Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun knew heading into Wednesday's game that his struggling team, losers of three straight, needed some kind of spark to get things going. That meant shuffling the lineup, with Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi being replaced as starters by Ryan Boatright and Roscoe Smith, and for a short time on Wednesday night the move paid off. UConn got out to a 13-7 lead at the first media timeout and generally played better basketball on the offensive end, which was likely the desired effect of the move.
But Georgetown went to their 2-3 zone defense, and against zones UConn has shown neither the confidence nor the basketball IQ needed to solve such a riddle. It didn't help matters that Boatright, who did a good job of facilitating the offense, picked up his second foul with just over ten minutes left in the half and the Huskies leading 15-14. It was essentially all downhill from there as the Hoyas woud outscore the Huskies 17-6 the remainder of the half, going on to beat UConn 58-44 and lead many to ask whether or not the defending national champs had what it took to turn things around.
"We come back from six [down] and somebody went for a steal, next thing you know we took a bad shot and now were down ten," remarked Calhoun of his team's struggles. "And you can't keep running up the hill for only so long and so that's where we picked up our fourth straight loss and should have lost all four games."
So how did the four players involved in the lineup changes respond? Not well, with Boatright having his performance short-circuited by foul trouble (zero points, four assists) being the biggest blow given how the flow of the contest changed when he had to sit. Napier, who earlier in the season lamented the lack of a response to his attempts to be a leader, shot 0-for-9 from the field and scored just one point while Oriakhi went scoreless. And Smith opened the scoring 33 seconds into the game...only to not score again.
Last year's team struggled in conference play, but the difference is that (in addition to having Kemba Walker) they were a lot tougher mentally than this group. Who steps up to change the path that this season is currently travelling? Jeremy Lamb's not the vocal type and while he scored 14 points it took 18 shots to do so (making four), and while Andre Drummond (18 points, seven rebounds) was UConn's best player on the floor it's tough to ask a freshman to become the team leader.
The truth of the matter is that Napier and Oriakhi should be the leaders for this team, and yet neither has shown the ability to do so. The teams that leave a mark in March will fight for everything in the face of adversity, pulling together to accomplish the common goal. That hasn't been a trait of this current edition of Huskies, as they either fail to respond or the "fight back" dissolves into guys trying to close the gap all by themselves.
Georgetown, a team picked to finish tenth in the Big East in the preseason, should be the story here given the play of Hollis Thompson (18 points, nine rebounds) and Jason Clark (11 points, five rebounds), and they're likely to improve even more as the season approaches it's defining month. Can the same be said for UConn? That's a tough question to answer at this point, but with a game against a Seton Hall team that's also struggling a lot will be learned about the toughness of both teams on Saturday.
Other Notable Happenings
1. Michigan jumps out to a big lead and holds off Indiana's second half rally to remain undefeated at home.
There's no doubt that Tom Crean's Hoosiers can win big games at home, with the energy provided by the Assembly Hall crowd providing a needed boost to a program that's definitely improved. But what about on the road, where teams have to manufacture their own energy in the face of a hostile crowd? That question remains unanswered thanks to Indiana's slow start in Ann Arbor, as they trailed Michigan by as many as 20 points in the first half on the way to a 68-56 defeat. Indiana was able to get as close as two points (52-50) with less than four minutes remaining but they couldn't overtake the Wolverines, who were led offensively by Trey Burke (18 points, four assists), Zack Novak (13 points) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (13 points).
Indiana shot a respectable 42.9% from the field in the first half but they turned the ball over eight times to just one for Michigan, and the Wolverines converted those miscues into eleven points (led 33-22 at the half). Michigan's now 13-0 at home this season while Indiana remains with just one conference road victory (Penn State) this season. While the Hoosiers are in a dogfight to remain in the top half of the league standings Michigan's bounce back from the loss at Ohio State shows that they remain a serious contender for the Big Ten crown.
2. UT-Arlington opens their new arena with a win over UTSA, increasing their lead in the Southland.
Wednesday night was a special night in the history of UT-Arlington, with the Mavericks playing in the new College Park Center for the first time. And they picked a good matchup for the debut, as defending Southland tournament champ UTSA was in town looking to move into a tie for first place with the Mavericks. But despite turning the ball over 23 times on the night UT-Arlington found a way to win, beating the Roadrunners 67-66 to expand their lead to two games. A pair of Kevin Butler free throws with 13.7 seconds remaining proved to be the points the Mavs needed to remain on track for the regular season crown in their final campaign before they head to the WAC in July.
