Friday, March 30, 2012

If No NCAA Tournament, No Big East Tournament for UConn

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

R.J. Evans Considering UConn

Couple of updates you probably have already heard about ...

Alex Oriakhi has been granted a release from his scholarship by UConn and has numerous suitors lined up already.

Also, R.J. Evans, a former Norwich Free Academy standout from Salem, Conn., is leaving Holy Cross for his postgraduate season and is considering transferring to UConn. He visited the campus on Monday, according to the Worcester Telegram.

This is going to be a looooong off-season covering the Huskies.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Still Don't Think Big East is the Best Conference?

Winning the Big East tournament is a ticket to the Final Four. Louisville is the third straight conference tourney champ to advance that far; West Virginia in 2010 and, as you may recall, UConn last year both did so as well.

A few other notes, courtesy of the Big East Conference:

*** A Big East team has reached the Final Four 18 times in the conference's 33-year history.

*** The Big East has placed six teams in the Final Four in the past seven years. Five different schools have reached the Final Four in that time.

*** The Big East is the only conference to send at least one team to the Elite Eight in every year since 2002. Louisville and Syracuse did so this year.

*** Big East teams are a combined 14-7 in this year's tournament and 18-8 in the postseason.

*** Pitt plays the first game in the best-of-three CBI championship round tonight at Washington State. Game 2 is in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, with a deciding game in Pittsburgh on Friday, if necessary.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Some Local College Hoops Stories You May Not Know About

Obviously, we focus almost entirely on UConn men's basketball on this blog. But there are other college basketball stories in this state that fly a bit too much under the radar thanks to all the interest the Huskies generate.

One is T.J. Robinson, the West Haven resident and Bridgeport native who just completed a terrific, four-year career at Long Beach State. You may know the 49ers simply as that team that plays a ridiculously tough schedule and beat Pitt at Pitt this year, but give Robinson's story a read. His mother passed away of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) four years ago, just before he was set to head out to Long Beach to begin summer courses for his freshman year. He'll graduate this summer in memory of his mom, and he maintains an extremely close relationship with his dad, who traveled as much as he could to see his son play (never against UConn, unfortunately. Both schools tried, but could never find a matching date).

And here's a piece on Hamden's Tobin Carberry, who just completed a strong junior season at C.W. Post University.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Calhoun Talks; Says Drummond 'Wants To Be Here'

Just spoke to Jim Calhoun for the first time since UConn's season ended last Thursday in a loss to Iowa State. Here's some of what he had to say.

Calhoun knows he has to come to a decision quickly whether he’ll return to coach UConn for a 27th season, and that decision should be made shortly after the Final Four is over.

“Despite what other people think, I realize it’s not the best thing for UConn to have this situation,” Calhoun said about questions about whether or not he’ll return. “We need  to, for recruiting purposes and other things, keep the program stable, and I don’t think this can be a long-term situation, nor will it be. By the time the college basketball season is over, word will be coming out of Storrs about our future. I don’t think there’s any way we can leave ourselves out there.”

Of course, many other questions surround the program’s future, as well. Alex Oriakhi is looking into transferring to another program.

“We met (Wednesday) morning, and the only thing Alex told me was that he was exploring his options,” Calhoun said. “I know what other people have said in the papers, but beyond that, that’s the only conversation we’ve had.”

Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond are also prospective NBA lottery picks who need to decide whether or not they’ll return to UConn by April 10. Calhoun has never stood in the way of a player who has the chance to earn millions of dollars. But still ...

“Jeremy seems to be the one more in the process of trying to make up his mind,” Calhoun said. “There are reasons some teams really like him and for him to think very seriously about it.”

It seems there’s more of a possibility of Drummond returning to UConn, however.

“The only conversation I’ve had with Andre, he told me, ‘Coach, I want to be here,’ and we talked about things he needs to work on,” Calhoun said. “All we really talked about was looking at the Junior National team this summer.”

But the coach added that he will soon have serious conversations with Drummond, his mother and uncle about what the 6-foot-10 freshman center should do next.

“Without any question, he and I will have the opportunity in the coming days to talk more about his future. With his potential and the possibility of his draft status, that discussion will come up.”

Then there’s the likelihood that UConn will be banned from the 2013 NCAA tournament due to recent poor Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores. The Committee on Academic Progress has met twice to discuss possibly using scores from 2010-11 and 2011-12 (which would make UConn eligible) rather than scores from 2009-10 and 2010-11. The committee has also had recent conference calls about the subject and will meet again April 23-25, but still may not come to a decision until July.

“My understanding,” Calhoun said, “is that a final resolution will be given some time in May.”

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When Lamb, Drummond Need to Decide By

I've seen it written recently that players like Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond, underclassmen who may be considering entering this year's NBA draft, have until April 29 to make up their minds. That's not exactly true.

According to, players may enter their names in the draft once during their college career without jeopardizing their eligibility ... as long as they pull their name out by the first day of the NCAA's spring signing period. This year, that's April 11, so players must pull their names out by no later than April 10 if they  want to keep playing in college.

Here's how words it (I'm assuming they simply made a mistake by calling it the "first day of the National Basketball Association's spring signing period." But then, no one ever accused the NCAA of being perfect, right?):

Current student-athletes may contact a professional sports organization to discuss eligibility in a professional-league player draft or to request information about professional market value without affecting their amateur status.

A current student-athlete loses amateur status in a particular sport by asking to be placed on the draft list or supplemental draft list of a professional league in that sport. Amateur status is lost even if the athlete’s name is withdrawn from the draft list before the actual draft, the athlete is not drafted, or the athlete is drafted but does not sign an agreement with a professional team.

Basketball student-athletes may enter a professional league’s draft once during their college career without jeopardizing their eligibility as long as they are not drafted by a professional team and as long as they declare their intention to resume playing for their college team before the first day of the National Basketball Association’s spring signing period, typically in mid-April.

A student-athlete, his or her parents or the university’s professional sports counseling panel may negotiate with a professional sports organization without the loss of the student-athlete’s amateur status. However, a student-athlete who retains an agent will lose amateur status.

The NCAA is reviewing its current agent and advisor legislation to ensure that student-athletes have the best information at the right time to make informed decisions. The NCAA is not likely to change its opposition to student-athletes receiving benefits from agents and advisors but will discuss how advisors might help provide information to student-athletes who are weighing their professional options.

Given that UConn won't likely know whether it is 2013 NCAA tournament eligible until about April 25, and quite possibly not until a couple of months after that, Lamb and Drummond will almost certainly have to make their respective decisions before they know the team's tourney fate.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Oriakhi Has Asked for Release, is Exploring Options

A source familiar with the situation has confirmed that Alex Oriakhi has asked for a release from his scholarship and is exploring options of transferring.

It's not a done deal, though Oriakhi should attract plenty of attention from other programs, particularly if he doesn't have to sit out a year as a transfer. In fact, some coaches have already been in contact with UConn.

Oriakhi met with Jim Calhoun on Tuesday and asked for his release Wednesday morning.

Sources with knowledge of the situation insist they wouldn't be shocked if Oriakhi decides to stay. They would be surprised, however, if Jeremy Lamb doesn't declare for the NBA draft. Andre Drummond isn't as much of a definite, given that he loves college life. But with all the bad publicity surrounding the program right now, Drummond would seem to be a goner, as well.

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Angela Oriakhi Not Sure if Son is Transferring

According to a report by the Connecticut Post, Alex Oriakhi plans to transfer from UConn.

“Alex will transfer because of the NCAA tournament next year,” Oriakhi’s father, Alex, Sr., told the Post.

That’s news to Angela Oriakhi, Alex’s mother.

“I don’t know where he’s getting that from,” she said on Wednesday afternoon. “I have to talk to my son. Whatever he wants to do is what I’m going to stand by.”

The Post said that Oriakhi informed the UConn coaching staff and new athletic director Warde Manuel on Wednesday afternoon that he will be transferring. A UConn official contacted by the Register wasn’t aware of the decision. Attempts to reach members of the coaching staff were unsuccessful.

UConn is currently barred from participating in the 2013 NCAA tournament (or any postseason tournament) due to poor APR scores in recent years. That could change, pending appeal or changes in the Committee on Academic Performance’s current APR schedule.

