As one coach after another is asked about the UConn men's basketball team this season, the first two words are almost always, "Their guards."
That the Huskies' offense, and really their fortunes, revolves around guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright is clear. But to be successful – and success this season would be defined as winning a few more games than expected — UConn needs a third scoring option.
At times, freshman Omar Calhoun, 6 feet 5, has been that option. Calhoun, also a guard, has started every game, but at times looking very much like a freshman. He is 1-for-11 from the floor in the last two games, and scoreless against Harvard on Friday night.
Enter DeAndre Daniels, who emerged suddenly, and spectacularly, as that third option in UConn's 57-49 win.
"We can't have Omar and DeAndre both not scoring," Shabazz Napier said.
Harvard dared Daniels, or someone from the supporting cast, to carry the Huskies and for the first time he did, scoring 23 points. UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who has made it a point to build Daniels' fledgling confidence, poured it on after the game.
"DeAndre is a player," Ollie said, "and DeAndre just has to have that confidence to take it to the rim, be aggressive. And that's what we wanted him to do today. ... He decided to play today. And that's what DeAndre can do.
"He's a load on that sweet spot — not right on the block, but right on that sweet spot where he can take one dribble. He's so long. One time he looked like he was Dr. J — he went under the rim, under the backboard and made a scoop shot. We will need that in Big East play and coming up after the break, because we've got some good teams coming in here."
Dr. J., Julius Erving, is old school. Shabazz Napier has something more current in mind.
"I tell him don't compare yourself to him, but watch Carmelo Anthony," Napier said. "Watch what he does with his feet. … 'Make your move quicker.'"
When Daniels came to UConn, lofty comparisons would not have been surprising. But after a disappointing freshman year, expectations waned. He is 6 feet 8, and still getting taller, though he is wiry. With the Huskies thin frontcourt, Ollie has moved him to the "power" forward role, in hopes his quickness would make him difficult to cover.
"Shabazz always tells me, 'Turn face,'" Daniels said. "As soon as you get the ball, 'turn face.'"
The goal, make a quick move and leave a bigger, slower defender behind.
"It was a tough matchup for us," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "He seems to be a very versatile player. We've also been seeing and hearing that they wanted to get more from him."
In the first eight games, UConn saw only flashes. Daniels scored 12 against Michigan State, seven against Vermont, 12 against Wake Forest, three against Quinnipiac, nine against New Mexico, eight against Stony Brook, seven against New Hampshire and seven against North Carolina State — much of those points coming in the first half.
"We try to get it to him most of the time," Napier said. "We know he can score and it's up to him to believe he can score. His confidence is kind of low but after [the Harvard game], I believe it should be very high."
Confidence, as Bill Parcells often said, comes from "demonstrated ability," and now, finally, Daniels has demonstrated he can score with penetration, create a shot for himself, or hit from the perimeter, ability, it was always believed, he had.
"If he can score like that, it's huge for us," Ryan Boatright said. "Because he's a forward. He'd be tough for teams to guard."
Part of the fits and starts associated with Daniels' scoring this season could be attributed to UConn's overall, and well-chronicled, struggles with rebounding. He's a transition scorer, and without rebounds, it's tough to get the break going. Daniels is UConn's leading rebounder, but with a modest 4.4 per game.
"I can help them and take the load off of them because everyone is going to be scouting us and trying to get us out of our game," Daniels said, referring to the guards. "I just need to step up and help and get the load off of their back."
Napier, UConn's leading scorer, was held to six points, but he had nine assists. He had someone to go to who could score.
Daniels hit his first five shots on Friday night, and made 9 of 12. He went to the line, in a game with relatively few fouls called, and hit 4 of 4. With the 23 points, he is now, in fact, UConn's third-leading scorer at 9.8 points per game, behind Napier (17.2) and Boatright (14.4), with Calhoun dropping to 9.0.
And he did it all with back spasms hampering him throughout the game. Perhaps, for Daniels, the game represented the turn of a corner, and now he has 10 days to get his back healthy before UConn (7-2) plays Maryland-Eastern Shore on Dec. 17.
"I was confident in myself," Daniels said. "My teammates started the game going to me to try and get me going. When I kept scoring, I got more confidence in myself."