"The lights are on, you get to smell the popcorn," coach Kevin Ollie said. "The fans will be here. It's different than scrimmaging or just practicing, and I'm looking forward to how guys will respond."
UConn, with great expectations both inside and outside its walls, begins again with an exhibition game against Southern Connecticut, an experienced and competitive Division II team, at 7 p.m. It will be broadcast in WTIC-FM 96.5 (WTIC-AM has the Red Sox game).
For freshmen Kentan Facey, Terrence Samuel and Amida Brimah, it will their first time suiting up as Huskies.
"The older guys have told us that by the first TV timeout, our lips are going to be chapped and white and we're going to be exhausted," Facey said. "It's going to be a challenge and I'm ready for that challenge."
Facey, 6 feet 9, has already been through his first college trial. He was in limbo for three months as the NCAA reviewed his eligibility, examining his academic path from Jamaica to the U.S. They could have ruled him ineligible as a freshmen and taken away up to two years eligibility, but after their review granted him a waiver and he will have the full four years.
"I told him to keep his head and keep working," said junior Ryan Boatright, who sat through two NCAA reviews during his freshman year. "The NCAA can prolong whatever they're doing for as long as they want to. You keep working, and that's what he did. He worked hard, he paid attention to the plays and now he's cleared and he's ready."
Facey was so happy when he got the good news last Thursday, he kicked a chair across the room. "I told him to take it out on the opponent," Ollie said.
The Huskies, 20-10 last season, were not eligible for the postseason. This year, they're playing for titles, in the new American Athletic Conference, as well as the NCAA. At this early stage, Ollie set two goals.
"Tempo, " he said. "We want to have a tempo and dominate the backboards."
Facey, Brimah, 7-0, sophomore Phil Nolan, 6-10, and senior Tyler Olander, 6-10, will all be fighting for frontcourt minutes and the way to Ollie's good graces leads up through the rebounding column. UConn was out-rebounded by 5.5 a game last season.
"I'm looking for one guy to step up and separate himself," Ollie said. "I'd like for two, or three or four to separate themselves, but if no one does, we'll do it by committee. We don't have a rotation set; the guys who play with the passion and the ability to give us a chance to win are going to play."
Ollie said he will start veterans against Southern, which would mean Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright in the backcourt, Omar Calhoun, DeAndre Daniels, Olander or perhaps Niels Giffey, also a senior, up front.
From the freshmen, "I'll be looking for guys to do the small things that don't always show up in the box score," Ollie said. "That's how you'll get into the rotation."
The Owls, who were 17-10 last season, have a similar cast and style for their own level, with young big men, experienced guards like Greg Langston and Tylon Smith, and fast-paced mentality.
"If we can hold it together," coach Mike Donnelly said, "play through adversity, play through the physical contact, I'd consider it a successful game for us."
Napier spoke for a lot of the older Huskies when he said, after four weeks of practices, he's anxious to get out on the court against an opponent. "I enjoy practice," Napier said, "but this is more competitive."
"It's a lot different when the lights go on," Giffey said. "The young guys are going to have to go out and prove themselves. I remember being very excited and not thinking too much about basketball, which was a mistake. You have to just get out there, get as comfortable as you can and just play basketball. In the end, everybody has to experience it for themselves."