By PAT EATON-ROBB, Associated Press
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Defending national champion UConn goes from playing with a chip on its shoulder to a target on its back.
The Huskies came into last season determined to come back strong after an academic ban from the 2013 NCAA tournament. They went on to win the program’s fourth national title, its second in four years.
This year, the Huskies go from hunters to the hunted.
“We know we’ve got people coming for us, but we’re not just sitting back and relaxing,” said guard Rodney Purvis. “We’re coming at guys too.”
UConn coach Kevin Ollie is hoping the 6-foot-4 Purvis will help provide part of the answer to the biggest question his team has going into the 2014-15 season _ how to replace guard Shabazz Napier, who led UConn in scoring, rebounding and assists.
DeAndre Daniels, last year’s top frontcourt player and Niels Giffey, the team’s top 3-point threat, also are gone.
“We lost a lot,” said Ollie. “But it’s also a lot of great opportunities for other guys to step up and show how they’ve been waiting but working at the same time for a more prevalent role.”
Purvis is one of those guys. He sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina State, and Ollie has referred to him as his “Ferrari in the garage.”
He joins a highly touted incoming class that includes 6-7 swingman Daniel Hamilton, 6-8 power forward Rakim Lubin and guard Sam Cassell Jr., a junior college transfer.
The Huskies are led by senior Ryan Boatright, who is being asked to fill Napier’s leadership role. Ollie said he he’s putting a lot on Boatright’s plate, which of one of the reasons his captain spent most of the summer in Storrs.
“We were up here bonding,” Boatright said. “I watched a lot of film with coach, seeing where guys like the ball.”
Sophomore center Amida Brimah has been named the team’s co-captain. Already one the nation’s top shot blockers, Boatright says the center has improved his scoring touch and should be a big weapon offensively this season.
“He’s got a consistent knock-down 15 footer,” Boatright said. “He catches almost every ball. We would pass a lot to him last year and he would fumble it. His hands have got a lot better.”
Here are some other things to look for as UConn begins defense of its fourth national title.
RUNNING GAME: Ollie says he expects to play a more up-tempo game this year, in part because of the Huskies’ depth in the backcourt. In additon to Boatright, Purvis and Cassell the UConn also returns sharpshooting junior Omar Calhoun, and sophomore Terrance Samuel.
“You want to have options,” Ollie said. “I’ve got a lot of scoring options in that gym.”
MUSCLE UNDERNEATH: Ollie was not happy that a point guard led the team in rebounding last season. The Huskies are looking for more this year from Brimah and 6-10 junior Phil Nolan, who put on more than 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason.
“Phil was doing a lot of great things for us,” Ollie said. “But he knew, as a man, he had to get stronger so he could absorb that contact and get those dunks and be ready to bang underneath with the big guys from Florida and Kentucky.”
The Huskies also recruited Lubin, who weighs 270 pounds and has the body of a football lineman. Ollie says Lubin loves physical contact, but is also a solid passer.
OLLIE, OLLIE INCOME NOT FREE: Ollie was the subject of numerous NBA coach rumors after leading UConn to a 52-18 record in his first two seasons as coach.But the Huskies signed their former point guard to a $15 million, five-year contract in May. Ollie says he always will keep his options open, but wants to be at UConn, where he starred as a point guard under Jim Calhoun.
NEW DIGS: The Huskies this month opened a $40 million basketball practice facility. The building is divided, with half devoted to facilities and a court for the national champion women’s team and the other half housing facilities and a court for the men’s team. The sides are almost identical, with the exception of an extra office on the men’s side for former coach Jim Calhoun.
CASSELL JR and SR: Ollie had a bit of advantage when recruiting Sam Cassell Jr., having played with his father. Sam Casell Sr. and Ollie were teammates on the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2002-03 season.
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