There were occasions last year when point guard Ricky Moore wondered if he was participating in a recurring nightmare. Coming off an impressive freshman season, Moore was expected to take over the playmaking duties for a Connecticut team that had depended on Doron Sheffer and Ray Allen the year before. Instead he was beset by injuries. Moore underwent surgery for a shoulder separation in April 1996, strained a ligament in his left hand on the first day of practice last fall (it would later require surgery), suffered a broken nose and a concussion when he took an elbow from Indiana's Richard Mandeville in the season opener and later sprained his right ankle. Moore played through the pain and didn't miss a game until January, when he was hit by something he couldn't play through.
Moore and teammate Kirk King were suspended by the NCAA for accepting plane tickets from Hartford to their homes, in Augusta, Ga., and Baton Rouge, respectively, from agent John Lounsbury. King, who was a senior, was booted from the Huskies for lying about the violation; Moore was shelved for five games. Although Moore returned for UConn's final 14 games, he wasn't the player he had been.
"I don't think people realize how much pressure I was under," says Moore, who ended up averaging 9.0 points and 5.4 assists a game. "I was supposed to be the leader of a young team, and I tried to do too much. The NCAA thing was a terrible mistake on my part. I let people down because I couldn't say no; I was never myself after that."
Moore and UConn grew up a lot last year. Coach Jim Calhoun started a trio of freshmen for much of the season, and the Huskies took their licks. UConn jumped out to an 11-3 start before the suspensions and then went 3-11 before finishing strong with a third-place showing in the NIT.
Connecticut will again be young, but it has five starters back from an 18-15 team that held opponents to 38.3% shooting, eighth lowest in the nation. Sophomore swingman Richard Hamilton (15.9 points a game last season) emerged as the Huskies' biggest scoring threat, aided ably by junior guard Rashamel Jones (13.0). Calhoun also expects talented 5'10" freshman point guard Khalid El-Amin, a McDonald's All-America and two-time Minnesota player of the year, to give the Huskies the flexibility to go with a three-guard lineup. "At one point we were a six-man team with four first-year players last season," says Calhoun. "I would never want to go through what we did last year again, but this group now understands what it takes."
Moore also understands how to turn the disappointments of the past into motivation. "This is a big year for me and this team," he says. "I haven't lived up to my end of the bargain here. I know I'm a much better player than I have shown."