Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How former teammates Tim Abromaitis and Greg Mangano went from unheralded recruits to members of Team USA

There is an argument to be made the UConn has been the best basketball program in the country over the last 12 years.

In that time frame, Jim Calhoun's club has won three National Titles and made four Final Fours. Throw in two more Elite 8's and another Sweet 16, and UConn has made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament seven times in the last dozen seasons. Now toss in the four Big East Tournament titles, the five Big East regular season titles and the 16 players that have been selected in the NBA Draft in that span, and you have a program that has dominated in the best conference in the country despite having to completely rebuild their roster twice in the last five years.

What makes the UConn program's success all-the-more impressive is that Calhoun has been able to consistently stock his roster with talent despite coaching in an area without a natural recruiting base. In other words, the Huskies have to bring in players from around the country because high school basketball in Connecticut is, generally speaking, not overloaded with that kind talent.

Rarely do you see Connecticut natives playing major minutes for the Huskies.

That's not to say there isn't talent in the state. This season the Huskies will actually have two contributors that grew up in the Nutmeg State -- Tyler Olander, a sophomore returner that started the national title game, and Andre Drummond, the nation's best post recruit that hails from Middletown. Drummond played AAU ball with Kris Dunn, the top point guard in the Class of 2012 and a New London native currently committed to Providence.

Players of that caliber tend to be the exception, however. Not the rule. Connecticut puts out their fair share of scholarship players, but they aren't necessarily national names. Usually you get a mix of guys that excel at the mid-major level -- kids like TJ Robinson, a product of Kolbe Cathedral in Bridgeport that averaged a double-double for Long Beach State as a junior -- or that can contribute as a role player at the high-major level -- think Olander, who only played seven minutes in the title game after starting.

No one expected much more than that out Tim Abromaitis or Greg Mangano.

They certainly didn't expect those two to be the reason Connecticut was one of just two states to put multiple players on the USA's World University Games team.


"Everyone thought he was a Patriot League or Ivy League kid," Kevin Kehoe, the head coach of the Connecticut Gold AAU program, told me over the phone. "Nobody thought he was a Big East kid."

"They said he was crazy for going to Notre Dame."

Early on in his college career, the doubters appeared to be correct. As a freshman, Tim Abromaitis saw the court just 12 times, playing a whopping 40 minutes and scoring all of 20 points on the season. Those numbers didn't budge during his sophomore year as Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey opted to redshirt him, which only made the people that criticized his decision to play in the Big East look that much smarter.

And while it appeared, on the surface, like Brey was trying to atone for a mistake on the recruiting front, using the redshirt was a calculated move. You see, Notre Dame was loaded in the front court in the first two years Abromaitis was in South Bend. The name that everyone is going to recognize is Luke Harangody, who was one of the most productive big men in the last decade. But kids like Rob Kurz, Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller were all talented and experienced players that happened to play the same position as Abromaitis, clogging up the depth chart.

The redshirt season was as much about maximizing Abromaitis' eligibility as it was about him needing the season to improve.

That said, spending a year working on his game and on his body did have some impressive results. Abromaitis has developed into one of the best shooters in the league, knocking down 42.9% of his threes while averaging 16.1 ppg and 15.4 ppg the past two seasons.

"It was huge," Abromaitis said of his redshirt year in a phone interview last week. "When I first heard Coach Brey say he thought it would be a good idea for me to sit out the year and get a redshirt, its not the thing you want to hear because you want to be out there playing and contributing."

"But in the long run, I can’t say I regret it at all, because I was in the weight room and I was out on the court for extra workouts pretty much every day. Once my junior year came and I was playing right away, it felt like I had taken three years off, so I was just ready to go and felt so much better as a player. I was just confident in myself."

That confidence was a direct result of the amount of time he spent working on his game as the redshirt season afforded him an opportunity to fine-tune and develop his skill-set. His breakout junior year (which was his sophomore season, Notre Dame lists players not by eligibility but by grade) caught fans and media around the country off-guard, but those that know Abromaitis weren't surprise. The expected it.

"You just knew that Timmy was going to do whatever it took," said Kehoe, who coached Abromaitis and his brother in AAU and remains very close to the family. "God didn’t bless him with unbelievable athleticism, but he did bless him with a work ethic."

Hard work has never been an issue for Abromaitis. This is the same kid that got the keys to the gym from his high school athletic director so he could get in 6:00 am workouts before going to class. This is also the same kid that graduated from the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame in three years with a degree in finance and a 3.73 GPA. Last year, he finished up an accelerated MBA program with a concentration in corporate finance. As a fifth-year, he's taking it easy and simply enrolled in a full load of graduate courses as an unclassified graduate student.

