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Why Denver’s Pios think they’ll be dancing in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The men’s basketball tournament.

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Why Denver’s Pios think they’ll be dancing in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The men’s basketball tournament.

You find out who your friends are at 4:30 in the morning. You find out who your brothers are at 4:30 in the morning and you’re underwater.

“The second time I went back to change our sweaters, man, I went underwater and I just froze,” University of Denver guard KJ Hunt recalled, and not proudly.

Program-building sometimes gets weird. And wet. It’s never a straight-line, linear process. One of the funkier chapters in the rebirth of the Pioneers men’s basketball program took a detour on the first weekend of October, through El Pomar Natatorium, hours before the dawn.

The second of two days of bonding exercises for the Pioneers started before 5 a.m. on a Saturday and plopped them poolside. As part of a curriculum designed and administered by The Program, a team-building and leadership training service used by athletic departments such as Oregon, Michigan, Tennessee and Florida State, DU men’s basketball players were tasked with partnering up for a communication drill. The challenge: Put a sweatshirt on, take it off, exchange it, and then put the exchanged shirt on — in 13 feet of water.

“I panicked out of nowhere because I was taking the hoodie off,” Hunt, a 6-foot-3 transfer from Morehead State, continued. “And the next thing I knew, I heard this WHOOSH and this water started rushing in and I’m like, ‘Oh, bro.’ I just froze. I had nothing in my head. I had my hands up like this …”

Hunt shot up both arms, suddenly, as if to signal a Broncos touchdown.

“… and my guy Taelyr (Gatlin, another Pios guard) pulled me up.

“And what happened was, it really showed me, like, these are really my brothers. I already knew that, but this solidified it … you don’t get that type of love — I’ve been on teams where you don’t get that. And I told him I appreciated that. Little does he know that he probably saved my life, honestly.”

Hunt is on his fourth different college basketball roster in five years. He’s only known his DU teammates for a matter of months. He’s already convinced that it’s the closest collegiate locker room he’s ever been a part of, drowning or on dry land.

“We care for one another,” said Hunt, who’d averaged 6.9 points per game at Morehead last winter. “I’ve been part of teams that made the (NCAA) Tournament. The thing that separated those teams from other teams was our camaraderie and our brotherhood. We held each other accountable.”

“Always taken pride”

ACCOUNTABILITY is one of the words carved in gold and hanging on a wall inside the Pios’ locker room, not far from the words INVESTMENT and DISCIPLINE. A list of core values rests just within eyeshot of the Xbox and the couches in the players’ lounge — a mission and a mantra.

“I think you’re a ‘builder’ or a ‘sustainer’ as a coach,” explained first-year Pios coach Jeff Wulbrun, who replaced Rodney Billups this past March after spending the previous five seasons as an assistant at Stanford. “In my coaching career, it just happened that the places that I went to and that I coached at, where we had to build the program up … I’ve always taken pride in being able to do that. That task was what appealed to me (about DU).”

The 61-year-old Wulbrun’s bio, in the macro, isn’t all that different from that of Broncos coach Vic Fangio: Decades logged as a respected, trusted assistant, only to land his first major head-coaching gig after the age of 60. Big-time baseball junkie (Dodgers, in this case, as opposed to Fangio’s Phillies). A mentor and teacher who sweats the inches — and details — that can get you beat.

As a lieutenant at Cal (1986-93), Illinois State (’93-97), UAB (’12-16) and Stanford (’16-21), the average record posted by the program in the season before Wulbrun turned up was 15-14. Within two years, those teams, on average, won 19 games.

Along Jewell Avenue, the bar is low. The canvas, a blank. Wulbrun is a men’s basketball coach at a hockey school, which is the best and worst thing about the gig. Win or lose, the puck still drops on Friday night.

DU is one of 45 Division I hoops programs who’ve yet to appear in the NCAA Tournament, a small fish swimming anonymously in one-bid ponds.

Since all Pios sports, including men’s basketball, moved to Division I in 1999, DU has produced just four seasons of 18 wins or more, and three of those (2009-10, ‘11-12, ’12-13) came in a four-year stretch under former coach Joe Scott. Over its last 18 seasons, DU totes a 248-290 (.461) record in men’s hoops, a clip that ranks just below TCU (.462) and LaSalle (.462) and just ahead of UT-San Antonio (.456) and Eastern Michigan (.456).

“I’d love to be in the conversation for most-improved program in the country this year,” Wulbrun said. “If that were to happen, then we’ve done our job in terms of establishing and implementing components which are necessary implements to having a championship level program. I don’t think I’ve used the word ‘rebuild’ once since I’ve been here.”

MPJ’s little brother joins party

But it’s definitely a refresh. Between the pandemic and the transfer portal, college basketball rosters now turn on a dime. Of the 15 players who opened preseason camp with the Pios, nine have been with the program for just a few months, and eight of them committed without taking a campus visit.

Five new Pios, including Hunt, transferred in. DU returns only 21.2 points per game from last season’s 2-19 roster.

