UConn up to challenge of No. 1
OK, raise your hand if you picked Syracuse to win the national title at the beginning of last season. And when the Orangemen opened the 2002-03 season by losing to fellow unranked Memphis in the first game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York, how many put those hands down?
Even those wearing Orange in the Garden that opening night didn't expect Carmelo and company to be cutting down the nets in New Orleans five months later. The rest of the country certainly didn't see Syracuse coming in November.
"I wouldn't have picked (Syracuse)," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "But the last six games they were the best team.
"Last year there were no power teams. This year there are (power teams) -- within our league. There might be 12 to 16 teams this year nationally that could win the title."
One of those teams, the No. 1 team, is Connecticut. But the odds are stacked against the Huskies, loaded or not.
In the last 10 seasons, only one team -- the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats -- started the season as the AP preseason No. 1 and ended it by hoisting the national championship trophy at the Final Four. Spin forward to March, and in the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, only two teams -- the 1995 UCLA Bruins and the 2001 Duke Blue Devils -- started the three-week tournament ranked No. 1 in the final AP poll and went on to win their next six games to take home the title.
It's hard for any school because it puts that monkey on your back. ...But if you ask me, we're as good as any team. We've got equal talent to any team. ”
UConn head coach
"It's hard for any school because it puts that monkey on your back," Calhoun said. "We were picked No. 1 after winning the title in 1999 and then we lost to Iowa right away in the first game. We weren't the same team without Richard Hamilton, but we were still picked No. 1. It's hard.
"But if you ask me, we're as good as any team. We've got equal talent to any team. This team could end up close to that one (in 1998-99 when they won the title)."
Connecticut is the prohibitive favorite. The Huskies are the top pick in all polls, including ESPN.com's Power 16, and in most magazines. (The Sporting News went with Duke, while Sports Illustrated is keeping things quiet for now, but was in Storrs shooting a cover featuring both the men's and women's teams.)
And the Huskies are a deserving No. 1, unlike the 1999-2000 season. Syracuse isn't the pick as No. 1 just because the Orangemen won the title this past April. It wouldn't make sense without Carmelo Anthony, just like picking the Huskies in 1999 sans Hamilton didn't jive, either. But the Orangemen are a threat to get back and defend their title.
The difference is that these Huskies do have the talent to win the title. They've got the best defensive player in the country and, perhaps, the one player who can change a game more than any other in the country -- junior center Emeka Okafor. UConn also possesses one of the top shooting guards in the nation in Ben Gordon. There is also a senior point guard, Taliek Brown, to run things the way Calhoun expects the position to be played.
The role players expected to start the season among the first five when UConn opens Nov. 17 against Yale in the Preseason NIT could be stars elsewhere. Denham Brown is a 6-5 sophomore scorer two seasons removed from scoring 111 points in a high school game up in his native Canada, while Rashad Anderson is a shooter who made nearly 40 percent of his 3s as a freshman. Both lock down the small forward spot.
Freshman Josh Boone, at 6-foot-10, is proving to be a deft rebounder to complement Okafor, while the frontline has solid depth with sophomore forwards Hilton Armstrong and Marcus White. Marcus Williams, a freshman out of Los Angeles, serves as Brown's backup.
And, no, we haven't forgotten about McDonald's All-America forward Charlie Villanueva. It's just the 6-10 freshman's eligibility is in question as the NCAA determines who paid for his workouts in Chicago, Houston and at the IMG Academy in Florida during his NBA draft decision process -- as well as any other extra benefits he may have received prior to arriving at Connecticut. If or when Villanueva gets eligible (he was held out of the Huskies' first exhibition game) he'll give UConn another matchup problem for opposing teams at small forward.
The Huskies have gradually put together a resumé worthy of a preseason No. 1 team, as well. Along with the abundance of talent, UConn's core has been through the rigors of the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies reached the Elite Eight two years ago -- falling a few possessions short of beating eventual champion Maryland -- and last year lost a tough Sweet 16 game in San Antonio to eventual Final Four team Texas.
Calhoun still has a photo of his team from San Antonio last March that he keeps on his desk. His goal is to take the same shot with this year's team in the same spot along the Riverwalk at this year's Final Four.
"We're talented enough to get to San Antonio," Calhoun said. "Our biggest concern is another outside shooter next to Ben. You pay a price when Rashad is in the game because then Denham has to come out. So it's a tough call. We'll need five guys on the floor, though, that can make shots. We may have found a backup center in Josh Boone, though.
"This team has some parallels to '99, but I'm not sure about the mental toughness. This team has as much talent one through 10, but I'm not sure it's as tough."
Calhoun is probably speaking about the search for a player along the lines of Ricky Moore, a defensive specialist and catalyst in the locker room on that '99 title team. Finding such a player would make going wire-to-wire as No. 1 that much easier.
"It's going to be hard," Gordon said. "But we've always been ranked high, so it won't be that much different. But everyone will be coming at us as the No. 1 team. But every year we think we can win it."
Said Okafor, "This is going to be fun. Our team loves challenges."
Connecticut is in store for its share of challenges, but they won't likely come until the Big East season. The Huskies play in a watered-down Preseason NIT with the toughest game possibly coming against Utah or Texas Tech in New York, assuming the favorites get to the Garden during Thanksgiving week. Non-conference games in January against Oklahoma at home and at North Carolina are by far the toughest on the Huskies' schedule, save the Big East matchups with Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Providence.
Connecticut, however, always gets a team's best shot. And who wouldn't want to be No. 1, even if it comes with a bull's eye.
"It's not a burden," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose last 10 Kansas teams were never a preseason No. 1, but his '96-97 squad did enter the NCAA Tournament as the top-ranked team in the land.
"I'd rather be picked No. 1 than 101 because that means you're doing a darn good job," Williams adds. "It's so hard to pick one team because there is so much parity, but it never did bother me in the least bit. You should be flattered to be picked No. 1. I don't see any negatives at all. Everyone will be sky high to play Connecticut whether they're No. 1 or 2."
To single out preseason No. 1 teams that didn't win the title may be a bit unfair. Arizona, for example, hasn't exactly fallen on its face as a preseason No. 1.
The Wildcats came off their '97 national championship as the preseason No. 1 team only to lose to Utah in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats lost to Duke in the 2001 title game after starting the season No. 1. And the Wildcats who were picked to win it all last November lost to Kansas in the Elite Eight.
Arizona associate head coach Jim Rosborough said the 2001 team was a few calls shy of beating Duke. Had Salim Stoudamire played up to his potential this past March, according to Rosborough, then they might have beaten Kansas. And as for the Utah game? "All our kids were packed for San Antonio and no one was thinking about Utah," Rosborough said. "You have to factor in the 'kid factor.' It's just tough to run the table. Connecticut is going to lose a game."
In 1997, Arizona won the championship despite finishing in fifth in the Pac-10. "We were national champs, but the ring doesn't have our record on it because coach (Lute Olson) doesn't want it on there,'' Rosborough said of the 25-9 Wildcats (11-7 in the Pac-10).
"There shouldn't be any added pressure for the top eight to 10 programs," Rosborough said. "Kids like that recognition. It's just very, very, very tough to go the whole way. It has nothing to do with being the Preseason No. 1."
"But Connecticut deserves to be No. 1."
But that doesn't guarantee they'll get back to San Antonio, or win its last game.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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