Chuck 'n Sticks
Jim Calhoun has been insisting for a while now that he sees things in practice from Charles Okwandu and Ater Majok that fans and media aren't seeing in games.
"Suuuure you have, coach," has often been the collective (if unspoken) thought among UConn's media horde.
On Saturday, Calhoun's practice-time observations finally proved not to be fables – at least in the case of Okwandu. In the "where-did-that-come-from?" dept., Okwandu scored 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting, had five rebounds (three offensive) in 14 minutes and – perhaps most stunningly – only committed two fouls.
Okwandu, a raw, 7-foot junior center who had seen exactly one minute of action over the prior four games and didn't even make the trip to Cincinnati on Wednesday due to an intersession class, checked into the game just over four minutes into the action after Majok picked up his second foul. He immediately scored on a short lane jumper, and two minutes later, grabbed a rebound and hit a jump hook, then followed that up with putback.
In that four-minute span, Okwandu had matched his entire scoring output for the entire season.
Okwandu wound up hitting a 12-footer before the half ended and scoring off an inbounds pass early in the latter half.
"He shocked us a little bit, no question about it," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey confessed. "They can run a lot of bodies at you like that and run you down. He happened to really deliver. He did a good job getting on the backboard, made a couple of 10-foot jump shots. I didn't know if he could do that, and he did that today. It really hurt us."
Calhoun, however, wasn't as shocked.
"He's looked so good in practice," said the coach. "You wouldn't believe the two great days he had. I think the positive it does, it gives us another big guy, and it gives Ater somebody now, instead of worrying about what he has to do to help this team win, he has to work harder to get playing time over Charles. And that will be good for Ater."
It was enough to earn Okwandu what had to be another first: an invitation to the postgame media room.
"I just needed to come out of my shell and play very hard," said the soft-spoken big man. "I haven't been playing good from the beginning of this season, but I kept working hard. They keep telling me to work hard, and I did. When you work hard, it pays later. I think today was the day."
Calhoun isn't the only one who's noticed Okwandu's prowess in practice.
"He makes great moves in practice, makes that elbow jump shot that he made today," said Jerome Dyson. "It was really just a point of getting him in there. In past games, he's been in foul trouble. Today he played good defense, stayed on the floor and showed what he's capable of doing."
So, has Okwandu raised the bar to where Calhoun will expect this kind of performance regularly?
"I've always expected, both he and Ater … to break through. This is his breakthrough night, Ater hasn't had one. I fully expect Ater to have one. Ater does some things in practice, we aren't imagining them, we see them. I always think Jerome plays better in games than he does in practice. Charles and Ater always play better, up to this point, in practice."
Ah yes, Ater. After being replaced by Okwandu four minutes into the game, he didn't returned, finishing with zero points and no rebounds.
***Stanley Robinson sat in a chair in the interview room sporting a green hooded sweatshirt with a shamrock on it under the word "UConn." A "tribute" to today's opponent, Notre Dame? Nope.
"Ray Allen," Sticks said of the ex-UConn, current Celtic star.
If Robinson keeps playing like this, he'll be in the NBA next year with Allen, perhaps after being selected in the draft lottery.
Robinson is currently not only one of the best players in the Big East, he's one of the very best players in the entire country.
"He's got elite talent, he's starting to become an elite player," said Calhoun. "He's playing terrific. He feels good about himself.
Said Brey: "Jim's done a great job teaching him how to play and become a better basketball player. He was always a great athlete. He was probably a great athlete in sixth grade. But he's become a very good basketball player in their system, not forcing things, taking what the defense gives him. And I think this year, you can tell he leads this group. He's talking in the huddles and is setting a good tone with a lot of young frontline guys. Definitely one of the better players in the league and in the country."
As for "The Play" – Robinson's one-handed putback dunk of his own missed 6-footer off his own missed free throw 5 ½ minutes into the second half:
"That seems to happen almost every game. I can tell when I'm going to miss the shot, I can tell it's going to come back to me," Robinson said, with a shrug. "I missed the shot and I got the rebound back, missed that one, and I just stuck with it."
Calhoun was more impressed, but Dyson not as much.
"We've seen that from him before, it's really nothing you're kind of in awe (about), because you know he's capable of doing anything."
By the numbers:
***Thanks to Edwards and Okwandu (and two from Jamal Coombs-McDaniel), UConn's bench outscored Notre Dame's, 25-0.
***Luke Harangody scored a game-high 31 points on 14-for-27 shooting, but had just two free throw attempts. He was averaging more than 7 trips to the line per game.
***UConn outscored the Irish 50-28 in the paint.
***The lead changed 17 times in the game before the Huskies went ahead for good on Robinson's putback with 10:11 left.
***Dyson and Kemba Walker each had 10 assists, the first time a UConn duo has ever notched double-figures in assists in a Big East game.
***Robinson (22 and 16) Dyson and Walker each notched double-doubles.
***Robinson also helped hold Farmington's Tim Abromaitis to eight points on 3-for-9 shooting.