With the two game exhibition season behind them, Kevin Ollie’s UConn Huskies can now turn their sights on the regular season. UConn wrapped up the two game preseason schedule with an 83-43 win over the New Haven Chargers Saturday afternoon in Hartford. The Huskies will have six days to prepare for the season opener when they host the Maine Black Bears Friday night at the Gampel Pavilion on the Storrs campus.
The Huskies open the 2015-16 season ranked just inside the Top 25 in various polls and were picked to finish second behind SMU in the American Athletic Conference preseason coach’s poll. With the Mustangs ineligible for both the AAC and NCAA tournaments, UConn should be well positioned for an at-large bid at minimum and quite possibly the conference tourney championship with its automatic bid, when March Madness rolls around.
With Ryan Boatright the only notable loss from the 2014-15 team, Ollie brings back a solid experienced core bolstered by some intriguing freshman and grad student transfers. Point guard Jalen Adams and center Steven Enoch highlight the freshman class with former Seton Hall standout Sterling Gibbs and Cornell swingman Shonn Miller expected to make significant contributions at the guard and forward spots, respectively.
Ollie, after Fridays practice, talked up his incoming freshman point guard saying, “(Adams) is going to be a great player for us. We ask him to be in attack mode each day. He’s an exceptional passer. We’re just getting him into the mode of being an UConn basketball player. Being a guard there’s a lot of responsibility on him. He’s gonna learn from Sterling (Gibbs)”.
Key returnees are redshirt junior guard Rodney Purvis, sophomore forward Daniel Hamilton and junior center Amidah Brimah. Also vying for playing time after injury riddled seasons last year are guards Sam Cassell, Jr (Redshirt Junior) and senior Omar Calhoun.
On what Gibbs and Miller bring to the team Hamilton said, “Maturity in the locker room. They know what it’s like to play at this high level.”
With the graduation of Boatright, Ollie’s looking for this season’s “Alpha Dog” and Purvis feels he’s more than ready for the task saying, “I’m definitely one of the leaders of the team. One of the older guys. The guys feed off my energy. Coach (Ollie) is looking for me to take that (leadership) role and I’m taking that role.”
If the preseason is any indication veteran frontcourt player’s junior Kentan Facey and senior Philip Nolan may be the odd men out as the season progresses and roles are defined. Last season the pair combined to average just under six points per game and just over seven boards a game for a team that came up short in the AAC Championship final before losing in the first round of the NIT to Arizona State.
On Facey and Nolan, Ollie said, “I need stability. Rebounding the basketball. Setting good screens. Finding places where those guys can score. We just want those guys to be consistent and understand their roles.”
With a slew of rule changes for the upcoming season, most notably the shot clock reduced from 35 to 30 seconds, Ollie’s hoping that a smaller, quicker lineup will translate into a more fast break style team with the key being control of the boards, something the Huskies have struggled with through Ollie’s first three years at the helm. Miller, who average 8.5 rebounds a game for the Big Red, joins Hamilton, who led the Huskies last season at 7.5 rpg. But, for UConn to play the up tempo style they’ve been preaching it is Brimah who ultimately needs stay out of foul trouble, step up and take control in the paint.
UConn will need to run as Ollie anticipates opponents dropping back into various zone sets with the intention of forcing shot clock violations and saying the emphasis is to beat the teams down the floor, negating the opportunity for the defense to get set.
On the 30 second clock Ollie said, “We’ll see how much it affects the game…. A lot of teams have talked of playing a soft trap zones, dropping right back into a 2-3 or matchup zone. We have a lot more options this year so I think we’ll be able to handle it…We want a free flowing offense.”
With a deep, experienced back court UConn should find itself near the top of the AAC when the dust settles, but the real test should be the out of conference schedule that features Maryland, Ohio State and Georgetown and a great field of big time teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament during the Thanksgiving week. UConn opens the tourney with Michigan with either Syracuse or Charlotte next on the docket.
Time will tell, but this year’s edition of the UConn Huskies should be in good shape for a return to the NCAA tournament.