Connecticut simply too much for Harvard

STORRS, Conn. -- The basic goal for Connecticut and Harvard is the same: win a championship.

The Huskies are angling toward the title that is handed out in New Orleans the first week of April. Harvard simply wants to claim the Ivy League championship outright at the conclusion of the regular season.

Neither team is close to those goals yet. But Thursday night’s game between two ranked squads gave an indication of where both stand as the No. 9 Huskies beat the newly ranked No. 24 Crimson 67-53 at Gampel Pavilion.

Connecticut has the pieces in place, with a dunking specimen inside in Andre Drummond, a perimeter that can shred a defense with its scoring from Jeremy Lamb, Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier and two significant rotation players in forward Alex Oriakhi and stretch 4-man Tyler Olander.

But the Huskies don’t have the discipline to defend yet, aren’t sturdy enough with a lead, make careless decisions at times, and still don’t get how close they need to be as they were a year ago, when they turned a 9-9 Big East season into that remarkable 11-game run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

UConn coach Jim Calhoun said the Huskies need to overcome negativity, especially when a team makes a run, a call doesn’t go their way and “occasionally being criticized for your performance."

"In our system, you have to be able to handle occasionally being criticized for your performance," Calhoun said. "I tell the kid’s it’s hard to play here. It’s hard to play here because the expectations are very high. It’s hard to play here because I expect more. And when you give more, I expect more. We haven’t connected yet. And when we get into the meat of our schedule, we have to be connected.’’

The Huskies were a trendy pick for the Final Four once Drummond changed course and decided to enter college this fall instead of going for a post-graduate year. But the loss to a so-so Central Florida team in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas was an indicator that the Huskies weren’t ready for prime time just yet.

But adding the now-eligible Boatright to the mix the next day changed the Huskies offensively, giving them a scorer off the bench and someone who goes north-south with his penetration, looking to score or dish.

“We can hit you from every angle,’’ said Boatright, who added 11 points off the bench to complement Drummond’s 12 and Lamb’s 18. “We [Boatright, Lamb and Napier] can all dribble, score and create for other teammates. If we’re ever down with the clock, then we can make something happen. We know the heart and soul of the team can be the guards.’’

Still, there are holes to this team that Oriakhi and Lamb are well aware have to be fixed to mimic what the Huskies did a year ago. There is no Kemba Walker to save this team in late-game situations, so they have to be more of a team that shares the responsibilities at both ends of the court.

“I definitely think the chemistry has to be better,’’ Oriakhi said. “The chemistry last year was great. Everyone was unselfish.’’

Added Lamb: “I think we’re moving in the right direction but we’ve got to work hard. People have to get to know their roles. Sometimes we have too much one-on-one and we’re not moving without the ball. We’ve got to come together and execute our plays more to get everyone involved.’’

The Huskies aren’t as cohesive as Syracuse is at this juncture in the season. But the Huskies may have a higher ceiling if Drummond and Boatright continue to improve and Oriakhi can improve his productivity along with Olander.

“Overall it was a pretty good performance against a team that is going to win 25 or 26 or 27 games,’’ Calhoun said. “They would be a tough out for almost anybody. I think our size bothered them overall and the penetration of our guys.’’

That much is true. Harvard won’t face another team the rest of the regular season that will have similar length. The Crimson beat a team with comparable size in Florida State, but the rest of the schedule doesn’t even come close.

In this one, Harvard didn’t get anything out of leading scorer forward Keith Wright in the first half, but he did find his confidence in the second half with 9 points. Kyle Casey, Laurent Rivard, Wesley Saunders and Brandyn Curry had their moments. But the Crimson got blitzed on the boards and had too many empty possessions during a lull when the Huskies built a 16-point second-half lead. But Harvard didn’t fold and got the game within three possessions.

“I was pleased with the effort from our team and I felt we hung in there for the first 20 minutes,’’ said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, whose team trailed by just 2 at the half. “We didn’t get much of anything easy around the basket, which is probably going to happen to a lot of teams when they face this basketball team with their size and athleticism.’’

But let’s not dismiss the Crimson because they couldn’t win in Storrs, where the Huskies haven’t lost a nonconference game in November or December since 1973 (101 straight).

Judge Harvard now on how the Crimson handle the rest of the schedule, like at Boston University on Saturday or at Boston College on Dec. 29 -- games they should win -- and then in the Ivy, where Harvard will be favored in every game on the schedule. The Crimson have already won the Battle 4 Atlantis and tough road games at Loyola Marymount and Vermont -- games Harvard should win and did.

Now it's just a matter of winning the Ivy outright and finally breaking through for that first NCAA berth since 1946.

“I was pleased with the way we were prepared and how we followed our game plan and tried to manage the game,’’ Amaker said. “Our kids handled things so far in an admirable way. We’ll see now after the first loss how we do. This is a new spot for us.’’