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Family, pride in what’s been built keep UConn on solid ground

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ARLINGTON, Texas — “We’re going to stand through this time and we’re going to be there for one another, and we’re going to extend everything we can extend to our family making sure that you come back and be with us.”

Those were the words of UConn head coach Kevin Ollie during his introductory press conference. And while they were partly in reference to former players returning to campus to complete their education, they also had a lot to do with making sure those players knew they would be needed to ensure that UConn would remain a power program.

There were many questions the program had to address during that time. The APR sanctions that resulted in a postseason ban, leaving the program with questions of who would be back to lead UConn through the 2012-13 season. The violations hanging over the program stemming from the recruitment of Nate Miles. There was also the issue of conference realignment, with UConn being one of the schools left behind in the race to land a “golden ticket” to one of the newly christened “Power Five” leagues. Add in a head coach who had no prior experience in said role, and there was quite a bit to be concerned about with regards to the future of UConn basketball.

Those fears have been laid to rest over the last two seasons, with Ollie’s Huskies winning 20 games in 2012-13 and following that up with a Final Four appearance this season. The coaching staff and the players, especially a senior class led by guard Shabazz Napier, gets most of the credit as their hard work and loyalty to UConn has allowed the program to embark on a new era in successful fashion.

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But there’s also something to be said for the power of family, with the coaching staff all having experience at UConn as either a player, coach or both. Add in the many former players who continue to return to Storrs, and that has helped the UConn “brand” endure in the face of the uncertainty that threatened to cripple the program less than two years ago. And with regards to the leader of the program, that pride makes the job of “selling” UConn that much easier.

“Recruiting is natural to me,” said Ollie. “Because I’m not making anything up. This is what I believe in. I sat in those same seats, I went to the same classes that [my players] are going to. It’s just a part of me and I love the university, and I want to be here for a long time.”

That aspect of the coaching staff, having members on board who already had a deep connection with the university, helped UConn get through a year in which there were no postseason trophies to play for and the conference in which they’d become a power splintering off into separate entities right before their very eyes.

For some the feeling of powerlessness would take over, resulting in a downward spiral for the program as a whole. That hasn’t been the case at UConn, with the pride in what has been built over the years sparking a refusal to allow that to happen.

“It’s invaluable. I can’t put a price tag on it,” Ollie said when asked about the importance of his staff’s connection to the school, with he and all three assistants having graduated from UConn. “Two of my coaches coached me. Glen Miller coached me my freshman and sophomore years, when I didn’t know anything. Coach Hobbs came in after Glen left and he coached me my junior and senior year. That’s when I really started taking off as a point guard and really establishing myself as a basketball player and a point guard.

“So my coaching staff, I tell them they’re the best in America because they’re young but they’re all UConn guys. They all got their degrees from UConn. It’s a beautiful synergy that we have because we all have that common denominator that we played for UConn. We know what it takes to put that jersey on and the pride that we are playing for each and every night.”

It’s a pride that was first established by Jim Calhoun, who in his time at the school transformed UConn from a program without much of an impact outside of New England to one of the most powerful programs in college basketball. And he’s certainly enjoyed watching his former point guard make the program “his” while also making sure the players understand what’s been built for them.

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“I’m so proud of Kevin and I’m so proud of the guys who coach with him, because they have an integral part in this too,” Calhoun told NBC Sports. “Glen Miller, Kevin Freeman and Ricky Moore, and Karl Hobbs. It’s ‘UConn, UConn, UConn’. And Kevin’s done an incredible job of making sure it’s his team, 101%. His fingerprints are more than evident and yet he’s maintained the past of the program.”

What happens Saturday night when UConn faces top overall seed Florida remains to be seen, with UConn looking to move one step closer to its fourth national title. But if these last two seasons under Ollie have proven anything, it’s that the pride he and his staff have in UConn will continue to motivate them as they look to not only sustain what’s been built but add on to it.

DePaul adds 2018 commit

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Wisconsin guard John Diener has committed to DePaul, his grassroots program announced Wednesday night.

The 6-foot-4 Class of 2018 guard ends his recruitment rather early with offers also from instate schools Green Bay and Milwaukee. He’s known as a shooter and becomes the first commit for Dave Leitao in the 2018 class.

