Through their first 21 games and eight losses, this team has been frustrating at times, and downright unwatchable at others, but never gave their fans a reason to entirely end all hope. Sure there were missed free throws against Kentucky, a lack of leadership in the loss to Pitt and no mental toughness at Michigan. But still, there were always just enough little flashes to keep bringing us back every time they played.
Well, Monday night the train officially came off the tracks. Every single thing that’d gone wrong through 21 games reared its ugly head last night, in 40 of the most painful minutes of basketball I've watched in a long time (Well except for when President Obama did some play-by-play in the Georgetown-Duke game last week).
The staples of UConn basketball 2010 were all there: Reckless guard play; a non-existent half court offense; defensive indifference; poor shot selection; bad outside shooting; intensity that can be best compared to that of a CVS clerk working the midnight shift; turnovers (not to be dramatic, but...Oh the turnovers!); and just an overall lack of basic, simple, basketball intelligence (Honestly, how many times can these guards continue to drive aimlessly at the rim and get met by four defenders before they realize, "Hey, this might not be working?" 5000 times? 10,000? Does anyone have an answer?).
The result of it all Monday night, was a group that looked like a hastily thrown together intramural team. Only sadly, they've been playing together for close to four months now.
About the only bright spot of the abysmal trip to Louisville was the foul shooting, with the Huskies going 19-21 in the first half. Of course, that “highlight,” undermines the fact that UConn got way more calls in the first half than the Cardinals, and that the 42-28 halftime score should have been a lot worse than it actually was.
(Random note: The refs eventually evened things out in the second half, in what can only be described as one of the worst officiated games I've ever seen.
I’d also like to add that Tim Higgins- who called Monday night's game- is indisputably the worst ref in college basketball. It isn't close. He’s got no competition.
And here's the thing: The guy is easily in his 60's and probably his 70's (I couldn't confirm his age, because apparently referees birth records are harder to track down then those of Dominican baseball players). After doing some nifty research though, I did find out that Higgins was one of the original members of the Big East officiating crew, when the conference formed back in 1979. Which means, that by my bad math calculation, there are people turning 30 years of age this year, who weren't even BORN when he started working Big East games. And who knows where he worked before that, because I’m pretty sure he broke into the business right alongside James Naismith.
On a serious note, let me ask you this: How is this guy, a man in his 70’s, supposed to run up and down the court for 40 minutes and make a series of split second, judgment calls, when the players in the game are roughly 50 years younger than him? I hate to sound like Skip Bayless here, but… HOW!!! THE PLAYERS ARE 50 YEARS YOUNGER!!!! Shouldn't this guy be setting up 6 a.m. tee times and shuffleboard tournaments instead of traversing the country for basketball games?
Which makes things worse, because that's exactly what he's doing, traversing the country. Monday night was Higgins third game in three days, starting in Cincinnati on Saturday, going to Tampa on Sunday and Louisville Monday. George Clooney hasn't had more frequent flier miles lately than Higgins.
So what's my point in all this? The guy is exausted. He has to be.
Think about that, Cincinnati, to Tampa to Louisville in 72 hours. He's in his 70's, his knees, back and feet have to be killing him. When you add in an understandable decline in vision and overall reaction time (again the guy probably has grandkids older than some of these players) and can you really blame him for missing calls?
Look, I'm not blaming Higgins for this whole mess, but he's got to go. Is there no one under 50 that can do an equally effective job as he's doing right now? This is the Big East, supposedly the epitome of college basketball. Coaches make millions of dollars a year. And they're being hired and fired to some degree because of the calls this guy makes.
Anyway, tangent now done...)
Back to UConn.
After the first half free throw derby Monday night, the Huskies limped to the finish, the final score 82-69. But since Louisville took a 19 point lead with 14 minutes to go and hit cruise control, isn't that a misnomer too? 82-69 doesn't entirely tell the story of how one sided this game was for about 32 of the total 40 minutes.
With the loss, another loss, UConn stands at 13-9 overall and 3-6 in the Big East. Only St. Johns, DePaul and Rutgers trail them in the conference standings.
Go ahead, read that again. St. Johns, DePaul and Rutgers are the only Big East teams worse than UConn right now. And even that is in record only since Rutgers beat Notre Dame Saturday, and DePaul nearly did the same against Syracuse.
It also leaves the Huskies 5.5 games out of place in the Big East, and a game behind South Florida and Providence, both of which were expected to be two of the worst teams in this conference in 2010. All for a UConn team that has as much (if not more) NBA talent than anyone in the conference.
