State of the UConn

State of the UConn

 

President Herbst, AD Manuel, Coach Ollie and all those who bleed blue:

We are two years into this new conference. No longer a member of the most dominant conference in college basketball but rather, the American Athletic Conference. A conference reminiscent of the island of misfit toys in the Christmas classic Rudolph- the schools no conference wants to play with. Pittsburgh Big Monday rivalry games have been replaced with lazy Sunday’s in Houston. ESPN College GameDay is no longer with Syracuse, but SMU. And finally, after much research, I can officially confirm the win over Tulane will count towards our conference record, not exhibition.Yes, the outlook sure seems bleak at times and I am reminded by every AAC-Google-search-autocorrected-to-ACC of what could have been. But, does conference realignment alone mean Connecticut is no longer home to the college basketball capital of the world? Absolutely Not.

Tonight, we turn the page.  

This weekend’s blowout loss to SMU albeit disheartening was by no means disqualifying. As with any season, the ultimate goal is and still remains to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. From there, anything can happen. Now, we must shift our focus off this season’s frustrations and onto how we can position ourselves for continued postseason success. Success that will translate from year to year, keeping in mind our position in a new conference.

Schedule for an at-large, play for an automatic

March Madness can be achieved in one of two ways- an automatic bid (win the conference tournament) or an at-large bid (selected by NCAA committee based on performance). At-large bids are awarded based on a number of different criteria, none more prominent than the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). To summarize , you are rewarded for beating teams who beat good teams on a scale of 1(best)-351(worst). Click here to see how RPI is officially calculated. Although other rankings do exist that may be more accurate, RPI is primarily used by the NCAA selection committee. Similar to the SATs and college admission, if a strong RPI doesn’t get you in, it at least gets you looked at.

The eccentrically formed American Athletic Conference simply cannot compete with the strong numbers posted by powerhouse programs in the former Big East. Numbers that are highly scrutinized by the selection committee, and, will ultimately decide a team’s postseason fate. In contrast to the Big East, the AAC is more on par with a pair of mid-majors- the West Coast Conference (WCC) and Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). Here is a comparison of the percent of conference members in the top 50 of numerous statistics evaluated by the selection committee. As illustrated below, the level of competition found in the 2011 Big East is far superior to the 2014/15 AAC, WCC, and MVC.

Conference RPI SOS CFRPI CFSS
Big E. 2010/11 65% 80% 70% 95%
AAC 2014/15 35% 20% 25% 10%
WCC 2014/15 20% X 30% X
MVC 2014/15 20% 10% 20% X

*Ratings Percentage Index, Strength of Schedule, Conference RPI, Conference SOS*

Without the Big East to inflate our postseason resume, how can UConn ensure an at-large bid without winning the conference title? For that, we will take a look at mid-major college basketball powers Gonzaga (WCC) and Wichita State (MVC).

It begins with our non-conference strength of schedule.

Four years ago, we could rely on the strength of the Big East to float us into the tournament when we were on the bubble. The Big East Conference had the #1 overall RPI out of all D1 Conferences, including a ridiculous 10 teams in the top 50 (above). Given the ultra-competitiveness of the Big East, each week provided an opportunity to boost RPI, or, recover from a RPI-crushing loss. The last week of Big East conference play in 2011 saw UConn win at Cincinnati (31) then lose at West Virginia (16) and home to Notre Dame (12). On paper, yes that’s a 1-2 mark but when you take a deeper look at the numbers the road loss at West Virginia was essentially negated by the win over the Bearcats and UConn enters the conference tournament off a home loss to a tough Notre Dame squad. Definitely not an ideal stretch entering tournament play but also not bubble bursting due to the quality of our opponents.

After easily defeating DePaul (217), the Huskies faced Georgetown (6), Pittsburgh (7), Syracuse (17) and Louisville (18). Though we beat all four, my guess is we earned the at-large bid after the quarterfinal victory over Pitt. The Big East was supremely competitive but it also provided opportunity to control fate with your play. Glancing at the chart below, Big East members played on average 10 games against RPI top 1-25 teams in 2011. That is 10 opportunities to prove yourself against an elite team, 10 opportunities to demonstrate growth over the course of a season. Opportunities that simply do not exist in the AAC, WCC, and MVC.

