There are two teams in college basketball I really cannot figure out due to unbelievable inconsistency - the Kentucky Wildcats and my own UConn Huskies.
Last night Kentucky knocked off No. 5 Tennessee last night, 10 days after they ended the undeafeated streak of the No. 12 Vanderbilt, running their record to 8-9, 2-2. Is this really the same team that has lost to Gardner-Webb, UAB, Houston, and San Diego? Kentucky's biggest problem this season has been the injuries sustained by sophomores Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks - they have played a combined 14 games this season. Couple that with learning new coach Billy Gillespie's system, and what you have is a team still searching for an identity.
Kentucky has been a completely different team since starting conference play. As I mentioned, they knocked off both Vandy and Tennessee at home, and both their losses were tough roadies against Mississippi State (without Meeks and Jasper) and Florida (where they lost in overtime), but look around the country - road wins have been tough to come by anywhere. I've discussed this before) - Billy Gillespie coached teams are tough, scrappy, and defensive minded group of guys, and when you play a grind-it-out style like that, you need some depth. It doesn't have to be great depth, but you need bodies to run out there so the starters can get a rest. Ask anyone who has played the sport - playing good defense for an extended period of time will take your legs from under you. When Meeks and Jasper were out, Kentucky had literally zero bench - Patrick Patterson, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley were playing 35-40 minutes a night. But with those two back, Gillespie finally can actually use a rotation.
Basically, what has happened is Kentucky has found their identity. In their last four, they've held Vandy to 73 in 2 OT's, MSU to 69, Florida to 61 in regulation, and Tennessee to 66. Those are four very good teams. And now that they have a couple wins under their belt and a little bit of confidence, you can almost see these guys buying into the system. With talents like Patterson and Crawford, and the Big blue faithful behind them, this is not a team you will want to face come March.
To me, UConn has been much more of a mystery. With the exception of a home loss to Providence last week, UConn really has won every game it should have. They've hung with the big boys - lost to Georgetown on a three by Roy Hibbert (I'm still bitter about that one), it took everything Memphis had to beat them, and they thoroughly dominated Marquette. They haven't had any injuries - yet (knock on wood). In fact, Calhoun has been the only one to miss a game, and that was because he had a stomach virus. And noone on the team has really been a disappointment - in fact, many have been suprises. Hasheem Thabeet has been more than you could ask for offensively - providing 10ppg and shooting FT's at a 75% clip. AJ Price has returned to the form that made him a heralded high school player. Dougy Wiggins and Gavin Edwards have been very capable role players, with Wiggins providing great minutes and energy when he gets a chance. So what has been their problem?
I never, ever, EVER thought I would say this about a Jim Calhoun coached team, but this year's Huskies have not provided consistent intensity and focus during games. Yes, when they can play with anyone in the country, but that is because they are in the game emotionally. I was embarrassed to say I was a UConn fan watching them play Providence. I really, honestly felt like I cared more about winning that game than they did. It seemed to me that they thought that since they had just gone into DC and outplayed Georgetown that Providence was going to roll over for them. The same thing happened to them in Cincinnati after they blew out Marquette - with the exception of a run at the end of the first half, UConn was outworked and outplayed for the first 35 minutes of that game. Luckily, they made some plays down the stretch to pull out the W.
Basketball-wise, UConn has three main issues they need to deal with. The first is defending three pointers. They allow opponent to shoot 37% and make 8 3's a game, and routinely lose the other team's shooters. Getting to shooters is just a focua thing - recognizing who can hurt you from team, and making sure there's a hand in his face. The second problem they have is defending the pick-and-roll, mainly Thabeet. Cincinnati's entire offense in the last 15 minutes of the game was running a pick-and-roll for Deonta Vaughn with whoever Thabeet was guarding, and UConn had a terrible time stopping it. Thabeet is too slow and immobile, and thus is not able to hedge a screen his man sets (off the ball screens as well), which is probably one of the things he will pick up as he gets more experience (he has only been playing basketball for five years). Regardless, if Cincinnati's bigs could hit anything outside of a lay-up, UConn would not have won last night. The last problem is that UConn does not have anyone that can throw an outlet pass. In fact, Thabeet and Adrien may be the two worst passers in the history of basketball. This problem is compounded by the fact that UConn wants to run. By waiting the extra two seconds, and letting the defense clear or having Price come back and get the ball, UConn loses any numbers and advantage they would have had on the offensive end.
All-in-all, UConn has enough talent to make some noise in conference play and in the NCAA tourney. The question will be which UConn shows up.