Rapid Reaction: UConn loses at SMU, drops second straight

Kevin Ollie (AP)

Kevin Ollie (AP)


I didn’t make the trip to Texas, but our beat writer Bill Paxton (@wspaxton) was down at Moody Colesium this afternoon.

Some quick thoughts after watching from that bizarre ESPNU TV angle:

*Perhaps we overestimated UConn. I think we definitely underestimated the AAC. These first two teams — Houston and SMU— weren’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination. Southern Methodist was big and physical; Houston, down three starters, was long and athletic.

These ex-Conference USA teams aren’t Georgetown, but they’re not all DePaul, either. They probably fit in line with some of the middle-to-lower tier Big East teams like Providence and St. John’s. And remember: When UConn struggled in the Big East, it lost plenty of games to the Providences and St. John’s of the league. The gap in talent just isn’t as huge as we anticipated.

*OK, that was me making excuses for UConn. Now here’s the other piece of UConn’s puzzling start in the AAC: The Huskies aren’t playing hard and they sure as hell aren’t playing well.

Kevin Ollie did such a masterful job in his first year because he extracted the maximum potential from his team. UConn always came to play and it didn’t lose many games (if any) that it shouldn’t have. That’s the mark of a well-coached team.

For two straight games, it didn’t seem UConn was ready or fully engaged. That’s on his players, but it’s also on Ollie. He conquered every challenge last year, and this is a new one for him.

*In order to extract the full potential of his squad, Ollie must take a long look at his rotation. What’s obvious is that he’s getting zero production from his center spot and zero production from Omar Calhoun. The solutions aren’t quite as clear.

I don’t like the DeAndre Daniels/Niels Giffey frontcourt. Not for extended minutes, at least. It’s tough to compete defensively with a 6-foot-7, 215-pound center.

To me, UConn’s best lineup is Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey, DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah/Phil Nolan. And then Lasan Kromah spells the guards at the two-spot and Tyler Olander gets limited time at the four.

Perhaps Ollie will consider a more radical change. If the bulk of UConn’s scoring is coming from Napier, Boatright and Daniels, you can make the case to go big at other positions. Maybe move Daniels to the three and use Phil Nolan at the four with Amida Brimah at the five? And slide Daniels to the four when Niels Giffey enters?

Just tossing out some ideas. I don’t know the answer. That’s for Ollie to figure out.

*I’ve gotten several tweets and emails about UConn’s inability to recruit effective big men. Clearly, Amida Brimah is an unpolished product (although he’ll be a force someday, trust me). Phil Nolan and Kentan Facey aren’t immediate impact guys, either.

So what happened?

Well, Jim Calhoun’s age and possible retirement/NCAA tournament ban/Ollie’s contract/conference realignment mess undoubtedly had an effect on recruiting. It’s awfully tough to pull blue-chip guys (Indiana’s Noah Vonleh, for example) when competing schools don’t have nearly as many question marks. UConn didn’t get traditional UConn-type talent for a few years and it’s really starting to show.

*Non-league games in early January are never must-wins, so I won’t go as far to throw that tag on Wednesday’s matchup with Harvard. But, let’s be honest, this is an enormous game for the Huskies, especially with Memphis and Louisville looming. Dropping to 0-3 in the league with only one non-conference victory over a surefire NCAA tournament team (Florida) would put UConn in a precarious position.

*If you’re wondering about Shabazz Napier, so am I. Ollie is too, I’m sure. It’s inexplicable.