Can Jeremy Lamb lead a young Huskies team back to the Final Four?
Expectations remain the same as previous seasons for the defending national champion UConn Huskies. “To make the NCAA Tournament and go as deep as we can,” coach Jim Calhoun says. “That’s exactly what I said last year. Actually, we went pretty deep. Two years ago, when we didn’t make the (NCAA) Tournament, we really had the same expectations.” UConn surprised the college basketball world with its improbable run, winning an unprecedented five games in five days to capture the Big East Tournament championship and then claiming the program’s third national championship. But All-American Kemba Walker — the heart, soul and pulse of the Huskies — has moved on to the NBA, leaving a major void.
Plenty of talent remains, including rising star Jeremy Lamb and All-Big East candidate Alex Oriakhi, the team’s only upperclassman. Elite big man Andre Drummond, who made a surprise decision in late August by opting to attend UConn instead of prep school, is one of three impact freshmen.. “We know we lost a great player in Kemba,” Calhoun says. “But we’ve lost other great players. And we have some good young players coming back.”
Huskies Key Stat: 11
Alex Oriakhi had 11 games with double-figure points and rebounds last season. UConn went 10-1 in those games.
UConn’s frontcourt situation vastly improved with the arrival of Drummond, an athletic 6'10", 275-pound center with enormous potential. He’ll serve as an anchor up front.
Oriakhi, who averaged 9.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks as a sophomore, had monster games last season — but mediocre ones, too. More consistency is needed in his game.
“When Alex was assertive inside, we were a different basketball team,” Calhoun says. “He had games he was just incredibly impressive. So we need more of that.”
The remaining frontcourt cast is dominated by underclassmen. Versatile sophomore Roscoe Smith, who started 33 games last year, has impressed Calhoun with his work ethic and will play an increased role. Sophomore Tyler Olander has a nice shooting touch and added muscle but has to work on the toughness needed to battle inside in the rugged Big East.
Swingman Niels Giffey should benefit from his time on the German national team over the summer. Unproven big men Enosch Wolf and Michael Bradley, a 6'10" redshirt freshman, will be counted on to contribute. Wolf, a 7'1", 260-pound center, appeared in only seven games last season after joining the team in late December.
UConn scored a recruiting coup when it signed talented forward DeAndre Daniels, who’ll be plugged into the rotation.
Even with the departure of Walker, the team’s leading scorer, Calhoun is excited about his pool of skilled perimeter players. “We’re as good as anybody on the perimeter,” Calhoun says.
Lamb, an All-Big East rookie team selection, had a sensational ending to a solid freshman season. He averaged 16.2 points and shot 58 percent from the field in the NCAA Tournament and then led Team USA in scoring (16.2 ppg) at the U19 World Championship over the summer.
“He’s going to be one of the best players in the Big East and one of the best scorers in the country,” Calhoun says.
Shabazz Napier — an All-Big East rookie team pick who appeared in all 41 games off the bench last season — is ready to take over the starting point guard duties, be a defensive pest and add scoring punch.
One of three true freshmen, lightning-quick 6'0" guard Ryan Boatright has a reputation as a scorer and terrific passer. He should fit nicely into UConn’s up-tempo system.
Calhoun spent the offseason contemplating retirement, but the Hall of Fame coach elected to return for his 26th season at UConn. This underclassman-dominated group will rely heavily on Calhoun’s guidance to handle the pressure of playing as the defending national champion. Calhoun will miss the first three Big East games, serving an NCAA suspension.
Replacing Walker won’t be easy. It will take more than one player to make up for his leadership and star power. Expect an adjustment period.
“We’re pretty skilled,” Calhoun says. “I like our development. We have questions of muscle and questions of leadership. When a guy has the greatest season in the history of the University, how do we adapt? Not necessarily replace him, because that’s not going to happen.”
Big East Predicition: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Final Four