Hey everybody! It's Basketballmas in Connecticut!
Tonight, all of the good boys and girls will put on their blue shirts, their blue pants, and their highly toxic blue-and-white body paint and head off to Gampel Pavilion with dreams of conference championships and Final Fours dancing in their heads.
Then, they'll get really bored and restless when the Huskies are pounding Western Carolina midway through the first half. I didn't say we were the most focused people in the world.
But this is the day UConn fans have been waiting for since the Elite Eight loss to Something-Something University back in 2006: the Huskies are once again back on the national stage, a real threat to bring home Jim Calhoun's third national title. Pretty much every important player from the last two years is still in Storrs, plus a debuting high school All-American from New York City.
If there was ever a year that UConn would at least get to the Final Four, this would have to be it, right?
So join me, won't you, for TheUConnBlog's homer-tastic official preview of the 2008 UConn men's basketball team. It's the least you can do, especially since you then can laugh at our tears when this season comes crashing down into mid-major oblivion.
After the jump, you'll read:
- Why the "price" is right for the Huskies. Haha, see what I did? Just kidding. This bullet is really about Jerome Dyson.
- Why Willimantic Sheet Metal will be the hippest new intramural basketball team name on campus this winter.
- Which games you'll want to get crunked for (in a good way), and which other games will drive you to drink heavily (in a still-good, but really much less-good way).
- With whom Rick Pitino will be walking through that door.
- Why Tyler Hansbrough better watch hisself.
And we're gonna do it in 2,000 2,500 3,000 words or (slightly) less. Boo-yah.
Where we're at
Well, it all started in 1986, when "basket ball" was invented. A ragtag bunch of kids in northeastern Connecticut started throwing balls into metal circles held by modern plexiglass back-boards. Inexplicably, at the first-ever basketball game, thousands of people sat around the "court" with total and complete awareness of the rules and scoring system. No one's quite been able to explain to me how that worked.
And, of course, the game reached its pinnacle in 1999, when Trajan Langdon fell on his face.
But that's all ancient history. The current arc of UConn basketball began in late June 2006, when five members of the Huskies' underachieving Elite Eight squad were selected in the NBA Draft. And that's not even mentioning rap mogul Ed Nelson.
That left a team of two experienced players (Jeff Adrien and Craig Austrie, both sophomores), one redshirt sophomore who hadn't played a game (A.J. Price), and nearly a dozen freshman of varying abilities.
As you'd expect, it did not end well.
The group never really gelled, and the freshman mistakes (and godawful, poke-your-eyes-out-with-a-fork shooting) doomed the team to failure.
The high point of the season was either an 11-0 start against the likes of Texas Southern and Quinnipiac, or the Gampel win over Syracuse on Big Monday. But the team was completely exposed against decent competition. These guys, these fellows who make up our little story here, all had their issues.
Price was too rusty, the result of missing two years due to a brain hemorrhage and a suspension for stealing laptops. Even worse, he gave Syracuse fans something to chant in their free time ignoring other misdeeds.
Hasheem Thabeet was an offensive mess, unable to make layups and unwilling to dunk.
Stanley Robinson had a disturbing amount of silly plays, even if he showed flashes.
Jerome Dyson was very good, but a streaky shooter is just not going to be enough to get it done in the Big East.
The offense was terrible, having a tendency to go on these seven- or eight-minute scoring droughts. UConn even struggled to win in overtime against Rutgers that season. RUTGERS!
That season ended with a troubling four-game losing streak, and a 78-65 loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament. Had there been a College Basketball Invitational that season, UConn would have made it. Seriously, the CBI released a mock 06-07 bracket, just to show people how tantalizing a UConn-Saint Louis first-round game would've been.
But there was no third-tier tournament, and for the first time in two decades, there would be no postseason in Storrs.
Flash forward 11 months. In one of Calhoun's better coaching jobs, those same players (literally - Donnell Beverly was the only newcomer) improved by leaps and bounds. Plus, deep, deep reserve Ben Eaves (remember him?) left to join the party that is URI basketball. Good for him. Perhaps related to the departure of the ninth man off the bench, the offensive droughts ended, the team seemed to click on offense, a couple of those timid freshmen stepped up and all seemed right with the world.
Calhoun looked 10 years younger during the Huskies' wonderful 10-game win streak, including a win at Indiana prior to that team melting down into the handy, bite-size Division I basketball program it is today.
Price took on a leadership role and willed UConn to a few nice wins in January and February, much in the way Marcus Williams used to do.
Thabeet was still shaky on offense, but emerged as one of the country's best shot blockers, and one of the country's most swaggerlicious players.
Adrien and Austrie, now juniors, were both very solid. Adrien slowly made his name as one of the better power forwards in America. Austrie, in fact, became a temporary Jesus after his game-winning shot against USF.
Not everything was perfect, of course. The only places where a 24-9 season could be considered perfect are backwaters like Providence, or Kentucky.
