by Rob Joyce
The college basketball season in Storrs unofficially kicks off on Wednesday, when Kevin Ollie and the UConn men head to Mohegan Sun for a late-added exhibition against Providence. It’s one of many previously unplanned exhibitions to pop up between Division I foes, with all proceeds from the game going to hurricane relief.
For fans, it’s their first look at the Huskies prior to their November 10th opener against Colgate at Gampel Pavilion. Off a disappointing 16-17 mark in an injury-filled campaign, the Huskies are once again healthy should compete for a league title, despite a fifth place pre-season prediction in the American. Looking at Connecticut’s schedule there are plenty of games that will raise eyebrows, from old Big East matchups to potential new conference rivalries.
Of the 31 regular season games on tap, here are the five biggest hurdles the Huskies face in 2017-18:
5) Cincinnati (Feb. 3, Storrs & Feb. 22, Cincy):
The best rivalry since the American formed, this year should be no different for what to this point has been the two premier programs in the conference. The Bearcats were picked to win the league this season, and check in at 13th in the inaugural Coaches Poll. Bringing back four of their top five scorers, plus a defense that finished eighth in scoring defense (61.3 points per game), it’s another very good Mick Cronin team. Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington, Jarron Cumberland and Gary Clark can all average in double-figures, while transfer Cane Broome was the NEC Player of the Year in 2015-16 at Sacred Heart, averaging over 23 points per game.
4) Wichita State (Dec. 30, Hartford & Feb. 10, Wichita):
The conference newcomer should immediately come in and threaten to not only win the league, but compete for a national championship as well. That’s how good Gregg Marshall’s team can be as they bring back all five starters from last season’s 31-5 squad. With a projected seven-man rotation made up entirely of seniors and juniors, this is an experienced program that’s made six straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The big question mark is health – Landry Shamet is coming off foot surgery but is an All-American talent, while Markis McDuffie is likely out until conference play begins with a foot injury.
3) Villanova (Jan. 20, Hartford):
An Old Big East foe, the Wildcats are coming off three straight 30+ win seasons. Gone are three staples of the 2016 national title team in Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds, but there is no shortage of talent in Philly.
Junior point guard Jalen Brunson (14.7 points, 4.1 assists per game) is arguably the nation’s best returning point guard, and his scoring numbers should only go up with the departure of the All-American Hart. He leads a group that is a little young, but talented with multiple Top 100 recruits. Ranked sixth in the preseason, Villanova is again the favorite for a sixth straight Big East championship and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
2) Arizona (Dec. 21, Tucson):
The Wildcats are shaken off the court with the arrest of former assistant Book Richardson in the corruption scandal that rocked college basketball. On it, Arizona might be the most talented team in the country. Off a 32-5 season that ended with a Pac-12 title and a Sweet 16 trip, the Wildcats have a phenomenal balance. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a senior point guard with experience, junior guard Allonzo Trier could be National Player of the Year, sophomore wing Rawle Alkins could be an NBA Draft lottery pick and freshman DeAndre Ayton is the top-ranked player in his recruiting class. Alkins is out until at least December with an injury, but the Huskies have their hands full regardless: Arizona was 15-1 at McKale Center last year, and since 2013-14 they are 67-2 in Tucson.
1) Phil Knight Invitational (Nov 23-26, Portland):
The collection of talent going to Oregon over Thanksgiving weekend is wild. The Huskies open up with Oregon, fresh off a Final Four run (though admittedly they lost nearly everyone from that team), could potentially face pre-season No. 2 Michigan State the following day, and (if they survive) could end with either defending champ North Carolina or Oklahoma. The other half of the tournament features names like Duke (preseason No. 1), national runner-up Gonzaga (No. 19) and Florida (No. 7).