Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sampson has last laugh on St. John's

JaKarr Sampson. Photo by @LolitaLens of BrooklynFans.com


By Jason Schott of BrooklynFans.com -Daly Dose of Hoops Contributor @JESchott19

JaKarr Sampson, who left St. John's ahead of his senior year, has made the Philadelphia 76ers' Opening Night roster.

Sampson's decision to leave produced mixed reactions because it was not likely he would be drafted. He worked out for many teams before the NBA Draft in June, but was not chosen. The Sixers signed him soon after and brought him in to their Summer League, and then training camp. In five preseason games, Sampson averaged 18.4 minutes, 4.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.6 turnovers per game.

I caught up with Sampson when Philadelphia came in to Brooklyn to play the Nets on Monday, October 20.

On how it felt to be in training camp with the Sixers, Sampson said, "It feels good, I feel like I'm getting better every day, every game, every practice, so it feels good to be here."

The Sixers are coached by Brett Brown, and Sampson said of him and the rest of the staff, "I love the coaching staff, they're fun, and I'm learning a lot from them. They're patient because we're a young team, and it's just a good situation all around."

Brown said of Sampson after the preseason game with the Nets, "I get excited because he's got a heck of a story to tell. His route to an NBA court is unique and he comes with fantastic personality and he's got a great team spirit and, most importantly, he plays defense. We're trying to find keepers to complement our lottery picks, and we're trying to polish him up and see where he ends up, but he's great value, he's good to have around."

On what his main skill is, Sampson said, "It's gotta be defense, especially at the wing spot when you're 6'8" able to guard 2's or 3's (referring to the position on the floor), I gotta say defense, that's my ticket. That's all Coach (Brown) talks about is defense, that's what he's building his program up from is defense."

On the difference between an NBA defense and college, Sampson said, "You don't see too much zone in this league. We did a lot of zone, kind of switch it up, we pretty much ran everything at St. John's."

On if he keeps up with any of his former St. John's teammates, Sampson said, "I keep in touch with Phil (Greene), Chris Obekpa, D'Angelo (Harrison), pretty much all the guys." On how it looked last March when he declared for the NBA Draft and it looked like Obekpa, who can block shots as much as Dikembe Mutombo, was leaving as well, he said, "It fell apart for a little bit, but they stuck to it and they should have a good season this year."

I told him how there is one constant from last year to this year at St. John's, and that is Rysheed Jordan is still is being silenced. Sampson said of that, "Really, is he not?! They're not letting him talk? I didn't know that, that's crazy. I really have no idea (why), I don't know the deal with it."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

NEC Hoops: Role reversal for Brooklyn teams

The NEC Coaches assembled at Media Day at Barclays Center, with LIU Brooklyn's Jack Perri (back row, second on left) and St. Francis Brooklyn's Glenn Braica (front row, second from right). (Photo by Ray Floriani)

By Jason Schott of BrooklynFans.com - Daly Dose of Hoops Contributor - @JESchott19

For the first time in their history, the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers are the favorite to win the NEC in the preseason coaches' poll. Conversely, LIU Brooklyn; who won the NEC three straight years from 2011 to 2013, was chosen eighth in the poll. This was announced at NEC Social Media Day on Tuesday morning at Barclays Center.

St. Francis head coach Glenn Braica has stressed defense and rebounding, and it paid off last year. They led the NEC in scoring defense (66.8) and ranked second in the following categories: field goal percentage defense (.410), three point percentage defense (.333) and blocked shots (5.3). St. Francis finished with a 18-14 record and were 9-7 in conference play.

St. Francis Brooklyn Head Coach Glenn Braica. (Photo by Ray Floriani)
Braica said of St. Francis entering the season as the target in the NEC, "(It) doesn't feel any different because I think the only pressure is the pressure you put on yourself. We put pressure on ourselves every day in practice just to have a good practice, so to me we're gonna disregard all that stuff. We appreciate the compliment, but it does nothing for us and it's almost like being up at halftime, doesn't really matter and we'll just go from there and try to be as good as we can be, whatever that is."

St. Francis is led by two dynamic seniors, forward Jalen Cannon and guard Brent Jones. Braica said of them, "They're two of the more established players in the league, and this will be their fourth year playing together and they've developed very good chemistry. They've also gone through some good times and some tough times and learned how to fight through them. I think we're blessed to have two guys like that at two different positions with that type of experience and guys that we can rely on. As a coach, you want to have guys you can trust and rely on. I trust these guys."

Braica has been at St. Francis for five years after being one of Norm Roberts' assistants at St. John's. On what makes this team different, Braica said, "One thing about our team this year I think we've had pretty good players and we've had a lot of them, but here hasn't been much separation in their ability or in what they have done. This year, there's a separation because of what some of the guys have already accomplished. If you're a new guy coming into our program, you can't look at Jalen Cannon, Brent Jones and not respect what they've done and not understand their role on the team and I think that's something that's established early on our team this year which we have not had in the past."

St. Francis forward Jalen Cannon said of being picked to win the conference, "The ranking is just a ranking." When asked if they wanted to go after the team that was chosen No. 1 in prior years, Cannon said, "Yeah, pretty much, I mean, you gotta go after everybody. The ranking is just a ranking at the end of the day, from the best teams to the worst teams, you just gotta come out and play because this conference is really tight." Braica said of weighing the past season's results against the preseason poll, "There's a lot of turnover in the league so I think there's gonna be a lot of good players that no one's ever heard of yet, but they're going to establish themselves as the year goes on. That happened to us two years ago. We won twelve league games and we were picked last I think, and then we were picked higher the following year and we finished below that, so you just never know."

