UConn Report: Who Deserves the Blame?
The Jimmy V classic was another sad reminder of UConn Men’s Basketballs fall from grace. UConn’s downfall has sparked a lot of discussion amongst college basketball fans. Personally, I believe the recent struggles of the UConn men can be attributed to four things in particular: Kevin Ollie, Conference Realignment, Recruiting, and last but certainly not least the players on the roster.
It seems like just yesterday Kevin Ollie led UConn on a storybook run to the 2014 national championship. Fast forward to the present and many fans in Storrs, Connecticut are calling for a coaching change. Although KO deserves some of the blame for UConn’s recent struggles, I do not agree with those calling for him to be fired so quickly, or with those who discredit him leading UConn to a national championship in 2014 with “Jim Calhoun’s players”.
Kevin Ollie joined the UConn staff as an assistant in 2010, the same year that Kemba Walker led UConn to a national championship. During his time as an assistant KO played a large part in recruiting, helping UConn land several highly ranked prospects.
Although much of UConn’s 2014 national championship roster was coached by Jim Calhoun at some point, it is outlandish to downplay the role Kevin Ollie played in the players’ recruitment and development. To put it simply the 2014 national championship team was a product of Kevin Ollie, just as much if not more than Jim Calhoun. That being said, I still believe KO deserves some of the blame for UConn’s struggles.
Kevin Ollie has failed to establish UConn’s culture and identity as a program. Villanova’s coach Jay Wright rarely has the most talented roster but he is able to land guys that fit Villanova’s culture, which translates to on court production. Villanova players are known for playing unselfish basketball, and not making mental mistakes. UConn on the other hand has not outwardly manifested any signs of a program culture. Until Coach Ollie can establish a defined identity, they will continue to struggle.
My final gripe with Coach Kevin Ollie is the lack of structured offense used in games. In the past UConn was able to get away with primarily playing isolation basketball due to the amount of talented guards that would come through Storrs (AJ Price, Shabazz Napier, Jeremy Lamb, Ben Gordon, etc). However, this is no longer the case and UConn’s offense has continued to struggle. The NBA has always had a trickle down influence on how the game is played. The modern NBA values: spacing, ball movement, player movement, and outside shooting. None of which can seem to be found in UConn’s current offense. If Coach Ollie does not modernize his offensive sets quickly, UConn’s offensive woes are sure to continue.
During the good old days, the Big East was regarded as the best conference college basketball had to offer. Unfortunately the glory days of UConn in the Big East are long gone, and the Huskies are still stuck in the American Athletic Conference. Not being in a power 5 conference has been a detriment to the UConn men over the past few years.
Part of the allure of playing for a school like UConn was being able to play in Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament. In addition, the old Big East conference was extremely competitive, giving players the chance to compete at a high level during conference play. The strength of the Big East allowed programs to earn plenty of resume boosting wins, making Selection Sunday much less stressful.
After the Big East fell apart, Boston College became the ACC’s New England representative, and Rutgers became the east coast team in the Big 10. To make matters worse the Big 12 expanding east seems like even more of a long shot. The AAC’s lack of prestige makes it difficult to sign the top recruits that would previously suit up for UConn.
Complicating matters further, the AAC does not have a concrete geographic identity as the member programs are scattered throughout the country, explaining why UConn has not been able to recruit the Northeast as well as they have in the past. They also lost recruiting battles to other east coast schools like Villanova and Syracuse whose conference games are played within a reasonable proximity to the universities.
I cannot recall a school that has been able to crack a prospect’s final list without securing a commitment as often as UConn. They have been a finalist for: Louis King, Jalen Carey, Paul Scruggs, Cameron Reddish, and Nazeron Reid in the past two recruiting cycles, but the Huskies were not able to secure a commitment from any of these players. All of these players would all be instant impact freshman and Cameron Reddish is a future NBA All-Star.
