AAC Tournament Recap: Thank you Ryan Boatright

 (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

This team just didn’t have it.

There is no other way to put it. Ryan Boatright is not Kemba Walker, Ryan Boatright is not Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies fell short in the American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship game yesterday. Although our NCAA Tournament hopes rimmed around and bounced out, I saw something in Hartford this weekend that while not validated by a postseason berth, makes all the difference as a fan: we finally competed.

The 2014-15 UConn Men’s basketball season has been a bumpy road to say the least. Walking down a cobblestone Pratt street, under the official AAC Tournament arch and into the XL Center- you knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Though I have written about the relative lack of competition in the AAC, winning 4 games in 4 days is a challenge regardless of conference or level.

If there was one aspect of this team that left me perplexed to the point of frustration, it was the lack of competition. A lack of toughness that has become a staple of UConn basketball over the years. Call it a championship hangover, call it too many new pieces to the puzzle, this team struggled all season to find their identity.

No, we are not going on another magical ride through the NCAA Tournament but I will tell you one thing. We found our toughness in Hartford this weekend. Plagued by youthful miscues, devastated by injury and largely undersized but never once did we give in. It may have taken an entire season, but we found our identity. We found what it means to play UConn basketball.

Sure, Brimah’s backcourt violation in the closing minute against Cincinnati evoked groans from the crowd but even after the Bearcats overcame a five-point deficit in the final 1:25- we did not quit. Instead, guys stepped up and made winning plays when their number was called. Daniel Hamilton, mourning the passing of his grandmother, knocked down a clutch deep three that couldn’t help but remind me of this Taliek Brown prayer from the 2002 Big East Championship game (40 second mark).

Judging from the clear momentum swing, I don’t think we beat Cincinnati in OT. That’s when Captain Boatright delivered the final dagger with a lightning quick crossover-to-three-pointer for the victory. Kemba had his signature shot, Shabazz followed suit, and now Boatright will join them in UConn highlight reels.

Fast forward to Tulsa, a game that saw the Huskies outrebounded 40-28 and trailing for more than 32 minutes. Things were looking especially dim late in the second half, with Tulsa up 10 and only 6:35 to play. Instead of succumbing to the ball-hawking pressure, UConn came to life. Said Boatright:

“It was ugly for a second, I’m not going to lie. When we got in that under-4 minute timeout, we all looked each other in the eye and said we’re going to figure it out. We’re going to dig ourselves out of this hole and win the game.”

And win the game they did. UConn used a 14-1 run in the closing 3:30 to advance to the championship game. We didn’t hit many shots, but we hit the shots we had to. Earlier in the season (cough Yale, cough Texas) we found a way to lose. Against Tulsa, we found a way to win. That shows mental toughness but most importantly, that shows growth. However painful, sometimes doing it the right way is more important than the end result.

The Championship

SMU was always going to be our destiny in this tournament, it was inevitable from the onset. The Mustangs, entering having won 9 of their last 10, played with a chip on their shoulder from the tip. You could tell this team still felt the pain from last year’s tournament snub and was determined to seal their fate before the 6:00PM Selection Show.

SMU’s energy killed us on the offensive glass, taking advantage of both Kentan Facey’s absence (concussion) and early foul trouble from UConn’s front line. Our lack of depth was exposed with SMU’s bench outscoring our depleted Huskies 29-8. Boatright, clearly feeling the effects of two hard falls, was just not himself. You could feel the team rally around him, desperately trying to pull out a win for their Captain. From Rodney’s strong drives to the lane to Brimah’s rim protection late in the second half, the supporting cast did what they could. That is what you have to love about these Huskies. We fight for our own. Unfortunately this season, it was just not enough.

This team didn’t have it, but am I disappointed? No. We put ourselves in a position to make the NCAA tournament and that is all a fan can ask for. A team that could not close out Yale to start the season beat three tough opponents in a do-or-die environment. My only regret from the weekend was not giving Ryan Boatright an appropriate applause when he exited the championship game. On the heels of a ferocious comeback- and questionable foul call- I don’t think it registered this was Boatright’s last game in Hartford. Luckily, we are fortunate enough to have one last opportunity to thank Ryan for his contribution to the program this Wednesday at Gampel Pavilion. Out of all the UConn greats, I have never seen more tenacity packed into such a small frame. Thank you Ryan for a great four years and best of luck in the future.

We now turn our focus onto the NIT. Though it’s not the NCAA Tournament, we are still playing basketball in March when the majority of teams are at home. This team has finally found its identity. Carrying that over for a few more weeks against tough competition will be huge for this young team moving into the offseason.