If it doesn’t change, Oriakhi, a junior, can transfer to any school without sitting out a season. Any player entering his final season of eligibility can transfer without sitting out a year if his team is banned from postseason play, per NCAA rules.

Oriakhi had an extremely disappointing season this year. After averaging nearly 10 points and nine rebounds a game two years ago, his averages dipped to 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds a contest this season. Oriakhi, a 6-foot-9 forward/center, never really meshed with 6-10 freshman center Andre Drummond.

In UConn’s season-ending loss to Iowa State Thursday night, Oriakhi had just two points and three rebounds in 23 minutes and endured coach Jim Calhoun’s wrath on the bench for much of the contest.

“Next (expletive) jump shot by a 6-5 guy, get out of the gym!” Calhoun yelled at him at one point.

The prior week, Angela Oriakhi said that Oriakhi “loves Calhoun to death” and that he wasn’t planning on going anywhere else.

On Wednesday, Angela said she had yet to talk to Alex about whether or not he was transferring

“Whatever he wants to do, I’m going to support him,” Angela Oriakhi said.

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Live Video Blog on UConn Men's and Women's Basketball Tonight at 8 p.m.

Yes, the season is over, but there are numerous huge questions still to be answered with the UConn men's basketball team. Jim Fuller (the Register's UConn women's beat writer) and I will be doing a live video blog tonight at 8 p.m. to answer questions about the men's team's past, present and, perhaps most importantly, future, as well as the women's team as it prepares for Penn State in a Sweet 16 bout at URI (my alma mater!).

Please fell free to submit questions beforehand or join us at 8 p.m. here: Submit questions for live video blog

Thanks, and hope to hear from you all tonight.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

If Calhoun Returns, UConn Should Consider Naming 'Coach-in-Waiting,' Too

We’ll learn in the coming days or weeks whether or not Jim Calhoun decides to return for a 27th year at UConn’s helm. Hard to say right now what his decision will be.

Presuming he does return, however, there’s another step UConn needs to consider taking: naming a “coach-in-waiting,” like some other programs have done (including Syracuse, where longtime assistant Mike Hopkins will take over whenever Jim Boeheim decides enough’s enough).

UConn is getting killed on the recruiting trail now. Recruits have questions about Calhoun’s health and how long he’ll remain at the school. Calhoun is the program’s No. 1 selling point, and there isn’t even a close No. 2 (at least until a practice facility is built). It’s Calhoun who is the program-builder, the Hall of Famer, the owner of three national championship rings and – perhaps most importantly to top-notch recruits – who has put dozens of players in the NBA.

Recruits know Calhoun can’t be here forever. But when he leaves, it would be nice to know that his legacy, so to speak, will be carried on by another member of the UConn family. Presumably, that’ll be Kevin Ollie, who Calhoun seems to want as his successor. I don’t believe Ollie is ready to be head coach quite yet, but another two or three years of tutelage and he could be there. He’s already got tons of credentials on the recruiting trail, and tons of respect from current players.

Personally, I think Glen Miller deserves consideration, as well. But it seems Ollie is the man.

Will either be a better coach than, say, a Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens? Maybe not. But at UConn, I’m not sure Smart, Stevens or anybody can come in and replicate what Calhoun has done here. He’s one-of-a-kind. Replacing him with a UConn family tree member might be UConn’s best bet.

UConn is said to be considering the coach-in-waiting thing, among many options. Things will finally start getting more concrete once new A.D. Warde Manuel arrives. His first day on the job is Monday.

*** One other thing: there’s a lot of speculation whether Alex Oriakhi is planning to transfer. If UConn is barred from next year’s NCAA tournament, Oriakhi is the only current player who should be able to transfer to another school without having to sit out a year, since he’s the team’s lone senior-to-be.

I don’t know what is going through Alex’s mind right now, but here’s what his mother, Angela, told me a little over a week ago:

“We don’t have any plans of him going anywhere.”

And this: “One thing’s for sure: he loves Coach Calhoun to death. Nobody can complain about Coach Calhoun in front of him … he respects and loves Coach Calhoun.”

Did that change Thursday night? I don’t know, though Calhoun was pretty brutal on him. I’ve never sat directly behind UConn’s bench before, but that’s where my press seat was for the Iowa State game and, boy, Calhoun is rough.

At one point he screamed at Oriakhi, “Next G-D jump shot by a 6-5 guy, get out of the gym!” Later, he yelled at him, point blank, “You wanna get out of here, go ahead!”

Not that Oriakhi deserved any praise on Thursday, of course.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Shabazz: 'Some People Could Leave, Some Could Stay. I'm Not Sure'

UConn's most embarassing performance of the season came at the KFC Yum! Center a little over a month ago, in a loss to Louisville.

Thursday night's 77-64, "second-round" NCAA tourney loss to Iowa State may not have equaled that 80-59 thumping on Feb. 6 in terms of a blowout, but it may have even been more embarassing.

There was Roscoe Smith's latest bizarre, unnecessary long heave with 3.7 seconds left in the half. There was Jeremy Lamb's completely unnecessary windmill dunk attempt in the final seconds of the game (aptly, he missed).

But here's the number that sticks out to me, more than ISU's hot early shooting (not a shock), Royce White's early ability to whir by any UConn player who guarded him ("We got caught as being nothing more than a street sign as they went by us a thousand miles an hour in that first 10 minutes," said Jim Calhoun), or anything else: Iowa State outrebounded UConn, 41-24.

“I feel like we wanted it more,” said ISU guard Chris Allen, who led the team with 20 points. “When I say wanted it more, I mean rebounds. We out-rebounded them by almost 20. That’s a great stat line.”

It sure is.

It's not worth dissecting this game too much more than that. Iowa State wanted it more. It was obvious. It sounds like a cliche, but it was true.

So now, we look to the future. Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb could be lottery picks in June. Other players may want to transfer if UConn remains barred from next year's NCAA tournament. And, of course, there's the annual question of whether Calhoun will return.

Here's what everyone had to say after the game (Warning: it's not much).

Drummond: “I’m not worried about that right now. That’s in the future. I’m not really thinking about that right now.”

Lamb: "“I’m not even thinking about that. I was thinking about the game today. I didn’t step up and do the things we needed to do to win.”

Calhoun: “I’m going to get on the plane (today), go home, and do what I usually do, and meet up with the team on Monday. So as far as my own personal thing, I don’t think it has any relevance here, to be honest with you.”

Said Napier, simply: “Some people could leave, some people could stay. I’m not sure.”

I asked him if he thought Drummond should return for another season.

“That’s not my decision," Napier replied. "That’s him, his family, what he believes. That’s all up to him. If he decides to go, I’m behind him 110-percent. Decides to stay, behind him 110-percent.”

Drummond did have this to say, when asked if UConn has enough talent to do some damage next season (provided its eligible for the postseason):

“This team has so much talent, which has blessed it and cursed it at the same time. We have so much talent, sometimes we don’t know what to do it. All we’ve got to do is channel it the right way throughout the off-season, get a feel for each other even more, and I have no doubt in my mind we’ll be back here again.”

Personally, I think there's a sliver of a chance Drummond returns. Doubtful, but I'd say more of a chance Drummond is back than Lamb.

*** It’s just the second time in 18 appearances under Calhoun that UConn has lost its NCAA tourney opener. The only other time was in 2008, when A.J. Price sprained his ACL shortly before halftime and the third-seeded Huskies got popped by San Diego.

*** Calhoun was asked if perhaps his own squad looked ahead to a potential rematch of last year’s Final Four with the top-seeded Wildcats.

“If they did, they made a hell of a mistake,” Calhoun said. “I don’t think they did.”

*** Asked to summarize the season, Lamb simply said: “Ups and downs. That’s all I can say about it. Ups and downs.”


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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Live UConn Chat Tonight at 8:30 p.m.

Please join me for a live chat tonight (Thursday) at 8:30 p.m. I'll be courtside at the Western Kentucky-Kentucky game at the time and ready to field all questions, comments, etc. about the UConn-Iowa State game, which should begin around 9:15 p.m.