Conference RPI 1-25 26-50 51-100 Total 1-100
Big East 2011 10 2 4 16
AAC 2014* 6 3 4 13
WCC 2014 3 3 5 11
MVC 2014 3 1 6 10

*Louisville removed for accuracy

For further comparison, let’s look at a recent stretch of UConn AAC play. Starting January 25th with a win over South Florida (215), UConn lost on the road to Cincinnati (29) followed by another road loss to Houston (239). This time, although the Cincinnati loss is not a “bad loss” in terms of RPI (and most importantly, in the eyes of the committee) Houston is inexplicable. Additionally, although we won our next two games, Eastern Carolina (242) and Tulane (182) combined hardly account for the Houston loss- especially when it allows Doug Gottlieb to do this:

In any case, the days of mourning the Big East are over. A new era is underway and we must not be shortsighted. How do we compensate for a lack of quality competition in conference play for years to come?

Schedule for an at-large…

To answer that question, let’s take a look at the resumes of both Wichita State and Gonzaga in relation to our Huskies. Also, note the 12/13 Wichita State and 11/12 Gonzaga profiles from years they did not win the conference tournament, but earned an at-large bid. These are the numbers that got them in the big dance.

Team RPI SOS NCSS CFSS
Gonzaga 14/15 8 90 15 172
Wichita 14/15 16 109 26 196
UConn 14/15 85 82 84 103
Wichita 12/13 38 102 63 129
Gonzaga 11/12 25 81 59 122

ESPN.com

UConn’s non-conference strength of schedule (NCSS) is particularly alarming considering a conference strength of schedule (CFSS) over 100. Aside from the obvious fact they are winning, both Wichita State and Gonzaga have a significantly stronger NCSS. To date, our best non-conference win comes over Dayton (32), hardly head-turning. We desperately need to schedule quality non-conference games, and lots of them. Even January’s win over Florida- though quality at the time- means nothing after the Gators recent struggles. Our schedule must be packed with talent to compensate for unexpected down years.We cannot afford to play in mediocre tournaments, we need to face off with the elite. Recent home-and-home series have been announced with Georgetown, Arizona and Ohio State along with planned participation in the 2016 Maui Invitational. This type of aggressive scheduling is necessary should we need any wiggle room in conference play due to poor performance or injury.

The consequence of failing to schedule for an at-large bid results in the one word so evil it can drop a slipper straight off a cinderella’s foot…

Snub

The Missouri Valley Conference has seen 5 RPI top 40 teams snubbed in recent years, including the most infamous snub of all time. In 2006 Missouri State’s bubble was popped after posting a 21 RPI- the best of any team ever left out of March Madness. In 1998, Gonzaga missed out on an at-large bid after losing in the WCC Finals- despite claiming the regular season crown and defeating #5 Clemson. Don’t think it can happen in the AAC? Just last year SMU posted a 23-9 record with a 53 RPI but was left out of the tournament following a first round loss in AAC play. Makes you feel a little better about this weekend…

…until you realize we are in the same conference…

…which brings me back to this year. Schedule for the at-large bid…

play for the automatic.

Maybe the American isn’t so bad after all. One HUGE advantage to playing in a weak conference? The conference tournament aka the automatic bid. Realistically, no matter how we struggle during the regular season, the AAC tournament could punch our ticket on a yearly basis. I like the idea of sealing our own fate as opposed to leaving it up to the NCAA (we are still the UConn of old in that regard).

LRPI measure’s a team’s RPI in road/neutral games only- a statistic we can use come tournament time (neutral sites). Here is a look at the average LRPI of each AAC member over the past 5 seasons.

Team LRPI Team LRPI
Cincinnati 29 UCF 112
Memphis 30 SMU 132
UConn 40 USF 163
Temple 71 Tulane 163
Tulsa 111 Houston/ECU 169

ESPN.com

As the numbers show and five games in five days proved, we are a tournament team like few others in the conference. Given our performance, there is still no combination of AAC teams I am scared of come March. Take last week’s match-up with Tulsa. We held the #1 team in conference (at the time) to 31% shooting in a 25 point blowout win. Ball movement was the best I’ve seen all year and the Huskies fed off the crowd’s energy.

