Monday, December 30, 2013

DeAndre Daniels: 'I Guess People Don't Like UConn'

A few notes 'n quotes from the JW Marriott in Houston, where UConn got in after a long flight from Hartford at around 7 p.m. local time. The Huskies, of course, face Houston on New Year's Eve at 9 p.m. on ESPN2.

Kevin Ollie is excited about beginning play in a new conference -- and a lot of other things.

Shabazz Napier knows that, as perhaps the cream of the AAC, UConn will get the best shot from every opponent it faces from here on out:

*** Don't expect a big crowd at Hofheinz Pavilion: Houston is averaging just 2,904 per game in the 8,000-or-so seat arena, with a season-high of 3,123. And an 8 p.m. New Year's Eve game isn't likely to attract a whole lot more fans.

The days of Phi Slamma Jamma are long over.

*** DeAndre Daniels was asked about UConn dropping two spots to No. 17 in the AP poll, despite winning its lone game of the period.

“I saw someone tweet me that we went back, but I don’t really know what we are,” said Daniels. “I don’t know what it is. I guess people don’t like UConn. But we’re not trying to pay attention to that kind of stuff.”
*** Just a hunch: Ollie gets Phil Nolan and Omar Calhoun back in the starting lineup Tuesday night. Again, just a hunch.

*** Also, with Houston so heavily reliant on TaShawn Thomas, would it behoove the Huskies to throw a little box-and-one on him? Who guards him? Daniels? Nolan? Or maybe Lasan Kromah or Niels Giffey? Thomas is a 6-8 horse who dominates the boards. Tough guard for the Huskies. Worth noting, however, that he shoots barely over 50 percent from the foul line.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Top 25; UConn Begins its Texas Two-Step

Almost no change in my Top 25 ballot this week. Louisville and Villanova drop a bit after losing to ranked opponents on the road. Otherwise, the same 25 teams for me this week. UConn actually bumps up a spot, replacing Villanova at No. 12.

1. Arizona
2. Oklahoma State
3. Syracuse
4. Ohio State
5. Michigan State
6. Wisconsin
7. Duke
8. Louisville
9. Oregon
10. Wichita State
11. Iowa State
12. Connecticut
13. Florida
14. Kentucky
15. Villanova
16. Kansas
17. Gonzaga
18. Baylor
19. Memphis
20. San Diego State
21. North Carolina
22. Massachusetts
23. George Washington
24. Illinois
25. Toledo

And now, we embark upon the American Athletic Conference. "The American," as they're calling it. I'll be on a plane Monday at 6 a.m. down to Houston, and we'll be meeting with Kevin Ollie and some players at the team hotel tomorrow around 6:30 p.m. local time. The Huskies face Houston on New Year's Eve at 9 p.m. (8 p.m local) at Hofheinz Pavilion.

The Cougars are 8-5, with losses to Stanford, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, San Jose State and Louisiana (in OT). They haven't played since Dec. 21, a two-point win over crosstown rival Rice. They really haven't beaten anyone of any significance.

Houston is led by TaShawn Thomas, unquestionably one of the best players in the conference. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound junior forward is third in the AAC in scoring (17.4 ppg) and second in rebounding (9.3). He's shooting a whopping 64.8 percent from the floor (sixth in the nation), and is just the kind of big, physical forward that the Huskies could have real trouble stopping.

After Houston, UConn continues its Texas two-step in Dallas against SMU on Saturday. UConn (like me) won't fly home after the Houston game but will remain in Texas for the week. Classes are, after all, out of session.

The Mustangs are 10-2 and could be one of the surprise teams in the conference. Their losses came at Arkansas and against Virginia, and they have wins over Texas A&M and at Wyoming. And, of course, they are coached by Larry Brown.

The Huskies will do well to come out of this Texas tour 2-0 in league play. There would be no shame in a split: any road game is tough to win in college basketball, and while neither of these teams are powerhouses, both have enough weapons to beat UConn.

Don't know about you, but I'm kind of looking forward to this new league. New teams, new cities. No, it's not a great league, though it does have three Top 25 teams in Louisville, UConn and Memphis. A few other decent squads, as well. But it's time to move on. The days of trips to the Carrier Dome and the Joyce Center and the Pete, or visits from Georgetown, Villanova, even PC, are over, and a new -- very different -- adventure is about to unfold.

I shed a tear as the final buzzer sounded on UConn's Big East career last March 9 at Gampel against Providence. Not because I grew up a UConn fan (I didn't) or that I'm even a fan of any particular team right now (I'm not), but just because such a beautiful thing, the Big East, was gone forever, blown up for ... well, we all know the reasons.

But it's over, and it's time to move on. UConn begins a new phase in Texas this week, and we need to get on board with it, because we're never going back to those glorious days of the Big East.

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kevin Ollie: Great Character Game for Omar Calhoun, Phil Nolan

Kevin Ollie can't emphasize enough that it really doesn't matter who starts games, it's who does the most with their minutes and who's in at the end.

He's right, of course. But when a couple of usual starters come off the bench (Phil Nolan for the last two games, Omar Calhoun on Saturday), well, we in the media have to ask ...

Ollie continued:  "His energy is like, out the roof right now. He’s running to screens, he’s calling out blue coverages, which is our pick-and-roll defense. I can hear him from the other side of the court. The ball always finds energy, and I think that’s what he’s bringing, and he’s getting rewarded for it.”

Nolan finished with a career-high 11 points in a season-high 22 minutes. He also went 7-for-7 from the foul line and has hit his last 11 from the stripe.

Calhoun had started every regular-seasaon game of his UConn career (except last year's season finale vs. Providence, which he sat out due to injury) until Saturday. He scored 12 points and grabbed a season-high six rebounds.

Both players have handled their respective situations well.

Calhoun: “It definitely means something. But, I know I’ve been struggling. Coach is working with me. Obviously, you can’t start someone playing the way I’ve been playing. He just wants me to get back after it and things are going to fall into place at the end of the day.”

Calhoun said he had been told by Ollie on Thursday that he wasn't starting.

“He told me he wasn’t going to start me today, but he wanted me to bring that energy, get it going and be aggressive and stuff like that. We had a good talk about it, so everything was fine.”

(on his rebounding)

“I know I can rebound as a big guard. I haven’t really been doing a great job rebounding. He’s always harping about rebounding, so I wanted to make it my effort to rebound more.”

(Calhoun didn't start his first exhibition game last season and the first exhibition game this season. Other than that, he'd started every game in which he'd played at UConn)

“It was definitely tough, but I’m more mature than I was last year. I wasn’t going to argue or anything like that. I obviously knew that I wasn’t playing my best. He told me he was going to have me come off the bench, but I’m still going to play a lot of minutes. He just wanted to see what that does to me, give me fuel and put me in a different position, get my groove going. That definitely helped.”

Nolan and Calhoun's coach and teammates are impressed with the way they've responded.

“I think Omar responded well," said Shabazz Napier. "Phil didn’t start against Washington and he responded well, as well. Today, I was happy to see him scoring, seeing Omar scoring, because Omar was in a little slump.”

“We need Omar and Phil to get to where we want to go.”

