Monday, October 24, 2016

Rich Williams now applying his acquired knowledge to lead Manhattan once more

Rich Williams admittedly thought he knew all the answers as an underclassman, but has found them while undergoing transition from role player to team leader and one of more important pieces to Manhattan's success this season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

There was once a time when Rich Williams let his effervescent personality get the best of him.

During one of the first practices in his sophomore year, Manhattan College's extroverted and gregarious swingman took a lackadaisical approach to a defensive drill, prompting head coach Steve Masiello to banish him from the Draddy Gymnasium court.

The Williams we see today is a far cry from the burgeoning talent we saw in 2014. Now a battle-hardened and experienced veteran, the Brooklyn native is quick to recognize the difference between the promising upstart who searched for the right method to channeling his vast potential and the complete package of an all-league player that now leads the Jaspers into what those around the program hope is a resurgence from last season's injury-riddled 13-18 campaign.

"I just got more mature," a humble Williams admitted when reflecting on his journey in Riverdale. "I understand the bigger picture now. I was a kid coming out of high school, thought I knew all the answers. Now I listen more than I talk, so I think that's a big part of my development, just listening and trusting guys around me, and believing what they talk about."

Being born into a culture of winning can be a baptism by fire, so to speak, and in the first part of Williams' career, it was. With the likes of Michael Alvarado, Emmy Andujar, George Beamon, Rhamel Brown and Ashton Pankey firmly entrenched in the rotation during Manhattan's back-to-back Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship runs, playing time was earned; and due to the immense depth of the Jasper roster, not always consistent. It wasn't until his junior season that Williams, along with the since-graduated Shane Richards, was able to truly carve his own imprint on the team; but when opportunity knocked, it was met with a warm embrace.

"Being an older guy, all the young guys look upon me," said Williams with regard to the increased responsibility of setting the tone on and off the court, in and out of the locker room, a role he shares with fellow senior Tyler Wilson. But his ability to be a leader and take initiative was cultivated long before this offseason, with one of the first true moments of clarity coming midway through his sophomore season when he approached Masiello about coming off the bench rather than occupying a spot in the starting five, his rationale being the need to merely provide a spark after feeling the opening minutes of a contest out to gauge the on-court intensity. Needless to say, the voluntary sacrifice paid off shortly thereafter, with the Jaspers punching a second straight ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

"I think that says a lot about his character that he wants to do what's best for the team," Masiello said back in January of 2015, when Williams first expressed his intent to switch gears. "He wants to do what it's about for the team, so I'm really happy."

"I'm just proud of his consistency, how he's grown into being a man and the leader he is off the court," Masiello elaborated recently, bringing the career of his latest precocious talent full circle. "Now he's the guy rooming with Aaron (Walker, one of Manhattan's three incoming freshmen), taking care of him, making sure he understands what's going on off the court. His growth off the basketball court is what I'm really proud of, just his development as a man, being a good son, being a good teammate, a role model in the community. Those are the things I'm really proud of. The basketball ability is at an elite level. We just want to build on that."

"I think the growth of Rich as a leader, you're going to see that emerge," the coach further intimated. "What's nice for him is he has guys like Zavier Turner, Tyler Wilson, Calvin (Crawford) and Zane (Waterman) around him, so that's only going to help him. He has a great supporting cast."

The high praise and lofty expectations still get Williams awe-struck from time to time, as after all, he remains a 22-year-old young man filled with the same sense of wonder a little boy may have when he wakes up on Christmas morning and sees his family's tree adorned with ornaments on its branches and presents underneath it. It is that enjoyment he carries with him into each day, a love of the game that is so often taken for granted, that makes his trials all the more rewarding, his meticulous and diligent labors all the more fruitful.

"I would have never thought I would be here," he said when summarizing his body of work to this point, doing so with his ubiquitous wide grin. "In my freshman year, for instance, Coach would say I was a player who didn't play that much. Every year, my role stepped up. I'm pleased to be where I'm at today, the opportunity that I have."

Upcoming season could be return to form for LIU Brooklyn

With familiar faces such as Jerome Frink (left) and Nura Zanna returning, head coach Jack Perri (right) is banking on upward mobility for his LIU Brooklyn team this season. (Photo by Bob Dea/Blackbirds Hoops Journal)

By Jonathan Reyes (@werdynerdy)

Since being named LIU Brooklyn's head coach in 2013, Jack Perri has seen his team teeter like a seesaw.

His first year showed off his ability toward continued success, and to no surprise due to his knowledge of the program after having spent seven seasons as an assistant under his predecessor Jim Ferry, the current Duquesne head coach.

Perri led his players to a 20-14 record in that 2013-14 campaign, which garnered the Blackbirds their third consecutive Northeast Conference championship and also rewarded him with the Joe B. Hall Coach of the Year award, given out annually to Division I first-year head coaches.

The second season of Perri’s tenure was riddled with injuries to the point where it shaved off eight wins from the year prior, finishing with a 12-18 record. Looking back at last season, the Blackbirds did improve by four wins and make it back over the .500 mark, ending the year 16-15. Can they build off that marginal uptick in wins despite what Perri noted as inconsistency being the problem? He thinks so, and it all has to do with a shift in mentality.

“If you saw us play some last year, we were a little inconsistent, very inconsistent,” he said. “We’d win one, lose one; win two, lose two. We did that within practice too; we’d have a good practice and a bad practice. This year, I see a different team. They’re much more consistent with their effort and focus. I attribute that to our seniors.

“There’s a sense of urgency they have that tells them, ‘This is it. There’s not another year coming up afterwards, now is the time. We have a good group of seniors and younger underclassmen that are going to have to help contribute, especially at the point guard position, and they’re ready to do that. I like their personality and characteristics that they bring.”

