TheUConnBlog's Fourth Annual Men's Basketball Season Preview: Defending champs, Drummond, and living in the world of SHABAZZ~!

Hooray! It’s Basketballmas in Connecticut! I’ve been fairly quiet on the blog as of late, but this is annually my favorite post of the year – and there’s no chance that I wouldn’t get set for the opening night of college hoops with my Fourth Annual UConn Basketball Preview. Holy crap, we’ve been a blog for four seasons. Your Defending National Champion Huskies open their season in a few hours against Columbia – so sit back, put your feet up and enjoy. And don’t forget to join our OpenThread tonight at 5 p.m., which will cover both UConn basketball as well as UConn soccer in the Big East semifinals.

I’m one of those cynical assholes who can’t stand (most) Disney movies, the kind of person who calls out the plot points 20 minutes in advance. (I know what you’re thinking, and yes I am LOTS of fun at parties.)

I guess I’ve just never understood why we need Disney movies when real life tells much more interesting, rich stories. Take UConn basketball, for example.

Almost no one remembers it now, but on the day the 2010-11 season opened, things were looking bleak. A distressing scandal, followed by a disastrous 2009-10 season had seemingly sucked the life out of the UConn program. It had certainly drained a lot of energy from Jim Calhoun, as evidenced by the mysterious illness that sidelined him that season.

One year ago in this space, I wrote the following (among 4,000 other words):

This particular team is very young, but they are invested with a great responsibility: to reverse the negative trend line that Calhoun's program has been on since April 2009.

...

 

 If all goes well, they'll go through their growing pains this year, show signs of quality, and hopefully be joined by a decisive infusion of raw talent to make one last run at a ring possible, either next year or in 2012-13.

Those were, I think, reasonable best-case scenarios for a team of talented freshmen replacing seniors who came off an 18-16 season.

It was truly a very uncertain time to be a UConn fan. I think we’re all aware that we’re followers of a nouveau riche program that is primarily the vehicle for one great coach. Having UConn revert back to Just-another-teams-ville, rather than the championship-winning, ass-kicking, Beast-of-the-East program it’s been since 1990, is a scary thought. But the UConn program seemed to be on that precipice, circa October/November 2010.

Thankfully, Jim Calhoun had the perfect player in the perfect place.

Kemba’s utter destruction of Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky in Maui, his Kembawesomeness against Villanova, Texas and others brought the pulse back into the program. It brought the life back into Calhoun, made him realize why he so loves this game.

The real fun, of course, started in March. After a regular season that was successful, if only to the point where the Huskies reached my "show signs of quality" goal, it looked like Kemba Walker’s job was done. He had successfully shepherded those talented freshmen through their rocky first year, and had set them up to contend for Big East and national championships at some point in the medium-distant future.

Or, like, a month after the 2010-11 regular season ended. But we all know that story by heart now.

So here we are at the dawn of a brand new season, and all (OK, most) is well in Storrs, the home of your defending college basketball national champions.

Calhoun is reinvigorated, having finally brought in the right mix of players who he can mold in his gritty, tough-Irish-bastard image. It was thought for sure that he would retire after championship No. 3. Instead, he re-caught the bug. He’s more energetic than ever, and he looks like he can coach another 25 years. He won’t – the transition period looks a ton smoother now that an apparent successor, Kevin Ollie, is in his second year on staff – but would you doubt Calhoun if he tried?

The returning talent on this particular team is tantalizing, even without Kemba the Great. There is NBA-caliber talent in the backcourt. There’s an imposing frontcourt that looks to be a version of Thabeet/Adrian + offensive capability. There’s the potential for Calhoun to run multiple German guy on the court at the same time. There’s SHABAZZ~!, for god’s sake!

Players still want to play for UConn, as evidenced by a stellar recruiting class, maybe Calhoun’s best-ever. As evidenced by Andre Drummond’s out-of-the-blue late August declaration that he’d rather improve his game playing against Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville rather than overmatched New England 17-year-olds, and that he’d want to do it as part of the program he grew up watching on TV. (I imagine this makes those of you who remember the Perno/Rowe years feel very old.)

