August 30th, 2006
Basketball Preview: Connecticut
Can a team lose four players to the NBA draft in the first round, another in
the second, and another who could have been drafted and still be
competitive? If so, that's quite a feat. UConn just might pull it off.
There still is an awful lot of talent to make life hard for opponents.
Start with the most crucial position - point guard. Craig Austrie
started the year at point last season until Marcus Williams joined the team
second semester. Austrie did a respectable job, far better than UConn fans
had any right to expect. He backed up Williams the second half of the
season, but, even with Williams leaving college early for the NBA, this year
he could be the back-up to the back-up. Really.
A. J. Price has been cleared to play and reports are that he's been
playing very, very well this summer. He was a Top 25 recruit in the Class of
2004. He’s the odds-on favorite to start at point.
Austrie will battle incoming freshman Doug Wiggins, who originally
committed to St. John’s. Wiggins, who was ranked #55 on RSCI in the Class
of '06, is quick and can score, but at 160 pounds needs to gain strength to
defend other Big East point guards. The edge may well go to Austrie.
Robert Garrison, an insurance policy last year, will probably see the
court only in blowouts. Seldom does a fourth-string point guard, even one
on scholarship, get substantial minutes.
Another highly-ranked freshman - Jerome Dyson - seems to be a lock to
start at the 2. Dyson is ranked #36 on RSCI. There doesn't appear to be an
obvious back-up for him, so either Austrie or Wiggins can ease the logjam at
point by getting some minutes at off guard. At times last year, Coach Jim
Calhoun played Williams and Austrie together, in effect using two point
guards at the same time.
Sophomore Marques Johnson is the likely starter at the 3, unless one
of the power forwards (I’ll get to them in a minute) can play the wing and
beat him out. Johnson was ranked #51 on RSCI in the Class of 2005. He's an
excellent athlete though it was hard for him to get playing time with Rudy
Gay, Denham Brown, and Rashad Anderson all playing the wing ahead of him.
If there seems like an abundance of talent at point, there seems to be
even more at the 4. Jeff Adrien was one of the better freshmen in the
conference last year, and he improved considerably as the year progressed.
Like Sam Young, he can be a force on the boards and can score around the
hoop despite being only 6'6". He can jump, he's strong, and he is
However, two incoming freshmen - Stanley Robinson (RSCI of 18) and
Curtis Kelly (#30 on RSCI) are both listed as 6'9" power forwards. Maybe
one of them will get minutes at the 3. It will be interesting to see if
Calhoun can keep all three power forwards happy. If not, one of them may
end up following the lead of prior UConn forward Marcus White, who
transferred to Purdue due to lack of playing time.
An early signee in the Class of 2006 was seven footer Jonathan
Mandeldove from prep school powerhouse Hargrave Military Academy. He’s
athletic, but he’s also raw. He is actually UConn’s center of the future
rather than the present, which means he’ll get fairly limited minutes off
Hasheem Thabeet - all 7'2" of him - became a high profile recruit
almost overnight. He went from unranked on RSCI to #64 in a couple of
months. The word is he is a tremendous shot blocker but is raw offensively.
Still, it looks as if he’ll start at center from Day 1. Many are projecting
him as possibly being “one and done,” though that assessment may be a bit
over the top.
The two remaining roster spots are filled by Ben Eaves and Gavin
Edwards. It will be difficult for either one to find any minutes. Maybe
Eaves backs up Johnson at the 3, but it seems as if he is not as advanced as
any of the three power forwards listed earlier, so that’s unlikely.
So what does this all mean? Two words come to mind - "talent" and
"young" as in "young talent"? Still, there’s no way around the fact that
the roster includes eighth freshmen and not a single junior or senior. Only Adrien and Austrie averaged double-digit minutes last year, and neither one
was a regular starter once Williams rejoined the team.
This team should improve dramatically from November through March.
However, chemistry could become an issue as could leadership. Who leads
this team? The answer has to be either a freshman or a sophomore, which is
not exactly an ideal situation.
Also one has to wonder if jealousy will rear its ugly head due to
logjams at both point guard and power forward. If so, it wouldn't be the
first time bruised egos got in the way of collective success.
Another crucial question is how well the newcomers will play defense.
High school and prep school players make their reputations on the offensive
end of the floor. The more difficult challenge is learning how to play D
against high-major D-1 players who are just as big, just as quick, and just
as talented. In the case of UConn, you have to add “more experienced” as
Finally, young players have to learn how to win on the road. With no
upperclassmen, that will e no easy task.
As much talent as UConn has, and as terrific a track record as Calhoun
has, I foresee UConn ending up in the seventh with equal shots at finishing
sixth or eighth.
If I were a UConn fan, I'd be awfully excited about this group, even if
they end up 8-8 or 9-7. I'd even be willing to accept 7-9 as long as I saw
improvement throughout the season. I do know one thing: I'd much rather
play this team in early January than in late February.
- Predicted Finish:
7 of 16