Last season was supposed to be another great year for the Connecticut Huskies. Coming off a Final Four season the year before and despite playing in arguably the deepest conference in the nation, the Huskies were primed for another big season. With Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Kemba Walker leading the offense and Alex Oriakhi marked as a viable replacement for Hasheem Thabeet (after his early, and pretty much failed jump to the NBA), the Huskies looked ready to go.
And they showed it early too. The Huskies started the season 9-2, climbing to 10th in the polls by New Year's. Their only two losses had been in tight games. The first was a loss to eventual national champion Duke in the NIT Tip-Off Championship Game at Madison Square Garden. The Huskies then returned to the Garden two weeks later, where John Wall narrowly saved #4 Kentucky in a three point victory for the Wildcats.
That was all well and good, but then came the Big East season.
The opener saw UConn fall narrowly at Cincinnati thanks to Lance Stephenson putting UConn in a hole from the get-go.
From that point on, it was a streaky season for UConn. They won two straight against Notre Dame and Seton Hall before blowing a 20-point halftime lead at No. 12 Georgetown. They then lost two more to Pittsburgh and non-conference foe Michigan.
Just when all seemed bad, when it looked like panic time, UConn got a win against St. John's. Then came UConn's biggest win of the season: an 88-74 upset over No. 1 Texas, a game I can proudly say was the single greatest UConn game I have ever attended. Just the atmosphere in famous Gampel Pavilion was enough to make anybody think that this was the turnaround UConn needed.
Just then, inconsistency continued to find its way back to UConn Country.
UConn would go on to win only four of its remaining 12 games, including losing streaks of three, two, and three. A bright note for the Huskies though has to be that two of those four wins were over No. 3 Villanova on the road and at home over No. 7 West Virginia.
UConn's postseason was not a bright one. After being wrecked by St. John's in the Big East Tournament (being eliminated in their first game for the fifth straight year), UConn was forced to play in the NIT. After beating Northeastern, the Huskies lost another two-point game, this time to Virginia Tech.
UConn ended its season at 18-16, 7-11 in the Big East. It was the Huskies worst season since going 17-14, 6-10 in the 2006-07 season.
So what was the problem for Connecticut?
UConn's numbers were not all that bad offensively. Though their 70 points per game may be a bit off the national pace, UConn was a part of some low scoring games. They were also a 45 percent field goal shooting team, again a good number.
Once again the Huskies were at the top of the nation in blocks, well very close. Their 7.95 blocks per game put Connecticut just behind Marshall. The Thundering Herd averaged 7.97 blocks per game.
It came down to two very important statistics for Jim Calhoun's men: rebounding and free-throws.
The Huskies have always been notorious for their defensive prowess. For years, they have had the likes of Emeka Okafor, Jeff Adrien, Hasheem Thabeet, Stanley Robinson and Alex Oriakhi placing a "return to sender" stamp on anything that came through the paint. Normally we would not be having this conversation, but the amount of second, third, fourth, sometimes even fifth chances UConn allowed last year to opponents was agonizing! With all the height and strength in that team, it seems like they should have been able to do much better. They did pull down a lot of boards, 39 per game, but a lot of them came after too many chances for opponents. They grabbed quite a few on offense, but another weakness was that they struggled to put back their own rebounds.
The Achilles' heel of Connecticut last year was the missed chances from the charity stripe.
UConn lost seven regular season games by five points or less. All seven of these games could have been victories, improving UConn's record (before tournament play) to 24-7, 11-6 in the Big East. These numbers would have put them in the top five of the Big East standings, earning them a better seed in the conference tournament, and would have given them a better record with a tougher schedule than many teams in the pre-NCAA tournament rankings.
Games can be made and broken by a team's ability to convert foul shots.
This proved difficult for UConn last year. The Huskies converted only 69.1% of their foul shots. They missed an average of eight per game. Considering the statistics above, all they would have needed to do was convert five more foul shots, a fundamental taught from the time a player learns to dribble a ball, and they could have been in the NCAA Tournament rather than the NIT. They could have been a threat to win the Big East Tournament rather than getting blown out by St. John's.
