Saturday, December 27, 2008


As we embark upon what promises to be a wildly entertaining Big East season, kicked off by UConn's battle with Georgetown Monday night at the XL Center, here's a look at what we know about both UConn and the conference itself to this point.

***The Huskies are tops in the Big East and 11th in the country in team offense, averaging 83.5 points per game. They're third in the country in scoring margin, beating foes by a 21.2-point average. UConn is ninth in the nation in field goal percentage (50.2 percent) and 40th in field goal percentage defense (38.5).

***Somewhat surprisingly, the Huskies are second in the Big East in 3-point field goal percentage (39.3 percent). Not surprisingly, they're 13th out of the conference's 16 teams in 3-point defense (33.5 percent), which is perhaps their only glaring weakness.

***The Huskies have gone to the free throw line nearly three times as often as their opponents. They have taken 325 foul shots to opponents' 119, a margin of 206, or 18.7 per game. They're also hitting them at a 70.8 percent rate, led by Kemba Walker (84.8 percent) and Craig Austrie (78.9). (Oh, and Donnell Beverly, who is 5-for-6). The Huskies are hitting nearly 14 more free throws per game than their opponents.

***Hasheem Thabeet is fifth in the nation in blocked shots (3.5 per game) and 11th in rebounding (11.1). That'll work.

***Jeff Adrien is 42nd nationally in boardsmanship (9.1). Did I just make up a word?

***Jerome Dyson leads the Huskies in scoring (15.5) and steals (19), is second in assists (40) and third in rebounding (4.5).

***UConn has four players averaging in double figures, and two others (Walker and Austrie) at 9.9 and 9.7, respectively.

***Walker has 33 assists against 28 turnovers. That needs improvement.

***Walk-on Johnnie Bird has more points (two) than Jonathan Mandeldove, and one less than Charles Okwandu.


Some other observations:
Jerome Dyson is the Huskies' best player. We've already mentioned the key numbers, but it goes beyond that. He's taking better shots and shooting 46.5 percent from the floor – easily the best of his career. He's taking better care of the ball, with 40 assists to 20 turnovers, a respectable 2.0 ratio. More than that, Dyson just seems to be a happier, more personable guy off the court. It really seems like he's trying to redeem himself after his nine-game suspension a year ago. Last year, Dyson finished in dead-last in the annual Husky Run, setting the tone for a disappointing season. This year, he was among the second scholarship player to cross the finish line. Some laughed at the suggestion, but I believed at the time – and still do – that it set a symbolic tone for Dyson to start making amends. So far, so good.

Hasheem Thabeet is UConn's most indispensable player. He's still not a great, polished offensive player and likely never will be. But to say he hasn't made vast improvements from two years ago or even a year ago is simply ridiculous. He still has his critics, but if Thabeet went down, exactly who would step in and replace his defensive dominance? No one.

Jeff Adrien needs to get more original. He donned a Superman outfit and cape on First Night, a la Dwight Howard. He often chalks up his hands and claps them, sending powder everywhere, before checking into a game, a la LeBron. Now, he sports a Mohawk, a la numerous other players (including Gonzaga's Jeremy Pargo).

Then again, he's nearly averaging a double-double (14.5 points, 9.5 boards), and has 37 double-doubles in his career, tops among active Big East players. That's pretty original.

Plus, who's going to tell him he needs to get more original to his face? Not me.

A.J. Price is still landing the wrong way. Even in his breakout game against Gonzaga, I noticed that Price still seems to be landing on his right foot after taking jump shots. Noticed it again, in person, on Friday night. It's something that Jim Calhoun noticed in preseason practices, and it still seems like it's happening. Price recently admitted he's not yet over the mental hurdle of his torn left ACL injury last March, and by landing on the wrong foot on shots, it's obvious he hasn't.

Craig Austrie is as steady as ever. He's averaging 9.7 points, has a 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and shoots 78.9 percent from the line (down more than 10 percent from a year ago!). You don't notice him until he makes a key play or drains a big bucket in crunch time.

Stanley Robinson is rusty. No surprise, not having played the first eight games. No rust on his leaping ability, however.

Gavin Edwards can play a little bit … When given a chance, like against Gonzaga. Ditto Donnell Beverly.

Scottie Haralson isn't ready for this level yet. He's taken 12 shots, 11 of them 3-pointers. He's made three, one of them a bank. Great kid, though. Ditto Charles Okwandu.

