Saturday, November 26, 2011

Connecticut 78, Florida State 76 (Overtime)

[recap] [box score]

When a team is depends heavily on one player -- as Connecticut indisputably depended on Kemba Walker last season -- and that player leaves, it's natural to expect a bit of a decline in the following season. So I looked upon UConn's lofty preseason ranking with a bit of skepticism. I wasn't all that impressed when I saw them in their season-opener against Columbia, and I took Friday's collapse against Central Florida as justification of that skepticism.

After watching them beat Florida State in the consolation game of the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, however, I'm starting to believe that they can defend their title.

Most of the attention on the Huskies focuses on their returning backcourt, so we might as well start there. Sophomore Jeremy Lamb's performance in the postseason had many prognosticators tabbing him as a breakout player this year. His classmate, point guard Shabazz Napier, had enough good moments as a freshman to suggest that he could lead the team this season.

The early-season numbers suggest that Napier and Lamb combine to be one of the nation's best backcourts. Heading into Saturday's game, Lamb was putting up 21.5 points per game, while Napier had posted averages of 15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists. Napier also had a triple-double against Coppin State.

Watching those two on Saturday, I was disappointed that Lamb didn't assert himself more. He was coolly efficient in scoring 19 points, making seven of nine shots (including three of five from downtown). But coming off a disappointing loss, against a very good defensive team, I would have expected him to demand the ball a bit more. Too often, he was little more than a spot-up shooter.

Napier, on the other hand, had the opposite problem: He asserted himself too much. Napier took 18 shots, twice as many as Lamb or any other Husky, and many had a high degree of difficulty. He made a bunch of them and led the team in scoring, but if he's going to be the team's point guard, he needs to do things like get Lamb involved.

Here's where Ryan Boatright enters the picture. A highly-touted freshman who sat the first six games of the season due to an NCAA suspension, Boatright made his first college appearance against the Seminoles -- and boy, did he impress! Fourteen points in his debut against perhaps the best defensive team in the country. He routinely broke down Michael Snaer off the dribble with his arsenal of lightning-quick crossovers and ankle-breaking hesitations, maneuvering into the lane for soft floaters. He also calmly knocked down three free throws at the end of regulation after being fouled on a three-pointer to send the game into overtime. He's the genuine article, folks.

But as much as I just focused on his scoring, it was clear to me that Boatright's first instinct is to pass the ball. I don't recall him taking a single bad shot -- fairly remarkable for a freshman with his scoring ability playing in his first game.. On several possessions after he first entered the game in the first half, he got into the lane and either kicked the ball out to a shooter on the perimeter or dropped it off to the block when FSU defenders helped to him.

This is significant, because the more I see Napier, the more I think he's not a true point guard. Napier had six turnovers against the Seminoles, the fourth time this year he's had at least five. He takes questionable shots and really seems like more of a two-guard in a point guard's body. He ends up with good assist numbers in part because he has the ball in his hands so much. He's not an overly selfish player and he is a creative passer, but I'm not convinced he's the best distributor UConn has.

With Boatright back and ready for the big-time right away (and with fellow freshman DeAndre Daniels struggling to find his consistency on the wing, I could see UConn playing a lot of three-guard lineups, as they did in crunch time against Florida State. Lamb is just 6'5", but he's long enough to play the wing. Pairing the six-foot Napier and the -- ahem! -- six-foot Boatright in the backcourt would be giving up some size, but Napier is a good defender and the pair would be a matchup nightmare for the other team.

Underneath, there's a bit of controversy. Starting with the opening game in the Bahamas, freshman Andre Drummond started in place of junior Alex Oriakhi, and the veteran apparently isn't too pleased about it. Oriakhi reportedly tweeted something about Calhoun's decision to start Drummond being "BS," though the post has since been deleted and I haven't heard too much about it.

Drummond is another highly-touted recruit. He's already an elite shotblocker -- the box score says he blocked six shots against the 'noles (which seems low, to be honest), and he's averaging just under three per game. He's good on the boards and is insanely athletic, though I'm not sure how graceful he is and his ballhanding looks a bit shaky. But he's adjusted very nicely to the college game, despite the fact that he's been wearing a mask to protect a broken nose suffered in a preseason practice.

Oriakhi is more of a traditional post player, a real bruiser who is a beast on the glass. He's also a good shotblocker -- not as naturally gifted as Drummond, but he got three in just 15 minutes against UNC-Ashville and five in 26 minutes against UCF. He was quiet against Florida State, but hopefully that was due to foul trouble and not some lingering dissatisfaction with his new role. He was excellent against UCF, scoring 14 points and grabbing ten rebounds.

Tyler Olander is the starting power forward, another good shotblocker. Olander is a better frontcourt partner for either Drummond or Oriakhi than they would be for each other because of his ability to play the high post and hit the 15- to 17-foot jumper. I was impressed with his play against Columbia, but he struggled against Florida State, missing his jumpers and getting exploited underneath. I seem to remember Oriakhi hitting a few foul line jumpers last year, and his profile on DraftExpress backs that up -- I'd be interested to see how he and Drummond play together, although Calhoun seems adamant that the two can't really play alongside each other.

Those six guys -- Lamb, Napier, Boatright, Drummond, Oriakhi, and Olander -- are all starter quality player, and two of them come off the bench. Daniels has started the last five games at the three, taking over for Roscoe Smith, a sophomore who made 33 starts as a freshman last year. That's eight guys who could start. There aren't too many teams in America with that kind of depth, particularly considering the way the players complement each other. Calhoun has the luxury of a lot of combinations to choose from.

UConn has its share of problems. I wasn't impressed with the way they defended the three-point line against Florida State. Napier needs to settle down. Oriakhi has to accept a bench role. There's a lot of "coming together" that needs to happen for this to be a successful season. But that's true for every team, and if it does come together for the Huskies, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see them in the Final Four.

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