Shabazz Napier will lead one of the nation's best group of guards at UConn this season. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Over the next few weeks, One and One will highlight two teams from each conference — one riding a positive trajectory heading into the 2013-14 season (stock up) and one headed for a decline (stock down). The unpredictability of college basketball could force a reassessment of these projections at some point over the next few months, but whether our analysis is prescient or misguided, watching the following teams perform in the upcoming season should be fascinating.
Stock up: UConn
Of all the leagues affected by conference realignment, arguably none was hurt more than the old Big East. That’s easy to say in hindsight, of course, because the Big East we once knew and love no longer exists -- the product of seven basketball-only members leaving the conference and, after adding Xavier, Butler and Creighton, forming their own new “Big East.” Schools like Cincinnati and UConn, meanwhile, after being spurned by the ACC, were left behind to help lead the generic-sounding American Athletic Conference.
The American will count Louisville as one of its members this year, before the Cardinals move to the ACC in 2014, at which point the Huskies and Bearcats -- along with promising additions Memphis and Temple -- should be in the AAC championship discussion on a yearly basis. UConn might enter the conversation a year early; that’s how good Kevin Ollie’s team figures to be this season.
It starts in the backcourt, where Shabazz Napier returns to lead one of the best groups of guards in the country. Erratic junior Ryan Boatright and sophomore Omar Calhoun should complement Napier in a three-guard starting lineup, while graduate transfer Lasan Kromah, who will be eligible right away after averaging 10.1 points and 3.7 rebounds for George Mason last season, provides solid perimeter depth. Given the load of capable guards returning to Storrs this season, combined with the shortage of proven forwards, don’t be surprised to see Ollie employ four-guard lineups in certain situations.
The biggest concern for UConn is the frontcourt. Outside of junior DeAndre Daniels, a rangy, athletic “four” better suited to play small forward, UConn’s most established returning frontcourt player is senior Tyler Olander, who averaged just 4.3 points and 3.7 rebounds while taking 14 percent of available shots last season, according to Kenpom.com. Low-post scoring isn’t a glaring need for UConn; with Boatright and Napier averaging 15.4 and 17.1 points per game last season, respectively, and taking 24.5 and 24.0 percent of available shots (per Kenpom), the Huskies have plenty of offensive firepower.
What they need is rebounding, an area UConn -- after rebounding just 28.5 percent (278th in the country) of their misses, and allowing opponents to rebound 36 percent (319th) of theirs -- desperately needs to improve. Freshmen Kentan Facey (whose eligibility for the upcoming season remains in question as of this writing), a touted rebounder, and Amida Brimah, a lengthy shotblocker, could play important roles right away, while veteran Niels Giffey offers more reserve help.
Were it not for the one-year postseason ban levied against UConn last season due to a low Academic Progress Rate score, the Huskies, in all likelihood, would have made the NCAA tournament. They should have no issues reaching that baseline in 2013-14, but UConn has every right to aim for loftier achievements. If frontcourt players like Daniels, Olander and Facey step up, the Huskies should rival Memphis and the Bearcats for second-place in the AAC standings.
Stock down: Temple
If Temple extends its NCAA tournament streak to seven seasons next March, the best explanation for how it got there will be some iteration of the following: Fran Dunphy is a really good coach. That’s the biggest reason why it’s unwise to count out the Owls, who lose four of their top five scorers (Khalif Wyatt, Scootie Randall, Jake O’Brien and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson) from 2012-13, even as they transition to a more rigorous conference after leaving the A-10 in the offseason.
Still, replacing so much of last season’s winning formula -- Temple notched a nine seed in the NCAA tournament and, thanks in large part to a heroic 31-point effort from Wyatt, gave one seed Indiana all it could handle in a six-point loss in the Round of 32 -- will be tough. Juniors Will Cummings and Anthony Lee should play bigger roles, while sophomore Quenton DeCosey and senior Dalton Pepper will need to score more efficiently (both posted offensive ratings below 90 last season, according to Kenpom). The Owls could get instant returns from freshmen Josh Brown and Mark Williams, the former an explosive guard with good passing and scoring instincts, the latter an above-average rebounder with range out to the perimeter.
Moving to a deeper and more talented league would have been a huge challenge on its own. That Temple has to do so in the midst of a rebuild could make this season far less enjoyable than the 20-win, tournament-qualifying campaigns Owls fans have grown used to under Dunphy. With one of the best coaches in the league on the sidelines, a complete bottoming-out is unlikely. Temple will be competitive, because Dunphy’s teams always are. But expecting the Owls to notch another typical top-three finish (Temple finished lower than third in the A-10 just once dating to 2007-08) in their new league is probably unrealistic.
This season is about making a transition into a tougher league, about laying a foundation for the future. Temple is a consistent program with an impressive track record of success under Dunphy. There could be a bit of a dip this season, but the Owls should rebound in relatively short order.