If there was one single word I’d use to describe the 2011-2012 UConn Huskies, it’d be “forgettable.” At times it was exhilarating, at others frustrating, and for brief windows it was actually sometimes fun. But mostly, it was just forgettable. For most UConn fans, this season (to quote Mike Tyson) will eventually “Fade into Bolivian,” as one of the many peaks and valleys between last year’s championship run and what is ahead in the coming years. If you follow sports long enough sometimes you just instinctively know when it’s just not your year, and that was certainly the case for the 2012 UConn Huskies.
From the beginning, this whole wild ride really did seem to be more soap opera than basketball season, a million different parts moving in a million different directions.
For those who haven’t been paying attention, here is a list of all the problems that cropped up this season, none of which had to do with actual basketball: There was Ryan Boatright’s suspension; the scholarship tango with Andre Drummond and Michael Bradley; Alex Oriahki’s off the cuff comments in the Bahamas; Ryan Boatright’s second suspension; the looming 2013 NCAA Tournament ban; Shabazz Napier’s off the cuff comments after the Seton Hall loss; Jim Calhoun’s leave of absence; the appeal of the looming NCAA Tournament ban. Good God. All we needed was to find out that Jim Calhoun and Shabazz Napier were secretly half-brothers, and we literally would’ve had an episode of Days of Our Lives.
And more than anything, it’s because of those distractions that UConn struggled this year. The disappointing 2012 campaign wasn’t a talent issue (obviously), and as I’ve mentioned before I don’t think it was an effort/heart/motivation thing either. At the same time, you put a group of kids through that much, and it’s no surprise that they never fully came together. Most teams in college basketball start to gel and fully figure things out come the middle of January, yet because of the circus that was this season, UConn didn’t totally come together until two months after that. It wasn’t until the last few games of the Big East Tournament that it seemed like the 2012 Huskies were comfortable in their own skin, and as you’ve probably figured out, by then it was too late.
So besides the obvious, what exactly went wrong? Since I can’t think of a more clever way to break it down, let’s just go player by player to hopefully get some sort of resolution.Let’s start with:
Jeremy Lamb: Let me start at the top, and let me start by saying that I’m 99.9 percent certain that we’ve seen Jeremy Lamb’s last game in a UConn uniform. Understand that in the process of writing my book last summer I talked to a number of people who are close to Jeremy, and a few told me that after last year’s championship run Jeremy seriously wanted to go pro. Only after some cajoling from family and friends did he decide to stick around UConn for another year. Well he stuck around, but at least to me, it seemed like he spent most of the season with one foot out the door. Then again, it’d be hard for me to focus if I had a million dollar paycheck sitting in front of me as well.
At the same time, while Lamb's numbers did improve this season, there’s no doubt that overall, it was a little bit of disappointing year. To fully explain my point, let me quickly go to a side story.
A few weeks ago when the All-Big East teams were announced, I got a lot of UConn fans upset when I said that I thought Fab Melo was more deserving of being All-Big East first team than Jeremy Lamb was. I always try to be honest with myself and with my readers, and when I made that statement, it did come from a place of true introspection.
Not that UConn fans cared much. They all pegged me as some kind of turncoat, and wondered how I could praise anyone from Syracuse, especially at the sake of one of our very own UConn Huskies. Even worse, how could I say that Melo- who averaged just eight points and six rebounds a game this year (not to mention three blocks)- was more deserving of the spot on the first team than Lamb, who averaged 18 points per game?
Well, my argument was simple: Since when do pure stats determine a player's impact on the game? Even if I hadn’t used Melo as an example two weeks ago, he has become the perfect example of that very phenomenon now. After all, with him in the lineup, Syracuse was a National Championship contender. Without him, well, you saw what happened yesterday. In the case of Fab Melo (and a lot of other players across the country) stats simply don’t do justice to the impact he has on games.
And with all due respect to Lamb, his numbers weren’t impactful this season. They just weren’t. Sure his points per game were up, but how many games did his points actually influence the outcome of the game? Off the top of my head, I can think of one night where his scoring actually impacted the final score. It came against Villanova in February, when he dropped 42 points in an overtime win. Otherwise, that's it. I can't definitely name one UConn game that would’ve absolutely, positively turned out differently had Jeremy Lamb not played.
Now, compare that with the 2011 title run. Yes Lamb averaged fewer points, fewer minutes and fewer everything in 2011, but what he did provide was more impactful. I can easily think of five games that UConn simply wouldn’t have won without him, including a few late in the NCAA Tournament run.
Which brings me to my original point. Am I blaming Jeremy Lamb for UConn’s disappointing season? Not in the least, and certainly not more than anyone else on the roster.
At the same time, you can’t tell me this guy was the same player as last year. He just wasn’t. I don’t care what the numbers say. I don’t care what his stats say. I know what I see with my own two eyes. Jeremy Lamb may have had better numbers in 2012 than 2011, but you can't tell me he had a better season.
Andre Drummond: Then there’s Andre Drummond, who, like Lamb very well may be done as a UConn Husky. Will he go pro? Frankly, I have no idea. You could make a case that the smartest thing he could ever do would be to return to school. You could also make the case it’d be the dumbest thing he could ever do too. Neither statement would be totally wrong. It wouldn’t be totally right either.
Still, regardless of whether he chooses to go pro or not, it doesn’t mean that he’s ready. He’s not, and not anywhere close. I bet if you put a microphone in Jim Calhoun’s face, or Drummond’s himself, they’d tell you the same.
So what went wrong with Drummond? I’m honestly not totally sure.
Without knowing anything about him other than what I read in the papers, I really feel like it could be any number of things. How much would he have benefited by showing up to campus in June and playing with the team all summer? How much was he hurt by spending the last four years in prep school playing against 6’4 “centers” before coming to the Big East and playing against 6’11 men? And how much of it is just that he’s too nice a guy? Seriously, I follow Drummond on Twitter (a weird thing for a grown man to admit, I know), and I can’t think of anyone who seems to be more of a geninuely nice kid than he is. Heck Drummond seems so nice that if I saw him on the street, I wouldn’t know whether to give him a handshake or a hug (personally, I’d probably choose the handshake, only because the hug might get a little bit weird. And possibly an NCAA violation for all I know).
Still, as this season wore on Drummond’s game hardly developed, and if anything went in the opposite direction. I’m not saying he was definitively worse in March than he was in November, but it’s hard to say he was better either.
And above all, I can’t help but say something I’ve been thinking for a while now: The more I watch him, the more his game reminds me of…gulp... Greg Oden. Not because Drummond gets hurt all the time (he doesn’t), but because he just has no instinctual feel for the game whatsoever.
Before I fully make my point, let’s jump into another quick side-story:
As most of you know, as the season has gone on, I’ve grown to have a little bit of an affinity for the Kentucky basketball team. I’ve seen them in person twice, and even visited Lexington for their game against Alabama.
Now obviously if you’ve got an affinity for Kentucky this year, than that also means you also have an affinity for Anthony Davis. Watch the guy play, and it’s impossible not to appreciate- if not downright fall in love- with his game.
And when I saw Davis play for the first time in person at Mohegan Sun back in November, the initial thing I couldn’t help but notice was how fluid his game was. How natural everything came to him. How he could block a shot, track it down, throw an outlet pass, and then sprint down court and finish the play with a dunk. Not many guys at his size can do the same. Including Drummond.
Now please understand, that’s not entirely not Drummond’s fault. It always takes big guys longer to grow into their bodies, longer to get their coordination down, and longer to just generally reach their potential. Not to mention that if Drummond's only standard of comparison is to put him side-by-side with Anthony Davis, well, it’s really no comparison at all. Not right now anyway. Then again, it’s no comparison for any center in the country.
As for next year, while I’m not saying that another season of college bal would turn Drummond into the next Lew Alcindor, I do think it’d do him a lot more good in the long run than bad.
Again, I watched every single game he played in a UConn uniform, and Drummond isn’t even close to being a night-in, night-out productive player in college, let alone the pros. Even after 35 games at UConn he still doesn’t have a signature post move, his timing and instinct on defense are both only part-way there, and other than the West Virginia game early in the season, I didn’t once think “Wow, that guy is getting close to figuring it out.” Heck, if you asked me to give a grade on Drummond's first (and maybe only) year of college basketball, I couldn’t give you one. I’d probably call it an “Incomplete” before quickly changing the subject.
I’ll close out on Drummond by saying this: If Thursday night really was the last game of his career at UConn, I truly wish him the best of luck going forward. He seems like a great kid, and I never once doubted the pride he had wearing that UConn uniform. There’s something to be said about seeing a Connecticut kid, do it for a Connecticut school. Call me sappy, but that means something to me.
And it’s because of that, which I hope Drummond comes back for another year. I want to see him succeed in the pros for a long time. I want him to reach his potential. I want to see him come back to UConn. Not for me or any other fan. But for himself.
