Tonight, for the first time since walking off a confetti-strewn court in Houston, the UConn basketball team will take on a real, live opponent. Of course, the team that will take the floor in Storrs tonight is not the same as it was six months ago. Kemba Walker's gone, and no matter how much hope and hype surrounds this year's club, they're going to have to find a way to replace an All-American who put up the best single year in UConn history, and it won't be easy.
Luckily there is a lot of talent on this team, almost certainly more than there was last year. Jeremy Lamb, a preseason All American, will lead the way. Alex Oriakhi, one of two co-captains, seems primed for a monster junior year. The other co-captain, Shabazz Napier has the toughest job of all -- stepping into Walker's shoes -- but he's got all the talent he needs, just as long his decision making improves (bonus: The loud-mouth, big-character sophomore point guard thing has worked well for UConn before). Roscoe Smith and Tyler Olander have been overshadowed, but both were valuable role players last year (I still can't believe Olander started in a national title game) who will give UConn a lot of front court depth.
Then, there are the freshmen. Andre Drummond is the most-hyped recruit in UConn's history and his presence is why the conversation we've had for the last two months has been about a national title repeat instead of questioning if this team could get past the Sweet 16. Ryan Boatright showed off his incredibly athleticism as First Night, and will be essential because he's the only point guard on the roster not named Shabazz. The catch? As of this moment he's being held out pending an NCAA investigation. He won't play tonight, but UConn is going to need him to play soon. Finally there is DeAndre Daniels. Drummond is the most highly regarded UConn recruit since Rudy Gay, but before he agreed to come to Storrs that honor belonged to... Daniels. I'd wager that Drummond has completely overshadowed the swingman to most, but that shouldn't last for long -- Daniels has already taken Roscoe Smith's starting spot, at least for tonight.
But everything I've written so far is about the season ahead (which we'll be looking at in more depth throughout the week), and not on the task at hand: beating Division II American International College. Hit the jump for a glance at AIC and a list of things to keep an eye out for tonight.
First of all, AIC: They're a DII school that is UConn's yearly warm-up because their most famous alum is Jim Calhoun. The tallest player listed on their roster is 6'8" redshirt freshman Oshwan Bannister, but since he lacks both a picture and a number, I'm not entirely sure he'll be seeing the court tonight. They have one guy listed at 6'6" and three more listed at 6'5", so we're looking at a team that will be trotting out someone Jeremy Lamb's height at both center and power forward. Good luck stopping Drummond, Oriakhi, Smith and Olander with that.
So yeah, UConn's going to win, and probably by a lot. Since the final score isn't a huge concern, here are a few other things to keep your eye on:
- Today's Boatright news showed just how shallow UConn is at point guard. Napier won't play 40 minutes, and the assumption is that Lamb will take over his duties for a bit. I'd guess UConn will wind up with Boatright sooner rather than later, but at some point this year one or both of them will get in foul trouble. Keep an eye on how the team plays when Lamb is in charge (Possible mega-large lineup: Lamb, Smith, Daniels, Oriakhi, Drummond). Is this something that could work?
- Andre Drummond is a gametime decision after breaking his nose last week. He's been fitted with a mask, and depending on how it feels he'll decide if he wants to play. Whether he plays or not, the mask will be here for at least two months, look to see how it effects him, if at all.
- DeAndre Daniels has taken Roscoe Smith's starting spot, at least for tonight. Keep an eye on how the two share minutes and how they work together if they're on the floor at the same time.
- What is Tyler Olander's role? Yes, he started in the Final Four last year, but he would get pulled after about five minutes and was rarely heard from again. Will he play a similar role this year, or has he carved out a bigger piece of the pie for himself?
- Question for the year: can Alex Oriakhi average a double-double? He should. I'd expect him to get one tonight (assuming he plays a full slate of minutes).
- The second most important question for the year: Can Jeremy Lamb be this team's leading offensive force? He got huge benefits from the attention opposing defense gave to Kemba, but his numbers at the U19 games this summer suggest he's willing to take on the lead role. He needs to.
- The most important question: Can Shabazz Napier be the point guard of a championship-caliber team? He doesn't have to fill Kemba's role (and couldn't anyway), but he does have to keep control of the ball, make good decisions and provide lots of support to his extremely talented castmates.