Perhaps no team in the country exceeded expectations during non-conference play more than Connecticut. The Huskies got off to a 10-0 start and rose to No. 4 in the Associated Press media poll after being picked to finish in the middle of the Big East pack coming off a season in which they missed the NCAA Tournament.
While Connecticut beat Michigan State and Kentucky to win the Maui Invitational in November, there was still a suspicion that the Huskies weren't nearly as good as that No. 4 rating. One sign was that they weren't in the top 25 of the Pomeroy Ratings going into their conference opener at Pittsburgh on Monday night.
It would be unfair to say Connecticut was exposed as a complete fraud in its 78-63 loss to Pitt. However, it was readily apparent that the Huskies also aren't a top-five team as drop off in scoring punch on their roster is severe after point guard Kemba Walker.
Pitt built its defensive game plan around stopping Walker, making it a point to get back quickly in transition and also having guards Sam Wannamaker and Ashton Gibbs alternate pressuring him in the half court. While Walker finished with 31 points, he was just 10-of-27 from the field, including 3-of-11 from three-point range.
As a team, Connecticut had a 35.8 effective field goal percentage, shooting just 19-of-60 from the field, including 5-of-21 on threes. The Huskies also averaged just 0.88 points on 71 possessions.
“I thought we didn’t react well to being manhandled defensively," Calhoun said. "I think a lot of players, young players in particular, predicated their whole game on the jump shot. They weren’t allowing us to get good shots. We took some ill-advised ones. We’re disappointed with our inside game, too. We allowed a very good team by the way, who plays very good defense, to take us out of a lot of things that we did. We lost some of the swagger that we needed to have to win the game.”
Part of the reason Connecticut wound up tossing up some many ill-advised jumpers is that it failed to establish an inside presence. Big men accounted for just 16 of the Huskies' 63 points and made 4-of-16 field-goal attempts.
The play of Alex Oriahki was particularly vexing to Calhoun. The sophomore forward had eight points, but managed only one field goal, in 19 minutes. Furthermore, he had just one rebound, which came on the offensive glass. Oriahki showed great promise in Maui, where he had 15 points and 17 rebounds against Michigan State and 18 points and 11 rebounds against Kentucky.
“I’m not sure if he’s better sitting or playing," Calhoun said. "I’m being honest. I love Alex to death. He’s not playing well. I think he has a chance to be a very good player. He’s not playing like the player that he is capable of being. Obviously, he has great promise.”
To illustrate just how much Walker is carrying the Huskies, consider that his 26.9 scoring average is more than double of that of any of his teammates. Oriahki is next at 11.4 and no one else is in double figures.
Walker has taken 32.9 percent of Connecticut's shots and been involved in 30.4 percent of its possessions used. His 136.6 offensive rating is the best in the nation among players who have been part of 24.0 percent of their team's possessions and his 64.3 true shooting percentage ranks 76th among players who have played in 60 percent of their team's minutes.
“I think the way we sort of stayed in the game, but couldn’t get over the hump was that Kemba saw that he had to pick-up too much of the burden," said Calhoun, whose team hosts South Florida (6-8) on Friday. "I would have preferred that he gave the ball up. He’s still a great player. He certainly kept us in distance. We were always within fighting distance until the last couple of minutes. Bottom line is that our frontcourt has got to play a lot better than that. Team-wise, we need to be tougher. We need to be mentally tougher. That’s the whole game. The game is about willing.”
Temple on a Roll
It was easy to wonder whether Temple truly deserved to be considered the Atlantic 10 favorite when it lost two of three games at Walt Disney World during Thanksgiving weekend. The losses to California and Texas A&M dropped the Owls to 3-2 and sent their RPI into triple-digit territory.
However, Temple is certainly looking like the A-10 favorite with the start of conference play just six days away. The Owls have won six in a row, including victories over Georgetown and Maryland. That has raised them to No. 16 in the RPI and they take a 9-2 record into their road game against Philadelphia rival Villanova (10-1) tonight.
As usual, Temple is winning with defense. It is ninth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (86.0), 12th in two-point field goal percentage allowed (40.3) and 13th in effective field goal percentage allowed (42.0).
“The way Coach (Fran) Dunphy coaches, he really gets us prepared on the defensive end, so it’s not really that big of a surprise,” senior forward Lavoy Allen said. “We’re working hard every day and playing a lot of help defense. We’ve got to help each other a lot out there."
“We’ve stressed to them you can’t be a liability on the defensive end because there are times you won’t shoot it well,” said Dunphy.
Micheal Eric, a 6-11 junior forward, has provided a big lift despite playing just 47.7 percent of Temple's minutes as his 9.6 block percentage is 42nd in the nation.
Bone Has Cougars Playing His Way
Ken Bone continues to put his own stamp on the Washington State program.
Last season, in his first after replacing Dick Bennett as coach, Bone switched to a up-tempo game. The Cougars averaged 67.5 possessions per game, compared to 58.7 in 2009. This season, the average is 68.2.
This season, Bone has Washington State regularly playing zone defense. Bennett was strictly a man-to-man coach.
The numbers certainly bear out that Bone's strategy is working. Washington State is 9-3 despite an 80-71 loss at UCLA in their Pac-10 opener on Wednesday night. The Cougars are 33rd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.9), ninth in three-point field goal percentage allowed (27.2), 22nd in effective field goal percentage (42.8) and 33rd in turnover percentage (24.5).
Last season, Washington State's 100.3 adjusted defensive efficiency was 155th as it went 16-15. The Cougars were also 235th in three-point defense, 273rd in effective field goal defense and 182nd in turnover percentage.
"You get what you emphasize," Bone told the Seattle Times. "Last year, I felt we emphasized offense."Defense took a little bit of a back seat, which it shouldn't have, but it did. This year, we've emphasized defense much more."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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