Kevin Ollie leads No. 7 UConn to Final Four despite transitional state of program

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NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie had some big shoes to fill when he took over the UConn program prior to the 2012 season.

He was replacing Jim Calhoun, a legend in Nutmeg State for turning Storrs, CT, into the home of one of college basketball’s elite programs. Calhoun won three national titles and made a fourth Final Four at a program that had a non-existent hoops identity before his arrival. He quite literally built the UConn program.

Ollie was Calhoun’s hand-picked successor.

And he was taking over the program at a time when UConn was hurting. They were coming off of a disappointing, opening round tournament exit after entering the year as the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason. They had just wrapped up their probationary period for the violations that were committed during the recruitment of Nate Miles and were heading into a season where they were banned from participating in the postseason thanks to low APR scores.

That postseason ban meant that UConn would be forced to miss out on the final installment of the Big East tournament as we know it, as their bid to move into the ACC was not accepted, forcing the Huskies into the American and creating rivalries against the likes of South Florida and Houston instead of Duke and North Carolina.

Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb went pro. Alex Oriakhi transferred out of the program.

That’s the hand that Ollie was dealt.

And in his second season as UConn head coach, in the first year he was eligible to lead a team into the postseason, the Huskies are headed to the Final Four after knocking off No. 4 Michigan State, 60-54.

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Boo Willingham saw this coming.

A seldom-used reserve that played for the Huskies from 1991-1995, Willingham knows Ollie as well as anyone this side of Ollie’s wife knows him. They were roommates for four years in Storrs. Willingham was the best man at Ollie’s wedding. “That’s my best friend,” Willingham said while celebrating in the UConn locker room after the game.

“I know the fabric of Kevin Ollie. I know what he’s made of,” Willingham said. “The first day he stepped on campus as a freshman, he came in and was competing against one of the best guards in the country in Chris Smith at the time. He was a little skinny from California that didn’t back down. He poked his chest out, he had a couple of fights in practice and he got into with a couple of guys.”

“He was a tough guy that loved to compete. And he loved to get other to compete with him.”

It was that competitiveness that kept this team and this program together last season. The Huskies had nothing to play for in 2012-2013, and yet they still managed to win 20 games in their final season as a part of the Big East conference.

“Everybody was saying we weren’t playing for nothing, and a lot of media outlets saying we weren’t playing for nothing, but we were playing for something,” Ollie said on Saturday. “We were playing for what’s on our jersey, and that means a lot. If you step on our campus and the pride we have for UConn, it means a lot to put on that jersey.”

He’s been tasked with trying to keep the Huskies, a school and a program that he loves, relevant as a top ten basketball program when it’s the limited value of the school’s football program to the companies that broadcast games that has put them in a position where their rivalry with SMU will be more important than their rivalry with Syracuse; where Sunday’s visit to Madison Square Garden will be their last postseason appearance in a building that Shabazz Napier refers to as UConn’s “third home” for the foreseeable future.

That won’t be easy to do, and reaching this Final Four doesn’t change that fact. Ollie will still be fighting an uphill battle, especially when you consider that the guy that carried the Huskies all season long, Shabazz Napier, won’t be in a UConn uniform next season.

But what this win does prove is that the Huskies picked the right guy for the job.

“He proved me and a hell of a lot of people right,” Calhoun said after the game. “He’s like a son to me. He’s got character, he’s got great knowledge of the game, he works exceptionally hard, he can relate to the kids. And he’s got all UConn guys around him. That fiber of UConn has not gone any place.”

All you had to do was look up into the crowd on Sunday afternoon to see that. Among the 19,000 fans that packed into the Garden were a myriad of UConn alumni. Khalid El-Amin, Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Taliek Brown, Cliff Robinson, Andre Drummond. Ricky Moore and Kevin Freeman are on the UConn coaching staff. Even Kemba Walker’s mom showed up.

The support system is there. The UConn program is very much the UConn family. There is more than enough history and fan support to sustain the program.

The future of the program is cloudy, but the Huskies aren’t worried about the future. At least not right now. They’re worried about the present. They’re worried about playing Florida in the Final Four.

That’s a Final Four, I might add, where they will not be joined by anyone from the ACC or the new Big East.

Kansas big man Azubuike to declare without an agent

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Kansas center Udoka Azubuike is declaring for the NBA draft but will not be signing with an agent, the school announced on Friday morning.

The 7-foot Azubuike averaged 13.0 points, 7.0 boards and 1.7 blocks this season while shooting 77 percent from the floor, the majority of which were dunks that nearly broke the rim off of the backboard.

“I want to declare for this year’s (NBA) draft, but I am not going to hire an agent,” Azubuike said in a release. “I’m going to wait and see where I stand among other bigs out there. I appreciate everyone’s support, but I’m not saying goodbye. I’m saying I want to find out. Like many other players, I’m curious.”

“I improved a lot this past season. All my teammates and all my coaches have helped me to grow in all areas of my life and I really appreciate what they did for me to get to this point.”

Azubuike is projected as a second round pick.

This decision became more important for Kansas in the last two weeks, as the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball revealed that the guardian of Silvio De Sousa allegedly accepted at least $20,000 to get the 6-foot-10 center to attend Kansas. De Sousa was the security blanket if Azubuike opted to enter this draft, but it seems unlikely that De Sousa will play for Kansas next season. for comparison’s sake, the father of Brian Bowen was alleged to have received a similar amount of money, and Bowen is still waiting to be cleared at his second school seven months after those accusations first saw the light of day.

Without Azubuike and De Sousa, Kansas will likely be relying on junior Mitch Lightfoot and freshman David McCormack to man the five-spot alongside Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson.

The Jayhawks are currently projected as the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 despite the fact that they could lose all five starters off of last season’s team. That’s what happens when there is talent like the Lawson brothers and Charlie Moore sitting out as transfers and a fourth transfer — Sam Cunliffe — struggling to break into the rotation.

Throw in a pair of five-star guards — Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes — and the potential that the Jayhawks could still end up landing Romeo Langford, and things aren’t as bad as they could be in Lawrence right now.

2018 NBA Draft Early Entry List: Who declared? Who is returning? Who are we waiting on?

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Here is a full list of the players that have signed with an agent, declared and are testing the waters and those that have decided to return to school.

Underclassmen have until April 22nd to declare for the NBA draft this season and until 11:59 p.m. on May 30th to remove their name from consideration.

The NBA Combine will be held May 16-20 this year. 

We also have a long — but probably not complete — list of players that we are still waiting to hear from.

