State of the Program Address - An Extensive Preview of the 2014-15 Huskies | The Boneyard

State of the Program Address - An Extensive Preview of the 2014-15 Huskies

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Speaking to reporters on an early October day, Kevin Ollie stressed the importance of managing the intoxicating impulses induced by success: “I told the players after last season, ‘Don’t get drunk off success – a lot of people get drunk off success.’” Success may have been the most modest of words Ollie could have drawn from to describe the unforeseen championship run ignited by he and his players last March. Shortly thereafter, Ollie recalled another discussion he had with his players in which he referenced the great John Wooden to communicate the challenge that would await his team: “A lot of people can do it when their back is against the wall. Everybody in this room can do it with their backs against the wall because we fight – we’re all fighters. But can you do it when you’re on top of the mountain? How do you stay there? You stay there with character. Talent will get there; character will allow you to stay there. You stay there with character, you stay there with heart, you stay there with will.”

As a former NBA journeyman, there is perhaps no coach on the planet more qualified to deliver this message. Growing up in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood, playing in the NBA was a dream of Ollie’s. He played 12 seasons in the NBA, but he was unable to spend a single one of them savoring the moment. Instead, his career evolved into a perpetual fight for survival, jammed with ten day contracts and afforded zero promises. Ollie knew that even a brief blip in conditioning or seemingly harmless deviation from the religious study of game film and opponent tendencies could result in a one-way ticket abroad.
Ollie’s exhaustive commitment to maximizing every grain of potential allowed him to stay afloat in a cut-throat business longer than he had any right to, and as one examines the trajectory of last year’s team – and how round after round, people picked against them – it is difficult not to view them manifestation of their head coach. This season, their challenge is to remain atop the proverbial mountain that nobody ever thought they’d get to in the first place, and while the words of coaches who know little or nothing about that sort of thing may ring hollow, Ollie’s credibility may allow him to connect to and teach his players in ways that resonate more meaningfully.

Many of you may recall that I wrote a near 9,000 word preview on the Huskies last season. “After that many words, you must have been well-informed enough to have a pretty good idea of how good we were going to be”, you might be thinking. Not so much. Actually, among the words written in my preview, I managed to produce this gem: “Do I think this team can win a championship? Gun to my head, no.” Fortunately, after mischaracterizing the team in so many ways last preseason, I can at least assure you that I am not drunk off success.

My preview last season revolved around six extensively scouted videos from the 2012-13 season. However, with fewer known commodities returning this season, I have chosen to take a more generalized, less focused approach to my preview this year. There is still plenty to learn – particularly relating to Ollie and the culture of veracity he is cultivating here – by re-watching tape from last season, but as far as player personnel is concerned, there is a degree of projecting and guess work that has to be done. As such, here are five unresolved questions – all of which will be answered at some point during the year – that will define the 2014-15 Huskies:

How Should the Events of Last Season Mold our Expectations for this Year?
I promise this will be the only question that’s more reflective than projecting, but I think it’s important to contextualize the greatness of last season’s run before we proceed. Kevin Ollie’s coaching performance during the NCAA Tournament last season graded so far beyond the realm of what is generally considered customary for a second year coach that it defies the cogency of any description I can muster. Much has been made of his proficiency adapting to various unorthodox coaching maneuvers, out-scheming Hall of Fame head coaches, and utilizing personnel, but make no mistake, the majority of his success was the product of tireless, year-long work cultivating a culture of professionalism.

And as it relates to the 2013-14 Huskies, professionalism is a word that cannot be stressed enough. The roster was composed of tremendously gifted athletes who possess more physical gifts than you or I could dream of, but what distinguished them from their peers on the grandest of stages was their dedication to their craft. Kevin Ollie, upon being named head coach in the fall of 2012, embarked on an inclusive mission to transform each and every one of his players into an adolescent version of himself, treating each of them individually with the levels of delicacy, candidness, and inspiration required to appeal to the competitor and man inside them. It was a rigorous, systematic process that demanded maximum amounts of energy on the court, in the classroom, and in the community. The result of this perpetual building of character was a group of men, hardened and humbled by their own personal experiences and shortcomings, that devoted hours of daily work to film study, mastering the games finer skills, and connecting to their teammates.

The championship runs of the UConn basketball program in 2011, and now most recently in 2014, have elicited predictable refrains from opposing fans. A couple such examples of congratulatory reactions with unsubtle undertones of resentment: “Sure, UConn was a great team, but the tournament is unpredictable.” “All it takes to win in March is a team that gets hot at the right time.” “UConn won the whole thing, but I don’t really think they were the best team.” These, and a whole host of other statements designed to undermine the extraordinary accomplishments of this program, are not without morsels of truth. The Tournament is unpredictable, the best team doesn’t always win, and being crowned champion requires a whole lot of luck. But there is a fragile, secretive art to navigating the trenches of scrutinized, pressure-packed basketball, and players who have been trained as professionals are more equipped to handle it. The chaotic, quick-hitting nature of March leaves the unprepared no time to repent on shortcuts of basketball past, and those with the mental capacity to digest pages of opponent trends and strategic wrinkles in a short period of time step onto the court with a decided edge. At its core, the NCAA Tournament is a form of designed chaos that occasionally feels ruthless in its suddenness. Players that will be named to multiple NBA all-star teams are regularly sent packing before the end of the American work day and storied careers vanish in the span of 40 fast-paced minutes.

