I'd like to warn our affiliates that we may run long this afternoon.
We're just 4.5 hours away from UConn's opening tip of the 2010-11 regular season, and so it's time to synthesize everything I've been thinking about UConn basketball for the last six months. Below is the result of that process: TheUConnBlog's third annual men's basketball preview. (Can you believe it's been three basketball seasons already?)
There's a lot to say about this team, so much so that I must include the following table of contents to let you know what's going on below the jump.
Part I: Jim Calhoun's Gambit
Part II: The State Of UConn Basketball
Part III: The Cast Of Characters
Part IV: The Foes
Part V: On Expectations And Some Final Thoughts
And away we go:
Part I: Jim Calhoun's Gambit
"The Lion of Storrs cannot, will not, go out like this."
--Steve Serby, New York Post (March 10, 2010)
Jim Calhoun has been flying high for most of his 25 years as the head of the UConn basketball program. He's presided over one of the swiftest, most dramatic rises in NCAA history, taking UConn from a small, regional also-ran into a national championship contender. His story, and the story of the program he's built, is rather fascinating. UConn fans, of course, can tick off any number of memorable moments without thinking.
Cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden in 1988, The Shot, Donyell Marshall's missed free throws, Rip Hamilton's buzzer-beater, "Just when people say you can't...", The Comeback, "By George!," "Not a dime back," six overtimes, a third Final Four...
For the man whose name is synonymous with UConn, and for a man who has made UConn basketball synonymous with "winning," those memories can never be removed. But they can be soured.
For certain, the last 18 months have been a trying time for UConn, and Calhoun in particular. With an NCAA investigation that threatens UConn's ability to remain a major program, and on the heels of a disastrous 2009-10 season that ended in the NIT, UConn basketball is showing signs of sickliness.
The season that begins tonight, with UConn opening up against Steve Pikiell's Stony Brook, is a crucial one in terms of proving that UConn can live up to the ghosts of greatness past. 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.
And, if you're at all a fan of UConn or Jim Calhoun - and I'm not really certain how you could appreciate one without the other - it's more important than usual to get things back to normal in 2010-11. After all, this season is different; for the first time, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We know with a great degree of certainty where Calhoun's finish line lies. At most, it's five years away. The smart money is that the sand in Coach Cal's hourglass may decide to move a bit quicker, but either way we have begun our descent into the terrifying land of Postcalhounia, and there's no turning back.
In coming years, the transition from Calhoun to Mystery Future Coach will become the biggest issue. But for now, Calhoun is operating with good old fashioned tunnel vision: find talented basketball players wherever they might exist. Get back to the top. And do it while the Lion of Storrs can still roar.
The seven freshmen and two sophomores on UConn's roster will, in all likelihood, be the foundation of Calhoun's last contending team. 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.
There is the possibility that 2010-11 is a complete shit-show, however. And there's the possibility that when the amazing Kemba Walker leaves for the NBA a year early, next year's team may fall apart. And, of course, the NCAA may find that it disagrees with Calhoun's conclusions and self-punishments and rule UConn an outlaw program. Any of these things would cause me to seriously re-evaluate the denouement of the Calhoun era.
But I, for one, still have faith in the old Irish bastard. You don't accomplish what Jim Calhoun has accomplished through luck. If he says And you don't bet against a lion with its back against the wall.
Let's get down to brass tacks. The perception of UConn is way down primarily because of the on-court results last season. An 18-16 record - just 7-13 following the beginning of the dreaded SBNation Curse! - was an unfortunate bookend to the careers of Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards. But in retrospect, we should have seen it coming.
A.J. Price was an underrated star player who could put a team on his back. Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet were forces who could impose their will. Because of them, the 2009 squad was an elite team. (If only they didn't play a road game in the Final Four...)
None of the three seniors of a year ago had that kind of ability. Dyson was streaky (if you want to be charitable), Robinson lacked aggression or consistency, and Edwards was more a hustle player than a dominant force. As role players, they made a brilliant, diversely-talented trio. The 2008-09 season proved that without a shadow of a doubt.
But given control of the team a year later, it just didn't work out. UConn was 295th in the country at shooting 3's, which is symptomatic of the fact that the team was composed mainly of guys who couldn't shoot. Not coincidentally, the Huskies seemed to lack that knack for making plays in winning time. Meanwhile, Kemba Walker, who was probably the best player on the court last year, never quite assumed the leadership role expected of him.
