As the regular season winds down, UConn's opportunities to define — or redefine — itself are dwindling.
"We'll get there," coach Kevin Ollie said after the Huskies' stinging 64-55 loss to Southern Methodist on Sunday. "We do it in spurts, but we have to do it 40 minutes to beat a good team like SMU."
The Huskies, Ollie said, would get back to "playing UConn basketball" when they next hit the floor, at South Florida in Tampa on Wednesday night.
Playing "UConn basketball" has been a slogan for coaches and players all season. What does it mean? It can best be defined as quick tempo, crisp ball movement and ball pressure from the guards. And when the Huskies have been able to roll out their brand of basketball, it has been a joyful event. Victories over USF (83-40), Houston (80-43), Central Florida (84-61 and 75-55) and Temple (90-66), where the offense hummed like a sport scar, would certainly bear that out.
But the opposing team has much to do with whether the Huskies can play their transition-driven style of play. Certainly SMU had no intention of letting UConn run its show, nor did Louisville or Cincinnati. Those teams, with one strategy or another, had the size, skill and will to keep the Huskies bottled up in a half-court game.
"It's hard for anybody to score against a set defense," SMU coach Larry Brown said.
The Huskies shot 29 percent against SMU Sunday, and 36.7 percent against the Mustangs in Dallas on Jan. 4. They shot 39 percent at Cincinnati, 35 against Louisville and 31 percent in their lone nonconference loss to Stanford — all games in which the UConn offense had that similar, stagnant look.
"At points the game was kind of stationary," Niels Giffey said Sunday. "We were stuck in one spot. We have to go through our offense hard. This is the point in the season when they know what's going to come, they've scouted us and they're going to take our first and second options away. We've got to continue working to get the right shots and the right time. And you've got to move the defense a couple of times to do that, it can't be the first or second pick-and-roll."
If there is one set of numbers that defines the Huskies (21-6) at the moment, it would be this: They are fourth in the American Athletic Conference, 9-1 against the teams below them in the standings and 0-4 against the teams above them.
This breakdown is reflected in the national rankings. Louisville (No. 7), Cincinnati (No. 11), Memphis (No. 21) and SMU (No. 23) were all ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Huskies dropped out, and are unofficially 26th. In the Ratings Percentage Index, an important tool used in NCAA Tournament seeding, UConn dropped from 25th to 30th, which probably would have them as a seventh seed.
The rematch with USF, a team UConn steamrolled two weeks ago, now becomes a game the Huskies cannot let slip away. But what they need most is one more signature win against a top conference team, and their game against Cincinnati at the XL Center Saturday, or their regular-season finale at Louisville March 8, are their last opportunities to do that.
Shabazz Napier, who made the AAC's honor roll again last week, scored 15 very hard-earned points against SMU, a couple of days after Brown called him the best player in the country.
"Whenever Shabazz was playing pick-and-roll," Giffey said, "they really clogged up the paint, they double-teamed him and rotated that way so the guy in the opposite corner was open. We've got to do a better job of cutting to get Shabazz and also [Ryan] Boatright more options to pass the ball. That's not X's and O's; we've just got to play [better fundamental] basketball."
Between now and the AAC Tournament, in which the Huskies will have to get past the top teams or come home early, they will have to figure out how to be more effective the half-court games opponents will try to dictate.
"Hopefully, if we face [SMU] again in the tournament, we'll be better prepared," Ollie said.