Monday, October 26, 2009

No. 17: 2009-2010 Team Preview: UConn Huskies

2008-2009 Record: 31-5, 15-3 Big East (t-2nd)

Key Losses: AJ Price (14.7 ppg, 4.7 apg), Hasheem Thabeet (13.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 4.2 bpg), Jeff Adrien (13.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg)

Key Returners: Kemba Walker (8.9 ppg, 2.9 apg) Jerome Dyson (13.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Stanley Robinson (8.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg)

Newcomers: Alex Oriakhi, Ater Majok, Jamaal Trice, Darius Smith, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel

Stanley Robinson returns to the Huskies as arguably the best athlete in the country.
(photo credit: Inside Hoops)

UConn loses may lose more key pieces from last year's squad than any team in the country. Gone are AJ Price, Jeff Adrien, and Hasheem Thabeet, the Huskies three leading scorers from a year ago. But that doesn't meant the Huskies don't return any talent. With guys like Kemba Walker, Jerome Dyson, and Stanley Robinson deciding to come back to school, UConn is going to look like the Huskies of old this season.

Jim Calhoun's teams used to be known for their athleticism, their defensive pressure, and a helter-skelter style of play that resulted in a fast-paced game. The last couple of season's, Calhoun has veered away from that style as Price, Adrien, and Thabeet were all better suited to a slow, grind-it-out pace that allowed the Huskies to take advantage of their size on the interior. The Huskies won't have that size advantage this season, but what they will have is an athleticism advantage.

Kemba Walker will be the engine to this year's team. Walker is as quick and athletic as any point guard in the country. He is a terror defensively, utilizing those quicks to harass opposing ball-handlers. On the offensive end, Walker is going to be counted on to lead quite a few fast breaks. He has the speed and the ball-handling ability to get into the lane whenever he pleases, but last season he was a bit inconsistent once he got there - he forced some tough shots and committed a few too many turnovers. With a year of experience under his belt, Walker should be able to improve on that. This is going to be his UConn team to run, and how well he develops as a player will go a long way in determining the Huskie's success this season.

Joining Walker in the back court will be Jerome Dyson, another terrific athlete. Dyson is a bigger guard (6'4", 190 lb) that is the most dangerous in the open floor. A decent shooter when he has time, Dyson's strength is in his ability to get to the rim. He is explosive and a powerful finisher once he gets there. But like Walker, Dyson had a tendency to overpenetrate last season, resulting in a lot of tough shots. Defensively, Dyson is just as dangerous as Walker. He is a great athlete, and his length and anticipation make him a terror in the passing lanes. He and Walker will make life very tough on opposing back courts this season.

Beyond those two, UConn's back court will be very inexperienced. Two freshmen will be counted on heavily to provide back court depth - Darius Smith and Jamaal Trice. Smith and Trice are both exceptional athletes, and have been lauded by recruiting services for their defensive ability. Given the style that Calhoun will want to play this season, both Smith and Trice should be expected to be major contributors. At 6'5", Trice is a bit bigger than Smith, who is 6'1". Trice has big time athleticism, and has developed a knock-down jump shot. Smith is more of a combo-guard, and while his jump shot is not as developed as Calhoun would like, Smith has shown the ability to get into the paint at the high school level. Junior Donnell Beverly should also be expected to contribute some minutes.

But the back court isn't where the issues will be for the 2009-2010 Huskies. With Adrien graduating and Thabeet heading to the NBA Draft, a huge void is opened up in the middle. Senior Gavin Edwards will be back, but Edwards is not a guy that will be a star. An excellent role playing big man, Edwards is not a great offensive option in the post, but is a solid defender and rebounder. Freshman Alex Oriakhi will be counted on for major minutes, perhaps even stepping into a starting role off the bat. At 6'8", Oriakhi is closer to Jeff Adrien than a Josh Boone or Emeka Okafor. Strong in the paint, Oriakhi will provide the Huskies with some scoring, some defense, and a lot of rebounding and hustle inside.

Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Huskies will be 6'10" Sudanese refugee Ater Majok. Majok will become eligible after the first semester, but his impact on the court is still a question mark. Majok is long and athletic, and while his frame is a bit on the skinny side, Majok is still expected to be a big-time contributor for Calhoun. He is a defensive presence in the paint, but he also has enough skills on the perimeter that a defender is going to have to respect him. While Majok could end up being a star, UConn fans should be wary of the second coming of Ajou Ajou Deng.

The x-factors on this team are going to be Stanley Robinson and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel. Robinson might be the best athlete in the country. He is long (6'9") with crazy athleticism, and he plays with a ton of energy. It is widely known that he missed the beginning of last season while trying to prove to Calhoun he wanted to be a Husky, but when he returned, he was as good as he has been in his career. In fact, in postseason play, Robinson was absolutely dominant, averaging 17 ppg, 9.3 rpg, and over 2 bpg. Playing in the open court system that the Huskies will utilize this season, expect Robinson's athleticism and energy to take over at times.

Coombs-McDaniel is a bit different as a player. Another guy that's a tweener (at 6'7", he plays almost a point-forward kind of role), Coombs-McDaniel is knows for his versatility. He can penetrate, he is an excellent passer, and he is a smart, vocal leader, especially on the defensive end. He is not the overwhelming athlete that many Huskies are, but he is good enough defensively that there will be no drop off when he is in the game. Expect him to flourish as a Husky, and possibly slide into a starting spot by seasons end.

Two seven footers - Jonathon Mandeldove and Charles Okwandu - may also contribute some minutes up front.

Outlook: This is going to be an athletic team. The Huskies are going to have to press, to run the floor, and to crash the defensive glass. They don't have the shot-blockers that Husky fans have become accustomed too, but that shouldn't be a huge issue. Playing more of a full court style than they have the past two or three seasons, expect the Huskies to rely heavily on their athleticism to win games. If Kemba Walker and Stanley Robinson both develop into stars, UConn's fall should not be that tremendous and they could end up a top four team in the conference.

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