Monday, June 1, 2015

News and Notes: Monday Edition (Offseason News Catch Up)

Below, some news and notes from the offseason's month of May...

  • Cornell's 2015-2016 official roster is now live on the Cornell Athletics site.  The eleven returning veterans will be joined with eight (8) freshmen.
For four months, Shonn Miller watched from the bench as his team stumbled. Sidelined with a shoulder injury, the 6-foot-7 forward was a spectator to one of the worst seasons in Cornell basketball history. With Miller and fellow senior Galal Cancer back on the team this past winter, the Red matched its win-total from the entire previous season in just four days.
“Last year, being out and sitting there at just about every game and not being able to contribute and watching the team struggle was hard,” Miller said. “But that fueled me in the off-season. And then once we started, I was just excited to be able to play with them finally.”
“He’s the kind of player and teammate that was probably more disappointed for his teammates than for himself,” said head coach Bill Courtney. “For us to be going through that, and him having to watch and not being able to contribute, I think was a big deal for him.”
Shoulder healed, Miller returned to the Red and helped the team to an 11-win improvement, one of the best in the nation. He made an immediate impact on both ends of the floor; offensively, Miller possesses smooth, effortless touch around the rim. Whether it’s soft jump hooks, timely three-pointers or thunderous alley-oops, the Euclid, Ohio native seems to score at will against opponents.
Despite his offensive prowess, Miller takes the most pride in his defense. It’s common to see Miller come swoop in out of nowhere to grab rebounds or rise up to block opponents several inches taller than him. A finalist for National Defensive Player of the Year, Miller was a key factor in the Red’s upset of Harvard, a game that he calls his best game at Cornell.
“With him coming back this year and helping us get the program back in the right direction, you can see his value as a player to our program,” Courtney said. “He’s been tremendous over the past four years and he’ll go down as one of the best players to ever play here.”
In 2012, Miller won Ivy League Rookie of the Year, setting several records for freshmen at Cornell. The next season, Miller took on a more central role on the squad and earned first team All-Ivy honors. This past year, Miller improved his performance in nearly every category and posted one of the best all-around seasons in program history. Miller led the Red in points, rebounds, steals and blocks, averaging 16.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.8 blocks.
Despite the improvements on the court, Miller points to his leadership ability as the most important skill that Courtney has helped him improve in his time in Ithaca.
“I came in [as a freshman] and I would really go after my teammates,” Miller said. “[Coach Courtney] told me there are certain ways you can go about talking to people. There are certain ways to lead. It’s not just always getting on somebody, but it’s constructively telling them how to do something or talking to them in a certain way that will get the best out of them. He really helped me with that.”
While seniors across campus are preparing for lives in the workforce and beyond, Miller faces a different challenge. Due to an Ivy League rule that limits eligibility to four years, the former captain will be transferring to UConn for his fifth year. All season, Miller kept the focus on Cornell and his senior campaign, but as graduation approaches, he appears ready to take the skills he learned under Courtney’s tutelage and continue his career and development at one of the most storied basketball programs in Division I.
“We did things this year that are going to stick with me in my future experiences,” he said. “We went through battles. I just feel like everything I’ve done here is going to help me there.”
For Miller, basketball at UConn will be a different experience. It will be the first time since high school that he’ll be without the guys he’s grown so accustomed to playing and living with over the past four years. At UConn under the tutelage of head coach Kevin Ollie, a school synonymous with basketball, Miller said he’s ready to take on the extra pressure and the difficulties that come with being a member of a top program.
“I always like challenging myself, no matter what it is that I’m doing,” Miller said. “I think this is the next step in the journey that I see myself on. I’m excited about it.”
  • Montclair State (NJ), a Division III school, hired Cornell assistant coach, Marlon Sears, as its new head coach.  Per Hoop Dirt, Cornell has narrowed its targets of replacements  for Sears and writes:
With the departure of Cornell assistant Marlon Sears to Montclair State, Big Red head coach Bill Courtney is actively on the hunt for his replacement.  The three names that I have heard so far are:
  • Brion Dunlap – Former assistant coach Holy Cross.  Spent five seasons at HC under Milan Brown (2010-15).  Also worked for Brown at Mount St. Mary’s for seven seasons.
