The UConn Huskies will face two daunting road environments this week at Notre Dame and at Texas.
Coach Calhoun knows that every game is critical for his young team to improve as the season moves on. After a loss at Pittsburgh last Monday, UConn needed overtime to defeat South Florida.
While some may say that is a sign to be concerned about, this team has to refocus this week. Yes, the Huskies are 11-1 and ranked 8th, but that has no true meaning right now in the beginning of January.
Just ask Texas how they finished after starting of 17-0.
Big East play is brutal. Every night is a battle and tonight is no different. UConn has to get more physical down in the paint. Alex Oriakhi has four rebounds in two Big East games. Those lackluster numbers have to change if UConn is going to compete to be one of the top teams in the best conference in all of America.
Roscoe Smith and Niels Giffey have both been inconsistent. They are both in the midst of shooting slumps and when the perimeter shots aren't falling for the Huskies it doesn't end well. Smith is athletically gifted and Giffey has a great sense of awareness, but both need to make more contributions.
Kemba Walker can only do so much. While many believe he is NBA Ready right now, one player can't win a game for an entire team. He has scored 31 and 24 in his last two games. He's above and beyond the leader of this team and I would like to see Kemba get other guys on the floor more involved.
Charles Okwandu and Tyler Olander have struggled in recent games. The Big East referees are well-known for calling a lot of fouls and both these big men have found that out the hard way. Olander and Okwandu both lack frontcourt strength so they have to use their size to try and maneuver in the post.
With the shooters that Notre Dame has on the offensive end I wonder if Calhoun is going to play more 2-3 zone. He used it against South Florida and it looked to be pretty effective.
Keep your eyes on Ben Hansborough and Tim Abromaitis.
They both are excellent shooters from behind the arc. Abromaitis is a redshirt junior who is currently enrolled in a one-year MBA program. He can shoot and rebound for the Fighting Irish. Calhoun needs to find a way to try and limit his offensive production. He is just as strong a rebounder in the paint.
Tyrone Nash is another forward who will look to score for Notre Dame. It looks as if a hamstring injury will keep Tyrone Nash out of the lineup for tonight's game.
Notre Dame vs. UConn is always an exciting game. Calhoun realizes that his teams scoring production beyond Kemba Walker has been limited since the Maui tournament.
Whether it is Jeremy Lamb or Shabazz Napier, somebody needs to step up and become a consistent double-digit scorer behind Walker. If they don't then UConn is probably going to squeak out a 20-10 season and go at or below .500 in the Big East.
Who even knows if that would get them in the tournament. I don't want to see UConn have to win a Big-East tournament game to lock up a tournament bid, because they haven't won a conference tournament game since 2005.
Without looking too far ahead, January is always a month where you begin to find out how good your team really is. Conference play begins, real-road tests and there are still a couple of non-conference games where a team will learn a lot about themselves.
Mike Brey's team is coming off a tough loss against Syracuse. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are probably the two-best teams in the Big East right now. That can all change in one week. Just look at the eyes Steven Lavin is opening after defeating Georgetown last night.
Kemba Walker has been through this before. He's gone to a final four and the only way that there is a remote possibility of that happening this year is if the young Huskies win some games on the road, gain some confidence and ride that momentum into March.
We saw what they are capable of doing out in Maui against Michigan State and Kentucky. Now it is time to go out there and prove all of the doubters wrong.
The player to keep an eye on tonight for the Huskies is Jamal Coombs-McDaniel. He has had an up and down sophomore season, but came on strong in the overtime win vs South Florida. UConn needs him to get in the lane and attack the basket. If he can go in and play within the offense the shots will eventually start to go through the hoop.
UConn needs to come out and battle against Notre Dame in all areas. If they can limit the amount of open-threes and out-rebound the Irish then they will have success tonight.