Added Niels Giffey (who started over Calhoun on Saturday): "It just shows that they have a great mindset, not being discouraged but actually encouraged in that situation. Just bouncing back is really hard … I think they had to understand that we’ve got to take certain shots, and we’ve got to pass off some of the shots Omar had. We talked about it a lot, which shots he takes. I think he did a great job today of changing up his game, because he’s so versatile. I think he’s doing a good job with that. It’s good to see other guys scoring before we go into the AAC.”

Said Ollie: “Phil was great. He responded the right way. That’s what I like. It wasn’t a benching. He was out of the starting lineup, but he had his career-high tonight. It’s not about who’s starting, it’s about who’s taking care of their minutes. I thought Omar came in and finally got his shot going. He hit two 3’s, played very well, had six rebounds … All in all, it was a great character game for us. Two of the guys who showed great character were Omar and Phil.”

*** The crowd of 9,274 was the largest ever to watch a sporting event at Webster Bank Arena. Granted, the crowd was a bit ... umm .. quiet at times. But it was a good showing, nonetheless.

"I think there were a lot of families in the audience that probably hadn’t ever seen us play before," Ollie noted. "I felt the energy from the crowd, it was just a great family atmosphere. It took them awhile to really start cheering, because we didn’t really give them opportunity. We were playing good defense, then giving up offensive rebounds.”

So, will we do this again next year? Maybe more than once?

“We’ve just got to go back to the drawing board," said Ollie. "To have a great program, you’ve got to schedule the right way and recruit. I’m glad that Warde (Manuel) and Paul McCarthy, Glen Miller, we sat down and scheduled this game. If it comes to it, we have a favorable team we want to bring down here and it works out, we definitely won’t be opposed to it. I can’t speak because I’m not the only person making the decision. I’m part of the decision. But, I wouldn’t think twice if Warde said let’s play another game down in Bridgeport.”


“We’re gonna see. I’m very pleased with the fans, the turnout here. It’s been great, great for our team, great for the fans here. We’ll assess it after the women’s game, at some point. We’ll look at whether or not we’ll come back here next year, or how we’ll do it.”

What will Manuel be assessing?

“The fit. Does it fit for our team? How everything went for our teams. I haven’t talked to Kevin, obviously Geno and his team are coming down here in two weeks. We obviously like the fan support and what it brings.”

Multiple games?

“We could, yeah. We could. We haven’t made a decision on whether or not we’re going to play one again. But, we’re very happy with the way the fans have turned out, the support down here. Obviously, it’s one of the things we want to do is get out, we know we have some season-ticket holders down here. They’ve come up to me and told me they’re glad we came down here. They make the trip all the time, either to Gampel, XL Center or Rentschler Field. Obviously, by the sellout, it’s something our fans really appreciate.”

How about a league game? Doesn't look like it.

“I don’t know that. It’s better for us when we’re on break, for our students, to be able to come down here.”

*** UConn director of basketball operations Kevin Freeman wasn't at the game. His wife, Nicole, gave birth to a boy on Friday. He's the Freeman's third child. 

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Bridgeport Report: Shabazz Napier Sits Out Part of UConn Practice, Should be Fine Saturday

UConn put in a somewhat light practice at Webster Bank Arena on Friday, after going hard on Thursday evening up at Gampel. The Huskies host Eastern Washington on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the WBA in Bridgeport.

Shabazz Napier sat out the latter part of practice, but expects to be full-go for Saturday. Here's what he had to say:

Said Kevin Ollie: “He’s alright. You know he’s a gamer, so he’ll be there.”

*** The Huskies seem to have tepid enthusiasm about playing a game in Bridgeport. But local fans see very enthusiastic: the game is a near-sellout, with only scattered single-seat tickets still available.

“It’s not home, but it’s not too far from home," said Ryan Boatright. "With us not having to be on a plane and being jet-lagged and stuff like that, I feel like that’s an advantage, always. Getting off the plane is always tough.”

Added Napier: “I don’t know why we came out here, but I guess we’re trying to get all of Connecticut with the UConn way. It’s good to play in front of different fans. They all love us. Sometimes they can’t get out to us, but we’re coming to them now so it’s much easier for them. It’s definitely good.”

*** Ollie's wife, Stephanie, hails from Bridgeport, so he knows the city well.

“All her Filipino side of her family is gonna be here, so it’s gonna be exciting. They don’t usually get a chance to come up to our games, so it’s gonna be exciting for her to come out and share a special time.”

Sadly, Ollie's father-in-law, who passed away a few months ago, will not be there.

“It’s an unfortunate time," Ollie noted. "My wife is hanging in there. It’s a tough time for here, especially with the holidays, this is the first time her father is not there, and the father-in-law that treated me like his own son, is not here. But she’s making it through, she’s my strength, and I know he’s gonna be upstairs watching down on us.”

*** Ollie was asked if he'd be tempted to stick with the starting lineup -- Napier, Boatright, DeAndre Daniels, Omar Calhoun and Amida Brimah -- that got him a road win in Seattle on Sunday.

“I might be tempted, but we’re just gonna keep playing basketball. I’ll sit with the coaches and evaluate practice, and we’ll come up with the starting lineup. But, at halftime, if I see someone not playing or doing different things we want to get done – and it’s not Omar, it’s not anybody – we’re just going to get the first five out there. Our motto is, be fair to everybody, and everybody will get the opportunity. The best five, I thought, after halftime was that group we had out there. Then Omar came in and was good in the second half. All our guys have to come in and be live and be ready to play.”

*** Ollie and Boatright celebrated birthdays on Friday -- Ollie turning 41, Boatright 21. Both got mugged by their teammates after practice, though the players went a little light on the coach.

“We got him a little bit," Boatright noted. "We tapped him. But, you hit him a little too hard, he might put you on the bench.”

Ollie said the only gift he wants from his players is "to get a win and keep getting better. That’ll be a good birthday gift for me.”

He was reminded that, a year earlier, Ollie was rewarded with a long-term contract extension on his 40th birthday.

“I don’t think that’s gonna happen anymore – or hopefully for a couple more years," he said with a smile.

*** Asked what he wants his team to keep getting better at, Ollie responded, "Everything ... Tiger Woods still has his swing coach.”

*** Eastern Washington has three Germans on its roster. One of them, 6-foot-10 junior Martin Seiferth, is friends with Niels Giffey.

"I've known him since I was 12," Giffey said. "He's the younger brother of one of my real good friends back home who plays for the national team, too. It’s gonna be fun to see him. What are the chances, really, to play against one of the guys from Germany who you actually know pretty well. I’m on the East Coast, he’s on the West Coast. When we saw the schedule at the beginning of the year, he called me and said, ‘We’re coming over to Bridgeport to beat you guys.’”

*** Class of 2015 guard Donovan Mitchell, who lives in Greenwich (plays at Brewster Academy), will be at Saturday's game. So might New Haven's own Tremont Waters, a Class of 2017 guard who plays at South Kent Prep.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

My AP Top 25 This Week

Here's my AP Top 25 ballot I'll be submitting for this week. Welcome, George Washington and Illinois. Farewell, Colorado and UCLA.

UConn drops from No. 9 to No. 13. Felt like it might be a lot worse after Wednesday night's loss to Stanford, but the Huskies bounced back with a good road win against a major-conference foe (Washington) on Sunday. (I didn't make the trip to Seattle, the only road trip I'll miss this season).

