Sunday, November 30, 2008


By Zach Smart

It’s often described as a “quantum leap.”

It’s also the reason many college freshmen encounter difficulty in a new system, acclimatizing themselves to playing with the big dogs. It’s also why some freshmen, true freshmen and beyond, don’t make an immediate impact their first year.

This is the jump from high school to Division-I hoops, of course.

For Connecticut freshmen Kemba Walker, however, his hoops resume and experience etching a name for himself in the New York City street game made him a perfect fit for the high-horsepower, go-go style of basketball employed at the University of Connecticut.

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“It’s all about toughness, being able to run, run, and run some more,” said Walker, who’s materialized as one of the Big East’s premier rookies, along with Big East Rookie of the Week Samuerdo Samuels (Louisville), Jordan Theodore (Seton Hall), and an elite society of others.

New York features a number of courts that help players build a New York savvy. There’s “The Cage” on West Fourth Street, which plays host to one of the toughest semi-professional leagues summer after summer. This past summer, St. John’s product and NBA guard/forward Ron Artest competed in the league, as did former New York Knick sharpshooter Allan Houston. Former Providence standout God Shammgod was another one of the top performers in the popular city summer league.

Rucker Park, the tough hoop haven that Walker is most familiar with, also holds a good deal of baller-breeding credibility. Walker has shined in this streetball venue and has also learned lessons the hard way. He’s played with a number of New York legends, some only recognized by street credit, playing on these hardscrabble courts for as long back as he can remember.

“Growing up I’ve always been in games where I’m a young kid playing against grown men,” said Walker, who’s averaging 14 points, three assists, and four rebounds.

“It definitely allows you develop toughness and helps in the long run.”

Walker has been a presence in the running game and the passing lanes for the Huskies, which improved to 6-0 this weekend. After admitting to pre-game jitters that swarmed his stomach prior to the first game of the season (a win against Western Carolina), the freshman has played beyond his years.

He erupted for 21 points during a win against lowly Hartford and has developed solid chemistry with 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet. He hasn’t dominated the basketball or dribbled too much, a problem some feared would surface.

During Saturday’s drubbing of Bryant, the at-times out of control guard showed flashes of excellence. He had one jaw-dropping three-point play where he scored off a nifty spin move, bringing an unusually reticent crowd of 12,558 to their feet.

“My confidence level has increased,” explained Walker, the kid who witnessed UConn fans holding up signs for him on the night of his official visit. “Playing with these guys every day has really got my confidence up.”


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November 30, 2008

By Zach Smart

A look into Hasheem Thabeet’s Facebook.com profile says it all.

According to his most recent status, Hasheem is “so swaggerlicious.”

Swagger is one word commonly linked to the 7-foot-3 neophyte who is fluent in five different languages, goes clubbing in Hartford, and has watched his reputation as a “gentle giant” disintegrate with time.

Thabeet, a projected lottery pick in the 2009 NBA draft, has become one of the most popular players ever to don a Huskies jersey.

His game shorts may stretch down to the ankles of a 6-footer, his head may scrape the ceiling of Wings Over Storrs (the popular wing joint near campus), but something else makes Thabeet the unusual Husky player, the one you might distinguish from the rest.

To know “Hash” is to love him.

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He’s the kid who responds with a hallmark ear-to-ear smile when random fans give him a shout out. He’s that guy who’ll point index finger in the direction of the fan or friend who yells out his name after the game, acknowledging their presence.

He’s the player that, if not for his size, you wouldn’t have noticed his freshman season.

Now he’s the player you can’t miss, the kid who you want in your foxhole. He’s the kid that scored 24 points and pulled down 15 rebounds while sealing the basket shut with six blocks (remember the 80-68 win against Georgia Tech last year).

He’s the behemoth, the big bertha, the mammoth of a man.

He’s the main reason Cincinnati and Pittsburgh had to alter the trajectory of their shots when they played UConn last year.

Still, for the kid who rectified his woeful free throw shooting problem his freshman year by spending extra hours in the gym, it’s an uphill battle.

“He still has to learn,” said Calhoun, the loquacious, longtime Husky coached who moved to eighth place on the all-time Division I coaches win list Saturday.

“Even though we've got 18 Big East games plus Michigan and Gonzaga, he still has to learn when the smaller guys take his legs off from underneath, he has to fight through it. He's got to stay active."

Against Bryant (an 88-58 laugher), The Huskies failed to pound the ball inside to Thabeet early. This was despite the fact that he was often guarded by players nearly a foot shorter than him.

Then, as the game progressed, the Tanzania native turned in what Calhoun described as a “gangbuster” performance.

Thabeet got free for two-handed slams and went hard to the basket. In the second half, Thabeet scored on the Huskies’ first few possessions with a pair of emphatic stickbacks.

