A.J. Price finally develops into UConn's leader
STORRS, Conn. -- You want to believe that Connecticut's resurgence is all because of sophomore center Hasheem Thabeet.
You see him go 19 feet from the basket and swat a Ryan Ayers shot away so hard that it bounces toward the far end of the court and out of bounds. You see Notre Dame attempt to make shots over and around Thabeet, and it's easy to convince yourself that Thabeet's presence is the reason Connecticut has ripped off eight in a row -- including Wednesday's 84-78 win over Notre Dame -- to put itself at 19-5 (8-3 in the Big East, 1.5 games out of first place).
Thabeet's highlights certainly are changing the way Connecticut is playing. But to think that his development is the lone reason the Huskies are winning would simply be half the story, according to the staff.
Ask Connecticut's coaches. Ask one of Thabeet's teammates. Ask Notre Dame's Mike Brey. They all will tell you the reason for the Huskies' return to relevance is junior guard A.J. Price.
"Price is the guy," Brey said after Price's 26 points, nine assists and one turnover on Wednesday. "Price was fabulous. We tried a box-and-one on him and used everything in the book. He's so confident and got his rhythm back."
If there is someone who has been more out of sync than Price over the past two years, then please step forward.
Price's first two seasons at Connecticut are well-documented. He had a life-threatening condition in 2004 called arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which caused bleeding in his brain.
He wasn't allowed to take part in any basketball activity for two seasons because of the condition. During his second season of sitting out, he was suspended from being around the program for his role in laptop thefts on campus.
And then, after standing out as a counselor at the Nike camp in Indianapolis, the expectation was he would take last season's team, which was gutted by early entries to the NBA draft, to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, he struggled mightily, bearing too much responsibility for a team that didn't make the postseason.
"I've seen a lot of guys go through their things, but I don't think anyone had to go through what I did," Price said. "One I couldn't control and one I could have.
"I've had a long, long time here, and I'm just glad it's playing out the way it did."
Price admitted that he felt too much pressure a year ago. He said that resulted in his poor play. But he was determined to get this group, essentially the same core, to the NCAA Tournament.
A month ago, something changed for Price. Assistant coaches George Blaney and Patrick Sellers said Price was told how much he had to lead the Huskies. They went over specific examples. Price said he was told to stop yelling at players if there was a mistake. He had to be more encouraging. He had to make sure his teammates understood what was wrong.
And it has paid off. In the past month, Price has been getting to the free-throw line more often (8-of-9 in a win against Pitt) and has made sure it's clear he's the scoring point guard. He is averaging 18.6 points and 6.1 assists in the team's eight-game winning streak.
"This stretch is everything I expected when I committed to UConn," Price said. "It's everything I could ask for, honestly. I had a two-year layoff, I wasn't playing well, and there were expectations on my shoulders that I wasn't able to live up to because I wasn't prepared."
Role definition has been the difference. Price said the Huskies didn't have roles last year or at the beginning of this season.
But the past month, clarity has occurred. Without guard Jerome Dyson -- who was suspended before a Jan. 26 game against Indiana and will not be allowed to return to practice until Feb. 24 and to a game until Feb. 26, according to a UConn staffer -- Price is the unquestioned go-to player. Thabeet is expected to be an imposing defensive presence. Jeff Adrien is a workmanlike scorer/rebounder inside, while other players fill their spots -- like Doug Wiggins and Craig Austrie shooting and defending, or Gavin Edwards converting offensive rebounds.
"He's no longer the underdog," Wiggins said of Price. "He feels like everybody is coming at him, and he looks at every game as a challenge. He's playing with much more confidence."
You can see. Price doesn't hesitate to go make a play. He's vocal, but not too critical. And the 1-2 punch of Price and Thabeet is making the Huskies a legitimate threat to go deep in the postseason.
"What I keep telling the guys is this is how UConn is supposed to feel, how the arena is supposed to sound," Price said. "This is what I watched three years ago [when Connecticut was a title contender in 2006]. This is what UConn basketball is all about."
Maybe it was unfair to put too many expectations on Price last season since he hadn't played basketball for two years. Maybe it was unfair to put Thabeet on a pedestal last season as a can't-miss talent when he was still trying to find stable footing while he learned the game as a freshman.
"I was determined that this team was going to win and not be like last year," Price said. "This is a great feeling."
Like Price, Thabeet took the criticism for his inability to live up to the expectations, and he internalized the criticism. But he worked hard in the offseason and continued to build his confidence -- and with added touches, Thabeet said, his confidence grew. Blocking a shot 19 feet from the basket, knowing that he isn't taking a gamble, makes him a major factor for the Huskies; plus, he's staying on the court in the post without committing fouls.
Thabeet said he was too young for the expectations last season. He had never played against Big East-type competition. His confidence wasn't even close to what it is now.
The Huskies should savor it for a spell. The Big East's unbalanced schedule is advantageous to them. UConn doesn't get a rematch with Georgetown after losing to the Hoyas, but the Huskies don't play a team on the road with a winning Big East record the rest of the season (at South Florida, Villanova, Rutgers and Providence). The remaining home slate is certainly manageable, with games against DePaul, West Virginia and Cincinnati.
"We're back to what it's supposed to be," Adrien said. "We're winning games."
Sometimes it's that simple. But it wouldn't have occurred without Price's development and everyone's patience.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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