Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Inside The Big East: UConn

Shown here with CBS' Jim Nantz after winning third national championship last year, Jim Calhoun has very good chance to defend crown with UConn this time around. (Photo courtesy of Sports Radio 66, WFAN New York)

Big East media day is here at long last, as the sixteen institutions send their players and coaches to the New York Athletic Club in midtown Manhattan (filling in while Madison Square Garden undergoes a makeover) tomorrow morning; and the Daly Dose pick to win the conference will finally be revealed. Drumroll, please...

Connecticut Huskies (2010-11 Record: 32-9, 9-9 Big East and 2011 NCAA Champions)
Head Coach: Jim Calhoun (26th season at UConn, 607-230; 855-367 overall)
Returning Starters: G Jeremy Lamb (6-5 So., 11.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 49% FG, 37% 3pt, 80% FT, 1.6 APG)
F Alex Oriakhi (6-9 Jr., 9.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 51% FG, 63% FT, 1.6 BPG)
F Roscoe Smith (6-8 So., 6.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 38% FG, 79% FT, 1.2 BPG)
F Tyler Olander (6-9 So., 1.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 37% FG, 67% FT)
Other Key Returning Players: G Shabazz Napier (6-1 So., 7.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 37% FG, 33% 3pt, 77% FT, 3.0 APG, 1.6 SPG)
F Niels Giffey (6-7 So., 2.2 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 40% FG, 81% FT)
Key Losses: G Kemba Walker (23.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 43% FG, 33% 3pt, 82% FT, 4.5 APG, 1.9 SPG)
F Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (5.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 41% FG, 80% FT)
C Charles Okwandu (2.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 47% FG, 52% FT, 1.2 BPG)

When I had the pleasure of speaking to Jim Calhoun at Big East media day last year, I asked him what he thought of a Huskies team he would be leading onto the court just eight months removed from an aberration of a season; one in which UConn appeared in the NIT rather than the NCAA Tournament after their faint hopes of making the 2010 "Big Dance" were crushed in a 73-51 loss to St. John's in the first round of the Big East tournament. Calhoun's response to me was this: "If we're just really, really good when it's all said and done, I'll be happy."

If UConn's stretch run this past season, which included the Huskies becoming the first school to win five games in as many days to win the Big East tournament before resuming their magical run through the NCAA Tournament; and culminating it by cutting down the nets in Houston for the third time in Calhoun's Hall of Fame career isn't "really, really good," count me as one of those who would like to see what is. There haven't been many storybook runs like the one the University of Connecticut gave the world just six months ago. However, with success comes higher expectations; and in college sports, where student-athletes pursue professional excellence, it is not easy to replicate these Cinderella stretches. Calhoun and the Huskies will be Exhibit A of this axiom this season, as they will show the world what they will do for an encore without one of the greatest players college basketball has seen in recent years. Junior guard Kemba Walker graduated early and decided to leave his remaining year of eligibility on the table in the wake of UConn's national championship win, and was drafted ninth overall by the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats this past June. Also having departed are senior Charles Okwandu, who graduated; and reserve forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who transferred to Hofstra and will be eligible for the 2012-13 campaign.

What Calhoun brings back to the Nutmeg State is nothing to sneeze at, though. After a freshman season in which he wowed nearly everyone who covered him, shooting guard and sophomore sensation Jeremy Lamb will be the team leader this season. The 6-5 Lamb has already been considered the favorite for the Big East Player of the Year award given at the end of the season in the minds of some people; and regardless of whom you talk to, everyone believes the Georgia product is on the precipice of a great season.

Lamb could run the point in stretches; but when Calhoun elects to play him off the ball, fellow second-year player Shabazz Napier will be the facilitator for the Huskies. After serving as Kemba Walker's understudy during a rookie season in which he averaged just under eight points and an even three assists per game in just 24 minutes, Napier will move into the starting five on an everyday basis with a chance to be the man who makes the motor run. Napier's spot as the first guard off the bench with the potential to make an impact early will be filled by one of the three highly regarded freshmen Calhoun brings into UConn this season; and that is six-foot guard Ryan Boatright, a Chicago native that averaged an eye-popping 31 points per game as a senior in high school last season.

UConn has always had great wings under Calhoun, from Donyell Marshall to Richard Hamilton to Caron Butler. Roscoe Smith should be no exception to that rule by the time he is done. An incredibly long 6-8 sophomore that can also play power forward, Smith averaged just over six points and five rebounds in his rookie season while also pulling in more than one blocked shot per night on average. Smith will also have the privilege of mentoring 6-8 swingman DeAndre Daniels, a late addition to Calhoun's incoming freshman class that was Rivals.com's tenth-ranked overall prospect last season; and one who can also play shooting guard in instances where Calhoun chooses to play bigger than usual. German import Niels Giffey is back as well for his sophomore campaign after spending the summer with his country's national team.

