I have never been this excited for the start of basketball season since becoming a student at UConn in 2012.
With the postseason ban looming my freshman year, I knew there would be several thrilling games, but no NCAA tournament run to cap off the year. At the outset of my sophomore year, I knew Shabazz Napier and Co. were going to pull off some incredible feats, but I certainly did not envision that team winning a national championship.
Last year, I thought the team would win the American Athletic Conference championship and return to the NCAA tournament, but probably not win a national title. Unfortunately, we did not even get to see the former, let alone have a shot at the latter.
But this season is different.
The team does not have a Shabazz-figure right now, but head coach Kevin Ollie is confident an “alpha dog” will emerge. Rodney Purvis said he is taking Ollie’s words as a challenge. That should give UConn fans a reason to get excited.
In fact, there are a lot of reasons UConn fans should be excited about this season, because Storrs, Connecticut once again has a Final Four-caliber men’s basketball team playing in Gampel Pavilion.
While the No. 20 Huskies are losing point guard Ryan Boatright to the NBA, they are gaining even more. Two seasoned graduate transfers have already shown in a pair of exhibition games that they are not to be trifled with.
Formerly of Seton Hall, the all-Big East second-team point guard Sterling Gibbs brings veteran leadership and scoring to the Huskies. He averaged 16.3 points per game last season with the Pirates. That would nearly singlehandedly replace Boatright’s 17.4 points per game at the point guard position.
But Gibbs isn’t alone. Small forward Shonn Miller, who was a unanimous all-Ivy League first-team selection at Cornell, brings 16.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game from last season. Oh, and by the way, he was a finalist for the Lefty Driesell National Defensive Player of the Year award.
That alone should have UConn fans ready to rumble.
The additions of soon-to-be freshman point guard sensation Jalen Adams and Norwalk-native Steven Enoch, a 6-foot-10 center, are just icing on the cake. Adams is the clear preseason favorite for rookie of the year in the American Athletic Conference, and his exhibition game performance against New Haven gave strong indication that won’t change anytime soon.
Ollie also has two future NBA players in Daniel Hamilton and Amida Brimah on his bench. Fans can expect majors contributions from both. Small forward Omar Calhoun and center Phil Nolan have no intention of going out with a whimper during their senior seasons, either.
Then there’s the wild card: Purvis.
Purvis has gone through three nicknames in as many seasons: the Ferrari, Purv and, now, Hot Rod.
When Purvis arrived in Storrs in 2013, he was ineligible to play under NCAA transfer rules. Ollie told reporters he had a Ferrari in the garage just waiting to pull out during the 2014-15 season.
After an inconsistent start in 2014, the Ferrari talk quickly faded to the background as Ollie and other players simply referred to him as “Purv.” He finished his first season in Storrs with 11.6 points per game. He played three games in which he scored more than 20 points, including the conference tournament final against SMU. However, he also played in six games where he scored five points or fewer.
The Huskies’ record sat at 1-5 in those games.
But it’s a new season. A 14-point exhibition-game performance against Tampa and 11 points in the second exhibition against New Haven meant Ollie was ready to give Purvis a new nickname – “Hot Rod.”
Purvis might not have been too fond of it, but if he answers the call to be the alpha dog he is capable of being, this team has no ceiling. I’m confident he will do what is necessary for this team to succeed.
It seems Ollie is, too. He is confident in all of his players.
On Wednesday, Ollie spoke with more than two dozen UConn students in Gampel Pavilion during a meeting of the new “Top Dogs” program, designed to recognize the most dedicated fans in the student section. Ollie told the students (myself included) that he believed wholeheartedly the right players would emerge as leaders this season.
He said leaders among the fans need to emerge as well.
Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center have been loud and raucous in past, but Ollie said he wants to take it to a new level. In front of the students gathered, he stood silently for a moment and looked around Gampel with a glint in his eye. He said there was something magical about the place. He said he wants energy pouring out of the front row and emanating throughout every section.
Ollie said he wants the roar of the crowd to make Gampel shake like it used to when he played in Storrs 20 years ago.
This season, let’s make Gampel shake again.