On Saturday, after a brilliant UCF performance handed them their first loss of the season in the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Connecticut Huskies held off Florida State for a tough and much-needed overtime win.
There was some encouragement to take away from the latter result. UConn had bounced back after an ugly performance vs. UCF. Freshman forward Andre Drummond had 12 points and 10 rebounds in 37 minutes, his most of the season to date. Freshman guard Ryan Boatright contributed 33 minutes off the bench. Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb filed away another mutually impressive performance. And so on.
But there was also something glaringly noticeable about the game: Forward Alex Oriakhi, the frontcourt centerpiece of UConn's national title run in 2011, came off the bench and played just 10 minutes total against Florida State. Oriakhi had come off the bench against UCF, and while he played a solid 26 minutes, Calhoun had clearly decided to put Drummond in the starting lineup alongside forward Tyler Olander, leaving Oriakhi as something of an odd man out.
Oriakhi (@aoriakhi34): @JCM4MG I know sum bs
Coombs-McDaniel (@JCM4MG): @aoriakhi34 Keep hooping..u already kno u bout to turn it up next game
That exchange happened before Oriakhi's limited run Saturday, so it's possible Oriakhi's decision to respond had something to do with Calhoun limiting his minutes even further. But there is also an argument to be made that Connecticut is better off in the long-term with Drummond and Olander starting together along the front line, an argument The UConn Blog makes here:
With Olander and Drummond together, what you're now getting is a starting frontcourt a little light on experience, but one that's far more versatile and features less redundancy than one with Oriakhi and either one or the other.
So even if Orikahi plays up to Calhoun's standards, it's possible that the same skill set that made him such a cog in the Huskies' championship machine now doesn't fit well enough with this year's pieces to warrant a starting role on a team with such talent and depth. While it may lead to a few more angry tweets from Oriakhi, perhaps the team is better off keeping him in a reserve role, where he can pair with Roscoe Smith in a small-ball lineup similar to the one in which he was so successful last season.
If that's the case, perhaps Oriakhi shouldn't be surprised by his move to the bench; if there's one thing we know about Calhoun in his career, it's that he has no qualms benching a veteran stalwart to make room for impressive new talent.
But you can understand Oriakhi's displeasure. He was a crucial component in the Kemba Walker-led title run. His offensive rebounding was the reason Connecticut could configure its offense around Walker's play. His defensive length gave the Huskies a major advantage against Kentucky and Butler in the Final Four. I mean, come on: In April, Oriakhi achieved the pinnacle of success in his sport. Of course he thinks he should start.
More likely than not, this stuff will drift away after a few days; the tweet will be forgotten, and Oriakhi will get out of any imposed doghouse he may currently find himself in. But this is something to watch at UConn all season. Calhoun has a lot of frontcourt talent to work with, and he still seems to be tinkering with the combination. Will someone get left behind? And if that someone is Oriakhi, will he be OK with adopting a role off the bench? Just seven games in, things are already getting tricky.