Wednesday, November 23, 2005

UConn Advances to Maui Final

Connecticut continued to show that they are a team that is going to be near the top all season, not that it is a surprise to anyone. Last night, they used a late surge to overcome a 3-pt 2nd half defecit to defeat Arizona in the Maui Classic, 79-70. Rudy Gay did not show us the consistency we have been looking for, following up a brilliant effort with a clunked (6 pts 5 reb, 5 TO on 2-10 FG's), but nearly everyone else stepped up for Connecticut as Denham Brown led the way with 17 pts, followed by Craig Austrie's perfect shooting night, 4-4 from the floor and 6-6 from the line for 15 pts. Hilton Armstrong added 14 pts and 8 rebounds and Josh Boone and Rashad Anderson each added 10. Connecticut made 30-35 free throws, outscoring Arizona from the line 30-12. Here is the Hartforf Courant's game article: UConn 79 Arizona 70.

Connecticut plays for the Maui title tonight against Gonzaga. Both teams are without key cogs in the machine, we all know Marcis Williams is out for UConn, at Ganzaga, they are without defensive-ace Erroll Knight, who is injured. Playing 3 games in 3 days is never easy, add to the fact that Gonzaga played a 3-OT classic last night with Michigan St and it would be no surprise to see Gonzaga tire against the constant running of UConn, who has an edge on depth. But, it is another chance to see Adam Morrison play, and he is a treat to watch. Hopefully, we see the A-game of Rudy Gay as well.

Ed Daigneault of the Waterbury Republican-American has a Huskies notebook and looked at the lift UConn got from freshmen forward Jeff Adrien in their game against Arkansas: Adrien Provides UConn a Lift. Gavin Keefe also has a game story for the New London Day on Connecticut and Arizona after the long wait to play: Waiting Game. The 14 pts last night from Hilton Armstrong was a career high.

Neil Ostrout of the Connecticut Post also has the game story from Maui: UConn Advances to Final. And, here is the AP Game article from Fox Sports: UConn Shuts down 'Zona for Key Stretches.

The trip to Hawaii also allowed UConn to Soak Up the Culture.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Connecticut Season Preview

We wrap up our preseason tour of the 16 Big East teams of the past eight weeks with our preseason favorite, the Connecticut Huskies.

In the past 19 months, Jim Calhoun and his Connecticut program have had some awesome highs, which have included a national championship and Calhoun's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA. But, in many ways, the time since UConn's national championship have also bee very trying for coach Calhoun. Last season, he was at local hospitals watching players AJ Price and Rashad Anderson both battle rare inflictions that brought each near death, within months. He was forced to dismiss key reserve Antonio Kellog for a long lists of conduct detrimental to the team and see him be arrested just weeks later. Then, the summer controversy in which Price and starting PG Marcus Williams found themselves embroiled in over stolen laptops on the Connecticut campus. Calhoun has been a lightning rod for criticism over the difference, and level, in punishment the players received. Then, recruiting tactics were questioned when prized PG recruit Doug Wiggins rescinded a verbal commitment with conference foe St John's and changed his mind for Connecticut less than two weeks prior to the signing period. I think Jim Calhoun is very happy that it is time to play some real basketball.

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And, playing real basketball is something Jim Calhoun's team do very well, and this version of the Huskies should be no different. Connecticut is led by pre-season Big East conference co-player of the year, Rudy Gay, as voted by the league's coaches. Gay is the dynamic sophomore wing, who at 6'9 with excellent length and athletic ability, is at the top of nearly ever GM and NBA scout's draft board. As a freshmen, the much-hyped Gay debuted averaging 12 PPG, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks a game. He showed his multi-dimensional game by stepping out to hit over 46% of his shots from beyond the arc. As the season wore on, he seemed to find his comfort zone, as those numbers began to increase as the season got older. I am sure he would like to put his final performance behind him, the disappointing loss to NC St in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament, in which he scored just 4 points. In fact, the entire UConn team will use that game to motivate them this season. Over the summer, Gay participated in the U-21 World Championships and was expected to star for Team USA. However, the only thing that seems to hold Rudy Gay back is himself. He tends to not be as aggressive or willing to seperate himself from the rest of the players on the floor with a passionate effort. His talent is immense and potential is off the charts, somehow, Jim Calhoun gets the most out of these types of talents, I expect him to do the same this year with Gay.