Even still, the team was good enough to beat then-No. 1 Texas (who collapsed at the end of the season), Villanova (who collapsed at the end of the season) and West Virginia (who...was pretty good in March). But those were fleeting glimpses of what that team could accomplish. By the end of March, UConn had dropped five of six, nearly lost an NIT home game to Northeastern, before being bounced - in somewhat poetic fashion, with Edwards blowing a game-tying putback with seconds to go - by Virginia Tech in the next round.
Fast forward six months, and suddenly, the air around Storrs is fresh, and there is reason for optimism (discounting that whole NCAA investigation thing) via the time-tested process of addition by subtraction.
Walker has triumphantly taken over the team and will remake it in his image. Alex Oriakhi, who showed signs as a freshman in the Big East, is back to anchor the post game. Donnell Beverly, Charles Okwandu and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel all return in supporting roles. Other than those five, last year's disappointing roster has been completely ransacked by graduation and an itchy Calhoun trigger finger. (We hardly knew ye, "Other" Jamaal Trice, Darius "No-Nickname" Smith and Ater "Do You Believe In" Majok.)
As you might expect, early indications are that this UConn team will be different from those in years past.
After years of dominant post players, there really is only one slam-dunk big man on this team (Oriakhi). The guard depth has gone from a liability to a position of strength. The Huskies have speed, length, and size at the 2 and 3, but are average or undersized elsewhere. There is no off-the-charts Stanley Robinson-esque athlete, but there are a bunch of players who seem to have that elusive basketball IQ. This is much closer to your classic late-80s/early-90s UConn team than your early-2000s vintage.
More importantly, it looks like these Huskies can shoot. Last year's team was 347th in percentage of points scored by 3-pointers, according to KenPom. I would expect that number to rise significantly. Based on the exhibition games, in which UConn hit 50 of 77, I can say with confidence that UConn should also be better than its middling 68.9 percent mark from the free throw line last year.
Based on what limited action we've seen from the freshmen, there are some very encouraging signs. If they translate at all to games against real, live Division I competition, UConn will hopefully be back making an impact in March soon enough.
Joe D'Ambrosio-sponsored nickname that we will never, ever, ever condone: K-Walk
2009-10 stats: 14.6 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.3 rpg, 2.0 spg, 1.72 AST-to-TO ratio (34 games, 35.3 minutes per, 34 starts)
Outlook: Kemba is the team this year. We've been on the Kemba Walker bandwagon for damn near two whole years, and there's no stopping it now. Walker is the acknowledged leader of this group, and the Huskies will go as far as his considerable talents bring them. It's likely he will head for the NBA Draft after this season, so enjoy him while he's here.
Scouting report: Walker is a prototypical point guard, with great ball-handling skills, incredible speed, and great vision on the fast break. His jump shot is improving (he shot 33.2% from 3 last season, and took the second most 3s behind Dyson), but he's best creating offense driving toward the hoop. Very solid defender, although size can occasionally be an issue.
Official TheUConnBlog-sponsored nickname(s): D-Bev
2009-10 stats: 1.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.5 spg (32 games, 9.8 minutes per, 0 starts)
Outlook: Two years ago, I non-ironically complimented D-Bev by calling him the best fourth point guard in America. Now, I can confidently state that he is the best third point guard in America. Beverly is similar to Craig Austrie in that he's stuck around quietly for four years, and he's a capable hand who can run the offense. But Beverly is much less productive (Austrie averaged 7+ points per game in his junior and senior year as the first guard off the bench), and the senior seems to have an edict from Calhoun to never shoot the ball (50 total shots taken last year). Still, as a second guard off the bench, you could do a lot worse.
Scouting report: Decent free-throw shooter, decent handle, inconsistent jump shot. Very much a pass-first guard, and has good floor vision. Will likely look for his own shot more now as his role increases. Had hip surgery over the summer, but seems to be back to 100% physically.
Official TheUConnBlog-sponsored nickname(s): Tuff McJuice, JaCoMac
2009-10 stats: 3.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 32.0% FG, 27.1% 3ptFG (34 games, 11.2 minutes per, 0 starts)
Outlook: For the second straight year, UConn brought in an alleged 3-point specialist (in 2008 it was Scottie Haralson, who was later waived by Calhoun and is now set to light Conference USA on fire at Tulsa) who shot the ball terribly. Now, that's not entirely fair. Coombs-McDaniel was a top-100 player out of high school, and even scouting reports from back then indicate that his shot isn't the best part of his game. That makes me wonder why he took 59% of his shots from behind the arc, but still. Because UConn has a couple talented freshman wings, I would be surprised to see JCM increase his minutes by much if at all, but he should be a decent option off the bench.
