Archive for NCAA

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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Apr
10

The UConn Women Are Awesome, Too

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2014 National Champion Stefanie Dolson | Getty Images

2014 National Champion Stefanie Dolson | Getty Images

Those of you who regularly read A Dime Back (Hi, Mom!) know we don’t spend much time writing about the UConn Women’s team. And, honestly, I’m a little ashamed of that. I’m a feminist, a former female athlete, and the daughter of a Title IX pioneer. This should be right in my wheelhouse.

I grew up on Rebecca Lobo and Jen Rizzotti. I went to countless games with my best friend growing up (back when season ticket seats were unassigned and first-come-first-served), and the 1995 National Championship run is one of my very favorite sports moments.

But Monday night I watched the game in a bar with a roomful of insane UConn fans living and dying with each shot. Tuesday I watched at a friend’s place, with a roomful of people who weren’t at all worried about the outcome. (Except one. Sorry, Teubner. Notre Dame is still a really good school. Just not at basketball.)

So why the dichotomy? The UConn women are so good, so dominant, that even a National Championship game is just a ho hum experience. I was texting earlier in the day with a friend who was predicting a 30 point win, only as slight hyperbole. And he wasn’t far off. The Huskies dispatched the Fighting Irish in frighteningly efficient fashion, winning by a convincing 21 points. And that included taking out the starters and letting the walk-ons finish the game. In the National Championship. Against an undefeated team. Think about that for a second.

Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw said at times it felt like they were playing the Miami Heat. Former Baylor star and athletic freak of nature Brittney Griner said playing UConn is like playing a WNBA team. The Huskies’ preparation, work ethic and ability to play at a high level even when they’re playing the cupcakiest of cupcake teams make them almost otherworldly.

My parents watch the women as religiously as the men. In fact, my dad prefers to watch the women’s games because he finds the men’s games too stressful. And really, when was the last time the women gave us anything to worry about? They’ve basically won the game before they walked out onto the floor.

This isn’t to say I don’t pay attention to the women’s team. I do. When they play any team that might give them a game I watch. I always have an eye on the score when they’re playing. My friends were sort of teasing me about how much I knew about the team. (Really, guys? C’mon. I live in UConn homer land.) But, admittedly, it’s not as much fun to watch them blow out Boston University by 58 points (No, that’s not a typo.) as it is to watch the men go into OT against Memphis. Though, to be fair, I’ll take the 40 points wins of the women’s team over the men’s 33-point loss to Louisville any day of the week and twice on Sunday. That game was painful.

As Peter pointed out earlier this season, blow-out games are, well, boring. I don’t know what Geno does to get his team to play the way they do. It absolutely defies logic. It’s not just getting the best players, because Notre Dame and Baylor get great players, too. Something about this program and how he prepares his team is just on a different level than everyone else. Basically, he’s a genius. And I’m so glad he’s ours.

There is also the argument about how different the men’s and women’s games are. The women have a more old-school style of play. My friend described it as having five Bob Cousys on the floor. There are no tomahawk dunks (Though, Stewie, I know you can dunk. Please, for the love of Jonathan, give us some sugar. I would love it forever.) or alley oops. What we do get is precision passing, flawless defense, and an offense run like a Swiss watch.

The women’s game also benefits from the fact that we get all these players for four years. If Stewie played in the men’s game, she would have been a one-and-done. But we get her for four years. If she doesn’t graduate with four national championships on her resume, I’ll wear a Duke shirt in Gampel.

While I have to acknowledge a difference in the level of athleticism, if you watched Stef Dolson muscle up for that lay-up, get fouled and roar like a champion without fist-pumping, well, then you’re not really a sports fan. Because moments like that are what sports are about. Big Momma Stef worked her ass off for four years to get to that moment and win a national championship. Her accomplishment, and Bria Hartley’s and Stewie’s and Moriah Jefferson’s and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’s, is no less significant than the men’s. In fact, it’s more so. Because they were perfect.