The chat will continue throughout the entire game, as well, so feel free to stop by at any time.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Huskies Are Ready for Iowa State

UConn freshman forward DeAndre Daniels can be forgiven if his mind hasn’t totally been on basketball in recent days.

Daniels’ sister, Keirstyn Schumpert, had surgery on Sunday to remove a brain tumor. Doctors were able to remove the tumor and Schumpert is still resting in the hospital but could go home as soon as Thursday, according to Daniels.

He and his family were at the hospital for about seven hours on Sunday.

“It was real tough, just waiting until the doctor came out to tell us what’s going on,” he said.

Daniels added that right now, the right side of his sister’s face is numb, but she is cancer-free.

Schumpert is a standout guard at Manchester High. Daniels wasn’t sure what the surgery could mean for her basketball future.

*** Royce White is a matchup nightmare, but it's starting to feel like people are making him out to be the next Magic Johnson. No doubt, however, he's a big concern for UConn.

"I think the thing he does is he makes you -- you don't want to get polarized on him and get beat," said Jim Calhoun. "He can help facilitate that, so it becomes very difficult. But he's a heck of a basketball player. I was talking to a pro scout today who's seen him four or five times and just said he's got some (Kevin) McHale stuff inside. Right now, I wouldn't consider him a great shooter outside, but he just does things to help his team win."

Andre Drummond, Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi could all see time guarding White.

"Just to give you an idea," Calhoun noted, "this morning at practice, we played four different guys on him -- small, big. We tried different sets trying to figure out which way he'd try to go after us.

Said Drummond: “He’s a big man that dribbles the ball, passes to his open teammate. A lot of focus is on him, because you’re not used to see a 6-8 big bring the ball up the court and run their offense. But we know what we’ve got to do to win this game.”

That means utilize the Huskies’ significant size advantage by rebounding and defending inside.

“If anything, it creates a matchup problem for them,” Drummond added. “(White is) shorter, you’ve got me and Alex down on the post.”
For what it's worth, UConn came off very confident today. Not cocky, but definitely confident.

*** And, of course, there's ISU's prowess on 3-pointers -- a bugaboo for UConn defensively most of the season.

“In some of the regular season games, I think we didn’t work as hard to defend the 3 as we could,” said Jeremy Lamb. “We let people get open shots, and they were able to hit a couple, and it gave them confidence to hit more. I think we’ve just really got to be ready to close out, no easy buckets.

In short, the Cyclones can be a matchup problem for UConn.

“They’re attacking two things that, during the year, have reared its ugly head for us,” Calhoun admitted. “We block shots down low very well, but we haven’t taken away the kind of penetration I’d like to see. And, at a particular point in seven or eight games, we were just God-awful (defending the) 3. We’ve worked hard and gotten better at it, but we’re going to be put to the ultimate test.”

*** Win and the Huskies should get the Saturday night date that everybody seems to want: a rematch with Kentucky, the No. 1 overall seed.

"You definitely hear it from the fans, they definitely want to see the UConn-Kentucky matchup," said Oriakhi. "Coach tells us to take it one game at a time. We're just trying to beat Iowa State and then play Saturday. If we win on Saturday, we want to play again."

There were about 8,000 UK fans at the Wildcats' open practice on Wednesday. There were about eight UConn fans.

*** Although UConn and Iowa State have never played each other, the Cyclones have two players who have played against the Huskies.

Chris Allen was a sophomore on the Michigan State team in 2009 that beat UConn in the Final Four. He scored two points in nine minutes off the bench in the Spartans’ 82-73 victory in Detroit. Allen also played on MSU’s Final Four team the following year before transferring to Iowa State. He has played in 14 NCAA tournament games, most by any player in this year’s field.

Also, senior guard Scott Christopherson was a freshman at Marquette in 2008 when the Golden Eagles lost at UConn, 89-73. He transferred to ISU the following season.

In fact, Iowa State has seven transfers on its roster, including ex-Michigan State standout Korie Lucious, who’s red-shirting this season.

“Did I plan on bringing six of them in my first year?” Hoiberg said. “No, it just happened to be a year where a lot of guys were leaving their schools.”

*** Brigham Young arrived in town on Wednesday after rallying from 25 points down to beat Iona the night before. The Cougars will face Marquette on Thursday.

BYU has a UConn tie: first-year BYU assistant coach Mark Pope is the brother-in-law of former UConn director of basketball operations Beau Archibald. Pope, a team captain on the 1996 national-champion Kentucky team, is married to Archibald’s sister, LeeAnne. The couple married in 1999 and has four daughters.

*** Some interesting stuff from John Calipari on how to alleviate the one-and-done situation (something he says he doesn't like) and Calhoun on whether Calipari might move on to the NBA, particularly if he finally wins a national title.

Said Calipari: "Here's what I would say. It starts with you get the NCAA in the room, and you say you give these kids the stipend they deserve. That's one.

Two, the insurance that they have to pay for themselves, which can be upwards of $15,000 per year, $20,000 per year that they have to pay for themselves. They're loaned the money, and then they have to repay it when they come out. The NCAA should pay that to encourage them to stay.

The third thing is families, the NBA, and the NCAA should get together and have a loan program for those families‑‑ we're only talking 30 kids. We're not talking 500 players. We're talking 30 kids that would be eligible for that insurance. They should be able to have a loan. To what level, I don't know.

The last two things are the NBA. And Billy Hunter and I have talked about these. One, if a young man stays more than two years, his contract, his rookie contract should be shorter. And if a young man graduates, his pay scale should be higher when he comes in. Now we encourage these young people. It's about them. You should stay because of the integrity of our school. Unless you're Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, you guys leave and go change the world. But you guys, you stay in school because it's the integrity. It doesn't make sense to me.

My thing is these kids are chasing their dreams just like tennis players and golfers and geniuses and computer geeks and all the others. They're chasing their dreams the same way. And what we've got to do is come together and say, how do we do right by these young people? How do we make sure?

If the NBA says, no, we don't want to shorten their contract, well, then, it's on them. It's not on Billy Hunter, and it's not on the NCAA. If the NCAA says, no, we're not going to pay for this insurance. Those kids should pay for it themselves, disability insurance. Then that's on the NCAA.

But I think there's some things we can do, and hopefully people will come together and say these are simple things that would encourage young people to stay in school.

Let me say this. It's like last year. Brandon Knight. Brandon Knight was a 4.0 student and had 60 college credits after one year. He transferred in 23 honors courses, and he graduated with 60 college credits. That's two years of work in one year. But he was the seventh pick of the draft. How could you tell him to stay?

And Detroit, the Pistons, they love him. They want him to be what their whole organization is about. So it's not academic, and it isn't. It's what is right for these young people."

Say what you want about Calipari, but he makes some very solid points. Too bad it's unlikely the NBA Players Association would ever accept.

And here's what Calhoun had to say about Calipari:

"John at present rate, based upon numbers, is going in the Hall of Fame, assuming he stays in college basketball. And if he keeps‑‑ in 1990, we got beat by Christian Laettner's shot. For the next nine years, we were tortured that we weren't good because we couldn't win a National Championship, and we were good. Ray Allen, Donyell‑‑ we all know there's a lot of good players at UConn. We average 26 wins a year, the whole thing. A lot of final eights, just couldn't get there.

If you stick with it and you smell it enough, you'll get it. So I don't think it's a case of John winning or not winning a National Championship. Can I imagine John going in the NBA or anything else? Yes. Or anything else? Yes. I think John very simply marches‑‑ always has, even when he was a young guy. When he was at Pitt, marches to his own drummer, and I think that John has taken that and obviously done a very good job coaching‑wise and otherwise.

Let's put it this way. Maybe in your own set of mind, would you think it's some sort of standard, because I heard a lot of years until I won a few‑‑ you know, he's on the landscape now. You really don't have to look, find, and come up with a much better coach, quite frankly. I know he has a lot of very good talent. He does a lot with that very good talent.

My point being simply, if he feels that way, what you're talking, that's the difference. I've never had a chance to ask him, nor would I really. It's going to be his choice. He certainly can handle the players, that's one thing. And I've always said that some of our best teams are much more difficult to handle because of talent, and he's done a remarkable job doing that.