Part of that group of upper and underclassman Perri referenced transferred: Twins Trevon and Trevin Woods, Martin Hermannsson and Aakim Saintil. They’re being replaced by three freshman guards: Jashaun Agosto, Julian Batts and Ashtyn Bradley. So it’s a guards-for-guards exchange pretty much, which fits the M.O. of a Blackbirds roster comprised of speed and versatility by carrying eight guards, three forwards and four combos.

“We’re itching,” Perri said about the start season approaching closer with each passing day. “Our guys still have to get better and learn different things. So I’m ready to keep that first game off for a little bit until we get everything that we want to get in and get as good as we possibly could be at that point.

“It’s certainly an exciting time right now and our guys are just doing a really good job of staying in the moment and are focused on each and every day and getting better to kind of create that team identity. Every team takes on a different identity every year, it’s forming right now for us.”

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Core group and depth two more keys to success for Wagner

Corey Henson is among leaders of an experienced Wagner group as he enters his junior season. (Photo by David Saffran/Wagner College Athletics)

By Jonathan Reyes (@werdynerdy)

Whenever every new season is fast approaching in mid to late-October, basketball coaches know every team is at the same place. They have a vision as to where they should be, and work toward reaching that point.

For a second time already, and the 2016-17 campaign hasn’t even begun, Wagner head coach Bashir Mason referenced the 10-win 2014-15 season when he had seven new players -- five of which were freshmen. He said it was difficult starting all over again from the ground up because coaches and players alike were learning new things.

Now he has what he calls a “core group” that not only gives him and his coaching staff a feeling of comfort, but it extends to the rest of the players, both newcomers and returnees. In the situation the Seahawks are in, Mason said the older guys can help coach the younger ones so that the majority of the team is aware of how everything should “look and sound.”

“As I’m getting a little bit older and maturing as a coach, you realize come your first game you’ll be prepared, you’ll get all your sets in and you’ll get all of the things in that you need to,” he said. “The biggest thing is getting better with every practice and game, so coming down the home stretch, you put yourself in a good position to win the championship.”

On recruiting trips, Mason looks for specific players who can fit the Seahawks’s brand and culture of attitude, and that also includes how willing they are to work every day and understand how hard it can be. Shaq Scott, Connor Ferrell, Blake Francis, Jamar Brown and Elijah Davis are still being acclimated, but so far, so good.

“In terms of personally, who those guys are as individuals and socially, they fit into the team perfectly,” Mason said about the five new players. “And now getting it going on the court, things are really competitive. They’re a really, really talented group, probably more talented right now than some of the guys that we lost.”

Besides having a balanced roster, when it comes to underclassmen and upperclassmen, something else in the Seahawks’s favor this year is their depth; they have seven guards, six forwards and one combo. Mason said he’ll play 12 to 13 players out of his 14-man roster throughout the season.

To him, it doesn’t matter if any one particular player hasn’t played in five to seven games, for example. He’ll start or play whoever it is at any point in any game solely based off of the confidence he has in the way he and his staff coach.

“Having more talent and depth makes practices really good and competitive,” he added. “There’s never a day off for the players. A year ago with the team we had, some of our scrimmages in practice were more competitive than the games we played. I’d like to keep that formula to keep the guys on edge to have us going into games really prepared and ready to go.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

MAAC preseason awards and polls: 5 Thoughts

As expected, Monmouth was picked first in MAAC preseason poll, but bigger surprises came toward middle and bottom of predictions. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Much of the expected came to fruition in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's unveiling of their preseason awards and coaches' polls, and that does not take into account the unexpected, of which there were several instances over the course of the night on both the men's and women's sides.

Yes, Monmouth and Quinnipiac; the assumed favorites in the league, were indeed picked to win the regular season, with some of the other contenders close enough to the top spot. But there were other surprises revealed in each ESPN3 telecast, and we present five thoughts for both the men and women as we move closer to the start of the season:

1) End of an era?
The fifth-place prediction for Marist is the lowest preseason standing for the Red Foxes since the 2003-04 season, when Brian Giorgis brought the program its first MAAC championship after being picked seventh at this time 13 years ago. The rating snaps a string of twelve straight predictions inside the top three, and eleven in a row of first or second. But looking at the Marist roster, the uncertainty is at its highest point since Giorgis was plucked away from Our Lady of Lourdes High School. With Tori Jarosz and Sydney Coffey having graduated, gaping holes exist in both the offense and experience among the incumbent players. Allie Clement, who was named to the all-MAAC preseason third team, will bolster the lion's share of the opportunities, but her supporting cast must improve in lockstep to keep the perennial favorite near the top.

2) Strautmane underrated
Paula Strautmane made quite the impression in her freshman season for Quinnipiac, taking over the role made popular by Nikoline Ostergaard and Samantha Guastella to lead the Bobcats back to the postseason while also proving she was headed for greater heights. Yet while Aryn McClure captured preseason first team honors on the heels of her Rookie of the Year campaign, Strautmane was uncharacteristically left off the first team and named to the second team. Very few coaches at this level get the most out of their players the way Tricia Fabbri does, and come March, her latest development will turn into the all-league player that will forge another four-year legacy in Hamden.

3) Another Player of the Year at Iona
Unsurprisingly, Marina Lizarazu was selected as the unanimous choice for Preseason Player of the Year, and coming off her virtuoso performance in the MAAC Tournament, it was easy to see why. Lizarazu is the third consecutive Gael to receive this honor, following in the footsteps of Damika Martinez; who was recognized in such a capacity twice, and Joy Adams, further affirming Billi Godsey to be as good a talent evaluator and maximizer as her predecessor, Tony Bozzella. If Lizarazu comes anywhere close to replicating her numbers from last season, a fourth Player of the Year trophy in the past five seasons will be on its way to the Hynes Athletics Center.

