UConn begins title defense against Bryant

Nov 14, 2014 - 4:29 PM Storrs, CT (SportsNetwork.com) - The 17th-ranked Connecticut Huskies will begin their national title defense on Friday night when they host the Bryant Bulldogs in a non-conference tilt at Gampel Pavilion.

Kevin Ollie made quite the statement in his second season as head coach at UConn, leading the seventh-seeded Huskies to a stunning run to the national championship, their fourth in the last 16 seasons. It was an excellent finish to the program's first season back from a postseason ban, aided largely by the heroics of Shabazz Napier. The team finished 32-8 overall, which included impressive wins over Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky en route to the title.

Obviously, Bryant didn't enjoy as much success last season, but it was still a solid campaign for the Bulldogs, who are entering their sixth season in the Northeast Conference. They won 18 games last season, marking their second straight campaign with more than 10 wins. It was another step in the right direction for Tim O'Shea's squad, which failed to win more than 10 contests in any of the previous four seasons.

These teams met for the first time during the 2008-09 season, and as one might expect, the Huskies rolled to an easy victory, led by a double-double from Hasheem Thabeet (16 points, 12 rebounds).

For UConn, the key to this season will be how well it can play without Napier, as well as talented forward DeAndre Daniels. There are certainly pieces in place to do so, with speedy guard Ryan Boatright and developing center Amida Brimah back in the fold. Boatright averaged 12.1 points and 3.4 assists per game last season in his role as second fiddle to Napier. He is a tough defender and a strong passer, with good penetrating ability. Brimah (4.1 ppg, 3 rpg, 2.3 bpg) is still raw offensively, but he is an excellent shot-blocker. NC State transfer Rodney Purvis will be a big part of the rotation as well, while Omar Calhoun (3.8 ppg) has a chance to get back into the starting lineup, although he is listed as doubtful for this contest with a sprained right knee. Freshman forward Daniel Hamilton could be important as well. He had 12 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in UConn's final exhibition game.

There are three starters back for Bryant, which was one of the best offensive teams in the NEC last season. The Bulldogs ranked second in the league in scoring (73.5 ppg), assists (13.1 apg), while finishing first in field goal percentage (.470). In fact, they were a top-40 team nationally when it came to shooting percentage. Dyami Starks (18.9 ppg) returns as the top offensive option. He was a bit rusty in Bryant's preseason exhibition against St. Francis Xavier, finishing with only seven points on 2-of-11 shooting. Joe O'Shea (9.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Shane McLaughlin (3.9 ppg) are also back as starters, although both will need to take on more of the offensive load now that Alex Francis and Corey Maynard, who were both double-digit scorers, are no longer on campus.

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