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Takeaways from UConn Men’s tough road loss at West Virginia

The Huskies kept it tight throughout but couldn’t pull off the win in their first true road game

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s basketnall suffered their second loss of the season Wednesday night with a 56-53 road loss to West Virginia. Here are some takeaways on the Huskies’ performance against the Mountaineers.

Late Game Gaffes

Goodman: No, this isn’t meant to be some pun about Jalen Gaffney, but an unfortunate narrative for the whole team. While UConn did come into this game having only dropped one to Michigan State, late game execution has been a weakness throughout the first third of the season and tonight was no different. After the Huskies led 51-48 with four minutes remaining, West Virginia outscored UConn 8-3 the rest of the way, with UConn’s only points coming on a desperation Whaley putback with 12 seconds remaining. In this span the Huskies committed two turnovers, five fouls, and missed six shots. West Virginia tried their best to give the Huskies a chance with their free throw woes, but UConn couldn’t capitalize. A crucial missed box-out by Akok Akok on one of these misses felt like the nail in the coffin. There was hardly any sustained offensive rhythm in this one on both sides, but Hurley has to have these guys executing better at the end of games in order to hold serve in the Big East.

Huggins’ Chess Moves

Patrick Martin: In the last four minutes of the game, West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins showed why it’s an absolute farce he’s not in the college basketball hall of fame. With the Mountaineers on the brink, he threw the following defensive looks at UConn to close the game out:

-Huggins’ vaunted 1-3-1 zone with ratcheted up ball pressure

-Double-teams on RJ Cole, UConn’s only ball handler that night

-A three-quarter press that once again gave the Huskies nightmares

The chaos it created —fueled by a rowdy crowd — was Huggins’ ace in the hole at the end of the game. The schemes completely threw short-handed UConn out of sorts. You can’t blame Dan Hurley for a lack of response either, considering he’s down two of his three most important players.

Instead, the takeaway here is that you won’t find many college coaches in today’s game with personnel that can make those sort of in-game defensive adjustments. UConn’s already faced two of them in Tom Izzo and Huggins, and you can make an argument that Villanova’s Jay Wright is the only one they’ll face this season until the NCAA tournament. Then add in Auburn and VCU’s ball pressure chops and UConn has faced some of the toughest defenses in the country and it’s not even Christmas yet. The loss stings now, but facing some of the best-coached defenses in the game can only help come March.

Goodman: Patrick is right. UConn has played some great defenses through their first 10 games, as well as some of the best minds in the college game. There’s no doubt that some of these looks gave them fits, especially the press, but seeing these early and often is only going to help them as they progress through the season and in the NCAA tournament. RJ Cole is obviously the dominant ball handler for UConn but there are a number of guys that have the ability to help relieve some of the pressure that Cole shoulders, including Gaffney, Jackson, and Hawkins. All of these guys not only need to be better about protecting the basketball but they also need to help each other out more.

RJ Cole is the Guy

Last season was Bouknight. The season before that was Vital. UConn has always had a go-to guard that can get them tough buckets when the shots aren’t falling. Coming into this year, one of the lingering questions was can RJ Cole assert himself offensively more effectively?The Huskies are still figuring some things out like how to best utilize Akok and Andre Jackson on offense, Samson Johnson’s fit into different lineups, among others. But one thing is clear. RJ Cole has proven that he is the go-to guy to get the Huskies out of offensive slumps. In this one, UConn was down by five (the largest margin of the game amazingly) and West Virginia seemingly had all of the momentum on their side. Cole then hit two threes from the exact same spot on the right wing in a 30 second span (more threes than UConn hit all of the first half) to pull UConn ahead by one. He wasn’t able to tie the game at the buzzer but his leadership was definitely on display in this one. You can tell he wants the ball in his hands during these moments, when he senses that the team is in dire need of some rejuvenation. I just hope moving forward more guys are able to step up in these instances because it can’t just be Cole burdened with being the offensive savior every time UConn finds itself in a scoring drought. You can say that Sanogo can/has played this role in some capacity, but so far this season Cole has really come through for the Huskies when they need a spark on offense. Especially against VCU. UConn probably doesn’t win that game if not for Cole’s willpower.

Keep Calm

Goodman: On the road, in one of the toughest places to play in the country, against a top-50 KenPom team and a hall-of-fame coach, down two starters, and two top rebounders. These were the circumstances UConn was going up against. I’m not one to make excuses, and I know Dan Hurley sure isn’t, but UConn was still impressively in a solid position to win even given what they were up against. To all of the UConn fans out there in disbelief about dropping this game, remain calm. This is by no means a bad loss. This UConn team is very very good and can compete with anyone in the country at full strength. Playing the Bonnies on Saturday will be another great test of UConn’s depth and toughness.