“A melting pot,” freshman guard Coban Porter, younger brother of Nuggets star Michael Porter Jr., called the new-look Pios lineup.

Wulbrun tossed into that pot players who hail from 10 states and four countries, including Italy, Spain and Finland. It’s when you start stirring vigorously that the occasional bit of hilarity bubbles to the surface.

“I’m getting used to the accents, though,” Hunt laughed. “I think (forward) Touko (Tainamo) has been cussing me out, sometimes, and he might not (have) actually told me. I might need to learn (Finnish).”

Like Fangio, Wulbrun’s long-held relationships within the business allowed him to hit the ground running, at least on the recruiting front. Porter, a 6-foot-4 combo guard with MPJ’s smooth stroke from long distance and MPJ’s smile, came on the recommendation of former Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, a longtime confidant of both Wulbrun and the Porter family.

Quiet and reflective, the younger Porter has become fast friends with classmate and teammate Tevin Smith, a loquacious, chatty and gifted 6-4 guard out of Danville, Ill., where he was ranked by 247Sports as the No. 8 prospect in the state of Illinois for the Class of ’21.

An athletic wing option who’d weighed offers from DePaul and UT-Martin, Smith decommitted from Cal State Fullerton before switching to DU to play under new Pios assistant Brandon Dunson. Wulbrun had coached Dunson back at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, Ill., more than a decade ago after leaving Illinois State.

“Everybody came from everywhere,” Smith said. “And we just clicked right away … we’re like brothers.”

Brothers with caviar dreams. Last March, Hunt was locking horns with West Virginia and Bob Huggins in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He thinks the Pios — these brothers — can get him there again.

“When I talked to (coaches) through Zoom, they were just so genuine,” Hunt said. “They really had a plan and a vision. And I believed in that vision.”

What was the plan? The vision?

“To be in the (NCAA) Tournament this coming season,” Hunt replied. “They want to change this program around.”

This season?

“This coming season. Yes, sir.”

In a one-bid Summit League? Tough ask.

“It is. Most definitely,” Hunt said. With that, he grinned. A survivor’s grin. “But it’s not impossible. At all.”

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101-year-old returns to Pearl Harbor to remember those lost

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101-year-old returns to Pearl Harbor to remember those lost

HONOLULU — When Japanese bombs began falling on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Navy Seaman 1st Class David Russell first sought refuge below deck on the USS Oklahoma.

But a split-second decision on that December morning 80 years ago changed his mind, and likely saved his life.

“They started closing that hatch. And I decided to get out of there,” Russell, now 101, said in a recent interview.

Within 12 minutes his battleship would capsize under a barrage of torpedoes. Altogether, 429 sailors and Marines from the Oklahoma would perish — the greatest death toll from any ship that day other than the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177.

Russell plans to return to Pearl Harbor on Tuesday for a ceremony in remembrance of the more than 2,300 American troops killed in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that launched the U.S. into World War II.

About 30 survivors and 100 other veterans from the war are expected to observe a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the minute the attack began.

Survivors, now in their late 90s or older, stayed home last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and watched a livestream of the event instead.

Russell is traveling to Hawaii with the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former NFL Linebacker Donnie Edwards that helps World War II veterans revisit their old battlefields.

He recalls heading topside when the attack started because he was trained to load anti-aircraft guns and figured he could help if any other loader got hurt.

But Japanese planes dropped a series of torpedoes that pummeled the Oklahoma before he could get there. Within 12 minutes, the hulking battleship capsized.

“Those darn torpedoes, they just kept hitting us and kept hitting us. I thought they’d never stop,” Russell said. “That ship was dancing around.”

Russell clambered over and around toppled lockers while the battleship slowly rolled over.

“You had to walk sort of sideways,” he said.

Once he got to the main deck, he crawled over the ship’s side and eyed the USS Maryland moored next door. He didn’t want to swim because leaked oil was burning in the water below. Jumping, he caught a rope hanging from the Maryland and escaped to that battleship without injury.

He then helped pass ammunition to the Maryland’s anti-aircraft guns.

Russell still thinks about how lucky he was. He ponders why he decided to go topside on the Oklahoma, knowing most of the men who stayed behind likely were unable to get out after the hatch closed.

Russell remained in the Navy until retiring in 1960. He worked at Air Force bases for the next two decades and retired for good in 1980.

His wife, Violet, passed away 22 years ago, and he now lives alone in Albany, Ore.

For decades, Russell didn’t share much about his experiences in World War II because no one seemed to care. But the images from Pearl Harbor still haunt him, especially at night.

“When I was in the VA hospital there in San Francisco, they said, ‘We want you to talk about World War II.’ And I said, I told them, I said, ‘When we talk about it, people don’t believe us. They just walk away.’ So now people want to know more about it so we’re trying to talk about it. We’re trying to talk about it, and we’re just telling them what we saw,” he said. “You can’t forget it.”

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Celtics Notebook: Jayson Tatum on a run

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Celtics Notebook: Jayson Tatum on a run

In addition to rebounding at a career rate (10.2) over his last five games, Jayson Tatum has been finishing at the rim and getting to the free throw line with more regularity than at any point this season.