He’s the inevitable answer on a team that needs to ratchet up its defensive intensity as the Huskies inch closer to their Big East slate.

The Huskies allowed Bryant to shoot 11-of-25 from beyond the arc, where they scored more than half their points. Behind the quick trigger of Cecil Gresham (game-high 19 points), Byrant held an early 11-9 edge in a first half that saw the lead change hands nine times.

Two minutes later, Andrew Lyell blew past Jeff Adrien on a strong take to the cup. It gave the visitors a 13-12 advantage, pumping life into the Division-I rookies.

"The only thing I would say is better three-point defense, better overall defense. It's difficult. But you still want it because we've got to get ready because of our schedule.”

Calhoun continued, "Early when we pressed them, They were going full speed, we were going half speed. They threw it over the top and made threes. I would like to see them play tougher defense.”

The solution to the problem Calhoun notes will likely fall on Thabeet, no longer the gentle giant.

That’s the way they both want it.


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Saturday, November 29, 2008


November 29, 2008

by Zach Smart

Hartford— Maybe it was a hangover from the Virgin Islands.

After capturing the Paradise Jam championship, routing No.19 Wisconsin 76-57 in a much smaller, more hostile environment, UConn came out flatter than the state of Kansas against a Bryant team that was just upgraded to the Division-I ranks this season.

All-BIG EAST First Team forward Jeff Adrien coughed up open layups in the early going, looking at the referees for answers.

Bryant forward Cecil Gresham dialed in from downtown, canning three early 3s to ignite the supreme underdogs from Smithfield, R.I..

UConn, a program in a completely different zip code than their lowly 1-3 Northeast Conference foe, was out of sync and playing softer than a Silly Putty.

They jacked up ill-advised shots and failed to identify 7-foot-3 junior Hasheem Thabeet.

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Then, the residual effects of jetlag or whatever it was came to a sudden halt. The Huskies regained their patented swag as they began to play…well…Husky basketball.

Thabeet would end up having a field day. He dropped 16 points and ripped down 12 boards. His defensive prowess was evident. Several shot attempts his way got stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey and Thabeet kept the Bulldogs out of the lane in the second half.

"Coach told us to wake up, and that's what we did," said freshman guard Kemba Walker, of New York perennial power Rice High School. "We got into our offense and just ran, ran, and ran."

UConn dominated during quick, crucial phases. They held a commanding 45-28 lead at the half. Domination of the glass (Huskies held a 48-27 advantage on the boards), the interior, and open shots helped jack up the lead in the second half.

It led to UConn’s emergence as the victor in an 88-58 blowout before 12,555 at the XL Center.

Beyond Thabeet, Craig Austrie scored 15 points. Price added 14 to go with four assists, while Adrien re-wrote the script by scoring 14 points, snaring nine boards, and registering two blocks. Jerome Dyson scored 11 and Walker chipped in with nine.

Thabeet, the MVP of the Paradise Jam, kick-started a potent 12-0 run with a rim-choking, two-handed dunk. The spurt culminated with a three-pointer by point guard A.J. Price. A jumper by Bryant's Barry Latham, who nearly completed a four-point play when the two teams ran neck-and-neck, thwarted the surge.

"That was huge, it got us going" said Walker, referencing the much-needed momentum run that allowed UConn's bulge to balloon.

"We got a workmanlike performance, where we basically turned it on two or three minutes at a time," said Jim Calhoun, whose no.2-ranked Huskies improve to 6-0 with the thrashing.

"We took a 15-point lead, made it 20. Some time passes, then we make it 25. Then we made it 30."

Austrie, who’s been exceptional, was efficient. Aside from his 15 points, he contributed six boards, and handed out three assists in 29 minutes. When the Huskies trailed early, Austrie knifed through the defense and scored on a pair of runners.

That’s right.

The shy kid (though he's never been gunshy) from Stamford, Conn. has been going to the cup more, something he didn't do enough of during his freshman, sophomore, and junior years.

Austrie, along with Adrien, is now the team's elder statesman.

He's played in several NCAA tournament games and started the first half of his freshman season. Originally a UMass-commit, Austrie operated offense on a UConn team front-loaded with talent—Rudy Gay, Denham Brown, Josh Boone, and Hilton Armstrong all made headlines during that season.

Austrie says both his experience in the program and Calhoun's confidence in him help place the onus to lead on his shoulders.

“I feel I can be an offensive threat every night,” said Austrie, who is averaging 11.3 points.

The win established a new benchmark in UConn basketball history.

This was Calhoun’s 780th win in his 37-year career as a coach. The milestone victory catapults him into a three-way logjam with Lute Olsen and Lou Henson as the 8th All-Time on the Division I coaching win list.
How does an accolade of this magnitude make the longtime Husky coach feel?