At the end of the day (did I really just use that annoying phrase?), UConn basically played one bad half of basketball this week. Granted, it was a putrid, awful, fetid half -- 13 points, 5-for-31 shooting, 0-for-12 from 3. But in the end, it was one half, against a pretty good team. Stanford is long, athletic and can shoot, and gave Michigan all it could handle a few nights later in Brooklyn. Had the Cardinal won that game, I would have considered it for the Top 25.

UConn has its flaws, obviously, most notably its lack of production from its big men. But teams are allowed a bad half here, a bad game here. Just this past week, Baylor needed overtime to beat Northwestern State. North Carolina, after losing at home to Texas, needed OT to beat Davidson. Ohio State needed a miracle comeback over the final 90 seconds to survive Notre Dame.

It's funny. I was prepared to drop the Buckeyes a few spots when it looked like they were going to lose to the Irish. Then they pull a rally for the ages, eke out the win, and ... I keep them at No. 4. Is that fair? Should I have flip-flopped them with Michigan State, which beat Texas this week? Maybe, maybe not. Guess that's what makes polls kinda fun.

1. Arizona
2. Oklahoma State
3. Syracuse
4. Ohio State
5. Michigan State
6. Louisville
7. Wisconsin
8. Duke
9. Oregon
10. Wichita State
11. Iowa State
12. Villanova
13. Connecticut
14. Florida
15. Kentucky
16. Kansas
17. Gonzaga
18. Baylor
19. Memphis
20. San Diego State
21. North Carolina
22. Massachusetts
23. George Washington
24. Illinois
25. Toledo

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Shabazz Napier: Always Interesting After a Loss

Shabazz Napier missed three 3-pointers over the final 41 seconds Wednesday night, then gave up one final trey attempt to Omar Calhoun, who front-rimmed about a 25-footer. And now, UConn has its first loss of the season.

There was bound to be a game where Napier's back-breaking treys didn't fall. Heck, it essentially happened against Florida, though a somewhat lucky bounce (and DeAndre Daniels tip) allowed Napier to emerge the hero again in that one.

Bottom line: UConn couldn't do anything against Stanford's long, extended zone in the second half (16 percent shooting, 0-for-12 on 3's). The Huskies are really getting nothing from their big men, and when they have to rely on 3's that aren't falling (and Shabazz to bail them out), it's simply not going to work every time.

Here's what Napier had to say after the loss:

“I wasn’t able to knock down the shot, none of us were able to knock down the shots. I’m kind of upset with the way I played in the second half, the way I ran my team in the second half. I really felt like this was going to be a good win for us, and I didn’t come through.

"All I can do is be mad at myself, learn from it, not put too much blame on myself like I usually do, but just take it and understand what I could’ve done better and move along.

“I felt like I kind of had two open 3’s, and coach was stressing to go to the basket. As you can see, I didn’t go. I should have, but I was kind of unable to go. They were in a zone at the end and we just played a bad second half. It kind of caught up to us.”

(on giving the ball to Calhoun on the last-second shot)

“Somebody was on me. I always have confidence in myself, no matter if I go 0-for-20, I always feel like I can make the next shot. Guys were just crowded on the right side, and it was actually 3-on-2 on that entire right side. Omar was the guy with the easiest pickings. It was a very far shot, but I definitely believe in each and every guy that they can take that shot. I thought it was going to go in, we all did. We believe in each other, but we just fell short.”

(on his inability to drive to the hole)

“I felt like I was getting fouled, but I guess the rules aren’t in place like I thought they were. There was a lot of hand-checking, I thought, but you’ve got to keep playing on. I started settling for shots, and they just weren’t going for me today.”

(on bouncing back from a loss)

“I think this team is resilient. We understand that we weren’t going to go through the whole season undefeated. We’ve got a good game against Washington on Sunday. We’ve got to be ready for that one. We can’t be hanging our heads on a good team that beat us.”

(on why the Huskies couldn't run the ball in the second half like they did in the first)

“We stopped running and stopped rebounding the ball well. That’s the biggest thing. We kind of beat them down the court a couple of times and got them tired. Their starting five plays about 38 minutes. We had them tired a little bit, but we didn’t do so in the second half. That’s my bad, I didn’t run the team the right way.”

(on his tiff with Anthony Brown late in the game)

“Yeah, but I guess the refs aren’t going to call it. I should have flopped like I played soccer, but I didn’t.”

*** And here's what Kevin Ollie had to say:

“I wanted him to go to the basket. With Shabazz, you live with that, because he’s put this team on his back a lot of times. But, he could have taken it to the basket a couple of times. But he settled for the long 3-ball, and that wasn’t goin in tonight. So, you have to make adjustments as a player and as a coach. We just didn’t make those game-winning adjustments.”

"Just a tough shooting night. I can’t even blame it on the layoff. We came out and played well, had a 10-point lead at halftime, pushed it up to 13, and then, like we’ve been doing, we play in spurts and we let the team back in. Once they smelled that they could play with us, they took it to us. Their zone was effective, we missed

“Disappointing loss, but in life, you’ve got to keep coming at it, you’ve got to keep fighting. I just wish we had better ball movement, better 3’s, and wish we could have taken it to the rack a little more and got them in foul trouble. Hopefully, we learn from this.”

“We missed shots, we had open shots. It wasn’t hard at all. We took some ill-advised 3’s. They were running a circle zone, they did a good job with their length, closing up gaps, closing up areas. We never got it in the four-hole, the middle at the free throw line, and exposed that. When that happens and you start missing, you start pressing a little bit, that’s what happens.”

“We didn’t have the toughness that it takes to win this game. I hate saying that, because I pride myself on toughness and togetherness, and we just didn’t have it in the second half – mentally and physically.”

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Successful Surgery for Rodney Purvis

Kevin Ollie talked about Rodney Purvis's shoulder surgery (which went successfully this morning) at practice on Tuesday:

"It’s just been popping in and out, he’ll get an episode, it’ll pop out and he’ll be in pain. We just don’t want it to continue to tear. I imagine it’s small now, but if you let it continue to tear each and every time it comes out of place, that’s when you get in trouble. Then you get hit next year in a big game, he’ll be out 4-5 months next year, we want to delete that altogether. It might be something else happening, but it won’t be a torn labrum where he can’t perform because of the shoulder injury."

"It’s his non-shooting shoulder. He’s going to have to have it stabilized for four weeks. After that, not good-to-go, but he’ll be able to move it around and maneuver it a little more.”

“I wouldn’t want it next year when we’re going down to Gainesville. IF you look at it that way, it’s a good time for him to do it. Of course we’d like him full-strength healthy and he can perform out here. But, if we had to do it, this would be probably the best time. At least it didn’t happen later on, during the season, where it’d be prolonged into the off-season. Now, four months, hopefully, on the safe side … he can get back for our spring session and start working out with the coaches in the summertime.”

*** Meanwhile, Omar Calhoun sprained his ankle near the end of practice on Tuesday, but it doesn't appear to be a concern.

"He's from Brooklyn," Ollie noted, "so I'm pretty sure he'll be out there."

The Huskies, of course, host Stanford on Wednesday at 9 p.m. in Hartford. More on that to come ...

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Sam Cassell Looks Forward to Son's Future at UConn, Fondly Recalls His Own Past vs. Huskies

Had a chance to sit down with Sam Cassell, the longtime NBA veteran and former all-star, on Monday night at Madison Square Garden. Cassell, now an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards, is just as energetic and entertaining to talk to as he was as a player.