We’re pretty spoiled here in Connecticut. We expect our women to win. Final Fours? Obviously. National Championships? Ours by divine right. But we shouldn’t be blasé about it. Dynasties end. Coaches leave. So while Storrs, Connecticut is the Mecca of College Basketball we should revel in it. Because it won’t be like this forever.

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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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The 2014 NCAA National Champion UConn Huskies

The 2014 NCAA National Champion UConn Huskies

The UConn Huskies are the 2014 NCAA National Champions.

There are no words in the English language sufficient to describe how much I loved writing that sentence.

And I think one of the reasons it’s so very satisfying is because no one outside UConn Country believed it would happen. 11.01 million brackets were submitted on ESPN.com, and only 0.3 percent (all of whom were presumably in the A Dime Back pool) picked UConn to hoist the trophy. The Huskies were drastically underseeded as a 7. UMass as a 6 seemed silly when the seedings were announced. It’s downright laughable now.

March is always a strange time of year. At A Dime Back, we are unabashedly UConn homers. We wear it proudly. But that means we watch every game, read every story, and actually, you know, do some reporting about the team during the season. We know this team. We know the players. So when the national writers start pontificating about a team they have spent precisely zero minutes watching all year it just brings the rage. In one day I read that UConn can’t run and is weak on defense. What the what? Is there another UConn I should have been watching this year?

No one paid any attention to UConn last year. They were banned from the post season, so why bother watching? Well, in Connecticut, we watched. And we saw a team that worked hard. That took the stairs because escalators are for cowards. We saw a team that played because they wore UConn on their chests. And that means something.

So maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the The People Who Know About College Basketball (PWKACB). They didn’t see what I saw. But they should have.

In every game, including against St. Joseph’s when UConn was the higher seed, it seemed like the PWKACB were convinced that the Huskies couldn’t win. But they did. The OT win, which went into extra time because of Amida Brimah’s timely put-back and made free throw, was the closest the Huskies came to losing in the tournament.

Then came Nova, who went out to an early lead. And with Bazz on the bench in foul trouble it was up to Boat and freshman guard Terrance Samuel to get the game back. And they did. T-Sam, who earned his minutes by wreaking havoc on defense, got no love from the national press. KO went into the half guaranteeing a win. Twitter scoffed. But he was right. UConn came back from the half and surged ahead. And they never looked back.

Then it was Michigan State and Adreian Payne: big, tough and a shooter on top of it. No way UConn was keeping him out of the paint. Except they did. Payne had to settle for three-pointers as Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah refused to let him into their yard. Even when UConn was losing, and the shots weren’t falling, the Huskies refused to go down. They stayed calm, and they never wavered in their belief that they would win. That’s what experience gets you, folks. Let Calipari stack his team with freshman. I’ll take the veterans any day.

How many times this week did I hear some moron on TV say, “Can UConn beat Florida?” Which, naturally, prompted me to yell back, “THEY ALREADY DID YOU [unprintable] [also unprintable] [definitely unprintable, my mom reads this].”

Kevin Ollie is too inexperienced, they said. He can’t beat Tom Izzo or Billy Donovan or John Calipari. Except he did. The UConn coaching staff drew up flawless game plans, and the Huskies executed to perfection. When Florida went to its 1-3-1 defense, KO adjusted. Ollie, who always looks like he was about run out on the court and start playing defense, did a masterful job guiding this team through the tournament. (NBA peeps, stay the eff away. He’s ours, and you can’t have him.)

All season, my brother and I have been nearly giddy about the fact that this team makes their free throws. Glen Miller stumbled on a YouTube video of a Steve Nash free throw drill: hit as many as you can in a minute. Ollie and his staff adopted it, running the drill several times a practice. Hit 17 or sprint. So they got used to hitting free throws under pressure, when their bodies were exhausted. So making free throws in high pressure situations just became a matter of muscle memory. It wasn’t an accident that this team hit over 90 percent of their free throws at the end of games. It’s why Donovan and Calipari didn’t even bother fouling in the final minutes. What was the point? They knew what we all did: UConn makes all of their damn free throws.

