Friday, September 7, 2012

UConn Football Starts 1-0 By Dismantling UMass, What's Next

It was UMass' first game as an FBS (or Division 1 as sane people still call it) football team, and it appeared UConn took great pleasure in welcoming them to the big leagues with a 37-0 rout. While the offense still sputtered at times there were three important lessons to take away from the win before we to take a look at this weekend's opponent in N.C. State and give realistic expectations for the rest of the season.

First thing that jumps out is the dominant play of the defense, playing so magnificently that they are at this juncture the nation's top ranked defense in every category. The defense allowed just 58 yards in the game and posted a shutout. I think more telling is the fact that in the game UMass only managed three first downs and never made it out past their own 38 yard line, a shutout is one thing but to have the team never threaten to score or even make it to the other side of the field is something completely different. This defense looks like it can be the top defense in the league if it just maintains this pace and if it can continue to improve on last weeks performance and gets a chance to stay off the field with some consistent offensive play it could become one of the top defenses in the country. Of course with this team offensive consistency is never a given, but there is hope with this squad but more on that later.

The second thing about this game that struck me was the play of the special teams and more specifically Nick Williams. Of the 37 points that were scored in the game against UMass, the special teams were responsible for 16 of them with three field goals and a blocked punt that was recovered in the endzone. Dave Teggart was not my favorite player on the UConn team over the last couple of seasons (to be fair when is a kicker anyone's favorite) but he was consistent and there was concern when he graduated at the end of last season that we would lose that constant threat that he posed late in games to hit the game winner, well if what we saw in week one is an indication Chad Christen will fill those shoes nicely moving forward. He hit from 36, 47, and 19 yards which gave me as a fan confidence in his range and accuracy (although pleas note the 47 yarder was very low and could've been blocked if UMass had gotten any sort of push at the line). The real shining star on special teams in this game was Nick Williams. After a couple years fighting for a spot in the backfield to be the running back and being relegated to kick and punt returns, it seems Williams has found his niche as an all around talent that can be a game changer in many ways. As far back as the year UConn made the Fiesta Bowl we've seen his vision and breakout speed on returns (he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Oklahoma in the Fiesta, one of the greatest moments in my career as a sports fan and possibly the greatest plays I've seen live) but it appears he has honed his craft even more so, almost taking every punt or kickoff to the house. He continues to be a versatile player on offense as well, specializing in open field play on reverses and quick slant passes which has started people comparing him to Wes Welker. I don't hate the comparison but Williams is much more important to this team as a specialist on special teams than he is a threat in the offensive game.

The third and potentially most exciting development coming out of this game is the fact that we may have a competent quarterback for the first time since Zach Frazier played well in the Fiesta Bowl (his only shining moment in an otherwise overwhelmingly disappointing career) and before that Dan Orlovsky from the first years as an FBS team. Chandler Whitmer had a decent opening game for the Huskies but lacked consistency and decision making was a problem at times, that being said he had shining moments and looked to be capable of making all the big throws expected of a high level collegiate quarterback. If the coaches can work with him and limit his mistakes this team has great potential to win a watered down Big East this year, especially with the defense and special teams backing him up.

That brings us to this weekend and the N.C. State Wolfpack. In their opening game N.C. State lost to Tennessee 35-21 in a game that was never that close. Turnovers were the really story with the Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon throwing four interceptions allowing Tennessee to score 16 points in the span of 38 seconds at one point. If the Huskies can create pressure on Glennon he has proven to be a terrible decision maker with someone in his face and with the talent at secondary it could be another long day for N.C. State fans. Of course all of this depends on the UConn offense being able to score points, something that has been an issue for as long as I can remember. The offensive line needs to play much better against a much more powerful defensive line to get Lyle McCombs the touches he needs to be the elite back he can be while continued progress and improvement from Chandler Whitmer is needed to take some of the pressure off of the running game. Overall I think this match-up favors the Huskies and with the same level of play from the defense and the improvements already discussed from the offense this should be another win for UConn.

