UConn missing key piece

UConn missing key piece

January 24th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb, right, drives to the basket while guarded by Cincinnati's Yancy Gates Jan. 18 in Storrs, Conn.

Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb, right, drives to the basket...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Seated in the visitors' interview room inside Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena this past Saturday evening, Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun was asked why his team didn't press more on defense during its 60-57 loss to the unranked Volunteers.

"If we'd had one more player we would have," the boss of the defending national champs said after the fourth loss in their last six games. "But he's not here."

"He" is freshman guard Ryan Boatright, who was supposed to help the Huskies somewhat overcome the 23.5 points per game that NCAA Final Four MVP Kemba Walker averaged before taking his magical game to the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats.

And when Boatright has played this season, he's been pretty good, averaging 10.2 points and 3.5 assists a game. But the Aurora, Ill., native has been on the floor for only 10 of UConn's 19 games while the NCAA investigates whether he received improper benefits beyond the airline ticket he received from former AAU coach Reggie Rose.

That ticket cost the 6-foot, 160-pound Boatright the first six games of the season. When the NCAA decided on Jan. 13 that it might have further issues, UConn decided to sit him until all questions were answered.

An unnamed source told the Hearst Connecticut Media Group on Monday that the situation is supposed to be resolved within the next few days.

Calhoun isn't reserved about wanting Boatright back on the court. And who could blame him? UConn is 8-2 with the freshman reserve point guard playing and 6-3 without him, including the Huskies' last two defeats.

"[Ryan] has those Allen Iverson kind of things where his athletic ability just allows him to do some pretty special things that you don't normally see," Calhoun said a couple of weeks ago. "Secondly, he's not afraid. I don't think he fears making a mistake. Obviously, I love that kind of player."

Not that UConn has no unafraid players. Sophomore guards Shabazz Napier and Atlanta-area resident Jeremy Lamb scored 18 and 23 points, respectively, against the Vols. Lamb is averaging a team-high 17.7 points for the year, followed closely by Napier with 14.6 points plus 6.9 assists and 2.2 steals.

But it's the other gem in Calhoun's freshman class -- 6-10 center Andre Drummond -- who may need to improve the most if UConn has any chance to return to the Final Four or live up to its No. 4 preseason ranking.

Ranked by NBADraft.net as the projected overall No. 1 pick in this June's draft, Drummond is averaging a respectable 9.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocked shots. Against UT he scored six points, pulled down nine rebounds and blocked one shot in 31 minutes.

Told afterward that Calhoun had said, "We're not getting better inside," Drummond countered, "I thought I played fine."

Whether he did or not, his coach lamented on more than one occasion after the Vols loss, "We're going to have to work a lot harder than we are. I'm disappointed with some of our guys. Of our four guys up front, who's going to give us a good game in the post? Nineteen games into the season, I have no idea."

Of course, after 18 regular-season Big East games last season, Calhoun also had no idea. The Huskies entered the Big East tourney with a 9-9 conference mark but won the league tourney, then won Calhoun his third NCAA tournament title, the second most of any active coach behind Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

But no less than Napier believes more will have to change than Boatright regaining his eligibility for UConn to repeat.

"We're not doing enough on offense and we're not doing enough on defense," Napier said. "We're still trying to figure out what's going on, and the season is more than half over."

Yet Harvard coach and former Duke player Tommy Amaker believes the Huskies are one NCAA ruling away from swiftly returning to the top tier of Final Four contenders.

"I just think when they have those perimeter players -- Boatright, Napier and, obviously, Lamb," Amaker said after losing to UConn by 14 in December, "they're almost unguardable."

But until or unless Boatright regains his eligibility, the Huskies are looking more and more unlikely to guard their NCAA championship successfully.

"I'm disappointed," Calhoun said. "But I love these kids. I'm not giving up on them."

If Boatright returns, neither should the rest of the country.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.