At power forward, 6-9 junior Alex Oriakhi gets another year to show off his prowess as the rebounding machine the Massachusetts native has come to be known. While Walker carried the load offensively for the Huskies last year, Oriakhi made too many plays on the defensive glass that did not show up in the box score to count, especially during his 13-point, 19-rebound outing off the bench in the Big East tournament against DePaul. Sophomore Tyler Olander, whose older brother Ryan will be one of the focal points for Fairfield this season, will also have many chances to improve this season after having some of the greatest performances in his young career during UConn's amazing stretch run last year. Finally, the biggest addition to the inside game for UConn will be their most recent arrival, a 6-11 freshman who committed no less than two months ago after he was rumored to be returning to prep school for one more season.

For those who have not met him, his name is Andre Drummond; and opposing frontcourts may regret being introduced to this 18-year-old big man sooner rather than later. One of the consensus top overall prospects in this past year's recruiting class, Drummond has drawn comparisons to another great Connecticut center before he has even played his first collegiate game; that being No. 2 overall NBA draft pick Emeka Okafor, one of Calhoun's strongest men in the middle during his impressive tenure at Connecticut that started in 1986, the year I was born.

As they usually do, the Huskies will alternate between their two home courts this season, hosting contests at the XL (formerly Hartford Civic) Center in Hartford in addition to their on-campus venue of Gampel Pavilion. Gampel is the site of UConn's first two games this season, with Columbia coming into Storrs to open the season on November 11th, while Danny Hurley and Wagner are next up for the reigning national champions three days later.

UConn makes its XL Center debut against Maine on November 17th, with Coppin State following on the 20th before UConn heads to Paradise Island in the Bahamas for a three-day tournament that could feature potential matchups with either Harvard or Florida State in the championship game one year after Calhoun's Huskies defeated Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky to win the Maui Invitational. Connecticut returns to the XL Center on December 3rd to meet Arkansas and new coach Mike Anderson as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge, with a home game against Harvard next up at Gampel Pavilion on December 8th; one that could be a return match against Tommy Amaker and the Crimson depending on how the Paradise Island tournament plays out.

UConn only plays one nonconference road game, but it will not come until January. Until then, Holy Cross and Fairfield come into the XL Center just before Christmas; and the Huskies open conference play December 28th on the road against USF. Calhoun will not be with the team for that game or either of the next two, as he will be serving an NCAA-imposed three-game suspension. Longtime assistant and former Seton Hall head man George Blaney will be in charge of the team during this temporary absence, which also includes a home game against St. John's on New Year's Eve at the XL Center and a road meeting at the Prudential Center against Seton Hall that will be the Huskies' 2012 opener when the two teams square off on January 3rd.

Calhoun will be back for the second half of the Huskies' New Jersey trip when UConn invades the RAC to take on Mike Rice and Rutgers on January 7th in Piscataway. Two days later, UConn plays host to West Virginia in a nationally televised "Big Monday" matchup at the XL Center. Notre Dame welcomes the Huskies into the Joyce Center next on January 14th for the first of two matchups between UConn and the Fighting Irish, and Cincinnati comes into Gampel Pavilion on January 18th just three days before the Huskies' sole nonconference road game, which comes in Knoxville against Tennessee and new coach Cuonzo Martin on January 21st. The Tennessee game is a reprisal of last year's tilt in which the Vols and former head man Bruce Pearl played UConn in the Nutmeg State.

After eight days off, Notre Dame wraps up a home-and-home series against UConn at the XL Center on January 29th. The Huskies open February in our nation's capital on the first of the month against Georgetown at the Verizon Center, three days before Seton Hall plays the second of two against the reigning national champions this season. The Pirates make the trip up Interstates 95 and 91 into the XL Center on February 4th.

UConn hits the road for two games immediately following the Seton Hall matinee, first to the Yum! Center for a "Big Monday" meeting with Rick Pitino and Louisville on February 6th before being welcomed into the Carrier Dome by Jim Boeheim and Syracuse five days later in what will be the first of two collisions between the Huskies and Orange. DePaul will come to Gampel Pavilion on February 15th, while Buzz Williams and Marquette are UConn's opponent at the XL Center on the 18th.

Following a Monday night clash with Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center on February 20th, UConn hosts Syracuse from Gampel Pavilion on the 25th; and hits the road for the final time this season when they close out February on the 28th against a Providence team that has defeated the Huskies three times in the last four seasons. UConn will host its final game of the season at Gampel Pavilion on March 3rd against a Pittsburgh team looking to avenge a last-second defeat in the Big East tournament on a memorable Kemba Walker crossover against former Pitt center Gary McGhee that you can see here.

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