Just a few more hours until basketball season starts. For the final piece of our preview series, we look at the key storylines heading into the season and make some predictions.
What to watch for
No more shot blockers
Say what you want about departed senior Amida Brimah, but his absence will dramatically alter how the Huskies play defense this season. With Brimah, who had 367 blocks in his career and led the country with 121 in 2014-15, perimeter defenders could afford to funnel the player they were guarding to the middle, where Brimah was protecting the rim.
Now, with no safety blanket like Brimah in the paint, this year’s team can’t afford to get beat off the dribble. There will be more of a focus on keeping the offensive player in front of them and rotating on the weak side. We may even see more of the full-court press that the Huskies used to get out to a hot start in their final exhibition against Queens College last week.
After former American Athletic Conference rookie of the year Vance Jackson transferred to New Mexico, the Huskies lost their top shooting threat from deep at 39.7 percent. However, UConn still has guards Jalen Adams and Christian Vital, who shot 35 percent and 36 percent respectively last season. With Jackson and Rodney Purvis (who took 226 attempts from the 3-point line last season) gone, another shooter will have to step up.
While Terry Larrier will likely get his fair share of looks, he was inefficient from deep this preseason, going 0-8 and was not much better as a freshman at VCU, where he shot 26 percent from the 3-point line. Alterique Gilbert has a chance to break out from deep, but no matter who it is, the Huskies will need to find another knockdown shooter to help spread out opposing defenses.
Who Steps Up?
Jalen Adams and Christian Vital are the team’s only proven commodities. There’s a lot of belief in Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier, and enough tape from last year and this season to warrant it, but other new guys are going to need to contribute in a big way.
Up front, UConn has entirely new starters and depth, with redshirt freshman Mamadou Diarra the only holdover. That’s going to be a big man by committee this year; it could work out.
Get Some Big Wins
UConn will have chances in the non-conference slate against Oregon, potentially others in the PK80, Villanova, and Arizona out of conference and twice each against Wichita State and Cincinnati in AAC play. The Huskies need to win a couple of these games to make the positive national statement they need to break into the NCAA Tournament field.
Jalen Got Next?
Jalen Adams has a deep lineage to live up to. He has shown the ability to lead but if he can take it to the next level this season has unlimited potential. A dependable guard can get you far in March. With much better support around him this year, Jalen Adams needs to thrive if he wants his third season at UConn to be his last.
Madigan: Mamadou Diarra. Diarra has the size, length and athleticism to be an excellent rebounder, and as long as he stays healthy, I think he’ll be the best rebounder on the team. That being said, there’s a really good chance Christian Vital will lead the team in rebounding at some point or have way more rebounds than he probably should.
tcf15: Mamadou Diarra. Although he’s a bit undersized (measured 6’5.5” without shoes in 2015), Diarra developed a reputation as one of the best rebounders in the 2016 class due to his motor and toughness. If he can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, he’ll fill the void left by Kentan Facey (7.1 rebounds per game in 2016-17).
Connolly: Eric Cobb. I was really impressed with Cobb through the preseason game and I think if he can stay out of foul trouble, he’s going to be one of the best all-around bigs we’ve had here in a while. While his size isn’t great at 6-foot-9, he’s shown the willingness to go after every board and has the muscle to get them.
Aman: Mamadou Diarra. He’s going to be the Adrien-style rebounding goon that we always love to have patrolling the paint.
Madigan: This is Jalen Adams’ team, at least from an offensive perspective. He is the best player on the team and can score with the ball in his hands or play well off the ball. I think Adams will put up solid numbers once again this year and be this team’s top scoring option.
Connolly: Jalen Adams. I don’t think there’s really any other choice here. We’re all about guards here at UConn and it’s time for him to take that step up to being one of the all-time greats.
tcf15: Jalen Adams. This is Adams’ team and we’re all expecting the sophomore to junior year jump that UConn’s best guards tend to make.
Aman: Adams. See above.
Madigan: I think Alterique Gilbert will rack up a lot of assists just by passing the ball to Adams. Aside from this, Gilbert’s ability to drive to the lane should lead to open looks on the perimeter for Adams or Christian Vital or easy midrange jumpers for Terry Larrier. Gilbert will score plenty this season but his passing ability will help this team a lot.
Connolly: I’m ready for the Jalen Adams takeover this season. I think he ascends to one of the best players in the country and really takes the reigns of this offense. I can totally see him getting that Kemba-esque swagger of celebrating after making a big, flashy assist to Christian for the dagger three in the final minutes against Cuse at MSG. And boy am I ready for it.
tcf15: Alterique Gilbert. It’s hard to pick against Jalen Adams because of the numbers he put up last year, but with Gilbert back in the fold, Adams won’t need to be as much a facilitator this year. Gilbert will be the point guard for this team and his primary responsibility will be setting up his teammates, namely Adams, Larrier and Vital, for easy buckets...
