Despite a herculean effort from a cramping Alterique Gilbert down the stretch, UConn fell to 0-8 in true road games with a 65-63 loss to Wichita State on a buzzer-beater from Samaje Haynes-Jones. Here are our takeaways from the game:
Ball Screen Defense
Patrick: Okay, so Wichita State aren’t the Warriors, but UConn stuck with its game plan of going under ball screens. They basically dared the Shockers to hit shots. And compared to the last few years, UConn’s communication and effort on ball screens is much improved. Even on McDuffie, the Shockers’ best shooter, the Husky guards did a great job of fighting through picks. This led to a lot of looks that seemed open, but a UConn hand was always right there.
Young Teams Have Positive-Play Momentum
Patrick: You have to walk before you crawl. When things were ugly (and hoo-boy, were they ugly), and UConn went two five-minute periods in the first half without scoring, small positives seemed to kick start some momentum. They were small things usually on the defensive end — a Cobb rebound, a Vital deflection — you can see the team start to energize itself after plays like that. This obviously snowballed into a nice-looking run on both offense and defense to end the half.
Patrick: Color commentator John Thompson III astutely pointed out on Tarin Smith’s and-one the driving lane opened up because Carlton stayed out of the paint. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Hurley had his bigs setting screens and occupying areas outside of the paint. This fixed the spacing, and allowed UConn drive and kick much more effectively, which led to easier looks. With proper spacing, not many one-on-one defenders can keep the likes of Gilbert and Smith out of the paint. Credit UConn’s guards for making the right decisions (usually) during that penetration. This five-out offense is what gave UConn fits against SMU, and it’s nice to see Hurley adjust on the fly.
Conversely, when UConn decides to feed the big men, the results are usually good. They went right to Carlton to start the second half and established the post. This forced Wichita State to sag down on him, which led to easier looks for UConn’s wings. Down the road, it’s easy to envision a UConn offense that can either be post-centric or perimeter-oriented, depending on game-flow and matchups. That’s...exciting.
Patrick: When Wichita brought a full court press with 12:00 left, UConn’s guards handled it with mixed results. While the backcourt broke the initial press easily, it sped them up too much, and never led to easy looks. The press would break, and the Huskies would resume their half-court offense, which everyone knows is not ideal. A track meet is what UConn should want. So while it didn’t force any turnovers, it didn’t result in any quick buckets either. Great teams are able to take advantage of a press and get easy baskets. That’s UConn’s goal.
Sid Needs Polish
Patrick: Much has been made about Sidney Wilson needing polish on the offensive end. That much is obvious, but it also applies on the defensive end. The wiry athlete doesn’t get down into his stance as much as he should, and is too jumpy on pump fakes. He applies good pressure, but is so upright that defenders can blow past him. So much of UConn’s defensive breakdowns were because his man penetrated.
The Last Shot
Patrick: I might be the minority here, but I didn’t see anything wrong with UConn’s defense on the last shot. Yes, Vital should have made Samajae Hayes-Jones change direction a few times up the court, but forcing a step-back seemed like the good move at the time. You could see Vital’s hands and body anticipating a layup, and the random step-back to the baseline took him off guard. You could say that’s bad reactions, but an off-balance two with time expiring is better than a layup.
Connolly: I’m going to disagree with Patrick here. I can’t figure out why there wasn’t anyone pressing the ballhandler on the final shot. There’s just over six seconds left. A full-court press doesn’t let Wichita State get up the court as quickly and could potentially lead to a mistake. Hayes-Jones didn’t even have to work much to get his shot off. The Shockers could’ve still won the game even with someone pressing the entire length of the court. But at least make them work for the shot. The fact that Dan Hurley took a timeout before that final possession makes the loss look even worse for UConn.
Is UConn Cursed?
Mike Sivo: When will something go UConn’s way? My guess- perhaps never again? That’s what it seems like. What is it going to take for this program to string a few positive outcomes together? Why must everything go against them?
Connolly: I posed this question on Twitter, but when was the last time UConn actually had something go their way? When did the ball take a bounce in favor of the Huskies? The general consensus seems to be Jalen Adams’ full-court buzzer beater against Cincinnati in March 2016. That’s three years ago. Since then, it seems like UConn is cursed. They’re always on the receiving end of heartbreaking game-winners, the injuries continue to pile up and things just always break for the other team.
It seems like when Jim Calhoun was hired in 1986, someone made a deal with the devil to let UConn become an elite basketball program over the next 30 years. Things (mostly) went great before the deal finally ran out. And this is what we’re left with.