DECLARED, SIGNING WITH AGENT

TESTING THE WATERS

  • ESA AHMAD, West Virginia
  • KOSTAS ANTETOKOUNMPO, Dayton
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
  • KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State
  • BRIAN BOWEN, Louisville
  • KY BOWMAN, Boston College
  • JORDAN BRANGERS, South Plains
  • BARRY BROWN, Kansas State
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn
  • TOOKIE BROWN, Georgia Southern
  • TROY BROWN, Oregon
  • C.J. BURKS, Marshall
  • JORDAN CAROLINE, Nevada
  • HAANIF CHEATEM, FGCU
  • KAMERON CHATMAN, Detroit
  • YOELI CHILDS, BYU
  • CHRIS CLEMONS, Campbell
  • TYLER COOK, Iowa
  • ISAAC COPELAND JR., Nebraska
  • BRYANT CRAWFORD, Wake Forest
  • JON DAVIS, Charlotte
  • TERENCE DAVIS, Ole Miss
  • TYLER DAVIS, Texas A&M
  • NOAH DICKERSON, Washington
  • DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova
  • TORIN DORN, N.C. State
  • NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue
  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue
  • JON ELMORE, Marshall
  • JACOB EVANS, Cincinnati
  • BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland
  • JARREY FOSTER, SMU
  • MELVIN FRAZIER, Tulane
  • WENYEN GABRIEL, Kentucky
  • EUGENE GERMAN, Northern Illinois
  • ADMON GILDER, Texas A&M
  • JESSIE GOVAN, Georgetown
  • TYLER HALL, Montana State
  • JAYLEN HANDS, UCLA
  • ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin
  • JARED HARPER, Auburn
  • ARIC HOLMAN, Mississippi State
  • JALEN HUDSON, Florida
  • DEWAN HUELL, Miami
  • TRAMAINE ISABELL, Drexel
  • DEANGELO ISBY, Utah State
  • JUSTIN JAMES, Wyoming
  • ZACH JOHNSON, FGCU
  • CHRISTIAN KEELING, Charleston Southern
  • SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia
  • CALEB MARTIN, Nevada
  • CODY MARTIN, Nevada
  • ZANE MARTIN, Towson
  • DOMINIC MAGEE, Southern Miss
  • FLETCHER MAGEE, Wofford
  • JALEN MCDANIELS, San Diego State
  • ELIJAH MINNIE, Eastern Michigan
  • SHELTON MITCHELL, Clemson
  • TAKAL MOLSON, Canisius
  • JUWAN MORGAN, Indiana
  • MATT MORGAN, Cornell
  • JOSH OKOGIE, Georgia Tech
  • JAMES PALMER JR., Nebraska
  • LAMAR PETERS, Mississippi State
  • SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s
  • JONTAY PORTER, Missouri
  • MARCQUISE REED, Clemson
  • TRAYVON REED, Texas Southern
  • ISAIAH REESE, Canisius
  • KERWIN ROACH II, Texas
  • JEROME ROBINSON, Boston College
  • AHMAAD RORIE, Montana
  • QUINTON ROSE, Temple
  • ADMIRAL SCHOFIELD, Tennessee
  • MICAH SEABORN, Monmouth
  • CHRIS SILVA, South Carolina
  • FRED SIMS, Chicago State
  • OMARI SPELLMAN, Villanova
  • MAX STRUS, DePaul
  • DESHON TAYLOR, Fresno State
  • KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton
  • REID TRAVIS, Stanford
  • LAGERALD VICK, Kansas
  • JAYLIN WALKER, Kent State
  • NICK WARD, Michigan State
  • PJ WASHINGTON, Kentucky
  • QUINNDARY WEATHERSPOON, Mississippi State
  • ANDRIEN WHITE, Charlotte
  • DEMAJEO WIGGINS, Bowling Green
  • LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State
  • AUSTIN WILEY, Auburn
  • KRIS WILKES, UCLA
  • JUSTIN WRIGHT-FOREMAN, Hofstra
  • OMER YURTSEVEN, NC State

RETURNING TO SCHOOL

STILL WAITING TO HEAR FROM

KYLE ALEXANDER, Tennessee
NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech
TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse
DONTA HALL, Alabama
KEVIN HUERTER, Maryland
DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia
HERB JONES, Alabama
CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan
JOHN PETTY, Alabama
JOSH REAVES, Penn State
MATISSE THYBULLE, Washington
JARRED VANDERBILT, Kentucky

Miami picks up Florida Gulf Coast transfer

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The transfer train continues to run to Miami this spring.

The U picked up their third commitment from a transfer Thursday when Zach Johnson, formerly of Florida Gulf Coast, pledged to coach Jim Larranaga and the ‘Canes.

“I would like to thank my FGCU family for everything during my time there. The relationships I have built will never be forgotten,” Johnson wrote on social media. “With that being said I am proud and happy to announce that I will be attending the University of Miami for my grad year.”

Johnson joins Kameron McGusty (Oklahoma) and Anthony Mack (Wyoming) as players from other programs joining Miami. Unlike the other two, who will sit out under NCAA transfer rules, Johnson will be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 16.1 points on 46.9 percent shooting overall and 39.2 percent from distance. He averaged career highs in scoring, rebounds, 3-point percentage and steals during his junior campaign with the Eagles.

