I don't want to say I was a Connecticut skeptic coming into this season, but I'll admit the Huskies were going to have to show me something more than what I saw last year. Despite having Hasheem Thabeet in the paint, UConn was just average on defense in 2008. Here's what I said in the book:
For a team to hold its conference opponents to 41 percent two-point shooting and yet still give up more than a point per possession is pretty incredible. Connecticut did it last year. Great two-point field-goal defense is usually the bedrock of a great overall defense. Not for the Huskies in 2008, however, as they put a defense on the floor that was just barely better than the Big East average.
Times have changed. In a conference with a defensively supernatural team like Louisville, Connecticut likely won't get to claim the title of "best defense in the Big East" at the end of the year. Nevertheless, the Huskies' D is light years beyond where it was last year. That, plus a second consecutive season of outstanding offense, has propelled Jim Calhoun's team to the top of the polls.
Connecticut Then and Now
Conference games only, 2009 figures through games of February 9
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
Pace PPP PPP EM
Connecticut 2008 67.7 1.11 1.02 +0.09
Connecticut 2009 66.4 1.14 0.94 +0.20
What's interesting to me about UConn's defensive transformation is that, with one very significant exception noted below, it's been surprisingly Thabeet-less. That is, Thabeet is what he is and is what he was last year: an incredible shot-blocker. That shouldn't be minimized, of course, but his block percentage this year is almost identical to what it was last year--yet the defense around him has improved dramatically. What changed?
Everything except for interior field-goal defense, which, as you'd expect, was already superb and has remained that way. That aside, the Huskies are better across the board on defense. In order of importance: they're getting more defensive rebounds, forcing more missed threes, generating a few more opponent turnovers, and fouling a little less. (No team in the country puts their opponents on the line less often than Connecticut does.)
This feels to me like a team maturing. When maturation isn't accompanied by some tangible dramatic event--a players-only meeting, say, or a coach smashing the videotape of a bad game--it tends to be largely invisible to the college hoops punditry. Nevertheless, it can happen absent the trigger. The newly-arrived Kemba Walker and the now-departed Doug Wiggins notwithstanding, Connecticut's personnel is largely unchanged from last year. The same players are simply playing better defense. Jeff Adrien is rebounding a little better on the defensive end. Stanley Robinson is a nuisance to opponents shooting threes. Jerome Dyson is still recording an occasional steal.
Then there's the big guy himself. Thabeet has helped this improvement along by becoming a much better defensive rebounder this year. That's great news for UConn fans, because Thabeet's career was going to be fascinating to watch if he continued posting below-average results on the defensive boards. Would the NBA really expend a precious first-round choice on a pure shot-blocker? Alas, we'll never get to find out. He's still no DeJuan Blair on the boards, but Thabeet's newfound respectability in that department makes him a lottery no-brainer.
This defensive surge has had the desired effect for Calhoun because the offense is again excellent. A.J. Price usually gets much of the praise here and not without reason. Nominally a scoring point guard, Price sports the team's highest assist rate and is making 41 percent of his threes. He's clearly indispensable to this offense (see last year's NCAA tournament).
Then why am I so intrigued not by Price but by the aforementioned Jerome Dyson? Probably because of the following three facts:
- It's not Price, but rather Dyson, who plays the role of the featured scorer in this offense, using more possessions and taking more shots than any other Connecticut player.
- Dyson is on track to record his third consecutive season of incorrigibly iffy shooting from the field.
- Connecticut's offense is outstanding.
You may be thinking to yourself that (3) doesn't seem to follow from (1) and (2). Darn tootin'. One response to this information is to imagine how good this team would be if Dyson simply made shots at the rate recorded by mere featured-scoring mortals like, I don't know, Jerel McNeal of Marquette or Eric Devendorf of Syracuse. (Answer: unfathomably good.) Another response, however, is to note something very valuable about Dyson: he's Calhoun's only backcourt option who combines a prominent role in the offense with a very low turnover rate. Without Dyson, Connecticut might make a higher percentage of their shots, but they'd almost certainly take fewer shots.
One final note. As alluded to above, no major conference team in the nation has enjoyed a larger advantage in free throws during league play than Connecticut has. Earlier this season I spoke of an alleged "Thabeet tax," so it's only fair to brand this free-throw surplus a "Thabeet dividend," which indeed it is. The big guy is one of those rare shot-blockers who's not at all foul-prone. That is a huge benefit to his team.
Will it continue to be? A free-throw disparity the magnitude of UConn's might not last come tournament time, when games, particularly after the first weekend, tend to be called a little more self-consciously, with a manifest awareness that the whole hoops world is watching. Other things being equal, the last thing the refs want is a huge free-throw disparity in a close game that ends one team's season. It just doesn't look good.
Not to worry. The way Connecticut is playing, an advantage in free throws is simply a luxury, not a necessity. The Huskies have been good enough on both sides of the ball to turn skeptics into believers.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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