In essence, the NCAA Tournament is an unforgiving regression model that isn’t actually all that efficient at identifying the best team. Yet, while respected powerhouses struggle to reach the second weekend with any degree of consistency, Connecticut has registered a staggering 26-5 tournament record in their last eight tournament appearances and an 8-1 mark all-time in final fours. These are figures that challenge the opening sentence of this paragraph and leave opposing fans befuddled. At some point, those records are no longer an out-performance of statistical models. They are a profound testament to the coaches at this University – and this includes scouts, assistants, video coordinators, you name it – and their ability to communicate the principles of the various strategic installments that accompany every tournament game. Villanova may employ drastically different pick-and-roll coverages, spacing alignments, dribble-drive techniques, and offensive philosophies than St. Joe’s, and all of those microscopic tendencies that are invisible to the naked eye must be exhaustively scouted, presented, and memorized by players in the course of 48 short hours.
This is all an extremely convoluted way of telling you we have world-class coaches, but it’s also important to remember that mastering all of these idiosyncrasies to the extent that your body is functioning subconsciously within the schemes requires a vast amount of intellectual aptitude and basketball instincts. Intelligence and instincts were two things the 2013-14 UConn Huskies held over their opponents last season in every single tournament game, with the possible exception being their opener against St. Josephs.

The concepts of basketball intelligence, muscle memory, and learning capacity are somewhat abstruse and inaccessible devoid of context, so let’s reignite the time machine and travel back to Friday, March 21st. Connecticut has just fended off a barrage of post-ups, slip screens, off-ball counters, and everything else the veteran Phil Martelli was able to coax from his personnel (to read my extensive observations on this game, click here ). Next up was Villanova, an offense with visions of spreading the floor, attacking the creases in the defense, and kicking to three point shooters. It was the very embodiment of a drive-and-kick offense, and one with little variation. Yet still, it was a stark contrast from what the Huskies had encountered a day before, and while the St. Joes’ post-up heavy offense demanded an unyielding commitment to assignment basketball, Villanova’s trinity of slippery guards figured to challenge the fabric of Connecticut’s help and recover principles.

After doing battle with a host of offensively challenged AAC teams for the majority of conference play, the opening minutes served as a rude awakening for a UConn team not familiar with Villanova’s sets. The Wildcats storm to a 13-5 lead before the first TV timeout, and following a Ryan Arcidiacono transition layup, Kevin Ollie calls timeout himself to express his dissatisfaction. Like most spread offenses, penetration is generally a means to an end. By beating the initial defender to the paint, surrounding perimeter defenders are subject to being drawn into the vortex of bodies and then finding themselves vulnerable to a blow-by on a reckless close-out. As was the case below, at about the 17:40 mark in the first half:
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The ball is barely visible here, but Arcidiacono is in the process of firing it out to the wing as four Connecticut defenders converge. Giffey drifts too far off his assignment, and as a result, is unable to halt his momentum chasing back towards the ball in time to remain in front of James Bell. Bell beats Giffey to the left, and for some unknown reason, Ryan Boatright has flown across the court from the weak side, completely abandoning his initial assignment in Arcidiacono and leaving Napier to defend two players at once. The ball eventually ends up in the hands of Darrun Hillard, who is fouled by Napier in his shooting motion.
No one player is responsible for the failures of this possession, but it illustrates the importance of remaining balanced and disciplined, the latter of which is particularly imperative against on offense designed to capitalize on over-aggression. The timeout taken by Ollie at the 15:45 mark was likely an attempt at accentuating the focal points of the scouting report, and just minutes later at about the 14 and a half minute mark, Connecticut submits one of their defining defensive possessions:

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Watch how as Arcidiacono drives baseline, Napier is already retreating back to the left corner – where his assignment is stationed – to ensure history does not repeat itself. With the water being cut-off, Arcidiacono reverses course and re-sets the offense, handing the ball off to Josh Hart. Hart dribbles and kicks the ball back out to Hillard, who nearly has his eye socket punctured by Napier upon gathering. And even as Boatright gets back-cut by Arcidiacono as the ball reverses sides, Brimah arrives to seal the baseline, Daniels sags in to deny entry to Brimah’s man, and Napier again drifts to the baseline. This time, Arcidiacono forces it and Napier picks off the pass.

It would be an over-simplification to condense the entirety of UConn’s game plan to “stay home on shooters”, but those four words certainly suffice as a spark notes version. This, of course, is more straightforward in theory than in reality. Game plans tend to be guidelines rather than sacred texts, and the challenge lies in reacting spontaneously to opponent alignments while still adhering to the principles of the over-arching schemes. Throughout the rest of the game, UConn rotated in splendid accordance, communicated diligently, and forced Villanova’s guards into a series of shoot-or-pass propositions by blurring the passing lanes and occupying the paint. And in the modern age of analytics, where offenses are content to punt the mid-range jumper altogether while emphasizing threes and layups, UConn’s defense was as proficient as they come in terms of eliminating both. This dynamic was confirmed resoundingly by the box score: 61% of Villanova’s 51 field goal attempts were threes, and of the 36 field goal attempts by Wildcat guards, 78% were threes. Connecticut’s defense dared the Wildcat guards to finish at the rim, and they did not adjust at any point. If the round of 64 battle between Ollie and Martelli was a stalemate, this one was a beat down.

This sequence is the product of two things: great coaching and player perceptiveness. The former is obvious; it’s one thing to notice a particular tendency on tape, it’s another to identify it and address it in a timely manner. Remaining composed in a situation where others would have panicked – down 13-5 early in the game as an underdog – is similarly commendable for a second year head coach.

