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When UConn takes the court tonight in Chapel Hill, N.C., to take on the 11th-ranked Tar Heels, it will be facing a different team than the one it beat by 41 points.

The biggest reason for the difference is the return of forward Jessica Breland, who missed all of last season after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It proved the biggest challenge in her life.

“I don’t think I ever encountered anything like that in my life,” she said of feeling helpless. “I could say it was up there with going through treatments; having that mindset of going into the hospital and sitting there and not be able to do anything but get chemotherapy.”

Breland saw how much her teammates missed on the court as North Carolina went 19-12 and lost in the first rounds of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments a year after winning 28 games. Through six months of chemotherapy, all she could think about was her return.

She was cleared to resume basketball-related activities last February, but the going was tough. Between chemotherapy, and the emotional and physical tolls taken on her.

“I’ve (had) been thinking about my first game ever since I was going through the treatments,” she said. “Now that I’m getting back on the court, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ I haven’t been on the court in a long time so I don’t know what to expect or how to feel.”

The cancer was detected early enough that it is in remission, and according to her coach Sylvia Hatchell, Breland won’t be “cancer free for five more years.”

“It’s just a joy to have her back out there,“ Hatchell said. “She’s such an inspiration to the rest of the girls, especially when she steps in there and takes charges with all that she’s been through. She’s a come back kid.”

As a result of Breland’s return to health, a foundation was started in her honor at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center called the Jessica Breland Comeback Kid Foundation. All the funds go to the pediatric division at the center.

Breland, a senior, has started all but one game this season and is second on the Tar Heels in scoring at 13.2 points per game — nearly a point off her career best — and leads the team with 8.0 rebounds per game.

On top of the numbers, she was included in the list of finalists for the Wooden Award.

“That should be an inspiration to every kid playing basketball,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “Every person that’s not even involved in sports. I think it goes to show you that part of getting well, part of getting healthy in life is your outlook and how positive you are and the kind of attitude you have, Obviously, she has a tremendously positive personality and had a passion for wanting to get back to playing basketball and was able to do it.”

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College basketball season starts officially tonight, so no better time to share with you my thoughts on the women’s game (Yes, I like it). I’ve written the national preview for the Sporting News the last three years, and while some of the content is already outdated (it was written in June), the overwhelming majority still holds true.

During the process, many coaches shared their take on players and teams, and not just theirs. That goes into the equation for Top 25 and All-America selections.

Rather than typing everything in again, I’m just going to post a link so you can see the great job the Sporting News does in presenting my words. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig. I kid. I’ve also added a poll so you can vote for who you think will win the national championship.

Enjoy!

2010-11 Sporting News

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Location is everything. It’s a simple rule when starting a business.

Or when moving one.

With the announcement that LeBron James will end world hunger, childhood obesity and forge peace in the Middle East, the fact that word will come from the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, Conn., should mean little.

It’s not because ESPN, which is broadcasting the highly anticipated announcement, is in Connecticut. Greenwich and the network’s home in Bristol are further apart than Greenwich is to the Nets’ home arena in Newark.

It also doesn’t mean that James won’t stay home and continue playing for the Cavs. So why not just make the announcement there?

Or in South Beach if he’s to join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh?

Yes, the announcement will take place miles from New York and even closer to the Knicks’ training facility, but what many are overlooking as they read tea leaves is that no matter who James ultimately signs with — Cleveland, Chicago, New Jersey, New York or Miami — he was going to be in New York anyway.

Friend and Denver star Carmello Anthony is getting married this weekend and James is a guest.

If new Knick Amare Stoudemire has his way, this won’t be the last time Anthony, scheduled for free agency next summer, and James are in New York together.

But maybe, just maybe James is looking to relocate his business to the biggest market possible. In that case, location is everything.

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FROM THE NORWICH BULLETIN

STORRS, Conn. — Ask any self-respecting thief, and they’ll likely tell you that there is an art to stealing. It’s so much more than simply setting your sights on another’s possession and taking it.

