Before the start of the season, Canisius coach Mike MacDonald sat down with his top freshman, Darren Fenn, and asked what his goals were for his collegiate career.
"By the time I graduate, I want to have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.7," Fenn said. "And I want to go to four postseason tournaments."
"So do I," MacDonald replied.
Fenn will never be accused of setting his standards too low. Last year, as a senior at Canisius High, he led the Crusaders to their best record ever and was named Player of the Year by The Buffalo News. He finished his academic career with an average between 97 and 98, good for eighth in his graduating class.
He also played volleyball. He was president of Students Against Drunk Driving. He was inducted into the International Mathematics Honor Society. He took college-level English. He wrote for the yearbook. He was sports editor of the school newspaper. He volunteered at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
The list goes on, but you get the picture. This is one ambitious, driven young man.
"There's a saying at Canisius High," Fenn said. " 'Pursue excellence. Nothing else is worth your time.' I feel if I don't try as hard as I can, I'm cheating myself."
But as Fenn found out, there is such a thing as trying too hard. He now realizes that he took on too much in his first semester as a pre-med student in college. He took 17 credit hours in the honors program at Canisius. Before long, balancing that course load with basketball became more than even he could handle.
"It was insane," Fenn said early this week. "Never again. I was getting four or five hours sleep a night. I was just getting exhausted. Practice was becoming a struggle for me. I wasn't eating right because I was running from class to class. It was really wearing down on me. I'm cutting back to 12 hours next semester. I'll take two chemistry courses over the summer.
"As a freshman, I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I was falling asleep in class at times."
Apparently, he was awake when they passed out the tests. Heading into final exams, Fenn had an A in every course but one. He had a B in chemistry.
"My mom wanted me to get a tutor to raise that to an A," he said with a laugh. "I said, 'Mom, don't be ridiculous. You don't get a tutor for a B.' "
Fenn admits he struggled at times on the court. Shortly before the season began, he sprained an ankle, which limited his playing time early. He has come along slowly, and is currently averaging 2.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 11 minutes a game.
You don't have to watch him for long, though, to realize the kid's potential. He is quick and mobile for a 6-foot-10 center. He runs the floor well and is a good leaper. By his junior year, he should be an all-league player in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Fenn is still only 17 years old. MacDonald believes he would have been recruited at a higher level if he'd come along a year later. Canisius signed him early in his senior year, before Fenn emerged as the best player in Western New York.
Fenn said he would have given serious thought to going elsewhere if MacDonald hadn't been given the Canisius job when John Beilein went to Richmond.
"As long as Mike got the job, no way I was leaving," he said. "I had a real good relationship with him."
There's little question that Fenn could compete in a stronger Division I conference. He had 11 rebounds against St. Bonaventure, and scored a season-high nine points in limited action last Saturday against Providence. He did not seem at all out of place against opponents from the Atlantic 10 or Big East -- or for that matter, against Kentucky.
"I'm not going to back down from anybody," he said. "It doesn't matter whether we're playing Kentucky or the worst team in the country. I'll compete and play as hard as I can. Whether you're a freshman or a senior, if you compete, things will happen."
Fenn said he competes hard in everything -- in school, in basketball, in checkers. But when he was in high school, critics wondered if he was single-minded enough to be a great player, if he lacked the hunger to succeed in college hoops. MacDonald heard the talk when he was recruiting Fenn.
"I heard people say, 'Oh, I don't know how much he wants to play,' " MacDonald said. "But during the recruiting process, someone put a bug in his ear. They told him he could play overseas and make money, and he became very serious about that. He told me, 'Coach, medical school is great, but I want to keep playing after college.' "
Fenn knows several players have gone on from Canisius in recent years to play professionally, and he intends to follow them.
"The hunger is there," he said. "I want to play basketball as long as I can."
He has four years of college ball to take care of first. His first big lesson is behind him. He's learned how to pace himself.
Another Hoosier says bye-bye
How many players have to leave Indiana before people stop defending Bobby Knight and admit he's the problem? Center Jason Collier left this week, saying he could no longer endure Knight's bullying behavior. That makes six players in the last three years.
Last spring, Neil Reed quit and accused Knight of abusing him both verbally and physically. Predictably, the ex-coaches in the media jumped to Knight's defense. Digger Phelps, as shameless as he is clueless, ripped into Reed on a national radio talk show.
Knight's protectors cite these cases as examples of modern athletes who lack discipline and mental toughness. It's a crock. Knight is way over the line. He's lost the ability to reach today's kids. He's not winning NCAA Tournament games anymore, either, and the frustration is clearly getting to him.
Before long, Knight is going to snap in a big way. I only hope that, when it happens, the public reacts with the same revulsion and outrage it showed for Latrell Sprewell.
Game of the Day
Southwest Missouri State at Indiana. This game takes on even more significance in light of Collier's decision to leave. Steve Alford, who starred for Knight's last national championship team in 1987, coaches against his mentor for the first time when SMS plays Indiana tonight at the Hoosier Classic in Indianapolis.
The Bears are 4-5, but have played a difficult schedule. They have four starters back from last year's 24-9 team and lost by only four to Clemson. It'll be interesting to see how the Hoosiers respond in their first big game since Collier's departure.
Around The Rim
Experts are no longer talking about Princeton as a charming Ivy League story. Now that the Tigers have beaten North Carolina State and Wake Forest (and played North Carolina tough), they're being seen as a legitimate contender that could go far in the NCAA Tournament. . . . Jelani McCoy is expected to make his season debut for UCLA Tuesday when the Bruins host Illinois. McCoy has been on suspension since Sept. 29, reportedly for marijuana use . . . Miami (Fla.) attempts to go 10-0 for the first time ever today when it hosts Georgia Tech. . . . No one will accuse Bob Huggins of recruiting solid citizens. Two Cincinnati starters, D'Juan Baker and Kenyon Martin, were suspended for three games for making unauthorized long-distance phone calls from the school. Huggins has two other players -- Ruben Patterson and Charles Williams -- serving suspensions for breaking NCAA rules. . . . Kansas State is 8-0 for the first time since 1979-80. They're at the Fiesta Bowl Classic this weekend, and will probably run into Arizona in the final. . . . Kansas coach Roy Williams has 261 victories in his 10th season. That's four shy of the 10-year record of 265, set by North Carolina State legend Everett Case.