Aman: Jalen Adams. He has proven he is an adept scorer and setter-upper. Gilbert will get his, but the offense will run through Adams.
Best Non-Gilbert/Diarra Freshman
Madigan: I am really impressed with Tyler Polley’s skillset. He can handle the ball a little bit, score in a few different ways, and seems athletic enough to be a decent defender and rebounder. I think he could be a really useful and versatile piece off the bench at either small forward or power forward.
Connolly: Josh Carlton. I really didn’t expect Carlton to be the offensive threat that he showed throughout the exhibition schedule. I thought he’d be more of a shot-blocker and rebounder this season while developing into an offensive threat later on but that seems to have been flipped. Carlton has really impressed Kevin Ollie, who gushed over his footwork after the Queens game, saying “I’m not comparing him to Tim Duncan yet, but he’s got some footwork.”
tcf15: Josh Carlton. While I think that Polley is going to be the best recruit from this class when it’s all said and done, he won’t see enough minutes to make an impact playing behind Terry Larrier this year. Carlton, however, is in a fortuitous spot after UConn’s entire frontcourt from last season either graduated or transferred. There are minutes to be had in the frontcourt this season, and after an impressive showing in the last exhibition game against Queens College, Carlton will be a major factor.
Aman: I like Josh Carlton too. He’s a fluid big man with good size, passing ability, and footwork around the rim. That’s an enticing combination and certainly a new dimension for UConn.
Highest Impact Transfer
Madigan: It almost has to be Larrier, who will log plenty of minutes and is one UConn’s best scoring options. While he isn’t much of a 3-point shooter, Larrier should do well inside the arc and could be an absolute terror at power forward, where he could play a very similar role to Deandre Daniels in 2014 and take bigger/slower defenders off the dribble for easy baskets.
Connolly: Eric Cobb. Let me officially declare I am leading the Eric Cobb fanclub this seaosn. I really think he’s going to have a monster season as a versatile player that can play anywhere from center to the three in a big lineup. I think most of the concerns over the frontcourt are going to be alleviated once Cobb drops 20/10 on Colgate.
tcf15: Antwoine Anderson. As we saw last year in games against Auburn, Houston and East Carolina, depth in the backcourt is crucial to success in college basketball. Bringing in Anderson will help keep the minutes down for Adams, Gilbert and Vital this year. And he’s got a knack for buzzer beaters to boot, which will come in handy at some point this season.
Aman: Eric Cobb. I think he’s going to step in and be one of the Huskies’ most productive big men.
Total Number of Regular Season Wins
Connolly: 23. Just looking at the schedule, if they win all the games they’re supposed to, they hit at least 20 wins. But of course there’s going to be a couple WTF wins paired with some impressive wins over quality opponents. I can’t see them dropping below 20 wins, but I think that should really be the baseline. I believe this team has the ability to reach the upper 20’s if they can prove themselves early in the non-conference schedule.
Madigan: 20. There’s a chance this total is off almost immediately if UConn gets a good draw or plays well at PK80, but for now, I think this team is around 20 wins. If the Huskies can beat Wichita State at the XL Center and steal a win against the group of Arizona or Villanova, those wins could offset any fluky losses similar last year’s New Year’s Eve debacle at Tulsa. If they don’t take down any ranked opponents and still have 20 wins, I think they’ll need a strong showing at the AAC tournament to possibly get into the NCAA tournament
tcf15: 20. I’ve got UConn with 10 wins apiece in non-conference games(Colgate, Stony Brook, Boston University, DePaul, Arkansas, Columbia, Monmouth, Syracuse, Coppin State, @ Auburn) and conference games (East Carolina, UCF, @ Tulane, @ Memphis, SMU, USF, Tulsa, @ East Carolina, Memphis, Temple).
Aman: 22. I think the pieces come together and UConn has the positive season Kevin Ollie needs to prove he has this the program on the right track.
Upset Watch (team that could upset UConn)
Madigan: Tulsa. After UConn’s awful performance at Tulsa on New Year’s Eve last year, the Huskies head Oklahoma on Jan. 3 this season. I wouldn’t be shocked for another New Years-related let-down here, even if UConn clearly is a superior team.
Connolly: At Tulane. Weird things seem to happen to UConn sports when they go to New Orleans. I would’ve said at UCF on New Years’ Eve because of the Huskies’ inability to win on that day but UCF should be pretty decent so losing down there wouldn’t be that bad. Other than that, I don’t really have an explanation for Tulane. Angry Wave is intimidating, I guess?
tcf15: At East Carolina. It happened last year, although Christian Vital missed that game due to a concussion. Kentrell Barkely is probably one of the best players in the American that no one talks about and UConn always seems to play down to its opponents during road games.
