What a difference a year makes

Even after capping off one of the greatest postseasons in the history of college basketball with the program’s third national title last season, the UConn Huskies were supposed to be even better in 2011-12.

With all but one of key contributors back from their championship run — and all a year wiser, stronger, better after their improbable trip from unranked underdogs to the last ones standing in April — and an all-world talent, one with more upside and raw ability than perhaps any player to ever grace the Storrs, Connecticut practice courts in Jim Calhoun’s 26-season tenure, replacing the void left by their all-world superstar, up was the only way this thing could go.

And so came the hype, the top-five rankings, the rumblings of making another memorable Tournament trek and putting one of the few feathers missing into the peacock that serves as Calhoun’s career cap: back-to-back titles.

With perhaps the most talent and depth ever at a program that once exported four first-round picks (and five draftees overall) to the professional ranks in 2006, anything seemed possible, and so everything was expected. All the while overlooking the glaringly obvious:

This is not last year’s team, even if the faces look the same.

There is no more Kemba Walker to put each and every one of his teammates on his back and bull-rush his way to the rack, daring defenders to impede his path along the way. The Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb whose late-season maturation provided Walker the help he needed to take things to another level are gone, replaced by newer, more-polished versions expected to not only serve as the heart and soul of these Huskies, but also the driving forces on offense. Not even Alex Oriakhi, whose dominance of the offensive glass provided the perfect complement to Walker and the bevy of rebound opportunities his relatively inefficient attack created, has the same feel. Now, the most-senior UConn player is struggling just to fit in and sending out brooding tweets instead of infectious smiles.

The good vibes that positively emanated from this team, the ones that led their beleaguered coach to basically beam in the postgame press conferences night in and night out, have given way to a sense of uncertainty.

Any feeling otherwise was officially washed away this past weekend. Even if Calhoun wants to call a game in which his Huskies turned it over on more than a quarter of their possessions a “signature win.”

Almost a year since last season’s Huskies traded in the longshot outlook thrust upon them in the preseason for a shiny new coat of contender by capping off a stretch of three straight wins against top-40 opponents by annihilating Kentucky under the bright lights in a humidity-drenched gym in Maui, this season’s bunch blew a 17-point lead in a loss to a sub-90 UCF squad — UConn’s first halfway decent opponent — under the dim lighting (literally) of a Bahamas ballroom. They followed that disapointing performance up with a sloppy (and, quite frankly, lucky) overtime victory over Florida State that will put their anointed contender status squarely under the microscope.

Two suspect performances in games Nos. 6 and 7 certainly aren’t enough to quell all hope of a title run or set the bandwagon ablaze, but it did make apparent the issues – some new, some still lingering from the struggles of a rough stretch in 2010-11 — that this club must sort out over the next four months of the new season to realize such lofty goals.

To wit:

Adjusting the blueprint.

Despite a team eFG% ranked in the bottom third nationally, last season’s team was able to thrive on offense, particularly in non-conference contests, with a tried-and-true method of playing lockdown defense (No. 14 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency), dominating the offensive glass (No. 7 in OReb%), taking care of the ball (No. 26 in TO%) and making their free throws (No. 12 in FT%).

These Huskies are a much better shooting team and still fantastic on the offensive boards — better than any team in the country, in fact — but they have yet to master the other half of the championship blueprint. Through seven games, UConn is ranked 230th nationally in TO%, can’t hit a freebie to save their lives (65.5 FT%) despite getting to the line more often — an impressive feat given that Walker produced a huge chunk of their late-season trips to the charity stripe — and it’s defense has declined from one of the country’s best to a rather average one.

On the surface, much of this seems correctable. While the 2010-11 team needed to do the little things to overcome a fundamental flaw (the ability to shoot well), the Huskies’ issues now seem to stem from inexperience and still-developing chemistry. Problem is, even the play of some of their “veterans” has been mixed, at best.

Aside from a few questionable shots and decisions here and there, Shabazz Napier — a name just begging to be punctuated — had been the team’s most efficient scorer heading into the Bahamas. This was in large part because of a 62 percent success rate on 2-pointers. But the point guard has struggled to run the show in Walker’s wake. Napier had 18 turnovers in the Huskies’ three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis and has coughed it up at least five times in more than half of their games. And the increase in time on the ball likely isn’t the culprit; he had by far the highest TO Rate of any player with regular minutes last season. Given a ho-hum assist rate, the sophomore may be better used off the ball, where he spent some time last season in a hybird, dual-PG backcourt with Walker.

Oriakhi continues to pull down a crazy number of offensive boards without fouling, but as his nearly non-existent an offensive game actually appears to have regressed this season, justifying his court time is becoming harder and harder, to the point where he played just 10 minutes against the ‘Noles. And critical tweets pointed at Calhoun certainly aren’t helping the cause.

Lamb has continued the ascension up draft boards and in Husky lore he started back in April, using the available possessions left behind by Walker to increase his scoring average by 10 points while maintaining his efficiency, and the Huskies have cobbled enough around him to produce a top-15 offensive outfit (with the obvious caveats of a seven-game sample, five of which coming against teams ranked 150 or lower.)

But the relative struggles of some of last season’s leaders has put a lot of the burden on some of the less-experienced nine underclassmen that make up the Huskies’ 10-man unit, particularly on defense. Which leads us to …

Andre Drummond, projected lottery pick, is playing like Andre Drummond, freshman.

