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UConn Come Back

by Andrew Force | January 28th, 2008

A typically short-tempered Jim Calhoun somehow disallowed impatience to consume him. The last year was unquestionably difficult on the program. For a school with 11 Sweet 16 appearances in the last 17 years, a regular season record of 17-14 hurts. It hurts badly.

The present was bleak, but the future had promise. Predominantly because the 2006-2007 roster was comprised of eight freshmen and five sophomores.

Several distinct areas of growth led to the current 15-5 (5-3 Big East) edition. Formerly raw, currently-realizing Hasheem Thabeet has shown tremendous growth.

There is not a better denier in the paint than UConn’s center. Twice this year he turned away 10 shots. Coach Calhoun contends Thabeet has improved “300% since last year.”

Thabeet should become fourth Husky all-time in blocks shortly. In a program rich with swatters, for Hashim to reach such heights prior to the conclusion of his second season is quite a feat.

That said, his offense tends to wane. It seems like at least twice a game Calhoun benches him for inactivity. When the center does attack the rim, results materialize. Dunking is hardly a challenge for an 87-inch man. Free throws, his weakest skill a year ago, has become a legit weapon for Thabeet. Against Cincinnati, Thabeet made his first seven.

On the year, Mr. Fantastic shoots free throws at a 72% rate. The solid but unspectacular rate actually represents a 20% improvement from a season ago.

As a whole, the Huskies recent run of success can be attributed to dramatically improved free throw shooting. For a program generally weak in the art of stripe charity, UConn has begun to exploit slower and weaker players.

The athleticism of Stanley Robinson, Jerome Dyson and Thabeet is uncanny. NBA prospects all of them, slicing to the lane really showcases the fleet feet.

Three times the Husky bunch has made more than 30 free throws in a contest. Between January 12 and January 23, UConn knocked down an amazing 85% of its freebies over the course of four Big East games. Free throws are as much about confidence as they are about practice.

Meanwhile, confident awareness in each player’s place in the rotation and on the floor is allowing the sophomore-dominated lineup to excel. The team is finally picking up subtleties like half-court trap and using screens and the secondary break. With no upperclassmen to watch, the instruction started at ground zero for the Huskies.

Calhoun acknowledges, “Fundamentally we lost the baton. We didn’t pass it. When we lost to George Mason in Washington, D.C., eight players left that team.”

Now more than a year later, Calhoun has incorporated more of his trademark elements. For example, inbounds plays look really crisp, often directly resulting in easy baskets.

The defensive formations are also much-improved from early and even late last year. The team has more defensive clarity.

Following a disheartening two-game losing streak at Georgetown and home against Providence, Connecticut needed a real gut check. The players have had plenty of game experience. The talent is there. Now the heart and bravado needs to show.

After owning the paint against Marquette, warrior Jeff Adrien admitted, “We worked on defense extremely hard–harder than we’ve ever worked at defending the threes.”

Even MU coach Tom Crean saw the results. “They were obviously very, very good around the rim,” he said.

The players know their rotations and marks, so the Huskies can be more aggressive within understood parameters. UConn now presses more than it ever has.

So important to developing a culture of winning is continuity. “Our team has a difficult time understanding what it means to be hunted, what it means to be Connecticut, what it means to be a team that people enjoy beating because we have had so much success,” offers Calhoun.

As the Huskies destroyed Marquette, nipped Cincinnati, and discarded Indiana all within six days in late January, Adrien leapt off the floor, powerfully enthused.

These Huskies are learning how to mush.

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