Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Out of My Brain at 5:15

Good morning, y’all. Yes, that time stamp is correct. It’s about 5:15 a.m. as I’m posting this blog entry. Been battling a bad cold (maybe a little bronchitis) for the past few days, and just can’t get to sleep. So, figured I’d turn on the computer and blog some thoughts on UConn. It’s fast approaching that time of the season, after all.

A week from today, the annual Husky Run will be held at Storrs. Two nights after that, Late Night Madness will unfold at Gampel Pavilion, with ESPN in the house, apparently focusing on the women’s team (and Jim Calhoun likely hundreds of miles away facing the NCAA committee on infractions in Indianapolis).

The following Wednesday is the annual Big East media day at Madison Square Garden. When the conference coaches poll is released that day, it’s likely UConn will find itself somewhere in the middle of the pack. Maybe seventh or eighth. Maybe a little higher … or a little lower.

It’s understandable, as after likely first-team preseason all-Big East point guard Kemba Walker, the Huskies will be filled with one question mark after another. Everyone else on the team will either be a veteran who hasn’t really done a whole lot, or a freshman – six, at least to start the season, with 7-foot German Enosch Wolf a possible mid-season addition as well.

Something tells me being picked in the middle of the pack this season will suit Calhoun just fine. Last year, after all, the Huskies were picked to finish third in the conference, even garnering a first-place vote. At Big East media day, Calhoun –half-jokingly, half-seriously, as only he can – said: "My fellow coaches have made a vow going back 12 years of making sure I never got coach of the year by making us third or better preseason. There seems to be a pact. New coaches come in and are told that, I think."

The Huskies, of course, wound up stumbling to a 7-11 league record, finishing 12th in the Big East. If Calhoun can get this team into the upper echelon of the conference this season, he’ll certainly be in line for coach of the year honors. And here’s the deal: I think he can.

I think UConn is going to be pretty good this season. Oh, there’ll be some growing pains. There may be a few ugly losses along the way. That season-opener against Steve Pikiell’s Stony Brook could be a real early-season test, with ‘embarrassing loss’ written all over it. It’ll take time for this team to gel.

But I think they will. Why? Well, it’s hardly a scientific reason, but here goes: I just don’t see a team with Jim Calhoun on the sidelines and Kemba Walker with the ball missing the NCAA tournament two years in a row. There, that’s it. Kinda simplistic, I know, but that’s my reasoning.

Calhoun hasn’t missed out on the Big Dance in consecutive seasons since 1988-89, when the Huskies backed up their NIT title with another trip to the NIT. Few, if any, coaches in America can will a team to victory better than him. Walker is on pace to graduate after this season, so there’s a huge chance this is his final season in Storrs. He’s a ferocious competitor who’ll want a better legacy than back-to-back NIT bids in his final two years.

Now, being a great competitor doesn’t exactly put the ball in the basket or control the boards. It means, however, finding a way to win. Last year, led by the talented-but-rudderless trio of Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards, UConn went 1-8 in games decided by five points or less. I don’t see a similar number being repeated this season. Really, can they get any worse?

Again, the Huskies will have to find answers. Someone will have to emerge as a 3-point threat. Walker is said to have improved his long-range shooting greatly, but UConn will need more than that. Perhaps freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and/or Roscoe Smith fit the bill. Maybe Jamal Coombs-McDaniel improves from last year’s 32-percent field-goal shooting.

UConn will have to rebound the ball, too, and that could be a problem. But I don’t see the somewhat odd departure of Ater Majok as being a huge loss. Yes, the Huskies could have used his 6-foot-11 length, but having a lot of size these days is a bit overrated. There are no dominant big men in the Big East this year. Still, Alex Oriakhi, Okwandu and, likely, at least one or two of the freshmen (Smith, Tyler Olander, Wolf?) will need step up.

I also think the Big East will be a little down this year. Certainly down from two years ago, and from a year ago, as well. Pittsburgh, Villanova and West Virginia appear to be the favorites right now, with Syracuse, Georgetown, Notre Dame, maybe even St. John's right in the mix. Count UConn among those teams, as well.

Bottom line, every returning UConn player will have to improve his game greatly – and that includes Walker. As terrific a player as he is, Walker has been prone to some inconsistency over the past two seasons. And the Huskies will need at least two or three – maybe more – of its freshmen to step up, big time. That’s a tough thing to ask for, but certainly not completely unreasonable.

With Jim Calhoun and Kemba Walker leading the way, I see it happening.

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