Can somebody who has an insider account post the team preview of Connecticut?
Some schools re-tool, others tweak, and the very best simply reload.
Jim Calhoun's Connecticut Huskies are in the reloading business. Most every program that loses players like Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien would be crippled for a season or two, at a minimum. Not UConn.
While the Huskies will most certainly not be a leading Final Four contender like they were in 2009, the team's prospects for 2010 are far from dim. With a talented, explosive backcourt, an NBA-caliber scoring forward in Stanley Robinson and the usual crop of big-time recruits, the Huskies will again challenge for Big East supremacy.
Last Season 31-5 (.861)
Conference Record 15-3 (t-2nd)
Starters Lost/Returning 3/2
Coach Jim Calhoun (American International '68)
Record At School 557-205 (23 years)
Career Record 805-342 (37 years)
RPI Last 5 years 16-4-110-21-5
"We lost a lot, no question, but I like what we have back," said Calhoun. "You don't lose what we did and not need time to recover. Now we may not have the dominant big man in the country like Hasheem, but I like this team."
Calhoun, of course, is Connecticut basketball. That last sentence was seemingly threatened last March when a story written by Yahoo! Sports detailed alleged recruiting improprieties against the Husky program, specifically in the recruitment of Nate Miles. He had a long relationship with a former team manager, Josh Nochimson, who was also working as a registered NBA player agent.
The news broke just before the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and clearly shook Calhoun. While he defended the program as best he could, he also largely bit his lip and tried to focus on the task at hand. That worked wonderfully as the Huskies beat Purdue and Missouri to advance to the Final Four. But he also realizes that programs can be seen as having to prove themselves innocent in such circumstances.
"Would I like everybody in the world to have great faith and confidence in me and maybe give this a shot? Yeah. Very honestly and candidly I would," he said during the tournament. "Is that going to happen? Of course it isn't. That's not the nature of the way things are. People by nature are going to question what you do.
"I have done this for 37 years. I truly believe everything I have tried to do I have done with a good, clean conscience and if we made a mistake, we'll find out about it. If we didn't, we will also find out about that."
UConn spent the summer working with its attorneys and the NCAA in fleshing out the allegations. No word on the investigation is expected until sometime during this season, at the earliest.
As for advancing to the Final Four, Calhoun clearly felt both relieved and vindicated. The relief came in the form of guiding a group that played with lofty expectations all the way to Ford Field, even if the dream ended with a loss to hometown favorite Michigan State. The vindication came because, for the better part of four years, the core of the team was often questioned. But Adrien, Price, Thabeet, Robinson and Craig Austrie hung through some tougher times and made up the core of UConn's third Final Four team.
"I'm ecstatic," Calhoun said after the Missouri win. "I have had the opportunity to go three times now. Quite frankly, the first one (1999) was emotional. The second one (2004) was actually wonderful because we had the best team in the country, in my opinion, when Emeka [Okafor] was healthy. I'm going now with a group who found a way, found a way to get to a Final Four. That's a hard, hard thing to do. It's a very difficult thing to do."
Soon after the Final Four, Calhoun ended any speculation that a combination of the pending investigation and his health issues (he's a cancer survivor) would push him to retirement. He's set to coach his 24th season in Storrs this year.
"I look forward to coaching next season and continuing as the head coach at Connecticut into the future," Calhoun said in a statement. "In many ways, the journey of this past season has made me realize how much I love coaching this game, how much I love my kids and how much I enjoy being at Connecticut."
PG-KEMBA WALKER (6-0, 175 lbs., SO, #15, 8.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.8 tpg, 25.2 mpg, .470 FG, .271 3PT, .715 FT, Rice HS/Bronx, N.Y.). For much of his freshman season, Walker was eased into the action and provided a major league spark off the bench. When it was big-game time, the New York City native excelled.
Walker's blend of quickness and aggressive play proved to be irreplaceable with the season riding in the balance. Missouri gave the Huskies all they could handle in the West Region finals, but the difference maker was the freshman guard. He made 7-of-9 shots, most on acrobatic drives to the rim. He also coolly canned 9-of-10 huge free throws to help UConn hang on for an 82-75 victory.
