Kevin Duffy: Can UConn get to 20 wins?
Updated 11:50 am, Monday, January 28, 2013
HARTFORD -- What makes Kevin Ollie happy?
You wouldn't have known by watching him on the sidelines, but Sunday's 66-54 victory over Rutgers -- a pretty brutal affair on both sides for about 32 minutes -- did the trick. The rookie head coach was happy with the timely shooting of Shabazz Napier (how couldn't he be?), the versatility of Niels Giffey and the contribution from R.J. Evans, who specializes in "the little things."
Ollie places high importance on those little things, but -- if this makes any sense -- he always feels compelled to address the big picture. That's just his nature.
"I'm happy every day I wake up and I'm breathing," Ollie said from the XL Center podium. "A lot of people don't wake up."
He then narrowed the focus to basketball.
"I'm happy with 13-5, but that's not the point," he continued. "I don't go in saying `Let's get 20 wins and I'm happy.' I go saying, `Our team has to improve each and every game.' If we improve each and every game, I'm going to be happy."
So, if UConn does indeed improve over its remaining 12 games, can it get to 20 wins, a total that would make any reasonable Husky fan -- if not Ollie -- genuinely pleased?
A quick examination of the schedule says "Yes." And a quick interview with Shabazz Napier confirms that notion.
Before the year began, Napier thought that, "as long as we kept our composure and stayed together, we could come out with a 20-plus win season." It's not like he was checking off wins and losses, though. His early analysis of UConn's schedule (or the version he's willing to publicly share) was rather standard.
"I didn't really like the schedule this year," Napier said. "I felt it was so much XL. I'd rather stay in Gampel. I love Gampel."
UConn should love the next few weeks, a four-game stretch that starts Thursday at Providence and concludes with Seton Hall on Feb. 10. Each of those could -- maybe should -- go down in the `W' column. That would put UConn at 17 wins with Villanova, DePaul, another Providence matchup and a second South Florida meeting remaining. In that sense, 20 wins -- the number that usually punches a ticket to the Big Dance -- seems feasible.
"It's about wins and losses, but it's not really about wins and losses," Ollie said. "It's about growing as a team, improving as a team."
There was, without question, improvement in nearly all facets Sunday. The Huskies actually prevailed on the boards against a bigger, stronger frontcourt: R.J. Evans climbed over the back of a Rutgers post player for a rebound in the first half; Niels Giffey, per usual, battled in the paint; even DeAndre Daniels got aggressive in the final 10 minutes or so, totaling 13 points and seven rebounds.
If Daniels can regularly post 13 and seven, he'll keep Ollie smiling.
Of course, consistency has been an issue for Daniels. Truthfully, it's been an issue for nearly every team in the Big East. It's always fun to play this game: Rutgers beat Pitt but lost to UConn, who was defeated by Pitt, who throttled Georgetown by 28, who lost to lowly South Florida but upset Louisville, who was inexplicably knocked off by Villanova, who in November lost to Columbia by 18 points.
God bless you if you can make any sense of that.
"Until I hear from somebody, I don't pay too much attention to (what happens in the Big East)," Napier said. "If it comes up, I'll be like `wow, did that happen?' But I don't really worry about it too much about it."
In Sunday's postgame, Napier sported a hat that read "Us vs. Them." The irony in it: That simple philosophy is how most players approach the game. They don't know that Villanova was embarrassed by Columbia or that the Wildcats became the first unranked team since Ball State in 2001 to defeat two top five opponents in one week.
Heck, Enosch Wolf didn't even know who UConn faces after Providence (it's South Florida, by the way).
Then it's St. Johns. Then Seton Hall. Then a showdown with Syracuse in the school's Big East farewell tour.
It's always fun to play this game, too: Let's pencil in wins over St. John's, Seton Hall, Villanova, a split with South Florida, a split with Providence (the Friars always seem to get one) and a second beatdown of DePaul. That gets UConn to 19 victories.
So for 20, the Huskies would have to steal one of the following: Syracuse, Cincinnati (who they face twice), or Georgetown. Or they could sweep either South Florida or Providence.
It's all possible.
And if this UConn squad -- among the least talented of the program's past quarter-century -- attains 20 wins, there's an added story: Kevin Ollie, facing such unique circumstances, would have a strong case for Big East coach of the year.
That has to make him at least a little happy ... right?