Commentary

The evolution continues for No. 1 Connecticut's new leader

Originally Published: February 2, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Two years ago, Jeff Adrien would have kept his mouth shut, and Connecticut might have lost the game.

Adrien would have bitten his tongue as Notre Dame made its run. He would have sat idle on the bench and let his Hall of Fame coach do all the talking.

But Jan. 24, after Notre Dame countered Connecticut's first punch of the second half with a 12-4 burst, Adrien piped up during a stoppage with 8:46 remaining.

[+] EnlargeJeff Adrien
AP Photo/Joe RaymondJeff Adrien has always shown consistency on the court. Now he's added leadership to the mix.
"He controlled the whole timeout," senior guard A.J. Price said after Connecticut polished off a 69-61 win, snapping Notre Dame's 45-game home win streak, just as Adrien had predicted.

"He said everything we needed to do: no fouls, play good defense, hedge. He was very talkative out there."

Speaking up has been the final step in Adrien's evolution as the undisputed leader of the nation's top-ranked team.

One of the Big East's most experienced and consistent performers, Adrien has No. 1 Connecticut positioned for a conference title run headed into Monday night's showdown at No. 7 Louisville (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

His career stat line is one rarely seen in today's college game.

After contributing off the bench as a true freshman for Connecticut's purported dream team in 2005-06, Adrien has averaged more than 35 minutes, more than 13 points and more than nine rebounds in each of the past three seasons.

"You want to chalk him up for that double-double before the game starts," Price said.

Such production and consistency usually signal an early jump to the NBA, but the somewhat-undersized Adrien -- coach Jim Calhoun lists him at 6-foot-5 ½ -- has been a fixture at UConn and in a league that relishes his bruising style of play.

He leads active Big East players and ranks second nationally with 43 career double-doubles, including a streak of six that ended Saturday night against Providence. He needs just 21 more rebounds to join Emeka Okafor as the only Connecticut players in Calhoun's tenure with 1,000 career boards.

"His career has been terrific," Calhoun said. "The next phase, obviously, is, 'Can he lead a team?'"

Adrien has answered his coach this season.

"You play one year with veteran guys, and then as a sophomore, all of a sudden, you're a leader and guys are looking up to you because you played the most minutes the year before," said Adrien, who will make his 86th consecutive start Monday. "It was tough. You just had to figure it out, and I finally figured it out. This is my team."

Adrien can pinpoint the exact moment Connecticut's fate was placed in his supersized hands.

"As soon as Josh Boone left, Marcus Williams left, Hilton Armstrong, Denham Brown, Rudy Gay, Rashad Anderson," he said.

The mass exodus of Huskies players to the NBA following the 2005-06 season placed the spotlight squarely on Adrien, who averaged 6.5 points and five rebounds off the bench as a freshman.

He met demands on the court, averaging nearly a double-double (13.1 points, 9.7 rebounds) in 2006-07 as the team's most consistent performer. He led by example, but a young, green Huskies team needed more.

"I definitely felt it then, but I just didn't know how to go about things," said Adrien, who topped the Big East in double-doubles as both a sophomore and a junior. "Now, it's said. We talk about it in the huddle. We go out there and do it."

Back then, faced with a situation like the one at Notre Dame, Adrien, who is soft-spoken off the court, likely would have clammed up.

"He wouldn't step up and try to get us back together like he did today," guard Jerome Dyson said after the Notre Dame win. "None of us would have been talking. It would have just been all the coaches."

As a young player, Adrien struggled to check his emotions. The fighter inside him, celebrated these days, always appeared at the wrong time.

"He fought the opponents, the officials, everything around him on the court," Calhoun said.

Adrien faced similar demons early in his high school career.

Two days before his first game on the junior varsity squad at Brookline (Mass.) High School, Adrien broke his hand punching a door during a fight. He missed half the season.

"The first two and a half years, he was just incredibly emotional," said Mark Fiedor, who coached Adrien on both the JV and varsity squads at Brookline. "Usually, his passion was directed toward either the officials or something he did wrong, where, literally he would stop playing right in the middle of the game and start having a conversation with himself at half court.

"He's obviously channeled that now into being productive on the floor."

Adrien grew as a leader at Brookline and carried it over to Brewster Academy, where he spent a season to improve his academics before starting at UConn.

"He would definitely call people out for not playing hard when he was here," Brewster coach Jason Smith said. "I can think of more than one occasion where there was some pushing and shoving because people didn't play with the same energy as Jeff did.

"He may not have articulated as well as he does now, but as far as playing hard every possession, that was never a problem for Jeff."

Playing hard always has been Adrien's only choice.

Calhoun calls Adrien "an Adonis" now, but his size kept top college teams away until the summer after his senior year of high school, when he exploded on the AAU circuit.

Adrien played both center and point guard at Brookline High and dominated inside, averaging 27 points and 14 rebounds as a senior. That season, Brookline had a glut of forwards and not much perimeter speed, so Fiedor switched to a 3-2 matchup zone defense.

"We figured if anybody makes a mistake, Jeff's back there to erase the mistake," Fiedor said. "Mike Jarvis had come out to watch us play one time, and he said, 'Geez, he reminds me a lot of Patrick Ewing.'"

Still, the thought of sub-6-6 power forward in the Big East seemed farfetched.

Pittsburgh, another of Adrien's suitors, was one of few teams that wanted to use him in the post. Connecticut? Not so much.

"What's funny and ironic," Fiedor said, "in looking back and talking to coach Calhoun when they were recruiting him, he was saying, 'Don't send him to Pittsburgh because he's undersized and he'll have to play inside all the time. We like to run; we'll get him out on the wing.'"

Jeff Adrien
AP Photo/Al BehrmanAdrien has compiled 43 career doubles-doubles, the second-most of any active Division I player.
The plan changed as soon as Adrien set foot in Storrs.

"He just got so strong and so big," Calhoun said. "He married the weight room. He's a specimen."

With shoulders seemingly as wide as the lane he patrols, Adrien easily could pass for one of Randy Edsall's football players at Connecticut. He has a wingspan of 7 feet, 4 inches and checks in at 243 pounds.

His sturdy frame pays off against taller Big East forwards, and Adrien always finds ways to produce.

He has scored 12 or more points in every Big East game and averaged 8.3 rebounds in league play.

"They call out [Oklahoma's] Blake Griffin when he misses a double-double," Dyson said. "I think Jeff should be [the same way]. You know you're going to get that from him every game. We expect that out of him every game."

Playing bigger than his size comes with the territory for Adrien, who traded the team rebounding lead with 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet throughout last week (Thabeet currently leads 212-211).

"This is what it's going to take for me to get to where I want to get to in the future," Adrien said. "I've got to go in there day in and day out, be a leader, lead by example, score some points, get some rebounds, help my teammates and play great defense.

"That's my job every night."

While Calhoun thinks Thabeet might be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, Adrien's pro prospects are somewhat cloudier. Calhoun likens the senior to players like Udonis Haslem, Malik Rose and Jason Maxiell, undersized NBA forwards who play bigger than they are.

Adrien's ability to contribute every night in the nation's deepest conference should boost his stock. And although his statistics have been remarkably balanced the past three seasons, he has added elements to his game.

"I've seen him develop his midrange jump shot," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I've seen him become a better free throw shooter, I've seen him become a better passer. I've seen him just become a smarter player."

And, in the end, a willing leader.

"There's a simplicity to his game, yet he's added to his game," Calhoun said. "He's improved, improved, improved, improved and then tried to take over and help the team improve.

"That was the biggest step he made."

Adam Rittenberg covers college basketball and football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.