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What went wrong in UConn men’s basketball’s loss to New Mexico State

After NMSU’s clunker against Arkansas, questions are being asked about UConn’s game-plan for Teddy Allen

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round - New Mexico State vs Connecticut Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Its time to rip off the Band-Aid. The UConn men’s basketball team was stunned by New Mexico State on the first day of the NCAA tournament. The Aggies abruptly halted a Husky team that many saw as a dangerous out and potential second-weekend matchup vs. Gonzaga. It’s been nearly a week, and I finally was comfortable cracking open the extended highlights.

**Proceed with caution if you have a sensitive stomach.

I Told You So

Husky fans all weekend were left wondering what on earth just happened. Well, Teddy Buckets happened, and some poor scribe has never felt so bad about being so right.

Teddy Allen torched UConn for 37 points, went 13-13 from the charity stripe, and hit contested shot after contested shot every time the Huskies made a run.

After an 0-6 start in the first half, four out of his next six baskets were off-balance fadeaways. In the second half, UConn’s closeouts were so frenetic that it threw the entirely defense out of sequence and opened up acres of space for the Aggies.

Hindsight is 20-20, but you can’t help but wonder how Allen would have done if Isaiah Whaley, UConn’s best defender, took some turns on defense. The 6-foot-9 Whaley has three inches on Allen, who is 6-foot-6, and it would at least have made some of those step-backs even harder.

Outliers, Outliers Everywhere

New Mexico State shot an absurd 11-17 from three, 64.7%. For context, the Aggies were 11-25 against Davidson, what then was their best win of the season. Aggies not nicknamed ‘Buckets’ shot seven of 10 from downtown. Sir’Jabari Rice shoots 33.5% from downtown and went three of six. Johnny McCants hit one and is a sub 25% shooter from outside the arc.

The Huskies were 10th out of 11 Big East teams in 3-point field goal percentage allowed (36.1%). But New Mexico State wasn’t your prototypical mid-major team that shoots the lights out; their three-point percentage for the year was 32.7%, seventh in the WAC.

In-Game Adjustments

The most painful part of the whole weekend was the clunker Teddy and company put up against Arkansas. The Aggies shot 6-26 from three, while Allen was held to just 12 points. New Mexico State certainly caught lightning in a bottle against UConn and you can’t “scheme” for that. But, was everything truly done to prevent the chances of a Bucket fest?

Check out these post-game quotes from Razorbacks head coach Eric Musselman about defending Allen. “Musselman referred to the notes he kept when it came to guarding Bryant, the late Los Angeles Lakers star. ‘I didn’t know if a college team was going to be able to do that,” Musselman said.

“Tonight’s scheme was a little bit more complicated than we’ve had,” he added. “I was worried about it today at the team meal even as late as 4 p.m. Did we try to squeeze too much in? When you demand a lot, it’s amazing what people can retain.” The Razorbacks pressured Allen each time he got the ball, and then kept him guessing as to when they would send the double-team.

It’s not like Arkansas had the better personnel to defend Allen either. Tyrese Martin and Andre Jackson played good, if not great, defense. You can’t fault Hurley’s staff in betting on that matchup. But to be truly elite in win-or-go-home situations, there has to be a contingency plan in place that isn’t simply “defend harder.”

Maybe you roll with Martin and Jackson on Allen to start the game and see how the matchup goes. But then you see all these ridiculous shots he’s hitting and have to think of something different to prevent the ball from getting into his hands. Coming out of the second half, you throw double-teams at him, deny him, and do anything to let anyone else beat you but Teddy Buckets.

Instead, it seemed like UConn was expecting its defensive identity to eventually take control of the matchup and a few of those circus shots to eventually clang out.

But you can’t risk a season on an in-game regression to the mean. You have to adapt when things hit the fan. That sort of in-game adjustment has evaded the Dan Hurley era in Storrs. That’s certainly not an indictment on his program-building, the culture he’s created, or his recruiting efforts. However, evidence is mounting that it could be what’s preventing a good program from returning to blue-blood status.

Adama’s Next Step

Adama Sanogo has to make some strides next year as a rim protector. All of the emphasis earlier in the season about staying out of foul trouble has dulled his decision making and aggressiveness on defense. He got lost on a few backscreens and clearouts in the lane, and still seems unsure on his positioning when a big man steps out of the paint.

Without defensive savant Whaley, Sanogo will need either to be paired with a shot-blocking presence (Akok Akok anyone?), or work on his side-to-side mobility to better patrol the paint. But remember; he’s supposed to only be a freshman at this point in terms of his age, and his work ethic is critically acclaimed by the coaching staff. He’ll figure it out.