Me and UConn: Love hurts

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Me and UConn: Love hurts

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

I was introduced to UConn when I was sixteen.

My dad and I went to a college fair together where I would supposedly meet my perfect match. I was skeptical. First of all, I was a teenager a class of the most suspicious and stubborn humans on the planet. Secondly, walking through aisles of overeager college recruiters is like (how I can only imagine) walking through the Red Light District with Euros hanging out of the zipper of your pants.

You dont exactly feel special.

But I was with my dad; he knew what I was looking for.

Hows your basketball team look this year? hed ask.

Most recruiters were caught off-guard. Theyd tug on their university-issue polo shirts and shuffle through their pamphlets. Several of the pamphlets included statistics on that years incoming freshman, but not the kind that listed weights, heights, and high school shooting percentages.

Was your school named one of the top-25 research institutions in the country? Great. But at what number is the mens hoops team projected in the APs preseason poll?

Teen-me nodded during the inquiries and kept my arms defiantly folded. I was pretty smart and my dad was (and is) exponentially smarter, so I kept to scanning the three-sided poster boards for photos of practice facilities and let him do the talking.

Keep in mind, I wasnt looking for a champion because I played; I was looking because I watched. Religiously.

I grew up in a basketball house. My dad loved the sport on every level and bonded with his three kids by teaching us how to play in the driveway or taking us to local high school games to watch. For my size, I was a remarkably talented spectator.

But there were rules.

At live games you dont get up for anything. A bathroom break at halftime is fine, but popping out for Twizzlers and a Coke, or meeting friends by the water fountain to gossip during play? Dont even. It would be like interrupting Easter Mass to phone a bet in to a bookie.

At home we rooted for the Blue Devils. Our schedule revolved around Dukes. Mike Krzyzewskis rule was irrefutable; Dick Vitales orgasmic rants werent annoying, they were charming; the Cameron Crazies didnt represent a freaky cult, they were a part of storied tradition.

Unfortunately, I wouldnt be a part of the Duke tradition. I was pretty smart, remember, not a total dork.

Still, stopping at UConns table was baffling.

The Huskies won a title in 1999. But a Big East school? I cocked one eyebrow and looked over at my dad. The recruiter was delighted with our priorities.

Theyve built a brand new football stadium in East Hartford, the guy gushed.

Where does the mens basketball team play? my dad asked.

Some kind of soliloquy followed on Jim Calhoun, a No. 7 ranking, and an on-campus pavilion, but I wasnt listening. I was scanning the fair for cute boys who didnt want to go to a school located on a Connecticut cow farm. I wanted ACC hoops. My dad didnt want to pay for plane tickets every time I got homesick.

UConn got my application in 2003 early action.

I was accepted when the Huskies were 7-1.

By March, UConn was 27-6 and Big East tourney champs. My icy little heart was melting, drip by drip, with every Ben Gordon jumper. Josh Boone didnt have great hands, but did have 6 feet and 10 inches of potential and two more years of eligibility. A lot of the guys were underclassmen, in fact, and would be there the next season.

For me.

I was starting to think of myself as a Husky.

On April 3, 2004, UConn tipped off against the No. 1 team the country: Duke. I was distraught. For the first 27 minutes I see-sawed between my childhood sweetheart and my betrothed. With less than three minutes to play, the Blue Devils were up by eight.

Dukes big men were dropping like flies, fouling out with alarming consistency. Each time one of them sat, I cheered and then felt nauseous. Connecticut All-American center Emeka Okafor had played just 22 minutes because of foul trouble and, I dont know, a shattered spine or something. But he put the Huskies onto that broken back of his and carried them to a 79-78 win.

My school was gunning for a national championship.

I was in love.

Little did I know it was an abusive relationship.

I meetMidnight Madness with a heart full of hope. This is our year, I think.UConn cruises through the cupcake non-conference schedule, blowout byblowout, with poise, explosive offensive and oppressive defense.

Then it falls apart. By the Big East Tournament, Im battered; by April Im broken.

Connecticut comes crawling back every October.

