Saturday, August 09, 2008

Big Chuck in the House

Charles Okwandu, the 7-foot-1 Nigerian JUCO transfer, was at Saturday night's Jim Calhoun Charity All-Star Game and is now living on campus in Storrs. He finished summer school at Harcum (Junior) College this past Friday.

"I am so excited," he said of kicking off his career at UConn. Okwandu will have three years of eligibility with the Huskies. Somewhat of a newcomer to the game, he may struggle for minutes this year with Hasheem Thabeet back in the fold, but he's eager to learn.

"I'm just blessed to be at Connecticut," Okwandu said. "I don't care if I play this year, I'm blessed to be in the program. I need to brush my game up. I just started playing 2-3 years ago. I know I have the skills, I just have to work hard, listen to the coaches, the players, and things will go well for me."

Muscling up against the 7-3 Thabeet every day in practice certainly won't hurt.

"That's why I came to Connecticut, I want to change my game," he said. "I want to play against somebody taller than me, so my game is going to improve."

Okwandu was impressed with the gathering of past stars at tonight's game.

"It's a great family coming together, old and new players. It's something great to see."

Particularly Emeka Okafor, whose parents come from Nigeria.

"Somebody from my country ... I'm proud to see him here today."

Fun at (Mohegan) Sun

The All-Star Game came down to the wire, with Hilton Armstrong misfiring on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Blue Team a 119-117 over the White Team. Armstrong's two free throws with 38.6 seconds left tied the game at 117, but the Blue Team came down and got a third-effort layup from game MVP Rudy Gay (after being rejected by Armstrong) to take the lead for good.
Ray Allen and Kevin Ollie each missed 3-pointers in the final 10 seconds for the White Team, but Armstrong knocked the ball out of Emeka Okafor's hands and had the chance for the game-winner, only to misfire.
Gay finished with a game-high 31 points.

**A correction from a prior blog: Jerome Dyson was also in the house, with Hasheem Thabeet and Jonathan Mandeldove. Also in attendance was Charles Okwandu, a 7-foot incoming UConn JUCO transfer.

Hey Now, You're An All-Star ...

Updates from the Jim Calhoun Charity All-Star Game at Mohegan Sun Arena:

**The White Team (i.e., the old guys) leads the Blue Team (the young guys), 65-60 at halftime.

**The rosters:
Blue Team – Oliver Macklin, Murray Williams, John Gwynn, Lyman DePriest, Souleyman Wane, Ed Nelson, Rod Sellers, Kevin Freeman, Rashad Anderson, Taliek Brown, Marcus Williams, Josh Boone (not playing), Charlie Villanueva, Rudy Gay, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor. Coach: Dave Leitao.
White Team – Dan Cyrulik, Rudy Johnson, Natambu Willingham, Kirk King, Tate George, Chris Smith, Scott Burrell, Hilton Armstrong, Travis Knight, Kevin Ollie, Cliff Robinson (not playing), Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen. Coach: Howie Dickenman.
No-shows: Rip Hamilton, Jake Voskuhl, Khalid El-Amin, Phil Gamble.
Lousest ovation (after Calhoun)? Allen, hands down.

**Prior to the opening tap, Calhoun dedicated the game to Robert "Spider" Ursery, who passed away last week after a long bout with Hodgkins disease. Ursery's widow, Maxine, was presented with a framed picture of the 1987-88 NIT championship team. All of the game's participants wore No. 31 on their wristbands in memory of Ursery.

**The only two current UConn players we've seen in the house have been Hasheem Thabeet and Jonathan Mandeldove. Thabeet has been taking quite a ribbing from Caron Butler, who's noticed that the big guy is going a little "Hollywood" – signing autographs, wearing sunglasses, etc.
Said Butler: "I feel like we have a future top-five pick next year with Thabeet. It looks like he knows that, because he's walking around with shades on right now."
Replied Thabeet, with a smile: "He's always giving me a hard time."

**Charlie Villanueva said he collects jerseys of UConn players who are currently in the NBA (there were 13 such players last season).
"We could have our own team," said Villanueva, who's about to enter his third year with the Milwaukee Bucks. "I always say UConn has the best pros. I think we do, and I definitely brag about that … One thing I always brag about is that I have a ring. I can always go to that line, 'I have a ring, do you have one?'"

**George Blaney tells a funny story of the first time he met Butler.
"I asked him, 'You want to come out and work on your shot or something?' I took him out, started talking to him, telling him what he needed to do. (Afterwards), Caron went to Coach and said, 'Who's this old white guy, telling me what to do?' Coach started laughing and said you might want to listen to him."

