The first night of the 2011-12 UConn basketball season began by honoring last season's accomplishments, the dark blue sheet covering the Huskies' 2011 NCAA championship banner being pulled off to raucous applause just before tipoff.
But from there on out, things appropriately shifted away from the unparalled success and joy brought on by last season and toward the start of a new campaign, a new quest for a new addition to the three title tokens already adorning the Gampel Pavilion walls.
The faces on the floor were virtually the same -- UConn returned four members of last season's starting lineup, and the only "new" starter, Shabazz Napier, was the third- or fourth-most important player in last season's title romp. But everything -- the look, the feel, the performance -- seemed fresh.
Starting, and ending, with the player now gripping the throttle.
Much has been made over the loss of Kemba Walker and the burden now placed on last season's leftovers to fill the void left by his departure to the pro ranks, and rightfully so. Walker put together perhaps the greatest single season in UConn sports history in leading his merry band of freshman all the way to the top last year, and everything flowed through and around Kemba -- the Hukies' greatest successes (anything in a do-or-die format) and biggest failures (the final regular-season stretch) had his fingerprints all over them.
And while the question of who, exactly, will take his place -- both in terms of on-the-court performance and off-the-court leadership -- still remains very much unanswered, Jeremy Lamb did one hell of a job in his first audition for the job.
It was the first time that he stepped onto a college court as the most accomplished player among the 10 faces, and Lamb, the shy, hyper-efficient kid who came of age at the perfect time late last season, sure played like it. Showing an absolutely beautiful stroke from mid-range and behind the arc (he drilled 5 of 8 3-point shots), Lamb gave all the eyes focused on him something to look at, scoring a career-high 30 points (six more than his previous high) on 11-for-17 shooting.
Perhaps mostly importantly, he did so with a type of confidence and (as the kids say) swagger rarely seen from him in his first collegiate go-round. After hitting a 3, he would flash a little grin or smirk; or after swishing a shot from the mid-range, he would scrunch his face up a little and run back with a little extra hop in his step. Never attempting to necessarily show anyone up -- his rather boyish charm prevents any real threatening tone to permeate -- but always with a certain attitude that screamed "I got this."
And there was also this. That. That. A thousand times, that.
Whatever it was that he displayed on the court while cutting and stroking his way to a very Walker-esque scoring total (in a more efficient manor, to boot), the Huskies are going to want, and need, more of that down the road.
Although playing against an also-ran Ivy League outfit didn't create a particularly bright spotlight, Lamb never shied away once.
It's far too early to know with any certainty, but at this point, the sophomore seems to have the look of the type of player capable of handling himself when that bright-lights moment eventually comes.
Some more thoughts and notes from Opening Night:
NOT REALLY ON THE ATTACK: While Lamb reminded the college world just how dangerous he was from the outside, he still shies away from the lane too much for my liking. Aside from the colossal, Mozgvian second-half slam, I counted just one time wherein he took it to the hole, during which he predictably settled for a floater.
Some of that could be by design. The Huskies are now loaded in the frontcourt, so there isn't as much of a need for the guard to provide as much down low as Walker did last season, and with a thin backcourt until Ryan Boatright's eligibility is cleared up, Lamb and/or Real Windsor's own Brendan Allen, a walk-on, are all the Huskies have behind Napier, who played 36 minutes.
Still, the biggest knock on Lamb is his inability/desire to attack the basket, and while tonight's swaggerlishous performance provided an early responses to some questions about his sleepy demeanor, the Huskies would love to see some of those forays to the rim result in trips to the line, where he shot 80% last season (one of the best marks among returnees).
CLASSIC 'BAZZ: The search for Kemba's successor still rages on, but the role of kamikaze perpetrator has already been filled. Not that there was much doubt or competition to begin with.
Shabazz! picked up where he left off last postseason: dashing into the lane with reckless abandon, getting up in his assignment's face on defense, and, yes, throwing up an airball and chucking an errant pass off the backboard. Classic Bazz, indeed.
