Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Go You Huskies

I've resisted blogging about the UConn Huskies men's hoops team, instead leaving the critical analysis to the folks who actually get to witness them in person. But having watched my fourth game of the season the other night, a 70-59 win vs Cincinnati, I have some haphazardly organized thoughts about the 2005-06 squad:

They're talented, no doubt, but something's missing right now. At this point they're coasting along on reputation and the national championship experience of 2004's holdovers. It's too early to say whether the #4 ranking means anything at all. This is an enigmatic team. Four days after an ugly 17-34 performance from the free throw line in a loss to Marquette, they somehow manage to sink 20 of 25 free throws against LSU and then went 16-20 vs Cincy. In the LSU game, they turned the ball over just 6 times -- 3 miscues each for Rudy Gay and Marcus Williams. Just two days later vs Cincy, Denham Brown turns the ball over 5 times by himself as the team commits 14 turnovers. What the hell?

This inconsistency drives me nuts. "UConn basketball," such as it is, can be boiled down to a single word: toughness. Calhoun emphasizes defense and rebounding, and he is particularly adept at recruiting fluid, athletic players and getting them to buy into his philosophy. He loves to use the phrase "imposing their will" to describe how UConn games are won or lost. The talent for this team is there, but is the effort?

And where's the killer instinct? They have yet to blow out an opponent that can be reasonably classified as "good." Case in point: in the Cincy game, against a shorthanded opponent (a 7-man rotation that just lost senior leader Armein Kirkland to a career ending knee injury), they take a 63-51 lead with 6:57 remaining. Ordinarily, a Final Four caliber team steps on the accelerator and wins going away, by 15-20 points, right? No, not this team -- they let Cincy creep back into it and cut the lead to 7 with 3:47 left.

And some of the veterans appear to be regressing. I defy you to watch Denham Brown, Josh Boone, Rashad Anderson, and even Marcus Williams at times, without wanting to break something. Forced passes into traffic, shot clock violations, dumb fouls, missed layups, etc. How about Rashad fouling an LSU shooter in the act of heaving a desperation 3 pointer with time running out, thereby stopping the clock and giving LSU 3 free throws? Or Josh Boone leading the NCAA in Missed Tipbacks and Shot Blocks Against By a Player 6-10 or Taller?

Calhoun's greatest challenge will be figuring out how to use all his pieces. Right now his substitution patterns and lineup choices are curious. Ed Nelson and Marcus Johnson might as well be serving the other guys water or waving pom-poms for all the minutes they've gotten lately. Rashad Anderson is a one-dimensional gunner. He'll grab a few rebounds, make the occasional nice pass, and is capable of sinking the dagger three but he can't dribble penetrate or create his own shot. Rudy Gay...don't get me started. Shows flashes of promise but too willing to settle for the 15-18 foot jumper. With his size and skill he should be going for the SportsCenter dunk every time. Who's going to stop him?

The brightest spot of the season, by far, has been Hilton Armstrong taking The Leap. He's aggressive, he's assertive, he's tough -- what a turnaround. By far the team's best post option and a legitimate matchup problem for many teams. Hilton has really improved his footwork and developed some moves around the basket; plus he's not afraid to pull up for a 10-12 foot jumper if left unguarded. He's a ferocious rebounder and tenacious shot blocker. As long as Armstrong stays out of foul trouble, he's going to be a major force. Another great example of a decent player who stayed in school and developed into a star. Yes, it's premature, but I'm relishing the inevitable Duke-UConn matchup where Hilton silences the Shelden Williams partisans.

Ultimately I think this team has the pieces to win another national championship. They're talented, they're deep, they're tough, and they have a nice blend of youth and experience. All that's missing is consistency and a set lineup with everyone's roles clearly defined. That tends to take shape by the middle of the Big East schedule and I am confident Calhoun will find the right mix.

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