Looking to the rest of the season there is a lot of cause for celebration, UConn has one of the easiest schedules in the Big East saving our biggest conference games for the end of the season and a non conference schedule that should be a cake walk. Aside from this weeks game against N.C. State the Huskies play a horrendous Maryland team week 3 (Maryland beat FCS foe William and Mary by a whopping 1 point last week and plays Big East member Temple this weekend) followed by Western Michigan and Buffalo. If all goes according to plan and this team can maintain the level of play discussed it is not out of the question for them to start 5-0 before even playing a Big East game. A lot of that hinges on this weekend's game against N.C. State as well, beating a well respected ACC team would do wonders for the confidence of this offense and for the team in general moving forward through the schedule. Prediction for this weekend is UConn 24 - N.C. State 17 and prediction right now for the season is 9-3 with losses to Louisville, South Florida, and one other Big East team to be named at a later date (yes, I realize this is a bit of a weak move but it leaves room for me being wrong). I like this team's chances, especially in this league to be a contender with strong defense and an offense that can control the time of possession.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mass Exodus From The Men's Team And Are We Really Banned?

There has been a lot of activity around the men's basketball team in the last few months and almost everyone seems to have forgotten that the defending national champions lost in the first round of the tournament in the wake of the NCAA Committee's decision to uphold the postseason ban next season. So what does it mean, what is in store for this Huskies team moving beyond the transfers and NBA draft declarations, and what is Calhoun going to decide? Let's start from the top considering it is the most pressing consideration for this team and for fans.

By now you should've heard that the NCAA committee has upheld it's decision to ban UConn from competing in the postseason next year, which is the reason there are three transfers from the Husky front court and concern about Calhoun's ability to recruit top tier players to replace them. However there continues to be hope that the NCAA could institute a rules change which would count more recent scores in determining postseason eligibility. So what does all this mean? For now I'd take it on face value and bank on the fact that the Huskies are out for next year, based on the timeline for change in any decision process with the NCAA there is no guarantee that the change will come. Because of this the players transferring weren't willing to risk postseason eligibility in their final season, Alex Oriakhi, or were already upset about playing time and usage, Bradley and Smith, and would probably have left anyway and as for Calhoun's ability to recruit top talent it appears to be unchanged as he has already secured one of nation's top guards and just today it was reported that UConn has received a commitment from a 6' 10'' recruit from Milwaukee Phil Nolan. As it stands now UConn will be missing the Big East and NCAA tournament but with the potential rule change and the opportunity to play for one of the greatest coaches in men's collegiate basketball it doesn't seem to have deterred the best players from wanting to come out to Storrs.

What is in store for this Husky team moving beyond the transfers and NBA draft declarations? This is probably the most difficult of the three questions because it focuses on a team we as fans could never figure out last year. Let's start with the players leaving and go from there. Alex Oriakhi, the anchor and defensive powerhouse on the national championship team in 2011, came into this year the unquestioned veteran who had all the makings to be a force in the post alongside Andre Drummond and the emotional leader on a very young team. Oriakhi failed to fit the role of the power forward however and saw his minutes diminish immediately because of the athleticism and length of Drummond and fell into the shadows leaving a void in leadership despite the improved quality of the Husky front court. Michael Bradley, a lengthy sophomore who never really came into his own on a team full of talent, after offering up his scholarship to make room for Andre Drummond Bradley failed to see any real playing time this season and is moving to a program where he can make an immediate impact and where they will appreciate his size more than a stacked team like UConn every could. Roscoe Smith, a good sized small forward who was more impactful in the national championship run than he was most of this past year, could have been a big part of the Husky recovery as a change of pace forward alongside DeAndre Daniels but has decided to move on and has been granted the same exemption as the other two allowing him to play next season for another team without the standard one year penalty of a transfer. Individually these losses don't seem to impact the team very much but with the draft departures of Drummond and Jeremy Lamb there is potential for a great lapse in scoring prowess because of the pressure that will fall to Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Regardless of how the NCAA sanctions played out I believe Jeremy Lamb would have declared for the draft, his stock dropped this year compared to where it was following the national championship and with the same roster coming back next year it didn't feel like he would have the additional help he needed to become that elite scoring presence he looked like he could become with Kemba Walker on the court. Andre Drummond is a different story, given his development arc another year or two under Calhoun would have greatly increased his draft stock to the likes of Hasheem Thabeet as the best center prospect to come out of UConn since then for sure now imagine him with another two years experience playing against the toughest teams in the country in the Big East. Had these sanctions not been levied I believe Drummond would have stayed at least an additional year to work with Calhoun, especially given the talent he had in the guard position distributing the ball.