Aman: at Memphis. Shit happens.
Best Non-Con Win
Connolly: Syracuse. Because beating Syracuse is the best regardless of how good (or bad) either team is.
Madigan: Syracuse. The Garden will be rocking. Syracuse likely won’t be any good this year, but a win at MSG on national TV against a rival is good for the brand.
tcf15: Syracuse. Any win against a zone defense this year will be a good win. Plus, it’s always the best to leave Syracuse with a bad taste of UConn in their mouth.
Aman: Villanova. Jalen Adams goes off Shabazz/Kemba on a big stage in front of the home crowd to get a huge upset for the Huskies.Villanova.
Madigan: I think fourth place is attainable, but fifth place is most likely. There’s no chance UConn is sweeping Wichita State and Cincinnati, but this team should be good enough to compete with them and have a shot at beating teams like UCF and Temple on the road. If the Huskies have success away from home, fourth place is in play, but as of now, fifth place is most likely.
Connolly: Third. Wichita State will probably run away with the conference, which isn’t a huge surprise. After that, I think 2-6 is kind of wide open. On principle, I think Cincinnati will be outside the top three and SMU is due for some regression as well. I like what Kelvin Sampson is doing down in Houston and I think they push for second place. After that, I think Cincinnati will finish fourth (I’m going to regret this so badly), SMU fifth (Same), UCF sixth.
tcf15: Sixth. UConn will be much improved over last year’s team, but it just so happens that the American is a much tougher conference this year. Cincinnati and Wichita State will both be great and likely battling throughout the season for the AAC crown. That leaves SMU, UCF, Houston, Temple and UConn in the next tier fighting for spots 3 through 7. Houston should be a really tough out this year with Rob Gray and I think they finish third. I think people are sleeping on Temple (they return a decent amount from last year in addition to Josh Brown) and they’ll finish fourth. After that, SMU fifth, UConn sixth, UCF seventh.
Aman: Fourth. I think Wichita State, Cincinnati, and one other team finish ahead of the Huskies. That other team could be SMU, UCF, or even Temple, but I think it’s going to be just one of them.
Connolly: Wichita State. There’s zero chance I’m buying hype that Cincinnati is going to make the Final Four. Wichita State is just a step above the rest of the American Conference and I think they show that this season both in the regular season and tournament. Having said that, Houston is my darkhorse pick to win the regular season title.
Madigan: Wichita State. The Shockers may be the new kids on the block, but they’re the best team this conference has to offer. This could be a special season for them, and it will likely start with an American Athletic Conference title.
tcf15: Wichita State. They’re the best team in the conference, returning everyone who played meaningful minutes from a 31-win team last year. Plus, they have a 7-0 270 freshman with nicknames like “The Mountain” and “God’s Bear” (which is actually the Danish-to-English translation of his first name). You win the American with players like that.
Aman: Cincinnati. I think Wichita State will have some growing pains making the upgrade to the AAC, where they’ll see tough competition more consistently. Mick Cronin has a really team in Cincinnati, and the stars could be aligned for this to be the Bearcats year... to win the conference and lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Connolly: A tough loss to Wichita State that you can’t be too upset over in the AAC Tournament final and a Sweet Sixteen loss that, again, you can’t be too upset over in the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, this team has underdog written all over them, so....
Madigan: I think this team could make it to the AAC semifinals and maybe even further if the matchups are right. Whether this team makes the NCAA tournament or not really depends on how the non-conference slate goes and if the Huskies can beat Wichita State or Cincinnati. If they can’t, I think UConn may be on the outside looking in on the NCAA tournament again this year.
tcf15: UConn always seems to play Cincinnati in the AAC tournament, so I have them meeting in the semifinals and UConn losing. UConn will make the NCAA Tournament as one of the first four teams, win that game, then win their first-round game, but ultimately lose in the second round.
Aman: I see UConn as a bubble team that could sneak in and maybe win a game. I’ll go with Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Bonus: Does Jalen Adams play against Colgate?
Connolly: Probably. What he did was definitely stupid but I don’t think it’s worth a suspension. Plus Kevin Ollie really can’t afford to lose back-to-back openers. I think he gets reprimanded is some other fashion off the court.
Madigan: I think Adams is ruled out for this game. In all honesty, I don’t think this is that big of a deal but Ollie will likely want to use this as a teaching moment and set the tone for the season. Ollie may have some nasty flashbacks to last year’s opener, but this team is good enough to beat Colgate without Adams and I think benching him will put an immediate end to “Scootergate.” It’s better to just bite the bullet and get it out of the way now.
tcf15: No. If this had occurred at the beginning of the week, I think Adams would be playing. But seeing how he has already been suspended from practice due and Kevin Ollie called the incident a distraction, I don’t see him playing against Colgate.
Aman: My hunch is he’s suspended for a half.