Monday, January 5, 2015

Memorable Monday: The Price Is Right

Longtime UCONN coach Jim Calhoun was quick to cite a sudden theme, emergent as the Huskies have navigated through the first semester schedule.

When point guard A.J. Price plays like the dual threat that he is, finally resembling the cerebral pull-up specialist who averaged 29PPG at Amityville High, UConn has the best chance of winning.

After a second-rate sophomore campaign, Price has helped revive a UConn team which toiled deeper and deeper into mediocrity last season.

A flair for the end game, which Price so lacked throughout a tumultuous 2006-07 campaign, has paralleled a 7-2 start.

"Look it up in the notes," said the loquacious Calhoun, who recalls hounding the gritty 6-foot-2 guard throughout Long Island several seasons ago.

There was Price's nine assists in the Huskies' season-opening win against Buffalo.

 There was Price's clutch traits against Memphis.

 There was Price's refusal to die against Gonzaga, his second half resolve during the first of two games against upstart Gardner Webb.

All performances are indicative of Price's new function as the game-altering weapon at Calhoun's disposal.

Last week, during a wire-to-wire 82-49 trouncing of in-state foe Quinnipiac, the new and accountable vocal leader registered his presence.

With just 3,500 fans braving the snow-blanketed streets and Fargo-like conditions en route to the sprawling 16,294-seat XL Center, you could hear Price running the team.

You heard him imploring 6-foot-9 forward Stanley "Sticks" Robinson to spot up, to get open from 15 feet along the baseline and be more aggressive scoring-wise.

You heard him aggressively calling out defensive switches and chiming in on huddles.

You saw him pushing Jeff Adrien to post up and take advantage of a thinner Quinnipiac frontline.

You heard him instilling supportive words in mercurial off guard Doug Wiggins.

Wiggins, the Hartford schoolboy legend, spent the pre-season nestled in Calhoun's doghouse.

After weathering through the shooting woes and mental funks that come with being entirely out of basketball for two full seasons, Price has displayed a new measure of maturity.

 The Huskies boast zero seniors and Price is one of the longest-tenured players.

 Last season, nine freshmen had trouble acclimatizing to the demands of the physical Big East.

 UConn caught the deer-in-the-headlights look often times. Even in games where they outplayed the opponent, most notably against D.J. White-fueled Indiana, they simply couldn't avoid implosion.

Now Price is healthy and constantly engaged through 40 minutes, savoring Calhoun's challenge.

"(Calhoun) has been trying to get me to step into a leadership role for a long time now," said Price.

"Now, things are finally coming along. Sunday was the first day where we were clicking on all cylinders. I think it was the beginning of something real special with this team."

For Price, the future is as exciting as the past has been eventful and trying.

The road to this point has been about as smooth as this weekend's snow-pelted, slippery drive through I-95.

 Price was sidelined his first two seasons due to health and legal issues.

 He was able to streamline the struggle in 2006, finally returning to the court.

In 2004, Price suffered a life-threatening condition.

 Instead of dishing out pinpoint passes to then-Husky teammates Charlie Villanueva, Rudy Gay, and Josh Boone, Price was having a thin cocktail of medications dished to him.

Price suffered a brain hemorrhage, caused by an Ateriovenous Malformation (AVM) birth defect in his brain.

Just learning how to walk again and move parts of his body become a laborious, arduous task for the highly-coveted recruit, who Calhoun once pegged as the most gifted guard to ever sign with the Huskies.

Price remembers his road to recovery. He recalls waking up earlier than usual, praising God and being "happy to be alive."

With radiation treatment and more hospital trips than Price had envisioned, strenuous activity was not an option.

In the fall of 2005, a season in which he still hadn't been cleared for, Price was suspended and arrested for his role in the theft of labtops on campus.

Price was slapped with three counts of felony larceny and lying to the police, a misdemeanor.

UConn took immediate action, rightly suspending Price for the entire 2005-06 academic year.

What's the best part about the past for Price?

"It's over," said Price with laughter.

After averaging 9.4 points in 23 starts last season, Price is deferring less and thriving with an increased dose of  dribble drive penetration.

He averaged 22.3 points and 3.5 assists in two games against No.2 Memphis and No.20 Gonzaga, turning in big plays when the pressure was at its crescendo.

The true barometer for Price and UConn lies ahead.

With Georgetown, Marquette, and Pittsburgh waiting in the wings, Price knows it's his engine that will ultimately ignite this team.

"Coach expects greatness from me," Price said.

"If coach Calhoun, a Hall of Fame coach expects it from me, it makes me work that much harder to prove him right."