For UConn, coming off a year of postseason ineligibility and winning a NCAA title created one of the most improbable championship runs we’ve seen since … well, 2011. Led by senior Shabazz Napier, the Huskies’ defensive minded approach and offensive balance created the perfect monster, stifling every ‘superior’ team they faced and proving every analyst who doubted wrong.
Second year head coach Kevin Ollie needed every ounce of his players’ blood, sweat and tears for the program’s fourth national championship. But he’s also needs to do more with less next season.
Napier, an All-American, looks to take his talents to the NBA, as one of the most polarizing players in recent memory. Two-time champions Niel Giffey and Tyler Olander are also graduating, as will graduate student Lasan Kromah. It’s still early, but juniors DeAndre Daniels and guard Ryan Boatright could also declare themselves eligible for the draft.
That’s almost the entire Huskies’ starting five, gone.
Yet, as far-fetched as it sounds, there’s a strong possibility that this team can cut return to the Final Four in 2014-15.
For one, my guess would be that Boatright and Daniels return for their senior seasons. Both players were fantastic in the NCAA tournament, and should look to build off their momentum in 2014-15. The 5’11” guard, who played second fiddle to Napier this year, should now have full control of the offense. His numbers dipped in 2013-14, mainly due to the Huskies’ well-rounded squad. But he was UConn’s defensive catalyst during this title run, and his shooting opportunities will surely open up next season.
Daniels is expected to be in a number of All-American conversations as his stock has risen over the past couple months. There isn’t much he can’t do as a scorer, but his own enemy is his inconsistency. Assuming he’s around next seaosn, he’ll often be relied upon as the number-one scorer and must be ready.
But that’s where my skepticism fades with this squad. The Huskies have enough battle-tested players to withstand a drastic falloff. Center Amida Brimah and his Mutombo-esque rim protection – 5.7 blocks per 40 minutes – is returning, as will his frontcourt running mate Phillip Nolan. Both have to improve on the block on offense and cut down on their fouling, but that’s what offseasons are for, right? Couple that with Daniels and the inclusion of 6’9″ forward Kentan Facey, who struggled with his own eligibility issues, and UConn has a young, tall and formidable frontline.
Then, there’s the backcourt. We know Boatright, but freshman Terrence Samuel got a nice chunk of playing time during the NCAA tournament and was tremendous. His pace is reminiscent of a Ty Lawson, and has the size and athleticism to finish at the rim. Omar Calhoun should also see more minutes after dropping out of the rotation due to inconsistent play.
But UConn’s incoming talent is what has fans so excited for the future. Rodney Purvis, a redshirt sophomore transfer from NC State who sat out this season, returns to the floor. Sam Cassell Jr. is coming to Storrs from junior college, and ESPN’s #31 ranked prospect Daniel Hamilton committed to UConn last May. And the Huskies still have oral commitments from Athen Christian, GA combo guard Willie Jackson and Prince Ali for 2015-16.
That’s a flat-out scary combination of speed and size. Chances of all of them seeing significant playing time are slim, but the depth should prove beneficial in the next couple years.
It also helps that the American Athletic Conference has been successful since its inception. Both UConn men and women basketball swept the titles; Larry Brown’s Southern Methodist team – who swept the Huskies in the regular season, and got woefully snubbed for the NCAA tourney – reached the final of the NIT. Cincinnati, Louisville and SMU all finished in the top-25. In football, Central Florida defeated Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl in January.
With Louisville leaving and Tulsa, East Carolina, and Tulane all coming in, the conference will ultimately get disrespected again by the masses. This could affect UConn and their perception with the committee, especially considering Napier’s absence. That’s their prerogative. Even though I’ll forever stand by UConn getting shafted with a 7 tournament-seed – though it obviously didn’t matter – the Huskies are brilliant when they’re doubted.
We could count the people who had UConn winning the title this year on one hand. But with a new banner in Gampel, there’s certainly reason for optimism looking towards the future. Coach Ollie is one of the premier coaches in America after just two seasons and most importantly, kids genuinely enjoy playing for him. There’s a new culture in Storrs and it’s not only fun, but now proven.
Losing Napier is tough, but so was losing Kemba and Calhoun. So was losing Lamb and Drummond. And so was the postseason ban.
The Huskies have been through this before. And they’ll be just as resilient in 2014-15.
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