In a recent article I asserted that the coaches got it wrong in naming North Carolina the unanimous preseason number one. Carolina returns a lot, but there are too many great teams this year to say that any one of them is unquestionably the best. Apparently one of those coaches is a reader of mine because Connecticut received a vote in the Week One Coaches' Poll...
In evaluating Connecticut’s potential, let’s take a look at three things.
1) The Huskies roster to see why they are one of the early favorites to win a national title;
2) The uncertainties that could lead to an early exit this postseason; and
3) A few games that will indicate whether Connecticut is on track for a deep run this spring.
On paper Connecticut is arguably the deepest team in the country. They return a backcourt loaded with experience and a frontcourt that rivals a redwood forest in height, and they welcome a few newcomers expected to have a significant impact immediately.
At the start of the 2008-09 season, the Huskies will have a three-guard look, including seniors A.J. Price and Craig Austrie and junior Jerome Dyson.
After averaging 14 points and six assists last season, A.J. Price returns on the preseason short list for consideration for the 2009 Wooden Award. He’s a leader and a clutch performer.
Jerome Dyson is the most explosive scorer coming out of the backcourt as demonstrated by his five 20-point and 13 double-digit scoring efforts last season.
Perhaps the most overlooked member of Huskies is Craig Austrie. All he did last season was shoot 89 percent from the stripe and in Dyson’s absence average 11.3 per game (and last night he led all scorers with 21 with Price nursing an ankle injury).
The center of Connecticut’s frontcourt is 7’3” Hasheem Thabeet, the 2008 NABC Defensive Player of the Year. Last season his size and athleticism led to 147 blocked shots and convinced countless other shooters to pass.
Thabeet’s defensive presence was complimented by Jeff Adrien’s work ethic and tenacity. Over the past two seasons Adrien has averaged 14 points and nine rebounds per game (and he just logged his 34th career double-double last night).
Returning to action on Dec. 20 is junior 6’9” swingman Stanley Robinson. His ability to shoot from range (42 percent from three last year) and take his man off the dribble resulted in averages of 10.4 points and 6.5 rebounds a game in 2007-08. Robinson has shown flashes of brilliance, like his 32-point outburst against Maine last December and a 21-point effort against Indiana as a freshman.
Backing the bigs will be juniors Gavin Edwards at 6’9” and the seven-foot--tall Jonathan Mandeldove.
Point guard Kemba Walker, 2008 MVP of the FIBA Americas Tournament, is the highlight of the incoming class. Walker brings the speed and depth to this backcourt that will help the Huskies control the pace of every game.
Another December addition, Ater Majok, could be the key component in a championship run this April. At 6’10”, Majok is rumored to have the skills to play all five positions, sees the floor well, and loves to pass.
As a former soccer player he has the footwork to take his man on the dribble or in the post, and as a former volleyball star he can block with either hand. His dagger is an outside shot that will prove Majok to be a mismatch for just about everyone.
Despite their talent and depth, the Huskies have their concerns. Connecticut has gone winless the past two postseasons. A.J. Price looks strong but is only eight months removed from an ACL tear.
Stanley Robinson is returning from "time away from the team," while Ater Majok is still waiting on his international transcripts to clear the NCAA...and Jerome Dyson has looked reckless at times, which resulted in five games of four turnovers (or more) last season.
Games to Watch
Dec. 20: Gonzaga—Seattle, WA
In 2007 Pargo and Bouldin combined for 42 points against UConn. Will the Huskies be able to contain the duo, and can Heytvelt and Daye make up for the loss of the Zags' two toughest guys from a season ago, Pendergraft and Kuso?
Jan. 21: Villanova—Hartford, CT
Connecticut is in the midst of a three-game losing streak against the Wildcats. Since ‘Nova returned all five starters from last season, the Huskies have an uphill battle here. Containing Scottie Reynolds and exploiting their size advantage is a must if UConn hopes to defend their house.
Jan. 24: Notre Dame—South Bend, IN
The Huskies enter this game 6-1 against the Irish over the past five seasons. Harangody will likely get his points, but keeping McAlarney from another 32-point outburst is the key to a Huskies victory. [rematch in Storrs Feb. 28]
Jan. 31: Providence—Storrs, CT
This is the classic game to overlook with Calhoun and company heading to Louisville two days later. The Friars have the Huskies by the tail with a 4-2 advantage over the past five seasons. Can the Huskies avoid the penance of a scrappy bunch of Jesuits?
Feb. 2: Louisville—Louisville, KY
Could the Cards/Huskies have the makings of the great UConn/Pitt rivalry from a few years back? Can Adrien shut down Samuels, or will the highly touted freshman show up the Connecticut big men?
Feb. 16: Pittsburgh—Hartford, CT
Get ready for a 63-61 slugfest. Cats and dogs are mortal enemies, and over the past 10 seasons the Panthers and Huskies have proven this true. If Connecticut can take advantage of their full arsenal of size and depth, look for this to be a dog's day in Hartford. [rematch in Pittsburgh Mar. 7]