Jay Bilas said it perfectly tonight as the Connecticut Huskies were getting manhandled by a merely solid No. 23 Louisville squad.
“Connecticut is fun to play right now. When is the last time anybody ever said that?,” Bilas asked his broadcast partners Bill Raftery and Sean McDonough.
After being thoroughly shellacked by Louisville 80-59 Monday night, the Huskies (15-8 overall, 5-6 league) are now 3-7 in their last 10 games since the calendar turned to 2012. Gone is the National Championship feel-good-vibes of 2011 and suddenly the team is in a terrible spiral of futile offense and disinterested defense.
Where is this coming from? What are the issues of this team? And why oh why is such a talented team — one I would argue that is right up there with Kentucky and North Carolina as having the most pro prospects of any current NCAA squad — struggling so mightily?
It starts with the point guard play, or lackthereof, and ends with a poor fundamental approach to how their offense is being played.
Shabazz Napier, the Huskies sophomore point guard, is playing terribly this season. His recent shooting woes (Napier is now 3-for his last-23 from beyond the arc and 10-for-51 in his last five games from the field in total) are just the tip of the iceberg of his vast assortment of plagues.
While occasionally brilliant in the open floor, Napier plays far too out-of-control the vast majority of the time. His assist-to-turnover ratio now stands at less than 2:1. So not only is he unable to score efficiently, he’s also not running the offense efficiently. Far too often he is seen committing careless turnovers and throwing up terrible shots after zero passes in the halfcourt set.
And that is the other major problem — the team’s halfcourt sets. Too often the other four players on the court are standing around doing little more than watching Napier pound the ball into the hardwood. Jeremy Lamb, in my humble opinion the most talented offensive player in the country, is averaging just 11.2 shots per game in UConn’s 3-7 stretch.
The fact that Lamb, a preseason All-America first team selection, is averaging just 11 shots per game is a direct correlation to poor point guard play and a timid offensive approach.
With players like Lamb, Roscoe Smith, Andre Drummond, Napier, Ryan Boatright, Alex Oriaki, DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander UConn is a team loaded with long athletes that can and should get out and run at every opportunity. It has the depth to make most teams wilt as the game wears on. They should be playing in the 75+ points range, not in the 40-50 range they have been playing in their recent stretch.
When UConn scores 70 or more points this season, they are 10-0. When they fail to reach 70, the team is 5-8. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, the Huskies need to make it a point to get out and run their opponent to death. Play an uptempo offense that doesn’t shy away from shooting the ball when an open look presents itself.
Too often I see this team dribbling around, making extra passes and passing up good looks for the “perfect” look. Instead of getting the “perfect” look, often they wind up with no look whatsoever after committing a turnover or foul to lose possession.
This is a team that should be shooting 70 shots a game. Put the ball up. Make other teams run and try to keep up with your length and athleticism. Instead it is playing timid, lethargic basketball that belies its strengths.
So what needs to be done to get this team running again? First, Napier needs to be pulled from the starting lineup tomorrow. Go to a starting five of Boatright, Lamb, Smith, Olander and Oriaki. The focus of the offense should be Lamb and Smith on the wings at every opportunity with Boatright as the third option and Olander and Oriaki getting opportunities on second chances.
Bring Drummond, Napier, Giffey and Daniels off the bench so that all get at least 10 minutes with Napier and Drummond approaching 25. This keeps the starters fresh and helps wear the opponent down.Again, the focus offensively needs to be on transition offense and getting to the free-throw line.
If Jeremy Lamb plays 35 minutes a game and has 20 shot attempts and gets to the line eight times, he will score 25 a game every time. And if Lamb scores 25 a game, this team will win every time.
If Roscoe Smith plays 30 minutes and gets a mere 10 shots a game with six free-throw attempts, he will score 14 points with eight rebounds and elite defense.
You get those two players going and this team will suddenly be the top five team that it has the talent to be and once again a national championship contender.
Throw in Boatright averaging 10 and the frontcourt trio of Drummond, Oriaki and Olander averaging 25 points and 25 rebounds, the team will defend its title.
Get out and run. Take shots unabashedly. Get to the free-throw line. Play great defense.
Get back to that style and UConn will be fun to watch again. Right now they are only fun to play against.