|Veterans like Jeremy Lamb (right) will help Andre Drummond improve his game for the Huskies. (AP)|
STORRS, Conn. -- As it entered the 2010-11 season, Connecticut was considered an average Big East team with controlled hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament. Now it's the defending national champions, and even after losing Kemba Walker, the do-everything Huskies insta-legend/lottery pick who piled up mythical performances in last year's Big East and NCAA tournaments ... UConn's even better?
Talent-wise, undeniably that's a yes. And Andre Drummond's the reason for that. He's the reason the Huskies are now expected to get back to the Final Four, minimally. Without him, the Huskies are a damn good team with a damn good chance of repeating. With him, they're already in the conversation as one of the most loaded clubs Jim Calhoun has ever coached.
The 6-11, 18-year-old Drummond obviously has size, but also leaping ability (a 41-inch vertical), terrific feet, great hands, is an adroit passer and can blow by guys five inches shorter than him from 15 feet out. The argument can be made there has never been a player like him in UConn's history. Drummond hasn't played a game in Connecticut threads and he’s already one of college basketball’s most feared players.
"He has some Emeka in him," Calhoun said. "Athletically, they remind me of each other."
That's Emeka Okafor he's referring to. National player of the year back in 2004, when Connecticut won its second national title. Skill-wise, Drummond's better as a freshman than Okafor was. In terms of being a big man worthy of Okafor's company, Calhoun said Drummond's got plenty of work to do.
"The biggest thing he needs to do is start in and move his way out," Calhoun said. "He doesn't realize right now, but at 275 pounds, when he posts you up -- you’re posted. He's got a chance to be really something special. We've waited for this day for four years, and particularly the last three years, but all the visitations and all the games you went to. He always knew we wanted him the most. We were at every single one of his games this summer. Every game we could be at, we were at."
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And it was always UConn for Drummond, too. He hid that feeling from people throughout his much-discussed, very-cloaked recruitment, but Drummond grew up in Middletown, Conn., less than an hour from Connecticut's campus. He's attended UConn games since he was in the seventh grade. Former Huskies Stanley Robinson and Hasheem Thabeet were known for their braided hair while playing in Storrs; Drummond's mother is the one who styled their skulls in the family kitchen.
"People forget, because they say it happened so quick, but we recruited him for four years," Calhoun said. "He's got more games in this gym than any player on our team, presently."
Drummond admits, if Calhoun's not at UConn right now, neither is he. Instead, he's most likely be boring himself in preparation for a year of domination against hilariously inferior competition at the New England prep-school level. When the Huskies beat Butler on April 4, Drummond figured he'd just watched Calhoun coach his final game. Attending UConn: not even remotely on his radar at that point. Drummond's such an interesting figure, not because of his unique skill set and inevitable skyscraper-high draft stock -- but because he's already controversial. Some believe he shouldn't even be on campus, giving Calhoun another legitimate chance at a title. He was a very late addition to the squad after he announced to the world, via Twitter, that he would choose to enroll at Connecticut for the 2011-12 academic year.
For the first time on record since his commitment to Connecticut, Drummond detailed why and how his situation changed. He maintains that, until late August, attending Connecticut in 2011 was never the plan.
"Honestly, the whole thing is, I didn't have any stress at all during [my recruitment]," Drummond said. "I don't let the media in, I don't tell anybody anything. So I don't really tell people about what I'm doing with my situation." The man-child and his family wanted to wait it out. It got so convincing that Drummond wasn't attending college in 2011 -- and likely just making a leap to the NBA after a year of prep school -- that college coaches were no longer calling his house.
"They appreciated the fact I wasn't ready to make my decision," he said. "I wasn't interested in them --and I'd be lying if I told them otherwise."