That's probably fair. It took him less time to graduate and earn an MBA from Notre Dame than it took me to get my bachelor's degree.

"I think it started from my family and my brother," Abromaitis said when I asked him where he got his work ethic. His brother played at Yale and his father played for UConn and then the New Jersey Nets. "Even before high school. Its something that I’ve always [taken pride in]."

"Its something that Notre Dame really prides itself on too. We’ve had a lot of guys here since I’ve been here that were kind of in my situation. [Success] didn’t come for them right away and they weren’t these highly touted guys, but working hard just got it done for them. So I’m kind of following their lead with that."

Abromaitis is starting to reap the benefits of that hard work. In addition to making the Team USA's World University Games roster, he's been named all-Big East the past two seasons, making the third team in 2011. He's got an outside shot at winning Big East Player of the Year as a senior if he has a big season and is a virtual lock for a long career in Europe if he can't latch on with an NBA team when he finally leaves school. Perhaps most impressive is that he's been a two-time academic all-american first-teamer and won the Big East scholar-athlete of the year award in back-to-back seasons, the first athlete to do that since Emeka Okafor of UConn in 2003 and 2004.

He hasn't just transformed his game to that of an NBA prospect. He's educated himself to the point that every Wall Street firm in the country will come calling when his playing career is over.


Greg Mangano knew he wanted to go to Yale.

It wasn't a lifelong dream, mind you. In fact, it wasn't until he realized that he could turn basketball into an Ivy League education that the idea of being a Yalie started to grow on Mangano. He's a native of Orange, CT, which is a 15 minute drive in rush-hour traffic from Yale's New Haven campus.

"Once I got into the process of looking into schools and everything, it was eye-opening that I had the opportunity to go to a school like Yale," Mangano said in a phone interview last week. "When I was a kid, not so much. A lot of that was just because I’m from here. I always thought it was just a little to close to home for me to go, and I wanted to get a little further away."

"When Yale [...] told me that I could play there if I wanted to, [...] I just figured that was kind of an opportunity that you couldn’t turn down. As much as I would love to play basketball for as long as I can, something could happen tomorrow [to end my career]. I just figured having an education to fall back on was just as important."

Mangano committed to Yale early -- before he had even started his senior year at Notre Dame HS in West Haven -- so he is not sure what kind of offers he would have received. The summer after his junior year is when Mangano really started to garner attention from Division I programs, and he chose Yale, an Ivy League school that doesn't offer athletic scholarship, over about 20 other low- to mid-major programs that had offered him a full-ride.

One of those programs that offered a scholarship? Davidson, right in the middle of the Seth Curry years. That should tell you what being a Bulldog meant to Mangano.

Like Abromaitis, Mangano's collegiate success didn't come immediately. He played limited minutes off the bench as a freshman before becoming a stalwart in the rotation as a sophomore, but it wasn't until last season, as a junior, when everything clicked for Mangano. With Yale losing their three leading scorers from their 2009-2010 team, Mangano but the squad on his back. He averaged 16.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 3.0 bpg while shooting 36.6% from long range while leading the Bulldogs to a third-place finish in the Ivy.

"He's really good," Yale assistant coach Jamie Snyder-Fair said. "I don't know if he is going to get drafted, but he's got a shot to make an NBA team. He's 6'10", he blocks shots, he can handle it a little bit on the perimeter, he can shoot from anywhere on the court, he’s pretty athletic."

"He had some monster rebounding games last year, and he rebounds the ball above the rim. He doesn’t let the ball come to him, he goes and he gets the ball every single time."

Mangano was good enough last season that he decided to declare for the NBA Draft without signing with an agent. He didn't get any workouts with NBA teams -- most knew that he wasn't going to be keeping his name in the draft -- but he had a number of teams call and inquire about him. Making Team USA increased the buzz and helped to raise Mangano's national profile, but he will be facing an uphill battle in an effort to get drafted. Even with Jeremy Lin of Harvard making the Golden State roster, few, if any, NBA scouts are looking at the Ivy League for NBA prospects.

Without playing on national TV every night, its difficult to establish your name on the NBA's radar.

"I think the goal for us is to try and get him invited to Portsmouth next year," Snyder-Fair said.

Before that happens, Mangano has a season to play with the Bulldogs. And if he is to be believed, the time that he spent with Team USA has made him a better player. Frankly, its not all that surprising. I'd imagine playing against some of the best players in the country for two three-hour practices every day at the USA basketball facility in Colorado Springs will do that. As will getting coached by Brad Stevens, Matt Painter, and Cuonzo Martin for six hours every day.

