STORRS, Conn. -- Jerome Dyson showed no signs of his repaired right knee bothering him as he effortlessly cruised up court, sometimes with the ball, sometimes without, making midrange jumpers, cutting to the basket for layups.
But then, just a few minutes shy of the end of Wednesday's pickup game at Gampel Pavilion, Dyson took himself out of the game, removed his right sneaker, started rubbing his ankle and limped a bit.
"It just started bothering me,'' Dyson said.
There was no reason to believe it was serious, but even the most benign bumps or bruises are cause for concern.
If Connecticut is going to challenge for a top-four finish in the Big East, Dyson must be on his game. The Huskies got to last season's Final Four despite Dyson missing the final 12 games after tearing his lateral meniscus, but they didn't win the title. Would they have taken down hometown Michigan State at Ford Field in Detroit with a healthy Dyson? We'll never know. But it's not a reach.
"I was having a great year,'' he said.
But then all he could do was watch helplessly as the Huskies lost twice to Pitt, dropped a six-overtime epic to Syracuse in the Big East tournament and then ultimately fell to the Spartans in the national semifinal.
There's no question Dyson was vitally important to the Huskies' perimeter defense and his injury was a reason for the increase in the amount of minutes then-freshman Kemba Walker, and then-seniors A.J. Price and Craig Austrie, had to play. In the two games before he got hurt, Dyson scored 19 points in a win over Michigan and 14 in a win at Louisville.
"I was usually the one guarding the best offensive player on the other team,'' Dyson said. "I would have given A.J. breaks [against Syracuse's Jonny Flynn] and Kemba too. I could see him [getting tired] when he came to the bench. I was just sitting there knowing I couldn't do anything to help them.''
Dyson's defense was clearly missed by the Huskies. He knew it and his teammates understood how much he could have helped.
"We would have had more fire power with Rome [Jerome] because he plays so hard, so hard on defense,'' Walker said. "He's a great scorer and we missed that.''
Throughout the pickup games at Gampel, Walker and Dyson were together, pushing the pace of the game, looking for opportunities to get to the basket. This will be the look of the Huskies. They will be dominated by the perimeter. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who along with the staff was recruiting this week, likely will lean heavily on Dyson, whom he tabbed as a team captain with fellow seniors Gavin Edwards and Stanley Robinson.
The decision to place responsibility on Dyson probably didn't come too lightly. As a sophomore, he and Doug Wiggins (who was also playing pickup Wednesday at Gampel even though the East Hartford, Conn., native is no longer at UConn or UMass, his latest Division I stops) were suspended for a violation of team rules after UConn campus police found a small amount of marijuana near their car.
Dyson missed 10 games during a 2007-08 season that ended with the Huskies losing to San Diego in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Like Price, who was suspended for a year in 2005-06 for a violation of team rules (computer theft on campus), Dyson had to work his way back into the good graces of the staff and administration. Coincidentally, like Price, Dyson did just that only to get injured. Price suffered a torn ACL in the loss to USD and had to return for his senior season as opposed to declaring for the NBA draft.
Dyson was heading for the same path.
"I was thinking about testing the draft [prior to the injury],'' Dyson said.
"Something was always stopping me, and then I was like, 'damn something else now,' when I got hurt,'' Dyson said. "I was having such a good first half of the season.''
Dyson said after he got hurt he leaned on Price for advice. He said his teammate told him to continue to work hard and not let the setbacks affect him.
And so far he has shown to be much more mature.
"I'm not doing any of the things that I was doing as a freshman,'' Dyson said.
And what would that be?
Walker wasn't with Dyson as a freshman, but his "lack of leadership" rep was well-known.
"Since I've known him, he's not doing the things he did,'' Walker said. "Like be on time. He's always on time for everything now. He's going to class. He's being a leader. He's speaking up a lot. He's definitely matured a lot.''
Dyson and Walker were clearly in control during the pickup games Wednesday. They will be in the real games, too. Playing with freshman forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel on the wing, the Huskies should be able to defend on the perimeter better than a season ago.
"Coombs is playing tremendous basketball,'' Walker said of the lanky 6-foot-7 forward. "He's a real sleeper. I can't wait for the season. It's going to be me and [Dyson] as the two best defenders in the country by far. We'll be able to guard 94 feet and we'll play faster.''
Meanwhile, Robinson didn't get eligible by Calhoun's standards until 14 games into last season. He's ready to go for the full year, but Robinson has still never been a player the Huskies can rely exclusively on at either end of the court. He has had a tendency to disappear at times, leaving much more of the responsibility to Dyson and Walker.
The Huskies aren't going to find someone to rebound the way senior Jeff Adrien did last season or someone to be as intimidating as Hasheem Thabeet in the middle. Walker's prediction -- that this team will run -- will have to come true. That was the way the Huskies were attempting to play during pickup games.
That shouldn't come as a shock, since most players like to get out and sprint when there is no coaching supervision and defense is hardly at a premium. The role players inside -- returnees Edwards, Jonathan Mandeldove and newcomers Alex Oriakhi, Charles Okwandu (who played in just 10 games last season) and Ater Majok (who will be eligible in mid-December) -- give the Huskies depth in numbers, but leave them uncertain about how productive they will be come the heart of the Big East season.
"With Kemba pushing and me and Stanley on the wings, we'll be a lot faster than we were last year,'' Dyson said. "If we can have Ater at the 5 and Gavin at the 4, we'll run well. We will struggle without a shot-blocking presence that we've had. We'll have to keep everyone in front of us because we don't have Hasheem back there.''
Dyson is propping up the newcomers and anticipates the lower expectations for the Huskies will be shattered once those new guys blossom.
"With me coming back like I was playing, I feel like we have a great chance to show people a lot of things they're not expecting,'' Dyson said.
But the expectations are high for Dyson to follow in the star-studded line of 2-guards that have been through UConn of late, notably Ben Gordon.
To do that, Dyson needs to stay healthy, knock down midrange jumpers and be an effective 3-point threat.
"The coaches have been preaching to me to make the midrange shots and if I do that I can be like the great 2-guards,'' Dyson said. "I'm not focusing on 3s, more midrange games. If I'm in the lane and I'm open, I've got to knock down the open shot."
Dyson's commitment to his treatment post-surgery last February hasn't been questioned. He stayed in Storrs throughout the summer working out, strengthening his leg, waiting the four months after the surgery before he could shoot off his leg, and then playing in the Hartford Pro-Am in the summer.
If one snapshot at one workout day is any indication, then Dyson -- even with a tweaked ankle -- should be ready to take over his role as the Huskies' dagger on offense and their top lockdown defender. If he can handle that responsibility, be the mature individual he professes he has become and lead this team in the locker room and on the court, then there is hope he'll produce another NCAA run for Connecticut.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.