Denham Brown, UConn and a new generation of Canadian Basketball

Four years ago Texas Longhorn teammates Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson became the first duo of Canadians to be taken in the first round of the NBA Draft in almost 30 years. Two years later, the Cleveland Cavaliers made Anthony Bennett the first Canadian-born player to be drafted No. 1 overall. And last year, Andrew Wiggins and the Cavaliers made it two in a row. But before all of this, there was Jim Calhoun, Denham Brown and the 111 point game.

Jason Decrow/AP

Jason Decrow/AP

Mike Segar/Reuters

Mike Segar/Reuters

Contrary to public belief, Steve Nash is not solely responsible for the resurrection of Canadian basketball. No, that title must be shared with Toronto native Denham Brown with a little help from the foresighted recruitment efforts of Jim Calhoun and the UConn Huskies.

The above video is part of the Toronto Raptors #MyNorth marketing campaign which aims to highlight the history of the basketball scene in the Greater Toronto Area. There is no better place to start than Denham Brown. Though his 111 points came in a seemingly meaningless game (school had already been disqualified from the playoffs), the true impact was anything but meaningless for the Canadian basketball landscape. Brown was one of the first Canadian’s who followed the typical trajectory of an American recruit, frequently participating in AAU tournaments in the United States. Brown’s play caught the attention of UConn Head Coach Jim Calhoun, who chartered a plane north of the border to see the Canadian stud work out at a local Community Centre.

UConn’s Role

Jim Calhoun and the UConn Huskies were already ahead of the curve when it came to recruiting international talent. Said Calhoun in 2012, “When I first came here in 1986, we couldn’t compete (in recruiting) because we had five consecutive losing seasons. We were competing with the Villanovas, the St. Johns, the Georgetowns, the Syracuses… we needed to expand the parameters where UConn recruited.” Jim Calhoun is no dummy. He knew he was not in the running for top East Coast talent and took his search overseas. In fact, since 1999, UConn has had 12 foreign players on scholarship- from Israel to Tanzania (notable examples below). That’s more than traditional powerhouses North Carolina (2), Duke (4), UCLA (5), Michigan State (4) and Kentucky (4) according to numbers from 2012. As a competitor, Calhoun wanted the best talent- regardless of country. Little did he know one particular signing would open the door to a new wave of basketball talent for years to come.

Israel

Doron Sheffer

Canada

Denham Brown

Germany

Niels Giffey

UK

Ajou Deng

Tanzania

Hasheem Thabeet

Bob Child/AP

Bob Child/AP

Emergence of Canada’s other sport

Canadian players lacked exposure and Brown, largely considered the top recruit in the country, brought that exposure. His performance, though controversial in Canada, was featured in American publication SLAM Magazine, unprecedented at the time for a Canadian hoopster. Brown was one of the first true Toronto basketball success stories, a kid who was able to parlay his AAU showcases into a Division One scholarship into a National Championship. Now, it is much easier for this new wave of Canadian talent to find homes in the United States because NCAA programs are willing to look North of the border. Even Findlay Prep, a high school basketball powerhouse in Las Vegas, has taken on Canadian players such as Thompson, Bennett and Joseph in recent years. “Take a guy like Denham,” says Mike George, agent for Bennett. “He’s been playing against Americans here and there, but he doesn’t really do it on a full-time basis. Now, Anthony and Tristan Thompson and some of these guys have been playing against American high-level competition from September to September. They’ve gotten used to it…”

Roy Rana, head coach of the Canadian under-18 national team, adds: “People started investigating. People started to get more motivated to figure it out. How do I get a kid in a major school? How can I help a young man get a Division One scholarship? I think it was really the result of some people deciding to take teams of young Canadians, mostly Toronto basketball players, into the United States and explore that system, and learn and grow from that system, and use it here.” For this system to work you need a relateable success story- Denham Brown- and a program who is willing to take a chance- UConn.

basketball.ca

basketball.ca

According to Canada Basketball, the country’s organizing body for the sport, participation rates among children in Canada have doubled since 2005, or, one year after Brown’s National Championship with UConn. Today, over 100 Canadians play NCAA Division One basketball, including the #7 overall player in the class of 2014, Kentucky’s Trey Lyles. Says Andrew Wiggins, “They really opened doors for younger people watching, for us to grow up and believe we can do the same they have done. Tristan, Cory, Denham Brown, Phil Dixon, Steve Nash, Jamaal Magloire, guys like that, they have really paved the way for young guys like me and even younger guys who are coming.”

