The Doctor Is In The House: Connecticut Edition

Posted by mlemaire on January 31st, 2012

Over the next few weeks we will be diagnosing some of the weaknesses and reasons behind the struggles of some Big East teams. Next up is Connecticut, losers of their last three games and five of their last seven.

When you lose someone as important to your offense and departed star Kemba Walker was to UConn’s offense, there will undoubtedly be some growing pains. But most people thought that the remaining talent on Jim Calhoun’s roster was enough to make them a viable if unlikely contender to repeat as National Champions. But now, on the heels of three straight close losses to supposedly inferior teams, some are beginning to wonder if the young Huskies have enough left in the tank to make the NCAA Tournament at all.

1. The team’s commitment to defense seems to have disappeared.

Since 2003, the Huskies have been a consistent presence among the nation’s leaders in defensive efficiency, having never ranked below #41 overall. This season they currently are ranked #80 in the country in defensive efficiency, despite having not one but two premier shot-blockers and endless amounts of length and athleticism on the wings. The team is second in the conference in field-goal percentage but dead last in the conference in three-point field goal percentage which would seem to mean that the onus is on the Huskies’ perimeter defenders to take away their opponents’ open looks. But a renewed commitment to defense will have to be a team effort. Even if Alex Oriakhi can’t get back to blocking shots at the same rate he did in the past two seasons, the Huskies will still block plenty of shots, so forcing turnovers and closing out on shooters should be two things Calhoun harps on in practice.

Traditionally Excellent, UConn's Defense Hasn't Been Up To Speed This Season.

2. There has not been any consistent offensive post play.

When the highly touted Andre Drummond reclassified and joined UConn in time for the start of this season, pundits and fans alike began salivating over the prospect of having Drummond and Oriakhi playing alongside each other in the middle of UConn’s defense. Not only would they be a two-man block party defensively, but their simultaneous presence would make it difficult for opposing defenses to double-team either of them. Unfortunately, none of that has happened. Drummond is a difference-maker defensively and he has shown flashes offensively, but he remains inconsistent and sometimes timid.

Oriakhi probably deserves his own number in this column as this season has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for the junior captain. He was supposed to assume a larger role offensively and blossom into one of the conference’s best big men. Instead he has seen his minutes drop and as a result he is averaging a paltry 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game and has posted just one double-double all season. According to KenPom, the Huskies are the eighth-tallest team in the country, so there should be no reason why they are being outrebounded by Notre Dame‘s undersized bunch.

3. The “Shabazz Napier should be a point guard” project has yielded mostly mixed and extreme results.

Nothing describes Napier’s sophomore season quite like his numbers from the Cincinnati game and the Notre Dame game, which were separated by just 11 days, when they are placed side-by-side.

  • v. Cincinnati: 38 minutes, 27 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 turnovers, 2 steals, 10-19 (52.6%) FG%, 3-8 (37.5%) 3PT%
  • v. Notre Dame: 35 minutes, 0 points, 4 assists, 1 rebound, 1 turnover, 1 steal, 0-7 FG%, 0-4 3PT%

These vacillations between awesome and terrible have become a running theme for Napier this season. No one expected him to just slide into Walker’s vacated spot in the starting lineup and replace him, but Calhoun would probably trade some of those awesome games for solid and consistent play for the rest of the season.

Shabazz Napier's Up-And-Down Season Has Been Tough For UConn Fans To Stomach At Times.

As Seth Davis said in his most recent column, Napier and Lamb are both better when they play off the ball, but Napier doesn’t get that luxury on this team. Freshman Ryan Boatright helps shoulder some of the burden, but right now he is still a shoot-first guard and doesn’t have the necessary experience. The bad news is that UConn has a budding star at point guard playing high school basketball in their backyard right now named Kris Dunn, who will be leaving the state next season to play in college, leaving the cupboard bare and Napier entrenched as the team’s primary ballhandler for 2012-13 as well.

4. Neither DeAndre Daniels or Roscoe Smith is ready to become the team’s primary small forward.

If it wasn’t for the noteworthy struggles of Oriakhi, the spotlight of regression would likely be centered on Smith right now. The athletic sophomore from Baltimore played nearly 26 minutes per game last season, averaging 6.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while shooting just 38%. Common sense would say that as Smith became more comfortable and took better shots, his shooting percentage would go up and so would his offensive value.

Instead, Calhoun has toyed with his minutes and as a result Smith is averaging just 3.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. Calhoun supporters would argue that five-star freshman DeAndre Daniels is the more talented and athletic forward, but his numbers have been worse. In fact, the team’s best small forward right now is Niels Giffey, who makes up for his lack of athleticism and offensive ability with smart decision-making and hustle.

With apologies to Giffey, who has earned every minute he has played this season, there is no way he should be the team’s most dependable small forward at this juncture of the season. It hasn’t helped that none of those three can really shoot, so opponents have been playing a lot of zone defense of late, but Daniels and Smith are basically built to attack the rim and the duo would be lucky if they each got to the foul line once per game each.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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