But while that aspect is encouraging, we cannot neglect the reality that many of our departing players – Napier, Giffey, Kromah, and Daniels – were long-trained students of the game whose talents often simplified Kevin Ollie’s job. And while I have no doubts Kevin Ollie is precisely the basketball genius last March depicted him as, there is no substitute for the void in crisis-management skills and professionalism many of the players from last year’s team left in their wake. They call it college basketball because it isn’t professional; many of the incoming recruits and returning sophomores will be prone to the same sort of mistakes you or I might have made in college – both on and off the court – and learning to cope with that inexperience probably calls for a recalibration of our expectations. Don’t ever forget, winning is a process contingent on patience, discipline, and work. And while we have a veteran stallion returning in Ryan Boatright, all he can do is accelerate the process. I don’t know when things are going to come together for this foundation of players; it might be February of 2015, it might be November of 2015, or it might be March of 2016. What I do know is that the relationship between hard work and winning isn’t as linear as we may hope for as fans, and if last year taught us anything, it’s that there can sometimes be a flourishing flower buried beneath the rubble of losses and frustration.
 
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Will Ollie Use the Uncertainty at the Four to Experiment with Unconventional Lineups?
Kevin Ollie has undoubtedly inherited Encyclopedias of knowledge from Jim Calhoun, but in regards to deploying personnel, he’s been unafraid to challenge the norms established by his mentor. Even when Calhoun deviated from the oversized lineups of the mid-2000’s and installed Roscoe Smith as his crunch-time four at the onset of the 2010-11 season, there remained elements of his thinking that were inconsistent with modern basketball ideology. There was an unending yearning to have a second big on the floor, almost as if out-arming the opponent in height and bulk would offset roster deficiencies elsewhere. For the most part, this strategy was successful. The Boone/Armstrong and Adrien/Thabeet teams didn’t exactly evoke memories of the ’86 Celtics, but the pairings learned to function well enough offensively through means of intelligent high-low action – Jeff Adrien was particularly good at this – and whatever they lacked as shooters was compensated for and then some by length that empowered dominant defense and rebounding.

But Calhoun was occasionally adamant to a fault that the two-big approach was superior to the alternatives. Stanley Robinson – and arguably, Rudy Gay before him – never entirely discovered his calling as a college four, and Calhoun wasted chunks of the 2010 season attempting to hammer him into his pre-arranged position. Likewise, it took a while for the incompatibility of the Drummond/Oriakhi tandem to resonate. None of this detracts from the career of an all-time great, but short of God himself descending to the sidelines, there are going to be nits to pick with anybody.

Ollie unleashed hell on Florida in last year’s semi-final by dialing up an ultra-small lineup that featured Niels Giffey at center. It was a supremely gutsy call considering the opponent – employing workout legend Patric Young – but it was hardly the first time Ollie dabbled with a lineup that stretched the boundaries of convention. The title tends to wash away some of the darker moments of last season, but coming off an ugly home loss to SMU and trailing South Florida 38-29 in Tampa, there was genuine alarm that the season was curtailing. It was at this juncture – perhaps more out of desperation than anything else – that Ollie unveiled a three point guard lineup of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, and Terrence Samuel. The prideful trio of inner-city guards assisted in holding the Bulls scoreless over the next seven minutes, and the Huskies were able to evade a loss that would have sent them spiraling down the computer rankings.

For all of the enraging inconsistencies and imperfections that plagued his reputation for the better part of his career, in DeAndre Daniels, the Huskies possessed a rare bread, a four capable of both protecting the rim and functioning as the sort of hyper-efficient floor spacer an NBA-style offense demands. Even before the transformative nine game postseason run that saw him average 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game, Daniels was an irreplaceable cog on a team that managed to churn out respectable numbers given the struggles of Omar Calhoun and Ryan Boatright. Not coincidentally, a stretch in February highlighted by a sizable drop-off in Daniels’ production – which could have been related to the ankle sprain Daniels suffered in late January against Rutgers – coincided with a heinous sample of basketball that briefly dumped the Huskies from the ranks of the top 100 offenses in America.

In the business of constructing fearsome defenses that double as productive offenses, players skillful enough to burden hefty responsibilities on both ends are at a premium. Daniels had a wingspan north of seven feet, footwork adequate enough to pass as a small forward, and a growing basketball awareness that allowed him to flourish. In parlaying that defensive proficiency into a 42% three point shooter and legitimate post-up threat, Daniels was able to spare Ollie the either/or propositions that most coaches have to ponder in the dying stages of a big game. With Niels Giffey also able to perform many of the same duties, the Huskies had evolved into a team so good shooting and defending that they were able to overcome their absence of other championship prerequisites.

Not only is that sort of player not on the roster this season, but with Shabazz Napier graduating, Kevin Ollie is also short a late shot-clock savior. Napier frequently served as a one-man army offensively, particularly when his team was in danger against some of the dregs of the conference. Boatright will likely be able to replicate some of that one-on-one magic, but having never shot over 38% from three in a season; there may be a limit to what he can improvise in moments of distress.
Boatright will likely err closer to his 2013 numbers than what he mustered last season, Rodney Purvis will provide an above-the-rim presence at the two not seen since the Dyson years, and Daniel Hamilton may add dual-threat playmaking capabilities at the forward position that haven’t been around since Caron Butler was here. Still: with three 40%+ marksmen no longer enrolled, Ollie may have to empty the bag of tricks to forge a workable offense.

Many within the program have hinted that a moderate shift from the traditional pick-and-roll dominated offense of years past to a more Villanova-esque spread formation may be in the cards. With no ideal candidate poised to emerge as a legitimate pick-and-pop partner for Ryan Boatright, the only way to prevent defenses from swarming ball screens – a la the Miami Heat, circa 2012 – and forcing him to give it up may be to scrap certain subsets of the offense altogether.

