Jeremy Lamb was one of few bright spots during emotional UConn season one year following Huskies' third national championship. (Photo courtesy of Hartford Courant)
Last year, the University of Connecticut accomplished something that may never be duplicated, winning their last eleven games during the Big East and NCAA Tournaments to deliver the third national championship in program history to Storrs. Seven months later, UConn was a different team following the departure of Kemba Walker to the NBA. However, in typical UConn fashion, the Huskies soldiered on through a season in which the description of "roller coaster year" could be best described as an understatement.
Connecticut started the season 10-1 before opening conference play without the services of Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun, who was suspended for the team's first three Big East games for the Nate Miles scandal that Calhoun had absolutely nothing to do with directly. Associate head coach George Blaney, who once guided Seton Hall through the Big East in the 1990s, was made the interim boss. Calhoun eventually returned, but took medical leave in February after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis; and with Blaney taking over until the Hall of Famer returned on March 3rd against Pittsburgh, the Huskies had suddenly lost 11 of 16 games to find themselves on the bubble for a tournament in which they were the last team standing less than one year prior. UConn eventually made the field of 68, but lost to Iowa State in the round of 64.
Among the first questions at the start of the season for the Huskies was who would step up and lead the team in the absence of Kemba Walker. Sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb, who is widely expected to declare for the NBA draft in the coming days, took advantage of increased shooting opportunities on his way to first team all-Big East honors and an average of nearly eighteen points per game. The Georgia product also shot 48 percent from the field while backcourt partner and fellow second-year star Shabazz Napier blossomed as the starting point guard, averaging thirteen points and nearly six assists per contest. Once he was declared eligible, Ryan Boatright filled the role Napier occupied as a freshman last season; and provided glimpses of Walker's freshman year in the process, one that resulted in a Final Four appearance in 2009. A native of Chicago who changed the game as soon as he took the court, Boatright quickly made a name for himself with averages of ten points and four assists per game on a team in which he was not the only outstanding rookie.
Andre Drummond, the conference's preseason pick for Rookie of the Year honors that ultimately went to Moe Harkless of St. John's, averaged ten points in his own right; but his biggest contributions were those on the defensive side of the ball, with averages of almost eight rebounds and nearly three blocked shots per night. When Drummond was not under the boards, junior forward Alex Oriakhi; who just last week announced he would be transferring, teamed with fellow big man Tyler Olander and swingman Roscoe Smith to give UConn a combination of size and rebounding that defied their young age.
DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey also return to shore up the Huskies' bench, and if everything goes according to plan, UConn will bring back everyone except Lamb and Oriakhi. Andre Drummond has been rumored to declare for the NBA draft as well, but other reports are also indicating the 6-11 center will be staying for his sophomore season despite the NCAA ruling on Thursday that denied UConn's appeal of a penalty that keeps them out of both the Big East and NCAA Tournaments next season as a result of low APR scores. There is still a slight chance that the NCAA can change their calculations to reflect a four-year period that will get the Huskies back into the field, but UConn is out at the moment.
This decision has not changed the outlook in the Nutmeg State, and incoming recruit Omar Calhoun is still on track to join the Huskies out of Christ the King High School in Queens. One thing is certain regardless of where UConn's season ends, and that is the fact that their team will embody the fighting spirit of their legendary head coach; so even if the Huskies are only a regular season team, their will to win and desire to prove the critics wrong will shine brighter than ever before.