Pioneer of the new movement

The recent retirement of Steve Nash has drawn many to credit the probable Hall-of-Famer with the resurrection of Canadian basketball. Not to take anything away from Mr. Nash but Denham Brown stakes just as much claim to that title. First, Nash was raised outside of Vancouver, roughly 2,100 miles (or 3,392 km) from the Greater Toronto Area where much of the talent has originated (Wiggins, Bennett, Joseph, Thompson among others). Second, Nash’s journey was a remarkably different story from many of the Greater Toronto Area hoopsters. Here is an excerpt from Brian Daly’s Canada’s Other Game: Basketball from Naismith to Nash, depicting Nash’s childhood.

“It was December of 1990, and the sun had just set behind the mountains overlooking picturesque Victoria, British Columbia, leaving only a single spotlight to illuminate a hoop in the schoolyard of Hillcrest Elementary School in the town of Saanich, a north end suburb of the B.C. capital. Large and medium-sized detached homes lay nestled among an eclectic array of trees and bushes in the Gordon Head neighbourhood, with well-kept gardens displayed year-round in Canada’s only snow-free capital region. Less than a kilometre away, waterside mansions and rugged shoreline gave way to the sparkling blue waters of the Haro Strait, a great whale-watching area separating southern Vancouver Island from adjacent islands off the west coast of Washington State.”

Nash grew up on soccer, hockey and rugby and worshipped the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. When Nash initially struggled in high school his parents were able to send him to St. Michaels, a private boarding school only 30 miles from the border of the United States.

Getty Images

Getty Images

On the opposite coast, Denham Brown was raised in the Lawrence Heights neighborhood of Toronto, home to the city’s first public housing project. When his high school closed following junior year, Brown transferred to a public school in the Eastern Toronto district of Scarborough or “Scarlem” as coined by the Canadian magazine Toronto Life. Years later, Minnesota Timerbwolves forward Anthony Bennett and his family would relocate to the nearby Jane and Finch neighborhood, a community known for one of the largest concentrations of criminal gangs in all of Canada. At the same time Andrew Wiggins, Cory Joseph and Tyler Ennis (Phoenix Suns via Syracuse) were all growing up in diverse neighborhoods surrounding Greater Toronto, worshipping then-star Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors. In an interview with USA Today, Canadian Nik Stauskas (Sacramento Kings via Michigan) comments: “There was Steve Nash, but he didn’t really have that path of going to prep school in America. We paved the way for the Canadians trying to make that move. There’s always a new guy coming up and let’s hope they take the same path.” Though Brown did not attend prep school in the United States, he put Toronto on the map, making it possible for Stauskas and others.

I could never downplay the impact Steve Nash has made on the perception of Canadian basketball but I am simply unconvinced a young Anthony Bennett relates to the story of Steve Nash more so than Denham Brown. Assuming Nash was the sole inspiration behind this new wave of Canadian basketball ignores important factors such as geography and privilege. Brown’s high school coach Marv Spencer puts it best at the end of the My North campaign video:

“He (Denham) laid the foundation for the American sports industry to understand that there is talent here. Wiggins and the young guys that are making it now, I admire them, I love what they are doing but we are talking about the pioneer of the whole new movement. Denham Brown is the pioneer of the new movement and when the young guys get a chance to see him, salute the King.”

Lasting impact 

According to slamonline.com, there are now close to 50 men and 20 women playing Division One basketball from the Greater Toronto Area. As a UConn fan, Denham Brown’s contribution to the 2004 National Championship team is remembered in points and rebounds but his contribution to his country is immeasureable. Ultimately, whether through Steve Nash or Denham Brown, the most important storyline is that Canadian players have finally gained the exposure they deserve and that is what matters most.

Thoughts from UConn-Yale: Is it time to panic?

uconn.edu

uconn.edu

The 2-5 New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) defeated #17 Michigan Wolverines 72-70 yesterday in the biggest upset -in terms of point spread- since 2007 . A day earlier, Division II University of the Sciences defeated Division I Drexel becoming the first non-D1 school to beat a D1 opponent at home. My point? Don’t panic. Yes, we lost to Yale for the first time in decades, and yes, once again, it was painful. However this was not the typical UConn-Yale match-up. Yale entered Friday’s game at 7-2 having defeated Kent State on the road and losing to 6-2 Providence by just 6. Additionally, Yale coach James Jones is one of the most successful coaches in the Ivy League with his 209 overall wins good for third in league history. This was not a scrub team that came into Gampel and beat us. Yale executed. And when you execute, as evidenced by the last two days, any team can win any game.

