A Look Ahead at Madison Square Garden

Arizona v Connecticut

UCONN celebrates 2011 Elite 8 win vs Arizona

I will be heading down to the Sweet 16 this Friday at Madison Square Garden for the much anticipated matchup between UCONN and Iowa State. If the following occurs I will be attending the Elite 8 on Sunday as well:

Keys to the Game:

Control Deandre Kane

Kane is the Shabazz of Iowa State. Control Deandre Kane and you control Iowa State. He is their motor. How do you stop a player riding so much momentum? Don’t let him get the ball. To advance UCONN must keep the ball out of Kane’s hands and not let him get into the flow of the game. Though Kane played masterfully against North Carolina, he is susceptible to turnovers (7 against UNC). This bodes well for UCONN’s scrappy guards aka Napier, Boatright, Giffey and Kromah (a combined 9 steals vs Nova). UCONN will start with Napier on Kane assuming Iowa State goes with a big lineup. The loss of Iowa State star forward Georges Niang really helps us here because it will allow our center (Brimah, Nolan, Olander) to help on the drive and keep Napier out of foul trouble. When Iowa State goes small, we can counter with Giffey/Kromah on Kane. We could also rotate Bazz/Boat at select points in the game to provide full court pressure on the ball- force it out of Kane’s hands or make him exert more energy bringing the ball up against two of the quickest guards in the country. Iowa State is not deep- if we can exhaust/frustrate Kane, I like our chances Friday night.

Deandre Daniels

Deandre Daniels needs to play like a man. Assuming Iowa State goes big, Daniels will start the game on leading rebounder Dustin Hogue. Hogue played like a madman against North Carolina consistently beating Tar Heel bigs to 50/50 balls leading to extra Iowa State possessions. He also crashed the boards, leading the team with 4 offensive rebounds. In a game that could very well come down to the last possession, every rebound counts. We need Deandre Daniels to play hard and we need him to play tough.

X Factors:

Sixth Man

We are all aware of the madness surrounding tickets to the East Regional this year- Connecticut is the reason to blame. According to SeatGeek, more than 40% of traffic to event pages for the East Regional has come from Connecticut. In addition, New York/New Jersey have accounted for another 30% of traffic. While I completely agree that the price is insane and feel for students/fans who cannot attend for financial reasons, part of me is screaming FINALLY! Finally UCONN will have a formidable presence at the Garden. I have attended too many games over the years where Kentucky, Duke or even Louisville outnumbered us in our own backyard. Not this year. There is no better way to calm nerves than to step on the court into a sea of blue and white. The sixth man is real and he will be on our side Friday night.

Madison Square Garden

Comfort. Such a small concept but imperative not to overlook. UCONN is comfortable at the Garden- we know the routine, layout and locker rooms. Everyone from the managers up to the coaches. Seniors have played close to 20 games at MSG and we won the 2K Sports Classic there earlier this season. Terrence Samuel and Omar Calhoun hail from the area. There is still magic left in the building from 2011. Also, this is Iowa State’s first time playing at MSG. Not only do they lack the luxury of comfort but are prone to fall victim to the thrill of the moment. Manhattan, New York City, Madison Square Garden- this is where the stars come out. Couple that with the excitement of March Madness and that’s a lot of adrenaline pumping through your veins. If Iowa State cannot harness the added energy it could lead to playing outside of yourself and trying to do too much, which again, works in our favor.

Unnamed Role Player

Could this be the return of Omar Calhoun? Will Terrence Samuel rise to the occasion in front of friends and family? Maybe a big Brimah block? Giffey shuts down Big 12 POY Melvin Ejim? Tyler with a boost off the bench? Who knows but to win we will need one of the above.

