Winning the NCAA national championship means absolutely nothing one year later when the next tournament field is being assembled. There are no automatic entries handed out based on past performance. The Connecticut Huskies learned that the hard way in 2015.
One year after that amazing run to the national championship under coach Kevin Ollie, the Huskies struggled through a 20-15 season and a fifth place finish in the American Athletic Conference. Injuries, poor execution, struggles on offense, and a lack of chemistry put the Huskies in a precarious position early. And despite a nice run of three consecutive victories in the AAC tournament, UConn lost to SMU 62-54 in the championship game, failing to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA.
UConn became the ninth reigning champion ever to miss the tournament the following year. Instead, the Huskies ended their season with a NIT first-round loss to Arizona State at home.
“I still have a bad taste in my mouth from last year,” guard Rodney Purvis said as the Huskies embarked on a new preseason. “Eventually, you’ve got to move on. Last year we worked hard but we came up just short. That only means you’ve got to work harder this year.”
It’s time for the Huskies to answer that bell.
Key Offseason Departures: Ryan Boatright (guard), Terrence Samuel (guard).
From Kemba Walker to Shabazz Napier to Ryan Boatright, UConn has had a stretch with great point guards who could score, pass and lead the Huskies. After combining with Napier to help UConn to a national championship in 2014, Boatright basically found himself alone in the backcourt last season. He did everything in is power, but wins didn’t come easy and there was no consistent help on offense.
Boatright led the Huskies, averaging 17.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists but opponents knew if they stopped him, UConn could be turned back. He finished his career ranked eighth in scoring in UConn history with 1,786 points and ninth in assists with 491. He leaves behind a legacy as one of the most popular UConn players ever.
Samuel played a key defensive role for UConn as a freshman in the 2014 NCAA tournament. Despite averaging over 20 minutes per game as a sophomore, Samuel’s impact wasn’t as great. There’s no doubt he could see that the addition of guards Sterling Gibbs and Jalen Adams would limit his playing time in the backcourt. Samuel transferred to Penn State, where he will sit out the upcoming season before using his final two seasons of eligibility.
Key additions: Sterling Gibbs (guard), Shonn Miller (forward), Jalen Adams (guard), Steven Enoch (forward).
This group of newcomers is the source of great excitement and optimism at UConn. Landing Adams, a highly-rated point guard, and Enoch, a Connecticut player with size and potential, gave the Huskies a respectable early recruiting class. But adding graduate transfers Gibbs and Miller in the spring changed the way prognosticators viewed UConn.
During his short tenure as UConn’s coach, Ollie has had great success with players who earned their degrees at other schools but had an extra year of eligibility and wanted to work on a graduate degree. Since Gibbs and Miller don’t have to sit out a season, their addition provides instant help.
“It’s a big part of recruiting now,” Ollie said of graduate transfers. “You’ve got to look at that and evaluate it. . . . We evaluated our team, what we need to go into next season and where we fell short last season. I think we tried to identify those points and make things better. I think competitiveness breeds success. This group is very, very talented.”
Gibbs, a 6-2 point guard, led Seton Hall in scoring (16.3 ppg) and assists (3.8 ppg) last season. Miller, a 6-7 forward, was a candidate for Ivy League player of the year at Cornell last season, averaging 16.8 points and 8.5 rebounds. Both are expected to work their way into the starting lineup.
Gibbs will play both guard positions and is expected to elevate UConn’s running game, creating scoring opportunities in transition.
“He plays at a pace you can’t get him out of,” Ollie said. “You can’t get him out of control and that’s something that I love as a point guard. He’s very unselfish, which I like too.”
Ollie will expect Miller to crash the boards and provide some much-needed frontcourt scoring. “Shonn is versatile,” Ollie said. “He’s a rebounding magnet. . . . He can do a little bit of everything.”