And then there’s the Boat Show. Sometime in the last month Ryan Boatright became a ferocious defender. It’s like Ricky Moore transferred his defensive spirit animal into Boat. Against Florida, Boat made Scottie Wilbekin’s life miserable. Wilbekin didn’t see the lane all night. Which is exactly what Boat intended.

The PWKACB all said UConn’s undersized guards (Boat and Bazz are charitably listed at 6’0” and 6’1” respectively) were too little to stop the 6’6” Harrison twins. But the PWKACB don’t know Bazz and Boat. They don’t know that they’re warriors. They don’t know that they have no conscience on defense, that they don’t get pushed around. And that they don’t back down. Ever. Those two are scrappers. They haven’t been handed anything, not on the court, and not in life. When Boat turned his ankle late in the game, there was never a moment when I thought he wasn’t coming back. An ankle sprain? Please. Boat’s not going out unless his ankle falls off.  And what happened? Experience and toughness triumphed over size, and the Harrison twins looked like kids playing against grownups.

Shabazz Napier is smarter than just about everyone on the floor. He was the best player in the tournament, and ran his team with poise and confidence. But UConn was never a one-man show, and the PKACB did the team a disservice by treating them as such. They kept comparing Bazz to Kemba, and while there is certainly something to the comparison, the 2011 and 2014 teams are drastically different. Kemba did have Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi, but when Kemba wasn’t in the game, the Huskies were in trouble. This team felt more like, well, a team. There was Niels Giffey hitting clutch threes against Kentucky, and somehow transforming himself into a power forward, rebounding monster against Michigan. There was DeAndre Daniels having a shoot-the-lights-out game against Florida. There was Lasan Kromah and Samuels and, of course, Boat, making their guys so uncomfortable they couldn’t get going.

But even more than that, these guys seemed to genuinely love each other. They talked about it every game, their brotherhood. T-Sam doing the Three Sweep, and everyone having each other’s back. Team chemistry like that is rare. And you don’t win without it.

UConn had a lot of intangibles that none of the pundits seemed to give any weight. Yes, Kentucky had a bunch of freshman who are going to have real NBA careers. Good for them. The Huskies had experience. They’ve been here before. They went through the wringer together, and came out the other side stronger. And you know the Huskies used the non-belief from the PWKACB as motivation. You don’t think we can win? Fine. We’ll show you.

And, maybe most importantly, they genuinely believed they would win. They believed in themselves, they believed in their coach and they believed in each other.

On Senior Night, when Coach Ollie promised to come back in April with a banner, people thought he was nuts. But that belief, that motivation, that faith was rewarded. Because yesterday Bazz was inducted into the Huskies of Honor club. And UConn raised its fourth National Championship banner. Damn it feels good to be a Husky.

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UConnWins

I slept for maybe 2 hours last night, so you’ll have to forgive my lack of clarity and articulateness. It just seemed weird to still not have posted on here after we won our fourth National Championship.

Yes, I said “we.” I know that it has long been passé to refer to the team for which you root as “we,” but I have a very personal relationship with this program, as anyone who watched me unravel during the game last night could attest. As you’re all likely aware (since most of the people who read this are my friends from college), I went to UConn. Not only did I go there, but it was the only school to which I applied. The same holds true for my sister. I’ve been visiting UConn since I was a small child, as it is the alma mater of both of my parents, who met there and fell in love and schmoopy schmoop schmoop (yeah, this is about to get real sappy, so be ready). The first person I talked to after the game (excluding the random hugging dudes at the bar) was my mother, followed by my sister, followed by my father, who gets so tense during these games that he tried to go to bed halfway through, only to be constantly woken up by my hysterical mother. A hysterical mother who once woke me and my sister up after Tate George made some shot against Clemson.

I’ve felt a strong attachment to UConn longer than I’ve understood what college was. I knew Chris Smith and Rod Sellers before I knew Michael Jordan. I’m hardly unique in this regard, as almost any denizen of the Nutmeg State can tell you that UConn basketball is THE sport in Connecticut. Yeah, you’ve got your fans of various professional franchises, but this is our team, not New York’s, not Boston’s.