 

Prediction: UCONN 75-67

 

 

 

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A Look Back at Buffalo

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UCONN-St Joe’s

 

I drove up to Buffalo for the NCAA Tournament games at the First Niagara Center, home of the Sabres. Here is what I took away from the 1st and 2nd rounds:

ROLE PLAYERS EMERGENCE

 We made up a 10 point first half deficit with Shabazz on the bench in foul trouble. Down 19-9 , it would have been easy to fall apart with the undeniable leader sidelined but instead, we came together. Terrence and Niels combined for 15 points/12 rebounds Saturday and Brimah provided a game-saving AND-1 Thursday. In 2011 it was a Jeremy Lamb steal and dunk vs San Diego State, Shabazz free throws vs Kentucky and Scoe’s 4 blocks in the championship game. This is what has to happen to win championships. Role players need to make big plays. Shabazz is undoubtedly our Kemba but Kemba would be the first to say he needed a team making plays behind him. A knock on UCONN I’ve heard is we lack players outside Shabazz to make winning plays, not necessarily game winning shots but the small plays you need to make to win in March- get a big stop, snag a big rebound or finish a tough put-back in traffic- if Buffalo is any indication, our bench responded to the critics.

UCONN DEFENSE IS BACK

Nova shot only 35% for the game, 11-51 from the field and 11-31 from beyond the arc. Our guards had 10 steals led by Kromah’s 4 contributing to 16 Nova turnovers. Not only did we create turnovers but we capitalized as well outscoring Nova 20-4 in points off turnovers. Nova went 11:24 in the first half without a field goal. On Thursday, during the last St Joe’s possession of the first half active defense caused a shot clock violation giving us the last shot. The Huskies responded to a subpar beginning holding the Hawks to 25% on shots outside the paint after the first half.

ABILITY TO CLOSE OUT GAMES

The debacle that was inbounding the ball in the final minutes of the AAC tournament game against Cincinnati did not say much to our ability to close a game. Buffalo was different. Brimah came up with a huge AND-1 in the final minute against St Joe’s, the defense forced a shot clock violation and Shabazz/Niels executed a full court inbound play to near perfection before Shabazz took over in OT. Deandre put us ahead 37-36 with 14 minutes remaining against Nova and we controlled the remainder of the game never allowing the Wildcats to get closer than 5 points.

FREE THROWS

To complement my last bullet is the kryptonite to Calhoun Era teams: Free Throws.  UCONN shot 90% (18-20) vs St Joe’s and 79% (22-28) vs Nova. I hope this becomes a staple of the Ollie Era as it is certainly conducive to tournament wins. In the last 5 minutes of each game UCONN shot 90% , 15-16 in OT first round and 20-23 Saturday. Impressive given the added tournament pressure and location at a neutral site.

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

  • Not a great UCONN turnout- Buffalo is evidently not a popular spring break destination
  • Syracuse fans miss us, Requiem For The Big East must have struck a chord
  • It’s not spring in Buffalo either
  • Bars close at 2 in Boston/DC/SF but 4 in Buffalo, that will never make sense to me and it shouldn’t to you

 

CHECK BACK TOMORROW FOR A LOOK FORWARD TO THE SWEET 16 AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN

RIP BIG EAST AS WE KNOW IT

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Madison Square Garden. 33rd and 7th. New York, New York. The World’s Most Famous Arena. The Mecca. The Garden. Home to the Big East Tournament featuring perennial powers: Creighton, Butler, and Xavier. No, that is not a typo and yes, this is what it has come to. I couldn’t help feeling angry and even a little ripped off last night watching the Georgetown-DePaul first round game while UCONN waits 1,000 miles away in Memphis. Coinciding with my March 10th birthday it’s no surprise that tickets to the Big East Tournament topped my birthday list each year. Beginning in 2003 with a quarterfinals matchup against Seton Hall and ending in the magic that was “5 Games in 5 Days”, this is what nine straight years of Big East Basketball at Madison Square Garden meant to me:

You step off 7th Ave, out of the concrete jungle into a different type of jungle. In this jungle, the Husky is at the top of the food chain. You are greeted by chants of marching bands and cheerleaders leading their respective fight songs in unison. If you time it right, you walk in just as the UCONN fight song begins, making quite the entrance.
You pray your scalped ticket scans and start brainstorming backstories if it doesn’t. It scans, you’re in. Spiraling upward you take escalator after escalator passing Boston College, St. John’s and even a few Seton Hall fans- not caring who they are, just knowing you don’t like them. You catch a glimpse of orange in your peripheral and immediately cringe, hoping its a carrot. It’s not. It’s an orange. Any other time of year you like oranges. Oranges are sweet and juicy, but not March oranges. March oranges are sour. Sour from defeat you assume but you can’t be sure.
You take your seat. Rutgers scarlet to your left, Virginia Tech maroon to your right. You breathe a sigh of relief, they won’t give you much hassle. They CAN’T give you much hassle. You are UCONN, they are afraid and they should be. You briefly consider hassling them but quickly drop the notion, besides, you are with your family. The national anthem plays, the game has begun. You want to cheer as loud as possible after another turnover vs West Virginia, however, as a seasoned vet you know to save your voice for the inevitable date with Pittsburgh. Rival fans tire at another Taliek assist, Gordon three, Okafor block or Kemba step back but you do not, in fact, you could watch six overtimes worth.
The buzzer sounds. You live another day. As you take the escalator down you see fans of all colors. Losers avert your glare but tomorrows opponent meets your stare with a similar confidence. Not for long, you think. You exit the turnstiles into the City that Never Sleeps and a new challenge: waking up for tomorrows game.
On this night, the city is yours.

Former Stags battle in Lithuania

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     Round 24 was a reunion for former Fairfield basketball players Derek Needham and Ryan Olander, 4,000 miles from the state of Connecticut. In a back and forth game featuring six lead changes and eight ties, Olander came away with the last laugh as #10 Lietkabelis pulled off the overtime upset at home over #5 Siauliai, 83-77. Siauliai watched its 9 point half time lead quickly evaporate behind a 24-14 third quarter run by Lietkabelis. Olander was key in the closing possessions of the quarter scoring 6 points to counter each Siauliai attack. After squandering a 5 point lead with 1 minute to go in regulation the game went to OT where Olander once again made his presence felt. Down 2 with 2:33 remaining, Olander snuck behind the defense for an AND-1 to put Lietkabelis up 1 and they would not look back from there holding on for the 6 point victory. Olander finished the game with 16 points/5 rebounds, leading the team with a 20 efficiency rating. American Travis Leslie (Georgia) put on a show for the losers scoring 28 points and grabbing 15 rebounds while throwing down two highlight reel dunks. Derek Needham had 5 points/6 assists for Siauliai.

Game can be watched here: http://lkl.lt/lt/top/rungtynes/?game_id=2788033&season_id=87901

ROUND 25

     #10 Lietkabelis could not overcome a hot start from #7 Juventus as they fell on the road 101-74. Juventus, behind 24 points from former Seton Hall sharpshooter Jeremy Hazell, shot over 53% from 3 (16-30) and 56% (23-41) from inside the arc to sink Lietkabelis. Ryan Olander provided 9 points/4 rebounds in the losing effort. Lietkabelis has a week off to rest before hosting three straight home games in a final push for a playoff berth beginning with #9 Nevezis Tuesday, March 18th.

Game: http://lkl.lt/lt/top/rungtynes/?game_id=2788041&season_id=87901#mbt:73-400$t&0=1

Thank you

“Two Final Fours, Champions in Maui, Winning the Big East Tournament and a National Championship: Few people witness in a lifetime what we were fortunate enough to experience in two years. Thank you UCONN Basketball for four of the most memorable years of my life.”

     This was my salute to UCONN basketball after working my last game senior year of college. It all went by in a blur yet I can still remember specific plays like they happened yesterday: Jeff Adrien’s dunk over two taller Michigan State defenders in the 2008 Final Four, Jeremy Lamb’s high flying dunk vs Columbia and of course Kemba Walker’s step back sinking Gary McGhee and Pitt. Although we still have the postseason tournaments to go, tonight brings the ceremonious culmination for the remaining 2010 recruiting class of Niels Giffey, Shabazz Napier and Tyler Olander. For such an unheralded recruiting class they have certainly given fans some of the most memorable moments in UCONN history. Shabazz, up for every major award this season, deserves all the accolades he receives however it is important not to overlook the contributions of Tyler and Niels, especially during the 2011 National Championship season.

