There are few things more valuable when catching up to the next generation of UConn stars than running into people who have true insight into the way the Huskies go about their business.
Dealing with the tiresome "is UConn's dominance bad for the game" nonsense that has been so prevalent at the last two Final Fours, it's always a delight to catch up with people who actually comprehend why the Huskies are so damn good.
My two trips to New York in the last three games allowed me to catch up with two such people.
On Wednesday I spoke with Christ the King coach Bob Mackey, who coached former Huskies Sue Bird, Tina Charles and Lorin Dixon in between practices for the Jordan Brand Classic. Today it was time to chat with Mater Dei High School coach Kevin Kiernan, who coached Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and for the last three seasons was the head coach for current Huskies' prize recruit Katie Lou Samuelson.
Much like Mackey did, Kiernan spoke as much about the type of kid that goes to UConn and how those prospects go from high school phenom to collegiate stars.
"That is the great thing about UConn," Kiernan said. "They get the best kids in the country sure but they come in wanting to get better. There are some talented kids who don't want to get any better, they feel like they are fine the way they are. They don't want to get yelled at, those guys want to and that is the difference. That is why Coach (Geno Auriemma) is able to take it to a high level."
An elbow injury kept Samuelson, who won every major national high school player of the year award, out of the game. But Kiernan got a first-hand look at another dynamic UConn recruit.
Collier, a 6-foot-1 forward out of Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis, had game-high totals of 13 rebounds and four steals. She also had 22 points on 7 of 9 shooting (joining Louisville commit Taja Cole as the only players to make more shots than she missed) and two assists. Returning to the game late in the second half with the East team trailing, Collier had two points and two steals including one leading to the go-ahead 3-pointer by North Carolina commit Stephanie Watts with 15 seconds left.
"Napheesa Collier is just a great kid, forget about the basketball part, she has an energy and life in her," Kiernan said. "She is very versatile, she is a winner, she proved that tonight but she plays with enthusiasm, people like playing with her."
Want an example of what makes Collier the player that she is? One of the first things she mentioned about her game was her four turnovers in the first half. Then when I asked her what was the best part of the all-star game experience she said it was the "win."
"When Stephanie hit that 3-pointer it was like the best rush ever, it was amazing," Collier said. "There was no way I was losing two all-star games in a row (Collier was on the losing side in the McDonald's All-American Game.) It was cool."
Samuelson was understandably disappointed that she couldn't play but with the U.S. U-19 trials coming up in about a month before she heads to UConn for summer session, she wasn't going to risk causing more issues with her elbow by playing in an all-star game
"I hurt my elbow a little while back and have USA coming up so the doctor said three weeks of no contact so I knew I could play and maybe risk injuring it," Samuelson said. "I have bigger things coming up that I really have to focus on so I just sat this one out. I wanted to get out there but I was having a lot of fun on the bench."
While on the bench she had a first-hand view at how impossible is can be to guard Collier.
"She was awesome," Samuelson said. "She was unstoppable, I don't think anybody could stop her in the paint. She was rebounding like crazy, she is so long, it amazes me how long her arms are. Going in that's awesome knowing I have a teammate that can do all that. She is very versatile so I am looking forward to all of that."
One of the highlights for me was the couple of possessions when Collier was matched up with fellow UConn freshman De'Janae Boykin in the post.
"Napheesa did very well today," said Boykin, who had two points and four rebounds. "It was fun to be with her when I was able to guard her for one or two possessions. I think our games are kind of the same for us guarding each other is like guarding ourselves so it was pretty cool.
"It (Watts hitting two 3-pointers in the final 24 seconds to lift the East to a 76-75 win) was crazy," Boykin said. "We came in and we were up then they started cutting (the lead) and towards the end we were up again and they came back.."
By the time the three incoming freshmen arrive in UConn on June 1 for the start of summer session, Samuelson should be 100 percent healthy. That may not be the case for Boykin who lost most of her senior season at Flowers High in Springdale, Md. due to a wrist injury.
She will return to therapy and there's a chance more of that process could occur when she is at UConn.
ONE FORTUNATE COACH
Kiernan considers himself blessed to coach two incredible shooters.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis played for Kiernan for four seasons at Mater Dei before going to UConn, winning three national titles and setting the NCAA Division I women's record with 398 career 3-pointers. There are some who think Samuelson, who played her final three seasons at Mater Dei, has range comparable to what Mosqueda-Lewis possesses.
"How lucky have we been. I keep telling my coaches are we going to get anything close to that or is that it?" Kiernan said. "(Coaching) the Jordan Classic and then you never hear from me for the rest of my life. They are such different players, it has just been a great experience.
"It would have been nice to coach her (Samuelson) one more time but you don't want to hurt her health with the USA (U-19 trials) and she is going to start summer school pretty soon. It was better for her health."
Kiernan watched the WNBA Draft with great interest and was thrilled to see Mosqueda-Lewis go to Seattle with the third overall pick.
"I am really glad to see her drafted No. 3 because I was hoping she wouldn't fall," Kiernan said. "I am just happy for her. She just finds a way to make big shots, she is that kind of kid. She had a great career and will play with Jewell Loyd now. She will fit into any sort of culture or atmosphere, she is just that kind of kid. She is going to find a way to help the team, she will fit in culture wise and she will be a professional."
GILLESPIE MAKES AN IMPACT
It was a bit of a tough shooting day but Meriden native and former Capital Prep star Kiah Gillespie was one of three players with a double-double.
Gillespie finished with 11 points and led the West team with 12 rebounds.
"I just tried to come out and do things that I already know how to do," said the Maryland-bound Gillespie.
"We made history (playing in the first girls' game in the history of the Jordan Brand Classic) and all the things we did today, it is in the history book forever. It is amazing."
Last but certainly not least, I would be remiss if I didn't thank the organizers of the Jordan Brand Classic for their help. I went up on Wednesday and I was able to get Boykin, Samuelson and Gillespie in rapid succession. Then they got me Mackey and Collier to talk to as I was in and out of 23 Terminal so quickly it amazed me. Stephanie, one of the media contacts for the event, was equally helpful today in getting all the players and coaches we needed to talk to. The best compliment I can give to her is she would fit in well with the folks at USA Basketball who are always incredibly helpful. I wish that was the rule and not the exception but I would be lying if I said that was the case. My last experience covering the McDonald's All-American Game was a nightmare and trying to get enough access at the WNBA Draft to do my job properly just does not happen.