So where does that leave this team moving forward, with a lot of question marks in their roster. A situation not unknown to most Husky fans. Does anyone remember the 2011 season, I know I've referenced it a few times in this post alone and coming into that season there was only one star on the roster we knew of and a lot of potential. This is a very similar situation minus the standing star power, we know Shabazz and Boatright are good but neither has proved to be the go to or the leader that the team needs. With the rest of the team there is just uncertainty as to who will fill what spots and how the new additions will work in Calhoun's system. With the bigs left on the roster there is a lot of potential for role players but certainly no star power to be found amongst the returners, perhaps Nolan will provide something special right from the start. I see this team finding itself in the same spot next year as it has the past two, middle of the road amongst active Big East teams. Unfortunately for this team they will not have the Big East and NCAA tournaments to prove themselves like they have the last two years. I like the pieces Calhoun has managed to assemble but I'm not sure how they fit together just yet, but if there is someone who can put together a masterpiece from some unassuming players it is certainly one Jim Calhoun. For now I'll predict them finishing 5th in Big East next year, check back with me to see how that works out.

Last and not least, what is Calhoun's future with the team? As is true of all my posts (including all of this one) this is entirely opinion based and speculative, but I don't see Calhoun leaving this team in the state its in. I think he promised these kids more when he recruited them and especially because this penalty is based on academic performance before any of the current players were on campus. Whether or not his return is good for UConn or not is an entirely different question. I know this isn't a popular opinion amongst the UConn faithful, but I think Calhoun has overstayed as the Husky coach. His motion offense is beyond old school and is completely ineffective against great defense, or any zone defense for that matter. He has had Kevin Ollie on the staff now for two years, effectively training him for the position and he has a clear connection with the players that would make the transition easy. I think his methods and philosophy resemble Calhoun enough to not stun players and is contemporary enough to remove the holds of Calhoun's stubborn refusal to adapt to defense and to his players. If Ollie has any of the defensive genius that Calhoun has had with his bigs and can institute an offense I foresee, the transition would be easy and necessary. I'm a huge fan of Calhoun and he gave me one of the best night of my life in 2011 I just think his methods are too old school for my flavor in today's game, even in an old school conference like the Big East.

This offseason there will be a lot of questions asked of this team, especially their motivation moving into a season without the prospect of a Big East or national title.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

It's Super Bowl Weekend, And Don't Look Now But UConn Stinks

Welcome back to the Blog people, been a while. Turns out being gainfully employed hurts the amount of time one can devote to sitting down and writing rants about how terrible their favorite collegiate team is at (fill in either football or basketball). When last discussed on this particular blog the men' basketball team was 4-0 against terrible teams who only were a part of the schedule because of the money involved, and UConn continued to march through this level of competition besides a slight slip up against Central Florida in the Battle for Atlantis tournament to start the season 12-1. Now there are a despicable 14-7 going 2-6 in the last 8 games including a 4 game losing streak.

What's wrong you ask? How could a team with more talent at every position than last year's championship team struggle so much with inferior competition? The answer isn't simple, oh wait, yes it is. There is no Kemba, and under Calhoun's motion offense (don't even get me started on the motion offense) there needs to be a player in the event that at the end of the shot clock nothing has worked that can work his way to his own open shot and score. This team doesn't have that presence anymore, and while I agree with everyone reading that Shabazz has been just about the worst incarnation of a point guard I've ever seen it really comes back to the offensive system that dictates that if there is a breakdown someone has to do it themselves. With the focus that opposing defenses are giving Jeremy Lamb, who was slated to take the role of Kemab, it has to fall to Shabazz and instead of embracing the strategy of making sure to run through the offense before taking matters into his own hands he has decided to consistently throw up terrible contested 3's with about 20 seconds on the shot clock. Here's why Shabazz isn't at fault, even when he waits until the entire shot clock has run down he's forced to take awful contested 3's because no one is doing their jobs around him in the offense. Motion isn't an offense, it's a strategy used when an offense breaks down and without a dominate guard to fuel that it's a bad strategy at that. Here's an example of why it's a bad system for this particular version of UConn basketball, in their last game against Georgetown (beautiful place, terrible place to be as a UConn fan when they get crushed) the Huskies shot an astoundingly bad 2-20 from beyond the arc and as a team shot 30% for the game (on top of less than 50% from the free throw line) now because of the motion offense the play on the outside is more in focus than on the inside even though Andre Drummond was quietly having his best game of the year going 9-12 for 18 points. In any other system the offensive strategy adapts to how the team is playing, Calhoun doesn't adapt to situations. Last year that was fine because Kemba could, and very often did, carry the team through long stretches of poor offensive play.

