USF’S Yetna was a big over­sight for UConn

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Front Page - JEFF JA­COBS

In his fourth col­lege game, Alexis Yetna had 17 re­bounds and 11 points against Ge­orge­town. He had 18 points against Stet­son, 18 re­bounds against Ap­palachian State and has been named the AAC fresh­man of the week two weeks in a row.

Through 12 games of non­con­fer­ence play, Yetna is the only player in the Amer­i­can av­er­ag­ing a dou­ble-dou­ble (11.8 points, 10.9 re­bounds). He is av­er­ag­ing 2.5 re­bounds a game more than any player in the con- fer­ence. He is av­er­ag­ing five more re­bounds a game than UConn’s leader, guard Chris­tian Vi­tal, and six more than any of the Huskies’ bigs.

Chances are good that most UConn fans, al­ways be­moan­ing the plight of their team’s post play, don’t know who Alexis Yetna is. Chances also are good they’ll see the 6-foot-8, 231-pound fresh­man hunt­ing ev­ery re­bound against UConn when the con­fer­ence reg­u­lar sea­son opens Wed­nes­day night at South Florida.

“Sur­prised by what Alexis has done?” Put­nam Science Academy coach Tom Espinosa said. “Not at all, 100 per­cent not. He is the best re­bounder we’ve ever had at PSA. Ob­vi­ously he is ath­letic, but his mo­tor is un­be­liev­able. He has a mo­tor and heart like I never coached be­fore. He never got tired. It didn’t mat­ter if he was 5 feet from the bas­ket or 15. He was run­ning in for it.”

“I tell my­self, ‘Ev­ery re­bound is mine,’ ” Yetna said be­fore he scored 16 points and grabbed 16 re­bounds in a 60-54 vic­tory over Fair­leigh Dick­in­son on Sat­ur­day to push USF to 10-2. “Ob­vi­ously, you can’t get all of them, but be­cause you don’t get one is no rea­son to stop. If you want it, you just got to go get it. Grind­ing. Grind­ing. Grind­ing. Never stop.

“It’s who I am.”

And it’s who UConn de­cided not to of­fer a schol­ar­ship be­fore he signed with USF in the spring of 2017. The kid from Paris, France, played 25 miles away from the Storrs cam­pus at Put­nam Science dur­ing the 2016-17 sea­son. Chas­ing Hami­dou Diallo with all its en­ergy that win­ter, the UConn staff saw Yetna play many times.

“I re­mem­ber it like yes- ter­day,” Espinosa said. “Glen Miller (for­mer as­so­ciate head coach) called and was like, ‘We’re go­ing to of­fer Alexis to­mor­row.’ I’m like, ‘Good, good.’ The next day, all of a sud­den it was, ‘(Kevin) Ol­lie wants to wait. There might be some­one else.’ They never ended up of­fer­ing him.”

Don’t get this wrong. Yetna was not a five-star phe­nom with elite of­fen­sive touch. He was a three-star, ranked 47th na­tion­ally as a power for­ward by ESPN.

All I’m say­ing is Ol­lie signed in­cred­i­bly raw ju­nior col­lege trans­fer Kwintin Wil­liams and Isa­iah Wha­ley (58th power for­ward na­tion­ally) in that re­cruit­ing cy­cle. This was the spring bigs Juwan Durham and Steven Enoch would trans­fer from UConn. This was the pe­riod when Josh Carl­ton and ju­nior col­lege trans­fer Eric Cobb were brought in and be­fore Sid­ney Wil­son, ruled in­el­i­gi­ble in 2017-18, trans­ferred from St. John’s in Sep­tem­ber. There were a bunch of avail­able schol­ar­ships and none were of­fered to Yetna right down Route 44.

“Hard­est-work­ing re­bounder I ever had,” Espinosa told me back then. “Plus, you’re not go­ing to get a bet­ter kid.”

“Plays like a young Den­nis Rod­man,” said my own son, who played on PSA’s sec­ond team that sea­son and raved at Yetna’s in­sa­tiable re­bound­ing day-in, day-out. “And he’s a great guy, re­ally re­spect­ful.”