I don't think he has to prove anything more in college basketball if he got a very good NBA job, if that's what he'd want to do. I personally don't think he has to prove anything."

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'Kemba Walker's Not Coming Back, Is He?'

UConn is practicing this afternoon at nearby Spalding College and won't be available to the media until 6 p.m. We'll have some blog updates later with UConn stuff.

Iowa State players Chris Allen, Royce White and Scott Christopherson and head coach Fred Hoiberg met with the media this afternoon. Here's some of what they had to say:

The Cyclones have hoisted up 748 3-pointers this season, by far the most of all Big 12 teams. More impressively, they’ve hit 38 percent of them and had three regulars shoot the 3 at a 41-percent rate or better.

Leading the way is Christopherson, a 6-3 senior guard and Marquette transfer who has shot 45 percent from beyond the arc this season.

"We're kind of a unique team because we have the ball in Royce's hands quite a bit more than what I'ds say a normal college team does," Christopherson said. "So we do a lot of different things with dribble hand-offs, and use Royce's abilities to kind of manipulate the defense to get looks for our shooters."

Indeed, White presents a matchup nightmare for virtually any team, UConn included. The 6-8, 270-pound sophomore forward is the only player in the nation to lead his team in scoring (13.1), rebounding (9.2), assists (5.1), steals (1.2) and blocks (0.9). It should also be noted that he leads the Cyclones in turnovers at 3.9 per contest, a product of being the team’s primary facilitator of the ball.

“He’s such a unique kid, as far as how he plays,” said Hoiberg. “We try to simulate Andre Drummond in practice, can’t do it. We don’t have anybody that size. I’m sure they’re tyring to simulate Royce White in practice, and they can’t do it. Nobody that we play can simulate what he does.”

We'll find out later who should get the defensive draw on White. 6-8 Roscoe Smith would be a prime candidate, though he's giving up nearly 70 pounds. Drummond is likely, too, but beware what Allen had to say.

“Not too many bigs can move their feet (well) enough to guard him,” said guard Chris Allen. “Any time he has a 6-foot-10, 260-pound guy (guarding him), it’s not going to be too hard for him to get around him.”

Drummond, of course, is 6-10, 270.

We do know one defensive matchup on the other side: Chris Babb, a 6-5 junior guard, told reporters he'll be guarding Jeremy Lamb. He knows it will be a challenge.

"He's really good at coming off down screens and uses them very well," Babb said. "He doesn't need a lot of space to get off his shot. He's a good scorere and I'm going to do my best."
*** Although UConn and Iowa State have never played each other, the Cyclones have two players who have played against the Huskies.

Allen was a sophomore on the Michigan State team in 2009 that beat UConn in the Final Four in Detroit. He scored two points in nine minutes off the bench in the Spartans’ 82-73 victory. Allen also played on MSU’s Final Four team the following year before transferring to Iowa State. He has played in 14 NCAA tournament games, most by any player in this year’s field.

Also, Christopherson was a freshman at Marquette in 2008 when the Golden Eagles lost at UConn, 89-73. He transferred to ISU the following season.

In fact, Iowa State has seven transfers on its roster, including ex-Michigan State standout Korie Lucious, who’s red-shirting this season.

“Did I plan on bringing six of them in my first year?” Hoiberg said. “No, it just happened to be a year where a lot of guys were leaving their schools.”

*** The players were asked if there was an "intimidation factor" facing UConn.

"I mean, Kemba Walker's not coming back, is he?" Christopherson replied. Good line.

*** Hoiberg on Drummond and Lamb as NBA prospects:

"Big time. I think the sky's the limit for those two. Drummond, his size, you don't see any people that can run the floor like him and get off the ground. He's going to be a big-time pro, just because of the size that he has.

As far as Lamb, just a complete guard. He's got the size, he's got the length. He's got the athleticism, and he's a tough kid to stop. We have to mix coverages on him, I think, to try to keep yim off balance a little bit."

Hoiberg is an Ames native who starred at Iowa State in the mid-1990's. He's so popular in town, they call him "The Mayor." He was asked about Jim Calhoun, and why they don't call hyim the mayor of Storrs.

"They should. I'm honored to coach against him. We actually recruit that area out east quite a bit, and I've seen him at a lot of events, and I've gotten to know him. He's a great guy. Hes always a guy that you can ask questions to, and he'll answer them for you."
*** UConn was next-to-last in the Big East in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to hit treys at a 34.3 percent rate. Only DePaul (35.4 percent) was worse.

Iowa State not only shoots the 3 well, it also guards it well, holding opponents to 29.8 percent – tops in the Big 12. UConn shot the 3 at 33.1 percent this season, 10th in the Big East.

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Despite Struggles, Alex Oriakhi is 'All-In'

Greetings from the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, where I'll be covering my third game this season (did the UConn men on Feb. 6 -- the Huskies' ugliest loss of the season -- then the women the next night). The third game will be against Iowa State tomorrow around 9:20 p.m. Will there be a fourth against Kentucky (or Western Kentucky!) on Saturday night?

Iowa State will start meeting with the media around noon today -- some players at 12:05 p.m., followed by coach Fred Hoiberg at 12:20 p.m. UConn's players don't meet with us until 6 p.m., followed by Jim Calhoun at 6:15 p.m. and an open practice from 6:40-7:20 p.m., so there will be plenty of time in between.

In the meantime, here's a feature from today's Register on Alex Oriakhi. It's been a tough season for Oriakhi, but it hasn't affected him in the classroom, where he boasted a 3.6 GPA last semester. His mother, Angela, and his coaches and teammates talk about how well Oriakhi has handled his on-court struggles this season. Key quote from his mom: "One thing's for sure: he loves Coach Calhoun to death."

Oriakhi also has some interesting bloodlines: his mother's cousin is essentially the secretary of state of Nigeria.


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Monday, March 12, 2012

Ollie, Hoiberg Forever Bonded

Caught Kevin Ollie as he was boarding a plane from Houston (on a recruiting trip) back to Connecticut. Busy man these days.

Anyway, this story expounds a little more on the bond that Ollie and Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg have fostered over the years. Couple of true basketball overachievers.

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Hoiberg on Kevin Ollie: 'I'm Proud to Call Him a Friend'

Add Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg to the long list of people who think Kevin Ollie is as classy a person as there is in the sport of basketball.

Hoiberg goes back a long way with Ollie. The two went on a recruiting visit to Arizona together way back in the day, and Lute Olsen said he'd take the first one who committed. Neither, obviously, did.

Hoiberg and Ollie were teammates on the Chicago Bulls in 2001-02. In recent days, they see a lot of each other on the recruiting trail.

"He's one of my all-time favorites, he's such a good guy, a good person, all about the right things," Hoiberg said. "He's gotten the most out of his abilities. He's such a good person, and in a league that has the perception of not having those types of personalities, he brings a positive light to the NBA becauxe of the type of kid he is."

"I'm proud to call him a friend."

Hoiberg and his coaching staff went over plenty of UConn film last night, and what they saw was eye-opening.

"The first thing, they're huge in the front line," the second-year ISU coach and former Cyclone star said. "With Oriakhi and Drummond, they're tough to score on in the paint. Roscoe Smith, who starts at the 3 at 6-foot-8, that's as big and long a front line as we've seen all year. And their guards are extremely quick and talented. They're a great team, and they're playing their best basketball of the season. It's gonna be a tough match-up, but I feel our guys are playing well right now."

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My Final Top 25; All-America, POY, COY Picks

The season-ending Top 25 poll is easily the most inconsequential of the season. The only numbers anyone is thinking about right now are regional seedings. But, gotta do what you've gotta do.