This attachment manifests in a number of ways. For example, since the first time I filled out a bracket in 7th grade, I’ve invariably picked UConn to win the championship. That year, I picked UConn over Georgetown in the final, including an all-Big East Final Four, with Syracuse and Villanova also making the final weekend. For the second time in four years, this compulsion (and it is a compulsion – I’ve tried to not do it a couple of times, and it’s impossible) has won me a March Madness pool (note for the IRS: all of my winnings this year were donated to Books For Africa).

So I get to brag that, yes, despite all the evidence, I believed that UConn would win the championship. After all, the evidence is right there in my bracket (actually three brackets, but who’s counting?). But that isn’t the whole truth. My wildest dream for this team was to make it to the Final Four, culminating with a close loss to eventual champ Florida in an instant classic. Dreaming of a championship just felt illogical. But somehow, even though I couldn’t quite visualize a championship, I was incapable of acknowledging that. I had to put UConn down to win. There was no logic. It was all in my heart.

See where I’m going with this?

The players on this team believed in themselves and in their coach, even when logic might dictate that they should have had doubts. Kevin Ollie was clearly outcoached this season by Larry Brown and Rick Pitino, making me wonder aloud if he was good enough to get a team to the Final Four. After all, in order to do that, he’d have to get past at least one or two great coaches. Then he went out and beat Phil Martelli, Jay Wright, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, and John Calipari, all of whom have won national coach of the year awards (he also beat Fred Hoiberg, a fine coach to be sure, but not with the same resume as the others). UConn got absolutely embarrassed by Louisville in their regular season finale, calling into question if they had the talent to really take on top teams in the tournament. Then they beat, in order, the Atlantic-10 Tournament champion (St. Joseph’s), the Big East regular season champion (Villanova), the Big 12 regular season AND tournament champion (Iowa State), the B1G tournament champion (Michigan State), the SEC regular season AND tournament champion (Florida), and finally, the preseason #1 team (Kentucky). How did they do it? As far as I can tell, they believed that they could, even when they shouldn’t have. None of this made sense, and that made it all the better.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I wasn’t absolutely ecstatic over the 1999 and 2004 titles, but the underdog stories of 2011 and 2014 bring a special sort of satisfaction. The Huskies’ first two championship squads featured unquestionable NBA talent, with strong depth and versatility. The 2011 team had Kemba Walker and a lot of question marks. This year’s team merely had a solid lineup with decent depth. It didn’t feature a transcendent talent like Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, or Kemba Walker.

Right?

Unlike some people (Meghan, Alex, Tyler), I’m not going to get so caught up in the moment as to say that Napier is the best Husky ever. That being said, what this team accomplished this year, with Napier as the unquestioned leader, was amazing. I’m not sure that Napier’s supporting cast was better than Kemba’s, but this definitely felt more like a team than the 2011 team did. And what a team it turned out to be.

Congratulations gentlemen. You’ll be missed.

 

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Coach Kevin Ollie hugs Shabazz Napier | Cloe Poisson, Hartford Courant

Coach Kevin Ollie hugs Shabazz Napier | Cloe Poisson, Hartford Courant

UConn is in the Final Four.

Take a minute. Read that again. Revel in it. It’s almost hard to believe that we’re here right now. Despite what my bracket says, I picked UConn to go all the way more out of loyalty than out of a genuine belief that they were going to make the Final Four. I knew they could. I knew I had seen them beat the best team in the country. And anyone who has been unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of one of my UConn diatribes knows that I’ve believed all season that when this team is on, they can beat anyone in the country.

But even my deep-seeded homerness didn’t prepare me for this reality. There were some truly ugly moments this season. The losses in Texas. The thumping from Louisville. And we’ve all had some things to say about Kevin Ollie this season. He got out-coached by Larry Brown and Rick Pitino. He doesn’t have enough set plays. His line-up management is at times truly puzzling. But then this week he out-coached Tom Izzo. Tom Izzo, you guys. He’s run some of the most perfect plays I’ve ever seen. And his line-up management has been spectacular. But, most importantly, he got this team to believe. In him, in themselves and in each other. They believe they can beat anyone. And then they do.

