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Viewpoint USF’s Yetna was a big oversight for UConn

December 30, 2018

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 conference. 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 yesterday,” 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.

jeff.jacobs

@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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