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After voting in Kevin Duffy’s Media Poll of the best UConn players in the Calhoun/Ollie era, the gang (Tyler, Meghan, Peter and Alex) reveals our collective vote & discusses the rationale behind it.

Peter also unveils a wild new series planned for the summer.

WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE

Intro music by Tetramer | iTunes link

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Apr
18

Fun at the NCAA’s Expense

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Apparently the genius marketing strategy the NCAA has used to convince a large portion of the population that extorting free labor from athletes is noble, does not extend to Twitter hashtags. Appearing on ESPN’s Mike & Mike Show this morning, NCAA President Mark Emmert was preparing to answer questions from the common man — who could submit their inquiries by tweeting with the hashtag #AskEmmert.

It did not go well…and actually is STILL not going well. Instead of asking the type of softball questions lobbed at Emmert by the ESPN crew, twitter exploded with mocking inquiries aimed at exposing the hypocrisy of the NCAA. The embedded widget below should give you a livestream of some examples (*NOTE* A Dime Back is not curating the list, it’s auto-generated by Twitter). Feel free to link to your favorites in the comments.


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podcast

We’re back — with rings (figuratively)!

The full crew — Tyler, Meghan, Peter and Alex — convenes to reflect on Storrs’ two newest residents, each a national championship trophy. We also discuss the decisions looming for DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright and Kevin Ollie. Run time is just over 31 minutes. Enjoy!

WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE

 

Intro music by Tetramer | iTunes link

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Ryan Boatright holds the National Championship trophy (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ryan Boatright holds the National Championship trophy (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ryan Boatright had a very interesting 2013-2014 season. In the NCAA Tournament, he showed star potential during UConn’s shocking run at a national championship. He hit big shots, played lock-down defense, and didn’t miss a free throw in the last four games of the season (16-16).

Yet, by the numbers, Boatright averaged 12 points, 2.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game during the tournament — almost identical to his season averages of 12.1, 3.4 and 3.5. To take it a step further, a year earlier, during the 2012-2013 season, Boatright averaged more points (15.4), more assists (4.4), shot better from the floor (42.9% vs. 39% this year), and got to the free throw line more often. Watching him on the court, it is hard to argue that Boatright was not an improved player — but those numbers can play tricks on you.

This is the problem with evaluating Boatright as he weighs whether or not to return to UConn for his senior season or to enter the NBA Draft. The talent you see as he blows by a defender, or strips a ball-handler, or throws down a dunk on a fast break, hasn’t translated to the box score — leaving many wondering if it ever will. None of the usual mock NBA draft suspects list Boatright — even as a second round pick.

Most players in that position don’t entertain the prospect of entering the Draft, and it seems obvious that Boatright shouldn’t either.

But that position is held in the abstract. You never know what the specific circumstances are in a young man’s life. Boatright has certainly faced his share of adversity, playing with a heavy heart this past season after the death of his cousin. Perhaps the desire to provide immediate assistance for his family is worth the risk of doing it while collecting paychecks in the D-League, or overseas.

Boatright has also expressed an interest in jumping to the NBA in the past — saying that he planned to make the jump following his sophomore season, but thought better of it due to his poor draft stock.

How much has his stock improved?

It would seem Boatright’s best chance to secure a lucrative future career for himself would be to return to Storrs for his senior season, play a full year without Shabazz Napier overshadowing him, and enter a much weaker 2015 Draft where he’ll face less competition (this year’s Draft is loaded). He will have a full offseason to attend camps, work on his jumper and midrange game, and will get to be the star on a UConn team that should get its fair share of media attention next season following their championship run earlier this month. He would also presumably finish his degree — a notable accomplishment in its own right.

In the end, the best you can hope for with a guy like Boatright is that his decisions are being guided by the right motives. If he decides to take a serious risk by entering the NBA Draft, you hope he is doing so because his family needs him to — or his coach, Kevin Ollie, has been assured by his NBA sources that Boatright will be selected. The other side of that coin is Boatright jumping ship due to the advice of uninformed friends and family, or his own desire and impatience.

Hopefully Boatright makes the decision that is best for him, and for his future. That decision should be to return to UConn.

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Shabazz Napier cuts down the nets (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Shabazz Napier cuts down the nets (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Last November, I was scrolling through the A Dime Back instragram feed. Up popped a picture of UConn’s star guard Shabazz Napier. It featured the young Roxbury, Mass. native standing with Boston mayoral candidate John Connolly. The caption was a ringing endorsement, although Connolly would eventually be defeated by current mayor Marty Walsh.

The next time I was in Gampel following a game, I caught Napier in a quiet moment and offered some sympathy on Connolly’s loss (I didn’t have a horse in the race, but no one likes to lose). Napier politely thanked me, with a cautious look in his eye. Then I told Shabazz that I had seen and enjoyed a video he had made for a Sociology class about other social issues (both the instagram picture and the video have since been removed). Sensing the slight tension in the moment, I asked Shabazz if he wanted to sit down and do an interview — the catch being, we wouldn’t talk about basketball. Napier returned a sly grin — if you’ve seen a television camera catch him late in a UConn victory, you’ve seen the same look –– and said “I do like talking about things other than basketball.”

That conversation happened early in UConn’s season. Before their buzzer-beating win over Florida. Before the tedious push of conference play stretched the student-athletes and sapped them of their free time. Napier and I never did sit down for that interview.

But something interesting did happen. After UConn’s February 15th victory over Memphis, the media swarmed several Husky players for interviews. Napier, as always, drew the most attention. I sat back and listened. Napier answered the questions you would expect — how did you pull off the win? Was this a signature victory? How does this improve the team’s confidence? I hung around with Tim Fontenault of the Daily Campus until the beat guys had their material before sidling up to Napier to ask a different kind of question.

I asked Napier if he thought the NCAA should be covering more of the players’ expenses. I asked if he thought full cost of attendance scholarships would benefit the players who come after him. I didn’t expect his response.

***

“My college experience has been tough,” said Napier. “We don’t have enough money sometimes, and there’s so many rules now that you can’t take money from anybody [to help]. That’s understandable but, when it gets down to it, we make so much money for the NCAA and they don’t give us any money at all. [They] expect us to starve, or expect us not to eat, it’s kinda tough.”

“You’ve got to learn how to save your money. You’ve gotta learn how to do a lot of [other] things that are kind of unnecessary. We come here to get a good education, and that’s really important, but at the end of the day, if I can’t study because I’m hungry, I’m not going to be able to do well in class. And [then] I won’t be able to play. There’s a lot of things that they don’t really take into perspective.”

***

Upon publishing the piece, the reaction was quick, and varied. Without citing any particular party, some lambasted the NCAA for their current policies, some attacked Napier for overstating the issue, and some attacked me for publishing the divisive quotes in the first place.

The remarks struck up a conversation in Connecticut, but a week later, they were all but forgotten. Having seen the backlash that came from publishing the article, I decided not to ask Napier about it again until his season was over. I decided it wasn’t my place to insert myself as a distraction in his season if he wasn’t asking me to. For the rest of UConn’s home season, Napier and I spoke only about basketball.

So imagine my surprise when this weekend’s Final Four coverage was seized with headlines like: “Shabazz Napier: ‘there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving’”

After our brief conversation in February, and after weathering the relatively-tame backlash, Napier waited until every camera and microphone in sports media were in front of him to drop the same staggering quote.

For the record, there’s almost certainly some hyperbole at play here. While it’s not inconceivable that student-athletes go to bed hungry — think about their schedules, especially on game nights, when the dining halls close, and how tricky it must be to find the time and the cash for grocery shopping — Napier was using inflammatory language to throw an obvious haymaker at the NCAA.

We know this because he also took a shot at the NCAA merchandising: “When you see your jersey getting sold — it may not have your last name on it — but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return.” And, on the biggest of all stages, after winning the national championship, standing near NCAA President Mark Emmert, Napier screamed “this is what happens when you ban us.” An obvious shot at the NCAA for their punishment of UConn during the 2013 season.

Shabazz Napier is a very smart man. That much is obvious when you speak to him. Much like on the court, when interviewing him, he sees a move or two ahead. He’s quick to answer a question in a detailed and articulate manner that preemptively answers your follow-up as well. When Napier decided to throw gas on the NCAA, he undoubtedly knew the firestorm that would follow.

CNN, Fox, NBC, the Washington Post, and countless other media outlets have all run Napier’s quotes. The timing coincides with the Northwestern football team’s victory in front of the National Labor Relations Board in late March that paves the way for them to organize a union and collectively bargain with their university for compensation and benefits. Said Napier, “I think, you know, Northwestern has an idea, and we’ll see where it goes.”

While the NLRB decision will have significant long-term impacts on college sports, Napier’s remarks have sparked immediate action. In Connecticut, State Representative Pat Dillon latched onto Napier’s comments and the Northwestern ruling to propose changes to state law that would give UConn student-athletes the option of unionizing in the future. Other lawmakers have joined in. Elsewhere, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has entered the fray, suggesting the league could offer financial assistance to the NCAA to subsidize players staying in school longer. “I think if Shabazz Napier is saying he is going hungry, my God, it seems hard to believe, but there should be ample food for the players,” he said.

Napier’s comments were a veritable kick to the hornets’ nest, and it seems to be working. Earlier this week, I penned an article declaring Napier the most important player in UConn history. The gist being that he guided his university’s basketball program through a very tenuous time, ensuring that it remain the proud institution that its history deserves. Perhaps he’s trying to do the same thing for the sport of college basketball as he exits.

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National Champion Shabazz Napier (image source)

National Champion Shabazz Napier (image source)

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the Hungry Huskies,” shouted the point guard from Roxbury, Mass. “This is what happens when you ban us.” Shabazz Napier, standing on the podium in AT&T Stadium, about to be handed the national championship trophy for the second time in his career, still defiant. Still passionate. Still competing, long after the final buzzer sounded.

In the opus of his magnificent career, Napier dismissed a Kentucky team staffed with players so opposite himself — born stars, anointed in the preseason with championship expectations despite never having set foot on a college campus. Freshmen who, unlike Napier, will never see a senior year. Napier dropped 22 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals, earning Most Outstanding Player of the tournament and rewarding his university, his teammates and UConn fans with one final exclamation point before he bids Storrs farewell.

Napier’s Huskies entered the tournament with 100-to-1 odds to win it. Every night on ESPN, analysts would pick against them. Then Napier’s Huskies would take the court and win. Always defiant.

In high school, Napier didn’t take classes seriously. As a teenager, Napier described himself as “a clown.” It took an intervention from his mother, Carmen Velasquez, to get him to right the ship. Then, after UConn’s 2012 season, when the poor grades of prior Huskies led to the aforementioned NCAA ban, Napier held the team together on the court, while committing himself to academics in the classroom. He will graduate this spring with a Sociology degree, and has earned a spot on the dean’s list. Always defiant.

What makes Napier’s commitment to UConn so laudable is that he did so as the university walls were crumbling around him. First, the ban was levied. Then coach Jim Calhoun — a father figure for Napier — announced his retirement. Andre Drummond left. Jeremy Lamb left. Alex Oriakhi left. Roscoe Smith left. Napier stayed. With the benefit of hindsight, and a freshly minted championship, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to label Napier’s decision to stay as the moment that saved UConn basketball.

All of which leads us to this grand statement: Shabazz Napier is the most important player in UConn history.

Statistically, Napier leaves UConn in fourth place on the all-time scoring list (1,959). He is third in assists (646), and second in steals (251). He’s the only player in UConn history to amass at least 1,500 points, 500 assists and 500 rebounds. He is obviously also the only Husky legend to win two championships.

Donyell Marshall was UConn’s first star, launching the program permanently into the national spotlight. Ray Allen was the program’s best ambassador, and will be the first Husky player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Rip Hamilton shook the perceived curse of the 1990’s and secured UConn’s first title in 1999. Emeka Okafor was UConn’s best player and a star student in 2004. Kemba Walker had one of the best individual seasons in college basketball history, almost single-handedly captaining UConn to their third title in 2011.

All of them built UConn’s basketball castle in Storrs — some the foundation, and some the structure leading to astounding heights. Napier kept that castle from crumbling, and ensured that it will stand for the Husky stars that follows him.

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AP Photo/David J. Phillip

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

In the latest twist in an improbable, if not miraculous, season, the 7-seed UConn Huskies bounced the top-ranked Florida Gators from the Final Four on Saturday evening 63-53. At times this season, when losing to Houston, or being run off the court by Louisville, a chance to play for a national championship seemed an impossibility for the Huskies. Yet, as they continue their march through the NCAA Tournament — and through other powerhouse opponents — Kevin Ollie’s team has found their niché, and found ways to win.

On Monday night, in front of more than 80,000 people in Jerry Jones’ memorial to himself in Dallas, UConn will face either Wisconsin or Kentucky in hopes of securing their fourth national championship. They earned that opportunity by beating Florida (36-3) for the second time this season.

DeAndre Daniels was the offensive star for the Huskies. He led the team with 20 points and 10 rebounds. It was his second double-double of the tournament, pretty amazing considering he only had three double-doubles during the regular season and conference tournament. Florida couldn’t handle his versatility. He buried two three pointers when left alone on the perimeter, posted up smaller defenders, and found himself open under the hoop for lobs when UConn’s guards drew attention up top.

While Daniels carried the weight on offense, it was UConn’s defense that won them the game. Guards Ryan Boatright, Shabazz Napier and Terrence Samuel hounded Florida’s backcourt. Scottie Wilkebin, Florida’s starting point guard, finished with only four points, one assist and three turnovers. Throughout the tournament, UConn has embraced tough on-ball defense as their calling card, and it has guided them within 40 minutes of immortality.

While Daniels has emerged as a dangerous offensive weapon, Boatright has transformed his game into one of lockdown defense and clutch shots, and Napier continues to both lead the team and receive headlines, no one’s stock has risen higher than Ollie’s thus far.

In the last two games, Ollie and his team have executed brilliant game plans that sent legendary coaches, Tom Izzo and Billy Donovan, back to the golf course. He has found ways to mask UConn’s most glaring deficiencies — size and strength — and force his opponents into adjusting for the Huskies’ speed and spacing. All while managing a rotation that hits free throws better than any UConn team in recent memory.

Given the success that Ollie has manufactured in his professional life, none of this should be too surprising, but the speed at which he has elevated himself to the coaching elite is staggering. On Monday night, he will have an opportunity to take it a step further, hopefully while climbing a ladder to cut down the nets.

Notes:

  • Napier had an interesting night. He wasn’t the center of attention that we’re accustomed to, but he played a very solid and complete game with 12 points, six assists, three rebounds and four steals.
  • Niels Giffey was 0-2 from three on Saturday. It’s been a week since he hit a three, pretty amazing for a 50% shooter.
  • Terrence Samuel continues to impress. The word that immediately comes to mind to define his play is “fearless.” He seems completely comfortable with the bright lights, and certainly doesn’t shy away from attacking the rim on offense. He also played tight, stifling defense in his 18 minutes on Saturday.
  • While much of the talk preceding the game centered on UConn’s buzzer-beating upset over Florida on December 2nd, this game was also vindication for UConn’s overtime defeat to Florida in the 1994 Sweet Sixteen. At the time, it may have been the biggest game in UConn history, and the memory of the loss still haunts Husky fans who harbor a grudge against Donyell Marshall for missing some key free throws. Hopefully tonight’s win — if not the four previous Final Four appearances and three national championships — finally helps those people move on.