Ollie has got his team playing the best basketball they’ve played all season. The Steve Nash free-throw drill is paying off in spades. There’s no team in college basketball that hits free throws down the stretch like UConn. None. And that’s how you win in the NCAA Tournament: by making your damn free throws. The defense this team is playing right now is spectacular. The hurt they put on Michigan State down low is magical. Our guys, undersized and inexperienced in comparison, limited the Spartans to 6 points in the paint. Six. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, pundits.

DeAndre Daniels’ offense is finally (Finally!) at the level he achieved at the end of last season. His shot is silky smooth, and he can go off at any moment. Ryan Boatright’s on-ball defense is absolutely stifling. There’s no guard who is going to have a break out game with the Boat Show all up in his grill. Terrence Samuel, as Peter so eloquently tweeted a la Swingers, is all growns up. Those are some crucial minutes he’s giving off the bench, contributing with his aggression on defense and offense. Amida Brimah and Phil Nolan are actually starting to look like a couple of legitimate bigs. And, of course, we cannot leave out everyone’s favorite German, Neils Giffey, who has been rebounding like a man possessed.

And then there’s Shabazz Napier. What’s left to say that everyone hasn’t already said 100 times? I’m not going to compare him to Kemba Walker. Bazz has earned his place in UConn lore all by himself. We do him a disservice by comparing him to Kemba. Bazz is his own man. And what he’s done for this program – sticking around when everyone left, playing when there was nothing to play for but pride, and bringing together this team in this time for this coach – it’s maybe more significant than any contribution in the history of UConn basketball. No matter what happens this weekend, I will be forever grateful to the little point guard from Roxbury with the heart the size of Connecticut. He’s a credit to the program and to the university.

Kevin Ollie has led his team to Promised Land. He took them on a tour of the stadium in Dallas back in December, during our darkest hours. He showed them what could be. And he convinced them they could get there. That they had everything they needed, right there in Storrs. That they are enough. Ollie is a true believer, and he makes believers out of everyone around him. This program has weathered the storm: the loss of a Hall of Fame Coach, a post-season ban and an exodus. Ollie is our Noah. He built the Ark, one nail at a time. He brought faith and he spread it around. The floods came, and we survived. And now we’re here. The Final Four. And the world is a beautiful place again.

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Before the game, I told you that UConn needed to hit their jump shots to have a chance against Michigan State. I told you that Michigan State was going to be able to exploit mismatches inside. Instead, in front of a raucous pro-Husky crowd, UConn shot 5-22 from three. Michigan State scored 6 points in the paint. The result? A 60-54 win, sending UConn to the Final Four in Dallas, where they’ll face Florida, a team that hasn’t lost since UConn beat them on December 2nd.

Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, Michigan State’s talented forwards, were non-factors inside. Dawson was held to 5 points and 1 offensive rebound, while Phil Nolan did a yeoman’s work in keeping Payne contained inside, with Payne getting all four of his field goals on jump shots in transition.

Despite not shooting well, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright probably had the two signature plays of the game. Napier ended a lengthy Michigan State run with a three-pointer that allowed UConn to go on a 12-0 run of their own, and Boatright stole the ball from an unaware Gary Harris (one of Harris’ few miscues during a great shooting performance) to get a fast break the other way.

Boatright made for a miserable day for Michigan State point guard Keith Appling, who had only two points in the game, with four turnovers in 28 minutes.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kevin Ollie, whose game plan against Dawson and Payne worked perfectly. Gutting out a win against a Michigan State team requires some serious onions, but outsmarting Tom Izzo, one of the all-time greats in college basketball, requires something more.

Congratulations, coach, and enjoy your first Final Four. I suspect that it will be the first of many.

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Mar
30

This Is It. Don’t Get Scared Now.

