Tuesday, October 21, 2014

My AP preseason Top 25 ballot, All-America team

Happy to be an Associated Press Top 25 voter again this season. Our preseason Top 25 and five-man All-American team is due by Friday. The first AP Top 25 will be released on Oct. 31, with the All-America team moving on Nov. 3.

Here's what I'll be submitting:

1.       Wisconsin
2.       Kentucky
3.       Arizona
4.       Duke
5.       Kansas
6.       North Carolina
7.       Louisville
8.       Texas
9.       Wichita State
10.   Iowa State
11.   Villanova
12.   UConn
13.   Florida
14.   Gonzaga
15.   Virginia
16.   SMU
17.   San Diego State
18.   Michigan State
19.   Virginia Commonwealth
20.   Michigan
21.   Harvard
22.   Ohio State
23.   Stanford
24.   Syracuse

25.   Oklahoma

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
Georges Niang, Iowa State
Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State

I’ve never particularly liked the Wisconsin men’s basketball team. Just hasn’t been very aesthetically pleasing over the years, a bit too … boring, we’ll say. Yeah, boring.

But the Badgers won me over last season, led by big Frank Kaminsky and dynamic Sam Dekker (who’s anything but boring). Now, pretty much everyone’s back from last year’s Final Four team that fell a few points short of a date with UConn in the national championship game. That’s why I’m picking them as my preseason No. 1.

It seems most people are going with Kentucky, the team that beat the Badgers in last year’s Final Four, after all. The Wildcats have a record nine McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster, including key players from last year’s runners-up like the Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew) as well as Willie Cauley-Stein (whose injury for the national championship game undoubtedly helped UConn).

But Kentucky also loses key players like Julius Randle and James Young. They’ve got great freshmen coming in, led by Karl Towns, but so often we’ve seen teams with great newcomers have trouble jelling and, ultimately, disappointing. 

I'll side with teams like Wisconsin -- veteran, experienced teams who truly love being in college and value their entire collegiate experience -- over teams stacked with talent but, too often, have too many guys with one eye on the next level and perhaps aren't buying into the whole team concept.

Sure, every now and then there’s a team like 2012 Kentucky, which rolled to a national title behind freshmen and sophomores, led by Anthony Davis. But look no further than 2014 Kentucky. Remember, some pundits were predicting an undefeated season for a team led largely by freshmen? The Wildcats wound up disappointing through much of the season and were a No. 8 seed for the NCAA tournament. Kentucky started to come together at just the right time, of course (John Calipari deserves a lot of credit there) and wound up in the national title game … where it fell to UConn.

Ah yes, UConn. What to do with the Huskies? It’s funny to look at the preseason coaches’ poll and see four of the teams UConn beat in last year’s NCAA tournament (Kentucky, Florida, Villanova and Iowa State) all ranked ahead of the Huskies. But it’s somewhat understandable.

The graduation of Shabazz Napier is huge. Yes, Ryan Boatright is a terrific player who really matured last season – particularly in the postseason – as a true point guard, a leader and a defensive whiz. Yes, Amida Brimah should be one of the best shot-blockers in the nation. Yes, Rodney Purvis, Daniel Hamilton and Sam Cassell, Jr. are outstanding additions. Yes, Terrence Samuel boasts championship pedigree, and if Omar Calhoun can turn things around … watch out!

But it’s hard to quantify just how much Shabazz meant to this program that past couple of seasons. There were so many games in which his late heroics saved the Huskies from defeat. Never mind the obvious ones like Florida and Indiana last season; don’t forget South Florida on the road, where Napier delivered an inspirational halftime speech (after the Huskies had played their worst half of the season and trailed by six), then scored 11 of UConn’s final 14 points in a 61-56 win. Or how about against Quinnipiac in the 2012 Paradise Jam, when he scored 23 of his 29 points in the game’s final 3 ½ minutes of regulation and two overtimes? Those are just two of too many other examples to list.

