Sunday, February 7, 2016

My AP Top 25 ballot this week

Lotta change on my ballot this week, as I'm sure is the case with all the other 64 voters.

The biggest change will be at No. 1, where Oklahoma resided in the AP poll (and North Carolina resided on my ballot). The Sooners lost to Kansas State, while Carolina lost twice, so there'll be a new No. 1 this week.

For me, it's the team I had atop my ballot at the very start of the season: Maryland. The Terps had some early-season struggles and haven't always looked dominant. But they're 21-3, fresh off an 11-point win over Purdue, and, quite frankly, may have the most talented starting five in the country. I simply think they're the best team right now.

Among the other notable changes, Providence plunges from No. 7 down all the way down to No. 21 after a two-loss week. Sure, a home loss to Villanova isn't the end of the world -- especially considering the Friars beat 'Nova a couple weeks earlier in Philly. But it's the way the Wildcats thoroughly dismantled PC on Saturday that raised my eyebrows (and also convinced me to catapult 'Nova up to No. 2, even though I haven't been a huge fan of theirs this season).

Oh, that and the fact that the Friars lost to DePaul earlier in the week, too. Yeah, that's worthy of a 14-spot drop.

I dropped Baylor, Saint Mary's, Iowa State and Wichita State from this week's poll and added USC, Gonzaga, South Carolina and ... UConn. Yeah, I went with the Huskies. Really like what I'm seeing from them right now, even if they haven't exactly knocked off a huge opponent lately (though at Memphis Thursday night wasn't bad). Bottom line, there are about 15 different teams that could very deservedly occupy the final 2-3 spots on the ballot. Having witnessed what the Huskies have done over the past couple of weeks up close, I went with them.

1. Maryland
2. Villanova
3. Oklahoma
4. Xavier
5. Iowa
6. Kansas
7. Virginia
8. North Carolina
9. Michigan State
10. Oregon
11. West Virginia
12. SMU
13. Arizona
14. Purdue
15. Louisville
16. Miami
17. Dayton
18. Kentucky
19. Texas A&M
20. USC
21. Providence
22. Gonzaga
23. Indiana
24. South Carolina
25. UConn

Friday, February 5, 2016

Is UConn hitting its stride right now?

Impressive win for UConn last night. The Huskies thoroughly dominated Memphis in the second half, holding it to one offensive rebound over the final 20 minutes (just five for the game) and to just four field goals. UConn may have hastened Josh Pastner's departure from Memphis, though his $10.6 million buyout may muddle things.

It seems to me that the Huskies may be hitting their stride right now. Amida Brimah is back (though still a bit limited). Daniel Hamilton is back (though he never really left ... just playing much better the past couple of games). UConn's defense is as good as any in the nation. The Huskies seem to have settled on a rotation, and the players seem to be buying into their respective roles.

UConn could be really on to something here -- though Kevin Ollie is loath to say the Huskies have "turned a corner."

Getting back to Hamilton, his terrific night on Thursday (16 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists) wasn't the product of any pep talks from Kevin Ollie or his teammates, or even necessarily any extra work in the gym. It simply came from some inspirational text messages from the person who knows him best -- his mom, Karen.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Correction to Zach Brown story

One small correction I must make regarding the Zach Brown feature I posted here yesterday: Boo Willingham was not an AAU coach of Zach Brown. Rather, he coached him in sixth grade on a team called the South Beach All-Stars. Mike Jarvis, Jr. was Brown's AAU coach.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My AP Top 25 ballot this week

Here's how I decided to vote this week:

1. North Carolina
2. Oklahoma
3. Maryland
4. Xavier
5. Iowa
6. Kansas
7. Providence
8. Villanova
9. SMU
10. Texas A&M
11. Virginia
12. Purdue
13. Michigan State
14. Baylor
15. Oregon
16. Kentucky
17. Arizona
18. West Virginia
19. Saint Mary's
20. Indiana
21. Dayton
22. Louisville
23. Iowa State
24. Miami
25. Wichita State

Boo Willingham, religion, snowball fights, Black Dadda and everything in between: Zach Brown's journey lands in Connecticut

Wasn't able to make the trip to Orlando on Sunday. It should be the last UConn road trip I miss this season. Great win, though. Seems like the Huskies got back to doing what they need to do ... and it certainly helps to have Amida Brimah back, as well.

Anyway, did a feature on Zach Brown after talking to his guardian, Boo Willingham, his Putnam coach and others, then seeing him in his Putnam debut Saturday night. It's a pretty fascinating story, and he's a real nice kid that's easy to root for. Hope you enjoy.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Zach Brown looks good in Putnam Science debut

Went to check out Zach Brown in his debut with Putnam Science Academy. There's a lot to like here, but certainly room to improve, as well.

Brown didn't start (he did just enroll at the school less than two weeks ago) but came off the bench 4 minutes, 43 seconds into the game and made his presence felt. He wound up with 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting, with four rebounds and three blocks. He also had his shot blocked twice in a row by a smaller player early on, when some rust was evident.

There's no doubt, he's skilled -- more so than other recent UConn big men (Hasheem Thabeet, Amida Brimah, maybe Steve Enoch). He's a little ungainly, maybe needs to get a little stronger, but has some impressive low-post moves, keeps the ball high and has a nice lefty jump hook that's got to be hard to guard -- especially from a 7-footer.

Brown helped PSA crush a Lee Academy team that has some talent and size but is a middle-of-the-pack team in the league.

Meanwhile, Mamadou Diarra struggled a bit, with 13 points on 4-for-9 shooting from both the field and the foul line. He did hit a 3-pointer and grabbed 10 boards to go with four blocks, some of them rafter-shaking.