4) Health of two veteran forwards
Victoria Rampado, who was named to the preseason all-MAAC first team after being limited to just three games last year, is back at 100 percent for Niagara as the Purple Eagles position themselves for a climb up the standings. On the other side of the coin, Siena is still without Margot Hetzke as she recovers from hip surgery following a concussion that cost her more than half of her sophomore campaign. While the Saints are still deep and experienced without their junior forward, Hetzke's return would go a long way in establishing Ali Jaques' team as a legitimate contender alongside Quinnipiac and Iona.

5) Manhattan may have the most upside
In some ways, it is understandable that the Jaspers were picked in a seventh-place tie, with the coaching acumen of rookie head coach Heather Vulin untested to this point. However, with a roster that returns reigning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Amani Tatum among a group that also counts two rising stars in juniors Nyasha Irizarry and Kayla Grimme, the argument that Manhattan should be rated higher is also a valid one. Riverdale is certainly home to an intriguing group this season, and if last season's efforts are any indication, the preseason pick should be eclipsed.

1) More love for Siena than anticipated?
Let's clarify that before anyone goes off the deep end. The Saints were almost a lock to be picked second just off the strength of their returning players. What may shock the casual fan is the two first-place votes they received, with Monmouth getting the other nine. In addition, the selections of Brett Bisping and Javion Ogunyemi to the preseason first team make the Saints the only school with multiple players on that list. As if that wasn't enough, Marquis Wright garnered third team recognition, with Nico Clareth and Lavon Long playing to prove their omissions may be more glaring five months from now.

2) Quinnipiac picked next-to-last
For those who have followed the Bobcats over the years, this is uncharted territory. Quinnipiac was expected to take a step back on paper with the losses of Giovanni McLean and James Ford, but the three-headed monster in the frontcourt should be enough to keep Tom Moore's club out of the bottom two. With an influx of new talent in the backcourt alongside Daniel Harris, whom Moore singled out as a "big voice" among his cadre of guards, the winter in Hamden should not be as long as some think it will be, and Moore definitely has the coaching chops to push through the adversity.

3) Some glaring omissions:
The first award decision that raised a couple of eyebrows was Iona's Deyshonee Much only procuring third team honors after a breakout sophomore season established the former Buffalo transfer as perhaps the next great Iona shooter. Head coach Tim Cluess had great things to say when he spoke about Much recently, and the expectations are naturally high. In addition, Fairfield's Tyler Nelson and Saint Peter's Quadir Welton, both of whom were worthy of first team recognition, were instead relegated to the second team. Nelson emerged as the second option behind Marcus Gilbert last year, and should be the face of the Stags as an overachieving young team now takes its next step, while Welton builds on a breakout junior year that ended in his Peacocks finishing in their highest position since winning the MAAC in 2011.

4) Back to the Stags for a second:
Fairfield's stark contrast from their plodding ways into last year's uptempo brand of basketball defined the Stags' resurgence, and head coach Sydney Johnson is cognizant of what needs to be done to maintain the good times. Johnson is a constant optimist in the future of his program, and in the pre-taped interview accompanying the announcement of his team as the fifth-place pick in the preseason poll, the sixth-year head man had this to say:

"Let's stay true to what we're doing and really understand this is the crew that may just break through. I'm hoping it's March 2017."

5) Special things are coming for Justin Robinson
Those were King Rice's words in the wake of his senior point guard being announced as the unanimous Preseason Player of the Year. Robinson, who won the actual hardware at the end of last season, stands to become the first player since Manhattan's Luis Flores; who turned the trick in 2003 and 2004, to repeat as Player of the Year if he is voted the winner again next March. His coach tends to think that last year's 19.3 points per game was simply the prelude to additional success for both Robinson's game and the well-being of his team. "Justin will have a better year, 100 percent," said Rice. "I think the success he had has made him more hungry, and if our mental toughness and chemistry stays where it should, I think you'll see great things from Monmouth basketball this year."

Monday, October 17, 2016

MAAC Monday: Preseason award predictions

If he replicates his junior season, Monmouth's Justin Robinson should become first repeat MAAC Player of the Year since Luis Flores in 2003 and 2004. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

In advance of Tuesday's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason award show, we now take the time to offer our own predictions on who will bring home the hardware this March:

Player of the Year: Justin Robinson, Monmouth (2015-16 stats: 19.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.8 APG)
To no one's surprise, last season's Player of the Year is the favorite to repeat. Robinson's impressive junior year for a 28-win Monmouth team gives him the inside track to becoming the first two-time MAAC Player of the Year since Luis Flores led Manhattan to back-to-back conference championships in 2003 and 2004. If the Hawks are as strong as they are projected to be, Robinson's name will once again be called five months from now.

All-MAAC First Team (in alphabetical order)
Brett Bisping, Siena
Tyler Nelson, Fairfield
Javion Ogunyemi, Siena
Justin Robinson, Monmouth (preseason Player of the Year)
Jordan Washington, Iona
Quadir Welton, Saint Peter's

All-MAAC Second Team (in alphabetical order)
Khallid Hart, Marist
Deyshonee Much, Iona
Micah Seaborn, Monmouth
Rich Williams, Manhattan
Trevis Wyche, Saint Peter's

All-MAAC Third Team (in alphabetical order)
Nico Clareth, Siena
Matt Scott, Niagara
Kahlil Thomas, Rider
Phil Valenti, Canisius
Marquis Wright, Siena

Rookie of the Year: Aaron Walker, Manhattan

Defensive Player of the Year: Chazz Patterson, Saint Peter's

Sixth Man of the Year: Lavon Long, Siena

Coach of the Year: Tim Cluess, Iona

MAAC Monday: Previewing the 2016-17 women's season

Iona may be reigning MAAC champion, but Tricia Fabbri and Quinnipiac present league's biggest challenge for a third consecutive year. (Photo by Josh Silverman/Q30 Television)

Last season's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament went almost as expected, with Quinnipiac and Iona affirming their status as class of the league all the way through to the championship game, where the Gaels took advantage of career performances from point guard Marina Lizarazu and forward Joy Adams to defeat the then-reigning champion Bobcats, who lost point guard and senior leader Maria Napolitano to a torn ACL in their semifinal victory against Monmouth.

