By Jon Rothstein
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Jim Calhoun has won three national championships and has a place in Basketball’s Hall of Fame.
He’s a coaching deity whose built UConn into a national power and virtual factory for future NBA players.
But Calhoun, who hates losing maybe more than any other coach in sports, is about to undertake perhaps the greatest challenge of his legendary coaching career.
Due to the Huskies low APR which is a result of their poor academic standing, UConn will be ineligible to participate in both the 2013 Big East and NCAA Tournaments. For a coach whose made his mark on his ability to motivate, getting a group of 18-22 kids ready to play each and every night with no reward at the end of their schedule could wind up being one of the more arduous tasks Calhoun’s ever had to encounter.
“We don’t expect the NCAA to give in,” Calhoun said recently in reference to the APR situation. “But that doesn’t stop our enthusiasm for next season. We’ve been through difficult things before at UConn. I know I’m looking forward to it and so are the kids. They’re anxious for the challenge.”
And that’s exactly what it’ll be. After the departures of both Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond to the NBA and the decisions of starters Roscoe Smith (UNLV) and Alex Oriakhi (Missouri) to transfer, the Huskies will be short on size and depth — but not necessarily on speed and talent.
“The biggest thing I’m excited about is the different ways we can play,” Calhoun said. “We’re not going to be as big as we’ve been in years past but we’ve got some quickness. We’re going to be versatile. We’re going to have to be a team that’s more of a pest. We’ll be a nuisance for a lot of teams to play.”
UConn returns only one true interior presence in 6-foot-9 junior power forward Tyler Olander. The rest of the Huskies on the floor could be predominantly perimeter players headlined by an electric back court consisting of veterans Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Both Napier and Boatright averaged over 10 points, three rebounds, and four assists a game last season.
“Those two give us two guys that can give us 20 plus on any given night,” Calhoun said of Napier and Boatright. “Shabazz was a key piece to our national championship team two years ago and Ryan has all the makings of a terrific, terrific player. He’s going to be one of the best athletes we’ve ever had at UConn. Omar Calhoun also, even though he’s a freshman is going to have an impact. He’s going to get minutes. He can really get to the foul line.”
In addition to Calhoun, a talented guard from Christ The King high school in Queens, UConn will add freshmen forwards Phil Nolan and Leon Tolksdorf as well as 5th year transfer R.J. Evans, a 6-foot-3 guard that averaged 11.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game last year at Holy Cross.
Veteran wing Niels Giffey also returns as does talented 6-foot-8 sophomore Deandre Daniels, who ineffectiveness as a freshman hurt the Huskies offensive firepower off the bench last season.
“He’s got to be better than he was last year and he will be,” Calhoun said of Daniels. “We need him to take the next step.”
There’s no title to play for and no traditional lineup set to take the floor for UConn but the Huskies still have ability — and that alone will win them more than a few games in the Big East.
“Do I think we have a great team talent wise?,” Calhoun said. “Probably not as great as we’ve had, but we were more talented last year than we were two years ago when we won the national championship and we struggled all year and got beat badly by Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament. We’re going to have to do some things differently than we’ve done in the past but that’s part of what’s exciting.”
What’s your prediction for the Huskies next season? Be heard in the comments below…