Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
Jim Calhoun’s life has taken a dramatic turn in just one year’s time.
Not too long ago, a shocking NIT flameout, a messy Nate Miles investigation, numerous health scares and a dip in recruiting rendered Connecticut’s 2009 Final Four berth a distant memory. Questions began to circulate whether Calhoun was still fit for the grueling task of coaching an elite Division I basketball program. A preseason top-5 UConn outfit that lacked any semblance of cohesion or chemistry finished 18-16 in 2010 and the immediate future for the Hall-of-Fame headman appeared insecure.
Then Kemba Walker decided to embrace the role of team leader and captain, bringing his game to the next level and a unit of mostly inexperienced underclassmen on an unforgettable ride. UConn shockingly dispatched of Michigan State and Kentucky to win in Maui, finished the non-conference slate undefeated, took their lumps in a rigorous Big East, won five games in five nights to take the conference crown in New York, then for the hell of it won six more for Calhoun’s third national title.
It gets better. Calhoun never saw eye to eye with Connecticut athletic director Jeff Hathaway. The longtime A.D. promptly resigned this summer. And just for good measure, local blue-chip prospect Andre Drummond shocked the college basketball world and not only committed to UConn rather than go to prep school and enter in the 2012 NBA Draft, but he re-classified in order to play this upcoming season. The kicker: a recruit that grew up in a Tennessee group home, Michael Bradley, is apparently fine with giving up his scholarship.
This confluence of events has delivered Calhoun more than enough ammunition to give coaching another go-round in 2011-12. Whether this magic can continue into November remains up in the air.
Jeremy Lamb will be on quite a few preseason All-American lists
Team Outlook: The sudden addition of Drummond sends Connecticut from Big East title contender to odds-on favorite. Drummond has a pro frame, possesses tremendous athleticism and is a dynamite scoring compliment to Alex Oriakhi in the low post. Let’s not skim over the departure of Kemba Walker. Not only was the All-American their floor general/leader, but he took (and made) every big shot. Jeremy Lamb will be expected to fill Walker’s role as dependable shot-maker while Walker understudy Shabazz Napier claims full-time point guard duties. Roscoe Smith rounds out the starting five as a capable role player offensively and a potential weapon defensively because of his length. Ryan Boatright, Napier’s backup at the point, and DeAndre Daniels, a gifted scorer at the wing, are two freshmen expected to play integral roles in Calhoun’s rotation.
Non-Conference Schedule Rank: 3. The good news for UConn fans is that their schedule, combined with Carolina and Kentucky going head-to-head on December 3, opens up the realistic chance that the Huskies will be the last undefeated team standing heading into the teeth of Big East competition. The bad news is that, when it comes time to put a magnifying glass up to resumes and decipher who deserves #1 or #2 seeds on Selection Sunday, a lacking non-conference schedule won’t do them any favors. It’s not entirely their fault. It was impossible to foresee Bruce Pearl’s complete collapse at Tennessee. Arkansas was an unfortunate draw in the SEC/Big East Challenge. Other than Florida State and Harvard, their tournament in the Bahamas doesn’t contain much meat. It’s plausible Connecticut’s toughest opponent pre-Big East will be the Crimson, a motivated group of returnees looking to avenge last season’s heartbreak.
Cupcake City: Contrary to last year’s loaded Maui bracket, it’ll be a soft landing for Calhoun in 2011. Cupcakes line the schedule in their first four home contests against Columbia, Wagner, Maine and Coppin State before battling UNC-Asheville and likely UCF in the Bahamas. A visit from both Harvard and Fairfield are sneaky difficult, but there’s little doubt Connecticut will be favored in every one of their games outside of the Big East.
Toughest Early Season Test: Normally a visit to Tennessee would be the standout candidate, but newly minted head coach Cuonzo Martin has a major rebuilding project staring him in the face with Scotty Hopson, Tobias Harris, Brian Williams and Melvin Goins all moving on. Unless moribund Utah or Massachusetts pulls off a major upset, Connecticut will face either Florida State or Harvard in the final. Both pose their own distinct challenges. Florida State boasts the athletes and length to give UConn fits early enough in the season where on-court chemistry post-Kemba isn’t settled. Harvard returns every significant player from a team that lost one game to a team that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament: Yale by one point.
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