Basically, last year was a dud and could have been different if simple mistakes were avoided.
That was then, this is now.
And now, the Connecticut Huskies look good. Really good.
Would I call UConn a top five team? No. Big East Tournament contender? Absolutely.
The Associated Press seems confident as well. UConn received eight votes in the preseason poll. They will certainly retain those votes after a win over Stony Brook Friday night in Storrs. However, ESPN, USA Today and the coaches are not convinced, as the Huskies got no votes from them. I think they might be changing their minds soon though.
What I saw at Gampel on Friday night was a young, lively team with the capability of silencing a lot of critics this year.
UConn started a young team. Kemba Walker and Alex Oriakhi remained in the lineup from last year while freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Tyler Olander, and Niels Giffey all made their debut in the lineup.
Walker led the way with 18 points in 34 minutes. Oriakhi had a big game as well, recording a double-double with 11 points, 18 boards as well as picking up two blocks.
However, the freshmen earned a lot of the spotlight in the 79-52 win over the Seawolves.
Jeremy Lamb played an excellent 24 minutes, finishing the night with 11 points, five rebounds and two blocks.
Another standout performance from a diaper dandy came from Shabazz Napier. The freshman guard recorded 12 points in his first game. He went four for six (67%) from three point land for all 12 of his points.
Olander and Giffey both played well despite minimal time on the floor. Olander picked up four points, four rebounds and three assists in ten minutes, but four fouls kept him on the bench most of the game. Giffey only had one rebound and one assist in 12 minutes, but he showed that he has the potential to be an excellent player. Rounding up UConn's talented freshman class is Roscoe Smith. The forward picked up six points, seven boards and two blocks in 22 minutes.
UConn was solid from the line as well. The Huskies went 15 for 20 (75 percent). The only person who had trouble at the line was senior Donnell Beverly. He went one for four (25 percent). Walker and Oriakhi each missed only one.
There's still room for improvement. The Huskies shot 41.2 percent from the floor, but picked up 21 of their 56 rebounds on the offensive glass.
These Huskies have it all: leadership from the older members of the team, talented underclassmen, great scorers, excellent defensive players, rebounders and now, the ability to convert from the line it seems. Of course, having a Hall of Fame, two-time national champion and three-time Final Four coach like Jim Calhoun helps too.
However, UConn does have to prove that they can hang with the best. Playing Stony Brook is not the way to do that.
The Huskies will get one more warm-up on Wednesday against Vermont before heading to the Maui Invitational. They open up on Monday against always feisty Wichita State. They then play either Michigan State or Chaminade, depending on the outcome of both games.
For argument's sake, let's say that UConn wins. Odds are they would play Michigan State. Right off the bat, that is a major test against the number two team in the country! The Huskies will get to see how they match up against one of the nation's top teams. Even if they do not win, playing at a high level with Michigan State will show that UConn has the stuff to be a difficult team for opponents this year.
The season will not get any easier for the Huskies. Of course, they play in the Big East. Quite contrary to what some believe about the conference when it comes to football, the conference in terms of basketball is certainly far from "The Big Easy" or "The Big Least."
Where will the Huskies finish the Big East regular season?
Currently, seven teams (Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Texas, Villanova, Tennessee, Syracuse, and Georgetown), on UConn's schedule or potential schedule are ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Three other opponents (West Virginia, Wichita State, and Marquette) received votes.
Let's not forget that the Big East cannot all be represented in the Top 25 as they have to beat up on each other. Teams like Notre Dame, Cincinnati, St. John's and South Florida among, well everybody else, can prove tough for the other teams this year.
It will be a big year for UConn. With all the problems surrounding the program after last year including recruiting violations (which have included self-issued scholarship deduction and probation), as well as being picked tenth out of 16 this year in the Big East, UConn has a lot to prove.
They have excellent talent at every position.
They can easily fight their way through the season and compete in the Big East.
It will be a matter of keeping composure and playing consistent basketball. Last year, the stretches of inconsistency killed the Huskies.
If they can go out and play a strong 40 minutes every game, they will have an excellent season.