Connecticut's Shabazz Napier (13) drives past Rutgers' Jerome Seagears during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Hartford, Conn., Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013. Napier and Seagears were top scorers for their teams with 19 and 21 points respectively. Connecticut won 66-54. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
HARTFORD, Conn. – The press row seats aren't occupied by many NBA scouts anymore.
There seems to be little interest in the University of Connecticut men's
basketball team these days. The first reason is the lack of postseason eligibility, the second is not one surefire NBA pick that makes scouts and others take notice.
It wasn't like that last year, when NBA scouts flocked to XL Center and Gampel Pavilion like they were season ticket holders.
That's not the only difference between last year's UConn team that began the season ranked in the top 5 and had top 5 talent before meandering through a 20-14 season and an early NCAA tournament exit.
For all that talent with Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb and others, the Huskies never showed the mettle and toughness that the undermanned and depth-less Huskies did against Rutgers on Sunday.
Sunday at the XL Center against Rutgers was an ugly game. It was a game only a coach could love.
And, after a 66-54 win over Rutgers, UConn head coach Kevin Ollie loved it.
This year's Huskies, for all their lack of talent, height, depth and postseason eligibility, have a toughness and an ability to adapt that their talented predecessors could only dream about.
Take Sunday's second half, when the Huskies saw a 27-20 lead end up at 32-32 10 minutes into the second half. UConn began the second half 0 for 9, 1 of 11 and looked terrible doing it.
Last year's team, which was more talented than virtually every team it played, wilted in these type of situations unable to play in an imperfect game.
What did this undermanned UConn team do?
It stayed with the game, picked up the ball pressure, created points and open shots and must of didn't panic.
Niels Giffey had a steal and a 3-point play to push the lead to 35-32 with 9:54 left. Then Shabazz Napier hit consecutive 3-pointers with Ryan Boatright adding another. Just like that, the lead was 44-37. Rutgers would close to 46-43 with 4:57 left, but two foul shots from Napier, then a tip-in and steal and dunk by DeAndre Daniels pushed the lead to 52-43 with 3:53 left.
The Huskies pulled the game out of the fire and snapped a two-game losing streak to improve to 13-5.
Winning when you aren't playing great is a sign of a mature and veteran team that is comfortable in what it does. UConn knows who it is and what it can do.
“We are tougher, we understand, we are veterans,” Napier, who scored 19 points said. “We've been through the worst last year and understand how to deal with it. Lat year's team didn't know how to get back in composure. We understand if other teams make a run we will make ours.”
That composure is evidenced throughout the roster. Take Boatright's first half struggles. The high-scoring guard had two quick fouls and two point sin the first half. Did he overcompensate in the second half? No, Boatright finished with 15 points and was 6 of 9 from the free-throw line. There also was the lay of Daniels, who used to go into a shell a year ago when he didn't hit his first shot. Now? Daniels scored 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had become a solid third scorer for the Huskies.
The bench was also doing its job. Giffey rarely puts up big numbers. He goes games without making much of an impact and then reappears to make a difference. Giffey had seven points, four steals and played excellent defense in 22 minutes.
“Those are the kind of things I can do to elevate the whole team,” Giffey said.
The Huskies had gone a game and half without a blocked shot until Enosch Wolf had three in the second half. Little contributions like those are what make a difference.
The game was ugly, the Huskies held Rutgers to under 40 percent shooting and crashed the boards to finish +4. It wasn't a game that excited anyone in Hartford and is already and afterthought.
For Ollie, however, it was a beautiful result.
“The game was filled with ups and downs, but we played hard, we played aggressively on defense,” Ollie said. “I put a couple of goals up on the board (defense, rebounding) we achieved those. We improved. It's about wins and losses, but it's not about wins and losses. It's about growing as a team, improving as a team.”
As far as making and improvement since day 1 is concerned, this year's Huskies are well past their predecessor.