When I sat down to write this article, I honestly expected to be a lot angrier than I am right now. I expected the words to flow off my pen like swears out the left-side of Jim Calhoun’s mouth, and my frustration to spill over, at one of the most sobering, angering and confusing losses by a UConn basketball team in my lifetime. Mostly, I expected there to be a huge helping of vitriol, aimed at a wildly underperforming team, and a season which is in the process of running straight off the train tracks.
Only, it didn’t happen.
First let’s start with the facts, and begin by reiterating what I already said: Simply put, UConn’s loss to Louisville on Monday night was amongst the worst I can ever remember, which believe me, is saying something. I’ve seen a lot of UConn games over a lot of years, and have never, ever witnessed the combination of sheer lack of basketball savvy, combined with a deer-in-the-headlights, “what’s going on” look I saw Monday night. Through the years, I’ve seen bad coaching and bad basketball, poor execution and sheer disinterest. But I’ve never seen anything quite like… that.
The final score of 80-59 was simply a play on numbers, a filled out box score that didn’t tell the story of the game. You know how ESPN has that show “Numbers Never Lie”? Well they sure freakin’ did last night.
Truth be told, the box score looks nothing like what I saw with my own two eyes. Louisville shot 44 percent from the field as a team, although at times it felt closer to 90 percent. They made 11 three-pointers, although I could’ve sworn they hit at least 30. Even worse, the Cardinals had enough highlight reel dunks to fill up an And1 mix tape… and And1 doesn’t even make mix tapes anymore! That’s right, 80-59 was just some fun with numbers, something to occupy a statistician and fill a page on ESPN.com. Because as someone who sat through all 40 minutes of that game, I can assure you that it felt much worse.
And really, it was that feeling that made other UConn fans and me so sick to our stomachs. Understand, this wasn’t just another loss to add onto our tab, but the kind of game that made you re-evaluate everything you thought you knew about your team. Sure they’d had bad games in the past, and at times the effort wasn’t there. But never did it all manifest itself quite like Monday evening, for all the reasons mentioned above.
It also didn’t help that the game couldn’t have been played at a worse possible time from a perception standpoint either. This wasn’t a Thursday night when half your audience might be out enjoying a happy hour, or a Saturday when you could simply flip to another game. Nope this was on a Monday night, with nothing else on TV and nowhere else to turn your attention.
The embarrassment of the loss was as public as public gets, almost like when you go out with your buddies for a drink, only to see your ex with her new boyfriend. Honestly, that’s how I felt last night; like everyone saw the elephant in the room (it’s a metaphor, I’m not actually talking about the size of one of my ex’s) and no one knew how to react. Should they acknowledge me? Ignore it and hope it goes away? Or give one of those half-hearted, “Its cool buddy, keep your chin up” responses? Again, nobody knew what to do, and really, isn’t that the tell-tale sign of being on the wrong end of an epic beat down? When not only do you not know what to say, but fans of other teams don’t either?
Yup, it was that bad, but what was maybe more incredible than anything was how strikingly similar it was to a loss UConn suffered almost two years ago to the day.
The game was at February 1, 2010 on a Monday night at Louisville, and it was a turning point game in the season, one that made fans feel like, “Ok, if we can win this game, we’ll be ok. But if we lose…” Also like last night, UConn was riding a similar losing streak (five of seven at the time; this year it was four of five entering last night) and were without the services of Jim Calhoun. And much like Monday night they laid down like a sick dog. They never really got up the rest of the season.
And as I sat down to write this article today, I couldn’t help but re-read the article that I wrote that night, fully expecting similar emotions to pour out right here.
Only, it didn’t happen.
Re-reading that article (and if you’re a UConn fan, I do encourage you to re-read it), that 2010 loss wasn’t close to this one. Not even a little.
The biggest difference between then and now was that in 2010, it never seemed like anyone on that team actually cared. If the 2011 UConn Huskies were a “sum is greater than the parts team,” then in 2010, the parts significantly outweighed the sum. That team almost reeked of disinterest, and seemed only intent on playing basketball because their coach made them, and not because they actually wanted to. They passionless, emotionless and careless, a team that you always felt like was more concerned with the party after the game, then anything which happened on the court. Believe me, I spent a huge part of last season documenting that.
But this team, the 2012 UConn Huskies? This team actually reminds me of the 2007 UConn club, one which- interestingly enough- featured a group of freshmen that would go on to be those same disinterested seniors in 2010. The 2007 Huskies cared and tried, they just weren’t all that confident, and to be blunt, they weren’t particularly good. But unlike 2010, that team did care. They did have pride. And I believe the 2012 Huskies are the same.
Looking across the landscape, I can honestly say that this team does care.