  • James Johnson – Former head coach Virginia Tech.  Spent 2012-14 as the head coach of the Hokies (22-41).  Worked with Courtney for one season at VTech.  Has also been an assistant at Virginia Tech, George Mason, Penn State, College of Charleston, Elon, Old Dominion, and Longwood.
  • Orlando Vandross – Former assistant coach Charlotte.  Worked for Alan Major for the past five seasons at Charlotte.  Prior to that, spent 13 seasons as an assistant at Boston University where he worked for current Virginia Tech head women’s coach Dennis Wolff.
Sounds like this one will be wrapped up fairly quickly.  More as I hear it.
  • An incoming Cornell freshman who planned to tryout for a walk-on spot with Cornell tragically died in a car accident during May, see the story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
  • Sports Edge has a unique idea on how the Ivy League should re-align itself in basketball.
    Bathurst looks back on year one at Cornell
    His first real introduction to the level at which he was now playing, the first true taste, as they say, came on a snowy New Year’s Eve in Syracuse.  Wil Bathurst, a freshman guard for Cornell, had just checked into the most high-profile game on his team’s schedule — against Jim Boeheim and the Orange in a packed Carrier Dome — and was looking, as he always had, to get to the basket.
    In high school, as one of the stars of the recently dominant Olean High teams, Bathurst generally had no problem dissecting an opponent’s 2-3 zone. Whether it was penetrating through it, finding a hole and kicking to an open teammate or shooting over it, he, more often than not, could do what he wanted.
    “But when they have 6-7, 6-5 on the top of the zone,” said Bathurst, who played just five minutes in that game, “and then the whole back row is 6-foot-9 or taller, it was such a shock to see that and almost like your only shot you’re getting off is a 3-pointer — they’re not letting you inside that zone.  “It’s like, ‘wow, this is a totally different game.’”
    AS A member of the Big Red, which plays in the Ivy League, Bathurst wasn’t going up against high-major teams like Syracuse every night. But the leap from Olean, a Class B high school team, to college basketball’s highest level was still a difficult one.
    It took time for the former Huskies standout to get used to the speed and athleticism of the game. As a result, minutes and production were oftentimes scarce and there were some games in which he didn’t play at all.
    “It was definitely a shock,” he said. “Nobody really thinks about how much of a jump it is to go from the high school level to the Division I level.
    “When I first got here, it was tough to get adjusted, but I feel like as the season went along, I was able to get better adjusted and I definitely improved both on and off the court. I just became a better basketball player — not only skill-wise, but emotionally and things like that.”
    Ultimately, the 6-foot-3 guard became a contributor.
    BY SEASON’S end, Bathurst had appeared in 22 of Cornell’s 30 games, averaging 2.4 points and 1.5 rebounds in 7.1 minutes, with three efforts of seven points or more. While the numbers themselves don’t leap off the page, he considers it a successful debut campaign. After all, some freshmen arrive and never leave the bench.
    “I know coming in as a freshman, nothing’s guaranteed,” he acknowledged. “You’re the new guy, you never know if you’re going to play, what’s going to happen, so I definitely thought that I helped us out in moments this season.”
    Mainly though — “I showed that I belong here and I can play at this level. It was just good to be able to prove to people that I’m where I belong and I think it’s only going to get better from here.”
    For the former Big 30 Player of the Year and All-Western New York selection, it almost assuredly will get better, and by March of this season, it already had.
    Against Penn in the Big Red’s season finale, after playing only six minutes in the previous two contests combined, Bathurst exploded for 20 points on 7-for-9 shooting (2-for-3 from 3-point range) and eight rebounds in 21 minutes.
    Though it came in a 79-72 loss, it was the perfect way to end a trying freshman season and to start building towards an anticipated sophomore campaign.