He was already a high-honors student at St. Thomas More. He openly admits that changing course to UConn was initiated and endorsed by his mother. The reality didn't become a possibility until his mother and other close family members gathered the night of Aug. 26. It was the weekend Hurricane Irene was scarring and carving up sections of the northeast. Drummond sat at home, when all of the sudden his closest family members came to the house for the impromptu, surprise sit-down. "I don't think you're ready, I know you're ready," his mother told him, while his Uncle Phil -- the man who "put the basketball" in Drummond's hands when he was young -- and others agreed en masse.
And suddenly, that was it. Drummond was eager and ready to be in college, and UConn was the only choice, despite the fact the program had been docked two scholarships this year due to NCAA infractions committed by the coaching staff in 2007.
Here's the kicker: When Drummond made his decision public, he did it without the consent -- or knowledge -- of anyone at the school, save for a few players. That's because none of the coaches picked up the phone when Drummond made the rounds. Calhoun was on vacation with his family in Watch Hill, Rhode Island.
"I said to him that he had the engagement ring and he couldn't find me to put in on my finger," Calhoun said.
Drummond wasn't cleared academically by the school that Friday night, Aug. 26, when he threw himself into the mix. He assumed he'd be cleared to enroll and be eligible, and in short time he was right. This brought immediate criticism of the NCAA and Calhoun, plus plenty of questions about the ethics of giving Drummond a scholarship at the cost of another player's, Michael Bradley. Those questions that have not been fully addressed by Calhoun to this point.
"It's a very unusual situation, but we'll go into full detail later about this, so we can tell everyone, so they can hear the story," Calhoun said Wednesday afternoon outside Gampel Pavilion.
Drummond said he and Bradley are close, good friends, and the scholarship swap is absolutely not an issue between them or the rest of the team. Bradley maintains he willingly offered up the scholarship. The two have known each other for more than three years, having crossed paths on the AAU circuit before. Bradley grew up in an orphanage home and is now on financial aid for the 2011-12 season.
Drummond opened up further about the night he declared to Connecticut. Immediately, fans barraged him with tweets, a combination of exhilaration and demands of a repeat championship.
"I felt the pressure the second I tweeted it," Drummond. "I'm like, Geez, how you gonna put that on me already? I haven't even stepped on campus yet. I can't fail. I can't fail. Like I'm going to be the next Kemba Walker? I'm gonna win the games?"
That pressure's already subsided for him, though, as he's spent the past three weeks scrimmaging with his teammates and former UConn players currently in the NBA -- a rare luxury college players around the country are benefitting from during the extended NBA lockout. It's been quite the transformation for Drummond, who claims he was an awful basketball player until his sophomore year of high school. Despite the fact he was 6-7 as a freshman, and was considered the No. 1 player in the state, he had tremendously low confidence.
"I didn't think I was going to be playing anywhere," he said. Then his sophomore year came, and his skills caught up with this body -- perhaps even swiftly exceeding their natural progression. And his uncle Phil was there, supporting him the whole way. That's the man Drummond gives all credit to.
"He's the reason why I continue to play basketball," Drummond said. "He said, 'You're not going to be just a big man. You're going to be able to do everything a basketball player should do.'"
It's why Drummond has such a multi-faceted, freelance type of game that has a devastating pairing with the power born out of his huge frame. He'll make NBA millions soon enough. And as for his NBA plans, all media members can expect similar vagueness to what he displayed throughout his recruitment. He's not going to give anyone anything, so it's probably not worth even asking about.
"It's my personal life, I don't need to share with the world what I'm doing," he said.
Drummond is blunt but kind. He's guarded but exceedingly happy. And he's definitely not arrogant. Since he arrived, Drummond's been filling up starting point guard Shabazz Napier's ear for on-floor advice about the offense. This UConn team is filled with a lot of characters and a lot of pieces that make it one of the most complete teams in the country. Alex Oriakhi, Jeremy Lamb and Napier are the experienced guys who now own rings. Drummond is joined by fellow highly lauded freshmen Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels.
The team won't be without storylines all year long. The potential is astounding. And it's ever-reaching because of Drummond, the unlikely final piece that could give Calhoun the one thing his Hall-of-Fame career lacks: back-to-back championships.