The end, but only the beginning for UConn men

UConn coach Jim Calhoun, right, speaks with freshman Brendan Allen in the second half of a recent exhibition game against C.W. Post at the XL Center in Hartford. No. 4 UConn opens the season today against Columbia at Gampel Pavilion, coming off a national championship last year in Houston. Allen, a walk-on, has earned a spot as the Huskies' backup point guard.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun, right, speaks with freshman Brendan Allen in the second half of a recent exhibition game against C.W. Post at the XL Center in Hartford. No. 4 UConn opens the season today against Columbia at Gampel Pavilion, coming off a national championship last year in Houston. Allen, a walk-on, has earned a spot as the Huskies' backup point guard. Jessica Hill/AP Photo

Storrs - Fresh off a long national championship victory tour, the UConn Huskies gathered for their first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15.

Right then coach Jim Calhoun drove home a message with a punishing workout.

This is a new year, new team.

There will be no resting on laurels.

"The first practice we had was the hardest practice I've ever been a part of," sophomore Shabazz Napier said. "The national championship didn't do anything but make (coach) hungrier. That makes us go harder.

"When you had success in your hand and you felt it, why not try to go back for it? That's what you want to do. You want to keep on making sure you're successful. ... We just won a national championship and now we're looking forward to making a big run again."

As the Huskies begin the 2011-12 season tonight against Columbia in Storrs, they are considered one of the frontrunners to win the national championship. They're ranked fourth in the Associated Press preseason poll. Big East coaches picked them as co-favorites along with Syracuse to capture the Big East.

Expectations are significantly different from this time last year when few expected UConn to reach the Final Four, never mind win the program's third national title. Remember, the Huskies finished ninth in the Big East.

UConn staged a magical postseason run, winning its final 11 games capped off by beating Butler in the championship game in Houston.

Fond memories of those glory days are packed away now. Left behind is the burden of a champion.

"We're going to have to drag that anchor of great expectations a little bit," Calhoun said. "Our expectations are always the same, we want to win the Big East and we want to be a player on the national scene when it's all said and done.

"I hope they don't think last year's great wins are going to mean anything more than a ring or some of the other things they got out of it, because that's what it does mean. We won it before. We've been to the Final Four. We won the Big East before. So now the idea is to go out and play some really good basketball."

The Huskies are loaded, returning the majority of the national championship team, including four starters. Silky-smooth sophomore Jeremy Lamb, a preseason All-American, is UConn's next superstar. The late and surprising addition of highly-regarded Andre Drummond has fueled the repeat talk.

As always, UConn's foundation resides in the defense and rebounding departments.

But the Huskies lost dynamic All-American Kemba Walker, who meant more to UConn last year than perhaps any player has during a single season in the program's history. Roles have changed, too.

"We're more talented, but do the pieces all go together as perfectly as they did last year?" Calhoun said. "We have more good players than we did last year. We don't have anybody as magical right now (as Kemba).

"We've got to get the team to believe in each other and accept what each other can do."

A look at some potential stumbling blocks heading into the season:

• A leadership void exists with the departure of Walker who instilled confidence in his teammates and made them believe anything is possible.

Now it's up to Napier and Oriakhi, the co-captains, to take charge. Oriakhi, the most experienced Husky on the roster, has seen just about every situation during his career. Napier is never afraid to voice his opinion and encourage his teammates.

They both seem suited for the role. Calhoun has faith in both players to lead the way.

• Depth is a major concern.

UConn is operating with 10 scholarship players this season after losing three due to a substandard Academic Progress Rate and NCAA penalties.

The Huskies already are dealing with injuries and other issues. Sophomore Niels Giffey suffered a bone bruise on his right foot and hyperextended his right knee during preseason, forcing him to miss time. The status of freshman Ryan Boatright is uncertain with the NCAA reviewing his eligibility. Calhoun expects Boatright to return this season.

Until Boatright returns, the cool and confident Napier will be the marathon man at point guard. Napier is adjusting to a more demanding role, going from sparkplug off the bench to primary floor leader. He may be the most important player on the team.

Freshman walk-on Brendan Allen moves into the backup role, for now.

The frontcourt appears set, with a formidable rotation of quality big men. Oriakhi, who had 11 double-double games last season, is the anchor up front, with an improved Tyler Olander, gifted Drummond, steady Roscoe Smith and promising freshman DeAndre Daniels all options.

• Wanted: Big Shot Artist.

Any time the Huskies needed a clutch shot last season, they gave the ball to Walker who had the ability, confidence and nerves of steel to deliver under pressure.

Lamb is the prime candidate to fill the demanding job. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Lamb might be the best offensive player at his position in the country.

He's looking to build on last year's torrid finish when he averaged 16.2 points and 4.8 rebounds during the NCAA tournament. Nothing seems to bother the superb sophomore. He makes scoring look easy.

"There's a big difference in just basically my confidence," Lamb said. "When you look at where you came from, it makes you want to work harder. That's what I'm going to do."

But he will draw extra defensive attention. So life will be much more difficult.

• Can the Huskies possibly retain their hunger coming off a national championship season? They insist they're just as determined as last year to succeed. They've backed that up by sticking with their work habits, regularly putting in extra time .

"This team could be scary good if we're willing to work at it," Oriakhi said. Everybody is willing to work."

They do have something to play for besides trying to win a national championship. They're chasing the program's first Big East title since 2006.

They also feel they still have something to prove.

"The way we remain motivated, we still have a lot of doubters," Napier said. "A lot of people saying we're not going to be great just because we don't have Kemba."

If the Huskies fail to live up to expectations, they won't be the first team to suffer a post-national championship hangover. Only two teams - Duke (1991, 1992) and Florida (2006, 2007) - have won consecutive national championships since 1974.

Calhoun will likely try to continue to downplay any talk of defending the title.

"We're one of the 300-something teams that are eligible to win the national championship," Calhoun said. "So we're not defending anything. We got that. No one is taking it away from us.

"We're not defending anything. What we are is starting on a new pursuit with a different team."

g.keefe@theday.com

UConn's Andre Drummond, a former player at St. Thomas More in Oakdale, is a highly touted freshman that adds to the Huskies chances to repeat as national champions this season.
UConn's Andre Drummond, a former player at St. Thomas More in Oakdale, is a highly touted freshman that adds to the Huskies chances to repeat as national champions this season. Jessica Hill/AP Photo
Hide Comments

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments