The buzz of the sold-out crowd of 15,564 at the XL Center in Hartford was exciting. It’s been a while since the old Civic Center had seen its seats completely filled. No matter what UConn men’s basketball looks like, old Big East foe and 2016 national champions Villanova will bring people to the stands.
The crowd was as loud as ever when a masked Terry Larrier scored the first bucket of the game. They were on their feet when the young Huskies were only down by four with seven minutes left in the first half. Neither team was shooting very well, but it didn’t matter, because the tough-luck Huskies were keeping the No. 1 team close.
But no amount of hoping or praying was going to help UConn. It only takes a few big plays for a game to become out of reach. It was 21-16 before a Phil Booth 3-pointer made it 24-16. Then a dunk. Then a foul. Then two more 3-pointers in a row. UConn only scored two baskets in the last seven minutes. Villanova scored eight.
It’s hard to watch the games these days when everyone knows what’s coming. As columnist Jeff Jacobs put so well, inevitability is the worst part of UConn men’s basketball these days. It’s the biggest indication that things are not as head coach Kevin Ollie paints them—the program as a whole is going down.
But of course, head coach Kevin Ollie recognizes this. He won’t give up, though.
“When they feel the ship is sinking, the rats jump off first. The scavengers jump off first. We’re not scavengers. We’re not rats,” Ollie said in the postgame press conference. “We’re staying right on the damn boat.”
Wait, did he just admit the ship is sinking?
It’s not just the Bob Diaco-esque quote that makes one scratch one’s head. Ollie, naturally, spent most of the presser defending the team and his place in it.
Even Jay Wright defended UConn’s youth and backed Ollie’s sentiment that they’ll be back; that the adversity won’t last forever.
“In our league, we’re fine,” Ollie said. “We just have to keep fighting and keep getting better.”
After all, the Huskies held the Wildcats to their second-lowest shooting percentage of the season, 41 percent, the worst since they shot 40 percent in their first game of the season. It’s no secret that Ollie is a defensive-minded coach. But defense doesn’t put points on the board. And all things considered, the defense doesn’t do a good job keeping the momentum going.
When UConn cut their deficit to four with a Christian Vital 3-pointer, it was the loudest XL has probably been in a while. Immediately, on the next Villanova possession, they give up a three-point play. Then, Jalen Adams comes back and hits a jumper, and immediately the Huskies give up a 3-pointer 20 seconds later. Villanova closed the half on an 21-2 run. It wasn’t even close. It wasn’t even fun. Despite the prestige of the Big East matchup, living through nostalgia can only go so far.
But wait, there’s actually something good?
It’s hard to take any positives from the games these days, and there was almost nothing about Saturday’s game that sparks any sort of hope. But Josh Carlton once again put up a strong performance, validated even more since it was against the No. 1 team in the country. He nearly recorded a double-double in a game where the Wildcats out-rebounded the Huskies 48-32, netting 13 points and grabbing nine boards in 34 minutes.
In the postgame press conference, Ollie talked a lot about the bright future of the team. If there’s one person to be excited about, it’s Carlton.
“He’s getting better each and every day,” Ollie said. “If we can ever start running offense through Josh, it would really slow the game down.”
Despite being 6-foot-9, Carlton is beginning to play bigger than he actually is. Two of Carlton’s baskets came on putbacks, and three of his six offensive rebounds resulted in a UConn basket. He did miss quite a few tip ins and layups, but once he masters that shot through elevated playing time, he has the potential to score close to 20 points in any given game.