Change of the Guard: UConn freshmen take point
STORRS, Conn. -- This should have been the debut of the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
Everyone was supposed to be out on the court Friday night at Gampel Pavilion, showcasing their skills for the Connecticut loyalists who had braved Noah's Ark-like rain that had blanketed the state for a week.
Instead, this was the Connecticut team that will be on display for at least the first semester, an incomplete look at what could be rather than what definitely will be this season.
Absent from the Huskies "Midnight" Madness festivities was returning point guard Marcus Williams and his backup A.J. Price. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun suspended them after both were arrested on larceny charges for allegedly stealing laptops on campus last June.
Williams, billed as one of the top point guards in the country after averaging 7.8 assists last season, was granted special probation since he was a first-time offender. Price, who sat out last season after suffering a brain hemorrhage and still hasn't been medically cleared, pleaded not guilty and his case is still pending.
Calhoun said Friday that the suspensions for sure include the first semester. A university committee that deals with the code of conduct has ruled on the pair but the process is in the appeal stage. A ruling could come down as early as Tuesday. They could both be suspended for the entire season and dismissal from school is always a possibility.
The first questions peppered at Calhoun as he stood outside Gampel Pavilion were about Williams and Price and the university's process of discipline. He said he was out of the process. He said the university wants to ensure they get it right. He reiterated neither would play this semester, which includes a season-opening West Coast trip to Pepperdine and the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
Two hours later, Williams' and Price's absence wasn't an issue. Their replacements -- unheralded late signees Robert Garrison and Craig Austrie -- had shown enough moxie, confidence and overall floor leadership to quiet the talk of where is Williams, at least until the Huskies start playing.
If there was a concern, it was more about potential all-American Rudy Gay's carefree play that prompted Calhoun to say, "that's the first time I've seen him not play well, force shots. I think he got caught up in having a lot of his family and friends here."
In fact, the only veteran that drew Calhoun's praise was senior guard Denham Brown, who actually was assertive, making threes, distributing the ball and playing with the kind of air about him that is expected of an elite two guard at Connecticut.
"Denham made plays and that's something he hasn't done in the past," Calhoun said.
Obviously, no team should be judged by a Midnight Madness event. But the Huskies were an intriguing case study this year because of the offseason turmoil with Williams and Price. The pressure on Austrie and Garrison had to be immense. Yet, neither showed an ounce of trepidation.
Had Williams been eligible this semester than the Huskies probably would have edged out Duke in ESPN.com's top 25 as the No. 1 team in the country. Blue Ribbon picked the Huskies because it felt Williams would play in time for them to win the title in April.
Clearly, Calhoun must agree since he opened up his speech to the crowd by saying, "This is going to be a special, special season and we want to come back in April holding a trophy. We'll see you in April."
A year ago on this night, ESPN.com was in Chapel Hill where North Carolina's players didn't hesitate to discuss winning the national title. And, ultimately, they won it. But they didn't have personnel issues, aside from ensuring Rashad McCants was on the same page with Roy Williams.
Connecticut's case for a title run is and will be more complicated. Gay has to be more assertive -- and for him to live up to Calhoun saying he's the best player in the country he'll need to demand the ball. Connecticut associate head coach Tom Moore said the staff is discussing whether or not to simply funnel the offense through him. The frontcourt will be fine with Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong, Ed Nelson and freshman Jeff Adrien, who Calhoun said was a bit nervous Friday night but should be fine as a role player hitting mid-range jumpers and banging in the post.
The wings, led by Gay, seniors Brown and Rashad Anderson (of whom the staff wondered why he was so "out of it") and freshman Marcus Johnson, who didn't hesitate to take and then hit the mid-range floating jumper in impressive fashion, should ultimately be stable as well.
That leaves the point.
"They are both very good players," Calhoun said of Garrison and Austrie who went against each other for most of the night, running the break, looking to score when open and feed the post when it was available. "They would have been at another Big East school [if not UConn] or a top-level Atlantic 10 school. They're smart and they know they're going to play now. They will get 13 games for sure [two exhibitions and the first 11 the rest of the semester]."
That's 13 games to share the starting position. When and if Williams returns then Calhoun would have a decision to make as to how he and the staff should devise a rotation.
Calhoun said his plan is to apply pressure from the perimeter, something he said the Huskies haven't done since Emeka Okafor arrived five years ago. That would indicate if Williams does come back and Austrie and Garrison continue this upward trend then the Huskies would use two or three guards at times.
"Those two showed a lot of composure out there," Calhoun said of the two freshmen. "They're quick, really push it and looked like veterans. It was good to see. I came out feeling very comfortable. Both squared up at times trying to beat someone with the ball."
Connecticut could come home from the West Coast with two losses, maybe three, and still be OK in its quest to reach Calhoun's title goal in 2006. Every team is a work in progress but this one might be as unique as any team in the country. Calhoun is working in two unknown freshmen point guards who are embracing their chance while the starting point guard roams the campus, waiting to see if he'll be allowed to return. If he does, and assuming Gay and Anderson aren't in a funk, Williams could find a team that got better, and certainly deeper, without him.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.