The UConn men sit at 9-2 and are receiving votes in the Top 25 after a pair of blowout wins over Maryland Eastern Shore and Fordham last week.
There is a lot to like about the Huskies in their first year under Kevin Ollie as the team has demonstrated a work-ethic and coachability that bodes well for Ollie's future. The Huskies appear to be getting better and with a break here or there could easily be 11-0 with losses to New Mexico and N.C State both occurring with late game breakdowns.
The Huskies' backcourt of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier is rounding into form as dual-point guards and Omar Calhoun has been as advertised as a scorer and coming off rookie of the week honors with 22 and 19 points respectively. The Huskies have somewhat cracked the enigma of DeAndre Daniels with the talented and athletic 6-8 forward averaging over 10.0 points per game.
On the surface, the Huskies would seems to be gearing up for another one of those Big East runs. Ollie and the rest of the veteran UConn coaching staff knows better.
The Huskies are 9-2 and have played great, but there is one common theme in wins or losses that gives everyone in the program pause -- rebounding.
UConn knew it was going to struggle inside this season with transfers and NBA Draft exits decimating the inside of the roster. It's one thing to expect it, it's another to realize it.
Connecticut's Tyler Olander, left, blocks a shot by Vermont's Luke Apfeld in the second half of an NCAA basketball game in Storrs, Conn., Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. No. 23 Connecticut won 67-49. Apfeld let Vermont with nine points. Olander had nine points and nine rebounds. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
UConn has been out-rebounded in 10 of 11 games this year and will head into Big East play as one of the worst rebounding teams in the country. How bad is the rebounding?
The Huskies are currently ranked 317th in rebound margin at -6.0 per game and are 323 in total rebounds at a paltry 30.3 per game. There are 345 teams in Division I with the Huskies hanging out with the likes of Hartford and Central Connecticut in rebounding. That's not the place the Huskies are accustomed to being. UConn has been one o fthe great baseline teams of the last decade from its title team anchored by Jake Voshkuhl and Kevin Freeman in 1999, Emeka Okafor in 2004, Hasheem Thabeet in 2008 and even Alex Oriakhi in 2010 on its way to the national title. All of the Huskies' Final Four teams, including three national title teams, were dominant on the backboards.
Last year's team was powerful inside, at least on paper, with Andre Drummond and Oriakhi manning the middle. Drummond happens to be in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons while Oriakhi took his act as a transfer to Missouri.
That has left the Huskies with a frustrating hole in the middle of the lineup. Neither junior Tyler Olander or junior center Enmosch Wolf has done the job consistently as Daniels, a 6-8 forward playing out of position, leads UConn in rebounding at 4.3 per game.
Against Fordham the struggles were on display. UConn built as big as a 32 point lead against Fordham before the Rams went on a 19-0 second half run to make it interesting. The rebounding was the story as Fordham started to crash the boards and get second shots at will. An even game on the backboards at halftime turned into a Fordham rout as it held a 40-28 advantage in the game despite getting beaten by double digits. Fordham scored 15 second chance points in the half.
"It was a problem again," Ollie said postgame last Friday. "In the second half, they dominated us on the backboards. But we did some things to mask it, love what we’ve been doing – 15 steals, we made them commit 21 turnovers – but I wasn’t happy with our second half performance.
The Huskies have done a good job of hiding the rebounding issues. UConn has found a way with its pressure defense to force turnovers and get points and easy baskets. For the most part this season the rebounding hasn't been catastrophic, but with Big East play coming the onus is on the Huskies to improve dramatically.
The only place to turn is the roster. Olander is averaging 4.3 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in 20 minutes and has come off the bench the last three games. The 6-9, 225-pound Olander has been unable to become the inside stabilizer that Ollie wanted as he struggles with his confidence. Olander is a talented offensive player with a nice touch, but is shooting only 38.9 percent from the floor.
Wolf also is a player that can earn minutes if he produces. The 7-1 German has the size that the Huskies desperately needs but doesn't have the consistency. Wolf had 12 points and nine rebounds in the loss to N.C State, but followed that up with only four points in three games with five rebounds.
It isn't the kind of production the Huskies need inside.
The only other option appears to be 6-9, 200-pound Phil Nolan, a raw and skinny true freshman. Nolan has athletic ability, but he has scored 14 points all year and struggles to hold his position.
"It’s still a work in progress," Ollie said. "We’re going to keep trying to find somebody. They’re going to keep playing. We can’t go out and get Patrick Ewing. He’s not around. We’re going to have to go with the guys we got, keep believing in them, keep coaching them and keep demanding the different things we’re demanding. There’s nobody coming up. Nobody transferring here the second half of the season."
UConn will host Washington on Saturday at the XL Center before getting into Big East play. There isn't any help or reinforcements coming for the Huskies this season. If UConn is going to be any kind of factor in the Big East the rebounding is going to have to come from within.
"Hopefully, they believe in themselves and, hopefully, one or two of them step up and start rebounding the ball and start playing aggressively like we know they’re capable of doing," Ollie said.