Of perhaps more interest is my AP All-America teams, as well as Player of the Year and Coach of the Year selections:

1. Kentucky
2. Syracuse
3. Missouri
4. North Carolina
5. Kansas
6. Michigan State
7. Ohio State
8. Baylor
9. Florida State
10. Duke
11. Marquette
12. Murray State
13. Georgetown
14. Wisconsin
15. New Mexico
16. Creighton
17. Indiana
18. Michigan
19. Wichita State
20. St. Mary’s
21. San Diego State
22. Louisville
23. Gonzaga
24. Temple
25. UNLV

First Team
Anthony Davis, Kentucky
Thomas Robinson, Kansas
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Jae Crowder, Marquette
Draymond Green, Michigan State

Second Team
Doug McDermott, Creighton
Kevin Jones, West Virginia
Marcus Denmon, Missouri
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
Isaiah Cannon, Murray State

Third Team
Perry Jones III, Baylor
Terrence Jones, Kentucky
Austin Rivers, Duke
Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas
Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure

Coach of the Year: Frank Haith, Missouri
Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, Kentucky

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

UConn-Iowa State Will Tip Off Around 9 p.m. Thursday

UConn's "second-round" NCAA tourney game with Iowa State will start after the conclusion of the 6:50 p.m. Kentucky-Western Kentucky/Mississippi Valley State game. In other words, the Huskies game should begin around 9 p.m.

A Few Things to Know About Iowa State

The Cyclones are 22-10 overall and went 12-6 in the Big 12 (for my money, the best conference in America this year. Sorry, Big Ten).

Their best player is Royce White, a 6-8 sophomore who led the team in almost every category: 13.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 4.0 turnovers and nearly a block a game. Scott Christopherson, a 6-3 senior, is a dead-eye 3-point shooter, hitting at a scorching 45 percent (63-for-140) from beyond the arc. He averaged 12.5 ppg. Chris Allen averaged 11.8 ppg and shot a respectable 38 percent from Trey Land, while Tyrus McGee shot 41 percent (50-for-122) from distance.

Iowa States lofts more than 24 treys a game and hits them at a 38-percent rate. The Cyclones attempted 36 3-pointers in an early-season game against Northern Colorado, hitting 16 o them. They went 15-for-30 at Oklahoma in a win and 14-for-29 in a win over Rice.

Common opponent: Providence. Iowa State beat the Friars, 64-543, on Nov. 25 at the South Padre Invitational. UConn, of course, blew a 14-point lead at The Dunk on Feb. 28 and lost, 72-70.

The team is coached by Fred Hoiberg, the former ISU star. Hoiberg played 10 seasons in the NBA and was a teammate of UConn assistant Kevin Ollie with the Chicago Bulls.

And this is odd: the Cyclones have seven players on their roster who have transferred from other programs and six players who have red-shirted. UConn has zero transers and one (Michael Bradley) who has red-shirted.

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Calhoun: 'I Like Being the Underdog'

By now, you probably know: UConn has earned the No. 9 seed in the South Region, and will play No. 8 seed Iowa State in an NCAA tourney "second-round" game on Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.

Win -- hardly a given -- and the Huskies will play top-seeded Kentucky. In Kentucky, obviously. Calhoun vs. Calipari, rematch of last year's Final Four. It'll be fun ... if it happens.

But don't book that game just yet. And no, I don't believe Kentucky will lose its game with either Mississippi Valley State or Western Kentucky. The Huskies will have their hands full with the Cyclones, who toss up over 24 3-pointers a game and make 38 percent of them. Iowa State hit 16 treys in a game earlier this season and have hit over 10 in a game 14 times in 31 games.

And, of course, guarding the three-ball has been a bugaboo of UConn's all season.

That said, there's no reason why the Huskies can't win this game. Here's some of what Jim Calhoun & Co. said Sunday at Gampel after learning their NCAA tourney fate:


"We haven’t played a team that has shot 36 3’s in a game and averages 24 3’s a game. They shoot it at 38 percent, that’s as good as anybody I’ve heard of in quite some time ... We’re going to have to chase them off the 3-point marker ... Obviously, they shoot the heck out of the basketball.”

He noted that UConn will experiment with some smaller lineups, and the four position will be "a tad more flexible for this game."

Said Andre Drummond: "I like running around, chasing people."
Calhoun, cont'd: “Would we like to get to Saturday and see Kentucky? Absolutely. But right now, anybody in our camp isn’t thinking about anything but beating a very, very good Iowa State team.”

(Calhoun said he knows ISU coach Fred Hoiberg pretty well, and pointed out that Kevin Ollie was a teammate of Hoiberg's in the NBA).

“My only plans right now are to say hello to Fred and try to get them off the 3-point line," Calhoun said.

Calhoun admitted that UConn needed its come-from-behind, Big East tourney win over West Virginia on Wednesday.

“Deep in my heart, I knew a game we had to win to solidify things. I didn’t want to come in here with a bad stomach.”

Calhoun -- believe it or not -- feels some sympathy for UK coach John Calipari, who probably figured he'd get a better 8-9 opponent as the tourney's top overall seed.

“They protect 1’s always have, always will … then they try to match them up, based upon how good you are. If they’re the best 1, are we the weakest 8-9? Not from what I saw. They may think they’re the team that can handle it the best ... I don't mind being an underdog."

How's Calhoun feeling?

“Tired, but I’m going to be tired for the next month, they tell me. But I wasn’t tired when I saw our name on the board. That gets the adrenaline going.”

UConn suffered its most embarassing loss of the season at Louisville a little over a month ago.
“I wasn’t there … can’t speak to that," Calhoun said with a smile. "It was awful (watching at home). I would have rather been there, really.”

On getting out of the Big East: “Over the years it’s been good for us. Particularly this team, we are not a physical team. The only guy right now who’s been a physical player, Alex Oriakhi, in the past 10 games. We’re not a physical team, and we’re in a very physical league. Personally, I thought that probably should help us.”

Shabazz Napier:

“I feel as though we’ve got a great deal of momentum. That’s a great deal for us. It was great for us to get on that three-game winning streak. To know that we can play with the No. 2 team in the country, that gives us confidence.”

Ryan Boatright:

(asked if getting away from the Big East will be like a breath of fresh air)
“Definitely. I don’t feel like the teams were’ going to be going against are going to be as physical as the Big East is. The Big East is a crazy conference, so to actually see another team that you don’t see that much is kind of like (a breath of) fresh air.”

Drummond, when asked the same question: “The Big East is a very tough conference, one of the toughest in the country. To actually be out of the conference and play some non-conference teams, it’s going to be great.”

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Can UConn Make a Nice Tourney Run? Absolutely

I've got a feeling about this UConn team. Not saying they'll be making a run to another national title, but there's no doubt in my mind that the Huskies can make a nice run in the Big Dance.

Here's why: For one, they're getting out of the rough-and-tumble Big East. Going against teams that don't know them as well, and presumably aren't as physical as many of their conference brethren, should be a boon for the Huskies.

I also see a certain unflappable nature to this team. Simply put, UConn is able to shrug off adversity quite well, off the court and on. Sure, there have been times when the Huskies got punched in the face and didn't respond (see: Louisville). But losses like that Louisville debacle have happened to just about every team in the nation, save for Kentucky and Syracuse. I get a sense this team is gelling and peaking at the right time.

I could, of course, be very wrong. Somehow it would be fitting, given the mercurial nature of this team for much of the season, that the Huskies get bounced in the first weekend.

But I -- and Jim Boeheim, and many others -- doubt it.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Boeheim Has Huskies Going to Sweet 16 ... 'At Minimum'

It had to be asked. Still, you could see Jim Calhoun readying to pounce as soon as the reporter started asking: “Do you feel like you’ve done enough to make the NCAA tournament?”

“Well, let’s see …” Calhoun began, and what followed was his now daily dissertation on the Huskies’ No. 3 strength of schedule, their 22 games against top-100 RPI teams (and don’t forget tourney-bound UNC-Asheville!), etc., etc.

Bottom line: UConn is in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies may have cinched it with Tuesday’s win over lowly DePaul. If not, Wednesday’s victory over West Virginia likely sealed the deal.

“I’m not going to make a pitch for it,” Calhoun said. “I trust the basketball committee.”

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim not only has the Huskies in – he’s got them going to the Sweet Sixteen, if not further.

“I would be shocked if (the Huskies) don’t win two games in the NCAA tournament at the minimum,” Boeheim said. “At the minimum.”

Entering Thursday, UConn was ranked No. 33 in the RPI and No. 3 in strength of schedule. Both rankings may have raised despite the loss to the Orange, who boast the No. 1 RPI.