Jim Calhoun is stubborn. And the man can coach. Big surprise here. He'll never change, and why should he? He went ballistic throughout the Stony Brook game, even though the Huskies really weren't that bad. But he wasn't just coaching that game, he was coaching the upcoming Gonzaga game, too. Worked out pretty well, didn't it?


Following West Virginia's thorough stomping of Ohio State, Big East teams are 11-8 against opponents ranked in the Top 25 in either of the two polls, best of any major conference. Last year, Big East teams went just 5-12 against ranked foes.

More impressively, only two of the 11 wins have come at home, with WVU's win in Columbus the most recent example (it also temporarily shut up my brother, an OSU alum who has been trumpeting the dominance of the "Big 11"). All three of UConn's wins over Top 25 opponents have come away from home, at neutral sites – Miami and Wisconsin at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Gonzaga at the "Battle in Seattle" on Dec. 20.

Of course, all three of those wins have lost a bit of their luster – both Miami and Wisconsin have since fallen out of the Top 25, and No. 7 Gonzaga is sure to tumble several spots after its unseemly loss to Portland State last week.

In fact, against teams that were still ranked in this week's AP Top 25, Big East teams are 3-6.

*** Seven Big East teams currently reside in the AP Top 25, led by No. 2 UConn and No. 3 Pittsburgh. (There are eight conference squads in the ESPN/USA Today poll, with Marquette sneaking in at No. 25).


UCONN: They rise to the occasion when the competition is toughest. Gotta like that.

PITTSBURGH: For the third time in Jamie Dixon's six seasons here, Panthers are unbeaten (12-0) heading into league play, with wins over Maryland, Miami and Indiana. Impressed? Don't be: it's Maryland-Baltimore County, Miami (Ohio) and Indiana (Pa.) they've beaten. (Then again, Indiana (Ind.) wouldn't be too impressive, either). Still, Sam Young is as good as anyone, DeJuan Blair is a monster, Levance Fields is healthy, and the Panthers can still 'D' it up with anyone.

LOUISVILLE: Rick Pitino's Cardinals (7-2) have been an early-season disappointment, missing graduated center David Padgett even more than expected. But freshman center Samardo Samuels is the real deal, and it says here that Pitino gets things straightened out.

NOTRE DAME: The 9-2 Irish can score with anyone, led by reigning Player of the Year Luke Harangody and 3-point gunner Kyle McAlarney. But are they tough enough defensively to be legit Final Four contenders?

SYRACUSE: Arinze Onuaku (74.7 percent) doesn't miss from underneath the basket, Eric Devendorf doesn't miss with his right hook, and the Orange won't miss the tourney this season, as they have the past two.

GEORGETOWN: Husky-killer Roy Hibbert graduates? No problem. The Hoyas have replaced him with 7-footer Greg Monroe, the highly-touted recruit who looks even better than advertised.

WEST VIRGINIA: UConn helped make Joe Alexander the eighth pick in the NBA Draft, but Bob Huggins' Mountaineers should still be tough, now that Alex Ruoff is healthy again. Nice win over No. 15 Ohio State on Saturday, too.

MARQUETTE: The Golden Eagles may have the conference's best triumvirate of guards in seniors Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal and Dominic James.

VILLANOVA: Tough to get a read on Wildcats just yet, but we know one thing: Scottie Reynolds will kill the Huskies when they play on Jan. 21.

CINCINNATI: Off to a good 10-2 start, led by Deonta Vaughn and impressive frosh Yancy Gates. Good test at Memphis on Monday.

SETON HALL: Jeremy Hazell is currently second in conference in scoring, including a 32-point outburst against Memphis.

RUTGERS: McDonald's All-America shooting guard Mike Rosario has looked good so far, averaging 16.8 points per game.

PROVIDENCE: New coach Keno Davis was the National Coach of the Year last season at Drake in his very first season as a head coach. Maybe he can turn things around at PC.

ST. JOHN'S: When top scorer Anthony Mason, Jr. was lost for the season with a foot injury in mid-November, Red Storm's season essentially ended, as well.

DEPAUL: Ray Meyer rolled over in his grave when the Blue Demons scored 36 points vs. Northwestern, then lost to Morgan State in consecutive games Dec. 6 and 10.

SOUTH FLORIDA: The Bulls are 4-7 in non-conference play. Imagine what happens once the Big East starts.


