College began with wonder for DeAndre Daniels. A kid from Woodland Hills, Calif., he knew he would see what snow was like sooner or later, but never dreamed he would see it in October.
But there he was on the UConn campus when the rare pre-Halloween snow fell in 2011. He was so sure he was in the right place at the right time. Daniels was an elite recruit, joining the reigning national champions, and his family had moved close enough to watch him play, and for him to watch his sister, Kierstyn Shumpert, play for Manchester High.
But Daniels' freshman season at UConn turned cold, almost colder than he could take. At one point, he asked himself, "Why am I playing basketball?"
Daniels, a 6-foot-8 forward who was a top-10 recruit in the Class of 2011, had rarely experienced failure, or disapproval. He experienced both in his first season, playing tentatively and drawing stinging criticism from coach Jim Calhoun.
Then Daniels learned that his sister, Kierstyn, had a brain tumor.
"I was asking, 'Why are all these things happening to me?'" Daniels said. 'Why is everything going wrong?'"
Ryan Boatright, his roommate, helped the only way he knew how.
"I could see it was affecting him," Boatright said. "He had a short attention span. I tried to be there for him, to put a smile on his face whenever he needed it."
Boatright, the 6-foot guard from Chicago, was used to fighting for everything he got and, while he was dealing with his own off-the-court issue, the seemingly endless NCAA review of his eligibility, he was hardened enough to handle the demanding coach.
"Having Ryan as a roommate helped a lot," Daniels said. "We would go back to the room after the games, after practices, and we'd talk. I'd tell him what I was feeling; he'd tell me what he thought. Mostly, he talked about how to handle Coach Calhoun."
Daniels started 12 of the 31 games in which he played but averaged only 12 minutes, three points and 2.1 rebounds.
"I had lost my confidence," Daniels said. "I wasn't playing my game at all. I was playing like a robot. I didn't know when to shoot, when to pass. I was confused. I didn't know if I was good."
But as low as things got, Daniels never thought of quitting. He often walked back to Gampel late at night to try to find the three-point touch he had somehow lost, and he says he never considered transferring, even when several others did. "I'm a loyal dude."
By springtime, Kierstyn was OK and is now enrolled at UConn-Hartford. "I thank God she is cancer-free," Daniels said.
And DeAndre is ready to turn the page. Kevin Ollie has taken over as coach and while he is just as demanding, he does believe in "starting with sugar, then bringing the hot sauce," an approach that seems to be working with Daniels.
"I see a difference in him," Shabazz Napier said. "He's not beaten down, like he seemed last year. Coach Ollie has a more positive approach with him."
With the fast-paced offense Ollie intends to install, Daniels, with his quickness and ability to move in the open floor, could pose matchup problems for bigger, but slower, power forwards. He could be a hidden key to a successful UConn season.
"I tell DeAndre all the time, he could be our best player," Napier said. "He just needs to work hard. His quickness, his length on defense are second to none."
All Ollie wants from Daniels now is to be a "basketball player" again, his mind clear, and his confidence returning.
"It starts when he walks into the gym," Ollie said. "I want him engaged. I want him to walk like a basketball player, talk like a basketball player. I want to feel his presence in the gym. If he can do that, everything else will fall into place, because the talent is there."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun