UConn Basketball Preview

Basketball season is getting ever so closer, less than a month to go before the Huskies host the MAC's Buffalo Bulls. <B>Scout.com</B> kicks off the season preview with a look at the NCAA Defending Champion Connecticut Huskies.

GETTING INSIDE

The defending champions lost three key starters this offseason -- Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon to the NBA Draft lottery, and Taliek Brown to graduation. It's replacing the low-profile Brown, a four-year starter for coach Jim Calhoun at the point, that might be the biggest obstacle to a return to the Final Four.

Entering the offseason, Calhoun knew that his only "experienced" point guard was Marcus Williams, a sophomore who missed the second half of his freshman campaign because of academic problems. He hoped that the addition of highly touted high-schooler A.J. Price would give him a strong option.

But Price suffered an intracranial hemorrhage in early October, and at this point his basketball status is the furthest thing on anybody's mind. (Price was released from Hartford Hospital and is now at home with his family in Amityville, N.Y.) The Huskies are now simply hoping that he'll be OK and suffer no permanent damage -- a return to the basketball court would be a huge bonus.

Instead, fellow freshman Antonio Kellogg, a shooting guard in high school, will get a crash course in playing the point. He'll be Williams' primary backup, and after four years of steady play from Brown, it's anyone's guess how Calhoun will react to the inexperienced tandem he now has.

Aside from that, the cupboard is as full as possible for a team losing the numbers two and three 2004 NBA draft. picks, Okafor and Gordon, respectively.

This team has shooters who can beat you from the outside, a strong physical presence in the paint, and young phenoms like Charlie Villanueva and Rudy Gay who can score from the outside, drive the lane, or post up underneath as needed. There won't be any Big East coaches shedding a tear for Calhoun's troubles.

Expect to see a lot of pressing from opponents instead, at least until the point guards at UConn prove themselves.

NOTES, QUOTES

STRENGTHS: The Huskies are still one of the most talented teams in the country. Newcomers Rudy Gay and Ed Nelson (transfer - Georgia Tech) should step right in to fulfill key roles; and there's a lot of skill and athleticism available off the bench.

WEAKNESSES: A.J. Price's medical situation leaves the Huskies perilously thin in the backcourt. If this were the NBA, Jim Calhoun would be burning up the phone lines to trade one of his seemingly endless supply of small forwards for an experienced point guard.

LAST YEAR: 33-6 overall, 12-4 in the Big East; won NCAA title.

HEAD COACH: Jim Calhoun (career 680-302); 19th year at UConn (432-165).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's different to not have that defensive stopper in there. We're all going to have to step in and do that job, but Hilton is doing a great job. He's blocking every shot." -- Power forward Josh Boone in the Hartford Courant on center Hilton Armstrong's impact in early practices in filling the hole left by Emeka Okafor's departure.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

SCOUTING THE NEWCOMERS: Rudy Gay might be the best freshman in college and will have an immediate impact off the bench, and fellow freshman Antonio Kellogg will secure significant minutes in a thin backcourt. Ed Nelson will also get to play right away at either forward slot.

KEY EARLY-SEASON GAME: Dec. 9 at Massachusetts.

The Huskies face a regional rival that always gives them trouble, and this is early enough in the season that players will be adjusting to their new roles. It's a tough early road test for the defending champs.

PROGRAM DIRECTION: Descending ... but only slightly. Hey, when you finish the previous season on top, there's nowhere to go but down the following year, and this team's a year away and too thin in the backcourt to really be an NCAA championship contender.

PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP: Point guard Marcus Williams, shooting guard Rashad Anderson, center Hilton Armstrong, power forward Josh Boone, small forward Charlie Villanueva.

ROSTER REPORT: Rashad Anderson averaged 17.3 points per game during the Huskies' NCAA Tournament run. He'll be the team's top offensive threat at the start the season. ... Rudy Gay won the UConn dunk contest at Midnight Madness; Anderson was the top three-point shooter. ... Forward Jeff Adrien and wingman Marcus Johnson became the first two high-school seniors to give oral commitments to the Huskies for the 2005-06 season.


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