1. UConn (13-5); 2. Pittsburgh (13-5); 3. Louisville (13-5); 4. Notre Dame (12-6); 5. Syracuse (12-6); 6. Georgetown (11-7); 7. West Virginia (11-7); 8. Marquette (10-8); 9. Villanova (10-8); 10. Cincinnati (9-9); 11. Seton Hall (8-10); 12. Rutgers (7-11); 13. Providence (6-12); 14. St. John's (4-14); 15. DePaul (3-15); 16. South Florida (2-16).

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Hash & Jeff Show

The stars of the show tonight were Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien, who combined for "what, 1,000 (points) and 1,000 (rebounds)?," according to Fairfield coach Ed Cooley.

Actually, it was 41 points and 25 boards, as well as eight blocks, but Cooley's point is well-taken. The Stags simply had no one to match up with Thabeet's height or Adrien's muscle.

"Against Gonzaga, our outside players were just absolutely sensational," said Jim Calhoun. "Tonight, against Fairfield, our inside players were sensational -- our outside players were O.K."

Calhoun would like to see the two mesh -- quickly -- as Big East play kicks off Monday night against Georgetown.

"We're going to need that backcourt and frontcourt to match up together to have the type of games we're capable of," he noted.

***One backcourt player did have a strong game. Freshman Kemba Walker scored nine points (all in the second half) to go with four dimes and a steal in 22 minutes of action. Nothing that jumps off the stat sheet at you, but certainly a vast improvement from his prior three games, when he managed just one field goal and went completely scoreless against Gonzaga.

What did Walker do tonight that he hadn't been doing for the past month or so?

"Playing," said Calhoun. "When he goes straight ahead right at you, he's a son of a gun. He's windshield wiping early, not going at you. When he goes at you, he's pretty tough. And once he made a shot, his defense got much better on (Jonathan) Han. We need his quickness, coming up."

Walker agreed with Calhoun that tonight was an "important" game for him.

"I played fast, got some assists, just trying to get back in my groove. It kind of gave me a little bit of confidence, trying to get my game back to how I was playing at the beginning of the season. I had a coupole of bad games and kind of lost confidence a little bit."

***By far the most comical moment of the night came with about eight minutes left, when Adrien attempted a 3-pointer. Although he is just 1-for-5 on 3's for his career, it was a wide-open look that seemed reasonable enough to take. But when the shot misfired, Calhoun popped off the bench and immediately called for Gavin Edwards to replace Adrien. That prompted laughter from just about everyone in the building -- the crowd of 13,771, all of press row, even Edwards -- except for Calhoun.

"At what points are (we) going to take off in the Georgetown game?" he asked afterwards. "Jeff's three, giving Hasheem the ball when Stanley's down the court, giving Hasheem a good chance of maybe getting him an ACL or something by giving him a pass at the top of the key, Jerome's two forays, one a runner from the top of the key – those kind of things. That's a coach being a coach and dissecting a team. But in order to be a team that we're capable of being, we have to play 40 minutes."

Tough to please, indeed.

Adrien, sporting a Mohawk, said Calhoun "asked what I was thinking. No response by me. It felt good, it looked good, just a little more arc and it would have been a swish."

***Impressive state of the night: 10 of UConn's 31 field goals were dunks, six of them on alley-oops. Even more impressive: the Huskies had 22 assists on their 31 field goals, led by Jerome Dyson (six assists), A.J. Price (five) and Walker (four).

***Cooley was very impressed -- even a bit shell-shocked -- after watching UConn.

"They're clearly the best team we've played this year, and I don't even think it's close," said Cooley, whose Stags have also played Memphis, Virginia Tech and Missouri. "They're a very, very good team. They show poise, they show confidence. Woe. It was a physical, physical game, and we didn't match their physicality.

"I will now cheer for them to go on and win a national championship."

***Stanley Robinson had a quiet night -- six points, three dimes, a block -- in 16 minutes of action in his third game back.

"I think he's trying to fit in soft, quiet," said Calhoun. "Our job the next couple of days is to get him a little noisier. I don't mean soft playing, he doesn't play soft. He just doesn't want to make ripples, and that would go along with his personality.

***Donnell Beverly warmed up with the team in pre-game and was with the team in the locker room afterwards. However, he was missing from the bench for most, if not all, of the contest. Word is he was feeling a bit under the weather, and it wasn't anything disciplinary.

***No. 2 UConn and No. 12 Georgetown kick off the entire Big East conference slate Monday at 7 p.m. at the XL Center.

"We have 19 Big East games – I'm including Michigan as a Big East game, because they're as good as anyone in our league," said Calhoun. "We have 19 wars starting on Monday."