**Ed Nelson is loving life, making big bucks playing professionally in Argentina.

More updates to come after the game.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

More on Calhoun's All-Star Game ...

Among the marquee names expected to be at Jim Calhoun's Charity All-Star Game Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Mohegan Sun Arena: 2008 NBA All-Stars Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Caron Butler, as well as Ben Gordon, Rudy Gay, Emeka Okafor, Marcus Williams, Charlie Villanueva, Josh Boone, Cliff Robinson, Donyell Marshall, Donny Marshall and others.

The only current NBA-er who isn't likely to attend is Jake Voskuhl, who is putting the finishing touches on building a new house out in Arizona.

Calhoun also was hoping ex-UConn trainer Joe Sharpe would be able to make it, but Sharpe was recently named head trainer of the NBA's new Oklahoma City franchise. (He had been let go by Charlotte at the end of last season).

The event is sanctioned by the NBA, so organizers aren't allowed to reveal the names of the players who are coming. In fact, a couple of players have been asked by their respective teams not to play, so they may just warm up for a bit and watch the game from the bench.

Calhoun Charity Game Info

Game Facts:

Name: Jim Calhoun Charity All-Star Game (game is sanctioned by the NBA).

Date: Saturday, Aug. 9

Location: Mohegan Sun Arena

Time: 7:30 p.m.

Who will play: Virtually all of the greatest players to ever play for Calhoun at UConn. (Ray Allen, Caron Butler, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams, Josh Boone, Donyell Marshall, Donny Marshall, etc.)

Who benefits: All ticket proceeds benefit the Calhoun Cardiology Research Endowment Fund. $3 million has been raised for the fund since 1999.

Where to buy tickets: Tickets are available at the Mohegan Sun Box Office or by calling Ticketmaster at 860-525-4500. Prices are $22 and $29.

There will be an autograph session after the game on the court.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Elitism, Pt. II

Notes and quotes from the second and final day of Jim Calhoun's Connecticut Elite camp. A lot of stuff here. Ready ... go:

**Rudy Gay was a big hit speaking to the assembled campers.

"The minute he walked in the door," UConn assistant coach Andre LaFleur noted, "one of the kids was saying, 'I can't believe he's standing right there.'"

In about a 15-minute speech, Gay told the two dozen top-notch recruits on-hand: "When you step in between these lines here, you see the Husky in the middle of the floor, there's a certain kind of aura that comes with it. If you want to be on the Huskies' floor, you've got to play like a Husky."

He told a story about when he and fellow ex-UConn star Caron Butler first went against each other in the NBA. Prior to the game, it was all about "we're family, we've got to stick together." But as soon as the jump-ball went up, Butler, with Gay guarding him, hit the low post immediately started yelling, "He's not ready, he's not ready! Get me the ball!" Then after the game, they were buddies again.

At one point, Gay told the campers, "we all come back, and the reason we come back is that man sitting right there" while pointing towards Calhoun.

Gay returned to his Baltimore-area home Monday afternoon but will return to this area on Saturday for Calhoun's Charity All-Star Game at Mohegan Sun (7:30 p.m.).

**"About 90 percent" of UConn's all-time great players will attend in Saturday's game, according to Calhoun, though a couple have been told by their respective NBA teams not to play. Those players may just warm up and sit on the bench during the actual game. Ray Allen, Caron Butler, Gay, Donyell Marshall and Marcus Williams are definites at this point. Jake Voskuhl is in the process of building a new home in Arizona, so he may not be able to make it.

**Originally, the Connecticut Elite camp was going to run next weekend, while all the great UConn alumni were in town so they could stop by. But the Nike Global Challenge is in Portland and the adidas Nation camp is in Texas next weekend, so UConn moved its camp up to the past two days, according to assistant coach Patrick Sellers.

**The UConn coaching staff had individual meetings with a few of their most prized recruits, including Durand Scott (see prior blog), Daniel Orton and Dominic Cheek. Orton and Cheek played at "kind of half-speed" over the past two days, according to one source close to the program. The staff was also impressed with Keran Iverson, who's going into the eighth grade but has already sprouted from 6-2 to 6-7 (and also apparently is trying to bring the high-top fade back into fashion).

**It's looking more and more like Ater Majok will be in Storrs by the start of classes. Majok, a 6-10 forward from Sudan via Australia, is still taking classes Down Under. Because Australia is on opposite seasons from the U.S., Majok might normally not be done with his academic work until about November. But because he went to the American International School and has worked hard on his academics, he should be done on time. He has already sent some of his stuff to the NCAA Eligibility Center, as a matter of fact.

