Non-Conference Schedule No Test

STORRS – The defending national champion Connecticut Huskies begin the season with lots of expectations. This isn't one year ago. Things have changed drastically.

Here's one of those expectations: The Huskies should be 11-0 when they open the Big East season Dec. 28 at South Florida. The non-conference schedule isn't the weakest ever put together but there aren't a lot of challenges facing this UConn team until conference play.

As expected, coach Jim Calhoun defends the schedule as good for the Huskies. He points to last season's RPI of Harvard (40) and College of Charleston (59) as examples.

"They are better than some of the teams we play in our league," Calhoun said. "So, it's a deceptively tougher schedule than people think. Fairfield is picked to win its league, I think. Those are the kind of games, in some ways, that you fear because of the lack of name recognition by our kids. But, in turn, they're good enough to beat you."

The Huskies will make the NCAA tournament. Don't worry. But when it comes to strength of schedule, it's a good thing UConn has the Big East to add the power. This non-conference schedule won't do much for the Huskies.

Here's the breakdown:

Columbia (Nov. 11, Gampel): UConn will play Harvard, the Ivy League favorite, later in the season. In fact, UConn could play Harvard twice if they end up meeting Thanksgiving weekend in the Battle 4 Atlantis. But Columbia is at the bottom of the Ivy, picked to finish seventh. Coach Kyle Smith led the Lions to a 15-13 overall record last year – just the second winning season in 18 years for Columbia. The guard tandem of Noruwa Agho and Brian Barbour is outstanding, but the big men aren't as experienced or as talented. UConn will focus its attention on Agho.

Wagner (Nov. 14, Gampel): The Seahawks are full of great storylines. Wagner was 13-17 last season and 9-9 in the Northeast Conference. Under first-year coach Dan Hurley, that was an eight-game improvement in the victory column. Now Hurley has five starters back and his top two reserves. Senior guard Tyler Murray, one of the top players in the NEC, leads the way. Sophomore guard Latif Rivers was an NEC All-Rookie choice. This is an experience team that could finish in the top three of the NEC. Hurley's brother, former Duke standout Bobby Hurley, is an assistant coach. Dan played for UConn associate head coach George Blaney at Seton Hall.

Maine (Nov. 17, XL Center): Coach Ted Woodward pays another visit to UConn, where he once served as an assistant coach under Jim Calhoun. The Black Bears are tabbed to finish in the bottom half of the America East this season but may have the best player in the conference in senior guard Gerald McLemore, who average 13.7 points last season. Maine is coming off a strange season. Woodward's team was 14-7 through January but Maine lost eight of its last nine games. Again, this is another team with a solid backcourt. Newcomer Justin Edwards may start and give Woodward a three-guard lineup.

Coppin State (Nov. 20, XL Center): Diehard college basketball fans should recognize the Eagles from their many appearances in the NCAA tournament and from coach Fang Mitchell, who has won 395 games in 25 seasons at Coppin State. The Eagles were 16-14 last season and lost in the MEAC quarterfinals. The season ended with no contract for Mitchell and his future in doubt. But in April he agreed to a new three-year deal and that means the Eagles will be dangerous again. Coppin is picked third in the MEAC, behind Morgan State and Hampton. It's a good conference and the Eagles have five starters back but they don't have the depth to keep up with UConn.

Battle 4 Atlantis (Paradise Island, Bahamas): This visit to Paradise will include three games for the Huskies, Nov. 24-26. It will only be a happy Thanksgiving for Calhoun if the Huskies bring three victories home. That shouldn't be a huge problem. But UConn opens against UNC Asheville from the Big South, home to Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and other annoying first-round NCAA opponents. Asheville is the favorite to win the Big South and is led by preseason conference player of the year, senior guard Matt Dickey. His backcourt mate, J.P. Primm, is another preseason All-Big South selection. Could be a dangerous game.

