Five years separated Connecticut’s first two national championships. With coach Jim Calhoun’s team nearly five years removed from its most recent title, the second-ranked Huskies look well-positioned for another deep run.
Looking to remain unbeaten in November and December in the history of Gampel Pavilion, Connecticut opens its season on Friday night with its first-ever meeting against Western Carolina.
The Huskies’ 24-9 season ended in disappointment in March, when they fell in the Big East quarterfinals to West Virginia before getting upset 70-69 in overtime by 13th-seeded San Diego in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
But UConn is planning on bigger things this season. With four of their starters and their top three scorers back, Calhoun has assembled the kind of talent and experience that led to national titles in 1999 and 2004.
In addition to a deep backcourt led by senior A.J. Price, Connecticut boasts a fearsome front line featuring senior forward Jeff Adrien and 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet, earning the Huskies a spot in the preseason rankings behind only unanimous No. 1 North Carolina.
“It is obviously a nice honor, one that I am not sure we are quite deserving of at this point but certainly something we hope to develop into as the season moves on,” Calhoun said. “We have three of the top players in our league and in the nation, very accomplished and experienced players in A.J., Hasheem and Jeff, and I think that is a big reason that people see us as one of the top teams in the country at this point.”
Thabeet is among the nation’s best defenders, ranking third in Division I with 4.5 blocked shots per game last season, while Adrien led the team in both scoring (14.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.1).
That combination helped make UConn one of the country’s best defensive teams, as the Huskies led the nation by averaging 8.6 blocks. Opponents also shot just 38.7 percent from the floor, the sixth-lowest mark nationally.
Price tore the ACL in his left knee against San Diego, but is nearly back to full strength. He averaged 14.5 points and ranked second in the Big East with 5.8 assists in 2007-08.
Returning guards Jerome Dyson and Craig Austrie round out the starting lineup, but talented freshman point guard Kemba Walker could play a significant role for UConn off the bench.
“If I position myself in the right place to score, Kemba will find me,” Adrien said. “It’s a really good thing to add to our team.”
The Huskies will eventually have their hands full with a deep and physical Big East - a league Calhoun called “as tough a conference as any has ever been” - but first they’ll try to navigate a nonconference slate that features only one ranked opponent.
UConn has never lost early in the season at Gampel Pavilion, going 45-0 before New Year’s Day since the arena opened in 1990. The Huskies’ 90-game unbeaten run in November and December regular-season games in Storrs dates back to a 91-85 loss to Holy Cross on Dec. 5, 1973.
Western Carolina doesn’t seem like a strong candidate to end that streak. The Catamounts went 10-21 last season, including 6-14 in the Southern Conference and just 1-13 on the road.
Coach Larry Hunter’s team brings back three starters, including leading scorer Brandon Giles (15.3 ppg), but the Catamounts have averaged just 56.7 points in 13 consecutive losses to ranked teams since 1996-97. Their lone ranked foe last season was Indiana, which won 100-52 on Dec. 15.
The Catamounts are also 0-9 all-time against current Big East teams.