Connecticut lost five players from a team that had a record of 20-12 (8-8 in the Big East Conference) last year. Three of them (5'3" Albert Mouring, 15.1 ppg; 6'8" Edmond Saunders (9.9 ppg and 7.2 rpg; and 6'11" Souleymane Wane, 4.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg) were starters. The other two didn't contribute much. Despite this, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook picked the Huskies to be the 12th best team in the nation this year.
The guy who is expected to be the star of the team is the shooting forward, 6'7", 235 lbs sophomore Caron Butler. That's understandable; how many freshmen scored 15.3 ppg and snatched off 7.6 rpg, as he did last year? He can dominate a game and it will be interesting to see if Vanderbilt can stop a strong, active, highly-skilled man who does most of his operating underneath the basket, but is capable of stepping away and hitting the three.
Taliek Brown, 6'1" sophomore, ran the team last year as a freshman. He did well (8.1 ppg, 4.9 apg), but there is considerable room for him to improve in his sophomore year. He was one of the most highly-recruited point guards as a senior in high school, and is undoubtedly a talented player. He needs to become a bigger offensive factor this year. In particular, as a freshman he scarcely attempted shots from outside the three-point line, and teams started falling off of him.
Johnny Selvie, the power forward, is nearly a twin in size for Butler, 6'7", 235 lbs. He came in last year as a junior college transfer and racked up good figures (10.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg).Tony Robertson, 6'1", will be the shooting guard after a sophomore year in which he averaged 7.2 ppg. These two players are quite capable, certainly better than role players but not big stars.
The starting center was expected to be 7'0" Justin Brown, a senior from Australia who never had done much in the past. But he came down with mononucleosis recently and probably wn't play in the Vanderbilt game. This means that the likely starting center is Emeka Okafor, a name well known to Commodore fans because he seemed to be heading for Nashville last fall, then backed off and reopened his recruitment, finally signing with Connecticut in the spring. At 6'9", 240 lbs, he has the size for the center job and, at this early stage of his career, is said to be a more capable defender than offensive threat. Since all of the other starters are capable of scoring plentifully, Coach Jim Calhoun can afford to let his freshman center concentrate on defense and rebounding.
What about the Huskies bench? Word is that Ben Gordon, 6'2" freshman, is a really good one. He can swing between the two guard positions, can score, and might eventually beat Robertson out of a starting job. Scott Hazleton, 6'8" redshirt freshman, has suffered from foot problems, but is well regarded and can play on the wing or underneath, but weights only 215 lbs. Robert Swan, 6'4" sophomore, is an outside shooter who once gave Vanderbilt some consideration (although Coach Stallings may not have gone after him strongly). Shannon Tooles, 6'5" sophomore, Mike Hayes, 6'8" junior college transfer, and Chad Wise, 6'5" freshman, complete the cast. Wise is said to be a shooter, Hayes mainly a rebounder, and Tooles is not highly skilled. It appears that the Huskies may lack depth and that six or seven men will carry the load, at least until Justin Brown comes back.
Vanderbilt played better against the first opponent, Liberty, than expecting, considering the two exhibition games and the absence of point guard Russell Lakey. Their defensive play and togetherness on offense (as shown by 22 game assists) were the brighest spots, in addition to good shooting. Rebounding and inside scoring continue to be question marks.
This will be the first regular-season game of the year for the Huskies. In an exhibition outing against a touring Nike Elite team, they won 105-77, and were led by Butler's 26 points and 10 rebounds. Selvie scored 23 points and Okafor had 10 points and 9 rebounds.
To summarize: Vznderbilt does seem to have better depth and certainly has more outside shooters and greater height, but the inside players have not yet shown that they can outrebound the opposition. Connecticut is likely to be more polished and a better defensive team. Calhoun is one of the most experienced and successful coaches in the business, having compiled a 349-142 record in his 15 years at UConn.
Connecticut has six or seven highly talented players, far beyond the level of Liberty, and at home they will be very hard to beat. There should be a good number of their supporters on hand and the crowd will be a factor. Clearly this is a game that Vanderbilt is expected to lose, but a solid showing shouldn't hurt morale and the game will provide valuable experience. An upset road win would really be a surprising over-achievement for a team that is loaded with sophomores and freshmen. The prediction here is for Connecticut to win by five to ten point, even IF the Dores play well. If they shoot poorly and/or turn the ball over a lot, the game will get away from them.