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    Monday, December 11, 2023

    NCAA trip to Hartford brings back memories of old Big East days

    Vermont coach John Becker celebrates their 66-49 win over Maryland-Baltimore County in the America East Tournament final on March 16 at Burlington, Vt. (Ryan Mercer/The Burlington Free Press via AP)

    Hartford — A trip to Hartford sparked fond memories for some NCAA Tournament participants.

    Not all basketball related.

    During his last visit here a couple of years ago, Vermont coach John Becker took his daughter to see an Eagles concert at the XL Center.

    Becker also was an assistant on the Vermont staff when the Catamounts played UConn early in the 2010 college basketball season.

    Vermont lost, 89-73. Kemba Walker led the Huskies with 42 points.

    UConn went on to win the national championship that season.

    "It pretty neat...," Becker said during Wednesday's press conference. "Mike Lonergan was the head coach, I was an assistant and we were up three at half. Things changed in the second half unfortunately.

    "But they went on to win a national championship. (Shabazz) Napier was a freshman and Kemba, pretty good backcourt they had there."

    It's also sort of a homecoming for Becker, who's from Fairfield and graduated from Fairfield Ludlowe. Vermont (27-6) a No. 13 seed, plays fourth-seeded Florida State (27-7) at 2 p.m. Thursday in first-round action.

    "It will be really, really neat tomorrow to be able to coach out here and be the head coach in a NCAA Tournament game in my home state."

    Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton also had some stories to tell about the XL Center. His memories revolve around his Big East days when he was head coach at Miami.

    The sight of Ray Allen burying three after three still haunts him.

    "I can remember Ray Allen hitting six threes from that deep left corner in transition, and I got introduced to the league," Hamilton said. "I thought we were playing really, really well. And each time we would score, Ray would streak down the left side of the court and he'd hit a three.

    "I looked at my assistant coach and said, 'You didn't tell me that was part of the challenge that we had to overcome.' "

    Hamilton added that he always enjoyed his road trips to Connecticut. He called the UConn basketball fans extremely knowledgeable and supportive.

    He knew Miami was making strides when the Hurricanes played UConn at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs.

    "I loved playing at Gampel," Hamilton said. "We got invited to Gampel once. ... UConn would always bring the teams they knew they were going to beat easily to Hartford. And once we got more competitive, it was a compliment that we had an opportunity to play on campus."

    Former Big East brothers

    While Miami is now in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Villanova and Marquette are Big East programs.  Both the Wildcats and Golden Eagles also landed in Hartford for the NCAA tournament.

    Villanova coach Jay Wright spotted some old UConn friends while walking through the building.

    "It was very cool...," Wright said. "I was walking and thinking, man, there's been some battles in here. Coach Calhoun and coach Kevin Ollie. I was really reminiscing. As I walked by and look to the Westwood One studios, I see Donny Marshall sitting there. Another UConn guy.

    "But I've been reunited with a lot of UConn people. Much like the Big Five, the Big East is a brotherhood. And UConn was a huge part of it and still a huge part of the history. When you come back here, that's what you think about. ... Anybody that was ever a part of that as dominant as they were under coach Calhoun, that's what you think about, the Big East. I know I do.

    "... Change is change, it's part of life and it's different now. But you'll never take away what they meant to the Big East."

    Connecticut connections

    Several players from the teams in the Hartford field have Connecticut connections.

    Purdue redshirt freshman forward Aaron Wheeler is from Stamford. He played prep school basketball at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. He's appeared in 32 games off the bench, averaging 4.6 points.

    Marquette assistant coach Dwayne Killings spent two seasons (2016-18) in the same position at UConn on Kevin Ollie's staff.

    Vermont senior Samuel Dingba started his career at Quinnipiac before transferring to Vermont for the 2015-16 season.

    Villanova standout Eric Paschall played prep school basketball for Jere Quinn at St. Thomas More in Montville.


    Villanova head coach Jay Wright talks to his team during the second half of the Big East Conference tournament final against Seton Hall on March 16 at New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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