Even the biggest negative in the program right now – UConn losing three scholarships (and a potential postseason bid next season), plus Calhoun being suspended three Big East games, due to APR woes and the Nate Miles scandal – has its upside.

For one, the APR issue has forced the school to make sure these kids are graduating. Always a good thing.

Two, it’s forced Calhoun to get very creative in the way he’s constructed his roster. And by "very creative" I mean "just recruiting the best goddamn players around." There’s no room for Mandledovian filler anymore.

With a lean, mean roster of 10 scholarship players, Calhoun and his staff have put together as deep a lineup as UConn’s had over the last five years (a stretch in which, you’ll no doubt remember, UConn went to the Final Four twice).

The Huskies have absurd length at almost every position, real-live depth in the frontcourt (and everywhere else, except point guard for the moment), speed and unparalelled versatility. The key non-Kemba contributors to the 2011 national champions are all back, a year older/stronger/more skilled.

To use a term that stopped being cool in 2008, the swagger is back at UConn.

There are certainly reasons for concern with this new team (i.e. there isn’t one scholarship senior on the team), just like there are reasons for concern for every team in the country. We’ll get into those later in the preview. But I’m quite satisfied with the construction of this team, and I for one will never, ever, ever, ever bet against Jim Calhoun again.

MEET YOUR HUSKIES

---The Stars Of The Show:

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#3 Jeremy Lamb

Year: Sophomore

Pos: Shooting guard

From: Norcross, Ga.

Ht/Wt: 6-5 / 180

Official Blog Nickname: Lamb Chop (I'm sure I'm forgetting Lamb's actual nickname...)

Most likely to: Teach competitive dance

2010-11 stats: 41 games (27.8 minutes per); 11.1 PPG, 48.7 FG% (54.6 on 2s, 36.8 on 3s), 79.7 FT%, 4.5 RPG

Outlook: While of course Kemba was the team’s dominant player last year, UConn doesn’t win a national championship without Jeremy Lamb going absolutely nuts in March and April. He kinda singlehandedly beat San Diego State with his performance in the waning minutes of that game, including one of the ballsiest 3-pointers in UConn history (after SDSU had cut the Huskies’ lead to one with under two minutes to play).

Now, Lamb is in the position where he needs to be THE guy on offense, rather than just the Robin to Kemba’s Batman. UConn’s season will, in large part, depend on Lamb’s ability to either create his own shot or otherwise be heavily-involved. Seeing Lamb blossom into a legitimately awesome player last spring, plus a spectacular summer playing for the U.S. Under-19 National Team gives me plenty of hope. Plus, he totally beat Kemba in one-on-one twice, and therefore is no worse than the second greatest basketball player alive.

Lamb struggled a bit in the first exhibition running the offense. I can’t speak to the second exhibition, and I also have no way of knowing whether that’s a systemic problem or just an issue of familiarity. Lamb was best on offense last year catching and shooting off screens, but I don’t know if that will be enough – especially if the team’s point guard situation isn’t resolved for a while. At worst, he needs to improve his ability to get to the free throw line often.

Defensively, Lamb was one of the reasons UConn became so tough to score on in March, his long spider-arms able to contest 3-pointers from a distance of 30 feet away (note: measurement may be approximate).

 

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#13 Shabazz Napier

Year: Sophomore

Pos: Point guard

From: Roxbury, Mass.

Ht/Wt: 6-1 / 171

Official Blog Nickname: SHABAZZ~!, Punctuation

Most likely to: Cause thousands of broken television sets in the greater Hartford area

2010-11 stats: 41 games (23.8 minutes per); 7.8 PPG, 37.0 FG% (41.9% on 2s, 32.6% on 3s); 77.1 FT%; 3.0 APG, 1.66 A-to-T ratio

Outlook: One could make a very good comparison that Shabazz Napier ’11 is the poor-man’s version of Kemba Walker ’09 (similar usage rate, though Kemba’s offensive rating in ’09 was about four points better than Shabazz). Napier played kind of a similar role, too, coming in off the bench in each game effectively to provide energy, a change of tempo and an offensive spark.

