Tuesday, April 15, 2014

UConn's Magical March and April

UConn started off March with an impressive win against Cincinnati where they held the Bearcats to just 45 points. They backed that game up with an inconsistent effort against Rutgers at home where they let the Scarlet Knights hang with them for much of the game. Things went quickly down hill when they traveled to Kentucky and faced a red hot Louisville team for the final game of the regular season. The Cardinals tore UConn apart left, right,and center and handed them not only their worst lose of the season, but the 33 point deficit was one of the worst losses in UConn history. Ollie had to regroup because they had to take on a Memphis team that he had already beat twice this year and to do it a third time, on top of that it was in Memphis which would be a daunting task. The Huskies put together one of their better games of the year and beat the Tigers by nineteen points. Riding the momentum of that game, UConn geared up for the tie-breaker against Cincinnati. This game was a heavy weight defensive battle that went back and forth but UConn had the more consistent offense and pulled out the two point victory which set them up  a rematch against the very team that had destroyed them in the final regular season game. This time UConn was better prepared, but Louisville’s defensive intensity and deadly outside shooting gave the Cardinals a double digit lead that UConn couldn’t overcome and the Huskies lost by ten.

Many fans wondered just what team would show up in the NCAA tournament and no one expected the lightning in a bottle that UConn discovered. They might not have been happy with UConn earning a seven seed, but Husky fans were ecstatic for them to be in the eastern region and to have favorable match-ups with the higher seeds. St. Joseph’s played a fantastic game and the combination of Galloway and Kanacevic were almost enough to shatter UConn’s destiny but that changed as soon as Kanacevic fouled out. With Brimah’s three point play, UConn headed into overtime and soon seized control of the game and pulled away for the victory. That set them up with a familiar foe in Villanova. Jay Wright’s team had been reeling with a shocking loss to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament and UConn caught them at the right time. Shabazz Napier was masterful in the game and led UConn with 25 points, hitting 4 of 8 from deep and 9 of 13 from the field. They pulled away in the second half and never looked back.

Their next foe, Iowa State had lost their big man, Georges Niang, with a broken foot. With UConn’s biggest
weakness in the frontcourt, the loss of Niang played a pivotal role. Led by Daniels spectacular play where he hit 10 of 15 from the court, UConn led by double digits by halftime, but Dustin Hogue helped Iowa State claw back into the game with his own superstar performance. But UConn proved too much and they moved on to face what everyone thought to be the sleeper team of the tournament in Michigan State. Tom Izzo had his team playing extremely hard, but UConn’s defense were hitting their stride. They frustrated the Spartans and created 16 turnovers which helped fuel their fast break. Despite shooting just 34 percent from the field, UConn used pinpoint free throw shooting, 21 of 22, to keep themselves at arms length to pull off the epic upset and send themselves to an improbable Final Four appearance.

They now faced their biggest competition in the overall number one seed in Florida who were riding a 30 game winning streak that had started after their loss to UConn in Gampel Pavilion. With the entire country besides the little old state of Connecticut picking Florida, UConn put together a game for the ages. Their defense frustrated Florida and the offense shot 55 percent from the field. Florida’s only weapon was to get to the line or score around the rim, because UConn only gave up one 3-pointer the entire game and that occurred on Florida’s first possession. They shocked the overall number one seed and found themselves in the championship game against a very talented and equally hot Kentucky team.

The game looked to be UConn’s to lose as the Huskies jumped out early and scored easily and often, but Kentucky switched to a zone which derailed UConn’s offense. It ended up being a sloppy but tough fought battle with UConn making just enough plays to keep the pesky Wildcats at within a possession of the lead. They found themselves in the improbable position of cutting down the nets for the 4th time in school history, book-ending Giffey, Napier, and Olander’s careers at UConn.

Napier was everything this team needed down the stretch of March and into early April. He hit his jumpers, got to the line, found the open men, and commanded the halfcourt sets. His leadership ability and humble off the court demeanor was contagious and the team solidified around him. Make no doubt about it, this all started back in 2011 when he tutored under Kemba Walker. Walker showed him what it took to lead a team not expected to amount to much and willed them to the National Title. It will be interesting to see who takes the torch from Napier.

For this team to go as far as they did, Ollie needed Boatright to step up and the junior shooting guard did just that. He didn’t fare so well in early March. His jumper eluded him, he turned the ball over in critical situations. His struggles had him sitting on the bench in crunch time on several occasions and it looked like his confidence was on an all-time low, but he would soon prove everyone wrong. Once he stepped into the NCAA tournament, he was a totally different player. His jumpers were dropping and he carried UConn offensively for much of the St. Joseph’s game. He was masterful against Villanova, frustrated Iowa State, was a defensive juggernaut against Michigan State, knocked down shots around the rim against Florida, and though he had a sub-par game against Kentucky, his defense controlled the perimeter and made the Wildcats into a one dimensional team. He is still rough around the edges, but the glimpses he showed, especially with Napier on the bench, has given UConn fans some confidence heading into next year.