The good ones — the experts — leave their mark. And to the untrained eye, that mark can’t be noticed.

It’s the bold thief, however, that let’s you know he’s been there, done that. He makes you feel insecure and paranoid, as if you could be victimized again.

No one blames the Texas Longhorns — or their legions of followers — if there’s a sense of panic the next time they see UConn’s Jerome Dyson.

Dyson scored a career-high 32 points and had two steals, one of which helped change the game’s momentum in the Huskies’ 88-74 upset of No. 1 Texas on Saturday at a packed Gampel Pavilion.

Associate head coach George Blaney, filling in for Jim Calhoun while the coach remains on a doctor-imposed medical issue, calls Dyson a “full-court player.” That was never more evident than one minute and 5 seconds into the second half.

Coming off the heels of a Kemba Walker layup, Dyson picked the pocket of Texas star Damion James in the corner opposite the Huskies’ bench. Seconds later, Dyson found a driving Walker for a three-point play. A Texas turnover and Dyson dunk not long after cut a one-time 10-point Longhorns lead down to three.

UConn (13-6) could have easily fallen out of the game, but instead realized it was very much alive behind its senior leader.

“It’s big because Kemba puts the pressure on the point guards so well, he has to turn his back,” Dyson said of his teammate setting up the play with his defense. “I’ve been trying to get a couple steals very now and then. He’s doing that so well, the guard doesn’t see me coming from the other side. I’m able to get that, at least one a game.”

Dyson didn’t have the across-the-board stat line of Walker (19 points, 10 assists, eight turnovers, six steals), but he played the role of dagger. Inside or outside, the senior harassed the Longhorns (17-2) all game.

It was the second loss in less than a week for Texas, which lost to a Kansas State team that features former Husky Curtis Kelly.

“He’s obviously a terrific player,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said of Dyson. “They know what they’re looking for, they use him. Even what they do with him moving the ball, he creates shots and rebounding angles for the big guys. You have to pay attention to him, obviously, but he’s got a great pace to his game. He’s very slippery, gets through the cracks. He does a lot for the team, he really does.”

Blaney said Dyson goes in straight lines, or in other words, goes right to the basket. Over, around or through his defender, the 6-foot-4 guard knows what he wants to do with the ball — and what makes him dangerous is he knows how to achieve his goal.

“Once I started hitting 3s, they started running at me,” Dyson said of his 4-for-8 effort from long-range distance. “It was a lot of the game for me. I could go to the bucket or I could make the 3. (Saturday) it was falling for me so it made everything easier for me.”

Easy enough that he all but stole victory away from Texas right be for its eyes.

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Even on New Year’s Day, when we are overflowing with college football bowl games, it’s tough to miss this one: Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton allegedly pulled guns on each other.

Are those jazz hands?

A couple of initial thoughts:
* Rap music doesn’t give the NBA a bad name, its players do.

* Has the irony that the Wizards were originally named the Washington Bullets fallen short on anyone?

Arenas is a rare bird. He has an oxygen tank, amazing talent and carries guns. It is a hope that never the three shall meet.

Arenas makes more than $16 million a year. Crittenton makes less than $1.5 million. Not that either should be crying poor, but the former All-Star supposedly owed a gambling debt to Crittenton, and instead of paying up he pulled out a gun. My guess is that Arenas wanted to follow in the footsteps of Latrell Sprewell, who once claimed he needed more money because he shouldn’t be expected to feed his children ramen noodles.

Maybe Arenas doesn’t think he should pay up or his kids would only get three square meals a day.

Poor Gilbert?

I get it — he’s being picked on. Why doesn’t Javaris get as much backlash as Arenas? Because Arenas is a bigger fish, and, if the reports are true, he was clearly in the wrong for not paying up.

Does that mean either, um, gentleman should’ve pulled out a gun? No. They are idiots, plain and simple.