With the improved play, at least from a year ago, of Roscoe Smith and Tyler Olander the limitation of their minutes has also been confusing for the casual and passionate observer, I understand Giffey has defensive skills but the defense hasn't been the disappointing part of the season by any stretch. With the size and athleticism that this team possesses there should be matchup problems for almost any team they play, and instead of playing on that by using our tall and lanky forwards we play small and fast to try to outrun them as is the UConn way. Granted I have an affinity for teams that play four players with forward bodies, but on this team there are enough athletically gifted players to maintain that style and still have no problems defensively with smaller quicker teams. Imagine for a minute the lineup of Napier, Lamb, Smith, Olander, and Drummond where the only player under 6'5'' is Napier at the point. What team in America has that kind of size and skill at every position? The answer is probably 3, with UNC, Kentucky, and Syracuse being the most likely candidates. That puts this team in pretty elite company, and gives the freshmen the time to mature on the bench and in practice rather than in game where their mistakes are much more costly. Other pluses include the fact that plugging Smith in pushes Lamb to the shooting guard instead of the small forward he often is forced to play while Boatwright and Napier are on the floor. Don't get me wrong I'm as excited about Boatwright as the rest of UConn country, but he doesn't possess the same passing skill I've seen from Napier and he seems like the change of pace guy for when the big guy lineup comes off the floor for a rest.

All in all the season has been one giant disappointment, but it is also eerily similar to where every fan was last year wondering why a team which has moments of greatness fails to live up to that potential every night before they turned it on late and everything finally clicked. I'm not saying this team will win the championship, only that it has the same potential to find it's identity at the right moment (now?) and becoming something great and formidable.

As I write this UConn is absolutely crushing Seton Hall, but the answers don't lie in this game so don't allow yourselves to be fooled. This Seton Hall team has been a mediocre Big East team this year but are without their star playing a hungry and angry Husky team coming off 4 straight losses. Let us all wait until Monday's game against Louisville to see how this team will respond to all the questions being asked of it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

New Look Big East And The Train Wreck That Is The BCS

There has been extensive talk about expansion in the Big East, well it's final now, at least for now. Football now has ten members, basketball remains at 16. The Big East did a lot of what it had outlined in the early stages of expansion talks adding football only members while trying to keep the competitive nature of the best basketball conference in the country. Unfortunately the teams that were lost with Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia versus the teams that are added in Houston, SMU, and UCF make me nervous as to how well the new teams will uphold the high expectations the conference had of the three lost members. I do find it strange that of all the teams to add as football only San Diego State seems like the least likely considering how successful their basketball program has been of late. Overall though I like what the conference is doing, I had hoped they would get the football up to twelve with military academies Navy and Air Force but it doesn't appear that all of the issues involved in the move were ever ironed out. I wanted a Big East championship game which pitted the east side of the conference against the new west coast.

It's impossible to argue that the conference isn't better off in football than it is at this moment, of the teams leaving only West Virginia and TCU are ranked (#s 23 and 18 respectively) while three of the five teams coming into the conference are ranked in Boise State, Houston, and SMU (#s 7, 19, and 21 respectively). Considering the conference intends to keep West Virginia through the 2013 season conference officials have effectively quadrupled the number of ranked teams in the conference in the hopes of keeping their automatic qualifying status in the BCS. San Diego State is the only addition that makes little sense to me, other than adding a geographically close member to play Boise State this team is not someone who will compete in the west division. If the conference had gotten Air Force the need for a mediocre addition wouldn't have been there.

