Big East Preview: #1 Connecticut Huskies
Posted by Zach on November 3, 2008
1. Connecticut Huskies- Coach: Jim Calhoun (23rd season)
PG- A.J. Price (SR): Whether Price is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in the first half of the shocking loss to San Diego in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is the biggest question mark for this Connecticut team. Price is their sparkplug point guard who also happens to be their most dynamic scorer. He shines in big games, averaging 20 PPG in the seven games Connecticut played against ranked teams last season. He runs a spectacular point guard for Jim Calhoun, leading the Huskies in assists last year. When Price went down and the backcourt turned into a Wiggins-Austrie duo, the drop-off was painfully clear. By all accounts Price is 100% healthy and possibly in the best shape of his life. Price is a preseason All-Big East selection after leading Connecticut in scoring 13 times in 07-08. Price is the one player in the nation I see making the biggest leap forward this season, and the main factor for why I believe Connecticut is the team to beat in this loaded conference.
SG- Kemba Walker (FR): Originally many pegged fellow freshman Nate Miles to start and give coach Calhoun more rebounding and size in his starting five, but with Miles’ dismissal I suspect Calhoun will opt to go small originally. Walker is a rough-and-tough Bronx point guard at heart who can handle the Big East from day one. A trio of Walker, Dyson and Price in the backcourt will be hard to match in all of college basketball, especially if Walker replicates some of his performances in the U18 FIBA games, where he took home MVP honors. Calhoun calls his prized freshman “cat-like quick”, a dynamic scoring guard who will look to push the tempo and add a new dimension for this team. Outside shooting is a bit of a question mark for Walker early in his college career (I don’t suspect he’s a one-and-done, but who knows), so he’ll look to feed shooters Price and Dyson on the wings and rack up the assists.
SG- Jerome Dyson (JR): The emergence of Walker could spell Dyson to the bench once Robinson returns, but for now the junior will be pegged as the third guard for coach Calhoun. Dyson’s scoring average (12.5) actually dropped from his breakthrough freshman campaign (13.8) and many viewed his season as something of a disappointment. His three-point shooting (33%) needs to improve slightly, but Dyson does so many valuable things for this team. He’s an aggressive wing who attacks the basket with ferocity, drawing fouls and making free throws consistently (81%). He’s outstanding defensively, racking up nine steals in one game vs. St. John’s last season. I see Dyson thriving in a complimentary role to stars like Price, Adrien and Thabeet, making positive contributions in an offense where he can play fourth or fifth scorer.
PF- Jeff Adrien (SR): The Brookline, MA native is a Jim Calhoun favorite and for good reason. Adrien is a monster rebounding presence who routinely shoots over 50% from the floor on the season. He’s seemingly always in the right place in the paint to snatch a key offensive rebound for the Huskies. Could Adrien average a double-double in his senior campaign after tallying 31 total in his last two seasons? It’s definitely possible, considering Adrien finished last season at 14.8 PPG and 9.2 RPG. There are some clear weaknesses in Adrien’s game, most notably an absence of any threatening mid-range jump shot and porous free throw efforts. Still, the value far outweighs the negatives for this power forward. He’s not a superstar, but, much like Dyson and Thabeet, Adrien provides the Huskies with phenomenal contributions in certain areas (in his case, rebounding). Factor all of these players together and you have the most complete team in the nation.
C- Hasheem Thabeet (JR): The progress of one Hasheem Thabeet has been remarkable. Just two years removed from picking up a basketball for the first time, Thabeet was incredibly raw his freshman year, possessing no offensive qualities and proving sluggish and uncoordinated on the floor at times. Heading into his junior season, Thabeet is shooting 60% from the floor, adding an array of mini-hooks and short jumpers to a growing offensive repertoire. The blocked shots and rebounds are a given for the 7’3 Thabeet. This future lottery pick averaged a stunning 4.5 BPG last season to go along with 7.9 RPG and defensive player of the year honors. His free throws also improved from 51% as a freshman to 70% as a sophomore. What Thabeet provides on defense cannot be measured simply in statistics. Opposing guards are ultra-hesitant to test the post when Thabeet is manning the middle ready to swat your floater into the tenth row, and his size is nearly unmatched in college basketball. Only foul trouble will keep Thabeet from making a tremendous impact for Connecticut all season long.
Bench: There’s no trade deadline in college basketball, but Connecticut should acquire freshman Ater Majok and junior Stanley Robinson right around midseason to add more depth and height. Many feel the Australian Majok is a future NBA talent with his 7’4 wingspan and 6’10, 225 pound frame. He’s very raw on the offensive end, but should provide excellent rebounding and defense right away. Majok may be eligible by late December. Robinson’s academic and personal issues means he won’t find the floor until the second semester, just in time for the depths of the conference season. Unless Robinson screws up again, Calhoun has yet another returning double-digit scorer, athletic rebounder and shot-blocker extraordinaire at his disposal. Craig Austrie is a valuable piece off the pine for Calhoun. He led the Big East in free throw shooting, can run the point without turning the ball over, and plays strong defense. Look for his playing time to drop with Walker on board, though. Freshman Scottie Haralson will be called on as the three-point marksman late in games, an area where Connecticut has struggled the last two years. Forward Gavin Edwards appeared in 30 games last year and hit 55% of his shots.
Bottom Line: I mentioned that Louisville was loaded in their preview. Believe it or not, Connecticut is even more loaded, even with the loss of Nate Miles. They have the ingredients for a Big East banner: senior point guard who can score and dish, the best defensive big man in the nation, excellent complimentary pieces, a deep bench, outstanding rebounders and shot blockers, and one of the best coaches in the nation. Whether Robinson rejoins the team and Majok can contribute immediately are two glaring question marks. This Connecticut team won’t fall victim to another early round upset, instead playing deep into March and contending for the national championship.
Key Non-Conference Games: Paradise Jam, 12/20 vs. Gonzaga (Seattle), 12/29 vs. Georgetown, 2/7 vs. Michigan
Key Conference Games: 1/24 @ Notre Dame, 2/2 @ Louisville, 2/25 @ Marquette, 3/7 @ Pittsburgh
Most Valuable Player: A.J. Price
Projected Postseason Tournament: NCAA (National Champion)