Johnson will help ease the transition for the Hurricanes with Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker gone to the pros, Dewan Huell testing the waters and Ja’Quan Newton gone to graduation.

Big Ten releases matchups for new 20-game league slate

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The Big Ten’s 14-team structure has made for some unwieldy scheduling with unbalanced schedules and long-time rivalries relegated to a single matchup in some seasons.

The conference’s move to a 20-game league schedule is being made in part to alleviate those issues. Teams will play seven opponents home-and-away and the remaining six in one-off meetings – half on the road and half at home.

“The new schedules ensure that all three of the Big Ten’s in-state rivals – Illinois/Northwestern, Indiana/Purdue, and Michigan/Michigan State-will play twice on an annual basis,” Big Ten assistant commissioner Kerry Kenny said in a statement. “Additionally, there will be regional rotations in both the east and in the west. Rather than protecting a single opponent on a yearly basis for the remaining eight teams, annual rotations involving the four eastern teams (Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers) and the four western teams (Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin) have been strategically developed to optimize travel, academic and recovery impacts while encouraging increased competition among institutions that are near each other geographically.

“Increasing the frequency of conference competition allows the Big Ten to compete across a larger footprint, while respecting history and balancing the needs of our students, coaches and fans.”

The Big Ten released the scheduling matrix Thursday (see below) while the full schedule will be released at a later date.

 

2018-19 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Opponents

ILLINOIS

Home: Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers

Away: Iowa, Maryland, Purdue

Home/Away: Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin

INDIANA

Home: Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin

Away: Maryland, Minnesota, Penn State

Home/Away: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers

IOWA

Home: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan

Away: Minnesota, Penn State, Purdue

Home/Away: Indiana, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Rutgers, Wisconsin

MARYLAND

Home: Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern

Away: Iowa, Michigan State, Rutgers

Home/Away: Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin

MICHIGAN

Home: Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue

Away: Illinois, Iowa, Rutgers

Home/Away: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, Wisconsin

MICHIGAN STATE

Home: Maryland, Minnesota, Northwestern

Away: Illinois, Penn State, Wisconsin

Home/Away: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers

MINNESOTA

Home: Indiana, Iowa, Penn State

Away: Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State

Home/Away: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin

NEBRASKA

Home: Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin

Away: Indiana, Michigan, Rutgers

Home/Away: Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Penn State, Purdue

NORTHWESTERN

Home: Minnesota, Penn State, Purdue

Away: Maryland, Michigan State, Nebraska

Home/Away: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Rutgers, Wisconsin

OHIO STATE

Home: Minnesota, Penn State, Wisconsin

Away: Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska

Home/Away: Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers

PENN STATE

Home: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State

Away: Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State

Home/Away: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin

PURDUE

Home: Illinois, Iowa, Rutgers

Away: Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin

Home/Away: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State

RUTGERS

Home: Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska

Away: Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin

Home/Away: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State

WISCONSIN

Home: Michigan State, Purdue, Rutgers

Away: Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State

Home/Away: Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State

New Mexico’s Chris McNeal transferring

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Chris McNeal is heading to his fourth school in four years.

The New Mexico guard has asked for and received his release from the school to transfer, the Lobos announced Thursday.

“Chris has truly been a great person to have in our program,” head coach Paul Weir said in a statement. “We wish him nothing but the best in his future.”

McNeal began his career in 2015 at Western Kentucky, where he played one season and set the freshman assist record, before heading to Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Ia., becoming a junior-college All-American on his way to New Mexico.

In his one season with the Lobos, McNeal started 19 games and averaged 9.5 points per game.He shot 37.2 percent from the floor and 31.5 percent from 3-point range. He had three games of at least 20 points, including 29 against Tennessee Tech in which he connected on 7 of 11 3-pointers.

New Mexico went 19-15 and finished third in the Mountain West.

McNeal will have one year remaining of eligibility and also has a redshirt year still available to him after his stop at Indian Hills.