UConn’s first two games as a member of the American Athletic Conference didn’t go as anticipated, with the Huskies losing games at Houston and SMU last weekend. One problem for the Huskies all season long has been their work on the boards, as they entered Saturday’s game against UCF ranked eighth in the American in defensive rebounding percentage. Reasons for those issues include a lack of depth or experience in the front court, but more importantly a lack of production from their big men.
That changed against the Knights, with UConn grabbing 50 rebounds on their way to the 84-61 victory. Six players grabbed at least five rebounds for the Huskies, with freshman center Amida Brimah grabbing eight in what was the best performance of his young career. Brimah, who failed to score a single point in three of UConn’s four games prior to Saturday, also led the Huskies in scoring with 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting from the field and blocked five shots.
Is Brimah suddenly a premier interior scoring option? No. While he certainly took advantage of a smaller UCF front court, it would be unfair to put that kind of label on a player whose career-high was a seven-point outing in a win over Yale back in early November. And the scoring can be handled by the likes of Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Shabazz Napier, who all finished in double figures against UCF.
But if the Huskies are to challenge No. 24 Memphis, who they visit on Thursday, No. 12 Louisville and Cincinnati for the American title they’ll need production from Brimah and Phillip Nolan moving forward. Nolan added eight points and five rebounds on the night, and the two underclassmen received the majority of the interior minutes despite the fact that senior Tyler Olander was in the starting lineup. UConn’s best rebounding efforts will come when all players are helping out on the glass, and that was the case against UCF.
A subpar rebounding team on both ends entering the game, UConn grabbed 48.6% of its missed shots while limiting UCF’s offensive rebounding percentage of just 31.9%. UCF’s number may not seem like a great result, but it’s an improvement on what UConn’s opponents were able to do leading into the game. And whether or not the Huskies can contend for a conference title despite their slow start will depend upon how well they rebound the basketball, regardless of what their talented guards are capable of.
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?