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The State of UConn Basketball

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At 7-5 with games against competitive teams going very poorly, UConn Men’s Basketball is not in a good place. What’s up with that?

NCAA Basketball: Stony Brook at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

For a brief moment, we allowed ourselves to have hope. After a dismal 2016-2017 season, this one started off with some promise for Kevin Ollie’s UConn Huskies. Jalen Adams and Terry Larrier showed signs that they could be all-conference players, it looked like some of the new guys would be able to contribute, and Alterique Gilbert’s return from last year’s shoulder injury brought a fun flavor to the squad. The Huskies beat Oregon in Portland to open the PK80 Tournament and it looked like this team had some real upside.

But Gilbert re-aggravated that shoulder in the next game against Michigan State and UConn has spiraled into the shitter since. Maybe it’s the combined impact of Gilbert’s absence, a hectic travel schedule, and having a bunch of new players on the roster trying to gel, but at this point, it’s clear this team is not playing to the level of its talent and that the coaching has something to do with it. Oh, by the way, Gilbert is officially out for the rest of the season, so that part ain’t changing.

These challenging times lead Husky fans to jump to all sorts of conclusions. Some wanted Kevin Ollie gone after last season, now many more are on board with the idea and a wide range of reasons are circulating to try to explain the Huskies’ struggles. Let’s break it all down, Mythbusters style.

This team is bad...

Truth. The statistical evidence is disgusting. UConn is ranked 115th in KenPom, 177th in offensive efficiency and 79th in defensive efficiency. The Huskies are ranked 302nd in the country in three-point shooting percentage and 299th in two-point percentage. My decades of basketball-watching expertise tell me that putting the ball into the hoop is really important, and this year UConn is one of the worst teams in all of Division 1 at it. It should go without saying, but these numbers are all lows in the KenPom era, which dates back to 2002.

No matter how injured or new the roster is, there are no excuses for needing overtime to beat Columbia and Monmouth, being dominated by an average Syracuse team, barely making it past Coppin State, and getting demolished at Auburn. Those are all completely unacceptable outcomes and the way they are happening is indicative of greater issues than the guys not knowing how to play together.

... and it’s all Kevin Ollie’s fault

At this point, after defending him hard for the past couple of years, I’m willing to place a decent amount of blame on the man on top for this year’s struggles. Ollie doesn’t use time-outs to stop opponents’ runs and hasn’t seemed to master the art of putting his best players on the court for as long as possible, and these problems are not new. That the in-game decisions haven’t improved over time is his responsibility. He is also the one who should be held accountable for the attrition which led to the current state of the roster.

But some of this is also on the players. Jalen Adams showed that he has the skills to be the next great UConn lead guard, but seems to lack the leadership and take-overability (new word) to elevate his team when it needs it. Additionally, Terry Larrier has been inconsistent despite having the talent to be a star. Regarding the team’s poor shooting, KO’s offensive strategy is under fire, and rightfully so, but he isn’t the one hucking contested three-pointers with lots of time on the shot clock. He can only yell ‘don’t do that!’ so much.

The conference is killing us

Yes, if UConn going to play an average conference foe, it certainly means more to beat Marquette or St. John’s than Tulsa or Houston, and that hurts attendance. But that isn’t why this team is historically bad (by UConn standards). Recruiting is certainly hampered by being in the AAC, but Cincinnati, SMU, Temple, and even UCF have found a way to make it work. The first two have been pretty consistent about it. The fact that schools are succeeding in the American and that UConn isn’t one of them is on the Husky staff. The current struggles have much less to do with conference affiliation than most UConn fans want to believe.

This program is dead!

False, a few bad years don’t kill a program. Almost every school, besides a very small handful of them, experiences downturns, and it doesn’t mean the program is forever doomed. There are some tough decisions ahead which need to be made in order to make sure UConn doesn’t actually spiral into irrelevance but that’s further away than most think. People love to overreact and are desperate to be the first to make a call like this. Fight the urge. A great coach can make all the difference. We thought we had one, now we aren’t so sure, but if we don’t it is a fixable problem.

Kevin Ollie is doing a bad job

This one hurts, because it’s so damn hard to speak ill of the guy who willingly took on the challenge of following in Jim Calhoun’s footsteps knowing he’d have a postseason ban in his first year and a downgrade to the American Athletic Conference the next and then did so well in his first two seasons in Storrs, including an incredible run to the 2014 national championship. Since then Ollie has been able to put together some solid, albeit unspectacular, teams under very challenging circumstances and as recently as 15 months ago things seemed to be on track for a return to glory.

Then came the historically bad 2016-2017 season, of which the results aren’t nearly as bad as the aftermath. That they lost more than they won after two of the team’s three best players were out injured very early in the season is excusable. Unfortunately, three young, promising players transferred in the offseason, and a highly-rated recruit flipped his commitment, leaving some gaping holes on the roster. Ollie and staff did their best to fill them, but that’s an uphill battle and it hasn’t been working out well. Do they deserve another chance after creating an environment where a bunch of talented players wanted to leave? Are there signs they can fix their problems? Are the pains of making a change worth it? Those are the tough questions David Benedict will have to wrestle with as he evaluates the status of this program.

Ultimately though, this team has plenty of talent—enough that it should be comfortably putting away Columbia and Coppin State, at least—and is underperforming. It’d be hard to argue for keeping things exactly the way they are.

UConn has to fire Ollie

This is where it gets tricky, because UConn is poor. If the school is making power conference money then this is potentially a much easier decision: if you think he’s bad, send him packing because we can afford to bring in a really good replacement. We’d have the luxury of finding this level of underperformance to be a fireable offense.

But the UConn athletic department may not be able to afford a buyout of Ollie’s contract and the salary of a more proven head coach. When Bob Diaco was floundering at the helm of the football program, it was clear he needed to go but there were financial implications of firing him that may have kept him around. David Benedict found a way to make it work then, but that was for football, the most important program in the athletic department (unfortunately), could he do the same for men’s hoops?

If it isn’t feasible and Ollie ends up staying, I honestly do believe he can turn things around. The 2018 signees plus Sid Wilson seem solid—people are raving about James Akinjo—and Raphael Chillious should help improve the level of recruits coming in. Maybe a new assistant with head coaching experience can provide the mentorship KO needs and be a more cost-effective solution. Ollie deserves some leniency as he is just in his fifth year ever as a head coach at any level. I think it’s also worth noting that during Kevin Ollie’s tenure, graduation rates have gone up, APR scores have increased, and the program has been largely scandal-free save for a scooter incident which Ollie handled quite well. That should matter somewhere in the equation.

Bring back Jim Calhoun!

Obviously, I love the guy and deep down I feel that even UConn fans underrate what Jim Calhoun accomplished in Storrs, but this won’t work. It made sense to turn back the clock in football, especially for the aforementioned financial reasons, but Calhoun is not the right man to lead this program in the year 2018... unless he really wants to... shut up don’t talk me into this.

The athletic department is FUBAR because of this

We know all too well that being good at basketball is hardly a prerequisite for a “power five” invite. UConn’s chances of getting into the country club shouldn’t be affected by a bad two-year stretch in men’s basketball.