The Sixth Man

This is the watch my close friend gave me a week before he found the burden of life too difficult to carry at the age of 23. A fellow lifelong Storrs resident and Husky fan, our best memories come from National Championship runs ’99 to the present. From childhood we have idolized the same jersey with the same friends, only the names on the back have changed.

As graduates, with work schedules creating scattered availability, UCONN games were the one constant. Almost every game that I did not attend in person this season, I watched with Nate. The last time I went to his house we watched UCONN beat Rutgers in late January. The last time I saw Nate we watched Louisville embarrass UCONN in the final regular season game and a month ago last night I received the shocking news during halftime of the Memphis game. My 2014 UCONN experience was intertwined with Nate, and now, the aftermath of his passing was to be intertwined with the remainder of the season.

Picture featured on NBC CT

I hadn’t yet worn the watch when UCONN was announced as the No. 7 seed in the East Region. Overcome with sadness I struggled with the idea of not being able to share this experience with Nate whom I had watched games with all year. Then it occurred to me- he can share this. I decided to travel to every game and bring him with me on my wrist.

There was just one possible combination in the entire tournament field that would draw two sites in driving distance. The probability of that happening was 8%. The first two sites- Buffalo and Manhattan- were both driving distance.

The stars were aligning.

I attended the St Joe’s game with two friends and the sixth man. It worked. We won. The next day we drove 7 hours home to attend his service in Mansfield. That night, gathered with 40 friends -some reunited after as long as 6 years- we watched UCONN beat Villanova on a night dedicated to celebrating Nate’s memory. Needless to say it was a fitting end to a great night.

UCONN – St. Joe’s

UCONN – Villanova

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On to Madison Square Garden, a building that hadn’t hosted a NCAA Tournament game in 53 years. And this happens to be the year. And the No. 7 seed, UCONN, has advanced.

Stars continue to align.

Tickets to the East Regional soared to unprecedented highs and out of my price range, but I was able to get Tyler Olander’s last two tickets.

Stars aligning.

Everything that needed to go right was going right. Big 12 Champion? We won. Big 10 Champion? We won. Many say the crowd was the sixth man that weekend at the Garden. In my opinion, the real sixth man wasn’t even in the building.

UCONN – Iowa State

UCONN – Michigan State

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding this wave of faith I bought a round trip ticket to Dallas with no game tickets. I couldn’t rationally justify my decision, I just knew it was the right one. Faith. I knew I had help from above. I knew I had the sixth man on my side. On Saturday night I was in AT&T Stadium, the largest single-day crowd  in college basketball history filing in from the bottom up. There was no way I could finagle myself into better seats, right? While sitting in section 400, I noticed an opening three rows behind the UCONN bench next to family friends. I began my descent. 10 minutes later I had infiltrated three levels of Final Four security into a seat that got me on the front page of the Dallas Morning News- without so much as a single question. It was as if someone had turned their heads as I approached each level. We won.

Stars aligning.

On Sunday, a good friend who flew in for the championship game happened to have an extra ticket. It was not discussed, it was not planned, it just happened. Hours later I found myself back at AT&T Stadium sitting behind NBA star Andre Drummond in a row that included former Husky greats Charlie Villanueva and Jerome Dyson. As Kentucky surged I took peace in knowing we had the sixth man on our side. I knew we would win. And we did. National Champions.

On the floor after the game I was adopted by Coach Ollie’s family and ushered into the locker room where I was able to congratulate KO in a room with Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton. Security, reluctant to let me pass noting the obvious difference in skin tone between Coach Ollie’s family and myself, finally let me through as if they were instructed to from above.

Stars aligning.

After a month of searching for answers, UCONN was the only definitive answer I had.