Cassell's son, Sam, Jr., of course, is heading to UConn next year. Sam talked about how excited his son is to play for Kevin Ollie, with whom Cassell played while with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2002-03. He had a lot of nice things to say about Ollie, and also had fond memories of his only visit to Gampel Pavilion as a player: an 86-74 win over the Huskies on Feb. 6, 1993.

"We kicked UConn's (behind) up there in Storrs, CT!!!" recalled Cassell, jumping out of his chair. "It was so crazy. We had guys form Florida who had never been in snow. We get there, and there's 10 inches of snow up there. They were shocked at how much snow was on the ground. We didn't have coats, we went to school in Florida. We had sweatsuit jackets but it was freezing. So, of course, after the game, we stayed in the hotel."

UConn fans will forgive him, of course, has his son gets ready embark on his career as a Husky next season.

"Yeah, he's excited. It came down to Louisville and UConn, and he told me, 'Dad, this is the place for me.' I said, 'I think so, too.'"

Here's the story for the Register. And here's more of what Cassell had to say:

(on what made it the place for him)

"Kevin (Ollie) and how he allows his guards to play. My son can do a lot of things off the dribble. He can shoot off the dribble, he's a pretty good shooter. Kevin told him, 'Work hard on the defensive end and you can play a lot of minutes. Don't work hard on the defensive end and you can play minutes, but you won't play the minutes you think you deserve.'"

(Cassell's memories of Ollie as a player)

"Kevin was a guy who maximized, as a player, everything his body had to offer. He wasn't really a knockdown shooter, but if he had to take a shot, he had no problem taking a shot. He was a leader. He know how to play his position, point guard. He was pretty good defensively. He did everything pretty good."

(Did Cassell believe someday that Ollie would make a good coach?)

"I saw it because he loves the gym. He played in this league. If you played in this league, most likely you know what it takes to get to this league. He definitely knows what it takes to be successful. I think a lot of guys who go to UConn, their dreams are to be professional basketball players -- including my son."

"Kevin sold himself. (Sam, Jr.) asked me questions about him, but Kevin did an excellent job of selling himself and the UConn program to Sam. Sam loved it. He went to visit, they played Michigan, it was a bad weekend up there, the weather was bad, but he said he had a blast."

(on how tough it was for his son, after he committed to Maryland two years ago but was ruled a non-qualifier due to some courses he took at Notre Dame Prep)

"It was tough for him, but I said, 'Sam, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.' It's a blessing, because now he gets the opportunity to follow in my footsteps. I went to junior college, became a JUCO All-American. I went to Florida State, he chose UConn. It's the same kind of pattern. If he has the success rate I had, he'll be OK."

Sam, Jr., sat out at Chipola Junior College in Tallahassee last year to focus on his studies. He's playing this season)

"It was great for him. I think he grew up as a young man during that time, too. Adversity hit him, he understands it, so he's just going with the flow ... He was down, because he got a raw deal. They know he got a raw deal."

(Will Sam be visiting UConn for a lot of his son's games?)

"Yeah! Any chance I get. I've gotta get Kevin to send me some UConn gear, so I can have my UConn hat on. Or I may just have to go buy a damn hat. But I'll be there ... Go Huskies!"

*** Meanwhile, UConn redshirt freshman Rodney Purvis will be undergoing surgery on Tuesday morning at the UConn Health Center in Farmington for a left labral repair.

According to UConn: The surgery, a left shoulder arthroscopy, will repair a torn labrum as well as tighten up muscles to stabilize a condition that has bothered Purvis since high school. The surgery is expected to alleviate sporadic episodes of pain he has suffered throughout the past few years while playing basketball.

An MRI done earlier this year revealed the condition and the decision was made to have the surgery now, while Purvis is forced to sit out this season following his transfer from North Carolina State. The recovery period is usually 4-5 months, allowing him to have a full off-season when he is able to return to basketball activities.

Purvis, a 6-4 guard, had been practicing with the Huskies up to this point. He will have three seasons of eligibility, beginning in 2014-15

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

My AP Top 25 Ballot This Week

Not much change in my Top 25 ballot this week, though UConn (and a few others) move up a spot despite not playing a game. Why? Because Kentucky and Kansas, whom I had ranked No.'s 7 and 8 last week, respectively, both lost. Both dropped quite a bit in my poll, even though losses at North Carolina (Kentucky) and at Florida (Kansas), are hardly embarrassing. Fact is, both teams have three losses now, and I probably had them ranked too high last week, anyway.

Only team to get bounced from my ranking this week is VCU, which lost to Northern Iowa and clearly isn't as good as a lot of people (myself included) expected. Sliding in is Colorado. Interesting game next Saturday when the Buffs face Oklahoma State. I'm holding out for the Cowboys at No. 2 for now, but that could easily change next week.

1.       Arizona
2.       Oklahoma State
3.       Syracuse
4.       Ohio State
5.       Michigan State
6.       Louisville
7.       Wisconsin
8.       Duke
9.       Connecticut
10.   Oregon
11.   Wichita State
12.   Iowa State
13.   Gonzaga
14.   Villanova
15.   Florida
16.   North Carolina
17.   Kentucky
18.   Kansas
19.   Memphis
20.   Massachusetts
21.   Baylor
22.   UCLA
23.   Colorado
24.   San Diego State
25.   Toledo

Friday, December 13, 2013

Shabazz Napier has Always Been Clutch, Jim Calhoun is Philanthropic, Otis Birdsong Gets Top Billin'

Yeah, another Shabazz Napier story. This one looks at how his ability to raise his level of play in the clutch actually predates his days at UConn, with some examples from his time at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass.

*** Elsewhere, the NCAA notes that, while fouls and free throw attempts are up, so is scoring and field-goal percentage. Meanwhile, turnovers are down. Guess they feel their new rules are working well.

*** Then there's this interesting event being held at Mohegan Sun in April. It looks like a great event, though I love this lead sentence: The National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) and former NBA greats such as Bill Russell, Rick Barry, Otis Birdsong, Dave Cowens ...

Someone's name seems like it's in the wrong neighborhood, and it's not Russell, Barry or Cowens. Seriously, no disrespect to Birdsong, but it doesn't belong before Cowens. Maybe down a little lower by Robert Horry and Michael Ray Richardson.

Anyway, here's the entire press release. Note the April 26 event where Russell and Jim Calhoun will be honored for their philanthropy. Should be a fun night, and I'm sure it will be a thrill for Calhoun to be honored alongside Russell:

The National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) and former NBA greats such as Bill Russell, Rick Barry, Otis Birdsong, Dave Cowens, Darryl Dawkins, Alex English, Spencer Haywood, Robert Horry, Micheal Ray Richardson and many more are set to converge on Mohegan Sun for a weekend of exciting events Friday, April 25th through Sunday, April 27th as part of the Legends of Basketball Fantasy Weekend.

Three days of basketball action begins Thursday, April 24th with the start of the Legends of Basketball Fantasy Camp. From Friday through Sunday, fantasy campers have a chance to rub shoulders with the greatest players of all-time and compete on-the-court by participating in an all-inclusive fantasy camp in Mohegan Sun Arena with basketball legends Barry, Cowens, English, Dawkins, Birdsong and Richardson.

