Looking into UConn's crystal ball, the really good news for coach Kevin Ollie would be Daniels developing into a consistent scorer for the Huskies. It's no secret UConn needs someone to deflect defensive attention away from guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.
Daniels appeared to be a pretty good candidate Friday at Gampel Pavilion, scoring a career-high 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting and leading the Huskies (7-2) to a 57-49 victory over pesky Harvard (4-4) before 9,113. Even though the Huskies shot a season-high 52.2 percent (24 of 46) from the field, points did come easy for UConn. Boatright (16 points) was the only other UConn player in double figures.
UConn needs Daniels to become a long-range option, not someone who shows up now and then.
"I hope so," Ollie said when asked if Daniels can play this way consistently and become that key third offensive threat. "We're going to keep feeding him the basketball. We're going to keep putting him in position to succeed. Hopefully this is a stepping-stone for him. To come out and get 23 points, hopefully he's got a smile on his face and he's feeling good about himself – but not good to the point where he stops working."
At practice Thursday, Ollie wasn't sure if Daniels could start because of the back problems that surfaced Tuesday night in UConn's loss to North Carolina State. Daniels not only started, he scored eight of UConn's first 15 points as the Huskies jumped ahead 15-2 and created an uphill battle for the Crimson.
Daniels tied his career high with 15 points on 6 of 7 shooting in the first half. There were times, especially early in the game, that his pain was visible. But scoring seemed to be medicinal for him and he managed to log 33 minutes.
"It all started with me talking to [Ollie after Tuesday's game] and him just telling me I needed to be confident in myself and be the person I used to be," said Daniels, who received stimulation treatment on his back after the game. "At the start of the game, they were going to me early to get me going. I was able to knock down my shots and my teammates were finding me."
Daniels is 6-foot-8 and plays very long. With that combination, he can be a matchup nightmare for many teams and that was the case for Harvard. Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said his team was "searching for answers to try to defend him."
"It was a tough matchup for us," Amaker said. "He seems to be a very versatile player. We've also been seeing and hearing that they wanted to get more from hi. He certainly looked like he delivered tonight."
Daniels scored his first points from the free throw line, hitting a pair to give UConn a 5-0 lead. Amaker sensed those shots put Daniels at ease and increased his confidence. On UConn's next possession, Daniels scored on a reverse layup and the offensive outburst had begun.
"It's always good to see a teammate have a breakout game like that," Boatright said. "It boosts their confidence and let's them know what they can do on a night-to-night basis. It's very important [to have a third scoring option]. The teams focus on us two and their whole game plan is to get us out of the game or slow us down. If somebody else can step up, it will make our job a lot easier."
UConn led 27-24 at halftime, thanks primarily to Daniels. The Huskies shot 55 percent (11 of 20) as a team in the first half and had seven assists on those baskets. But after racing to that 15-2 lead in the first seven minutes, the Huskies ran into trouble attacking Harvard's zone defense.
Ollie made a change to the starting lineup. Center Enosch Wolf, who had 12 points and nine rebounds against N.C. State Tuesday, replaced Tyler Olander. With a 7-1 center in the game, UConn should have dominated the boards. But rebounding continued to be a problem. Harvard finished with a 27-20 advantage on the boards. Wolf (four points) played 20 minutes and didn't get a rebound. Olander also logged 20 minutes, scored four points and had two rebounds.
Napier, who didn't score until the final eight minutes of the game, only had six points but he led the Huskies with seven rebounds, had nine assists and four steals in 38 minutes.
"My number wasn't called today as much with DeAndre scoring so much," Napier said. "When a guy like that is hot, you cannot go away from him."
Harvard cut UConn's lead to one on two occasions but could never tie the game or take the lead. When the Huskies turned up their defense, the Crimson went four minutes without scoring. The Huskies scored nine unanswered points and turned a 33-32 game into a 46-34 lead.
Now the Huskies take a break for final exams. They return to play Maryland-Eastern Shore on Dec. 17, then play Fordham and Washington to conclude the non-conference portion of the season. That's gives the Huskies a good chance to enter Big East play at 10-2 in Ollie's first season as coach.
"I will definitely take 7-2," Ollie said. "I'm very proud of them, but I'm not satisfied. We've got to continue to work. Our margin is so slim, so we can't overlook anybody. Hopefully, we just continue to play like this and find a way to win. That's what they did today."