Connecticut may have nothing to play for this year, what with the NCAA-imposed postseason ban stemming from low APR scores, but you couldn’t tell by the way the team outfought one of the toughest and scrappiest programs in college hoops.
What better way to pay tribute to the game’s military backdrop.
Kevin Ollie’s head coaching career is off to a superlative start, and not even the most optimistic Huskies fan who witnessed last season can say he saw this coming. Connecticut knocked off heavily-favored Michigan State, 66-62, at the Armed Forces Classic in Germany, needing to hold off a second half Spartans surge to ice the game.
Some first impressions from an uplifting win for the Huskies and deflating loss for the Spartans:
Early-season rust and growing pains? Not for these Huskies. Connecticut blitzed Michigan State right out of the gates, connecting on nine of the team’s first ten shots in the game. The Huskies were sloppy and schizophrenic in the second half, which made their scorching start that much more valuable. UConn jumped out to a 16-point lead in the first ten minutes of the game, and it was those ten minutes where the game was ultimately won. The disheveled pack of Huskies we saw last year under Jim Calhoun were nowhere to be found under first-year head coach Kevin Ollie. Connecticut ran very crisp offensive sets unbecoming of a team of its youth. The kicker? X’s and O’s are supposed to be Kevin Ollie’s glaring weakness.
Where was this effort last year, Connecticut? At no point last season was UConn as sharp as it was during the first ten minutes of tonight’s opening round game—the first ten minutes of the season, no less. Last year’s Huskies started two lottery picks and three starters in all from the championship team from the season before. Yet it was tonight’s spry and motivated bunch, with a starting lineup that featured three underclassmen and no seniors, that in one night dwarfed all the accomplishments (what few there were) last year’s team amassed.
UConn’s backcourt, when at its best, is special. We know Ryan Boatright, who broke out as one of the best freshman guards in America late last season, was gifted offensively. Tonight he made it clear he’s one of the stingiest backcourt defenders in the Big East. The rising star notched five steals and was a pest on Keith Appling all evening. Boatright’s backcourt mate, Shabazz Napier, was no slouch himself. Napier erupted for 25 points on 8-16 shooting and hit a pair of dagger 3-pointers late in the second half. Altogether, Boatright and Napier teamed up for 38 points on 50-percent shooting and fed well off each other all night. Good luck to future Big East backcourts containing that package of quickness and strong shooting. This dynamic backcourt is going to wreak havoc.
R.J. Evans. The Holy Cross grad transfer is going to play a bigger role than initially projected. And he looked ready for the gig tonight. Evans finished with six points, but more importantly was active on the defensive end.
DeAndre Daniels Sighting. The sophomore forward was M.I.A. all of last season, and his revered 3-point shooting in high school never made it to Storrs. But it did find its way to Germany. Daniels flashed his outside shooting touch in the season opener, finally connecting on a 3 and converting a thunderous baseline dunk moments later. He was effective on the glass (eight rebounds) and a menace defensively (three blocks, several more shots altered). If he cuts down on the turnovers (five tonight), he’s going to be a valuable player for Ollie.
Sparty’s offense. Draymond Green was missed tonight in the worst way. Michigan State was rugged offensively for most of the game, relying on fast-break points and a late shooting surge to make a run. As bad as the execution was, the game plan was even worse. The Spartans lived on the perimeter for too much of this game. They settled for too many forced perimeter shots, especially early in the shot clock, and didn’t utilize their size advantage down low. Connecticut’s interior defense lost three players responsible for 156 blocks last season (on top of Jeremy Lamb’s 21). Sparty’s refusal to exploit this vulnerability was a major tactical misjudgment.
Sparty’s defense. It wasn’t pretty. Michigan State couldn’t keep up with UConn’s electric, super-quick guards all night. Fortunately for the Spartans, there’s no backcourt in the Big Ten anything like this…short of hated rival Michigan. Yikes.
Branden Dawson. You wouldn’t know by watching him tonight that Dawson had ACL reconstructive surgery over the summer. Dawson started slow, but got stronger as the night wore on. The versatile guard looks ready to explode in his sophomore season.
Responding to lead changes. There weren’t many in this game—only two to be exact—but when the Huskies twice squandered the lead which once stood as high as 16, each time they immediately responded with a bucket on the other end. Those responses to momentum changes are how games are won or lost.
Questionable end-game coaching. Don’t quite know what Tom Izzo was thinking down the stretch. Trailing by four points with ten seconds to play, Izzo had Keith Appling race up the floor and call a timeout. Down two possessions, why slow down the game? Michigan State needed a quick basket—and the best chance for that is in the unsettled situation—and then an immediate foul. No sense in spending a timeout and slowing down the game when you need two scores.
Usual early-season hiccup for Michigan State. As discombobulated as the team looked, don’t overreact to the loss. This is nothing new for Tom Izzo’s teams. The Spartans have habitually started off slow and finished strong under Izzo. Last year’s Spartans, if you’ll remember, began 0-2 and was outclassed by North Carolina and Duke, both times on neutral floors. Sparty rebounded and snagged one of four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. If any coach knows how to shake off a sluggish start to the season, it’s the man stalking the sidelines in East Lansing.
Uniform Conflict. Please scratch these camouflage uniforms. Forever. I’m not entirely sure who even won this game, as both teams wore camou jerseys that, from afar, looked nearly identical.