UConn lost to No. 22 Wichita State 95-74 on Saturday night, the seventh game of the season they lost by 20 or more points. While that’s a frustrating mark of a young and struggling team, games like that can also provide a learning opportunity for inexperienced players that aren’t big parts of the rotation. While some players haven’t yet proven to be consistent contributors in close games, they can gain experience and put their skills to the test in a game environment in games like this.
However, two of UConn’s freshmen, Tyler Polley and Mamadou Diarra, played only nine combined minutes last night in a game that never even threatened to be close in the second half. Those nine minutes would represent the low mark on the Huskies last night, and that’s with a combined number. Diarra was in foul trouble in the first half, but didn’t commit any more after going to the bench. Polley committed zero fouls.
This is far from the first time this year that freshmen with potential have sat during blowouts, making the trend even more baffling. In the 35-point loss to Arkansas, Isaiah Whaley played only six minutes despite playing good defense while on the floor; Whaley got only two minutes against Michigan State in a more competitive 20-point loss. In a 25-point loss to Auburn, Polley saw the least playing time of any scholarship player. In a 24-point loss to Memphis —a game where the Huskies were seriously shorthanded —Diarra played only three minutes, and he got the same amount of run in a 20-point loss to Villanova.
It’s getting harder and harder to justify keeping players with potential—typically Polley or Diarra—on the bench after it’s clear UConn won’t be making a comeback. Of course the Huskies should try to win every game, but if they’re down by over 20 points with only five minutes to go, the chance to win just isn’t in the cards.
Polley and Diarra aren’t just bodies, either; these players truly do have potential and will improve if given the opportunity. Diarra is a high-motor type who has played well in limited minutes; he’s a solid defensive player who has displayed great offensive awareness so far, shooting 75 percent from the floor and committing only two turnovers in conference play.
Polley is UConn’s top incoming recruit, the only eligible newcomer with a consensus four-star rating (not including the ineligible Sidney Wilson). Polley has struggled this season, but has a lot of room for growth, and was a big part of UConn’s last impressive win, when he played good defense for 37 minutes in the victory over tournament-hopeful Southern Methodist.
So why don’t they get playing time when the game is no longer competitive? That’s where it becomes harder to figure out just what Kevin Ollie is thinking here. Sure, against Wichita State, Kwintin Williams had a moderately impressive game, leading the team in rebounds and scoring efficiently, but played poor defense. UConn didn’t need a small uptick in scoring efficiency against the Shockers—the Huskies shot over 50 percent from two-point range and made 38.1 percent of their threes—but they did need defense, as Wichita State scored at will the entire game. Even if Williams’ rebounding was what led him to get 24 minutes (more than Terry Larrier!), Diarra had been rebounding just as well. So why keep Diarra on the bench for the entire second half?
There’s only so many reasonable explanations for this trend, but none of them make sense. If they don’t play early so the team can be as competitive as possible, why don’t they play late when the game is no longer competitive? If Ollie wants to reward players for their good play, why wouldn’t that carry over to the next game? And if Ollie wants to play the players best suited to the team’s needs at the time, why are Polley’s and Diarra’s skills so rarely called upon?
There aren’t good answers to any of these questions, and all of the possible answers have very little to do with the continued development of either Polley or Diarra. If UConn is to have any future success with these players, Polley and Diarra will have to be big parts of future teams. Their improvement isn’t just desired, it’s mandatory for the team to compete for an NCAA tournament berth in the near future.
The season isn’t wasted for the Huskies; they’ll have plenty of opportunities to both improve as players and win games. But in games where the opportunity to win simply isn’t there anymore, Ollie has to place more of an emphasis on getting his young players the game experience they need in order to get better.