Sunday, January 06, 2008

Disturbing trends

They're 10-3 overall, 1-1 in the Big East. They've lost to the only two Top 25 teams they've played, as well as to the only three teams they've played that appear to have NCAA Tournament hopes at this point.

No question, UConn is much better than it was a year ago and certainly better than it was even a month ago. But there's little indication to suggest that the Huskies are more than, in coach Jim Calhoun’s own words, "just an O.K. team right now.”

A couple of disturbing trends have dogged the Huskies so far this season:

Opposing players seem to break out of slumps and get hot against the UConn defense. Gonzaga's Jeremy Pargo entered the Zags' Dec. 1 game with the Huskies having hit just 1 of 16 3-pointers on the season. He went 4-for-7 from distance against UConn and led all scorers with 23 points.

"Once he found UConn, he was able to play real well," Calhoun rued at the time.

Pargo isn't the only one. The words “career-high” have often been used when describing opponents’ high scorers against the Huskies this season. Chris Douglas-Roberts of Memphis pumped home a career-high 33 points against the Huskies on Nov. 16; he’s been in a relative shooting slump ever since. Northeastern’s Matt Janning went for 29 (including five 3-pointers) in UConn’s uninspiring, 69-60 win on Dec. 6.

Central Florida’s Jermaine Taylor poured in a career-high 30 in the Huskies’ 85-82 win on Dec. 28, and Seton Hall freshman Jeremy Hazell, in just his second start, was a revelation to everyone – especially UConn – when he canned six 3-pointers and went for 28 on Thursday night.

The latest example is Notre Dame's Kyle McAlarney. The junior guard entered Saturday night's contest shooting just 28 percent over his prior four games. But McAlarney got hot in a hurry against the Huskies, hitting a whopping 13 of 19 field goals, including 6 of 7 from 3-point land, and finishing with a (you guessed it) career-high 32 points.

What does it all mean? It means the Huskies don’t have a lockdown defender that can neutralize an opponent’s best player, particularly if that player is a shooter. Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson would figure to be athletic enough players who can step up to the task. To this point, neither really has.

Teams get off to blistering starts against the Huskies. Seton Hall scored 48 first-half points against UConn on Thursday night, prompting Calhoun to simply write "48" on the locker room whiteboard at halftime. The Huskies got the message, shored up defensively in the latter half and wound up with a 98-86 victory.

Two nights later, however, the message apparently hadn't stuck. UConn allowed Notre Dame to hit five 3-pointers and score 47 points in the opening half on Saturday. While it doesn't appear Calhoun wrote "47" on the whiteboard at halftime, the Huskies were able to tighten up defensively again in the latter half.

More specifically, Hasheem Thabeet came alive as a shot-swatting force, turning away seven Notre Dame shots in the latter half and 10 for the game to tie his own school record. This time, however, the Huskies' 15-point halftime deficit was a bit too much to overcome, and the Irish emerged with the win.

"(Notre Dame) certainly were ready to play, and we weren't," Calhoun said. "It's not the first time this year, but hopefully it'll be the last time. There are sections of the game that I don't recognize my own team."So how does UConn avoid allowing big first halves to teams?

"Take better shots," said Jerome Dyson. "The shots we took in the first half (on Saturday) caused long rebounds. I took two quick 3-pointers where there were long rebounds and they were out on the break fast, and we weren't getting back."

But it’s not all about the offense. Clearly, the Huskies need to jump out of the gates with a better defensive attitude.

"There are things about our team that intrigue me and (make me) think that over the next 18 games or so we can do something," Calhoun said following Saturday's loss. "But until they learn they've got to play 40 minutes, they're just an O.K. team right now."

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