Floating around the UConn basketball offices is a photo album of the team's trip in August to Europe and the Middle East. There are snapshots of players standing in front of Buckingham Palace, frolicking in the Dead Sea and strolling along the cobblestone streets of Nazareth. But none of these pictures bring a twinkle to the eyes of coach Jim Calhoun quite like the one of squarish point guard Khalid El-Amin smiling brilliantly as he sits astride a camel outside the Israeli city of Tiberias.
"We go for a camel ride and none of the kids want to get close to the camels because they're afraid of getting spit on or bitten," recalls Calhoun. "Then here comes Khalid yelling, 'Follow me.' He jumps on a camel, and sure enough everyone follows him. That's when I realized I've got a kid who knows how to lead."
By leading the charge of the camel brigade, El-Amin showed Calhoun just how much he has grown since last season, when he helped UConn set a school record for wins. All five Huskies starters return, including 6'6" junior forward Richard Hamilton, the top returning vote-getter for the 1998 AP national player of the year award. But it is El-Amin, the 5'10", 200-pound sophomore, whom Calhoun calls his "most important player."
Although he was named Big East Rookie of the Year last season, El-Amin fired away far too frequently (witness his field goal percentage: 42.4), and his shoot-first, pass-second mentality often upset the rhythm of the offense. During the Goodwill Games this summer he asked everyone from Utah playmaker Andre Miller to Minnesota coach Clem Haskins about ways to improve his game. "A good point guard has to think team first all the time," El-Amin says. "Sometimes I didn't do that last year."
El-Amin's primary job will be to get the ball to the silky Hamilton, who has fully recovered since breaking his right foot in July. Named the Big East Player of the Year last season after averaging 21.5 points, Hamilton spent his convalescence at home in Coatesville, Pa., watching videotapes of himself in high school. "I wanted to stay in tune with my game," he says. "When you go 2� months without playing, it's easy to lose your focus."
That was a problem last year for 6'7" junior Kevin Freeman, who struggled to play what Calhoun calls the Marshall Position. Named after former Huskies Donyell and Donny, the Marshall Position requires the muscle of a power forward and the quickness of a small forward. During the team's six-game overseas tour, however, Freeman showed remarkable progress. Says Calhoun, "He started to look like he could be a special player."
If Freeman can marshal his talent, the Huskies' starting five will be as good as any in the country. The NBA folks seem to think as much: Three scouts attended a recent practice that consisted of little more than shooting and rebounding drills. "The sky is the limit for us," says El-Amin. "If I get everyone involved, we'll be a very, very nice team."
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