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Postgame Talk: Is UConn starting to look like a contender?

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After a big win over Cincinnati, UConn is on a three-game winning streak and is playing its best basketball of the year. But are the Huskies starting to look like the national championship team from last season?

Are Amida Brimah and the Huskies starting to click like the 2014 national champions?
Are Amida Brimah and the Huskies starting to click like the 2014 national champions?
Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Things continue to look up for UConn, now winners of three games in a row. The Huskies moved to 9-5 Saturday afternoon with a 62-56 win over rival Cincinnati at the XL Center.

UConn is on a roll since losing to Temple on New Years Eve to open American Athletic Conference play. Down by 13 points with 17 minutes to play in the following game, the Huskies came back to knock off Florida in Gainesville. Two straight conference wins since then have UConn looking like a contender in the American again.

But are the Huskies also starting to show similarities to the typical championship contenders UConn is capable of producing? That is one of the topics Tim Fontenault, Matt Gionfriddo and Elan-Paolo DeCarlo discuss in our latest Postgame Talk.

Tim Fontenault: Consider me impressed with UConn after Saturday’s win over Cincinnati. We knew what to expect from the game. It was going to be a grind and the offense was going to be ugly on both ends. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is, the Huskies are starting to win basketball games. The Florida swing was huge and beating Cincinnati was crucial.

Alright, that’s enough talk about things that aren’t Rakim Lubin and Omar Calhoun. How about those guys off the bench Saturday? Lubin’s numbers were modest – two points, two rebounds, two blocks – but talk about producing when you’re needed most. That block on Kevin Johnson that led to the Calhoun three was the turning point in the game. As for Omar, is there anyone who still wants to give that guy a hard time? He is averaging 10 points per game over UConn’s last five and is shooting 57.1 percent from the field. And he isn’t even 100 percent yet. He’s actually farther away after spraining his toe in practice before the Cincy game.

Throw things at me if you want, but how long until we start talking about Calhoun getting back into the starting lineup over Daniel Hamilton? I thought Hamilton was horrendous Saturday and has been a liability at times.

Matt Gionfriddo: Yeah, I mean enough good things cannot be said about Lubin and Calhoun. Lubin made his presence felt in just 10 minutes which bodes well for himself and the team, but not so much for Phil Nolan who only played three inutes. I feel bad for Phil, but at the end of the day, Lubin was clearly a better option. As far as Calhoun, he just keeps doing what he does, making a big shot when we need one. We saw during his freshman season that he can make big shots, and when we said at the beginning of the season that there was room on this team for him, we were right. I'm still a little confused why he wasn't out there at the end of the game, but I guess we wanted length with Hamilton and on-ball pressure with Terrance Samuel.

As for Hamilton, yeah it's getting a little rocky right now. He is an unbelievably talented scorer, and really just needs to work on his ball-handling and decision making. Once those improve, then he will be the player that we saw at the beginning of the season, I just think the game may be a little too fast for him right now. The Calhoun over Hamilton argument is intriguing, and there's definitely a case to be made, I just wonder what that would do to his confidence.

Also, Ryan Boatright with ANOTHER stellar performance. 18 points, eight assists, four rebounds and that HUGE steal at the end of the half.

Fontenault: Lubin was definitely the better option. I say it every time I talk about him, but he reminds me so much of Jeff Adrien. As time goes on, I think we start to see some of that on the floor. Obviously, we saw some of it last night with his presence around the hoop. I thought he matched up pretty well with Coreontae DeBerry, which is an added bonus.

I can see how the decision to play Calhoun over Hamilton could be a hit to Hamilton’s confidence. But Hamilton is a player who prides himself on getting better and doing what his team needs of him in order to win. The way I see it, Kevin Ollie is as excellent a teacher of the game as there is anywhere in the country. This could be an excellent teaching moment. Here is a kid who is struggling and putting his team into dicey situations. Putting him on the bench could give him a chance to think about what what wrong and what he can do to fix it. That’s what a pro should do, in my opinion, and I don’t think there’s a better pro prospect on this team than Hamilton.

But yes, Boatright. He is now one of the top 20 scorers in UConn history and three points from passing one of my all-time favorite Huskies, Rashad "Slash" Anderson. He has been a joy to watch this year, as always.

Elan-Paolo DeCarlo: I think benching Hamilton is an overreaction. Right now, the plan should be to rehabilitate his confidence, not destroy it. Replacing him in the starting 5 could be a disastrous move. He's struggled handling the ball, but his defense and passing have not suffered because of it. Putting Calhoun in to replace him is not the solution. I love the way Omar has been a spark off the bench, I would not sacrifice that boost.

