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.

Report: Texas’ Jones to test NBA possibility

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Both of Texas’ McDonald’s All-Americans from its 2016 class will test the NBA waters.

Andrew Jones will declare for the draft, but will not hire an agent, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-4 guard joins Jarrett Allen, the Longhorns’ star center, in utilizing the rule change that became available to players last year in which they can declare, workout for teams, attend the NBA combine and still return to school.

Jones averaged 11.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a freshman. He shot 42.5 percent from the field overall and 32.8 percent from 3-point range.

Allen seems the likelier candidate to remain in the draft as a potential lottery pick, but Jones came to Austin with similar one-and-done possibilities given his status as one of the class’ top recruits.

Texas, of course, is hoping both return, not just because they’re both big talents, but because incoming and highly-touted recruit Matt Coleman fills the major hole in last year’s lineup – point guard. If the three of them can share the floor together, Year 3 of the Shaka Smart era will be much more interesting.

Morrow announces transfer from Nebraska

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Nebraska was once again hit with a surprising and damaging transfer.

Ed Morrow, Jr., who led the Huskers in rebounding last year, announced his intention to transfer, the school announced Wednesday.

“I support Ed in his decision to transfer schools and wish him well,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said in a statement. “We appreciate his hard work over the last two years. Although I am disappointed, we will continue to recruit young men who are committed to our mission of building Nebraska Basketball with a culture of success in all areas…life, school and winning basketball at its highest level.”

The 6-foot-7 sophomore’s departure is a major hit to the Huskers, who are coming off a 12-19 year in which Miles’ job security was called into question. It almost assuredly will be again this year as Nebraska hasn’t been able to build on its 2014 NCAA tournament appearance, instead putting together three-straight losing seasons.

Morrow’s decision is surprising not only given he’d been a productive member of the team – averaging 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game – but because he was born in Nebraska before attending high school in Chicago and both his parents were Nebraska student-athletes his father winning a national title on the football team in 1994 and his mother an all-Big Eight performer on the basketball team.

“I want to say thank you to my teammates, coaches, the fans and the University of Nebraska athletics department for giving me the opportunity to play Division I basketball,” Morrow said in a statement. “It is hard to leave home, and Nebraska is my home. I was born and raised here, it is my parents’ alma mater, and I have a lot of friends here. But sometimes you have to venture out to pursue dreams and aspirations in a career. This is a sacrifice I have to make to better myself.”

Morrow’s transfer comes a year after Andrew White surprised Nebraska with his decision to graduate and transfer to Syracuse, which no doubt impacted the Huskers’ poor 2016-17 record.

Miles was on the hot seat at the end of last season and will assuredly begin this season there as well. A roster hit like Morrow won’t do much to help him improve the situation. Nebraska does, however, have three starters returning while Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland is eligible, as is Miami (Fla.) transfer James Palmer, Jr.

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

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Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

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UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

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South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.