It’s been a long and winding road, but the wait is finally over. The University of Connecticut Huskies men’s basketball team is back in action 7:00 p.m. Friday night as they take on the Wagner College Seahawks in their regular season opener at Gampel Pavilion.
With a talented young team, the season expectations are high for UConn. There are sure to be a lot of jitters in the opener for many of the younger players such as Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier who will likely make the first regular season starts in a UConn jersey. The Huskies have never lost in their Gampel Pavilion opener, however, in what is a 27-game winning streak dating back to 1990 when the building first opened.
Despite playing in the Northeast Conference, Wagner isn’t a team to scoff at. The Seahawks earned a 23-11 record last season and narrowly missed the NCAA tournament after losing in the Northeast Conference final to Fairleigh Dickinson. They did play in the NIT, however, and defeated a solid St. Bonaventure team before bowing out to Creighton in the second round.
“[Wagner] has eight players returning so they got a veteran-laden team and two of their best players are coming back,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. They play hard defense and they’re 19th in the country getting 37 percent of their shots off offensive rebounds so we’re going to have to really block out and really play hard. They’re not just a mid-major to me.”
Containing opponents’ offensive rebounds has been a huge issue for UConn over the last year or two, and as Ollie mentioned, Wagner is one of the best teams in the nation at getting second chances. If the Huskies want to win on Friday night, limiting those offensive boards will be critical. Purvis suggested it will be all about the team’s energy and effort to prevent Wagner from getting those free possessions.
“Rebounding is something you’ve got to want to do, the ball isn’t going to just come your way,” said Purvis. “We have to have that energy to rebound and it starts from the bigs to the guards.
Outside of improving rebounding, the big motto for the Huskies this offseason and in the buildup to the opener against Wagner, has been keeping the energy high and building team chemistry. The team’s leaders have been very vocal about that in practice this week and already show off how well the team works together.
“We play for us. That’s pretty much our slogan. We will and it’s just us,” said Ollie. “If they stay with that, we’ll be good. We’re a good group and we’re trying to get better each and every day. That’s what we’re trying to really work on and really stay connected with each other.”
Purvis reiterated his coach’s sentiments, suggesting the team chemistry will really be evident when the going gets tough late in the season.
“I think we can be really good we have a great group of guys, not only talent but great guys off the court as well,” said Purvis. “That camaraderie and chemistry will be great for us in the long run. You’ll be able to tell once we’re in Tulane or something on a Tuesday and we’re all tired and the game’s not going our way and we’ll be able to stay together and maintain our energy and have each other’s backs.”
After last year’s slightly disappointing Round of 32 exit to Kansas, the Huskies know they have to be better this year and will surely be playing with a little bit of an edge to show people what they’re all about. Come tourney time in March, UConn could even be one of the more serious title contenders. But before that can happen, the team needs to grow and develop, starting with the game against Wagner on Friday night.
“[Wagner] just missed the tournament last year, but that’s definitely a great team,” Purvis said. “Coach was saying they have a chip on their shoulder, but I think we have a chip on our shoulder as well. We haven’t done nothing yet, but [starting tomorrow] our performance is what matters most.”
Chris Hanna is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.