The talent is there. You see it in the way he explodes to the rim, occasionally kicks the ball out to an open man from the block or sends some poor soul’s shot into the crowd. Only, it’s often hard to remember the bright moments amidst the oodles of silly mistakes.

Drummond’s shot-blocking ability is one of the main reasons the Huskies (No. 4 in Blk%) have maintained a solid defense despite a rather average defensive eFG%, but sometimes he looks plain lost out there. Off the top of my head, I can count at least four times in which he forgot what to do after hedging on a screen this past weekend. And while his presence as a shot-blocker likely intimidates some from attacking the paint, he’s far from a real imposing force down there. Although not in foul trouble against either Florida State or UCF, Drummond didn’t bother to close out hard to really contest the shot or give a foul and make the shooter earn the two points at the line.

He also came within a centimeter of a game-losing goal tend at the end of regulation against FSU before thankfully pulling his arm back at the last second… Progress?

It will come for Drummond. In spite of the lapses, 12 points, 10 boards and six blocks against the NCAA’s fourth-best defense ain’t too shabby, and he’ll have plenty of time to figure it out with the first unit given Oriakhi’s issues. But it may take a while.

In the meantime, practicing some free throws (35 percent on the season) would help.

Solving the zone … again.

Their torrid run through the Maui Invitational put the Huskies on the map last season, but it also exposed their greatest weakness. And by that I mean, the players not named Kemba Walker.

Walker was simply unconscious in the team’s 10-0 start, averaging 26 points per game on 50 percent shooting (and a crazy 42.1 percent from 3). But even with defenses focused squarely on the junior’s kamikaze drives through the lane, no other UConn player was able to develop into a consistent scoring threat.

So the adjustment for opponents was simple: pack the lane. The Huskies began seeing more and more matchup zones as the season went on, and without any player with the range to open up the court (UConn had the 237th-best 3P% in the country), defenses simply collapsed on Walker whenever he sniffed the paint.

The result: The offense ground to a halt, and UConn lost seven of its last 11 regular-season games. They were able to solve the problem, just in time for that 11-game postseason winning streak you may have heard about, by cutting down what they did poorly (shoot 3s) and focusing on what they do well (letting Walker take it to the rim and hitting fouled shots). A genius idea, I know. But without Walker there to take the reins, the problem has resurfaced.

It’s almost like déjà vu on every meaningful late possession – a big sets a fruitless high screen and then they simply pass it around the arc until someone has to jack up a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock. UConn scored just two field goals in the final 7:38 in the loss to the Knights, and followed it up with just two field goals and one made free throw in five attempts (all Drummond) in the final eight minutes against Florida State before Ryan Boatright’s game-tying trio of free throws. Even the game-winner against FSU, an NBA-range trey by Napier with 16 seconds still on the shot clock and the Huskies only down one, was more split-second decision than a product of sterling execution.

With an offense that relies predominantly on athletes making plays rather than Xs-and-Os brilliance – I’m almost convinced the entire playbook consists of just three actions: PG drive-and-dish, high pick-and-roll, big man postup – Calhoun is essentially (foolishly) waiting for someone to step up and fill Walker’s void as the sole offensive option late in games. So far, it hasn’t happened.

Lamb, despite his otherwise hyper-efficient offensive game, was just 1-for-5 from the field after the 8-minute mark in the second half (including OT) in both games and didn’t exactly silenced criticisms about his lack of desire to take it inside, often disappearing or quickly passing it off late during the bulk of both games. While Napier, who wouldn’t pass up a chance to jack up a shot late even if his shorts were on fire, has gone all SHABAZZ~! (his spastic alter ego) with a 1-for-8 showing from the field with five turnovers in the same span. And their help has certainly been less than helpful — no player other than Lamb, Napier and Drummond made a field goal in “crunch time.” (Late against UCF, both DeAndre Daniels and Tyler Olander got wide-open looks, but both clanked the iron.)

Did you catch the Boat Show?

That’s where Boatright comes in.

In his first college game Saturday after serving a six-game suspension, the freshman finished with 14 points (on 4-for-7 shooting), three assists, a rebound, no turnovers and, of course, three ice-cold free throws to send the game into overtime. (Whether a foul should have been called in the first place is a whole other story.) But more impressive was the way the offense flowed with him in the game. A quick slasher with good ball control, not unlike Walker, Boatright was able to dart into the paint and draw defenders to open things up some for others.

Calhoun noticed the difference as well, keeping the Walker-approved freshman on the court for 33 minutes and using a three-guard lineup of Boatright, Napier and Lamb for long stretches in the second half. While a backcourt of the “6-foot” Boatright and “6-foot-1” Napier will give up a lot of size, it would allow Napier to move off the ball and put even more of the speed Calhoun loves on the court. Besides, that formula has worked before, as the Huskies managed to ride the Napier-Walker pairing all the way to a title.

However, the move won’t solve all of UConn’s problems. Hell, with only a one-game sample to work from and a freshman point guard to work with, it’s very possible that it won’t even solve one of them (Boatright was a minus-8 on the day, after all).

A lengthy list of issues that need to be addressed in the coming months. These Huskies have a long way to go before living up to a top-10 ranking, let alone championship expectations.