STORRS — Things had rarely looked so bleak in UConn Nation. The Huskies were ousted from one NCAA Tournament and barred from the next, and players were leaving left and right. Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond left for the NBA. Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley all transferred.
Just what kind of team would UConn be able to send out on the court for 2012-13? Would the Huskies have enough scholarship players to be competitive? Enter four newcomers, who saw opportunity and hope to seize it. R.J. Evans, who had graduated from Holy Cross, was looking to transfer and play out his last year of eligibility as a post-grad, and UConn's coaches welcomed him. He could give them the elder-statesman leadership off the court and off the bench that Donnell Beverly provided during the championship run in 2011.
Freshman Omar Calhoun stuck to his commitment and will follow in Taliek Brown's and Kemba Walker's footsteps from New York City to Storrs. Phil Nolan saw a chance to play those minutes the departing big men left behind, and Leon Tolksdorf came from Germany to join two of his countrymen.
The Huskies will have a team. New coach Kevin Ollie says are "here for the right reasons."
Here is a look at UConn's incoming freshmen:
The Gatorade player of the year in New York, Calhoun was considered an elite get (ranked No. 32 among prospects by ESPN) for the Huskies when he committed in June 2011. And through all their trials and tribulations, he remained committed to UConn.
"The regular season is enough to showcase what you can do," Calhoun said the day he arrived in Storrs. "I came to UConn because it's a family atmosphere."
Calhoun, at 6 feet 5 and 192 pounds, is not your average skinny freshman. "Physically, he's not a freshman," former coach Jim Calhoun said.
Omar Calhoun averaged 25.8 points, eight rebounds, three assists and 1.8 steals at Christ the King last year, leading his team to the state quarterfinals. He might play off the bench for a time at UConn, but he figures to see a lot of action and be depended on for scoring as a big shooting guard/small forward in the Huskies' smaller, fast-paced offense.
The Calhouns of Brooklyn are a basketball family. Both of Omar's parents were great players and his sister is a highly prized recruit at Christ the King.
"Omar is going to be a special, special player," Ollie said. "You can tell by the way he handles things. You know you have a great player when you don't have to tell him something over and over and over. … I hope we have him a few years so we can really see how good he is going to be."
Phil Nolan moved around a lot during his high school years, trying prep schools in West Virginia and New Jersey, but he ended up back home in Milwaukee. Homesickness was a concern then, but when Nolan saw the chance to come to UConn, he was ready to make the break. He seems comfortable — quick to smile and laugh and say hello around Gampel.
"We were talking about going back to our dorms the other day," Nolan said during the summer, "and we were saying we were going home, so this feels like home now."
Nolan, 6-10, played in the Greater Hartford Pro Am, where he showed his ability to move in the open floor. And he dedicated himself to UConn's program by building size and strength. He is very thin, but the Huskies, with their thinned-out frontcourt, will be relying on him to be a factor right away.
"If I work hard enough, there are minutes available," Nolan said. "I'm going to have to work to earn those minutes."
After losing five players to the NBA draft or via transfers, the Huskies were looking for talent quickly. Tolksdorf, 6-8, who was playing in Germany, committed on May 9.
Playing major college basketball in the U.S. is a "dream come true," Tolksdorf said, but the transition is even easier thanks to technology and teammates. UConn already has two players from Germany, Niels Giffey and Enosch Wolf, and they've been showing Tolksdorf the ropes.
"It helps a great deal," he said. "I know where to go on campus and what to do."
And he uses Skype nearly every day to stay in touch with family and friends back home.
But mostly, Tolksdorf, whose strength is outside shooting (he shot 34.8 percent on three-point attempts with his team in Berlin), finds his way to Gampel to keep his skills sharp. His biggest task, he said, is adjusting to the pace of U.S. style, but it's a style he has always wanted to play. Tolksdorf will get to play his first game close to home — at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on Nov. 9 against Michigan State.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "And everything we're doing is to prepare for that game."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun