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UConn greats expect program to climb back to elite status

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) — Don’t tell Jim Calhoun or his former players that UConn is no longer an elite basketball program.

Yes, the Huskies have missed the NCAA Tournament three times in four years and are 30-35 the past two seasons while playing outside a power conference. UConn is under investigation by the NCAA, and has accused former coach Kevin Ollie of recruiting violations, prompting his firing in March and sparking at $10 million contract dispute.

But the Hall of Fame coach Calhoun says the program Dan Hurley has inherited remains of championship caliber.

“I still think that with four national championships from ’99, in the last 20 years, the last 19 years, we’re as good as anybody in the country and better than almost everybody else,” Calhoun said last week at his biennial UConn alumni charity game. “And there is no question in my mind that we can keep on going.”

The key to doing that will be for Hurley to embrace that past and the family atmosphere that has traditionally surrounded the program, Calhoun said.

UConn’s recent problems have had a lot to do with player recruitment, retention and development. The Huskies have landed relatively few top recruits and several players who have come have either left early for the professional ranks (Daniel Hamilton), transferred out (Steven Enoch, Vance Jackson) or been unable to contribute to at the level that had been anticipated because of injury (Alterique Gilbert).

Hurley has made a point of convincing current players, including Gilbert and guard Jalen Adams, to stay to create their own chapter in UConn’s storied history.

The new coach and several of his players, including Adams and Gilbert, were in the stands Friday night as about 50 former UConn players and coaches returned to honor Calhoun, raise money for charity and relive past glory.

The gathering included many of the big names from an era when the Huskies had 13 NBA lottery picks. Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall, Rudy Gay, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, Charlie Villanueva and Jeremy Lamb all played.

And while that level of talent may seem like a distant memory to many fans, Allen said he believes Hurley can still get top recruits to come to Connecticut, no matter what conference they are in and despite their recent troubles both on and off the court.

“Every university goes through its lulls,” said Allen, who will be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame next month. “We’ve established such greatness here that we’ve given people a lot to expect and a lot to be proud of. I just think that we have to keep pushing forward.”

Allen and other alumni said they also think it’s important the school settle its dispute with Ollie, who played point guard for the Huskies in the 1990s before becoming an assistant under Calhoun and then taking over as head coach.

The school, in outlining why it fired Ollie, cited several recruiting violations, including shooting baskets with a recruit on a visit to campus and arranging a video call between recruits and Allen.

“I don’t think this (rift) should hurt us and I don’t think it will,” Villanueva said. “There is too much history and too much work that Calhoun has done. At UConn we will always be a family and a brotherhood. That’s one thing that coach (Calhoun) instilled in all of us.”

Ryan Boatright, the point guard under Ollie on UConn’s 2014 national championship team, said he believes the recent hard times have given UConn players and fans another chip on their shoulders.

“We’ve always had that. We won in ’11 and people said we’d never do it again it ’14 (as a seventh seed),” he said. “So as long as these guys come in and work hard and feel they’ve got something to prove, we should be all right.”

D.J. Jeffries’ father clarifies comments after Kentucky decommitment

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After decommitting from Kentucky, D.J. Jeffries and his father, Corey, clarified some of the logic behind that decision in a story on Wednesday with the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Speaking with Mark Giannotto, Corey Jeffries talked about the earlier story that Kentucky staff was “unprofessional” when D.J. was decommitting from the Wildcats. Jeffries clarified what happened by saying it was assistant coach Tony Barbee who was agitated, not head coach John Calipari.

“it wasn’t Cal that took it so bad. It was the main recruiter (assistant coach Tony Barbee),” Jeffries said to Giannotto.

It’s also interesting to note that Kentucky did not attend the last July live evaluation period game of Jeffries as he was disappointed that his future coaching staff didn’t take in his last ever grassroots game. While many recruits get criticized for wanting too much attention, it is fair of Jeffries to be a little upset that Kentucky didn’t send one assistant for his last game on of July.

Now that Jeffries has backed off of his commitment from Kentucky, many expect him to end up at Memphis, as Jeffries has already heard from Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway.

D.J. Jeffries’ father on Kentucky: ‘They were kind of unprofessional’

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On Monday top 100 Class of 2019 prospect DJ Jeffries announced via Twitter that he was reopening his recruitment after verbally committing to Kentucky in March. When a prospect makes the decision to de-commit, it’s pretty much expected that there will be a negative reaction from a portion of the fan base.

But in the case of Jeffries, he apparently also had to deal with some negative feedback from the Kentucky coaching staff when informing them of his decision to reopen things. During an appearance of 92.9 FM in Memphis Tuesday morning, Jeffries’ father Corey said that in his view the coaches were “kind of unprofessional” regarding his son’s decision.

“We talked with Kentucky and it kind of shocked me. They were kind of unprofessional,” Jeffries said in the interview. “They didn’t handle the news the way I expected them to handle it.”

Of course a coaching staff will be disappointed when told that a recruit has decided to reopen things. The key in any instance is to not allow the disappointment to cross over into disrespect. What happened here? Only those who were part of that conversation can give a clear answer.

Obviously there is Corey Jeffries’ point of view on the discussion that occurred following his son’s decision, which is why it’s being discussed here. It would be good to know the Kentucky viewpoint on this situation, but NCAA rules don’t allow coaches to comment on an unsigned prospective student-athlete.

