Here’s the burning question about the 2014-15 UConn Huskies: Are they still hungry?
Shabazz Napier called his team the Hungry Huskies during the post-national championship celebration at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in April. They fed off returning to the NCAA Tournament after serving a postseason ban and went on an improbable March Madness run.
But Napier, an All-America guard and inspirational leader, has graduated and moved on to the NBA. DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey, two other key players, also are pursing professional careers.
Only six players, including just one who averaged in double figures, return.
According to coach Kevin Ollie, UConn’s appetite for success remains the same. “Every year is a different year,” Ollie says. “But we’re going to have the same mindset. … It’s a work ethic. It’s to have humility, the understanding that it’s not about you, it’s about our great university. If we can have those things with the talent we have, success is going to follow. I really, really believe that.”
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Ollie is excited about the potential of his maturing frontcourt and hopes to get more production out of the group.
Junior Phil Nolan is battled-test, appearing in 63 games over two seasons, and has added muscle. He’ll look to improve on last year’s numbers (3.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg).
Watch out for sophomore center Amida Brimah. Already a shot-blocking force, averaging a team-best 2.3 per game, he’s working on elevating his offensive game. He spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery. “Amida is going to be a force,” Ollie says.
Sophomore Kentan Facey adds a different dynamic off the bench, possessing the ability to attack inside or shoot outside.
Highly touted freshman Daniel Hamilton, an athletic 6-7 wing, has the potential to be a special player. Hamilton averaged 20.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists while leading St. John Bosco to a state title in California last season.
Freshman Rakim Lubin owns the mindset and muscle to be a factor on the glass, one of team’s few weaknesses last season.
UConn Huskies Facts & Figures
Last season: 32-8, 12-6 AAC
Postseason: National champion
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 1
Coach: Kevin Ollie (52-18 at UConn, 22-14 Big East/AAC)
AAC Projection: Second
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
Stocked with skilled guards, UConn will continue to be a perimeter-powered team.
Ryan Boatright, the top returning scorer and a defensive pest, steps into the spotlight after residing in Napier’s shadow. Following a terrific postseason, Boatright considered turning pro before deciding to return for his senior season. “He has to take over that leadership role,” Ollie says. “I think Boat is going to do that. I see a lot of great qualities in Ryan. … He has a great competitiveness about him.”
Sophomore Terrence Samuel, who emerged as a valuable contributor off the bench last season, and junior Omar Calhoun are other returning guards. Calhoun is looking to bounce back from a sophomore slump.
Last season, Ollie referred to Rodney Purvis, a transfer from NC State, as his Ferrari in the garage. The explosive Purvis is ready to hit the accelerator and take off. “He can score at a high level,” Ollie says.
Newcomer Sam Cassell Jr., who starred on the junior college level, is a fierce competitor with a high basketball IQ. He gives UConn another playmaker.
Expectations are high for the Huskies, who’ll likely be a top-25 team, an American Athletic Conference title contender and NCAA Tournament team.
Another trip to the Final Four will be difficult to pull off considering that UConn lost four of its top five scorers and top three rebounders. But with a nice blend of promising newcomers, developing underclassmen and proven veterans, the Huskies possess the talent to complete a quality makeover. They’ll rely on scoring by committee and look to push the pace to utilize their team speed and versatile roster.
Ollie, who received a new five-year, $15 million contract in May, will stick to his winning formula — play team basketball and tenacious defense, limit turnovers and convert from the foul line, where UConn shot 77.7 percent last season.
With the roster changes, UConn needs time to become a cohesive unit.
“We’ve got some talent,” Ollie says. “We’ve got to pull it together. We’ve got to get in (the gym) and work hard. But all the guys have great attitudes. That’s the one thing that I pride myself on — having a great attitude and being a great teammate. I think all of our guys have that.”
Rakim Lubin, a rugged forward, will provide a much-needed physical presence and rebounder. Sam Cassell Jr., son of the former NBA guard, averaged 18.7 points in junior college. He’ll add valuable depth and experience in the backcourt. Daniel Hamilton, a multi-talented wing, is considered one of the top scorers at his position in his recruiting class. A gifted guard, Rodney Purvis averaged 8.3 points as a freshman at NC State.