I like UConn this season. There’s a lot of talent, but I see it taking a while for it all to jell together. It’s going to take a couple of months for guys like Hamilton, Purvis and Cassell, Jr. to learn how to play together, share the ball and do what’s best for the team. I don’t worry about Boatright – I think he knows he’s got to prove to NBA scouts that he’s a distributor and that he can make his teammates better. He’ll do that. But there are a lot of shots to go around, and it’ll be interesting to see how everybody co-exists. It’ll also be interesting to see if UConn still has some long-distance threats now that Napier, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey are gone. Early returns are that Cassell may just be that guy.

So, I like the Huskies more than some (for instance, Lindy’s magazine has them ranked No. 36. Even though I did the UConn and AAC season previews for this edition, I’ll take no blame for that low ranking. Wasn’t me). However, it wouldn’t shock me at all if SMU beats out UConn for the AAC championship. If Emmanuel Mudiay had stayed at SMU rather than zipped off to China, that might be a no-brainer. Even without Mudiay, however, the Mustangs return just about everyone from last year’s 27-10, NIT runners-up, including all-AAC picks Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy, former McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier and talented Xavier transfer Justin Martin. And, let’s not forget, SMU beat UConn last season both times they met. This Larry Brown guy can coach a little bit.

In fact, I was prepared to rank SMU even higher and pick it to win the AAC until reports the other day that Kennedy may be sidelined forat least the early part of the season due to academic issues. If Kennedy misses part (or all) of the season, it’s a big blow to the Mustangs.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Some sights and sounds from UConn's First night

A few sights and sounds from First Night:

Omar Calhoun went 3-for-6 from the floor to finish with six points. He also looks markedly slimmer than he did a year ago, and while he hasn't lost weight (still at about 205 lbs.), he's toned up and looks good and refreshed. And that's a good sign for UConn.

*** Amida Brimah looked good, scoring 10 points and blocking Rodney Purvis here ...:

... as well as at the end of the game on Purvis's shot attempt in the waning seconds, preserving the win for Brimah's "Team Geno." Brimah scored the first points of the night on a nice, low post turnaround. If he can hit that shot consistently -- watch out.

Having said that, you really shouldn't take much from the scrimmage. This may come across as sexist, but when you're playing in a co-ed game, you're not really going to show all our true skills.

*** This didn't come out very well, but trust us, it's the unveiling of the 2014 men's national championship banner:

It was rollicking at Gampel prior to First Night festivities on Friday:

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A look at UConn's new basketball facility

The media got a tour of UConn's new practice facility this afternoon. The $39 million project isn't completely done yet -- they've raised $33.5 million thus far -- but the academic, training and weight rooms are complete, as well as the men's and women's gyms. Really a beautiful new facility. (Interesting to note: Jim Calhoun's got his own office in there, as well).

Here's some video and pictures from today's tour:

The men's practice gym:

The men's locker room:

Here's the Ray Allen mural adorning one of the inside walls:

Here's a view of the stadium-style seats inside the team's film room:

And here's a list of former players who have donated to the new practice facility, including Kevin Ollie and Steve Pikiell, along with several former women's stars:

The shared academic room, where players can study:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A list of some expected attendees at UConn's First Night festivities

Here's a list of some of the recruits expected at UConn's First Night festivities on Friday:

Jalen Adams: 2015 point guard out of Brewster Academy via Roxbury, Massachusetts. Committed to the Huskies in late June. Hard to think of a more perfect fit for the UConn program. 

Steve Enoch, 2015 power forward out of St. Thomas More, via Norwalk. Committed to UConn last month. An up-and-coming, 6-foot-9 talent who really blew up early in the summer on the AAU circuit.

V.J. King, a 6-7 2016 small forward out of Fairfax, Virginia, who is rated the No. 19 overall prospect in his class by rivals.com.

Mamadou Diarra, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound 2016 power forward out of Putnam Science Academy. Seems to have been attracting largely mid-major interest to this point.

Hamidou Diallo, Diarra's Putnam Science Academy teammate and a 6-foot-4, 2017 shooting guard.

Tremont Waters: 2017 point guard out of South Kent School. A New Haven native, not much more to say about him that hasn't already been said in this space.

Nate Pierre-Louis: Another 2017 point guard who hails from Jersey City, New Jersey and plays at St. Benedict's. 