There isn’t a hint of en­ti­tle­ment to Yetna. Strong stu­dent. Teach­ers, par­ents, play­ers on the school’s sec­ond team as well as on the first — didn’t big-time a soul. All he did was work non­stop. At one point, af­ter watch­ing Yetna sev­eral times, I men­tioned all this to Ol­lie. He nod­ded and said, “Kind of a ’tweener.” I felt a lit­tle stupid. But hey, Ol­lie turned out to be right. As a fresh­man, Yetna is av­er­ag­ing be­tween 10 and 11 re­bounds per game.

“UConn didn’t get in touch with me per­son­ally,” Yetna said. “They talked to my coaches about me. I feel like maybe UConn had a lot of bigs at the time. Maybe I didn’t fit with their sys­tem. Hon­estly, I was not sur­prised. I didn’t ex­pect them to of­fer me.”

Yetna would even­tu­ally draw of­fers from 30 schools, in­clud­ing Cincin­nati, Tem­ple and Geor­gia. He said it came down to Ore­gon State, Iowa State, Old Do­min­ion and USF.

“I feel like USF was a place where I could grow as a player and a man,” Yetna said. “It felt like home. The coach­ing staff had a plan that fit my be­liefs.”

Re­cruit­ing is a fas­ci­nat­ing busi­ness. You lis­ten to coaches scout a kid and they’ll go over skill sets, strengths and weak­nesses. Of­ten it is clin­i­cal. And then you’ll hear those same coaches speak emo­tion­ally af­ter a loss about how a team didn’t want re­bounds or loose balls enough to win. You didn’t need to be John Wooden to see how much Yetna wanted ev­ery re­bound.

“You watch Alexis at that time, mo­tor, all this and all of a sud­den he takes a jump shot and some coaches are like, ‘Ew,’ ” Espinosa said. “‘That’s pretty bad,’ blah, blah. I think a lot of peo­ple, right or wrong, were turned off with his jump shot. But he’s a great de­fender, cov­ered mul­ti­ple po­si­tions and is an un­be­liev­able re­bounder.

“We went to Spring­field Com­mon­wealth for a game. They had Hasahn French, who’s play­ing well for St. Louis. Alexis had (30 and 22). He had a cou­ple of games where I’m think­ing ‘I never had a player do some­thing like that.’ ”

Nor do you see many guys sit like Yetna did last sea­son. If there’s any­thing more vex­ing than re­cruit­ing, it’s NCAA sanc­ti­mony. Yetna grad­u­ated from high school in France in three years. He went to play for Mount Zion Prep in Bal­ti­more. It didn’t work out. He en­rolled the next year at Put­nam Science.

There was some con­fu­sion at PSA whether Yetna got his high school de­gree in France or Mount Zion. It was never a mat­ter of need­ing qual­i­fy­ing grades. The eco­nom­ics ma­jor would go on to USF, ham­mer out a 3.5 GPA his first se­mes­ter and re­main an honor-roll stu­dent. The NCAA has a rule, how­ever, that if you play two years af­ter high school it’s con­sid­ered de­layed en­roll­ment. Not only couldn’t Yetna play last sea­son — get this — he lost a year of eli­gi­bil­ity.

“The big push nowa­days is stu­dent wel­fare,” a highly dis­ap­pointed USF coach Brian Gre­gory told Joey Knight of the Tampa Bay Times this past De­cem­ber. “And as I thought of this case, this isn’t well or fair when it comes to Alexis Yetna.”

Over the sum­mer, a more op­ti­mistic Gre­gory told Knight the hope is to still get that lost year back. “I think the NCAA is trend­ing in those sit­u­a­tions,” he told the Times.

“It was tough; I wanted to play so bad,” said Yetna, who had been un­aware of the rule. “Still, there was a pos­i­tive. Coach stressed than I can’t fo­cus on what I can’t con­trol. So I fo­cused on my de­vel­op­ment, get­ting stronger (putting on 25 pounds), get­ting bet­ter. It gave me a chance to adapt to the col­lege life and find out about my­self.”

He found out he can grab ’tween 10 and 11 boards a game in the Amer­i­can.

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