On the court, at least to date, Connecticut's biggest problem has been defense. On average, the Huskies are holding opposing teams to relatively paltry shooting percentages, and doing so without giving away frequent trips to the line.
But UConn has also been downright bad on the defensive glass, allowing opponents an average offensive rebounding rate of 34 percent. A team this talented, let alone one boasting this kind of frontcourt talent, shouldn't be getting beat on the defensive glass. If you're looking to diagnose Connecticut's woes, I'd start there.
Of course, when a team this apparently talented underperforms so badly -- when it loses back-to-back road games to Seton Hall and to Rutgers -- the natural tendency is to look for something deeper. For example: Do the Huskies lack leadership?
Typically, such concerns would be overblown; if UConn took charge of its defensive glass a bit better, the questions wouldn't even be asked in the first place. But when your starting point guard gives the kind of quotes Shabazz Napier gave to New Haven Register reporter David Borges, one can't help but account for the value of intangibles like leadership in discussing this team.
Why? Because according to Napier and coach Jim Calhoun, the Huskies don't have it:
Jim Calhoun was asked if there is currently a lack of on-floor leadership with UConn right now.
"There's not a lack of it," he responded, curtly. "There's none."
[...] “I took it a little personally, but I understand what he’s saying," Napier said.
He then went on to say how his teammates don't always respond to him the way he'd like.
"I try to tell the guys, I feel as if I’m their best leader. Sometimes they give me a chance, sometimes they don’t," Napier continued. "That’s just how it is. It’s just basketball, I guess. Losing like this, I’m not here to … be the captain because it gives you an ego boost. I’m here to win games. I hate losing games as much as anybody in the world. I try my best to be a leader, even though guys don’t give me a chance to be that person. It shows in the game, I can’t lie. When we have a tipped ball and big guys get the ball and I’m yelling for the ball back out, we’ve got a new shot clock and they go back up … that shows I’m not that much of a leader. When a play starts breaking down and I’m yelling, ‘Bring it out, bring it out,’ and Boat or Jeremy takes a shot, that just shows that I’m not a leader. It sucks, because we lose games like that. But I try my best. I’m just a human being, I try to do my best in helping my teammates out. If they don’t want me to do it, that’s on them, but I’m still going to be scratching and trying to do it, because I hate losing. That’s the worst thing ever.”
Napier went on to say he feels closest to Calhoun, so he sees it as his job to be a coach on the floor, but "sometimes the guys don't listen to me." And really, Napier does sound like the leader Calhoun is looking for. He may not be Kemba Walker in the huddle, but who is?
Even so, if Napier can't consistently command the respect of his teammates, he can't be the team's leader -- and if no good candidate emerges in the coming weeks, UConn could continue to struggle. Besides, being a leader means more than making sure your guys pass you the ball when you decide it's time to reset the offense. It goes a bit deeper than that, you know?
In the meantime, Calhoun is letting his team know this turn of events is not acceptable. According to the tweets from various media members at practice Sunday, Calhoun let fly with a rant for the ages. He reserved ire for no one, even little-used reserves like Mike Bradley and Enosch Wolf. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of a crisis-mode Calhoun practice. The rhetorical possibilities know no bounds.
In any case, this is the challenge of UConn's season. It's hardly a surprise, given the loss of the born-to-lead Walker. Plenty of pundits have been attaching the "someone will have to step up and lead this team in Walker's absence" caveat practically since April. That always seemed a little over the top. This team is talented -- more talented than the one that just won the national title -- and at the end of the day you'll take the talent. But Napier's leadership struggles are more than noteworthy now. They're the defining story line of this team's season, and that isn't set to change anytime soon.