Scouting report: Decent slasher, but needs to improve finishing around the basket. Inconsistent jump shot. Is supposed to have made 137 consecutive free throws during practice last season, though he was just 67% from the line last year.
Official TheUConnBlog-sponsored nickname(s): Uruk-Hai, Warriakhi
2009-10 stats: 5.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg (34 games, 24.6 minutes per, 29 starts)
Outlook: UConn needs Oriakhi to take a big leap forward, because the cupboard is kind of bare in the frontcourt. Last year, Oriakhi was basically not an offensive option (he scored many of his points on putbacks). On the plus side, he is strong like bull and can rebound with the best of them. If Oriakhi worked on his post moves this summer, he'll be a big asset. Best-case scenario is that he turns into a Jeff Adrien-like double-double machine. I think his improvement, and the fact that there doesn't seem to be too many great bigs in the Big East, will allow Oriakhi average close to a double-double this season.
Scouting report: Strong rebounder, but very inconsistent on offense. Post moves seem to be improved (against D2 opposition, of course), but offensively he didn't show a whole heck of a lot with limited touches last year. Very good athlete with long arms, if he ever develops the skills to match his physical tools, he will be in the NBA. Is currently wearing a Rip Hamilton-like face mask, which makes him badass.
Official TheUConnBlog-sponsored nickname(s): Charter Ok
2009-10 stats: 1.0 ppg, 1.6 rpg (30 games, 7.7 minutes per, 12 starts)
Outlook: It would be terribly helpful if Okwandu could be a force in the paint, because he's a big 7-footer and unlike most other years, that's a rare commodity in Storrs. As will become a theme in these outlooks, Chuck showed some good things in the exhibition season. Against AIC and Bridgeport, he was 9-for-13 from the field, averaging a Gavin Edwards-like line of 10.5 points and 6.5 rebounds. However, any offensive production UConn gets from Okwandu will be a bonus...he'll be playing because he's a big body and a presence in the paint.
Scouting report: Post moves are fairly undeveloped, and was not much of an offensive threat last year. Does seem much smoother working with the ball in his hands early this year. Very foul prone (he had 45 in 231 minutes, which equals about one every five minutes of game time). OK shotblocker, decent runner for a man his size.
Here is the unmolded core of the UConn basketball team. There's some serious potential talent in this bunch, but for the Huskies to return to the NCAA Tournament, they're going to need Big East-level play from at least three of these seven guys. It's a tall task, but if Calhoun has faith in them, so do I.
This whole "enormous class of freshmen" thing didn't work out for 2006-07 team, although the main difference is that Kemba Walker is the point guard, not a rusty A.J. Price. And while that class was filled with superlative athletes, there appear to be some basketball players among these players. Note the difference.
Finally, we at TheUConnBlog will be accepting your submissions for nicknames for the freshmen (with two exceptions) starting....now.
2010 exhibition game stats: 8 points (3-7 FG, 0-3 3PT), 6 rebounds, 2 assists vs. AIC; 17 points (7-9 FG, 2-4 3PT), 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 assists vs. Bridgeport
Outlook: Jim Calhoun has turned the hype machine WAY up for Lamb this fall, claiming he's "in the mold of Ray and Rip." High praise and big expectations for a frosh. It's likely Lamb will start at the 2, though he really seems to be a combo SG/SF type. It looks like Lamb is going to start the season as a major player on this team; given Calhoun's praise, I don't think it's too much to expect him to be near Jerome Dyson's scoring level as a freshman (13.8 ppg), though hopefully Lamb will be more efficient than the Dys-man.
Scouting report: He is huge for a guard. Big lanky arms (and a wingspan of 7-2) and very good athleticism help him defend very well. Had a crazy block, and showed some very nice hops in the Bridgeport game. He's a slashing type with a decent jumper.