Moral of the story, we didn’t play well. More often than not, upsets occur when the underdog out-shoots the favorite. This was not the case Friday night as Yale shot a lowly 33% (18-55) from the field and a dismal 14% (3-21) from behind the arc. Instead, Yale beat us in every other aspect of the game. They out-rebounded us (36-25), out-blocked us (4-2), had more steals (10-5) and forced more turnovers (13-11). You know what this tells me? We didn’t create and exploit favorable match-ups.

The Bad

Ryan Boatright’s missed 1-and-1

I don’t care how poorly we rebounded or how lethargic we played, Boatright’s missed free throw is far and away the most disturbing take away. He needs to make that shot. Kemba Walker makes it. Shabazz Napier makes it. Ryan Boatright missed it- twice. I know he played through pain and I appreciate his toughness, but as any athlete can attest, the adrenaline pumping from a potentially game-winning foul shot eliminates any pain in the body. We need Ryan Boatright to make that shot under any circumstance. He is our leader and he will have the ball late in the game. We don’t need him to make 1, we need him to make 2. Every time. That is what separates a great point guard from a championship winning point guard. At this point in his career there cannot be any doubt when he steps to the line, especially in late game situations.

Lack of Urgency

Call it a championship hangover but losing two games in a row the same way on the same miscommuncation is troubling. As the defending National Champions we have a target on our back and need to bring the intensity night in and night out, from the beginning. On the year, UConn is -23 in the first half and +43 in the second half. Slow starts hint to a lack of urgency and not taking opponents seriously. Yale/Coppin State deserve the same respect as Texas/Duke. Once you give a team early confidence, it can be hard to overcome. Also, Yale shot more free throws. For a team that is shooting 28% from deep on the season, we need to attack the rim and stop settling for the outside shot. So far on the year we have shot only 5 more free throws than our opponents. With the talent/athleticism we have, this is unacceptable and a clear indicator we are settling for the outside jumper.

Three Guard Line Up

The benefits of a three guard line up are to create an advantage by having more shooters, play makers and ball handlers on the floor, effectively limiting turnovers. It can also be utilized to create a match-up advantage. So far this year, the three guard lineup has done none of the above. Boatright and Daniel Hamilton are playing 36/34 minutes respectively as the two primary guards with SCJ, Purvis and Terrence Samuel each playing between 22-24 mpg as the third guard. Between the three, they have 20 assists and 19 turnovers while shooting a combined 32%. UConn as a team has a dreadful 10:12 assist:turnover ratio. As I mentioned above, we aren’t getting to the line, settling for outside shots we aren’t making. What is the advantage of having a three guard lineup when the third guard isn’t producing?

At least the third guard rebounds, right? Wrong. We were killed on the glass against Yale managing only 1 offensive rebound. On the year, opponents have a +6 offensive rebound margin. Kentan Facey alone has pulled down 39 rebounds in 146 minutes, more than SCJ, Purvis and Samuel combined in over 375 minutes of action. That leads me to believe the rebounding problem is more of a personnel issue than an actual rebounding problem. Also, remember all those years we led the nation in shot blocking? This year we are only at +2. Statistically speaking we need to abandon the three guard lineup and focus on getting the bigs involved. A perfect segue into…

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? 

UConn basketball is defined by toughness and absolute dominance in the paint. Adrien. Boone. Okafor. Thabeet. Armstrong. In speaking with a former player, Calhoun started every game with a play for the bigs- typically a cross screen or back screen on the block. We need to get back to the inside-out game that defines UConn basketball, especially given our early season shooting woes. Once you have established a post presence, or at least show you are willing to look down low, the perimeter will open up for our play-makers. Yes Brimah/Facey/Nolan are young and raw but they have shown signs of progress. We need to get them involved early, even force the issue, to create a more balanced attack. Getting our bigs involved early builds confidence that will translate to the defensive end.