Iona heads into their title defense with a gaping hole down low after Adams, the leading rebounder in MAAC history, graduated, but head coach Billi Godsey; who cemented her status as a coach on the rise at the mid-major level, returns Lizarazu to a backcourt that also sees Alexis Lewis join the starting lineup after capturing co-Sixth Player of the Year honors as a freshman. Philecia Atkins-Gilmore and shot blocking sensation Karynda DuPree also return to New Rochelle, giving the Gaels three incumbent starters to further promote the winning culture.

Their vanquished foes have come back strong as well, proving that Tricia Fabbri does not rebuild in Hamden; rather, she simply reloads. Only Napolitano and reserve Tiffany Webster have departed from last season's rotation, leaving four returning starters to position the Bobcats near the front of the pack once again. Replacing Napolitano will not be easy, but no team maximizes their depth as well as Quinnipiac does. If the frontcourt of Aryn McClure, the MAAC Rookie of the Year last season, and Paula Strautmane develops as expected, the potential for a third 30-win season in five years becomes increasingly high with each passing game.

Fairfield, last year's preseason No. 1, loses four-year difference-maker Kristin Schatzlein and point guard Lizzy Ball, but returns both of its leading scorers in forwards Casey Smith and Kelsey Carey, as well as 6-foot-2 Samantha Cooper to give Joe Frager and the Stags one of the most formidable front lines in the conference. However, Fairfield will need their backcourt to step up early and often, as Frager has no incumbent guard on his roster that played more than seven minutes per game on average. Siena could be primed for a better season than last year's underachieving 14-18 mark, and head coach Ali Jaques is undoubtedly cognizant of the Saints' potential. Losing Margot Hetzke to injury after ten games was a huge blow to Siena's chances last season, and if the former MAAC Rookie of the Year is back at full strength this time around for a team that returns all but one player off its roster, the difference will be tangible.

Brian Giorgis faced major question marks last season with one of his youngest Marist teams over his tenure, and the youth is even more prevalent this season after the graduations of four-year starter Sydney Coffey and reigning MAAC Player of the Year Tori Jarosz. Junior guard Allie Clement is the only returning player who averaged more than six points per game last year, which means the Red Foxes will need to find offense, and fast. Manhattan welcomes a new head coach in Heather Vulin, and she benefits from a stacked cupboard left by her predecessor, John Olenowski. Amani Tatum was a revelation en route to winning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year honors a year ago, and full seasons for both Nyasha Irizarry and Kayla Grimme only make the Jaspers more deceptive.

Monmouth loses four of its five leading scorers, raising the onus on seniors Tyese Purvis and Christina Mitchell to increase their productivity in direct proportion. Sophomore McKinzee Barker flourished at the point guard spot, and should be much improved after a solid rookie campaign. Niagara loses two of its core seniors in Sam Lapszynski and Taylor McKay, but gets Victoria Rampado back after injuries limited the Purple Eagles' all-MAAC forward to just three games. Rampado and Kaylee Stroemple, who had a sophomore year worthy of Most Improved Player honors if the MAAC presented such an award, will keep head coach Jada Pierce's team relevant throughout the season. Niagara's crosstown rival, Canisius, loses Crystal Porter to graduation, yet Terry Zeh is resurgent with the backcourt trio of Maria Welch, Margret Halfdanardottir and Lauren D'Hont. Rebounding will be a major concern for the Golden Griffins, though, as they only have five forwards on the roster.

Rider will be much better than last season's eight-win squad, especially with senior guard Robin Perkins back for one more year alongside 6-foot-1 senior center Julia Duggan. The Broncs also return point guard Taylor Wentzel and a pair of three-point specialists in Lexi Posset and Kamila Hoskova. Finally, Saint Peter's has nowhere to go but up. The Peacocks bring back Sajanna Bethea and Talah Hughes for their junior seasons, but Pat Coyle will be counting on her supporting cast to make a bigger name for itself in order for the once-perennial MAAC powerhouse to escape the lower rungs of the standings.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Quinnipiac - Already the most complete team in the league, the Bobcats may very well be one year ahead of schedule by the time all is said and done. If you thought the 2013 and 2015 championship outfits were Tricia Fabbri's magnum opus, you may want to schedule a trip to the TD Bank Sports Center this season.

2) Iona - Life without Joy Adams will be different, but Marina Lizarazu leads a handful of familiar faces with championship experience. The Gaels will certainly not go quietly into the night this season.

3) Siena - Having Margot Hetzke back for a full season will make a world of difference for the Saints, who still have the core of their roster back; including guards Jackie Benitez, Kollyns Scarbrough and Denisha Petty-Evans, even if Hetzke is not back right away. Ali Jaques is certainly capable of coaching and winning the big game too, and Siena should be indicative of such more nights than not.

4) Niagara - Much like Margot Hetzke for Siena, the benefit of Victoria Rampado back for a full season will be fruitful for the Purple Eagles, who should be much improved from last season.

5) Fairfield - The Stags' backcourt is going to be a work in progress, but the front line will win them more games than inexperienced guards will cost them.

6) Manhattan - Losing Blake Underhill and Shayna Ericksen will hurt, but the Jaspers are still deep and talented. How defenses key in on Amani Tatum this season after she caught many teams off guard last year, as well as the uptempo style first-year head coach Heather Vulin is instilling, will be stories to watch throughout the year in Riverdale.

7) Marist - Could this be the end of the Brian Giorgis dynasty? The games are not played on paper, of course, but the perennial kingpin of the MAAC has more question marks this season than in any other in his 14-year tenure.

8) Canisius - The inverse of Fairfield, the Griffs have experienced guards but unproven forwards.