I believe beyond a reasonable doubt that Alex Oriahki cares. He isn’t perfect, and has probably had more bad moments this season than good. But knowing what I know about him, I will never question his heart. Never, never, never. I also know Ryan Boatright cares; hell the guy was practically in tears on the bench Monday night. In his own way, I think Shabazz Napier cares; he also just happens to let his emotions- and the emotion of the moment- get in the way too often. Jeremy Lamb cares, even if his demeanor doesn’t always show it. Andre Drummond? Before his first game at UConn, he was so nervous he could sleep. Not a big deal… except that it was a Friday night game against Columbia! You mean to tell me that guy doesn’t care? Give me a break.
With this team, the problem isn’t heart…nope, that was so two years ago. Instead, the problem is confidence, and right now, UConn has a severe and utter lack of it.
Looking at this team, it really is stunning to see such a talented team play with such little belief in themselves. Trust me, I watch every game, and I’d argue that by this point I know these guys pretty well. And I’d be lying if I said that I saw it coming. Not even a little bit.
But that sheer lack of confidence is there. It’s there every time Shabazz Napier beats one guy off the dribble, runs into two more, and throws the ball out of bounds by accident. It’s there every time Jeremy Lamb misses one shot and lets it affect his next three. It’s there when Roscoe Smith misses a shot two feet from the basketball and when Andre Drummond- all 6’11, 270 lbs. of him- gets his shot blocked by someone half his size. You know how they say “winning is contagious.” Right now for UConn, so too is losing.
That lack of confidence literally manifests itself on every possession, from every single player. As a matter of fact, Jay Bilas mentioned something last night that I’ve been saying for two weeks: If you watch this team closely, you’ll notice that on offense, nobody moves decisively, a tell-tale sign that nobody is playing with confidence. Whether it’s Napier or Lamb, Tyler Olander or whomever, just watch closely. The ball is passed to them, they catch it, and then hesitate before eventually making a move. Everyone does it, on almost every possession; they’re all thinking instead of just playing basketball. Folks, that’s not an execution issue, but a confidence one.
Then again, it’s hard to totally blame these guys either. Remember, this is a team that is comprised almost entirely of freshman and sophomores, with a grand total of one player (Alex Oriahki) who has ever lost a postseason tournament game. Seriously, how incredible is that? Otherwise, nobody on this team has ever struggled like this, at least not at UConn, and certainly not under the spotlight they’re in the middle of now. The worst part is there’s no Kemba Walker to hold their hand and walk them through it this time around. This team has to make their own way, but unfortunately right now, they’re lost in the woods without a compass.
Also I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention something else. While we want to glorify everything that happened during the 2011 season, it’s easy to forget that the UConn Huskies of last February actually look a lot like… well, the UConn Huskies of this February.
Looking back on this time last year is eerily similar to what’s going on right now. At this point in the 2011 season Shabazz Napier was hitting a freshman wall and struggling with turnovers. He’s doing the same now as a sophomore. Alex Oriahki couldn’t get out of his own way… or out of his own head. Jeremy Lamb’s offense was so bad, that- as his father told me in my book- Mr. Lamb had to literally text him every single morning, “You are a big-time scorer” to keep his spirits up. Apparently at the time, everyone knew that except Jeremy.
And really, that’s the thing that everyone (including myself) is forgetting about this team. Folks, these guys aren’t professionals, and in the case of this particular UConn team, they’re not even developed juniors and seniors. Nope, these are 18 and 19-year-old kids with real flaws, and real emotions that manifest themselves at real times. Well guess what? Last night was one of those times. Maybe things will get better. There’s also a very strong possibility that they’ll get worse. Personally, I’m ready and willing to live with either outcome.
But the one thing I’m not going to do is give up.
This team has too much talent and too much heart (even if their confidence is lacking), and unlike years past, I think they actually do like each other too. Reading everyone’s comments after the game and seeing their response on Twitter, nobody was pointing fingers, everyone was taking on responsibility, and the message hadn’t changed. Ultimately, they all said the same thing: “We are in this together.” Teams that hate each other’s guts don’t say that. Teams that have tuned out their coach don’t say that. But young teams that genuinely care about each other? They do say stuff like that.
Nope, I believe in the 2012 UConn Huskies. I’m not saying that means they’re going to upset Syracuse Saturday, or even win another game for the rest of the season. For all I know, they might not.
But I do believe in them.
Now, it’s time they start believing in themselves.
(If you enjoyed Aaron’s insight on the Huskies, then you’ll love his new Amazon.com best-selling book on the 2011 UConn National Champions--- “The Unlikeliest Champion.” Available since before Christmas, “The Unlikeliest Champion” is the most in-depth account of the Huskies title run, with insight from fellow college coaches, analysts and friends and family of the team. It is available for sale at Amazon.com in both paperback and on Kindle, and for signed, personalized copies you can also visit www.uconnbook.com!