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Takeaways from UConn men’s basketball’s loss to Creighton

The Huskies once again struggled offensively in their loss to the Bluejays.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

No. 17 UConn men’s basketball took a tough loss on Tuesday night, falling at home to Creighton in an ugly contest, 59-55. It was the Huskies’ first loss since Jan. 8, which was in overtime on the road to No. 24 Seton Hall, snapping a five-game winning streak and marking another ugly offensive game following Saturday's win over DePaul. It does not get any easier for the Huskies (15-5, 6-3 Big East), who will head to Philadelphia to face No. 12 Villanova on Saturday. Here is what we took away from the Huskies’ fifth loss of the season.

The Isaiah Whaley Game

Shawn McGrath: UConn’s offense was lost throughout the game. Akok Akok barely saw the floor, Jordan Hawkins had several 3-pointers rattle around the rim and out and Adama Sanogo was 3-10 from the field. This created an interesting juxtaposition with what was happening on the other side of the floor, where Creighton hit desperation shot after desperation shot throughout the first half, including this wild 3-pointer to close the beginning 20 minutes, where friendly might be understating the roll that Ryan Hawkins received.

It would have looked much worse if not for Whaley. He had half of his team’s 22 points and was 5-8 to start. He would also tie the game at 37 with a 3-pointer from the top of the key, doing the same with another shot beyond the arc to re-tie the game at 46, two of his four deep shots on the evening. He finished with a career-high 20 points and was one of two Huskies, along with RJ Cole, to reach double figures.

Whaley was certainly the offensive MVP, as he was the only shooter to hit more than 33 percent of his shots and finished 8-13 from the field. He also added six rebounds and four blocks, while not committing a foul in 33 minutes of play. The graduate student returning to Storrs was a big boon for the team’s depth and defensive prowess and as shown by Tuesday’s game, he is one of the most important players on this team.

Ryan Goodman: This was a top three game of Whaley’s UConn career. For a guy who didn’t even attempt a single long range shot over the course of his first three seasons, to all of a sudden become a circumstantial deep threat when he needs to be is enormous for UConn. It sadly wasn’t enough to propel UConn to a victory but the fact that Whaley was able to knock down a career-high four threes when Creighton just kept giving him open shot after open shot from beyond the arc is a major positive from a game that didn’t feature many of those.

To put his performance in perspective, Whaley’s most 3-point attempts in a game over his five years at UConn had been four prior to last night when he attempted eight. His most makes? Three against VCU earlier this season, which has only happened one time, and then two against Creighton last season, which also has only happened once. He’s not lighting up the box score like this on a nightly basis, but he always does whatever Dan Hurley needs him to do.

Slow Starts

McGrath: In Big East competition, which features six top-50 KenPom teams and two additional top-100 squads out of the league’s 11 teams, it’s important to be ready to play from the opening tip, or else the other team could build a lead that could prove too large from which to come back. UConn was 10-35 from the field in the first half and when Whaley’s 5-8 mark is excluded, that falls to 5-27. That is a paltry 18.5 percent and resulted in 11 points from players that were not wearing a No. 5 jersey.

That is not a winning combination and the only thing that kept the Huskies from being down by a larger margin than 10 points was the 10 turnovers that they forced on defense. Cold shooting nights are going to happen, but finding a way to score points, whether it's driving the lane and drawing fouls, crashing the offensive boards or trying different combinations on the floor to try and spark some energy and good fortune, is going to be a must over what will be a brutal February, as UConn plays its next seven games, including both of its contests against each of Villanova and Xavier, against KenPom top-100 competition.

UConn’s Kryptonite

Patrick Martin: I was initially going to use this space to complain about the lack of bench play, and how the poor play of Akok Akok and Jordan Hawkins has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the Carpenter gets a pass for one game because the more you look at it, the more Creighton just seems like a tough match-up. Head coach Doug McDermott has over 500 wins in 27 years for a reason. And while he molds his teams’ style to the personnel he has each year, there’s one constant: versatility.

The Bluejays are young, yes, but their recruiting class was number three in the country, per Rivals. They’re one of the few teams in the conference to match UConn from a size perspective. Sanogo has struggled when he can’t establish his preferred post positioning. Five-star Arthur Kaluma checks in at 6-foot-7 and 230 lbs — a real-life human bowling ball. So even when Ryan Kalkbrenner went out, Sanogo’s life inside didn’t get much easier. UConn tried to feed the low post, but Creighton’s help defenders kept shading the passing lanes comfortably, because UConn couldn’t hit water from a boat.

Ryan Hawkins is 6-foot-7 and 220 lbs, so he either shot over the smaller Tyrese Martin, bullied the skinnier Andre Jackson, or blew by the slower Tyler Polley. Trey Alexander and Alex O’Connell’s switchability disrupted UConn’s off ball flare action. UConn has struggled all year against teams with versatile, switchy hybrids on the wing and inside — Kadary Richmond, anyone? How about Julius Marble for Michigan State, or AJ Reeves of Providence? It’s now on Hurley to find ways to remedy that problem.

Rebounding Edge

Goodman: Creighton was dominating the glass for a large portion of the game, gobbling up offensive boards for easy weak-side put-backs. At one point they held a 25-15 rebounding edge, which is very uncharacteristic of this UConn team that has won the rebounding battle in 17 of 20 games - 12 of those by double digits. While the Huskies did fight back and eventually edge out Creighton in total rebounds 43-42, this definitely had to do with 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner tweaking his ankle and exiting the game early in the second half.

UConn still could not convert around the rim even with Kalkbrenner on the bench, though. The Huskies are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and they proved it yet again with 18 offensive boards in this one, but they also allowed Creighton to get 10 of their own and it seemed like the majority of those led to easy buckets right after the rebound. Creighton was simply capitalizing on the opportunities that they had manufactured for themselves, while UConn was botching all of their similar chances. It was an all-around off night by both teams for the most part, but giving up those offensive boards and put-backs proved costly in the end.