By: Conner Handel, KCOU Sports
Shabazz Napier and the seven seeded UConn Huskies defied all odds last year by cutting down the nets in Arlington, Texas. Unfortunately for them, they lost their two leading scorers and rebounders, their leading assist man, and the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
So with these departures, how could UConn even consider a tournament birth, let alone a repeat?
The Huskies return Ryan Boatright, who was voted the 2015 American Athletic Conference preseason player of the year. He was Napier’s partner in crime last season averaging 12 points and 3.5 assists per game. With the departure of Napier, Robin will be asked to play Batman this season.
He will be joined by Rodney Purvis, who as a freshman played sixth man for North Carolina State. Purvis was a McDonald’s All-American and brings size to the backcourt at 6’4.
The frontcourt will be anchored by the 7-footer from Ghana, Amida Brimah. Although he is known for his shot-blocking, it was his and-one conversion in the final minute versus Saint Joseph’s that sent the game to overtime and kept UConn’s tournament run alive.
UConn has had no issues producing great shot-blocking centers such as Hasheem Thabeet and Andre Drummond. Brimah may be next. In just 16 minutes per game last year, Brimah averaged 2.3 blocks per game. With starter’s minutes, he would have been on pace for nearly 5 blocks per game. Brimah may be poised to have a breakout 2015 season.
Niels Giffey, who at times made three-pointers look as easy as layups, and DeAndre Daniels, whose combination of size and shooting ability terrorized defenses, both left the program for graduation and the NBA draft respectively. Bench players such as Phillip Nolan, Terrence Samuel and Omar Calhoun will have to step up to fill the holes left by those two.
Nolan saw his minutes increase in the tournament as he played a crucial role defensively when the undersized Huskies faced bigger frontcourts like Michigan State and Kentucky. As a junior, he will likely see more playing time and step into a leadership role for the team this season.
In contrast to Nolan, Samuel saw an uptick in minutes when the Huskies played guard-oriented teams. He was one of Head Coach Kevin Ollie’s favorite backcourt reserves to turn to for perimeter defense. Last year UConn had one of the best defensive backcourt tandems in Napier and Boatright. Samuel will be asked to play an even larger defensive role entering his sophomore year.
Calhoun will also need to step up his game after a disappointing 2014 campaign. With the change in the coaching regime, Calhoun saw his minutes cut from 32 per game to a meager 13 per game. He was a starter for most of 2013, but last year could not manage to score a point in his final 16 games. He is not afraid to pull up from three, but has only managed a career 29 percent from behind the arc. UConn will hope a year’s experience under Coach Ollie will spark a bounce-back in 2015.
On top of reserves stepping up, UConn can look for offense in the fourth best guard recruit in the nation, according to Rivals Top 150. Daniel Hamilton is a wiry 6’6 guard/forward who can use his size to attack the basket or use his quickness to get open for jump shots. He resembles a shorter version of DeAndre Daniels and may have a significant role on offense this season.
UConn cannot replace Shabazz Napier’s offense, defense, leadership or late game heroics with just one person. It will take multiple players to step up and produce in each of those categories.
Of course UConn will be a long shot to repeat, but hey, they were a long shot to win last year and look what happened.