We are a team that is still putting together the pieces. According to ESPN stats and information UConn is the only team in the nation with seven players averaging 23.5 minutes per game (minimum 3 games played). These are not the UConn Huskies who will compete in the NCAA tournament this March, that rotation is still undecided. With early season injuries to Calhoun/Purvis, we are still trying to assemble the pieces to a winning puzzle. In that regard, the Yale loss is not nearly as worrying as it may seem from the headlines, as long as we make the necessary adjustments.

As always,

GO HUSKIES!

UConn stars return for 2014 Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic

7,000+ crowded Mohegan Sun Arena Friday night for the 2014 Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic. Featuring heroes of UConn past, the game is more than just a UConn All-Star game, but raises money and awareness for the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center at the UConn Health Center. According to their website, the charity is dedicated to “research on new non-invasive techniques to diagnose and treat patients at risk for heart disease and also endows a cardiology research fellowship.” Since 1999 the Celebrity Classic has raised over $6.5 million for cardiology research. You can learn more here and like the event on Facebook.

Jim Calhoun watches his charity game.

Jim Calhoun watches his charity game.

Friday’s game featured current NBA players Andre Drummond, Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, Jeff Adrien, Ben Gordon, Jeremy Lamb and Charlie Villanueva as well as former stars Taliek Brown, Khalid El-Amin and Donyell Marshall. The White Team came away with a dramatic 114-112 victory on an all-but-too-familiar game winner from ’99 Champ El-Amin. Drummond led a stacked White Team with 24 points/12 rebounds while Walker (21 points), DeAndre Daniels (18), Allen (15) and El-Amin (13) all scored in double figures. Villanueva led the Blue Team dropping 24 points with Rashad Anderson (22), Lamb (21 points/8 rebounds) providing help in the scoring department and Jeff Adrien (12/13) handling the dirty work as usual. Lamb was originally on the White Team roster but crossed sides after Rudy Gay was was deemed ineligible due to language in his contract with the Sacramento Kings. It should be noted that although Gay was unable to participate in the game, he is rumored to have dropped $80,000 on a private plane to sit on the bench and support the cause. Caron Butler and Shabazz Napier were not in attendance due to prior commitments.

Pictures below:

Ray Allen Pregame

Ray Allen Pregame

Tip Off

Tip off at the 2014 Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic.

Andre Drummond rises for a dunk at the 2014 Jim Calhoun Charity Classic.

Andre Drummond rises for a dunk at the 2014 Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic.

Rudy Gay poses for a selfie with Jeremy Lamb.

Rudy Gay poses for a selfie with Jeremy Lamb.

After party with Kemba Walker

After party with Kemba Walker

Olliewood or Hollywood?

I first heard rumors of Kevin Ollie to the NBA during a team breakfast at the Big East Tournament in 2011. In only his first year as an assistant coach, it was evident Ollie had the coaching gene and could not be kept a secret much longer. Earlier today, ESPN.com reported the Los Angeles Lakers were interested in Kevin Ollie to fill their newly vacant head coaching job. This poses a haunting question to UCONN fans- Olliewood or Hollywood?

Why do the Los Angeles Lakers want Kevin Ollie?

First, lets take a look at why the Lakers (or any NBA team) want Kevin Ollie:

Reputation

The most attractive quality surrounding Kevin Ollie is not his 2014 National Championship ring, no Ollie was on the NBA radar far before his magical postseason. Kevin Ollie is attractive to NBA teams because of the respect he garners from his peers- peers who just so happen to be 4x NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant and 4x MVP Lebron James. James, alluded to the aforementioned “coaching gene” in an interview after the Huskies win while Durant had this to say in 2013. “Kevin Ollie changed the culture with the Thunder,” Durant commented, “Just like he’s doing now with UConn. He was a big part of what we do, and still is, because of what he instilled in us. He’s always going to be a brother of mine.”Durant continued to say he had no doubt in his mind Ollie could coach at the NBA level.

The Lakers, coming off a 27-55 season that left them with more questions than answers, have one definitive answer. With an aging Kobe Bryant returning from knee surgery, the team will undoubtedly make a push for super-star caliber free agents Lebron (2014) or KD (2016). If the Lakers were to allow James or Durant their choice of coach, Los Angeles becomes a much more attractive destination with Kevin Ollie the main beneficiary.

