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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
When you have two national championships and an induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame on your resume, you can afford to look at a season in which no starters return and nine players will be stepping onto a college practice court for the first time as an adventure or an experiment. Coaches with two or three years experience and a mandate to win now or find new work would be frightened by the prospect of such uncertainty, even if half the new faces are all-Americas. That's the difference 700-plus wins can make.
Jim Calhoun enters his 21st year at Connecticut with a rebuilding job that might awe some coaches. Gone are six stalwarts from a team that won 30 games last year. They were UConn's top six scorers, representing 87 percent of the team's offense last year. Four were first-round NBA draft picks, and all should be on NBA rosters this year. It was a huge exodus, one that could cripple a lesser program.
But Calhoun doesn't talk about absorbing blows or being laid low. He is looking toward February, when it could all come together into a stew that produces a couple of tournament wins and puts the Huskies on everybody's national-title short list in '08. Again, that's the luxury of having tenure. You can look ahead. Calhoun isn't looking past the 2006-07 campaign; it's just that he realizes the need for an altered set of expectations, especially after last year, when Connecticut was thought by many to be a national champion shoo-in.
Ah, last year. The Huskies entered the tournament with a gaudy 27-3 record and a top seeding. A Final Four trip was practically a given. Winning it all was well within reach. Then came George Mason and the mid-major haymaker. The Patriots scored one for all the little people by knocking out the Huskies in the East Regional final, leaving the nation's most talented team in a state of shock. For years to come, the '06 George Mason run will be remembered for its drama and surprise, especially given the absurdly uninformed remarks by certain mid-major haters among the big-conference-supporting TV crowd.
But '06 is over, and the new Huskies have nothing in common with that bunch. Calhoun can't promise a season without clashing egos and periods of disinterest, but he can be sure he won't be dealing with a team filled with number one options, all of whom thought at times that theirs was the brightest star in the sky.
"It's a different kind of challenge," he said. "Last year, we knew we were good enough to get there. We didn't, but we still won 30 games. I was happy with last year, but I wasn't satisfied. I would have been satisfied with a national championship. We had the talent but maybe not the makeup to do that. But we had some stretches that were great, like when we won 13 league games in a row."
Calhoun is right to be "happy" about last season. Any coach who sneers at 30 victories and an exciting ride should be looking for new work. But there is no question the 2005-06 Huskies underachieved in so much as they never came together into a unit that played good team basketball. There was always an underlying competition between the first six, all of whom had aspirations beyond the NCAA. That led to some pretty profound frustration for Calhoun, who displayed it openly during games by yanking players for mistakes and voicing his displeasure at great decibel levels.
He'll still yell this season, but Calhoun realizes there is a need for a little more restraint with a team that has no identity or track record. The trademark demanding personality will force the newcomers to work hard and push themselves, but the atmosphere is not likely to be as combative. Connecticut needs time, and Calhoun knows that.
"It will be enjoyable, and we have good kids, which makes it better," Calhoun said. "The kids have done everything we've asked them. We haven't had to do any yelling. A couple of kids were late for breakfast, but that's about it.
"I think we have all the pieces, but I don't know how they'll fit together."
The pieces are impressive, beginning with holdover forward Jeff Adrien and including point-man A.J. Price, who finally gets onto the court after three years of illness and off-court trouble. Hasheem Thabeet, a 7-3 freshman from Tanzania, has tremendous potential and should make an impact right away. Calhoun loves wing-guard Jerome Dyson, so pencil him in for one guard spot. Curtis Kelly will make an impact up front, as will Stanley Robinson. And holdovers Craig Austrie, Marcus Johnson and Rob Garrison will try to fit into the rotation, after making early contributions last year.
"We're more athletic than last year, and we're quicker," Calhoun said. "We're at least as big, but we don't have experience. Hopefully, by February, we'll be ready to be a factor in the NCAA Tournament.
"We have to find this team before everybody else does. What makes us go? Do we go back to playing 10 players and pressing full-court? It's an interesting team. There won't be too many teams bigger than us or quicker. Everybody wants to get into the laboratory and see what this group of athletic, hard-working kids can do."