Unsurprisingly, this proposed spread look was featured extensively in the first half of the Villanova game when Napier went to the bench with foul trouble. A lineup consisting of Ryan Boatright, Terrence Samuel, Lasan Kromah, DeAndre Daniels, and Niels Giffey gave the Wildcats fits, executing the basic drive-and-kick interplay the offense is predicated on with astonishing precision given their relative foreignness to it. From the under-8 media timeout on, the ultra-quick five man group averaged 1.33 points per position and held Villanova scoreless until Terrence Samuel committed a flagrant foul with less than 30 seconds remaining.

As alluded to earlier, Jay Wright is renowned for his three and four guard offenses that maximize quickness and tend to tear apart laboring, slow-footed forwards. It’s a great way to mitigate size dis-advantages, but when size dis-advantages are supplanted by athleticism and skill dis-advantages, their driving, cutting, and screening algorithms tend to dis-assemble. As such, Kevin Ollie beat Jay Wright at his own game, and he was able to do so because he had better players. Whereas Wright’s offense was flummoxed by Connecticut’s small lineups that enabled constant switching, Boatright, Samuel, and Kromah were smart and decisive in their reads. Watch below as the middle of the floor opens up for a driving Terrence Samuel:
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This portrait is created by the spread offense – notice how there are four shooters dispersed roughly equally around the parabola – but this doesn’t work unless Samuel can process the interchanging help defenders and react accordingly. On this play, his drive sucks in the defense, and his alert kick-out allows Daniels to launch an open three.

Offenses that are intimate in structure may also bait defenders into overplay – especially against talented guards like Boatright – that can be exploited by expeditious back cuts like the one below.
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If Daniels had been in the corner instead of the right elbow, Boatright may have been able to convert an uncontested layup. As it was, however, Boatright was able to navigate the narrow terrain of the baseline before flipping the ball back out to the perimeter. His efforts would not directly lead to points, but they scrambled the defense and helped pave the way for an undefended Lasan Kromah layup.

By no means will spread formations like the ones documented above govern the offense, but without any natural pick-and-roll tandems, it is likely to assume a more concerted role in the general approach. Truly emphasizing it as part of the offense may require some messy modifications of personnel groupings – for example, it probably can’t work with Nolan on the court, and it remains to be seen what kind of skill set Facey has – but there are definitely components of the offense that should be adopted fairly seamlessly by our trio of heady point guards.

Even if there are some unavoidable conundrum’s facing the staff as they try to strike the perfect offense/defense balance, there are plenty of ingredients that could be blended into a top 40-50 offense that doubles as a dynamic defense with the right touch.

Much of this hinges on the development of Kenten Facey, the only player currently on the roster long and athletic enough to suffice as a quintessential Kevin Ollie power forward. Philip Nolan sports exemplary pick-and-roll defense – uniting balance, timing, and agility in hedges and recoveries seamlessly enough to evoke parallels to Chris Bosh – that could help propel the defense to unmatched levels of stinginess, but it’s unclear whether a two-big look could resemble a competent half-court offense. For all the speculation that Ollie and co. stumbled across a Jeff Adrien clone in Rakim Lubin, he remains an unknown entity unlikely to provide much beyond screening offensively, and four-guard lineups featuring Hamilton at power forward may stretch the limits of even Ollie’s comfort zone.

Facey, then, must prove that he can endure the vigorous mental and physical demands of Ollie’s defensive schemes – something he struggled with in limited time a season ago – while also standing as an adequate floor spacer on the other end. If neither of the three power forwards is able to rise to the occasion, UConn, and particularly Boatright, will be defended by a steady stream of blitzing pick-and-roll coverages. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, blitzing a pick-and-roll is basically equivalent to trapping all ball screens. This was a frequently deployed strategy against us a year ago, and one that was extremely useful in corralling Napier and Boatright. Trapping hard on ball screens generally results in a transient four-on-three opportunity for the offense, which is why it isn’t a regularly utilized coverage. Against last year’s UConn team, however, the primary flaw in the infrastructure was the playmaking deficiencies of the forwards – namely, Calhoun, Daniels, and Giffey – which is why they were unable to exploit these naturally generated four on threes. Essentially, defenses were conceding optimal defensive structure as means of limiting Napier and Boatright.

Daniel Hamilton is one possible deterrent to dialing up variations of this ultra-aggressive defense (one such variation, Louisville’s infamous match-up zone). Scouting reports have described him as a shrewd passer and natural ball-handler. Defenses with visions of funneling the ball to the middle of the floor and out of the hands of Boatright may re-consider if pressed with a release valve in the form of a talented point forward. Conversely, Hamilton fits the mold of Jeremy Lamb more so than DeAndre Daniels, and his slender frame might not be conducive to extended use a screener.
 
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Can Ryan Boatright Become the First Player in UConn History to Avoid the Post-Championship Letdown?
In the storied history of Connecticut basketball, one feat continues to elude them: following a Final Four run with a Sweet Sixteen. The 2000 team was victimized by untimely injuries, falling to Tennessee in the Round of 32. The 2005 Huskies were upset by North Carolina State in the same round, and the 2010 and 2012 squads sputtered to exits in the NIT and Round of 64, respectively. If this program has one flaw, it’s that their many climaxes are typically followed by rapid descents back to earth.

But for all the cautionary signals transmitted by the sobering results of post-title seasons, there is an equivalent trend that should spur optimism: the success of UConn teams featuring returning veterans at the point guard position. Dating back to 2003 – a stretch that spans eight seasons and five different point guards – UConn teams have accumulated three National Championships, four Final Fours, five Elite Eights and six Sweet Sixteen’s when their rosters are highlighted by upper-classmen point guards. Again, those results were amassed in just eight seasons. The two seasons they didn’t reach at least the Sweet Sixteen? 2008, when A.J. Price tore his ACL in the first half of UConn’s round of 64 match-up with San Diego, and 2013, when they were banned from the tournament.

