Connecticut probably would have been in trouble last season had A.J. Price missed significant time, as Jim Calhoun’s team didn’t have much depth to back up its All-Big East point guard.
This season, that shouldn’t be a problem.
After Price suffered an injury and was later ejected in the team’s season opener, highly touted freshman Kemba Walker may make his first collegiate start on Monday when the second-ranked Huskies host Hartford in the capital city’s XL Center, the first meeting between the schools since 1998.
No player in the Big East averaged more assists (5.8) than Price last season, and UConn’s floor leader was also the team’s second-leading scorer, putting up 14.5 points per game.
With no other accomplished ball handlers on the roster, Price also played more than 32 minutes per game in a season that ended when he tore the ACL in his left knee in the team’s first round NCAA tournament loss.
Price was ready to go Friday against Western Carolina, but while UConn (1-0) rolled to an 81-55 win, Price had a rather tumultuous return to the court. The senior guard suffered a high ankle sprain in the victory, then was later ejected for punching an opposing player in the stomach as the two were battling for position on the left side of the lane.
“That particular play was just frustration built up throughout the whole game, because of what was going on between both teams,” said Price, who was scoreless in 25 minutes. “We both got tangled up, and it wasn’t just me who did anything and I got the flagrant because he got the worst of it.”
He didn’t practice Saturday or Sunday while nursing the injury, and Calhoun described Price as “less than 50-50” to play against Hartford (0-1), meaning that Walker will likely get the start.
The prized point guard recruit played 26 minutes in his first game in a UConn uniform, finishing with eight points and five assists.
“I was definitely a little jittery in the beginning, but after a while we picked it up and the nerves went away,” Walker said.
Walker’s job was made easier by the frontcourt duo of Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet. Adrien, who was third in the Big East with 9.1 rebounds per game last season, had 14 points and seven boards, while Thabeet had the best game of his career.
The junior went 7-for-11 from the field, scoring 23 points to go with a career-high 17 rebounds and five blocks.
“The way I’m getting better, it’s going to be hard to stop somebody 7-3, 272 pounds in the blocks,” said Thabeet, who was third in the nation with 4.5 blocks per game last season. “I’ve got an idea what to do with the basketball now.”
Fellow junior Jerome Dyson also had 23 points in the opener.
Hartford, which finished tied for second in the America East Conference last season, got off to a tough start in its first game. The Hawks led Quinnipiac at halftime on Friday, but wound up losing 63-62.
Joe Zeglinski, who led Hartford with 16.2 ppg last season, had an off night against the Bobcats. The junior guard finished 1-for-10 from the field for two points.
The Hawks will likely find it tough to do anything inside against the Huskies. Hartford was outrebounded 46-31 in its opener, and Connecticut finished third in the country in rebounds per game (41.9) last season.
UConn is 12-1 all-time against the Hawks, with the lone loss coming in 1986 - Calhoun’s first year coaching the Huskies.