Imsweet-talked by promises of returning starters, underclassmen withpromise, and top freshman recruits. Im told that things are going tobe different this time. Like a fool, I believe. All it takes is a123-71 win over Quinnipiac in December and Im drooling by New YearsDay.

Somehow, I never see the uppercut coming.

2004-05: Seven players return from the championshipteam. Add freshman Rudy Gay and ACC Rookie of the Year transfer EdNelson and theres a lot to feel good about. I camp outside theHartford Civic Center on February 13 for the UNC game at 5 a.m. Whena local cop says the neighborhood gangs would love to hurt me, I flexmy biceps and bark.

Two wins over Syracuse during the regularseason are cheapened by a 67-63 loss that bounces the Huskies from theBig East Tournament.

But thats easier to take than watching N.C.States elderly Julius Hodge convert a three-point play with 4.3seconds left. The 65-62 loss knocks UConn out of the NCAA tournament.

It is my initiation into hell.

2005-06:A brilliant year. With a Maui Invitational Championship appetizer,UConn loses just once in its first 26 games. I am drunk with power.

OnThursday, March 9, Gerry McNamara hits a 3 with 5.5 seconds left inregulation to tie the Huskies in the Big East quarterfinal game. Theninth-seeded Orange goes on to beat No. 1 Connecticut 86-84 inovertime.

It getsworse. UConn faces George Mason in the Elite Eight that year. Imthrilled! What the hell is a George Mason? Answer: The ColonialAthletic Conferences Cinderella assassin, sent to murder my Huskies bytwo points in overtime. I wander the Connecticut campus for an hour indumb shock afterwards, ingest roughly 8,000 calories at South dininghall that night, and boycott the rest of March Madness.

2006-07:A 17-14 overall record, 6-10 in conference. Elimination from the BigEast tournament by Syracuse yes, again this time, by 13 points. Notournament, no NIT, no postseason, nothing. For a while, I refuse tobelieve that this year of my life is real.

2007-08: Its asolid bounceback season. UConn finishes 13-5 in the Big East and earnsa No. 4 seed for the national tournament. So when the Huskies tip offin a first-round match up against San Diego, Im excited.

Junior point guard A.J. Prices knee explodes with 9:39 to play in the first half.

Itsaround now that I start to wonder if someone is out to get me. DeJonJackson hits a jumper with 1.2 seconds left in overtime to lift the13th-seeded San Diego Somethings to a 70-69 victory. Per usual, I wantto die. But only a little bit this time.

2008-09: A preseasonNo. 2 ranking in the country is soothing. Rather than be content tohave of the most useless 7-footers in the history of collegebasketball, UConn and Hasheem Thabeet rip it up for a 27-3 record andthe Big East quarterfinal game. To try something different, UConn playsSyracuse. My boys battle the wretched Orange for 40 minutes ofregulation play and six overtimes. When it ends, Syracuse wins 127-117and I am collapsed in front of the TV, exhausted, in a pool of my owntears, saliva and vomit.

UConn loses in the Final Four to Michigan State.

Whatever.

2009-10:January 27, Providence, RI: The only Connecticut basketball Ive seenlive since graduating in 2008. The Huskies get brutalized 81-66 by thebottom-feeding Friars in front of my face. Weeks later, St. John's another Big East weakling spanks UConn in the first round of theconference tourney by 21 points. Its a 2 p.m. game; Imdrunk before 4.

People tell me the Huskies are invited to the NIT. I cant hear them because my sensibilities are drowned in shame.

At noon today the ninth-seeded University of Connecticut Huskies will take on a god-awful DePaul team to open the Big East tournament. Really, DePaul is terrible. The Blue Demons are 7-23.

Naturally, Im expecting the worst.

UConn entered this season unranked but not unloved. The Huskies are currently No. 21 in the country, 21-9 overall and .500 in the Big East because I have willed them here. I ridiculously claimed they could win the Maui Invitational in November; they did. I put my old blinders on and blasted the analysts who said UConn wouldnt beat Texas, Villanova, Georgetown and Syracuse.

They did lose to Syracuse. (And to Louisville, Notre Dame, Marquette and St. Johns.) But still I profess undying loyalty to the freshman, declare my desire to adopt Kemba Walker as a son, and make bets with WVU fans that blow up in my face.