The New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) is often regarded as the best high school league in America. Many of New England’s finest suited up to play in this league and at one point UConn was able to secure a lot of NEPSAC talent. As the NEPSAC has become more talented, prep schools are recruiting prospects from outside of New England in order to stay competitive. In some instances, NEPSAC schools will even take players from other countries. The amount of NEPSAC players without significant ties to the New England area means UConn will continue to face an uphill battle when recruiting as they can no long convince players to “stay home”.
I remember watching PJ Washington commit to Kentucky last year. Coach Calipari explained to him that he would be used similar to Trey Lyles, as a do it all combo-forward. Lyles helped lead UK to an almost perfect season and was a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. Signing elite recruits requires a certain level of credibility, which explains why John Calipari is such a great recruiter and why UConn struggles with signing the best high school players. KO cannot go into a player’s home and compare them to another success story, because quite frankly UConn’s player development track record is mediocre at best.
In the first half against Syracuse, UConn had more than 10 turnovers and were outrebounded at a high-clip. When a team’s talent level is as ordinary as UConn there is almost no margin for error. Sadly, UConn causes more self-inflicted pain than any team I’ve seen in the country and many of these errors are NOT a product of the coaching staff. The amount of: missed free throws, poor shots, second chance buckets and unforced turnovers are inexcusable for a Division 1 basketball program.
From an individual standpoint Jalen Adams and Christian Vital deserve most of blame for UConn’s rough start. Jalen Adams is supposed to be UConn’s best guard but he is wildly inconsistent and has not added much (if anything) to his game in 3 years. JA still looks uncomfortable running a team and facilitating for his teammates which explains why UConn is in the bottom 5 of men’s college basketball in assists. This does not bode well for his NBA draft stock either, as he will need to run some point at the next level. At first glance it appears Jalen Adams put up very solid numbers last season, but this was merely fools gold and the result of being the first option on a depleted team.
Christian Vital was a pleasant surprise for UConn last season who gained valuable experience on an injury ridden team. CV needs to improve his shot selection immediately if UConn hopes to turn things around this season. Vital has a tendency to take questionable threes early in the clock, and is not shooting at a high percentage. His inconsistent release can be attributed to his odd set-point. Vital starts his release from almost the middle of his head, as opposed to the forehead/eyebrow area. In addition, Vital has a concerning tendency of forcing shots at the rim through multiple defenders. Improved shot-selection from CV will be a good start in improving an already atrocious offense.
What the rest of the roster lacks in skill they make up for in heart. UConn is so undersized it is very important they gang rebound, and box out after all shot attempts. Given their struggles in the half-court and lack of outside shooters, I would suggest UConn to get more transition buckets before the defense can get set. Ultimately the rest of UConn’s season will come down to how many adjustments the players on the roster are willing to make.
Tuesday night’s loss to Syracuse was another reminder that we are no longer watching the UConn we once were. The quality of players on the UConn roster is also not what it once was, with many of their current players looking like they belong at mid-major programs. However, at 7-3 there is still a chance for UConn to turn the season around. They have a chance to gain big out of conference wins against Arizona and Villanova in the next six weeks. In addition, conference play will provide two chances each at potential tournament teams: SMU, Cincinnati, and Wichita State. Some of these games will be nationally televised, giving UConn a chance to save face in the public eye as well.
As far as the current season struggles go I place 65% of the blame on the players and the remaining 35% on Kevin Ollie. No level of coaching and offense sets will make up for player’s mental mistakes and lack of energy. It is also important to point out UConn is a much better second half team, a testament to Coach Ollie willingness and ability to make adjustments.
At the same time Kevin Ollie is not completely off the hook. He needs to establish a much more solid rotation with conference play quickly approaching. KO must also figure out how to get his team cleaner looks on offense. The easy solution would be using UConn’s lack of size as an advantage and spreading teams out. However, this is easier said than done due to UConn’s non-existent outside shooting. I am a fan of Coach Ollie and what he’s done for the program, but if things do not change his days in Storrs could be numbered.