He’s averaged seven free throw attempts per game dating to a Nov. 15 game in Cleveland, when Tatum shot 7-for-7 from the line. He’s gone 30-for-31 over his last three games heading into Tuesday’s game against the Lakers.

Considering that Tatum has played some of his best basketball against the team he adored as a youngster, expect his best.

It’s all the result of attacking, and making adjustments to how the game is being called this season, with a wider margin of error for defenders.

“We’ve hit him quite a few times with not settling, making a quick decision and when he does that he can get to the basket or make plays for other guys,” said coach Ime Udoka. “He had some success quite a few games ago and saw himself getting to the free throw line. Saw he was missing shots earlier in the year that we love for him getting to the basket.

“I think he just saw the success of getting to the basket, getting to the free throw line, and how that opened everything up for himself and has carried that over,” he said. “We love the balance  and the fact that he can score in the post, pick-and-roll and iso — anywhere on the court. But we love him getting downhill and being aggressive there, and driving and kicking for his teammates for sure.”

Udoka would like to keep Tatum at his current 36.5-minute level, especially now that Jaylen Brown is a day-to-day consideration with his healing right hamstring.

“I don’t necessarily think 36 is a big thing for him,” he said. “Given that Jaylen’s been out the amount he has and we’ve had to rely on (Tatum) more, that obviously was ramped up a little bit beside the extra overtimes, the six extra periods there tacking on some minutes.

“But he’s a guy that’s coped well,” said Udoka. “He’s finding his rhythm and as I’ve mentioned, I’ve never seen a guy his age take care of himself and prepare the way he does with treatment, getting the shots he needs, in the weight room. He’s living in the gym, so he takes care of himself and it’s not a coincidence that he’s been able to play those high minutes and play at a high level.”

Especially now that Tatum is attacking the basket, with his paint attempts and kick-outs on the rise.

“He’s picking his spots, understanding what he has to do every night for other guys, as well as himself,” said Udoka. “We just say make the right play, basically, and he’s done that all year for the most part. There’s still going to be times when he goes to his natural tendency of looking to score at times, but he does it at a high level, so you can’t knock him on that or take that away. But, as I’ve stressed over and over, he’s learning on the fly what he has to do to become a more well-rounded player offensively and defensively and he picks his spots well. I’m thinking he’s making the right play for the most part and teams are going to try to take the ball out of his hands. So the more he loosens everybody else up, the easier it becomes for him in the second half of games.”

And as Tatum’s performances even out, his confidence will build.

“Stay confident. Stay consistent in his process of what he does,” said Udoka. “He doesn’t waiver from that, whether he scores 40 or has a bad shooting night. He comes in and does what he does every day like I just mentioned. So his professionalism is off the charts, especially for a guy his age, like I said. I’ve been around a long time and never seen a guy at that age and focus on taking care of himself to the extent that he does. It’s a credit to him that he’s able to play those minutes. Thirty-six isn’t a crazy high number. Like I said, we’ve had to rely on him probably more than we would have liked to early with guys being out. But he’s taken on a heavy load and stays consistent with what he does every game, every practice, every day.”

‘Being cautious’ with Brown

No Celtic benefited more from the team’s two-day stay in Los Angeles than Brown, who is once again listed as questionable as he slowly returns from a strained right hamstring. His workout intensified during Monday’s practice.

“Jaylen is listed as questionable, and will be questionable going forward,” said Udoka. “Had a good session today, ramped it up a little bit and with him we want to be patient and wait for him to get to 100 percent. Whenever that is, we’ll see how he feels tomorrow after going harder today than he has in awhile, since he played in the games, and like I said, big picture approach, being cautious with it and getting him back at 100, not 85, 90, so it doesn’t linger, and we’ll see how he feels tomorrow.”

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Patriots-Bills inactives: Kyle Dugger out, all 8 questionable Pats active in Buffalo

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Patriots-Bills inactives: Kyle Dugger out, all 8 questionable Pats active in Buffalo

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Questionable? Ha.

For the third straight week, every Patriot listed as questionable on the team’s injury report is active. Starting right tackle Trent Brown and defensive tackle Christian Barmore were among the eight supposed question marks, but both will play in windy Buffalo. Backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham, cornerback Shaun Wade and linebacker Jahlani Tavai are the Pats’ most notable inactives.

The Patriots also activated linebacker Jamie Collins off injured reserve and elevated defensive lineman Daniel Ekulale and safety Sean Davis from the practice squad.  They are without starting safety Kyle Dugger, who remains on COVID-19 reserve.

For the Bills, run-stuffing defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is active after returning from injured reserve. Wide receivers WR Marquez Stevenson and Isaiah McKenzie are both out.

Both teams’ complete inactive lists are below.

PATRIOTS

QB Jarrett Stidham

LB Ronnie Perkins

TE Devin Asiasi

OL Yasir Durant

BILLS

WR Marquez Stevenson

WR Isaiah McKenzie

FB Reggie Gilliam

OL Jamil Douglas

DT Vernon Butler

DE Efe Obada

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