    “It definitely rose my confidence,” he said. “There were games during the season where I said, ‘wow, do I even know how to play basketball anymore? It was so difficult, there were times where I didn’t think I could put the ball in the basket.
    “With the Penn game, I felt like I played like I was capable of playing. It was just a huge confidence booster. Even though we lost — I’m really big into winning, I usually don’t care about stats — it was just a huge confidence booster going into next year.”
    Weeks after his big performance against the Quakers, after Cornell concluded its season 13-17, which was a major improvement from the program’s 2-26 mark the year before, his coach, Bill Courtney, provided Bathurst with his own vote of faith.
    “WE HAD a talk and he was talking to me about how we were losing six seniors next year and how I just need to stay focused and be in the gym as much as I can in the offseason,” Bathurst recalled, “so that I can come back and help us next year like I’m capable of doing.”
    On New Year’s Eve in Syracuse, Bathurst looked up at one point and realized there were 23,000 people watching him play basketball. In that moment, he knew he was “a long way from Olean.” With all the overwhelming first-year moments behind him, he’s now ready to look forward to Year 2.
    “There’s no other way to duplicate what you go through as a freshman on the basketball court,” he said. “The only way to be prepared is to go through it. I’m glad I got through that learning curve, that I was strong enough mentally to get through it.
    “Now, I know next year exactly what needs to be done and everything like that. I’m going into next year knowing what goes on on the court. I’ll come into next year with that knowledge and hopefully I’ll be able to put on a show."
    • Former Cornell assistant coach, Desmond Oliver, is now working with his best friend, Rob Lanier, on the University of Tennessee staff.  See the Daily Times.
    FAMILY: Wife Lisa; children Eliza, 18; Max, 16, and Isabelle, 14
    FAVORITE BASKETBALL TEAMS: San Antonio Spurs and Philadelphia 76ers (although they’re hard to root for now.)
    Where's the s
    By today’s standards, Sam Jacobs was a ripe old age when he became serious about his hoop dreams. The former Cherry Hill West and Cornell University star was pushing 14 when he started playing competitive basketball.
    “I was the runt of the litter,” recalled Jacobs, 49, one of seven athletic standouts who will be inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame this month. “All of a sudden, I grew eight inches in the eighth or ninth grade and I wasn’t the runt anymore. I started spending a ton of time playing.”
    The six-ft., one-in.-tall point guard spent much of that time winning. Jacobs was a varsity player on the Cherry Hill West team that went 25-4 during his senior year in 1983. Improbably, the Lions bested Camden High, a team that won four state titles between 1982 and 1987, ending its amazing run in the South Jersey Group 4 finals with a 55-49 loss to Atlantic City.
    His time at Cornell proved even more exhilarating. Making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since the 1950s, 16thseeded Big Red faced number one Arizona in 1988. Although Cornell lost 90-50 in Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, it was an incredible culminating experience during his last year of Division 1 play, said Jacobs, who averaged 15.5 points per game and was voted MVP of his team in 1988.
    “I got to travel everywhere, played tons of different places: Pauley Pavilion, Duke, Vanderbilt, Syracuse and in Europe,” he said. “My whole college experience, it was unbelievable. Basketball was extremely time consuming, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
    The highlights of his remarkable run will be recalled at the ceremony 5:30 p.m. May 28 at the Gershman Y, 401 South Broad St. in Philadelphia. Besides Jacobs, inductees include: Norm Constantine, the Nittany Lion mascot; Joel Fish, an innovative sports psychologist; Marty Gilbert, who popularized tennis in Israel; Ben Goldman, champion golfer; Franz Lidz, sportswriter and author of “Unstrung Heroes,” and Art Tellem, a highprofile sports agent.
    Jacobs, who was inducted into the South Jersey Basketball Hall of Fame in February, said it’s an honor to be among such greats. Now in its 18th year, the Hall of Fame was created to honor “the best of the best,” instill pride in Jewish accomplishments and to highlight the role sports has played in preserving Jewish culture.
