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Preview: UConn Men’s Basketball vs. Oklahoma State in the Maui Invitational

The Huskies have the talent to turn things around. An interesting matchup awaits in the start of Maui Invitational play.

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational Press Conference Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, not even the most sanguine UConn fans would deny that the Huskies are dealing with an offensive crisis right now.

Out of 351 Divison-1 programs, UConn ranks 335th in points per game (61.3), 311th in field goal percentage (39%), and 319th in three-point percentage (27%). Through three games against lackluster competition, UConn (1-2, 68th KenPom ranking) has totaled 34 assists and 33 turnovers.

To make matters worse, freshman point guard Alterique Gilbert (10.3 PPG, 50% FG), who leads the team with a 110.9 Offensive Rating thus far, is unlikely to play this week after dislocating his left shoulder against Loyola Marymount on Thursday.

UConn needs to find its offensive identity. Quickly.

What better place to do that at than the Lahaina Civic Center, also known as Gampel Pavilion West?

The Huskies enter Monday’s opening-round game (9:00 ESPNU) against Oklahoma State (3-0, 61st KenPom) on an eight-game winning streak at the Maui Invitational, boasting tournament championships in 2005 and 2010.

In order to extend that streak to nine consecutive wins, UConn will have to beat a Cowboys squad that features a pair of elite guards, an up-and-down style of play, and the ability to light up the scoreboard.

Though Oklahoma State’s 3-0 start under new coach Brad Underwood features victories over three opponents ranked outside KenPom’s top-300, the numbers are staggering—107 points per game with an average margin of victory of 31 points.

Against New Orleans last Wednesday, the Cowboys posted a program-record 68-point first half—more than UConn has scored in any of their three games this season.

Sophomore Jawun Evans (23.2 PPG, 63% FG, 3.0 SPG) and redshirt senior Phil Forte III (22.0 PPG) headline one of the best backcourts you’ve never heard of. Evans is the reigning Big-12 Freshman of the Year. Forte is 11-of-13 on two-pointers, 9-of-24 on threes, and 17-of-17 from the charity stripe thus far.

Aside from those two, Jeffrey Carroll is enjoying a breakout junior campaign. The Cowboys’ sixth man is averaging 18.7 points and eight boards per game this year… in just 18.3 minutes.

Oklahoma State plays at the nation’s 26th quickest tempo. Perhaps a firsthand look at a true pedal-to-the-medal philosophy will inspire Kevin Ollie and his squad on Monday.

All offseason, UConn’s fifth-year head coach hinted at a more up-and-down style of play, preparing his team for that by turning practices into track meets. Ollie set the goal at 18 fast break points per night.

Well, UConn’s tempo, measured by its 61.3 possessions per game, ranks 320th in the country as the Huskies have let inferior schools dictate the pace. As for averaging around 18 transition points? UConn has 15 total in the last two games.

UConn’s offensively challenged start isn’t what any of us wanted, nor is it something that anyone saw coming.

Jalen Adams has posted an 88.2 Offensive Rating, with his 11 points-per-game average aided tremendously by a large volume of floor time and shots. He’s shooting just 39% from the floor.

Rodney Purvis (5.7 PPG, 66.8 Offensive Rating) is 2-of-16 from behind the arc, having made just 26% of his three-pointers over his last eleven games dating back to last year.

The Huskies’ three best offensive players, per KenPom’s Offensive Rating, are Gilbert, Christian Vital, and Vance Jackson. All are freshmen.

The hope is that something clicked during the trip to Los Angeles, when Amida Brimah called a “players only” meeting in an effort to right the ship.

It better have worked. The clock is ticking. With two awful losses already on the resume, UConn cannot afford to have its offense continue to sputter in Maui, where prime out-of-conference opportunities await.

If the Huskies can’t regroup in a destination and tournament they’ve excelled at over the years, it may just be a long season after all.

Parting Notes:

  • Kudos to Brimah for calling the team meeting. Even more promising is how he personally responded to it—with his 4th career double-digit rebound game. Let it be known that Brimah (6.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 4.3 BPG) is not the problem.
  • Need reasons as to why UConn could break out of its offensive slump tonight? Oklahoma State fouls a lot, and its weak interior defense is waiting to be exploited.
  • Leyton Hammonds could be a key to this game. The Cowboys’ forward is coming off a 15-point, 13-rebound performance last Wednesday, but he’s committed eleven personal fouls in 53 minutes this season.
  • Vital was crucial in Thursday’s win at Loyola Marymount, going 3 of 8 from distance for nine points—with his cranky back holding up in the process. He will see the biggest uptick in minutes given that Gilbert can’t go.
  • Monday’s game means a little extra to Purvis, whose godbrother Tyrek Coger died suddenly during an Oklahoma State team workout this summer. The two were understandably very excited about playing each other in Maui. Both Purvis’ and Cogers’ mothers will be in attendance.
  • Jalen Adams, who needs to ramp it up for this tournament, said some interesting things after the LMU game: “We’re not that good. And we’re also not that good to be able to just play individual basketball. If we play together we can beat some really good teams, and if everybody joins in and does what they’re good at, we could be really, really good.”