Bottom line: the Huskies are likely looking at a No. 9 or 10 seed for the Big Dance.

“I feel confident the way we’ve played the last couple of days in this tournament have pretty much solidified a spot in the tournament,” said Tyler Olander. “If it doesn’t, we’ll go from there, that’s kind of out of our hands.”

Added Calhoun: “I don’t know what else we have to prove that we’re probably one of the top 30 teams in the country. We’re certainly not one of the top 10, 20, but we’re one of the top 30 teams in the country. I don’t make those decisions, but I know who we are. I’ve seen who we’ve beaten.”

Still, Shabazz Napier will be nervous watching the Selection Show on CBS on Sunday.

“I was nervous last year, and I knew we were making it in (after winning the conference tourney),” he said. “I’ll probably be nervous again, that’s just how I am.”

*** Andre Drummond's massive, one-handed putback jam of a Napier missed trey was truly awe-inspiring. It also gave UConn an eight-point lead with 14:02 left, causing Boeheim to burn a timeout.

The Orange clamped down on defense, went ahead for good about 6 ½ minutes later and held on for the 58-55 win over the Huskies – their third win over UConn in the past 26 days.

“Nothing bothers us,” Boeheim said afterwards. “If things were bothering us, we wouldn’t be 31-1.”

Syracuse went ahead for good (48-47) on a Dion Waiters 3-pointer with 5:41 left, led by seven with 26.7 seconds left, then survived a near-miracle UConn comeback.

Napier hit a layup and was fouled with 16.9 ticks remaining, missed the free throws, but Drummond scored on a putback. James Southerland hit a pair of free throws, Drummond countered with a reverse layup with about five seconds left, and the Orange managed a long inbounds pass to run out the clock.

Close but no cigar for a third time meant little to the Huskies.

“That’s our third time playing them, we fell short every time,” Jeremy Lamb pointed out. “First time, OK, we played them (well). Second time, alright … but if you lose again, you can’t get confidence out of that.”

Still, Calhoun – a man who almost never finds satisfaction in a loss – was extremely proud of his team.

“Did we shoot great? No,” he said. “Did we make great decisions? No. Did we play with great heart and great intensity and did we play for us and each other? Without a doubt, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Waiters led all scorers with 18 points. Napier led the Huskies with 15, Drummond had 14 points and 10 rebounds and Lamb netted 10. After surrendering 26 offensive rebounds to West Virginia the day before, UConn outrebounded the Orange, 46-34. Tyler Olander grabbed eight boards.

“We were going to rebound today,” Calhoun said. “Did we have a hard practice to do that? No, we just kind of all collaborated on it last night.”

Last year, of course, behind the heroics of Kemba Walker, UConn won an unprecedented five games in five days to win the tournament championship. The Huskies were hoping for a repeat run, but fatigue – mental, not physical – hindered them. The Hall of Fame coach had returned to coach the team in practice on Friday after missing the previous month on medical leave and undergoing back surgery on Feb. 27.

“Fatigue is the most over-written about thing in sports,” Calhoun said. “Mental fatigue, though, I felt we had a little bit at the end. Emotionally, we’ve been through seven – and we’re going back to Friday – Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh was very emotional and traveling Monday and playing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and they stood up to it all. We came up a little bit short. Once again, I love them and I’m proud of them.”

Personally, I think it's a bit of a blessing for UConn that it lost Thursday. Now, the Huskies have a few days to collect themselves, take a breather before (almost certainly) getting ready for the NCAA tournament. This team was a bit tired, either mentally or physically, and playing another night or two in New York may not have behooved them as much as getting their legs (and minds) back a little.

*** Calhoun took the loss hard, not for himself but for his players.

“I’m really, really anguished in many, many ways because when I arrived last Friday in the gym, not knowing after four weeks what was going to happen, little did I know that I’d find a new team,” he said. “Not that we were bad or anything else before, but just who we were and what we were was different.”

Napier concurred.

“We’re starting to have fun,” the sophomore point guard said. “We’re out there smiling, no matter what. Team chemistry comes from having fun and doing things that friends do. We all finally started having fun when Coach came back because we all started feeling like a big family again.”

*** Olander had four points, four assists and eight rebounds (his highest total since mid-November). Still, he placed blame on himself for the Huskies’ loss.

“I feel I played well until when it mattered,” he said, “then kind of broke down a little bit, and I think maybe cost us the game a little bit with mental mistakes that can’t happen.”

Down the stretch, Syracuse was playing its guards far out on the perimeter to keep Napier and Jeremy Lamb in check. UConn wanted to get the ball to Olander at the high post, where his passing and shooting ability could be a weapon against the Syracuse zone. But apparently, there were some breakdowns at key spots.

“We just didn’t run the play we were supposed to run,” Napier said of one sequence. “We were supposed to run a quick-pick play. We were unable to do that, so I stood out there forever trying to figure out what we were going to run. We were just confused. It’s my fault, I’m the point guard, I’ve got to tell my team this is the play we’re running, especially in those situations. The moment got too big for me, I guess.”

*** Boeheim was asked about the NCAA investigation into reports that Syracuse had allowed players to practice and play with the team in prior years even after having knowledge that they'd flunked school-administered drug tests.

"This was reported five years ago, and we're waiting for them to finish the process," he said.

He later added: "This is a media, this is you people's thing. This doesn't bother our players or our team or me. This is a media thing, period ... I'm much more concerned aobut my wife being mad at me than I am anything else, to tell you the truth."

Then, he quipped: "I think that Manning should really come to the Jets, too."

*** Many of the usual suspects were at the game cheering on UConn: Andrea Walker (Kemba’s mom), Craig Austrie. Donyell Marshall wasn’t there but was obviously watching, as his frequent Tweets would indicate. New UConn athletic director Warde Manuel was in the house, as was Geno Auriemma – a close friend of Jim. That’s Jim Boeheim, it should be noted.

The feeling, apparently, is mutual with Calhoun.

"I  love Jim Boeheim like a brother," he said, "and through everything else, includding other things that have gone on, he's done an incredible job coaching his team and being unselfish and giving to each other."

*** UCoonn-Syracuse is like Red Sox-Yankees of '03-04: two teams utterly incapable of playing a nice, normal, tidy game. Today wasn't as crazy as normal, but still pretty entertaining.

Sad that it could soon be a thing of the past.

*** Oh, and I'm not crazy about the Orange in the NCAA tourney. Don't you kinda need that star player who's going to lead you and take over when you need it most? Is Dion Waiters that guy? Maybe. But I'd hardly be shocked if the Cuse is done before the Final Four.

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UConn-Syracuse Live Chat at 11:30 a.m.

I'll be doing another live chat from courtside of today's noon UConn-Syracuse Big East tourney bout, starting at 11:30 a.m. We've had great interaction in the half-hour before each game so far, but feel free to stick around for questions/commentary during the game, too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Shabazz Picks Mountaineers' Pockets

All the New York City pickpockets working their craft a few blocks away in Times Square were upstaged by a kid from Boston on Wednesday afternoon.

Shabazz Napier stole the show – quite literally – in UConn’s latest how-did-that-happen, Big East tournament win at Madison Square Garden. The sophomore point guard went on a personal 9-0 run – paced by a pair of crafty steals – over an 87-second span late in regulation to tie the game, and his teammates survived without him after he fouled out in overtime.

Jeremy Lamb’s 3-pointer with a little over a minute left in the extra period put the Huskies ahead for good in a 71-67 victory that ousted West Virginia from its final Big East tourney appearance and set up UConn’s third matchup with Syracuse in the past month.

It also essentially clinched a return trip to the NCAA tournament for the defending champions, who are now 20-12 overall.

With less than four minutes left in regulation on Wednesday, however, it appeared the Huskies might not have that chance. The Mountaineers led by nine (63-54) after a Darryl “Truck” Bryant inside bucket with three minutes, 57 seconds left. Napier, however, wasn’t dismayed, and assured his teammates as much at the time.

“I knew we were going to win,” he said. “It’s weird, you just have that instinct, that feeling … I told Alex (Oriakhi), ‘We’re going to win this game.’ I just felt that. When you feel something, you’ve got to go with it.”

