Huskies playing for pride at Paradise Jam

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ST. THOMAS - Less than a week ago, the University of Connecticut men's basketball team was nearly 4,000 miles from home, opening its season against Michigan State in an Army air base hangar in Germany. Today, UConn will touch down in St. Thomas - another 2,700 miles from campus in Storrs, Conn.

Don't expect all the travel to slow the 23rd-ranked Huskies. Paradise Jam is the only tournament they will play in this season and they want to win it.

The NCAA ruled the team ineligible for its 2013 Men's Division I Basketball Tournament because of poor academic performance in recent years. The Big East Conference doesn't allow teams to participate in conference tournaments if they are ineligible for the NCAA. Two years removed from a national title, the Huskies are now playing for pride.

"Every game you want to win," UConn junior guard Shabazz Napier said. "We know we can't play in the tournament, but we look at it like we're playing Wake Forest right now."

The Huskies play Wake Forest in a first-round matchup at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center.

"We're not thinking about not qualifying," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "We're thinking about a healthy chance to go out there and improve."

The University of New Mexico is another strong team in the field and looked like a possible favorite before then unranked UConn upset No. 14 Michigan State at the Armed Forces Classic in Germany.

It was the first game under Ollie, who replaced 26-year veteran and Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun. The three-time national champion retired in September and chose Ollie, an assistant coach and UConn player in the early 1990s, to be his successor.

"It turned out to be perfect - a great start to my career," Ollie said in a video interview on "But I know it's gonna be hard, I know it's a continuing journey and we're just gonna play hard, we're just gonna play together and we're gonna play for one another. The circle is greater than the individual and that's what we believe in our locker room."

The game was a strong rallying point for a young team excited about a new coach, yet still close to Calhoun, who many of the players hugged following the win.

Calhoun beat cancer during his career, and coached a final year after spinal surgery. He fractured his hip one month before retiring, but said that was not the deciding factor.

"As I looked at everything. So many things are in place for us to even go farther than we have already," Calhoun said at his announcement. "So I thought it was an excellent time."

Napier and sophomore guard Ryan Boatright will look to exploit a Wake Forest team that started three freshmen in their season-opening win over Radford University (Va.). The Huskies will have to stop two experienced Demon Deacons in senior guard C.J. Harris and junior forward Travis McKie.

"I know Wake Forest is a great team," Napier said. "We know they have a great coach. Travis McKie is a great post player. They have a lot of players that work together to try and win games.

We got a good opponent ahead of us."

The winner will face the winner of Quinnipiac University versus Iona College at 10 p.m. Sunday. The losers of the two games will play at 6 p.m. Saturday.

UConn beat the University of Vermont, 67-49, on Tuesday and Napier has quickly established himself as the scoring leader. He scored a game-high 25 points against Michigan State and hit a pair of free throws in the final seconds to extend the lead to four.

The Spartans out-rebounded the Huskies, 43-29, exposing a possible weakness.

Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik knows his team will have to be near perfect to keep up with the Huskies.

"We obviously need to not turn the ball over and do a great job in defensive transition," Bzdelik said.

Wake Forest University

An upset of No. 23 Connecticut in the first round would be a signature win for the Bzdelik era at Wake Forest. Bzdelik is in his third year at the helm and outside expectations are low. The Demon Deacons (1-0) shared the 10th spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference's preseason coaches' poll after a 13-18 season. In Bzdelik's first season, the team was just 8-24.

The numbers aren't indicative of what the former Denver Nuggets coach has planned. The team was hamstrung by a slew of players transferring or being dismissed from the team. The roster is now primarily composed of Bzdelik's recruits, but led by senior captain C.J. Harris.

Harris was a third-team all-conference player as a junior, and was a top-six scorer in the ACC. Junior forward Travis McKie was also among the top six scorers and will aid Harris in anchoring a roster with 10 freshman.

Three rookies started the team's season opener, a 79-63 win over Radford University (Va.).

"They're all going to contribute," Bzdelik said. "They're all going to have to contribute in a huge way. I have great belief in them and they're very talented."

George Mason University

The Patriots are entering their second year under coach Paul Hewitt. The former Georgia Tech coach is making his second appearance at Paradise Jam. His first trip was with the Yellow Jackets in 2007.

Mason (1-1) was picked third in the Colonial Athletic Association's preseason poll and only seven of the league's nine teams are eligible for the conference tournament in March.

"We have a chance to be good," Hewitt said. "We've got some really good pieces and we're still trying to figure out who we are."