**UConn commits Alex Oriakhi and Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel never made it to camp after running into travel problems through Orlando on Sunday with their Boston Amateur Basketball Club AAU team. They didn't get back home until late Sunday night and were too tired to make the trip to Storrs, robbing the UConn staff the chance to see two of their highly-regarded teammates, 6-3 guard Gerard Coleman and 5-9 guard Phil Pressey.

**Kemba Walker on how he might find playing time with A.J. Price still around: "I still have time. He's got one more year, he's trying to get to the league. He's going to get his minutes. I'm going to try my best to play, but if not … it depends on what Coach Calhoun wants to do. I've got four years. His time is almost up, so I'll wait my turn."

**Gay said leaving UConn after two seasons was an extremely tough decision. "Without Coach's blessing, I don't think I could have done it."

He spoke with Hasheem Thabeet towards the end of last season while Thabeet was grappling with a similar dilemma.

"I think he made the right decision," Gay said. "He likes it here, he wants to have a long career. I told him exactly what I felt: you will be OK in the NBA, but if you want to have a long career, play long and make a lot of money, stay here and listen a little more to what Coach has to say."

**Robert "Spider" Ursery, who played at UConn from 1985-88, died on Sunday after a long battle with Hodgkin's disease. His funeral will be on Saturday morning, according to Calhoun, who got to see Ursery shortly before he died.

"The doctor said very few people he's ever seen has fought as hard as he did," Calhoun said. "He fought. Boy, he fought."

Durand, Durand

He may not have been the biggest name at Jim Calhoun's Connecticut Elite Camp the past two days in Storrs, but Durand Scott is quickly ascending up the ranks of Class of 2009 recruits.

Scott, a 6-5 combo guard, is currently the No. 7-rated shooting guard in his class, according to But he's regarded even higher by the UConn coaching staff.

Prior to this weekend, UConn was one of several schools (including Memphis, Arizona and Louisville) that had already offered a scholarship to Scott. Over the past two days, Scott was one of a few select players (along with 6-10 center Daniel Orton and 6-5 guard Dominic Cheek) with whom the Huskies' staff sat down to reiterate their strong interest.

The Huskies love the fact that Scott is a combo guard, able to play the one or the two. They love the fact that he's shared the same high school and AAU backcourt the past few years with Kemba Walker, UConn's incoming freshman point guard.

But what UConn really, really loves about Scott is the fact that he's a winner. He's won at Rice High in the Bronx, he's won with the New York Gauchos AAU team … and he even won at this weekend's camp. One source close to the program noted that Scott's teams were the only ones that "never took an 'L'" in the camp's scrimmages the past two days.

"I'm very competitive, I just want to win," Scott said. "I hate losing. I've won for most of my life, so once you win most of your life, you're not going to like losing. I've been on very successful teams. That's just the type of person I am."

Scott has been a shooting guard at Rice, but this season he'll take over the point guard duties vacated by Walker. When asked what his best position was, Scott said: "Being a leader. That's not really a position, but that's a main role on the team. If you don't have that … you've got to keep the team together, keep it rolling. Everybody sees me as a combo guard or whatever. I can be a shooting guard, I can be a small forward … I'm just a basketball player. You can put me at center, I'll play center as hard as I can."

Scott won't likely make a decision about his collegiate future until the middle of this upcoming high school season. He'll soon narrow his list down to about eight schools – and UConn figures to rank high on that list.

However, he won't entirely base his decision on the fact that Walker will be at UConn.

"Kemba's like my brother," he admitted. "Outside of basketball, we hang out every day. I like playing with him, but that shouldn't be a reason someone should go to a school, just because you've got a good friend going there. You're not playing his life, you're playing with your life. I wouldn't mind playing with him, but just looking at the history UConn has – maybe that's the same reason he came here."

For his part, Walker wouldn't mind being a teammate of Scott's once again come 2009.

"Another four years won't be bad – three, in my case," Walker said. "I know what kind of a player he is, he plays hard, that's something I love. He's a winner, and that's something we need."