    Back when he was a player, like now, there were very few elite Jewish basketball players, said Jacobs. Although he often found himself in the role of explaining Judaism to others, he never felt his religion was an issue on or off the court.
    “I think that your place as a player speaks for itself,” he said. “Kids that age don’t really care about your religion (on the court). They look at whether or not you can play.”
    While his competitive days are long over (“I have to get up every morning and go to work,” joked Jacobs, who owns his own Philadelphia-based insurance business) he has had many occasions over the years to serve as a role model and to coach young athletes. Among the notables, in 1997 he took the South Jersey girls’ Maccabi basketball team to Seattle. More recently, he has coached his children’s basketball and soccer teams.
    Asked his advice for aspiring athletes, Jacobs said the formula for success has not changed over the years. Hard work and perseverance are still key.
    “If you are really, truly passionate about a sport and want to play, there’s always an opportunity,” he said, noting that he was always either playing basketball or working out in his free time back in the day. “At the end of the day, you get out of it what you put into it.”
    • Today's U writes, "There have been a plethora of programs that come into the spotlight for a year or two. There’s been teams like Florida Gulf Coast and Cornell who each made runs to the Sweet 16 in the last six years. There’s been New Mexico, who was a No. 3 seed and had a ton of success before Steve Alford left." 
     Shonn Miller was wanted, and needed, at UConn
    As early as last summer, when Cornell coach Bill Courtney would see his friends from the UConn coaching staff out on the recruiting trail, they’d usually greet him the same way.
    “We know your boy Shonn is (going to be) in his fifth year,” they’d tell Courtney. “We want him.”
    While Shonn Miller just committed to UConn a couple of weeks ago, the Huskies have wanted him for quite a while. So did a lot of other top programs. Of course, first things first: there was the pesky impediment of Miller playing his senior season for the Big Red this past winter. Courtney explicitly told all schools it was hands off the 6-foot-7 forward until Cornell’s season was over.
    “If they talked to him during the season,” Courtney said, “they were out.”
    Miller went on to lead Cornell in scoring (16.8 ppg), rebounding (8.5), blocks (1.8) and steals (1.2) while earning first-team all-Ivy League accolades. Not long after it was over, the Huskies were the first to call. Even though Miller was a senior on pace to graduate, he had a year of playing eligibility remaining because he sat out his entire junior season after undergoing shoulder surgery. The Ivy League does not allow graduate students to play basketball, or any sport.
    “Kevin Ollie showed the most interest among head coaches,” said Courtney, a former assistant to Dave Leitao at Virginia who just finished his fifth season at Cornell’s helm. “He established a great relationship with (Miller’s) mother, which was huge. She really valued that relationship with Kevin.”
    Just before spring break, Ollie met Miller and his family at their home in Euclid, Ohio. A few weeks later, Miller committed to the Huskies while on an official visit to Storrs. He chose UConn over a whole host of suitors.
    “Everybody,” Courtney said, when asked which other programs were in on Miller. “I think Duke, North Carolina and Ohio State were the only three schools he didn’t hear from.”
    Louisville, Florida, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and California were among the big-name schools that called. He visited Michigan and Illinois, and Cal’s Cuonzo Martin did a “great job” recruiting Miller, according to Courtney.
    “Cal was probably the runner-up,” the coach noted.
    All along, Miller had a pretty good idea of what he wanted: the chance to play major minutes for a winning program. Miller is an elite defensive player and a “monster defensive rebounder,” according to Courtney. “He just goes and gets it. He’s got an incredible knack.”
    Of course, rebounding has been a bugaboo for the Huskies the past two seasons, including the 2014 national title squad. Last year, UConn finished seventh in the 11-team American Athletic Conference with a plus-1 rebounding margin.
    “Looking at their roster,” Courtney continued, “they have a real good freshman point guard (Jalen Adams) coming in. They’ve got (Rodney) Purvis, (Daniel) Hamilton, the bid kid (Amida Brimah). The one slot that was kind of missing was the slot he can come in and help. Kevin and his staff really sold him that this was not only a place where he was wanted, but a place he was needed.”