St. Francis has three freshmen: Glenn Sanabria, a guard from St. Peter's in Staten Island; Keon Williams, a forward from John Hardin in Elizabethtown, NJ; and Gunner Olafsson, a guard/forward from Reykjavik, Iceland. On if we might know more about them as the season goes on, Braica said, "I think they all have the potential to be contributors. It's a big jump from high school to junior college to this level. It's not necessarily about talent, it's about just learning different things, the grind and stuff like that. I think whoever catches on quickest and whoever can do it on a daily basis and not give in to anything are going to be the guys who can contribute more. I think they're all capable of being contributors during the year."

LIU Brooklyn only has two remaining starters, forward Landon Atterberry, who averaged 10.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game; and guard Gerrell Martin, who had averages of 12.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
Head coach Jack Perri said of having to mesh eight new players with six returning players, "It's enjoyable because they're a good group and they all get along, certainly off the court and then it's competitive on the court. That's really all we're talking about is just competing. There is no starting five right now, there just isn't, and I said that from day one, 'hey, you guys are gonna compete and whoever comes out on top will be the guys that start,' and then if you're in the rotation and all that stuff, so it's really been competitive. We've had our share of injuries to this point even this year that have not allowed us to go up an down. We've had about eight or nine guys consistently (injured), somebody comes back, somebody gets hurt, so it is what it is, but the guys that are out there are competing, playing hard, and I think we have some talent."

LIU Brooklyn Head Coach Jack Perri. (Photo by Ray Floriani)
Nura Zanna is one of those players Perri hopes to have healthy. Zanna is a 6-7 240-pound forward who was a McDonald's All-American nominee in high school, who had to redshirt, or sit out, last season due to injury. Perri said of Zanna, "Nura was a guy who we had kind of penciled in last year as a huge key for us after losing five guys the previous year, that he was gonna play a lot of minutes. He tears a ligament in his wrist and is out for the whole year last year. They did something wrong in his first surgery, so he had to have the surgery over again, and he doesn't get cleared, after having three surgeries, until the end of April. He comes back, has a good summer, and he finds out he has some kind of defect in his knee, so he was out for another three weeks, so we just have had him back for about a week now. And you can see, he's a big, strong, physical kid who has great athleticism and is gonna be a good player for us. I'm excited about Nura. He gives us a different dynamic that we didn't have last year, but that we've had in the past, whether it's Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere, he has that kind of athleticism, that kind of ability, so I'm excited about Nura."

LIU has two new players from Icleand, Elvar Fridriksson from Reykjanesbaer, and Martin Hermannsson from Reykjavik. Perri said of  them, "I'm really excited about Elvar. He's not gonna be a normal freshman. He's gonna make mistakes, absolutely, but I think he's a very competitive kid that has some ability to score, as well as get guys some shots. The kid, Martin Hermannsson, was the MVP of the Icelandic Professional League, really talented kid, we got him late. Those two kids are best friends, and it's kind of helped those two adapt to New York, being together, they're wonderful kids. Martin, he's been tremendous, here's a kid that knows how to play. he just understands where to be on the court, he makes the game look very easy, drive and kick, shoots threes very well, is a competitive kid, he's gonna play a lot of minutes, I'm really excited about him."

Recruiting players from Iceland has to be different than recruiting a kid from Albany. Perri said of that, " You're right. It was unique, and recruiting, sometimes you get lucky. I knew a guy that was coaching over there, it was his first year and he had mentioned them, and an assistant coach that I'm friendly with, he went out there from James Madison, and he saw the point guard (Elvar Fridriksson), and I called him on it, and I said 'this guy says something on him, what do you think?' and he says, 'oh, yeah, I really like him, maybe not James Madison, he's a little small because he's 6-feet, we like our point guards a little bigger, but I'd love to coach him, I'm like 'okay, good,' so I get about 12 to 14 DVDs on him, I'm like, 'wow, he's like Jason (Brickman), zipping passes crosscourt, making good decisions off ball screens, the way we play, yes! So we bring him out, we work him out while he's here, and again I'm like 'okay, this is easy,' nobody's really recruiting him, so we took him. His best friend, he ended up having an unbelievable year, and it was us and Winthrop, and he thought New York City was great, and we had a scholarship open up late, and it's just been tremendous. We were really fortunate and lucky in a lot of respects to get those kids, but that's what recruiting is, keep digging, keep turning over every rock until you find something that fits."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Schott On Jordan: Let Him Speak!

St. John's point guard Rysheed Jordan. (Photo courtesy of Jason Schott)

By Jason Schott of BrooklynFans.com - Daly Dose of Hoops Contributor - @JESchott19

St. John's sophomore point guard Rysheed Jordan is once again being prevented from speaking to the media for varying, unclear reasons. Jordan did not speak to the media for his entire freshman season.
It is not certain who is instituting this ban, whether it's Athletic Director Chris Monasch, Head Coach Steve Lavin, or public relations personnel. One reason given for this is that he is focusing on his academics, which makes no sense because it's not like players are hitting the books in the locker room after a game. If players are in the interview room for five minutes, that's a long time. Talking to the media is part of the game, and should be included in the time devoted to the game. It's ironic that he can't talk to the media, but playing road games does not interfere with his studies?

It also invites speculation that there is something wrong with Jordan, which is very unfair to him. If they do not feel he has the best command of the English language and it would be embarrassing to the school to have him speak to the media, it shows the fallacy that these are "student athletes," that he is primarily there to play basketball.

It is in this writer's opinion that he should be allowed to speak to media, as any other player in college or professional sports is required to do. I cannot think of one instance where a team has made it a point to keep a player from the media.