Front Page in Dallas

Kevin Ollie Post-Championship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I mentioned earlier the last time I saw Nate we watched UCONN’s blowout loss to Louisville. Following the loss, Coach Ollie was asked why his team was not playing together this late in the season:

“We’ve been playing good basketball so we have faith in ourselves,” Ollie said to reporters. “We’re at the bottom right now. This is the worst we could ever play. But guess what? As bad as we played, we can turn it around. So I’m not giving up on the season. I’m just talking about right at this moment, we didn’t play together. This season is not over yet, but I told them if we play like this we have two games and then they can go to spring break.”

UCONN was at the bottom. In a final tune up before postseason play we were held to our lowest scoring output of the season. What’s worse? No one was passing. No one played together. There was no camaraderie. Individual agendas over the good of the team. Coach Ollie insisted that he wasn’t done with the season. They didn’t play together that one game but they still had time. Or, they could fall apart. Give up and go home. Two choices, one much easier than the other. They had the faith, they just needed to play together.

Recently I revisited the quote in a search for significance of our last encounter. Reading through the lines from a basketball perspective, it made sense- but from a life perspective- it gave me chills. My friends and I were at rock bottom. Shock barely numbed the sadness of failing one of your closest friends when they needed you most. Distractions lasted momentarily as the mind fixated on what you could have done differently, things you could have said or ways you could have shown you were there. The longest periods of relief came from reminiscing with close friends and sharing common experiences, such as this championship run. Put simply, being together with those who mattered most. It is through these experiences you start to realize that you have not failed. It hurts every night to have missed this chance but there will be many more chances I will not miss. Failure is a refusal to learn from this tragedy and miss an opportunity to make a difference in the future. Failure is becoming so engrossed in mourning that you forget to carry on the legacy of a great young man. Failure is neglecting to spend as much time as possible with those who matter most. Failure is not paying it forward.

The aftermath of Nate’s passing only heightened the sense of camaraderie within the Storrs community. When you see how quickly a life can be lost it gives you a greater appreciation for not only what you have, but what you had. Through this experience I have been able to reconnect with friends I  had lost touch with for years. We toasted to Nate with a former high school classmate in Buffalo. We did the same before the Villanova game with a collection of old high school friends so odd I couldn’t have put it together better myself. A former classmate in Dallas graciously opened up his apartment to anyone making the trip. Tyler gave his last ticket to our friend in Austin, allowing him to partake in the experience. Middle school friends from Florida flew in. Others journeyed from Boston, Houston and Minneapolis. It’s awful it takes tragedies such as these to bring to light what is most important in life but the real tragedy is not taking advantage of the sacrifice made. At least you know we made it count and will continue to do so. 2014 has been a dream season defined by faith and togetherness. I had the faith, we just needed to do it together. Well Nate, we won the National Championship and we won it together.

UCONN – Kentucky

UCONN – Florida

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a tribute to Nate and his love for animals, I have decided to donate the proceeds of my faith -aka March Madness winnings- to the Mansfield Animal Shelter. Together, with another friend who  reaped the benefits of faith, we have a combined $240 in winnings.

To anyone else who won money on faith, loyalty or just appreciate the cause, donations can be made to: Mansfield Animal Shelter, c/o 4 South Eagleville Rd. Storrs, CT 06268. Thank you in advance.

I have just finished writing this in the midst of a lunar eclipse.

The stars have officially aligned.

Dallas: A Run For The Ages

The University of Connecticut has won the 2014 NCAA National Championship. 4 months ago, after knocking off Florida in December, I had a conversation with Skip Olander about a spring trip to visit his son (my friend) in Lithuania. We had previously discussed plans to check out the European Basketball scene but after the Florida victory, plans changed. We already had big wins under our belt on neutral courts (Indiana/Maryland) but this was a statement win. My first post, and motive behind starting this blog, originated from what I saw during the Florida game. In that post, I predicted a return to the Final Four referencing elements of the winning formula that would ultimately lead us to Dallas. Let’s see how these keys played out in the 2014 Final Four:

Games will be won/lost in Shabazz Napier’s hands

Shabazz  was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2014 NCAA Tournament and for good reason. In the National Championship game he dropped 22 points/6 rebounds/3 assists and knocked down clutch shot after clutch shot to discourage any Kentucky run. The most important plays his hands made however were not the 3 pointers swishing through the net but rather the rocket passes they flung to Deandre Daniels and swarming pressure they put on opposing guards (more below). Deandre could not have gone off for 20/10 in the semifinal without his point guard actively looking to get him involved with the right plays at the right time. Shabazz Napier not only made all the right plays in the 2014 NCAA tournament, he made winning plays.