Opening night of Legends of Basketball Fantasy Weekend will see the Legends step off of the court and into the casino to compete with guests for a $50,000 prize pool during the Mohegan Sun Blackjack Tournament. On the evening of Saturday, April 26th Mohegan Sun will host the Legends of Basketball Philanthropy Awards Gala honoring 11-time NBA Champion Russell, 3-time NCAA men’s basketball champion Jim Calhoun and other basketball luminaries for their legacies on and off the court.

Legends of Basketball Fantasy Weekend is a charitable event to raise funds for the National Basketball Retired Players Association’s (NBRPA) Dave DeBusschere Scholarship Fund and other charitable partners. As part of the philanthropic weekend, the NBRPA’s Legends of Basketball will also conduct a free youth basketball and life skills clinic for the local community.

All-inclusive fantasy camp spots are just $2500 and include a ticket to the black-tie Gala honoring Bill Russell. For non-campers, tournament slots for the Mohegan Sun Blackjack Tournament start at $100 and tickets for the black-tie Gala are available starting at $300 with VIP packages and sponsorships also available. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster and the Mohegan Sun Box Office.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hilton Armstrong Back in NBA; Jim Calhoun Back Helping Needy Families

Hilton Armstrong is back in the NBA, after being called up from the D-League to the Golden State Warriors.

Here's the press release sent out on Wednesday afternoon:

OAKLAND, CA – The Golden State Warriors have signed free agent center Hilton Armstrong as a Call-Up from the Warriors’ NBA Development League affiliate in Santa Cruz, the team announced today. Per team policy, terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Armstrong, 29, appeared in six games (all starts) with the Santa Cruz Warriors this season, averaging 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.00 blocks (fifth-best in the D-League) in 30.3 minutes while hitting 63.5 percent from the field (eighth). Armstrong, who spent the 2013 preseason with the Indiana Pacers, appeared in 29 games for Santa Cruz in 2012-13, leading the league in field goal percentage (62.8 percent) and earning Honorable Mention All-NBA D-League and Second Team All NBA D-League Defensive Team honors. The 19th D-League Call-Up in Golden State Warriors history (second this season), he holds career D-League marks of 13.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 2.37 blocks in 27.0 minutes over 35 games with Santa Cruz.

Originally selected by the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets with the 12th overall pick of the 2006 NBA Draft, Armstrong played five seasons with the Hornets (2006-09), Sacramento Kings (2010), Houston Rockets (2010), Washington Wizards (2010-11) and Atlanta Hawks (2011) and owns career NBA averages of 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds in 11.8 minutes over 277 games (39 starts). He has also played professionally with ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne in France, Panathinaikos in Greece and Changsha Bank Guangdong in China.

A product of the University of Connecticut, Armstrong helped the Huskies win the NCAA Championship as a sophomore in 2004.

He will wear uniform #57.

*** Also, Jim Calhoun will continue his annual holiday tradition of helping the needy with holiday meals on Monday in Hartford. The details:

WHO: Coach Jim Calhoun, his family, a number of current players and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra will join a team from ShopRite, the Hartford law firm of RisCassi and Davis, Omar Coffee, the City of Hartford Department of Families, Children, Youth & Recreation and the City of Hartford Department of Health & Human Services to provide holiday meals for 600 needy Hartford families. The meals were generously donated by Coach Calhoun, ShopRite and the Hartford law firm of RisCassi and Davis.

WHEN: Monday, December 16
5:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m. (Pope Park Recreation Center)

WHAT: Coach Jim Calhoun, his family, players and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra will join a team from ShopRite, the Hartford law firm of RisCassi and Davis Omar Coffee, the City of Hartford Department of Families, Children, Youth & Recreation and the City of Hartford Department of Health & Human Services will distribute 600 eighteen pound turkeys and holiday meal fixings to needy families. This year's event is Coach Calhoun's 15th Holiday Food Drive.

Since Coach began his efforts in 1999, over $1.9 million has been raised to benefit Connecticut families in need.

WHERE: Pope Park Recreation Center, 30 Pope Park Drive, Hartford

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

UConn Recruiting Target: Jessie Govan

Things are slow in UConn territory -- and, for that matter, all over college basketball -- as most schools are in the midst of exams. The Huskies don't play again until Dec. 18, when they host a good Stanford team at the XL Center.

Until then, we passed the time by getting in contact with Dana Dingle, the former UMass standout. No, not to talk about his nationally-ranked Minutemen, but rather about Jessie Govan, the 6-foot-10 Class of 2015 forward who is on UConn's wish list.

Dingle has coached Govan the past two seasons for the New York Lightning AAU program. He says that whichever program winds up with Govan will get a good one.

"He's a throwback guy," Dingle said. "He plays inside to outside, an old-school throwback with post moves and skills on the block, like Tim Duncan. He's highly-skilled ... one of the best skilled big guys in the country."

Defensively, Govan, who visited for UConn's First Night festivities in October, "alters more shots than he blocks. Against high-level competition, he'll get a few blocks and he'll alter a lot of shots. And he rebounds the ball extremely well on the defensive end. His best attribute is rebounding."

Govan, a solid 6-10, 250, just turned 16 at the end of July and is very early in his recruiting process.

"He's pretty much open right now, no set list, no set favorite right now," Dingle noted. "The schools that showed interest early, the schools he's visited, he'll keep an eye on those schools more."

Govan, who hails from Queens, is currently playing at Wings Academy in the Bronx.

Added Dingle: "He's a great kid, great personality, great student, high academic kid. He's anything and everything you can ask for as a kid and player. He has the whole package."

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Monday, December 9, 2013

UConn's Biggest Superstar in the Classroom is Cheshire's Pat Lenehan, a Walk-On

Always love to give local kids a little ink. And always love to shine the spotlight on the walk-ons every now and then, too.

That's what made my feature on Cheshire's Pat Lenehan a fun one to write. The kid is a 4.0 student majoring in molecular and cell biology. You might know him better simply as the walk-on who gets edged out by DeAndre Daniels in the Husky Run every year. Or the kid who microwaved seven points in about 5 1/2 minutes of action in an exhibition win over Concordia last month.

Hopefully, this story helps you get to know Lenehan (seen in photo chatting with UConn trainer James Doran on the bench in a recent game) a little better.

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

My AP Top 25 Ballot This Week

Here's my AP Top 25 ballot I'll be submitting tomorrow morning. Goodbye, Michigan and Dayton. Welcome back, North Carolina. And welcome, Toledo. Toledo? Sure, why not? The Mud Hens ... er, Rockets are 8-0 and are third in the nation in scoring (90.5 per game) and fifth in field-goal percentage (52.1 percent). They beat Boston College in Chestnut Hill (OK, that's not as impressive as originally thought), and have also defeated Robert Morris on the road and Stony Brook on a neutral floor.

Sure, there are more high-profile programs worthy of a ranking (Colorado, Missouri, Indiana, New Mexico). But I always like to reserve at least one spot for the little guys, so Toledo's in this week.

UConn jumps a spot on my ballot, from No. 11 to 10.

