IN A.J. PRICE'S college career, every season has ended badly. His first at UConn, in 2004--05, was over before it started, when he suffered a nearly fatal brain hemorrhage in October and was sidelined for the year. Price lost his second season after he was suspended following his arrest for attempting to sell stolen laptops. When he finally took the court in his third year, he was so rusty that, he says, "I had the worst season of my life," shooting just 27.3% from beyond the arc as the Huskies failed to earn even an NIT bid.
Last season, his fourth, Price finally started to deliver on his promise. He was second in the Big East in assists (5.9 per game), helped UConn earn a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and played well enough to spark talk of early entry into the NBA draft ... before he tore his left ACL in a first-round upset loss to San Diego.
In an April meeting with coach Jim Calhoun following his ACL surgery, Price received zero sympathy. Says Calhoun, "A.J. felt bad for himself, and I told him, 'Tough s—.' Quite frankly, those things happen." Calhoun, who had battled prostate cancer in '03 and skin cancer in '07, had just been diagnosed with skin cancer again, this time in his neck, and would undergo radiation treatment for much of the summer. "I wasn't going to sit down and cry about [cancer]," says Calhoun. "I fought it, and I wanted A.J. to do the same thing."
That took some convincing. When it came to hoops, Price was always a natural: He was a two-time high school state champion and a highly recruited point guard without spending untold hours in the gym or the weight room. Some of his bad habits remained at UConn. "That knee injury," says Calhoun, "made him stick around and work for the first time." After six months of steady rehab Price says he's in the best shape of his life. He was cleared to play on Sept. 15, will not wear a knee brace and, remarkably, is quicker than he was before tearing the ACL, according to numerous Huskies.
On occasion last season—especially while shooting guard Jerome Dyson was suspended for nine games in January and February—Price simultaneously ran the point and served as UConn's lone offensive option, a far from desirable situation. The backcourt is now stronger with the arrival of touted freshman Kemba (EZ Pass) Walker, who "can handle the point without us missing a beat," Price says. Calhoun will frequently use a three-guard lineup that gives Price the freedom to try to score more than the 14.5 points he averaged last season. UConn is hoping his offensive punch will help key a national title run—which would give Price a long-overdue happy ending.
*HIGH SCHOOL STATS
at Gonzaga (in Seattle)
*Paradise Jam, in U.S. Virgin Islands (also Iona, Miami, San Diego, Southern Miss, Valparaiso, Wisconsin)
The Zags trekked East last season (and won by three); now the Huskies have to return the favor and fly West. The game features an intriguing battle of elite frontcourt duos: UConn's Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien vs. Gonzaga's Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye.
Jim Calhoun (23rd year)
Big East record
A.J. Price may be fine in the backcourt on his own, but Luke Winn says one UConn freshman guard could help propel the Huskies to the Final Four.
Price Check The Big East's No. 2 assist man will be asked to score more for UConn this year.