Kemba had issues adjusting to becoming a team leader in 2009-10 (thanks, Dyson), but there seem to be no such issues here. This is firmly Shabazz’s team – a notion that should simultaneously fill you with joy and horror. Shabazz does a lot of things well, but most of them (tenacious defense, upping the tempo on offense) require a lot of energy, and it will be very interesting to see whether he will be able to continue doing them well while being the primary guy running the offense.

Shabazz has a flair for the spectacular play, but he can occasionally get careless with the ball. That can’t happen. One of the things that made last year’s team so successful was that UConn’s point guard rarely turned the ball over. With Kemba’s exceptionally high usage and incredible turnover rate, most possessions ended with a made shot or a chance for an offensive rebound. Shabazz doesn’t have to be Kemba, but he must be more responsible with the ball and make smarter decisions (both in passing and shooting) for the Huskies’ offense to go.

Defensively, the speedy Napier is an absolute terror, as he hounded just about everyone he guarded (Non-Peyton Siva Division) to the tune of the 34th-best steal rate in the country. Hell of a lot of fun to watch.

My gut is that Shabazz will be a slightly more efficient version of the guy we saw last year, but there should be enough talent around him where that should be enough.

 

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#34 Alex Oriakhi

Year: Junior

Pos: Power forward/center

From: Lowell, Mass.

Ht/Wt: 6-9 / 240

Official Blog Nickname: Uruk-Hai, Warriakhi

Most likely to: Dress as Jeff Adrien for Halloween

2010-11 stats: 41 games (29.1 minutes per); 9.6 PPG, 50.7% FG, 63.0% FT, 8.7 RPG, 1.6 BPG

2009-10 stats: 34 games (24.6 minutes per); 5.0 PPG, 46.0% FG, 53.8% FT, 6.6 RPG, 1.6 BPG

Outlook: Oriakhi showed nice progression last year particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, he increased his efficiency noticeably, but he remained very raw, putting too many wild, blind 100-mph shots off the backboard for my liking.

That being said, Oriakhi was about as good a rebounder as you’ll find last year, and figures to have improved even more heading into his third season here. Oriakhi finished the season with the 30th-best offensive rebound rate in the country, and really grew into his own as a battler down low.

You’ll never confuse Oriakhi for a guy with tons of offensive skill, but there aren’t many big men in the Big East I’d take over him this season. If he’s the same old garbage-man, rebounding-and-defense force he was last year, that’s a very good thing for UConn. If Oriakhi develops a post move or two – and I was very encouraged by the exhibition game in that regard – that’s gravy.

 

 ---Grizzled veterans (i.e. the rest of the sophomore class)

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#22 Roscoe Smith

Year: Sophomore

Pos: Small forward/power forward

From: Baltimore, Md.

Ht/Wt: 6-8 / 205

Official Blog Nickname: Scoe the Show

Most likely to: Hurriedly celebrate New Year’s at 10:59 p.m. Dec. 31

2010-11 stats: 41 games played (25.4 minutes per); 6.3 PPG, 38.3% FG (30.1% 3P), 5.2 RPG

Outlook: OK, so all everyone remembers from Roscoe Smith’s freshman year is the hideous Texas blunder. But that’s fine! Maybe that means everyone else will be underestimating the kid.

While Smith didn’t live up to the four-star hype, he was put up a valuable freshman year. Late in the season, Calhoun deployed him as a defensive stopper, putting him up against the opposition’s best scorer. He’s big enough to passably defend power forwards (though he is unlikely to need to do that much now that the frontcourt is twice as deep as it was last year) and quick and lengthy enough to guard other wings or smaller players.

Smith’s role is in question because everyone seems to be raving over DeAndre Daniels, who plays basically the same position with more offensive skill (Roscoe made just 43% of his two-point shots last year, and never really found a way to integrate himself into the offense), but I have no doubt that Roscoe will get his minutes and contribute as part of another ferocious defense once again.

Plus, you know, he’s a sophomore. It’s safe to say he’ll get better offensively.

 

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#10 Tyler Olander

Year: Sophomore

Pos: Power forward

From: Mansfield, Conn.

Ht/Wt: 6-9 / 225

Official Blog Nickname: Hansbrolander

Most likely to: Sign a sponsorship deal with Proactiv (look at that clear mug shot!)

2010-11 stats: 39 games (9.6 minutes per); 1.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG

Outlook: I swear to god, Tyler Olander looks like he might actually be a good Division I basketball player. As soon as this year. Seriously.

Olander got his feet wet by starting for most of the latter half of the season, although his time on the court lasted roughly until the first media timeout most nights, with scattered appearances thereafter. Olander came in with a reputation as a skilled big man (which has been an unfilled position at UConn since, what, Charlie V?), but wasn’t really great at anything last year – though he was a decent rebounder and showed that he might have jump-shot prowess. He did play hard and gradually got better over time. (Remember when he scored seven points against Syracuse in the BET? What the hell was that?)

Then I watched Olander play in the exhibition games. I mean, yeah, it’s just Division II teams, but Olander wasn’t dominating Division II teams last year, either. (Last year’s exhibitions: Olander was 4-for-7 for 8 points with 8 rebounds, 5 assists in 36 minutes. This year, in 51 minutes: 7-for-10, 19 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks.)

Are you not the kind of person who freaks out over a 60-point win over CW Post? Then just look at that mugshot above. Now look at last year’s. It’s barely the same guy! Dude looks bigger, stronger and more mature. Is it possible that he’s going to inexplicably turn into a legitimate-guy-you-don’t-agonize-about-when-you-throw-him-the-ball threat on both ends of the floor? I’m scared, you guys.

 

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#5 Niels Giffey

Year: Sophomore

Pos: Shooting guard/small forward

From: Berlin, Germany

Ht/Wt: 6-7 / 205

Official Blog Nickname: Giff-Eye, Der Ubersportler, Neils Templar

Most likely to: Win the most epic dance-off ever against Jeremy Lamb. Make it happen, Niels.

2010-11 stats: 41 games (9.9 minutes per); 2.2 PPG, 40.3% FG (32.4% 3P); 1.4 RPG

Outlook: A consummate glue guy, Giffey looked like a revelation in Maui, when he scored 14 points and buried a couple 3s against Kentucky. But he saw his role mostly decrease throughout the season, because he played like a typical freshmen (even if typical freshmen aren’t on the German U-20 national team).

Giffey was the kind of guy who every team needs. He can reliably give you nice minutes when you need it, he’ll generally hit his shots (and he was 17-21 from the foul line last year), and he’s got enough basketball sense to offer some value.

I’m intrigued by how Giffey improves this year. He seems to be purely a rotation/depth guy, but I’m a fan of getting him more minutes where possible.

If nothing else, he'll always be the guy hugging Calhoun in One Shining Moment.

 

Wolf

#1 Enosch Wolf

Year: Sophomore

Pos: Center

From: Goettingen, Germany

Ht/Wt: 7-1 / 245

Official Blog Nickname: Human Wolf

Most likely to: star in a film that’s a mix of action und comedy.

2010-11 stats: 7 games (3.7 minutes per)

Outlook: The Human Wolf didn’t earn much playing time, as he posted just 11 minutes in the two exhibition games. It’s likely that he’ll have another season of working on his game (and practicing against one of the best freshmen in the country) in the hopes of being a contributor in the future.

According to his official measurements, he’s put on about 35 pounds (of muscle, presumably), and he does have a wildly entertaining Twitter feed (sample tweet: "first night in a hotel this season!! Chillin with the german homie niels!! #UConnsGermans"). For those two reasons alone, I’m happy to give the big man as much time as he needs to get ready for Big East competition.

 

From here on out, by the way, we will be taking nickname suggestions for the newbies.

THE X FACTOR

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#12 Andre Drummond

Year: Freshman

Pos: Center

From: Middletown, Conn.

Ht/Wt: 6-10 / 270

Official Blog Nickname: ???

Most likely to: Succeed

Outlook: I couldn’t think of a better possible fit than Andre Drummond taking his talents to Gampel Pavilion, which is why it was so frustrating to see Drummond seemingly shun college basketball altogether.

Drummond grew up 40 minutes from UConn’s campus, and was born three months before Ray Allen played his first game for the Huskies. He was five and a half years old when UConn won its first national championship. He’s a part of the first generation of basketball players who know nothing but wild success for our program. His talent is prodigious, and he was recognized as one of the top two or three recruits in the country. Basketball Prospectus called him the most talented true center to step on campus since Greg Oden.

