UConn lost to No. 1 Villanova on Saturday, a result that was never really in dispute. Villanova is one of the best teams in the nation, and UConn is a middle-of-the-pack team in the seventh or eighth best conference.
No one expected a win, and yet that’s exactly the issue at play here. UConn’s decline has been so sharp that not only is there the lack of expectation of even competitiveness at home, but also a general uncertainty of when the team is going to succeed again.
Bad years happen to strong programs all the time. Most notably, a year after winning the 2009 national championship, North Carolina barely finished above .500 and missed the NCAA Tournament. There’s a lot of volatility in college basketball, and ensuring consistency is near impossible. That explains how UNC can go from a championship to missing the playoffs, to a No. 2 seed and an Elite Eight berth in three-straight seasons.
UConn, meanwhile, will miss their second-straight NCAA Tournament this year, failing to reach the tournament in three of the past four seasons—with the one berth aided by a 70-foot buzzer beater. A stretch of disappointing seasons this long isn’t a bad year, it’s a decline. And with UConn looking as if they might finish with a losing record for the second-straight season, the decline is getting steeper and steeper by the day.
It wasn’t the loss itself to Villanova that put all of the Ollie administration’s faults on display, it was the manner in which it unfolded. The sharp juxtaposition of the two teams made a big difference, both in team makeup and in strategy.
Villanova’s offense revolves around 3-point shooting and shots near the rim, an optimization of percentages that reflects the ideal strategic outcome of a trend that has been occurring across all levels of basketball for well over a decade. Emphasizing high-percentage inside shots while threatening opposing defenses with the three is the only good shot selection strategy in basketball today—not only does it maximize a team’s points per possession, it forces defenses to defend both, creating open space in the lane and open looks from the arc.
Jay Wright has always understood this concept; even in his early days at Villanova he often featured lineups featuring three (or even four) guards with deep shooting range, and now his lineups are so versatile that all of his starters can shoot the three and drive to the rim. It’s emblematic of a process that emphasizes shooting ability and on-ball skills as recruiting priorities.
By contrast, Kevin Ollie’s roster is built for a bygone era of basketball, and his coaching decisions don’t help out on that front. His offense parks a big man near the rim, regardless of whether or not he has any shooting range, and if he’s prioritized shooting as a point of emphasis in recruiting, it hasn’t shown yet. He eschews the three-pointer as a major part of his strategy, and talks about ‘positionless’ basketball, which is a fine idea but he simply doesn’t have the talent on hand to pull it off and hasn’t adjusted.
The Huskies have finished in the top 100 in the nation in 3-point percentage just once in the last four seasons, and this year, their .303 mark is among the worst— only 18 schools in all of Division 1 have worse marks from range.
Shooting is not the only area in which Villanova outclassed UConn on Saturday. The Wildcats’ depth minimized the impact of their foul trouble, their passing and ballhandling skill meant their turnovers didn’t come from easily-avoidable mistakes, and they displayed great team chemistry thanks to the players’ familiarity with each other. Wright’s ability to manage a roster full of different players helped too.
Ollie’s team has little of that. Offensive sets that go nowhere have plagued even the good UConn teams under his command. The roster has been volatile thanks to a series of transfers and mistakes in creating complementary lineups that have left the team with chemistry issues. Lastly, the current recruiting strategies have left UConn with nine playable scholarship athletes.
Three players transferred away from UConn before this season. The year before that, there was another transfer, and there were two the season before that. Ollie even had a player transfer the summer after winning a national championship. The freshman class of 2016 was Ollie’s best summer ever, bringing in four players from the ESPN Top 100 recruiting rankings. Two of those four chose to leave the team. One has played nine games in two seasons. And the fourth played just three minutes each in UConn’s last two losses, both blowouts, both with shorthanded rosters.
And while it’s unfair to hold Alterique Gilbert’s injuries against Ollie, it is worth noting that Gilbert had a particularly nasty shoulder injury in high school too. He’s such a talented player that he was absolutely worth the scholarship under any circumstances, but dealing with risky prospects requires a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Backup plans could have included signing another point guard in the same class, holding onto all other members of the recruiting class so you don’t have to rebuild from scratch the next year, or not losing Makai Ashton-Langford. None of these backup plans were taken.
As the recruiting got worse (the current freshman class, though some players have potential, include zero members of the ESPN Top 100), it also got riskier. Last season, UConn had an open scholarship. Ollie chose not to use it on a graduate transfer. After injuries, the Huskies roster was left with eight scholarship players and they finished with a losing record.
This year, Ollie filled up his scholarship allotment. One was used—wisely, I might add—on Sidney Wilson, who is not eligible to play this season. I don’t mind sacrificing some short-term gains for what could be a long-term success; Wilson is talented. However, the rest of this season’s recruiting class was as haphazardly constructed as any I’ve seen in a season this important.
As mentioned earlier, the lack of a freshman point guard in this year’s incoming class is puzzling at best. Jalen Adams has been toying with the idea of leaving college to play professional basketball, and it was evident that Gilbert’s injury concerns could cause him further trouble. If Adams leaves and Gilbert gets hurt again, the only point guard on the roster next season might be a freshman.
Moreover, the emphasis on transfers has not helped UConn at all, and compounding the issue was the selection of risky transfer recruits. Anderson is struggling to adjust to tougher competition. Another transfer, David Onuorah, did not have much success in a much weaker conference than the A-10; he started the second game of the season but hasn’t been able to do much. Eric Cobb was brought in after being dismissed from his previous team after criminal charges were brought against him in a BB-gun incident, and he has been indefinitely suspended for disciplinary issues. And yet, another transfer was the riskiest of all—he didn’t play college basketball last season, had never played above the junior college level, and appeared to have the rawest skill set of the bunch despite being older than Andrew Wiggins.
The latter two of these players didn’t get in the game against Villanova, despite the blowout loss. That’s mostly on Ollie this time—even Mamadou Diarra, a redshirt freshman with potential who never takes a play off, didn’t play a second in the second half. And, it must be said: of course it’s admirable that Ollie was willing to give players second chances. It’s just that relying so much on several players whose progressions are uncertain isn’t a helpful strategy for the team as a whole.
That’s what Jay Wright does, at least. It’s evident with his team, too. Mikal Bridges is a likely first-round NBA draft pick this summer, and he didn’t start a single game as a freshman two years ago. Jalen Brunson’s passing ability has improved so much. Phil Booth struggled up until this season but now he’s a quality contributor.
By comparison, UConn’s players rarely develop beyond the skills they already have when they come to the school. The players are talented and they’re at the age where basketball players show the most growth, so why is their development stalling in Storrs?
UConn’s players haven’t been developing the secondary skills to make them college stars or quality NBA players. That’s not on the players, because virtually all of them work hard to improve their games. That’s simply a lack of quality guidance. All young athletes need help from a coaching staff to refine the skills they already have and show them the methods and techniques to develop new abilities. If one player on a team doesn’t improve, maybe he didn’t work hard; if the team doesn’t improve, they’re not getting the necessary guidance.
In UConn’s fifth year away from the Big East, they’re in a lot of trouble. It’s not irreversible, and the program can recover, but it’s in a bad place right now. However, they’re on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament in two-straight years for the first time since the 1980s. Something has to change, and the only way to move forward is to understand where everything went wrong. The best way to do that is to learn from the team doing a lot of things right. Villanova’s commitment to safe recruiting strategies, modern basketball and great player management have resulted in a program that will be strong for years to come. It’s time for UConn to make some changes and start catching up.