ATB: Post-Holiday Blues for UConnPosted by rtmsf on December 28th, 2010
The Lede. We hope that everyone came out of the long holiday weekend fully intact, with perhaps an iPad, some Air Jordan XXIs or Final Four tickets under the tree. This week certainly won’t be as glacially-paced as last week was, but we really won’t move into the heart of the season until after New Year’s day and the interminable bowl season comes to a close. Still, tonight started off the week with what was on paper a fairly good matchup of two top ten teams, but most of us had an inkling that the UConn Huskies were due for the wheels to come off sooner or later; it was really only a matter of which Pittsburgh team might show up.
Your Watercooler Moment. As Suspected, It’s Kemba and Friends. There’s a reason that everyone who has a Twitter account was on the record over the last few weeks stating that UConn was nowhere near as good as their undefeated record and top five ranking might suggest. In tonight’s highly-anticipated game between Walker’s Huskies and the Pitt Panthers, it was Jamie Dixon’s team that showed the balance, poise and defense required of an elite team with its eyes on a national championship trophy. UConn, on the other hand, looked like an exposed team with one star player but not much else to show for its troubles. Walker ended the game with 31 points, but it was a difficult night shooting for the all-American guard, as he had to take 27 shots to do it. His ten made field goals accounted for more than half of UConn’s total of 19, and with that fact it is clear that Pitt’s strategy was to limit Walker’s scoring opportunities while shutting everyone else down. They did just that. The one player who has the talent to play with Pitt along with Walker is Alex Oriakhi, but as described below, he did his best ostrich impression by putting his head in the sand (8/1) and drawing the ire of coach Jim Calhoun after the game. Pitt, on the other hand, looked completely different from the team we saw wilt versus Tennessee a couple of weeks ago; rather, the Panthers looked confident and capable from everywhere on the floor, including a superb 21/7 asst outing from Ashton Gibbs in a true comeback performance for the talented junior. So what does a late December Big East opener mean for these two teams? What we took from the game is that Pitt, originally projected to win the Big East, is still at the top of that list along with Georgetown and Syracuse, while UConn is going to continually run into problems in trying to run its entire offense through Kemba Walker night after night. As talented as he is, he can’t beat everyone by himself. The teams playing him in Maui were caught somewhat off guard by his abilities, but the Big East has seen what he can do and knows how to neutralize him — other Huskies are going to have to step up if UConn wants to sniff the top ten later this season.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Pitino’s Bombino’s, Part Two. Twenty-one seasons ago Rick Pitino took a mishmash group of Kentuckians and molded them into what became one of the most beloved teams in program history, the Pitino Bombinos. Using a full-court pressure assault and relentless three-point shooting as the two principles above all else, the Bombinos went 14-14 when many prognosticators didn’t think they had the talent to win half that many games. Cut to this year’s Louisville team, and the similarities are there — the Cards produce turnovers on over a quarter of their opponents’ possessions and shoot threes at a very high rate (43% of all field goals attempted). Little was expected of this U of L team but they’re dominating lesser opponents and have catapulted out of the gates with an 11-1 record heading into this weekend’s Bluegrass Battle against Kentucky. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen a team hit 17 of 23 treys as the Cards did tonight against Morgan State, not even those very Bombinos that Pitino coached in Lexington a generation ago. We’re excited to see whether the Cards can keep it up.
- Louisville’s Balance. Preston Knowles went for 31 points and Kyle Kuric 25 tonight, but already this season seven Cards have put up games of fifteen or more points in the scoring column. It’s still early in the season and Louisville has played a lot of Hostesses, but Pitino has ten players playing double-figure minutes and eight of those guys are contributing at least five points per game. Given how short his bench has been in recent seasons at Louisville, this is definitely a different looking Cardinal team.
- William Buford’s Breakout Game? Because his Buckeyes have been playing so well this season, not much has been written about how presumptive star wing Buford really hasn’t had the breakthrough year that everyone expected from him. He’s certainly played well (with season averages of 13/5/4 APG), but his numbers are generally down from last season and there’s been an adjustment for him playing off of Jared Sullinger instead of Evan Turner. Tonight was the first time all season he showed his complete offensive package, going for a season-high 23/4/5 assts/2 stls on 9-11 shooting against UT-Martin. If Thad Matta can get star production from his elite wing to go along with Sullinger’s nastiness inside (another 18/11 dub-dub this evening, his sixth of the year), then OSU could be the best team in America come March.
… and Misses.
- Tom Crean as Pied Piper of HoosierLand. The excuses are wearing thin in Bloomington, as Indiana dropped its third consecutive game against three teams the Hoosiers are probably more talented than — Northern Iowa, Colorado and Penn State. The last one is particularly damning as it took place at home in Assembly Hall this evening in a game where IU was beaten handily from start to finish. We said this when Crean was hired, and it bears repeating — he seems like a really great guy with his feet firmly placed on the side of rule-following… but Crean spent nine years at Marquette and only won a single NCAA game without Dwyane Wade on his roster. Even allowing for a couple of rebuilding years, there were a couple of NIT appearances immediately after his Final Four run. We’ve never been sold on Crean acting as some kind of Hoosier savior, and with a few more performances like tonight, the Hoosier faithful may start openly making the same observations.
- Alex Oriakhi’s Ostrich Routine. Jim Calhoun said of his burgeoning star big man after tonight’s Pitt game, “I don’t know if he was better sitting or playing. He’s not the player right now I think he can be.” And that was clearly so after he drifted through an eight-point, one-rebound performance against an opponent in Pitt where opposing big men have to play physically and tenaciously in order to have a shot to win. Oriakhi did neither, and it showed in that UConn was left to rely on the talents of Walker facing a defense designed to slow him down. Oriakhi isn’t an elite scorer — his season average is only 11.3 PPG and his season high was 18 against Kentucky — but what was more troubling for Calhoun was the single, solitary rebound. His lowest total of the season prior to tonight’s game was four but he came in averaging nearly ten per game; and as far as the offensive glass, he is one of the best in the country with nearly five per contest. Some other Huskies picked up his slack — notably Roscoe Smith (8) and Jeremy Lamb (8) — but if Oriakhi had played with the intensity he showed in Maui against Michigan State and Kentucky, UConn would have likely still had a chance to win this game while the best offensive talent in America is on the team. Didn’t happen.
Tweet of the Night. This is something we’ve repeated for the better part of two decades, so it’s always nice to see others agreeing with this take. Lose the “overrated” chant, folks. It’s not flattering to your team.