Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Remember the Maine!

Winning consecutive blowouts over Quinnipiac and Maine is impressive -- if you're a hockey team. Men's basketball? Not so much, especially if you're the UConn Huskies, a traditional national power.

And yet, there's something about the way the Huskies went Bobcat and Black Bear hunting last week that has this blogger/writer thinking that maybe -- just maybe -- UConn could be in for a better season than some expected.

Sure, the competition level wasn't high. Sure, it's unbecoming of a program like UConn to take solace in wins over a pair of relative cupcakes. Sure, both teams were coached by former UConn assistants who knew ex-boss Jim Calhoun could use an easy win and essentially laid down for the Huskies (just kidding about this one!!!).

Still, we saw something from UConn over the past week.

It's one thing to out-size and out-athlete an opponent, it's another thing to play well. Really well. And it's still another to play hard. Really hard. UConn played really well and really hard against both Quinnipiac and Maine, which is exactly what Calhoun has been begging his team for over most of the season to this point.

As has been well-documented, Calhoun -- as frustrated as he's been in a while following UConn's lackluster, 69-60 win over Northeastern earlier in the month -- called his team together and made them a deal: I'll back off a bit, if you show me the energy and enthusiasm that great UConn teams of the past were built on.

So far, it's worked. The Huskies have played hard, and Calhoun has been much calmer on the sidelines. The hockey-like substitutions that marked the first seven games of the season (particularly the Northeastern game, when Calhoun pulled player after player for the slightest mistake and, indeed, wound up being ejected from the game for hurling an "F bomb" at his own team) haven't been seen much in the past two games. Against Maine, Calhoun managed to refrain from making a single substitution for the first 6 minutes, 43 seconds of play!

The players have responded. Certain players (A.J. Price, Stanley Robinson, Hasheem Thabeet) have really stepped up. Others (Jeff Adrien, Jerome Dyson, Doug Wiggins) have been up-and-down, but overall have played pretty well. It would be nice for UConn to have some reliable help from their big men off the bench, and maybe Gavin Edwards can provide that. But Jonathan Mandeldove is beset by foot issues and may not even be in Orlando with the team, and Curtis Kelly just can't seem to get in any kind of groove.

I'm really interested to see how the Huskies handle their upcoming road swing through Orlando (Central Florida) to Newark (Seton Hall) and, finally, South Bend (Notre Dame). While none of these teams are powerhouses, all will be tough outs in their home buildings. This group of UConn players has yet to truly prove its mettle on the road. Last year the team won just two of 10 games away from home -- against St. John's and Rutgers. This team has to prove it can walk into the building of another good team and walk out with a win.

Central Florida is better-known for football players like alum Daunte Culpepper and current running back Kevin Smith, who leads the nation in both rushing and scoring as a junior. Basketball? Eh. The Knights are currently 5-5. They have split a pair of games with Nevada, lost to then-ranked Kansas State in overtime and lost by eight points to both Villanova and South Florida of the Big East.

Still, the Knights play in a decent conference (Conference USA). And, it's never easy to beat a team in its own building. Speaking of which: Calhoun has been telling his players and the media that the Huskies are opening up UCF's new, 10,000-seat on-campus arena. That's not true: the arena was officially opened with the Knights' 63-60 win over Nevada back on Nov. 11. Maybe it's the coach's way of providing his team a little extra motivation, a way of further piling on the "us vs. the world" mentality.

Whatever works. Everything's certainly been working well for the Huskies over the past couple of games.


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