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Storrs - UConn will hold one last national championship celebration tonight.
Once the men's basketball program's third national title banner is unveiled prior to the season opener at Gampel Pavilion, the fourth-ranked Huskies can finally move on to the 2011-12 season.
"I'm definitely excited," junior Alex Oriakhi said. "It's definitely going to be a big honor. I guess you can say that's the real closure on last year."
Coach Jim Calhoun recognizes the importance of the banner celebration despite the potential the ceremony will serve as a distraction from the task at hand.
"I'm never one of those guys to say it's not a big deal," Calhoun said. "The national championship is a big deal. I'll always consider it a very, very big deal. We'll finish it off and start anew and we'll do it on the same night."
It will be a new world for this group of Huskies who've never played as defending national champions. Every team, including tonight's opponent Columbia, will take its best shot at scoring a memorable win.
Oriakhi is preaching to his teammates to be ready no matter the foe, using last year's Huskies as an example. UConn staggered into the conference tournament after finishing in ninth place in the Big East but staged a memorable postseason run.
"I tell guys don't ever overlook anybody because we were overlooked," Oriakhi said. "We were the perfect example of that. ... Don't sleep on anybody. It's college basketball, and anybody can beat anybody on a given night especially if we don't come to play."
The Lions don't appear to be a major threat. They're picked to finish seventh in the Ivy League. But they do possess one of the Ivy League's top backcourts with all-conference first team pick Noruwa Agho and Brian Barbour, an honorable mention.
The Huskies, who cruised through two exhibition games, enter the season with some depth issues in the backcourt.
Sophomore Niels Giffey, who's dealing with a hyperextended right knee and bone bruise on his right ankle, is unlikely to play. For the first time this week, he practiced on Thursday but on a limited basis. Freshman Ryan Boatright, the backup point guard, remains sidelined indefinitely while the NCAA reviews his eligibility. That leaves freshman walk-on Brendan Allen in the reserve role at that point.
The Huskies will have a significant advantage in the frontcourt where the Lions have decent size but far less talent.
Tonight will mark the official debut of freshman forward Andre Drummond of Middletown. A former St. Thomas More standout, he's eager to start his UConn career and make his impact on the program.
Drummond recalls the feeling watching his teammates receive their national championship rings last month.
"I was actually pretty angry watching them get their rings," Drummond said with a laugh. "It just made me want to go out there and get a ring, and do everything that I can - blood, sweat and tears and all - to make sure I get a ring."
Drummond will come off the bench. Calhoun plans to start returning Huskies' sophomores Shabazz Napier, Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Tyler Olander along with Oriakhi.
Entering his 26th season at UConn, Calhoun expects to be anxious during pregame just as he is before every game.
He knows all too well that every game on the schedule counts now. Winning the national championship is in the rear view mirror now.
"You'll take this one with you the rest of the year," Calhoun said. "At the end of the year you've got to have a good (record) to keep on moving to the NCAA tournament. I always say, you need quality wins, you need to do well in the league, and you've got to have a number of wins.
"You get to, for example, 20 (wins), it's pretty tough to say no to you. This is one of these games that you hope you can start building toward 20."
Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs
Tip-off: 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
2010-11 records: UConn 32-9, Columbia 15-13
Probable starters: Columbia, 6-1 jr. guard Brian Barbour, 6-3 sr. guard Noruwa Agho, 6-7 sr. forward Matt Johnson, 6-8 jr. forward John Daniels, 6-9 jr. center Mark Cisco
UConn, 6-1 so. guard Shabazz Napier, 6-5 so. guard Jeremy Lamb, 6-8 so. forward Roscoe Smith, 6-9 so. forward Tyler Olander, 6-9 jr. center Alex Oriakhi
Noteworthy: Player to watch: Agho, an All-Ivy League first team pick and conference's leading scorer last season at 16.8 points per game. Only player to rank in top 10 in points, rebounds and assists in conference. ... Four starters return for Lions, including Babour, an Ivy League honorable mention. With new coach Kyle Smith in charge last season, Lions posted the program's highest scoring average (70.8 per game) in 18 years. ... First meeting between teams since 1983. ... Columbia 64-90 all-time vs. Big East team, last winning in 1985 against Seton Hall. ... Up next: UConn hosts Wagner Monday.
- Gavin Keefe