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This win may come in handy

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published January 09. 2014 4:00AM

Storrs

You could be an alarmist, noting an offense for the UConn Huskies that's still coughing and wheezing.

Or how the best option at center, Amida Brimah, still has the training wheels, which leads to nights like Wednesday, when he changed the game in the post with his length, but fouled out in 15 minutes.

Or how a 6-foot-9 forward attempted eight shots, five of which were 3-pointers, against not-so-imposing Harvard. Memo to DeAndre Daniels: Get your ascot in the post because that's where your team needs you.

Hell, you could even question coach Kevin Ollie about this four-out, one-in/five-out, none-in experiment which left the paint barren on offense much of the first half. It was only after the Huskies got more basic - ball screen for Shabazz Napier, ball screen for Ryan Boatright - that the offense had any semblance of rhythm in the second half.

But then, if you exhale, sip a little decaf and look bigger picture, you see a 12-3 team that won a resume-builder Wednesday against a team that's exasperating to play.

It wasn't too long ago that beating Harvard in basketball was no more of an accomplishment than rolling out of bed in the morning. Au contraire these days. Tommy Amaker has a disciplined, shot clock-draining, three-point making assemblage in Cambridge now, a challenge for everybody, especially a team like the Huskies who don't always play defense for the full 35 seconds.

Harvard's players know what they are. And what they aren't. Maybe you have to be a basketball coach to appreciate that quality.

"This is exactly what we needed," Ollie said after UConn's 61-56 victory. "This team is going to test you if you are going to be disciplined. If you are going to play a team that challenges you in those areas, this is the team. They're going to run the shot clock down. They've got (Siyani) Chambers, (Kyle) Casey, big time basketball players over there. Tommy does a great job keeping in tune to what they're doing."

Harvard didn't have Wesley Saunders, its best player. Still, UConn held the Crimson to 36 percent shooting. This was a grinder. And they prevailed. That counts.

Especially after last week's Texas two-step that cast a few doubts among the faithful. Maybe all the games are going to be like this now, exercises in walking barefoot over broken glass to get a victory. Maybe that's how it's supposed to be. But if you started looking ahead this week, you realized the significance of this victory.

There was no need to panic, not with the 11-3 record coming in. But the American Athletic Conference's Ratings Percentage Index number slipped to ninth as a league. Ninth. Gone are the days of the Big East when seven or eight teams would go to the NCAA tournament and, say, a 21-10 record was a veritable lock.

If the AAC can't do better than ninth, how many teams do you supposed would go to the tournament?

UConn's remaining schedule doesn't provide many opportunities for quality wins, after Memphis and Louisville. That's why this game meant more than you might think. Harvard is a quality team. RPI in the 20s. A 13-2 record.

The Huskies entered the game with some decent wins. Except that Maryland, BC and Indiana, among others, have been varying levels of OK to rotten this season, detracting some from Connecticut's resume.

That's why this was a biggie.

"I walked in (to the locker room after the game) and I was excited as I don't know what," Ollie said. "It was a terrific win for us. (Harvard's) going to do some great things in March."

Now they get back to work and await Central Florida on Saturday at Gampel Pavilion. Maybe by then, Daniels will mimic Lasan Kromah, who actually goes to the basket, not away from it. Maybe by then, Brimah will be a few days better, perhaps enabling him to play more. Maybe by then, they'll all have a better sense of responsibility, understanding that Napier can't bail them out all the time.

But they're 12-3 and in an enviable spot, earning a victory Wednesday that will serve them well.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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