UConn is heading to the Final Four, for the fourth time in school history. The Storrs campus is full of excitement. Marcus Lynam has more from Storrs.
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The UConn Huskies are coming off a 31 win season, which included the program’s third final four appearance, Jim Calhoun’s 800 career victory, and two players, in Hasheem Thabeet and AJ Price, being drafted into the NBA. Last season could be considered the third most successful year in program history. This year’s team will have a different look, but overall should still be a national title contender.
Most teams wouldn’t know where to start if they lost AJ Price, Jeff Adrien, and Hasheem Thabeet, but head coach Jim Calhoun is well prepared to reload. The Huskies come into the season with a host of experienced veterans, a couple highly-touted recruits, a few solid role players, a Hall of Fame coach leading the way, and a whole lot of optimism. The team will have a lot of work to do to get back to the Final Four, but they have the talent and chemistry to get there. With the first regular season game being this Friday, November 13th, I decided it’s the perfect time to unveil my season preview with position breakdowns.
UConn lost their captain, leader, best shooter, and best clutch performer in AJ Price, however, the team’s best player this year may be the new starting point guard. Kemba Walker takes over for Price, and will be the floor general for the Huskies this year. Walker came off the bench as a freshman to begin last year, but after the injury to Jerome Dyson, he saw himself in the starting lineup. Down the stretch Walker was unbelievable and one of the main reasons UConn reached the Final Four. This year, the team will be in his hands, and Jim Calhoun is pretty excited about that. “Kemba is our leader, and we have full confidence in him,” said Calhoun. Jerome Dyson also likes what he sees from Walker. “I think Kemba learned a lot from A.J., from the leadership aspect and the point guard aspect,” Dyson said. “He got a lot of experience last year with me going down. He got a lot of minutes, which is going to help us this year. He’s been through a lot and he’s got a lot of game experience. The difference between those two is Kemba is a lot quicker. He’s probably the quickest guy I’ve ever played with.”
Behind Walker, the Huskies will have two players competing for time as the back-up, in junior Donnell Beverly and freshman Darius Smith. Beverly has not played a lot over his first two years, but in the time he has gotten on the floor, he has shown he is a capable ball-handler, defensive player, and even a pretty good scorer. He will look to improve his outside shot, decision making, and overall effectiveness of running the point this year. Smith, a freshman out of Chicago, has been really impressive in the pre-season. He has shown he is a very good defender and a solid offensive point guard, but is still getting use to the college game, which will come with a learning curve for him. “Darius still makes high school plays but he also makes some very good plays because he’s so quick,” Calhoun said.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A-, Walker is one of the nation’s best point guards, and has depth behind him, but that depth is mostly untested.
Jerome Dyson hadn’t played in a real game since February 11 of last season when he tore his ACL, but in Sunday’s exhibition game against UMASS-Lowell, he looked as if he hadn’t missed a game. Dyson scored 32 points in the blowout win, which is a great sign for the Huskies. Dyson is the team’s best scoring threat and best perimeter defender. His aggressive play is his trademark, but his consistency on both ends of the floor could make him UConn’s most dangerous player. He can shoot, drive to the hoop, grab rebounds, run, play defense, and he brings leadership to the court. As long as he stays healthy then he could be an all Big-East selection come seasons end. Coach Calhoun is happy to have Dyson back on the floor, “It’s great to have him back. Defensively, he makes a difference. He’s healthy. This should be a nice coming out party for him in many ways because we’re trying to feature him and Stanley (Robinson). They are two guys we expect to score in the high double-figures.”
Backing up Dyson will be a combo of guards, with freshman Jamaal Trice, freshman Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, and even junior Donnell Beverly. Coombs-McDaniel is a player that the coaches have loved since he was a sophomore in high school. He’s 6-7, and might just be the best shooter on the team, which is why he has a good chance to be the first player off the bench. When asked to compare Coombs-McDaniel to Trice, Calhoun said “He’s a very good shooter. He’s probably not as good defensively as Jamaal Trice, but he’s a good shooter and probably a more willing scorer than Jamaal Trice.” Trice will compete for playing time and will rely on his defensive intensity and ability, to get himself into the rotation.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A, Dyson could be in the running for Big East Player of the Year, and Coombs-McDaniel could be a real spark plug for the Huskies this year.