It isn’t particularly difficult to note the astronomical success the program has enjoyed when buoyed by a seasoned point guard. Many of the systematic teaching practices discussed earlier in this preview are responsible for that, as the sort of observant, borderline compulsive characteristics preached by the staff begin to gradually seep into the personalities and work ethics of the players. Likewise, point guards make for natural leaders on the basketball court, and when authority figures possess the corresponding acumen, much of the uncertainty that dominates the sport is alleviated.

Boatright, though, surrounded by a cast consisting of but one upper-classmen, and with many of his prominent friends from a season ago thousands of miles away, might be pressed with a task exceeding all of his predecessors in difficulty. And though he has gone to lengths to downplay any potential looming chemistry issues – a testament to his maturity and selflessness that people are just now beginning to credit him for – his personal aspirations, and those of his teammates, stand only to complicate matters. Long gone are the days of playing for the purity of the game or the novelty of escorting in a new head coach, replaced by the daunting, double-edged sword of seniority. Winning isn’t good enough anymore. You’ve already done that, and it didn’t vault your draft stock far enough up the ladder. Now, you must win and do enough to appease the scouts who are just as likely there to see Hamilton and Brimah as they are you. There’s no doubt Boatright’s growth as a leader has prepared him for this challenge, and certainly, Kevin Ollie’s guidance will help ease the transition from the semi-leadership role he played a year ago to the all-consuming one he’ll be asked to embrace this year. It’s also possible that with a mostly young team, things could work themselves out organically as the youth of his teammates forces Boatright in to the lead-dog role he’s been ready to accept since stepping on campus as a freshman. But we should also be cognizant of the sacrifices he has made, and will continue to be asked to make. The NBA is a long shot, and while his refusal to come to terms with that contributes to the competitor that he is, his graciousness in channeling that drive to the benefit of others is what I love most about him.

How Serious are They About Pushing the Tempo?
One popular exercise among coaches trying to endear themselves to the players and fans while also branding their style as an exciting one to watch is to preach the values of high-octane basketball. “We’re gonna look to push it this year” or some variation of the same message are rallying cries that can be traced to campuses across the country. Its right up there with the signaling of the groundhog as our favorite traditions that never truly come to fruition. Nobody ever says “We’re gonna slow it down this year and try to win games 60-55”, even if that’s essentially what UConn did during their last two title runs.

Per Kenpom, from 2002 to 2014, UConn has ranked as follows in adjusted tempo: 167, 32, 87, 28, 38, 71, 110, 87, 108, 240, 276, 194, and 263. Notice the divide point: 2011. During the Marcus Williams years, especially, UConn was among America’s most opportunistic teams. And while the low rankings in 2011 and 2014 prove there are multiple ways to skin a cat, it’s generally considered preferable to maximize the number of possessions in a game rather than minimize them, especially when operating at a decided talent advantage.

Of course, tempo and defense are often inversely related, which is why you won’t often find the best teams in the country ranking among the leaders in tempo. Per Kenpom, the ten fastest teams a year ago were Northwestern State, VMI, Maine, Nebraska Omaha, Arkansas, Mississippi Valley State, Central Arkansas, Delaware, Niagara, and BYU. Only two of those teams secured bids to the tournament, and just one ranked in the top 100 in defensive efficiency. The correlation between tempo and success is an extremely frail one.

Still, the shift in style over the past decade from brisk to methodical is a curious alteration, and one I believe was forced by roster composition rather than a change in philosophy. And although the campaigning from the staff is commonplace this time a year, I tend to read Ollie’s selling of position-less, get-it-and-go basketball at face value. Not only does he want transition basketball to be a staple of the program, but he also wants to publically endorse it to the extent that fans – and most importantly, recruits – associate breakneck basketball with his program. If you read Isiah Briscoe’s comments a couple months ago (I think that’s who it was, I could have the wrong name), it appears to be a point of emphasis that is infiltrating into the living rooms of aspiring stars.

Evidently, the lack of rebounding talent and depth constrained Ollie from fully exercising his visions during his first two years as head coach. Regular deficits in the rebounding margins called for collaborative efforts on the glass and by extension eliminated the lofty outlet passes that generally initiate the break. And even during those rare moments of prosperity, Napier and Boatright were irreplaceable cogs that needed to prioritize energy conservation over chasing odd-man rushes.

This season, Ollie finally has horses to install his system, and while I have no doubts he intends to make true on his word, to what extent remains to be seen. At this stage in their careers, Samuel and Purvis are bulldogs who can absorb contact and still finish at the rim. Purvis generated his offense almost exclusively off of fast breaks and spot-up jumpers while he was at N.C. State, and even with him still early in his development as a half-court player, he is among the most dangerous in the country filling the lanes on an odd-man break.

Boatright’s commitment to pushing the pace was unmistakable during his freshman and sophomore years – which may have been at the root of the alleged conflict between him and Napier – but the steadying hand of Napier slowly reeled him in as his career progressed. This season he will be flanked by a couple of gunslingers that surely mirror an earlier version of himself, and it’s difficult not to envision him complying with their wishes. Five deep with ball-handlers and facilitators, UConn should be able to withstand foul trouble while limiting the workload of their senior captain.

