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November 3, 2011

Preseason Top 32: No. 3 Connecticut

STRENGTHS: Connecticut must replace arguably the nation's best player from last season in G Kemba Walker, but the Huskies return the other four starters from their 2011 national championship team. Sophomore G Jeremy Lamb should emerge as an All-America candidate if he builds on the momentum he established during the Huskies' postseason run. Although he averaged 11.1 points and 4.5 rebounds in his freshman season, he averaged 16.2 points and 4.8 rebounds and shot 58 percent in the NCAA tournament. He also led Team USA with 16.2 points per game in the U19 FIBA World Championships. Alex Oriakhi and freshman Andre Drummond should give Connecticut one of the nation's most formidable frontcourt duos. Oriakhi ranked second in the Big East in rebounds (8.7 per game) and seventh in blocks (1.6 per game) last season. He had 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks to lead Connecticut's dominant defensive effort in the 53-41 championship game victory over Butler. Drummond, a 6-foot-10 center considered one of the top freshmen nationwide, has the potential to develop into one of the nation's best big men. Freshman DeAndre Daniels and sophomore Tyler Olander should give the frontcourt even more depth. Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith averaged more than 20 minutes per game as freshmen last season and should make major strides as sophomores. Freshman G Ryan Boatright is highly touted, but his eligibility has become an issue; he is expected to be a key reserve if he plays. The return of Jim Calhoun assures the Huskies should have a coaching edge in just about every game they play.

AT A GLANCE
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
C Andre Drummond (6-10/270, Fr.)
F Alex Oriakhi (6-9/240, Jr.)
F Roscoe Smith (6-8/205, Soph.)
G Jeremy Lamb (6-5/180, Soph.)
G Shabazz Napier (6-1/171, Soph.)
KEY RESERVES
F DeAndre Daniels (6-8.195, Fr.)
F Tyler Olander (6-9/225, Soph.)
G/F Niels Giffey (6-7/205, Soph.)
G Ryan Boatright (6-0/160, Fr.)

Coach: Jim Calhoun (26th season at UConn)
Last season's record: 32-9 overall, 9-9 in Big East (T-9th in league)
Postseason: Beat Butler for NCAA title
Final regular'season RPI: 14th
Last time didn't make NCAA field: 2010

WEAKNESSES: Sure, the Huskies only lose one starter from their national championship team. That one starter happened to be the best player in the nation at the end of the season. Walker led the Huskies in scoring (23.5 ppg), assists (4.5 per game) and steals (1.9 per game) while continually delivering clutch shots throughout Connecticut's championship run. Replacing him could prove impossible. Walker's absence leaves the Huskies relying on Lamb to take that next step and develop into a go-to scorer. Lamb's postseason performance indicates he's capable of filling that role, but he still must prove he can do it without Walker. Even though this team returns four starters, it's still young. The starting lineup potentially could include one junior, three sophomores and a freshman. The Huskies ranked 11th in the Big East in field-goal percentage (.434) and 12th in 3-point percentage (.329) last season.

[More Connecticut coverage: UConnReport.com]

OVERVIEW: It's worth noting that Connecticut finished ninth in the Big East last season before going on its remarkable postseason run. Is this a great team or merely a good squad that caught lightning in a bottle in March? Connecticut's lofty ranking in our countdown indicates we believe the former, but the Huskies still must prove they can get it done without Walker. UConn may have a different kind of team this season. The Huskies relied heavily on Walker last season before Lamb caught fire late in the season. Drummond's arrival should make this team more balanced in terms of frontcourt and backcourt production. UConn might not be quite as talented as North Carolina or Kentucky, but if you want to go against the grain and not pick one of those two teams to win the national title, the defending champs are as good a choice as anyone.

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Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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