“Old,” Calhoun quipped.

Calhoun needs six wins to tie Lefty Driesell, who sits in seventh place. Driesell is widely recognized as the man who rejuvenated the University of Maryland program and bred a plethora of NBA talents, including the late, great Len Bias.

The Huskies play host to Delaware State Monday night at the Gampel Pavilion in Storrs.

Smokin’: The Huskies shot 32-for-64 (50 percent) from the floor. They were led by Austrie and Thabeet, who combined for an 11-of-15 duet. Thabeet finished 6-for-7 from the floor, 4-of-5 from the charity stripe. All of the big man’s points were either on free throws or dunks. “That’s unusual,” Calhoun said of it.

Homeboys: The two CT products put on a show in their homeland. Craig Austrie scored 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting and was the catalyst for the Huskies. Gresham, a Bloomfield product who played at Maine Central Institute, scored a game-high 19 points. Both are evolving into the face of their respective programs. While Austrie has been the composure guy who Calhoun compared to the Boston Red Sox’ Jonathon Papelbon, Gresham has established himself as Bryant’s go-to-guy. He averaged 23 points during the Tyler Ugolyn Columbia Classic in New York last week. During the Bulldogs 59-50 win over Quinnipiac, Gresham torched the nets for 21 points on 7-for-8 shooting.

The Storm Is Over: Scottie Haralson, a 6-foot-4 freshman from Jackson, Miss., was recruited as a player who could be a major presence in the Huskies’ perimeter game. After shooting just 1-for-9 in the preseason, however, his odd antics prompted a massive search warrant out for his 3ball. After going 0-for-6 in the first two games of his collegiate career, the CT State Police continued to scout earth for Haralson’s trey bomb. After missing his first two shots in garbage time of Saturday’s win, Haralson swished a long range three with 0.8 seconds remaining. The shot brought the fans, quiet for much of the game, into a frenzy.

“He’s a good shooter,” said Calhoun. “I don’t know why he’s not making them. He makes them in practice. He’s 1-for-12 now, not that I’m counting but I think he’s 1-for-12."


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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Huskies Drop Western Carolina In Season Opener

November 15, 2008

by Zach Smart

The no.2-ranked UConn men’s basketball team took the inaugural bite of their cupcake early-season home schedule (Albany, Fairfield, Bryant College, Delaware State, Hartford are the key out-of-conference games before the Huskies face their first barometer game against Gonzaga Dec. 20) last night.

How sweet it was.

Hasheem Thabeet took advantage of the much-smaller Western Carolina frontcourt, cooking the Catamounts to the recipe of 23 points and 17 boards.

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The 7-foot-3 neophyte, whose draft stock will likely soar through the rooftops this season, also gave an accurate account of himself on the defensive end. Thabeet swatted away five shots and altered the trajectory of countless others, keeping the Catamounts out of the paint as the Huskies cruised to an 81-55 bludgeoning of WCU before a crowd of 9,820 at the Gampel Pavilion.

“We identified Hasheem early,” explained a surprisingly low-key Jim Calhoun. “That’s how we got the good-sized lead. We kind of forgot about him, and then he just took over the game. He has always made up for things with just incredible heart and competitiveness and all those things, but now he’s showing much more of a skill package. I can’t even imagine him making some of the passes he made tonight, even last year.”

Calhoun’s team coasted to a blowout on opening night for the first time in three years. In 2007, a gritty Morgan State team took them down-to-the-wire, before their upset-bid was thwarted in a 64-62 thriller. In 2006, in-state foe Quinnipiac ran neck-and-neck with the then no.18 Huskies until the waning minutes, when UConn escaped with a 53-46 victory. That UConn team was greener than a dope field and managed to survive the scare despite shooting an abysmal 17 percent in the second half.

Two years later, a similar Husky ballclub was impenetrable defensively. It took Western Carolina, the first team in NCAA history to net a three-pointer (God I love Wikipedia), over five minutes to get on the scoreboard. The fierce 1-2 punch of Thabeet and 6-foot-7 Adrien kept the driving lanes blocked. WCU began jacking up ill-advised shots from the outside and botching easy layups. The Catamounts finally thwarted the 13-0 opening spurt with a Jake Robinson trey.

The high-flying antics of Jerome Dyson, who scored 23 points, helped ignite the Huskies. Dyson scorched the nets with his patented set three-ball, permeated the defense with acrobatic moves inside, and punished the rim with a highlight reel, fast break banger (plus the foul) to culminate a 10-0 run the Huskies kick-started the dump-off with.

Dyson’s rim-ringing, hoop-and-the-harm dunk will likely generated a number of hits when inserted on the youtube circuit. It was symbolic of the junior’s airtime prowess and ability to finish with authority.

We have, however, seen this before with the freakishly-athletic kid from Rockville, Md.