UConn, meanwhile, was in dire need of some skill in the frontcourt to make up for the rather shallow rotation of guards.

Put the two together, and I feel OK in saying that he’s the biggest recruit Jim Calhoun has landed since Chris Smith.

Naturally, then, expectations are high. Drummond admitted his nerves following his first game at Gampel Pavilion. He gets it. He knows what people think about him – he certainly got enough feedback from Tweeting his commitment to the school back in August.

He’s also a freshman.

Drummond has got all the athletic gifts you could ever ask for, and is touted as having as much basketball skill as any freshman UConn has ever seen. The thought of he and Shabazz running the pick and roll 15 times a game is giving my heart palpitations right now.

But before we crown Drummond king of all the basketballs, I want to see him react to the punch-in-the-mouth that is 18 games of Big East basketball. I want to see him score or defend on anyone, if and when he figures it out.

If he lives up to the hype, I’m not sure my mind can even possibly comprehend the ways in which UConn will be destroying fools. But Drummond will still be a freshman. His best days are still ahead of him – and we likely only have seven or eight months to enjoy his still-developing talent – which is why I am cautious about labeling him as the new savior of UConn basketball.

Dude’s friggin’ good, though.

 

OTHER, MORE PRECOCIOUS FRESHMEN

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#2 DeAndre Daniels

Year: Freshman

Pos: Small forward

From: Los Angeles, Calif.

Ht/Wt: 6-8 / 195

Official Blog Nickname: ???

Most likely to: Be my new mancrush

Outlook: In any other year, we would be readying ourselves to call this the Year of DeAndre. Instead, Daniels is merely the second-best recruit Jim Calhoun brought into the fold this year.

But do not sleep on him. Having seen one exhibition game, I already love watching this guy.

Daniels is touted as an elite scorer, an excellent 3-point shooter (3-for-4 in the exhibition games, for what that’s worth) and he’s got outstanding length and athleticism (which is true for just about everyone on this team, but still). If he can rebound any, Daniels adds so much versatility and so many options for Calhoun to play with. Even if not, pair him up with Roscoe and Drummond and you’ve got an absolutely devastating front line on paper.

My guess is that Daniels starts the season coming off the bench in favor of Roscoe, but I would be shocked if he isn’t a major contributor by the time we get into the heart of Big East play.

 

Boatright_medium

#11 Ryan Boatright

Year: Freshman

Pos: Point guard

From: Aurora, Ill.

Ht/Wt: 6-0 / 160

Official Blog Nickname: ???

Most likely to: Remind us that the NCAA is comically incompetent.

Outlook: Boatright won an outstanding First Night dunk contest, which should give you a hint of his leaping ability. A four-star point guard with the ability to score, he was supposed to come in and be a super backup for Napier, but of course the NCAA investigation into whether Boatright  received benefits while on an AAU team.

For what it’s worth, the university itself doesn’t seem to be involved in any way, but the fact that this seemingly straightforward investigation has taken almost two weeks is both worrisome and really effing annoying. Here’s hoping for the best, though. Without Boatright, UConn has a rotation of one scholarship player at point guard, as this is the thinnest UConn has been at the position that I can remember.

It (hopefully) won’t matter early on in the season, as the schedule is not challenging, but UConn will definitely need Boatright’s talents once we hit the New Year.

 

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#4 Brendan "Not Donnell Beverly" Allen

Year: "Freshman"

Pos: Point guard

From: "Windsor, Conn."

Ht/Wt: 6-3 / 187

Official Blog Nickname: B-Dev

Most likely to: be Donnell Beverly

Notables: Played in two Final Fours as a reserve point guard at UConn, er, I mean…totally a guy who just graduated high school. Definitely.

Outlook: So yeah, I’m pretty sure this is just Donnell Beverly, back for a fifth year of being the reserve point guard (minus the scholarship) who can steadily manage a game and give a few minutes’ rest to the starter. I see your game, "Brendan." Notice how his UConnHuskies.com page doesn’t even have a photo? THE COVERUP IS REAL

 

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#25 Michael Bradley

Year: Redshirt freshman

Pos: Power forward/center

From: Chattanooga, Tenn.

