STORRS — A year ago, UConn had to master the art of playing with nothing to lose. While the Huskies had their shortcomings, lack of motivation — a sense of playing as if it didn't really matter because they were ineligible for the postseason — was not among them.
The Huskies played with chips on their shoulders, and by all preseason projections, they overachieved, finishing 20-10. And on March 9, they put the basketballs away.
“Last year, I cried after the last game because we couldn't play anymore,” Shabazz Napier said. “We all came back to win a championship. At least this year, we know we'll have the chance to do something.”
For the new season, Kevin Ollie's second as coach, there will be different goal. Their Academic Progress Rate problems behind them, the NCAA sanctions over and done, if conference realignment has not yet worked out to the program's greatest desires, the Huskies at least know what conference they will be in. UConn is on stable footing with an experienced roster and will attempt to add new and exciting history to the era closed with Jim Calhoun's retirement. The Huskies were picked second, behind national champion Louisville, in the American Athletic Conference coaches poll, and they are ranked 18th (Associated Press) and 19th (USA Today) in the national polls.
“We're not chasing national championships,” Ollie told an audience in Cromwell this fall, “national championships are chasing us.”
“We know how it felt last year, to put everything on the line and not play for the ring,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “There were a lot of teams that we watched in the tournament that we beat, or lost by a buzzer-beater. Marquette beat us by a buzzer-beater, and they went to the Sweet 16. It hurt watching the tournament.”
Napier, Boatright and forward DeAndre Daniels were all considered fringe NBA draft prospects but all stayed to pursue a title and enhance their pro prospects. No one transferred. The only players from last season who will not suit up for the season opener against Maryland are R.J. Evans, who was a fifth-year transfer last season, and Enosch Wolf, a backup center who, his scholarship not renewed because of off-court troubles, signed to play pro ball in Europe.
“We're going to play fast and physical,” Boatright said.
Lasan Kromah, 6 feet 6, transferred from George Washington to play as a grad student and figures to be an upgrade off the bench. The thin frontcourt is bolstered by two freshmen, 7-foot Amida Brimah, who should have an immediate impact as a shot blocker, and 6-9 Kentan Facey, who should add a long player who can run the court like a guard. Terrence Samuel, a 6-4 freshman from Brooklyn whom Ollie has compared to Marcus Williams, adds depth in the backcourt.
“They had depth issues last year,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said, “and when you have those type of issues, injuries become a factor because the season is so long and every game is such a grind.
“Their perimeter play is as good as anybody's. The X-factor for them is DeAndre Daniels. He went from a heralded freshman that the league was a little too physical for, to his sophomore year ... I give the kid credit. He made the adjustment. A lot of kids don't.”
Though some consider the 6-9 Daniels an NBA small forward prospect with upside, he has not been included in some top 100 lists and was not among the coaches' picks for first- or second-team mention in the conference.
“People are not noticing him, and he knows that and we know that, and that's going to add fuel to his fire,” Ollie said.
Napier, 6-1, and Boatright, 6-0, return to form one of the best backcourts in the country. Napier averaged 17.1 points, scoring 55 in 45 overtime minutes to make the difference in several games. Boatright averaged 15.4 points and vows to be more disciplined.
“UConn's backcourt,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, “is awesome.”
Omar Calhoun, at 6-6, played a hybrid big guard/small forward role last season and averaged 11.1 points, showing a knack for clutch three-point shots. After surgery to correct impingement in both hips, he has promised to show more as a sophomore.
Daniels averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds and proved a matchup nightmare for bigger, slower power forwards, a matchup UConn figures to exploit again.
Up front, Tyler Olander, who recovered from a broken foot and survived two off-the-court incidents in the offseason, is back in Ollie's good graces and, at 6-10, 230, must improve on his 3.7 rebounds a game to give the Huskies the muscle they need. Phil Nolan, a 6-10 sophomore, will push Olander for the starting job at center.
Opponents outrebounded UConn by 5.5 last season, and though the Huskies found ways to win when they were grossly outmuscled on the boards, that is no place for a championship contender to live.
Niels Giffey joins Napier and Olander as remaining veterans of the 2011 national champs, and after a summer in the European championships has returned a more grizzled veteran. Sophomore Leon Tolksdorf, who was not a factor last season, played with the German Under-20 team over the summer and came back trimmer and quicker.
“Experience wins you games sometimes,” Napier said. “Coach Ollie, he's a mastermind. He's got great coaches on the side; those guys have a lot of intel. They understand how much talent we've got, and they're going to work with it.”
The Huskies will find out early how good they are, with nonconference games against Maryland, Florida, Stanford, Boston College, Washington and possibly Indiana, depending on how the 2K Classic shakes out at Madison Square Garden. The new AAC schedule will include two games against Louisville, two against Memphis, also a top 20 team, and two against Cincinnati and SMU, teams that could be ranked as the season goes along.Copyright © 2015, CT Now