Added Dyson: "I think we're ready. We've played a lot of real good teams. If we do all the things we need to do, we shouldn't have any (problems). Every night's going to be a battle. Everybody in the Big East is good enough to beat anybody."

Dinka Dunker

Ater Majok is in the house, sitting right behind the UConn bench. Nothing new to report, and there likely won't be for at least another week: the NCAA clearinghouse is on holiday break and won't be back until after New Year's.

Majok has made some trips back and forth from his home in Australia to the States, where he's staying in Washington, D.C. with the sister of Ed Smith, his coach in Australia. He's playing as much pick-up as he can, according to Smith, but even that is limited as to whom he can play against, etc. He's also hitting the weight room and going through individual workouts with Smith.

Majok is upbeat and seems to be handling the long wait for NCAA clearance well. He's still confident he'll suit up for the Huskies this season. Majok said he hopes to be in attendance at Monday night's Big East-opener against Georgetown.

Smith said that Ater's cousin, Majok Majok, is currently playing at South Kent School. A Class of 2010 forward, Majok Majok checks in at 6-foot-8, 235 pounds, according to Smith, and is being courted by, among others, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Boston College, Providence and Seton Hall.

Smith also noted that Ater has a 13-year-old cousin back in Australia who is already 6-8. So why is this family so tall? Well, they're not – at least by the standards of their tribe. The Majoks are natives of Sudan and members of the Dinka tribe, the same tribe that spawned 7-foot-7 ex-NBAer Manute Bol.

"They're the tallest people in the world," Smith said.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tall Cool One

Ed Cooley had a standout collegiate career at Stonehill College, spent nine years as Al Skinner's assistant at Boston College and is currently in the process of turning around Fairfield's program in his third year at the helm.

Surprisingly, one of his "greatest" accomplishments on the basketball court has slipped his mind.

Almost exactly 22 years ago, Cooley pumped home 26 points to lead the Central Knights to a 78-36 thrashing of the Barrington Eagles -- as evidenced by the above, accompanying box score from the following morning's Providence Journal. (I don't have the exact date, but I recall it being shortly before Christmas). And one of the players he drove and shot around and over that night was yours truly. We were both juniors on our respective teams.

(Now, something must be pointed out here: My rather paltry, 5-point effort that night was the lowest scoring output of either my junior or senior year. In fact, it was one of only five games over both seasons where I failed to hit double figures (I have the box scores to prove it). I could post the 30-point effort against Cranston East, or the 25-point night against East Providence, as examples, but I won't. Won'te even mention them. Oops, sorry, too late.)

But enough about me.

Ed Cooley was as good as it gets in Rhode Island high school basketball at the time. In fact, he was a two-time R.I. Player of the Year. A 6-4 shooter, I always felt he could have played at a higher level than Stonehill, but that's where he wound up.

And his Central teams were something to behold, as well. One of his teammates the following year as Abdul Abdullah, who'd go on to become the standout point guard/assist machine at Providence College.

When reminded of that game in December, 1986 in our conversation a couple of days ago, Cooley couldn't recall.

"Barrington was pretty good, weren't they?" he offered.

Actually, we missed the playoffs that year, but the following season (behind 17 ppg from a 6-3 center named Borges) we went 12-6 and advanced to the state quarterfinals. In Class B, however; Central played in Class A, and might as well have played in a different universe. The night they came to town was a classic case of an inner-city school waltzing into a suburban gym and wiping the floor with the home team.

I forgive Cooley for forgetting his team's rather routine drubbing of my team 22 years earlier. Talking to him the other day, he's just as entertaining and engaging in conversation as he was impressive on the basketball court back in the day.

Here's what he had to say about UConn, who hosts Fairfield Friday night at 7 p.m. at the XL Center:

"I’ll give you a scouting report: They’re good ... We're really excited about Friday. Our kids will be confident, loose, focused. We have everything to gain in those type of games ... We have a hell of a task. We need Santa to sprinkle a couple of baskets our way ... We're going up against a Hall of Fame coach, probably the No. 1 pick in the draft in (Hasheem) Thabeet. Watching him on tape over the last two years, he has really developed. They have veterans, (A.J.) Price is a special player. I recruited Jerome Dyson myself at BC. To see him overcome some adversity and play the way he did against Gonzaga was great to see."

Cooley said he believed Dyson's final college choice came down to BC and UConn.

