Archive | April, 2014

Kentucky’s Roller Coaster Coming to an End

2 Apr

When practice started in October there was a lot of talk about how John Calipari was trying to repeat his 2012 success at Kentucky with his 2014 team.  That 2012 team was led by freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague and won the national title.  This year’s edition is led by Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison and James Young finds itself in the Final Four, but it wasn’t an easy ride.

The Kentucky season has been a roller coaster which seems a little funny to say for a team that is 28-10.  During the pre-season and the non-conference portion of the schedule the hype for the expectations for the team were extremely high after a 13-3 start with the three losses coming at the hands of nationally-ranked Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina by an average of just 4.6 points.

When SEC play began expectations and excitement for the team was tempered a bit when they were swept by Arkansas and lost to LSU and South Carolina.  Talk then turned to the fact that the 2012 team had veteran leadership in Darius Miller and Doron Lamb that the 2014 team doesn’t have.  Jarrod Paulson is the only upperclassman to be in the top 10 on the team in minutes at just 8.7 minutes per game.  The other nine consists of seven freshmen and just two sophomores in Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.

After a 61-60 loss to Florida in the SEC title game and defeating three of last season’s Final Four participants, #1 seed and undefeated Wichita State and 2013 title-game combatants Louisville and Michigan the thought that this team could repeat the success of 2012.

The freshmen on this team seem to be gelling at the right time.   Randle, Young and the Harrisons are growing up into more than freshmen right in front of the eyes of the college basketball world.  The growth could be seen in their 75-72 win over Michigan in the Midwest Regional final that saw the Wildcats play seven freshmen, with just Poythress being the only non-first-year player to see the floor.  Big man Cauley-Stein missed the game due to injury but that allowed freshman Marcus Lee to play a season-high 15 minutes (he had played a total of 16 minutes since Feb. 4th) and contribute 10 points and a season-high eight rebounds in the game that saw Aaron Harrison hit a game-winning three pointer with 2.3 seconds to play.

There have been may peaks and valleys in Kentucky’s season.  Just like a roller coaster they are at the peak of a climb and with two more wins they will all be screaming at the top of the lungs as the ride comes to an end.


What a Difference a Year Makes

2 Apr

What a difference a year makes.  Last year at this time the Connecticut Huskies were sitting at home watching post-season play due to a post-season ban.   Now Coach Kevin Ollie and his crew prepare to take on Florida at the Final Four in his hometown of Dallas.

I was there in Storrs for the first day of practice this season and it was clear rebounding would probably be the biggest factor in Connecticut’s success this season.   Ollie wanted the team to have a positive rebounding margin but wouldn’t put specific goals on the team, “why limit them?” he said.

Senior Niels Giffey told me, “We have to step it up. We have a bigger line up, a couple more bodies that will help but in the end it is all mental.”  The bodies he was referring to was 6-6 George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah and 7-0 freshmen Amida Brimah from Ghana.  Brimah had a productive stat line of four points, three rebounds and over two blocks per game in just 16 minutes of playing time.

While they did end up with a slightly positive rebound margin at .4 they did increase their rebounding from 33 to 35 per game that includes 25.26 defensive rebounds per game 72nd in the country.  The 6-1 All-American guard Shabazz Napier is tied for the team lead in rebounding with 6-9 DeAndre Daniels at 5.9 per game.

Napier increased his rebounding by 1.5 a game up from 4.4 last season.  Daniels, Giffey and guard Ryan Boatwright all increased their rebounding over last season, buying into the gang rebounding mindset the team needed for the Huskies to succeed.

Connecticut was talented but no one knew what kind of season they could have, Napier said,”I expect us to continue to push ourselves and strive to be the best team we can be.”  So far they certainly have, finishing the regular season at 24-7 which included a 65-64 win over their opponent on Saturday, Florida. They made a trip to the American Athletic Conference Tournament finals where they fell to Louisville and dispatched St. Joseph’s, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State on their way to Dallas.

The current run by the Huskies is giving their fans fond memories of 2011 when the team finished the season on an 11-game winning streak and winning the national championship led by another dynamic guard in Kemba Walker.  As soon as the Big East Tournament began, Walker to over propelling Connecticut to five wins in five days for a conference title then a six-game run to the NCAA title.

During their run Napier is doing his best Walker impression by averaging 23.3 points, six rebounds and 4.5 rebounds per game.  Those kind of numbers will have to on Saturday if Connecticut hopes to knock off the tournament’s #1 overall seed in the Gators.  What a difference a year makes indeed.

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