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NASSAU, The Bahamas -- Blowing past defenders is Ryan Boatright's specialty, but the one opponent he couldn't get around was uncertainty.
A 6-foot, 160-pound freshman point guard at UConn, Boatright was declared ineligible on Nov. 2 while his school and the NCAA undertook an investigation into a plane ticket he received from his former AAU coach. For the next two weeks, Boatright was in limbo while awaiting a verdict. It drove him mad and sapped his spirit. "I was hearing it would be three games, maybe four, but they kept prolonging the process," Boatright said. "I felt like they were taking my joy away."
UConn coach Jim Calhoun empathized with what his freshman was going through, but he didn't like seeing him mope. One day after practice, Calhoun pulled Boatright aside and gave him a dose of tough love. "He pouted a little bit, just to let us know he was down so we're supposed to give him sympathy," Calhoun said. "I said to him, nobody's going to give you sympathy. It wasn't your fault. These are the rules you play under. Therefore, you've just got to play basketball and get ready."
The official word finally came on Nov. 18. Boatright's suspension would cover eight games (including two exhibitions), which would be retroactively applied to the five he had already missed. That meant Boatright could make his collegiate debut during the final day of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament on Paradise Island.
He proved to be worth the wait. On Saturday, Boatright checked in at the scorer's table early in the first half of the Huskies' third-place game against Florida State. He immediately changed the game -- and UConn's season. He weaved and sliced his way through the Seminoles' vaunted defense. He dropped deft passes to UConn's big men for easy buckets. And he hit some big-time shots, none bigger than the three free throws he swished with seven seconds remaining in regulation. That sent the game into overtime, where UConn escaped with a 78-76 win. In all, Boatright played 33 minutes and finished with 14 points, three assists and zero turnovers. "I ain't gonna lie. I was nervous," Boatright said. "I had been in a slump with my free throws, too. I couldn't make them in practice. But I just kept telling myself, this is what I've been waiting for."
The shots were clutch, the timing impeccable: Less than 24 hours before, UConn had unraveled in stunning fashion against unranked UCF in the semifinal, blowing a 17-point lead early in the second half to lose by five. When I asked Calhoun after the Florida State win what he had learned about his team during its three games in the Bahamas, he answered simply, "We needed Ryan Boatright."
Calhoun was surprised but not shocked that Boatright was so good so soon. He had, after all, spent weeks watching Boatright blow by defenders in practice. That includes Kemba Walker, who had been hanging out in Storrs during the NBA lockout. Whenever Walker was in the gym, Boatright begged to guard him. "You almost have to know Ryan. Not too many things bother him," Calhoun said. "He didn't get much [practice] work as far as running our stuff, but I'll tell you what he does do. He has incredible courage. He can go by most anybody. Plays very good defense. I had no qualms whatsoever about throwing him in like that."
Besides moxie and poise, Boatright also gave UConn a different look. With two catch-and-shoot swingmen, 6-8 freshman DeAndre Daniels and 6-8 sophomore Roscoe Smith, rendered ineffective by the Seminoles' perimeter pressure, Boatright's ankle-breaking crossovers were the perfect counter. Boatright's presence also enabled the Huskies' starting backcourt tandem of 6-foot sophomore Shabazz Napier and 6-5 sophomore Jeremy Lamb to move off the ball. (Napier was especially careless running the point during the tournament, committing 18 turnovers in three games.) Calhoun told me he doesn't plan on starting Boatright in the foreseeable future because he likes the spark he provides off the bench. But that three-guard lineup sure looked sharp.
Meanwhile, UConn's other prized freshman, 6-11 center Andre Drummond, also took important steps forward at the Atlantis. Calhoun gave Drummond his first start in the quarterfinal against UNC-Asheville. Against the Seminoles he had 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks. "He has great instincts, but he hasn't mastered any of the fundamental skills of finishing all those plays," Calhoun said. "Remember, we're talking about an 18-year-old freshman. Andre can change games. There are not too many game changers out there."
Drummond's rise has come at the expense of 6-9 junior forward Alex Oriakhi. He might be UConn's most experienced player, but Oriakhi has not asserted himself during the first few weeks of the season. Nor did Oriakhi react well to his benching. In reply to a tweet from his former high school teammate, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who played for UConn last season before transferring to Hofstra, Oriakhi said his benching was "sum bs." Against the Seminoles Oriakhi was a bit player, finishing with zero points, zero rebounds and three fouls in just ten minutes.
Calhoun said the reason Oriakhi is not starting is simple: Drummond is better. "Despite having a very good career, Alex has been sporadic at times," Calhoun said. "Alex will play a lot for us, but he has to be consistent."
Oriakhi's discontent did little to sour Calhoun's mood. The win over Florida State may have come in a consolation game of an early-season tournament, but Calhoun knew that his team, which was already pretty good, had just gotten much better. That's because he no longer has to wait on Ryan Boatright. "The bigger the moment, the more he steps up," Calhoun said. "I think you'll see an awful lot more of him.
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