NCAA: Can The UConn Huskies Repeat?

In the weeks and months leading up to the start of practices in October, we’ll take a look at some of the biggest teams, players and stories for the 2014-15 NCAA college basketball season. Each team has one burning question we’ll take a look at. 

It’s the question that’s asked any time a team wins a championship. Whether it be the NFL, NBA, MLB or college sports, the reigning champions are the champions until somebody else takes home the gold. Each and every year, the question is asked of the defending champions: can you do it again?

No team in men’s sports has repeated as national champions of anything in over eight years. The Connecticut women have actually won twice in the last six years, winning it all in 2009 and 2010 and again in 2013 and 2014. The UConn men are facing the same pressure, winning it all this past April, capping off a terrific run to the title. Unfortunately, history is not on their side.

The last team to repeat was the Florida Gators in 2006 and again in 2007. Florida, however, had the luxury of retaining every player from the previous year’s championship team to make a run at another title. Before that it was Duke in 1992 and 1993. Before that it was the UCLA Bruins dynasty that took home seven national titles in a row and 10 in 12 years.

History shows that since Florida’s back-to-back national titles, no team that has won the national championship the first year has returned to the Final Four the next year.

Apr 7, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Connecticut Huskies head coach Kevin Ollie watches “one shining moment” with his players after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats in the championship game of the Final Four in the 2014 NCAA Mens Division I Championship tournament at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

There are a number of reasons for this, but the main ones are they were either senior-laden teams or the NBA money came calling, signaling the end of that team’s run at a dynasty. UConn is facing the same uphill battle, losing three of its top players from the 2014 championship team.

Without a doubt the Huskies’ run to the title last year was remarkable. As a 7-seed in a rather tricky region, UConn came away with huge victories over Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky. Those are five of the best teams college basketball had to offer last season and the Huskies ran through them all. It was eerily similar to their run to the title in 2011 led by Kemba Walker. This time it was Shabazz Napier who ran things. But much like when Kemba went to the NBA right after winning the title, so did Shabazz.

Napier led the Huskies in scoring, rebounding (for most of the year), assists and free throw shooting last season. That’s now gone, as is DeAndre Daniels, who showed some great improvement as the season went along, and Niels Giffey, the outside threat that kept the Huskies in close games. In those three players, UConn loses 54.8 percent of it’s offensive output and 44.8 percent of its total rebounding numbers from last season’s team.

With these big losses, how are the Huskies expected to not only win the AAC but also compete for another national championship?

Quite frankly, Connecticut is in a fantastic position. Despite these losses, there is still a good amount of talent left over from the team that took the floor in Dallas this past April, most notably in the backcourt.

Ryan Boatright also heard some whispers about potentially being drafted in June, but he decided to return to school, giving coach Kevin Ollie a solid defender and fearless competitor to build his team around. Boatright was third on the team in scoring (12.1), second in assists (3.4) and second in steals (1.6) last year. Those numbers are sure to climb as he will be the main focus of the offense this season.

Joining Boatright will be Rodney Purvis, a transfer from N.C. State who sat out last year due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. In his lone season with N.C. State, Purvis averaged 8.5 points per game on 42 percent shooting from the field. He’s a quick, dynamic guard that’s certain to step into the empty space Shabazz has left. He’ll also be a great addition if Omar Calhoun can’t step up and be the game changer many thought he could’ve been last year. If they can’t get the job done, Daniel Hamilton, an incoming 6’6″ freshman, could be one to step up as well.

The frontcourt will be an interesting dynamic for the Huskies this season. Daniels didn’t play great, but he played well enough to mask the fact that UConn’s interior presence, both offensively and defensively, wasn’t anything spectacular. UConn’s big men will have to earn their playing time for Ollie and a rotation of several players seems plausible.

Amida Brimah will likely get the starting nod once again as he swatted away 2.3 shots per game as a freshman last year. He didn’t score much, but his defensive presence was key against Kentucky’s bigs in the national championship game and will be useful again this season. Another name that could be crucial this year is Phillip Nolan. As a sophomore, Nolan played in just 14 minutes per game but shot 52 percent from the field on his limited touches. At 6’10”, he and the 7’0″ Brimah should tower over most of the forwards in the AAC at the very least. Both will have to up their points totals if they want to see substantial playing time.

Dakari Johnson (44) shoots as he is defended by Connecticut Huskies center Amida Brimah (35) in the second half during the championship game of the Final Four in the 2014 NCAA Mens Division I Championship tournament at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The rest of the roster is a big of a crapshoot. There’s Calhoun, who played backup to Napier last season, but with Napier rarely coming off the floor aside from foul trouble and doing everything, Ollie lost faith in what Calhoun could bring to the table. His points average dropped from over 11 per game in his freshman year to just under four last season. Should he get back to his killer instinct from from his first season, he could be the key ingredient to a potential run at repeating as champs.

Like any good team, Connecticut isn’t taking the easy way out with their non-conference schedule. They will compete in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off at the end of November and have potential meetings with Dayton — they made the Elite Eight last year, you know — and West Virginia. No, not the most compelling of tournaments, but they can’t all be the Battle 4 Atlantis.

After that it’ll be a stretch of tough competition, with games against Texas, Duke, Florida and Stanford waiting for them. The latter two will be road tests.

Then there’s the conference schedule, which should be a bit easier to manage than last year’s AAC games were. Louisville has moved on to the ACC, Cincinnati lost its two best players and could be in a rebound year and Memphis needs to find guards that can play before they’re taken seriously. Connecticut’s toughest competition will be SMU, who returns just about everybody from a solid campaign last year. The Huskies should still be favored to win the conference in the preseason.

There’s really no telling how UConn is going to fair this year and history doesn’t seem to like defending champions in college basketball. Of the national champions starting in 2008, three teams went on to the Sweet 16 the next year, two missed the NCAA Tournament completely and another lost in their opening game of the next NCAA Tournament. That team that lost in the first round was UConn in 2012 after winning in 2011.

Some like to say that history repeats itself. Others like to think that history is meant to be changed. Can Connecticut stop history from repeating? Or will they fall victim to it like the six defending champions before them? Only they can decide that.