NEW YORK— When UConn beat Syracuse at Madison Square Garden in November, there was a different energy surrounding the team. Syracuse, a team that’s clearly not all that good now, was still ranked at the time, and it was the Huskies’ first real test.
But then the Iowa game happened. Then Arizona. Then Florida State. Now, an 81-57 loss to Villanova gets added to the list of games that UConn should have won, but didn’t.
“I just have to hold these guys probably more accountable,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “When they do turn the ball over, get them right out of there so that they understand.”
The game was riddled with turnovers, but Villanova had more of them (19) than UConn (17). UConn’s defense is obviously a weak spot, and it killed them in the second half, but they also didn’t score enough to save themselves.
Since the beginning of the season, Hurley has touted Jalen Adams as the prized piece of the team. It’s become routine for him to talk about how he needs Adams to take over games, to realize his talent, to really lead the team to greater heights.
Against Iowa, he scored 20 and shot 8-for-18 from the field. Arizona passed, and though he scored 21, he shot 2-for-7 from 3-point range and turned the ball over five times. Then, a 4-for-14 performance against Florida State. Two points against Manhattan. Eight points on 3-for-13 shooting with six turnovers and four fouls against Villanova.
If Jalen Adams hasn’t stepped up by now, will he ever?
To Villanova’s credit, they singled out Adams as someone they wanted to keep from dominating, and it worked.
“We had to pick our poison,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said, “and we just didn’t want [Jalen] to get in the lane and creating fouls and shots and offensive rebounds for everybody.”
But this isn’t anything new for Adams. He’s been UConn’s best guard for three years now. On Saturday, he was just sloppy. His turnovers were unforced, ill-timed passes. He didn’t drive to the basket enough.
Hurley said he had a few good days in practice, and that he was feeling good before the game. Then again, Hurley also said that Eric Cobb wasn’t looking better than Kassoum Yakwe in practice, and it’s clear that Cobb knows how to be an offensive force inside while Yakwe only had one shot attempt on Saturday.
“We need him in games like this to perform at a high level for us to have a chance to win, so there’s a lot of pressure on him,” Hurley said. “I thought he had a good mindset. The ball just didn’t drop.”
Indeed, the ball did not drop. Hurley wanted him to eliminate the long, 17-foot contested pull-ups. But at this point, shouldn’t that be something he already knows? Adams has been in the thick of some of the most disappointing years in the history of UConn basketball. Hurley keeps relying on him, and he doesn’t give the team what they need to win.
Props to Christian Vital, the only one who decided to show up. He dropped 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting and grabbed five boards. Day in and day out, he proves himself as the grittiest player on the floor.
But it’s not enough. A 19-0 Villanova run in the second half killed the Huskies. They hit two field goals in 10 minutes and turned the ball over six times in that span, and they never really recovered. The Wildcats sank 3-pointers while the Huskies just watched.
“It’s a mindset,” Hurley said. “You’re not gonna score your team out of trouble. You gotta play your team out of trouble by being solid. It’s gonna take us a little bit of time, maybe, to build and change that ‘here we go again’ mindset where things just seem to spiral and unravel.”
The Huskies couldn’t even score themselves out of trouble on Saturday. They simply gave up in the second half. That was something characteristic of last year’s team.
Either way, with conference play kicking off at the start of the new year, the Huskies have to bear down and clean it up. The conference is wide open, and UConn has a good chance to finish in the top three.
But they need to do more than just play hard. They have to play right.
“There’s just not a guy that maybe can rally the troops, because there hasn’t been a lot of rallying moments to this point. But they’re trying,” Hurley said. “These guys play their heart out, they’ve done it the whole year. But playing hard isn’t good enough.”