Winning is fun, if you’d forgotten. UConn ended its four-game losing streak on Sunday evening with a 64-49 win over UCF (the less bad of the directional Florida schools). The victory edges the Huskies back towards .500 at 6-9 (halfhearted “nice”), and gets them into the AAC win column. Here’s some takeaways — we’ll front load the good stuff.
- Hey, uh, that was actually kinda fun to watch. It’s a cruel joke that the only watchable UConn game of the year thus far was aired on CBS Sports Network, a channel that (based on our twit mentions) many Husky fans do not have access to. That’s a shame because, for prolonged stretches, especially in the first half, the Huskies put on a show. They led 35-18 at the break, got out in transition, held their own on the glass and played great defense (UCF was 6-28 from the floor in the first half).
- The Huskies came with a game plan, executed it, and it worked. It’s unfortunate that this is surprising, but after looking generally unprepared to compete this season, UConn took the court on Sunday with a clear game plan on both ends of the court — we’ll get into the specifics in a moment. Every team remaining on the schedule is a known entity for Ollie and his staff (despite the influx of new coaches in the AAC), and there’s really no excuse to enter any of those games without a clear plan on how to win. With obvious roster deficiencies, preparation is where UConn can make up ground now.
- Offensive game plan: passing. Sunday’s game was the best display of UConn ball movement this season. It almost made you forget that Daniel Hamilton could be the starting small forward right now. Jalen Adams was in control, finishing with a team-high seven assists. But the superior ball movement extended to the others on the court. Early in the first half, Kentan Facey made a baseline move before finding Amida Brimah under the basket for a dunk. On several occasions, UConn players made smart, unselfish passes on the fastbreak — passing up contested layups for open ones.
- Offensive game plan: shot selection. A byproduct of the great ball movement was markedly improved shot selection. It turns out that UConn is more likely to make three-pointers when they’re taken at the end of purposeful possessions. UCF, like the rest of the world, attempted to zone the Huskies, who responded by working the ball around the perimeter and into Kentan Facey until they got a decent look. It helped that Rodney Purvis finally found his shooting stroke. He made three of his five real three-point attempts (his other two misses came on a desperation half-court shot to end the first half and a no-chance three as the shot clock expired in the second). There was a clear emphasis to move the ball and not settle for the first available three-point attempt and it paid off.
- Defensive game plan: ruin Tacko Fall’s life. Tacko Fall is a giant human. On Sunday, UConn made him look like a child. The 7’6″ center was 0-7 from the floor with four turnovers and a season-low three rebounds. The Huskies doubled Fall in the post and preyed on his slow reactions to strip the ball or force him into terrible shot attempts. In the Kevin Ollie As A Player era of the mid-to-late-90s, finding creative ways to disrupt the opposing team’s star player was a hallmark of UConn’s game planning. It was nice to see Ollie employ that strategy in his coaching for the first time this season.
— A Dime Back (@ADimeBack) January 9, 2017
- Vance Jackson stays hot. The freshman is playing with a ton of confidence at the moment. He scored in double-figures (11 points) for the third time in four games. Jackson again displayed a range to his game that included four rebounds and several nice midrange jumpers. Perhaps more importantly, he has found the three-point stroke that was seen as his primary skill coming out of high school. Jackson is 7-15 from deep the last four games (he was 6-31 in the previous six games), and is now over 30 percent from three-point range on the season.
- UConn looked focused. The Huskies had fewer of the inexplicable errors that have plagued them this season. There were fewer instances of losing a man off a screen, or throwing a lazy entry pass into the post. It’s certainly easier to stay focused when you’re winning, but it’s still worth lauding.
- Similarly, they looked like a team. It’s a common trope in sports to say a winning team is overflowing with good, happy chemistry, while a losing team is losing because of a lack of it. The truth — usually — is that winning breeds chemistry. That was true of UConn on Sunday. The players genuinely looked like a team instead of a bunch of guys thrown together for a pickup game. Kevin Ollie is fond of throwing out words like “family” and “brotherhood” to describe the bond between his players, but with a schedule full of losses and a bench full of wounded, there haven’t been a whole lot of feel-good familial moments this season, boiling over with a brief shouting match between Purvis and Adams during the Memphis loss. It was nice to see the return of a functional team unit. Now let’s hit some low notes on the way out.
- Where the free throws at? UConn is one of the worst teams in the country at getting to the free throw line (274th), which is somewhat merciful because they’re also one of the worst in the country at making them (316th). Still, it was interesting that in their most effective offensive game of the year, the Huskies still attempted only six free throws, making four.
- Can they carry over the intensity? As is the new best practice at Russell Steinberg’s A Dime Back Dot Com, we are resisting getting our hopes up. UConn needs to show that it can carry over some success from game to game, beginning with Temple in Hartford on Wednesday night. The Huskies had lost four straight to Temple, often in soul-crushing fashion, before beating the hell out of them to win the AAC Tournament last March. Can Ollie come with a successful game plan for the second game in a row? Can the Huskies execute it?
- The attendance is depressing. The XL Center was barely half-full for Sunday’s game (8,163). The aforementioned Temple game on Wednesday has a 9pm start. Considering the students are still on break, that’s not ideal. Until the Huskies show they can beat more of their conference rivals, this is probably the new normal until the AACT comes to town.
- For the love of God, be careful. UConn had two more injury scares against UCF. Rodney Purvis suffered a fluke shoulder injury in the first half that sent him to the floor in pain, the bench and briefly the locker room. He was OK, and actually played very well after the injury. Amida Brimah also went down with a breath-halting leg injury in the second half, but stayed in the game. UConn fans can’t handle another injury. They will literally spontaneously-combust. Be careful.
- Question marks remain. Can Adams and Purvis harness their potential as one of the best backcourts in the AAC? Or will they regress back into an every-man-for-himself offense? Can Vance Jackson keep up his hot shooting? Can the Huskies win if he can’t? Can Kentan Facey develop even more if given more opportunities on offense? Can UConn stay focused and recover if a talented team gets off to a hot start? Will we fire Russ? Stay tuned.