Jeffries has a clear connection to Memphis, as he played his grassroots basketball for the program formerly run by current Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway. And at the time of Jeffries’ commitment to Kentucky the Memphis basketball program was anything but stable, as rumors were swirling regarding the future of then-head coach Tubby Smith.

Memphis did not relieve Smith of his duties until March 15, three days after Jeffries committed to Kentucky. Of course the rumor mill had Hardaway as the clear favorite to replace Smith even before the move became official, but you can’t blame Jeffries and his family if the thought process at the time was to go with Kentucky rather than wait to see if Memphis was going to make a change.

According to Corey Jeffries, having a longstanding relationship with Hardaway is a factor in his son’s recruitment and that should come as a surprise to no one. While other high-major programs, including Mississippi State and LSU, have reached out to Jeffries in the aftermath of his de-commitment from Kentucky, it would be tough to blame anyone who views Memphis as the favorite at this point.

And with one of the top 2019 prospects in James Wiseman having both Kentucky and Memphis in his final eight — many believe those two schools are the clear favorites — this won’t be the last time the Wildcats and Tigers cross paths on the recruiting trail.

DJ Jeffries decommits from Kentucky

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It’s hard to think of many things that could endear Penny Hardaway to Memphis fans any more than he already is as a hometown kid who played for the Tigers and went on to an iconic NBA career.

Flipping a recruit from John Calipari might well do it, though.

DJ Jeffries, a top-50 recruit from Memphis, has decommitted from Kentucky and will reopen his commitment, he announced Monday.

The speculation immediately centers on Jeffries’ future plans and if they include Memphis, where Hardaway was hired after Jeffries had already committed to the former Tigers coach Calipari and the Wildcats. Specifically, his father’s quote about Memphis from March before Hardaway’s hiring went official.

“We took a long look at Memphis,” he said according to John Martin of 92.9 FM in Memphis. “We can’t go on ‘ifs.’ It’s kinda crazy, because if Penny takes the job, then it would be something to take a long look at.”

Jeffries would be a major coup for Hardaway and Co. He’s a 6-foot-7 wing and a consensus top-50 player in the 2019 class with an offer list that included Florida and Kansas when he committed to Big Blue Nation. There’s an additional Memphis tie here as Jeffries is the nephew of former Tigers assistant Keelon Lawson, whose sons Dedric and K.J. played for the Tigers before transferring to Kansas after Keelon was demoted by then-coach Tubby Smith.

Looking even bigger picture, if Hardaway is able to nab Jeffries and James Wiseman, the top player in 2019 currently living in Memphis and being pursued by Hardaway and his staff, it would be not only a massive recruiting score but a major message sent.

Hardaway doesn’t have coaching experience beyond the high school level, but his name recognition remains a major asset for him as he looks to build a program. If he’s able to parlay that into keeping a pair of Memphis kids in the city while thwarting not only Calipari but the rest of college basketball royalty, that’s an announcement that Memphis basketball is back in a big way.

Now, there’s plenty for Hardaway to execute between here and there, but the fact that not only does that scenario seem possible but entirely plausible is reason enough for Memphis fans to be ecstatic.

UConn’s Mamadou Diarra out four-to-six months

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Dan Hurley’s first season in Storrs may begin with his sophomore forward on the shelf.

Mamadou Diallo, who averaged 10 minutes per game last season, will be out four-to-six months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, the school announced Monday.

“The surgery went very well and there were no surprises,” UConn athletic trainer James Doran said in a statement released by the school. “Mamadou will begin rehab immediately and we would expect him to make a full recovery.”

The  6-foot-8 forward from Queens suffered the injury during workouts last week and an MRI revealed the extent of the injury. He’s no stranger to knee injuries as he sat out the 2016-17 season due to patellofemoral syndrome, a condition that results in significant knee discomfort from the stress of high-level basketball.

Diarra averaged 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds while appearing in 31 games last season for the Huskies.

UConn went 14-18 last year in a campaign that ended with the firing of Kevin Ollie and the hiring of Hurley, who went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments at Rhode Island the last two seasons.

Four-star guard commits to Texas Tech

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Chris Beard is bringing another major talent to Lubbock.

Kevin McCullar, a four-star guard from San Antonio, committed to Texas Tech on Thursday, he announced via social media.

“It’s been a long journey but the time has finally come,” MCCullar said in his commitment video. “This has been an amazing process and I thank every coach and university that has recruited me and believed in me.”

McCullar, a 6-foot-6 wing, was originally in the Class of 2019, but announced earlier this spring that he would be reclassifying to join a college program in 2018. He chose the Red Raiders over four other finalists in Houston, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Kansas State.

“I think they just made him feel comfortable and confident in what they will offer him and what they can do to get him ready for college basketball and beyond,” San Antonio Wagner High School coach Rodney Clark told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “They made it feel like home and that he’ll be taken care of.

“He’s put in a lot of work on and off the court to prepare for this moment. He and his family figured it was a the best decision. And he feels he’s ready to go up there, work at it, learn the system and find his place or role. At the same time, Texas Tech is getting a darn good guard.”

McCullar, whose father linebacker at Texas Tech in the 1990s, joins a high-powered recruiting class for Beard. Khavon Moore is another four-star 6-foot-6 wing that has already signed with the Red Raiders and headlines a group that features another trio of three-star prospects.

Texas Tech made the Sweet 16 last season in Beard’s second year at the helm of the program. The Red Raiders have major ground to pick up after the graduation of Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith’s decision to leave school early for the NBA, but Beard is proving he can get enough talent to west Texas to keep things moving in the right direction.

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