Dyson 2007-2008 Super Slam (YouTube).

“I keep saying he (Jerome) has to get more of a “package,” a basketball package,” said Calhoun, who suspended Dyson for nearly a month after the junior was cited for possession of alcohol by a minor on UConn’s campus last year.

The Wiggins and Dyson Suspension (UConn Sports Blog).

“Not just an athletic, tough, aggressive package, but a basketball package. He’s starting to move closer to it. He missed two wide open jumpers and I was the first gut to say to him “keep taking them.” Because he’s been making them in practice and he’ll make more of them. I like the way he’s playing.”

WCU came roaring back from the deficit, fighting valiantly behind Robinson and Brandon Giles. A little over 2:30 into the second half, WCU came within ten points on a three-pointer by Giles (16 points). An irate Calhoun signaled for a timeout.
The Huskies answered, running off an 11-4 run that culminated with a Thabeet dunk off an eye-popping feed from freshman Kemba Walker.

Walker, a highly-touted recruit from New York perennial power Rice High School, showed some flashes of the player he might materialize into. He scored eight points and doled out five assists but broke down the defense several times, cutting defenders up on his way to the cup. Walker, an instant staple in the New York City street game (he etched a name for himself at the vaunted Rucker Park) admitted that some freshman jitters were thrust to the forefront prior to his first game in a Husky uniform.

“I was definitely a little jittery in the beginning, but after a while we picked it up and all the nerves went away,” said Walker, whose chemistry with Thabeet continues to prosper.

“I always call (Thabeet) my bailout. Every time I go to the basket and help defense comes, he’s always available. I can throw it up, just give him the ball, and he scores it.”

UConn received a scare and nearly experienced déjà vu in the first half, when A.J. Price landed awkwardly after a three-point attempt (no whistle was called, much to the dismay of Price). Price was instantly replaced by backup Donnell Beverly, though he would later return. It was later revealed that Price sprained his ankle. Price was once again caught in controversy in the second half, when he was ejected for a supposedly throwing a frustration punch at a Western Carolina player.

“They said (A.J.) threw a punch,” Calhoun verified.

“If that’s the case, then I’m surprised, number one, but they threw him out for a flagrant foul. And they did go to the monitor, so they must have seen something. Something happened on the play right in front of us, where an elbow had been caught and he was the receiver of it, and he made a foolish mistake by doing something down at the other end. But it doesn’t work that way. The scoreboard tells the story in ballgames. I’ve said that for years.”

Price, who went scoreless in 25 minutes and peddled out four assists to five turnovers, said there was extra-curricular activity but no punch.

“It wasn’t a punch, just an elbow, a little love tap, or something like that,” he said. “There was frustration building up the whole game. I just let it get the best of me.”

Even on a night when one of the top Big East point guards was an afterthought, UConn was impressive during various surges. A three from the corner by Dyson, followed by a Thabeet block that led to an easy inside bucket by Jeff Adrien pumped the lead to 64-38.

A two-handed fast break flush by Gavin Edwards lifted the lead to 73-45 as the fans began to make their way to the exit signs.

The up-tempo identity that UConn fans are so familiar with was re-discovered Friday night. The Huskies look to make it 2-0 Monday night against neighboring Hartford, which lost a tight one to former UConn assistant Tom Moore and Quinnipiac.


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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


November 11, 2008

Hopefully, 2008-2009 will be a bounce back season for Connecticut guard Jerome Dyson. After producing an excellent freshman campaign, the 6-foot-4 Rockville (MD) native had a rocky sophomore season.

In his rookie campaign, Dyson took over as UConn's go-to scorer down the stretch. While the Husky season was a disappointment with no trip to the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT, Dyson seemed to establish himself as the future building block of the program. The strong and tough guard, with the potential to be an elite defender, averaged 14 points a game, nearly four rebounds and just over two assists a game. Those numbers increased to nearly 17 points a game over the last dozen contests of '06-'07.

Dyson's sophomore season started off strong. On January 8th he was averaging a tem-high 15 points a game, but hit a three-game slump scoring just 22 points total in that stretch. After a 20-point outing against Cincinnati to break the slump, Dyson was ticketed on the UConn campus for possessing alcohol by a minor as he and teammate Doug Wiggins were found with bottles of alchohol in a car on campus. Campus police also found a small amount of marijuana in the vicinity of the vehicle. After a positive test for drugs, Dyson was suspended from the team for 30-days, since it was his second positive test for drugs.

Dyson returned to the UConn line-up on February 26th, but he was never able to get back into the flow of the team, scoring just 27 points in their five games prior to the NCAA Tournament. With AJ Price taking control off the offense and Craig Austrie finding his niche at the shooting guard spot, Dyson seemed to be largely out of the mix.

