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It's game time for young UConn team

Storrs - Until now, the UConn coaching staff has mostly raved about the young Huskies.

They're eager to learn. They're an enthusiastic, hard-working bunch.

They're versatile, athletic and quick.

They can really shoot the basketball.

Tonight, in the exhibition opener against Division II American International College at 7:30 at Gampel Pavilion, the coaching staff will get a more revealing look at the team.

There'll be no hiding their warts.

"It's hard not to like this team," said assistant coach Andre LaFleur, filling in for coach Jim Calhoun who was unavailable Tuesday due to a personal commitment. "But we haven't played a game yet. (Tonight), the honeymoon is over for a lot of these guys. We're getting into serious business.

"Some guys will respond to that right away, and some guys take some time."

Time is something that the Huskies lack. The season opener against Stony Brook is nine days away. They'll face a difficult Maui Invitational field, starting with Wichita State on Nov. 22.

The Huskies need to grow up fast, meaning the exhibition season, including Sunday's game against Division II Bridgeport, carries extra weight.

Junior Kemba Walker, one of three upperclassmen on the roster, is eager to see how his six freshmen teammates respond to game pressure.

"I can't wait to see how these guys play," Walker said. "I'm just looking forward to it. They've been playing well in practice so far. So, hopefully, their (practice) play can correlate to the game."

While the game is not expected to be competitive - UConn has won 32 straight exhibitions, including routing AIC, 106-67, last season - it should be interesting on several levels.

The coaching staff will experiment with different combinations. Only Walker, at point guard, and sophomore forward/center Alex Oriakhi are locks for starting jobs. The Huskies could opt to go small or big.

"I don't really think it's going to be that important who starts (tonight)," LaFleur said. "Everybody is going to get a great opportunity to get out there and show what we are at this point."

The Huskies may be without freshman Roscoe Smith, a candidate for a starting position at small forward. He recently sprained his left ankle and sat out Tuesday's practice. His status will be a game-time decision, according to LaFleur.

Freshmen Tyler Olander, Shabazz Napier, Jeremy Lamb, Niels Giffey and Michael Bradley all will dip their toes into the major Division I basketball pool for the first time.

"I can't wait to get out there," Olander said. "Even though it's small-scale - we're not playing Pitt or anybody - I'm just excited to see what college basketball is and just ready to go."

Expect to see a slightly different brand of UConn basketball this season. The Huskies will still emphasize playing up-tempo and pressure defense as well as rebounding, which is the biggest concern right now.

But they'll be a more perimeter-oriented team than past seasons.

The Huskies are aiming to shoot more 3-pointers than last season, during which they ranked last overall in the Big East Conference in attempts per game at 12.

"We're a better shooting team than in the past but the lights haven't been on yet," LaFleur said. "This team is capable of taking 20 a game, which would be unusual for a UConn team."

The biggest adjustment for the freshmen may be dealing with the fiery Calhoun barking at them on the sidelines. Calhoun has been more teddy bear than grizzly bear in practice.

There's no way to adequately prepare for Calhoun's sharp tongue and quick hook.

"None of us are used to that," Olander said. "In high school, most of us were stars on our teams so we could make a mistake and that would get overlooked by the coach. Now everything is noticed. You've got to be perfect out there."

g.keefe@theday.com

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