Up Next:

Number four.

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Rapper, and UConn fan, Pete 33 has penned a new song that is rapidly ascending the charts of UConn-themed rap songs — no one will ever approach “Pickup Truck.” It’s titled “Shabazz On Em,” and is surprisingly well thought-out.

You can (and probably should) follow Pete 33 on twitter. Shout to Barstool for posting it earlier. Lyrics are below.

I just Shabazz on ‘em. I really spazz on ‘em. We raining cash on ‘em. From CT to Mass on ‘em. I just Shabazz on ‘em.

Now this goes out to them Huskies. CT we moving up. 3 years ago it was Kemba. This year we got a new chosen one. Got 13 on that jersey. UConn on his chest. Got one ring up on his finger. Now he plotting on the next. Yo this kid resides in Roxbury, but Storrs is where he balls at. That dribble drive with that shake and bake. And your ankles break, so you fall back. Ain’t nothing man. Life’s a movie in Olliewood and we acting out. Dish the rock to Niels Giffey. Then he puts it up and shots splashing now. So Boatright playing defense. Ollie getting low too. Like shorties up on campus. It’s a party for the whole school. ‘Cause we celebrate when we winning. Final Four, we ain’t finished yet. Got Florida, then whichever silly team who want to get it next.

Now first up was St. Joseph’s. Villanova. Iowa State. Weren’t supposed to make it this far man, but we UConn so we found a way. Calhoun, he backing us. Them Huskies yo. Bleed blue for life. Did it once as a freshman. Now might mess around and do it twice. Bazz tatted up like a rap star, but speak and move like a gentleman. 4th quarter, time low, ball in hand, he’s in his element. Some specimen. Working hard on a regiment. Kid so sick, need medicine. Stay rain cash like Benjamins. So genuine. Momma in the crowd and she clapping ’cause she proud of him. Shout out to them analysts on brackets, had us out of it. CT born and raised, yo I really like the sound of it. This that new jam, so you know them Huskies shouting it.

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Niels' house now (AP Photo)

Niels’ house now (AP Photo)

The old axiom declares it very difficult to beat a good team three times in one season. Either no one told that to UConn on Thursday night, or they’re the exception that proves the rule. The Huskies stomped on Memphis in their first post-season tournament game in two years, 72-53. It was the third time that UConn has beaten Memphis this season, and the second on the Tigers’ home court.

German superhero (supervillain?) Niels Giffey exploded for a career-high 24 points, going 9-11 from the floor and 6-8 from three, and nine rebounds. Giffey frequently found himself wide open on the perimeter as Memphis struggled to contain UConn’s guards. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright had little trouble getting between Memphis defenders and finding open teammates.

Boatright’s game was particularly impressive. After struggling against Memphis’ talented guards for the first five minutes of the game, he was benched in favor of freshman Terrence Samuel. When Boatright returned, he appears composed and in control. Again, he did not shoot particularly well (3-7, including a three-pointer to end the first half), but proved his value by running a much-improved UConn offense and leading the team with six assists.

Despite the conference-sanctioned home court advantage, Memphis never found their shooting stroke. As UConn crowded the middle, limiting Memphis to 18 points in the paint, the Tigers fired from deep. They shot just over 26% for the game, and no player scored more than ten points.

Thursday’s victory was a statement win for UConn who returned to the court for the first time since their embarrassing defeat in Louisville. Their defense — which has been stellar all season — again flexed their muscle, and their offense was dynamic and free-moving, for the first time in a month.

