I've got to imagine UConn's by-the-skin-of-their-teeth win last night against Maryland is kind of the perfect coaches game for Kevin Ollie.
First, it was a win. That's the most important thing. Add a "W" to the column, against a good ACC team that promises to, at the very least, be on the bubble come tournament time. Its nice to already have a quality, resume-building victory after game one of the season.
Second, UConn dominated this game for a little over 30 minutes. From about the mid point of the first half on, it felt like the Huskies could do whatever they wanted. Drive to the basket? Check. Kick it out for an open three? Check. Rebound? Check. Block shots? Check. Frustrate Maryland defensively, with steals and some tenacious defense? Check and check.
For those 30 minutes, UConn made it clear they were the better, more talented squad, with a great mix of younger and older players.
Third and finally, UConn's last 10 minutes gives Ollie PLENTY to coach off of the next few days.
As Aman chronicled last night, the Huskies nearly let that game get away. Instead of being an impressive showing, it turned into a nail biter and almost, almost ended as a dispiriting loss right at the beginning of the season. Luckily, UConn hung on, thanks in part to a really bad shot selection by Maryland at the end and a terrific rebound by Amida Brimah, who was HUGE all game long.
If Ollie was looking for something to talk about in practice, UConn gave it to him.
It started with the Shabazz Napier technical foul. I have no idea if it was warranted or not. The only replay of it I saw showed Shabazz running back on defense after a UConn score to go up big, smiling and laughing. I have to imagine more happened, because being happy shouldn't be against the rules, right? Or maybe that was part of the NCAA sanctions-UConn lost scholarships, tournament eligibility, and the right to be happy about anything, ever.
Whatever Shabazz did to earn the T, it was a stupid, immature moment on his part and sparked an 11-0 Maryland run, and I believe something like a 24-8 finish to the game-the reason why the Huskies went from comfortably up 17 to almost losing.
Shabazz regressed in the last 10 minutes of that game, as if possessed by the 2011/2012 version of himself. He took a few really bad shots early in the shot clock when UConn was still comfortably ahead, then had a few times where he did the "dribble the air out of the ball" routine, failing to get UConn into their offense. It was a classic Shabazz game where, for 30 minutes he was the main reason the Huskies were in the lead and then, for 10 minutes, he was a big reason why they were struggling.
But UConn's near collapse certainly wasn't all on Shabazz. The team stopped hitting shots, committed some dumb fouls, played really lax defense, especially in transition, and then missed the front end of 1-and-1 free throws at the end that would have essentially sealed the deal.
It was also disappointing that DeAndre Daniels was basically a non factor all game long and Omar Calhoun vanished during that tough stretch toward the end.
However, there was a lot of good as well. Shabazz, despite his shaky last 10 minutes, had one of those complete games - 18 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists. Niels Giffey looked great off the bench, adding 13 points (second highest point total on the team) and 4 rebounds. He looks like a different guy. I think that experience playing on the German national team really helped.
I liked what I saw from Terrence Samuels, who made a HUGE layup late in the game to at least slow Maryland's run, and Lasan Kromah debuted with 8 points and a couple of nice, showy dunks. Looks like a fun player, athletic kid who's ready to contribute.
Yet, the guy who stood out to me was Brimah.
The stat sheet says he blocked three shots. That might be the amount of shots he got a hand on, but he impacted half a dozen others. Brimah looks like one of those classic, natural rejectors. He has an incredible wing span on an already tall 7 foot frame, and it looks like his foot work and athleticism is a lot more advanced than I thought. A few of those blocks were on help defense, and required the big man to move quickly and avoid fouling.
What was even more impressive to me was the fact that Brimah seemed to hold his own on the low block. Ultimately the rebounding numbers weren't that impressive - only 3 - but there were a few times he kept the ball alive for a teammate, and, even though he obviously needs to put on some bulk and get stronger, I didn't get the sense he was completely manhandled by Maryland.
Of course, he got the BIGGEST rebound of the night on that final Maryland shot. It was a great box out and a one-armed grab to essentially secure the win. Last year, I don't know if UConn has anyone that would have won that battle. More than likely, a Terp would have gotten a put-back chance at the win.
All in all, there was more to like about that game than not. Besides maybe the disappointing no-show by Daniels and the disappearing act by Calhoun down the stretch, I'm not sure the last 10 minutes reveal anything more about the Huskies than the fact that they simply played sloppy, poor basketball and it almost cost them. I have no doubt Ollie will be hammering that fact home. Games don't end on a mercy rule. Being up by 17 with 9 or so minutes to go doesn't mean anything if you stop playing crisp basketball.
But this team looks deep, it looks athletic, it looks like a group that will be able to score in a variety of ways, and despite once again having its point guard lead the team in rebounding, they still seemed a lot tougher on the glass than they did last season.
I'm willing to forget about those last 10 minutes and focus on those first dominant 30. Hopefully, moving forward, that's what the Huskies do as well.
1-0 baby. Bring on Yale.