    “And the opportunity of winning was huge,” Courtney added. “He wanted an opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament, which he never got to do at Cornell.”
    Courtney believes Miller will be a huge boon to the Huskies next season.
    “He’s 6-7 and can guard any position on the floor, from point guard to center,” the coach said. “He’s an elite-level defender. His offensive game has developed in his time at Cornell. He’s a terrific athlete and offensive/defensive rebounder, and he’s better than a 23 percent 3-point shooter. His driving is getting better, but his pull-up game is his strength. And his athleticism makes him strong in transition.”
    Certainly, Courtney would have loved for Miller to have had the chance to play under him for one more year at Cornell. But that’s not how the Ivy works.
    “I think the (grad student transfer) rule is tough for all mid-majors across the country,” he said. “You look at people like Damion Lee at Drexel, Cleveland State with Trey Lewis (both of whom landed at Louisville). It’s hard for a mid-major to build a program if you don’t have a guy for four years. For us, in particular.”
    But ultimately, it’s about what’s best for the kid.
    “Here’s a guy getting an Ivy League degree, and getting a chance to play basketball at another level,” Courtney pointed out. “You’ve got to do what’s best for the kid. He gave me a lot, and now he’s going to play for a national-championship program. Who am I to keep him back?”
     As we bid adieu to Terrence Samuel and wait to see if UConn adds any new players, here's a little rundown of how UConn wound up with Shonn Miller.

    Spoke with Miller's coach at Cornell, Bill Courtney. Great, affable guy who is happy to see Miller get this chance with UConn -- even if he realizes the grad transfer rules (particularly in the Ivy League) don't help programs like his.

    Here's a few Cliff's Notes from the story:
    *** Courtney is very familiar with UConn's coaching staff, having been an assistant under Dave Leitao at Virginia. Staff was telling him as early as last summer that they knew Miller would be a grad student and wanted him.
    *** Courtney wouldn't let any schools contact Miller during this past season.
    "If they talked during the season, they were gonna be out," said the coach.
    Once the season ended, however, UConn was the first to call. Kevin Ollie met with Miller at his Euclid, Ohio home just before spring break.
    *** Cal (as in California, not Calipari) was probably the runner-up in the Miller sweepstakes, as Cuonzo Martin recruited him hard. Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan called on him, he visited Michigan and Illinois and also heard from Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Indiana, among others.
    "Duke, North Carolina and Ohio State -- surprisingly -- were the only three schools he didn't hear from," said Courtney, jokingly (I think).
    *** Ollie established a great relationship with Miller's mom, which was big in his decision.
    "She really valued that relationship she was able to establish with Kevin," Courtney noted.
    *** Courtney on Miller: “He’s 6-7 and can guard any position on the floor, from point guard to center. He’s an elite-level defender. His offensive game has developed in his time at Cornell. He’s a terrific athlete and offensive/defensive rebounder, and he’s better than a 23-percent 3-point shooter. His driving is getting better, but his pull-up game is his strength. And his athleticism makes him strong in transition.”
    "He’s a monster defensive rebounder, just goes and gets it. He's got an incredible knack. He and (Amida) Brimah should make a great combo."
    *** Courtney doesn't love the Ivy League rule, or the grad transfer rules in general. But he's most interested in what's best for the players.
    “Here’s a guy getting an Ivy League degree, and getting a chance to play basketball at another level. You’ve got to do what’s best for the kid. He gave me a lot, and now he’s going to play for a national-championship program. Who am I to keep him back?”
      • The CT Post supports graduate transfers and writes, "It doesn't mean they have to leave school. Well, it sort of does if you play in the Ivy League like [Shonn] Miller did at Cornell."  The Hartford Courant writes:
      In the Ivy League, athletes are not allowed to play a fifth year, so Miller, who missed a season with a shoulder injury, had to transfer to finish his eligibility. He was one of the best players in the league, averaging 16.8 points and 7.5 rebounds a game, and UConn, among other schools, was well aware he would be available long before the end of the season. "I don't think there's a coach in our league who likes the rule," Yale coach James Jones said. "It's a perfect situation for the teams that get them, and it hurts us."