The rebounding concerns that plagued Kevin Ollie’s team for the first two years of his tenure seem to have been eradicated for the time being, but with Brimah still a walking foul machine and no proven commodities at the four, none of this is set in stone. The components of a dominant rebounding team are there, though, even if it may take a while to notice. For all of Brimah’s shortcomings as a rebounder a year ago, his improvements from December onward were dramatic. Averaging a paltry 4.3 rebounds per 40 minutes over his first nine collegiate games, Brimah nearly doubled that over the remainder of the season, averaging 8.2 rebounds per 40 minutes from the Stanford game forward. Even that mark is subpar for a center, but with his shoulder properly healed and a willingness to learn, there’s no reason not to think he’ll continue to build on that momentum.

As is the case with the offense, the real wild card here is Kentan Facey. The lanky forward from Long Island was a rebounding vacuum last season in limited minutes, reeling in 41 rebounds in only 123 minutes (13.3 per 40). It is unlikely, though not inconceivable, that he will be able to sustain that level of production while honing the various responsibilities that tend to be neglected in the waning minutes of garbage time. However, he should be an upgrade on the boards over Daniels and Giffey, and coupled with expected improvements from Nolan and Brimah, it seems more likely the front court will revert to the days of dominance pulling balls off the rim than regress to normalcy. Oddly, many of the worrisome projections of Facey clogging up the half-court offense could be balanced by him facilitating the fast break with catapulting rebounds.

Daniel Hamilton is a player I will admit to having seen very little of (as is the case with Cassell Jr. and Lubin), but from reading scouting reports and scanning the box scores from the exhibitions, he strikes me as the first truly immaculate Kevin Ollie recruit. I don’t say this to detract from the dozens of other players Ollie has coached and recruited in his four years here, but rather to depict a clearer picture of what I believe to be the perfect embodiment of what Kevin Ollie looks for in a basketball player. Hamilton verbally committed to UConn long before he had any right to, in the spring of 2013 on his unofficial visit to Storrs. His decision to commit so swiftly – at the expense of many of the blue bloods who had yet to become prominently involved – always struck me as unusual given the circumstances, and even when his brother’s transfer revealed a God-made situation (the opportunity to play with his brother, in Los Angeles, for a storied program), he never wavered in his commitment.

I can only assume that it was quickly discovered that Hamilton and Ollie were kindred spirits, and once a relationship mirroring that of a father-son one is cultivated, nothing else really matters. But this connection between Ollie and Hamilton transcends all of that poetic dialect and originates from Hamilton’s diverse skill set. If Ollie could construct a basketball robot, he would bare resemblance to Daniel Hamilton: at 6’7, or in that vicinity, Hamilton possesses the ball-handling and passing skills of a guard while being able to pose match-up problems in ways that smaller guards cannot. He can play point guards in oversized lineups and a dose of power forward in four guard lineups, all the while maintaining the portrait of skills that resulted in him becoming a touted wing prospect. Offensively, he can be used in virtually every capacity: he can alleviate the ball-handling duties of Boatright while allowing him to torment a defender off the ball, he can drift to the middle of a zone and rip the ball over the arms of the defense to the weak side, and he can slip ball screens and regulate converging traffic in ways Daniels and Giffey could not. If Ollie’s vision is to play position-less basketball, the youngest and possibly most talented Hamilton brother is a good place to start.

None of this means Hamilton will be a great player right away. He probably won’t be, especially defensively. But at the very least, his diverse skill set and mobility with the ball will limit the predictability of the offense and force opposing coaches to think a little harder when scheming. I project this as a lower-tier offense relative to UConn teams of the past, but Hamilton is the one kid that has a shot to blow the roof off whatever ceiling pundits assign them. And to tie things back together, Hamilton’s presence as a rebounder at the three, and perhaps most importantly, his ability to undress the opposition’s transition defense with instinctual, decisive reads upon corralling the ball, should serve as an enormous boon to UConn’s transition attack.

How Good will this Defense be?
I saved the most imperative, yet simplistic question for last, and if you disregard everything else written in this preview, I suggest you remember the six bolded words written above. For all of my fretting about the half-court offense, there is enough off-the-ball creativity on the roster to solidify a protected seed in conjunction with a dominant defense. Defense is the backbone, the central force of UConn basketball. It always has been that way and always will be.

Despite returning an abundance of defensive talent, Kevin Ollie and his staff have their work cut out for them as they attempt to repair the expensive losses of Shabazz Napier, Lasan Kromah, Niels Giffey, and DeAndre Daniels. This process will entail a slightly dull mastery of footwork and balance, a focused commitment to angling opponents towards the low-reward areas of the court, and a steady diet of orchestrated recovery schemes that can overwhelm the youthful and weed out flaws in the communication apparatus. You learn proper hedging techniques sometime around seventh or eighth grade, but Division One basketball is an animal that pries on these gaps in learning and familiarity. Ball screens that appear innocuous on the surface may be preambles for a more elaborate action, and even textbook hedges can result in split-second dump-offs to the roll man that end up on the weak side just as quickly. Despite offense in college basketball being at an all-time low, there are inherent disadvantages that defenses must grapple with. While you can take away some things, you can’t take away everything, and part of growing as a defense is learning to function even while in scramble mode.

These fundamental imperfections tend to hit the hardest with young teams, and cut-backs on allotted practice time only exacerbates them. As is a recurring theme throughout this preview, struggling is part of development. UConn wasn’t any better a team last year when they were beating Florida in December than they were when Louisville was waxing them in early March. Thankfully, the subtleties of the game that can only be acquired through failure were never compromised during the year, and the players and fans were rewarded for it in the end. This season we will be forced to devote equal, if not more patience to the process.

