I'm hearing a lot about North Carolina and Kentucky this November, and rightfully so. Both teams have looked great in the early going, and the meeting between the Tar Heels and the Wildcats in Lexington on December 3 should be truly a sight to see, for NBA scouts and everyone else as well.
Then again there's another top-5 team that looks pretty good right now, and they also happen to be the defending national champions. I refer of course to 4-0 Connecticut, and while it's true their schedule to this point hasn't been what you'd call challenging (Columbia, Wagner, Maine, and Coppin State), I've long been of the opinion that there's still much to learn even when a team is cruising through the softest portion of its schedule. After all, the Huskies have now played 268 possessions of basketball without their unquestioned leader and featured scorer from last year, Kemba Walker. How's that working for them? Who's been "stepping up," and has the absence of their star led to any interesting adjustments from Jim Calhoun?
These are good questions, and even before Thanksgiving we already have some tentative answers.
Jeremy Lamb's taking a lot more shots -- hey, just like I said!
In July I hazarded a reckless prediction and said this season Lamb would carry a much heavier load in this offense and average 19 points a game. If anything that's looking a little conservative: to this point in the young season the sophomore star has averaged 23 points per contest. That being said his scoring efficiency has been merely good and not great, primarily because he's yet to heat up from the perimeter. In four games Lamb has connected on just 32 percent of his three-point attempts. Recent history suggests that number's about to climb. You may recall last year Lamb made 52 percent of his threes during UConn's 11-0 run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments. True, opposing defenses are keying on him now, but 32 percent still feels too low.
Once Lamb gets his perimeter shooting squared away, everything else appears to be in place for a monster star turn. Right now he's taking 30 percent of UConn's shots during his minutes, which is more or less the same level of prominence we saw from Walker last year (33). And even with that burden Lamb's making a sensational 62 percent of his twos, he's been deadly at the line (86 percent), and he's committed just nine turnovers in the 254 offensive possessions he's logged for the Huskies. It's looking like all the preseason love showered on Lamb was justified.
Shabazz Napier's off to a sensational start.
You probably heard about the triple-double Napier recorded against Coppin State: 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 13 assists. That's an amazing line, but Napier's season totals after four games are almost as good. Sure, he plays a smaller role in the offense than Lamb, but within that role he's been incredibly efficient, knocking down 48 percent of his threes and 58 percent of his twos. (Right now the best play for an opposing defense is to foul Napier -- he's shooting just 67 percent at the line.) Even more impressive, Napier's exhibiting this accuracy while functioning as a terrific point guard, one who's recorded 25 assists in the 229 offensive possessions he's been given by Calhoun. And while his robust rebounding numbers might be a temporary aberration fueled by the Coppin State explosion, I am bound to salute any point guard that can haul down 16 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes. If you had to pick an MVP of this team after just four games, Napier would win in a walk.
Alex Oriakhi is vitally important and continually overlooked -- just like always
Oriakhi's an excellent offensive rebounder, and he gets those boards without fouling. That's huge. The world at large looks at Oriakhi and sees a player averaging seven points a game. I see a guy who pulls down 19 percent of his team's misses while he's on the floor. I also see a guy who's played 132 possessions of basketball this season and been whistled for just two fouls. Two! When you're this aggressive yet also invisible to referees, you are someone that any coach would kill to have. Don't make the mistake of overlooking Oriakhi.
Does Andre Drummond foul because he gets so few minutes, or does he get so few minutes because he fouls?
In August when Drummond decided to forego a final year of prep school and enroll at Connecticut, it was widely regarded as a very big deal. Now, after the freshman's first four college games as a bench player, we still can't quite tell whether this really will be a big deal. Certainly the 11-14 double-double that Drummond recorded in just 27 minutes against Maine was impressive. After that performance Calhoun was quoted as saying, "I'm not going to keep a guy with 11 offensive rebounds on the bench, that's for sure."
Yet when Coppin State came calling, there was Drummond on the bench again. Then when the 6-11 freshman did get in the game, he committed four fouls in just 12 minutes. On the season Drummond's averaging seven fouls per 40 minutes, and while of course that's high for any player it's particularly striking coming from a Jim Calhoun big man. UConn practically invented the "Big man who blocks shots and rebounds but doesn't foul" category. (Again, look at Oriakhi.) Maybe starting Drummond would assure him he doesn't have to force the action. Anyway, it's worth a try. In his very limited playing time Drummond's been even better on the offensive glass than Oriakhi, and he's also blocked 12 percent of the two-pointers opponents have attempted during his minutes. Then again I'm probably biased. If Drummond can't get more than 17 minutes a game I will definitely have to walk back that second-team All-American slot I had reserved for him.
Oh, and get used to this win streak
The last time the Huskies lost a game was on March 5, when Notre Dame visited Gampel Pavilion in Storrs and came away with a 70-67 win. Since that day Calhoun's team has won 15 consecutive games, and that number could well get larger. This week UConn will play in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, an event where the primary threat to the Huskies would figure to come from either Florida State or Harvard. If Lamb and company can pick up three wins there, it's not at all unlikely that they'll greet calendar 2012 still undefeated. Kemba Walker might be gone, but this new-look UConn team feels very familiar and traditional as they pile up the wins.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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