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UConn is only as good as it lets its forwards be

Win or lose, the credit this season has been given to UConn’s high-profile guards. But the frontcourt rotation has been the most important to UConn’s success—or lack thereof.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

When UConn’s play is discussed—apart from the largely deserved criticism of Kevin Ollie’s performance as head coach—the conversation typically focuses on the perimeter players. Whether it’s Jalen Adams (whether positive or negative), whether Christian Vital has a good shooting night or not, or whether Terry Larrier’s scoring overcomes his turnover issues, that’s what dominates postgame discussion among UConn Huskies fans.

What this column supposes is maybe there are other aspects of UConn’s play that are more crucial to the team’s success. Maybe the overall play of the backcourt is relatively consistent, when the individual players’ efforts are shown together. Maybe, this article posits, it’s the frontcourt that makes or breaks the Huskies.

Let’s first consider the reasons why UConn’s big men wouldn’t get as much recognition. Most importantly, they aren’t taking a lot of shots. A high point total would make it easy to notice a good offensive performance, and missing a lot of shots is an obvious indicator of a bad offensive performance. UConn’s big men don’t do that.

Secondly, they’re all newcomers. The Huskies’ frontcourt rotation consists of two transfers and three freshmen. With no hype for anyone before the season, it can be difficult to notice any standouts, especially when their contributions don’t show up in obvious ways. And, for one final big reason, it can be hard to notice quality defensive production without a high block total or a strong overall team defense.

So there’s plenty of reasons why UConn’s forward play has largely gone unnoticed, whether it’s good or bad. That lack of conversation is mostly unwarranted, though, as the performance of the big men has been the most important factor in each individual game.

Most vital to that performance swing is the defense. Terry Larrier’s defensive struggles are evident, and when he’s playing big minutes, other perimeter players are often left in desperation to recover. Against teams capable of making good passing reads (in conference play, most of them are), this will force one or both of the forwards to either cover a cutting player or rotate to an area of higher priority. At this point, and since the UConn defense is vulnerable to off-ball penetration, you’d probably prefer that the forwards in the game are two of UConn’s better defenders.

Thankfully, there’s a few options. Josh Carlton is increasingly becoming more versatile on the defensive end, to accompany his skill at affecting the shooter, and Isaiah Whaley has already proven to be a big asset in help defense. Mamadou Diarra is also solid, but limited for now; he has potential, but he’s far better in a one-on-one scenario.

The Carlton-Whaley combination has been working wonders for UConn; in Thursday’s win over Southern Methodist, the two rarely played together in the first half, and it was only because of an injury to SMU’s best shooter that the Huskies held the halftime lead. In the second half, they got much more playing time together and UConn extended their lead, holding the Mustangs without points for long stretches.

Kevin Ollie has one forward combination that works, and one that’s about as consistent as you can hope for—they’ve yet to combine for a bad game. The Huskies’ only road win of the season came in the first game where Carlton and Whaley each played 20 minutes.

However, they’re not yet good enough to turn their combined production into a team win. Part of that is a lack of offensive opportunities (Among the 11 Huskies with over 100 minutes played, Whaley ranks first in True Shooting Percentage, while Carlton ranks third), but part of that is a lack of options off the bench.

Although Jalen Adams is seemingly running a marathon every game, all players perform best when given an adequate amount of rest. Carlton and Whaley are no exceptions, and things can get tricky when they have to sit. First is the strategic issue of whether it’s worth it to split them up so both the starting lineup and the bench unit have a strong defensive presence. Secondly is the lack of consistency from the forwards who currently make up UConn’s depth.

Tyler Polley had a strong defensive game against SMU, but it appears he’s at his best when guarding perimeter players; this could benefit the team by moving Larrier to the defensive interior upon his return, but the overall effects of Polley’s improvement have yet to be confirmed. Diarra, as discussed earlier, has not yet developed into a reliable stopper, and he doesn’t yet have the offensive ability to help the team on the other end. Eric Cobb is still suspended indefinitely and might not be an option for the rest of the season. That leaves Kwintin Williams and David Onuorah, neither of whom have become trustable options.

Williams’ numbers are misleading as he’s entered games only sporadically and exclusively against other teams’ bench players. He may develop into a quality player, but his production has not yet been deserving of minutes.

Onuorah, though, has struggled in his transfer season. In conference play, Onuorah’s Defensive Rating (a measure of how many points the team gives up when a given player is on the floor) is second-worst on the team, ahead of only Polley. Onuorah’s turnover percentage the worst on the team, as is his assist total (he has yet to record one this season), his free throw rate (only one trip to the line all season), and his Box Plus/Minus (basically a measure of how many points a player contributes to the scoring margin).

This isn’t to harp on Onuorah, who has played quality minutes at times, but to underline the juxtaposition between the starting bigs and those on the bench. Whaley came off the bench against SMU and played well, but the question remains as to whether the team would’ve played just as well had he started.

This season, there have been three UConn players (minimum 100 minutes) with a positive plus-minus: Carlton, Whaley, and Christian Vital (Adams’ is slightly negative, but essentially even). Carlton and Whaley have proven themselves capable of handling as much of a workload as the team has asked of them. They’re good players, and the team consistently benefits by having them on the floor.

This leaves the team with a few decisions: as mentioned earlier, does Ollie exclusively play Whaley and Carlton together, or does he separate the two, so the dropoff with the bench unit isn’t nearly so drastic? When Larrier returns, does he move to an interior position to benefit the overall defense? Will Carlton, with his terrific January play, become more of a focal point with the offense?

That last one might be the most important in shifting the discussion to focus on UConn’s big men. The question can’t be whether Vital, Adams and Larrier outshoot their counterparts on the opposing team, it’s whether UConn’s big men can get enough opportunities—and the right ones—to contribute beyond what the guards add. With such a drop off from the starters to the backups and a far flimsier safety net than the guards have, making sure UConn’s forwards are in a position to succeed may be a far more important question to the team’s success than the play of any individual member of the Huskies’ top perimeter group.