Wheeler on Dunn: New London basketball legend talks about legend-to-be
A magical post-season run, especially an unexpected one, can create lifetime memories.
Just ask Tyson Wheeler.
Seventeen years later, the former New London High School great still relishes his post-season joy ride when he helped drive Rhode Island all the way to the 1998 NCAA Elite Eight.
And others do, too.
"When I'm recruiting, people still talk about that Rhode Island team," said Wheeler, now an assistant coach at Fairfield University, during a phone conversation earlier this week.
Wheeler will be rooting hard as another New London graduate attempts to make a memorable March run.
Sophomore Kris Dunn will lead Providence College in its NCAA tournament opener tonight against Dayton at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Wheeler stopped by Providence's practice earlier this week to visit with Dunn and coach Ed Cooley. Wheeler was the director of basketball operations for two seasons on Cooley's staff at Fairfield.
Wheeler first recognized Dunn's talent during a visit to a New London basketball practice. He alerted Cooley.
"You need to check this kid out at New London, he's a really good player," Wheeler told Cooley. "And that's when Ed started recruiting him. … I knew he was going to blow up. I remember seeing him as a freshman when I came back from overseas and I was at practice. I was like he's probably going to be the best player ever to come out of New London.
"I could tell by his athleticism and the way he went about his business. You could tell he was going to be a really good player."
Dunn, a 6-foot-3 point guard, went on to break Wheeler's career scoring record at New London, win a state championship, become a three-time all-stater and a McDonald's All-American.
Wheeler has continued to follow Dunn's career at PC. After two injury-plagued seasons, Dunn has blossomed into a star, becoming the first guard in the Big East Conference's storied history to be named Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
Dunn's rapid rise - he is averaging 15.8 points, 7.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game - has come during his first fully healthy season at Providence.
"Him maturing as a point guard throughout this year is what made the difference for Providence," Wheeler said. "He really hasn't had a full year under his belt to learn to take care of the ball. He went from turning the ball over early and struggling a little bit, to maturing and understanding when he should make passes and when he shouldn't, plus time and score and situations. That just comes with a lot of playing time.
"This year he's really gotten a lot better, and that comes with playing time."
It's not a stretch to say that the Friars will go only as far in the NCAA tournament as Dunn and senior forward LaDontae Henton, the other half of the dynamic duo, carry them. The same held true for Rhode Island in 1998 when Wheeler, a two-time Atlantic-10 first team selection, teamed with backcourt partner Cutino Mobley.
The eighth-seeded Rams shocked top-seeded Kansas on the way to the regional final before suffering a heart-breaking 79-77 loss to No. 3 Stanford. The Rams couldn't hold onto a six-point lead with 59 seconds left.
"We should have been in the Final Four," Wheeler said. "We made a lot of mistakes at the end of the game. But it is what it is. That's what happens in the tournament."
Playing well on the NCAA tournament stage benefitted not only the URI program, but also Wheeler and Mobley, who both were selected in the NBA Draft. Exposure could also help Dunn's pro prospects, especially if he plays well and the sixth-seeded Friars stick around for a while. He's already projected to be a mid-to-late first round draft pick.
"A lot of people didn't expect Rhode Island to go that far when I was playing," Wheeler said. "A lot of scouts will be at those games and watching those games and people in general will be watching those games on TV.
"So you get more exposure. The better you play and the further you go, the more exposure you'll get. You can only raise your stock. That's what happened for me and Cutino. We went really deep and more people got to watch us. We were some type of a Cinderella story."
"The tournament can also hurt your stock. I've seen guys that were supposed to be high lottery draft picks that didn't play well in the tournament, and their stock dropped, even if they had a great year."
Wheeler has faith that Dunn will deliver.
"He's a wonderful kid," Wheeler said. "I'm proud of him. He's a New London kid. Anytime a kid from our area does well you want to praise him, and he's playing for the city."