Last summer Shabazz Napier took up a new hobby. Armed with a secondhand fishing rod and after years of wildlife viewing on TV, the point guard ventured to a lake near the Storrs campus to cast his first line, only to leave hours later without a nibble. But with a few pointers from local anglers, Napier's subsequent excursions proved productive: He recently reeled in a 12-pound bass. And although he releases his catches, he gets plenty from the experience. "One thing [fishing] will definitely do," the senior says, "is teach you patience."
Luckily for the Huskies, Napier hasn't lacked that virtue. Though he flirted with transferring after Jim Calhoun's retirement in September 2012, Napier stayed in Storrs -- despite UConn's postseason ban for a poor academic progress rate -- and led the team in points, assists and steals. "I couldn't have asked him to do anything more," coach Kevin Ollie says.
Now eligible for the NCAA tournament again, UConn needs the savvy Napier and blink-quick backcourt mate Ryan Boatright to focus on increasing the Huskies' pace. (Their adjusted tempo ranked 194th in D-I last season.) That starts on defense, where the two guards will pressure the ball to help create turnovers. And when UConn's possessions get bogged down in the half-court, Napier and Boatright, both aggressive penetrators capable of scoring and distributing, will spearhead an expanded free-flowing, read-and-cut offense.
The Huskies ranked in the nation's bottom fourth in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage last year (the 6-foot-1 Napier was second on the team with 4.4 boards per game) -- which is a problem for a team that wants to run. But help is on the way in the form of 7-foot Ghanaian center Amida Brimah and 6-9 four-star Jamaican-born forward Kentan Facey, both freshmen. They may be just the kind of catches UConn needs.
The hit the schedule took from the Big East's dissolution should be eased by a non-conference slate that includes NCAA contenders Florida, Maryland, Stanford and Harvard, plus a possible MSG date with Indiana. And with a trip to Memphis and home games against Louisville and Temple in a five-day span, the new league should start with a bang.
Player to Watch: DeAndre Daniels
If you didn't recognize Daniels late last season, you could be forgiven. The former top-10 recruit seemingly morphed into a different player over the Huskies' final seven games, going from an oft-enigmatic 10.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game to averages of 17 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks in that span. Such was the player UConn was envisioning when it beat out Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Florida and Texas for the wiry 6-9 forward's commitment two summers ago. Reportedly pushing 200 pounds after playing last season at 195, Daniels may fair better when asked to work inside against larger opponents as a junior, but it's the day-in, day-out performance needed to make the proverbial "leap" that Ollie says he and the coaching staff are stressing. "You can't turn that switch on and off," says Ollie. "It's gotta always be bright so everybody in the country can see you."
Telling Number: 17.0
Forward DeAndre Daniels' points per game over UConn's final seven games last season, 6.4 higher than his season average entering that stretch.
Q&A with UConn Head Coach Kevin Ollie
SI.com: How different are things for you heading into this season compared to last season, when you were only promoted to head coach in September?
Kevin Ollie: A lot of people ask me that question. I go about my day the same. I try to prepare myself, I try to prepare my coaching staff. I try to be a good listener to my players. It's one year of understanding the system I'm trying to implement. I'm able to put in more things that I wasn't able to put in last year. From that standpoint we're a little wiser, but we've also gotta understand each and every day presents a new challenge.
SI.com: What do you make of the new logo?
KO: I love the new husky. It's a new era, a new logo. It's a little bit more fierce look. I think the young kids will like it a little bit more than some of our older fans, but I think change is good sometimes. As long as we win, I think they'll start liking it a lot more.
SI.com: Being a UConn alum, what does it mean to you to be the guy leading the program through this transition from the Calhoun and Big East years to the American Athletic Conference?
KO: It means the world to me, but I'm not standing here because I was good. I'm standing here because everybody around me was good and they allowed me to be here. That's what I think about all the time: my great coaching staff that allowed me to be here, allowed me to coach and do the different things I did last year, and also my players that had loyalty to this program in the most difficult situation to stay behind me and this great university.