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DeAndre Daniels X-factor for UConn

By Jon Rothstein | CBS Sports

If UConn forward DeAndrew Daniels can continue to finish around the rim, the Huskies should take off under Kevin Ollie. (USATSI)
If DeAndre Daniels continues to finish around the rim, UConn should take off under Kevin Ollie. (USATSI)

STORRS, Conn. -- Eventually DeAndre Daniels was going to break through.

The talented but mercurial forward had a disappointing freshman season two years ago at UConn, in what was the final season of Jim Calhoun's Hall of Fame career. Last year under Kevin Ollie, Daniels showed flashes of being an impact player one game, only to follow it up with an average performance the next.

That inconsistency changed during the final two weeks.

During that four-game span, the 6-foot-9 Daniels averaged 21.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks.

Surprising?

Not to the guy who sees him every day in practice.

"His talent is up there with the best in the country," Ollie said of Daniels, now a junior. "I just have to keep pushing him. I just want him to play every day at full speed with full effort."

If Daniels can play like an all-conference player, the Huskies will be a legitimate challenger to Louisville in year one of the American Athletic Conference. UConn's starting perimeter returns three double-figure scorers from last year in Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, and Omar Calhoun while George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah should give this team another legitimate offensive option in reserve.

"We didn't have a guy like him off the bench last year," Ollie said of the 6-5 Kromah, who averaged 10.1 points last season at George Washington. "It makes things more competitive in practice having a guy like that."

Ollie is determined to have four guys on the floor who can handle the ball and likes the idea of using 6-7 senior Niels Giffey at both the three and the four. Giffey will likely back up Daniels as a stretch power forward.

"Niels is a glue guy for us," Ollie said."

The main difference with this group compared to great UConn teams of the past is at the center spot. There is no Emeka Okafor, Hasheem Thabeet, or Alex Oriakhi to protect the rim.

Instead, Ollie will turn to a three-headed monster of Tyler Olander, Philip Nolan, and 7-foot freshman Amida Brimah to hold down things in the pivot. Freshman Kentan Facey could join that group if and when he's cleared by the NCAA.

"I'd like someone in that group to take the bull by the horns," Ollie said in regards to the trio of Olander, Nolan, and Brimah. "I'd like someone to start separating themselves. If they don't, we'll go by committee."

In a lot of ways, this is the mark of a new chapter in the Huskies' rich basketball history. UConn is starting a new league and is no longer a part of the Big East. After half a season under surveillance by Huskies athletic director Warde Manuel, this is now clearly Ollie's program -- he received a five-year contract extension last winter.

In an effort to build a strong NCAA resume, the former Huskies' point guard beefed up the non-conference schedule.

The Huskies will open Nov. 8 at the Barclays Center against Maryland and also play Boston College at Madison Square Garden as part of the 2K Sports Classic. UConn will play either Indiana or Washington the next night. There also will be a trip to Seattle to play Washington in late December as well as home games against Florida and Stanford.

After a strong performance in his rookie campaign where he led UConn to 20 wins despite not being able to play in the postseason, the well-respected Ollie now has his sights set on leading his alma mater back to national prominence.

If Daniels can provide 75 percent of what he did in the final four games of last season, the Huskies should get there.

Napier is arguably the best all-around guard in college basketball and Kromah gives this team a "microwave" type scorer off the bench. Boatright, Calhoun, Olander, and Nolan are all a year older and more experienced. Ollie also seems excited about the potential of Brimah, a raw freshman with a hunger and desire to get better.

Simply put, UConn has more options than they did a season ago.

"I'm hoping the depth we have as a team is greater than it was last year," Ollie said.

That will only add to this team's chemistry, which after watching practice is noticeably impressive.

"There's definitely a carry over from last year," Ollie said. "We're just trying to be the team with the best attitude in America and best conditioned team in America. It doesn't matter where we play to me. We can play in the backyard or for the National Championship. The only thing that I want to do is make sure our players understand that there's a responsibility when you put this jersey on. That's the most important thing to me."

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