Tipping Off The Big East Countdown: #8 ConnecticutPosted by mlemaire on October 30th, 2012
Few new coaches in the country will have a more difficult job this season than new Connecticut head honcho Kevin Ollie. Not only does Ollie has the unenviable task of following the most popular and successful coach in the program’s history, but he also has to find a way to overcome the departure of some of the team’s most talented and productive players and he has to find a way to motivate his team because previous academic issues forced the NCAA to bar his team from the Big East and NCAA Tournament. Oh and did we mention that Ollie is on a one-year contract and will be under heavy scrutiny all season as the athletic department decides whether to keep him around or chase a bigger name? Needless to say, Ollie has his work cut out for him. The good news is that Ollie’s staff is chock-full of former Division I head coaches and there is still plenty of talent leftover from last season’s tumultuous run. Depth will become a problem and struggles could turn into a freefall without any postseason to play for, but there are certainly enough pieces in place to at least give Huskies’ fans a glimmer of hope heading into a new era of UConn basketball.
2011-12 Record: 20-14, 8-10
2011-12 Postseason: NCAA Tournament Second Round, lost to Iowa State 77-64.
Ollie’s career on the bench will start with a bang when the Huskies kick off the college basketball season by playing a very talented Michigan State team on board on active aircraft carrier, and the rest of the non-conference slate won’t be much easier. Last year’s America East champion, Vermont, lies in wait immediately following the opener and the Paradise Jam Tournament with a first game against Wake Forest follows that. Don’t forget about the Jimmy V Classic where they will square off with a very talented North Carolina State squad.
The Huskies catch a break as most of the Big East opponents they will play twice this season finished in the bottom half of the conference standings last season, but that should provide little relief to a team that will rely on so many underclassmen. Oh, and did we mention that, in what should be one of the more trying seasons in the program’s recent history, the school managed to annoy many of their fans by holding most of their home games at the off-campus XL Center while basically ignoring the more popular and historic on-campus Gampel Pavilion.
In the wake of a mass player exodus, the UConn coaching staff hit the recruiting trail hard and while they found some capable reinforcements, it may not be enough. Holy Cross transfer R.J. Evans averaged 11.5 PPG and 4.8 RPG for the Crusaders last season and he should provide veteran leadership and sound defense, but he is a guard who can’t shoot from deep (12.5% 3FG) so his offensive ability is limited. Omar Calhoun is easily the best of the incoming freshmen and his versatility, athleticism, and deadly outside shooting make him an immediate impact player in this season’s rotation. But it may take him some time to get acclimated to the college game.
The only other two incoming freshmen are Germany native Leon Tolksdorf and undeveloped big man Phillip Nolan. Both have size and potential, and both will probably get a chance to play meaningful minutes right away, but neither look like Big East-caliber players quite yet. Ollie has already made his impact felt by reeling in some impressive early Class of 2013 commitments, but unfortunately those players won’t be of much help this season.
The biggest loss is obviously that of Calhoun, who built the program into a perennial national powerhouse but didn’t exactly leave Ollie with a full cupboard this season. The players seem to genuinely like Ollie and his staff will help shoulder some of the burden of the X’s and O’s, but it still won’t be the same in Storrs without the venderable Calhoun stomping up and down the sideline. Of course he isn’t the only crucial departure; the team’s leading scorer, Jeremy Lamb (17.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG), and leading rebounder from last season, Andre Drummond (10.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.8 BPG) are both playing in the NBA now and the up-and-down career of center Alex Oriakhi is finally over at UConn as the big man transferred to Missouri after sparring with Calhoun for the last two seasons.
Throw in the fact that useful perimeter defender and likely starter Roscoe Smith transferred out of the program as well and the Huskies appear to be staring at quite the rebuilding project. Lamb was the team’s best player last season but the loss of the other three players will likely hurt more as the Huskies’ best frontcourt player is now Tyler Olander, a nice player who is unlikely to become a force in the paint. The rest of the frontcourt is unproven and undersized, leaving UConn with a lot of consternation and questions about its forwards heading into the season.
Whom to Watch
The Huskies will live and die with their two star guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Napier (13.0 PPG, 5.8 APG) was one of the most maddeningly inconsistent players in the country last season but when he was on, he was nearly impossible to stop. The mercurial Boatright (10.4 PPG, 4.0 APG) only made eight starts last season but quickly established himself as one of the most exciting and explosive offensive talents in the conference. If Napier can become more consistent and tighten up his shot selection and Boatright can continue to improve and play smarter, they may end up as the best backcourt duo in the Big East. Regardless of how they play, they will be the two most important players on the team’s roster and their struggles will mean the team will also likely struggle.
The team will at least know what to expect from their starting backcourt, but the roster’s most intriguing player to watch is without a doubt sophomore forward DeAndre Daniels. The Los Angeles native (by way of Florida’s IMG Academy) was a five-star talent coming out of high school but struggled to find consistent playing time and adapt to the rigors of Big East basketball. At 6’8″ and 200 pounds, Daniels has the athleticism and size to become a star, especially on the defensive end. And he will have plenty of opportunities to play this season as one of the only returning contributors in the frontcourt, but his offensive game remains unpolished and it will be interesting to see whether he has picked up the nuances of college basketball. If he emerges as a tour de force upfront, UConn will be tough to beat, but that is quite a big if for a player who averaged only 3.0 points per game last season.
Some seem to think that Ollie is in way over his head when it comes to rebuilding the program, but his passion for his alma mater, recruiting prowess, and experienced staff give him a puncher’s chance to succeed against the rather large odds he faces. The backcourt is deep and better than most others in the conference, and if Ollie can get even serviceable play out of his frontcourt, it wouldn’t be surprising for UConn to repeat last season’s results with a few big-time upsets baked in as well. There will be no Big East or NCAA Tournament for this season’s Huskies regardless, so hopefully Ollie has a game plan for keeping his players motivated and if they do play hard all season and surprise some folks, don’t be surprised if Ollie gets an extension and UConn begins its long road back to the top of the conference.