UConn Can't Wait To Open Hoop Season Vs. Maryland Friday

Ryan Boatright, Shabazz Napier, front left and right, and the rest of the UConn men's basketball team are ready to get the season rolling vs. Maryland Friday night. (John Woike)

The lights will come on in Brooklyn, in an NBA arena, and a new, long-anticipated season will start against a powerful opponent.

There will be emotion, perhaps, but for UConn, most particularly its upper classmen, this is where they live.

"Honestly, it's just a lot of experience," senior Shabazz Napier said. "We understand, we've been through a lot. Ups AND downs. We've seen a lot that a lot of players may not be able to see. We've been through wars that a lot of players have never been through. We understand college basketball, to a certain extent, much better than a lot of other players."

So for seniors such as Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander, for juniors Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, the start of a new season, against Maryland at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Friday night (ESPN2, 6:30 p.m.), will be exciting, but nothing they haven't experienced.

"Coach tells us, if you're on the floor, you should be a leader," said sophomore Omar Calhoun, "so everyone has something to say and is being vocal and I think it's brought us closer together."

Big stage? UConn seniors have played in a Final Four and won it. Expectations? They don't get any higher than 2011, when Andre Drummond joined the defending champs. Uncertainty? How about a Hall of Fame coach retiring on the eve of a season and a new coach starting out with a seven-month contract? Distractions? They blocked out their tournament ineligibility, swallowed their anger over it, and played each game last season like a championship game, going 20-10.

And down the stretch? UConn played seven overtime games last season and won five. Napier, who scored 55 points in 45 OT minutes last season, expects to be jittery before the game — eager for it to start – and then comes the calm during the storm that could define this seasoned UConn team.

So the Huskies, ranked 18th in the preseason AP Poll, bolstered by freshmen who appear ready to contribute, are steeled by their shared experiences and well equipped to handle whatever comes their way — beginning with the unranked Terrapins, who come off a 25-win season as they transition from the ACC to the Big Ten.

"This will be a good gauge for us," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. "It's great for both programs to be part of a game like this, with the visibility. It's a lot better than just playing a cupcake to start the season. "

Said UConn coach Kevin Ollie: "If you're not excited about playing on ESPN, playing in the Barclays Center, with all your peers watching, I can't get you excited. … I know I'm excited."

The country will be watching, and the state, looking for a relief from a desultory UConn football season, will probably be hanging on every Huskies possession from the very beginning. As was the case with the tone-setting win over Michigan State to begin last season, much will be read into this opener.

"We're better off playing a good, solid team," Napier said. "There's no reason to be playing a weaker team at this point, that's not going to tell us how well we're doing."

Maryland lost its starting point guard, Seth Allen, to a fractured foot last week. That prompted Turgeon to play his best scorer, Dez Wells, at point guard. Ballhandling is not his natural role, and facing UConn's high-pressure guards, Napier and Boatright, it will be difficult to avoid turnovers.

"We're not going to be able to run as much," Turgeon said, "but we're still going to be a running team."

In Wells, 6 feet 5, Nick Faust (6-6) and Jake Layman (6-8), Maryland will have a size advantage at the guard/wing matchups over Napier (6-1), Boatright (6-0) and Omar Calhoun (6-5). Ollie usually doesn't hesitate to go to Giffey (6-7) if he sees a better matchup or needs a change in tone.

The three UConn guards accounted for 60.1 percent of the scoring last season, but in the last few games, with Napier and Calhoun hurt, DeAndre Daniels, 6-9, stepped up and showed production from the power-forward spot, where he can stretch the defense with his perimeter play or penetrated.

Now, UConn will begin this season with all four players healthy together, but still looking for a big man to fill the fifth spot. Sophomore Phil Nolan, senior Olander or freshman Amida Brimah could help improve the Huskies' rebounding, which was subpar nearly last season. Maryland, too, is young, but talented up front. Sophomores Charles Mitchell and Shaquille Cleare, 6-9, are their top interior players.

Calhoun and Terrence Samuel, a freshman guard who has been impressive, are Brooklyn kids, so it's a homecoming for them. "Especially as a Husky," Samuel said. "I've dreamed about this day, and it's here."