Now, as a junior, Dyson again faces a challenge in finding his role with the team. Exciting freshman Kemba Walker is making it awful tough to keep him off the floor and that pushes AJ Price to the shooting guard position. Austrie is still in the mix and Dyson is having to show he can be more consistent and effecient when he is not getting a high volume of shot opportunities like he was able to get at the end of his freshman season.

Still, a guard with his ability to defend and score is going to increase the March Madness betting odds of his team. He just needs to find his place within the system and consistently perform the role that is asked, even if it is different from what was asked at the end of his rookie season at UConn.


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Friday, November 07, 2008


November 8, 2008

It is pretty difficult to differentiate #1 from #2 and #2 from #1 this year as we prepare for the 2008-2009 Big East campaign. While most of the country has anointed Jim Calhoun’s Connecticut Huskies as the Big East’s top dog this year, I am going to tread just a tad bit cautiously on UConn at this point in time.

Things could change my view, especially between now and mid-December when it is expected they will get Stanley Robinson back in the line-up and for Ater Majok to officially join their program As of today, however, neither is on the team and, while odds are 90% they will, until it actually takes place we have learned nothing is guaranteed.

The other major point of caution with UConn for me is the knee of AJ Price. While the knee might be physically 100%, anything less than a year from surgery makes me a little nervous. The mental recovery is said to take up to a year and he has already been slowed by extra soreness in the preseason due to his ‘favoring’ of the knee.

While there are questions in my mind about the Huskies, there are still plenty of reasons why they are considered a top five team nationally by just about everyone, myself included, and we will look at those reasons and more in our preview.

Read Rest of Team Preview...Click 'Read More' Below!!!


When looking at the Connecticut newcomers, the analysis begins with Kemba Walker, the McDonald’s All-American from New York City. Walker looks to be a perfect point guard in the up-tempo attack Jim Calhoun prefers and is an ideal insurance policy for the knee of AJ Price. Another perimeter newcomer is Scottie Haralson from Jackson (MS), a dead-eye perimeter shooter that will help UConn from the perimeter.

After Walker and Haralson, some questions begin. The first is with 6-foot-10 forward Ater Majok. The African import who attended school in Australia is expected to be cleared by the NCAA and eligible for a scholarship beginning second semester with the Huskies. The situation does not seem to be completely settled at the time of print, but it should happen. Also, JUCO transfer Charles Okwandu has been held out of some early action as Connecticut investigates his eligibility, most likely his amateur status. Okwandu missed much of last season at Harcum College with eligibility issues, but they do not seem to be related here. It is expected that he is in the line-up very soon.


While there were no scholarship seniors on last year’s roster, Connecticut did have their share of personnel turnover as Curtis Kelly (Kansas State) and Doug Wiggins (UMass) transferred out of the program following the season. Also, the aforementioned Stanley Robinson had left the program, but now the feeling is he will be back at mid-semester. For much of the summer and into the beginning of the school year, this did not look like the case as he was likely to be off the team for a year. However, when Nate Miles, their highly regarded freshman wing was expelled from the University in September, Robinson’s odds of returning to the team skyrocketed.

The loss of Miles is pretty significant, one that UConn can certainly overcome, but his presence on the wing as an offensive threat was one that really had the potential to but UConn over the top this season.

Net Impact:

The net impact of the comings and goings at UConn is still being sorted out. Nate Miles is a wash as he was basically never here, but he definitely factored into the high expectations of the Huskies through the summer. The loss of Kelly, Wiggins and Robinson are not made up by the addition of Walker, Okwandu and Haralson. Getting Robinson back and adding Ater Majok in December as well will easily put the Huskies into the plus column with their comings and goings this season.

2008-2009 Backcourt Outlook:

Last year saw the AJ Price that Connecticut fans had been waiting three full years for. Price, a highly regarded recruit out of Amityville (NY) missed his first two seasons due to health and then legal problems and slogged through a rust-filled 2006-2007 season. However, the light turned on and the confidence flowed as Price earned All-American honors and was probably the second most valuable player in the conference behind Luke Harangody last season. Price averaged 14.5 points and 5.8 assists a game last season, but his scoring rose to 16.1 a game in conference play while still managing 5.9 assists a contest. Price excelled in the clutch, hitting big shots to win big games. He was the leader on the floor that Jim Calhoun was pleading for previously out of him and he held the team together through some ups and downs as the Huskies returned to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus.

Unfortunately for Price, the Huskies and UConn fans, Price’s NCAA Tournament experience would last just nine minutes as he went down with a torn ACL in an opening round loss to San Diego. Price vigorously rehabbed his knee and was cleared for basketball activities after just six months. Now, just eight months after the injury, Price is seeing game action. A remarkable recovery, but one has to worry if it has all happened too quickly. This is a tough injury to return from quickly, so we will watch Price carefully to make sure he is 100%.

