Wednesday afternoon, the UConn men’s basketball team took part in the annual Husky Run outside of the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. On this cool fall day, the atmosphere was light and relaxed. They were signing autographs, coaches and players were joking around, and former UConn stars Kemba Walker and Hasheem Thabeet were reliving their days in Storrs.
The season officially begins tonight, and the laid-back autumn days are coming to an end for the defending national champions.
At this time last year UConn was overlooked; written off by many due to its youth and inexperience. But the Huskies, led by Walker, went on to have a memorable season ending with Jim Calhoun cutting down the nets of his third NCAA National Championship.
The tone is different this time around. Walker has since left for the NBA, and his supporting cast of sophomores Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, as well as junior Alex Oriakhi, are the main attractions. No longer is UConn flying under the radar, but rather it is the team everyone is gunning for.
“It’s two different starting points, but we’re going to try and do the same thing,” said Lamb.
UConn will look to its backcourt combination of Napier and Lamb to fill the void left by Walker. In their freshman campaigns, both Napier and Lamb were significant in the Huskies’ title run.
This season looks to be promising for the Huskies’ backcourt, especially Lamb. After a freshman season where he became a consistent second option on offense, Lamb is being projected as an All-American, as well as a top-10 pick in next Junes’ NBA Draft.
Lamb has the ability to be a star this winter, but knows it will be more difficult without Walker.
“I know I have to work harder to get my shot,” said the 6-5 guard/forward. “I have to try and do the little stuff, like set my man up before coming off the screen, different stuff like that.”
While Lamb is making up for Walker’s scoring production from a season ago, Napier has taken over Walker’s leadership role.
“Shabazz is a good leader,” said Walker. “And they all do a great job listening to him.”
“They don’t have to listen to me, they don’t have to follow my lead, but they’re willing to give me a chance and allow me to be that guy they want to go to,” added Napier.
Napier can also be seen as a non-vocal leader as well. On the court he is a gritty defender and a steady point guard who can run the offense. During the title run, Napier would often come in at point, moving Walker to the two-guard spot.
But it’s not just the backcourt that looks to be in top form this preseason; the UConn frontline has been revamped since March.
The Huskies return Oriakhi, who was second in the Big East in rebounding with 8.5 per game in 2010-11. The Huskies also return sophomore Tyler Olander who started 21 games, and redshirt freshman Michael Bradley should be able to contribute.
But the biggest addition came in late August. Oriakhi received a phone call from heralded recruiting prospect Andre Drummond. The freshman center was looking for Calhoun’s number to inform him of his commitment.
“At first I thought he was joking,” said Oriakhi. “When I heard he was coming I said we could be really special.”
The upcoming season looks promising for UConn, but the Huskies don’t feel pressure of defending the title.
“Even though we won the championship, we’re not really worried about (pressure),” said Napier. “Once we got the championship rings that was the end of the celebration.”
With the good, comes the bad. For the 2011-12 edition of the UConn Huskies the bad includes not having the Hall of Famer Calhoun on the bench for the first three Big East games, due to recruiting violations. This season also includes a cloud of uncertainty floating above them. Syracuse and Pittsburgh have already bounced to the ACC, leaving the Big East in a state of flux. However Calhoun still believes the Big East is a top-flight basketball conference.
“The basketball league only has nine teams returning that made the NCAA Tournament,” said Calhoun, who excluded Syracuse and Pitt as two of the remaining Big East teams. “That keeps getting left out of the picture. I hope through all of this we can stay in the Big East and it may work out just fine. But the single, most important point I have is to be loyal to the what’s best for the University of Connecticut going forward.”
The relaxing and the uncertainty of its future ends tonight at midnight for UConn, when practice officially begins.
“We’ve all been waiting for this,” said Napier. “We’ve been counting down the days. It’s here for us right now. We just have to capture it.”
Do you think UConn can win back-to-back national championships?
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