Thursday, March 31, 2011

What if Knight Had Chosen UConn, Instead?

Dave Beckerman tried.

Not in a pushy way -- he knows Brandon Knight already has dozens of hangers-on pushing and pulling him one way or another, so he'd never impose anything on him. But Beckerman, the New Haven native and longtime UConn fan who coached Knight at Pine Crest School in Boca Raton, Fla., tried in his own way to persuade Knight to choose Jim Calhoun and UConn over John Calipari and Kentucky.

Didn't work. Knight, was we all know, opted for Lexington last April in a press conference at Pine Crest School that I attended (I was on vacation in Florida at the time).

Why did Knight go Blue? Beckerman thinks there were various reasons.

"The (Jasper) Howard issue, the issue of health with Jim Calhoun, his contract, the (NCAA) investigation. A lot of things added up, and at the end of the day may have even been used against UConn, which I’m not sure of.”

He also noted that Knight had relatives who lived in the Lexington area.

On Thursday, Knight talked about his decision to choose UK over UConn. "It was a tough decision, but Kentucky was my final choice. I liked UConn, but I just felt better off going to Kentucky," adding that Beckerman informed him about UConn, but "really just wanted the best for me.”

He also noted that Calipari's success with one-and-done point guards like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall also played a role.

“It definitely weighed in my decision, just knowing that a lot of other guards that were pretty good in high school trusted Coach Cal to get them to the next level, and to help them get better individually. Also the fact that other players around those people got a lot better.”

Knight’s decision was crushing to UConn fans at the time. Around the same time, the program was being shunned by other top recruits (Josh Shelby, Corey Joseph and Doron Lamb, who’s also now a freshman guard at UK), and Knight’s nix seemed to hint that Calhoun was slipping on the recruiting trail.

Rather, it may have been a blessing in disguise. Had Knight committed to UConn, Shabazz Napier almost certainly wouldn’t have come to Storrs (at least for this season; Napier said he may have opted for another year at prep school had Knight become a Husky).

And though Jeremy Lamb had already committed to the Huskies, it’s doubtful he would have emerged as the dynamic, versatile scorer he’s become over the past couple of months.

It’s also hard to envision how Walker and Knight would have shared the same backcourt, even if both have proven quite adept at playing off the ball.

Still, Beckerman, who founded the former New Haven-based Starter sports apparel line and was the head coach at Hamden Hall for a few years, can’t help thinking of how life would have been different for Knight in Storrs.

“I think he clearly would have been a much more offensive threat,” Beckerman said. “I don’t know if that would have taken away from Kemba in terms of offense, and I don’t know if Kemba cares about that. Calipari is trying to mold him into a pass-first,shoot-second point guard. Jim Calhoun lets the natural instincts come out in a player. That’s his formula for success.”

Knight averaged 17.3 points and 4.2 assists per game as a Wildcat freshman. He’s reached double figures in all but three of UK’s 37 games, but has really risen to prominence in the NCAA tournament. Knight’s bank shot with two seconds left against Princeton (his only two points of the game) kept the Wildcats from an embarrassing first-round loss. And his jumper with 5.4 seconds left against Ohio State moved the Wildcats into the Elite Eight, where they beat North Carolina behind Knight’s game-high 22 points.

Knight’s Kemba-like ability in the clutch is nothing new to Beckerman, who recalled a regional championship game in Knight’s junior season. Pine Crest was losing, one of its best players had just fouled out and everyone on the bench – including Beckerman – had their heads down.

During a timeout, Knight turned to Beckerman and asked, “Coach, what time is practice tomorrow?” He then proceeded to go out and hit three 3-pointers and six straight free throws over the next three minutes, propelling Pine Crest into the state finals with a 52-point effort.

Now Beckerman, who winters in Boca Raton while coaching Pine Crest but spends his summers in Guilford, will be torn while watching the Final Four. He’ll root for Knight to have a good game, but root for UConn to win.

And deep down, he’ll still wonder what it would have been like had Brandon Knight become a Husky.

“It would have been great for UConn,” Beckerman said, “and, candidly, I think it would have been great for Brandon.”

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