Friday, September 24, 2010

2010-11 Preview -- Connecticut Huskies

Too Busy for the Details?
UConn enters Year Two of the second rebuilding project since 2006. Unlike the first rebuilding project (2007 and 2008) this one has fewer answers and many more questions than last cycle. Relying on a freshman class to take up the responsibility for putting points on the board is risky, but that appears to be the game plan for 2011.  Prognosis -- A 3rd quartile finish.

3 Years At a Glance
2009 was the top of an earlier cycle that peaked in 2006 and crashed in 2007. The 2007 squad, depleted by graduations and early NBA departures returned 32.1% of the minutes and 25.9% of the points from the 2006 squad that ran to the Elite Eight. The 2007 squad suffered a step back similar to that which the Huskies experienced in 2010. This particular "recovery" may be longer however, as the 2008 squad returned 90.6% of the minutes and 91.6% of the points from the 2007 squad, nowhere near the scoring and experience the 2011 squad can draw on.


Note the difference between minutes returned and points returned. The staff is tasked with the double problem of replacing veteran minutes (nobody departed early for the NBA draft) and an even larger share of points. The front court news is good (though not great), but offense-related issues are actually a lingering problem triggered by the departure of the class of 2009. As the "points" percentages suggest, the squad's 2010 freshmen and sophomore members did not really develop their offensive games much last season.

According to Pomeroy...
BE DRtg99.6292.72102.0T5
Overall DRtg91.63384.8392.341
BE Ortg99.913108.17110.81
Overall ORtg107.189116.615117.317
Off eFG%47.2T1349.9851.54
BE OReb%37.0T539.2137.32

The defense remained relatively consistent from 2008 through 2010, but note the drop in offensive efficiency (Connecticut's ORtg, as measured both in conference games and overall). The 2009 run to the final four masked that squad's inability to efficiently convert shots to points (eFG%), a problem which, unresolved, metastasized into a full-blown crisis in 2010. . Offensive efficiency graduated with AJ Price and Jeff Adrien (and transferred with Doug Wiggins?) and was never replaced, either by player development (Stanley Robinson?) nor by recruitment (Nate Miles?).

For the Record...
Big East7110.3891530.8331350.722
Post Season?NIT Rnd #2NCAA Rnd #5NCAA Rnd #1

The Huskies' Nucleus
The staff will look to the returning players for leadership and minutes at the #1, #4 and #5. The lingering problem from the 2010 season is that this nucleus could not push some of the more disappointing performers from the class of 2010 to either improve or move aside. Another incoming class (the Class of 2014) will be tasked with meeting the unfulfilled expectations of the class before...

On Offense
Kemba Walker88.2105.323.922.845.43.01.0553.6
Alex Oriakhi61.697.612.911.846.010.60.9758.4
Jamal Coombs-McDaniel28.198.416.518.940.03.20.9146.0
Donnell Beverly23.286.014.611.543.05.00.9126.0
Charles Okwandu17.078.511.79.151.711.60.9624.1

Kemba Walker excepted, no one from the group that logged 10% or better, of the minutes available in 2010 established a presence in the offense beyond a mid-level "Role Player" (Coombs-McDaniel) or "Limited Role Player" (Oriakhi, Beverly). Everyone else was "Invisible", and that is bad news when projecting a player's growth for the next season. Coach Calhoun's offense in recent years has depended on an efficient (and prominent) low post presence. Of the returning players, Coombs-McDaniel would be the best candidate, but the 6-7 player is more wing than low post. He will be pushed (aside?) by newcomer Roscoe Smith. All of the low post players (Oriakhi and Okwandu) will no doubt improve on offense and develop a larger role in UConn's offense, but a reasonable usage projection, year-over-year is in the range of 2%-5% for possessions/shots, with an upper limit of (maybe) 8%. These guys are not breakout candidates, and that presents a problem for an offense that looks to the low post for efficient points.