Update: We get that crowd for the tournament.

Remember, Hartford hosts the AAC tournament this year. The average distance for AAC members to travel from their campus to the XL Center? 1,155 miles or 17.5 hours. That’s Hartford to St. Louis- ON AVERAGE! Aside from Temple (211 miles), the next closest school is Eastern Carolina (615 miles). As fans, we need to emphasize this advantage with a sea of blue and white. I saw what it did last year at Madison Square Garden and there’s no reason to think it cannot be recreated. Yes it is improbable, but hey, we feast on the improbable. We are after all, and will continue to be, the Hungry Huskies.

Undeniably, this is a new era for UConn basketball. Our struggles will be heavily documented and triumphs largely unnoticed. We no longer present ourselves along with the power of the Big East, but in a cloud of doubt cast upon by a weak conference. Gonzaga, currently sits at #3 in the AP poll with many calling the current squad best in school history. Yet in his column earlier this month, Yahoo Sports analyst Pat Forde still asked the question of “whether the WCC sufficiently seasons Mark Few’s program for NCAA play”. Regardless of our trophies, regardless of our NBA pedigree and regardless of our tradition, this same question will be asked about our Huskies.

But you know what, Houston, we don’t have a problem. Actually, we have an advantage. We are once again the underdog, problem is- we do just fine as the underdog.

Let’s continue this new era, and let’s start with this season.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless UConn Country.

USA Today

USA Today

A Look Ahead at Madison Square Garden

Arizona v Connecticut

UCONN celebrates 2011 Elite 8 win vs Arizona

I will be heading down to the Sweet 16 this Friday at Madison Square Garden for the much anticipated matchup between UCONN and Iowa State. If the following occurs I will be attending the Elite 8 on Sunday as well:

Keys to the Game:

Control Deandre Kane

Kane is the Shabazz of Iowa State. Control Deandre Kane and you control Iowa State. He is their motor. How do you stop a player riding so much momentum? Don’t let him get the ball. To advance UCONN must keep the ball out of Kane’s hands and not let him get into the flow of the game. Though Kane played masterfully against North Carolina, he is susceptible to turnovers (7 against UNC). This bodes well for UCONN’s scrappy guards aka Napier, Boatright, Giffey and Kromah (a combined 9 steals vs Nova). UCONN will start with Napier on Kane assuming Iowa State goes with a big lineup. The loss of Iowa State star forward Georges Niang really helps us here because it will allow our center (Brimah, Nolan, Olander) to help on the drive and keep Napier out of foul trouble. When Iowa State goes small, we can counter with Giffey/Kromah on Kane. We could also rotate Bazz/Boat at select points in the game to provide full court pressure on the ball- force it out of Kane’s hands or make him exert more energy bringing the ball up against two of the quickest guards in the country. Iowa State is not deep- if we can exhaust/frustrate Kane, I like our chances Friday night.

Deandre Daniels

Deandre Daniels needs to play like a man. Assuming Iowa State goes big, Daniels will start the game on leading rebounder Dustin Hogue. Hogue played like a madman against North Carolina consistently beating Tar Heel bigs to 50/50 balls leading to extra Iowa State possessions. He also crashed the boards, leading the team with 4 offensive rebounds. In a game that could very well come down to the last possession, every rebound counts. We need Deandre Daniels to play hard and we need him to play tough.

X Factors:

Sixth Man

We are all aware of the madness surrounding tickets to the East Regional this year- Connecticut is the reason to blame. According to SeatGeek, more than 40% of traffic to event pages for the East Regional has come from Connecticut. In addition, New York/New Jersey have accounted for another 30% of traffic. While I completely agree that the price is insane and feel for students/fans who cannot attend for financial reasons, part of me is screaming FINALLY! Finally UCONN will have a formidable presence at the Garden. I have attended too many games over the years where Kentucky, Duke or even Louisville outnumbered us in our own backyard. Not this year. There is no better way to calm nerves than to step on the court into a sea of blue and white. The sixth man is real and he will be on our side Friday night.