"This was a perfect game for Kemba," Calhoun said after the win. "When we get to a slow-down game, as his shooting develops, any game will be great for him. But a full-court game, he wants that 95 feet. When he gets going 95 feet, you saw him going through two, three people at a time and get to the rim. He is a pretty special player."
In an open-court game, few point guards in the country are better. What will elevate him to the next level is a jump shot or two. The good news is he clearly knows what he is. He made just 13 threes all season but didn't exactly try a lot of them (48, .271).
In the Final Four loss to Michigan State, Spartan defenders did their best to stay in front of him. Sure enough, Walker made just 1-of-5 field goals and only 3-of-9 free throws. His lack of production was one of the chief reasons the Huskies fell short. If this kid ever finds a consistent J, he'll be an All-American and on to the NBA very quickly.
SG-JEROME DYSON (6-3, 190 lbs., SR, #11, 13.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.8 spg, 2.0 tpg, 29.3 mpg, .408 FG, .348 3PT, .724 FT, Proctor Academy/ Andover, NH/Rockville, Md.). Calhoun doesn't mince words when asked what Dyson's mid-February knee injury did to his team's title chances.
"With Jerome we were 24-1 and ranked No. 1 in the country," he said. "We were 7-4 without him. He was our best defender, toughest kid. I'd like to think we would've played on Monday [in the national title game] with Jerome."
Dyson tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee against Syracuse and the Huskies were a changed team on two fronts. Offensively, Dyson was a double-figure scorer who helped take pressure off Price. He was especially dangerous finishing fast breaks or driving to the rim, where he uses his athletic ability to finish against anyone. Defensively he was the perfect pressure guy, quick with his hands and feet and helping steer the traffic toward the eagerly awaiting Thabeet. Few Big East guards can lock up an opponent like Dyson.
Dyson scored 18 or more points seven times. While not a strong deep shooter, he doesn't take a lot of bad shots and did knock down three treys against Notre Dame and Michigan.
"When Kemba has the ball and Jerome is going full speed, I like our backcourt. We'll be able to play with anyone," said Calhoun.
Dyson's path toward stardom has hit a roadblock in each of the last two seasons. As a sophomore, he reportedly failed a drug test and missed a key part of the Big East schedule. Last year he and the Huskies were sailing along and looking like the only team that could give North Carolina a game. Then the knee injury ended the dream. This year a new chance at another dream and collegiate stardom is at hand.
SF-STANLEY ROBINSON (6-9, 220 lbs., SR, #21, 8.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.2 apg, 0.6 spg, 1.1 bpg, 24.9 mpg, .505 FG, .131 3PT, .635 FT, Huffman HS/Birmingham, Ala.). Man or myth? That is the question surrounding this undeniably talented yet unquestionably inconsistent big forward. Blessed with a pro body and an array of skills, Robinson can make you open your eyes one moment and put you to sleep the next.
Now a senior, the kid they call "Sticks" will own the green light to make a case for his professional career. Calhoun is already calling Robinson a future pro, insisting he would've been a first round pick if he entered the 2009 draft. While that may be debatable, his talent is not. He's good enough to go for 28 points and 14 rebounds in the historic, six-overtime loss to Syracuse in the Big East Tournament and, more importantly, contribute 15 points and 13 boards against Michigan State at the Final Four.
Yet he also scored six points or fewer eight times in games where he played 20 or more minutes. He's a frequent visitor to Calhoun's doghouse, for assorted reasons.
"Stanley didn't play the first semester [eight games], and it took him a while to get going, but over the last 10 games he was spectacular. That's the player I think we can see," said Calhoun.
When he's right, Robinson can beat you in plenty of ways. He's an elite runner of the court, scores off the glass and with a stout medium-range game. He's a very good shot blocker and can be a real pest in the passing lanes. Overall, he's a talented kid with a world of potential. We'll see if this is the season he fully realizes it.
PF-ATER MAJOK (6-10, 233 lbs., FR, #5, Heat Basketball Academy/Martinsville, Va./American International School/Sydney, Australia). Husky fans have waited two years for what is now a 22-year old freshman who everyone agrees owns NBA-type talent. Majok will miss the opening nine games of the season because he didn't formally enroll at UConn until last December.
