Team preview: Connecticut
Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.
Editor's Note: Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, long known as the Bible of college basketball, to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams. Previews of Connecticut, last season's NCAA Champion, and Wake Forest, No. 1 in ESPN.com's preseason rankings, are available to all readers, but only Insiders get access to previews of every team.
Jim Calhoun received a bit of an unpleasant surprise on the morning of April 5, when he narrowly missed election to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Never mind that Calhoun, in 32 years of coaching, has built up a resume that should place him among the game's all-time legends. He's 20 wins away from 700 on his career. He's tied with Roy Williams for the second-most 30-win seasons with five, trailing only Mike Krzyzewski (8). He has the seventh-most wins among active coaches, trailing Krzyzewski for sixth by 14.
He's 18th on the all-time victory list. He's been to the Sweet 16 10 times since 1990 and the Elite Eight six times in that span. By winning the Big East Tournament last year, the Huskies now have won a combined 14 league titles between the regular season and postseason, most in the league. And he basically built the UConn powerhouse on his own, from the ground up.
Presumably, the voters who left Calhoun off their ballots chose to ignore the above, or maybe just voted for people at random. Either way, Calhoun shook off the snub and made his case the best way he knew how: By going out and coaching his Huskies that very night to a laugher of an NCAA championship game, beating Georgia Tech, 82-73, in a game not anywhere near as close as the final score might suggest. That victory came two days after the Huskies pulled off a mind-boggling comeback in the final minutes to steal a 75-72 win from Duke in the semifinals.
The win gave Calhoun his second NCAA championship, to go along with the 1999 title. It was a championship season in which the Huskies were able to successfully manage the pressures of being anointed the consensus No. 1 from the start of the season.
And some still don't think he's a Hall of Fame coach?
For his part, Calhoun, who played his college ball at American International in Springfield, Mass., home of the Hall, publicly took the high road. "I was honored to be nominated," said Calhoun, who is 432-165 in 18 seasons at UConn. "I would hope someday to be worthy enough to be inducted with the people that I have incredible admiration for."
Of course, this season, Calhoun will have an opportunity to add another chapter to his legacy, and leave those who left him off the ballot look even more foolish. He's been in the position of having to regroup after winning the NCAA title before. Trying to replace Richard Hamilton (who went No. 7 overall) and Khalid Al-Amin was no easy trick.
The 1999 team, though, was 25-10 and played lights out in the tournament. Last year's team was expected to dominate from the get-go. And the starters Calhoun is looking to replace from last year's squad include Emeka Okafor, the Big East Player of the Year, who went on to play for the United States Olympic team and was drafted No. 2 overall by the Charlotte Bobcats in the NBA draft; forward Ben Gordon, who went one spot later to the Chicago Bulls, and pit-bull point guard Taliek Brown, the team's all-time leading assister.
That is a Chore, with a capital C. "Yeah, I've done this before," Calhoun said. "But it's a little different this time. The first time around it was no easy trick, but how often do you have to replace the No. 2 and 3 picks in the NBA draft? I've been doing this forever, and this is the first time and probably the last I'll be doing that."
The good news on that front is that even without Okafor and Gordon in the lineup, who would have been seniors had they stayed, the Huskies still have a roster practically bursting at the seams with players that would have started elsewhere, but couldn't get as much playing time as they wanted last year. They've experienced what it takes to win a national championship, and having played somewhere between bit parts and solid roles on last year's squad depending on the player, they want to bathe in the same glory as last year's crew.
Two starters return from last year's team, Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown. Two years in a row, the Huskies have landed one of the very best prospects in the country, players that considered going straight to the pros-Charlie Villanueva, who excelled in his role last year; and guard Rudy Gay, who is expected to play someone out of a starting job sooner than later. Point guard Marcus Williams was Taliek Brown's understudy last year and is said to already have better ball-handling skills. Josh Boone's shot-blocking skills-well, no one is going to forget Okafor anytime soon, but Boone can certainly hold his own. Forward Ed Nelson sat last year out after transferring from Georgia Tech and is chomping at the bit and ready to go.
And so on, and so forth, all up and down the Huskies roster. True, UConn is nowhere near as strong as it was last year. But what the Huskies bring back is enough to keep them in the top 25, and if this team gels fast enough, well, it would be a stretch to call UConn a favorite to reach the Final Four, but it is by no means a stretch to say they could get there.
"Its all about experience, about playing time, about getting the right chemistry," said Calhoun, who is 18 wins shy of 450 at the school. "It sure helps that we have the type of kids coming in with the credentials they have."
Over the off-season, Calhoun and UConn were in the headlines for reasons both silly and serious. Over the spring, Calhoun, a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, created a New York media mini-furor when he spurned New York Yankee overtures to throw out the first pitch for a game at Yankee Stadium and instead turned around and did so at Fenway Park.
"I couldn't do it," Calhoun said, with a laugh, about the Yankees' offer. "It was nice of them to ask, but I've been a Red Sox fan all my life. My life won't be complete until I see them win the World Series. The Yankees tried to claim they didn't invite me after I went to Fenway instead, but they did."
On a more serious note, the team had to dismiss assistant coach Clyde Vaughan after an August incident in which he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. Originally, Vaughan was going to be allowed to keep his job after expressing contrition and agreeing to community service, but a deeper background search by Connecticut authorities turned up other arrests under his given name of Clive Vaughan at other stops in his coaching career, so he was let go.
In early September, Calhoun hired Andre LeFleur, who was his point guard at Northeastern in the mid-1980s, as his new assistant. LeFleur was previously UConn's director of basketball operations.
"What happened was unfortunate," Calhoun said. "But this is an outstanding opportunity for Andre. A job like this is different from what he was doing before, of course, but I've known Andre forever and this is just the type of challenge he thrives on. And Andre was a point guard through and through and he's brining a lot of value working with our young guards."
F/C-EMEKA OKAFOR (6-10, 252, 17.5 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 1.1 apg, 4.1 bpg, 32.4 minutes, .4236 FG, .518 FT). Some people, you just don't replace. Okafor is one of them. An All-American on and off the court, Okafor got his degree in just three years and turned into one of the greatest defensive players in NCAA history. The honors speak for themselves: He was voted national player of the year by both the NABC and Sports Illustrated. He was also the national defensive player of the year two years in a row; the nation's leader in blocked shots with 147, and seventh on the all-time list despite just three collegiate seasons; national scholar-athlete of the year; most outstanding player of the Final Four; Big East Player of the Year, etc., etc.
Oh, and he did it all with a bad back, spasms that caused him to miss two games in the Big East Tournament and a few others during the regular season. No wonder he became UConn's all-time highest draft pick when Charlotte took him No. 2.
Okafor's status among the best players in UConn history, if not the single best, is already secure. And Calhoun is already wistfully reminiscing about him. "With Emeka in there, life was good," he said. "All you had to do was put him in there and everything would take care of itself. You don't have too many players like that come by in your lifetime."
SG-BEN GORDON (6-2, 195, 18.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.5 spg, 34.2 mpg, .450 FG, .433 3-point FG, .847 FT). Going into last season, Calhoun was frustrated by Gordon's inconsistent play, and he publicly issued a sharply worded challenge to his two-guard to bring his A-game night in and night out.
Gordon answered the call, and then some. The Mount Vernon, N.Y. native turned into a lights-out three-point shooter and is the school's all-time leader in threes made (246).
And he turned things up several notches in the postseason, earning Big East Tournament Most- Outstanding-Performer honors after averaging 27 points over three games, and the top scorer in the NCAA Tournment with 127 total points and a 21.2 average. Gordon is No. 6 on UConn's all-time scoring list with 1,795 points.
He opted for the NBA draft after his junior year and went third overall.
PG-TALIEK BROWN (6-1, 200, 6.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.4 spg, 30.5 minutes, .417 FG, .553 FT). Brown didn't get the over-the-top hype Okafor and Gordon did, and that was just the way he liked it. Brown knew his job-pass off to Okafor and Gordon-and if they got the ball to the hoop and got the glory, he knew he did what he was supposed to do.
That Brown did, as well as anyone in UConn history. Brown, an All-Big East honorable mention pick, is the only Husky to finish with more than 1,000 points and 700 assists. Last season he passed for a school-record 253 assists, which helped him set a school career record at 722.
"Just one of the toughest players you could ever ask for," Calhoun said. Marcus Williams has all the tools to be a starter, but Taliek was so tough, he wasn't letting anyone take the starting spot from him."
G/F-SHAMON TOOLES (6-5, 225, 0.6 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 0.3 spg, 6.0 minutes, .643 FG, .545 FT). Not a bad player by any means, Tooles simply got lost in a numbers game because of UConn's embarrassment of riches and saw his playing time diminish from his junior year. Tooles appeared in all but two games, largely in mop-up roles.
PG-MARCUS WILLIAMS (6-3, 205 lbs., SO, #5, 2.9 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.0 spg, 2.0 tpg, 14.1 mpg, .370 FG, .176 3PT, .692 FT, Oak Hill Academy/Mouth of Wilson, Va. and Los Angeles, Calif.). Williams played in 16 games last year and was yanked from basketball in the second semester to concentrate on his studies. Having gotten his academics in order, Williams is now ready to step in and take over for Taliek Brown.
How skilled is Williams in distributing the ball? Consider that he had 69 assists in just 226 total minutes.
"Marcus is as good a passer as anyone who's put on a UConn uniform," Calhoun said. "He would have been a starter on a whole lot of other teams last year, but Taliek was so tenacious, such a fighter, that he wasn't going to let anyone take that starting job away from him, even if Williams' pure skills are better."
Williams had 13 assists in just 24 minutes in a game against Sacred Heart, just one off the school single-game assist record.
SG-RASHAD ANDERSON (6-5, 215 lbs., JR, #31, 11.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 0.8 apg, 0.6 spg, 1.2 tpg, 22.2 mpg, .437 FG, .410 3PT, .785 FT, Kathleen HS/Lakeland Fla.). Anderson switched between the two and the three last season and will hold down the two this year for good reason. Anderson is the best pure shooter on the team and is the leading returning scorer. Anderson came on toward the end of last season and finished the season by scoring double figures in 12 of his last 15 games. He was the NCAA Tournament's second-leading scorer behind Gordon (17.3 ppg and .488 3PT) and was chosen to the Final Four All-Tournament team. His three pointers made (87) and percentage (.410) on the season trailed only Gordon.
Despite the wealth of talent and scoring ability UConn had at its disposal last season, Anderson had some big nights. He tied his career high with 28 points in the Elite Eight win over Alabama, matching his own school record by draining six three-pointers. He also scored 22 points in an NCAA first-round win over Vermont.
Anderson seems to excel in big games. He scored 14 points against Pitt in the Big East Tournament title game and 19 in a tournament semifinal win over Villanova.
"This is a big year for Rashad," Calhoun said. "I want him to do more of the same with the ball, and do it better. And I really want to see him step up his defensive game. All in all I want to see our defense step up, but Rashad more than others."
Anderson is also the team's best returning free-throw shooter (51-for-70 in 2003-04).
SF-DENHAM BROWN (6-6, 220 lbs., JR, #33, 8.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.6 spg, 1.7 tpg, 25.0 mpg, .438 FG, .391 3PT, .729 FT, West Hill Collegiate HS/Toronto, Canada). Brown goes into the preseason atop the depth chart of an absolutely loaded small-forward spot, with newcomers Rudy Gay and Ed Nelson behind him, and in theory Villanueva could play the spot as well.
He started off last season on a near-torrid pace, reaching double figures in 12 of his first 17 games, but reached that mark only three more times the rest of the season. But those early-season numbers-along with a strong performance on the Canadian National Team over the summer, where he averaged 13.4 points in the Four Nations Tournament (including 25 points and 11 boards in a loss to Brazil)-is enough to give him the starting nod heading into training camp.
When he's on, Brown's a smoking-hot long-distance shooter: He's 40.2 from beyond the arc in his career (66-164).
PF-CHARLIE VILLANUEVA (6-11, 240 lbs., SO, #3, 8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.7 apg, 1.5 bpg, 1.2 tpg, 19.0 mpg, .514 FG, .367 3PT, .667 FT, Blair Academy/Brooklyn, N.Y.). Not satisfied with being simply thought of as an NBA star in the making, Villanueva wants to make this his year, now. The already fearsome inside presence went out and add another 15 pounds of pure muscle in the off-season, and played on the gold-medal winning national under-21 squad in the World Championships for Young Men. With the Huskies' stacked lineup last season, Villanueva averaged only 19 minutes per game, but his performance in those limited minutes enabled him to be selected to the Big East All-rookie team. He started the two games Okafor missed in the conference tournament and averaged 10 points.
Oh, and to go with the added bulk, which is only going to make him stronger on the boards, he has a shooter's touch, making 18 threes last season, not something you often see from someone with the size and strength to play the five spot if needed.
"It's this simple," Calhoun said. "I told him I expect him to lead the team in scoring this year. He was like a caged tiger last year. He has all the tools and he has the confidence. He wants this to be his year."
Vlillanueva more than demonstrated last season that he's capable of leading the Huskies in scoring, and perhaps rebounding as well. He came up with four double-doubles, including a 16-point, 13-rebound performance against Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament. In the regular season, he torched Rice for 25 points in a game in Houston, making 10-of-11 shots, including three-for-three from three-point range. He came up with 19 points and 10 boards in a win over UMass and 15 points and 11 rebounds against Iona.
C-JOSH BOONE (6-10, 237 lbs., SO, #21, 5.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.7 apg, 0.6 spg, 1.7 bpg, 22.0 mpg, .555 FG, .405 FT, West Nottingham Academy/Mt. Airy, Md.). It would be understandable if people compared Boone to Okafor, simply because the sophomore is taking over his spot. But that would be unfair to Boone, because on his own, he is becoming quite a basketball player.
Last season, Boone started 37 games in a forward slot and quickly caught on, muscling his way in on the boards and swatting shots at an almost Okafor-like rate (there we go with that comparison again), blocking nearly two shots per game in just more than 22 minutes. If there were any doubts about his rebounding skills, he answered them in the Big East Tournament by taking down a total of 31 boards in the two games Okafor missed. He set a Big East Tournament record for rebounds in a game by a freshman with 16 in the quarterfinal win over Notre Dame.
"He has such great basketball instincts," Calhoun said. "He's such a great athlete, I'd love to see him go compete in a track meet just to see how many events he'd do well in." Boone was not highly recruited coming out of prep school. His performance last year vindicated UConn's style of recruitment. "In all my years here, we've only had four McDonald's All-Americans," Calhoun said. "Schools thrown themselves at players based on potential. We let players develop and get them when they're ready and when they fit our needs. Josh is going to be an NBA player some day, and he wasn't rushed along."
F/C-HILTON ARMSTRONG (6-11, 235, JR, #11, 2.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 9.1 mpg,0.7 bpg, 0.6 tpg,. 500 FG, .475 FTA Peekskill HS/Peekskill, N.Y.). Armstrong is a solid bench player who will eat up minutes when needed. Armstrong made one start last year, spelling Okafor in a game against Quinnipiac, and had his first career double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
He started 22 games as a freshman, but saw his minutes slip last year. Armstrong will be in the hunt for more playing time this season. He'd be a starter at about 300 other Division I schools in the country.
F-RUDY GAY (6-9, 215, FR. #22 21.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 3.7 bpg, 1.5 spg, Archbishop Spalding HS/Baltimore, Md.) The buzz on Gay is that for the second straight year, Calhoun may have quite possibly nabbed the best high school or prep player who didn't opt for the NBA draft, as Gay seriously pondered going pro but decided against it.
It's not hard to see why he considered going straight to the NBA. A consensus All-American, Gay is a talented athlete and a tremendous dunker. He was the Capitol area player of the year and the top ranked prospect at the Nike All-America camp in the summer of 2003.
Gay will go into the season slotted behind Brown at small forward, but it's not inconceivable that he could be in the starting lineup before the season's out.
"He's something to watch," Calhoun said. "He has all the talent in the world. He's ready to play."
F-ED NELSON (6-8, 265, JR. #32, 8.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg in 2002-03, Georgia Tech/Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) As he practiced last season while ineligible to play after transferring from Georgia Tech, Nelson found himself with an admirer: Emeka Okafor. "Ed Nelson can play," Okafor said after an informal shoot-around last year. "He's going to be such a big addition to this team, its too bad he can't come in right now."
Well, now's his time. The former ACC rookie of the year averaged 8.3 points and 6.7 rebounds over two seasons with the Yellow Jackets. He's a big strong physical force that can play anything from the three to the five-with his tenacity making up for lack of height should he need to play center.
Nelson participated in an NIT All-Star tour of China over the summer and averaged 9.9 points over eight games.
As a sophomore, Nelson had some big moments, averaging 13.0 points and 7.3 rebounds against Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Clemson to end the regular season. He scored 22 points (on 9-of-16 shoot) and grabbed nine boards against Duke in perhaps the best game of his career. Nelson grabbed double figures in rebounds five times, including 13 against North Carolina, 12 against Maryland and 11 against Wake Forest.
Clearly, UConn is adding another stalwart who have proven his worth against the best in the game.
F-MARCUS WHITE (6-9, 230 lbs., SO, #23 2.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 6.8 mpg, Whitney Young HS/Chicago, Ill.). White appeared in only four games last season before a building disk in his back caused him to miss the rest of the season. He had off-season back surgery and is on track to be almost, if not completely recovered by the beginning of the season.
A strong rebounder, White reached double figures in boards four times as a freshman and was second on the team that season at 5.6 per game. By all counts, he should be a valuable contributor off the bench.
F-RYAN THOMPSON (6-6, 215 lbs. JR, #13, 13.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.1 apg in 2002-03, Western Nebraska CC/Scottbluff, Neb. and Gold Coast, Australia). UConn's ridiculous depth last season allowed the Huskies to red-shirt this highly regarded junior college transfer last year.
At Western Nebraska he showed great leadership and court savvy on a balanced team. The left-hander shot 46 percent from the field and a solid 38 percent (70-for184) from three-point range. Nine times he scored 20 or more points, with a high of 28 against Northeast Nebraska.
G-A.J. PRICE (6-0, 170 lbs., FR, #12, 28.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, Amityville HS/Amityville, N.Y.) Touted as one of the best guards to come out of Long Island in quite some time, Price brought horror to his foes at Amityville High, winning three Long Island championships and a pair of state titles in the process.
He scored 1,394 points and made 130 three-pointers in his career. Price can play either guard spot.
G-ANTONIO KELLOGG (6-3, 190 lbs., SO, #20, 25.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 7.0 apg, 7.0 spg, McClymonds HS/Oakland, Calif.). Kellogg had seemingly every school on the West Coast begging for his services, but he had his mind set on UConn from the get-go and didn't let anything get in his way of becoming a Husky. In Kellogg, UConn gets a strong three-point shooter and aggressive defender who earned all-state and defensive-player-of-the-year honors as a junior and senior.
No Okafor? How do you replace the national player of the year?
Point problems? Poing guard Taliek Brown was the heart of the Huskies. Again, how do you replace that?
Inexperienced? A lot of newcomers will log big minutes. Are they up to the task?
Size! Even without Okafor, the Huskies can trot out a huge lineup.
Depth! UConn is two deep at every position. There will be no drop-off when Calhoun gives his starters a rest.
Jim Calhoun! This man is a hall-of-famer in Blue Ribbon's book.
Last year, Calhoun said if his team simply played at the level he though it should play, the Huskies would get a berth in the Final Four in San Antonio.
In 2004-05, Calhoun thinks his team has the potential to play its way to St. Louis. But far from last season's lock, Calhoun sees this team as one that needs to mature into such a position and have things break right to get there.
"One through 10, depth-wise, I think we are as good as any team in the country," Calhoun said. "I have guys in all my back-up spots that could start on any team in the Big East. One through five, that's something different. As of now [early September] our starting five isn't as seasoned as the top teams in the country. It's all going to come down to how quick we can get it together."
As defending national champs, of course, the Huskies will be wearing a figurative bulls-eye all season. It doesn't matter who isn't back, everyone wants to beat the champs. And the schedule won't do the Huskies any favors, either. UConn's home-and-home opponents on the Big East docket include fellow projected top 25 squads Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame (as well as Georgetown and Rutgers). Road games include potential land mines against pesky Providence and Seton Hall. One date to circle is UConn's home game against Boston College-Calhoun has not hidden his feelings on the matter of the way the Eagles went about leaving the Big East, and pointedly told The Boston Globe he will not be scheduling the Eagles again any time soon after this year.
This isn't likely to be the same joyride the Husky Nation went on last year, when UConn romped its way to the national championship and the women's squad followed up with a title of its own, making it the first such title sweep in college basketball history. But there's also no reason to believe the Huskies won't add to their eight Sweet 16 appearances since 1994 (a feat matched only by Duke, Kansas and Kentucky) or that another Final Four trip is out of reach.
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