UConn Hoops: Looking Forward to Next Season

UConn was 4-0 in the Final Four and fate seemed to be guiding the Huskies to a third national championship. With star guard Jerome Dyson on the bench and amidst serious allegations of recruiting violations coach Calhoun seemed to have his team focused and ready. Then the Huskies ran into Michigan State.

Despite the enormity of the loss in the mind of UConn's fans and the unfamiliar sight of the Huskies returning without a trophy, this year's team exceeded my – and I would argue many others – expectations.

As a tough a loss as UConn's national semifinal exit at the hands of the Spartans was to swallow, all hope is not lost.  Despite the graduation of A.J. Price, Craig Austrie and Jeff Adrien as well as the departure of Hasheem Thabeet to the NBA, there is still much to get excited about for next year's team.

As lovable as the 2008-09 team was, next years squad may take the cake for an underdog team that the entire nation, not just UConn fans, can get behind.

Preseason rankings aside, next year's team –even without Thabeet ­– will have just as much potential and the ability to go as far if not farther than this year's group.

The first argument made by naysayers is that UConn simply can't bounce back from losing Thabeet , the 2009 Big East Player of the Year and a two-time National Defensive Player of the Year.  Despite what many may believe the Huskies will have a stacked frontcourt next fall even without the 7-foot-3 Tanzanian.

Waiting in the wings to fill the role at center is Charles Okwandu.  Okwandu, who sat out the spring semester due to academic ineligibility, is a massive physical specimen at 7-foot-1, 255 pounds.  While he looked fundamentally raw in the few minutes he saw last fall, so did Thabeet in his first year in Storrs.

Okwandu has the advantage of a year of practice; much coming against one of the nation's top centers, and while it will take some time for him to polish off his game Okwandu has sky-high potential.  Regardless of his ball-handling and scoring abilities simply having a 7-foot center will require opponents to respect UConn in the post and give the Huskies a legitimate shot-blocking threat.

In addition to Okwandu the Huskies bring in a five-star McDonald's All-American in Alex Oriakhi.  Oriakhi's prep school, the Tilton School in Tilton, N.H., won the national prep championship largely behind his efforts. 

Oriakhi's play-style is very reminiscent of what Adrien did for four years at UConn, the major difference being that Oriakhi has at least two inches on Adrien.  While Adrien was a tremendous hustle player, much of his hustling was due to him trying to make up for his lack of size down low.  Oriakhi brings a similar motor to the table as well as a rapidly expanding mid-range game.  If Oriakhi can consistently hit hook shots and jumpers from 10 to 12 feet out he is going to be a force to be reckoned with at the four.

Last but not least, UConn has two senior forwards returning in Gavin Edwards and Stanley Robinson.  While Edwards is still unlikely to see a starting position he may see more minutes off the bench and he has shown he can produce given the circumstances. 

As for Robinson, after missing a semester due to personal matters Sticks returned fired up for the second half of the season.  He really didn't start to hit his stride until late in March and turned up his play in the NCAA Tournament.  While it's impossible to tell what you will get out of Robinson in any one game, he had 18 points and 11 rebounds against Providence before picking up two fouls in two minutes at Louisville in the next game, he brings a degree of athleticism that is unmatched by any player across the nation. 

Robinson is a prototypical NBA three and if he is able to expand his range to where it was in 2007-08 where he shot 42 percent from beyond the arc, he'll be another viable weapon on offense as well as a great defender on both the perimeter and in the post.

As if this returning wealth of talent wasn't enough, it gets better when you look to UConn's backcourt.  While Price and Austrie will graduate Dyson and Walker will return and look to be one of the most feared guard tandems in the NCAAs.

With the way that Walker against Missouri, 23 points and five assists, he is quickly proving himself to be one of the best young point guards in the country.  Walker's speed brings another dimension to the game and while he was often out of control earlier in the season he has since learned to slow down and circle the wagons if necessary, setting the Huskies up in the half-court offense.

Combine breakneck speed with a high basketball IQ and an ever-improving repertoire of passes and Walker has all the tools you look for in a point guard.  The only think the freshman lacks is a deep game, shooting a disappointing 27 percent from three.  However, Walker thrives off the dribble and has shown the impressive ability to create something out of nothing and finding a way to score whether it be on a penetration drive ending in a layup or from the free-throw line.

The last returning piece of the puzzle is Dyson who missed the last 12 games of the season after tearing his meniscus in UConn's 63-49 win over Syracuse.  Watching his team fall in the Final Four from the bench will only fire Dyson up to perform as highly as possible next season.

Prior to going down with a knee injury Dyson was establishing himself not just off the dribble where we were familiar with him scoring in bunches, but as a legitimate three-point threat.  Dyson was shooting a career-high 35 percent from beyond the arc before his injury including three triples a piece against Notre Dame and Michigan.

After missing nine games in 2008 due to violating team rules and 12 last year, Dyson will look to lead the team as a senior and make the most out of his last year in Storrs.  With Dyson starting in the backcourt alongside Walker one will be able to create space for the other as the Huskies will have two threats off the dribble as well as a guard who can take it outside and shoot it in Dyson.

So while many UConn fans are still trying to shrug off the hangover of April 4, trying to forget the day their Huskies lost for the first time ever in the Final Four, they should ahead look towards the future.

First night is only seven months away and I couldn't be more excited.


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