Diener, who plays with the Wisconsin Playground Warriors in the spring and summer, commits to the Blue Demons with them coming off a disappointing campaign, Leitao’s first in Chicago. DePaul went 9-22 overall and 3-15 in the Big East, finishing only ahead of St. John’s.

DePaul has been recruiting the Midwest hard with incoming 2016 recruits from La Lumiere School in Indiana, Sagninow, Mich. and locally in Chicago.

Four-star guard Fisher commits to TCU

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Jamie Dixon’s presence is already being felt in the Big 12 and on the recruiting trail.

TCU received its first commitment of the Dixon era when four-star 2016 point guard Jaylen Fisher announced his decision to join the Horned Frogs on Wednesday.

“Due to how comfortable my family and I are with the coaching staff,” Fisher posted from his Twitter account, “and the emphasis the university has put on making basketball a priority, I’m committing to be a student-athlete at TCU.”

Getting a consensus top-75 prospect, who was once committed to UNLV, is a heck of a coup for being just a couple months on the job. It instantly shows the Frogs are going to be a player for some of the country’s top players, which is a necessity if you have designs on making a move up the ladder of arguably the country’s best league in the Big 12.

Maybe the most gratifying thing for TCU, though, is the reason Fisher publicly stated for making his decision, the school’s “making basketball a priority.” The hoops program has suffered immensely in the Big 12 (while the football program has flourished), winning a total of eight games in their four seasons (including a winless 2014), but the school sank $72 million into renovating its arena, made an aggressive move in firing Trent Johnson and then went out and got its dream candidate, Dixon, an alum. Fisher’s commitment is the first time those moves have shown that commitment to basketball paying off.

 

Report: Izundu’s San Diego State transfer ban rescinded

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Washington State transfer Valentine Izundu will be visiting San Diego State after all.

Coach Ernie Kent has rescinded his restriction on the 6-foot-10 graduate transfer from visiting the Aztecs, according to a report from the Spokesman-Review, citing an anonymous source. Izundu will also be reportedly visiting Fresno State and UNLV.

Izundu had previously been barred from considering the Aztecs by Kent because of suspcisions of tampering. Izundu vigorously denied that was the case as at the center of the dispute was a trip he made to San Diego for spring break. He publicly said he did not have any contact with the SDSU coaching staff , though he attended an Aztecs NIT game.

Kent, though, appears to have relented, as many coaches who have similarly faces public pressure in such situations before him have. In this era where so much attention is being paid to player rights and welfare, there only seems to be growing public sentiment against programs restricting transfers beyond the absolute bare minimum is rarely going to go over well. It may make things more difficult for coaches and programs, but it’s the deck is largely already stacked in their favor in most every other instance.

Ex-Michigan State player Keith Appling faces weapons charges

Keith Appling
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DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) Authorities say former Michigan State basketball player Keith Appling faces charges including carrying a concealed weapon after he was found in possession of guns and marijuana in suburban Detroit.

The Wayne County prosecutor’s office says 24-year-old Appling was arrested outside a Dearborn club on Sunday night. Club security called police after seeing a man pull a gun from the trunk of a car.

Prosecutors say Appling was in the driver’s seat of the car when police arrived. Officers found a handgun under the driver’s seat, a loaded weapon in the trunk and a small amount of suspected marijuana.

Weapons and marijuana possession charges were announced Wednesday.

The court says he doesn’t have a lawyer on record.

Appling played for the Spartans from 2010-2014 and plays for the NBA’s development league.

UNLV transfer to finish career at Michigan State

UNLV forward Ben Carter, right, celebrates after his team defeated Oregon in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Las Vegas. UNLV won 80-69. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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Former UNLV center Ben Carter announced on Wednesday that he will be transferring to Michigan State to finish his collegiate career.

Carter, who began his career at Oregon, averaged 8.6 points and 6.0 boards in his one season with UNLV before tearing his ACL in late January. He spent two seasons with the Ducks before transferring to Vegas, which is why he’s eligible immediately for the Spartans.

And that’s the biggest reason that Tom Izzo and company targeted him.

The Spartans lost Deyonta Davis to the NBA Draft after one season, a fact that became an inevitability midway through the year but one that the Spartans didn’t necessarily plan for heading into last season. Carter isn’t going to be an instant impact kind of player, particularly not when he’s coming off of an ACL injury, but he is a big body and a veteran presence on a front line that wasn’t going have much of either.