This isn’t Arenas’ first gun show, either. Just last month, Arenas was investigated for storing an unloaded gun in his locker.

This is where the NBA has a problem. Its been so worried about hip-hop culture; enforcing a strict dress code on game days, trying to cut back on entourages, etc. But instead of blaming the individuals, the league blamed an outside and albeit influential cultural movement.

Memo to NBA head honcho David Stern: hip-hop does not equal Nazis, the Klan, al Qaeda or even the Muppets. It’s time to realize that there’s nothing wrong with the clothes or the music or the bling of the players. It’s the rare few morons who seem to be larger than life.

Seriously, late Washington owner Abe Pollin, who died not very long ago, must be turning in his grave.

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Q&A with Sue Bird

UConn great Sue Bird spoke to reporters prior to Wednesday night’s game between No. 2 Stanford and No. 1 UConn. Bird, on break from her team in Russia, was in Hartford, Conn., for the induction of the Huskies’ 1999-2000 national championship team into the school’s “Huskies of Honor” program.

Q: Is this fun– it’s almost Christmas, you’ve got Stanford, it’s almost a sell out?

A: I think it has the makings for a memorable night. It’s always great to come back. There’s some of the women on this team that I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s really good to see them, see how they’re doing, hear what they’re doing and just hang out. We got to go to Coach’s house (Tuesday) night for dinner. Everybody had a great time.

Suh-wing, batter!

Q: What did you eat?

A: Chicken, pasta, veggies; we’re athletes, we have to get all the food groups in.

Q: Is this like a smaller, more intimate high school reunion?

A: Yeah, it definitely has the reunion feel. When we were in college, we spent so much time together, but such is life, when you graduate, everyone sort of separates a little bit. You can lose touch at times, so to see people and really interact and hear about what they’re doing is really fun.

Q: You were part of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry. Seeing what’s happening between UConn and Stanford, is that a testament that the sport doesn’t need UConn-Tennessee?

A: I play overseas, so I’m not really hip to the Stanford-Connecticut rivalry. Is there one right now? I’m not saying that with any disrespect. … I think it is great that there are other rivalries. There’s a lot to be made of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry; It’s one of those that may never get matched. That’s just the way it was.

Q: How do big regular season games like this one figure in the realm of a season?

A: I think it’s no secret that a lot of the games you play at Connecticut you win by a lot; that’s the nature of the beast. Those big midseason matchups are huge. Some of us were talking about it. You lose a game in the WNBA and it’s on to the next game. You lose a game overseas, you’re still upset, but there’s the next one. In college, you were devastated and distraught for days, weeks; you knew it in practice, you heard about it. There’s a lot of build up for the game, but if you lost, it was huge.

Q: Did you ever get bored with the blowout wins?

A: No, (Geno Auriemma) doesn’t allow for boredom because there’s probably going to be practice the next day and that’s probably going to be harder than what you experienced in games. There’s no such thing as boredom when you have to face him in practice.

Q: Have you seen much change in the college game?

A: As I was saying earlier, I play overseas to see the games. I have to stay up until, like, four in the morning and hope they are on the Internet, so it’s kind of difficult. From what I do see, the players are definitely more athletic — I can see that in the WNBA. The women that come in, you can tell there’s more athleticism. … I think teams now, there’s a lot more parity. Think about my class, there’s five of us in the top 15 that went to the same school. I don’t know if that happens any more. I feel like it’s more spread out.

Q: Going into the last game in 2000, Rebecca (Lobo) called it the “Backdoor-palooza. Did you go into that game knowing that the whole backdoor thing would be available?

A: No. That year we played Tennessee twice in the regular season and we split. The one thing I remember about both those games was, talk about a battle. Physically, mentally, it was just, those games were very difficult to play, to win. Heading into Game 3 of that little series being the national championship game, I think we were already prepared. But we didn’t know that’s how it was going to turn out.