Sunday, August 03, 2008


Here's a whole bunch of notes and quotes from Day 1 of the Connecticut Elite Camp at Gampel Pavilion:

**Stanley Robinson was in the house, playing in a scrimmage with several top prospects, as well as Craig Austrie, Jonathan Mandledove and Donny Marshall. Robinson looked pretty good, considering he's hardly played at all this summer (he ran a little bit while a counselor at last month's Reebok Camp in Philly, where he roomed with incoming UConn 7-footer Charles Owkandu. "He's pretty good," said Stanley. "All he needs is his footwork, and I swear to God he'd be awesome.")

Anyway, what Robinson said after the scrimmage was even more interesting. As far as he knows, all he has to do is complete one online Sociology course this fall while living at his uncle's home in Vernon, and he'll be back with the Huskies in the winter.

"I don't want to jinx myself and say I'm coming back and then the class doesn't go well," Robinson said, "but I'm determined, because I have to be back in that uniform."

Calhoun has indicated that it may be a bit more complicated than that. Nevertheless, he's certainly leaving the door open for Robinson to prove himself and earn his way back on the team.

"Right now, he's in a pretty good place," the coach said.

Calhoun added that Robinson will soon begin a job as a sheet-metal worker. He also reiterated a point he made to me last week, saying that if Robinson makes his way back for the second semester, he should get enough financial aid to essentially be on full scholarship. Currently, the Huskies' allotment of 13 scholarships is used up.

It's still not abundantly clear what Robinson did to lose his spot on the team, though academics and tardiness to team functions and class are certainly two issues. Specifically, Robinson pointed to a "misunderstanding" he had with an English professor on when a certain paper was due.

"It's up to me, I can't point any fingers," he said of his current situation. "I did it, so it's up to me to get back in."

(Read more about Robinson in tomorrow's New Haven Register)

**Daniel Orton, a 6-foot-10 center out of Oklahoma City who checks in at about 260 pounds ("it depends on what day it is," he quipped) looked impressive.

Orton, the Class of 2009's No. 3-rated center according to, has narrowed his list of schools down to seven: UConn, UCLA, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Kentucky. A well-spoken, courteous young man, Orton said he won't make a decision until the spring signing period, and admits he's thinking of just one, maybe two years of school "but I look for a college where you can see yourself for four years because you never know what could happen. You could get hurt, you never know."

Orton was a teammate of incoming UConn freshman point guard Kemba Walker during one of the scrimmages. ("I wonder how that happened," quipped a member of UConn's staff).

Orton's father, Larry, played at Old Dominion in the mid-70s and is sort of a package deal with Daniel ("we'll move to wherever he goes," said pops). According to Larry, Daniel was a "short, chubby fat kid" who never really played basketball until the seventh grade.

"Then, all of a sudden, he grew 15 inches between (ages) 14 and 15," Larry said.

Orton was also a ballboy at Oklahoma State, where one of Larry Orton's other sons, Terrence Crawford, played on the Cowboys team that, along with UConn, advanced to the 2004 Final Four.

"I said (to Crawford), 'y'all might have beaten UConn,'" said Larry. "He said, 'no, we weren't going to beat those guys. There's no way we were going to beat those guys. That team was good.'"

**Dominic Cheek, a 6-5 shooting guard out of St. Anthony's High in New Jersey, recently played in the Under-18 FIBA Americas Tournament in Argentina with Walker.

"I love playing with Kemba," Cheek said. "When I first started playing with him, he got me the ball. He's a team player. He's like a brother to me now."

Cheek will likely make a list of 10 schools over the next week or so – a list that figures to include UConn as well as Tennessee, Wake Forest and Kansas.

**Patrick Young, a 6-10 Class of 2010 center, boasts a 4.0 GPA at his Jacksonville-area high school. Boasting a 7-3 wingspan, he seemed impressed while looking up at the numerous banners in Gampel's rafters.

"I'm liking UConn right now," he said, "all these championships, all the success they've had over the years here."

**UConn commits Alex Oriakhi and Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel weren't on hand because of travel problems out of Orlando with their BABC travel team. They're expected to be at the camp today, along with fellow BABC teammate Gerard Coleman.

**Brandon Knight, a top-rated point guard out of Fort Lauderdale, was also a no-show, due to his AAU team's busy recent schedule.

**Two intriguing prospects at camp hail from Canada: Kadeem Green, a Top 50 big man with a 7-4 wingspan, and Richard peters, who just turned 15 and will attend school down in Florida.

**A.J. Price looked sharp cutting and knocking down jump shots during drills on his own.

**Craig Austrie looks cut, with significantly wider shoulders and a much slimmer waistline. He also showed off a 32-inch vertical leap (all players' verticals were measured by UConn staff).

**Rudy Gay is expected to be at today's camp session.