WASHINGTON -- UConn has as much talent on its roster as any team in the country. On paper, the Huskies are as good as anyone this side of Kentucky and North Carolina, which is what makes its recent slide so surprising. After an ugly 58-44 loss to Georgetown on Wednesday night, the defending national champions fell to 14-7 overall and 4-5 in Big East play.
But there is a reason UConn has now lost four straight and six of its last eight games, and it can be summed up in one sequence midway through the second half.
The Huskies were in the midst of their first surge since the opening minutes of the game. They had cut what was once a 12-point lead to six -- a notable feat for a team that had managed three baskets over a 20-minute stretch that spanned both halves -- before Jason Clark made a driving lay-up out of a timeout.
On the ensuing UConn possession, a Jeremy Lamb three pointer bounced off the other side of the backboard. No one was able to come up with the rebound cleanly, and the ball eventually landed in the middle of three Huskies. As UConn star freshman Andre Drummond reached for the loose ball, Georgetown forward Nate Lubick dove on the ground and forced a tie-up.
UConn retained possession, but Drummond eventually missed two free throws, which led to a jumper at the other end from Clark. After Lamb airballed a three on the following possession, Sims capitalized on Drummond gambling for a steal by driving and throwing down a big dunk on UConn's front line.
Georgetown was up 51-39, the crowd at the Verizon Center was rocking and the Huskies were dead in the water.
"It came down to giving them points," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "We got it to six, someone went for a steal and we took a bad shot, and now we're down 10. And you can only keep running up the hill for so long."
In the grand scheme of things, that two-minute stretch didn't decide the game. It was a six-point swing, and in a 40-minute game six-point swings don't decide the outcome. But that sequence epitomized what is plaguing UConn: lack of focus and a chronically inconsistent effort level.
Failing to execute offensively and the inability to consistently knock down open shots is something that will come and go. Players and teams go on cold streaks and those cold streaks can be amplified when going up against a well-prepared defensive game plan. UConn's three most dangerous perimeter scorers -- Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright -- combined to go 4 for 31 from the field on Wednesday. That's not going to happen to often.
The more glaring issue, however, is UConn's effort level. The frustrations that come with missing shots is carrying over into other aspects of the game, be it attention to detail on the defensive end or the willingness to get on the floor for a crucial loose ball. As Calhoun put it, UConn's struggles lie with "their will and their want." It's why the overwhelming sentiment concerning this stretch for the Huskies is that they have given up.
"This is what you can't do and why I talked about will," Calhoun said. "You always take it as a personal thing that people are quitting. Some people feel that way, but no one is quitting. But you are allowing the situation, the fact that the ball's not going into the hole, to make you take a chance that's going to make everything up. No. That's going to make it worse."
It's no secret that UConn is hurting this season without Kemba Walker. Under Calhoun, the Huskies have never been known for a complex offensive system, and what made Walker so valuable as a player was his ability to create shots when things got stagnant. UConn doesn't have that player this year. Walker was able to break down a defender at the end of the shot clock and either get himself a shot or put one of his teammates in a position to score. With Napier, Boatright and Lamb running the show, UConn has been forced into far too many contested jumpers after draining 30 seconds off the shot clock.
Anyone that has watched a UConn game in the past month can tell you that.
Where UConn misses Walker more, however, is in the leadership he provided on the floor. Leadership is a tough thing to define in any sport. It can manifest itself in a thousand different ways.
In UConn's case, the issue is accountability. The Huskies don't have that voice -- the singular presence -- who will take a teammate to task for a mental mistake. They don't have that player who demands perfection, who refuses to accept excuses for lazy defense or selfish shot-selection.
The two most talented players on UConn's roster are Lamb and Drummond. Both are going to be lottery picks one day and both are going to spend a lot of time -- and make a lot of money -- at the next level. But neither of them are vocal leaders. Lamb is one of the quietest, most laid-back kids you'll come across in this sport. The knock on Drummond throughout his career has been that his supreme talent gets held back by a lack of desire. He coasts.
Being quiet and laid-back is not a negative trait, but it is a negative on a team screaming for a dominating personality.
UConn's two primary ballhandlers haven't been able to fill the leadership role, either. Napier, to his credit, wants to, but over the last month he's almost been overwhelmed by the attention. He rarely, if ever, speaks to the UConn media anymore, shying away in an area where Walker thrived, whether the attention was good or bad.
When asked about Napier after the game, the usually verbose Calhoun simply said, "I expect a lot more out of him. An awful lot more. Including body language."
Napier has lost his starting job and missed all 16 of his shots in the last two games.
"I really don't know," Boatright said when asked how Napier handled coming off the bench Wednesday. "He ain't really show no hatred toward me or nothing like that, but he's handling it how he's handling it. We like each other, we still get along and stuff like that. But its coach's decision."
Boatright may, eventually, end up being the answer, but he simply hasn't spent enough time in the UConn lineup. He's missed nine games this season due to issues he's had with the NCAA regarding benefits he and his family received while he was in high school.
Leadership is not an easy thing to provide in street clothes.
The best example of where UConn's leadership is lacking is with junior forward Alex Oriakhi. Oriakhi is the elder statesmen, the only upperclassman who sees significant minutes and a vital piece to last year's postseason run.
But you would never guess that with the way he has played this season. Wednesday may have been rock bottom. Oriakhi played seven minutes after being taken out of the starting lineup, amassing three turnovers and two fouls while managing a single rebound and just one field goal attempt. His body language was worse than his performance, as he jogged up and down the floor and was demonstrably peeved while sitting on the sidelines.
How are freshmen and sophomores supposed to react when they see a veteran pouting and sulking over playing time?
When asked about the UConn youth movement underfoot, Calhoun dismissed it.
"It means [nothing], in plain English," he said. "You're a player. You're 20-something games in, you're a basketball player."
And while he does have a point, he's ignoring the issue that age has within the dynamics of a locker room. Walker would not have stood for Oriakhi's behavior, and Oriakhi would have listened. But who on this team is going to stand up to him this year?
It's too early for anyone to write off UConn, not with the amount of talent it possesses and certainly not in a season where precious few consistently dominant teams. But for the Huskies to turn this thing around, they need to find a way to regain their confidence.
They need to believe a shot is going in when it leaves their hands. They need to rely on their reactions defensively instead of thinking about whether they should try and jump a passing lane. And most importantly, they cannot let one mistake beget another.
"We just gotta come together as a team," Drummond said. "We have to get our plays right. We can't make the same mistakes throughout the game. We can't get down on ourselves when adversity comes up.
"We still haven't given up yet. We just gotta keep fighting."