Photo courtesy of Stephen Slade/UConn Athletic Department.
By David Cordova
The UConn Huskies have long been one of the best collegiate programs in the Northeast, especially during their time in the Big East Conference, where they won three national championships in 1999, 2004 and 2011 under legendary coach, Jim Calhoun. The fourth was won in 2014 with current head coach Kevin Ollie, while the program was in their first season in the American Athletic Conference. These days, the Huskies are adjusting to life in their new conference and continuing to establish excellence on the court.
But last season was a campaign that the Huskies would like to forget. It was a year in which they had a rough non-conference season, in which they went 5-6 and lost two freshmen and a sophomore to season-ending injuries. They did manage to go 9-9 in the AAC, which led to a 16-17 finish.
However, this season, the Huskies will be coming back older, wiser and now healthier. They lost three seniors to graduation and three other players to transfers. But UConn still has players such as junior guard Jalen Adams, sophomore guard Christian Vital and redshirt freshmen such as guard Alterique Gilbert and forward Mamadou Diarra. Redshirt junior forward Terry Larrier is also a returning player from last year who will provide plenty of scoring, rebounding and great play for the Huskies this season.
Their new crew of players consist of forwards junior college transfer Eric Cobb (Chipola College), graduate student David Onurah (Cornell), sophomore Kwintin Williams (Arizona Western College). And there are also three high school freshmen that are also good additions to their frontcourt in Josh Carlton, Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley. The lone guard who is new to UConn is Antwoine Anderson, another graduate student from Fordham.
They started their exhibition season on October 25th at Mohegan Sun Arena, in Uncansville, CT, against former Big East foe, Providence, to whom they lost, 90-76.
In Monday’s game against Division II Merrimack College at the XL Center in Hartford, which they won convincingly, 79-63, the Huskies showed some flashes that they could be a dangerous team this season, but also some concerns.
Throughout the first half, the game was very close as the Warriors hung on as they were able to rebound and capitalize on the Huskies mistakes as they were able to force eight UConn turnovers. However, the Huskies led 40-29 at the half and went into the second half on a tear, in which they would never relinquish the lead and pulled away for the victory.
The Huskies shared the ball well in the game with 18 assists, but also came away with 17 total turnovers throughout the game. Being that the team is very new, and will take time to jell together, it should be a learning experience for this year’s UConn team.
Larrier, who scored 17 points against Merrimack has the chance to be a force for the Huskies after suffering a season-ending injury last year. When asked about Larrier, Ollie replied, “I’m just glad that the ball is going in for him, he’s doing a great job, coming in and working. Every step, he’s just getting better and better and better and we’ve got to understand, he hasn’t played in two years, so we just want to make sure that we take it easy on him and don’t put too much pressure on him. We just want him to take his time and good things will happen for him.”
Coach Ollie also was pleased with the effort that the new forwards on the team gave in the win. But he also knows that this year’s team isn’t yet a finished product, but a work in progress, due to all the new pieces in the puzzle.
“Every day, we’re just trying to get better. We’ve got pretty much eleven new guys on the team, so we’re just focusing on doing the small things that’s going to lead us to big things for us, and we’ve just got to continue to do that and execute and keep challenging each other and make sure we play together,” says Coach Ollie about the new squad.
Whaley was dominant in the game, scoring 10 points and showing a lot of athleticism, including a couple of dunks that excited the crowd. When asked about Whaley, Ollie replied, “In eight minutes, he got 10 points and five rebounds and some of the stuff on the stat sheet that didn’t show up, showing out on pick & rolls, being active with his hands out, he was all over the place. Being young like that and showing up with the things he did that don’t show up on the stat sheet, was amazing. He’s going to keep getting better & better, because he’s just a yes-man. Whatever I say, he say ‘yes,’ you know, we love that. Those are the type of basketball players we want, we want players that will be in every play. If he can continue that, he’ll have a bright future here at UConn.”
Moving forward, the Huskies have one final exhibition game tomorrow against Queens College (NY) at their home campus arena, Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, CT, and then they will start their home season this coming Friday, November 10th against Colgate University.
They also have some great non-conference games coming up, such as the PK80/Phil Knight Invitational around Thanksgiving Week in Portland, Oregon, the matchup against Monmouth at the XL Center on December 2nd, the Jimmy V Classic battle against another Big East rival, Syracuse, on December 5th, at Madison Square Garden in New York. There will also be two road games against Arizona (December 21st) and Auburn (December 23rd) to finish out non-conference play before they start AAC play against Wichita State on December 30th.
As long as the Huskies play hard and stay competitive, there is a chance that the Huskies will have a very strong season. With the new nucleus that they have, only time will tell.