I have to say, after a few months of writing almost exclusively about UConn football, which is sort of like being an obituary writer for a major metropolitan publication—the names and dates might change, but the outcome is always the same—it is more than exciting to finally be talking about something positive again.
That's right...UConn basketball is back, baby!
Cue up some good ol'fashioned “Hoosiers” music, get Shabazz Napier on a ladder to measure the height of the rim at Gampel, and get ready to root for a winning team again.
After all, as much as we clamor for success on the gridiron, UConn is still all about the hardwood. Our identity, at least for now, is still defined by what happens between November and March. We are, all of us, the spawn of Jim Calhoun, wearing our Husky paraphernalia with pride...because that's what he and his program gave all of us.
There are A LOT of things I'm excited about this year, most notably the fact that UConn gets to play for the prize once again. No more NCAA-sponsored purgatory, that is until some representative on a noble quest to preserve peace and justice in college athletics uncovers some dastardly UConn plan to provide its athletes with free Ramen noodle soup during road trips. Ohhh...the scandal.
Anyway, here are just a few of the things I'm excited to see this year.
Kevin Ollie, Year Two
I was on board with the Ollie signing from the get-go, partly because of my undying faith in Jim Calhoun. Sure, it was possible that the old ball coach let his friendship with Ollie cloud is judgment, but I was happy to operate under the assumption that, if Calhoun saw something in Kevin, there must be something there.
You also couldn't discount Ollie's resume—popular four-year point guard at UConn, NBA player for 13 years, learned under such coaching greats as Chuck Daly and Larry Brown. If there was someone available to UConn in September of last year with better chops than that, I didn't hear his name mentioned.
Yet, you never know how someone will perform at a job until they are in it. Ollie quickly put any reservations to rest. With an opening night win against Michigan State, Ollie and his squad let the world know that, despite foolish NCAA bans and sudden transfers, UConn was still a program with which to be reckoned.
Now, however, the bar has been raised. Last year is over. This year comes with real expectations.
The Huskies are ranked, have an experienced and talented back court, and play in a new conference that seems ripe for more victories than were available in the old Big East.
Simply put, Ollie has heightened expectations and his team will be expected to perform.
Make no mistake, I have a reserved seat on the Ollie bandwagon and I don't plan on selling anytime soon. It would take a lot—A LOT— to get me off those stairs and on the escalator. But no one should delude themselves into thinking this season comes with more of that old UConn feel. If the Huskies aren't one of the top two or three teams in the AAC, punching an easy ticket to March Madness, then some people are going to start the quiet whispers that could eventually lead to a groan.
I, personally, believe Ollie is about to lead UConn to a very successful season.
Deandre Daniels, Step Right Up
UConn is mostly known for its talented guards. Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Ben Gordon, Kemba Walker...they all roll off the tongue. Throw in AJ Price and (potentially) Jeremy Lamb and UConn's reputation as an NBA guard factory is well deserved.
However, Don't discount the great small forwards UConn has produced over the years, either. Rudy Gay might be the most talented player, athletically, to ever come out of Storrs, and Caron Butler has established a career for himself as a clutch performing “glue guy” who takes on a leadership role wherever he lands.
Of course, this current UConn squad has plenty of guard talent. The team is anchored by Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, and we are all expecting more from Omar Calhoun (more on these guys later). However, I think the most exciting player on the roster is DeAndre Daniels.
He's 6'9”, athletic, has a nice touch jump shot with some range, and a quick first dribble/step. He showed last year he can post some guys up and others he can take off the dribble.
All the skills are there. If he were a baseball player, he'd be a classic five-tooler. All he needs is consistency.
I remember seeing Daniels two years ago, in those early November/December games against lesser teams. He became my favorite newbie player. Daniels looked like that perfect combination of size, sneaky speed, and athleticism.
That was Daniels' freshman year. It became the first part of his sophomore year. Some flashes of greatness and a lot of no-shows.
On February 23, Daniels scored four points and grabbed five rebounds against a lowly DePaul team. This, after a strong 17-5 performance against Cincinatti a few days before. It was a perfect microcosm of Daniels brief career to that point. He could only show his qualities for so long before throwing up another head-scratching clunker.