1.       Arizona                                 
2.       Oklahoma State                               
3.       Syracuse                              
4.       Ohio State                           
5.       Michigan State                  
6.       Louisville                              
7.       Kentucky                             
8.       Kansas                                  
9.       Duke                                     
10.   Connecticut                        
11.   Oregon                                 
12.   Wisconsin                            
13.   Wichita State                     
14.   Iowa State                          
15.   Gonzaga                              
16.   Villanova                              
17.   Florida                                  
18.   North Carolina                   
19.   Memphis                             
20.   Massachusetts                  
21.   Baylor                                   
22.   UCLA                                     
23.   VCU                                       
24.   San Diego State                               
25.   Toledo                                  

Daniel Hamilton Talks UConn

Daniel Hamilton talks about his game-winning shot this weekend, and UConn. He says he's "signed" with the Huskies, though apparently he must be referring to a financial aid agreement, as opposed to a national letter of intent. Also professes his love for Kevin Ollie (who attended Hamilton's first high school, Crenshaw High), and says he's trying to recruit teammate Tyler Dorsey to UConn, as well.

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Remember the Maine. Or ... Don't. Some Notes from UConn's Blowout Win

A little bit off UConn's easy win over Maine Friday night:

*** The Huskies are one of just three teams in the nation (along with Wisconsin and Pitt) to boast a 9-0 record. It hasn't been as perfect as the record might suggest, but it's been a pretty darn good start to the season for UConn.

*** Kentan Facey had his best game as a collegian, with four points and a game-high nine rebounds. Had a nice offensive board, dribble and dunk in the first half.

“Kentan, man, even though he hasn’t been playing a lot, he always practices extremely hard," said Ryan Boatright. "He tries to get every rebound, he does the best he can. He got in the game and it worked for him today. We’re proud of him.”

Facey shook off the notion that the uncertainty surrounding his eligibility during the preseason put him behind the eight-ball at the start.

“I doubt that had anything to do with it. It’s more that I need to learn or adjust to this level, because it’s definitely different from what I’m used to. Other freshmen elsewhere are playing, but for me personally, I have to get used to this level, learn to play the game at this level, and I guess I can go from there.”

*** Omar Calhoun broke out of a shooting slump with 16 points on 5-for-12 shooting (4-for-9 on 3s). Entering the game, Calhoun was just 7-for-31 in his prior five outings.

Asked if Calhoun broke out of the shooting slump by, well, shooting ... a lot ... Kevin Ollie couldn't contain his smile.

“Yeah, he did. That’s how you shoot yourself out of a slump, you’ve got to shoot it. O took two bad shots tonight – two 3’s that he got contested on, and I don’t want to take contested 3’s. But other than that, wide-open shots that we want him to take, because he’s a great shooter.”

*** Niels Giffey had 12 points and six rebounds -- once again, nearly all in the first half.

“If he was a first-half player, he’d be the Player of the Year," said Ollie.

Funny moment when Giffey was talking about the Huskies' 12-game break from games.

“It gives you time to analyze things. I know as soon as the season is really gonna start with the … what’s it called ... AAC (laughter) ...?"

*** Boatright on why the team is shooting so much better this season:

“A lot of guys, I notice a lot of us go back to the gym at night. Last year, there were only a few of us going back and working on our game. Now, it’s hard to even get a rim in there, because everybody’s shooting.”

(on the Huskies' improved offense against the zone):

“Playing against zone so much last year, you had to eventually figure out how to beat it. There was a time last year, we were going in every game knowing they were going zone. We knew teams were going to do that this year, especially considering the backcourt.”

(and on the 12-day break):

“It’s good to get some rest, get our knees and legs back under us, get in the weight room, get a little stronger. For us, playing for KO, it’s always bad when you’ve gotta go 12 days straight practicing, no games.”

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Thursday, December 5, 2013

A $3 Million Donation to UConn Hoops Center That Challenges Ex-Huskies to Step Up

UConn alumni and long-standing donors Denis and Britta Nayden have donated $3 million towards the new UConn basketball center. It's a three-pronged gift: $1 million for the new UConn Basketball Champions Center; $1 million in scholarships for student-athletes and trainers enrolled in the School of Business or the physical therapy or kinesiology programs; and a challenge match of up to $1 million for gifts from former UConn basketball players.

In other words, it's time for some ex-Husky hoopsters to step up and donate some money.

Here's the press release from UConn sent out by UConn:

Denis and Britta Nayden, alumni and long-standing donors to the University of Connecticut, have donated $3 million towards the new UConn Basketball Champions Center and for scholarships for student athletes. A key feature of the gift is a challenge match to all former UConn Husky basketball players who contribute to the new center.

The Nayden gift has three parts — $1 million for the new UConn Basketball Champions Center currently under construction on the Storrs campus, $1 million in scholarships for student athletes and trainers enrolled in the School of Business or the physical therapy or kinesiology programs of the Neag School of Education, and a challenge match of up to $1 million for gifts from former UConn Husky basketball players. UConn has 58 Huskies — 34 men and 24 women— who went on to play in the NBA and the WNBA, among the highest of any program nationally.

“We are proud UConn grads and this is our way to share and give back, which we both believe in,” says Denis Nayden. “Our donation to the basketball center is an investment in a great program. Our challenge grant is meant to encourage participation by former players who fully understand the spirit of competition, and our scholarship gift is designed to support student athletes who share our interest in business, physical therapy or kinesiology. It’s support for a great program and for giving young people a shot at a great education, wrapped up in a big UConn bow.”

The Naydens graduated from UConn in 1976, Denis with a BA from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Britta with a BS from the School of Allied Health, now part of the Neag School of Education. Denis received his MBA from the School of Business in 1977 and went on to a successful career with GE and Oak Hill Capital Management where he currently serves as managing partner. He has been serving on UConn’s Board of Trustees since 2001.

“We are incredibly grateful to alumni and friends like Denis and Britta Nayden for their support,” says UConn President Susan Herbst. “With their help, we are providing a great new home for basketball and student athletes. It helps celebrate the excitement our student athletes bring to the University and ensures they have the support they need to be successful on the court and in the classroom.”

The new 78,000 square foot UConn Basketball Champions Center is under construction and scheduled to be completed this spring. It will feature practice gyms for the men’s and women’s basketball programs, along with locker rooms, coaches’ offices and areas for academic support, video analysis, sports medicine and strength training.

“Success doesn’t happen by accident, and, with this gift, the Naydens are helping us ensure UConn will continue to enjoy athletic and academic excellence for years to come,” say Director of Athletics Warde Manuel. “Talent, dedication and investment are needed for this type of achievement— not only from student-athletes and coaches but also from passionate and caring donors like the Denis and Britta.”

“Friends and donors like the Naydens understand what it takes to be successful,” says Coach Geno Auriemma. “Their gift to the basketball facility helps us provide a setting for student athletes’ practice, training, and studying that promotes excellence.”

The $35 million construction costs of the facility are being funded entirely through private donations. With the Nayden gift, pledges and donations for the project total $27 million.

“Our basketball family, which includes wonderful people like Denis and Britta Nayden, are a large part of our success,” says Coach Kevin Ollie. “The new facility will help provide our student athletes with the support they need to be successful academically and athletically and keep our programs among the national elite.”

The Naydens and their gift supporting UConn basketball will be celebrated at the UConn women’s game tonight and the UConn men’s game on Friday, both at the XL Center.