Im going to be a basket case today.

This is not our year. While Ill brag to anyone within earshot that UConn is going to win and keep winning, theres a part of me the part that gave me a seizure when I visited San Diego and induces PTSD when I meet someone named George that expects the Huskies to lose. Probably not to DePaul, but later . . . on a 3-pointer drilled by a 27-year old Gerry McNamara in the 86th overtime frame.

And it will hurt.

Schedules for the 2011-2012 NCAA basketball season should come out in September. Ill call my dad the minute it happens. Hell tell me that Duke is going to be better than UConn and Ill tell him hes crazy. Ill tell him in a voice several octaves too high -- that Shabazz Napier is going to lead the Huskies to their third national title.

Maybe they will. Or maybe Im stupid.

Love does that to a person.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

NHL Notes: Carlo sticking with his strengths in the D-zone

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NHL Notes: Carlo sticking with his strengths in the D-zone

By all accounts, 20-year-old Brandon Carlo has been outstanding for the Boston Bruins.

The rookie D-man was remarkably strong and consistent skating with Zdeno Chara as a top-pairing shutdown D-man before the Bruins captain went down with injury, and he was still very good after adjusting to life without partner Big Zee over the last six games.

Carlo had a couple of assists and a plus-3 rating while topping 20 minutes of ice time in each of the games without Chara, and rightly saw it as an opportunity to show what he could without the 6-foot-9 safety net on his left side. It’s exactly those kinds of challenges that spark Carlo’s competitiveness and get the fire burning that he so desperately needs in order to play at such a high intensity level every night in the NHL.  

“Zee helps me a lot, but I feel like at the same time I have the strengths to be able to handle myself on my own in this league,” said Carlo, who leads all rookies by a wide margin with his plus-12 rating for the season. “It’s a great opportunity to get out there and build relationships defensively. I just take it as an opportunity to prove myself in this league by myself. It was an opportunity to gain some confidence in different ways. With Zee playing so well and with such great chemistry between us, it gave me a whole bunch of confidence.

“Playing with different guys and matching up against the other team’s best players or matching up with third and fourth lines and maybe taking a few more hits, it shows that I can play anywhere in the lineup. It’s another great opportunity to prove myself.”

Well, Carlo has proven himself and passed that test along with all of the other NHL rookie exams set in front of him more than a quarter of the way through the regular season.

Clearly there are obvious gifts with Carlo plain to anybody watching him for the first time. He has the 6-foot-5, 203-pound frame that simply can’t be taught and that size allows him to win battles against stronger, more experienced opponents looking to do battle with him in Boston’s defensive zone.

He also has a very good point shot he consistently threads through traffic, and that has him on pace for a very respectable seven-goal, 20-point rookie campaign without any power play time mixed into his ice time. The decision-making with the puck and the passing is tape-to-tape more often than it’s not, and Carlo usually does a good job of avoiding the kind of high risk passes that can turn into goals against while battling other team’s top line players.

He keeps it simple and keeps it focused on defense, but Carlo also shows there is more surface to scratch with his offensive game.

Some of Carlo’s talents are a little less apparent to the casual observer, however.

The defensive stick-work, in particular, is something that you notice after watching Carlo shut things down in the D-zone night after night. He uses his long wing span and king-sized stick to poke pucks away from attackers, and has an uncanny ability to sweep the puck away from speedier players that were able to get a step on the big D-man.

“The one thing is that he’s so long and his stick is so long, it gives him time to recover because as a young kid in the league you’re going to make a lot of mistakes,” said Torey Krug, who has had to learn to survive in the NHL without those particular gifts. “He has the ability to come back and recover. The second part of that is being unfazed by it. He can make a mistake on one shift, and the next shift he shrugs it off and says ‘Okay, I’m not gonna get beat like that again.’ He has the ability to overcome that. He has the right head on his shoulders with the willingness to listen, to learn and to just keep getting better.”

The stick-checking in the D-zone is exactly how somebody would teach their hockey-playing kids to utilize the stick in the defensive zone, provided those puck prodigies were 6-foot-5 with excellent strength and hand-eye coordination to boot. Carlo said it’s something he’s nearly always been able to do as a big-bodied defenseman, and that certainly was reinforced by his coaching at the WHL level with the Tri-City Americans.

