When you’re taking part in March Madness, often times it’s difficult to keep track of what is going on at the other sites around the country. When it’s your off day, you’re meeting with the media, running through shootarounds and taking part in practices while teams are being eliminated.
Case in point: UConn.
At their media availability on Friday afternoon, UConn players Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey were asked a question about some of the higher-ranked teams across the country that have struggled this season. The reporter that asked the question casually mentioned that Duke had lost to Mercer earlier in the day.
Neither Napier or Giffey were aware of that fact.
And their reaction was great:
Question: “Shabazz, I know you’re a fan of the tournament. Just what are your thoughts, you general impressions so far as the first few days of this tournament? Louisville struggled, Duke lost. What are your thoughts as a fan of this?”
Niels Giffey: “Duke lost?”
Shabazz Napier: “Duke lost?”
Moderator: “Duke lost, yeah. To Mercer.”
SN: “Oh, wow!”
Mod: “I like your focus, you haven’t been paying attention.
NG: “No, I haven’t.”
SN: “Wow! That’s just how the tournament is. Just on any given day, Duke can lose. Louisville could have lost. Who did they play? Mercer?”
SN: “That’s a good team. Any given day, it doesn’t matter. All it takes is a good 40-minute game from one team, and you’re on to the next level. That’s why it’s called March Madness. So much madness in this tournament. You’ve got to take the best of your opportunities. Some teams don’t take the best of their opportunities that they seed, I’m a 2 seed, I’m a 1 seed and it’s a 16 seed, we’re going to blow by them.
Thoughout the whole season, you’ve seen teams losing to, you know, less than power conference teams. It’s just part of basketball. The only thing that sums it up is, what it’s called? It’s called March Madness for a reason.”
NG: “That was great.”
Yes it was, Shabazz. Yes it was.
(h/t Josh Verlin)
Throughout the season guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have led the way for No. 21 UConn, with role players such as DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey chipping in when needed. And that has been the case at the American Athletic Conference tournament, with those role players making valuable contributions in wins over No. 19 Memphis and No. 13 Cincinnati.
In their 58-56 win over the Bearcats Giffey scored 11 points and Daniels added 14 to go along with nine rebounds, joining Napier (15 points) and Boatright (13) in double figures. Those four starters combined to score 53 of the Huskies’ 58 points, and with Cincinnati being as tough as they are defensively a two-man attack wasn’t going to get the job done.
UConn needed more and Giffey and Daniels stepped forward, moving the Huskies into Saturday’s title game against No. 5 Louisville.
Another key contributor for UConn was center Amida Brimah, who in 21 minutes of action scored four points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots. The freshman isn’t ready to be a marquee offensive option at this stage in his career but he has the ability to be the rim protector this group needs, and he filled that role opposite the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in Cincinnati’s Justin Jackson.
Brimah’s presence contributed to one of UConn’s best defensive performances of the season, limiting the Bearcats to 37.9% shooting and leading scorer Sean Kilpatrick to 5-for-15 from the field. That defense helped the Huskies win despite being outscored 32-14 in the paint and 17-7 in points off of turnovers.
The turnover area is something UConn will have to clean up in order to beat Louisville, which is red-hot and swept the regular season series. Do that, and the Huskies will have a shot at winning the inaugural American tournament title. And if UConn’s role player can continue to supplement the efforts of their backcourt as they have this week, Kevin Ollie’s group is capable of making a run in the NCAA tournament.
Over the course of the holiday week, we at College Basketball Talk will be detailing what we believe will be the New Year’s Resolutions of some of the nation’s most talented, most disappointing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood.
Who else made Resolutions? Click here to find out.
WHAT DOES CONNECTICUT PROMISE TO DO MORE OF?: Shabazz Napier’s surrounding cast — mainly Omar Calhoun — will take some of the load off of his shoulders.
- Why it will happen: Ryan Boatright, Napier’s running mate in the back court, is the second piece of UConn’s potent guard-play. He’s averaging nearly 12 ppg to go along with 3.8 rbg and 3.6 apg, and one of the most dynamite guards in the country when he heats up. Boatright isn’t the issue here, rather it’s sophomore guard Omar Calhoun. Calhoun had high expectations entering the season coming off of a strong freshman campaign where he averaged better than 11 ppg, but has regressed to 8.2 ppg on a poor 34.1% FG. Calhoun has been hot and cold. He began the season with three straight double-digit games, but has gone over ten points just once in the past eight games. The 6-foot-6 Calhoun is a better player than he has shown, and when he finds his groove in this year’s Husky offense, Napier will be the primary beneficiary.
- Why it won’t happen: Napier has drawn comparisons to Kemba Walker. As the nation saw during the 2010-11 season when UConn won the National Championship, Walker carried them. He bailed the Huskies out countless times. Napier has a similar ability as we saw when he basically single-handily beat Indiana in the final minutes, and then when he connected on a buzzer-beater to defeat Florida. Make no mistake, Napier is the guy at UConn. That’s not a bad thing. However, is Napier feeling too much of the onus to consistently be the guy that this stunts the growth and involvement of those around him? Napier pressed in the second half against Stanford, and was unable to bail UConn out.
WHAT DOES CONNECTICUT SWEAR THEY WILL DO LESS OF?: End the experiment of inserting a “true” center in the starting line-up and play smaller up-front.
- Why it will happen: Sophomore center Phillip Nolan has started ten of 11 games for UConn, while freshman Amida Brimah received the other start. Through the non-conference schedule, Nolan simply hasn’t been productive enough to warrant these starts; he is averaging 3.5 points and 2.5 rebounds. Meanwhile, Brimah is at 3 ppg and 1.9 rbg. Of course, there is a need for a big bodied center in the line-up at times, but Kevin Ollie should consider going small up-front with DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey. Perhaps Ollie likes Giffey’s instant offense coming off the bench, but maximizing his minutes on the floor will benefit Napier and the rest of the offense. He is currently seeing 19.6 mpg and averaging 11.9 points — both could be more.
- Why it won’t happen: Nolan and Brimah are bother underclassmen and continuing to develop. Pulling Nolan from the starting five and cutting both of their minutes may stunt their development and kill their confidence. Against Washington, Brimah started instead of Nolan, and Nolan played well off the bench — look for Ollie to toy with this strategy in future games. Also, let’s remember that UConn is 10-1 and the No. 15 team in the country. Is making a change to the starting five and potentially ruining the continuity of the team worth the potential reward of inserting Giffey or a Tyler Olander, for instance, instead of Nolan or Brimah?