LaMarcus Reed III scored 24 points and grabbed seven rebounds to lead the way while Butler added 21 and eight, and these two are a big reason why the Mavs were able to make up for their turnovers by out-rebounding the Roadrunners 46-33 and score 16 second-chance points to just seven for UTSA. Kannon Burrage led the Roadrunners with 21 points off the bench and Melvin Johnson III added 14, but with Michael Hale III and Stephen Franklin combining to shoot 2-for-18 UTSA wasn't able to take full advantage of their turnover margin edge. With these two meeting in the regular season finale UTSA essentially has to win out while hoping for some help, and with UT-Arlington having won 12 straight that strategy may not bear fruit.
3. Pierre Jackson and Quincy Acy make big plays late to lead Baylor past Texas A&M.
Scott Drew's Bears seemed to try their best to give Texas A&M the game in the second half as they shot 31% from the field while the Aggies made half their field goals. But thanks to big plays down the stretch from Pierre Jackson (14 points, five assists) and Quincy Acy (11 points, four rebounds) Baylor escaped College Station with a 63-60 win in what could be the last regular season meeting in the "Battle of the Brazos" for a long time. A Jackson three with 17 seconds remaining proved to be the push Baylor needed to get to the finish line, and his two free throws with just over a second remaining sealed it.
Those two free throws came as a result of a hustle play by Acy, whose quick move to tip Jackson's missed free throw out (which Jackson was able to chase down), gave the junior college transfer a second chance at increasing the Bears' lead and he cashed in. After a Ray Turner basket gave A&M a 49-44 lead it was Acy who scored six of Baylor's nine points in a 9-0 run that put them up 53-49 with 6:13 to go. While the lottery picks (Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller) will enjoy the majority of the attention the contributions of a player like Acy cannot be ignored. In fact, that may be what allows Baylor to go deep into the NCAA tournament.
1. While the Atlantic 10 has enough quality teams to warrant four bids to the NCAA tournament, the chances of that happening become slimmer when teams at the top of the conference don't take care of business as they should. Wednesday's results of note were UMass losing 81-78 in overtime at Rhode Island and Dayton losing 83-73 at home to Duquesne. Xavier nearly joined those two teams but Tu Holloway's layup with 30 seconds remaining capped a good night for him (21 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and pushed the Musketeers past George Washington 59-58.
2. In a battle for sole possession of first place in Conference USA, Southern Miss finally got over the hump as they beat Memphis 75-72 to snap an 18-game losing streak in the series. Darnell Dodson and Neil Watson combined to score 40 points off the bench for the Golden Eagles, who are now 7-1 in conference play.
3. Center Garrett Stutz has been outstanding in road games for Wichita State this season and that trend continued in the Shockers' 74-67 win at Missouri State as he scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds on the night. Ben Smith added 21 for Wichita State, who remains a game behind first-place Creighton (102-74 win over Illinois State) as a result of the victory.
4. With seven freshmen and three sophomores on the roster many expected the first year of Mountain West play to be a tough one for Boise State and it has been. But they've also shown signs of growth, and if not for a missed Thomas Bropleh three as time expired the Broncos would have left San Diego State with a win. Leon Rice's team has the ability to scare some teams in the MWC, and with the likes of Bropleh and Anthony Drmic the future looks to be bright for Boise State.
5. There's now a three-way tie for first place in the CAA as Delaware beat George Mason 65-60 in Newark. Kyle Anderson shot 8-for-11 from the field and scored 21 points to lead the way for the Blue Hens, and as a team Delaware shot 7-for-14 from deep (Mason finished 3-for-16). Drexel and VCU both picked up victories on Wednesday, and with the league's profile being poorer than in seasons past the fight for the CAA crown should be even fiercer than it's been of late.
6. Huge news in the recruiting world was broken by ESPN's Dave Telep, who reported that Tilton School big man Nerlens Noel move back to the 2012 class. Noel, who counts Kentucky and Syracuse among his most vigorous suitors, returns to his original class and is now right there with Shabazz Muhammad for the honor of being the best player in the class.
7. Vermont held off a Boston University rally to beat the Terriers 68-67 in Boston to take over sole possession of second place in America East. Luke Apfeld scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds for the Catamounts, who swept the season series as a result of the win.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Julian Mavunga (Miami (OH))
19 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists in the RedHawks' 62-57 overtime win over Eastern Michigan.
2. F Thomas Robinson (Kansas)
20 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in the Jayhawks' 84-62 win over Oklahoma.
3. F Orion Outerbridge (Rhode Island)
29 points and 11 rebounds in the Rams' 81-78 overtime win over Massachusetts.