A year ago, the state of Connecticut was buzzing with championship aspirations, as the Huskies were getting set to field a team made up of valuable returning players and talented newcomers. Huskynation was legitimately thinking national title. Unfortunately, the season proved to be one marred by inconsistency, and by the time UConn put most of the pieces together, the damage had been done, and they were lining up to play the juggernaut number one overall seed Kansas Jayhawks in the round of thirty-two. After a summer of reloading, the Huskies enter this season with the same expectations, encouraged by a group of returning players and one of the top freshmen classes in the country. Here are the five reasons why the UConn Huskies will be celebrating in Phoenix next April.
Three years ago, Shabazz Napier led a nearly unprecedented run to the national championship. This victory was only nearly unprecedented, because three years before that, when Napier and fellow classmates Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey were freshmen, Kemba Walker put them on his legendary back, and carried the Huskies to a championship. Now, the three remaining members of the 2014 team, interior players Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah, along with guard Rodney Purvis (who redshirted per transfer rules in 2014, but was on the roster), are in the leadership seats, glistening with the experience they earned three years prior. There is no pressure like competing for a national championship, and all three of these seniors have it, and will likely use their poise and maturity as key rotation players for the Huskies. They know what kind of mental preparation and physical state it takes to win the chaotic storm that is March Madness, and having such experience is indispensable.
Drifting from the abstract to the empirical, it is no secret that free-throw shooting is critical to winning games, especially the tight contests that define March Madness. Having a unit that can knock down free throws consistently is like having Mariano Rivera in the bullpen; all a team needs is a lead going into the end of the game, and they will close out the opponent with tenacity. In 2015-16, UConn led the entire nation in free-throw percentage, hitting 79.3 percent from the line. Even though they lost three of their best shooters in Daniel Hamilton, Sterling Gibbs, and Shonn Miller (all hit better than 80 percent), the Huskies return talented shooters in both Jalen Adams, who hit 86 percent, and Amida Brimah, whose 82 percent mark from the line is particularly impressive for a center. While Rodney Purvis only hit 66 percent for the season, he was over 70 percent from January onwards, showing major improvement from his poor percentage in 2014-15. UConn under Kevin Ollie has stressed free throws, and with such policies in place, there is little doubt this year’s team will also shoot an exceptional percentage.
UConn’s vaunted freshmen class features a trio of talented forwards, all 6’8” or taller. In addition, blue-chip transfer Terry Larrier is now eligible, and at 6’8” and roughly 200 pounds, slots in perfectly as a starting small forward and stretch power forward. This influx of talented size gives UConn seven players that can play on the interior for various stretches of time, a wealth of depth the Huskies have not had in the frontcourt since the days of Jim Calhoun. Besides redshirt-sophomore Larrier, freshman Vance Jackson can also slot in at the three. However, the 6’8” Jackson weighs in at 230 pounds, and is more than capable of playing the four when necessary. Mamadou Diarra is a 6’8”, 215 pound four-man with a high motor and the attitude of a junkyard dog when competing on the glass. Arguably the most talented newcomer is Juwan Durham, a 6’11” forward who ranked as a top fifteen recruit in the class of 2016 before tragically tearing ACLs in both his knees over the past two years. However, he has been back on the court since the start of practice this fall, and is reportedly one hundred percent. While no one can be sure until the games start, Durham appears to be back on track towards reaching his potential as a future lottery pick. All of these players bring different skills to complement Facey, Brimah, and sophomore center Steve Enoch, giving UConn a wealth of weapons to use in the paint.
Last year’s high expectations were due in part to the arrival of two grad-transfers, Shonn Miller and Sterling Gibbs. However, in some cynical respects, these two were more hired mercenaries than student athletes, coming to UConn for the basketball team first and graduate program second. It can be a formula for destruction, counting on grad-transfers to come right into a program, oftentimes stepping into a major role, and expecting them to not miss a beat and blend right in. This year, UConn has no grad-transfers. Rodney Purvis has been at UConn for four years; his previous time at NC State is nothing more than some fond memories. Terry Larrier has been practicing with this team for over a year, and should be indoctrinated into Coach Ollie’s regime by this point. There should be no on-court issues related to players not knowing each other or not having trust. This is not a knock on the attitudes of Miller and Gibbs; by literally every account, they loved UConn, fit in with their teammates, and were unconditionally appreciated by the fan base. However, off-court chemistry does not always correlate to on-court chemistry, which for the Huskies, should be much better this year.
The American Conference Tournament
Lastly, the 2017 AAC Tournament is a reason UConn could win the national title. The location of the contest is the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut, one of the two buildings in which UConn hosts home games. They will have an overwhelming advantage come at that critical time of the year, playing literal home games in their quest for the all-important conference tournament title. While winning the conference tourney is not a requirement for cutting down the nets in April, as Villanova showed several months ago, many teams benefit from the friction a strong run through a conference tournament brings. Momentum is key in single-elimination tournaments, where being hot can trump having a better roster, and oftentimes can carry arguably less talented teams to the third weekend, or the national title. In 2011, the five games in five days run was paramount in setting up the Huskies for tournament success, as was the run Louisville made in the 2013 Big East tournament. 2006 saw Florida’s run to a title previewed by the squad winning the SEC championship. Having the conference tournament in Hartford gives UConn a chance to jump start their own potential run and build the momentum necessary to thrive in March Madness.
The beginning of a new season is a time of wonder and expectation for fans of all college basketball programs. It brings hope for improvement from returning players, and desire to see heralded newcomers perform. The beauty of November is that every team starts at the same mark: 0-0. Every team in the nation can have legitimate dreams of capturing a national title. While in reality this isn’t quite true, the abstract emotion of hope offers teams the chance to think big at the beginning of the season. There is nothing but blank pages ahead, waiting to be filled in. This is true not just at UConn, but every school from sea to shining sea. So, get ready to throw the ball in the air, referees, because college basketball season is nearly here, and with it, the indescribable hope and unwavering affection that defines each individual fan.