STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Coach Jim Calhoun says he’s not yet sure what to make of this year’s Connecticut Huskies.
But he loves coaching them.
After spending the summer responding to allegations of NCAA recruiting violations, the 68-year-old Hall of Famer is happy to be back in the gym teaching a team that includes six freshmen, all of whom are expected to see some playing time. A seventh, 7-foot-1 German center Enosch Wolf, is expected to join the squad in December, after being admitted to school for the second semester.
UConn, which went to a Final Four two seasons ago, is picked by the coaches to finish 10th in the Big East.
Calhoun says he’s had friends and NBA scouts come in to watch practice and has asked all of them what kind of team he has.
“Most people, say we’re athletic,” he said. “I think we’re long, I think we’re quick, I think we have more shooters than we did last year.”
But UConn, which went 18-16 last season and lost in the second round of the NIT, has just one legitimate star. That’s 6-foot-1 junior guard Kemba Walker, who averaged 14 points as a sophomore.
“Kemba clearly is a level above everybody else,” Calhoun said “We can’t stop him. Hopefully, nobody else will.”
Walker, a team captain, said he’s worked hard in the offseason to improve his shooting on the court, and his leadership skills off the court.
Before practice started this season, he invited the entire team to his apartment, where he cooked them all a fried chicken dinner.
“It was just something I wanted to do to help bond us all together,” he said.
Sophomore forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel joked that he was a bit worried the team would bond over the shared experience of food poisoning.
“But then he told me his mom walked him through every step, so I was alright with it,” he said. “He’s a great leader. This is probably his last year here, so we’re going to make the most of it.”
Calhoun said he’s seen improvement in Coombs-McDaniel and is looking for more from sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi, who has struggled during practice with a mask he’s been forced to wear after breaking his nose.
But it’s the freshmen who could make or break the season. That class includes: highly touted Roscoe Smith, a 6-8 player who is trying to learn both the small and power forward positions; Michael Bradley, a 6-10 center with an outside shot; Jeremy Lamb, a 6-5 swingman and perimeter shooter; Niels Giffey from Germany, a 6-7 outside threat; and 6-foot point guard Shabazz Napier, who is Walker’s heir apparent.
“We are a majority of freshmen, but I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Smith said. “We know we lost Stanley Robinson and Jerome Dyson, a lot of players, so we’ve got to contribute a lot.”
Calhoun said the biggest surprise has been 6-10 freshman Tyler Olander, who played his high school basketball less than a mile from Gampel Pavilion at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs.
He said Olander showed he can shoot, set screens and rebound. It was originally though that Olander might redshirt his freshman season.
“Tyler’s the best post player we have,” Calhoun said.
UConn opens the season on Nov. 12 against Stony Brook, and Calhoun said fans shouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of outside shooting, a lot of running and perhaps more zone defense.
“But as far as what we are, who we are, how good we’re going to be,” Calhoun said, “I don’t have those answers.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.