And Hamidou Diallo? Wow, he's special. Finished with 20 points, five boards and five assists, as well as an incredible dunk through the lane, in traffic. Incredible talent, though a bit yappy with the refs and the opposing team.

Unfortunately, I missed his dunk on video, but did get this stickback late in the game:

Former UConn player Boo Willingham, who was Brown's AAU coach and mentor down in Miami, was at the game (he still lives in Hartford) and had some nice things to say about the big man. We'll have that and more in a feature story on Monday.

For now, here's what Brown and Putnam coach Tom Espinosa had to say about his debut:


"I was nervous at first, but I got it together. An elite player should never be nervous to play any competition."

"It's a lot better. It's competitive. I can't just go out and get easy dunks, I have to work hard for it. Down in Miami, I'm not trying to talk bad, but it was a little easy. Up here, it's really competitive. I was really working and stepping my game up."

(on Putnam Science Academy)

"At first, I was like, 'Oh my God, why am I here? They sent me away just for this?' But now, I like it. My teammates love me, I love my teammates, I love my coach. I just love it here. It just feels right."

(on what parts of his game are his strengths, and what he needs to work on)

"Playing defense, blocking shots rebounding, my left-hand jump hook, layups. But I have to work on my right hand. I've been working on it a little bit so I can get that up-and-under ready."

"I wanted to get out of Miami, because I had a lot of distractions with suspensions and crazy stuff. Miami is like a party city, so I wasn't focused mentally, so I had to come up here if I wanted to be successful. So, that's what I did."

(on re-classifying)

"It depends on the schoolwork. If I can get it down pat and get these grades up, it'll happen. If not, I have to stay one more year. So, we'll have to see."

Would he prefer to move up to the Class of 2016?



"We have a pretty good relationship with UConn, we have Mamadou here. The bottom line is, UConn's staff wanted to get Zach out of Miami and get him into a prep school. It wasn't just us, it was other prep schools. It just worked out with us."

"I think UConn's pretty happy he's here. We're 30 minutes away from UConn."

"He's extremely quick for a 7-footer. He moves extremely well. Defensively, he's got to work on. He closes, no space, and he fouls constantly. He blocked maybe one or two shots, but he's gotta be a better shot-blocker. Defensively, he's kind of way behind, I believe. But offensively, he's very quick, he keeps the ball high, he's got great up-and-under moves. The last two days of practice, he's dominated."

(could he be ready to play at UConn next season)

"This fall, at UConn? I think he could, but I think he would benefit a lot more coming back. He's got a lot of work to do. In Miami, he put up big numbers, but he wasn't playing against the highest competition that he's gonna play here, at a prep school in New England."

"He would love to go next year. He's a true junior, he's right on track. His plan is to maybe take some summer classes, graduate early and get to UConn in the fall. But, it's a very slim chance. I don't think it's gonna happen. I think he'll be back here next year."

Because Brown transferred to PSA past deadline, he won't be able to play in the national prep tournament.

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Susan Herbst, Mike Aresco on Warde Manuel's departure from UConn

Here's what UConn president Susan Herbst sent out this morning re: Warde Manuel's departure to Michigan:

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

The only downside to hiring fine leaders for key positions at UConn is that their experience and skills are sought after by other institutions across the nation, who also want to hire strong leaders.

When Warde Manuel, our Athletic Director since 2012, told me he was interested in the AD position at the University of Michigan, I was not at all surprised; Michigan is his alma mater where he spent years of his life as a student-athlete, playing football for Bo Schembechler, participating in track and field, and earning his degrees, later becoming assistant and associate AD there.

I was also not surprised when he was recently named to the position; Warde is a terrific AD and any university would be lucky to have him.

While we are sorry to lose him at UConn, we also understand how much the position at Michigan means to him and we wish him all the best.

Warde is expected to begin at Michigan in March. Rachel Rubin, who began her career at UConn as an Associate Athletic Director and is currently Chief of Staff in my office, will serve as interim AD.

We will begin a national search for a permanent successor immediately. I have appointed a committee to lead this search. They will serve in a critically important advisory capacity as we move through the process and I ultimately appoint our next AD. The members of the committee are:

Ø Andrew Bessette (’75) UConn Board of Trustees

Ø Scott Brown, UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology, NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative

Ø Andrea Dennis-LaVigne (’03), UConn Board of Trustees (Committee Chair)

Ø Doug Elliot (’82), President of The Hartford

Ø Thomas Ritter (Law ’77) UConn Board of Trustees

Ø Rachel Rubin (’77), Chief of Staff to the President & Executive Secretary to the Board of Trustees

Ø Nancy Stevens, Head Coach, UConn Field Hockey

I look forward to a thorough and efficient search process.

Please join me in thanking Warde for his outstanding service to UConn and in wishing him all the best.


Susan Herbst

And here's what AAC commissioner Mike Aresco had to say:

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Warde Manuel on being named the new Director of Athletics at the University of Michigan and to thank and recognize him for the many and significant contributions he has made to the University of Connecticut and to the American Athletic Conference.

Warde has assumed important Conference leadership positions, serving with distinction as our NCAA Council representative and as Chair of our Athletic Directors Finance Committee. I have valued his counsel and friendship, as have his colleagues at our institutions and in the conference office. Warde was instrumental in helping to establish the strong foundation of the American Athletic Conference and has compiled a distinguished record at the University of Connecticut in support of the academic and athletic needs and accomplishments of UConn's student-athletes, coaches and administrators.

Please join me in thanking Warde and wishing him great success as he returns to his alma mater.

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