Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
When The Associated Press Top 25 rankings were released Jan. 9, defending national champion UConn was No. 17 in the nation and Seton Hall entered the poll for the first time in more than a decade at No. 24.
Not much has gone right for either program since.
Entering Saturday’s contest in Hartford (noon, SNY), Seton Hall (15-7, 4-6 Big East) has lost five straight and UConn (14-7, 4-5) has dropped four in a row. Neither team is ranked.
Saying both teams are on the bubble might be unkind to the bubble.
“Seton Hall kind of did the same thing that we’ve done,” UConn associate head coach George Blaney said Thursday. “Got really high in the rankings, won some games in a row and all of a sudden, as many teams do in this league, when you’re playing tough teams every single night, you get caught in a cycle where it seems like you can’t get yourself out of it. It’s going to be a real mental game.”
Both teams have serious problems.
UConn is talented, but leaderless and offensively challenged. Blaney and head coach Jim Calhoun haven’t been afraid to bring the leadership subject up with reporters, either.
After losing back-to-back tilts in New Jersey to Seton Hall and Rutgers last month, Calhoun called out co-captain Alex Oriakhi, saying, “I don’t think Alex is gonna be able to provide leadership from the five spot, I don’t really.”
That is some statement to make about a team co-captain (along with Shabazz Napier).
When I asked Thursday if the situation had improved any since then, Blaney, the former Seton Hall coach, conceded: “I don’t think it has been solved. Guys are trying to do it and trying to step up. One of the problems that we’ve been having is we really are very young. Just because we have a lot of sophomores who played last year, we’re still a very, very young team. We’re still struggling with that part of the game.”
Oriakhi, a major contributor on last year’s NCAA championship team, told SNY.tv last month that he was “frustrated” with his playing time since the arrival of freshman sensation Andre Drummond.
“He got very used to playing the five position [last year],” Blaney said of Oriakhi. “He isn’t away from the basket quite as much, but quite honestly he still mostly defends the five man. But he has struggled offensively.”
The 6-foot-9 Oriakhi averaged 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in 29.1 minutes last season and is down to 6.2 points and 4.7 rebounds in 19.4 minutes this year.
“Alex is trying,” Blaney said. “He’s really a great kid. Probably not too many people work harder than he does. At this stage, he’s doing it more by example. I still think we need a little bit more of a verbal leader.”
UConn may have two future lottery picks in Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, but they sorely miss current NBA guard Kemba Walker, who led the Huskies to 11 straight postseason wins last year and is now being praised by Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan for his work ethic.
“We had such a dynamite leader last year in both Kemba and Donnell Beverly,” Blaney said. “People forget a lot about Donnell. His contributions to the team were enormous … He had a tremendous affect on the team. We haven’t been able to replace that yet.”
Seton Hall, meantime, could be without senior power forward Herb Pope, who is a game-time decision with bruised ribs.
Senior point guard Jordan Theodore, who looked like an All-Big East player earlier this season, is shooting 26 percent during the five-game slide.
“If we can get him two or three minutes in the second half, that would really help him stay fresh mentally,” Pirates coach Kevin Willard said. “I think he’s OK physically to do it, but I have to give him a second to see the game from the bench and see how they’re playing it, get him fresh and get back in there.”
Somebody has to win this game, and if Pope can’t go you have to figure UConn has the edge.
“It’s going to be a real mental game…,” Blaney said. “It will be very tough. We know that we’re in for a battle.”
**For the latest on UConn’s recruiting plans for the spring period, click here.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.