On Defense
Kemba Walker88.29.629.
Alex Oriakhi61.617.62.618.85.90.9
Jamal Coombs-McDaniel28.17.59.313.80.71.2
Donnell Beverly23.210.022.934.00.32.8
Charles Okwandu17.010.21.636.65.21.3

Significant Additions
The cycle starts again. For the second time since 2006 the Huskies must integrate a talented, but uncomfortably large entering class. Faced with replacing starters at the #2, #3 and #4, the recruited class resembled a an open cast call, not a selected (and selective) group of bballers. The number, fortunately or unfortunately, has dwindled to a more managable five. Regarded as the best of the group, Roscoe Smith, a 6-8, 190 pound #3 out of Oak Hill Academy, Va., will see action early and often. If the #4 is most likely filled by a returning player, the #2 will probably see a battle between one of the incoming freshmen and several veterans. The early favorite will most likely be 6-5 185 pound Jeremy Lamb out of Dorchester, Mass., who will compete with seniors Donnell Beverley and Kyle Bailey. If returnees Ater Majok and Jamal Combs-McDaniel go head-to-head over the #4 spot, 6-9 225 pound Tyler Olander, a local (Mansfield, Conn) favorite and 6-10 235 pound Michael Bradley, a nominal center from Chattanooga, Tennessee, will see some early season minutes, but not much after January 1, 2011. 5-11 165 pound Shabazz Napier, perhaps the second best player in the group, will back up incumbent Kemba Walker at the point. Napier hails from Randolph, Massachusetts, while Smith is a Charm City native. Smith will provide offense, the question is how much, and who else among the freshmen will step up? Ater Majok's very late departure brought 6-6 German forward Neils Giffey into the Husky fold. As the squad is short bodies, the 19 year old should see some playing time, but do not expect the staff to spin glowing pictures of the young man early on in the weeks before Fall Practice opens.

Explode If...
1. Walker finds his shot and becomes (far) more consistent; Smith brings a Melo-like offensive numbers to pick up the two year slack, and the committee of Beverley (and/or Bailey) and Lamb bring some focus, consistency and accuracy to the off guard position.
2. Every season Coach Calhoun says he loves the squad and can't wait to coach them. This time he means it. The Coach relies on an inside-out approach to offense. This season he does not appear to have enough reliable scoring inside to have success with that approach. "Inside" points will have to come out of transition, not half-court sets.
3. The Huskies maintain their historic defensive dominance while picking up their offense.

Implode If...
Coach Calhoun's health and age, combined with an NCAA investigation into the Nate Miles recruitment have become an ongoing distraction for the Connecticut program. With an eye to putting Coach Calhoun's tenure rumors to rest, AD Jeff Hathaway and his 68 year old head coach negotiated a new contract that retains Calhoun through the 2014 season. The Athletic Department retained a law firm that specialized in contesting NCAA investigations, dismissed several lower-level staff members just before the draft report was released last May, and have asked for additional time to answer the charges, pushing the resolution date into September, uncomfortably close to the start of Fall Practice (and the season). If a probation period and some recruiting restrictions are the result of the investigation (best case scenario), questions about Coach Calhoun's health and age linger. A season that returns the program to the conference elites would put the speculation to rest. An harsh set of sanctions coupled with more health-related issues could pose a drag on the team's performance, and push the Huskies' rebuilding program out another 1-2 seasons, a very difficult task for a coach who is closer to the end, rather than the beginning, of his career.

Crucial Run/Bellweather Games
The Huskies' home-based out of conference (OOC) slate may look like another trip to the pastry shop with Coach Calhoun, but the EA Maui Invitational alone promises to provide UConn's OOC SOS with some credibility and fans with a better sense of which direction this squad is heading. A 7-0 record in November and December on games not played in Hawaii would "prove" little. Connecticut opens the EA Maui Invitational on 11/22 against Wichita State out of the Missour Valley Conference. The Shockers, along with their rival Blue Jays of Creighton, are projected to go tooth-in-nail for the MWC crown this season. A second round opponent would be either Final Four team Michigan State or (tournament host) Chaminade, with Connecticut's third round opponent drawn from a pool of Oklahoma, Kentucky, Virginia or Washington. A 2-1 record out of Hawaii would be most welcomed, with a second round win against Chaminade and a third round win over Virginia is the likely path to that outcome, but a win over Wichita State with another win in the third round (beat Michigan State in the second round will really turn heads in New York City) would be encouraging.

Connecticut drew Louisville, Marquette and Notre Dame as mirrors this season. A winning record versus those three would deliver a double bonus in that the wins improve UConn's place in the conference ranking, but may also, given the state of their programs, provide the tie-breakers over Louisville and Notre Dame should all three land in the same quartile. The five game sequence at the end of the season may be the most critical for Connecticut. The Huskies will face Louisville (on the road), Marquette (home), Cincinnati (road), West Virginia (road) and Notre Dame (home). If they are under 0.500 going into these games, they will need to go 4-1 (at least) to break even. The team may not, however, have enough gas in the tank to close out the season right.

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