The Big East Conference should step in and urge St. John's to end this practice. St. John's is basically the flagship team of the conference since they play home games at Madison Square Garden, the home of the tournament for 33 years, and it is not a positive thing for them to act this way towards media.

Friday, October 24, 2014

San Antonio Spurs Sign Fuquan Edwin

Fuquan Edwin becomes latest Seton Hall product to sign with an NBA team, landing with San Antonio Spurs. (Photo courtesy of Adam Zagoria via ZagsBlog.com)

In a week where Seton Hall garnered excitement for their promising future, a piece of their past has added to the positivity in South Orange.

Fuquan Edwin, the Pirates' all-time steals leader and reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year, has signed with the San Antonio Spurs, a deal that was announced earlier tonight.

The former four-year swingman, who graduated as the last prospect recruited by Bobby Gonzalez, would become the second active Seton Hall alumnus in the NBA if he makes it onto the court for the 2014 NBA champions, had been unable to catch on with the Oklahoma City Thunder after playing on their Summer League team, and suffered an injury before playing any games for Pistoia Basket of Italy, who had signed the former Paterson Catholic standout shortly after his unsuccessful Summer League tryout.

Edwin will most likely be assigned to the Spurs' NBDL affiliate in Austin, Texas since San Antonio is currently over the roster limit, but if and when he is called up, he will become Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard's second NBA player, joining Scott Machado, whom Willard coached at Iona prior to the Queens native serving as a role player for the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lavin wants St. John's seniors to have their own legacy

St. John's Head Coach Steve Lavin at Big East Media Day. (Photo courtesy of Jason Schott)
By Jason Schott of BrooklynFans.com - Daly Dose of Hoops Contributor - @JESchott19

Steve Lavin sees how far his three returning seniors, D'Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene IV and Sir'Dominic Pointer have come, and St. John's head coach sees the importance they have put on this season, hoping their time in Queens culminates in an NCAA Tournament berth.

Lavin spoke at Big East Media Day at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, where it was revealed the Red Storm were chosen third in the conference's preseason poll. In addition to Harrison, Greene, and Pointer, Jamal Branch and Khadim Ndiaye are the other two seniors on the roster. St. John's has made the NIT in each of the past two seasons. JaKarr Sampson would have been another returning upperclassmen, but he left after last season, his sophomore year, for the NBA. Moe Harkless also entered with this group, but he left after his freshman year and is now entering his third season in the NBA with the Orlando Magic.
Steve Lavin (right) with the other Big East coaches at Media Day on Wednesday, the only coach not in a suit. (Photo courtesy of Jason Schott)
Lavin talked about his journey with St. John's starting in his first year in 2010-11 and what Harrison, Greene, Pointer, Sampson, and Harkless faced when they arrived. "We made the NCAA Tournament, and then the entire team leaves, not one returner," he said. "In my experience, that's unprecedented, as an assistant, as a head coach, as a broadcaster, then return to head coach where there's not one returning player. So, after one season, keep in mind, not only did they come here on blind faith because they had opportunities to go to schools that were winning on a regular basis, and then when they arrive, they find out I have cancer and they don't have their head coach in their first year - they win 13 games. In their second year, they come back, but we have no one on the roster with more than one year experience, and they win 17 games. Then, they come back for their junior year and we don't have anybody on the roster with more than two years experience and they win 20 games."

"Now, you have a group that has 98 games under their belt of Division 1 college basketball experience, if you count the exhibition 102 games, and that makes up our five seniors, which is dramatically different from when they arrived at the program and there was not a player with one game of college experience. I think it's a rather, remarkable unique story, and that's why expectations are high. We want to see these kids finish in the appropriate manner," said Lavin.

He continued on his big three, "We know, in our objective from the outset was to return St. John's into a consistent winner, but that takes time, there's no magic wand, there's no light switch. We went from 13 wins when they were freshmen, 17 wins as sophomores, now 20 as juniors, and now in a position to do something special. I couldn't be prouder of this group because, not only have they gradually demonstrated an immeasurable progress, but they're all going to get their degrees in December, a semester ahead of time, in three and a half years and they represent our school, the league and college basketball, in a first-class manner."

Lavin said of the expectations for Harrison, "D'Angelo is a great story from start to finish at St. John's, and I couldn't be prouder of a player that has transformed in so many respects - his maturity, his leadership, he's going to graduate a semester ahead of time, in three-and-a-half years, and he's gonna go down as one of the leading scorers not only in St. John's history, but in Big East history. And, if I hadn't suspended him, he probably would have ended up being the leading scorer in the history of our school, but I also believe, and I think he would agree, that the experience of having basketball taken away from him forged a different perspective and has positioned him to now finish his career the way he deserves."

Rysheed Jordan, their highly touted point guard from Philadelphia, will be entering his sophomore year. Lavin said of the expectations for Jordan entering this season, "With Rysheed, we want to see him continue to develop and mature into the leader and the point guard that we know he's capable of being and we saw in stretches last year and we won 10 of 13 Big East games coming down the stretch. In the second half of the season in league, Villanova was 8-1 and we were 7-2, and Rysheed was instrumental in that run of winning 10 of 13 conference games. He received four out of five Big East Rookie of the Week awards. So, there's no doubt, when Rysheed is playing well, he's the one that makes this whole team purr, he's the key, the central nervous system, so to speak, of our team."

On if it would be a failure if they miss the NCAA Tournament this season, Lavin said, "I don't even look at it more as a failure. It's just that we want to be great, we want to be special. We want this group to be able to leave a footprint behind that they can be proud of, to have their own legacy, their own chapter in this storied program, to have an opportunity to make the Tournament and play our best basketball in March so we can be in a position to make a run."

