Practice Report: UConn Huskies

By David Scott - October 30, 2007


STORRS, Conn. -- In what I'm hoping will be a recurring Hang Time feature, it's an honor to bring you the first installment of our 2007-08 "Practice Reports."

Because of the relative proximity to my Massachusetts home and because Jim Calhoun never disappoints with providing good storylines (and stories), we started off with a Tuesday afternoon visit to the 14th preseason basketball practice of the UConn Huskies. It ran from 1:30 until 4:30 on the floor of Gampel Pavilion on the school's leafy, classic Fall-in-New-England campus.

After the JUMP we start off with an overview of what we took out of the 75 minutes of the session we were able to witness, and finish off with some random notes, quotes from players Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price, and of course, some of the classic Calhoun himself.

There is a weight off Jim Calhoun's shoulders and it shows. Maybe it's the weight of the Braintree, Mass., native's hometown Red Sox having just swept their way to a second world championship in four seasons.

"My two sons, Jimmy and Jeff were there in Colorado [when the Sox downed the Rockies at Coors Field] and they had a picture of my wife, Pat's mom with them," said Calhoun. "Their grandmother was a huge Red Sox fan."

That's exactly the type of passion Calhoun has been able to instill in Husky Nation which is exactly why Calhoun's missing shoulder weight is more likely the result of having finally been able to put last season to rest. It was his program's first postseason-less campaign in 20 years and it left the towering grandfather of six slumped forward -- and cranky -- at more than a few Big East podiums in January, February and March.

"On March 7, we lost to Syracuse and on March 8, we started working on this season," said Calhoun.

The Huskies finished 17-14, lost their last four in a row and five of the final six. "We had a five game losing streak at one point," Calhoun said. "That doesn't happen here."

Don't expect it to happen this year. And if it does, steer clear of the greater Storrs vicinity when Mount Calhoun erupts.

"I didn't know where we were last year at this time," said Calhoun, 65. "We're much better equipped this year. The guys have grown a great deal in a year."

The Poet Calhoun was being both literal and figurative with that line. The young and inexperienced roster that gave Calhoun fits last season is a year older, a year wiser and oh yeah, Hasheem Thabeet has some offense to speak of -- and it shows.

It's the last of these attributes that could mean Red Soxian-type things for an under-discussed Calhoun club that will once again benefit from some favorable chances at fine-tuning in its non-conference slate. (Although dates with Gonzaga and the potential for Kentucky, Memphis or Oklahoma at the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament would really elevate the non-league schedule quite quickly.)

Thabeet, who averaged 6 points, almost 5.5 rebounds and four blocks in 31 starts last year, worked out over the summer in Houston with ex-UConn big man, Emeka Okafor and legend Hakeem Olajuwon. Thabeet also was able to be one of the select participants at the oft-discussed [by coaches and kids alike] LeBron James Camp. According to Calhouh, the seven-footer has added 12 to 14 pounds of muscle and is "like a rock. Just 7 percent body fat on a frame that big," said Calhoun.

On Tuesday the most noticeable difference between freshman Thabeet and the sophomore version was the aggressiveness and quote-un-quote 'fire in his belly.' The improvement even has Calhoun comparing his big man to John Thompson III's seven-footer, Roy Hibbert, something that wouldn't have been fair to the youngster last season.

"'Sheem can run with us and we're a very athletic team," said Calhoun. "He's got the strongest legs and a very unusual tenacity on the court. If something were to ever happen on the court, he'd be the first one over there to [get involved]. But he's a teddy bear. He goes over to the student union and he's like the Pied Piper."

Calhoun seems resigned to the idea of only having his towering Piper for one more season, especially if Tanzania native improved to the levels that Thabeet has been displaying in the first two weeks of practice. His NBA stock could be on the rise.

"I'd say after Curtis Kelly, it's got to be Hasheem that has improved the most," said junior A.J. Price, the inconsistent talent who mainly played point last season. "Hasheem has come a long way as well. He wasn't much of an offensive threat last year, but now he's got offense. With the skills he added to his game, he brings us another option because he can score."

Speaking of Kelly, the Queens sophomore remained after practice and worked a lot on his outside shot with George Blaney.

. . . Freshman southpaw Donnell Beverly from Hawthorne, Calif., had a very nice session highlighted by an interior pass to Thabeet for a dunk and a half-court lob to a streaking, dunking Marcus Johnson.

"He did have a nice practice today," Calhoun admitted, but probably qualified it in his mind with a "for a freshman!"

. . . The practice sheet Thought of the Day came from John Wooden, who Calhoun definitely had on the brain on Tuesday, mentioning the Wizard's name during practice as Associate Head Coach George Blaney and assistant Patrick Sellers "coached up" the white and blue squads. "Come on, Coach Wooden," Calhoun wisecracked during one particularly long strategy timeout late in the twelve minute, mostly running time, scrimmage.

The Wooden quote was, "Don't confuse activity with achievement."