I will leave with one final question.

Do you remember what happened the year following our last NIT berth?

AP

AP

Just saying. 


Some pictures from the weekend:

UConn-USF

UConn-USF

UConn-Cincinnati

UConn-Cincinnati

UConn-Tulsa

UConn-Tulsa

UConn-SMU

UConn-SMU

Shoutout to this die hard UConn fan who made the trek from California

Shoutout to this die hard UConn fan who made the trek from California!

Thoughts from UConn-Yale: Is it time to panic?

uconn.edu

uconn.edu

The 2-5 New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) defeated #17 Michigan Wolverines 72-70 yesterday in the biggest upset -in terms of point spread- since 2007 . A day earlier, Division II University of the Sciences defeated Division I Drexel becoming the first non-D1 school to beat a D1 opponent at home. My point? Don’t panic. Yes, we lost to Yale for the first time in decades, and yes, once again, it was painful. However this was not the typical UConn-Yale match-up. Yale entered Friday’s game at 7-2 having defeated Kent State on the road and losing to 6-2 Providence by just 6. Additionally, Yale coach James Jones is one of the most successful coaches in the Ivy League with his 209 overall wins good for third in league history. This was not a scrub team that came into Gampel and beat us. Yale executed. And when you execute, as evidenced by the last two days, any team can win any game.

Moral of the story, we didn’t play well. More often than not, upsets occur when the underdog out-shoots the favorite. This was not the case Friday night as Yale shot a lowly 33% (18-55) from the field and a dismal 14% (3-21) from behind the arc. Instead, Yale beat us in every other aspect of the game. They out-rebounded us (36-25), out-blocked us (4-2), had more steals (10-5) and forced more turnovers (13-11). You know what this tells me? We didn’t create and exploit favorable match-ups.

The Bad

Ryan Boatright’s missed 1-and-1

I don’t care how poorly we rebounded or how lethargic we played, Boatright’s missed free throw is far and away the most disturbing take away. He needs to make that shot. Kemba Walker makes it. Shabazz Napier makes it. Ryan Boatright missed it- twice. I know he played through pain and I appreciate his toughness, but as any athlete can attest, the adrenaline pumping from a potentially game-winning foul shot eliminates any pain in the body. We need Ryan Boatright to make that shot under any circumstance. He is our leader and he will have the ball late in the game. We don’t need him to make 1, we need him to make 2. Every time. That is what separates a great point guard from a championship winning point guard. At this point in his career there cannot be any doubt when he steps to the line, especially in late game situations.

Lack of Urgency

Call it a championship hangover but losing two games in a row the same way on the same miscommuncation is troubling. As the defending National Champions we have a target on our back and need to bring the intensity night in and night out, from the beginning. On the year, UConn is -23 in the first half and +43 in the second half. Slow starts hint to a lack of urgency and not taking opponents seriously. Yale/Coppin State deserve the same respect as Texas/Duke. Once you give a team early confidence, it can be hard to overcome. Also, Yale shot more free throws. For a team that is shooting 28% from deep on the season, we need to attack the rim and stop settling for the outside shot. So far on the year we have shot only 5 more free throws than our opponents. With the talent/athleticism we have, this is unacceptable and a clear indicator we are settling for the outside jumper.

Three Guard Line Up

The benefits of a three guard line up are to create an advantage by having more shooters, play makers and ball handlers on the floor, effectively limiting turnovers. It can also be utilized to create a match-up advantage. So far this year, the three guard lineup has done none of the above. Boatright and Daniel Hamilton are playing 36/34 minutes respectively as the two primary guards with SCJ, Purvis and Terrence Samuel each playing between 22-24 mpg as the third guard. Between the three, they have 20 assists and 19 turnovers while shooting a combined 32%. UConn as a team has a dreadful 10:12 assist:turnover ratio. As I mentioned above, we aren’t getting to the line, settling for outside shots we aren’t making. What is the advantage of having a three guard lineup when the third guard isn’t producing?

At least the third guard rebounds, right? Wrong. We were killed on the glass against Yale managing only 1 offensive rebound. On the year, opponents have a +6 offensive rebound margin. Kentan Facey alone has pulled down 39 rebounds in 146 minutes, more than SCJ, Purvis and Samuel combined in over 375 minutes of action. That leads me to believe the rebounding problem is more of a personnel issue than an actual rebounding problem. Also, remember all those years we led the nation in shot blocking? This year we are only at +2. Statistically speaking we need to abandon the three guard lineup and focus on getting the bigs involved. A perfect segue into…

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? 