The saddest part is, I'm not sure anyone knows how we got here. After the game last night, my friend texted me asking what I thought was wrong with this team. My response? "Nothing and everything. I really have no idea."
This group doesn't show any of the "can't miss," signs of underachieving basketball teams. Having been around most of these guys personally, I can say they're nice kids. They seem to enjoy each others company.
Unlike in 2007, when these seniors went 18-14 as freshman, this group doesn't lack experience. The 2007 team didn't have a single senior or junior on their entire roster. This team plays three seniors over 30 minutes a game. Sure Stanley Robinson and Jerome Dyson may both be relatively young seniors because injury and suspension slowed their developement. And yes Gavin Edwards doesn't have a ton of starting experience. But all three have played over 100 games in their careers. Shouldn't they be progressing instead of regressing?
Also, although I thought this team might resemble a young 2005 team, clearly, that isn't true anymore either. That group was a bunch of role players on the 2004 National Championship team that came into their own late the following season. This team's two stars, Dyson and Robinson weren't role players last year. One was leading the team in scoring before an injury, the other averaged a double-double in the midst of an NCAA Tournament run to the Final Four.
While some have asked me about the loss of Coach Jim Calhoun, I can't blame that either. I'm sure it's a little emotionally unsettling on a day-to-day basis, it has to be. But with Calhoun on the sidelines, what was this teams best win? Notre Dame? Seton Hall? Without Calhoun, they beat the No. 1 team in the country less than two weeks ago.
Finally, with so many players on this team with NBA futures, you'd think they might be gunning for their own stats, right? Wrong. With the exception of Kemba Walker, this team plays hot potato with the basketball late in games like it's made of plutonium. If anything, they seem to shy away from the ball late in games.
Which believe it or not, may be the biggest problem with this team: Guys aren't selfish enough.
Last Saturday, Lazar Hayward, Marquette's best low post player (and I use that term loosely since he's 6'5), fouled out late in their game agaisnt UConn. The Golden Eagles didn't have a single player bigger than 6'6 on the court. Nobody. Which obviously would have been a perfect time for the 6'9 Robinson to post up his 6'4 defender. Unfortunately, not only did Robinson not post up his defender, not only did he not attempt any shots in crunch time, he didn't even once touch the ball in the closing minutes in a position to score. Like so many others, that game ended in loss.
Again, that's UConn's biggest problem. Robinson and Dyson are good kids, nice kids. But they are almost always passive to a fault. They don't want the ball. They don't command it.
Which underlies the biggest problem of all, an absolute dearth of leadership.
When these seniors got to campus in the fall of 2006, sophomores A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien had already established themseleves as the leaders of this team. Not so much organically, as much out of necessity.
It's not that Robinson, Dyson and Edwards haven't had big games or made big shots over the past three years, because they have. But ultimately, no matter what they did, praise and blame always fell on the shoulders of Price or Adrien. It led to a dismal 2007 season, an improved 2008 and a 2009 team with two of the best leaders in the country. Now those two are gone, and 22 games in, nobody has adjusted. These seniors aren't bad guys or players, just inexperienced leaders.
Looking back on this entire season, I can only remember one time where I saw a senior yelling in the huddle, which, needless to say, is a problem. That one time? Two weeks ago against Texas, when Dyson was barking at his teammates like he'd seen Price do so many times before. And you know what? UConn beat the No. 1 ranked team in the country that day.
Which is what makes this season so frustrating, because again, the talent is there.
Just a week ago UConn had six losses, four of them to top 20 teams. And in every single one of those games, they were in it until the end. Then they beat Texas, and UConn fans collectively looked at each other and said, "You know what? We can make a run at this." Unfortunately, the players may have thought the same thing.
Since that win, they've gone 0-3, with losses coming to Providence, Marquette and last night against Louisville. And with three games against the top seven teams in the country (at No. 2 Villanova, at No. 3 Syracuse and No. 7 West Virginia at home), and a bunch more against other frisky, hungry middle of the pack Big East teams (at Notre Dame and Cincinnati and Louisville again at home) this season has gone from promising, straight to life support, in the blink of an eye.
While I'm not giving up, the writing is clearly on the wall.
It seems like just yesterday this team was a sleeper to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Now a trip to the NIT seems more likely, if there's any postseason berth at all.
It's hard to believe, but it's true. The mighty fall pretty fast. In this case, to the bottom.
Hopefully finally, they've hit the bottom.