As members of the UConn men's basketball team take their final exams for the fall semester, they are not quite at the midpoint of the season.
They know how to win: With a number of close victories last season, including a 5-2 record in the seven games that went to overtime, the Huskies proved they knew how to win. But one never knows if there will be a carryover from one season to the next.
UConn has already played four games against power-conference opponents — Florida of the SEC, Maryland and Boston College of the ACC and Indiana of the Big Ten — and won them all in games that came down to the last possession. Whether it involved making a big defensive stop, grabbing a rebound or loose ball or hitting the buzzer-beater, as Shabazz Napier did against Florida, the Huskies have shown that they can win the type of game they are likely to play deep into the postseason.
Rebounding remains an issue: The Huskies had major rebounding problems last season, but they figured to improve with freshmen Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey entering and Phil Nolan having a season behind him. It has gotten a little better, but it remains an issue. UConn has been outrebounded 172-169, and on the offensive boards, 121-83. As in 2012-13, the Huskies do offset this with blocks (60), forcing turnovers (120, to 103 of their own) and outshooting opponents (49.1 percent to 37.7 percent). They do a good job of team rebounding. But to reach the highest level, UConn needs to show more muscle and get better rebounding from its frontcourt.
Bull's-eye Giffey: Each year, players return to school with the perception they are different after a summer of playing elsewhere. Niels Giffey is the real thing this season. After a summer playing against older guys (including NBA vets) in EuroBasket 2013, he has come to the Huskies as a truly different player. He is playing, and shooting the three-pointer, with a confidence and conviction we have not seen before, and his 66.7 percent shooting on threes has made the difference in many games.
Around the new league: The Huskies were picked second in the preseason AAC coaches poll, and the perception was that Louisville was No. 1 and that UConn and Memphis were Nos. 2 and 2A. As the nonconference schedule draws to a close, we see that the league figures to be fairly strong — and perhaps not as top-heavy as perceived. UConn is its only unbeaten team, with Louisville having lost to North Carolina. Cincinnati and Memphis each have one loss, and SMU is 8-2.
Look for some of the AAC games on the road to be tough gets for UConn, which will have a big target on its back as it goes to some of these arenas for the first time.
Coaching presence: In Year 2, Kevin Ollie's reputation as a solid X's and O's coach continues to grow. The performance in close games speaks for itself. But when he called timeout down by eight against Florida, and drew up a play that resulted in Giffey's wide-open three, which he made to shift the momentum, people noticed — including the two dozen NBA scouts at Gampel.
All that Shabazz: Napier made the right decision, returning for his senior year. He is "improving his image," as Ollie suggested last year, with his leadership, basketball IQ and knack for clutch play all showing in close games. Napier is averaging 15.3 points, nine rebounds and 5.9 assists. It could pay off with a much higher slot in the draft, and could serve as an example to others weighing whether to go pro with one year left, such as Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels.
Looking ahead: The Huskies return to action with two Pac 12 opponents, Stanford at the XL Center on Dec. 18 and Washington in Seattle on Dec. 22. League play begins with a Texas two-stop, to Houston on Dec. 31 and SMU in Dallas on Jan. 4. It seems that UConn and the defending national champs, Louisville, are on a collision course. They meet Jan. 18 at Gampel.