Watching Connecticut these past 13 months–not only the results this team achieves but also the misconceptions they invariably engender–I’ve gradually become convinced that the Huskies pay a “tax,” in effect, for the superb shot-blocking provided by Hasheem Thabeet. The results and the misconceptions collided teachably last night, as UConn lost their Big East opener at home to Georgetown, 74-63.
First some quick recapping of what will come as old news to regular readers. Thabeet of course blocks a ton of shots, but in fact his team is not very good at preventing opponents from scoring. The main problem here is weak defensive rebounding. Mind you, this is not systemic. Connecticut has been blocking shots forever, since long before Thabeet arrived, and yet usually the Huskies have been very good, albeit not outstanding, on the defensive glass. But last year that changed. UConn was really bad at rebounding their opponents’ misses and their defense suffered as a result.
Nevertheless, the overall defensive precedent set by prior Connecticut teams–not to mention the rather insistent and indeed persuasive semiotic presented by a physical specimen like Jeff Adrien–has carried the perceptual day. Jim Calhoun’s team is still doggedly held to be some kind of defensive monster.
They are not. Last year the Huskies allowed Big East opponents to score a little more than a point per trip. By the same token, last night Georgetown scored their 74 points in a moderately pokey 63-possession game.
Not that the Hoyas didn’t contribute their fair share to this outcome, of course. Georgetown played a remarkable game. Taking the floor in front of more than two dozen NBA scouts, Greg Monroe did himself more good in one evening than any other player in recent memory. Whether it was scoring on two different post moves over Thabeet, or stealing the ball from A.J. Price, or dishing assists from the high post like a latter-day David Padgett, Monroe clearly came to play. And John Thompson III’s game plan was, by my lights, exactly right: as counterintuitive as it sounds, you have to attack Connecticut inside. (That is systemic, by the way. George Mason proved it, memorably, against a prior generation of UConn personnel.) They will try to block your shots. You will get blocked shots–and offensive boards and free throws. Georgetown got all of the above last night.
(Thompson’s team will be subjected to some severe tests soon enough. The Hoyas host Pitt on Saturday and visit Notre Dame in the collegiate equivalent of a back-to-back the following Monday. Given that schedule I should probably just let events play out, but I will say this much now. I knew coming into the year that Georgetown would be underrated and they were, picked to finish seventh (!) in the Big East’s preseason coaches’ poll. So, yes, I’m pleased that I gave them a glowing write-up in the book. That being said, this is an unusual team. For one thing, the folk wisdom in this case is actually correct: they don’t rebound on defense. And while last night’s announcers overstated the importance of depth in this single discrete instance–after all, the starting five includes no fewer than four featured scorers, none of whom are particularly foul-prone–their larger point is still true: the Hoyas’ thin bench could indeed hurt this team by degrees, as a fatigued starting five sees its performance dip late in the year.)
Yes, it was a good team that Connecticut lost to last night. But it was the particular features of the loss that struck me. The Huskies looked like they were waiting for Thabeet to do their work for them on defense. (I know Louisville has looked unimpressive of late, but they will watch this tape–Monroe in the high post feeding assists to cutting wings–and salivate.) I don’t know if Connecticut has actually come to believe in the mystique of Thabeet, but it doesn’t really matter. The material point is simply that they play like they’ve come to believe in the mystique of Thabeet. Why they would do that, I haven’t a clue. Calhoun, goodness knows, has had great shot-blockers before and the teammates around those shot-blockers have continued to move their feet and crash the glass.
Not so Thabeet’s teammates. At least not last night.