One thing that could save a lot of wear and tear on Price is the presence of freshman Kemba Walker. The confident and tough NYC point guard brings the speed to the UConn attack and has the handling ability to run the point, even when paired with Price in the backcourt. Walker has played to rave reviews since arriving at UConn and his play for the Team USA U-18 squad this summer cemented his place among the top frosh in the country. Still, just a freshman, but Walker plays as if he is experienced well beyond his years. Finding the right niche between he and Price might be a challenge, as Price excelled with the ball in his hands last year, now he could be moved off the ball for significant portions this year. Good for his knee, but we will see if it has an impact on his game.

In what could be a three-guard line-up, Jerome Dyson returns for his junior season. Dyson was a big bright spot in the dismal 2006-2007 season for the Huskies as he averaged a team-high 14 points a game, a number that was much higher in conference play. Dyson is a strong and tough guard who could be one of the best perimeter defenders in the Big East. However, after a 30-day suspension in the heart of the Big East conference schedule last season for a second positive drug test, Dyson’s season never got back on track. Dyson averaged just 10 points a game in conference play last year, but averaged just 8 points a game over the last 10 games, scoring in double figures just twice. Compare that to the previous season where he averaged 17.5 points a game, scoring double digits nine times, in the last 10 games. The word out of their first exhibition game of the season had Dyson still looking out of sync with his teammates on the floor. For Connecticut to be at their best, Dyson needs to be a top contributor on both ends of the court.

A player who seemed to come into his own last year was senior Craig Austrie. For the season he averaged 7.5 points a game, but in the last 17 games of the season, or starting at the time of the Dyson suspension, Austrie averaged almost 11 points a game and became their most reliable perimeter threat. Just prior to that stretch, Austrie had scored just two points in the previous four games. Now, with added depth, will Austrie be given the longer leash he had late last season that seemed to build his confidence?

Rounding out the backcourt is freshman Scottie Haralson from Jackson (MS). Haralson was recruited to be a perimeter scoring threat, an area Connecticut lagged behind much of the country last year. While he will find it tough to break into the rotation this season, Haralson will likely be Austrie’s future replacement in the line-up. Donnell Beverly also returns and adds more depth at the guard position. Word is he continues to improve, but gaining real playing time when the Big East rolls around will be a challenge with the talent ahead of him on the roster.

2008-2009 Frontcourt Outlook:

As usual, the Connecticut frontcourt is imposing and intimidating. With the potential of three players 7-foot or taller, bruising power forward Jeff Adrien and possibly three more forwards in the 6-foot-9 range, this is an NBA-sized team in the college ranks.

The center of attention is junior Hasheem Thabeet, a 7-foot-3 native on Tanzania who turned down millions in guaranteed money from the NBA draft to return for his junior season. Thabeet impressed onlookers this summer with an improving offensive game and more confidence to battle for his points. Last season Thabeet averaged 9.7 points and 7.6 rebounds in conference play. However, his impact on the Husky success in the Big East was very clear with his 94 blocks in 18 conference games, an average of 5.2 a game. His presence will alter everyone’s mentality about attacking the basket against UConn.

Next to Thabeet on the low block is the productive Jeff Adrien, the rock of the Husky team. Adrien was good for 15 points and 9 rebounds a night in the Big East and his physical and athletic talents in the paint in Big East battles ensures that UConn is unlikely to be out-toughed often. One area that Adrien could improve upon, as could Thabeet is their understanding of the game and situations. In conference play last year, the pair combined for just 23 assists and 82 turnovers in 18 games, improvement in attacking double teams and ball movement must be made here.

Backing up the post, Jonathan Mandeldove, a 7-foot junior and Charles Okwandu, a JUCO transfer with three years of eligibility, are on the depth chart. Mandeldove is not the most athletic big man, but he has size and can plug the hole in the middle if need be. The fast-paced UConn style is not the best fit for him to see a lot of time. Okwandu, assuming he has his eligibility questions in order, is a long and athletic big man that could make an impact backing up Thabeet and could be the heir apparent in the middle. Okwandu is still raw offensively, but a full year of UConn training could have him set for a big future. This season he should be the perfect caddy for Thabeet.

With the small forward position influx currently, junior Gavin Edwards has been finding some minutes at the position. A hard worker who gets the most out of his skills and ability, it is not a natural position for Edwards, but he looks like he could hold his own in the meantime. The hope is for Ater Majok and Stanley Robinson to assume the role when they enter the picture in December when Connecticut is not employing three guards. There is still the wait on Robinson to be the player that fulfills his immense potential. Last year in an up and down season, Robinson averaged 10 points and around 7 rebounds in Big East action. Homesickness and some school work had him ticketed for back home in Alabama last spring, but a change of heart has him staying locally, getting a job, taking some classes and working to get back onto the team. It appears there is no scholarship for him, but it is possible a stint in the ‘real world’ and attending school on his own dime might click the light switch to on and his talent will be consistently on display.

