UConn men, like their coach, won't shy away from a challenge
UConn's season begins today nearly 4,000 miles from Storrs on foreign soil in the airplane hangar of a military base.
The circumstances seem fitting for a men's basketball team entering unfamiliar territory this season.
The Huskies are ineligible for any postseason play and led by a new coach for the first time in 26 years. They also have a revamped roster after the departure of several key players and the addition of four newcomers.
UConn faces a formidable challenge in No. 14 Michigan State at 6 p.m. EST (midnight in Germany) in the Armed Forces Classic at Ramstein Air Base. It is the first regular season college basketball game ever played overseas.
The marquee game also marks the head coaching debut of Kevin Ollie, who's never shied away from a challenge. If he did, he wouldn't have replaced a coaching legend in Jim Calhoun.
"We're going to go out and play UConn basketball," Ollie said before leaving for Germany. "I like the challenge. That's what it's all about. Our student-athletes come here for a reason. They're going to play in the best conference in America and they're going to play top teams out of conference."
The Huskies made progress in two exhibition wins against Division II teams but are far from a polished product. They're in the process of learning a new system, shifting the focus to the perimeter with a smaller lineup.
As a former UConn point guard, Ollie still emphasizes playing trademark UConn basketball, which includes maximum effort, gritty defense, up-tempo offense and tenacious rebounding.
Put maximum effort at the top of the Ollie's list.
"I want people to leave us and say, 'Damn, that's the best team we've faced,'" Ollie said.
That mission starts tonight against a Michigan State program that has built a reputation as being as tough as steel. The Spartans are annually near or at the top of the national rankings in rebounding and defense.
The Spartans, who return two starters from a Big Ten champion and NCAA Sweet Sixteen team that went 29-8, have the inside muscle in Derrick Nix (6-9, 270), Adreian Payne (6-10, 240) and Branden Dawson (6-6, 230) to present major problems. But they're on the young side, with eight of their 11 available scholarship players either freshmen or sophomores.
"They're built on defense and rebounding," Ollie said. "They're going to rebound; they're going to be aggressive. They're going to play 9 or 10 guys and they all come in and play hard and they all understand their roles. They're coached very well by a coach that I have a lot of respect for."
Rebounding and frontcourt depth will likely be season-long issues for the Huskies, whose top returning rebounder is junior Tyler Olander with just 3.9 boards per game.
UConn's strength resides in the backcourt with Shabazz Napier, the top returning scorer at 13 points per game, energetic sophomore Ryan Boatright and talented newcomer Omar Calhoun. The Huskies will try to push the pace and spread the floor in order to take advantage of their quickness.
Several players, especially sophomore DeAndre Daniels, junior Niels Giffey and junior Enosch Wolf, need to experience break-out seasons for the Huskies to better the Big East coaches' preseason prediction of a ninth-place finish.
Among the promising newcomers is graduate student R.J. Evans, a linebacker-tough guard and respected leader from Salem. Freshmen Phillip Nolan and Leon Tolksdorf will be counted on to make a contribution in the frontcourt.
Michigan State's Tom Izzo believes the Huskies will still be very good despite losing Alex Oriakhi (transfer), Roscoe Smith (transfer), Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond, two NBA lottery picks.
"We're playing a team that's not ranked but you're going to see is awfully good," Izzo said. "This team will compete in the (Big East), no problem. And Kevin played 10, 12, 14 years in the NBA and is a good coach. And he was there as an assistant.
"? Don't look for there to be a great fall-off here. If you asked me, their season last year was like us two years ago. More talented last year but they didn't play as well together. Now you've got a bunch of guys that decided this is where they want to be.
"I even wouldn't be surprised if they have a better year this year than they did last year with a somewhat more talented team last year."
UConn's chemistry issue appears to be solved, as Ollie has worked on improving team unity. He wore a United We Stand shirt during practice in Germany.
Motivation will be in plentiful supply despite the postseason carrot missing. The Huskies are determined to help Ollie, whose contract only lasts until April, earn a long-term deal.
They're also out to prove that they do indeed have something to play for - pride, their school and a regular season Big East championship.
"We live by everybody not expecting us to do anything," Boatright said. "We've got a chip on our shoulder. We know we've got to do our part to help KO get his second contract. So there are a lot of things that we're playing for."
Tonight's nationally-televised game is a good opportunity to make a statement. It is also a homecoming event for Giffey, Wolf and Tolksdorf, three native Germans.
"This will be a good step up to see where we're at," Evans said. "Coach told us there's going to be peaks and valleys in these games. There's going to be stuff that we can't control. We just have to react and fight through it.
"I think we will be able to do that."
UCONN vs. No. 14 MICHIGAN STATE
Game: Armed Forces Classic
Location: Hangar 5, Ramstein Air Base, Germany
Tip-off: 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 jr. guard Shabazz Napier, 6-0 so. guard Ryan Boatright, 6-2 fr. guard Omar Calhoun, 6-8 so. forward DeAndre Daniels, 6-9 jr. forward Tyler Olander
Michigan State, 6-1 jr. guard Keith Appling, 6-4 fr. guard Gary Harris, 6-6 so. guard Branden Dawson, 6-10 jr. forward Adreian Payne, 6-9 sr. center Derrick Nix
Noteworthy: Season opener for both teams. ... Coaching debut of Kevin Ollie. ... Spartans return two starters from last year's Big 10 champion and NCAA Sweet Sixteen that went 29-8. ... Series history: Tied 2-2. Huskies won last meeting, 70-67, in 2010 Maui Invitational. ... Napier only returning Husky to average in double figures last season at 13.0. .. Calhoun (22 pts) led team in scoring in two exhibition games. ... MSU's inside muscle a concern. ... Retired coach Jim Calhoun will be guest analyst on WTIC radio. ... Both teams will wear camouflaged uniforms. ... Up next: UConn hosts Vermont Tuesday in Storrs.