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Kevin Ollie on Maine; Melvin Swift on UConn

Kevin Ollie spoke a little bit today about Friday night's opponent, Maine, which is 1-6 and lost to NJIT Wednesday night.

"They're gonna play with their backs against the wall. They need a good win, a good performance. They've got some capable players over there, four guys in double digits. We've got to guard the 3-point line."

Obviously, the possibility exists of a letdown for UConn, coming off Monday night's dramatic, emotional, one-point win over nationally-ranked Florida at Gampel.

"I've told (the team), 'Don’t get drunk off success, don’t start reading press clippings. You're a great team, but you're just that far from being a bad team. You've gotta keep working hard, prepare like you’re playing Florida again. I don’t care who’s coming in XL Center, you've gotta play against that imaginary champion every single day."

Maine coach Ted Woodward is a former UConn assistant under Jim Calhoun. He left UConn before Ollie arrived as a player, but the two have maintained a good friendship over the years.

"He's a great man, I spent a lot of time with him recruiting when I was an assistant. Coach (Calhoun) is very fond of him. Hearing stories of them together, it’s great. Anybody that’s been at this beautiful school, he’s part of the family. He’s on the other side now, but he's part of family, just like Coach Pikiell, Coach Moore. Hopefully he can turn this around -- after Friday, though."

*** Spoke briefly today with Melvin Swift, a Class of 2014 forward who cut his final list down to UConn, UMass and SMU today. The Houston native says he'll be visiting UConn (and the other schools) "real soon."

Asked what he likes about UConn, Swift said: "It's a good school and it has good people there ... and I know they have a great basketball team and coaches."

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

When Shabazz Napier Committed to UConn, He Was Known as a "Real Gamer." Guess So.

I always find it fun to look back and see what was being said about UConn players back when they were being recruited or had just committed to the Husky program.

And with Shabazz Napier finally starting to generate the national buzz that he deserved last season, what better time to hark back to the blog files on when Napier first became a Husky.

*** Napier made his unofficial visit to UConn on Feb. 28, 2010, taking in the Huskies' 78-76 loss to Louisville at Gampel. Josh Selby was slated to visit that day, too, but had "car trouble." Later, after committing to Kansas, Selby was found to have received improper benefits and was suspended the first nine games of the 2010-11 season.

*** Napier committed to UConn on April 2, 2010. West Virginia, Florida, Miami and Memphis were among the other schools offering him scholarships. He was listed as Class of 2011 at the time, and he was attending Lawrence Academy. The hope was that he would be able to re-classify, however, and he did so after transferring back to Charlestown High (where he spent his first three years) late in the school year and graduating from there.

I found out later that day that Napier had, indeed, re-classified to 2010. It's funny, reading the comments on my blog from that day (back in the days before Twitter, when people still commented on my blog), there was so much concern that signing Napier meant the Huskies were going to miss out on Brandon Knight, Cory Joseph and Selby, among others.

All three wound up as one-and-dones, and none of them have an NCAA championship ring.

*** Kevin Wiercinski, Napier's coach at Lawrence Academy, had a lot of good things to say about him at the time of his commitment. A couple of quotes stand out:

"He’s a good kid and an exciting player, that’s for sure. He's probably one of the more dynamic point guards around. He's exciting athletically: as quick as they come, handles the ball real well, right hand/left hand, and he's a very good shooter with excellent range. He makes all the open ones and the tough ones, too. He's got a real ability to warm up in a hurry. And he's such a great penetrator."

"He's really dynamic on the offensive end, and you add that to how instinctual he is, his anticipation is off the charts, and he's a real gamer. When the chips are down, he doesn't shy away from that stuff at all."

Some things never change.

*** I thought this post, linked to my blog at around the time of Napier's commitment, was very telling: "Napier eventually would nail 11 threes, and looked the part of a big time player. Most of Napier's shots were created by himself, and he was even well defended, but still there was nothing that could have been done."

*** Napier held a press conference to sign his national letter-of-intent on April 22, 2010, up at the Tobin Community Center in Boston's Mission Hill section. Me and the J-I's (then Connecticut Post's) Neill Ostrout went up for it, and I posted this blog entry (I really wish the video was still working. And no, the link doesn't work anymore, either.)

Anyway, it was obvious from the start that Napier didn't lack for confidence.

My favorite quote that day, after Napier was asked about being able to play with Kemba Walker for a season:

“He’s a great player. He’s fast, I’m fast. We’ve played against each other, it’s hard. I think it’s going to be good, because he can teach me some certain things, and I guess I can teach him how to shoot better.”

Hey, guess it worked, no?

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Shabazz Napier Plays Role of Superman Once Again

Didn't want to do it, but had to write another column about how clutch Shabazz Napier is. Seriously, what else was there to write about? UConn's incredible 40-year unbeaten streak in non-conference, on-campus games in November/December? Well, that was my plan, until Napier's latest heroics blew that out the window.

DeAndre Daniels playing big and coming up big against a team and coach that heavily recruited him, with the huge tip to Napier that allowed him to hit his game-winning shot? That was under consideration, too.

But no, had to go with Shabazz.

Here are some notes and quotes from tonight:

Kevin Ollie: “We’re not the biggest team in America, but man, I wouldn’t trade our heart for anything.”

The Daniels tip to Napier for the game-winner "kinda reminded me of Richard Hamilton, Sweet 16"

*** Daniels, showing his sense of humor, on his tip to Napier: “Yeah, I was trying to tip it. I think they should put that in the books as an assist.”

On the rowdy, sellout crowd:

“Three years I’ve been here, that’s the best I’ve seen Gampel.”

On Napier:

“He’s amazing, he’s the best in the country, in my eyes. He’s a senior, and he wants it so bad. We’re going to follow the lead of Shabazz.”

Daniels was recruited heavily by Florida.

"I was very close to going there. I was very close to Billy Donovan. He's a great coach, a great guy. I'm actually looking for him right now, just to talk to him, see how he's doing."

Why UConn?

"When I talked to (Jim) Calhoun and Kevin Ollie, I just felt like this would be a better situation for me."

*** Napier, on his latest heroics: “As a kid, you want to be that hero. Who doesn’t? You always see highlight films of guys hitting the last shot, guys at the free throw line making the free throws. You want to be the hero, you want to be the guy that’s known as the hero at the end of the game. Who doesn’t? Growing up, I wanted to be Superman. Everybody wants to be the hero. I just felt like I was fortunate enough to be in the right spot at the right time.”

Was he Superman on Monday night?

“Nah, Superman does it on his own, I can’t do it without my teammates. They made sure I got the right picks, DeAndre put a good hand on the ball the last second. We found a way to win.”

*** Florida coach Billy Donovan:

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Napier at the end of games. I think he’s a big shot-making guy. We actually did a really good job. We made the decision that we were going to trap him. We did trap him, we got him to take a very, very difficult, off-balance shot."

"The guy that won the game for them was DeAndre Daniels. He made an unbelievable tip-out, off-balance, which kept the ball alive. We had guys on Napier that kind of ran to the rim to go defensive rebound, which left space for Napier. We needed to keep a guy there and we didn’t. But his shot really was luck, in the fact that the ball was tipped to him. If it’s tipped anywhere else, it’s out.”

On Napier's four-point play with 33 seconds left: “Watching it on film, there was no foul. But we had two opportunities to rebound the basketball.”

