*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered – the top 16 teams in the nation will be previewed individually in the next few weeks. After we broke down Big East giant Syracuse earlier today, we’ll keep this going with No. 4-ranked UConn (ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll).*
Last December I traveled to UConn to cover Harvard’s non-conference matchup with the Huskies. Of all the games I watched last year, it’s safe to say that one was the ugliest (And that’s saying something given the dud we got for an NCAA Championship game).
Moments after the opening tipoff, UConn jumped out to an 11-0 lead as the Crimson bricked its first 12 field-goal attempts. It was one of those games where you kept expecting Harvard to make a run. But it just never came, and the next thing you knew, the Huskies were up by 31.
But when Kemba Walker announced he was leaving for the NBA following UConn’s championship victory, I figured that the 2011-12 season might be Harvard’s shot to get revenge against the Huskies.
On August 26, that thought went flying out the window. On that day, 6-10 center Andre Drummond – the top-ranked center in his class – announced he was enrolling at UConn, transforming the Huskies from a good team to a great one.
Regardless of how you feel about Drummond’s snatching of Michael Bradley’s scholarship, there’s no questioning that the dude is a monster. With ridiculous bounce and surprisingly deft handle and vision, don’t expect him to be waiting around the green room for too long at the 2012 NBA Draft.
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But with Drummond in a Huskies’ uniform for the next year, UConn’s frontcourt is beastly. Drummond will be joined in the post by junior Alex Oriakhi. A 6-9 forward, Oriakhi finished second in the Big East in rebounding as a sophomore, grabbing 8.7 boards per game. He has proved to be a capable scorer – he was third on the Huskies with 9.6 points per game last year — but he makes his biggest impact on the glass and the defensive end. Last season, he finished seventh in the Big East in blocks and held Butler forward Matt Howard to an abysmal 1-for-13 shooting performance in the national championship.
Oriakhi’s defensive prowess coupled with Drummond’s uncanny athleticism and passing ability should give the Huskies a dynamic post presence that is unrivaled throughout the country. Expect UConn to simply overpower the majority of its opponents this season.
At small forward, 6-8 sophomore Roscoe Smith and 6-7 freshman DeAndre Daniels should not be overlooked. Athletic wings with passable jumpers, Smith and Daniels should prove to be crucial role players for the Huskies.
Losing a scoring machine like Kemba Walker to the NBA certainly hurts, but the Huskies return a talented backcourt led by sophomores Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb. Napier – a 6-0 point guard with tremendous quickness and a decent stroke – possesses the talent to run the show. One thing he still needs to prove is that he can consistently make good decisions. Napier was able to get away with silly mistakes as an energy guy off the bench last season, but that won’t fly now that he’s the starting point guard.
Lamb – a natural scorer with a sweet touch – will have even higher expectations as he takes on the role of UConn’s primary scorer. The 6-5 shooting guard will look to pick up from where he left off at the end of his freshman campaign after he closed out the postseason averaging 15.3 points per game.
Rookie point guard Ryan Boatright is also expected to see time in the backcourt. ESPN’s No. 14 point guard in the class of 2011, Boatwright possess tremendous quickness – and the ability to throw it down (see below) – which should be an asset off the bench. Don’t be surprised if the Huskies decide to go small with Boatright, Lamb and Napier all on the court at the same time.
A lot is going to be asked of Jeremy Lamb this season. While nobody expects him to match Kemba Walker’s 23.4 points per game, Lamb is now the go-to option on a national title contender. The lanky guard tried out his new role over the summer with the U.S. national team at the 2011 FIBA U19 World Championship and had modest success.
Lamb succeeded in leading the Red, White and Blue in scoring with 16.2 points per game, but he couldn’t save the Americans from a disappointing fifth-place finish. This is worrisome. While it’s clear that Lamb has the offensive skills to lead a team in scoring, it remains to be seen whether he has the leadership skills to lead a team to victory.
With Walker gone, UConn will need to take on a new identity. No longer a one-man team, the Huskies will need balanced production if it’s going to repeat as national champions. Luckily for Jim Calhoun’s squad, UConn still possess tremendous talent.
UNC and Kentucky may be this year’s favorites, but if Drummond performs as advertised and Lamb makes a seamless transition from Walker’s sidekick to UConn’s top scorer and leader, don’t be surprised if the Huskies make it two in a row.