      • CBS Sports writes, "Not many teams have improved more during the spring recruiting period than UConn. The Huskies lost their best player (Ryan Boatright), but added two impact transfers who are immediately eligible: Sterling Gibbs (Seton Hall) and Shonn Miller (Cornell). The Huskies have gone from a team filled with questions to likely starting next season ranked in the Top 20 of every national poll."  Dick Vitale also writes, "Connecticut got some big news when former Seton Hall guard Sterling Gibbs announced that he will be transferring to play for the Huskies. The scoring guard will be eligible next season and joins Cornell's Shonn Miller as veteran transfers that will make an impact for coach Kevin Ollie."
      Just a few months before the start of his final basketball season at Cornell, Errick Peck learned his Big Red career was over.  The Indianapolis native was on pace to graduate at the end of the spring. But since the Ivy League does not allow graduate students to compete athletically, Peck could not keep playing for Cornell.  Thanks to the NCAA's graduate transfer waiver, Peck became a Boilermaker forward and a student in the Brian Lamb School of Communication. While the rule extended his athletic career, it also led him to more than 300 hours of classroom teaching experience in the past year.  "I never would have thought I'd be ready to have my own classroom or anything," said Peck, who is one course shy of finishing his master's degree in Public Relations and Issue Management. "In that sense, it's definitely been a blessing."  Peck admits his move was not completely academically motivated, and that it represented "the best of both worlds" between his scholastic and athletic futures.  That is the crux of the debate over whether or not the NCAA should continue the graduate transfer waiver. Originally intended to reward academically strong student-athletes, the rule is more and more used as a loophole for athletes seeking more exposure or a better playing opportunity...
      • Ivy Hoops Online sizes up the outgoing Ivy players headed to graduate school and writes:
      Shonn Miller, UConn: Miller has many talents, several of which the rest of the Huskies may not have next year. Sure, junior forward Amida Brimah is back after serving as co-captain and contributing 9.1 points and 3.5 blocks per game last season, but UConn’s frontcourt needed some beefing up, and it got that with Miller. The former Cornell star’s tenacious rebounding will help a Huskies squad that finished seventh among 11 AAC schools last year. Conversely, the aggressive offensive style of Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton will give Miller more space than he’s ever had to work the post and stretch defenses. As UConn tries to nail down what to expect from the point with Ryan Boatright graduated and highly touted incoming freshman guard Jalen Adams on deck, an asset like Miller in the frontcourt will be absolutely indispensable.
      •  Ivy Hoops Online ranks the Top 10 Ivy Players of the last five seasons and writes:
      9. Shonn Miller, Cornell forward
      Even though Miller’s a Husky now, his legacy at Cornell is secure: He was a guy who could do it all. A prolific shot-blocker, a relentless rebounder and a scorer from anywhere on the court, Miller was a program linchpin for the Big Red. His absence due to injury in 2013-14 showed just how reliant the team was on his many talents – the Big Red went 2-26 with Miller out. Miller averaged 16.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest in 2014-15, his finest season in Ithaca. Though Cornell never made the postseason with Miller, it didn’t matter – Miller’s presence was felt as he proved himself one of the league’s most well-rounded players when healthy in all three of his seasons.
      • 247 Sports writes on Vanderbilt, "Cornell transfer Nolan Cressler and a group of prized freshmen signees including Samir Sehic and Joseph Toye are also expected to help elevate the Commodores back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years." 
      • USA Today profiles Cornell verbal commit, Jerry Ben:
      Jerry Ben and Innocent Nwoko came to America from Africa seeking a better life, a better education and a chance to play soccer.
      Nwoko is from Lagos, Nigeria, and left behind a mother, father, three sisters and two brothers. He’s the second-youngest child at 18.
