It’s no secret that the UConn men’s basketball team has had its fair share of troubles this season, but their scoring problems in opening week losses to Wagner and Northeastern were nothing new.
In the program’s post-2014 title era, the offense simply has not been very good. In 2014-15, their KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency rating was 100th in the nation, as UConn failed to make the NCAA tournament a year after winning the national championship.
In 2015-16, they jumped to 59th in adjusted offensive rating (26th overall), a fine improvement, but still a disappointing final mark. Only one team that finished in the top-25 in overall KenPom efficiency rankings had a lower offensive rating – Wichita State, which finished 67th in offensive rating but made up for it by finishing first in defensive rating.
After the first few games of this season, it looked like a regression was coming. The Huskies put up 58 and 61 points, respectively, in shocking home losses to Wagner and Northeastern, before scoring 65 points in a much-needed win over Loyola Marymount.
It looked like matters could become worse as UConn headed to Hawaii to participate in the Maui Invitational, where they would play competition far beyond that of Wagner, Northeastern and Loyola Marymount. Those three teams were by no means pushovers on the nights they battled UConn, but their talent levels don’t begin to compare to those of teams from power conferences, a couple of which the Huskies were slated to play in Hawaii.
But curiously, the offense found a pulse, scoring 90, 82 and 69 points against Oklahoma State, Chaminade and Oregon. UConn only won the game against Chaminade, but they competed until the end in all three.
More importantly, the offense looked the part. Gone were many of the unwatchable possessions in which the Huskies passed the ball around the three-point arc endlessly, flummoxed by the zone defense before them, before a ball-handler chucked up a lifeless shot out of an isolation play. In its place: ball movement, penetration and the relatively consistent generation of quality shots.
There are plenty of factors that influenced this positive change, but one huge factor stands out: the play of point guard Jalen Adams, who seized control of the offense in the wake of injuries to guard Alterique Gilbert and forward Terry Larrier.
After averaging 11 points per game over the first three games on 14-for-26 shooting, Adams averaged 28.7 points per game in Maui on 36-for-56 shooting, while also improving his assist totals.
It’s going to be tough to replicate his Maui performances consistently, but those are Conference Player of the Year-type numbers, and performances like that will give UConn the best chance to win games moving forward in this disappointing season.
After Gilbert went down with a shoulder injury against Loyola Marymount, it was clear that the offense would need a minor re-structuring, and after Larrier suffered a torn ACL against Oklahoma State, a full revamp. Larrier used a heavy load of UConn’s possessions in the first three games, attempting 40 shots and taking 13 free throws. Those possessions didn’t always well, but Larrier’s unfortunate injury removed a good deal of the Huskies’ offensive juice.
Enter Adams. The athletic guard dominated the ball in Maui, beating his defender with relative ease and finding lanes into the paint. When he continued all the way to the paint, he displayed an uncanny ability to finish from any body position, and otherwise kicked the ball out to keep it moving and try to pry open a gap in the defense for a perimeter shot. His passing worked, and led to better looks; UConn shot 38 percent from behind the arc in three games in Maui, compared to 27 percent in their first three games.
It helped that the Huskies faced a heavy dose of man-to-man defense, but even when facing a zone, Adams looked more comfortable than he had previously. He even displayed confidence in his own outside jump shot, knocking down five of nine attempted three-pointers in Maui.
Now, it’s unfair to lavish Adams with all the credit for UConn’s offensive improvement, as senior guard Rodney Purvis also stepped his game up a few notches in Maui. After averaging 5.7 points per game over the first three games, Purvis averaged 19.7 points in Maui, including a heavily improved 9-for-22 showing from downtown.
But while Purvis has increased the team’s trust in him as a secondary scorer and a reliable outside shooter, he doesn’t have the same ability to break down the defense that Adams has, and that’s why Adams must be fully entrusted to lead the offense going forward.
UConn’s season is not over. They have a pair of black marks on their record after the losses to Wagner and Northeastern, but there is plenty of basketball to play, and a crucial opportunity to get a signature win next Monday against Syracuse at Madison Square Garden.
Once they enter American Athletic Conference play, they will still be one of the conference favorites, and with Adams continuing this level of offensive play, they will be able to keep up with anyone in a shootout. Coach Kevin Ollie will probably knead this defense into something resembling the force it was last year by conference play, and if he does, the Huskies will remain a more fearsome force than any American team not named Cincinnati.
But it starts with Adams taking full control of this offense, continuing to push it forward and putting the rest of the Huskies on his back. His play in Maui proves that he can handle it.