STORRS, Conn. -- A week's worth of national media attention led up to last Thursday night's game at Gampel Pavilion. ESPN2 was in the house and there was big-game buzz in the air. Yet, aside from the 10,000 or so UConn loyalists in attendance, mostly everyone else around the land was checking out the opponent: Harvard. Yes, an Ivy League school was the headliner against the defending national champs.
That's really been the story of these Huskies in the first third of this season. The summer featured a series of will he/won't he stories on coach Jim Calhoun's return and the amnestying of reserve forward Michael Bradley to squeeze stud freshman center Andre Drummond into an NCAA-mandated, 10-scholarship box, but ever since these Huskies actually hit the court, the focus has been pretty much everywhere else.
North Carolina and Kentucky started the season as national title contenders and Ohio State has horned its way into the discussion with some early dominance. Duke won Maui, Syracuse has ascended to No. 1 and even unbeaten Indiana is back on the national scene after knocking off Kentucky at the buzzer. UConn? The Huskies had a series of uneven performances in wins over overmatched foes before a surprising loss to Central Florida in the Bahamas. They have since settled near the bottom of the top 10 in the national polls and are currently No. 22 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings.
Even the players sense the transition from last year is not complete, despite a lot of the same faces still in the rotation.
"I think we're moving in the right direction, but we gotta work hard," said sophomore Jeremy Lamb, the team's leading scorer at 20 points per game. "People need to know their roles. We just gotta pick it up on defense and really start executing our plays. Sometimes we go one-on-one too much or use the screens -- ball screens -- too much."
After the 67-53 victory over the Crimson that moved UConn to 8-1, the inconsistent offense was a widely discussed theme. The integration of freshman point guard Ryan Boatright into the mix after a six-game NCAA suspension has provided the Huskies with more flexibility; the three-guard lineup with Boatright, Lamb and Shabazz Napier was a huge key to UConn's decisive early-second half run. But sitting in the Huskies' weight room after the contest, Boatright estimated that UConn is only running its offense correctly a little more than 50 percent of the time. Drummond allowed that "as a team everyone's just figuring out their roles. Nobody has a specific role as of now." Even Calhoun, in the postgame press conference, said "we haven't quite connected yet. And when we get into the meat of our schedule, we have to be connected."
Interestingly, despite having an offense that does look disjointed and stagnant at times, the Huskies aren't far off last year's Kemba-fueled offensive performance. They're currently 14th in Division I in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, at 113.1 points per 100 possessions, which is only 2.1 points behind last season's rate. Where the Huskies are struggling a bit, somewhat surprisingly, is on the defensive end.
With Drummond pairing with returning junior Alex Oriakhi and others inside, the Huskies continue to block shots at an enormous rate, which is supporting their two-point field goal defense. UConn is about three points worse in defending opponents from behind the arc, though, which has dropped its overall defensive efficiency to 54th nationally -- a far cry from last season's final ranking of 14th and the second-worst mark of any team in KenPom's current top 25.
Boatright's arrival should ostensibly help the three-point defense by allowing Lamb and Napier rest a bit more and/or putting a very quick and athletic three-guard look on the floor, but in his three games as a collegian, Florida State, Arkansas and Harvard have combined to make 24 of 62 (38.7%) from behind the arc. It's certainly not talent that's holding UConn back from reaching an elite level. It just doesn't seem to have fully clicked yet at either end of the floor.
"I think the one thing that separates us from being a great team is we don't have the killer instinct," Napier said. We don't have that 'We're up by 15, now let's punch it in and get home without having a tough game at the end.' Once we get that, I think we'll be a great team."
Overall, though, the last couple of games have been the Huskies' most impressive defensive efforts of the season. They held the Razorbacks and Crimson well under their season averages, and did it at both fast (70 possessions vs. the Hogs) and slow (58 vs. Harvard) tempos. Calhoun went as far to say after the Harvard game that the Huskies had "defensively dominated them."
On the other end, Lamb is starting to emerge more as a consistent force, as is Drummond, who had five dunks against the Crimson, including one that shook the shot clock atop the basket and caused it to lean left for the remainder of the game. Mix in Napier, who has been very solid, emerging sophomore forward Tyler Olander, sophomore wing Roscoe Smith, freshman DeAndre Daniels and the struggling-but-still-talented Oriakhi, and this team inarguably has more depth of talent than last season's national champs. We're just waiting for some reason to notice.
"I think we learned how good we can be if we play a full game of basketball," Olander said.
And when they finally do, you can be sure the spotlight will finally land back on the champs.