Q: Can you imagine another decade like the one UConn has just gone through?

A: I don’t know. In think there is something to be said for the way Coach Auriemma coaches his players, the talent he is able to get and the unselfishness. It’s a characteristic you don’t see much of these days. … I don’t think you’ll see it. It’s hard to come by the first time, I’m sure. That’s one of the things a bout UConn players; you can talk about the talent, you can talk about the winning attitude, the hard work, the one thing every UConn player is unselfish.

Q: Did Stanford ever contact you about playing there?

A: Yes, that was my top — Stanford, Connecticut and Vanderbilt . I think at the time distance played a role. UConn was just right for me, though, more than anything. I mean, it’s a beautiful campus and all that other good stuff. … It’s hard to say no, and then I got in, so it was even harder to say no. That was on the refrigerator for a while in my house. I come from a family of Ivy Leaguers, I had to hold my own.

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Quick hit: Jay Bilas

Before he became an attorney and a college basketball analyst, Jay Bilas tried his hand at acting. Here he is in 1991’s “I Come in Peace” starring Dolph Lundgren.

Jay Bilas, professional alien cop

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Leave it to ESPN

In case you missed it, this was the headline and subhead on ESPN.com at 4:35 a.m. Friday:
“Surreal Night

On a day both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died, the NBA draft was tipped off by the Clippers (who else?). Bill Simmons recaps a bewildering evening.”

Can someone tell me what does Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett dying have to do with the NBA Draft? Nothing. This was a poor attempt to put the draft on par with two celebrities who died on the same day. Love them or hate them, Jackson and Fawcett are bigger news than the draft. Shame on ESPN for trying to plug itself in its usual way.

I can see it now, the editor(s) who approved the above text must have had a Hills-like moment.

Editor 1: What do you think about this headline for the main page?

Editor 2: That’s good. Can you believe it, Jackson and Farrah die the same day as the draft?

Editor 1: That’s what I’m saying! Screw CNN. Only here can you be told how important it is these three events occurred on the same day.

End scene.

That two celebrities died the same day, especially considering Jackson’s death was unexpected, is surreal. But please — someone, anyone — explain to me what in the H-E-Double hockey sticks does the NBA Draft have to do with any of that.

Unless of course, ESPN was making reference to the urban legend that deaths come in threes.

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Fearless picks – NBA Draft


Tonight is the night of that other draft — not the one we don’t spend an entire year thinking about or the one we forget about or the one we sleep through. That’s right, the NBA Draft.

Here are my picks for the first 14 selections, otherwise known as the lottery. We’re assuming no trades are made (they will happen, though).

1. Los Angeles Clippers: This is the easiest pick of the draft. Then again, it is the Clippers. They take Oklahoma F Blake Griffin.

2. Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizz will likely trade out of the two spot with Minnesota because they are afraid Ricky Rubio will hold out or stay in Spain. If they hold the pick, it’s UConn C Hasheem Thabeet.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC gets the leftovers, so to speak, and draft Rubio.

4. Sacramento Kings: So. California G James Harden.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves: Memphis G Tyreke Evans.

6. Minnesota Timberwolves: Assuming they haven’t traded away this pick, Davidson G Stephen Curry.

7. Golden State Warriors: Arizona F Jordan Hill.

8. New York Knicks: Syracuse G Jhonny Flynn. He’s not the Knicks’ top choice…or fourth, even. But Flynn will love the Big Apple.

9. Toronto Raptors: USC’ G DeMar DeRozan

10. Milwaukee Bucks: UCLA G Jrue Holiday

11. New Jersey Nets: Wake Forest F James Johnson

12. Charlotte Bobcats: Duke G Gerald Henderson. This is going to look like one of those hometown WNBA picks.

13. Indiana Pacers: High schooler/Italy G Brandon Jennings

14. Phoenix Suns: After trading Shaq, the Suns need size. They could do worse than North Carolina F Tyler Hansborough.

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