Ht/Wt: 6-10 / 225

Official Blog Nickname: ???

Most likely to: Get a cut of Andre Drummond’s first NBA paycheck

2010-11 stats: Redshirted

Outlook: Bradley was a puzzling signing last year, given that he averaged 5.9 points and 6.5 blocks per game as a high school senior. He agreed to give up his scholarship in favor of Drummond, which means he should never have to buy a drink in Storrs again (once he’s of age, of course).

Bradley fractured his ankle shortly before First Night, and is likely to be out until December. Given his already marginal role in the frontcourt rotation, it’s hard to see Bradley contributing much this year, kind of like Wolf.

 

SOON-TO-BE-VANQUISHED FOES

Date Opponent KenPom Site Time TV
Friday, Nov. 11 Columbia 217 Gampel Pavilion 7 p.m. ESPNU
Monday, Nov. 14 Wagner 206 Gampel Pavilion 7:30 p.m. SNY
Thursday, Nov. 17 Maine 236 XL Center 7 p.m. SNY
Sunday, Nov. 20 Coppin State 241 XL Center 1 p.m. SNY
Thursday, Nov. 24 vs. UNC-Asheville+ 157 Paradise Island, Bahamas 7 p.m. HDNet
Friday, Nov. 25 Battle of Atlantis n/a Paradise Island, Bahamas TBD Versus
Saturday, Nov. 26 Battle of Atlantis n/a Paradise Island, Bahamas TBD Versus
Saturday, Dec. 3 Arkansas 87 XL Center 3:15 p.m. ESPN
Thursday, Dec. 8 Harvard 51 Gampel Pavilion 7 p.m. ESPN2
Sunday, Dec. 18 Holy Cross 209 XL Center 1 p.m. SNY
Thursday, Dec. 22 Fairfield 94 XL Center 7 p.m. SNY
Wednesday, Dec. 28 at South Florida* 84 Tampa, Florida 9 p.m. SNY
Saturday, Dec. 31 St. John's* 98 XL Center 12 p.m. SNY
Tuesday, Jan. 3 at Seton Hall* 75 Newark, New Jersey 7 p.m. SNY
Saturday, Jan. 7 at Rutgers* 107 Piscataway, New Jersey 8 p.m. SNY
Monday, Jan. 9 West Virginia* 27 XL Center 7 p.m. ESPN2
Saturday, Jan. 14 at Notre Dame* 34 South Bend, Indiana 11 a.m. ESPN2
Wednesday, Jan. 18 Cincinnati* 33 Gampel Pavilion 7 p.m. ESPN2
Saturday, Jan. 21 at Tennessee 108 Knoxville, Tennessee 4 p.m. CBS
Sunday, Jan. 29 Notre Dame* 34 XL Center 12 p.m. SNY
Wednesday, Feb. 1 at Georgetown* 48 Washington, D.C. 7 p.m. ESPN2
Saturday, Feb. 4 Seton Hall* 75 XL Center 12 p.m. SNY
Monday, Feb. 6 at Louisville* 8 Louisville, Kentucky 7 p.m. ESPN
Saturday, Feb. 11 at Syracuse* 5 Syracuse, Canada 1 p.m. CBS
Wednesday, Feb. 15 DePaul* 150 Gampel Pavilion 7 p.m. SNY
Saturday, Feb. 18 Marquette* 21 XL Center 12 p.m. ESPN
Monday, Feb. 20 at Villanova* 38 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 7 p.m. ESPN
Saturday, Feb. 25 Syracuse* 5 Gampel Pavilion (Gameday) 9 p.m. ESPN
Tuesday, Feb. 28 at Providence* 112 Providence, Rhode Island 7 p.m. SNY
Saturday, March 3 Pittsburgh* 7 Gampel Pavilion 12 p.m. ESPN
March 6-10 Big East Tournament n/a Madison Square Garden n/a ESPN
March 15-16 NCAA Tournament n/a To be determined n/a CBS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*-Big East game; +- Battle for Atlantis (other first-round matchups: Charleston-Central Florida, UMass-Florida State, Utah-Harvard); preseason KenPom rating (out of 345 teams)

Five thoughts on the schedule:

