With the opener of a highly anticipated UConn season just a day away, it's time to look at the strength of this team—it's backcourt. Entering this year, Connecticut has one of the most dangerous group of guards in the entire country, led by veterans Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, along with some very exciting young talent.
For the past two seasons, Napier has become the heart and soul of this UConn squad. After winning a national championship his freshman year playing behind Kemba Walker, Napier has seen his minutes increase each year, averaging 37.3 MPG in the 2012-2013 campaign. In addition to his vast playing time, the Roxbury, Massachusetts native averaged 17.1 PPG, 4.6 APG, 4.4 RPG, 2.0 STL last season, all while shooting 44.1% from the field, 39.8% from three and 81.9% from the free throw line.
In Napier's sophomore season two years ago, he was not originally looked at to be the leader—a role that was placed on shooting guard Jeremy Lamb. While Lamb had all the talent in the world, now playing with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA, he was never a leader for this team, and that showed up on the court at times that season. After a string of difficult losses, it was Napier who called the team out for lacking heart. That, to me, is when things changed for the young point guard. After losing to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies moved on—without Lamb, Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith, Andre Drummond and legendary coach Jim Calhoun—to a season with a brand new head coach, less talent, and a one-year postseason ban. It was Napier, though, that led this inexperienced Connecticut team to a rather remarkable 20-10 record, paving the way towards this ever-important 2013-2014 season.
Expect Shabazz Napier to not only be the best player on the team, but for him to be one of the best guards in the entire country this season. You already know he expects that of himself.
After averaging 15.4 PPG, 4.4 APG and 1.5 STL last season, along with averaging over 30 minutes played in each of his first two years, many hope this year will be another major stepping stone for the junior. At 6'0, 168 lbs, Ryan Boatright isn't exactly Michael Carter-Williams, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed, ability and effort. Boatright's steals, points, assists and minutes have gradually increased over his first two years, and with a stronger group of talent around him this season, one number that will likely increase is his assists.
Last season this Connecticut team was basically Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and everybody else. This year is a different story, with forward DeAndre Daniels on the precipice of a breakout season, a talented guard with Omar Calhoun with a year under his belt as well as some new faces. Boatright has shot 42% from the field in each of his first two seasons—a number you'd like to increase a bit more, but if he can create his own shots and better looks for others, he will be doing his job.
While the 6'6, 200 lbs sophomore guard won't likely be starting anytime soon, Omar Calhoun will play a large role in the backcourt this season. In his freshman campaign last year, Calhoun averaged 11.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG and 32.1 MPG. While he's considered by all to be a 2-guard, Calhoun is big enough where you may see him at small forward this year, especially in games where Kevin Ollie wants to go small.
Calhoun only shot 32% from behind-the-arc last year and 40% from the field, but he appeared as is he was coming into his own as the season went along and he got more comfortable in coach Ollie's system. This could very well be a break-out-type season for Calhoun, and if that's the case... Watch out.
UConn's backcourt has a new face entering the 2013-2014 season—19-year-old Terrence Samuel. In the 2013 Jordan Classic Regional, Samuel scored eight points (4-6 FGA), recorded four rebounds and two assists in only 15 minutes of action.
At 6'4, 190 lbs, one of Samuel's biggest strengths is the size at his position. "He has sneaky athleticism and his ability to be a floor general and pass the ball makes him pretty good. When he gets rolling [in the open court], he’s tough to stop" Samuel's former high school coach said.
Samuel is best utilized as a point guard, where he can run the floor and pass to his teammates. With Napier and Boatright, who both often play the 1, it will be interesting to see where Ollie will insert Samuels when his number is called. With his size it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Samuels at the 2 or even the 3. While it's unlikely that his playing time will be significant at first, Samuels has the tools and talent to make it to the pros one day. This could be a situation very much like when Napier was a freshman playing behind star point guard Kemba Walker. In that case, let's hope the end result is similar.
There's no question that the guards are the strength of the Connecticut team. With talented players such as Napier, Boatright, Calhoun, Samuels and even the walk-ons, all signs point to UConn having one of the most dangerous and explosive backcourts in the entire country.
The Huskies have a combination of small speedsters, sharp shooters, pesky defenders and big athletes at their disposal. It has yet to be seen how playing time will be divided amongst these four talented guards, but something tells me you'll rarely see a team not led by Napier.
Whatever happens this season, it's going to be a fun one. If this backcourt reaches it's true potential, it could be an unforgettable one.