9) Monmouth - The Hawks will adjust on the fly to losing Sarah Olson and Jamiyah Bethune, and will need breakout seasons from Tyese Purvis and Christina Mitchell.

10) Rider - The Broncs have improved from last season. Unfortunately for them, most of the league has as well.

11) Saint Peter's - As Sajanna Bethea and Talah Hughes go, so too will the Peacocks, unless one of their secondary options asserts themselves.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Jay Wright on Jenkins, Hart, championships, NBA Draft and Villanova in general

Jay Wright touched on a variety of topics surrounding his Villanova program, and college basketball as a whole when fielding questions at Big East media day. (Photo by NJ Advance Media)

By Jason Schott (@JESchott19)

Jay Wright, the Head Coach of the National Champion Villanova Wildcats, was on hand at Big East Media Day Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
Wright spoke to the media about Kris Jenkins' buzzer beater to win the championship last season and his perspective after it, recruiting Jenkins and Kris Hart, and his recruiting philosophy at Villanova.
On how long it took Kris Jenkins to develop into the player Wright wanted him to be:
"He's a guy that we took a chance on because of his weight and his conditioning, and a lot of times you make a plan for a guy and you tell him. Our recruiting of him was 'if you're going to come here, this is what you're going to have to do. You have to get down to this weight, this body fat. This is what you're going to have to do to do it.' Rarely does a guy come in and do exactly what you ask him to do. He is exactly what we dreamed he would be. We would have been okay even if he was a little less than that, but he did everything we asked him to do every year. He's going to be in the best shape of his life this season, and we said to him, 'it's is a process, it's a four year process.' You don't just come in, change your weight, change your lifestyle, change your game. He was a center in high school, developed him into a guard. You don't just do that overnight, and he has done it. He's a dream, I'm telling you. When you take a chance on a guy and hope everything works out perfectly, he did."
On how the buzzer-beater that Jenkins hit to win the National Championship helps him moving forward:
"I gotta believe, and I think I said it to him one day at practice, we were in a scrimmage situation, he got mad when he missed a shot, and I said to him, 'Kris, you hit the biggest shot in the history of college basketball. You can't ever get mad when you miss a shot. You've got to have the elite confidence, whether I miss that shot or not, I've already hit the biggest shot under the most pressure, so I know I'm going to make the next shot.' He's got to have, and that's one of the things we talked about the ring can't be what we take from the National Championship Game, what we've got to take from the National Championship Game is all the experiences that can help us in life going forward, and that's one of the experiences. You make that shot, and if you shoot 1-for-10 in a game, you have to believe 'I'm making the next shot.' There can't be any more pressure, and I want him to take that as a player the rest of his life. I want him to live that way, too. I want him to live like, whatever happens to me, under pressure, if I keep a positive attitude, I can be successful."
Jason Schott: Isn't it better to have him still hungry after a moment like that instead of being overconfident?
Jay Wright: I think that so far, and we don't know what we're up against going forward because Villanova's won it, but we all weren't there, we don't know what we're going to experience going forward. he has handled this really well. In practice, he's humble, he's trying to get better, he works on his weight, comes in extra and does cardio, he changes his diet. He has completely remained humble, in no way has he been overconfident. I think he's used that shot to have a great perspective on making and missing shots.
On turning the page after the championship celebrations:
"One of the things that the Final Four experience proved to help us with was understanding how life changes after that. It's completely different when you win it, but we did start preparing the guys right away. Before we went to the parade, we started talking to them about, 'hey guys, how we handle this is just as important as how we handled the run and how we handle this is going to affect us next year,' so we were always talking about it. To your question about turning the page, I don't feel like, when we're on the court, we've turned the page. I don't think our fans have turned the page. We're still talking about it right now, we're not talking about our league next season yet. I get it, so I know we have to deal with it so I don't think the page has turned yet, but for us on the court it is, so that's the challenge."
Villanova has become a program where players stay three or four years and there's not a lot of the 'one-and-done' philosophy here. Wright said of that:
"I think that's something that actually is becoming a negative for us in recruiting, and I hope I can dispel that. What we did in '12 was, we said, 'we want to make sure that we know what our recruits' aspirations are coming in.' We didn't go a good job of really understanding what the kids were looking to do. We just thought, 'Okay, they're coming to Villanova, they want to get their degree, and they want to be pros.' We didn't realize we were bringing in some kids that didn't care if they were at Villanova, they just wanted to get in and get out. That was our fault. We'll still take 'one-and-done' guys. We'll take two-and-done guys, but we have to make sure they want to be at Villanova, they like being in college. What our concern is that guy that comes in wanting to be 'one-and-done' and he's not 'one-and-done.' We don't want him to be miserable in college. We want him to say, 'I'm happy being here, maybe I'm going to be two-and-done. It's backfired on us in recruiting because a lot of guys think 'they (Villanova) don't want one-and-done guys.' I'm going to put it out there, we'll take one-and-done guys. We just want one-and-done guys that enjoy being in college."
On recruiting Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart:
"Each kid's unique. I explained Kris' situation to you. I was shocked in today's recruiting to say that to a kid, you basically know you're done, and you say if he accepts that, we've got a superstar, and he did, and that's what we've got. The kid's amazing, he shocked us. And Josh, we were recruiting other guys from his AAU team and we kept seeing this kid is making all the plays. There's a couple guys on this team that are getting all the hype, but this kid gets every rebound, this kid gets every loose ball, this kid's getting to the foul line. We just liked him, we just said, 'he's our kind of guy, you know.' Some times we're pretty lucky, you know, I think we got lucky with both of them. Sometimes, you get a guy who's really hyped and you get unlucky. We're in the position we're in right now because we got lucky with these two."
On NBA Draft rules and if they need tweaking:
"I think the rules, I think we're going in a very good direction. I think that was a great step allowing underclassmen to go to the (NBA) Combine. I think one little tweak would be to allow the guys to have representation because a lot of these guys, while they're going through the process of trying to figure out, they're trying to get the best information to make their decision, and when agents are competing for your services at the same time, they're tainting the information so it's hard for the player to make the right decision because different agents are giving them different information. If you have one agent, one coach giving them information, it would make it easier to make a decision. I think that's what Josh was talking about. He didn't have an agent, so we had all kinds of people hitting him with stuff and he had to really sit back and rely on us and his parents. He handled it really well."
JS: Josh Hart's season ended later than other players since you were in the National Championship game. Does the fact that his season ended a few weeks after others that were going for the NBA Draft hinder the process?
JW: I think the guys that are playing in the Final Four, especially the Championship Game, they don't need time to work out, they need time to rest. I think he (Hart) didn't get a chance to rest, Kris Jenkins didn't get a chance to rest, and they had to start that process immediately. I think Kris realized right away, I think he was just beat down, he said 'I'm not going to be able to put my best effort forth.' Josh, I think, was fatigued going through the process. We gave him a lot of time after that, but I don't think it's a reason to change the process. I think if you played in the Final Four, you've probably shown what you can do. Those four teams, I don't think those guys really need to go (to the NBA Combine.) The NBA guys have made their decision on that. Everybody else gets that whole week at least off, and even a little after that, maybe a couple of days off. You have to have some timelines. I think the way the timeline is now is good."

