The UConn men’s basketball team has already dug itself into a big hole eight games into the 2015-16 college basketball season. The Huskies (5-3) have already suffered three nail-biting losses against three tough opponents: Syracuse, Gonzaga and Maryland. However, the saddest part about these three losses is that UConn could have won all three if they decided to actually play basketball in the first half.
The Huskies trailed by a large margin in all three contests. They trailed Syracuse by 17, Gonzaga by 21 and Maryland by 20 points. All three games required heroic second half performances. UConn was able to cut the lead to three in each game, but they would fall short in the end each time.
So what is the problem? UConn was the king of closing out close games two years ago. Why has it suddenly become their kryptonite?
The first problem is that UConn does not know how to score easy buckets. They love to play ‘hot potato’ around the perimeter. Sometimes it feels like no one knows how to create a shot. Sophomore forward Daniel Hamilton is the best creator on the team, but even he is one-dimensional at times. Hamilton is excellent at driving to the hole, but he cannot hit jumpers consistently.
Secondly, UConn’s ball movement has been a major issue. The Huskies have perimeter players that can shoot the ball, such as Jalen Adams and Rodney Purvis, but these players are never open.
I understand that Shabazz Napier and Kemba Walker were capable of making heroic 35-foot contested jumpers, but these guys are not Napier and Walker, at least not right now. They need spacing and time. Unfortunately, spacing is a product of knocking down open shots, which UConn has failed to do. Shooters like Omar Calhoun need to knock down open shots when they become available. It is the only way to prevent defenses from crowding the paint. They have to learn to respect UConn’s shooters.
Recruiting is the third area that needs improvement. Kevin Ollie needs to recruit big men that can play inside. UConn has always been a guard-oriented program, but this has to change.
Guards are essential for controlling the pace and transition, but big men help win close games. Real big men back down skinny players like Kentan Facey and Phil Nolan all the time. Remember the Gonzaga game? Domantas Sabonis ate the Huskies alive down low.
Ollie needs to get some muscle in the paint. That needs to be a priority. Athletic guards are a dime a dozen. However, a true big man that can dominate with pure strength cannot be matched. UConn has not had a true center guarding the paint since Andre Drummond. Amida Brimah is a fantastic shot blocker, but he is a liability on offense. He never seems to grab offensive rebounds against big time opponents.
The final thing that the Huskies need to address is the need to attack, and attack early. As mentioned before, the Huskies are always playing the comeback kid role. They need to play the first 20 minutes like they do the final 10. They will be surprised how much better they will do when they do not spot teams 20 points.
The key to winning is playing from the inside out. Hamilton needs to attack the basket early so that he can draw defenders inside. Once he begins to require help, the floor opens up for perimeter shooters. I have seen Hamilton fire transition 3s five seconds into the shot clock way too may times. That is simply not smart basketball. It is all about the little plays, and more importantly, the smart plays.
Do not misunderstand me, I realize UConn is playing against some of the best college basketball programs in the country. The three losses were against tough opponents. However, you can only get so many breaks. UConn needs to step it up. They need to beat Ohio State in Gampel this Saturday, and they need to go on the road and beat Texas on Dec. 29. These by no means are easy games, but they are games that the Huskies are capable of winning, if they play smart.
It will be interesting to see how smart the Huskies play this Saturday in front of a rocking Gampel Pavilion crowd that will be taking the stress of finals out on the visiting Buckeyes.