Mangano said that he "definitely" took the coaching advice to heart and improved some of his fundamentals. But that's not the most important thing he learned with Team USA.

"I learned how to consistently play a lot harder than I was playing," Mangano said. "Its not that I wasn’t playing hard last year in the Ivy League or out of conference games. It was just out there, playing against the kind of caliber kids I was playing against, if I didn’t pay as hard as I possibly could on every possession, [I got] exposed."

"They are just stronger, quicker, faster, more athletic than the people I have been playing with so to make up for that I just had to play hard."

The end-game for Mangano is, he hopes, the NBA. Its the goal of every kid that touches a basketball growing up. But as of now, his attention is focused squarely on the team's sitting in front of him in the Ivy League standings. Yale brings back the league's most dominant player and four starters from a team that finished in third last year and split with Harvard. So where is the hype for the Bulldogs?

"There are articles posted in our locker room right now. There’s no question about it I take offense to [people ignoring us]," Mangano said. "I had the same issue last year as well. While I received some honorable accolades personally, for a team that lost our captain and our senior leader last year, to finish the year in third place as a team that was picked fifth or sixth I think speaks a lot about the team that we have, myself and the team surrounding me. And none of them got recognized, for second team or even honorable mention. I thought that was a little disrespectful."

"But I think that’s good for us. It's something to motivate, and if some guys need that extra motivation, it's right there for them."


Mangano and Abromaitis have a history.

Not only did they play together for a summer with the Connecticut Gold AAU team, but Jason Abromaitis, Tim's older brother, played at Yale and still returns upon occasion to play in open gyms.

"I knew him pretty well, being another Connecticut kid," Mangano said. "It was nice when I saw the roster and the list of people that got invited that he was going out there. We had kept contact over the years."

There was more to it than simply knowing another player on the team. For Mangano and Abromaitis, it was a point of pride. It gave them bragging rights. For every AAU team and every state in the country, the Connecticut Gold was the only program with two alumni wearing the red, white and blue at the World University Games.

"We definitely brought up a few times that we were the only state and the only AAU team that had two guys that knew each other before and came from the same team," Abromaitis said. "It was definitely kind of cool to think about that because you don’t think of the Gold as a national powerhouse team."

The Connecticut Gold program is no stranger to sending players to college. In the 20 years that Kehoe has been running the program, over 150 players have gone on to play some level of college basketball. Some end up at big-time programs -- Jeff Farmer played at La Salle and Northeastern, Jeff Viggiano was a starter at UMass, Joe Trapani was all-ACC for Boston College the past two seasons. Most just meander their way through the college basketball underworld -- like one BIAH writer who happened to play a measly two-and-a-half seasons at Vassar.

But the Gold is far from what you would consider a big-time AAU team. They don't even have a sponsorship from a shoe company.

"I would like to say yes," Kehoe said when I asked him if there was a Connecticut Gold way, "but I don't know if we had the blueprint or we just followed [the kid's] lead. Did we make them follow what we believe? Did we morph the kids we brought in? Why didn't they choose the big-time AAU programs?"

"I'm not ready to say we have the blueprint. It was just finding the right people that were committed to being good."


Tim Abromaitis and Greg Mangano are nothing but under-recruited over-achievers.

And I don't mean that maliciously. I mean that as a compliment.

"Coming into college, I don't really know what I was expecting in terms of basketball and playing time and scoring and wins," Abromaitis said. "I knew that Coach Brey was a great coach and was someone that could develop me. I just trusted that and kept working hard."

"I wouldn't say that I surprised myself, but I don't know if I was fully expecting to have the level of success I've had."

Part of the reason that recruiting is such an inexact science is that its impossible to measure how badly a kid wants to be good. If a player has all the physical tools in the world -- height, length, strength, speed, leaping ability -- but he doesn't has the desire or the discipline to spend hours upon hours in the gym developing his basketball skills, he'll never reach his full potential as a player.

On the other hand, you have the kids that aren't quite as physically gifted squeezing every drop of potential out of themselves by spending every waking hour perfecting the details -- getting the correct footwork on a new post move, creating that extra six inches of space that will allow them to get a shot off, doing those extra squat reps to get their lower body strong enough to hold position.

That's the difference. That's what set Abromaitis and Mangano apart. That's why they were able to go from kids that were an afterthought on the recruiting trail to representing their country at the World University Games.

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