UConn fans will be tempted to compare Adams to Napier. Both are from Roxbury, Mass., and they bring the same style of play to UConn. Adams committed to UConn in June 2014 and figured to be Boatright’s successor – until Gibbs joined the roster. Adams has handled the situation well and looks forward to learning from Gibbs.
“Sterling has played in the [NCAA] tournament,” Adams said. “He knows how to lead a team as a point guard. I’ve seen how he plays and I think he fits in here.”
Look for Ollie to use several backcourt combinations, including Gibbs and Adams on the floor at the same time.
A strong non-conference schedule is an absolute must if the Huskies want to return to the NCAA tournament. There are talented teams at the top of the AAC but the overall balance of the league hurts UConn’s RPI. Ollie has done his best to cover the bases with a non-conference schedule that includes Georgetown, Maryland, Ohio State and Texas (perhaps twice).
After three games, UConn will head into the fire, playing in a Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas that is stacked.
“We’ve got to be ready,” Ollie said. “We’re not hiding from nobody. Battle 4 Atlantis is going to have everybody in there with Syracuse, Michigan and Texas. We might play Texas twice because we go to Texas. Ohio State comes here. We renew with one of our old Big East foes in Georgetown, which is going to be exciting. And then we play a Maryland team that’s going to be probably No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation.
“So early on, we’re going to be tested and see what this team is made of. Which is good. And I think it will get us ready for conference play. You’ve got to win more games out of conference. That’s our goal.”
Preview and Prediction
Ollie looks at his roster this year and sees depth. He sees options he didn’t have last season. He sees a blend of experience, youth and newcomers who have transferred to UConn with productive resumes. And he likes it all.
“This is going to be a different team for me,” said Ollie, in his fourth season at his alma mater. “That’s fine. I like that. Actually, I get a kick out of that.”
UConn fans might not recognize the Huskies at first. Ollie wants his team to get out in the open floor, play in transition, play hard defense and score easy baskets.
“It’s going to be a huge difference,” Purvis said. “Coach Ollie is really, really pissed off at us about finishing. I think we were 305th in the nation in transition baskets last year. We’ve got fast guys on our team, so that’s pitiful. We’re definitely going to score more in transition. We’re going to be a track team.”
Purvis struggled early last season but came on strong at the end. He scored in double figures the last six games of the season and hopes that will carry over into the new season. Purvis is expected to start in the backcourt with Gibbs. There will be an adjustment to life after Ryan Boatright, but UConn’s perimeter play should be improved and Adams will provide added quickness and ball-handling.
Daniel Hamilton returns at small forward for his sophomore season. Hamilton was the only freshman in the country to record 300 points, 200 rebounds and 100 assists. He will be a marked man as defenses try to shut him down. But his athleticism and versatility should give him an edge. Hamilton has all the tools to be a candidate for AAC Player of the Year and could emerge as a national POY contender.
“When you can see and pass like that, that’s just talent that came from God,” Ollie said of Hamilton.
Phillip Nolan and Kentan Facey are back at the forward spots and will be pushed by Miller, who should be the starter at power forward. But the added force on the boards will be a blessing, especially for a team that wants to run. And 7-foot center Amida Brimah is back in the middle with all his defensive weapons. Ollie wants to see Brimah assert himself more on the boards and become the conference’s top rebounder.
Omar Calhoun and Sam Cassell Jr. both begin the preseason healthy. If they stay that way, it just adds to the depth and talent at the guard spots. Calhoun has had bad luck with injuries but, as a senior, his experience is a positive. Cassell has taken a cautious approach and is fully recovered from a stress fracture in his right leg that forced him to sit the second half of the season.
The addition of Gibbs and Miller has put UConn back in the running. The Huskies should be one of the top three teams in the AAC and will get back to the NCAA tournament. That’s safe to say. How deep they go into the tourney will depend on the chemistry this team forms early.
“We want to trust the process,” Ollie said. “That’s the only thing we want to do. We’ve got to understand we have to do what it takes each and every day to be the best team we can be once March and April hit.”