|After some rough patches, Jim Calhoun, Shabazz Napier and UConn seem to be on the right path. (Getty Images)|
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Jim Calhoun said they had zero leadership, Jeremy Lamb looked lost at Rutgers, and Connecticut was swept on its New Jersey road trip. There was frustration boiling over in Storrs, Conn., and the promise of yet another special season had begun to dwindle.
This hardly appeared to be the same UConn group that some -- including yours truly -- predicted to make a return engagement to the Final Four and potentially defend its national title.
Calhoun, according to one reporter who observed Sunday's practice, dropped as many profanities in a 90-minute span as he had in a long, long time.
"They had their backs against the wall," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said after his Mountaineers blew a second-half lead and lost to UConn 64-57. "They needed this one."
But guys like Lamb and Alex Oriakhi weren't overly concerned -- even after the back-to-back losses at Seton Hall and Rutgers. They had seen far worse, not all that long ago.
"We lost three straight after Senior Night," Lamb said. "That was a horrible feeling. We had no confidence."
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Actually, it was two straight -- and four of five to end the regular season a year ago. The UConn locker room resembled a morgue after the setback to Notre Dame on March 5.
"I hate losing, but this was nothing compared to that," Oriakhi added. "Now we know anything's possible."
Lamb was virtually invisible for the majority of the first 20 minutes. He was coasting, as he has been known to do at times. Then he showed why many consider him a lottery pick by exploding for 17 points in the second half. Freshman Andre Drummond also turned it on after the break, scoring 11 of his 20 points and also grabbing nine of his game-high 11 boards.
Even Oriakhi, who has been relegated to an afterthought for nearly the entire season, was a factor -- scoring eight points and grabbing three rebounds. Instead of hanging his head in the 12 minutes he spent on the bench, he was the ultimate cheerleader.
Calhoun isn't the only one still figuring out this post-Kemba version of the UConn Huskies.
"We're all trying to figure out our roles," Drummond said. "It's taking time."
As impressive as Lamb and Drummond were, that's how terrible sophomore point guard Shabazz Napier played. Napier was 0 for 6 from the field, but did manage eight assists in the victory. Calhoun played his small-forward trio of DeAndre Daniels, Roscoe Smith and Niels Giffey a grand total of 16 minutes, opting to go with the quick and diminutive three-guard lineup of Napier, Ryan Boatright and Lamb with two of the three bigs -- Drummond, Oriakhi and Tyler Olander.
This is a team that still, despite the recent struggles, has a chance to make another deep NCAA tournament run.
They have no shortage of talent.
"How many teams have two top-10 picks?" Huggins asked.
Kentucky, North Carolina, Baylor and UConn.
That's No. 2, 3 and 4 in the country -- along with the Huskies.
"We're in a better spot than we were a year ago," Calhoun said.
It certainly appears more promising than when Calhoun & Co. were heading into the Big East tournament last season, when the Huskies appeared to be a dead team that would limp into the NCAA tournament based largely on its accomplishments early in the season.
Then came the historic Big East tournament run, followed by six more victories in the Big Dance.
"It just shows anything can happen," Lamb said.
But now this team can't rely on Kemba Walker to bail it out of tough jams. This team needs more fire and intensity out of Lamb on a consistent basis. He knows it, but his role has altered quite a bit from this time a year ago.
"I feel like I have to be more energetic," Lamb said. "My team looks for me to lead -- as well as Alex and Shabazz."
"We don't consistently have a leader," he added. "We need leadership all the time in order to be a great team."
But where will that come from? Lamb admitted it's going to take time for him to grow into that role. Drummond can't be a leader -- and Oriakhi can't do it from the bench.
That leaves Napier -- whose toughness and stubborn personality can, at times, be a detriment. Leadership can come from the bench in the form of UConn's Hall of Fame coach.
So, this team might not have the leadership without Walker.
But they still have the talent -- and the recollection from a year ago.