UConn's second round game will be against either UCF or the College of Charleston. UCF, a possible future Big East member, is a top four team from Conference USA. Coach Bobby Cremins is trying to rebuild after losing Andrew Goudelock and Jeremy Simmons but newcomer Adjehi Baru could ease the pain at Charleston. Cremins will have Charleston playing very competitive ball again.

Ideally, UConn would advance to the championship game and face Florida State in the championship game. The Seminoles, coached by Leonard Hamilton figure to be the third best team in the ACC, behind North Carolina and Duke. A game against FSU would allow the Huskies to gauge themselves and a win would be a boost to the RPI. But strange things happen in these tournaments. UConn could be facing Utah, UMass or Harvard.

Arkansas (Dec. 3, XL Center): The Hogs of Arkansas provide one of the great traditions in college basketball. At this point, that is in name only. Arkansas was 18-13 last season and finished tied for third in the SEC West with Ole Miss at 7-9 – behind Alabama and Mississippi State. Arkansas hired Mike Anderson away from Missouri with the hope that he can restore a degree of Nolan Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell. Arkansas has only been to the NCAA tournament once in the last nine years. That's the hell Arkansas fans have been enduring. Anderson has a lot of work. Three players left the program, including leading scorer Rotnei Clarke.

Harvard (Dec. 8, Gampel): This is a great game for the Huskies at home, unless it is the second matchup with Harvard in less than two weeks. No one wants to do that in non-conference play. Coach Tommy Amaker has the Crimson focused on ending the school's NCAA drought, which dates back to 1946. Yes, 1946. Harvard was 23-7 overall and 12-2 in the Ivy last year but lost that epic playoff game to Princeton that determined the Ivy representative in the NCAA tourney. Senior forward Keith Wright is the guy to watch. But four of his teammates scored in double figures. Amaker, the former Duke star, brought in another great recruiting class and has an excellent team.

Holy Cross (Dec. 18, XL Center): It's awesome to see these two old New England rivals back together. Holy Cross and UConn staged some historic games back in the days of the Yankee Conference. UConn should play teams like UMass, Rhode Island, Holy Cross and Boston College (that's right, BC). Maybe Boston U., until Calhoun retires. Holy Cross was 8-21 last season but coach Milan Brown was hired away from Mount St. Mary's and he has a talented group of guards led by Devin Brown (15.4 ppg). Holy Cross is picked to finish second or third in the Patriot League.

Fairfield (Dec. 22, XL Center): It's the Olander family reunion and we're all invited. Isn't that nice? UConn's Tyler Olander will face off against brother Ryan, who plays for the Stags. This is going to be difficult on the Olander parental unit from Mansfield, but one way or the other they have a rooting interest in the winning team. Fairfield and Iona are expected to battle for the Metro Atlantic championship. The Stags won 25 games last season but are still dreaming of a trip to the NCAA tournament. They were crushed when coach Ed Cooley departed for Providence College. But Sydney Johnson, the former player, assistant coach and head coach at Princeton, has taken over and has the Stags believing in the promised land. All-conference guard Derek Needham returns and is joined by transfers Rakim Sanders (Boston College) and Desmond Wade (Houston). The Stags have enough talent to ruin UConn's Christmas vacation.

At Tennessee (Jan. 21, Thompson-Boling Arena): Another big time program from the SEC that won't live up to its name, just like Arkansas. That is not UConn's fault. This series (Tennessee played UConn in Hartford last year) was set up as a home-and-home for CBS TV. When the contract was signed, nobody knew Bruce Pearl was going to drag the Vols through the NCAA mud. Pearl was fired March 22. Cuonzo Martin was hired away from Missouri State and now the rebuilding process begins –without most of the good Tennessee players. Martin, a former star at Purdue, is tough enough for the job. He grew up in East St. Louis, Ill, and has beaten cancer. This will be UConn's big non-conference road test. It's a tough place to play. The fans still love their Vols. But UConn should win, under the circumstances. The Huskies are the better team.


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