Posted by Jeff Borzello
Maybe the other shoe has finally dropped.
All season, people have been waiting for the bottom to fall out on Connecticut, who came into the season picked to finish No. 10 in the Big East, but surprised everyone by looking like a legitimate contender.
Two weeks ago, Connecticut was 17-2 and in position for a No. 1 seed come Selection Sunday.
After tonight’s blowout loss to St. John’s, the Huskies dropped to 18-5 overall, 6-5 in the Big East. Moreover, check out the conference standings: UConn is now tied with four other teams for seventh in the league.
Pending tiebreakers, the Huskies could be 11th in the Big East right now.
Seems awfully similar to the preseason projections.
To start, Kemba Walker was the Player of the Year favorite as recently as a month ago. Now, he might not even be the frontrunner for Big East Player of the Year. His jump shot has completely abandoned him and he is deferring to his teammates far too often. At the outset of the season, if three starters besides Walker had scored in double-figures, it was almost a guarantee that the Huskies would come out with the win.
Now, it’s a problem.
Walker has shot 50 percent or better from the field just once since December 8 – he is just 21-for-72 from the field in his last four games. Not surprisingly, Connecticut has lost three of those four contests, and needed a desperate comeback to beat Seton Hall by two over the weekend. His last six games have featured six of his nine lowest point totals on the season. As my colleague Matt Norlander wrote last week , in order to be a Final Four contender, Connecticut needs Kemba to be Maui Invitational Kemba.
It’s not just Walker, though. His supporting cast hasn't picked up the slack, either.
Alex Oriakhi came into the season expecting to be the second option on a team that needed a sidekick for Walker. Oriakhi showed flashes early in the season, posting 11 points and 18 rebounds in the season-opener, but he’s struggled recently as well. In the last five games, the 6-foot-9 big man is averaging just 8.2 points and 5.8 boards. Moreover, he’s committed at least three fouls in all but one of those games – UConn is far less menacing at both ends when he’s on the bench.
Freshmen Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith have been MIA for the most part. Take away the 34 points he scored against Marquette and Louisville, and Napier has totaled 35 points in his last nine games. Prior to his 16 points tonight, Smith had scored in single-digits in six of his last eight games.
When Walker is struggling and Jeremy Lamb is the only consistent offensive option, it makes UConn that much easier to guard.
The Huskies’ defense has disappeared at times too. Over the last four games, Connecticut is allowing 73.3 points per contest, a sharp increase from its previous 19 games. That was especially apparent tonight at Madison Square Garden, when they allowed their highest point total of the season.
The 89 points St. John’s scored tonight was the most the Red Storm have scored against Connecticut since 1992, when they dropped 90. St. John’s shot 48.4 percent from the field, 52.9 percent from 3-point range and won the transition battle, outscoring Connecticut in fast-break points, 27-2. The paint, the one constant for UConn over the last several years, was dominated by St. John’s. The Red Storm outrebounded the Huskies by 10 and also had more points in the paint, 40-18.
Simply put, Connecticut is regressing to the mean lately. All season, the Huskies were never the most efficient offensive team, lacking creativity on offense and getting inconsistent production from the supporting cast. They don’t shoot well from 3-point range and are not aggressive driving to the basket. On the defensive end, they don’t pressure the ball, don’t force turnovers and play the game at a far slower pace than we’re used to seeing the Huskies play.
As John Gasaway tweeted earlier tonight, Connecticut has outscored the Big East by just seven points over 11 games. It’s not a huge surprise that the Huskies are struggling.
They are who we thought they were.Photo: AP