There are two versions of this year’s UConn team – the one with Amida Brimah and the one without. Guess which version can make another run at history?
While much has been made of other, high-profile absences, like at Wichita State and Syracuse, the absence of Amida Brimah went largely unnoticed by the general basketball public. The committee clearly ignored it. If Bill Self were reading this, he’d be nodding.
Amida Brimah is a freak of nature. He is 7 feet tall, weighs a mere 230 pounds and runs the floor with speed. He grew up playing soccer, evident by his excellent footwork and less-than-excellent ball skills.
If you look at his stats, you must be questioning my sanity. How can a guy averaging 7 points, 5 boards and 3 blocks be UConn’s power source?
This is where stats don’t quite tell you everything. Amida Brimah is the quintessential example of a disruptor. They don’t keep stats for altered shots. They don’t keep stats for bad passes by guards in the paint. Most importantly, they don’t keep stats for confidence.
That is why Amida Brimah will determine how far UConn goes in this year’s NCAA Tournament, because his presence changes how every single UConn player views his role.
When Brimah was out, it bandied about as a blessing because the Huskies would develop into roles and Brimah’s return would only enhance that. Instead, the exact opposite took place. This year’s UConn team is void of true upperclassmen, as Coach Kevin Ollie cobbled together a talented roster from new recruits and graduate transfers to mask poor recruiting due to NCAA violations and a coaching change.
So instead of getting four months of the new guys – Shonn Miller, Sterling Gibbs and Jalen Adams – playing with Brimah, there was only a brief sprint during conference play to figure it out. Clearly, as UConn stumbled in the AAC, that process needed more time.
In the AAC Tournament, we saw the seeds of a team learning to play together. More specifically, this is a team that figured out how to play with Amida Brimah. Once they did, their confidence level soared.
Brimah is one of the most unique talents in college basketball, a fact bolstered by the dearth of agile 7-footers at this level. Kansas, North Carolina and Michigan State are the three top favorites to win it all. They have a grand total of zero 7-footers.
It was very clear after watching UConn win the AAC Tournament that they are a more confident, more explosive basketball team with Brimah on the floor. On the defensive side, the impact is obvious. The guards can take more chances up top. The forwards can cheat more on passing lanes. The paint is, at times, a literal no-fly zone.
Let’s revisit the Cincinnati thriller, where the Bearcats front line appeared shell-shocked by the time overtime rolled around. If not for Troy Caupain’s mind-blowing performance, UConn wins that game in four fewer overtimes. Against Temple, the Owls never got into any sort of offensive flow. Against Memphis, Brimah made a couple big defensive plays early and the game never really felt in doubt, though Memphis did make a run when UConn let its foot off the accelerator.
UConn, though, is a great defensive team with or without Brimah. UConn becomes a great offensive team when the center who doesn’t average double digits is in the game.
After the Temple win, Fran Dunphy said of Daniel Hamilton, “I think he’s the best lob passer I’ve ever seen in college basketball.”
While Hamilton is a stud, he is aided greatly by the fact Brimah is a safety blanket. When in doubt, toss it near the rim and the tallest player on the court will usually find it.
This is where the confidence aspect comes from, because UConn has a number of players who can create off the dribble. With a painful lack of outside shooting, a collapsing defense means a lot of open three-pointers that clang off the iron. UConn desperately could use a Rashad Anderson, who could sit at the three-point line and drill open three’s all night.
Without that option, UConn needs to get creative. Now, when Hamilton or Adams drive, they don’t automatically kick it out for the three – they look for Brimah down low for the lob. One or two of those early in a game and the defense has to adjust. It leads to a defense that can’t leave Brimah, which opens up the mid-range game for Hamilton and Adams and that’s their strength.
If you rewatch the overtime thriller, you’ll see that most of UConn’s big shots down the stretch came from the mid-range, just outside the paint. Hamilton or Adams would drive and, faced with man-to-man defense, would stop and pop. Cincinnati couldn’t help with other bigs because they couldn’t give up easy dunks – it was up to Hamilton and Adams to hit those 15-footers. They did. UConn won.
Earlier this year, I asked what had happened to the Hungry Huskies and the fire that the 2014 National Champs played with down the stretch of every game. How could that team win every close game while this team seemed to lose every close game?
It turns out my ire was misdirected. They were still hungry. They were simply missing their most important piece.
Parity has turned the NCAA Tournament into a crapshoot that is usually won by a team with talented players and a great coach. The 2014 season is the perfect example – neither UConn or Kentucky were discussed as pre-tournament favorites, but they had NBA-level players and a coach that had the skills to win it all.
Upon Amida Brimah’s return, I said that UConn has the talent to beat any team in the country.
After the AAC Tournament, I say that UConn has the talent and confidence to beat any team in the country.