Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Know Your Enemy: UConn

Part 6 of our 20 part series hones in on a school with a terrific pedigree when it comes to a number of sports - basketball especially for quite a long time, and now on the rise in football - but hockey has never been one of them.

Connecticut
Nickname: Huskies
Location: Storrs, CT
Founded: 1881
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Coach: Bruce Marshall (23rd season)
2009-10 Record: 7-27-3 (6-19-3 AHA, 9th place)
Series: RPI leads, 2-0-2
First Game: January 18, 1930 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 16, 2004 (Troy, NY)
Last UConn win: Never

2010-11 game: November 26, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Key players: F Andrew Olson, sr.; F Jason Krispel, sr.; F Justin Hernandez, sr.; F Sean Ambrosie, so.; D Chris Waterstradt, jr.; D Alex Gerke, so.; D Grant Scott, so.; G Garrett Bartus, so.

The series with UConn may span over 80 years, but half of the games of that series took place within a week of each other, as the Huskies and Engineers tied in the consolation game of the Maverick Stampede in Omaha in October 2004, before turning around 6 days later and playing a game in Troy. That was also the last time the teams met, but not much has changed in Storrs since then.

As the early first meeting belies, hockey has been around at UConn for quite some time, but varsity hockey did not officially get its start until 1960 - unlike RPI, which recognizes the statistics from the pre-World War II hockey program, which was little more than a student organization, UConn is mute about its hockey exploits prior to that year. Thus, their record books likely show a 1-0-2 series lead for the Engineers, omitting RPI's 6-5 overtime victory over what was then the Connecticut Agricultural College in 1930, simultaneously the Engineers' only victory, only game with goals scored, and only game played in Troy that year.

The Huskies were actually a charter member of the ECAC when it first formed in 1961, but their minimal schedule (back then there was no definable league schedule) ensured that they were not a serious contender for league honors. In the league's inaugural year, UConn was the only school to lose every single game on its schedule against other league teams, going 0-7-0 to finish dead last. That improved to .500 the next season, but the Huskies only played four games against ECAC opponents that season, while league contenders were playing between 14 and 20 games against each other, underlining the major gap between the Huskies and the rest of top level eastern hockey. UConn would drop from the ECAC after three seasons which never featured more than 12 games total or 8 games against league competition.

From there, the Huskies' yearly schedules gradually grew to a level that would become common with smaller schools, and when the NCAA introduced Division III in the early 1970s, UConn began playing in the ECAC's Division III conference even as their prominence in a number of other sports at the Division I level bloomed, eventually settling into the ECAC East. From the time the Huskies left the top-flight ECAC to the late 1980s, they were somewhat of a static, middling program, usually hovering somewhere near .500 with a few terrible seasons thrown in.

That began to change in 1988, when Bruce Marshall became head coach. Marshall's first season was one of the worst in UConn history, as they lost 20 games for the first time ever - but Marshall soon had the Huskies performing on the ice as never before. Throughout the early to mid-1990s, UConn posted seven consecutive seasons with 15 wins or more, and six straight with fewer than 10 losses, including a 1991-92 campaign that would be the school's first 20 win season. Unfortunately, owing to UConn's Division I status in other sports, the Huskies were unable to translate their success on the ice into championships. They were even stymied within the ECAC, as each of those good seasons still ended with a loss in the ECAC Playoffs.

The Huskies returned to Division I in 1998, joining the MAAC for its inaugural season due in large part to the NCAA's demand that Division I schools move up men's hockey programs playing in Division III leagues, a move which also scooped up Holy Cross, Canisius, Iona, and Fairfield. UConn did very well in its first season back in D-I, riding a largely insular schedule made up mostly of MAAC teams to its second (and to date, last) 20-win season and a third-place finish in the then-eight team league. They would follow up the following season by winning the MAAC Tournament in Storrs. That, however, was the end of their season, as the fledgling conference did not yet have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

From that pinnacle in 2000, the program has been on a long, gently sloping decline. That season, the Huskies finished with a record of 19-16-1. They have yet to register another winning record since. Since winning the MAAC title, UConn has an overall record of 112-212-36 over the last 10 seasons. It has been particularly miserable the last two seasons, as the Huskies have limped to a jawdropping 16-53-5 record. They have lost at least 20 games in 6 of the last 8 seasons and in three in a row. And you thought it was rough in Troy over the past decade.

Needless to say, the cupboard is pretty bare in Storrs. Olson was their leading scorer last year with 20 points, and nobody on the team reached double digits in goals. The Huskies were dead last in the nation in scoring offense last season, and it really wasn't even close - UConn netted an average of 1.59 goals per game. Every other team in the country but one was scoring at least 2.00, and that one team was at 1.97, close enough. When you consider that the Huskies play in probably the weakest conference in the nation, that makes that figure even more eye-popping.

Defense? Not much there either. 53rd in the nation there last year (out of 58 teams) with a team GAA of 3.65. Put together, UConn was, on average, allowing almost 2 more goals per game than they were scoring. Part of that can be chalked up to the fact that the two Husky goaltenders who split most of the time in net last season were freshmen. A gap like that doesn't lend itself to healing in a single season.

There's not really much help on the horizon for the Huskies, either. Their most accomplished incoming recruit this year is Grant Scott, a transfer from the University of Minnesota. The big, bulky defenseman spent two years with the US NTDP before being recruited by Don Lucia, who tends to stock his recruit classes with nothing but blue-chips. Scott was a rarity at Minnesota as someone who wasn't a native of the state. But Scott played only one game in a Gopher uniform before leaving school, and his turning up in Storrs seems to speak less of what he might add to UConn and more on Scott possibly not being on the elite level one might expect from a US NDTP graduate (like Jerry D'Amigo). Regardless, he's also only one person, and UConn needs a lot more right now.

So what's the challenge here? These are the Engineers we're talking about, there's always a catch. To call this a winnable game is an understatement, UConn is probably the all-around weakest team on RPI's schedule this season. The problem is, we've all seen the Engineers play at the level of their opponent - one only has to glance back to the game against American International last season to see a game RPI probably should have rolled easily in and struggled to earn the victory. This is a game that the Tute will need to get themselves up for, because the student section is going to be pretty bare, as always, for the RPI Tournament weekend, which as usual comes the day after Thanksgiving. Regardless of how they do in games ahead of this one, anything but a decisive win is probably going to be cause to start wailing on the panic button.

No comments:

Post a Comment