That process, this season, all begins and ends with Amida Brimah. Between Knight, Voskuhl, Boone, Armstrong, and even Oriakhi, UConn’s illustrious history as a shot blocking factory is indisputable. The two that stand above the rest, though are Emeka Okafor and Hasheem Thabeet, not just because of the raw block totals they accumulated, but because of their anchoring of consistently dominant defenses. Emeka was a dominant defender upon arrival, averaging 4.1 blocks per game his freshman season and lifting a unit that struggled in 2001 to 22nd in defensive efficiency. Connecticut ranked 19th and 5th in defensive efficiency in his respective sophomore and junior seasons, and considering the willing concessions Calhoun was willing to make in playing both Ben Gordon and Rashad Anderson on the wing, Okafor’s efforts were nothing short of transformative.

Thabeet’s evolution as an all-around player was less smooth than Okafor’s, but he was immediate difference maker defensively, averaging 3.8 blocks per game and contributing to a top ten defense that provided hope from what was an otherwise disastrous season. After plummeting to 69th in defensive efficiency Thabeet’s sophomore year, further refinement to surrounding pieces allowed for a final four run the following season that was backed by the #3 defense in the land.

Amida Brimah averaged 5.7 blocks per 40 minutes, a mark that places him in the company of his predecessors, albeit in fewer minutes and with more sizable flaws. In all likelihood, the biggest detriment to Brimah engraving his hand print on this defense will be foul trouble. His foul rate a season ago was astronomical, averaging 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes, a figure that can be attributed to some combination of over-compensating for his strength deficit and learning the game.

Assuming he can stay on the court, Brimah possesses closing speed that exceeds even Thabeet and Okafor. Furthermore, for a kid in the infancy stage of his development as a basketball player, his timing on weak side blocks was uncanny, and his super-human wingspan allows for a comfortable margin for error even when he forfeits territory on post-ups.
 

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To what extent the staff reforms the defensive infrastructure to maximize the roaming room for their game-changing center is what fascinates me the most. Okafor was a once-in-a-generation bread, a player who could change over a dozen shots at the rim in a given game while also submitting air-tight pick-and-roll defense. Thabeet, though, was a bit less mobile defending the perimeter, and although Brimah is likely a better athlete, the role Hash played in the defense is more conducive to being replicated. To limit offensive design that forced Thabeet to vacate the paint, Calhoun adopted a page from the Tom Thibedeau playbook and advised him to drop back on ball screens, remaining close enough to the shooter to contest a three while not wavering in his commitment to protecting the rim. Take this screen shot from the Michigan State game in Detroit as an example:
upload_2014-11-12_3-34-53.png

This is a more aggressive pursuit of the ball-handler than usual for Hash, but you can tell he’s still not quite running parallel to the screener. Preferably Thabeet would be about a step above the elbow, a more balanced position than he finds himself in here, with his momentum carrying him towards the ball-handler and the roller already drifting to the basket.

Conversely, Brimah is too relaxed in the shot below, almost completely ignoring the presence of the ball screen altogether:
upload_2014-11-12_3-35-25.png

With this being a side ball screen on the right wing, Brimah should be closer to the foul line and nearer the screener’s right shoulder, as the screener is not a threat to aid a drive to the baseline from this angle. Regardless, that’s beside the point: I suspect many of the same principles bestowed upon Thabeet will be applied to Brimah.

The ripple effect this may have on perimeter defenders is an interesting one: with Brimah committed to monopolizing the paint, Ollie will likely instruct his guards to battle over the top of ball screens to prohibit an array of off-the-dribble threes from potent shooters. And even if this results in a stagnated two-on-one, the sheer dominance of Brimah may enable him to remain attached to the roller while still having time to spring over and block the shot attempt of an unsuspecting guard. It sounds somewhat counter-productive to invite dribble penetration to this degree, but when you have an elite shot blocker, funneling ball-handlers into the paint is almost a necessity. This is accomplished through a certain amount of deception, but deception is at the foundation of all successful defensive schemes. Here, what a guard may perceive to be a favorable situation actually isn’t.

Opposing guards may try to neutralize this demoralizing effect by pulling up for intermediate jump shots – the underbelly of these sort of conservative schemes – that they can launch before the scrambling guard is able to re-enter the play. These semi-contested pull-up jumpers are generally inefficient, though, and unless you’re able to convert them at a Napier-esque rate, they typically amount to losing propositions.

Along the same lines, one other conceivable repellent to a dominant shot blocker is to feature a pick-and-pop big man. But while these guys can swing the gravitational pull in their favor, it usually requires more than one of them to force UConn to deviate from their strategy, and there are virtually no teams in America that can offer two big men who can shoot from deep.

The compatibility of a Nolan/Brimah front court hinges almost entirely on how sharp they cut their teeth defensively. I’ve stated before, Philip Nolan was a four masquerading as a five last season; unfortunately, he was not skilled enough offensively – or really close to it – to warrant more than a handful of token minutes there during garbage time. And while it doesn’t seem especially feasible that Nolan could have completely revamped his offensive repertoire in the span of one offseason to the extent that he can pass as a competent four, it is well within the realm of possibility that he could rate well enough defensively to log major minutes there. Nolan is perhaps the most fundamentally sound forward on the team, and if he can occupy interior bodies while barking out signals on the perimeter, offenses may simply find UConn’s defense debilitating.

Boatright’s defensive transformation from the beginning of his sophomore year to the end of his junior year is unlike any I’ve ever seen. It is extremely rare that we’re able to attach the tag “dominant” to a guard, but if anyone justifies it, it was Boatright last March. One common misconception is that it is futile to faceguard players 30 feet from the basket, because, “they’re not a threat to score from there”, but what Boatright did in delaying the initiation of the opposition’s half-court offense cannot be overstated. In a sport so predicated on timing and precision, hounding a ball-handler – even if it just delays an entry pass for one second – can allow a teammate to re-position after being screened.

