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September 30, 2002 Columns No Comments


Welcome back!

by Bill Thayer

I’ll admit it, I got caught up in baseball all summer. I turned my
attention away from the college hoops scene and really believed the Red Sox
had a chance to take it all. The pieces were in place, D-Lowe was providing
the perfect complement to Pedro, Shea Hillenbrand was becoming a threat,
Grady Little and Carlos Baerga provided a positive clubhouse presence and
management went out and made moves to fill some of the few holes (trading
for Alan Embree, Cliff Floyd and Bob Howry). But, I know, it wasn’t meant
to be.

Baseball’s over now though. It doesn’t matter what the calendar says, we
are less than two weeks from the beginning of basketball season. Less than
two weeks from the first official day of practice, and not one of those
“voluntary” football practices which somehow leads to death. It’s about a
great game in its ideal setting. Five on five, lace them up, get out there
and … work on the fundamentals (remember kids, you can’t spell
fundamentals without the FUN).

While I was wrapped up in baseball, there was so much wrong with college
basketball. The Ed Martin case dragged Michigan’s program even farther from
where it was. Wendell Greenleaf got arrested (again). Marcus Barnes got
the boot from Miami, Tony Cole from Georgia, and Kentucky cleaned house.
West Virginia found a coach who wanted to coach there and didn’t hire him,
then a coach who didn’t want to be there and hired him. And the game lost a
legend in Abe Lemons.

But for one night in August, I took a step back in my life and got a brief
reminder of the pleasure that is college basketball when I went to the UConn
alumni game. The game, which was dubbed the always fun “First Annual” (you
find the flaw in that logic) was a charity event held at Mohegan Sun Casino
in Uncasville, CT (it was impossible to get on any tables when it was over)
with 24 former Huskies playing what was essentially a glorified pick-up
game.

The turnout was incredible both by the fans (the event was sold out, 10,000
in attendance) and the players themselves. Current NBA stars Ray Allen,
Donyell Marshall, Clifford Robinson and Richard Hamilton all played, as well
as Miami Heat first round pick Caron Butler. Fan favorites Khalid El-Amin,
Lyman DePriest and Rudy Johnson all played. A pair of Huskies, Doron
Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld returned to the States after leaving to play
professionally in Israel. The coaching staffs of the two teams were all
former Jim Calhoun assistants, with current Central Connecticut State head
coach Howie Dickenman and DePaul’s new head coach Dave Leito serving as the
head coaches on each team.

The evening began with all the players and coaches being introduced. They
put on a show, music blaring, spotlights for each player, and the crowd ate
it up. Calhoun then thanked the fans for coming and reminded everybody that
this was for a good cause before letting the players take over. What
happened in the game was unimportant. Okay, for those of you who care, the
Blue team won by 3 with Robinson missing a game-tying shot as time expired.
Watching the reactions of the players who were there, returning to the state
that embraced them, was priceless. There was pure joy on El-Amin’s face
when he was able to do his signature chuck and duck drives. Butler said all
week how excited he was to play against the players who were the reason he
ended up in tiny Storrs.

One of the aspects of college basketball is how a player becomes like family
to the fans and coaches. Programs are linked, alumni know they can go back
and see the same court or the same uniforms as there were when they went to
school. There is history that links the players from the 1950’s to recent
graduates. That was clear on that hot summer night when the 10,000 Husky
faithful came out to essentially say thank you to players who never became
multi-million dollar NBA stars. Players like Chris Smith, Calhoun’s first
big recruiting win in Connecticut, who ended up becoming UConn’s all-time
leading scorer. Players like John Gwynn, the player who was a Prop 48
player but became one of the most beloved player in school history, and is
now a corrections officer and high school referee in Connecticut. Players
like Rod Sellers, the undersized center who is known across the nation for
slamming Christian Laettner’s head into the floor during the NCAA
Tournament, but Husky fans remember as the undersized center with bad knees
that brought a huge heart in his four years as a starter.

It wasn’t a Big Monday game at Gampel Pavilion against St. John’s or a Big
East tournament game in the Garden, but for those players and fans, the
alumni game was better, it was a chance to catch up with family.

ASSORTED MUSINGS

  • First off, I know I speak for everybody else here when I say my thoughts
    and prayers go out to Bob Huggins and his family. Hopefully his condition
    is not too serious. I’ve never been a fan of his as a coach or a person,
    but his personal well-being transcends the game.

  • Might as well start down in the ACC. Keep an eye on Georgia Tech this
    year. Laugh all you want, but when March rolls around, the Yellow Jackets
    could easily be the top seed in the conference tournament. Jarrett Jack
    will have the weight of the team on his shoulders, if he could fill the void
    left by departed senior Tony Akins the season will be a success. If not,
    Paul Hewitt could have fits as they try to stay afloat in a league loaded
    with talented guards.

  • Speaking of talented guards, it’s nice to see Creighton getting some
    recognition in the offseason. Terrell Taylor’s shot is what the Bluejays
    will be remembered for, but they could have died many times against Florida.
    Dana Altman’s teams are not just physically tough, but they are mentally
    prepared every night. Kyle Korver is the most valuable player on a
    mid-major this year and should lead this team to the Tournament again.

  • Ralph Willard is building a dynasty up in Worcester. Holy cross has been
    to the last two tournaments, scaring second seeded Kentucky two years ago
    and almost knocking off top seeded Kansas last year, and looks like they’ll
    be the favorite to win the conference again this year. Tim Szatko should
    take home his third conference player of the year award. Hats off to
    Willard who endured some tough times at Pittsburgh before getting run out of
    town there. It has worked out for the best as Willard has a winner and
    seems to be enjoying coaching again.

  • Look for a big rebound for Boston College this year. The Eagles have a
    bigger Troy Bell, as well as a healthy Ryan Sidney. But, the key to this
    team could be sophomore Jermaine Watson. If Watson develops into the threat
    that most believe he can, he could help give Bell and Sidney more rest,
    keeping them fresh through the season.

  • Kudos to Tubby Smith for finally taking control in Kentucky. He gave his
    players chances to straighten themselves out, after letting them make
    mistakes that most college students would make, but put up with too much and
    had to make some examples of players. I don’t honestly see Rashaad Carruth
    sticking it out in Kelvin Sampson’s system. He’ll be gone before he’s
    eligible to play there.

  • I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear Evansville is changing to
    traditional uniforms. The t-shirts looked absolutely ridiculous.

         

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