Lavin spoke of the perception that the Big East is not as strong as it once was, and he said, "I think it's dangerous, I understand in the media we have to do it, I did it for seven years, where they say the sky is falling for the Big 12 or the Southeastern Conference is really down, let's talk about it, and they come up with some statistical information that didn't give the broader context and so, I think people know the Big East is going to have eight teams vying for NCAA Tournament births and, if five or six of those teams make it, then that's 50 or 60 percent of your league, and if two or three of those five make it to the second weekend of play, or if someone punches their way to the Final Four, it shows you have a very strong, healthy league."

Comparing the Big East this season to last year, Lavin said, "I think the biggest difference from last year to this year is the depth of this conference, the quality of depth. If you look at the recruiting, that's a good indication of the health of the league. When the respective schools are able to address the best players in the country, it means that people are paying attention to the coaching, the tradition, the rivalries, the spotlight that's on this conference."

On scheduling old Big East rival Syracuse on their schedule and the nonconference schedule, Lavin said, "It's a fine line, it's like, you know, alchemy, tinkering with the test tubes there in terms of finding that right mix of opponents in the non-conference that will challenge your team, create some resistance, but also have some games on your schedule that you know you can win because you have to build your team's confidence and you've got first-year players that need to get their feet wet and develop without being in the pressure cooker every moment they're on the floor. I think everyone in the conference is striving for a mix of high-level games against power conference opponents, but also not over-scheduling because we sometimes can undermine our own objectives by beating each other up in the league and then having faced such tough opponents in the non-conference, that you find yourself on the wrong side of the fence."

"We are mindful. We're playing Duke, Syracuse, Gonzaga, Minnesota, Georgia, St. Mary's, Long Beach, you know, even those mid-major teams will be vying for NCAA Tournament berths when you look at our schedule, and sometimes those games can turn out to be pivotal in terms of getting into the Tournament or being on the other side of the fence."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

NEC Media Day: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

BROOKLYN, NY --­ On the media day circuit. Back to Barclays, tunnel traffic, the Howard Stern Show, (another outrageously funny 'presentation') and anticipation. The Northeast Conference event was being held at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on this October morning. For a mid-­major conference, a venue of this magnitude adds status and credibility to the conference. Another plus with the NEC is the inclusion of both men’s and women’s coaches.

In many conferences, the men’s and women’s events are held separately. In the NEC, both get to share the spotlight. The conference also provides one player from each school from both the men’s and women’s programs.

The NEC format allows and encourages casual discussion among media, administrators, coaches and players. Tuesday’s session included ‘war stories’ of former official and NEC Officiating Supervisor Jack Sweeney. Also included was FDU’s Greg Herenda critiquing a New Jersey diner’s raising prices while sacrificing quality. Aside from the oft-’scripted’ quotes and responses, these interactions give added insight, and allow the media to establish a closer relationship with the program’s respective representatives.

The NEC media day includes video interviews and meetings with the print/internet media for the players and coaches. On paper, it can be a hectic schedule coordinating the activity. No one seems to mind. The conference and the membership are receiving better exposure. In the end, it all takes place at a showcase facility that can create excitement among those who simply enter its doors.

Approaching Barclays Center the morning of NEC Media Day. The VIP entrance (yes, that is ours today) is on the right:
A tradition at this event: The men's basketball coaches gather for a group shot:
A busy day for players as well, with Erika Livermore of FDU being interviewed before heading to the "formal" interview area:
Glenn Braica, coach of NEC favorite St. Francis Brooklyn, meets the media. The storefront of the mall across the street from Barclays can be seen in the background:
More interviews, as Lucky Jones of Robert Morris fields questions:
Looking north outside Barclays Center. Brooklyn is the proverbial "hustle and bustle" on a weekday afternoon:

Big East Media Day: Quotes, Takeaways & Nuggets

Big East coaches pose with commissioner Val Ackerman, including a noticeably casual Steve Lavin. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)

Today's annual Big East media day is officially in the books, and there was a different feel to the proceedings upon its return to Madison Square Garden for the first time since 2010 following two years at the New York Athletic Club and last season's renewal at Chelsea Piers. Check our Twitter feed for a complete list of quotes, as well as for our own Big East preview later this week, but here is a Cliff Note version of the festivities in Midtown:

- Villanova, to no one's surprise, was the unanimous choice at the top of the annual preseason coaches' poll, with Georgetown the consensus second choice and a somewhat surprising third-place prediction for St. John's, whose senior-laden roster will attempt to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

- Georgetown guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was the pick for Preseason Player of the Year honors, the first Hoya to receive such billing since Austin Freeman in 2010. Smith-Rivera, Kellen Dunham of Butler, Villanova forward JayVaughn Pinkston, Xavier big man Matt Stainbrook, and reigning Haggerty Award winner D'Angelo Harrison of St. John's rounded out the first team all-conference selections.

"For him not to be a first team all-conference player is an absolute joke. If there's five players in this conference better than him, WOW. I want that on record."
- Providence head coach Ed Cooley on forward LaDontae Henton

Henton was voted to the all-Big East second team, joining last season's top two rookies in Billy Garrett of DePaul and Rysheed Jordan of St. John's, as well as Villanova guards Ryan Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard. Highly touted freshman Isaiah Whitehead, who committed to Seton Hall out of Lincoln High School in Coney Island, was recognized as the conference's preseason Rookie of the Year, the first Pirate to be fitted with that honor since the late Eddie Griffin in 2000.

