A Look Back at Buffalo

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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

RIP BIG EAST AS WE KNOW IT

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Madison Square Garden. 33rd and 7th. New York, New York. The World’s Most Famous Arena. The Mecca. The Garden. Home to the Big East Tournament featuring perennial powers: Creighton, Butler, and Xavier. No, that is not a typo and yes, this is what it has come to. I couldn’t help feeling angry and even a little ripped off last night watching the Georgetown-DePaul first round game while UCONN waits 1,000 miles away in Memphis. Coinciding with my March 10th birthday it’s no surprise that tickets to the Big East Tournament topped my birthday list each year. Beginning in 2003 with a quarterfinals matchup against Seton Hall and ending in the magic that was “5 Games in 5 Days”, this is what nine straight years of Big East Basketball at Madison Square Garden meant to me:

You step off 7th Ave, out of the concrete jungle into a different type of jungle. In this jungle, the Husky is at the top of the food chain. You are greeted by chants of marching bands and cheerleaders leading their respective fight songs in unison. If you time it right, you walk in just as the UCONN fight song begins, making quite the entrance.
You pray your scalped ticket scans and start brainstorming backstories if it doesn’t. It scans, you’re in. Spiraling upward you take escalator after escalator passing Boston College, St. John’s and even a few Seton Hall fans- not caring who they are, just knowing you don’t like them. You catch a glimpse of orange in your peripheral and immediately cringe, hoping its a carrot. It’s not. It’s an orange. Any other time of year you like oranges. Oranges are sweet and juicy, but not March oranges. March oranges are sour. Sour from defeat you assume but you can’t be sure.
You take your seat. Rutgers scarlet to your left, Virginia Tech maroon to your right. You breathe a sigh of relief, they won’t give you much hassle. They CAN’T give you much hassle. You are UCONN, they are afraid and they should be. You briefly consider hassling them but quickly drop the notion, besides, you are with your family. The national anthem plays, the game has begun. You want to cheer as loud as possible after another turnover vs West Virginia, however, as a seasoned vet you know to save your voice for the inevitable date with Pittsburgh. Rival fans tire at another Taliek assist, Gordon three, Okafor block or Kemba step back but you do not, in fact, you could watch six overtimes worth.
The buzzer sounds. You live another day. As you take the escalator down you see fans of all colors. Losers avert your glare but tomorrows opponent meets your stare with a similar confidence. Not for long, you think. You exit the turnstiles into the City that Never Sleeps and a new challenge: waking up for tomorrows game.
On this night, the city is yours.