Image

According to an ESPN NBA attendance report, the Clippers have drawn more fans than the Lakers for each of the past three seasons. In other words, “Lob City” has replaced “Showtime” in the city of angels. Recent Lakers teams conjure images of aging, injury-prone stars whereas the Clippers are associated with high-flying, energetic excitement (think Pau Gasol hook shot vs Blake Griffin alley-oop). What better way to reverse that perception than to hire a youthful, energetic coach such as Kevin Ollie?

Also, the aftermath of the Donald Sterling saga has forced Clippers sponsors and fans alike to question their loyalties. What better way to attract the in-between/undecided/disgusted than to bring in a coach whose highest values are that of family and brotherhood. As we have seen in Connecticut, Kevin Ollie is not just a basketball coach but a community activist. Given recent events, it is not surprising the Lakers see value in hiring not only a community man, but also a local success story all Angelenos can rally around.

Why he will go

  • Money. The NBA can offer a higher salary, plain and simple. Ollie is slated to make roughly $1.25 million this year at UCONN. Former Lakers coach D’Antoni? $4 million.
  • The Job. UCLA. North Carolina. Duke. Kentucky. Historic jobs that represent the pinnacle of college basketball. Knicks. Lakers. Celtics. Historic jobs that represent the pinnacle of NBA basketball. Two of the three NBA jobs are currently open, who knows when they will be available again (although recent history suggests soon). Does KO find the pull of these historic jobs too hard to resist?
  • Location. Ollie grew up in Los Angeles yet has called Connecticut home since his college days. LA poses a return to childhood stomping grounds while the Knicks job allows him to remain in Connecticut. Hmmmm…
  • The Challenge. Kevin Ollie promised a National Championship and he delivered… in just his second season. How can he possibly top that? An NBA Championship. In his first season.

Why he will stay

  • Money. Unlike many college coaches, Kevin Ollie is coming off a 13 year NBA career that saw him collect roughly $20 million according to basketballreference.com. When you have that much in the piggy bank (probably multiple piggy banks at this point) it becomes less about the money and more about the right fit. UCONN is the right fit.
  • The Job. I mentioned dream jobs such as UNC, Duke and Kentucky above. What’s better than those dream jobs? Leading your alma mater to a National Championship. What’s better than leading your alma mater to a National Championship? Leading your alma mater to multiple National Championships.
  • Location. KO lives with his family in Glastonbury on a hill overlooking the town, a fitting setting for a man charged with overlooking our state’s main interest. Plus, you can’t beat the short 45 minute commute. In other news, UCONN’s new state-of-the-art $35 million practice facility should be ready next year, offering a bit of an upgrade from the dungeon that is Gampel’s basement.
  • The Challenge. Jim Calhoun has three. Kevin Ollie has one. Three more and Jim Calhoun Way becomes Kevin Ollie Boulevard.

The Verdict

Breathe easy Husky fans, Kevin Ollie isn’t going anywhere…yet. While it is certain Ollie will end up on the sidelines of a NBA franchise one day, his mission is not complete. The collegiate level allows for the development of not only basketball skills, but life skills, a part of the process you can tell Ollie takes great pride in. His efforts have been recognized by our incoming recruits- Daniel Hamilton a 6’7 wing from Los Angeles- spoke to the “brotherhood” at UCONN as the deciding factor in his recruitment. Sam Cassell Jr, son of former NBA player Sam Cassell (a longtime friend of Ollie’s), echoed Hamilton’s sentiments and added KO was the type of coach he could play for. Ollie is not the type to lure recruits under the false pretense of “family” just to bolt to greener (literally) pastures. Don’t forget, Kevin Ollie could have remained with the OKC Thunder in a front office position upon retirement. Something drew him back to Connecticut, and that something is more than just a paycheck.

Another point to consider is the relationship between Ollie and Jim Calhoun. Ollie has said in the past Calhoun was a role model/mentor to him and credits the Hall of Fame coach for much of his success. Upon his departure, Calhoun hand-picked Ollie as his successor and gave KO the reigns to a program he started from scratch. I don’t see Ollie leaving UCONN on a whim, especially after all that was entrusted to him by his mentor. Down the road? Absolutely. And you cannot blame him. Ollie is a competitor and to win at the highest level is undeniably a goal he hopes to one day achieve. When KO does leave UCONN, he will leave the program stable and hopefully with a few more pieces of hardware. As for now, it’s Olliewood over Hollywood.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.