villanova and Cincinnati. The Huskies went 0-6 against the top five teams in the league.
  • The Huskies were 3-0 against NCAA Tournament teams OOC, but two of those came in November, before anyone knew anything about anything. And before teams knew that we were very easy to defend if you weren't a big idiot who played man D (here's looking at you, JT3!).
  • The Huskies went the last month of the season losing 7 of 11, including three horrifically blown leads at home, and two at Gampel, where we never lose.

It all adds up to say: this is an average team.

It hasn't been a fun last six weeks, nor does it look we'll be having a fun next two weeks, and it appears that all of the early success has turned out to be a complete mirage, or a team peaking in mid-January.

The only thing cheering me up is that hey - at least we're not 18-16 and headed for the NIT and at least all of the major contributors on the team aren't seniors. On balance, this has been a pretty fun season, and we'll be back next year. Bigger, stronger, and hopefully better. But I think we can just about call it a wrap for any lingering hopes of a March to remember.