ESPN's Bilas, Williams talk about the state of UConn men

New York — The state of the UConn basketball program is a popular topic of conversation in the social media, bar room and office water cooler worlds.

Husky fans are restless, waiting to return to the glory days.

Tuesday night's nationally-televised game against rival Syracuse in Madison Square Garden put UConn squarely in the spotlight.

"It's prime time," ESPN's Jay Williams said prior to the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader that also featured Villanova playing Gonzaga. "You get a chance to play in Madison Square Garden. People are paying attention to these teams now. It's a chance for teams to make statements about who they are. It's a chance for UConn to make a statement about who they are, or Syracuse, or Gonzaga or Villanova.

"... This is when legends are made. There's history there, too. There's not history between these players in particular. But when there's a legendary history between programs you feel that when you're on the court. That carries a different kind of vibe and energy."

Williams and fellow ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who watch and dissect college basketball games for a living, offered their opinions about the Huskies.

UConn has battled through bouts of inconsistency on the way to a 6-2 record prior to Tuesday night.

"Their record is good but they've been outscored on the season," said Bilas, referring the fact UConn has scored 583 points and allowed 584 points. "A little bit of a bizarre stat. ... They're not as big as you're used to in the past. But they've got some good pieces.

"Part of the solution lies in playing hard together more consistently. A lot of their players play really hard. I'm not sure they all play really hard consistently at the same time. As they get better throughout the season, that should improve. But they're in a really good league. It's going to be difficult, but they're capable."

Coach Kevin Ollie has been a target of criticism from an impatient fan base. Home attendance has taken a significant dip. Williams has faith that UConn is in good hands with Ollie.

"I've known Kevin Ollie for a very long time," Williams said. "He was my mentor when he was with the Milwaukee Bucks. That guy truly helped me through one of the darkest times of my life when I got into my accident.

"... I remember when Kevin was first thinking about taking the job. Kevin and I would talk about it. He's like, 'this grind is completely different than NBA coaching or anything I've ever witnessed before in my life.'

"But the one thing that I've always loved about Kevin, and that mantra still follows him, is he's addicted to the process. He likes the grind of how hard things are because he has something to prove."

Williams added that Ollie has to get some top recruits to come to UConn and use his NBA connections to his advantage.

A former Duke point guard, Williams can relate to what junior guard Jalen Adams is experiencing. He's  watched Adams play "since he's been a little one."

Williams said Adams is trying to find that tricky balance between being aggressive and making his teammates better. Adams entered Tuesday averaging a team-best 19.4 points per game and 3.3 assists per game.

"That's a big challenge for Jalen," Williams said. "It's something that I went through throughout my growth process in college.

"From the day that kid walked on campus, it's like he had to be something. That's a lot of pressure to play underneath. And now averaging 19 points per game, not only does he have to lead by scoring the ball and by getting other players involved, he has to lead by mentally being sharp and vocally leading. That's a challenging thing for a young kid to do all four of those things at this level."

More pressure also is on Adams since backcourt partner Alterique Gilbert re-injured his left shoulder. Gilbert, redshirt freshman, missed his third straight game Tuesday. He is averaging nine points, four rebounds and 2.8 assists.

"It really hurts because you've got a dynamic scorer that can attack," Bilas said. "You take a threat off the floor and it allows defenses to focus more on the other players. But that's true of any really good player that gets hurt. But that's two years in a row they've had to deal with that now.

"... Can they overcome that? Yes. Is it really difficult? You're darn right it is. It's really hard."

g.keefe@theday.com

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