Wednesday, October 15, 2008
2008-09 Opponent Breakdown: University of Connecticut
Does it get any better then the Big East? The juggernaut conference continually sends 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament, and last season was no exception. Despite finishing 4th in the conference last season, no team finished the Big East season stronger then the UConn Huskies. Because of this strong late season performance, as well as the return of the top 4 scorers, the Huskies have national championship aspirations this season. While much of the success will rely on the health of A.J. Price, there is no denying that UConn has one of the most talented and deep teams in the country.
Last Season's Results: While it is not fair to last years squad, many people focus only on the 1st round upset loss to USD. However, with the youth and inexperience that Jim Calhoun had at his disposal, the Huskies actually had a very strong season. The UConn rotation consisted primarily of sophomores and juniors, with Jeff Adrien being the only player I would categorize as experienced. What made Calhoun's team so impressive was the great strides that some of the sophomores made by the end of the season. The prime example of this is Hasheem Thabeet, who gained confidence on both the offensive and defensive end throughout the season. There was also the development of A.J. Price, who has overcome a health scare and a suspension to emerge as one of the top guards in the Big East. This maturity was evident during a 10 game winning streak during the season, which saw the Huskies defeat Louisville, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Indiana, and Notre Dame. While the season ended in disappointing fashion in the NCAA Tournament, the result could have been much different had A.J. Price not been injured in the 1st half.
New Faces: As he does every year, Jim Calhoun has brought a terrific recruiting class to Storrs. The highlight of the class is Kemba Walker(pictured). Walker was a McDonald's All-American, and the PG is expected to compete for immediate playing time. While it is unlikely Walker will start this season, he will see time in the backcourt alongside A.J. Price, and will certainly be the starting PG next season. Ater Majok should continue the UConn history of having a dominate and intimidating post presence. Majok will not be eligible until mid-December or later. Majok originally committed to Baylor, but reneged on his commitment, and will now play at UConn. His offensive game is a work in progress, but there is no denying the difference that the 6'10 big man can make on the defensive end. Another player who could see some playing time is Scottie Haralson. The 6'4 SG has unlimited range, and could work himself into the rotation as a dead-eye shooter off the bench. The Huskies also have Chukwuma Okwandu, a JC big man from Harcum College. Okwandu played only 12 games this past season due to issues with a faulty letter of intent. Okwandu is another big body at Calhoun's disposal, but it is unlikely that he will see much of the court this season. Sadly, the recruit that is getting the most publicity for the Huskies is Nate Miles. Miles was expelled from UConn a couple of weeks ago, after assault charges were brought against him by a female student. This was not the first incident for Miles, who attended 5 different high schools. Miles had the potential to be an impact scorer for UConn, but at this point he is no longer part of the program.
Players to Watch: There is no denying the talent of the freshman UConn has this season, but it is the returning players that have people thinking about a national championship. Leading the group is A.J. Price. The senior PG is the leader for the Huskies on the court, and there is no stat that can measure his importance to this team. Price tore his ACL in the NCAA Tournament loss to USD, but should be able to play in the season opener on November 14. Last season saw Price emerge as an elite PG, as he averaged 14.5 points and 5.8 assists. If Price is 100% healthy this season, his assist numbers should go up with all the talent around him. However, if Price is limited because of his knee, I'm not sure that Kemba Walker and the other UConn guards can makeup for everything he does on the court. Anchoring the paint for the Huskies is Hasheem Thabeet. Standing 7'3, Thabeet is a force on the defensive end, with a rapidly developing offensive game. Thabeet considered entering his name into the NBA Draft, but made the smart decision to return to Storrs for one more season. If Thabeet continues to improve his offensive game, he will be one of the top big men in the country. I would be stunned if Thabeet does not average a double-double this season, as he averaged 10.5 points and 7.9 rebounds last season. Jeff Adrien returns for his senior season, and there is no doubt he will continue to be a double-double threat. It seems like Adrien has been at UConn forever, and I can remember him holding his own as a freshman against GU in the Maui Invitational. Since then, Adrien has emerged as one of the top post players in the country. Adrien averaged 14.8 points and 9.1 rebounds last season, and I expect to see much of the same this year. Adrien is so reliable and consistent, that sometimes his terrific performance goes unrecognized in the national media.
TKR's Concern-O-Meter: Besides a potential matchup with Michigan St. in the Old Spice Classic, UConn will be the most talented team that GU plays this season. The Huskies have everything necessary to be a national championship contender this season. They have an All-American PG with A.J. Price, and two dominant post players in Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien. Not to mention, with Jim Calhoun they have one of the toughest and most respected head coaches in the nation. As I have said before, there are very few teams in the country that have the talent and depth equal to Gonzaga this season, but the UConn Huskies are one of them. One reason that I would give GU an advantage is that the game is the Battle in Seattle, and will be played at Key Arena. The Zags should have the home court advantage, which in a game as evenly matched as this, could be the difference.
What We are Watching for: This game is full of exciting individual matchups. The first place to look is at the PG position, where A.J. Price and Jeremy Pargo will go head to head. These are two of the top PG's in the country, and last year saw Price go for 22 points and 6 assists, while Pargo had 23 points and 5 assists. It will also be fun to watch Hasheem Thabeet and Josh Heytvelt battle in the paint. Last year, Heytvelt was still injured for the UConn game, but Rob Sacre and David Pendergraft were able to limit Thabeet to only 6 points and 5 rebounds. However, I expect a much better performance from Thabeet this season, and it will be interesting to see if Heytvelt can perform well on the offensive end against Thabeet. I am crossing my fingers in hope that at some point we get to see the matchup of Demetri Goodson and Kemba Walker. Walker is arguably the top freshman PG in the country this season, but many GU fans believe that Goodson is pretty darn good himself. It would be great to see the strength and toughness of Walker against the quickness and savvy play of Goodon.