  • The Battle for Atlantis is, uh…not a very good tournament. The Huskies’ first opponent, UNC-Asheville, is ranked 157th in the preseason KenPom ratings. Their second opponent will be either 92nd (UCF) or 145th (College of Charleston). Things could get a little trickier in the final; Utah and UMass aren’t very good, but Florida State is quite frisky (29th) and Harvard (51st) is being talked about as an Ivy League team capable of winning a game or two in March.
  • No, seriously. I could see a young, still-learning UConn team just barely scrape by Harvard in the final of that tournament, and then seeing Harvard again at Gampel two weeks later. That game alone makes the early season cupcake schedule 100% more interesting.
  • Note to the Big East; please stop scheduling UConn in New Year’s Eve games in Hartford. At least this time, it’s at noon, unlike last year’s brainless 6 p.m. start on Dec. 31.
  • On the other hand, thank you Big East for making the Huskies first three league games (all minus a suspended Calhoun) against an atrocious USF in front of no one (due to Sun Dome renovations, that game is at the St. Pete Times Forum, which I can’t imagine USF will fill more than halfway), home against an all-freshman St. John’s team, and at a pretty bad Seton Hall team. With Rutgers following that, UConn should theoretically get off to a nice 4-0 league start before things start getting tougher.
  • GAMEDAY AT GAMPEL GAMEDAY AT GAMPEL SO MANY JULI BOEHEIM FAN CLUB SIGNS
  • And now, five games to watch:
  • 2/25 vs. Syracuse – See above.
  • 2/6 at Louisville – Most seem to think that UConn, Syracuse, Louisville and Pitt are going to have their own little mini-tournament atop the Big East. I hate playing at Louisville. It’s probably the second-toughest place to win (after Pitt) in the league, and I bet Peyton Siva does something to piss us all off.
  • 3/3 vs. Pittsburgh – It will be Senior Day, even though UConn has no seniors on scholarship. Instead, it could be an important game regarding seeding and, just maybe, the Big East regular season title.
  • 1/21 at Tennessee – The only out-of-conference game with any juice, even though KenPom rates the Vols at #108 in his preseason ratings.
  • 2/18 vs. Marquette – If I had to project, I would guess that this game, UConn’s 26th of the season, will see Calhoun win his 875th game (he needs 20 to get there). Not much of a milestone I guess, but this is just intended to remind everyone that if Calhoun stays through the end of his contract, he might end up being the second-winningest coach in Division I history. Or first-most, if UConn gets invited to the ACC and he strangles Coach K on sight like in that dream I had.

EXPECTATIONS & FINAL THOUGHTS

UConn is ranked No. 4 in the country to begin the season, its highest such ranking since 2009. I’m not sure this particular team has earned that designation. Everything went right for the Huskies to turn into the red-hot team in what was, honestly, a bit of a down year for college hoops on the whole.

I would say, right now, UConn should be ranked, but towards the bottom half of the rankings. The talent is as good as anywhere in the country, but it’s all young talent, and there isn’t a proven leader left among a crew of freshmen, sophomores and Oriakhi. It will be up to the rejuvenated Calhoun to mold this team, though there is no one else I’d rather have on the case.

Interestingly, Calhoun seems to have made a change in the types of players he’s recruiting. The makeup of the kids on this team is just so completely 100 percent removed from even the 2009-10 team. Because of that, I’m inclined to think that the Huskies will trend toward the upper edge of their potential.

If this team gels like I think they can, if Drummond or Daniels are even half as good as I think they can be, if Shabazz develops like he should, if Lamb becomes the true go-to scorer he needs to be…well, let’s just say Jim Calhoun will be right in his element.

As of right now, Basketballmas 2011, I will set my baseline expectations for this team as 25 wins and a berth in the Sweet 16. Given the hype about this team in the preseason, that probably strikes you as a conservative assessment; maybe so. I just think replacing Kemba Walker will take more time than most think, and getting this team into tournament shape will involve some bumps in the road. I do, however think that utterly demolishing those expectations is tantalizingly on the table.

So perk up, folks. Tonight, we raise National Championship banner No. 3, and we begin the defense of our title. I have a feeling this is gonna be a fun ride.

Merry Basketballmas to you all, and Go Huskies.

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