Big East Quotebook 
Ed Cooley on Kris Dunn: "I'm seeing the Kris that we recruited. We're going to live and die with him. You'll see that he'll be one of the best players in the conference this year. He's the Tasmanian Devil. He gets deflections, he just runs practice. I can't wait to turn him loose. As long as he's healthy, everyone in this room will know who he is. He has 'IT.'"

On expectations: "Our players are excited, our community's excited. We've got our work cut out for us. Winning the Big East was awesome, but this is a new year. It's a 'what have you done for me lately' attitude in this business."

"I think our ball handling has improved. We're one of the longer, more athletic teams in the Big East, but we're an old-school Big East team. I don't think we're the new Big East. We're the same old status quo."

On LaDontae Henton: "He's an 'it' guy. I don't know how many guys like that there are in this conference. You guys see LaDontae the basketball player. I see how much he's grown as a person, as a student. I've seen him come from nothing, his vocabulary, his presence. When he graduates, that may be one of the saddest days I've had as a coach in 21 years. Everything about him epitomizes what college athletics does for individuals when you give them an opportunity."

On being picked fifth and a possible championship hangover: "As I'm getting a little bit older in coaching, before, we used to react to that. Now, yeah. You know who's really good? Villanova's really good, Georgetown's really good. They deserve to be picked where they are. The rest of us will figure it out. Come March 11, there's a different story to be told."

"Championship hangover? NEVER. NO. ZERO. That's a totally different team, a totally different culture. We're missing 47 points from that team, there's no hangover at all. We've just got to get this team prepared to be the best team it can be."

On pressure to win: "Honestly, I'm never surprised at winning because we pride ourselves on preparation. If I listened to everyone, I wouldn't be standing here talking to you today. My job is to keep these guys focused, a game at a time, 40 minutes at a time, 20 minutes at a time, be the best they can be. I know it's a cliche, but that's just the way I coach. I really don't give a damn what somebody thinks."

Seton Hall forward Brandon Mobley on Isaiah Whitehead: "Offensively, he's about as good as any guard in the country. Skill-wise, he's ahead of just about every freshman, and even some of the sophomores in this conference."

"I think the hype is only going to fuel him even more. Once he gets started, he's going to be tough to stop."

Mobley on his expectations: "I just want to lead my team to the NCAA Tournament, that's all. It's something I haven't tasted yet."

Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard: "I think this year, we're not going to be as reliant on threes. We're going to try to get to the free throw line more, we have the ability to get to the free throw line more."

Willard on Isaiah Whitehead: "He understands the big stage, and he's a very humble kid. This stuff doesn't affect him. He's physically able to play at a very high level, and his game can back it up."

On Seton Hall in general: "We're a much quicker, more athletic team than I think any Seton Hall team has been in a while. We're playing above the rim, we can play so many different styles. If I want to play really small, I can play really small; if I want to play really big, I can play really big. I think that gives us a chance to be dynamic in that we can attack you the way we want to attack you. Last year, the guys we had were the guys we had."


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Big East Roundtable

Jay Wright and Villanova are popular choice to repeat as regular season Big East champions. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe)

Big East media day returns to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday following a four-year absence, and in addition to the familiar venue, there is an equally recognizable face atop the conference, that being Jay Wright's Villanova Wildcats, the consensus choice as the pick to emerge victorious from league play in March.

Behind Villanova is where things will get interesting, however. Mounds of question marks surround everyone from Georgetown all the way down to Butler and DePaul, and the pressure on local outfits such as Seton Hall and St. John's may be higher than it has ever been.

Fear not, though, because for the second consecutive year, our panel of experts will attempt to give you a primer of what was once regarded as the best conference in college basketball, and still remains one to this day. Sadly, representatives from Butler, Georgetown, Marquette and Providence could not be reached in time, but Jaden Daly serves as moderator for a roundtable panel featuring six Big East media members who share insights on their own teams, and also the Big East as a whole:

Creighton: Patrick Marshall, White & Blue Review (Twitter: @wildjays)
DePaul: Dan Stack, WeAreDepaul.com (Twitter: @WeAreDePaul, @stacdemon)
St. John's: Norman Rose, Rumble In The Garden (Twitter: @ECoastBias, @rumbleSBN)
Seton Hall: Jason Guerette, South Orange Juice/New Jersey Newsroom (Twitter: @JPGuerette)
Villanova: Chris Lane, VUhoops.com (Twitter: @VUhoops, @chrisjjlane)
Xavier: Brad Dobney, Banners on the Parkway (Twitter: @BannersParkway)

1) Who is the likely Big East champion, and why?

Brad Dobney: It has to be Villanova, right? They lost James Bell, but JayVaughn Pinkston returns and it's not as if they didn't recruit anyone. Until someone consistently beats them, they stay at the top.

Jason Guerette: Going with Villanova here because it's hard to argue against who they have returning. However, all preseason polls/predictions are based on two things- who you return and what they did last year, and who you don't return and what they did last year. Nova happens to have a lot of key pieces back, so they certainly belong up here.

Although...... STERLING GIBBS, Y'ALL!!!

Chris Lane: Villanova - I think the issue here is that the 'Cats are the most sure thing in the conference because of how much talent they are bringing back. While Creighton, Xavier, Georgetown, Providence and St. John's lost a lot of star power, Villanova is bringing back 2-3 of the best players in the conference. While they may not run through the conference sans-Creighton again, they have to be considered the overwhelming favorite.

