PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Connecticut looks like a team that is searching for some things. The Huskies are missing something – leadership, toughness, perhaps something else – and that was even more clear after Tuesday night’s 72-70 loss at Providence, where they led by as many as 14 in the second half before allowing the Friars to win the game simply by wanting it more.
The Huskies don’t have head coach Jim Calhoun right now as he recovers from back surgery, and they didn’t have him for three games earlier this season. But one wonders how much of a difference he might make with this team. He has been with the team enough that a temporary absence shouldn’t have a major effect. With the Huskies now being guaranteed to finish with a losing record in Big East play, a team that much was expected of is in an unthinkable position.
After Tuesday’s loss, a couple of players were at a loss for how to describe how they got to this point or how they move forward. Shabazz Napier wasn’t one of them, as he offered plenty of perspective and took a lot of responsibility.
“This is one of those games where you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and realize you’re not that good,” said the sophomore guard. “Right now, you’re just an average kid trying to get out of the hole.”
Indeed, right now the Huskies are far from the special team they were thought to possibly be before the season. They are not the team their talent dictates they should be.
Connecticut is certainly not lacking talent. Their starting five is right there with that of most teams in the country, with freshman Ryan Boatright joining Jeremy Lamb and Napier on the perimeter, a unit that’s talented and battle-tested. Up front, Alex Oriakhi is joined by Andre Drummond in a unit that should dominate inside. Roscoe Smith sometimes starts and can start for just about any team in the country, as does DeAndre Daniels. Add in good role players Tyler Olander and Neils Giffey, each of whom has started some games in their careers, and you get the idea that talent isn’t an issue.
“We have great players, outstanding players at every position,” said Smith. “Everybody is capable of getting 20 a night, that’s what’s outstanding about our team.”
Something is missing. There isn’t a basketball reason for this team to be 7-10 in a Big East that isn’t quite as strong overall as it was last year. It looks like toughness is lacking, for one, and that seemed clear on Tuesday. Leadership seems to be a concern as well.
“Our team, we just didn’t come together when it got tough,” said Lamb.
“It lies on defense,” added Napier. “There’s not enough communication, and when there is communication, it’s misunderstood communication. I have to do a better job of talking to my teammates, I’m not doing a great job of that. I’m not doing a great job of being a leader.”
Providence out-rebounded this team 23-19 in the first half and was even with them in that category for the game. Just watching the game, you could see several times that a lack of effort on the part of the Huskies came into play. As talented and physically gifted as Oriakhi and Drummond are, both suffer from being too nice a kid and don’t dominate like they should. Oriakhi has shown signs of progressing from that over his career in Storrs, but not consistently. This season, he has regressed, and some of that might be that he hasn’t figured out how to play off Drummond inside. It’s a little late in the season for that to be the case, though, as they have 29 games together under their belt.
Drummond actually had nice numbers on Tuesday, scoring 14 points and grabbing a game-high eight rebounds as he shot 7-11 from the floor, but just from watching the game you would have never expected to see a nice stat sheet. He should have been dominant against this Providence team that lacks anyone who can match up well with him, but that was certainly not the case.
Early in the second half, the Huskies were an aggressive team, and the results showed as they ran off the first nine points to build a 41-30 lead. Providence would slowly cut into the lead, but the Huskies still had a 54-44 lead. Providence responded by scoring the next 12 points as part of a 19-2 run to take the lead. They were tougher and more physical, and the body language told you they wanted it more.
“I thought we were in complete control of the game,” associate head coach George Blaney, running the team in Calhoun’s absence, said of the first eight minutes of the second.
The Huskies are not dead as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned, although their 7-10 Big East record doesn’t help. This team has a number of players who were part of last season’s team and the magical run they went on starting in New York. They have played the toughest schedule in the nation, and are 6-7 against the top 50. That’s not great, but as weak as the bubble is this year, they would seem to be in reasonably good shape if they finish up with a win against Pittsburgh at home, then at least get past the opening round of the Big East Tournament next week.
But getting to that point doesn’t look trivial based on what Connecticut has done thus far and of late. The Huskies appear to be searching for something, and they’re running out of time to find it.