STORRS, Conn. -- Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell had spent much of his adult life with an interest in UConn basketball as a former player, assistant and friend of the program.
And for the first time, he had no idea what to expect with this edition of the Huskies.
No one did.
“I didn’t know anything about them,’’ said Pikiell. “I do think, though, they’ll be kind of intriguing.’’
That assessment came after the Huskies ran away from Pikiell’s depleted Seawolves 79-52 in the season opener for both teams at Gampel Pavilion Friday night.
And there is a good chance he’s right. The Huskies, picked 10th in the preseason Big East poll, are one of a handful of teams that are in the muddled middle of the 16-team conference. They could go in either direction.
But there is reason for hope after one game because of the play from sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi. The Huskies are going to be led by junior point guard Kemba Walker, who had 18 points in the opener. When three freshmen start and another two play, it’s a given that a veteran leader like Walker will contribute heavily.
The unknown was how much Oriakhi would factor in, considering he was the most experienced frontcourt player.
Well, he grabbed 18 boards and scored 11 points. The Seawolves were missing their top rebounder in Tommy Brenton (9.7 a game), who is out for the season with a knee injury. Would it have really mattered? Maybe not.
“Alex stepped up big time on the glass and owned it,’’ Calhoun said. “If he continues to have these kind of nights -- if he’s a double-double guy, which I believe he can be, and that’s putting pressure on him -- then we’re a different team.’’
Oriakhi needs to have a Jeff Adrien-like season for the Huskies to have balance this year, or to be a major threat to earn an NCAA berth after last season’s one-year hiatus, or to be a threat to compete against the upper-tier Big East teams in the post.
“He’s not Jeff yet,’’ said Walker, who played with Adrien for one season. “Jeff went after every rebound. It would be huge if we can get Alex to be like that.’’
Oriakhi also said he wasn’t Adrien-like yet. But he did say “I wanted every rebound. Every rebound that goes up there I want it. I don’t care if my teammates are in the way, I’m going to take it.’’
Accepting his role as a rebounder, a put-back specialist and a finisher on the break and just an overall menace inside could be a difference for the Huskies. Calhoun said Oriakhi dedicated himself to being a much more productive player this summer.
The length of the newcomers like Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith will help this team defensively. Shabazz Napier, who complimented Walker, dished out three assists with zero turnovers. Getting Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey to be effective rather than playing tentative should come soon. Until then, expect Calhoun to lean on veterans on his roster like Donnell Beverly and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel.
Ultimately, though, the fate of the Huskies rests on Walker pushing the team from the perimeter and Oriakhi cleaning up any messes at either end of the court.
The Huskies play host to Vermont on Wednesday and then go to the Maui Invitational, where Missouri Valley Conference favorite Wichita State will be waiting in the first round. Beating the Shockers is a must to get to Michigan State. Lose to Wichita State and confidence could be shaken for this young team, not to mention the power-rating hit taken by playing Chaminade and being in the loser’s bracket.
The Huskies need quality play in Maui with only two other significant nonconference games in January: at Texas and home against Tennessee. With the Big East expected to be a jumble in the middle, the Huskies will need to differentiate themselves in some form.