When you mention the Big East and its history, one of the first names and schools that comes to mind if you're an avid fan is Jim Calhoun, the Hall of Fame head coach who built Connecticut from the ground up and took the Huskies to national championships in 1999 and 2004. Yet as we enter this 2010-11 Big East campaign, there is something very different about UConn, something that has been present on the court for the Huskies for most of the last decade: Size on the front line.
I had the pleasure of speaking with the venerable and well-respected Calhoun this past Wednesday at Madison Square Garden when the UConn head man was there for Big East media day, and Calhoun mentioned that this year's Huskies would be an outside-oriented team instead of the usual "inside-out" style UConn has employed in its near-two-decade run at the top of the Big East. The change in style was dictated by not just a smaller UConn squad, but also from a rather young group of players as well. Only three seniors grace the Huskies' roster this season, and the only other player not in his freshman or sophomore year for Calhoun is all-Big East guard and New York City product Kemba Walker, who continues to evolve as he enters his junior campaign.
Calhoun also welcomes back sophomore big man Alex Oriakhi, not to mention a six-pack of freshmen led by swingman Roscoe Smith and point guard Shabazz Napier, who will most likely learn the ropes from Walker this season before potentially moving into the starting lineup next year if Walker chooses to enter the NBA draft. All in all, there's a different aura around Storrs this season, and their veteran leader recognizes that.
"I don't know if we're going to be a giant," said Calhoun when I asked whether or not UConn would be this year's sleeper Big East team, a role played by at least one conference team in every season. "If we're just really, really good when it's all said and done, then I'll be happy," remarked the coach, whose squad will be battle-tested early with nonconference games on the road against Texas and at home against Tennessee that will give the Huskies a slight break (if one wants to call it that) from the Big East slate. Depending on how UConn fares in the Maui Invitational, Calhoun's young charges could also face two-time defending Final Four participants Michigan State, and the Spartans are again viewed as a serious title contender as guard Kalin Lucas returns for his senior season.
Said Calhoun of UConn's ledger this season: "We'll have opportunities to find out who we are." Only time will tell whether or not the Huskies will be among the handful of Big East teams playing in the NCAA Tournament, which despite the new on-court look of his team, is still a goal of Calhoun's that can easily be attained. "Every single year, given what we have to go through, there's no question in my mind," stated Calhoun on the ability of the Big East to draw seven, eight, or even nine teams into what has now become the field of 68. "I just hope we're one of those seven, eight or nine."
Fans in Connecticut will concur, and so too will Huskies fans across the Northeast who will now have the opportunity to see their team more often throughout the season thanks to UConn's agreement with SportsNet New York. (You can see my perspective on the UConn/SNY partnership by clicking here)