Did he ever. Napier canned a 3-pointer, Bryant missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Napier hit a pair of free throws. Then, he swiped a Dominique Rutledge pass near midcourt and cruised in for a finger roll. After a West Virginia timeout, he picked Gary Browne’s pocket off an inbounds pass and again sailed in for a layup, tying the score with 2:10 left.

“One of them, I kind of gambled on,” said Napier. “I just felt like Rutledge was going to be lazy on the pass to Browne, and I just went for it and stole it. And one time, Browne thought I was going to stay with Bryant, and I just came from behind and stole it. Sometimes, you’ve got to take those risks and hope for the best.”

Browne countered with a lane jumper, but UConn got the ball up the floor quickly and Drummond ank a short baseline jumper. Browne turned the tables on Napier by stealing the ball form him near midcourt with 42.2 seconds left, but Andre Drummond blocked a Rutledge shot, Napier missed an 18-footer at the buzzer, and it was on to overtime.

Napier scored the first points of the extra period with a pair of free throws, but wound up picking his fourth and fifth fouls in the span of 24 seconds. Bryant hit a pair of freebies to tie it, but Lamb canned his wing trey to put the Huskies ahead for good.

“I knew we needed a score,” Lamb said, “and in the game (Tuesday), Coach told me to shoot and I didn’t take a shot. Coach was just saying, “I want you shooting the ball.’ So today, they ran a play for me, set great screens, and I was able to get wide open. I had a little time to set my feet and I just shot it with confidence, and thank God it went in.”

It wasn’t over yet, as Ryan Boatright missed three straight free throws within the final 33 seconds. But he finally hit the fourth with 19.2 seconds left, and West Virginia couldn’t score again.

"Boat is always there for us," said Napier. "Go back to the first game he came and knocked down three free throws we needed (to beat) Florida State. That's what he gives you, he gives you a lot of heart no matter what."

The Mountaineers missed all 11 of their field goal attempts in overtime.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our kids,” said coach Jim Calhoun. “I think for a team that obviously has had its ups and downs – no coach, no Boatright, all the various things that have happened to us – those are things that happen and they happen to other teams. But I can only judge my family, my guys, and my guys have come back, won three in a row, and I truly believe that a coach couldn’t be prouder.”

Napier scored 22 of his 26 points in the second half and overtime. Lamb added 22 – 12 in the first 12 minutes of play – and Boatright had 10 off the bench. Napier also had six assists, four turnovers and three blocks (!).

*** UConn-Syracuse. Madison Square Garden. Big East tournament. Doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

Not in recent years, anyway.

The last four times these two powerhouse rivals have met in the Big East tournament, three have been decided in overtime. Among those, of course, was the classic six-overtime battle in 2009 eventually won in the wee hours of the morning by the Orange, 127-117.

More recently, Syracuse has beaten the Huskies twice over the last month, pulling away in the final minutes at the Carrier Dome for an 85-67 win on Feb. 11, then eking out a 71-69 triumph two weeks later in Storrs. Calhoun was on medical leave and not on the sidelines for either game, but he’ll be there for Thursday’s noon quarterfinal-round battle.

“We’re playing, in my opinion – along with Kentucky – the best team in the country (Thursday),” he said after UConn’s 71-67, second-round win over West Virginia.

The old adage says it’s hard for a good team to beat another good team three times in a row. Throw in the fact that the second-ranked Orange are a sure-shot No. 1 NCAA tourney seed with nothing to play for, while the Huskies have momentum, and it’s understandable why Drummond promised: “It’s going to be hard for (Syracuse), I can tell you that now. We’re going to come out with fire.”

Added Lamb: “We’ve just got to come out strong. When we played them at home, we didn’t start off (well). We’ve got to come out as hard as we can.”

*** Despite the victory, UConn had to be concerned about its rebounding – or lack thereof – on Wednesday. The Huskies were outrebounded, 47-31. Worse, they allowed a whopping 26 offensive boards to the Mountaineers.

Strangely, Calhoun wasn’t overly concerned.

“You also remember that six or seven of (the offensive boards) are blocked shots,” he pointed out. “They seemed to get every blocked shot that we had. Not that it’s misleading, but we played defense a little bit different than maybe some other teams, and down the stretch it did help since we blocked two of their layups.”

Calhoun was particularly happy with the defensive play late in the game of Drummond, who blocked Dominique Rutledge’s potential game-winner in the final seconds of regulation.

Drummond also locked down WVU star Kevin Jones late in the game. Jones dominated much of the game from both the inside and outside and finished with 25 points. However, following a pair of free throws with 6:17 left in regulation, he didn’t score again.

“It took me longer than it should have,” Drummond confessed. “I should’ve realized that earlier (and said), ‘Alright, today’s not an offensive game for you, Dre, so you just need to lock up on defense to make sure no one scores.’ It took me until the last 10 minutes to realize, we’re going to lose this game if I don’t lock this kid Jones up. Coach told me, final play, play him hard or he’s going to sub me out and I’m not going to play. So I looked at him and said, ‘Alright, he’s not scoring anymore.’”

Said Calhoun: “With 10 minutes to go, he grew up a little bit and played a hell of a player and did a wonderful job.”

*** The Mountaineers are moving to the Big 12 next season, so Wednesday’s loss was their final appearance in the Big East tournament.

“It’s sad in many, many ways,” said Calhoun. “I’m going to miss them greatly. I’m going to miss Bobby (Huggins, WVU’s coach), going got miss the competitiveness … (Huggins) is heading on his way to being a Hall of Fame coach. I don’t think this league needs to be losing Hall of Fame coaches.”

Said Huggins: “Well, it’s been a good run. We’ve enjoyed it, most of it anyway. I mean, there’s nothing like coming to the Garden to play in the tournament.”

West Virginia finishes 12-15 all-time in Big East tourney games, winning the title in 2010 and reaching the finals twice.

The Big East announced on Wednesday that Temple will officially be joining the conference, for football only in 2012 and all other sports in 2013.

“I always thought Temple would be a great addition, being in Philadelphia,” Calhoun said. “They’ve got a tremendous coach, it’s a great city for basketball.”

Calhoun couldn't resist a chance to needle longtime rival Rick Pitino, who has been publicly campaigning for the Owls to join the Big East for a while now.

"I can't get a word in edgewise with Rick praising Temple," Calhoun quipped. "That's not against Rick. I don't Twitter or Tweet or any of those things. You know what I'm talking about."

*** Lamb has hit double figures in all seven of his career Big East tourney games.

*** UConn has won 13 straight postseason games and seven straight in the Big East tourney, tying Georgetown for third-longest winning streak in the event's history.

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Live Chat Today for UConn-WVU Game at 11:30 a.m.

Please feel free to join me at 11:30 a.m. for a live chat prior to UConn's noon game with West Virginia.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

UConn Bolstered by Return of Big Daddy Cane

Jim Calhoun needed a cane to walk around for several days before his back surgery a little over a week ago, but that had to end once he returned to the bench.

“I can’t walk with a cane on the sidelines, because two officials might get hit,” he quipped after Tuesday’s 81-67 win over DePaul.

Cane or no can, Calhoun’s presence has certainly given UConn a lift the last two games – at just the right time.

“Having him there on the sidelines is great,” said freshman center Andre Drummond. “Just hearing his voice brings us a joy, even though he screams a lot.”

Added Alex Oriakhi: “He puts a fire in our belly. We know Coach Calhoun is no slacker out there, so we’ve got to go out and play with a sense of urgency.”

Calhoun didn’t accompany the team on its bus ride to New York after practice on Monday, instead coming down on his own. But that’s what he normally does, and had nothing to do with his back and being on a bus for three hours.

He opened up a little more about his surgery, how he feels right now and what he must do to keep feeling better.

“The pain is a different kind of pain, it’s a muscular pain,” Calhoun said. “Thank God it’s no longer a nerve pain … To alleviate that pain was incredible. It took us three weeks to find the right solution, which wasn’t to put rods and fibers and fuses and all that stuff. We had a 3 ½-hour procedure that was pretty intricate ut not transforming in the sense that it’s a hole in my back and it’s sore, but nothing like a win or two wins now to make that (better).

