Once again, UConn could not score. Once again, it was their downfall. The five-minute scoring droughts have become so standard that they’re built into expectations.
And that’s a problem.
With this 65-57 loss, the Huskies have now lost three in a row and four out of their last five. They have not scored more than 61 points for almost a month now. Last week, head coach Kevin Ollie said the vibes are good. This week, he praised the team’s ability to fight back and keep the defense tight.
Does not getting blown out by 20 count as fighting back now?
“I thought we did a good job defensively. It was one of our best defensive games,” Ollie said. “But we can’t get 13-0 down and miss our first 10 shots.”
It was a good defensive effort. Cincinnati averages 77 points per game, and they shot six points below their average from the floor. But when put in the larger picture, it ultimately doesn’t matter if the Huskies can hold opponents to 60 points or 90 if they can’t score. Shooting 36 percent from the floor just won't cut it.
UConn has lost all grasps of basic basketball. There’s tough luck, there’s good defense, but none of those things were the reason it took seven minutes for the ball to go through the hoop. When Mamadou Diarra, getting just his third start of the season, puts the ball on the floor right under the basket and subsequently gets stuffed by three Cincy defenders, you have to wonder how much they practice feeding the ball to the bigs. And when he does it a second time in a row, you just get frustrated.
Passing the ball around the perimeter for 15 seconds before Jalen Adams, who led with 20 points, either tries to split four defenders or takes a contested 3-pointer is not an offensive strategy. It’s panic. And when UConn gets themselves down in these 13-point deficits, the desperation to get points on the board grows. The shots become rushed.
There was a point in today’s game where UConn was only down by nine. Cincy went just about eight minutes at the end of the first half without a field goal. It’s not like the game was ever that far out of reach. But immediately after an Adams 3-pointer cut the deficit to nine, the Bearcats get a three-point play on the other end. UConn fights for a layup? They give up a wide-open dunk. They finally get a defensive stop? Turn the ball over. There is no such thing as momentum.
After Terry Larrier’s injury, the offensive strategy should have changed. He simply cannot be relied on to put up double-digit figures every night. Though Ollie and his teammates have faith in his ability to rebound from the injury and get used to playing with a mask, the bigs should be getting more touches per game. Carlton can’t learn to hit floaters in traffic if he never gets the chance to take more than two per game.
And for some reason, it’s a challenge to get the best lineup on the floor. I was under the impression that Adams, Christian Vital, Terry Larrier, Josh Carlton and Isaiah Whaley are a solid combination. But Ollie makes subs like nobody’s business, so the starting lineup doesn’t ultimately matter when three starters go back to the bench after four minutes on the court.
Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said they just need to be healthy for a month, and the youth they’re putting out on the front line makes it tough to match up with older, more experienced teams.
“I think if they can play with the same lineup for the month of February when they have no injuries, come conference tournament time, they are going to be one of the best five teams in the league,” Cronin said. “They just need to be healthy for a month. I can’t even imagine; the mixing and matching is just so consistent.”
But it’s been that way all season—the mixing, the matching. Today’s was the 15th different starting lineup Ollie has used all season. And to be fair, Whaley had been battling a hip strain and didn’t practice the last few days. But he ended up playing 22 minutes, Diarra only 23. What matters is the combinations Ollie uses and when. In the first half, David Onuroah was subbed in, played two minutes, then sat again. Not even two minutes later, he comes back in. Two minutes later, he gets subbed out again.
How is the team supposed to get into a rhythm when the players are cycled through so frequently?
Adams said the team is frustrated with the slow starts because they just can’t seem to figure out how to put 40 good minutes together. Vital, who had 18 points, said he has no idea how to fix it.
“All we can do is not stop,” Vital said. “I know I’m not going to give up, I know my teammates aren’t going to give up either, and we’re just going to stay together, that’s the only choice we have. We’re going to try to find ways to win, basically. That’s it. That’s the only thing we can do, I think.”
Having fight is good. Having to fight back from deficits every single game? Not so much.