     Few remember the 14 points Giffey put up in the Maui Championship game against Kentucky to complement Kemba’s offensive attack, some probably had never heard of him until that game. Even less will remember Olander’s contribution in the 2011 Big East semifinals vs Syracuse. With Okwandu and Oriakhi in foul trouble, Olander came off the bench to provide 7 points/6 rebounds against imposing Cuse’ big man Rick Jackson. Tyler’s breakthrough performance came when UCONN needed it most and dramatically changed the course of the game for the Huskies. Add in Shabazz’ clutch free throws in the waning seconds against Kentucky in the Final Four and you have three clutch performances that embody what it means to play basketball at UCONN. Grit, perseverance, toughness and commitment. Amidst all the transfers, the uncertainties, the negative attention, the loss of a postseason- they never left. In a college basketball landscape that glorifies the one-and-done, this is what it means to be a team, to be a family. Anyone- fan, coach, player, staff- who was a part of the 2011 National Championship season knows this is the most important ingredient. To have not one but three leaders who understand this concept is a scary thought for opposing teams come tournament time.

     This night is especially gratifying for me as it marks the last Gampel home game for my childhood friend, Tyler. Growing up in Mansfield, we wandered UCONN’s campus as little kids among UCONN greats such as Rudy Gay, Emeka Okafor and RIP Hamilton. Exiting high school practices you could see Gampel looming in the distance however it felt light years away. When Tyler committed to UCONN I was excited, but didn’t grasp the importance of this connection. The first “aha” moment occurred in warm-ups of the first game in Maui. While serving drastically different capacities, we were both in Hawaii representing the program we had idolized as kids against the top teams in the country. Next came the Big East Tournament at MSG and National Championship in Houston. Old friends from DC to Texas to Florida came out to not only watch UCONN, but Tyler. It is one thing to share a National Championship with your college friends, however when you can share the experience with childhood friends and family- it makes it that much more special. Suddenly, Gampel didn’t seem so far away. Through the ups and downs, it has been a great run and I will never forget the memories. Thank you Tyler and best of luck to you, Niels and Shabazz in the future.

Lietkabelis survives rough stretch in Rounds 21-23

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     With the LKL playoffs looming in the near future, rounds 21-23 were pivotal for Lietkabelis as they battled the top three clubs in the LKL. Lietkabelis came out of the rough stretch a very respectable 1-2 considering they had not beaten any of the top three previously this season.

     Round 21 saw #10 Lietkabelis 3 game win streak come to an end at the hands of #1 Tonybet, 83-73. Down 56-35 at half, Lietkabelis rallied in the 3rd quarter to cut the lead to 8. Tonybet took advantage of 26 personal fouls shooting 82% (23-28) to close out the game. American Darrick Leonard led the way with 14 points and Ryan Olander added 8 points/2 rebounds in the losing effort.

Watch here: http://lkl.lt/lt/top/rungtynes/?game_id=2788013&season_id=87901

     The biggest win of the season for #10 Lietkabelis came in Round 22 as they defeated #2 Zvaigzdes, 75-73. Croatian guard Goran Vrbanc paced Lietkabelis with 25 points in a game that featured 9 lead changes and saw neither team gain more than an 11 point advantage. Tied after 3 quarters, Lietkabelis shot 85% (11-13) from the foul line to seal the deal. Ryan Olander provided 4 points/6 rebounds in 20 minutes of action for Lietkabelis.

Watch here: http://lkl.lt/lt/top/rungtynes/?game_id=2788019&season_id=87901#stf

      Lietkabelis traveled to the capital city for a Round 23 bout with #3 Lietuvos Rytas in Vilnius. Unfortunately they could not build on the momentum from the Zvaigzdes win, falling 85-74. Colombian Juan Palacios (Louisville) led L-R with 20 points/8 rebounds while American Omar Cook (St. John’s) chipped in 6 points/4 assists off the bench. Lietkabelis did manage to control the boards- even with former NBA forward Darius Songaila lurking in the paint- however their inability to shoot the ball (28% from 2) led to the undesirable outcome. American Ryan Olander put up 6 points in the losing effort. Lietkabelis hosts #4 Siauliai tomorrow starting another huge stretch for the club’s playoff push. With just 9 games remaining Lietkabelis remains at #10 with games against #9 Nevezis and #7 Juventus following tomorrow’s match.

Remember: only the top 8 teams advance.

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