“There were not a lot of teaching points there. The stick is just something that I’ve always just loved using,” said Carlo. “Whenever I was on 1-on-1’s with my teams the guys would hate going against me because my poke check was so good. It’s just something that I really took pride in, developed and just got better and better with over time. There are certain things guys have told me [over the years] like using the straight back-and-forth instead of the windshield wiper [stick check].

“With my size I kind of had to adapt to the long stick, and I really enjoy using it [as a defensive weapon]. It gives me an extra step and an extra opportunity to get the puck away from guys too, particularly when they get behind me. It’s nice that I can use that long reach to get me out of sticky situations at times.”

Claude Julien made certain to point out that it’s something Carlo brought to the table prior to joining the Bruins organization, and was noticed immediately by the Providence Bruins coaching staff last season in his handful of games with them. It’s something of a rarity for a 19 or 20-year-old player to have that kind of stick technique down to a science to the point where it becomes a defensive weapon for him at the NHL level.

It’s also something that’s made Carlo’s transition to the NHL almost seamless despite just eight games of AHL experience entering this season.

“Most young guys always have two hands on their stick and it’s up around their waist, and you have to do a good job of teaching them to keep one hand on the stick with sticks on pucks,” said Julien. “Those are the kinds of things where it’s hard [sometimes] to break younger players in because for some reason they’re told to keep two hands on their sticks when they’re younger. At this level we need the one hand to have sticks on pucks.

“That’s what came out of last year when he first got to Providence. He had a very good stick and that’s what we were told. He had that before he came here, and that was one of his strengths. You continue to work with him because that has been one of his best weapons. Zdeno is probably one of those guys that’s going to tell you it served him extremely well, so he’s learning from the best when he’s playing with [Chara]. No doubt that’s been a big part of why he’s able to play here right now is because he defends well, and he uses his stick well.”

It’s exactly those kinds of fundamental strengths that have the Bruins believing they’ve got the real deal in a top-4, shutdown D-man in Carlo, and that the 20-year-old Colorado native has played himself into a big part of the big picture future for the Black and Gold. 

ONE TIMERS

*Seeing Brad Marchand lose it on a linesman Saturday afternoon in Buffalo reminds me of his preseason comments on getting on the good side with the refs this season. Marchand had just engaged in a scuffle with Rasmus Ristolainen, and then the Bruins winger engaged in a verbal scuffle with one of the officials during the ensuing face-off. Cameras caught Marchand saying “Do your job! Do your job!” before dropping a couple of clear F-bombs his way before the puck was dropped. Well, so much for racking up the brownie points to change the reputation with the refs, eh Brad?

*In case it isn’t already obvious, expect the Bruins big trade acquisition prior to the deadline to involve a top-6 forward that can put the puck in the net rather than a top-4 defenseman. They could use both, of course, but they are looking to find somebody that can finally fill into Loui Eriksson’s left wing role on David Krejci’s line, and both Ryan Spooner and Tim Schaller haven’t been perfect solutions for the playmaking Krejci. Certainly the Black and Gold will look at 22-year-old Frank Vatrano when he comes back as well, but there’s no telling how long it’s going to take a youngster like that to fully come back from foot surgery. The Bruins may just hedge their bets by going out and getting another winger after putting together a whole collection of centers on the roster this summer.

*Continued prayers and thoughts for Craig Cunningham as it sounds like he’s on the road to recovery in very slow steps out in Arizona. He is a great kid and deserves all the positive thoughts that Bruins Nation can send out to him.

*If you haven’t already, go out and pick up fellow Bruins writer Fluto Shinzawa’s new book entitled “Big 50: Boston Bruins: The Men and Moments that Made the Boston Bruins.” The Boston Globe writer goes deep into the B’s history books for some Old Time Hockey anecdotes and characters, and also gives you a close-up view of the last 10 years as he’s covered the daily doings of the Black and Gold. It’s not that big of a book either, so it looks like the perfect Christmas stocking stuffer for the Bruins fan in your family.

Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.