And then Daniels and UConn played Georgetown. The team lost a one-point heartbreaker in overtime, but Daniels was brilliant. He thoroughly outplayed would-be Big East Player of the Year Otto Porter, scoring 25 points, snaring 10 rebounds, and playing great defense.
Was it a light-switch moment?
It certainly seemed that way. Daniels finished the year by posting scoring/rebounding games of 18/8, 23/10, and 19/8. Overall, in his last seven games (including his clunker four point DePaul special) he averaged 17 points and seven rebounds.
Is that DeAndre Daniels?
It can be. The question is, will he be the Daniels of the last seven games (especially the last four) or the guy who seemed incapable of putting up back-to-back great performances?
The answer to that question will go a long way to telling how far UConn can go, since Daniels, of all UConn players, has the chance to be truly special.
I Feel The Need....The Need....For Speed
There's not a hell of a lot I can say about UConn's back court. Shabazz Napier went from being the most frustrating player I'd ever watched at UConn to one of my favorites. Last year, he curtailed his crazy, bang-your-head-against-the-wall, “SHABAZZ!” moments, replacing them with a lot more fist-pumping, jumping-up-and-down-in-excitement, “SHABAZZ!” moments. He was a true point guard last year, and playing on essentially one leg at the end of the season against Providence to win the last home game and earn their 20th victory showed real guts.
Ryan Boatright...is a show. He's so fast, so dynamic, so fun to watch, you almost feel like you should be paying a little extra each time he's on the floor. Toward the end of the season Boat had a few too many costly turnovers, and he hasn't quite found that Kemba-like balance of when to hit turbo and when to back off, but that comes with experience. After all, it's easy to forget that, in Kemba's sophomore year, he was plagued by the same sorts of things.
Last year, Shabazz and Boat showed they could thrive in the same back court. With another year under their belt, the combo might be lethal...but will definitely be a blast to watch.
That Other Calhoun
It's pretty awesome to think that Calhoun was only a freshman last year. I mean, seriously, there were times when he was clearly the best player on the court for the Huskies, and that's saying something. After a complete no-show in his first game against Michigan State (one point in 25 minutes), Calhoun went on to score in double figures in 18 of his next 28 games. He also began using his size a bit better late in the year, as from February 3 on, he didn't have less than five rebounds in any one game.
Calhoun had an injury at the end of the year, accounting for two sub-par games, but it's clear he has “star” written all over him.
He needs more bulk and more of an ability to take people off the dribble. He has speed and a good first step, which he needs to use more often.
His shot is unusual, to say the least, but it goes in so why change it?
It will be interesting to see if Calhoun steps up or takes a step back. Is he a victim of the sophomore jinx or a rising star who will help make UConn's starting five one of the most dynamic in the nation?
Under Ollie, UConn was able to adjust to a lot of different things. In a way, they were able to adjust to the fact that they never adjusted their ability to rebound.
Somehow, someway, they produced wins while being thumped on the boards by...everyone.
Crashing the boards might still be a problem. It's not that the roster is really, really small. After all, five players are 6'9” or above. UConn showed that they can win without winning on the glass, but is that a tried and true recipe for success over more than one year? And whereas last year the season was always destined to end on the last day of the regular season, this year there are dreams of tournament victories dancing in everybody's heads.
Can UConn be a successful MARCH team without true rebounders?
The New Guys
Kentan Facey. Terrence Samuels. Amida Brimah.
These are the new faces in UConn land. How will they fare? Will they succeed? How much growing time will they need?
Those questions are especially important when it comes to both Brimah and Facey. They have some size and some strength. They will be counted on, even as freshmen, to help on the boards. Facey, also, is someone who comes with a little bit of hype. Can he be a spark plug off the bench, providing real energy and athletic scoring/defense when he enters the game?
For all the crappiness Paul Pasqualoni and our football program have brought into our lives, we are being karmically rewarded with what should be an outstanding basketball season.
98 hours until tip-off.