(AP) - Connecticut once again has something to play for after failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament last season because of poor academic progress rates.
Maryland also didn't play in the NCAAs, and getting there is the main focus of the program being rebuilt under coach Mark Turgeon.
The 18th-ranked Huskies square off against the Terrapins in the season opener for both teams Friday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
UConn went 20-10 last season but had to watch other teams battle for the title in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies are once again eligible for postseason play, and junior guard Ryan Boatright says they also are very hungry.
"We know how it felt last year to put everything on the line every game and not get a chance to play for a ring like a lot of teams we watched in the tournament that we beat," he said. "It hurt watching the tournament. But, to have that pain stuck inside of us and to know that we've got a chance to win this year, it just motivates us."
Boatright and backcourt running mate Shabazz Napier both passed up a chance at the NBA draft to return this season. They will be joined by the rest of the 2012-13 starters - Omar Calhoun, DeAndre Daniels and Tyler Olander.
"We're going to be really great," said Daniels, who averaged more than 22 points over his last four games last season. "I feel like guys on this team are working even harder to try and win every game."
UConn also has experience off the bench, with German swingman Niels Giffey and countryman Leon Tolksdorf, who also saw some time a year ago. Coach Kevin Ollie has said Giffey may see time at both the small forward and power forward this season.
George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah and freshman Terrence Samuel will add some depth at guard.
The frontcourt will again be the biggest question mark. Ollie likes to remind the team that they ranked 290th last season in rebounding, giving up almost 37 per game while pulling down just 33.
Olander returns from a preseason suspension for driving without a license. The team's other big men are sophomore Phil Nolan and a pair of freshmen, 7-footer Amida Brimah out of Ghana and highly touted freshman Kentan Facey, a 6-9 forward who was recently cleared to play by the NCAA, which was looking into eligibility issues stemming from his education in Jamaica.
"Everyone says we're a good team on paper," Ollie said. "But, we've got to go and prove it, and that's each and every day.
"I think they've got that mindset."
Maryland went 25-13 and reached the semifinals of the NIT in 2012-13, and nothing less than the school's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010 will suffice this season.
"It's the next progression," Turgeon said. "I feel like we have a really good basketball team. If we stay healthy, that should happen for us."
Despite losing 7-1 center Alex Len to the NBA, Maryland has six players back who started at least seven games last season. The bench is deep, too, leaving Turgeon with plenty of options even if injuries should occur.
"My first day on the job I had six players," Turgeon recalled. "We've done a lot of good things since then. We are on the right track."
Dez Wells, who led the team with 13.1 points per game last year, returns at guard/forward and Seth Allen and Nick Faust make up a strong backcourt. Although Len is gone, 6-9 sophomores Shaquille Cleare and 6-8 Charles Mitchell are very capable of jamming up the middle and pulling down their share of rebounds.
"I feel like we're just ready from the jump," Faust said. "We actually have guys who have been through it and have experience. That's why we feel as though this team can be something special."
Wells is the unquestioned leader of the team, a role he does not take lightly.
"I'm very vocal. I speak my mind," Wells said. "I make sure everybody keeps themselves accountable and I'm making sure they're keeping me accountable with things that I'm not doing well."
A transfer from Xavier, Wells grew with each passing game during his first season at Maryland.
"As a leader, the difference is night and day," Turgeon said. "He's really trying, and he's doing it the right way."
Turgeon's winning percentage of .600 (42-28) is the best mark by a Maryland coach in his first two seasons, ahead of Bud Millikan (.592) and Gary Williams (.574). Turgeon nurtured his young players during his first two years, but this season is different.
"He's been more tough on guys, expects more," said forward Evan Smotryz, a transfer from Michigan who sat out last season.
Updated November 7, 2013