PROVIDENCE, R.I. – For a long time, the philosophy of a lot of winning coaches and programs when it came to recruiting included two key words: recruit athletes. You always want players with skill, and ideally with that and physical gifts, but you can’t go wrong recruiting athletes since they can develop. But they have to develop, and if they don’t on a team that doesn’t have enough skill in a key area or two, it might not work.
So it goes for the Connecticut Huskies this season.
Look at their roster, or watch them before the game, and they look impressive. They pass the look test, with a lot of length and athleticism. But once the game begins, it’s not long before the feeling changes. And on Wednesday night, when the Huskies lost 81-66 at Providence, it was right there for many to see.
Like many of Jim Calhoun’s teams at Connecticut, this one is excellent defensively. The Huskies entered the game tops in the Big East in field goal percentage defense, with Syracuse not far behind. On Wednesday, they held Providence to 40 percent shooting, which on many nights would be good enough to win. The Huskies have been remarkably consistent defensively, as there is basically no difference in the opponent’s field goal percentage in their wins or losses. It’s the offense that wins or loses games, and for too much of this season it has been losing games.
Another thing this team shares with many of Calhoun’s teams is that there is a lot of athleticism. This team is dangerous in a fast-paced game with a lot of running, as they are at their best when they get transition baskets. When it’s a slow, half court game, the opponent has this team right where they want them. Past Connecticut teams could win these games, often quite convincingly, but not this one.
It starts with the lack of shooters. Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson are capable shooters, but neither strikes fear in opposing perimeter players and neither seems fond of taking jumpers. Stanley Robinson is shooting well, but he, too, strikes more fear in opposing players with his ability to score closer to the basket. He isn’t a sniper.
The lack of a shooter might not be so bad if not for the fact that this team has a lot of the same player. The Huskies are loaded with athletes who can score but not shoot, and that has hurt this team. In their seven losses, the Huskies have shot below 22 percent from long range, a major difference from their 38.5 percent shooting from deep in their 13 wins. Knowing that the Huskies like to score off the bounce, teams can play a zone against them or just sag back and force them to prove they can make shots. Even when given those openings, they don’t always opt for the jumpers because the mindset is to go to the basket.
Get past that, and this team doesn’t have the post scorers they have had in the past. When you’re in the Big East and your best post scorer is Gavin Edwards – a nice player and slight over-achiever who is at best a complementary player in the Big East – you could be in for some difficult times. Freshman Alex Oriakhi has rebounded well and had his moments, but has always been a bit soft and tries too hard to out-finesse opponents inside, evidenced by his average of 2.5 free throw attempts per game in over 28 minutes per contest. Ater Majok is long and has some athleticism, but is also clearly over-hyped. Jonathan Mandeldove was over-recruited, and Charles Okwandu is a role player at best.
With all of this, it’s not a surprise that offense lost Wednesday night’s game first. Mind you, this came against a Providence team that has had its struggles on the defensive end and had a meltdown there in their last game, a 109-105 overtime loss to South Florida. While the Friars were able to get good penetration against the Husky guards and turn them into a number of dunks and layups, that’s not where the Huskies lost this game.
“We get ahead, we got right where we wanted to be, then we stopped playing offense,” said associate head coach George Blaney, coaching the team in Calhoun’s absence for medical reasons.
As a result, the Huskies are 13-7 overall and 3-4 in the Big East. That puts them likely on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble at the moment, especially since they lacked a resume win before knocking off Texas on Saturday. They have plenty of opportunities left to get quality wins while improving their record, but it’s not going to come easily with the offense being what it is.
“We have the talent to do it,” said Dyson. “We’re playing tentative at times, giving up way too many points by taking a break. If we keep giving teams 10-0 runs, 12-0 runs, it’s difficult to win games.”
The way this team plays offense, that might be an understatement.
Connecticut has a team with plenty of physical gifts, as they have certainly recruited athletes. They are translating into some success defensively, but you have to score to win, and right now the Huskies are having trouble scoring. As a result, they are also having trouble winning.