UConn enters the 2016-17 basketball season as a bit of an unknown. The Huskies are stocked with talent and return five significant players from an NCAA Tournament team that won 25 games and earned the program’s first American Athletic Conference Tournament championship. But they are short on experience and need to plug some big holes after losing three of their four leading scorers and top two rebounders.
Eight of their 11 scholarship players are underclassmen, including five members of a top-10 nationally ranked recruiting class.
No matter the team’s experience level, fifth-year coach Kevin Ollie’s expectations remain the same every season. “If you’re able to put on a UConn jersey, you’ve got to perform at that level that we have standards about,” Ollie says. “The end goal, of course, is to put another banner up there. But you can’t look at that. That’s too big, that’s too far away.
“Every day we want to get better.”
All American Athletic Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Kevin Ollie
2015-16 RECORD (AAC): 25–11 (11–7)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Kansas 73–61 in the second round
2016-17 PREDICTION: First in the American Athletic Conference
G Omar Calhoun (4.3 ppg)
G Sterling Gibbs (12.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.3 apg)
G/F Daniel Hamilton (12.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 4.7 apg)
F Shonn Miller (12.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
The departures of Daniel Hamilton — who left after his sophomore season and was a second-round NBA Draft pick — and Shonn Miller leave a significant void in the frontcourt. The good news is that two of the team’s most experienced players, Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey, reside there, along with skilled transfer Terry Larrier, who’ll be making his much-anticipated UConn debut. Larrier, who averaged 6.6 points and 3.0 rebounds in one season at VCU before transferring, has the all-around tools to be an impact player and provide some much-needed scoring punch.
Ollie believes that Brimah, a shot-blocking center, can be a double-figure scorer and increase his rebounding totals after averaging just 6.5 points and 4.6 rebounds last season, during which a broken finger sidelined him for 11 games.
Facey, a high-energy forward with 89 career games under his belt, has shown flashes of potential but needs to add consistency and confidence to be a bigger factor.
Ollie raves about sophomore Steven Enoch, a rapidly developing 6'11" forward. Enoch gained valuable experience playing for the Armenian U-20 National Team in July.
Freshmen Vance Jackson and Mamadou Diarra, a pair of promising 6'8" forwards, are young frontcourt players to watch. Jackson is blessed with a nice shooting stroke and high basketball IQ. Diarra has the potential to be a beast on the boards. Freshman Juwan Durham, an exceptional athlete, is on the comeback trail recovering from a knee injury and could be a redshirt candidate.
The backcourt will serve as the team’s anchor. Senior Rodney Purvis, the leading scorer last season at 12.8 points, is riding momentum from a strong postseason run that saw him average a team-best 18 points in two NCAA Tournament games. He owns the best 3-point shooting mark (38.5 percent) among returning players.
For the first time in a few seasons, the Huskies have a pair of dynamic playmaking guards at their disposal. Rising star Jalen Adams and freshman Alterique Gilbert, a McDonald’s All-American, will help the Huskies push the pace and take advantage of their athleticism.
Ollie says that Christian Vital is exactly what UConn needs from the guard spot, adding that the freshman will be a big surprise to a lot of people.
McDonald’s All-American Alterique Gilbert, a top-40 recruit, is the marquee player in UConn’s class. Fellow guard Christian Vital will add toughness and tenacity. Vance Jackson, a former high school teammate of ex-Husky Daniel Hamilton, has a reputation as a lethal perimeter weapon. Mamadou Diarra is raw offensively but should help in the rebounding and defending departments. Juwan Durham could be a redshirt candidate as he’s fighting back from a knee injury that sidelined him for his senior season. VCU transfer Terry Larrier, a wiry, athletic swingman, is poised for a shining debut season.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what UConn’s ceiling will be this season. The Huskies’ final destination will heavily depend on the development of the freshmen. If not for the return of Purvis and Brimah, who both tested NBA Draft waters, the Huskies would be even younger.
“Guys are going to really have to step up and be ready to perform,” Ollie says. “The (freshmen) haven’t played on this stage before, so how will they handle it? That’s the unknown.”
With a challenging non-conference schedule that features a loaded Maui Invitational field and games against Syracuse, Ohio State and Auburn before January, the training wheels will have to come off fast. Expect UConn to suffer growing pains before emerging as a title contender in the American Athletic Conference.