Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only three schools have won multiple championships -- Kentucky, Duke and UConn. The Huskies joined that elite group with a dominating run last April. More than anything else, the title run, which came five years after UConn earned its first NCAA crown, demonstrated the Huskies' staying power.
"The prevailing thought I've had since winning a second title is, wouldn't three be special," said coach Jim Calhoun. "We want to continue our run of success. Only a few schools have been able to do it. We don't want to slip. If we're the best team over the past 10 years in the Big East, let's try to be the best team in the country over the last 10 years."
With such standouts as Josh Boone, Charlie Villanueva and Rashad Anderson returning and a recruiting class that includes the gifted Rudy Gay, UConn will remain a contender.
"We could have a very interesting team," said Calhoun. "We're going to have to have some patience. But we want to challenge anybody in the nation."
FRONTCOURTEmeka Okafor, selected second in the NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats, was an imposing presence in the paint, with uncanny shot-blocking ability and an underrated offensive game. Although Okafor will be missed, the Huskies will not be caught short. Boone and Villanueva logged significant minutes last season and Hilton Armstrong made some important contributions. The return of Marcus White, who missed nearly all of last season because of back surgery, plus the addition of Gay and Georgia Tech transfer Ed Nelson, will make for intense competition for playing time.
The 6-foot-10 Boone, who has excellent hands and underappreciated strength, should emerge as a star as he slides over to center from power forward. Villanueva, who has NBA offensive skills, will get a chance to start after coming off the bench as a freshman. He could be the Huskies' most pivotal player. "Charlie could be our leading scorer next season and his life will change very, very quickly," said Calhoun. "He will be a first-round pick someday, and he could be a lottery selection if he continues to work."
Nelson, the ACC Freshman of the Year in 2001-02, practiced against Okafor all last season. White was a rebounding machine two years ago as a freshman. Gay, a 6-9 forward from Baltimore, has been described as the second coming of Reggie Williams, a former standout small forward at Georgetown.
BACKCOURTIf the Huskies are to contend for another Big East title and go deep into the NCAA tournament, they must replace point guard Taliek Brown. UConn believes Marcus Williams, who sat out the second half of the season with academic difficulties, is up to the task.
Williams is more of a scorer than Brown, who gave the Huskies tough, physical defense and a lightning-quick offensive weapon -- and a lot of turnovers. But Williams has only 16 games under his belt and none in pressure situations. Freshman A.J. Price, a top 40 recruit, was expected to give the Huskies some insurance at the point guard position, but he has been hospitalized since he suffered an intracranial hemorrhage earlier this month.
UConn is shifting Anderson from small forward to shooting guard full-time. He played both positions last season and averaged 11.2 points and shot 41.0 percent from the 3-point line. Swingman Denham Brown needs to show his late-season problems were due to tendinitis in his knee to regain his spot as the starting small forward.
FINAL ANALYSISThe absence of any seniors in the rotation makes leadership a major question mark. Then there's the task of motivating a team that just won a national championship.
But that's Calhoun's specialty. The day after the NBA Draft, the UConn coaching staff called the returning players and told them they could end up like Okafor and Gordon if they put their minds and bodies to it. "The biggest thing is who is going to lead the team," said Calhoun. "Who will be the guy that will say it's all going to be worth it if we get to St. Louis (for the Final Four)? We'll be talented. It's a question of fitting the pieces together and having this unit develop the same kind of focus we had last year."