The team is without returning players Erik Copes and Vaughn Gray for the first round as they serve suspensions for breaking team rules. Hewitt said he's not worried about lack of depth, but the team was hampered without Copes' 6-foot-8 post presence in Tuesday's loss to Bucknell.

The Bears have a solid front court and Hewitt thinks highly of Mercer coach Bob Hoffman's systems.

"I know that they're gonna run some very good sets," Hewitt said. "Coach Hoffman does a very good job. He's one of the best in half-court offense in the country."

Mercer University

Coach Bob Hoffman's team knows what it feels like to win a tournament. The Bears capped last season's 27-11 run with a championship in the 2012 Tournament (a tournament that invites teams who fail to make the NCAA or NIT). Four starters return from that team, including first-team All-Atlantic Sun point guard Langston Hall. The junior is battling an ankle injury, so his availability in the first round against George Mason is uncertain.

"We'll be fired up when he is on the floor," Hoffman said. "He's helping us coach, but that's not a good place for him though he can do those things."

Mercer (2-0) hasn't been tested through two games against Division II and III opponents, but the Bears will receive a boost with the return of Daniel Coursey. The junior forward was held out of recent games for violating team rules. He is a shot-blocking specialist at 6-foot-10 and was picked as the Atlantic Sun's Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

"Daniel is special," Hoffman said. "He ended up in the top 15 or 20 last year in blocks. He's long and can time it to get up there and get blocked shots. We're excited about him being on the floor."

University of New Mexico

Coach Steve Alford made his expectations clear to his team following the Lobos' practice at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on Wednesday.

Alford believes his team can win the tournament and by doing so, establish themselves as a Top 25 team in the country. Alford previously coached in the tournament when he was at Iowa University.

"The competition is so good," Alford said. "I think in this tournament, when you look at the eight teams, there's a lot of balance and equality and should make for some great games."

The Lobos have the University of Illinois-Chicago in the first round, and junior point guard Kendall Williams will set the pace. Williams is a preseason first-team All-Mountain West selection.

"He's got as much speed as anybody I've ever coached," Alford said. "He's extremely fast, very gifted offensively, underrated defensively. I think he's one of the better defenders in the conference. He makes us go in a variety of ways."

UNM (1-0) came from 14 points down to beat Davidson 86-81 in the season opener.

University of Illinois-Chicago

Coach Howard Moore is pleased to be back in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the fourth time. Moore and his wife Jennifer honeymooned in the territory. He's also been a part of two previous Paradise Jam tournaments as an assistant coach with the University of Wisconsin. The Badgers won the title in 2005.

"I have a lot of familiarity with the tournament, the people running it and I think it's a classy tournament," Moore said.

The Flames return four starters, but finished just 8-22 last season. Senior guard Gary Talton is the team's top player and will have his hands full defending New Mexico's guards.

"They have the ability to put a lot of points on the board," Moore said. "I don't know if we have that firepower, so we have to be smart."

UIC (1-0) beat the University of California-Riverside, 59-52, on Sunday.

Iona College

The Gaels lost their top two players to graduation, and appear to have reloaded nicely. Iona lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, but made the dance with an at-large berth. That doesn't happen often in the Metro Atlantic Conference.

Lamont 'MoMo' Jones is taking over at point guard for Houston Rockets draftee Scott Machado. Jones transferred to Iona before the start of last season and contributed immediately. He was also a part of an Arizona Wildcats' Elite 8 team before transferring. Two NCAA appearances aren't enough for Jones.

"It's a great motivation," he said. "You always want to get back there. It's a great feeling and atmosphere."

Iona coach Tim Cluess knows rebounding will be the key against first-round opponent Quinnipiac.

"I know they have everybody but one player back from last year," Cluess said. "They're a very physical team. They offensively rebound very well."

Quinnipiac University

To say the Bobcats rebound "very well" may be an understatement. The small Connecticut school led the country in rebounding each of the past two seasons.

"It's a philosophy," coach Tom Moore said. "I was with coach Calhoun for so long. It was something we really welded in and were successful with.

"We brought with us a lot of the same drills, but more importantly, my staff has a mentality of attacking the offensive glass."

Moore is in his sixth year at Quinnipiac after serving under former UConn coach Jim Calhoun.

Iona will have to deal with rebounding machines in junior Ike Azotam and sophomore Ousmane Drame.

The Bobcats finished 18-14 last year and lost eight games by less than five points. They are hoping the rebounding margin leads to better outcomes in tight games.

- Contact Tim Chapman at 714-9102 or

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