Tuesday, January 20, 2009

History Takes Precedence Over Hoops

Basketball was hardly the No. 1 topic at Gampel Pavilion today. Barack Obama's historic inauguration was.

The Huskies gathered around a TV in their locker room to watch Obama's swearing-in and inaugural address at noon. Everyone, that is, except coach Jim Calhoun, who was lucky enough to procure some tickets to the inauguration a while back and flew to D.C. this morning at 5 a.m. to take in the proceedings with his wife, Pat, and several other family members. (Calhoun is expected to be back in Storrs for tonight's 6 p.m. practice).

Associate head coach George Blaney dealt with the media today. He was touched by Obama's inaugural speech.

"I couldn't keep from crying, to be honest with you," said Blaney. "It was nice to see the players together, how solemn they were, paying attention and listening, for what it means to them."

Indeed, all 11 of UConn's scholarship players are African-American.

"It was very special to see an historic moment like that which you can look back and tell your kids about," said A.J. Price. "It's really inexplicable. You can see changes about. I think it'll work out the best for everybody. A lot of America is seeing things not about race, we're all the same nation, all Americans."

Hasheem Thabeet: "It's a great thing. I never knew such history like this would happen during my lifetime. I was able to witness a great thing like this. I'm excited. I wish my dad (Thabit Manka, who passed away several years ago) and everybody that is part of my circle would be able to experience the same thing that I'm experiencing right now."

Although all of the players are between the ages of 18 and 22, none thought they'd ever witness this day.

"I didn't think that I would ever see a black President," Jerome Dyson admitted. "I didn't think this would happen anytime soon. Based on how things are, you just wouldn't expect that now. I think it more has to do with people just looking for something new. The country has kind of gone into shambles, with the economy and whatnot. People are looking for something new, and he's the guy for it."

Added Kemba Walker: "Obama being the first African-American President, it's big for the world. It's change. The past couple of years, things have been going wrong, it hasn't been good. Obama really speaks about change, so I'm really looking forward to what he's going to do."

Blaney noticed a couple of other things about Obama.

"All during his speech I was thinking, 'He would have been a great coach.' Because that's what he was trying to do, he's trying to put together a team … He has the remarkable ability to bring people together. I have not seen that since John Kennedy. It's nice to see someone has taken the initiative to try to do that."

***Ah yes, the pesky subject of basketball. That was eventually broached, too. UConn, of course, hosts No. 2 Villanova tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the XL Center.

"(The Wildcats) are so hard to prepare for, because they do a lot of things," said Blaney. "They spread the floor on you, so they're difficult to defend. Defensively, they change a great deal, but they get up in you – they bump you, hold you, bump and scratch, fight. They do everything really, really tough."

The Wildcats are 14-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big East, coming off a 76-57 drubbing of St. John's on Sunday. They are led by much-improved senior forward Dante Cunningham, who leads the team in scoring at 17.4 points per game (up from 10.4 a year ago), and junior guard Scottie Reynolds, who torched the Huskies for 40 points two years ago and went for 40 in an overtime win at Seton Hall on Jan. 6.

Blaney on Cunningham: "His ability to shoot from mid-range and beyond changes them more so than in the past. (Coach Jay Wright) has always been a good offensive coach."

And on Reynolds: "He uses his body so well. He's not fast, he's not a great leaper, he's just very clever and smart. You've got to stay in front of him without fouling, which is very hard."

***Dyson says his left knee, originally injured in the Gonzaga game on Dec. 20, has been bothering him lately. Part of it is because the Huskies have hardly had a break in their schedule over the past few weeks. Dyson also said he rolled his left ankle in the Seton Hall game. Calhoun said after that game that Dyson might be held out of practice on Monday, but that didn't wind up being the case.

***'Nova coach Jay Wright had this interesting anecdote during a teleconference call on Monday, harking back to his first stint as an assistant coach with the Wildcats in the late-1980's.

"I used to scout in person, you could do that back then, and I remember how tough they played. They didn’t have the talent they have now, they always just lost at the end. I'd go to the press conferences and watch the throngs of media just pound on (Calhoun) on tough losses. He'd always remain firm. I watched them progress and grow, from when they struggled to where they are now. I felt like a part of it, because I'd go to every game. I have great respect for that program, how they play and what he's done."

***UConn commit Jamal Coombs-McDaniel of the Tilton (N.H.) School was named to the Spalding Hoophall Classic's All-Tournament First Team.


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