Saturday, October 21, 2006


October 21, 2006

The Connecticut Huskies are going to look a lot different this season. Gone from last year’s Big East regular season champion and Elite 8 participant are Rudy Gay, Josh Boone, Marcus Williams, Denham Brown, Rashad Anderson, Hilton Armstrong and Ed Nelson, leaving behind a roster full of inexperience and youth. However, with that inexperience and youth comes a ton of promise and potential among 13 freshmen and sophomores.

Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun certainly has his work cut out for him this season. Calhoun is known to push his players very hard early on and set high demands on their play. He might have to spend more time teaching team fundamentals this year as everyone is seemingly starting from scratch. Even the most experienced players are just sophomores who were part time players last season, so everyone is learning new roles and responsibilities, not just the new freshmen.

However, once this team gels and begins to settle into their roles, do not expect them to be playing like normal freshmen and sophomores later in the season. The Huskies face an early season schedule conducive to their growth, but they will see a stiff step up in competition once the Big East season begins. As always, the Huskies will have a target on their back when hitting the road, so the inexperience can cause some tough times early, but the talent is there for them to succeed.


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There is also a very LARGE question mark hanging over the Huskies at this point in time and that is on the qualifying status of 7’2 freshmen Hasheem Thabeet who has yet to be cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse as the native of Tanzania has some core course issues on his transcript. Thabeet came virtually out of nowhere last spring to be a hot commodity on the recruiting scene. He showed nice athletic ability to go with his 7’2 frame and is not a bean pole either. It was long a question on if he could qualify, but UConn took the chance. With Thabeet in the line-up, Connecticut’s strong of leading the NCAA in blocked shots should continue as they can use Thabeet in a ‘goalie-like’ position as UConn works more full court pressure into the mix. Without Thabeet, the usual strong center spot in the UConn line-up will be more of a question mark.

Behind Thabeet is another big freshmen, Jonathan Mandeldove who spent last season prepping at powerful Hargrave Military Academy. The 6’11 Mandeldove originally signed with VCU out of high school as a mid-major prospect, but showed excellent improvement, mostly in his confidence and the way he asserted himself on the AAU scene in the summer of 2005. Mandeldove, though, is still a bit of a project and would be best served as a complimentary piece to this year’s team. Another player that looks to have an excellent chance down the road to be a top contributor is Gavin Edwards, a freshmen from Arizona. Edwards was a late find by Calhoun and his staff and was widely expected to go the prep school route to raise his profile. After barely contributing as a high school junior, he stepped up as a senior to become a 1-A prospect. Connecticut seemingly rolled the dice on him as a fallback to Josh Boone’s possibility of entering the NBA draft. There is a lot to work with with Edwards, but it could be a couple years until that potential comes to the surface.

Another option for Connecticut is to go a little smaller and quicker if Thabeet is not in the line-up. We fully expect Jeff Adrien to step up and be a leader on this UConn team as a sophomore. Adrien has the most experience on the team after averaging 6 pts and 6 rebounds in just 17 minutes as a freshmen. Although a little undersized for a natural power forward, there is nothing undersized about Adrien’s effort and intensity. He is an animal on the inside that plays hard and is determined to get every rebound and prevent the opponent from getting anything easy inside, whether it is position or points. He also can run the floor and fit perfectly into Jim Calhoun’s style of play. It remains to be seen if he can carry the load as a scorer, but expect Adrien to quickly become the leader of this team.

Along with Adrien, the Huskies have a pair of uber-athletic and talented freshmen forwards in Curtis Kelly and Stanley Robinson. Kelly is a wiry and emotional 6’9 athlete from New York City whose ability to run and jump fits in perfectly with the style of play Jim Calhoun likes from his Huskies. Kelly prefers to face up to the basket and needs to improve his strength to play inside, but once he matures look for him to be an elite Big East forward. Robinson, from Birmingham, AL is quite comparable to Kelly physically, but he looks more like a wing than Kelly does. At 6’9 he brings those unique skills for a player his size to cause match-up problems with other forwards around the league. Kelly and Robinson were both highly rated players in the class of 2006, it is still mostly based on their upside potential, but expect the UConn staff to get them to show their potential with meaningful results in a hurry.

