UConn men’s basketball dropped a stinker at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia Saturday, losing to no. 12 Villanova, 85-74, in a game that was not even as close as the 11-point margin might indicate.
The Huskies are in a precarious place, looking for answers with a tough stretch of schedule ahead.
McGrath: The Huskies are one of the elite rebounding teams in the country, particularly on offense, and it is not often they’re bullied on the boards. Saturday was one of those days. The Wildcats out-rebounded UConn by eight, with Adama Sanogo and Isaiah Whaley combining for just seven rebounds, despite playing 27 and 24 minutes, respectively. Eric Dixon, who stands 6-foot-8, 255 pounds, grabbed 12 by himself for Villanova. UConn has been in a funk offensively over the past few games but stayed in contests by succeeding on the boards.
UConn had just six second-chance points and though this is partially due to a 60 percent performance from the field in the second half, they surrendered 11 to Villanova, which helped negate the Huskies’ comeback bid that made the game look respectable.
Depth becoming an issue
McGrath: Dan Hurley has really shortened his bench, playing with at most nine guys, choosing to hold freshmen Samson Johnson and Rahsool Diggins, as well as Akok Akok at times, largely out of games through December and January. This became an issue very early on, as Akok was out due to injury and both Whaley and Sanogo had been charged with two fouls before the first media timeout. With both of his oft-used bigs out, Hurley inserted Johnson into the lineup the earliest he had played so far this season.
It was clear that Johnson was not ready, as he was a minus-five in just four minutes of play. Hurley shuffled Sanogo and Whaley with two fouls through the remainder of the first half, with each playing like they did not want to draw that third foul, which resulted in some easy Villanova baskets.
Hurley has said some of the people who aren’t playing much are not doing the things in practice that they need to do. However, this has come back to hurt the Huskies, as Johnson was thrust into one of the most important games of the season after having played a third of his minutes this season against Grambling State and with seven minutes of Big East experience. He was not prepared to be an effective stopgap and did not appear the rest of the game.
Whaley, Sanogo and Johnson are the only Huskies that can play the five, so if one of Whaley and Sanogo goes down or are embroiled in foul trouble, Johnson is going to have to play. If he has not come along as expected, that’s going to be an issue moving forward.
Kidwai: In addition to the youngsters, UConn needs more from a few experienced players who are falling short of preseason expectations. Tyler Polley is the team’s 4th-leading scorer with 8.0 points per game but his inconsistency is hurting the Husky offense. He’s shooting 33 percent from three and has had eight games scoring four points or less. As a fifth-year player, he should be able to contribute even if his threes aren’t falling and simply needs to be a more steady presence on the team. His 24 points against Auburn helped propel UConn over the now top-ranked Tigers. He needs to be that dude if the Huskies are going to make any noise in March.
Jalen Gaffney also needs to bring more. He doesn’t need to be an all-star but so far has not been able to handle the backup point guard job. The junior has gotten his turnovers under control so perhaps there’s a chance he gets better over the balance of this season. UConn really needs it.
Let Hawk Fly
Martin: One of the lone bright spots yesterday was the extended leash Hurley gave Jordan Hawkins. The freshman had nine points in 11 minutes, all in the second half. Beyond going three of four from downtown, his on-ball defense was spirited and he was aggressive attacking the rim. What was the difference between that Hawkins and the Hawkins we saw vs. Creighton or DePaul? After coming in at 10:55, Hawkins didn’t come out; Hurley let the kid play through a turnover and a few missed assignments on defense.
Sure the game was essentially over, but that sort of opportunity would have been preferable in December and January so the freshman can get into a rhythm. It seems that a lot of Hawkins’ shortcomings at the moment are confidence-based; he misses one shot and his head falls and body language folds. He loses his man once and he knows he’s coming out. If UConn is to properly course correct in the next month, Hurley needs to let his kid grow up on the court, not in practice. The Huskies desperately crave playmaking to offset Cole and Sanogo. Letting Hawkins play through mistakes and regain his confidence is UConn’s best shot at finding another playmaker for March.
UConn’s upside is looking limited
Kidwai: If Polley and Gaffney aren’t delivering what we expected, and none of the freshmen are major contributors, and Akok is not fully available, then UConn doesn’t have the deep March potential that Husky fans are hoping for. This is still a good team and things can change but their current flaws will prevent them from meeting the top-end of their potential.
I don’t think any of this needs to be an indictment of the job Dan Hurley is doing as head coach. This is his fourth season, the team is likely to return to the NCAA Tournament and the program is still heading in the right direction. For them to do this after losing an NBA Draft pick and dealing with an injury to Akok — a former five-star recruit who would have been a major difference-maker — is a sign of good roster management.