To say Thursday night’s matchup with New Mexico State was frustrating would be the understatement of the year. The dreaded 12/5 upset in the NCAA Tournament reared its ugly head once again and UConn made an early exit for the second straight year. It was a disappointing way to end what could be the final season for several Huskies who have had a significant imprint on the rebuild of this program. There will be lots of time for reflection as the Huskies lick their wounds and regroup for next season, but here are some rash and not well-thought out initial reactions on the season.
Despite a really strong year and some monster performances from the senior guards, R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin, it felt like this team couldn’t quite get over the hump on so many occasions. Several close losses and tough finishes in games that they could, and should, have won. On top of that, this year was filled to the brim with more missed layups than I think I’ve ever seen. There were games where the unofficial count was in double-digits and often the missed gimmie shots really hurt their ability to grab momentum or win. Those missed shots and missed opportunities for wins came back to bite them in the end, as they sat on the brutal 5/12 line. A few more made shots and game closeouts and they are a 4 or even a 3 seed.
All that aside, they were also handed an awful matchup in a team that mirrors them in so many ways, but has what UConn did not: a star guard. New Mexico State has the x-factor guard that UConn has had in the past, and I wanted Cole to be, but he just isn’t quite at that level. He’s an amazing player and I’m grateful for all of his contributions, but he was never the guy that would consistently put the team on his back and be able to win games one-on-one. Some of that in stretches, absolutely, but not consistently with a minute on the clock in a close game. That was the piece that was missing from what could have been a nice NCAA Tournament run.
The other factor is Adama Sanogo. He would have stretches of being the most dominant player on the floor and even in the conference, but would struggle when opponents had size and were super physical. You could see his frustration on Thursday night that seeped into his mental state when he had opportunities to finish. He would rush the layup when he had time and missed a few 1 ft lay-ins that really seemed to mentally impact him. He will continue to get better and he has a legitimate shot at being the best big man in the country next season, but only if he learns how to take a breath and be a little more patient with the finish in close.
This team has given me such joy and heartache this year. They are a group you wanted to believe in and at times rewarded the fan loyalty with huge moments, like the win over then #8 Villanova that led to the first court storm in years for the Huskies. This team and these players have continued the rebuild under Dan Hurley and again took another step towards reinstalling the winning culture in Storrs, despite not moving past the first round for the second straight year. The fact the team is in the tournament for the 2nd straight year feels like miles ahead of where this program was 5 years ago. Much of that progress is thanks to the seniors and veteran leaders Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley who came back for another year of eligibility to continue the growth with Cole and Martin. The loss in no way diminishes the critical role they have had in making UConn relevant again.
Looking at next year, I have to wonder if we haven’t see the end of Cole and/or Martin in a UConn uniform. Neither seem to be near the top of draft boards and while there will likely be professional basketball opportunities, they might end up being overseas or not as lucrative. If they come back next year, UConn would have to be considered among the favorites to win the Big East and make another NCAA Tournament run (with hopefully better results). Another year in college could help them continue to move the program forward and mentor the strong freshman and sophomore class, guiding the next wave of Huskies. The rotation would be deeper and stronger than they’ve had in years, while allowing the younger players to grow into their roles as the next leaders on the team.
If this is the end, despite their flaws and my frustrations at times, this senior class has made me care and believe in the Huskies like I haven’t in a long time. Despite the tough matchup with New Mexico State on paper, my gut and heart told me this group of players had the potential to make a deep tournament run. They returned the feeling that UConn had every single year with Jim Calhoun at the helm and reinvigorated the fan base in a huge way. The future is bright at least in part thanks to these four players.
For now, I’m going to enjoy the rest of the NCAA Tournament and try to forget about their performance on Thursday night. Bleed blue.