There was the embarrassing suspension of Dyson and Doug Wiggins, for failing a drug test, shortly after getting caught with alcohol in a car in a campus parking lot. On the plus side, the second incident involved cognac, which is a reasonably baller liquor.
Then there was the bewildering loss to the aforementioned Friars, in which Weyinmi Efejuku proved that you can't spell "Junkie We Ye If Um" - I believe that was Wiggins' statement to cops, actually - without Weyinmi Efejuku.
And finally, there was that whole "this team hasn't won a postseason game" thing. West Virginia beat UConn in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, and then San Diego's DeJon Jackson ruined thousands of office pools with his fadeaway over Robinson.
But hey, 2008-09 is a new year. And those freshmen (plus Price, Austrie and Adrien) who struggled so much two years ago are wiser. And they're playing with the same core of players they were two years ago. We're all about cohesion here.
Price, Adrien, Thabeet and Dyson will all start Friday's opener against Western Carolina. After two years, they should be known quantities, but then think about this:
- Price's torn ACL from the NCAA Tournament game is healed, but will he pull a Brandon Rush and maintain his effectiveness?
- Thabeet is supposedly 250% better on offense than he was as a freshman, but that's impossible, because there's only 100% of anything. I mean, it's simple math.
- Dyson struggled to find a role last year, and he could be pushed to the bench by the team's glut of good guards if he can't contain his wild drives into the lane.
- Eh, Adrien's pretty damn good. Nothing to worry about there.
Oh, and then there's Kemba Walker, the freshman PG out of NYC who is already my second-favorite player on the team (after the big fella). Dude's good, is what I'm saying.
And now, a section in which we introduce you to the key players:
If you like Tyler Hansbrough and Luke Harangoofy, but prefer your power forwards to be underhyped, undersized and have a "woyah mentality" (copyright Jim Calhoun, 2007) , then you'll love Adrien. The big guy's been doing his thing for three years now, coming up with a big 17 points in the George Mason loss.
Adrien led the team in scoring with 14.8 ppg (surprising) and rebounding with 7.9 per (not as surprising). This rather muscular fellow, with a penchant for flexing whenever a TV camera is near, is a pure rebounder and strong around the basket - not to mention he is the owner of a nice mid-range jumper. And despite being 6'7, he also averaged more than a block per game.
This year, Calhoun is doing his thing and sending out covert messages to the effect that Adrien better not try to be a star. Well, they weren't exactly covert. He told a bunch of reporters, and I'm only slightly paraphrasing, "Jeff has to make sure he doesn't try to be the star out there."
Because he's at his best on offense as a complimentary player cleaning up the glass, picking up loose balls and generally doing the little things.
And we've reached one of the players who will determine how far the team really goes.
On the one hand, Dyson could return to his freshman-year ways, when he led the team in scoring and was as reliable a shooter and defender as the team had.
On the other hand, Dyson might play himself out of a starting spot if he continues his erratic, overaggressive style of play which got him into trouble last year.
On the third hand, UConn seemed much more careful with the ball when Dyson was suspended last year; when he returned, the offense had trouble getting on track.
The verdict: I don't know.
I really don't need to rehash his story. So I'll let someone else do it.
Suffice it to say, UConn fans are expecting great things from Price, and just about the only way his UConn career can be deemed a success would be to go deep into March under his leadership.
He's a McDonald's All-American who is already showing flashes of Marcus Williams. He's a little small, but he's quick as hell and has shown a whole bunch of creativity on offense in the exhibition games. UConn's offense looks great when he's on the court. And he'll fill up the stat sheet with assists, steals, even a rebound or two. And he's got a nice-looking shot.
I'm sorry, I'm gushing.
I am somewhat optimistic for the Kemba Walker era.
Despite a couple guys allegedly from Stamford in the student section obnoxiously yelling Austrie's name last week - even while he was shooting a free throw - there's no way that I would ever turn on Craig Austrie.
Sure, he's not the greatest point guard - he's one of them fancy "game-managers" the sportswriter types love. But he doesn't turn the ball over and he's one of the best 3-point shooters on the roster. He may see fewer minutes this year, but if you want that nebulous veteran leadership, here's one place to find it.
Plus, he inspired some student with too much time on his hands to compose a Jewish prayer in his honor. Yay.
From the coach who brought you Hilton Armstrong: NBA first-round draft pick and the prequel, Jake Voskuhl: 8-year NBA veteran, it's time for another random big guy to turn into an NBA prospect.
Sample-size caveats and all that, but Edwards was productive and efficient in 33 games last season. He shot 55 percent from the field, 76 percent from the line, and is my pick for surprise player of the year. He scored 15 (and fouled out) in 15 minutes against American International last week, and they're at least as good as St. John's.
If there's one reason I'll always be happy I chose UConn, it's the big fella. Here's a guy who is conscious about what a foreign basketball star can do for his home country; a guy who has bounced around this great country in order to pursue a profitable career, in order to give back. Hell, don't take my word for it - read Luke Winn's fantastic piece in Sports Illustrated this week and see if you can't like Hasheem Thabeet.
