The college basketball season is upon us, and so is prediction season. In this special roundtable, UConn men’s basketball beat writers Tyler Keating and Stephanie Sheehan share the page with women’s basketball beat writers Christopher Hanna and Josh Buser to answer three burning questions about the future in Storrs.
Who leads the team in scoring?
Keating: Jalen Adams. Terry Larrier could very well take more shots, but Adams remains a dynamo finisher and a talented shooter from both short range and mid range. If he brings an improved 3-point shot, which hasn’t shown up in the preseason, he’ll take another leap forward. Adams scored 14.4 points per game last season and with a significant absence in veteran scoring on this team’s roster, I expect him to finish around 17 points per game this season, as well as about seven dimes.
Sheehan: It’s a shame we really haven’t seen what Terry Larrier is capable of yet, and because of his minimal playing time as a Husky, nobody’s really sure what to expect. But Larrier’s agility and ability to sink long-range shots and work efficiently out of the low post was apparent even at the beginning of last year’s disastrous season. He took a lot of 3-pointers in exhibition play (and didn’t make many), but if he continues to do that and shots start to fall, expect to see a lot of 20-point games from him. It’ll be a close contest between him and Adams, but if he can stay healthy, he’s got a high ceiling.
Hanna: You could realistically pick Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier or Kia Nurse for the team’s leading scorer, but I’m going to go with Collier to repeat after doing the same last season. Collier’s array of post moves make her second-to-none when it comes to scoring in the paint, and she has the ability to get out and score from the three if need be. Collier is not the biggest forward, but her athleticism more than makes up for that and allows her to bully any opponent that tries to stop her. She’ll get 20-plus points in pretty much every game this season, mark it down now.
Buser: Last year, Napheesa Collier edged out Katie Lou Samuelson by 0.2 points per game to lead UConn in scoring. I think Samuelson gets revenge this year. Samuelson is certainly going to take the most shots – she led by a wide margin with 23.2 percent of the team’s shots last season – and will probably lead the Huskies in minutes as well. Even with an influx of new talent to an already-great offense, the team runs through Samuelson and she has the talent to be even better than last year’s 20.2 points per game season.
Biggest impact addition?
Keating: Larrier’s offensive decision making will heavily influence this team’s ceiling. When he’s settling for long jumpers or driving wildly to the rim for a layup attempt, his efficiency plummets and the UConn offense tanks. When he operates out of the low post, hitting cutters while using his long limbs to get off weird push shots, he can be a terrific weapon. Either way, his usage rate will significantly impact the flow of the team’s offense as they try to replace Rodney Purvis, Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah.
Sheehan: Two-time AAC preseason rookie of the year Alterique Gilbert has a lot to prove, but a lot of talent to follow through on the high expectations. After a dislocated shoulder forced him to redshirt his freshman season, Gilbert faces the tough task of having to efficiently work himself into the guard dynamic that already exists between Jalen Adams and Christian Vital. Gilbert has the raw talent to execute, though, as he possesses the same electricity that Adams does when he drives to the rim. UConn’s coaching staff is even more guard-oriented than last year, and that will greatly help whatever hurdles he might have to clear.
Hanna: Azurá Stevens, a transfer from Duke, is finally eligible after watching the Huskies from the bench last season. Stevens is a 6-foot-6 guard/forward – crazy to even think about – with the shooting range and ball handling of talented guards, the strength and post moves of a big, the length and blocking ability of a great rim protector and the off-ball mobility of a great slasher. Stevens’ versatility will be huge for the Huskies this season, and she will most likely be the first off the bench in Geno Auriemma’s rotation, whenever the legendary coach wants to cause a big matchup problem for the opponents.
Buser: Stevens will give UConn a unique force off the bench, but watch out for incoming freshman Megan Walker. The No. 1 recruit according to ESPN’s rankings, Walker is a versatile wing out of Virginia. She was named Gatorade National Player of the Year last season, averaging 25.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game. Walker is 6-foot-1, athletic on the perimeter, can finish in traffic and excel off the dribble. She’ll bring a scoring mentality with defensive prowess that will earn her impactful minutes as the season goes along.
Prediction for the season?
Keating: By any measure, UConn’s 2016-17 campaign was a disaster. With a 16-17 record and a sixth-place finish in the AAC, the Huskies stayed far away from the national spotlight and the talent level sunk further due to offseason transfers and decommits. While Kevin Ollie appears to have added a host of useful freshmen and transfers, and Larrier, Gilbert and Mamadou Diarra are back to help the team, UConn has a massive hole in the frontcourt and question marks on the offensive side of the ball. I’m predicting a fifth-place finish in the AAC behind Cincinnati, Wichita State, UCF and SMU, and an NIT trip for the program. If Adams becomes a world-beater, Gilbert and Larrier reach their potential and Ollie works things out on the defensive end, an NCAA tournament trip will happen, but I’m not betting on that this season.
Sheehan: Like last year, this season can go one of two ways. In the worst case scenario, injuries and inexperience hinder the team once again, they get off to a slow start that hurts their nonconference play, and they’re unable to piece themselves together come January. In the best case scenario, which I think is more likely, the team stays healthy and the trio of Adams, Vital and Gilbert, plus a breakout season from Larrier, propels the team to the NCAA tournament. I think they’ll finish fourth in the conference behind Wichita State, Cincinnati and SMU, and they’ll make an appearance in the conference championship. Whether they’ll get in by winning the championship or with an at-large bid, if everything goes right, they’ll make the NCAA tournament.
Hanna: The Huskies are an absolute lock to win the American with the top-to-bottom talent Geno Auriemma has assembled this season. There are some difficult games on the schedule, including Stanford in the season-opener, but Auriemma has always liked to challenge his team in non-conference play to prepare them for the NCAA tournament. Despite the difficult games ahead, this team is better than last year’s team that went undefeated in the regular season and I fully expect the same, and more, out of them this year. Beating a ranked team like USF by 65 might be hard to repeat, but that’s the kind of talent on this team. Most importantly, however, UConn will probably steamroll their way back into the Final Four this year and re-claim the National Championship with another undefeated season come April.
Buser: With 10 consecutive trips to the Final Four, a highly-touted freshmen class and two stud transfers, three returning All-Americans and just one player of note leaving from last year’s team, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Huskies will return to the Final Four. UConn will undoubtedly win the conference and will flirt with an undefeated regular season if they can get past a tough nonconference schedule. This team is loaded with talent throughout the roster, and UConn is ready to avenge last year’s heartbreaking Final Four loss with a National Championship. The Huskies will roll through their opponents this year and it will be the most dominating season in collegiate history, led by a Player of the Year season from Samuelson.