Defending champs open up in Storrs against Lions

Nov 11, 2011 - 4:53 PM Storrs, CT (Sports Network) - The defending national champion Connecticut Huskies open up their 2011-12 season this evening in Storrs, as they play host to the Columbia Lions.

Jim Calhoun's Huskies got hot at the right time last year, sweeping their way through the Big East and NCAA Tournament fields, finishing the season with 32 victories and Calhoun's third national title (1999, 2004, 2011) with the school. The team loses a huge piece from that championship team with the departure of All-American Kemba Walker, but plenty remains in Storrs, with a couple of key additions.

Kyle Smith had a successful debut season with Columbia last year, as the team went 15-13 overall. Still, the goal was an Ivy League title and the Lions fell short of that with just a 6-8 mark in-conference. The hope is that with four starters returning to the fold, including a pair of All-Ivy League guards, the team can climb the league ladder in 2011-12.

UConn has won six of the eight all-time meetings in this series, although these two teams haven't met since 1983, an 85-60 Connecticut victory in Hartford.

The Lions struggled with consistency last year and the result was an overall record two games over .500 and a league mark two games below .500. There is certainly reason for optimism this year, as the team brings back a nice nucleus, highlighted by all-conference guards Noruwa Agho and Brian Barbour. Agho is the Ivy League's top returning scorer after averaging 16.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg and 4.3 apg last year. Barbour (13.3 ppg, 3.2 apg) gives the Lions a potent one-two punch in the backcourt. Junior center Mark Cisco (6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) will be asked to provide the team with frontcourt balance.

A loss the caliber of Walker would cripple most teams, but the Huskies are young and hungry to defend their crown. The squad has multiple weapons, headlined by junior forward Alex Oriakhi and sophomore guards Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. Lamb averaged 11.1 ppg last season but gave way to Walker a lot in terms of shooting the basketball. Expect a huge jump in numbers, as he will be asked for offensive leadership this season. Napier has the ability to both score (7.8 ppg) and distribute (124 assists last year) and will be called upon to do both. Oriakhi should be one of the more dominant frontcourt performers in the Big East this season after averaging 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore. Oriakhi will get help in the paint by perhaps the nation's top freshman in the form of 6-10, 270-pound center Andre Drummond.

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