"I was Roseanne Barr on that date," he said. "It doesn't matter who comes in second, you're either my bride or ..."

"Or Roseanne Barr," I offered.

"Or Roseanne Barr."

Cooley's Stags are 2-0 in the MAAC and 8-3 overall, their only losses coming against Virginia Tech, Missouri and Memphis. In the latter game, Fairfield became just the second team since John Calipari took over to shoot 50 percent (24-for-48) from the floor on the Tigers' home court. It didn't help that they were outshot from the foul line, 30-12. Expect something similar against the Huskies, who average 18.6 more free throws per game than their opponents.

***Nestled between UConn's come-from-behind, overtime win over Gonzaga last Saturday in Seattle and Monday's Big East-opener against Georgetown, this could be the proverbial "trap game," according to Jim Calhoun.

"This game is a dangerous one," Calhoun said. "Ed has done a phenomonal job with his team and they are playing really well. This is probably the best in-state team we will face, going back the past 8-10 years. They have seniors and juniors in their lineup that are experienced, and they have played against us in this environment, so they will not be intimidated."

"We will have to play well," Calhoun added, "and I think our guys realize that, especially after the experience at Buffalo (a narrow, 68-64 win), which is a very similar type of opponent."

***Following the Gonzaga game, the Huskies traveled back to their respective homes for Christmas, but had to celebrate early. They're back in Storrs tonight (Christmas Eve) for practice, and have another one tomorrow on Christmas Day.

***There will be several common bonds out on the XL Center floor Friday. UConn associate head coach George Blaney’s son, Brian, is one of Cooley’s assistants. And Mike Evanovich, a 6-9 junior forward and transfer from Iowa State, is the brother of Justin Evanovich, a former UConn walk-on who’s now a graduate assistant for the Huskies.

"I have to ask (Evanovich's) parents, Dolan and Sue, who the hell they're cheering for, where's the love?" Cooley joked. "His mom will probably root for us, but his dad works at UConn, so ... That mortgage has got to get paid."

*** This is the only game on the Division 1 docket on Friday. Originally slated for Saturday, the Huskies asked to switch it when the Big East schedule came out and had them playing Monday night against Georgetown.
***Who sang "Tall Cool One?"
***Merry Christmas, everybody.

Miles From Here

Nate Miles was stranded in an airport in Detroit and unable to attend his scheduled hearing today at Rockville Superior Court. His case has been continued until Jan. 5 or 6, according to his attorney, Rob Britt.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A.J. is Big East's Player of the Week

After notching a game-high 24 points and 10 assists -- not to mention a game-tying, off-balance 3-pointer to help send the game to overtime -- in UConn's 88-83, "Battle in Seattle" victory over Gonzaga Saturday, A.J. Price has been named the Big East's Player of the Week.

Earlier in the week, he posted 13 points and five assists in a 91-57 win over Stony Brook.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

One That Got Away?

UConn fans are jubilant this morning, and rightfully so. The Huskies' come-from-behind, overtime win over No. 8 Gonzaga out in Seattle yesterday was truly impressive.

I like this UConn team, I really do, and I believe this could be a Final Four season for them. But I have to admit, I thought they'd encounter their first loss of the season against the Zags, in front of a hostile crowd, 3,000 miles from home against a very good team. I was wrong.

It seems this group of Huskies play their best when facing adversity. See: last year's gutsy win over Indiana, the day after Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins were suspended from the team, and the eight-game winning streak that ensued -- all without Dyson and a couple without Wiggins.

It also seems like this UConn group rises to -- or sinks to -- the level of its competition. Against weaker sisters like Bryant or Stony Brook, the Huskies can look a bit blase and infuriate their coach. But whent he competition improves and the juices start flowing, this team can be very, very good. Final Four good. Or better.

Not to be negative on a great day for UConn fans, but here's a story that appears in today's Register about Madison's own Joe Trapani, who's having a nice sophomore season for Boston College. The Huskies took a look at Trapani when he was a senior at Daniel Hand High, and assistant coach Patrick Sellers liked what he saw. But not enough to offer him a scholarship.

Is this one that got away from the Huskies? Remains to be seen. Trapani starred at Vermont two years ago, but we still need to see how he fares in the rough-and-tumble ACC. Would have have been tough enough -- mentally, as much as anything -- to play under Calhoun? We'll never know.

Still, there's little doubt the Huskies -- or any team, for that matter -- could use a 6-foot-8, athletic shooter on its roster right now.