Last week, for the first time in several months, I felt good about UConn basketball. Frustrating as it may be, I had started to make my peace with the fact that the Huskies would be missing the NCAA tournament, and I was excited to see UConn's lineup next year, which was stocked with likeable players that played a speedy brand of basketball that'd be fun to watch. At the very least the Huskies trio of talented guards, combined with their length at the wing position meant that UConn would play a fast and fun style that could build excitement for a 2013-14 tournament run.
By itself the move isn't the end of the world -- Smith was likely to be UConn's third- or maybe fourth-best player next year -- but it was entirely unexpected and almost equally inexplicable. This isn't Andre Drummond or Jeremy Lamb, two lottery picks who we expected to leave even before it became clear that UConn wouldn't play in next year's tournament. Nor is it Michael Bradley, a never-used bench player leaving because of medical issues. It's not Alex Oriakhi either, who transferred in a unique situation that would let him avoid missing a year of competition.
No, this is a player who was a lock to be a starter next year and the year after. But now he's leaving and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. Roscoe Smith could play, he really could. He was a key member of UConn's best lineup last year (Boatright, Napier, Lamb, Smith and Drummond) and whenever he was allowed to act as an undersized power forward he flourished. I have no reason to believe he wouldn't have continued to do so.
Where his minutes inconsistent last year? Yes, but that was because he got caught up in the coaching staff's inability to balance time for Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi That wouldn't be a problem going forward, and it's not inconceivable that he would have played 30 minutes per game for UConn next year.
Maybe he is concerned about missing an NCAA tournament, but with a title under his belt and a likely bid in 2014, does that make sitting out a year worth it? I doubt it -- and it wasn't enough to get Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright to leave.
So why did he leave? I don't know and that's what has me worried. College basketball players transfer all the time, but starters on college teams -- especially teams like UConn -- rarely do. Maybe we'll hear a reason for Smith's decision in the next few days that isn't related to UConn, something like a desire to get closer to family. However, the fact that we haven't heard that yet makes me doubt that we will.
For the past year UConn's basketball program has been beset on all sides by questions and doubt, but for a few minutes there it seemed like we finally had answers (even if they were bad) and a way forward finally seemed to be coming into view. Smith's departure doesn't mean UConn won't find that way, but it does cast an unexpected shadow right when UConn seemed so close to finding some light.
UPDATE: The miracle of twitter is that when you've been working a post over in your mind for two days it can get eviscerated in two seconds, as just happened to me when David Borges pointed out that Smith is leaving because he wants to be a small forward, and UConn wanted to keep him at the 4 (if this was reported somewhere and I missed it, my apologies). That doesn't make this any less of a shame though, because I've spent two years watching Roscoe Smith play basketball and it's become readily apparent that he's at his best when he's around the rim. Niels Giffey and DeAndre Daniels were both mightily inconsistent last year (and Daniels more or less disappeared toward the end of the season), but when they did show up they demonstrated that they had the skills required of a small-forward.
This information cuts against my existential "UConn is beset on all sides by questions and doubt" thesis, but it doesn't make the situtation any less unfortunate. I wish Smith the best, and understand that he is going to go in a direction he thinks will help him be the best player he can be, but I can't help but feel he won't be realizing his full potential if he focuses on being a wing. Furthermore, UConn's gaping hole in the front court is starting to look more and more like it was caused by a cannonball. It was a really big problem before, but the combination of Smith and Tyler Olander meant that UConn had at least one position locked up. No more. I'm sure the coaches are hitting the recruiting trail hard, here's hoping they turn up something good, because things are dire up front.