At the end of the last year, Stanley Robinson may have been the best player in the nation. He became one UConn’s best scorers, rebounders, defenders, and overall players in the final few games of the year. Robinson was mostly inconsistent during his sophomore and junior years, which saw him play brilliantly in some cases, terrible in others, and for the first semester last year, not play at all (he took the semester to work at a steel plant in Connecticut to refocus and mature). The Huskies are hoping they get the Robinson that played down the stretch last year, not the inconsistent one from years past. Robinson is a freak athlete, as he stands 6 feet – 9 inches tall, can jump out of the building, and with a successful year this season could find himself in next year’s NBA Draft Lottery. Jim Calhoun said NBA scouts have already been stopping by UConn to see Robinson.
“I think (the scouts) have been surprised by how hard he works in practice,” Calhoun said. “This is the most productive he’s been. He’s been good. … He’s making shots.”
Backing up Stanley, will probably be Coombs-McDaniels, who is similar to the type of player Robinson is. Coombs-McDaniels might be a better shooter, but Robinson is a better finisher, rebounder, and defender. Robinson could be a good mentor for Commbs-McDaniels this season.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: A-, Robinson has a lot to prove this year, but if he plays like he did at the end of last season, the Big East will need to be ware.
Right now senior Gavin Edwards is starting at power forward, but once Ater Majok is cleared to play in the middle of December, that might change. Edwards has come off the bench in his three previous seasons, while seeing more playing time as each year went on. Edwards is big man who can block shots, run the floor well, and does a solid job of getting to the foul line. He is no Jeff Adrien though, as he is not a real physical or aggressive player. “(Gavin) keeps it together,” Coach Jim Calhoun said. “I would like him to be a little more aggressive, finish plays. But he’s a consistently good player.”
For now Edwards is starting, but Ater Majok might take that position over when is finally eligible to play after the first semester is over. We have heard a lot about Majok; however we haven’t seen him in a game situation so it’s hard to predict what kind of player he will be. One thing that is for certain is that Majok has the potential to be an unbelievably good basketball player. He stands 6feet-10inches tall, but handles the ball like a point guard. He can run up and down the court very well, and is a capable shot blocker. Majok just may be the hidden gem that propels UConn to a Big East Championship this year.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: B-, Edwards is consistent, but he’s never started and has never been asked to play a great deal of minutes before. Majok has talent, but he’s still a question mark because we haven’t seen him in game action yet at UConn.
The loss of Hasheem Thabeet will be hard to replace this year for the Huskies. Not so much his offensive game, but his defensive presence. Thabeet was the two-time National Defensive Player of the Year. That will be hard to replace, and the man who will have the burden of filling the big hole left by Thabeet, will be freshman Alex Oriakhi, who just so happens to be wearing Thabeet’s old number 34. Oriakhi was a five-star recruit, and had been committed to UConn since his sophomore year of high school. “It’s been a long time coming,” said Oriakhi. “I’m just so happy to be here, and excited to start competing.” He’s a big player, standing 6feet-9inches tall and weighing close to 250 pounds. The strong point to his game is his rebounding ability, as he’s shown in the first two preseason games where he collected 30 total rebounds. He is a better offensive player than Thabeet already, and can really run the floor well. The Huskies will need Oriakhi to have a big year if they want to head back to the Final Four.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: B-, Oriakhi has a lot of potential and could be a very good player in the Big East, but he’s a freshman and untested. If he improves his defense and continues his offensive consistency he could be a pivotal part to the Huskies’ success this year.
Overall the Huskies look to be a top-15 caliber team. With Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun leading the way, the UConn basketball team looks to have another successful year. If the Huskies can stay healthy and merge the experienced players with the talented freshman, then a Big East title and even a national title could be within reach.