Notes:

  • Despite some typically bogus foul calls, Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah performed admirably inside. While their statistics aren’t eye-popping, both played good interior defense and disrupted a lot of shots.
  • Terrence Samuel was impressive in his eight minutes of playing time. He buried a deep jumper, hit two free throws and grabbed two rebounds.
  • Napier attempted only nine shots — hitting four — in a game where UConn didn’t particularly need him to score. He did pull down seven rebounds.
  • UConn shot 52.9% on the game, including 30 points in the paint. That’s a great sign for the Huskies going forward in tournament play.

Up Next:

The Huskies will face top-seeded Cincinnati in the semi-finals this evening. The start time is listed at 9pm but will surely be closer to 9:30. You can watch on ESPN2. The winner will take on the victor of the Houston/Louisville contest on Saturday.

 

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We had a blast on this week’s podcast, where we attempted to determine the best player to wear each jersey number at UConn. If you haven’t listened (or subscribed), do so this instant.

Yet despite the 45 minute+ runtime, our crew was split on several numbers. Debate in the twitters has arisen over others. With that in mind, we thought it a good idea to give you readers a chance to weigh in. The power of democracy!

Below, you will find several polls allowing you to vote for the best player to wear a certain number. In the interest of keeping things interesting, we’ve limited the polls to the few numbers where there’s a real debate. Enjoy and go nuts.

Best Player to Wear Number 4

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Ben Gordon
Career Points: 1795
Career Rebounds: 415
Career Assists: 437
Career Steals: 125
Career Blocks: 19

 

Jeff Adrien
Career Points: 1603
Career Rebounds: 1126
Career Assists: 146
Career Steals: 78
Career Blocks: 152

Best Player to Wear Number 12

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Taliek Brown
Career Points: 1039
Career Rebounds: 430
Career Assists: 722
Career Steals: 163
Career Blocks: 17

 

Kevin Ollie
Career Points: 825
Career Rebounds: 252
Career Assists: 619
Career Steals: 107
Career Blocks: 7

 

AJ Price
Career Points: 1284
Career Rebounds: 332
Career Assists: 469
Career Steals: 104
Career Blocks: 5

Best Player to Wear Number 13

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Chris Smith
Career Points: 2145
Career Rebounds: 362
Career Assists: 436
Career Steals: 193
Career Blocks: 43

 

Shabazz Napier*
Career Points: 1790
Career Rebounds: 528
Career Assists: 611
Career Steals: 235
Career Blocks: 30
*Still Active

Best Player to Wear Number 21

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Josh Boone
Career Points: 959
Career Rebounds: 718
Career Assists: 84
Career Steals: 53
Career Blocks: 222

 

Ricky Moore
Career Points: 925
Career Rebounds: 402
Career Assists: 510
Career Steals: 170
Career Blocks: 47

 

Stanley Robinson
Career Points: 1231
Career Rebounds: 776
Career Assists: 131
Career Steals: 74
Career Blocks: 130

Best Player to Wear Number 33

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Denham Brown
Career Points: 1267
Career Rebounds: 530
Career Assists: 175
Career Steals: 94
Career Blocks: 27

 

Kevin Freeman (Senior Year in parenthesis)
Career Points: 1476 (440)
Career Rebounds: 913 (263)
Career Assists: 130 (30)
Career Steals: 109 (26)
Career Blocks: 25 (10)

 

Donny Marshall
Career Points: 1197
Career Rebounds: 534
Career Assists: 129
Career Steals: 127
Career Blocks: 17

Best Player to Wear Number 42

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Khalid El-Amin
Career Points: 1650
Career Rebounds: 319
Career Assists: 479
Career Steals: 186
Career Blocks: 10

 

Tony Hanson
Career Points: 1990
Career Rebounds: 818
Career Assists: 300
Career Steals: Records not kept
Career Blocks: Records not kept

 

Donyell Marshall
Career Points: 1648
Career Rebounds: 695
Career Assists: 131
Career Steals: 113
Career Blocks: 245
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