*** UConn's last November/December, on-campus, non-conference loss was Dec. 5, 1973, in a loss to Holy Cross. 

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

My AP Top 25 Ballot for This Week

My AP Top 25 ballot that I'll be emailing tomorrow morning (two late games still being played):

1.       Michigan State
2.       Arizona
3.       Kentucky
4.       Oklahoma State
5.       Kansas
6.       Louisville
7.       Syracuse
8.       Ohio State
9.       Duke
10.   Florida
11.   Connecticut
12.   Oregon 
13.   Wisconsin
14.   Wichita State
15.   Iowa State
16.   Gonzaga
17.   UCLA
18.   Villanova
19.   Memphis
20.   Massachusetts
21.   Baylor
22.   Michigan
23.   Virginia Commonwealth
24.   San Diego State
25.   Dayton

Billy Donovan: To Some, He'll Always Be Billy the Kid

Maybe you have to be from a certain time and place (say, Rhode Island in 1987) to fully appreciate Billy Donovan.

He hasn't always been the Rick Pitino clone with the slicked-back hair and New York accent who's patrolled the Florida sidelines for the past 18 seasons (wow, it's been that long). Once upon a time, he was the angelic, droopy-socked, Irish-Catholic point guard who played for Pitino on the 1987 PC Friars -- sort of Rhode Island's version of the Dream Team three years beforehand.

He was Billy the Kid.

Led by Donovan, Delray Brooks and Ernie "Pop" Lewis (they called them the Rainbow Coalition), Pitino and the Friars brilliantly exploited the new 3-point shot all the way to the Final Four, where their dream run was eventually snuffed by Syracuse.

Songs were written in their honor ("The PC Rap Attack" ... I'm serious), and they captured the small state's imagination like no other Friar team had since Ernie D. and Marvin Barnes led them to the Final Four in 1973, and certainly no team since.

Donovan, of course, was the team's leader, it's heart-and-soul. I'm not sure there's a great comparison to him on UConn's 1990 Dream Team (Chris Smith? Nadav Henefeld? Tate George?). The better comparison might be to Steve Alford, who led Indiana to the national title over Syracuse that year. But Alford, though worshiped eternally by Hoosier fans, never went from a pudgy freshman at the end of the bench to one of the best players in college hoops as a senior, the way Billy the Kid did.

I was a junior at Barrington (R.I.) High School that year, and it remains among my fondest memories of college hoops: Donovan's yeoman's effort in an overtime win over Austin Peay; Lewis's game-winning trey in a regular-season win over Georgetown at the Civic Center (before it was The Dunk); Pitino and John Thompson nearly coming to blows on the sidelines (I think I know who'd win that one); Mary Conlon's head fakes ... I could go on and on.

Pitino utilized the run to skip out of town that summer, after just two seasons at PC, to take the Knicks' job (about a week after I attended his basketball camp). I remember he picked up Donovan at some point in his first year at the helm, but Billy the Kid's game didn't translate to the NBA and he lasted only a handful of games.

He'd soon become an assistant under Pitino at Kentucky, take over at Marshall in 1994, then at Florida two years later. He won consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007, surpassing Pitino's national-title count at the time (though Slick Rick tied him up last season).

On Monday night, Donovan leads Florida into Gampel for what promises to be an electric atmosphere in a battle between two top-15 teams. He's now a 48-year-old, wizened veteran of 20 (!) collegiate head coaching seasons.

But to some, he'll always be Billy the Kid.

A few more tidbits from Sunday's practice:

*** DeAndre Daniels went down hard near the end of practice after apparently being hit in the jaw. He was down on the floor for a few minutes as trainer James Doran tended to him, but eventually got up and finished out practice. Afterwards, he was in the training room getting work on his back, which has also been bothering him.

*** Kevin Ollie on Florida:

“Great team, great opportunity for us. It’s a ranked team, and it’s in our house. We want to protect our house, we want to build on what we’ve already created, and just keep playing good basketball.”

“We’ve got to keep them out of the paint, make them take contested 2’s and 3’s, challenge them on rebounds and we’re going to fast break on them.”

(on senior forward Casey Prather, who's averaging 19.1 ppg)

“He’s just a super athlete, he gets a lot off of transition, cutting off the basket. He’s just a slasher, he gets to the paint, but he gets there with force and authority. He’s not just going there to make a play, he’s going there to embarrass people.”

Ollie noted that Lasan Kromah should see plenty of time guarding 6-4 guard Michael Frazier II, who's scoring at a 14.4 clip.

*** Here's Donovan talking about UConn with the Florida media contingent. Sounds like Kasey Hill and DeVon Walker, both of whom were out of Friday's win over Florida State due to injury, may not be available Monday night, either.

(on UConn's three practices since the Thanksgiving break)

“We worked the turkey out of them, the stuffing out of them. It was good."

Ollie on Omar Calhoun, who's shooting just 6-for-26 from the floor and 2-for-13 on 3's the last four games:

“Gotta make his teammates better. Don’t concentrate on your shooting, you make your teammates better. It’s funny, when you try to make your teammates better, everything works out for you. I’m not a shooting guru ... be ready to shoot, be positive, be confident, but don’t get bogged (down) that you’ve got to shoot to be on the court. You’ve got to play defense, rebound and help your teammates be better.”

*** Ollie was a junior on the last (and only other) UConn team to face Florida: the 1994 team that lost to the Gators in the East Regional semifinals in Miami, 69-60 in overtime. Donyell Marshall missed a pair of free throws that would have won it in regulation for the Huskies, but he missed both.

“We thought Donyell would make one free throw," said Ollie. "He didn’t make it, they took it to us. It happens … It wasn’t Donyell’s fault, we had many plays before that, and it happened to end up in his hands like that. We’re fine, me and Donyell are cool, we keep moving on, Coach won three national championships. All is well in UConn land.”

*** Ollie on Donovan:

“We haven’t taken each other out to dinner or anything, but I see him, I say hi. I recognize he’s a great coach. It’s hard to do this job. I respect every coach that’s doing it … Especially a guy that wins national championships and is going to be a Hall of Fame coach. You want to respect him, definitely. I’d love to spend more time with him, if possible. But in the recruiting wars, you don’t get that opportunity all the time. I respect him, and I respect how hard his team plays. That’s the sign of a good coach.”

*** on UConn's home-and-home with the Gators, which will take them to Gainesville next season:

“I know they’re going to be strong, it’s stood the test of time. I know they’re going to be good next year. It’s just good for us to have these kind of opponents on our schedule. Especially to go down there, play in front of a hostile crowd, try to get a win. It’s just a great opportunity. Hopefully, we can win this game, go back down there and try to win next year. This year, we’ve got to take care of business here. It’s just a great venue, I love this place. It’s gonna be loud, it’s gonna be packed, and it’s gonna be a nice experience for our guys.”

*** Ryan Boatright on the Gators:

“They’re a great team. They’ve got a beast in the middle in Patric Young, they’ve got good guards, they’re long, they’re athletic. They slipped up and lost that one game, but other than that, they’d be a top 10 team.”

“It’s gonna be crazy. If anybody has seen a ranked game in Gampel, it’s ridiculous. The students have been waiting for a game like this at Gampel. It’s gonna be exciting, man. It’s gonna be fun.”

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