|The Huskies need to win three in a row for the first time in 2012 to have a good chance at an at-large. (US PRESSWIRE)|
By Matt Norlander
STORRS, Conn. — Well, the objective seems pretty clear now. The defending champions, who haven’t won three games in a row in 2012 will certainly have to do that to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. If that doesn't seem too grim, consider UConn has only gone home winners in back-to-back games once since we turned to January.
At Providence and then home vs. Pittsburgh closes out the regular season for the nation's most underachieving team. Then it's a first-round game in the Big East tournament against a fellow conference doormat. Realistically, that won't be enough. Another win, a fourth in a row, will likely be required for some semblance of comfort. Getting to three wins in MSG would definitely get UConn into the tournament. That's the big-picture goal now.
Three straight wins. Somehow. Can this team do it? Evidence is lacking.
A 17-11 (7-9) Huskies team filled with NBA talent once again fell short in a big moment. To be frank, it’s completely baffling that this team will end its season without an above-.500 Big East record. The Huskies erased a 17-point second-half deficit but still couldn’t usurp Syracuse, losing 71-69 Saturday night, beaten by the Orange for the first time in program history at Gampel Pavilion. Syracuse (29-1, 16-1) clinched the Big East regular season title. SU’s Kris Joseph had a game-high 21.
Afterward in the Orange locker room, the bulky, heavy regular-season trophy was passed around and posed with. Triumph. A huge win and plenty of private gloating from the team after it officially achieved something that wasn't expected. The Orange are rolling and a lock for a No. 1 seed.
Syracuse won its ninth straight because the game's ending was marred by a foul call that never was; UConn’s Roscoe Smith was aggressively covered by C.J. Fair as he went up for a bunny. The whistle didn’t come until zeroes were left on the clock, and that signaled the end of the game, not a late foul call. It was a break that didn’t go UConn’s way, and so it was not afforded overtime and a chance to vault ahead of many teams in the at-large field.
"He definitely got fouled," Huskies forward Jeremy Lamb said. "He (Fair) purposely grabbed his arm but didn't get the call."
"I think I made a good play," Fair said with a smile in the locker room afterward.
Don’t fall behind by 17 and that isn’t an issue, though. Connecticut can't get out of its own way, once again. Remember, it was bailed out by an incredible, too-soon 3-point shot by Napier that won the game for them against Villanova Monday. It trailed big early in that game, too. The Huskies had a chance to get one of the best wins any team in college basketball could own.
“The middle was open, I made a strong move and I got fouled, but I think the officials did a good job,” Smith said. “You really can’t call a foul in that type of situation, so yeah, you’ve gotta live with it. ... They (the officials) probably really didn't want to have the game decided on it. I got fouled and everybody seen it. If you didn't see it, it'll be on tonight.”
Lamenting a foul call that you didn't get is probably not the best way to go for a Huskies team that's talked a bit too much this year, anyway. But to be fair, the players were asked questions and they were honest. I can't fault them much for that. Still, let's step back here and examine. This team has no business booking travel plans to be in the first round, again, of the Big East Tournament. Now it’s finding itself in need of a 2011 New York City repeat. They need a run like the one they had last year. That run isn’t coming. UConn's squandered too much, and now we’re looking at a possibility that for only the seventh time in tournament history the defending champion won’t be making an appearance the following season.
“The message continues to be: full possessions, full games,” associated head coach George Blaney said. “For some reason we continue to not be able to do that. It’s not a question of confidence it’s a question of full possessions.”
If you're curious about the team's attitude, it appears to be positive. Quite positive in fact, and that's significant. Napier and Alex Oriakhi have voiced frustrations throughout the season, but no one was glum or looking to vent Saturday night. Losing a game that was so close to a win is probably reason to punch a locker or rip a pillow in half, but the team seems together and optimistic.
"We can definitely build off this," Lamb said. Smith echoed those sentiments and you're likely going to see a UConn team that won't lack of effort, even if execution continues to be a hurdle.
The elephant-sized acknowledgement of Jim Calhoun's absence should soon no longer be a distraction or side story. Calhoun has been out in recent weeks due to back pain. He’ll have surgery on his back Monday, and the hope is that he can come back March 3 for the team’s regular-season finale, a home game against Pittsburgh.
Calhoun’s return might be a jolt, but it won’t be enough. The team’s got to start winning now without him (it hasn't beaten an above-.500 Big East team since he's been away), then hope it can experience some déjà vu at Madison Square Garden. It doesn’t have to win five games in five days again, but if it doesn’t at least flirt with that story line, uncertainty will loom until Selection Sunday.