Patrick Marshall: Villanova--Many said the success that Villanova had last season was a year early and winning the Big East regular season. If you ask Creighton fans, they weren't impressed. For whatever reason, and maybe Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge were two of those reasons, the Bluejays had the Wildcats number giving them two of their most lopsided losses of the season. Although there are are several teams that may try to make a run, and a couple more losses from Creighton, it will be hard to stop 'Nova and they are the clear favorites. The team is a year older and a year better already tasting some great success. The other options will likely stumble too many times and Wildcats will likely be at the top.

Norman Rose: Villanova - brings back pretty much the whole squad, has sophomores ready to emerge, and the Wildcats were very good. Lots of continuity here.

Dan Stack: Villanova- Why not? They possess the most talent with the return of JayVaughn Pinkston, Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard II and Josh Hart. Combine the experience they have with one of the best coaches in the Big East in Jay Wright and they have what it takes to go the distance. After the key personnel losses Creighton, Providence and Xavier endured, Villanova has to be considered the heavy favorites this year.

2) In your opinion, who are the league's most overrated and underrated teams?

BD: Most overrated team- St. John's. Until they learn to shoot the ball, they'll keeping having the 2013-14 season over and over.

Most underrated team- Is Seton Hall still considered underrated? If so, I'll go with them.

JG: Overrated: St. John's. This is my pick almost every year. Every year people have hyped up the Red Storm as favorites in the conference, and every year they fail to live up to that hype. The question has never been talent- Steve Lavin has always had oodles of talent. The question has always been translating that talent into consistently high levels of play. Until they show that they can put it all together (which falls on Lavin, who I'm STILL not sold on as an in-game coach and haven't been since he was hired), they're going to be my pick for this slot.

Underrated: Couldn't come up with one. After the generally-approved-upon top few teams (Hoyas, VU, Xavier), the league is once again wide-open.

CL: It pains me to say this because they've flopped more often than not, but I think St. John's is flying under the radar. There's a lot backcourt talent returning in Harrison, Jordan, and Greene and Chris Obekpa's change of heart is massive for them. Seton Hall jumps out as overrated. The recruiting class is massive, but it's not on the level of Kentucky in terms of talent and we've seen how destructive it can be when a bunch of massive ego's show up on campus. They'll be good enough to score some big wins, but I don't think they are built for long-term success just yet.

PM: Overrated--Georgetown--Honestly for the Big East to be prominent this year and years from now, the Hoyas have to be at the top of the league.  Last season with the Bluejays first season in the Big East, I had really high expectations for Georgetown and expected them to win the league. The first round NCAA Tournament loss to Florida Gulf Coast was a fluke and thought they would have the horses to make the new Big East look like it was supposed to. Well, I was sorely disappointed last season and really felt like they underachieved. They had too many distractions, suspensions, and other things that it ultimately brought them down. While they are looking to be towards the top of the Big East this season, I'm not going to take that carrot this time. They need to prove they belong at the top, so for now they are overrated.  

Underrated--Seton Hall--Looking up and down the league, you could sort of make a case for every other team besides Georgetown and Villanova to be considered underrated. Yes, Creighton is underrated, but I'll get to that later. This is almost a random pick, but I'm going with Seton Hall. They are in the middle of the pack with most predictions and they have some good things going on there. With 10 losses last season by seven or fewer points, they were on the cusp of doing something great. With one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, the Pirates could surprise some people by the time conference play arrives.

NR: Overrated: Providence loses Bryce Cotton and some think the team will finish third. Consider that despite an NCAA berth, the Friars were on the outside looking in before a dream run to the Big East Tournament finals, where their one impressive win was over Creighton. Seton Hall took out Villanova for them. Other than that, the Friars' best win was... over Creighton. This is to say that the Friars, maybe, had good matchups against the shooting Bluejays with all of their length and lucked into an NCAA Tournament bid. So, thinking of their NCAA berth as kind of a fluke, consider that the Friars lose the guy who did all the efficient scoring, their toughest rebounder in Kadeem Batts, and Josh Fortune, a shooter who emerged. I love their toughness. But the Friars need to return to a level of play that wasn't Tournament-level, against a league that's improved, and with freshmen and the hopefully-awesome return of Kris Dunn. 

Underrated: Xavier. Is Chris Mack as excellent a coach as his predecessors? Hard to know, yet. Can the defense get better? Hard to know, yet. But I do think that the team he has returning has a great mix of talent. The Musketeers lose Semaj Christon, but return guards who might complement each other better - Dee Davis at the point, Remy Abell's all-around game, Myles Davis' shooting, and freshman wings who can get buckets in Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. I think the Musketeers lacked outside shooting (309th in the NCAA in three-pointers taken as a percentage of all field goals) and the newcomers can really help with that.

DS: Most Overrated: St. John's - While Steve Lavin consistently brings in top-notch talent, he has yet to fully harness it. I think SJU will sneak into the tournament this year, but they have the talent, depth and experience to be a lot better. 

Must Underrated: Butler - While they had an uneasy transition to the Big East last year, they now return Roosevelt Jones and with him alongside Kellen Dunham, they will now have a well-balanced offense. With Brandon Miller now having a year of experience under his belt in this league, he'll be better prepared for the rigors of this league. (Update, while Miller may be out for a while, my pick still stands).

3) Which game do you feel is an early contender for the "game of the year" in the Big East?

BD: Villanova at Georgetown on the 19th of January.

JG: January 19th - Villanova @ Georgetown. The Wildcats and Hoyas appear to be the two favorites this year in the conference, and this is one of the two games they will play against each other. The return trip to the Pavilion is in the afternoon, however. This one is a 9 p.m.tip. With the natural rivalry, the primetime tipoff, and the fact that they have January 19th all to themselves in conference play, this should be an excellent mid-schedule test.

