Google Hangout with Charlie Villanueva

I did my first Google Hangout yesterday with former UConn National Champion and 9 year NBA vet Charlie Villanueva of the Dallas Mavericks. Villanueva was a McDonald’s All-American out of Blair Academy (NJ), leading Blair to 3 straight Mid-Atlantic Prep League Tournament Championships. As a freshman, Charlie was a key contributor to the 2004 UConn National Championship team averaging 8 points/5 rebounds. That team, arguably the most talented team in UConn history, included future NBA players Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Josh Boone, Marcus Williams and Hilton Armstrong. Following a solid sophomore campaign, Charlie declared for the 2005 NBA Draft where he was taken 7th overall by the Toronto Raptors.

My Questions

4:15- Who had a more impressive championship run, Kemba or Shabazz?

19:25- Imagine a Final Four of all UConn Championship teams- who wins?

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.

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.