UConn's pretty smart, too

Storrs - It would be easy, not to mention convenient, to dismiss what happened Thursday night at Gampel Pavilion with an absorbing, "well, what did you expect?"

As in: Bigger, stronger, faster UConn was too much for cagey, calculating, scholarly Harvard.

It'll probably happen that way.

But it would be a lie.

Because the UConn Huskies happened to play a very smart basketball game. Read that word again: smart. That's a big reason for the 67-53 win over No. 25 (and previously unbeaten) Harvard. Smart. Solid, fundamental basketball.

It's just that the word "smart" isn't ever attributed to anybody else except Harvard. (Or the UConn women). It could be sacrilege to use that word for Harvard's opponent. In that case, bless me readers, for I have sinned.

This hasn't always been the case with the Huskies. The Stanley Robinson Group of a few years ago would have been a better track team than basketball team. Lots of dunkers and jumpers, not many basketball players. That has changed.

"They're so crafty with the ball," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said of UConn's guards.

Crafty.

When's the last time a UConn player or players was labeled "crafty?"

"We told them this was a mental game tonight," Jim Calhoun said.

The crafty Huskies did just fine in the mental game.

The crafty Huskies picked the right night, too. It's not easy playing Harvard, which has emerged as, if nothing else, the best college basketball team in Boston. A veteran team that can make you look silly - or prone to intervals of self-pity - if you cave to the Crimson's deliberate style. Harvard will pass the ball more than the Dan Fouts Chargers. The shot clock will creep into single digits. The crowd will think their guys are playing smothering defense. And then just the time grows desperate, the parachute opens and someone will stick a three.

It happened a few times in the first half to UConn.

Deflating? For a moment. Calhoun had seen it before.

"Florida State (which Harvard defeated earlier this season) at times looked like, 'What are we going to do?'" Calhoun said.

The Huskies, who, by the way, aren't the most experienced team since Dr. Naismith's invention, could have looked the same way.

"They run their stuff about as well as anyone in the country," Calhoun said of Harvard. "They're going to test you. You're playing pretty good defense, you're in good defensive position … They jack up a three. We can't give in to situations. We have to impose our will on people."

Which is what they did.

"We dominated them defensively," Calhoun said.

They weren't so bad with the ball, either. They turned it over a mere eight times. They got good shots, made 47 percent of them. And when you combine that with UConn's athletic superiority, you have a darn good win in December.

It was such an encouraging night, knowing it's December and the season is full of hope and wonder. There is so much potential here. Andre Drummond scored 12 points on five dunks and a hook shot. And he's not a whisper of what he could be. Alex Oriakhi is lost. What happens if - when - they start playing to their capabilities? There is such quickness at guard and a star in Jeremy Lamb.

And best of all, they can play basketball. It's not just a group of runners and jumpers who will disrupt you into submission. Yes, they are big and fast. But this game illustrated they're not going to get outsmarted by the smart guys. It's a bigger compliment than you think.

"I tell the kids it's hard to play here," Calhoun said. "It's hard to play here because the expectations are very high. It's hard to play here because I expect more. We haven't quite connected yet. And when we get into the meat of our schedule, we have to be connected."

Don't bet against them.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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