At the wing, the Huskies finally have some returning experience in Marcus Johnson, a sophomore from California. Johnson is an excellent defender who averaged over 13 PPG in 5 starts last year. However, once the Big East season got underway, he saw his playing time diminish to nearly none. Like most Huskies, Johnson brings exciting athletic ability to the floor and he uses it well from the wing position to defend and rebound. He will have to show the consistency in making shots to keep a grasp on a wing spot this year. Another freshmen, Ben Eaves, is a native of England who brings very good size to a wing position at 6’7. Eaves is also surprising athletic, but still has a ways to go before he can contribute in the Big East as he continues to learn the American style.

At guard, the Huskies have another talented defender in freshmen Jerome Dyson, the Rockville (MD) native who prepped at Proctor Academy in New England last year. Dyson stands at 6’3 and is a solid 180 lbs and also has the potential to be their best perimeter scorer, able to hit from beyond the arc and slash to the basket for athletic finishes near the rim. It is likely that he will team in the backcourt quite a bit this season with sophomore AJ Price, who will be making his long awaited debut in a UConn uniform. The AJ Price story is well known, but now he can finally get back to playing basketball and shake off the rust after not playing competitively under the bright lights for a couple seasons. Price is a 6’2 guard that has all the tools to be a classic lead guard for Jim Calhoun with his ability to push the ball and score in transitions. He will have to defer a little of his scoring mentality to keep everyone involved and comfortable, but everyone is very excited about his ability.

Guard depth is also available with sophomore Craig Austrie, who might see some duty as a starter. A true combo guard, the Massachusetts native gave the Huskies a lift last year playing in all 34 games and averaging over 3 pts a game and even set a UConn freshmen record with 14 assists in a game last year. Having experience will keep Austrie in the mix this season. Hartford’s own Doug Wiggins also joins the Huskies as a freshmen. The top high school player in the state last season caused a storm (no pun intended) of controversy last year when he switched his verbal commitment from conference rival St. John’s to UConn and eventually signed his letter of intent with the Huskies in a timeframe of a couple weeks last fall. Wiggins is ultra quick and ultra thin (160 lbs, maybe), so he will try to work his way into the mix in a physical league. The final member of the backcourt is sophomore Robert Garrison who was a late addition last year when there was some uncertainty to the UConn futures of Price and Marcus Williams. Garrison is likely to add depth again this season and bide his time for an opportunity.

Since Connecticut is the marquee name nationally in the conference, they will once again get a tough draw with the schedule, facing Syracuse and Louisville two times each, along with a trip to the RAC and Rutgers among their home and homes. Missing out on rebuilding Cincinnati and Notre Dame does not do them any favors either. Four of their other five road games also come against teams projected in the upper-half of the conference (Pitt, DePaul, Georgetown and St. John’s). This is a tough task for a team with such little experience in the unforgiving world of the Big East. The Huskies are always among the hunted and teams will be ready when they come to town.

There is no doubt this Connecticut squad has as much raw physical talent as anyone. Getting that talent to reach its potential in new roles and a new environment is going to be quite difficult. The good news is there are 73 days until the Big East season tips off and this will be a much better team then than the one that Jim Calhoun sounds exasperated with in the local newspapers this morning! Look for AJ Price and Jeff Adrien to emerge as stars this season and some of the talent among their freshmen to begin to shine through come February. Jim Calhoun will likely learn more about patience (that he actually has some?) this season and come March, this will be a typical UConn team. It might be a little rough getting there at times.

Projected Big East record: 10-6

However…one note, if Hasheem Thabeet does not receive clearance from the NCAA, I will probably adjust UConn down a game in conference play. I still see this team as being better come March, but they will hit some bumps along the way.

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