As for Rock, I'm all for giving him all of Nolan's minutes. Aside from drawing a dozen charges, has Phil Nolan done a single memorable thing all season? He makes no positive impact on this team and it would be wise for Ollie to see what the freshman Lubin can do. 

Matt, great point about Boat. I've been really impressed with him these last 3 games. His play against Cincy had the best stat line, but it's been his overall presence that has stood out. His shot attempts are a little down and that's for the best. He's always going to get his points, at the line and at the end of games, but his role as the point guard is to get everyone else involved. It's like Boat has realized that if he gets Purvis and Calhoun going, if he can feed Brimah a post up or two, then his supporting cast will bring more energy. It's really been a nice adjustment to see from the senior captain.

Gionfriddo: I think the case could be made for either starting, but I guess at the end of the day, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I'm just really impressed with this team right now. After the "panic" that set in after a loss to a good Temple team, we have now won three in a row with two good wins against Florida and Cincy. I think there's a good chance that we could split with Cincy, so getting this one at home is great for our team's confidence. We did such a good job, especially at the beginning of the game, of keeping them off the offensive glass which was huge since it limited second chance points for them, and then just ended up having a little more offensive fire power than they did. Purvis was nowhere to be found in the first half, but showed up in the second half when we needed him.

Now we have this road trip against a Tulsa team that is 3-0 in the American and a Stanford team who beat Texas earlier this season. If we win both of those, we then play both Florida schools at home (should be wins) which would put is in very very good standing.

Fontenault: All good points on Hamilton, and I’m inclined to agree. I just wanted to suggest the possibility and bring the counter-argument.

Agreed, Matt. Getting two wins on the road here will, in my eyes, erase the horrors of the early season. Win those two and beat the Florida schools and UConn is 13-5, which will look a lot better after wins at Florida and Stanford and over Cincinnati. Everything is coming together.

I had a feeling when UConn went down by 13 at Florida that that was where the season hung in the balance. I asked Purvis about it Saturday and he said that’s where the Huskies turned together. They came together and since then they have been playing the best team basketball we’ve seen from them all year. Chemistry was an issue early on, but I don’t think that’s a serious issue anymore.

As for Nolan, give Lubin his minutes, Elan. I agree. But in response to doing nothing memorable this season: Block from behind on Jahlil Okafor!

Gionfriddo: That win over Florida was season-changing. I know it's still a crazy long shot, but I'm finally believing that we can win it all, or at least make a deep run in the tournament. I'm obviously really looking ahead and may even be thinking irrationally, but our defense is going to continue to be solid with Brimah protecting the paint, and then our offense is finally getting guys to step up. I'm just so excited for the rest of this season because they have truly proven to me that they have the ability to make a run, especially with Ryan Boatright at the helm.

Fontenault: It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

UConn has won four national championships. Only in two of those years can you make the argument that they were the best team from start to finish, and I think you would only win that argument for 2004.

There is a saying I always use about UConn. It’s one that I used before the 2013-14 season and it is one I continue to believe in: "built for March." UConn won the championship last season by locking down on defense and making the plays they needed to. That is what this year’s team is starting to do. I would hate to have to play UConn, be it now or in March.

DeCarlo: PUMP THE BRAKES!

In its current form, UConn is not a national title contender. Yes, they have characteristics of a contender, veteran guards, coaching experience etc, but c'mon. We've yet to see this team really play 40 minutes of championship basketball against a quality opponent.

Now, going forward into tournament play, it's obvious UConn will be a tough out. They will fight tooth and nail until the final whistle, that's just in Husky DNA, but it remains to be seen whether they have the talent to go all the way. I have faith in Kevin Ollie and I'm a firm believer in the KembaBazzBoat train, but let's all take a deep breath, relax, and focus on Tulsa and Stanford. Forget about the Final Four and all that, let's enjoy the ride.

Fontenault: My point is that rarely do we see a UConn team that looks like a national championship contender before the tournament. The pieces are there, those intangibles that we mentioned. But did any of us think after that 30-point loss to Louisville that UConn was winning it all last year.

Right now, no, the Huskies are not a team that will be in national title discussions. But this is starting to look more like a team that is going to be ready to go in March. It’s always a process with UConn. They start great, slow down and hit some adversity and then improve over the course of the season. That is what it looks like is happening. Come March, this is going to be a tough team to beat.

Gionfriddo: I'll pump no breaks.  We should win it all every season.

Obviously, right now we are not a national championship contender and are not as good as the top teams in America, but we have continued to get better as the season goes on with guys stepping up.  I'm just saying that I am seeing what I want to see out of this team for what it could take to win, but yes it is only January.

Fontenault: Yes, it is still January. UConn has only played 14 games, so we have not hit the halfway point. That is exciting, especially if the Huskies can continue this upward trend.