Youthful core could make UConn dangerous come tournament time
Andre Drummond is a very young man on a very young team, but the big freshman displayed a maturity beyond his years as UConn locked down a 64-57 home win over West Virginia. The 6'10" rookie has been a defensive force for the Huskies ever since he first set foot on the hardwood in Storrs, averaging 2.6 blocked shots per game, but he played his best offensive game of the nascent Big East season as UConn scrabbled to recover from a five-point halftime deficit.
Drummond countered the bulldog tenacity of West Virginia's more experienced front line with good positioning and pure athleticism, always seeming to be right where Shabazz Napier needed him to be. Drummond provided the steak, with three blocks and nine defensive boards, and threw in a little sizzle as well, scoring 20 points on a variety of attacks on the rim. Even more encouraging, his solid interior screens helped free space for teammate Jeremy Lamb, who led all scorers with 25.
The arrival of the inside-out game was a welcome sign of life for UConn. The team went 0-for-New Jersey to start the new year, losing at Seton Hall and Rutgers to fall to 2-2 in league play. West Virginia was looking to build off of a huge upset win over Georgetown but saw its momentum ebb once again.
The peaks and valleys of this roller-coaster ride aren't likely to cause UConn coach Jim Calhoun any real stress just yet. The pressure to repeat as national champs is tempered by memories of a team that went 9-9 in league play only to emerge unbeatable in March. The 69-year-old coach managed his callow team with surprising patience on the way to last season's title, and he's reaping the rewards of that top-notch teaching job today. Both just sophomores, steady Napier and electric Lamb form one of the best backcourts in the nation, and Alex Oriakhi, the team's lone starting upperclassman, is in the perfect position to mentor Drummond going forward. As the 270-pound man-child grows his offensive game, Oriakhi will continue to be the steady if unspectacular rebounder and putback artist his team requires. The junior has been called upon to do less of both jobs this season, falling from 9.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game a season ago to 6.7 and 4.6 this year, but he's never shown any frustration at his reduced role. This team may not need a 40-point-a-night scorer like Kemba Walker to get the job done.
Trying to find UConn's comfort zone as a team is a tricky bit of business. The Huskies run their offense at around 65.5 possessions per game, a bit below the national average. That's fairly typical for a team that likes to get big-man touches in the paint as part of the natural offensive flow. However, this team is very mobile, as they proved in November, playing their fastest game to date -- a generous 73 possessions flew by -- to get a two-point win over a molasses-like Florida State team. Drummond is swift enough to get out ahead on a break, or trail and clean up misses, which provides crucial flexibility as the calendar tips toward February and March. The Big East season will reveal plenty, as the Huskies practice grinding out wins over Notre Dame and running with Marquette. Two monster tests against No. 1 Syracuse bookend a two-week stretch of February.
For West Virginia, the signs were a little more dire. To a certain extent, the Mountaineers' first-half lead over the Huskies was a fluke. With all five white uniforms often packed inside the three-point line and guarding the rim, Kevin Jones -- a career 32-percent shooter from deep -- lofted six treys in the first half, hitting three of his attempts. As experiments go, it was a pretty bad idea, and Jones came back down to earth in the second half. It's tough to blame him, though; the rest of his team, including Truck Bryant and team-leading marksman Jabarie Hinds (35.3 percent), was a miserable 3-16. The strength of this WVU team is in the frontcourt, where Jones and Denis Kilicli crash the boards and muscle up shots. The two front-liners scored nearly 60 percent of West Virginia's points against UConn but struggled to find points late in the game when things tightened up in the paint.
Both of these teams are frightfully young. Connecticut has no scholarship seniors, a lack that doesn't sting so much when your sophomores are all wearing championship rings. Bob Huggins, on the other hand, stares down the bench at eight freshmen. Some of them are redshirts, but the distinction means little at this point. Huggins gives serious playing time to just six men on his roster, with upperclassmen Jones, Bryant and Kilicli carrying 60 percent of the team scoring load. The job of getting the ball to the men under the basket falls to freshmen Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne. The youthful backcourt has done a reasonable job of it thus far, but odds are that Hinds, Browne and Bob Huggins are spending some sleepless nights thinking about Syracuse's Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, let alone uber-backup Dion Waiters.
Both UConn and West Virginia need to grow up quickly, and the end result of the rumble at the XL Center makes it pretty clear that Calhoun has been able to season his troops a little more effectively than Huggins. West Virginia's experienced nucleus is solid, but it may put too much pressure on Truck Bryant to be on his game every night. With Napier as the pass-first defensive point guard, Lamb as the rangy scorer and Drummond developing into a reliable inside threat, the Huskies look like the type of team we'll see more of in March.