Reigning champion Iona striking right blend of veterans and newcomers to begin title defense

With A.J. English becoming latest Iona alum in professional ranks, Deyshonee Much is closing in on joining litany of proven Tim Cluess success stories. (Photo by Brian Beyrer/Iona College Athletics)

There is no denying Tim Cluess' ability to remain a proven winner, judging by his six postseason appearances and seasons of 20 or more wins in as many years as his tenure at Iona, but one question somehow always remains the same, given the year-to-year roster turnover in New Rochelle.

How does he do it?

The answer is simple: Continuity. Although this season, with seven new faces donning the maroon and gold, that ever-present status quo may not be as abundant as in years past, but it is still a force in the Gaels' preparation as the reigning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions prepare to open the curtain on their title defense.

"I think it's beginning to," said Cluess of the familiarity's effect in shaping this year's Iona team. "We only have three guys who returned that were involved in practices up to this point, so I don't think it can be what we'd like. We have two other players that were hurt and have not been a part of it, so when we get them back and we have five guys who have been through what we do and the demands of what we do and the pride of what we do, that will rub off more on the newcomers."

"We are fortunate to have a couple of upperclassmen who have transferred in who are treating it like upperclassmen, kind of like Aaron Rountree did for us," Cluess added in regard to Jon Severe and Sam Cassell Jr., who arrive from Fordham and UConn, respectively. "Coming in with the right work ethic, understanding what college basketball, playing at that level is about, they've helped as well."

In Severe, a reputed shooter who could get hot at any given time, and Cassell, the son of an NBA champion point guard with the Houston Rockets, Cluess has the backcourt depth needed to help overcome the loss of one of Iona's cornerstone players over the past few seasons, MAAC Tournament Most Valuable Player A.J. English.

"Versatility and depth," Cluess quickly mentioned when assessing what his incoming guard duo brings to the table. "We didn't have players like either one of them a year ago. After you took A.J. out of the equation and Deyshonee Much, who became that, we didn't have another guard that was at the level of either of those two, and now both of them have a chance to have really good senior seasons. They're working like seniors, they want something special out of this year, and I think they still have to adjust to the style that we play and some of the freedoms that they have. They're learning how to use those freedoms the right way and let their best basketball come out of him."

"He's much more disciplined in his shot selection, almost sometimes to a fault now," he added with regard to Severe, whose green light to launch at Fordham made him a favored option under former coach Tom Pecora as a freshman before he struggled to reinvent himself in each of the past two years. "For him, he's got to figure out where the right balance is, and we have to find out where he's most effective, what he's best at right now; not the kid coming out of high school, not the kid who was a freshman at Fordham, but the young man that he is right now."

In particular, Cassell will have the first crack at replacing English in the point guard role, a position that loses both its star from last year and a valuable understudy in Ibn Muhammad. Cluess also hinted that Rickey McGill will see some minutes at the point in his sophomore season, and Schadrac Casimir will also join the fray when he is fully recovered and able to compete following offseason hip surgery, which sacrificed most of his sophomore season last year.

"He's still a ways away from getting ready to play," Cluess said with an update on Casimir's progress. "He's getting closer to being able to start basketball activities, and we're hoping that he'll be back and going five-on-five before we open this year, but we're not so sure about that."

Of McGill, a defensive revelation as a freshman last season; and one of the key components in the Gaels' late-season lockdown on that side of the ball, Cluess praised his improvement, even complimenting his progress on the offensive end.

"He's progressed a lot," said Cluess. "He's bringing in a better work ethic and understanding what it takes to be a better player and a more successful players. Watching all the players we've had and now having someone like Deyshonee Much, who's in the gym all the time, the standards are there now for him to live up to if he wants to be good. He's pushing the ball better on offense, and he's doing a much better job of shooting the ball. He's a threat now from the perimeter where he wasn't a year ago, so I think as he continues to develop that, his ceiling gets higher and higher."

Speaking of Much, the one-time Buffalo transfer burst onto the scene last year with his lethal marksmanship from three-point range, becoming an almost perfect fit into Iona's transition game and positioning himself to carry the lineage of NBA-caliber guards that have come through the Hynes Athletics Center in an assembly line of sorts, from Scott Machado to Momo Jones, Sean Armand and the aforementioned English.

"I think if Deyshonee keeps working as hard as he's been working, it will happen for him as well," said Cluess of Much's professional prospects. "He puts a lot of time in, he's a very talented player. I think last year was part showcasing what he could be and still figuring it out after a year of not playing much at the first school he was at. I think he knows 'I'm going to be one of those main guys now, and they're going to run a lot of things for me that they haven't run for me in the past,' so I think he's going to have opportunities to have a breakout type of season."