One thing is for certain, Rudy Gay does not have to go at it alone. In the front court, he has help, especially in the form of Josh Boone. Boone, a 6'10 junior is a garbageman-deluxe inside for the Huskies and stepping out of Emeka Okafor's shadow, Boone averaged 12 PPG and 8 rebounds a contest for UConn last season while ranking among the nation's leaders with 3 blocks a game. However, Boone's numbers took a sigificant drop in Big East play, especially over the last 12 conference games, where he averaged just 9 PPG and 6.4 rebounds. The drop was puzzling after such a great start that Boone got off to and he still managed to hit on 60% of his shots form the floor on the season. His improvement on the line, from 41% as a freshmen to 66% as a sophomore was also remarkable. Boone will have to be more consistent in his physical efforts this season to help anchor down the middle. He will team with seniors Hilton Armstrong and Ed Nelson in the paint. Armstrong has been a forgotton man in the UConn story the last couple seasons. As a freshmen, Armstrong started 22 games, but it was last year he put up his best numbers, averaging 3.8 PPG and 3.4 rebounds in 12 minutes a game. He also blocked 36 shots on the season. The 6'11 and 235 lb Armstrong has been throught the Big East battles and brings experience and athleticism to the post. Look for Armstrong to have a very solid season and team with former ACC Freshmen of the Year Ed Nelson to do the little things needed on the boards and on defense to help UConn win games. Nelson averaged over 8 PPG and nearly 7 rebounds a contest as a freshmen and sophomore at Georgia Tech. While at Georgia Tech, he got a conistent 25 minutes a game, but with UConn, he got less than 10. He should see increased time this year, but his bullish style in the paint does not translate very well to the Huskies up and down style of play. Freshmen Jeff Adrien, a 6'7, 225 lb long-armed warrior is also in the mix for the rotation and his preseason play is going to get him a long look by Calhoun and the UConn staff. Adrien will play hard all the time and work on the boards and in the paint to get his share of points and rebounds. He will contend for every rebound and loose ball, on a team that might have more finesse players than maulers, Adrien might be a perfect compliment. At 6'9, Rudy Gay can also play a PF slot and make the athletic Huskies even more of a running team. Even with Andrew Bynum and Charlie Villanueva option for the NBA, UConn is not hurting for players in their frontcourt.

The backcourt is just a little bit of a question mark, for now. Due to the penalties involving the stolen laptops, AJ Price, who is still not medically cleared to play, will be suspended for the entire season and Marcus Williams, is suspended for the 1st semester. The uncertainty of Price and Williams' availability and the dismissal of Antonio Kellog left Jim Calhoun scrambling a little bit last spring. Former UMass commit Craig Austrie and Niagara Falls native Robert Garrison were both late additions. Garrison is probably a little bit over his head at this point to be a point guard in the Big East, but he is a very good student and a player that improved a lot in the last year. Austrie, thought to be more of a combo guard, has shown the ability to lead the team early on and looks to be a capable alternative at the point until Marcus Williams is allowed to return later in December. Williams seems to be the one with the key to the Connecticut machine. Last seson, he replaced longtime starter Taliek Brown, and after a slow start, he really turned it on and so did the Huskies. As a first year starter, Williams averaged 10 PPG and 8.4 assists in Big East play. He hit for double figures in scoring in 10 of the last 11 contests, averaging nearly 14 PPG in that time, showing he can score as well. His assist to turnover ratio of 2.5:1 in conference play is as impressive as they come. It remains to be seen how quickly he will gel with the team once again when he returns, but once he does, UConn should be ready to blossom, and, it will be at the most important time of the season.

Connecticut also has a pair of seniors to lean on in the backcourt as well in Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson. Both players seemed to be in the role of one or the other the last couple seasons. It seems like Jim Calhoun has not quite had enough room on the floor for both to be successful. When Anderson was sidelined with an absess in his thigh, Brown averaged nearly 15 PPG and hit for double figures in 7 of the 8 games in which Anderson did not play in or very much at all. Prior to his absence, Anderson was on quite a tear, hitting for 18 PPG in a 5-game stretch before coming down with the injury in the Syracuse game. Once Anderson returned, Connecticut never seemed to be quite in-sync again and ended the season earlier than expected. For the season, Brown averaged 10 PPG and Anderson close to 12 PPG. This year, Anderson is still working his way into basketball shape. A feared sniper from the perimeter, Anderson will soon get it going from deep and reclaim his role on the team. Brown has taken a more leadership role and after another impressive summer with the Canadian national team, this could be a real breakout year for him. If they can find the right cohesive chemistry in the backcourt, they are as talented as any backcourt in America. Plus, they add freshmen Marcus Johnson to the mix. Johnson looks to be one of the next great wing guards at Connecticut, but might have to take a secondary role behind the veterans. The athletic 6'6 wing is an excellent defender that can score in a variety of ways. Might be among the top few freshmen in the conference, but playing on a loaded Connecticut team will leave fewer opportunities for him to showcase his talents. Ryan Thompson, a senior, is also on the roster. A valuable program guy that, when called on, knows where to be and when to be there on the floor.

There is no way around it, Connecticut is the team people want to see and with that, they draw a schedule that has Syracuse, Louisville and Villanova 2-times each. They do not play DePaul or Rutgers and their only match-up with West Virginia is on the road. They also host Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Georgetown, among the other teams expected to challenge this year for the upperdivision of the conference. Not an easy schedule, but they do have the majority of their toughest games at home.

There is no denying that UConn has had a trying offseason. They have taken some of that frustration out on Bryant and Concordia in exhibition game cakewalks. This team is just plain good. They are deep, tall, athletic and talented. How good they become, will probably fall on the shoulders of Rudy Gay. They will need for him to carry the team at times and need him to be willing to step up and be the one that wants to carry the team. It might not be needed often with all the talent around him, but having a player take charge and be the go to player to put a game away or pull UConn out of a little lull is very important, wanting to be that player is the level where Jim Calhoun needs to get Rudy Gay to. No matter what, this is going to be a good team and will win a lot of games. How far they go come March, might depend on how good their perceived star believes he is.

Projected Big East Record: 13-3

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