Nazreon Reid, a 6-9, 2018 power forward out of New Jersey's Roselle Catholic -- same school attended by Isaiah Briscoe.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

UConn readies for First Night festivities

UConn will hold its annual First Night festivities on Friday, as the 2014-15 season officially kicks off. Or unofficially ... the Huskies have, after all, been practicing since Oct. 4.

Anyway, should be a fun night at Gampel Pavilion. Just like last year, in lieu of a slam dunk competition there will be a co-ed scrimmage between Team Kevin and Team Geno, with each team featuring members of the men's and women's teams. Also, the national championship banners for both the men's and women's teams will be unveiled. Here's a schedule of the night's events:

3 p.m. - Fan Fest on Fairfield Way
5 p.m. - Doors Open
5:30 p.m. - 6:30 PM- Autograph Session
6 p.m. - Pre-event begins
7 p.m. - Showtime

Indeed, Friday is all about UConn's championship past intertwining with its promising future. After the Huskies unfurl their championship banners and put an official stamp on their 2013-14 season, it's all about the present -- and the future -- going forward. 

For one, UConn will hold a media tour of its new basketball practice facility on Friday at 2:15 p.m. Then, from 4-6 p.m., there will be an official dedication and a special naming announcement of the new facility. In other words, we get to see who the biggest donor towards the facility is. (Don't forget, Kevin Ollie donated $100,000 toward the facility two years ago).

Meanwhile, as always, UConn will have some special guests at the First Night festivities. Among them are expected to be recent commits Jalen Adams and Steve Enoch, along with New Haven's Tremont Waters, a Class of 2017 point guard up at South Kent School.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Kevin Ollie, Geno Auriemma talk the talk at Oakdale Theater

Kevin Ollie and Geno Auriemma entertained a crowd of about 450 at the Oakdale Theater on Tuesday night. (First time I've been to the Oakdale, by the way, though I hear the acoustics are good for concerts. May have to make a point of coming back).

Anyway, here's a little of what Ollie had to say:

“We’re gonna have good chemistry. That’s what we work on, first and foremost. Then, everything else follows after that. We’re just trying to build them up from the neck up, then we’ll worry about the neck down. It starts with mental toughness, because that’s what it takes to be a champion. We want to win a championship every day. If they can do that, ultimately we’ll be where we need to be at the end of the season.”

(comparing Ryan Boatright to his point guard predecessors)

“They’re loyal to the program: Kemba was loyal, Shabazz was loyal, and Ryan is real loyal to the program and wanting to see the program succeed. When you have that common thread between the three of them, they all want to see UConn be the best university it possibly can be.”

Ollie said that the team has mostly been practicing in its new facility, and had its first scrimmage on Saturday. He said the team is healthy and ready to go, though Ryan Boatright and Amida Brimah have each sat out a few practices with foot soreness lately. Not a big deal, it seems.

Speaking of the new facility, its official dedication ceremony will be held on Friday from 4-6 p.m., prior to First Night festivities. New Haven's own Tremont Waters, as well as UConn commits Steve Enoch, Jalen Adams are expected to be in attendance at First Night.

So on Friday, just before the Huskies put an official exclamation point on their incredible 2013-14 season with the unfurling of dual championship banners at First Night, the program will unveil the symbol of its positive future, as well.

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Isaiah Briscoe decision could come "soon"

Sounds like Isaiah Briscoe could be making his collegiate decision sooner than originally thought. He had said over the summer that he'd likely wait until the spring to make his choice, but now is saying that his decision could come "soon."

And it sounds like UConn and Kentucky are the two front-runners.

Briscoe, a point guard out of Roselle Catholic in New Jersey, visited both schools recently. He speaks glowingly of Kevin Ollie and his entire UConn visit, and while it's impossible to know how much of a factor this will play, it's worth noting that Jim Salmon, Briscoe's New Jersey Playaz AAU coach, coached Kevin Freeman for a season at Paterson Catholic and thinks the world of Freeman.

Elsewhere, it appears UConn is already in on one of the top big men from the Class of 2018, Marvin Bagley III, a 6-foot-10 center from Tempe, Arizona.

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