LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For the past couple of years, UConn has played with nothing — or very little — to lose.
Following their 33-point humiliation at the hands of national champ Louisville, it should be noted the Huskies have been largely successful — 20-10 last season, in which they were ineligible for the postseason, and 24-7 this season, in which they have secured an NCAA berth.
However, reputations are made and legacies are left in March, and now the Huskies have something very specific to play for and much to lose — much of the good that has happened the past two seasons could become mere footnotes in Husky history if they do not complete it with a postseason run of significant length.
Beginning in Memphis on Thursday, Kevin Ollie will be coaching the first elimination games of his career. And most of the players have not been in that situation for a long time. So it is over the next couple of weeks that we will truly learn what this core of players, the first molded for the postseason by Ollie, is all about.
"We've been playing good basketball, so we have faith in ourselves," Ollie said after UConn's 81-48 loss at Louisville on Saturday. "We're at the bottom right now. This is the worst we could ever play. But guess what? As bad as we played, we can turn it around. So I'm not giving up on the season. I'm just talking about right at this moment, we didn't play together. This season is not over yet, but I told them if we play like this, we have two games and then they can go to spring break."
The Huskies are in need of a turnaround. UConn has not been playing good basketball down the stretch. Beginning Feb. 23, the Huskies lost at home to SMU, shooting 29.6 percent; they came from behind to win at lowly South Florida, outplayed for long stretches of that game; they grinded out an ugly win over Cincinnati, despite shooting 31.3 percent; they were outrebounded and had all kinds of trouble beating Rutgers at Gampel Pavilion on senior night; and they suffered the program's most one-sided loss in 22 years on Saturday, shooting 29.4 percent.
When you add all that up, it's clear that at the time of year when a team should be playing its best ball, the Huskies are not. Many of the same losing habits that Ollie has talked about all season, collectively and individually, continue to crop up. He seemed most exasperated, his voice rising an octave, when he said, "I told my guys pass … they don't pass."
All of the aforementioned games were rematches, and in all but the Cincinnati game, the Huskies played worse than they did against the same opponent earlier in the season — again, not a sign of a team getting better.
"We've got to get back to basics," said Ryan Boatright, who has been in a prolonged shooting slump. "We've got to get better."
The Huskies looked as disoriented as ever against the Rick Pitino's zone defense. The Hall-of-Fame coach capitalized on UConn's reliance on its guards, on perimeter shooting and the free throw line.
"They have had trouble as of late scoring," Pitino said. "We played a match-up trapping zone and it was really tough to score against us. We took away the three-point shot completely until the end of the game, and when you have great players like Shabazz [Napier] with no points and you look at their team and the volume of threes they shoot, and you don't give up a three, it was a pretty special defensive performance.
"The biggest focus on the game was wearing those two guys [Napier and Boatright] out physically without fouling, then to stop the three and to not give them second-chance shots. Those were the three elements we were looking for in this game, and to wear them out so they can't shoot or beat us off the bounce."
The Cardinals (26-5), who went to the Final Four in 2012 and won it last year, are hitting their stride again and did all of the above.
"They play zone," Napier said. "That's basically it. They're not playing us man-to-man for a reason, they continue to play us in a zone because we're not scoring the ball well. We're not making shots and it's affecting us on the defensive end."
The Huskies tried to beat the zone by hitting the open man in the middle and occasionally found DeAndre Daniels, who scored 17 points. But the other big men are still inconsistent and often startled when they get the ball inside. It's just not a good look.
UConn will be the No. 4 seed in the American Athletic Conference Tournament and start out playing the host school, Memphis. UConn has beaten Memphis twice. If they make it three times, Cincinnati and Louisville, the two top seeds, are most likely to come next.
What the Huskies do in Memphis will have bearing on their NCAA position; currently, they are 29th in the RPI. Jerry Palm, CBSSports.com's bracket analyst, has them in as a No.5 seed in St. Louis.
"It's over with," Daniels said as he left Louisville. "We've got to put this one behind us and keep moving forward."