Like 2004, UConn is once again the center of college basketball in 2014

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source: AP
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In 2004, Jim Calhoun led the Huskies to their second championship in six seasons with a National Title win over Georgia Tech in San Antonio. More than 500 miles away in New Orleans, the women’s team defeated rival Tennessee to cap off a three-peat for Geno Auriemma’s fifth championship.

A decade later, the men’s and women’s basketball teams have been crowned champions in the same season once again. Thirteen times a UConn basketball team has played for a National Title and thirteen times a UConn basketball team has ended up cutting down the nets.

Their seasons may have finished similarly, but different paths were taken for their respective titles.

On March 15, the men’s team lost to Louisville, the defending national champion, by 33 points. UConn limped into the NCAA tournament as a No.7 seed, and Final Four hopes were almost dashed in the Round of 64 if it weren’t for a come-from-behind overtime win over Saint Joseph’s. After upsetting Villanova in the Round of 32, UConn found itself in a familiar setting, inside Madison Square Garden. The success the Huskies had inside The World’s Most Famous Arena in the past as a member of the Big East was replicated, as they upended Iowa State and Michigan State, a title favorite, to advance to the Final Four.

UConn overcame a slow start against top-ranked Florida to advance to Monday’s final against Kentucky. The Huskies never trailed in the National Title game, but they had to hold off the Wildcats in a wire-to-wire championship victory.

Remarkable considering Kevin Ollie took over a program two years ago with an APR score which barred UConn from postseason play in 2013. But Shabazz Napier, who remained in Storrs when others left for greener pastures, had that loyalty rewarded, winning his second title in four years. One more than the man he struggled to replace, but ultimately out did.

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While the men went on an improbable run this March, the women went on an expected trip back to the Final Four after Auriemma and his Huskies captured their eighth title in 2013.

For the fifth time under Auriemma, the Hall of Fame coach, UConn ran the table, matching the 40-0 mark set by Brittney Griner’s Baylor team in 2012. What made the victory sweeter for Auriemma is that it came at the hands of rival Muffet McGraw, who led her undefeated Fighting Irish into Nashville for the women’s final.

Tuesday night’s final began like the men’s championship game the previous the evening. The UConn offense got out to quick start before the opposition cut into the lead with a late run before heading into the break.

In the second half, the inside presence of Stefanie Dolson and Breanna Stewart began to assert their dominance over the Notre Dame frontline playing without Natalie Achonwa. While it was the UConn front court that proved to be the overwhelming factor for the women’s championship matchup, it was the defensive pressure of the men’s experienced back court that prevailed over the size and strength of Kentucky.

Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright hounded the Aaron and Andrew Harrison, taking away ball screens and forcing the 6-foot-6 duo to 6-of-16 shooting. 

The free three woes played a role in Kentucky’s loss, but it was the limited second-chance opportunities for the Wildcats that kept them from ever taking the lead. The UConn men outrebounded Kentucky by one, not 23 like the women did the next night against their opponent. Though narrowly winning the battle on the boards, UConn held Kentucky to just seven second-chance points from 10 offensive rebounds.

The roads were clearly different, but ended in places both coaches anticipated on reaching.

“Somebody told me we were Cinderellas, and I was like, ‘No, we’re UConn,'” Kevin Ollie said on Monday night. “I mean this is what we do. We are born for this. We’re bred to cut down nets. We’re not chasing championships, championships are chasing us.”

A decade later, Storrs, Conn. has reaffirmed its place as the home of college basketball.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.