CL: The Villanova-Xavier game on February 28 could have Big East title implications.

PM: I'm sure everyone has Georgetown at Villanova on February 7th circled on their calendars. It is expected that the Hoyas and the Wildcats will be at the top of the league and showcased on the biggest stage (FOX over the air TV). They have had many great battles in the past and there is no reason it will not happen again if everything goes as expected.

NR: Georgetown at Xavier. (December 31)

DS: Villanova at St. John's on January 6.

4) How many NCAA Tournament bids do you see the Big East receiving?

BD: Four: Villanova, Georgetown, Xavier, Seton Hall. I think St. John's could sneak as well.

CL: Four feels right, though I think five can be had. Villanova, Georgetown and Xavier seem like they'll be good enough to secure at-large bids and then I'd expect one or two of St. John's, Seton Hall, Butler and Providence to be sniffing around.

PM: I'm going to go with four. The 2015-16 is probably the season that the Big East will be very powerful and get in more than half of the league, but this season, I'm going conservative with four. There are a lot of high profile games in the non-conference for the Big East and enough big wins could set the stage for solid RPI numbers once conference play arrives. Villanova should be a lock, but then I would be pretty confident at this point with Georgetown, Xavier and then either St. John's, Seton Hall, and Creighton being on the bubble to be that fourth team. 

NR: Four - and I can't believe I'm saying it. I'm betting on a team with a solid non-conference win sneaks in to the First Four games on Tuesday/ Wednesday of the Tourney.

DS: I've got the Big East getting four invitations again with Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's and Providence making it in this year.

5) Award predictions for Big East Player, Rookie, and Coach of the Year:

BD: Player of the Year: JayVaughn Pinkston- Villanova. This will be much closer than last year. 
Rookie of the Year: Trevon Bluiett- Xavier
Coach of the Year: Buzz Williams. He's a genius, right? Oh, wait... Steve Lavin if the Red Storm go dancing, Chris Mack if Xavier is higher than a six seed, Jay Wright in all other contingencies.

JG: Player of the Year: Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
Coach of the Year: Jay Wright, Villanova (as an aside, the coach of the team that finishes first tends to win CotY in sports. I don't necessarily think that should be the case. I think a coach that leads his team to heights the furthest above where they were predicted should win this award. But I'm probably in the minority. I just feel that if you're the favorite, and you finish first, then why win Coach of the Year over a guy who was predicted low, but finished high? But I digress...)
Rookie of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
The Big East has a lot of talented rookies coming in this year to try and replace a lot of valuable senior leadership across the league. From what I've heard about Whitehead, he may be a freshman but he sure doesn't carry himself like one. Early reports are that the first McDonald's All-American to come to South Orange since the late Eddie Griffin is mature beyond his years. The Hall has perhaps the best backcourt in the conference, and Whitehead will certainly get his chance to shine.

CL: Player of the Year: Darrun Hilliard, Villanova 
Rookie of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall 
Coach of the Year: John Thompson III, Georgetown

PM: Player of the Year: JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova-- It is tough without Doug McDermott as a slam dunk. Villanova was very balanced last season, but I am looking for Pinkston to step up even more this season and lead the way.  He could average a double-double every night.  
Rookie of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall---I have heard enough about him all summer that he will be the next sliced bread mention.  
Coach of the Year:  Chris Mack, Xavier--The Musketeers are quietly in the top three this season, but they could be the actual surprise team that gives Villanova a run. If that happens, the Mack deserves it.

NR: D`Angelo Harrison, St. John's - POY
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier - ROY
Chris Mack, Xavier - COY

DS: POY: D'Angelo Harrison, St. John's- Most established scorer in the league on his last go round to make tournament. Slight edge over Kellen Dunham.
ROY: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall- Slam dunk here, as Whitehead is the Big East's lone McDonald's All American. Will make the Hall a much-improved team.
COY: John Thompson III, Georgetown- After not making it to the tournament last year, JTIII will rally his squad while his Hoyas contend for the Big East title. 

6) Word association (One word, if possible, to describe every team)

BD: Villanova- Class
Creighton- Struggling
Providence- Young
Xavier- Rising
St. John's- Overhyped
Marquette- Tarnished
Georgetown- Solid
Seton Hall- Dangerous
Butler- Barn
Depaul- AAC

JG: Butler: scrappy
Creighton: Doug-less
DePaul: Miserable
Georgetown: methodical
Marquette: Buzz-less (note the capital B- MU hoops is always popular in Milwaukee)
Providence: driven
Seton Hall: Youthful
St. John's: Mercurial
Villanova: favorites
Xavier: dark horse (ok, two words, so sue me)

CL: Villanova - Champs
Georgetown - 1985
Xavier - Stain-Train
Butler - Bounceback
Creighton - Dougie
Providence - Overtime
St. John's - MSG
Seton Hall - Freshmen
DePaul - Why
Marquette - Buzz

PM: Butler--Worried
Creighton--Sneaky
DePaul--Last
Georgetown--Historic
Marquette--Reborn
Providence--Rebuilding
Seton Hall--Hyped
St. John's--Ignored
Villanova--Leaders
Xavier--Likeable

DS: (since Twitter is so popular, I chose to combine words and give them neat hash tags
Butler:#MajorSleeper
Creighton: #McDermottHangover
DePaul: #NotAsBadAsYouThink
Georgetown: #BackToTheNCAA's
Marquette: #WaitOnWojo
Providence:#OnUpswing
Seton Hall: #ThisYear'sProvidence?
St. John's: #TalentedButStagnant
Villanova: #TeamToBeat
Xavier: #TakingAStepBackAfterChriston

7) Shameless plug for the team each panelist represents:

BD: Xavier has recently been defined by backcourt talent (Semaj Christon, Mark Lyons, Tu Holloway). This year, the backcourt is loaded with skill again, but the big men are going to take center stage. Matt Stainbrook was excellent last year and should be again and James Farr almost broke out as a stretch four. The real story is going to be Jalen Reynolds, though, he's a 6'10" truck of human being who can run and jump like a guard. By February, he'll be in the player of the year conversation.

