Column: What do we take away from UConn’s performance in the PK80?

Oregon forward Troy Brown, left, scrambles for a loose ball against Connecticut guard Christian Vital, right during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Phil Knight Invitational tournament in Portland, Ore., Thursday Nov. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

If you avoided watching UConn men’s basketball over Thanksgiving weekend, I don’t blame you. Though the team was without a loss before its first real test of the season—something we would have all killed for at this same time last year—anyone who watched those first three games could tell it wasn’t quite cohesive yet.

It was a delightful turn of events when the men emerged victorious in an exciting, tough game against an Oregon program that not only embarrassed them last year but went to the Final Four for the first time in 78 years. It was understandable when they lost to No. 4 Michigan State, the eventual champion of the PK80 Victory bracket, especially considering they only let the game slip away in the last 10 minutes or so.

But that Arkansas game. Oh, that Arkansas game. It was UConn’s worst loss by point margin in 40 years and the first time they gave up triple digits in a non-overtime game since 1995. They couldn’t shoot. They couldn’t play defense. They didn’t even look like they wanted to be there.

So, what do we take away from the Huskies’ performance in the PK80? Well, there’s reason to be concerned, but there’s also reason to feel okay about this rebuilding year. First, the bad:

1) Oh big men, where art thou, big men?

It was never meant to be a surprise that UConn would be at their best focusing on guards, but it was nice to see a four-guard lineup of Jalen Adams, Antwoine Anderson, Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital along with Terry Larrier play so effectively against Oregon. But the lineup didn’t work against a more experienced Michigan State and a bigger Arkansas team. With Eric Cobb hurt, David Onuorah, Josh Carlton and Mamadou Diarra have to step up, and they haven’t been doing that. Too many fouls, not enough defense and pretty much no offense forces the guards to try and play “hero ball”—foregoing ball movement and strategy to try to singlehandedly bring the team back into the game with crafty drives and contested shots—and that simply does not work against bigger, more seasoned teams. 70 turnovers compared to 53 assists is not exactly the most inspiring ratio, but I guarantee you, when the big men start playing more cohesively and effectively, the contested 3s and driving one-on-three to the basket will stop.

2) Downright offensive

Against Oregon, UConn has their best-looking offensive performance in years. In the next two games, they went right back to form. The Huskies are shooting 40.8 percent from the floor and an even worse 29 percent from 3-point range. Three-point shooting has never been a strength for UConn in recent years, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. Unfortunately, they haven’t shot more than 33 percent from beyond the arc all season, and that’s not something that’s going to magically improve overnight—they simply just need to stop taking so many 3s. Offense has never been Kevin Ollie’s strength as a coach, but UConn’s offensive strategy of too much ISO ball, not enough ball movement and too much dribbling around the perimeter until the shot clock hits 10 is something the Huskies will have to put behind them. While the crafty trick shots always look cooler, hitting jumpers is cool too, I promise.

But yes, there is some good…

If this tournament showed UConn fans anything, it’s that the potential is there. The potential to play like the first half of the Oregon game and keep up with top-5 teams is there, especially when they hit conference play. Whether any American team outside of Wichita State will be ranked when January rolls around is up in the air (Cincinnati has a tough nonconference schedule to endure), but for the first time in a while, there is real reason to believe UConn can finish in the top three in the conference standings since the championship season if the team reaches their potential.

Yeah, it’s a bummer that we have to sit here and talk about hypotheticals and potential, but with all the new faces, that’s really all we can do. The team has two gimme games at home before the highly anticipated Syracuse game at Madison Square Garden in a week. UConn has two tough road games after ‘Cuse before conference play opens up against Wichita State, and only after that stretch can we really begin to assess if UConn will live up to all the potential or not.

Whether anyone sees the PK80 as an overall success or an overall failure, we saw the team at its best and worst. The real question is what version of the team we’ll see going forward, and that’s anyone’s guess.


Stephanie Sheehan is the managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.sheehan@uconn.edu. She tweets @steph_sheehan.