Madison Square Garden

Comfort. Such a small concept but imperative not to overlook. UCONN is comfortable at the Garden- we know the routine, layout and locker rooms. Everyone from the managers up to the coaches. Seniors have played close to 20 games at MSG and we won the 2K Sports Classic there earlier this season. Terrence Samuel and Omar Calhoun hail from the area. There is still magic left in the building from 2011. Also, this is Iowa State’s first time playing at MSG. Not only do they lack the luxury of comfort but are prone to fall victim to the thrill of the moment. Manhattan, New York City, Madison Square Garden- this is where the stars come out. Couple that with the excitement of March Madness and that’s a lot of adrenaline pumping through your veins. If Iowa State cannot harness the added energy it could lead to playing outside of yourself and trying to do too much, which again, works in our favor.

Unnamed Role Player

Could this be the return of Omar Calhoun? Will Terrence Samuel rise to the occasion in front of friends and family? Maybe a big Brimah block? Giffey shuts down Big 12 POY Melvin Ejim? Tyler with a boost off the bench? Who knows but to win we will need one of the above.

 

Prediction: UCONN 75-67

 

 

 

A Look Back at Buffalo

photo

UCONN-St Joe’s

 

I drove up to Buffalo for the NCAA Tournament games at the First Niagara Center, home of the Sabres. Here is what I took away from the 1st and 2nd rounds:

ROLE PLAYERS EMERGENCE

 We made up a 10 point first half deficit with Shabazz on the bench in foul trouble. Down 19-9 , it would have been easy to fall apart with the undeniable leader sidelined but instead, we came together. Terrence and Niels combined for 15 points/12 rebounds Saturday and Brimah provided a game-saving AND-1 Thursday. In 2011 it was a Jeremy Lamb steal and dunk vs San Diego State, Shabazz free throws vs Kentucky and Scoe’s 4 blocks in the championship game. This is what has to happen to win championships. Role players need to make big plays. Shabazz is undoubtedly our Kemba but Kemba would be the first to say he needed a team making plays behind him. A knock on UCONN I’ve heard is we lack players outside Shabazz to make winning plays, not necessarily game winning shots but the small plays you need to make to win in March- get a big stop, snag a big rebound or finish a tough put-back in traffic- if Buffalo is any indication, our bench responded to the critics.

UCONN DEFENSE IS BACK

Nova shot only 35% for the game, 11-51 from the field and 11-31 from beyond the arc. Our guards had 10 steals led by Kromah’s 4 contributing to 16 Nova turnovers. Not only did we create turnovers but we capitalized as well outscoring Nova 20-4 in points off turnovers. Nova went 11:24 in the first half without a field goal. On Thursday, during the last St Joe’s possession of the first half active defense caused a shot clock violation giving us the last shot. The Huskies responded to a subpar beginning holding the Hawks to 25% on shots outside the paint after the first half.

ABILITY TO CLOSE OUT GAMES

The debacle that was inbounding the ball in the final minutes of the AAC tournament game against Cincinnati did not say much to our ability to close a game. Buffalo was different. Brimah came up with a huge AND-1 in the final minute against St Joe’s, the defense forced a shot clock violation and Shabazz/Niels executed a full court inbound play to near perfection before Shabazz took over in OT. Deandre put us ahead 37-36 with 14 minutes remaining against Nova and we controlled the remainder of the game never allowing the Wildcats to get closer than 5 points.

FREE THROWS

To complement my last bullet is the kryptonite to Calhoun Era teams: Free Throws.  UCONN shot 90% (18-20) vs St Joe’s and 79% (22-28) vs Nova. I hope this becomes a staple of the Ollie Era as it is certainly conducive to tournament wins. In the last 5 minutes of each game UCONN shot 90% , 15-16 in OT first round and 20-23 Saturday. Impressive given the added tournament pressure and location at a neutral site.

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

  • Not a great UCONN turnout- Buffalo is evidently not a popular spring break destination
  • Syracuse fans miss us, Requiem For The Big East must have struck a chord
  • It’s not spring in Buffalo either
  • Bars close at 2 in Boston/DC/SF but 4 in Buffalo, that will never make sense to me and it shouldn’t to you

 

CHECK BACK TOMORROW FOR A LOOK FORWARD TO THE SWEET 16 AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN