UConn continues its pursuit of respect knowing the mission of back-to-back national championships will not be accomplished in the opener Monday night against visiting Northern Arizona.
Ranked No. 6 in the preseason AP poll, UConn posted a 31-8 record last season and defeated San Diego State in the national championship game.
A lot has changed for Huskies head coach Dan Hurley, including his roster.
The Huskies were picked third — behind Marquette and Creighton — in the Big East preseason poll of conference coaches. And UConn isn’t represented by any player on the Big East preseason all-conference team, although sophomore center Donovan Clingan was named to the second team.
Hurley used the voting results to remind his team they have something to prove — and a ton of competition to overcome to make the team goals a reality.
“Jordan Hawkins was not picked on an all-conference preseason team last year, and he led us to a dominant run and was (an NBA) lottery pick,” Hurley said. “Some of the stuff … I get it this year more than others. When you look at the all-conference teams, really good players didn’t make one of the first two teams.
“As for the order of finish, we have three teams ranked in the top eight of the AP Poll. We have three, maybe four national championship contenders this year, so that’s what we’re dealing with.”
Clingan, forward Alex Karaban and point guard Tristen Newton were key pieces last season who are back with the Huskies. UConn also added Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer and guard Stephon Castle, the Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year. Spencer, a 6-foot-4 guard, made 43.4 percent of his 3-point attempts last season, when he averaged 13.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists for the Scarlet Knights.
“Storrs, Connecticut, is the basketball capital of the world,” Hurley said. “We’ll come into a season with a chip on our shoulder — or two chips — and that’s why I think this program is as successful as it’s been. We don’t carry complacency.”
Northern Arizona finished 12-23 overall and 5-13 in the Big Sky last season, but got hot late in the season and advanced to the Big Sky tournament championship game. Montana State won the tournament title by beating the Lumberjacks 85-78.
Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado tied for eighth place in the Big Sky preseason coaches’ poll.
“To lose in the Big Sky championship game, miss the NCAA tournament by seven points and then to play your next regular season game against UConn is exactly the experience that these guys want to elevate their game at NAU basketball,” coach Shane Burcar said. “Playing at schools like Michigan State, Gonzaga, Arizona State and Texas Tech has made us better over the last few years.”
Pepperdine transfer Carson Basham, a 6-foot-10 junior center, is one of five new players on the Northern Arizona roster this season. Basham averaged 7.1 points per game and 4.1 rebounds per game for Pepperdine last season.
Northern Arizona will have to make up for the loss of point guard Jalen Cone, who transferred to California. Cone was a third-team All-Big Sky selection last season, when he averaged a team-high 17.6 points per game.
Carson Towt, a 6-foot-8 forward, is the team’s only returning player who scored in double digits last season (10.1).