UConn basketball is defined by toughness and absolute dominance in the paint. Adrien. Boone. Okafor. Thabeet. Armstrong. In speaking with a former player, Calhoun started every game with a play for the bigs- typically a cross screen or back screen on the block. We need to get back to the inside-out game that defines UConn basketball, especially given our early season shooting woes. Once you have established a post presence, or at least show you are willing to look down low, the perimeter will open up for our play-makers. Yes Brimah/Facey/Nolan are young and raw but they have shown signs of progress. We need to get them involved early, even force the issue, to create a more balanced attack. Getting our bigs involved early builds confidence that will translate to the defensive end.

We are a team that is still putting together the pieces. According to ESPN stats and information UConn is the only team in the nation with seven players averaging 23.5 minutes per game (minimum 3 games played). These are not the UConn Huskies who will compete in the NCAA tournament this March, that rotation is still undecided. With early season injuries to Calhoun/Purvis, we are still trying to assemble the pieces to a winning puzzle. In that regard, the Yale loss is not nearly as worrying as it may seem from the headlines, as long as we make the necessary adjustments.

As always,

GO HUSKIES!

UConn Basketball: Keys to the 2014/15 Season

 (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

November is here once again which means the return of my favorite season, college basketball. Here are a few keys for UConn to repeat as National Champions. It starts (and ends), of course, with point guard Ryan Boatright.

Ryan Boatright

This is finally Ryan Boatright’s team. Two years ago, I would’ve cringed at this idea but today I am much more comfortable given his progression. Here are two subplots to look for concerning Boatright this season:

Leadership

We know Boat can drive, we know Boat can defend- but can he lead? This is the most important question of the season and in my opinion, the biggest indicator of success. If you look at the last two National Championship runs, it was not the tremendous play of Kemba and Shabazz that made the difference but the leadership they exhibited. Both were able to elevate the performance of their teammates, whether it was making the extra pass or an inspiring defensive stop. A telling sign will be body language. Pay attention to Boatright after a missed defensive assignment or botched layup- does he throw his hands up in disgust or encourage his teammate with a pat on the back? We need the latter.

Boatright/Purvis floor relationship

I think we can all remember the painful offensive sets in the beginning of the Napier/Boatright years- long possessions ending in a deep 3 or forced drives into traffic trying to draw contact. Either way it hurt the eyes to watch. It took Boatright and Napier 2.5 years to learn to complement each other. Boatright and Purvis don’t have that luxury. While Purvis could not suit up for the Huskies last year following his transfer, he practiced with the team everyday which should eliminate some of the learning curve. We need both to perform, but most importantly, we need them to complement each other.

Identity

Top Dogs vs Underdogs

Last year we were the Hungry Huskies, the underdog, the misfits. This year, as defending National Champions, the expectations are much higher. Playing as the underdog is much different than playing as the defending National Champions. We have a target on our back. It is essential we keep the same hunger while avoiding a championship hangover. Humble Huskies. With Kevin Ollie behind the wheel you know we will defend and you know we will compete, that is a given. However, with different pieces than last year it remains to be seen how the puzzle fits together. Early season tests against Duke and Florida will be a good gauge.

Emergence of Role Players

We need to defend and we need to rebound for 40 minutes over a span of 6 months. It doesn’t matter who the production comes from, it just needs to be there night in and night out for the duration of the season. It could take the whole season to learn the shape of the puzzle but we know the result when all pieces fit come tournament time.

Inside Presence

Amida Brimah is good. Really good. We know Brimah can defend the basket but can he do so without getting himself in foul trouble? If so, he has the potential to be a lottery pick in next years NBA Draft. If not, Philip Nolan, Kentan Facey and newcomer Rakim Lubin will need to pick up the slack. Keep a close eye on the Brimah- Jahlil Okafor matchup when UConn battles Duke in mid-December. Every big time player has a breakout game against a big time talent on a big time stage (Kemba in Maui, Bazz vs Florida). This could very well be Brimah’s coming out party.

Resiliency

In 2011 we lost 4 out of 5 games entering postseason play. In 2014 we were manhandled by Louisville before the AAC tournament. As any season, this season will have its highs and lows. A team is not defined by their lows, a team is defined by their response. I am less concerned with the blowout loss and more concerned with the attitude at practice the following day. Resiliency starts with leadership which brings us back to my first point: Ryan Boatright.