Once he's eligible, the team is expecting a lot, and needs plenty, from this native of the Sudan. Majok owns a 7-foot-5 wingspan and can be an instant help on defense and off the boards. It's on offense where he really needs to make an impact, but Calhoun is confident he can fill that role.
"He can really shoot it," Calhoun said. "He really needs to take his game inside more because he can be really good in the lane, too. But he's a skilled big kid who can -- one day -- be a lottery pick if he keeps working."
C-CHARLES OKWANDU (7-1, 265 lbs., SO, #35, 0.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 0.3 bpg, 4.5 mpg, .250 FG, Harcum College/Bryn Mawr, Pa./Lagos, Nigeria). It may take a while to develop, but it's clear Calhoun would like to eventually play a lot of minutes with this monster big man in the lane.
"Charles gives us the muscle that you need," Calhoun said. "He's raw, but he's really, really improved since he's been with us. He runs the floor better than any big guy we've had since Emeka [Okafor]. If he keeps working, he'll help us."
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Okwandu was a soccer player until he grew very, very tall and began playing in the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program. He began last season backing up Thabeet, but after 10 games academic issues forced him to the sidelines. He spent the year getting knocked around by the All-American every day in practice but regarded that as a unique proving ground.
"I think my game is really improving," Okwandu told the New Haven Register. "Right now I find myself growing because I learned from Hasheem and the other players. I need to work hard to play in the Big East. For me to get to that level, I need to work very hard, and that's what I'm doing."
Again, Okawandu probably won't start from day one. Gavin Edwards or freshman Alex Oriakhi are better candidates. But if he matures as Calhoun projects, he'll be the defensive anchor this team needs.
F-GAVIN EDWARDS (6-9, 240 lbs., SR, #33, 3.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 0.7 bpg, .638 FG, .745 FT, Mesquite HS/Gilbert, Ariz.). Edwards has more than earned a chance at starting, and he'll get it this year. The senior has played behind the likes of Thabeet, Adrien and even Curtis Kelley through his career but gradually improved and carved out a deserved spot as a tough, well-schooled player.
This year he's bound to start early in the season, and if he plays well, Okwandu, Majok and Alex Oriakhi may have a tough time taking his minutes away.
"Gavin hasn't really had a chance because of the guys he's played with," said Calhoun. "He's going to have a real good year for us. People haven't seen what he can really do yet."
Edwards broke through with 14 points and 12 rebounds in a crucial win at Gonzaga last December. That didn't shake Calhoun, however. Edwards played just nine minutes in a Big East opening loss to Georgetown. By the end of the year, the junior enjoyed other strong nights. He played well (10 points) against Texas A&M in the NCAAs and finished the year shooting 63 percent from the field.
G-DONNELL BEVERLY (6-4, 190 lbs., JR, #2 1.2 ppg, 0.7 rpg, 0.6 apg, 4.0 mpg, .571 FG, .400 3PT, .833 FT, Leuzinger HS/Lawndale, Calif.). Mentioned as a potential transfer for the second straight season, this Californian decided to stick around for his third year in the Big East. This time, it may look like a wise choice.
Beverly barely played for the second straight season (four games of 10-plus minutes in two years) but with the graduation of Price and Austrie, the opportunity is there this time around. Calhoun thinks Beverly can be this year's Austrie -- a tough, physical guard who'll defend and make some key plays when needed. He'll have to beat out freshman Darius Smith for the job as Kemba Walker's backup.
F-ALEX ORIAKHI (6-9, 240 lbs., FR, #34, 17.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 3.5 bpg, The Tilton School, NH/Lowell, Mass.). Because they both committed to come to UConn three years ago, Husky fans have heard an awful lot about Oriakhi and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel. This young man has been a star on the AAU scene since he joined the famed Boston Amateur Basketball Club as a 13-year-old. He and Coombs-McDaniel (joined by current prep stars Gerard Coleman, Phil Pressey and Ron Giplaye) sparked the Boston club to numerous national titles with an over-powering blend of strength, speed and style.
Oriakhi provided most of the strength. Blessed with an adult's body as a mere young teenager, he has had his way close to the basket for years now. A McDonald's All-America pick, he and Coombs-McDaniel led Tilton to the New England Class B title each of the last two years. The school also pulled an upset and won the postseason National Prep School Championship, upsetting Hargrave (Va.) Military in the finals.
