Our biggest fear entering Friday’s season opener was the foreseeable growing pains of UConn’s six newcomers, consisting of the five-man freshman class and transfer Terry Larrier.
But what we failed to anticipate—and what ultimately did the Huskies in during their 67-58 loss to Wagner—was the potential stagnation and rust still clinging to the returnees.
The starting backcourt of Jalen Adams and Rodney Purvis combined to shoot 6 of 22 (27%) from the field, totaling just 14 points. That equaled the scoring total of freshman Alterique Gilbert, who required just eight shots to fill that quota, doing so with a sense of poise that belied his rookie status. Gilbert may be inserted into the starting lineup as soon as Monday.
The trio of Amida Brimah, Kentan Facey, and Steven Enoch combined for four points and nine rebounds. Worse yet, they each took turns allowing Wagner’s Mike Aaman to have a field day—the flawed southpaw tallied 15 points and nine rebounds, earning KenPom Game MVP.
We were tantalized this offseason by the reported improvements made by Brimah (has gained many pounds since his freshman season), Facey (added 25 pounds to his frame just this summer) and Enoch (opened some eyes in Europe). That hype appeared to be unwarranted optimism on Friday as UConn was outrebounded 37-33 by a much smaller Wagner squad.
On Monday, UConn (0-1) hosts Northeastern (1-0) in the battle of the Huskies. UConn is 35-4 all-time against Northeastern, which was picked to finish 7th in the ten-team Colonial Athletic Association.
If Friday taught us anything, though, no cupcake should be taken too lightly for a UConn team that had just one lead against Wagner—2-0—and shot 27% in the second half, unable to dictate the tempo of the game.
Like Wagner, Northeastern won’t play scared, either. Just last November, the Boston-based school waltzed into Miami and shocked the Hurricanes. And three days ago, the Huskies put on an offensive clinic against Boston University, scoring 1.19 points per possession while making 61% of their two’s and 48% of their threes in an 87-77 victory.
When I previewed Northeastern earlier, I highlighted senior point guard T.J. Williams: Expect the veteran to distribute less and score more for his grand finale. Well, after averaging 6.8 points per game last year, Williams dropped 30 versus BU, posting a 135 Offensive Rating on 8-13 shooting from inside the arc and eleven made free throws.
Williams’ sidekick was Alex Murphy, who was granted a sixth year by the NCAA after previously playing at Duke and Florida. Murphy chipped in 20 points (4-6 2FG, 3-4 3FG), and now will attempt to pull a Mike Aaman as another 6’8” senior looking to give UConn’s frontline fits.
In Friday’s postgame press conference, Kevin Ollie said “We have to go back to the drawing board and figure it out. After this we are going to get better.”
The Huskies have no choice on that front. They’ve already lost to Wagner—if that defeat is an eyesore now, it might be nauseating on the resume come March. In the next 27 days, UConn plays Syracuse, at Ohio State, and versus Oklahoma State in Maui—with UNC and others looming should it advance past the Cowboys.
Gilbert is a stud in the making, while Terry Larrier (19 points, 7 rebounds) was solid and Christian Vital (5 points, no turnovers in 18 minutes) did some nice things as well.
The fresh faces aren’t the problem.
It all comes down to the veterans. It always does.