Practice sheet emphasis points also included:

Defense: Do not marry your man when you are away from the ball

Offense: Concentrate offense is difficult - pay attention to the little things be aware of what is going on around you

Also, the definition of Who We Are was numbered 1-5:

1. Fast Break
2. Defend - Full/Half
3. Rebound
4. Execute Offense
5. Play Hard and Together

. . . Scrimmage Teams were divided into whites and blues with the white squad running juniors Marcus Johnson and Jeff Adrien, sophomores Jerome Dyson (who sat out the scrimmage with a "back thing" according to Calhoun), Doug Wiggins, Hasheem Thabeet and lone freshman Donnell Beverly.

The Blue team was made up of juniors A.J. Price, Craig Austrie, sophomores Gavin Edwards, Curtis Kelly and Stanley Robinson.

The game went to a questionable overtime after Austrie was fouled by Beverly as Austrie launched an errant 3-pointer. Austrie was awarded three free-throws by lead official Calhoun. Opposing coach Sellers tried to call a timeout to ice the shooter but was informed he had none left. "You Chris Webered that one," Calhoun laughed.

Austrie hit all three free throws but Adrien's team was awarded the ball and the bruising forward drove the lane hard and laid in the game-winner, sending the the blue team into suicides.

. . . Calhoun has a crew of bodies -- playing managers, if you will -- who fill in for certain drills. (It could also be a walk-on competition, ala Knight School. They'd call it Calhoun College.)

The shortest of the bunch is a kid Calhoun was calling, "Mugsy," for obvious reasons. It appears that Mugsy will be suiting up for the exhibition opener on Thursday at the Gamp. "Fans will love that, right?" Calhoun asked one practice observer.

Probably. Especially if he dunks.

. . . UConn football is garnering considerable buzz on a national level, something Calhoun has never had to deal with before. To his credit he was effusive in his praise of coach Randy Edsall and the growth of the program.

That shouldn't be interpreted as Calhoun ceding the Huskies' reputation as a "basketball school." And it definitely shouldn't be construed as Calhoun abandoning his fight for a separate practice facility from the women's team. Expect him to trumpet that appeal at some high point during the season.

In the shadow of the gorgeous new Football Building, Gampel serves as a great on-campus arena, but it doesn't pass muster as a practice facility for two nationally-competitive basketball programs. Calhoun began waging the practice gym war last season, but with a down year his voice wasn't heard as loudly as it would be during, say, a title run. But it's still something Calhoun feels strongly about and very much a part of the legacy he wants to leave in Storrs.

. . . Yes, Calhoun is -- at the very least -- discussing his final years of coaching. Our guess is he goes til 70 and then retires to the UConn Athletics Department as a fund raiser and link to the past. He and Pat have recently moved to idyllic Pomfret, 20 miles outside of Storrs, and there's no doubt that Calhoun is set on enjoying some post-coaching years.

Especially if ever goes through another season with such youth and frustrations as last year. "I actually had to have more patience than I think I ever had. It was hard, " said Calhoun. "But I think we're better talent-wise this year and we can throw a ton of athletes at you with our depth."

. . . "I took notice of how last season affected Coach Calhoun," said Price. "It was something he wasn't accustomed to."

. . . When Hang Time started talking about the Red Sox success and Tuesday's parade with Boston-native, Jeff Adrien, teammate AJ Price could only drop his head and look at the floor. "It's hurting my ears to hear this," said the Amityville, New York native and Yankees fan.

"I'm very happy for the Sox," said Adrien who grew up in the same part of Boston as Sox GM Theo Epstein [Brookline]. "I know both Theo and his brother, Paul."

. . . Great sum up quote from Price: We know we're a good team, we've just got to get back that feeling of winning."

Posted by David Scott at 10:54 PM on October 30, 2007
Comments (2)

Comments

Great Read...not much on Stanley Robinson ? I really expected him to have a break out year...too good an athlete to not excel!

Thx

As a UConn alum, I'm glad to see a relatively upbeat report on the team. However, we need to see them against good competition before we can make any kind of a judgment on their improvement. I foresee a number of potential problems.

First, while Hasheem Thabeet may have made great progress, he was practically a zero on offense last year. Most times, UConn was playing 4 on 5. When the ball went into him, he either floundered with it, or had it stripped. The only shot he was capable of making was a dunk. While it's encouraging that progress is being reported, he has a long way to go before he's even adequate offensive force.

Second -- point guard. AJ Price never came even close to the reputation he had coming out of high school. Even Calhoun admitted that he underestimated the effect of two years off. However, he's now been playing for more than a year. No more excuses. We will find out this year whether he is as good as was advertised, or UConn is in trouble. It is not encouraging that Calhoun has been playing Jerome Dyson, a natural off guard, at the point in front of Price and Craig Austrie, the nominal backup.

Third, power forward. While I love Jeff Adrien, at 6'5" he's very undersized as a power forward in the Big East. If Curtis Kelly has indeed made such great strides, perhaps he will play some at the 4 position.

Last, Stanley Robinson. Coming out of high school, he was the most heralded recruit in last year's class. He showed flashes of talent, but completely disappeared in most games. His is the kind of talent needed to compete nationally and in the Big East. It's not a good sign that this article does not mention him, nor has Calhoun been talking about him in the local papers.

While I certainly expect the team to be a lot better this year, I don't think that this team will be capable of challenging for the Big East crown against Georgetown and Louisville. I expect an NCAA bid, but I anticipate a hold your breath viewing experience for UConn fans during the tournament seeding program. Something in the 8-9 range.

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