Surrounded by the usual scrum of notepads, recorders, and television cameras that flock to him during media sessions, Jim Calhoun answers the question of whether the 2011-12 edition of the men’s basketball team could compete for the national title that the Huskies won last season.
“We’re more talented [this season], but do the pieces all go together as perfectly as they did last year?” he says. “We needed somebody when they started double-teaming Kemba [Walker ’11 (CLAS)]. During that six game NCAA stretch, Jeremy [Lamb ’14 (CLAS)] added 17 points a game and shot 53 percent from three. When they go after Jeremy, who is going to pick it up? We have more good players than we did last year. The only thing we don’t have is anybody as magical as Kemba.”
Which is why the Hall of Fame coach emphasizes that this year’s Huskies are not defending an NCAA title; they are a different team trying to compete for another title. Never mind the fact that the preseason national polls have the Huskies ranked at No. 4, and coaches in the Big East have the team as co-favorite, with Syracuse, to win the conference.
“I like being picked No. 1 or 2 because people think you’re good,” Calhoun says. “We’re trying to be 1, 2 every year. And we’ve had a good record doing that, but it’s not an issue where we’re being picked, because I didn’t believe it when we were [picked] 10 last year. I was really, really happily surprised by the fact that this group of kids could grow during the season, despite some tough losses, some great wins. They evolved into being a coach’s dream – resilient, almost unnerving in tournament situations. It never seemed to bother us.”
An unassuming freshman until his breakout performance in the NCAA tournament last year, Lamb now is getting the most attention of the still-young Huskies, receiving pre-season All-America and All-Big East First Team recognition. During the summer, he was a key player on the Team USA U-19 squad that finished fifth in the FIBA World Championships.
“I was the go-to man in the clutch and handled the ball a lot more. It got me ready to be a leader and take big shots,” says the soft-spoken Lamb. “I enjoy being a leader, but it’s not too natural for me. I have to remind myself to be vocal. Teams are going to key on me. I’ve got to use my screens and set my man up, be focused.”
Says Calhoun, “Everybody wants to be the guy, until you become the guy and you have the 16-point night, you shoot 5 for 15 or something and you had a bad game. Kemba, Ray [Allen (1994-96)], Doron [Sheffer (1993-96)] not only relish it, they grew into it. I think that Jeremy will do the same thing.”
Lamb will be supported by two sophomores who had significant playing time – point guard Shabazz Napier ’14 (CLAS) and forward Roscoe Smith ’14 (CLAS) – and junior forward/center Alex Oriakhi ’13 (CLAS), who make up the core of the returning players. Heralded freshmen center Andre Drummond ’15 (CLAS), forward DeAndre Daniels ’15 (CLAS), and point guard Ryan Boatright ’15 (CLAS) have all made progress during the preseason.
Napier says he learned a great deal during the course of last year’s championship run, when the Huskies won an unprecedented five games in five days in the Big East Tournament and then ran the table in the NCAA Tournament.
“The first year as a point guard, I’m looking for the oohs and aahs. I’ve realized that’s not what basketball is all about,” he says. “The key to me being a great player, I’ve thought, is for me to be patient. That’s what Kemba Walker did last year … being patient and taking what the defense would give him and not trying to press the issue. In college basketball, when you turn the ball over, that’s three to six points lost. Those points are really precious.”
Oriakhi adds that the Huskies want to maintain their thirst for winning by meeting Calhoun’s expectation that the team plays hard during the entire game, no matter who is on the other side of the ball.
“If we play as hard as we can and not play down to our competition, we can beat anybody,” Oriakhi says. “That’s the thing that stops anybody, how hard you work and how hard you go. It’s going to be the work we put in and the commitment we have to getting better every day. It’s definitely great for people to think highly of us, but at the end of the day, that’s kind of irrelevant to us because we just want to win ball games.”
One of the most improved players is sophomore forward Tyler Olander ’14 (CLAS), who grew up in Storrs watching the Huskies play. He saw spot play last season but spent the summer preparing to take a larger role on the team. Calhoun has noted Olander’s progress, and points to his thought process on the court.
“Tyler really understands concepts. He understands angles,” Calhoun said after the team’s two exhibition games. “He is the soundest guy right now. He had a couple of shots that he’ll make over the course of time, because he can really shoot the basketball.”
Commenting on his work during the off-season, Olander says, “I really tried to improve my body and overall athleticism so I could compete more with the athletes in the Big East. Last year I wasn’t all ready for that. I’ve always been confident in my skill set as a basketball player, I just think that strength-wise and athletically I wasn’t at that level. That’s what I worked on, getting stronger and more fit.”
Even after suffering a broken nose during an early season practice, the 6-10 Drummond has impressed his teammates and coaches with his athleticism on the court and his raw ability.
“He can do so many effective things instinctively,” says Calhoun. “He’s really talented, but he doesn’t know how talented he is. Now the thing is to take this terrifically athletic kid who listens all the time, and turn him into a terrific basketball player. He is not there yet, but he’s got some things to operate with that you just can’t teach.”
The Huskies play this year’s opening game at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on Friday at 7 p.m., when they take on Columbia. Before the tip-off, the final act of the 2010-11 basketball season will take place when the banner representing the third NCAA Championship won by the men’s basketball team will be unveiled.