There have been a lot of questions as to why the teams in the new west division would take this risk in joining the Big East when geographically it makes no sense and the travel expenses will grow astronomically for these schools versus where there were playing, which brings us to the only blurb I will write about the BCS and how horrendous and maddening this system truly is. There are five BCS bowls including the national championship which quick math means that ten teams make it the BCS. Based on conference affiliation six of these spots are given to the Big East, Big 10, ACC, SEC, Big 12, and the Pac 12. This year those spots went to West Virginia, Wisconsin, Clemson, LSU, Oklahoma State, and Oregon. That leaves four spots for at large bids to be given to what should be the highest ranked teams in the BCS and they do to start in Alabama and Stanford before something strange happens and Virginia Tech and Michigan end up with the last two spots. This is strange because in the BCS Standings Virginia Tech is ranked #11 and Michigan is ranked #13 which means that teams ranked 6-9 and 12 are completely skipped over in favor of two bigger name schools with fan bases that have the reputation of traveling well. Those teams are Arkansas, Boise State (this answers the question posed earlier as to why they'd join the Big East), Kansas State, South Carolina, and Baylor. With the automatic qualifying conference bid Boise State doesn't lose the chance to play in a major bowl by losing one game to a ranked opponent, and that goes for Houston and SMU as well. All the college football world needs is a small playoff structure and the fact that it still is something that hasn't happened.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Response To Reader Comment Regarding Recruiting

As of right now, next year's recruiting class will be the best in the school's short FBS (or division one for those of you still thinking in the old format) according to the ESPN star system with seven three star recruits. That is three more than Randy Edsall got in his entire tenure with the Huskies, however there is a serious disconnect between a players ranking coming into college and what happens when they work with the staff. To give you a better perspective Zach Frazier was given a ranking of 86 out of 100 and was recruited and accepted a scholarship offer from Notre Dame before transferring to UConn, the same year Frazier went to Notre Dame Randy Edsall secured the commitment of one Kendall Reyes who got a 40 out of 100. Now in hindsight it is easy to pick out the better player who impacted their team more, as Reyes is now projected to be the 5th best at his position in the country heading into this year's NFL draft.

So the system of recruiting rankings is flawed, no one should be surprised by this but the question revolved around quarterbacks and why any would want to come to UConn with our run first mentality. I would argue that under Pasqualoni the team was a lot more balanced in terms of play selection and that if I were an accurate and athletic passer who wants to compete for a starting job right away UConn is a solid fit because you know you'll have the support of a great offensive line and a run game to alleviate some of the pressure. Which is why in the last two years UConn has secured it's two highest rated quarterback prospects in Scott McCummings, a redshirt freshmen this year rated a 71, and Michael Nebrich, a true freshmen this year rated a 74. I think the true problem behind the quarterback situation is a lack of trust in the freshmen's ability as a pocket passer, and although this seemed to deter Pasqualoni from playing them I think it was actually in the Huskies best interest due to the continued struggles at the wide receiver position. Having a quarterback with the ability to move outside the pocket and create plays seems to fit the UConn style much more than a conventional quarterback does which is why we've had success recruiting these types of athletes in the last few years. Not to say that a conventional quarterback can't succeed in Pasqualoni's system I just firmly believe that the types of guys who are going to be attracted to UConn at this point in time are going to play Michael Vick style compared to Peyton Manning and unless Pasqualoni can adapt his system to these players this team will continue to fall short of expectations.

A better core of wide receivers is also going to breed more confidence in UConn as a choice for quarterbacks coming out of high school. As noted in earlier posts wide receiver has been an area of concern with an inexcusable average number of passes dropped a game, talented wide receivers have a habit of making mediocre quarterback play look great and bad receivers make mediocre quarterback play impossible to watch. This turns into a terrible cycle though, wide receivers want to play for a great quarterback and bad quarterbacks need great receivers and unfortunately for UConn fans we haven't had either in so long that neither wants to come here anymore. Defense, offensive line, and running back have long been UConn's claim to fame and until we have a breakout year at quarterback this streak will continue and I fear that will Johnny McEntee at the helm we're still a long ways from seeing it happen.

This all being said there are a lot of good looking players coming into Storrs for next season and there is a lot to look forward to as Lyle McCombs matures as a running back and these athletically gifted quarterbacks get more of a share of the load. A lot gets lost on defense this off-season but again Pasqualoni has managed the highest rated class in UConn history so there is talent and athleticism coming in. This of course assuming he is there to coach them.