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FOT622DIf you had told preseason-Peter before the season on that UConn would make it to the Elite 8, knocked out by preseason #2 Michigan State, preseason-Peter would have been thrilled.

Well, preseason-Peter is a loser, and I don’t respect him.

Make no mistake, this has been a great season, and barring an embarrassing blowout loss today, I’ll remember it fondly. But Kevin Ollie, Shabazz Napier, and company will tell you that you don’t get to play in the Elite 8 if you’re satisfied by playing in the Elite 8.

So here it is: our chance to firmly reestablish ourselves as among college basketball’s top-flight programs. Win today, and reopen the eyes of the top conferences, the media, and casual basketball fans.

I harbor no illusions about this game. The United States government is on record stating that we’ll lose. Michigan State boasts a versatile and athletic frontcourt, featuring walking matchup nightmare Adreian Payne. Containing Payne and forward Branden Dawson is going to be the key to this game, but it’s unclear which Huskies are best-suited for the assignment. Said Ollie on Saturday, “You can’t let them establish low-post position.” It will be interesting to see how Ollie adjusts to MSU’s heavy advantage up front, perhaps giving more minutes to senior Tyler Olander or freshman Kentan Facet.

UConn, as usual, will rely on its advantage in the backcourt, though Gary Harris and Keith Appling are as good a guard pairing as UConn has faced this year. The UConn duo will have to be at their best to keep the Huskies in the game.

If the jump shots are falling, Napier, Boatright, and DeAndre Daniels could propel UConn to its first post-Calhoun Final Four. If not, it could be a long day.

Godspeed, gentlemen. We believe in you.

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Mar
28

Home Sweet Home

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2K Sports ClassicBehind DeAndre Daniels’ 27 points and 10 rebounds, UConn defeated Iowa State 81-76 in front of a friendly crowd at Madison Square Garden. Daniels’ big game came with Iowa State lacking much of an inside presence, having lost Georges Niang in the opening round of the tournament (shut up, NCAA; I know a play-in game when I see one).

Head Coach Kevin Ollie noted the impact of the friendly crowd, stating “We can really hear them cheering for us, and we can also grow off their energy.” Said Shabazz Napier, “It just felt like a home game.”

UConn’ s guards looked to Daniels often to rack up points over an undersized ISU front line. Ryan Boatright said “Once he hit that first jump shot, we knew we were going to try to get him another easy basket, and once he got that easy basket, we knew we were just going to keep going to him.”

And go to Daniels they did. The slender junior led UConn in points and attempts, a welcome sight for a team that has relied heavily on its guard play all year.

Lost in Daniels’ big night was another stellar performance from freshman guard Terrence Samuel, who scored 10 points and played outstanding defense. Ollie gave his approval, saying “it takes us to another level because I can put three point guards out there.”

UConn relied heavily on its free throw shooting again, going 20-22 on the night, including some pressure-packed ones down the stretch, as some questionable defense and questionable-er officiating helped whittle a 17-point lead down as low as four.

Next up, the Huskies face the winner of Michigan State and Virginia on Sunday. I think some Iowa State fans might have tickets they aren’t using.

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Mar
28

This Apple Is Terrifyingly Big

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So here I sit, in the MSG Media Room, in between writers for Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated, and it’s really starting to sink in: this place matters.

I’m feeling totally overwhelmed, and I’m an adult. A grown man. You know, more or less. Meanwhile, there are college students in a locker room somewhere (I don’t know where; this place is enormous), preparing to actually get on one of the most famous basketball courts in the world to play a nationally televised game. I never could have done this, even if I’d had the requisite athletic talent, which, to be very clear, I did not.

So ponder that for a moment. These kids, kids like Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Kane, whom we’ve turned into household names, are facing exponentially more pressure than I’ve ever been able to handle.

As for the game, is there even anything left to say? If Daniels gets going, I’m not sure that ISU has the height to do anything about it. If not, and this becomes a battle between Napier and Kane, well, it’s going to be an exciting night.

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