      “I talk to them every week,” Nwoko said. “We Skype and Facebook. I miss them a lot.”
      Ben is from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where he left behind a mother, father, four sisters and a brother. He’s the oldest child at 17.
      Their paths brought them to Austin Catholic Academy as sophomores in September 2013.
      Talented soccer players having honed their skills since they were about 4, they ventured to New Haven High School in search of the soccer coach.
      Basketball coach Tedaro France II spotted them first.
      It wasn’t difficult. Ben stands 6-feet-10, and Nwoko is 6-11.
      Someone must have heard his prayers and sent two tall answers, right?
      Well, not at first.
      “New Haven High School and Austin Catholic Academy have a co-op agreement in which both schools play sports together,” France said. “I saw them and was like, ‘Wow, they are tall, they must be able to play basketball.’
      “I go to my office at the school and pull out a basketball. It was very interesting to say the least. They kicked the basketball that day more than they dribbled it, and both could barely dribble or even dunk a basketball. They both were very uncoordinated and unorthodox handling a basketball.
      “Next came the soccer ball, and they were doing trick kicks, running and kicking the ball all over. You could tell they were very comfortable and familiar with the soccer ball. It was amazing to see these two tall boys kick around and handle a soccer ball the way they did. They were amazing.”
      Nwoko played soccer last year and scored 30 goals. Ben played one game, scored three goals and walked off the field because the competition wasn’t up to snuff.
      “We had 4- and 5-year-olds at home with better fundamentals and passing skills,” he said.
      However, they would learn their futures wouldn’t be kicking a soccer ball, but dunking a basketball.
      It has been a slow process, but both have achieved their respective goals. Both carry a 3.6 grade-point average and have improved enough in basketball to garner scholarships for 2016.
      After what they hope will be a Class B championship run next year, Ben will enroll at Cornell and Nwoko is headed to Central Michigan.
      Part of it is potential, part of it is their size, but in the process the tall, polite, determined young men have captured the hearts of the community and are local celebrities.
      That’s why Ben cried after the basketball team lost its only game of the season in the state quarterfinals to Detroit Henry Ford.
      “I saw the gym full and people coming in with walkers and on canes to see us play,” he said. “I felt like I let them down. I saw the disappointment in their faces. I cried. I want to be able to get to the Breslin and win a championship for them.”
      The two also have left an indelible mark on the France family.
      “They moved in with us around January,” France said. “They call my wife (Tanya) momma. They have become our sons.
      “The experience has humbled me. It’s not about basketball, because when they got here they couldn’t play. They are good kids who want to better themselves. When they go their separate ways after next year, it’s going to be tough for our family to see them go. They’ve been through so much and overcome so much.”
      France’s son Tyree, a budding seventh-grade point guard, and 6-year-old daughter Paris realize how fortunate they have it since Ben and Nwoko moved in.
      “They slept on cots back in Nigeria,” France said. “They didn’t have a bed until they moved here. When they see my kids waste food, they tell them ‘eat that’ and let them know how fortunate they are. Television, iPads, cell phones … they didn’t have any of that.”
      Nwoko didn’t like American food at first, but has grown to appreciate ribs and chicken. “My mother would ask me was I eating, and I told her I didn’t like the food,” he said. “She told me to eat.”
      Both have added 15 to 20 pounds of muscle in two years. Both plan on playing soccer as seniors next year and starting for the New Haven basketball team.
      At first, France barely played them together because they were so new to the sport.
      “I started playing maybe a year before I got here, but I couldn’t dunk,” Nwoko said.
      Said Ben: “Coach kept working with us, and I had to learn the plays and the speed of the game. It was an adjustment. Soccer for me here was easy. I had only been playing basketball eight months.”
      Nwoko played some AAU basketball last summer. CMU coaches saw him play a few times and liked what they saw. They came to a workout and watched him play in an open gym a few times.
      “They also liked the fact that he played forward/striker on the soccer team, which is a position utilized by the team’s faster players,” France said. “At 6-11, he was outrunning everyone on the soccer field. They invited him up to a football game last fall and offered him a basketball scholarship.”