Even if Boatright is unable to re-assume 100% of his defensive prowess from last season, his ability to marry discipline and awareness with the sort of spontaneous, off-ball heroics that he used to hang his hat on should be sustainable. He’s slithery enough to dodge many of the blindside screens that should be coming his way this season, and if Ollie intends to emphasize the press more than he did a season ago, there’s no better weapon to fund a vaunting 1-2-2.

Aside from Boatright, Nolan, and Brimah – three defensive stallions that I believe form a trio of defensive talent unmatched by anybody in America – the complementary pieces are mostly unknown commodities. Terrence Samuel played enough last season that I’m comfortable penciling him in as an excellent defensive player. He moves well enough laterally to defend point guards, but his true value lies in his strength. Reminiscent of Chauncey Billups, Samuel possesses enough girth to defend small forwards, possibly even power forwards in short stretches, contributing to a switch-friendly defense that prevents cross-matching and devastating screens. I would be surprised if Samuel was not playing crunch-time minutes this season.

Cassell, Lubin, and Hamilton all figure to struggle defensively as they acclimate themselves to the college game, and Purvis strikes me as the sort who may need to be pried away at a bit before he truly unveils his defensive potential (I say this strictly because of the system he’s coming from, not as an indictment on his character). Facey, again, is the real wild card. For some kids, grasping the concepts of an overload defense is as difficult as learning a foreign language. This isn’t to say Facey is one of those kids, just that some may take longer than others to adhere to the demanding nature of Kevin Ollie’s defense. Nothing would surprise me.

The ceiling of this year’s UConn defense is mind-shatteringly high. Conceivably, the pairing of Boatright and Brimah – contemporary versions of Moore and Thabeet, provided they reach their potential – surrounded by savvy, versatile defensive players like Phil Nolan and Terrence Samuel could render offenses helpless, and it would not be a shock of massive proportions if this was the best defense in America by a sizable margin.

Please remember, though, that the above paragraph is coated in the acknowledgement that it is very, very unlikely to be that seamless a transition. There are a billion different things that constitute effective defense beyond individual talent, and we should all be collectively prepared for the sobering aftershock of watching one of the most coordinated, mentally durable teams in program history.

There will not be any shortage of growing pains this season, especially in the early months as the staff begins to feel out what they have. There will be a lot of experimenting, a lot of trial-and-error, and a lot of purposeful steps backwards that may enable a massive step forward later on. I’d be surprised if they return home from San Juan unbeaten. Beyond that, if you’re looking for a prognostication on what the season holds, you’ve come to the wrong place. I feel foolish enough after butchering the ceiling of last season’s team. I clearly don’t have all the answers here. These are the dilemmas Ollie and his staff will be forced to ponder all season as they look to re-work the departing pieces into the foundation of a winner. All I can do is pose the questions and wait patiently for the answers. Go Huskies.
 
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"Extensive Preview."

But in all seriousness, great post. There are plenty of us Husky junkies who can't read enough about the team. Quality posts like this make the Boneyard better.
 
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Really appreciate the effort put forth in that report. Good job champs.
 
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Admins need to allow Champs to alter his name a little bit... Or maybe we should just wait until April.
 
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Wow!!!! What a great preview and analysis. Champ 99 and 04, how about 11 and 14? So the 2 exhibition games showed we will be bracing for lots of growing pains? Very astute observation of our loss of Kromah, Napier, DD, NG and their knowledge of the game. I am still cautiously optimistic of the season though. Hopefully KO will find a way at the end of the season.
 
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Thanks 0904. I will read everything this evening. I liked the tournament analysis (the part relating to preparation and uniqueness of the tournament) and the three guard lineup implemented by Ollie using TS. Amazing effort and you add so much value to the board.

Have a good day...

BlueDoggy
 

ctchamps

We are UConn!! 4>1 But 5>>>>1 is even better!
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I haven't read it yet. I've got it booked for later in the day. Really looking forward to it.
 
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Great read!

Thanks for everything you do on here Champs

I agree..it all starts and ends with defense!
 

UChusky916

Making the board a little less insufferable
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These posts are a breath of fresh air after the Stone/Mack/Purvis Tweets abomination threads.

Stick around Champs!
Great observations. I think you have a future as a writer. You do a tremendous job of conveying your thoughts in a thought-provoking and insightful manner.
 

sdhusky

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Great job.

Cliff Notes version - could be a dominant defense by the end of the year and a good-enough offense. But there will be bumps and ups and downs.
 
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I have never been diagnosed, but dammit I still hate ADD.

Champs I'll just take your word for it, and say nice work! I trust you Man.
 
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Champs, thanks for giving me something to do at work.
 
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Nice overall breakdown. I like facey alot, the guy runs the floor like a gazelle. Really can't emphasize enough how well he gets up and down and off the floor. The starting 5 has all the physical traits to be an elite defensive squad, and even more importantly great rebounding. I also think we have some of the best reserves at point guard and center nationally. Being able to bring in nolan or samuel is a terrific advantage.
 

Chin Diesel

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I got lost somewhere reading it.

Cliff notes version. Did you do that silly thing about gun to your head and not winning a championship again?
 

CL82

NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champions - Again!
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I'm at my kids AAU practice. This was the perfect read. Great job.
 
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Quite possibly the finest post I have ever read! I have been watching UConn basketball in person since 1971 and learned more in this post than I imagined would be possible. A wonderful gift to all who visit this Boneyard and love the Huskies.
 
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