Majok is a 6-foot-10 forward with the inside/out skill set to be a face-up ‘four’ in the Big East. With the late start and limited basketball experience in the USA, Majok’s impact might be muted a bit this season, especially if Robinson’s comeback materializes.

2008-2009 Team Outlook:

Heading into the 2008-2009 season, Connecticut is loaded with talent, but there is also enough questions that still need to be answered that makes you take a step back and wait and see how things shake out. You have Price’s knee, Dyson’s psyche, Austrie’s confidence, eligibility of Okwandu and Majok and the status of Robinson, all hanging over the team right now. To be truthful, it is almost fully expected that each question is answered positively, but as of November 8th, they all surely exist.

A common theme is to wait for mid-December and everything will be fine and dandy. The expected return of Robinson and addition of Majok certainly sounds great, but adding players to the mix in mid-season is always a tricky proposition for a team that has been practicing together for two months and molding during a month of games. With limited practice time, finding the cohesion once the meat of the schedule has begun can be difficult.

On the positive side, Connecticut has loads of talent, size and athletic ability to overcome nearly any question or challenge. With Thabeet and Adrien in the frontcourt, exciting freshman Kemba Walker added to the mix and vets like AJ Price, Jerome Dyson and Craig Austrie, UConn will be near the top of the Big East and the national picture, if not AT the top, all year round. Come March, this could be a well oiled machine similar to some of Jim Calhoun’s past championship clubs and with a two-year drought of NCAA Tournament wins, the March Madness betting will look for the Huskies to snap that slump.

2008-2009 Big East Prediction: 14-4


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Thursday, November 06, 2008


by Zach Smart

Jim Calhoun’s affinity for the “true” big man has been well-noted over the years.

The founding father of a Big East NBA factory--one that has launched super-bigs such as Emeka Okafor to fat NBA contracts--is geared towards mastering his most recent giant project, 7-foot-3 behemoth Hasheem Thabaeet.

Thabeet, a typical Calhoun big man (major defensive prowess who swats, changes, and alters the trajectory of shots and cleans the glass), passed up the NBA lure at his coach's urging. Time and time again last season, Calhoun told Thabeet that declaring for the NBA draft would be a mistake. Calhoun told his monster center that he’s not ready. He told Thabeet he's still not polished on the offensive end and certain aspects of his game were in need of refinement.

The longtime Husky coach’s words proved prophetic.

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Defensively, Thabeet was as much as an inside presence as anyone in college basketball last season. His supervillian-like 7-foot-3, 263-pound frame (Thabeet certainly ate his potatoes from the time he arrived at UConn) patrolled the paint last season, distancing players from the key and around the basket. He racked up blocked shot after blocked shot and was a major intimidating factor down low, supplemented by fellow 6-foot-7 245-pound forward Jeff Adrien.

Still, there were times his freshman and sophomore seasons where Thabeet looked offensively inept. His failure to execute manipulative post moves allowed the skeptics to surface and kept Calhoun in his mammoth mug, relentlessly riding him.

While last night was no omen of what's to unfold this season (The Huskies clubbed lower-tier American International, Jim Calhoun’s alma mater, 83-58 at Gampel Pavilion), Thabeet gave an efficient account of himself. The kid from Tanzania hit on all nine of his shot attempts, dominating the much-smaller AIC frontline, en route to a wowing 21-point, 10-board performance. It was like watching Godzilla ease for position against a nucleus of smurfs.

“Maybe Hasheem wouldn’t have gone 9-for-9 last year,” said Calhoun. “He’s a better offensive player...He’s going to be a mismatch for a lot of 6-foot-8 guys, too.”

He is. All the more reason why last night wasn’t much of a barometer game for the big neophyte. The road that follows doesn’t look to feature many litmus tests for Thabeet, either. The hungry Huskies, the no.2-ranked team in the country, will look to eat up the cupcakes of their early-season schedule in shark-size bites.

They open up Nov.14 against Western Carolina before going eyeball-to-eyeball with Hartford, La Salle, Bryant, Delaware State, Buffalo and Stony Brook. This is all before getting their chance to avenge last year’s dizzying 85-82 loss at Gonzaga, Dec. 20 on CBS.

Thabeet hit 3-of-5 shots from the charity stripe, where he struggled mightily his freshman year. He grabbed four offensive boards. The Huskies made quick work of AIC on that front, outboarding them by a 44-25 margin.

Jeff Adrien added to the dismantling with 11 points and six boards, while junior Gavin Edwards, whose added on bulk since his freshman season, popped off the bench to score 15 boards and snare seven rebounds in 15 minutes of burn.

