STORRS, Conn. – The Uconn men's basketball team was slated to be an afterthought I college basketball this season.
It has a new coach in Kevin Ollie, a motley crew of a roster decimated by transfers with a backcourt heavy feel and no postseason prospects whatsoever. The Huskies are, of course, banned from the Big East and NCAA tournament this season for academic reasons.
So, the college basketball establishment has put the Huskies to the side at least for 2012-13.
Someone forgot to tell the players that.
UConn opened up its season on Friday with a stunning 66-62 win over then No. 14 Michigan State and will play their first game on this side of the Atlantic on Tuesday against Vermont. The Huskies left the United States as after thoughts, they return as one of the Top 25 teams in America.
UConn (1-0) moved into the Top 25 on Monday, ranked No. 23 for the first time since last January, based off its highly-regarded win in Germany.
Is it a sign that the Huskies are going to be factor in the Big East this season? Or, is it just a good win and the Huskies will soon go back to their expected irrelevancy?
That's the question that will begin to be answered on Tuesday at Gampel Pavilion.
“We believe we can still be good,” point guard Ryan Boatright said. “So, through all preseason and all the first practices we knew we could be good and have a chance of beating those guys if we played the right way. It wasn't a shocker to us. It shocked everybody else."
UConn head coach Kevin Ollie wasn't aware of the ranking until after practice on Monday. He wasn't that much interested in discussing it with Vermont on tap.
“We are just going to be UConn,” Ollie said. “Whatever(ranking) we are going to be in that is the (ranking), we can't control that. We can't control being in the Top 25 and it really doesn't matter to me. We want to go out and play UConn basketball and play with pride, sacrificing for each other, fastbreak defending and rebounding. That's what we hang our hats on.”
The Huskies are coming off a stellar performance to open the season at Ramstein Air Force in Germany. UConn hit 9 of its first 10 shots and led by as many as 16 points against the Spartans. The Huskies did it with ball pressure and the fastbreak as the tandem of Boatright and Shabazz Napier had the Huskies playing at a break neck pace. For all of the Huskies' play, it was how they reacted to three-point play by Michigan State's Keith Appling late in the second half that made Ollie proud. UConn had led nearly the entire game but watched as Michigan State took a lead at 58-56 with a little under six minutes left.
Right after that play, Napier gathered the Huskies around and gave them a pep talk. Napier then went down and hit a 3-pointer to give the Huskies the lead back for good. Ollie liked that reaction the most coming out of the game.
“What was impressive when Keith Appling made that and-1 and I looked at the tape, Shabazz was there and brought everyone together,” Ollie said. “That's what I want my leaders to do, not hang your head. I knew we would be fine when we see that. He brought everybody out to the free throw line, got our composure and poise.”
The Huskies will face a Vermont team that has had a lot of success over the years in the America East. The Catamounts may not be Michigan State, but they are dangerous having beaten Siena in their opener. UConn still has a lot of work to do, mainly in the rebounding department as it was -14 against Michigan State and gave up 20 offensive rebounds. Ollie wants that to be cleaned up and he also wants to see the Huskies bring the same effort and emotion in a game against a non-ranked team.
“I want to see consistency,” Ollie said. “I want them to come out with urgency – same ball pressure, same intensity they came out against Michigan State.
“That's an easy game to get up, ESPN, the whole nation is watching, peers are watching, but if you can come in here against Vermont and show the same intensity, that's when I will see improvement and that's what I want to see.”
The Huskies still have several players left over from its national championship team two years ago. One thing that won't happen is the ranking go to their heads. UConn knows the season is long and there is till a lot to prove. Betaing Michigan State isn't the end, it's only the beginning.
“We still got something to prove,” Boatright said. “It was a great win, but we still got a lot more games to go. One loss (against Vermont) can wash away that whole win out in Germany. We know we have to come out and do our job and take care of business.”