Men's Basketball: Defense is key to stop their early-season slide

Pictured: Alterique Gilbert, number 3 against Northeastern opponent. The UConn mens' basketball team fell to Northeastern 64-61 on Monday Nov. 14, 2016 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. Terry Larrier scored 17 points for the Huskies. (Jason Jiang/ The Daily Campus)

Maybe you missed it, but you probably didn’t: UConn is struggling this season.

For the sake of this column, I’m not talking about the football team, who has lost four straight games and has a true freshman in at quarterback. It’s not the men’s soccer team, who missed the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years and bowed out in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament to Tulsa. It’s the men’s basketball team, usually one of the best in the sport, that sits at 0-2 after losses to Wagner and Northeastern.

Let’s be clear: It’s early. A season is not over due to two games, especially the first two of the year. It’s not time to panic, but it makes sense why people are at least a tad worried. It makes the few early quality non-conference games that are essential to UConn’s chance of a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament even more important than they already were.

If you’ve seen UConn play at all this season, it’s easy to spot their issues. There are the classic UConn problems such as a lack of rebounding and inability to solve an opponent’s zone defense, that are as a clear as ever. The Huskies have succeeded in the past despite these issues, so it’s hard to say they’re the culprit for this slow start. But throw in two more issues that have reared their ugly heads this season- defense and a slower-than-molasses tempo- and it compounds those issues even more, leading to struggles in the first two games.

Defense has defined great UConn teams and hampered mediocre ones. In the KenPom era (which began in 2002), the Huskies ranked no lower than 15th in adjusted defensive efficiency during their three national championship season (2004, 2011 and 2014), and ranked third when UConn made the Final Four in the 2008-09 season. In 2013 and 2015 under Kevin Ollie, two seasons in which UConn was not in the NCAA tournament, the Huskies finished 59th and 60th respectively.

Last season, the Huskies finished 12th in the country in defensive efficiency. While they certainly weren’t as good as any of the UConn teams from the seasons mentioned above, they did make the NCAA tournament and reached the second round. So far this season, UConn’s adjusted defensive rating is 40th, much closer to the 2013 and 2015 teams’ rank than last season’s.

Of course, this has also been fairly easy to see even without advanced statistics. This young UConn team has been mystified with pick-and-roll defense, failing to identify 3-point shooters on the perimeter, not switching on screens and failing to communicate. The result? A lot of open looks for Wagner and Northeastern. Any Division I will hit open shots if you give up enough of them, and if it isn’t fixed soon, the more talented teams will put games against the Huskies away in a hurry.

Fortunately for UConn, defense is something that can be taught and improved quickly, especially with a coach like Ollie. With speed on the perimeter in Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital, ideal size and length with Terry Larrier, Rodney Purvis and Kentan Facey and the best shot-blocker in the country in America in Amida Brimah, this team has the tools to return to true UConn form as one of the better defensive teams in the nation. As this young team gels and gets more experience under its belt, it’s possible for the Huskies to return to form sooner rather than later.

It may take some time, but this team has the talent to turn things around. While defense is far from the only problem this team has, it’s one of the few that can be fixed quickly and have the largest impact on the team’s success.

With a defensive-minded coach in Ollie and a track record of quality defense, UConn needs to return to form and lock opposing teams down. Once they do, the wins will follow. It’s impossible to say how long it will take, but it will likely happen sooner than later. Don’t hit the panic button just yet.


Dan Madigan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering football and women's basketball. He can be reached via email at daniel.madigan@uconn.edu. He tweets @dmad1433.