Last night Cincinnati beat Connecticut 71-69 in Cincinnati, as official John Cahill broke basketball’s unwritten rule that says anything less egregious than an actual decapitation will not be called in the final seconds of a tie game. Cahill whistled UConn’s Gavin Edwards for fouling the Bearcats’ Lance Stephenson with one second remaining and the score tied at 69, thus sealing the Huskies’ fate. Was it a foul? You bet! Did the call feel out of place anyway? Absolutely. We’ve been conditioned to that place by years of whistle-swallowing in these situations.
Give all due credit to Mick Cronin for snagging a tough Big East win and, by all means, forward all due praise to Stephenson, who scored 21 points on a night when teammates Deonta Vaughn and particularly Yancy Gates were limited by foul trouble. Still, I can’t help feeling that much too much is being made out of this win. Connecticut carries the name and wears the colors of a team that got to the Final Four last April, but that team had Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price, and Jeff Adrien.
When the 2009-10 edition of Connecticut faces major-conference competition (i.e., LSU, Duke, Kentucky, and Cincy), however, this is a perfectly dreadful offense, one that has managed to score just 0.90 points per trip in those four contests. Little wonder. I can’t see how it’s really an “offense” in the true sense of the term. Four guys standing around and watching Jerome Dyson mount yet another doomed mad dash to the tin does not constitute a major-conference offense in my book. Dyson is taking 33 percent of this team’s shots during his minutes, yet he makes just 43 percent of his twos.
What’s more UConn’s defensive rebounding has been thoroughly mediocre. Even their longstanding and dramatic free-throw advantage is cause for worry. It’s still in residence, mind you, and just as lopsided as ever. But what used to be a mere statistical curio for a dominant program is now a life raft for a middling team. Without a big advantage in free throws this team would have lost to UCF in Hartford. Jeff Goodmanis right to worry about Connecticut.
Now for the “to be sure” walk-back. One paradox of a 16-team super-conference is that any given team’s schedule can feature a month’s worth of games that aren’t all that challenging. As long as you’re avoiding the super-conference’s elite, you’re in position to pick up some wins and please the non-attentive observer. Jim Calhoun’s team, warts and all, would appear to be in such a position. Their next six games line up as follows: vs. Notre Dame, vs. Seton Hall, at Georgetown, vs. Pitt, at Michigan, and vs. St. John’s. The Huskies stand a fair chance of going 5-1 over that stretch and thus lurking in the polls all the way up to their home game against Texas on January 23. UConn will continue to be regarded as “UConn” for a while longer.
But absent further proof to the contrary, I’m not buying it. Based on performance to date, we would do well to ramp down our expectations for Calhoun’s team. They are not 2008-09 vintage Connecticut. Right now they are much more like 2008-09 vintage Minnesota.
BONUS navel-gazing! Goodbye, aughts. You were very kind to me and to my babbling on college hoops. Thanks.