2006-2007 UConn Basketball Preview

The Connecticut Huskies men’s basketball team is ranked as high as 18th in the latest pre-season polls, but this honor comes without the current crop of players on their roster having achieved much of anything in the college game. UConn doesn’t have a single scholarship player that has more than one season’s worth of college experience on their basketball squad, but they do have a highly regarded, eight-player deep, incoming class of freshmen. UConn basketball will be lead by sophomores Jeff Adrian and A.J. Price, with Price still having not stepped on the basketball court in an official capacity due to health problems and an ill-advised run-in with the law. But UConn may have the best safety net an inexperienced college basketball team could wish for, a seven-foot-three center that will anchor a stingy defense.

Coached by recent Hall of Fame inductee Jim Calhoun, who is entering his 21st year as the Huskies’ basketball mentor and 35th overall, UConn is always a player in the national championship hunt. But this is perhaps Calhoun’s biggest challenge in years at the school located in Storrs, as the lack of basketball experience is sure to result in some growing pains. Most of Calhoun’s rotation will subsist of freshmen, and he will mix and match until the veteran coach finds one to his liking. The backcourt could be a potential weakness, but if Price lives up to the billing he had when he came to UConn basketball a couple years ago, it could also be one of their strengths.

The perception in basketball-crazy Connecticut is that last year’s team should have won it all, but they were upset in one of the sport’s greatest shockers- in the NCAA tourney by George Mason. Much of the talent then either graduated or absconded to the NBA, leaving UConn depending on youth to develop and develop quickly if they want to compete in the Big East this year, never mind in the tournament come March. UConn has been tabbed by Big East coaches to finish fifth in the league for the 2006-2007 campaign, but Calhoun will expect and demand more than that.

Jeff Adrien was a member of the Big East’s All-Rookie Team last year, but still he only averaged 6.5 points and 5 rebounds per contest. However, he saw limited minutes, and he was able to garner attention as a defensive presence under the boards. Adrien added twenty pounds of muscle in the off-season, and is now listed at almost 240 pounds to go with his six-foot-seven frame; he is very athletic and quick, and will have to step up as a leader for the UConn basketball team despite his own youth.

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A.J. Price came to UConn as a highly touted point guard in high school, but his career and life were in jeopardy when he suffered an episode of bleeding on the brain during the 2004 pre-season. Price recovered from that scary experience, but became involved in the theft of some laptops that led to him being suspended and placed on probation in 2005. Price is finally getting the chance to play basketball, and Calhoun is quick to note that Price’s composure will be his biggest asset, especially when he ventures into some of the rowdy Big East venues where his past is sure to be brought up. In high school in New York, Price won a pair of state championships and scored almost 1,400 points; his UConn basketball debut will be highly anticipated to see just how good he is and can be.

Two sophomores with some collegiate hoop familiarity are Craig Austrie and Rob Garrison, although the two have not impressed Calhoun in the pre-season. Austrie played extensively in the non-conference part of the schedule last year, as he stepped in for UConn guard Marcus Williams, who was sitting out for his part in the computer theft that Price was involved in. The six-foot-three Austrie averaged just 3.3 points a contest with 85 assists in the 34 games he participated in, but he will have to ratchet it up if he is to see big minutes this year. Garrison, at six-foot-two, played in just a handful of Big East tilts, and he will have to vie for minutes with some of his freshman counterparts.
The last of the five sophomores on the UConn basketball team is six-foot-six swingman Marcus Johnson. He is one of UConn’s most gifted players athletically, can shoot from the outside, and also can handle the ball. Johnson averaged about four points a game last year, but the way has been cleared for him to play much this season with the departure of such stars as Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, and Josh Boone. Calhoun is counting on big things from Marcus, and so are UConn fans.
Ben Eaves is a six-foot-seven freshman forward from Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, where he went for 12 points and seven rebounds a game last season. Eaves is from England, and has played in international competitions for his country, distinguishing himself in the 2005 Under 18 European Championship. Eaves can shoot and rebound, but where he will play is still to be decided by how he meshes with the other UConn players. Doug Wiggins was last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year in Connecticut, as the six-foot-one guard averaged 32 a game for East Hartford High School. He is in line for some heavy minutes if his game translates as successfully in college. Walk-ons Marty Gagne and Ben Spencer do not figure to leave the bench much, but will be make under-appreciated and invaluable contributions in practice for UConn.

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UConn basketball has produced some great shooters, names like Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton come to mind, and the next one may be Jerome Dyson. A six-foot-three freshman from Proctor Academy in New Hampshire, Dyson averaged 26 per game with eight rebounds as a senior. The three sport star is touted as a dead-eye shooter, and figures prominently in UConn basketball plans this year and in the future. Forward Curtis Kelly comes to UConn as the New York Post and Daily News High School Player of the Year, and the six-nine lefty, who averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds last year, should back up Adrien in the paint.

Stanley Robinson is a six-foot-nine freshman forward who scored over 2,000 points in Birmingham, Alabama during his high school days. Robinson earned a gold medal this past summer on the FIBA U18 American Men’s team, and could be something special. Jonathan Mandledove is a lanky six-eleven center who may be a project, but the honorable mention McDonald’s All-American could be a surprise under the basket, as could six-nine center Gavin Edwards from Arizona.

Calhoun’s wild card, and the player that may allow UConn to survive the mistakes that freshman are sure to commit, is the tallest man ever to put on the UConn basketball uniform, seven-foot-three Hasheem Thabeet. Hasheem is from Tanzania, and now that the questions concerning his eligibility have been put to rest, he can set about the task of using his soccer background to provide intimidating low-post defense. Thabeet has been playing basketball for just four years, but Calhoun feels that he may be one of the biggest impact players in the nation. His offensive game needs work, but he is already a solid defender, and will get better with each game he plays.

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The early schedule is full of cupcakes such as Fairfield, Sacred Heart, and Albany; UConn doesn’t venture outside of the Nutmeg State until their twelfth game, at West Virginia. Calhoun knows there are plenty of squads in the Big East that will be high in the polls to insure Uconn has a decent RPI ranking, teams like Pitt, Georgetown, Marquette, Louisville, and Syracuse. There are non-conference games at LSU and Georgia Tech, with Indiana coming to Hartford in January. By the time the Big East Tourney rolls around, Jim Calhoun hopes that his young team has learned its lessons well, and can make yet another run for UConn basketball at a national title, which would be the third under the Hall of Famer. Calhoun saw firsthand the challenge he faces when the Huskies opened up with lightly regarded Quinnipiac on November 10th, at Gampel Pavillion in Storrs no less. The young Huskie basketball team jumped out at halftime to a 35-16 advantage, but were outscored by 12 in the second half to post a less than impressive 53-46 victory. Dyson led the way with 16, but shot an indefensible 5 of 12 from the free throw line; UConn went a paltry 15 for 34 at the charity stripe to keep it a game. Thabeet had just five points on 1 of 6 shooting, but he did erase 7 shots on the defensive end. But Jim Calhoun has the whole month of December to figure out who is what, and when he does, UConn may just be on its way again.