In mid-June, the rest of the college basketball world outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina let out a collective sigh of relief when Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson, and Danny Green announced they would return to Carolina for the 2008-2009 campaign.
One would probably have to go back to the 1990s to remember a time where a team came into a college basketball season as such a prohibitive title favorite. Heck, many had last year’s Tarheel team—the tournament’s overall number one seed—winning it all in their brackets.
They have all the pieces to not only win the '09 trophy, but to do so in dominating fashion from start to finish. It’s easy to imagine Tyler Hansbrough and company blowing out ranked teams next year, assuming Hansbrough can contain himself from jumping off any more frat house roofs and getting hurt.
In scanning the horizon for a worthy foil, I see one team that could potentially give UNC a run for their money were they to meet in Motown next April. But for as much as UNC is a sure thing, this squad has a ton of question marks—ones that if not answered could leave them well short of Detroit.
This summer probably has a bit different feel for Jim Calhoun—to say nothing of his bout with skin cancer—than the summers of '98 and '03. Coming into those would-be championship seasons, his UConn squads were not only talented, but also proven based on strong NCAA runs in the preceding seasons.
Sure, it’s only been three seasons since UConn was a legitimate heavyweight, but the mass exodus after the 2006 season took a toll on the program, as evidenced by the tumultuous 2007 season.
It speaks volumes of Calhoun, his staff, and the cachet of the Uconn program that you can legitimately bring them into the discussion about being Carolina’s chief roadblock just two years after a season where they didn’t even qualify for the NIT.
The most pressing question coming into this year will be the health of their heart and soul, A.J. Price. Price—a sportswriter's dream due to his unique combination of transcendent on-court talent and unbelievable off-court dramas—is currently rehabbing from the horrific knee injury he suffered during last year’s first round upset loss to San Diego in the NCAA tournament.
All signs are good so far that a full recovery will happen in time for meaningful action, but you never really know how a player will react coming back from a serious injury until he’s back in the heat of the battle. But seeing how he came back from a near-death experience, only a fool would bet against this young man capping his incredible UConn story with a glorious run to the Final Four.
The second question I see is, how will this team gel? It’s unusual for a Final Four contender to have three prized recruits from just two years ago jet the program after their sophomore years, but that’s what happened to the Huskies.
Stanley Robinson has left the program for personal reasons, while Doug Wiggins and Curtis Kelly have opted to transfer (Wiggins to UMass and Kelly to Kansas State) for a chance to play more.
To me, there is a fair amount of symbolism behind these players’ exits. By all accounts, all three are quality young men who were well liked by their teammates, coaches, fans, and the media covering the team.
However, there seemed to be an underlying vibe with the departed trio: They didn’t have the fire in their bellies to want to be great, to put in the extra work needed to become a champion. Those are not the type of attitudes you want in the locker room when you have legitimate Final Four aspirations.
Exit Wiggins, Kelly, and Robinson; enter Nate Miles, Kemba Walker, and Ater Majok, who are the three most likely newcomers to make their presence felt next year.
Walker, the heir apparent to Price at the point, is expected to contribute right away. He also gives Calhoun the enviable option of being able to shift Price to the shooting guard position for stretches of action.
Majok gets to slide into a role of being a beast off the bench. The Huskies couldn’t be more rock solid at the 4-5 positions with four-year warrior Jeff Adrien manning the four and likely 2009 lottery pick Hasheem Thabeet at center. Majok can come in, fly under the radar, go up against two studs in practice every day, and give the Huskies fifteen quality minutes off the bench.
As much as Majok and Walker will be counted on to contribute, it’s probably the much-traveled Nate Miles (I’ve lost count as to how many high schools he attended) who will be the most critical newcomer based on the way the circumstances have shaken out. The small forward position is there for the taking, and Miles appears to have the talent to seize it.
One thing in his favor is he’ll be replacing the mercurial Robinson, inconsistency’s poster boy, so it’s not hard to imagine him equaling or even surpassing Robinson’s numbers. With the surrounding firepower, Miles won’t need to drop 17 a night, but he’ll be expected to knock down triples when the bigs get doubled or the guards slash and look to kick.
The final X-factor is Jerome Dyson. Dyson—who, by the way, was the team’s best player two years ago—seemed to suffer from a sophomore slump last year. His midseason suspension took him out of the flow, and he never seemed to fully get back in the picture after his return. However, his noble performance in last year’s tournament loss would seem to signify a return to form for Dyson in 2008-2009.
Add it all up, and UConn appears to have the ingredients to return to their powerhouse days from the 1998-2006 era. In fact, one can make a case that this team might produce more future pros than the mighty Heels.
Can they come together and gel in time for a run at the title? I think so—and maybe on the right night in Motown they can steal UNC’s seemingly preordained title.