"Over the next two years, the players we're able to put around him are talented enough to where he shouldn't be able to get double-teams like A.J. did last year," he elaborated. "We have more shooters around him this year that should be able to help us in that area, and help him especially."

Up front, Iona returns a likely first team all-MAAC selection in Jordan Washington, but the remainder of the front line is still a work in progress, yet Cluess did highlight 6-foot-9, 250-pound junior college transfer Tyrell Williams as a candidate to join Washington on the block, as well as Taylor Bessick once he is 100 percent following recovery from a torn calf muscle. The Gaels will need their strength in the early part of the season, when they embark upon a non-conference schedule that sees Iona play six games in either the Pacific or Alaska time zone in their first month of competition.

"We're going to be tested mentally, physically, you name it," Cluess quipped when breaking down the non-league slate. "It's not easy, but the schedule we've got, we're excited about it because we play some really good teams and we can bring the guys to some parts of the country that they've never seen before. It gives us a chance to really bond as a team, and I think that's what makes you better in March, the bonding you go through and the hard times you go through. And we'll find out a lot about our newcomers that I honestly don't have any idea about right now, and that's why we play the quality teams we play on the road."

"We know how good our league is this year, and we know how good our non-league schedule is," he continued. "So we want to find out: How good is Jon Severe? How good is Sam Cassell? How good is Tyrell Williams? How much is Deyshonee Much going to step up? How does Jordan Washington really improve? Has Rickey McGill really improved? I could go right down the list, but that's what those early-season games will do for us. They'll answer some questions, and we'll have to figure out if we're on the right path with them, or if we'll have to change directions a little bit to continue to improve the team."

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Zavier Turner ready to make a name for himself at Manhattan

A former Mid-American Conference Rookie of the Year at Ball State, Zavier Turner now plies his wares at Manhattan, where he is eligible after sitting out last season due to transfer. (Photo by the Indianapolis Star)

At only 5-foot-9, it is easy to run into Zavier Turner and not assume he is a Division I college basketball player.

But what the Indianapolis native lacks in stature, he more than makes up for with his relentless hustle and ability to be equal parts explosive and complementary on both ends of the floor, something Manhattan will be grateful to have at the point guard spot this season.

"I'm just out there having fun," Turner said at Wednesday afternoon's New York College Basketball media day, held at Hofstra University. "I'm not out there trying to necessarily play to the fans. I'm playing for my team, I'm playing for my coaches, I'm playing for what we stand for, and I'm just ready to play."

The former Ball State transfer brings a scoring acumen and underrated shot-making ability that Manhattan will count on to pay dividends right away as Turner replaces RaShawn Stores as the Jaspers' floor general. In two years with the Cardinals, Turner averaged a combined 10.5 points and 3.5 assists per game in the Mid-American Conference, taking home MAC Rookie of the Year honors in the 2013-14 season, an exceedingly bright spot for a Ball State team that only won 12 games during his time in Muncie. In addition to his credentials on the floor, he adds a hunger to contribute that has only been enhanced by having sat out last season as a result of his NCAA-mandated year in residence.

"It helped a lot, more than I intended on," said Turner of learning Steve Masiello's system, one that predicates itself on an uptempo style offensively while seeking to force turnovers and get opposing teams disjointed on the defensive end. "It was hard for me sitting out watching the guys I go to war with in practice every single day and not being out there, that did something to me. But at the same time, I feel like it really helped me, and I'm ready to start the season."

"Last year, I stayed in the gym," he added, a fact that anyone who walked into Draddy Gymnasium can attest to, as Turner would be out on the floor long before and long after games, simply getting shots up and staying in shape. "That was my main thing since I couldn't play in games. I knew what I was here for and I knew I wanted to become a better basketball player, and the only way for me to do that was to stay in the gym."

And while some may view Ball State on a higher level than Manhattan, Turner was quick to dispel the notion of disparity between the two programs, intoning that there was a greater similarity than casual observers would realize at first blush.

"Honestly, I don't think it's any different," he admitted. "We work harder here, or just as hard, as I did at Ball State, we play just as big teams here as we did at Ball State. I don't feel like it's a big difference. The goal here is to win games like Coach Mas said, and our main focus is to remain focused."

It is the multifaceted focus that makes Turner so vital to Manhattan's roster this season, and his coach makes no bones about recognizing the importance of his point guard's commitment, no matter the atmosphere he is placed in.

"I think he's a guy that, in one-on-one situations, is close to unguardable," Masiello said of Turner's game and what he brings to the Jasper program. "He's a guy who knows how to play well in the pick-and-roll. I think he's going to put constant pressure on the defense to get in the lane and force rotations, and he's a guy who can shoot the ball from deep, so he's a guy you have to honor, you have to guard. More than anything, he's a guy that can pick you up 94 feet and really disrupt your offense."

Turner's two-way prowess will undoubtedly be beneficial, but at the end of the day, he; like every other student-athlete that has bought into Masiello's vision over his six-year tenure in Riverdale, is cognizant of the greater good and the primary objective for a team chasing its third Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship in four seasons.

"Our goal is to win games," he bluntly stated. "Coach Mas, that's his job, and my job is whatever he needs me to do. Whatever it is, I'm going to do it, period, point blank. Our job is to go out there and play hard, play for our team and just focus on winning games."