Thabeet was rumored to jump to the NBA in each of the last two seasons, and thank God he didn't. Because he would have been a terrible pro. But now, he is reportedly developing an offensive game, and he made 14 of 15 shots in the two exhibition games.
He also has the wingspan of a small airplane and will send your weak shot back to you at time you may consider most inconvenient.
Now, I'm not convinced that Thabeet can score with his back to the basket consistently, especially against the stronger post players in the country, and I know he can't defend outside of the lane. But still: he's kind of awesome.
The wild cards: Stanley Robinson and Ater Majok
So, you might be wondering, if that's the 8-man rotation that will begin the year (plus the winner of the award of "Player Most-Often Compared To Rashad Anderson", Scottie Haralson), who's going to play small forward?
Shut up, that's who.
In December, UConn will add four-star incoming freshman Majok, who has had to wait through clearinghouse issues (the Sudanese refugee lives in Australia). Supposedly, the 6-foot-9 Majok is a top-quality combo forward, able to play on the wing and spend some time at PF or C. He was shooting around in Gampel Pavilion as recently as Monday, and he is rumored to be available to play Dec. 14 against Stony Brook.
As for Robinson, who should be back around the same time, well ... we'll see. I don't have quite the man crush on Sticks as some of our writers here, but he's got ridiculous unfulfilled potential. Plus, he'd be the best choice to fill UConn's glaring hole at small forward. He can shoot the 3, jump out of the gym for rebounds, he can slash, and he is a nightmare matchup when he's on.
Except he's not always on.
I don't know if he'll ever be consistent - although maybe taking the semester off, working at a sheet metal factory 10 minutes down the road from the university, and re-enrolling without a scholarship will have a positive effect.
But yeah, wild cards, these two.
And the rest
Haralson will probably see a good number of minutes, as he is a 3-point specialist. But I'm keeping him here out of protest of him shooting 1-for-9 from 3 in the exhibitions.
Donnell Beverly is probably the best fourth point guard in America. And I mean that as a compliment. But I can't see him cracking the rotation when Majok and Robinson put an end to that pesky three-guard lineup next month.
Charles Okwandu will spend this year learning from Thabeet, as the sophomore transfer center is a complete mystery. I would guess he's not going to play much, but then UConn will be short on big men for a month or so. Also, as Justin pointed out previously, why exactly is his mug shot the only one on the team facing right?
Jonathan Mandledove is also a collegiate basketball player at the University of Connecticut.
Five Games To Watch
12/20: vs. Gonzaga (in Seattle)- I'll refrain from Josh Heytvelt and mushroom jokes, but I will say that UConn will be out for revenge after losing last year's "home" game in Boston, Conn.
1/24: at Notre Dame- I hope Digger Phelps cries green tears into Harangody's bosom every day for a week after this game.
2/7: vs. Michigan (Gampel)- It's like that old saying, if you can't beat West Virginia, beat a team whose coach once coached there. Also, the Big 10 sucks.
2/16: vs. Pittsburgh (XL)- It's a shame the lifeless XL Center gets this game, although I guess it's fitting a game so ugly should go to a building so utterly awful in every way. If you like basketball, don't watch this game. This one will be absurdly physical, to the point that the players will probably lose their minds and turn the basketball game into a cage match. It's like bloodsport, only with young men ostensibly earning degrees from higher institution of learning.
2/25: at Marquette- Dominic James and Jerel McNeal have given UConn fits in each of the 23 years they have both played at Marquette. Should be a good game.
BONUS SIXTH GAME! 2/2: at Louisville- Freedom Hall is an impossible place to win, especially with the Cards as talented as they are this year. I'm looking forward to this one, and honestly, I'm picking the Cards to win the Big East regular season. But that would change if UConn could get the win on the road.
I'll be straight with you: I would be crazy disappointed with anything less than a national title. I think UConn's starting lineup is as good as any in the country, and by Jan. 1, they will have second-to-none depth.
My concerns are, obviously, at the small forward position, and whether everyone else has improved just enough to get over that hump.
Now, if they fell short, it wouldn't be the first time for a talented Calhoun team. Holler if you hear me, 1990/1994/1995/1996/1998/2002/2005/2006. But if everything goes the way it's supposed to, Calhoun - who is rumored to want to retire after his third title - will have a very good shot at going out on top this year.
In the meantime, if nothing else, at least UConn will be in the spotlight as they bang around with three or four top-10 Big East teams. And maybe I'll even get to live out my dream of having an Insult-Off with the various Big East blogs. I know Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician probably would have some things to say.
I'll close in true UConn fan fashion: by being a hater. Let it be said, simply, that the following teams suck hard, and will continue to suck hard for the duration:
Duke. Syracuse. Everyone in the Big 10. Rutgers. Indiana University-Purdue University @ Fort Wayne, with your complicated-ass name. And finally, Syracuse.
That is all. Let's go Huskies.