Monday, October 27, 2008

No. 2 UConn: 2008-2009 Team Preview

2007-2008 Team Record: 24-9, 13-5 Big East (4th)

Key Losses: Doug Wiggins (6.7 ppg, 2.4 apg), Curtis Kelly (2.1 ppg)

Key Returnees: Jeff Adrien (14.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg), AJ Price (14.5 ppg, 5.8 apg), Hasheem Thabeet (10.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.5 bpg)

Newcomers: Charles Okwandu, Kemba Walker, Scottie Haralson, Ater Majok

Can you remember a time when a team as good as UConn is predicted to be had this many question marks regarding key contributors? AJ Price is coming off of off-season knee surgery to repair the ACL he tore in last year's NCAA tournament (he was finally cleared to play about a month ago). Stanley Robinson is working at a sheet metal factory and not even enrolled at UConn while trying to earn back the trust of Jim Calhoun. Ater Majok is still awaiting word on whether or not he will be deemed eligible by the NCAA (Robinson and Majok are both expected to be in school and on the team at the start of the second semester). Nate Miles has been kicked out of school, and already enrolled at the College of Southern Idaho. Even with all of those distractions, UConn is still the favorite to win the Big East according to the conference's coaches.

The heart and soul of this UConn team was last year's leading scorer and rebounder Jeff Adrien. Adrien, a senior, is an undersized power forward (6'7", 243 lb), but he has incredibly long arms and is very quick off his feet. He is a bull on the block, as he can establish position just about whenever he wants offensively and he has a decent set of moves once he gets the ball. He is a strong finisher in the paint and has also added a jumper he can knock down out to about 15 feet. The best aspect of Adrien's game is his rebounding, especially on the offensive end, where he attacks the glass on every shot. One of the key's to UConn's season is that Adrien relishes his role as the team's junkyard dog and hustle guy instead of trying to prove his perimeter and offensive skills to NBA scouts. Joining Adrien up front is 7'3" junior Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet is the best defensive big man in the country, averaging 4.5 bpg last season. He is phenomenal at coming from the weak side to block shots without picking up fouls (only 2.6 per game), and can essentially alter any shot with 8-10 feet of the rim simply because of his size, reach, and athleticism. He is still fairly weak, as he is not great playing man-to-man defense, establishing position or boxing out (shorter and stronger players are able to back him down) and he struggles defending the pick-and-roll (which is what San Diego beat to death in their upset win over the Huskies). Offensively, he has come a long way but still has a long way to go. His confidence grew as the season progressed, and by the end of the year he was attacking the rim and trying to dunk everytime he got the ball near the basket. Beyond that, however, his offensive skill set and understanding of the game leaves a lot to be desired. He is a terrible passer and has no post moves (although he did show flashes of a nice jump hook going either way), but he improved his free throw percentage by almost 20 points and he has a great work ethic.

Junior big men Gavin Edwards and Jonathan Mandeldove also return. Edwards is an effective role player, bringing energy and defensive intensity off the bench. Mandeldove is a long, 6'11" center that needs to get a lot stronger before he can provide quality minutes. Charles Okwandu, a 7'1" Nigerian native that transferred in form Holcam CC, is still probably a year away from really contributing, but has impressed a lot of people in the first week of practice. Ater Majok, who will miss at least the first eight games, will probably move into the role as the first big guy off the bench by season's end (if he is cleared). A refugee of the Sudan (via Egypt and Australia), he is long and athletic with decent touch on his jumper and a solid face up game, but is still too weak to provide a ton of production in the paint.

UConn's back court will also be loaded. The best of the bunch is AJ Price. Price has had as tumultuous a career as you could probably imagine (in case you forgot, he missed his first two years at UConn before tearing his ACL in March), and after having a sub par year in 2006-2007, Price was the best point guard in the Big East for the last month of the season, averaging 16.1 ppg and 6.0 apg in league play. Price is at his most effective offensively when he is penetrating, as his perimeter shot is streaky and he has a tendency to take ill-advised three's. He is a great floor general, and has a knack for threading the needle, be it off of penetration in the half court or on a fast break, to find one of UConn's big men, although this also leads to a good number of turnovers. Not the greatest athlete in the world, Price finds ways to score inside over taller defenders, usually with some sort of half-floater, half-leaner. Price is more of a scoring guard, and should benefit from some minutes at the two playing alongside Kemba Walker. Walker is another NYC point guard that is very fast and loves to get out and lead the break. He is also a better defender than Price, which is important especially since UConn lost their best on the ball defender in Doug Wiggins. The third guy in the Huskies three guard line-up will be Jerome Dyson. Dyson is an interesting case. During his first two season's up until he was suspended, many believed he was UConn's best player. But the Huskies played their best basketball of the season when he went out. He is clearly talented on both ends of the court - he is very good at getting to the rim where he is an excellent finisher thanks to his size (6'4") and athleticism, but he can also hit the three and is a terror in the passing lanes - but his decision making and poor attitude could be an issue.

Stanley Robinson could be the x-factor for this team if/when he is allowed to suit up. He has reportedly put on 30 lbs of muscle on his 6'9" frame without losing any of his fantastic athleticism. He brings an element to the Huskies wing that none else can, as he can block shots, rebound the ball, and knock down a three pointer. Off the bench will be Craig Austrie, a senior who is a smart player that won't turn the ball over, but doesn't bring much to the table offensively (although he did ice a few games last year thanks to his free throw shooting). Donnell Beverly may also see some time.

Outlook: UConn is going to be the same old UConn - tons of ball pressure on the perimeter forcing you to penetrate into a sea of shot blockers, then running the ball down your throat once they get possession. Once Majok and Robinson get cleared, this team will able to throw so many different looks out there because so many guys can play multiple positions. The biggest question for these Huskies is whether or not they can win a game on a national stage - the last two year's they are 0-3 in the Big East and NCAA tournament's, and were 8-8 on the road or on a neutral court last year, with their best win coming at Indiana right as things were starting to crumble in Bloomington. UConn has the talent, the question will be "can they win the big one?"

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