      Nwoko wasn’t happy with how his soccer season ended last year, a loss to Imlay City in the state tournament.
      “They were a bunch of little guys, and they surrounded me,” he said. “They kept a guy right in front of me to keep me from getting to the ball.”
      Ben’s scholarship offer came a few days after the basketball season ended.
      Cornell basketball coach Bill Courtney came to watch Ben work out. He was impressed and liked everything about Ben, especially what he saw on the basketball court, but was more impressed with his character, France said.
      “He offered Jerry that day before he left,” France said.
      “Both have come a long way in their growth and knowledge of the game. It has been a lot of work, and both have experienced many failures along the way.
      “They had to learn how to simply play and understand the game in terms of the rules, violations such as 3 seconds, sets and plays. They also had to work on the basic fundamentals such as catching, dribbling, shooting, jumping and moving.”
      France cut his playbook in half to make life comfortable for his twin towers. Now they can bang and bump each other, take the ball between their legs and throw lobs to each other.
      They don’t always go in, but the potential is there.
      Ben likes science and chemistry, and Nwoko is looking at engineering and business. Both would like to be in a positon to bring their families over after college.
      A career on and off the court is another goal.
      When informed about the legendary NBA career of Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon, they smiled.
      “He was a good soccer player,” Nwoko said.
      •  Here is another look at Cornell's incoming 8-member freshman class for next season:
      Stone Gettings (Loyola HS) Los Angeles, CA, 6-8, F
      Matt Morgan (Cox Mill HS) Concord, NC, 6-2 G
      Troy Whiteside (Webb School) Knoxville, TN, 6-4, G
      Joel Davis (Wayne Country Day School) Goldsboro, NC, 6-3
      Donovan Wright (Blair Academy) Blairstown, NJ, 6-6, F
      Joseph Ritter (Woodrow Wilson HS) Dallas, TX, 6-8, F
      Xavier Eaglin (Dayton HS) Raymond, TX, 6-7, F
      Jack Gordon (St. Mark's School) Dallas, TX, 6-4, G
      Checking in with the recruits, here are some recent honors and awards to report:  The Knoxville News-Sentinel reports that Troy Whiteside was named All State for Division II-A.  The Houston Chronicle notes that Xavier Eaglin was named District 21-5A Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the Baytown Sun Super 25 Team.  He also was selected to play in the Houston Area Boys Basketball Coaches Association All Star GameThe Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Donovan Wright was an Honorable Mention selection in the Mid Atlantic Prep League.  The Star Ledger also named Wright Second Team All State for Prep Schools in New Jersey.  Jack Gordon was invited to the North Texas Basketball Coaches Association All Star Game and named by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches (TABC) First Team All State Private Schools (all regions) and All Southwest Preparatory ConferenceStone Gettings was named First Team All CIF 1A and First Team All Mission League per the LA Times.  Gettings was also selected to play in the Collision All Star Game in a field loaded with high major recruits.  See the story in the LA Daily News and LA SentinelWRAL reports that Matt Morgan was named the Independent Tibune's Co-Player of the Year and was also named 2nd Team All District 9 in North Carolina.  He was also named Honorable Mention all area by the Charlotte Observer.  The Independent Tibune also mentions Morgan's recent performance in an all-star event and writes, "Cabarrus County boys basketball standouts Matt Morgan and Jaylen Stowe acquitted themselves quite well while also representing their home state this past weekend.   Morgan, Cox Mill’s career points leader, scored 17 points to help the North Carolina squad defeat South Carolina, 106-93, in the Carolinas All-Star Classic Saturday night at Socastee High School.  Stowe, who is Hickory Ridge’s all-time leading scorer, had 11 points and four rebounds. Stowe has signed with Mercer University (Georgia).  The 6-foot-1 Morgan, who will play at Cornell University, added four rebounds, two assists and two steals.Joel Davis participated in the Wayne County All Star Game per Argus News.

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