UConn needed this loss. UConn needed an experienced Pitt team to beat them up, execute to precision, and win going away. And the Panthers did it, knocking off the Huskies 78-63 on Monday night at the Peterson Events Center.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now, but this is not the No. 4 team in the country.
Sure, they won the Maui Invitational. Yes, they came into this game undefeated. And you’re right, they have Kemba Walker. But anyone that has actually watched this team play will tell you that these Huskies are closer to the edge of the top 25 than the top five.
After that terrific performance in Maui, UConn jumped way up in the rankings. With nothing but cupcakes between their return from Maui and their jaunt to Pittsburgh, UConn continued to win games. And with the teams ranked in front of them losing game after game, UConn slowly climbed in the polls.
All the way up to fourth.
That ranking led to unnecessary and unfair expectations for a team that has four freshman, two sophomores, and a Kemba as their top seven scorers.
UConn never led against Pitt. They never got closer than six after the 15:38 mark, when Brad Wanamaker found Gilbert Brown for a thunderous alley-oop to make the score 14-7. They never got any closer than seven in the second half, and that seven-point deficit lasted for all of one possession. The Huskies shot 31.9% from the game, and the non-Kembas shot a dismal 9-33. While Walker went off for 31 points, he did it on an inefficient 10-27 shooting performance while also getting to the line 11 times.
Nothing defined UConn’s game more than the two minute stretch after Walker had cut a 15 point Pitt lead to seven with 5:31 remaining. On the ensuing Pitt possession, Wanamaker drove the lane and scored on a layup over an out-of-position Alex Oriakhi. At the other end, Niels Giffey missed an open three in the corner. After getting a stop, both Walker and Oriakhi missed layups. UConn got another offensive rebound, but Jeremy Lamb bricked an open look from the top of the key. Walker stole the outlet and found himself wide open for a three from the corner that wasn’t even close. Following a Pitt timeout, the Panthers ran Ashton Gibbs off of two screens which freed him for a wide open three with 3:24 left.
Despite playing this poorly, its too early to fully sound the alarm on this UConn team.
This is a young group. There are six freshmen in their 11 man rotation. They opened Big East play two days after Christmas on the road against a very good Pitt team that is damn near unbeatable at home. This win moved the Panther’s record to 142-11 and 8-0 against top five teams at the Peterson Events Center.
Give Pitt the credit they deserve. Walker had very few driving lanes tonight. The Panthers collapsed every time he put the ball on the floor, daring him to kick the ball out to UConn’s shooters. The Pitt offense was a thing of beauty. Gibbs runs a clinic every time he comes off of a screen. Wanamaker may not be the best decision maker in the country, but he played like it tonight. UConn’s bigs could not handle Gary McGhee’s brute strength or Nasir Robinson’s versatility.
Combine that with a physical and intelligent brand of defense, and what shone through tonight more than anything was Pitt’s experience and ability to execute.
Its tough to imagine Oriakhi playing as poorly as he did tonight all season long. Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith, and Lamb will get better as they become accustomed to Big East play. They will beat the teams at the bottom of the Big East, get some wins against the other middle-of-the-pack squads, and maybe even land a win or two against one of the Big East heavyweights.
UConn should get to 10-8 or 9-9 in the Big East. They should have enough on their non-conference resume with their wins in Maui to get into the tournament.
Its not what you would expect from a top five team in the country, but UConn is not one of the top five teams in the country.
And tonight should be enough to prove that to the voters.