Even though Boatright’s improved play helped UConn cut down the nets, DeAndre Daniels’ spectacular performance in the tournament was the overall difference maker. He was in a bit of a funk in early March and struggled against Cincinnati and Rutgers, but he was the only shining spot in that egg of a game that they suffered against Louisville and he never looked back after that.  He made plays in the post, rebounded the basketball in traffic, hit the outside shot to help elevate pressure on the pick and rolls, and played solid defense. His only bad game was in the title game where he had a hard time hitting his jumpers, but he still battled hard, grabbed boards, and made an important lay-up late in the game. With the depth of the draft class this year, he should stay in school, add ten to fifteen pounds to his frame, and continue to play around the rim. If he can do this then he should be a top ten pick come next year.

Giffey had an up and down March and April. He had two really great shooting games throughout the two months, but he was the glue guy of the team and he did the little things that Ollie needed him to do, especially when UConn had to go small. He rebounded the basketball, defended bigger and more agile players, and made plays around the rim. Even though he might not make the NBA, he will have a very long European career, because of his maturity, range, and defensive ability.

Like Giffey, Kromah had an inconsistent two months offensively, but his defense never dwindled. He was pivotal in several games with either Napier or Boatright on the bench. He helped alleviate some the full court pressure and also had the task of covering the opponents best slashers. For some reason, he went into a shell offensively in both tournaments and that once reliable jumper wasn’t there for him and his confidence began to wain.

UConn needed some of the freshmen to step up and contribute and Samuel was up for the challenge. There is no denying the importance of his role and how it contributed for UConn’s success. There were many times when this team’s offense hit a wall and the unheralded freshman beat a double team or broke the press to get to the rim for a lay-up. He has a bit of a Taliek Brown in him and has that knack of getting to the rim with ease. Hopefully he can build on this new found confindence heading forward.

Brimah had that one shining moment when he hit an important 3-point play to tie the game up against St. Joseph’s but that masked what was a pretty disappointing two months. He had a hard time staying on the court for consistent minutes. While his footwork has improved drastically from the start of the season, his hands were getting him into trouble defensively. They would snake around when defending on the post or wouldn’t be straight up when a player drove into the lane. That should improve with experience, but he makes such an impact when he is on the court that he needs to limit those needless fouls.

Nolan had major issues rebounding, defending without fouling, and finishing plays around the rim. He does get into good defensive position and led the team in charge calls this season, but he will need more improvement in rebounding and finishing plays around the basket next season. He didn’t take as big of a leap in development from last season to this one and hopefully he can not only bulk up but become a great compliment to Brimah down low.

Olander’s role diminished in March and April in his limited stints. He just wasn’t strong or skilled enough on the post to make a big impact and was mostly there to clog lanes and buy time for the other big men to return. He was the punching bag for many UConn fans that saw many of his flaws, but it is a bit unfair. He was undersized for the center position and would have been more qualified for that power forward role like Jeff Adrien played, but with UConn’s strength in the backcourt, Ollie utilized a more 3-guard line-up and he was forced to play the center role.

Calhoun flat out disappeared in March and April and it is hard to come up with a single positive play that he made in the month in a half of basketball. It will be an important off season for him to improve his jumper. It was awkward to start with but Ollie could deal with it when it was falling for him but now that it hasn’t, changes might be in order. He right now is the biggest question mark heading into next season.

Facey didn’t get much playing time in March and April but he has shown enough versatility to become a main piece to next year’s squad. He is a versatile player that has a knack for the ball coming off the rim and also can put it on the floor and hit jumpers. He will need to focus on the fundamentals next season and become a consistent rebounder. That should allow him to get minutes which should lead to opportunities to showcase some of those skills, but it starts and ends with rebounding.

What a magical month. It hasn’t truly settled in yet what this team accomplished. In truth, we are very spoiled as a fan base and sometimes have a hard time grasping in total what UConn has been able to do these past fifteen years. This is the one sport that can allow a team to get hot at just the right time and win it all. Most sports only allow the top ten or fifteen teams into their playoffs, but to allow 64 teams to via for that title is incredible and for UConn to be underdogs in just about every match-up and not only win those, but to win seven of the eight games convincingly was unimaginable. Can you believe it? Four National Titles. Simply incredible, especially when two of them came out of nowhere.  Who says lightning can’t strike twice?

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