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Saturday, December 31, 2011
Connecticut rolls, but still finding itself

By Andy Katz



HARTFORD, Conn. -- With Jim Calhoun sitting out because of an NCAA suspension, and Big East play ramping up, Connecticut is in the process of finding out just how much it has matured -- or hasn't -- as a team.

“Our problem is we look at the score, we see we’re up and we start playing the score,’’ said UConn point guard Shabazz Napier after the Huskies beat St. John’s 83-69 in the Big East home opener Saturday at the XL Center, just a few days after the Red Storm crushed Providence. “And some of us start playing to score. I told the guys we can’t do that. I don’t like how selfish we are at times. But we’ll get everything together. Hopefully we won’t learn from our mistakes by losing a game.’’

The Huskies have had a tendency to coast this season, and did have that shocking collapse against Central Florida in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament last month. So Napier is attempting to emulate Kemba Walker as a leader and get this squad to refocus if it loses its focus.

But that shouldn’t be an issue this coming week. The No. 9 Huskies head to improved Seton Hall on Tuesday for the last of three games without Calhoun, who will return next Saturday at Rutgers, which suddenly has life after stunning Florida in double overtime Thursday.

Connecticut learned at South Florida in the Big East opener that a road conference game, regardless of difference in talent, is never a walk. The Huskies, though, are still trying to find their identity. They are not yet a lockdown defensive team. And they can certainly get out on the break and finish, but aren’t necessarily known as a running team, either. The inside game can be a strength with Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi, but the pair is still learning how to be effective.

Against St. John's, Drummond put up a double-double with 16 points and 11 boards and was much more assertive. He still needs to be a reliable free throw shooter, hovering at about 35 percent for the season.

“I would like to see Andre get in position to do it 15 more times,’’ UConn associate head coach George Blaney said of getting the ball to Drummond in the post. “He’s still learning how to get in position. We’re trying to teach about how to offensive box-out. That’s what he needs to do a bit more, because he is so effortless with how he can rise up and catch it. And he catches everything. He doesn’t miss anything when his hands are around it.’’

The Huskies were playing Saturday without a healthy Roscoe Smith. He sprained his wrist, was limited to four minutes, and didn’t start. Rotation players like Niels Giffey (7 points), Tyler Olander (6) and DeAndre Daniels (6), who started in Smith’s place, all had their moments. Ryan Boatright (10) is always good for a positive pop off the bench.

But this team will have to be defined by a more demonstrative defensive effort and consistent scoring in the post from Drummond and on the perimeter from Napier and Jeremy Lamb, who had a solid 15 points and made four 3s.

“We played a great defense in the first half, 26 percent,’’ said Blaney, who is leading the team in Calhoun’s absence. “We kind of let up, particularly early in the second half, because we weren’t scoring so easily. I think we let up once we got the 23-point lead.’’

Napier said the team has had no prior contact with Calhoun during his suspension, but Napier did say he talked to Calhoun after Saturday’s game, when Blaney handed him his cellphone in the locker room.

St. John’s was without head coach Steve Lavin, still recovering from prostate cancer surgery, but Lavin is at practices when he’s in New York and not recruiting. Calhoun cannot be at practices or games.

That has forced the Huskies to grow up a bit, and winning at Blaney’s old employer Tuesday night would do wonders for this team’s confidence in its quest to stay in step with Syracuse, Georgetown and Louisville for the Big East title. That will be a marathon, but winning games on the road (see: Georgetown at Louisville) is as good an indicator as any in predicting the race.

“We’re ready for any game,’’ said Napier, who led UConn with 17 points and 9 assists on Saturday. “We just have to fix some edges up. We have to understand how to play the score. We have to stay in our stuff. We have to be fundamentally sound. Sometimes we get out of control, including myself. If they rally behind me, I’m going to look for them to score.’’