#5 Niels Giffey (Freshman guard-forward / Berlin, Germany / 6-7, 210 pounds)
2010 exhibition game stats: 8 points (2-4 FG, 0-1 3PT, 4-4 FT), 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals vs. AIC; 8 points (3-6 FG, 2-5 3PT), 3 rebounds vs. Bridgeport
Outlook: The book on Giffey is that he's a quintessential "glue guy", the type of fundamentally sound player you can bring on for 15-20 minutes a night, and have him play hard on defense, pass the ball well, and knock down a couple jumpers. Der Ubersportler wasn't exactly an unknown quantity either - he was wanted by UCLA, Louisville and Gonzaga, before settling on UConn. Giffey displayed nice shooting touch in the exhibitions, and if he lives up to the reputation outlined above, he gives UConn a tremendous amount of flexibility.
Scouting report: Nice range on his jump shot, good rebounder, comes up big in the clutch. A versatile player who can play inside or outside. He suffered from mono last season but appears to be 100% physically. According to Calhoun, does not know who John Havlicek is. Calhoun will assuredly change that.
#10 Tyler Olander (Freshman power forward / Mansfield, Conn. / 6-9, 225 pounds)
Unofficial nickname suggestion: T.O.
2010 exhibition game stats: 4 points (2-3 FG), 2 rebounds vs. AIC; 4 points (2-4 FG), 6 rebounds, 4 assists vs. Bridgeport
Outlook: Olander will likely have trouble adjusting to life so far from home. The journey from EO Smith High School in Mansfield to Gampel Pavilion can take as long as 20 minutes if you want to take the Yellow Line campus shuttle bus. To get to UConn, Olander will have to navigate the treacherous crosswalks of Bolton Road, walk past the terrifyingly inadequate Arjona and Monteith humanities buildings, and avoid the dreaded sand pits of West Campus dormitories. If he can survive this painful ordeal, he surely will be able to survive something as innocuous as Big East basketball.
Scouting report: A skilled big man type, Olander isn't the strongest or quickest post player ever. But he does have a solid jumper for a 6-9 kid, and he hustles. Lord does he hustle. If the New England Patriots started a basketball franchise, Olander would be their first pick in the 2015 draft. I wouldn't expect Olander to be terribly productive as a freshman, but keep an eye on his improvement over the next couple years.
#13 SHABAZZ~! Napier (Freshman point guard / Randolph, Mass. / 6-0, 170 pounds)
Official TheUConnBlog-sponsored nickname(s): SHABAZZ~!
2010 exhibition game stats: 11 points (3-5 FG, 2-4 3PT, 3-4 FT), 3 assists, 2 rebounds vs. AIC; 9 points (2-6 FG, 1-3 3PT, 4-4 FT) vs. Bridgeport
Outlook: As you can tell by our tagline, we are all over the SHABAZZ~! bandwagon. First thing you need to know: upon committing to UConn, his reasoning was "Jim Calhoun, baby! The guy coaches lottery picks." Best-case scenario, Napier can be just the sort of manic, enthusiastic presence that Kemba portrayed so well two seasons ago. By all accounts, Napier was something of a steal for Calhoun, and it looks like he's set to get plenty of minutes in the guard rotation behind Kemba and Lamb.
Scouting report: Excellent ball-handler, great speed, very exciting to watch. Will alternate between amazing and frustrating. Showed some ridic crossovers in the exhibition. Can shoot the 3. Most likely to make a Connecticut newspaper beat writer or columnist use the word "panache" when describing his play.
#22 Roscoe Smith (Freshman small forward / Baltimore, Md. / 6-8, 205 pounds)
2010 exhibition game stats: 6 points (2-8 FG, 2-3 FT), 5 rebounds, 2 blocks vs. AIC; 4 points, 1 rebound vs. Bridgeport
Outlook: The stud of Calhoun's 2010 recruiting class, Smith was a high school All-American coveted by, among others, Georgetown. He's the closest thing to a freak athlete in the class, and that fact, plus the fact that he's 6-8, from Maryland and wears #22 will immediately bring comparisons to Rudy Gay. Didn't show much in the two exhibitions (including a 1-for-10 night against Bridgeport), but most who have seen him play say he can be a real player in the Big East.
Scouting report: Decent handle, can get himself open looks. Willing to play inside, but more than comfortable taking jumpers. Showed some aggressiveness rebounding in the AIC game.
#25 Michael Bradley (Freshman center / Chattanooga, Tenn. / 6-10, 235 pounds)
2010 exhibition game stats: DNP vs. AIC or Bridgeport
Outlook: Everyone's kind of assuming Bradley will redshirt at this point, as he doesn't appear like he'll challenge for playing time this season. The word "project" is being thrown around, but having never seen him play, it's difficult to judge.