Chemistry

Throughout the season one of my biggest concerns was the Boatright/Napier relationship on the floor. Too many times it became a back and forth between the two with the rest of the offense stagnant, watching. I worried role players would not be able to establish themselves or get into any type of sustainable rhythm. North Texas is a testament to the substantial progress this team has made throughout the year. Boatright was a pest defensively and his one-on-one move in the closing minutes on Julius Randle was nothing short of Kemba. Most importantly? He played within himself and let the game come to him yet was not afraid to rise to the occasion when the moment called. Giffey also came up big with 10 points/4 rebounds vs Florida and two huge 3’s vs Kentucky. The Nolan/Brimah duo got it done against much larger centers (more below). Olander came off the bench to provide relief. Lasan Kromah pulled down 5 rebounds in the championship game. Terrence Samuel gave big minutes. Yes, UCONN breeds NBA players but most importantly, UCONN breeds WINNERS.

Ability to win close games

How do you win close games? Foul shooting. Continuing with the trend of the tournament, in two Final Four games we shot a combined 87% (20-23). Our two primary ball handlers- Boat and Bazz- were a perfect 12-12 from the line. That is how you win close games. Kentucky? A measly 54% (13-24). When the opponent knows putting you on the line is an automatic 2 points it adds pressure to late game situations that young teams (Kentucky) typically mismanage (they did). Defense. UCONN held both Florida and Kentucky to under 40% with stifling on ball pressure resulting in a barrage of 3’s instead of working the ball inside. In short, we forced them out of their game plan. Boat/Bazz played with unmatched defensive intensity harassing the potent Florida backcourt of Wilbekin/Frazier into just 7 points on 3-12 shooting. Kentucky will beat us though right? With James Young/Harrison brothers standing at 6’6, they will see over our smaller defenders and feed the post, right? Wrong. Boat/Bazz (with help from Kromah) held the Harrison brothers to just 15 points on 6-16 shooting and combined for more steals than the Harrison brothers giving up over a foot in height. When NBA scouts knock Shabazz for his size (as they did Kemba), remember this game (he turned out just fine).

Will to battle for every rebound

If you were to squish together Daniels/Brimah/Nolan into one person you still could not equal the girth of Patric Young. The same could be said for Julius Randle. How then were we able to out rebound two physically imposing teams analysts projected to destroy us inside? Team Rebounding. Everyone crashed the defensive glass in Dallas. At 5-10 Ryan Boatright ripped down 6 rebounds vs Florida, Daniels 10 and Giffey 4. On Monday, given their tough defensive responsibilities, Boat/Bazz combined for 10 rebounds, Kromah 6 and Brimah 4 looking like a stick figure defending the NBA-ready Randle.  Where there may have been a potential weakness in a one-on-one matchup – aka Young or Randle- even they were no match for a one-on-five. UCONN recognized a potential weakness and worked as a collective unit to aid a disadvantaged teammate. The result? A 62-60 rebounding advantage for the weekend.

Faith in Leadership

The most important element on the list. If you ever doubted Kevin Ollie you are a moron. That was not the question. I mean damn, players stayed with him/top recruits gave commitments even with the uncertainty haunting the basketball program. Yes, Shabazz Napier had already won a National Championship yet he was still an unproven leader. Similar to a catcher in baseball and quarterback in football, the point guard in basketball assumes leadership of the entire team. But, just because you assume leadership does not mean you are automatically instilled with leadership qualities. That comes with time, with effort and with faith. Niels Giffey told reporters that after the loss to Louisville in the AAC Tournament Finals, Shabazz promised the team they would cut down the nets in Texas. Giffey’s response? “I looked into his eyes, and I really believed him.” That is faith.

