The UConn Huskies will kick off their season this Friday, with all of us hoping Kevin Ollie’s squad can move forward following the program’s worst season in 30 years and a rough-and-tumble off-season to boot. An ideal outcome for the team in this situation would be to make the NCAA Tournament and break that... uh ... one year drought afflicting the fanbase.
For that to happen, the Huskies are going to need to get some impressive wins in the non-conference slate. Here are their best chances.
Oregon - Thursday, Nov. 23 - Portland, OR (PK80 Tournament)
The Huskies’ first big test of the season will be a rematch of their Maui Invitational finalé last year, where UConn played a hard-fought contest after losing two of its best players but couldn’t overcome a bad start and took a 10-point loss. That Oregon team ended up making the Final Four before bowing out to eventual champion North Carolina.
This year’s Ducks likely won’t be as dangerous, as many of the stars from last year’s team have left, but will still be pretty good. They return only one starter, so Oregon will be counting on a lot of new but talented pieces to come together. As we all know, UConn is very much in the same boat, but will be slightly overmatched on pure talent.
Five-star wing Troy Brown was the star of Dana Altman’s 2017 recruiting class and New Mexico transfer Elijah Brown leads a crew of transfers expected to make an impact. Oregon opens the season ranked 10th in KenPom and is in the Receiving Votes category in the AP and Coaches’ preseason top-25 polls.
Syracuse - Tuesday, Dec. 5 - NYC
Like last season’s meeting, it’s a bit of a down year for both squads, but any time UConn is playing Syracuse at Madison Square Garden it’s appointment viewing and a must-win for each side. Last year’s contest was an old-fashioned Big East (RIP) rock fight with the Huskies prevailing thanks to some heady play from freshman guard Christian Vital in the final seconds. Rodney Purvis and Jalen Adams helped lead a comeback as the Huskies overcame a late double-digit deficit.
This year’s Orange are re-stocking the shelves after losing Tyler Lydon, John Gillon, Andrew White, Taurean Thompson, Dajuan Coleman and Tyler Roberson from last year’s squad. They still have guard Tyus Battle, who had a good freshman campaign, and prolific scorer Geno Thorpe, a grad transfer from USF, but after that they’re counting on mostly unproven talent to step up.
Syracuse opens the season one spot ahead of UConn in the KenPom rankings, at 68th, and was picked to finish 10th in the ACC this year in the conference preseason media poll.
Arizona - Thursday, Dec. 21 - Tuscon, AZ
Despite the controversy surrounding this team following the FBI probe that shook up the college hoops scene, Arizona is expected to be one of the best teams in the country this season. They return scoring guard Allonzo Trier, who led the Wildcats with 17.2 points per game and was the team’s third-leading rebounder. They also added DeAndre Ayton, a skilled 7-footer with shooting range that was a consensus top-five recruit in the class of 2017. They didn’t lose a whole lot of production from last year’s team and open the season ranked third in KenPom and AP Top-25 and fifth in the USA Today Preseason Coaches’ Poll.
This would be a huge upset if the Huskies could pull it off on the road, but at the very least it will be the first chance to see how Kevin Ollie’s rebuilt squad performs against an elite team, something they’ll be doing more than a few times this season.
Villanova - Saturday, Jan. 20 - Hartford, CT
Another title contender, Villanova is expected to be the class of the Big East and show no signs of letting down from the absolute tear the Wildcats have been on since the 2013-2014 season. Since then, they have finished 11th, fifth, first, and second in the KenPom rankings with a national title thrown in for good measure. They don’t have Josh Hart or Kris Jenkins anymore, but will be led by talented junior guard Jalen Brunson.
The last time these two teams met was in the 2014 NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32, when 7-seeded UConn pulled off the upset in Buffalo on its way to the program’s fourth national championship. This year, the Huskies will be underdogs once again and looking for some magic to pull off the upset at their home away from home.
This is a little bit of a deviation but the start to the season is really important so I’m putting this on the list. Obviously, a UConn team that might be on the bubble come Selection Sunday can’t afford any bad losses but it would be hard to overstate how important it is for the Huskies to get off to a good start this season.
They lost to Wagner and Northeastern to start last season, before Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier suffered season-ending injuries. Those losses meant national and fan perception was less forgiving to Kevin Ollie for the losing season, even after his roster was ravaged by injury. UConn needs to enter the PK80 Tournament with a 3-0 record, and it’s more important than just avoiding a bad loss on the résumé. The first three teams on the schedule are ranked 174th, 197th, 224th, respectively in KenPom. Win, Rocky.