UConn men's basketball looks to get back on top
UConn guard Ryan Boatright fires the crowd up during a Feb. 13 win over No. 6 Syracuse. The Huskies will enter the 2013-14 season eligible for the 2014 NCAA Tournament. KEVIN SCHELLER/The Daily Campus
The 2011-12 season was one of great expectations. Entering the season as the reigning Big East and national champions, the Huskies were supposed to dominate the college basketball scene, led by freshman forward Andre Drummond.
Instead, a season that was supposed to end with UConn as a No. 1 seed cruising to a second straight title ended with the Huskies as a No. 9 seed and on the wrong end of an embarrassing performance against Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament.
As if Jeremy Lamb's missed dunk attempt at the buzzer - which would have cut the deficit to 11 - was not bad enough, the hard times were just beginning for the Huskies.
Low APR scores under the new, retroactive NCAA standards led to a ban from the 2013 NCAA Tournament, and as a result, the Big East Conference voted to bar UConn from the conference tournament, which ended up being the last of its kind. As a result of these bans, Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi transferred and Lamb and Drummond declared for the NBA Draft. The Huskies also lost Michael Bradley, who transferred to be close to his ailing grandmother.
Then came Jim Calhoun's announcement in September that he was retiring, leaving his protÃ©gÃ© Kevin Ollie to fill the shoes of an 800-win coach with three national championships.
The Huskies went 20-10 during the 2012-13 season, which is something that UConn normally wouldn't take pride in, but given the postseason ban and the adjustment to life under Kevin Ollie, it was an impressive accomplishment.
UConn's grit and tenacity during the season were cause for celebration, as big wins were treated like national championship victories. No game more exemplifies this feeling than the 66-58 win over No. 6 Syracuse at the XL Center on Feb. 13 - the game that had Syracuse leaving the Big East "with a bad taste of UConn in their mouth," according to Ryan Boatright.
Now the Huskies are tournament-eligible again, so just how far can they go? It depends on who is talking, as many early rankings have UConn looking in on the Top 25. ESPN's Andy Katz is the biggest fan of the Huskies entering this season, and he has them at No. 14 in his early predictions.
The Huskies have all their big weapons back, as Shabazz Napier sent UConn into a frenzy on April 26 when he announced that he was staying. DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright are both back, unsurprisingly. Talk of Daniels being the most pro-ready player on the Huskies' roster, coupled with his performance down the stretch last season, makes it seem like Daniels is ready for a big year.
Omar Calhoun returns after his All-Big East Rookie Team performance last season. Calhoun struggled at times early on, but his ability to consistently hit threes, particularly late in games, makes him a dangerous swingman to play off of Napier and Boatright.
The big question mark for the Huskies is their frontcourt presence. There was a time when UConn had the most lethal frontcourt in the game; they led the nation in blocked shots every year for nearly a decade. But the physical inside game has not been a factor in recent seasons.
However, assuming Enosch Wolf and Tyler Olander are cleared to play, UConn returns three big men - Phil Nolan being the other - who each stepped up at points last season and showed that they can disrupt play under and above the hoop. UConn is also bringing in Ghanaian center Amida Brimah, who averaged over seven blocks per game in high school this season.
With all this talent available, it seems crazy that the Huskies are not being talked about as a serious contender for a run to the Final Four. A lack of postseason experience for most of the players, last season's ban and the American Athletic Conference's lack of firepower in relation to the old Big East will all be factors in UConn's perceived minimal expectations outside of Connecticut.
The Huskies are quite content with flying under the radar. In fact, Wolf welcomes the lack of hype.
"Let us fly under the radar all year," Wolf said. "We'll go through our season without much attention, hopefully win the conference tournament, and then get to the NCAA Tournament and say, 'Guess what? We're here.'"
As UConn fans know well, you don't need to go into March as the most dominant team in the country. You don't need to be the overwhelming favorite.
You just need to get there. After that, anything can happen.
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