The massive search warrant out for Jerome Dyson’s game continues. Dyson, who hasn’t been the same player since his late-January arrest last season, scored just one point in 27 minutes. Despite morphing into Houdini mode scoring-wise, Dyson handed out five dimes. Still, the kid who was so promising his freshman season and entertained NBA thoughts at the start of his sophomore year needs to re-discover his groove and mesh with teammates. An ultra-athletic off guard who can score in bunches, hit threes and attack the rim, the Husky faithful hope Dyson finds where exactly his game went and does not become another Marcus Johnson.

A.J. Price, the clear leader of the Huskies offense, also wasn’t himself. He scored just eight points and handed out one assist in 24 minutes. Price, who’s had a road to recovery following a crushing injury in the NCAA tournament, was impressed with the pre-season debut of the highly-touted Kemba Walker.

The 6-foot-1 Walker, a hotly pursued New York guard, was a pyrotechnic off the bench, injecting energy into the UConn backcourt. His patented quickness was notable, as the freshman had 10 points, eight boards and dished out four dimes. A few of those assists came on alley-oops to Thabeet, as the chemistry the two developed in practice was thrust to the forefront. Thabeet scored a majority of his points on flushes, facebooking any AIC player audacious enough to interrupt his date with the basket.

Miles From Here: Nate Miles, the controversial NBA prospect who was booted from UConn after violating terms of a restraining order, has enrolled at the College of Southern Idaho. Due to junior college rules, the well-traveled 6-foot-7 guard/forward will not be able to play in games with the Golden Eagles until Feb.6. The absence of Miles leaves a gap in the small forward position. Stanley “Sticks” Robinson will not be available the first semester, and without him the Huskies do not have a true 3-man.


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Wednesday, November 05, 2008


November 5, 2008

AJ Price has certainly taken the long, winding road to this point. Coming to Connecticut as a highly touted and highly sought-after point guard in the fall of 2004, much was expected from the Amityville (NY) prospect right away. However, what ensued shortly after became Price's own Amityville Horror as a life-threatening brain hemorrhage, caused by an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM), a birth defect in his brain, had Price in critical condition at a Connecticut hospital. After two weeks, Price was finally out of the hospital, but a basketball career was still in doubt.

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While his body recovered, Price waited for medical clearance to play. In the summer of 2005, Price's path back to the basketball court took another step backwards as he was in the attempt to sell stolen laptops at a local pawn shop. Te laptops were stolen from the UConn campus and police identified Price and teammate Marcus Williams as those attempting to fence the stolen goods. Price, who was still not medically cleared to play basketball, would enter a pre-trial diversion program and would be suspended from Connecticut for the season.

After finally putting medical and legal issues behind him, Price's long-awaited Connecticut basketball debut came in the 2006-2007 season. The weight of expectations seemed to be like a 1,000 lb gorilla on his shoulders and Price showed the rust of a tumultuous two-year lay-off. The Huskies struggled, leaderless on the floor, and their expected leader managed to shoot just 36% from the field, average 9 points a game and average just 3.6 assists a contest. UConn missed the postseason, and it looked like expectations for Price had seriously missed the mark.

His junior season in 2007-2008 got off to a decent start, but something began to change as November turned into December. The leader that coach Jim Calhoun had been trying to coax out of Price began to emerge. Coach Calhoun has not made the Hall of Fame for nothing, the two-time national championship coach knows the importance of leadership at the point guard position in maximizing your college basketball odds.

When the Husky season entered a period that potentially had it on the brink, with a suspension to Jerome Dyson, it was Price who held things together and moved UConn forward.

Price averaged 16 points and 5.5 assists last season in Big East conference action, earning 1st team all-conference honors and All-American consideration as well. However, just as things looked to have taken off, Price was grounded once again. This time, just nine minutes into the NCAA Tournament's 1st round contest with San Diego, Price went down with a torn ACL. Once again, adversity strikes.

Price spent the summer undergoing a grueling rehabilitation process determined to return to UConn healthy for his senior season. Just six months after the injury, Price was cleared to practice with his team. He has recovered physically, but the mental anguish of a Knee injury has led to some soreness in his foot and leg as he compensates for the reconstructed knee. Each day, things get a little better, and now, as UConn prepares for their highly anticipated 2008-2009 campaign, Price will be back in the starting line-up leading the charge. If healthy, he has shown to be a perfect blend of offensive talent and leadership from the point guard position. He has shown the knowledge and understanding of when to get his big men involved and find the other perimeter players in position to score, but he can also be counted on to create the big scoring opportunity the team needs and convert for himself.

His health is the only question, and it is a big question, but if healthy, AJ Price is the #1 point guard in the Big East, according to the NBE Basketball Report staff.


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