Alex Oriahki: I also hope Thursday night wasn’t Alex Oriahki’s last game in a UConn uniform either, although in a lot of ways, I think that his decision is actually tougher than Lamb or Drummond’s. With one year of eligibility left and the postseason ban looming, no one would blame Oriahki for leaving early (even if his professional future is dicey at best), and it also seems like the NCAA would grant him a waiver to transfer and play right away if UConn isn’t eligible for next year’s postseason.
Selfishly though I want him to stay, if only because it would break my heart if he finished up his career in any uniform other than UConn’s. This was a kid who committed to the school after his freshman year of high school, stuck with it for three more years, and has now spent the last three years of his life on campus. Do the math, and for a 21-year-old kid, he’s basically spent a third of his life affiliated with UConn basketball in some way. At this point, seeing him in any other college uniform would be like seeing your ex-girlfriend walk out of some guy’s apartment first thing in the morning, wearing his t-shirt. You couldn’t really be mad, but at the same time, you’d still definitely feel sick to your stomach.
At the same time, I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground by saying that it was a tough year for Oriahki, and that there wasn’t a player more adversely impacted by Drummond’s late arrival than he was. In 2011 Oriahki was basically UConn’s only postseason threat. In 2012 he had to adjust on the fly to sharing everything, including the paint, the ball, the minutes and the stats with Drummond. And with all due respect, I don’t think anyone (including the coaching staff) ever fully figured out how all the pieces fit together.
Despite it though, I will always, always have a special place in my heart for Oriahki. After that initial dust-up in the Bahamas, he put his ego aside and sacrificed minutes and stats for the good of this particular team. He didn’t complain (at least publicly), and was one of the few players (along with Napier) who held himself accountable when the team struggled. It sounds like Oriahki has one foot out the door at UConn, and like Lamb and Drummond, I wish him the best of luck if he does decide to leave. Should he choose the pro route, I truly hope he finds a place in the league as a defense/energy/hustle guy like a Chuck Hayes, Kris Humphries or Reggie Evans, and if it doesn't well hell, he's always welcome to crash on my couch until he gets things figured out. I love the kid that much.
And if he does decide to transfer too, well I wish him luck wherever he ends up. Just know what thing: It doesn't matter what uniform Oriahki wears next year. He'll always be a Husky.
What’s Next: As for the future of the program, well, call me crazy, but I’m not as pessimistic as most. Actually, I’m not pessimistic at all. Thursday night wasn’t the fall of Rome, but again, a forgettable ending to a forgettable season.
For those who are already pushing Calhoun out the door (cough, Pat Forde, cough), please, just stop. Calhoun isn’t leaving on anyone’s terms but his own, and he’s definitely not leaving with that as his last game. Yes, he might miss a game or two here and there (only because he always does), but he’s riding out the 2013 NCAA Tournament ban, and if I had to guess, maybe one more season after that. He hasn’t spent the last 30 years building the infrastructure of this program only to leave when there’s a crack in the floorboards.
As for the team that returns? Call me crazy, but I don’t think they’re all that bad either. Will they be young? Yes. Small? Sure. But with the way this season ended, the 2013 Huskies will play hard, NCAA Tournament or not. Calhoun will fight until he’s got nothing left, and so too will the team that comes back with him next year.
We already know that Shabazz Napier has his back, if only because Shabazz had Calhoun’s back more than anyone these past few months. Napier may never match Kemba Walker’s game, but he does seem to have a Kemba-like bond with Calhoun, and is going to go down fighting with him. I would argue that no player in the country improved over the last month of the season than Napier did.
Along with Napier, Ryan Boatright will be one of the better guards in the Big East, Roscoe Smith will continue to be a tough (if not always, ahem, smart) guard, and Niels Giffey will stay the same guy he's always been, someone who does a million little things that don’t show up in the box score, but impact games. In the paint Tyler Olander, Michael Bradley and Enosch Wolf at least have fouls to give, and I’m also intrigued to see what freshman Omar Calhoun brings in next fall as an additional guard as well (As for DeAndre Daniels, it’s just a hunch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he looked into some other options outside of UConn).
If anything, that might be a fitting final chapter to the end of Calhoun’s career. He built the program throughout the 1990’s on the strength of guards and wing play, and only in the last few years did the elite big guys and McDonald’s All-Americans come. Wouldn't it be ironic to see Calhoun go back to that formula for his final few years in Storrs?
Point being, if you’re looking for an obituary on the UConn basketball program, you’ve come to the wrong place. The 2012 season was a frustrating, disappointing and ultimately forgettable season.
The lessons learned in 2012 though? Those will be harder to forget.
(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!