What to take away from 2014

Statistics/rankings/matchups are glorified in college basketball and debated fiercely among analysts and fans alike. It dominates the media and ripples throughout the country causing one team to be viewed as a “favorite” while another a “Cinderella” based on seeding. Taking a look back at UCONN’s run, there are many statistics attributable to our national championship- free throw percentage, defensive field goal percentage, rebounding margin- but the only statistic that accurately describes the 2014 National Champions is not quantitative, but qualitative: faith. Faith in an idea, faith in ability, faith in a coaching staff, faith in teammates and faith in being a small part of a bigger picture. Kevin Ollie instilled a sense of faith in his players from Day 1. Shabazz Napier got it-he stayed, Niels Giffey got it-he stayed, Tyler Olander got it- he stayed, and now, their hands are heavier for it. You see, faith is contagious. Faith allowed me to follow the Huskies around the country as funds were running thin, faith allowed my friend to quit his job for a week in Dallas and faith allowed the UCONN Huskies to win the 2014 National Championship. So now, the next time a sibling, friend, analyst or Kentucky fan calls us a Cinderella respond: we’re not a Cinderella, we are UCONN.

Road to Dallas: A Fan’s Story of March Madness

Road to Dallas

A Fan’s Story of March Madness

The phrase March Madness is typically used to describe the craziness that ensues when the 64 best teams in college basketball battle for their chance to be a part of history. After attending three Final Fours, this phrase can be extended to describe the scramble that is fan travel. Within minutes of our victory over Michigan State, I received a text from a close friend that he and his family had already booked their tickets to Dallas. Minutes later I had texts from five other friends expressing interest in Dallas. Tickets? Accommodations? Flight vs Driving? Duration of stay? By Monday night flights from Hartford to Dallas had jumped to $620, which after a weekend celebrating UCONN in Manhattan was more than I could pay. As a young alumnus, without the funds to travel as freely as I would like, it was time to get creative. This is what it takes to make the Final Four happen. I am not writing this to prove my fandom, but instead, bring to light the sacrifices young alumni/students make to support their alma mater in the hopes someone who can make this process easier in the future will make a change.

Note: 2014 Final Four accommodations were made possible by a good friend and Husky fan who moved from Storrs to Texas in high school (thank you Kevin Barry!) eliminating one of the more difficult/costly parts of trip.

2014 Final Four Objective: Get to Dallas in the cheapest way possible with time to enjoy Final Four attractions.

Monday, 3/31: Coordinating with friends from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Minneapolis and Houston we begin talking logistics. Ideally we are looking to find flights arriving in Texas on Friday and flying out Tuesday however with everyone in the Northeast looking at the same timetable, other options must be explored. With flights getting more expensive by the minute we look into driving 25 hours to Dallas. With 3 people and a car with good gas mileage, we figure it saves $200 on a flight. However, when work schedules get in the way, that plan is nixed. Next option: fly from Boston to Houston ($170) Friday night then get driven by a fellow Husky fan studying in Houston to Dallas for a 10pm Dallas arrival. Then, fly from Dallas back to Boston ($160) Wednesday morning at 6am (add in $60 for parking at Logan). OR, fly Boston to Minneapolis ($130) on Thursday and drive the 12 hours to Dallas for Friday afternoon arrival. Then, take the same Wednesday morning flight back to Boston. All of these conversations, mind you, are taking place with no ticket security and prices only rising. With student tickets only available to active students and stubhub prices skyrocketing to $320, young alumni don’t quite fit into the Final Four equation. Unable to secure a ticket the search continues…

