Jim Calhoun loves proving people wrong. Like, he loves it more than the average athlete or coach loves it. It’s an obsession with him. After winning the Big East and NCAA tournaments, two feats no one thought would happen last year, Calhoun defied expectations again by choosing not to retire. When you look at his roster this year, you can see why.
The Huskies are loaded, perhaps as loaded as they’ve ever been. As of now, the team looks capable of being much better than it was last year, when it went 32-9 but lost seven of its final 11 conference games. That kind of skid is unlikely to reoccur with a healthy portion of last year’s team back, though the most vital piece, Kemba Walker, is now out of school. Yet he’s still there. Walker has been working out on campus with other UConn pros as of late, since the NBA lockout has prohibited him from having a day job.
Onto the capsules!
Why they'll win it all: As stated above, this team is more loaded than last year, and you saw what Walker did, essentially putting the team on his back in the Big East tournament and propelling that group to 11 straight postseason wins. There are at least four future pros on the roster in Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond, Alex Oriakhi and DeAndre Daniels. When you’ve got that, you’ve got more than a chance—you’ve got Final Four expectations, if not demands, from the fan base.
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Who's new? (freshmen and transfers) : Drummond, DeAndre Daniels, Boatright and Michael Bradley (redshirt).
Player they can't afford to lose: Shabazz Napier. He’s the guy who steps into Walker’s shoes, and he’s already the leader of the team. Drummond told me Napier’s the best point guard he’s ever played with, and the big man’s only been running in scrimmages with Napier for three weeks. Without him, the team stands to lose its mold. Boatright isn’t a 1, and none of the other guards on this team saw significant minutes last season.
Most underrated player: Oriakhi. That’s overall, not by us. When our top 100 list of college basketball players comes out next week, Oriakhi will be ranked 30th. It’s time for the affable UConn big man to get the credit he deserves. He was pivotal at the 5 last season, when the Huskies needed legitimacy down low. Oriakhi snared offensive rebounds on 14.5 percent of UConn’s possessions, which was one of the better rates in the nation.
Key non-conference games: Warning: it’s very, very weak. The best of the lot: 12/8: vs. Harvard; 12/22: vs. Fairfield; 1/21: at Tennessee.
Notable stat: One thing Calhoun’s team was very bad at last year: turning teams over. At a rate of 17.3 percent, only four BCS-conference teams were lousier at abruptly ending an opponent’s possession. With a farmland’s worth of length on this year’s team, expect that rate to easily jump into the 20s, and the blocking percentage to also improve from last year’s pedestrian 8.3 percent.
Final thought: Connecticut’s going to be a lot of fun to watch, but they won’t get interesting until conference play, most likely. The non-conference schedule is so bad that unless this team loses two or three times by Christmas, we aren’t going to pay them much attention until Big East play starts and they get challenged on a frequent basis. By then we’ll have a better sense of who this squad is, how good Drummond, Daniels and Boatright are, and how the Huskies stack up against Kentucky and North Carolina, the two teams most consider on another level this year.