It wouldn’t have been a big-man matchup of Patrick Ewing-Ralph Sampson proportions, but watching Connecticut’s Amida Brimah and Cameron Ridley of Texas block shots in the same game would have been worth the price of admission.
Now it’s not going to happen – at least not Tuesday night in Austin.
Texas has announced that Ridley, a 6-9 senior who suffered a fractured left foot in practice on Sunday, will have surgery Tuesday and will be out of the lineup indefinitely. Before that news broke Monday, it was already known the Huskies would be without 7-foot center Brimah, who broke a finger last week and had surgery on Christmas Eve. He’s expected to miss six to eight weeks.
The injuries dramatically change the complexion of this non-conference game between two 8-3 teams looking to improve their resumes for the NCAA tournament.
Ridley is the second leading scorer for the Longhorns, averaging 12.7 points. More importantly, he averages 10 rebounds and 3.4 blocks.
Brimah averages 7.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Playing without Ridley will be a new experience for Texas in this, the Longhorns’ first season under new coach Shaka Smart. This is the third consecutive game the Huskies have played without Brimah.
In a 99-52 victory over Central Connecticut on Dec. 23, coach Kevin Ollie started 6-10 Phillip Nolan at center but he played only five minutes. Shonn Miller (25 points, 5 rebounds), Kentan Facey (10 points, 12 rebounds) and Steven Enoch (6 points, 2 rebounds) all took turns in the lane. They played well, but it’s not the same as having Brimah’s enormous wingspan, which serves as a safety net on defense.
And after Texas, UConn faces the challenge of conference play in the American Athletic Conference.
“This is a chance for a lot of guys to step up and get a great opportunity,” Ollie said. “The message I want them to know is that Amida has been covering us the whole year. Now it’s our time to cover him while he’s out.
“Nobody can fill Amida’s void. But if everybody steps up their attention to details and plays a little harder, I think we’ve got enough to cover him until he gets back.”
With the star shot blockers out, both coaches will ask other big men to step up. Miller is 6-7 and is second with 12 blocks for the Huskies. Facey has blocked nine shots and can redirect other shots with his defensive play at 6-10.
Texas may call on 6-11 Prince Ibeh or 6-9 forward Shaquille Cleare to stay physical or rely more on the quickness of guards Isaiah Taylor, Javan Felix, and Tevin Mack to execute its will against UConn.
Before Brimah injured his finger, he missed a game against UMass Lowell with a groin injury. That’s when the Huskies learned what happens when guards drive past them and Brimah isn’t there for rescue and recovery. Brimah’s teammates didn’t realize how serious the finger injury was at the time it happened in practice. Miller thought it was just jammed.
“I was in disbelief, mad, and upset . . . I don’t know how else to describe it,” said Facey, who was 4-for-8 against Central and grabbed seven defensive rebounds. “He’s vital to the team defensively and offensively. Defensively he’s always there to help cover our mistakes. We’ll definitely miss what he brings to the table.”
Miller said the team must split up the responsibilities Brimah handled on the floor and, as captain, off the floor.
“It’s definitely a next man up kind of deal. It’s hard to replace him. I don’t think you really can. But we’re going to do everything we can to have his back. We’ll all step up.”
Ollie may go with a hot hand or a player who matches another team’s big man better. He has to remain flexible during this span with Brimah. Facey seems likely to see more playing time because of his experience and flexibility.
The Texas game will be UConn’s first true road game this season.
“Kentan has been playing well,” Ollie said. “He came out with the energy I wanted. Shonn established himself, getting 25 points and I basically didn’t play him in the second half after the 12-minute mark. We want our players to play like that and they’ve got to step it up. Our guards have to do a better job keeping that man in front of them. I just want them to pay attention to detail.
“Unfortunately one of our best players is out now. It happens. I’m going to look at it as an opportunity with some time for other guys to step in. Hopefully he’s not out for the season, he gets back in February and we have some other bigs that emerge. It’s going to make us a deeper team going into March and April.”