At first blush, Oriakhi is the perfect replacement for the departed Jeff Adrien. He knows how to use his bulk and will fight for every rebound against anyone. What will determine his ultimate initial success, however, will be his scoring skills. Oriakhi knows how to use his bulk to carve out space inside and off the boards and he owns a nice set of post moves. He lacks much of a face-up game, so getting his power skills to thrive will be paramount.
F-JAMAL COOMBS-McDANIEL (6-6, 210 lbs., FR, #4, 25.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, The Tilton School, NH/Dorchester, Ma.). When this athletic forward committed to UConn as a prep freshman, he was seen as "the other kid'' next to Oriakhi. No more. By the end of their prep school careers, it was clear that Coombs-McDaniel was one of the more underrated players in the country. Not that it matters, but he probably deserved All-America honors even more than his teammate.
Tilton finished 29-2 last year and won the last two Class B New England titles, but would not have won the national tournament at the end of last season if not for this versatile point-forward. He exploded for 41 points in an upset win over South Kent and then came back in the finals against Hargrave to score 30 points and grab 13 rebounds.
"People missed the boat on this guy. He's very good. He can be as good as anyone," said Calhoun.
Coombs-McDaniel loves to drive to the rim and either score or draw fouls in the lane. He's strong and quick enough to take the ball where he wants to go anywhere on the floor and won't back down from anyone. All in all, this kid is just a good, tough player who clearly will make a difference.
C-JONATHAN MANDELDOVE (7-0, 240 lbs., JR, #32, 0.3 ppg, 0.8 rpg, 0.5 bpg, .200 FG, Hargrave Military/Chatham, Va./Stone Mountain, Ga.). Coming out of Hargrave Military, this 7-footer from Georgia was seen as one of the top 20 prep centers in the nation, but he's never made his mark here. After sitting behind Hasheem Thabeet for three years, he'll now contend with newcomers Okwandu, Majok and Oriakhi for playing time. F-JAMAAL TRICE (6-6, 220 lbs., FR, #13, 26.2 ppg, Mt. Zion Academy/Durham, N.C./Los Angeles, Calif.). These are the kind of recruits that UConn always seems to find and leave opponents wondering "where did they get this guy?"
Trice is a known commodity on the West Coast, where he was a solid piece on strong Mater Dei High teams. He needed more work on his academics and played one year at Mt. Zion, where he excelled on a deep and talented team. He didn't become a national recruit until the fall of last year and UConn out-worked West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest for him. In fact, after just one campus visit a few days after Christmas, the recruitment was finished.
Trice is a strong, long wing who can handle the ball and get his shot off thanks to his athleticism. He may be challenged to find playing time on a deep team like this one, but he's got at least one important strength going for him. Mt. Zion had eight Division I players last season, and coach Gary McKnight said Trice was his best defender.
G-DARIUS SMITH (6-1, 168 lbs., FR, #24, 23.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.0 apg, 7.0 spg, John Marshall HS/Chicago, Ill.). Any program that didn't have Kemba Walker would probably be happy to just hand the ball over to this small, quick-on-quick point guard and see what happens. Instead Smith will back up All-America candidate Walker and perhaps play with him in the type of fast, pressing lineups that Calhoun is never shy about employing.
Smith, who chose UConn last March over Arizona State and Cincinnati, led his young high school team to a 19-8 record in Chicago's Public League last season. In his junior year, Marshall went 32-4 and won the state title with Smith and Ryan Hare (Southern Illinois) as the stars.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
This promises to be a very interesting year at UConn. The Huskies not only have the talent to return to the Final Four but also are filled with intrigue. First, everyone wants to know if the NCAA can discover if there is anything to the recruiting allegations that surfaced last March. If any negative news on that front breaks, it will be a major distraction in a media-crazed market like Connecticut.
But this is also a UConn team with a new look. The loss of Thabeet means the Huskies will play very differently, and Calhoun loves those challenges. He clearly likes the talent he's assembled, and the ability to crank up the pace, press a lot and let a talented group of long, active players run could add up to a very exciting team that keeps Connecticut basketball among the nation's best.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 334 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2009-10 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.