Scouting report: Rated the 15th-best center in the class of 2010 by Scout. Averaged 6.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in his senior year of high school; according to this article, Bradley has an outside shot.
#??? Enosch Wolf (Freshman center / Mysterious unnamed town, Germany / 7-1, 209 pounds)
Outlook: Another question mark for UConn, Wolf is not yet on campus. He's finishing the fall semester at Wilbraham & Monson in Wilbraham, Mass., and he'll join UConn following the semester break. However, that won't stop us from blindly speculating that Enosch Wolf isn't, based on what may or may not be his picture above, the sum of all our worst nightmares, a volatile force bent on the destruction of all who oppose him. Because you never know.
Scouting report: In a July article in the New London Day, Wolf is described as "a movable big man" - I hope that means "mobile" and not "easily movable by another post player" - and a guy who "has to work on his offensive game." He's said to be a "decent" shotblocker, but at 209 pounds, it may be a little while before he can contribute in any meaningful way.
|Friday, Nov. 12||Stony Brook||Gampel Pavilion||7 p.m.||SNY|
|Wednesday, Nov. 17||Vermont||XL Center||7 p.m.||SNY|
|Monday, Nov. 22||vs. Wichita State||Oahu, Hawaii (Maui Invitational)||3 p.m.||ESPN2|
|Tuesday, Nov. 23||vs. Michigan State/Chaminade||Oahu, Hawaii (Maui Invitational)||2 or 7 p.m.||ESPN/ESPN2|
|Wednesday, Nov. 24||vs. opponent TBD||Oahu, Hawaii (Maui Invitational)||TBD||ESPNish|
|Tuesday, Nov. 30||New Hampshire||Gampel Pavilion||7:30 p.m.||SNY|
|Friday, Dec. 3||Maryland-Baltimore County||XL Center||7 p.m.||SNY|
|Wednesday, Dec. 8||Fairleigh Dickinson||Gampel Pavilion||7:30 p.m.||SNY|
|Monday, Dec. 20||Coppin State||XL Center||7 p.m.||ESPNU|
|Wednesday, Dec. 22||Harvard||XL Center||7 p.m.||SNY|
|Monday, Dec. 27||at Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh, Pa.||8:30 p.m.||ESPN2|
|Friday, Dec. 31||South Florida||XL Center||6 p.m.||ESPNU|
|Tuesday, Jan. 4||at Notre Dame||South Bend, Ind.||7 p.m.||SNY|
|Saturday, Jan. 8||at Texas||Austin, Texas||3:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|Tuesday, Jan. 11||Rutgers||XL Center||7 p.m.||SNY|
|Saturday, Jan. 15||at DePaul||Rosemont, Ill.||2 p.m.||SNY|
|Monday, Jan. 17||Villanova||Gampel Pavilion||3:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|Saturday, Jan. 22||Tennessee||XL Center||2 p.m.||CBS|
|Tuesday, Jan. 25||at Marquette||Milwaukee, Wis.||9 p.m.||SNY|
|Saturday, Jan. 29||Louisville||Gampel Pavilion||12 p.m.||SNY|
|Wednesday, Feb. 2||Syracuse||XL Center||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|Saturday, Feb. 5||at Seton Hall||Newark, N.J.||7 p.m.||ESPNU|
|Thursday, Feb. 10||at St. John's||New York, N.Y.||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|Sunday, Feb. 13||Providence||Gampel Pavilion||7 p.m.||SNY|
|Wednesday, Feb. 16||Georgetown||XL Center||7 p.m.||SNY|
|Friday, Feb. 18||at Louisville||Louisville, Ky.||9 p.m.||ESPN|
|Thursday, Feb. 24||Marquette||XL Center||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|Sunday, Feb. 27||at Cincinnati||Cincinnati, Ohio||12 p.m.||ESPNU|
|Wednesday, March 2||at West Virginia||Morgantown, W. Va.||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|Saturday, March 5||Notre Dame||Gampel Pavilion||2 p.m.||ESPN|
|March 8-12||Big East Tournament||New York, N.Y.||ESPN|
This isn't your typical UConn cupcake-o-rama non-conference schedule. Sure, all the old favorites are there - including 44% of the America East Conference! - but the mere presence of the Maui Invitational elevates the schedule. Calhoun, apparently feeling that the January docket isn't tough enough with 18 Big East games, has added Texas and Tennessee to the mix (though the Vols may be way, way down this year).