“But without question, I will definitely try to get more rest than I normally do.”

*** Believe it or not, there was a time not long ago when UConn couldn’t win a Big East tournament game.

From their four-point loss to Syracuse in 2005 to an embarrassing beatdown at the hands of St. John’s in 2010 – and with a certain six-overtime loss in between – the Huskies lost six straight conference tournament games.

Then came last year’s unprecedented five-wins-in-five-days run. Suddenly, the Huskies can’t lose at Madison Square Garden in March.

UConn has now won six straight Big East tournament games, the fourth-best streak in the event’s history. Ir has also won 12 consecutive postseason games overall.

“When we get into tournaments, obviously it’s a new season,” said Jeremy Lamb, who popped in a game-high 25 points. “All year we’ve been finding ourselves and everybody on the team has been stepping up. We’ve been preparing all year for this time. Now that it’s here, we just want to give it all we’ve got and don’t look back.”

*** Drummond finished with 12 points, five rebounds and four blocks in his Madison Square Garden debut.

“It’s been great, a dream come true,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play here.”

Drummond has also been displaying some improved low-post moves lately, including a few nifty spin moves for hoops on Tuesday.

“I’ve been working on that a lot, just trying to get myself better with my back to the basket, because I’m more of a face-up person,” he said. “Getting the basic spin move and trying to finish on somebody, I’ve been working a lot on that move.”

He even unveiled a nifty behind-the-back crossover in the lane, something not seen prior to Tuesday.

“I can’t show ‘em all, can’t show ‘em everything,” he quipped.

The lowlight: Drummond missed all six of his free throw attempts. He is now 4-for-26 from the charity stripe in his last seven games.

*** Less than five minutes into the game, Oriakhi was hit with a flagrant technical foul after shoving 5-foot-11 guard Worrell Clahar on the low post.

“I just got hit in my mouth and I reacted,” he said. “When anybody gets hit in the face, you just react. It was a dumb mistake on my part, but you’ve got to learn from it.”

Indeed, he did learn his lesson in the second half: “I got hit again (by Cleveland Melvin) but I just kept calm.”

*** Ryan Boatright, who hails from suburban Chicago (Aurora, Ill.), didn’t play well in his first bout against his hometown team a few weeks ago, shooting 1-for-9 with five turnovers. He rebounded on Tuesday, though, with 19 points and seven assists.

“The first time we played them, I felt like I pressed a little too much and just missed a lot of easy shots and (had) a lot of careless turnovers,” he confessed. “Coach talked to me more, said I didn’t play very well the first time but said at practice, ‘You’re going to have a great game.’”

*** Lamb’s layup with seven seconds left in the opening half made him the 46th player in UConn history to go over the 1,000-point mark for his career. He has also scored in double figures in all six of his Big East tourney games.

*** Calhoun has now won 34 Big East tourney games, passing John Thompson for sole possession of second place on the all-time list.

*** The win may also have punched the Huskies’ ticket to the NCAA tournament.

“We played, I believe, the most difficult schedule in the country, if not the second most difficult,” Calhoun pointed out. “Secondly, we played the most difficult schedule in the Big East. And third, only three teams in the country – Villanova, Vanderbilt and Connecticut – played 21 top-100 teams. So out of 31 games, we had 10 breathers. And who are those breathers? UNC-Asheville? Oh, by the way, they’re in the tournament, and I can keep on going.”

Still, it might behoove them to beat West Virginia (19-12) this afternoon to remove all doubt.

*** Caron Butler was in the house, and paid a visit to the UConn locker room after the game.

*** I’m not sure what this Calhoun quote means: “Someone said I only have two years left on my extension. I don’t know if I can make two more minutes. For them to think, I’m grateful about that. I don’t know if I have two more years in my contract, now it’s like I’m calling the shots. Someone better pay me for two more years. That’s what I’m saying.”


He did, however, thank (most) of the media for respecting his privacy during his medical leave and covering the process the right way. Hey, I only called him at home once.

*** Oh, and speaking of me, I predicted UConn would win the game, 82-68. You can check it on Twitter (@DaveBorges).

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Live Chat Today at 11:30 a.m.

I'll be doing a live chat from Madison Square Garden for UConn's Big East tournament first round game with DePaul today. Chat starts at 11:30 a.m. If you're stuck in a cubicle and can't watch the game, or just want to do a little pregame chat on all things UConn men's basketball, please drop by:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Blaney: 'I'd Be Disappointed if We're Not in the NCAA Already'

Depending on who you listen to, UConn is either solidly in the NCAA tournament already, win or lose to DePaul tomorrow, or in need of two, maybe three wins in this week's Big East tourney to punch its ticket. Or somewhere in between.

George Blaney sides with the former.

“I would be really, really disappointed if we’re not in the NCAA already," he said at practice Monday. "I don’t see how we’re not. But I would always rather not leave it up to anybody in a committee room. I’d like to have it done where there isn’t any question.”

Jim Calhoun pointed out: “We had some good wins this year, no doubt. Looking back on it, Florida State was a very good win. We beat some good people. When you play the No. 2 schedule in the country – give us the No. 20 schedule. So now we’ve got, what, 23 wins?”
Of course, Blaney and Calhoun are a bit biased. Let's put it this way: if the Huskies lose to 16th seed DePaul (12-18, 3-15 Big East) on Tuesday, they will be sweating it out on Selection Sunday. Big time.

Calhoun missed practice Sunday but was back on Monday, looking and feeling pretty good. He said that on Sunday, after making his return to the sidelines the day before just four days after back surgerh, he felt "tired. But that’s to be expected. Going through the process, that’s the way it’ll be. But I’m trying to time everything right so that I’ll be there tomorrow at noon.”

But he noted that his own fatigue isn't that big a deal for UConn moving forward.

“Me, personally. It’s not important, really. I thought Jeremy (Lamb) played very fatigued in the second half (Sunday). It’s more important if Jeremy’s fatigued.”

Then he quipped: “Somebody said, ‘It’ll be great to have you there. I said, no, it’d be better if Kemba was there.”

Calhoun said that for about two weeks prior to surgery, he was extremely limited physically -- walking with a cane for a time -- so it's really been about three weeks without doing much.
"(Sunday) I walked couple of miles, probably did a little too much. But more importantly, (I'm just) trying to recapture my body a little bit. Once we get to gametime, I’ll be fine.”

Could he handle three, four (or dare we say, five) games in five days again?

“I’d love it. Give me a chance.”

Andre Drummond said of his coach: “That’s the toughest person I’ve met in my whole life, by far. Besides my mother, he’s up there.”

*** Calhoun said he watched a lot of basketball during his monthlong medical leave -- with the volume turned off.
“I didn’t hear a lot of basketball. A lot of people saying, ‘I’m sorry about what I said on TV.’ Doesn’t make any difference.”

*** Shabazz Napier sat down a few seats away from Calhoun during Monday's media availability and asked the coach, "Did you see what Rondo did yesterday?"

Calhoun nodded, but quickly added: “He had two against us. When we played him in the NCAA tournament (in 2006)."

*** As always, Napier was as blunt as ever when assessing his team.

“I see a lot of greatness, a lot of players destined for a lot of extraordinary things," he said. "But one thing I don’t see is leadership. And, 100-percent chemistry. But that Pittsburgh game, that’s what it was – leadership from the coach, 100-percent chemistry from everybody. That’s what I wanted to see, and that’s what I saw in that game. I hope we’ll take that win and keep moving forward for the DePaul game.”

*** Although he grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., moved to Middletown about 10 years ago and has toured the country in AAU ball, Drummond has never played a game in Madison Square Gardn. Been to a few Knicks games, but never played there. Obviously, he's excited for Tuesday.

Is he a Knicks fan?

“Eh, I wouldn’t say that. I’m not really a fan of any team, I just watch basketball.”

Drummond was also asked how he felt about earning Big East all-rookie honors.

“It’s just another step for me to work hard to get to first team Big East," he replied. "I’m just going to use that as a stepping stone to work hard, each and every day, to get National Player of the Year or something bigger than that.”

Sometimes, listening to the big guy talk, it really does sound like he might be back for at least another season at UConn. You never know.

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