Despite falling by double-digits to No. 13 ranked Marquette Saturday afternoon, the UConn men’s basketball team is starting to show better and it all starts with point guard Shabazz Napier.
It’s not easy to see success when the standings show you in 10th place in the conference with a 6-8 record or when you are 2-7 in the last nine games. Yet, you can see it with the play of Napier recently and in Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriaki even.
In his last two games (at home versus DePaul and Marquette), Napier has been very solid. Against the Blue Demons, Napier scored 14 points while going 5-of-12 from the field and 3-for-4 from the free-throw line. More importantly, he dished out 11 assists to just two turnovers and had six rebounds and two steals. Anytime your steals match or exceed the turnovers you’re giving up, you’re not hurting your team. Throw in the 11 assists and teammates are being involved, better decisions are being made and the offense is being executed at a high level.
Facing a far better defensive team in the Golden Eagles three days later, Napier was even better. He scored 11 points while going 4-of-8 from the field (3-for-4 from free-throw line as well) but delivered eight assists to just one turnover while also coming up with four steals. His defensive energy was especially excellent in the second half as he helped his team comeback from a 14-point halftime deficit to close within four 48-44. The team never got closer due to a combination of freshman mistakes (Boatright’s technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct), poor officiating and just the individual excellence of Marquette’s Jae Crowder.
But after being in a horrible slump prior to this two game stretch, any improvement from Napier is huge. And it hasn’t just been a small improvement, it has been drastic. To improve shooting from a woeful 13 percent (4-for-31 stretch) to a very respectable 53 percent (9 of last 17) is nice, but the best change in Napier’s game has been his execution of the offense and good decision making.
Instead of a barely 1:1 assist to turnover ratio, Napier is executing at a 6:1 rate over the past two games. If his play continues at this recent level, the Huskies can very easily close the season with three wins out of their last four (victories over Villanova, Providence and Pittsburgh while perhaps falling to No. 2 Syracuse) contests to close the season.
If they do that and put up a game effort against the Orange at home in their rematch, the Huskies should enter the Big East tournament with some momentum and far better confidence than they had going back in January and beginning of February.
The team will be 19-11 overall and 9-9 in conference upon the conclusion of the regular season. Those numbers are very similar to last year’s team when it finished 21-9 and 9-9 entering the conference tournament.
Then, if the team can continue their improved play with at least two Big East tournament wins, a return to the big dance should come to a team that will be 21-12 and defending national champions.
Regardless, the success of this team comes down squarely to the performance of its point guard (Napier) and best player (Lamb).
Lamb, who I mentioned above as playing better in the past two contests, still needs to up the aggressiveness that he plays with. Despite scoring 19 points against Marquette, he chose to shoot just 12 times and made seven. Lamb turned down multiple opportunities, choosing instead to pass off to Andre Drummond for an 17-foot elbow jumper or a 21-foot DeAndre Daniels 3-pointer — both shots missed badly.
Lamb has to understand that as the best player on the floor, his chances of scoring are far better than Drummond or Daniels in those situations. He has to play with the aggression of a go-to scorer. Demand the ball at raise his level of play when players like Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder are out-performing you.
Whenever this clicks for Lamb, the Huskies will be a force once again. In the meantime, though, UConn fans should be enthused by the improved play over the last few games.