Other scattered thoughts:
- Who were the ad wizards who came up with playing a 6 p.m. game on New Years' Eve?
- Villanova. Gampel Pavilion. 3:30 p.m. on a Monday with no classes. If that's not among the loudest crowds in Gampel history, I'll eat my shoe.
- Syracuse. The XL Center. A random Wednesday night. God, I hate UConn's athletic department.
- I don't know that there's ever an "easy" stretch in Big East play, but UConn opens with about as soft a landing as possible: after opening with Pitt, they play South Florida, Notre Dame, Rutgers and DePaul. Any worse than 3-2 out of the gate, and UConn will be in trouble.
- It seems like every year UConn always faces the Conference USA teams twice...this year, it's Marquette, Louisville and Notre Dame. Can't they throw Georgetown or Seton Hall or Providence on the home-and-home schedule once in a while?
And now, five games to watch:
- Maui Invitational (Nov. 22-24): Yeah, the whole thing. UConn opens up with a quietly good Wichita State team on Nov. 22. The Shockers look like they could be the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference, so I'd give this young UConn team about a 50-50 shot of pulling that one out. Either way, UConn will likely be 1-1 after two games (barring some crazy upset). A win will almost certainly mean a date with a national title-contending Michigan State team, while a loss will mean they get to play Chaminade in the prime 9:30 a.m. Hawaiian time slot. Waiting on the other side of the bracket will likely be Kentucky, assuming they can take care of underachieving Washington and Oklahoma.
- at Pittsburgh (Dec. 27): Never like to see a young team open Big East play in the worst possible place, but here it is. The Panthers are one of the favorites to win the Big East title, and they're almost unbeatable at home. We may learn a lot from how UConn performs in a hostile situation.
- vs. Villanova (Jan. 17): Celebrate Martin Luther King Day by not going to work and watching a Gampel matinee! The Wildcats are the other consensus Big East favorite and, in a twist, they may have a better group of post players than UConn for the first time this century. Oh, and also their guards are still pretty good too.
- at St. John's (Feb. 10): The Johnnies are a popular pick to join the top half of the Big East for the first time since the epic Charles-Barkley backcourt (that would be Collin and Erick), and Steve Lavin (and his wife) is the talk of Queens. Also, the Johnnies kinda really embarrassed UConn in the Big East Tournament, and let's not let that happen again.
- vs. Georgetown (Feb. 16): How will UConn lose in heartbreaking fashion to the Hoyas this time? Tune in...IF YOU DARE
I'll make this as succinct as I can, because if you've made it this far, God bless ya.
I am weirdly optimistic about this team. The college basketball cognoscenti seem to think that there's not enough talent here to do anything but scrape out an NCAA Tournament bid by the skin of their teeth. Our SBNation bro-ham Chris Dobbertean has UConn as a projected 11-seed; History will judge whether I'm ahead of the curve or deluding myself, but I can't help but be excited.
After four years of players who were called "athletically gifted" - because calling them "skilled at basketball" would have been a lie - it's nice to see some new blood. It's nice to see some kids who play enthusiastically, like kids do. It's nice to see some players who can shoot the ball, because really the lack of jump shooting from a program that produced Ray Allen and Ben Gordon was getting ridiculous.
Mistakes will be inevitable, and I'm sure we'll pull our hair out when UConn blows a game to Harvard or someone. But what I like about this team is that it has a good base of skills to build on. There are some fundamentally sound players; there are some good, long athletes; there are a couple speedsters. And, of course, there's Kemba, who I wouldn't trade for any point guard in the country. Whereas last year's team was worse than the sum of its parts, I think the opposite is likely to be true for the 2010-11 bunch.
What I'm saying is, I think Calhoun can work with this, and this year I think the season goal should be somewhere around 20 wins and a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament.
If this is the beginning of the end for the Calhoun regime, I think he is setting the program up perfectly. There are any number of ways the Calhoun era can end disastrously - just take a look at any of the pundits talking about UConn basketball right now. But with this group of players, I feel confident that the Lion of Storrs can work his magic one last time.
Or, you know, UConn will lose to Stony Brook tonight and invalidate all those words I've just written.
Merry Basketballmas, everyone. Enjoy the ups and downs of the season...it should be a fun one.