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

In year two of Mullin era, St. John's starts fresh with Ponds and Ahmed

From L-R: Kassoum Yakwe, Federico Mussini, Chris Mullin and Bashir Ahmed take in Madison Square Garden atmosphere at Big East media day. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)

By Jason Schott (@JESchott19)

The St. John's Red Storm are ready to put last year behind them and start fresh with highly-touted additions Shamorie Ponds and Bashir Ahmed.
St. John's Head Coach Chris Mullin will be entering his second season at the helm.
At Big East Media Day on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, Mullin said of what he took away from last year, “The whole season was a good learning experience. Obviously, no one likes to lose but when you put the effort in and prepare, you live with the results. I thought our guys did a really good job of that each day and I think that will pay off. When you’re building, it’s not so much about the results. It’s how you handle [the results] and what you do about it.”
Mullin said of what he learned about himself and his team in his first season as a head coach, in which St. John's went 8-24, "I learned I have more patience than I thought I had. Also, I really enjoy the development, not only as players but also passing on things that I was taught on how to deal with adversity how to keep things in perspective, and then keep your focus on what really matters, and that's the day, the moment. When things are going well, it's easy to focus on that moment. When you're dealt with adversity, sometimes you want to avoid it. To really grow, in this case as a player and probably more important as a person, try to really deal with exactly what's going on. If you don't like it, take the right steps to change it."
Sophomore guard Federico Mussini appeared in all 32 games with 24 starts last season, and averaged 10.7 points and had a team-high 56 three-pointers. He scored in double figures 17 times and led the team in scoring 11 times.
Mussini said of how last year’s experience translates over to this season, “Even though we didn’t do well, it was truly helpful because a lot of freshmen got a lot of minutes. Starting my sophomore year, I think we’re more ready because of the minutes we played last season and the work we put in this summer.”
On the biggest takeaway from last season, the Italian native Mussini said, “We need to play for 40 minutes. Even if we play 39 minutes well, it’s still not enough. Last season, there were games where we were down and then made a comeback, but still lost. We need to play hard from the beginning to the end.”
Mullin said of the team’s motivation for the upcoming season, “I think the good thing is that our returning players know what they went through. I don’t think they need any motivation or goals. A lot of the guys coming in watched last year’s team and the reason they came here is to make a difference. We’re really staying focused on the daily approach.”
On the biggest difference between this season and last, Mullin said, “Probably the biggest difference has been having them over the summer. We had a bunch of guys in summer school that were able to be around each other and train in the weight room. That’s something we didn’t have last year. The offseason is really where you become better individuals.”
Sophomore forward Kassoum Yakwe, who averaged 7.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks in Big East play last season, said, “Last year was a learning experience. We were freshmen playing against guys that have been playing in college. We learned from it and we’ve been working [all summer], so I think this year should be fun.”
The Red Storm had a very productive offseason on the recruiting front as they added Shamorie Ponds, who was chosen by the Big East Conference coaches as the Preseason Rookie of the Year.
Ponds is a consensus Top-50 recruit, rated as high as number 32 in the Class of 2016. He was a 2,000-point scorer at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, and he averaged 29 points, eight rebounds, and six assists as a senior.
The four-star prospect was named to the 2016 Jordan Brand All-American Team. He competed in the 2015 Under Armour Elite 24 game.
Mullin said of Ponds, “He’s a talented kid. He’s smart on the court, very composed, versatile and has a quiet confidence. You put him out there and he picks things up quickly. He’s got a natural instinct for the game on both ends of the floor.”
Ponds was invited to the USA Men's Basketball U-18 National Team Training Camp.
Mullin, himself a star of the New York City hardwood, said of how Ponds’ success can impact St. John’s ability to recruit local talent, “He is the type of kid we want. A kid who wants to stay home, play in front of his family and friends, and play here at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
Yakwe said of the impact freshman Shamorie Ponds will make, “Shamorie is a smart player. [He’s] a point guard who’s not selfish and can make all the important plays in a game. His game is going to help us because basketball is about the team. Shamorie’s defense is good because he’s smart. He knows where the player is going to put the ball on the floor and he reads the game well.”
Mullin plans on playing Ponds with another freshman, Marcus LoVett, and he said of that, “Marcus and Shamorie are both really talented guards with somewhat different skills. It’s only been a week, but they seem to function really well together. Marcus might be a little more of a pure point guard, Shamorie more of a scorer, but he’s also a willing passer. When we’ve used them together, they’ve looked good.”
Mussini said of Ponds, “He’s really talented. I love his game. He can shoot. He’s active on defense with his long arms. He can get easy fast breaks for us and he’s really smart.”
Another big addition to St. John's is Junior guard/forward Bashir Ahmed, who is a junior college transfer from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
Ahmed said of why he chose St. John’s, “It’s back home and my family has the chance to come watch and support me. I’ve always been a fan of St. John’s, so I am honored to be here. It’s a dream come true for me.”
The 2016 Jayhawk Conference Player of the Year, Ahmed is a two-time NJCAA All-America honoree. He was a Division I First Team All-American in 2015-16, averaging 20.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.2 assists.
Ahmed says of his strengths, “I bring a lot of energy on the floor. I play both ends of the floor, defense and offense. I feel like I’m a good team player. I am going to give it my all everyday and work hard.”
In 2014-15, Ahmed was selected Freshman of the Year for the Jayhawk Conference and a NJCAA All American Honorable Mention. He averaged 16.4 points and 7.1 rebounds as a freshman.
Ahmed said of how he can help the team win, “I feel like I bring experience and leadership. I am a hard worker and a good team player [which should help our team this season].”
Yakwe said of the addition of Ahmed, “Bashir is a guy who loves attacking the rim. He’s going to help us get to the free throw line because he’s so strong. He does all the little things. He can pass the ball, his strength is driving and he can rebound. He’s a tough guy and that’s great to have (on our team).”
Ahmed said of how he fits in with the team: “I feel like we’re all on the same page. We’re hungry. Last year, they were rebuilding and had a lot of freshmen with limited experience. With one year under their belt, we have more experience this year and we’re really working hard together.”
On the upcoming season, Ahmed said, “I am very excited. Coming from a JUCO has made me hungrier. So, I am just going to work hard and hopefully help produce some wins.”