But there was also a sense of maturity to his game, or at least a lessening of the Shabazzness. Confidence was certainly never going to be a concern for last season's off-the-bench spark plug, but it was encouraging to see just how well everything works with 'Bazz running the show. Things just felt right. And there surely ain't nothin' wrong with his final stat line: 21 points (on 7-for-11 shooting), seven assists (to only two TOs) and five rebounds (a nice stat, but also a result of some poor rebounding in the frontcourt).
GIANT GOOSE EGG FOR ANDRE: Andre Drummond's coming-out party ... well, we're still waiting for that one, actually.
The super-hyped freshman looked lost out there, and, well, like a freshman, floating around the paint area without a true sense of where he was supposed to be (it wasn't exactly written all over his face, because of the mask and whatnot, but it was pretty clear nonetheless).
It was encouraging to see the team make a concerted effort early on to let Drummond work as the screen man in the high pick-and-roll with 'Bazz. Last season, the Walker-Alex Oriakhi was really the bread and butter of the offense. However, the bulky Oriakhi (who didn't have either a reliable midrange or post game the majority of last season) was really miscast in the roll. Drummond, an Amare Stoudemire clone, is built for it.
Unfortunately, even that looked a bit bumpy, especially when you watched Oriakhi set some screens later on, including one that sprung Lamb for an easy look from the free throw line.
Drummond's final line, in 12 minutes of court time: 0 points, four rebounds, two assists, a block, a TO ... and three fouls. Oy.
On the bright side: It seems Drummond's a bit of a hugger. Not a thug hug or chest bump. A full-on hug. He gave Lamb some man love at least twice (that I saw) and each time Lamb had a look of slight discomfort/familiarity. Which means this likely has and will continue to happen the rest of the way.
FEAR THE 'BRO': Instead, the gold star in the frontcourt goes to one Tyler "Brolander" Olander.
I refused to pay/was too busy to watch the preseason games, so I was a bit confused to hear the positive vibes being sent The Brolander's way. And I initially wrote off Jim Calhoun's decision to start The Bro over Drummond as a silly "coachin' 'em up" "gotta pay your dues" thing coaches do.
Now, I am a believer.
He only scored seven points on a ho-him 3-for-7 from the field, but he looked just so damn competent (compliments!) out there, particularly in the beginning of the game. Unlike last year, when I would talk about him merely to express rage over his place in the starting lineup or joy gleaned from his violent, Phoebe-esque bursts of speed down the court, I now find myself pointing out (still mostly out of shock) when he hits a smooth-looking mid-range pullup, or how he just seems to be in the right place a lot, particularly when it comes to rebounding (team-high 8 rebounds tonight).
A stark contrast to Drummond's debut, indeed.
It wouldn't surprise me to see Olander hold on to that starting spot for a good portion of the season, at least.
I want to know how the rat tail started. Why it started. Where he got the idea for it. How long he plans on keeping it. Who braids it for him. If he shampoos and or conditions it. And what it looks like in his 9:30 English Lit class. Get on this, student body.
Porter, on the other hand, has other (potentially better) ideas in mind: "I don’t want to hear it. I want to write our own epic poem about it."
You heard him, people.
TEE'D UP: Another sign that things are changing? Some of T-shirt wearers from last season are now comfortable enough to show off the guns.
'Bazz and Lamb, who both sported baggy, short-sleeve shirts for almost all of last season -- except for the time in the playoffs 'Bazz wore a long-sleeve shirt, and then no undershirt. Weird -- are letting it all hang out. Roscoe Smith (8 points, 7 rebounds), however, is still feeling a little bit shy and has stuck with the James Harden memorial tee. A s has uber-frosh and fellow small forward DeAndre Daniels (2 points, 5 rebounds).
PIPE DOWN, CAL: After leading by 20 at one point during the first half, the game got sort of close (given the competition) at one point, as Columbia got within eight points after halftime. Which means Calhoun will likely bitch about something (I'm guessing effort). (Update: Looks like it's rebounding. Close!)
It's the first game, it's Columbia, UConn held its opponent to 29% shooting from the field. ... If it becomes a trend, then, sure, we'll start worrying about it. As of now, it's just something for Cal to harp on to keep the kiddies focused.