JG: Seton Hall played in more 1-point games (NINE of them, going 4-5) than any other team in the last 30 years in 2013-14 (thanks to Gary Cohen for that nugget, by the way- he mentioned it on the radio broadcast right before SHU beat Nova at MSG), plus six more games decided by five points or less, and if some of them would have broken their way, they would have been postseason-bound. Killer losses (@ Mercer in 2OT, vs Oklahoma in Brooklyn, @ Marquette, @ Creighton, @ DePaul- *GAG*- and BOTH matchups vs St. John's) and two god-awful losses that I don't ever wish to speak of again (at home to Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Peter's- *GAG*) spoiled their season. Every team has close games, but when nearly half your season (15 out of 34 games) is close, and you go 5-10 in those games, you get a season defined by those results. This year, the Pirates have a tremendous recruiting class that brings Whitehead as well as rebounding machine Angel Delgado and underrated scorer Khadeen Carrington as well as forwards Desi Rodriguez and Michael Nzei and athletic wing Ismael Sanogo. Obviously, losing Fuquan Edwin (one of the best defenders in the conference all four of his years) and a horse down low in Gene Teague will hurt, as does the departure of Patrik Auda. The Hall is thin in the frontcourt, and they MUST get a healthy season from Delgado and Brandon Mobley to have success. They do get a 7'1" body eligible for conference play in Northwestern transfer Chier Ajou, and that will help, but if foul trouble or injury forces Kevin Willard to play Rodriguez, Nzei and/or Steph Manga too many minutes, things likely won't go smoothly for the Hall. That being said, Whitehead and Carrington along with Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina give the Hall one of the best backcourts in the conference, and it could be the best by the time all is said and done. High hoops IQ is very prevalent among the guards, as is scoring ability. If everything breaks right, with the wide-open middle of the pack once again in the Big East, I can see the Pirates finishing in the top half of the conference for the first time in what feels like forever. They are young, but boy are they talented.

CL: I know it feels like Ryan Arcidiacono should have graduated already, but you get to see him lead one of the better offenses in the country yet again. It's pick your poison stopping either Darrun Hilliard or JayVaughn Pinkston on offense, and both should be on the All-Big East team at the end of the year. If Jay Wright can get more balance (i.e. don't rely on jumpers) out of this year's team, expect another high seed come March and hopefully an appearance during the second weekend and beyond. 

PM: 
Creighton, although losing Doug McDermott and three other impact seniors, will be better than most think. The season will be on the shoulders of point guard Austin Chatman, who is the only returning starter. His offseason has been active. He had surgery late in the summer on a thumb ligament and then found  out this past week that he will be out for about 10 days after getting his knee cleaned up as about result of a minor injury in the early season workouts.  Chatman will be expected to score more this season, distribute the ball, and be that team leader for everyone to look for. With four starters gone, there is still plenty of experience in the fold. Seniors Avery Dingman and Will Artino have been in the mix heavily the past few seasons, while Devin Brooks made his own impact backing up Chatman. He may be expected to play a little more shooting guard. Then the Bluejays add a veteran in fifth year transfer Ricky Kreklow from Cal. Zach Hanson has the potential to be a great player as he gets more minutes and becomes a presence down low. Isaiah Zierden is coming off of a knee injury that shortened last season but it did not require surgery. He is ready to go this season and has a high basketball IQ like Grant Gibbs had. JUCO transfer James Milliken ended up redshirting last year and could have an impact right away, and would have played last season if Gibbs had not received that 6th season. Geoffrey Groselle, the 7-footer, is finally healthy and looked very good in Summer League. Toby Hegner will never be Doug McDermott, but there are flashes Doug in him if he works for it. It is hard to tell exactly where freshmen Leon Gilmore III and Ronnie Harrell will fit in but could make an impact right away. I think that mentions almost everyone on the roster, meaning they could be deeper than most think. Overall, Creighton heads into the season with a deep team and could finish in the top half of the league surpassing the national media expectations this season where they expect them to be towards the bottom of the other half. If everything works out like it should, they could finish fourth or higher. Like I said above, the Bluejays could be really sneaky this season. 

NR: St. John's is and was an enigma. But I think that the roster has fewer players who think they should be creating their own jump-shot offense and a few more players who will fit roles. Can the front court be better than competent? Can they handle the dirty-work job of rebounding in a way last year's front court could not? If they can, and there's reason to believe, there's no reason this team shouldn't go to the NCAA Tournament.


DS: As I said in the word association game, DePaul is not as bad as you think. With the reigning Big East Rookie of the Year in Billy Garrett Jr. and another all-Big East freshman team member Tommy Hamilton to work with, DePaul has a nice youthful core to lean on. This year they add a few key transfers with Myke Henry joining them from Illinois, while also adding three high-profile JUCO transfers in Rashaun Stimage, Aaron Simpson and ex-St. John's commit Darrick Wood. With an infusion of some experienced new talent along with Garrett and Hamilton, the hope here is Oliver Purnell has the horses necessary to get out of the basement and make a move up the standings. After all, they showed some moxie knocking off Georgetown in the Big East Tournament last year. I have them escaping the basement at minimum.