Tuesday, 4/1: Glued to the phone/computer all day with prices continuing to rise (round trip to Dallas from Hartford up to $700, game tickets at $370) my friend from Minneapolis is told by his supervisor he can either work Final Four weekend or resign. Plans immediately shift to Houston as the cheapest option knowing I will probably need to spend close to $300 on a game ticket to the semifinal alone. But alas! Just as I’m booking my flight to Houston I am able to land a ticket. Around the same time my friend from Minneapolis calls to tell me he resigned from his job and is flying to Dallas on Wednesday (if you know of anyone hiring in the Minneapolis/ St Paul area please email jesse.jaber@gmail.com). With a ticket secured and friends en route to Dallas, my search shifts to Dallas from Houston. Frugality the objective, I used a tactic called hidden city ticketing (see below) to sift through potential routes. When this option returns few results I begin researching flights to Austin ($190), taking UT shuttle to University of Texas ($0) and MegaBus to Dallas ($20). However flights to Austin/Houston were only available from Boston which would incur the $60 parking fee (also a Thursday night on 6th street in Austin would inevitably lead to a large tab). Finally, at 7:00pm Tuesday night I find a round trip flight from Providence to Dallas Wednesday, 4/2 – Wednesday, 4/9 for only $350 and no associated parking costs (thanks mom and dad). 51 hours after UCONN beat Michigan State I had a week long trip to Dallas set for $350. Objective Complete.

Wednesday, 4/2: 63 hours removed from the Elite 8 my road to Dallas begins at TF Green Airport in Providence, RI with an 11:25am flight to Philadelphia then on to Dallas for a 5:00pm arrival. Stay tuned for more March Madness travel stories, Florida preview and updates from Dallas…

Safe travels to everyone who will be meeting me out here and GO HUSKIES!

Husky Nation stops at nothing…

Hidden City Ticketing: buying a one way flight from a small airport (Hartford) to a major airport (LA) with a layover in your destination (Dallas). Then simply get off at your destination (Dallas) while your flight continues on (LA). You can use kayak.com to search routing options by layover city. Also, Dallas/Fort Worth is an American Airlines hub so many flights will connect through there.

Caveats

  • Must book 2 separate one way tickets as your round trip ticket will be cancelled once you miss your connector
  • You must carry on bags or else you will be at the layover destination (Dallas) and luggage will arrive at final destination (LA)
  • Airlines (besides Southwest) do not encourage this tactic so it is advisable to only employ it a few times per airline per year

A Look Back At MSG

KO cuts down net

Sweet 16 Recap

I took the 2pm express train from Darien to a Grand Central Station packed with UCONN fans. As early as 4pm there was a definite buzz in the city and you could hear the chants ring out on the walk down 7th.  Inside, the Garden didn’t feel like 40% UCONN fans, not to say it didn’t get loud but Virginia orange was the dominant color in my opinion. Not say UCONN’s presence wasn’t felt- we dominated section 109 behind the Husky bench from family members in the first few rows up to the student section in 209.  As for the game, Deandre Daniels played like a man and we benefited, plain and simple. Shabazz came out and knocked down 4 early three’s but instead of focusing solely on his hot hand, was able to get Deandre into the flow of the game. Niels provided relief on the glass with 7 rebounds and knocked down a Rashad Anderson dagger with two minutes remaining for a 7 point advantage. Terrence Samuel once again stepped up with quality minutes and clutch free throws in his return to NYC.

Defensively, we were able to control Deandre Kane, forcing him into a 6-18 night. Our rotation of guards were able to tire Kane-who played the entire 40 minutes- evidenced by his 2-9 performance from the line (64% on the season, 5-7 vs UNC). Big 12 POY Melvin Ejim was also frustrated into a 3-13 night. Hogue once again played like a monster finishing with 34 points and 6 rebounds, in part perhaps to the defensive focus on Kane/Ejim. Hogue couldn’t beat us single handedly- Kane/Ejim were the players we had to shut down and we went out and shut them down. Another key to the game was UCONN’s superiority at the foul line. UCONN shot 91% (20-22) while Iowa State combined to go 40% (6-15). 5 of those 9 misses make up the difference in the game. Free throws win games and this team makes free throws. We are gaining confidence as the stage gets brighter and need this trend to continue to advance.

Elite 8 Recap

Keys

Deandre Daniels

If Shabazz is Kemba then Deandre Daniels is Alex Oriakhi. Although their styles of play are drastically different, Daniels is providing the boost Alex gave during the stretch run in 2011. Rebounds. Big Blocks. Dunks inciting the crowd. Intensity. Deandre has emerged as the big man scoring option UCONN desperately needed. When Deandre is on, pressure is off Shabazz to score and he is able to get into his own flow and facilitate the game. One of the most telling signs occurred with 12 minutes to go in the second half. With a much smaller Appling defending, Deandre posted up and went to work delivering the bucket through contact for an AND-1. He did not hover around the three point line like earlier in the season but instead saw a mismatch and worked to exploit it. He wanted the ball and delivered, the sign of a scorer finally recognizing his abilities. Watch out Florida.

Atmosphere

In 10 years of attending UCONN games at MSG, this is the first time in my life UCONN controlled the Garden. As I walked towards the Garden Sunday afternoon, UCONN chants rang out far before 34th and 7th. This was one of the best college games I have ever attended solely due to atmosphere. The Garden was electric and filled with Husky Blue. You could tell from the first possession of the game UCONN was in the building. Michigan State’s Adreian Payne could not get past Husky big Philip Nolan who ultimately forced the star forward to travel accompanied by an immediate uproar from UCONN Country. Michigan State could not get comfortable, UCONN fed off the energy and MSG was capable of willing the Huskies to victory. At times it felt like Michigan State was intimidated by the environment and it caused them to stray from their game-plan. In a game of runs, UCONN jumped out to a 12-2 lead largely due to crowd energy. Boat set the tone defensively from the start with tight on ball pressure forcing Michigan State turnovers. Niels break away dunk with 8 minutes left set the crowd into a frenzy and the noise never ceased. Nolan’s dunk to close the game was the second loudest I’ve ever heard a UCONN crowd at the Garden (Kemba’s stepback). Dallas is much farther than New York but hopefully UCONN can ride the momentum created at MSG on Sunday afternoon.

Defense

Defense wins the big games and UCONN brought it on the defensive end Sunday. Credit Philip Nolan/Amida Brimah for their efforts on MSU big man Adreian Payne. A 6’10 240 pound bruiser, UCONN was able to body Payne and keep him floating around the perimeter. As a result, Payne settled for ten 3 pointers as opposed to establishing an inside game. In fact, we held a much larger, more physical Michigan State team to only 6 points in the paint. Six points in the paint were the second fewest for any team in the past five NCAA tournaments. How did we do it? Toughness. Determination. Team Defense. UCONN wanted it more and it translated on the court. From Nolan’s inital stop to Boat/Bazz defensive pressure in the opening minutes, we brought it. Instead of answering with physical play, MSU settled for jump shots which is a testament to UCONN’s defense. Not only do our players believe no one will get by them but now opposing players are starting to believe it.

Free Throws

UCONN shot 95% (21-22) from the line.

X Factors

Role Players

Nolan came up huge. Giffey did not shoot well but crashed the boards. Boat’s defensive tenacity got the crowd involved early. Brimah gave quality minutes. Different players are stepping up when their name is called. It doesn’t matter who it comes from we just need to piece it together each game.

Confidence

Middle of the season this game would have gone much differently. Nolan would not have stopped Payne. Deandre would not call for the ball in the post. Giffey would not recover from early missed shots. Why the different outcome? CONFIDENCE. UCONN has it and it’s not going away.

Notes

To anyone feeling sorry for Michigan State having to play in UCONN’s backyard, don’t be. The 2009 Final Four against UCONN in Detroit was a home game for MSU as they packed Ford Field with green and white. Justice has been served.

A big thanks to Tyler Olander for tickets to both games making this all possible.

 

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

 

 

 

A Look Back at Buffalo

photo

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