Sunday, June 17, 2018

Anne Donovan truly larger than life, both on and off court

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

As the New York Liberty were battling the Las Vegas Aces Wednesday evening, an the opportunity to check social media during a timeout gave a shock of an announcement, as women’s basketball guru Mel Greenberg informed us that Anne Donovan had passed away.
   
The 56-year-old Donovan seemed to be in good health, and was in Knoxville for the Women’s Hall of Fame induction the prior weekend. As it turned out, Donovan succumbed to heart failure. It was the cruelest of ironies, that a person with a heart of gold would literally fall to a heart-related fatality.
     
Anne Donovan was a grade school player at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ridgewood, New Jersey. She was about fully grown to her 6-foot-8 stature, but in need of development. Dr. Rose Battaglia told the Bergen Record when Donovan started, “she could not walk and chew gum at the same time.”
   
Donovan attacked the game with a relentless work ethic. At the same time, she gained more coordination and confidence. Soon, she was beginning to dominate. Battaglia recalled how the once-struggling Donovan soon had the agility and ability to play like a guard while playing for her at nearby Paramus Catholic. The Lady Paladins dominated the New Jersey girls’ basketball scene. After that, she went on to Old Dominion, at the time a power in the women’s college game. International ball and the Olympics followed before Donovan embarked on a coaching career.
   
The accolades are phenomenal: Three major halls of fame (Naismith, Women’s and FIBA), national championships in both high school and college, Olympic gold medals as both a player and coach, as well as becoming the first female coach to win a WNBA championship. Honors, distinctions, and superlatives aside, everyone -- yes everyone who was able to come into contact with Anne Donovan -- was impressed regarding the type person she was, to everybody.

A personal note that remains vivid in the mind’s eye and epitomizes Donovan came at a Home Depot in Clifton, New Jersey a few winters ago. While shopping the aisles, I ran into Anne studying designs for a second home renovation, and introduced her to my wife, Karen. After a few minutes of basketball small talk, Anne was actively conversing with Karen, asking opinions on what she wants to do and what may look best. After about 15 minutes, we said goodbye and headed off. I later informed Karen about some of Anne’s achievements. Impressed, my wife’s first comment was on what a nice person Anne was.


The aforementioned Mel Greenberg had another recollection among many of who Donovan was. When Ginny Doyle of Richmond -- who assisted Anne at East Carolina -- passed away a few years ago, Anne conducted a morning practice with her Connecticut Sun team. She drove five hours to be at Doyle’s celebration of life service. Donovan paid her respects, then immediately drove back to Connecticut to coach that evening. There is a long list of players and coaches that Anne has reached out and helped, and those are not limited to the collegiate and professional ranks.


Al Roth, with Anne’s recommendation, became the girls’ coach at Paramus Catholic in the early 1990s. Roth would hold the position for a quarter-century. The veteran mentor would often say that Anne frequently texted him at least once a year to stay in touch. Roth also told the Bergen Record that Our Lady of Mount Carmel was having a fundraiser one year during a Ridgewood street fair. Anne would be heading home from a international trip from the Orient. A 20-plus-hour flight was on tap, meaning  Anne would get home the night prior to the street fair. Needless to say, she was out there the following day in support of her first alma mater.


Anne’s last college coaching position was at Seton Hall. When The Hall went looking for a successor to Phyllis Mangina in spring of 2010, the administration was thrilled to hear she had interest in the position. During her three years in South Orange, she began the process of turning the program around. Tony Bozzella followed Donovan, and recently on social media, expressed how honored he was to follow and build on what Anne established during her brief time in South Orange.




Anne was always gracious, cooperative, and a pleasure to cover. She was demanding of her players in the area of giving an effort, playing hard on both ends of the floor. She would never call out a player in the media. A poor team effort may have been alluded to, but never singled out an individual player. She seemed to enjoy her time at Seton Hall, but the opportunity to get back to the WNBA was too much to pass up. Donovan left Seton Hall for the Connecticut Sun, which turned out to be her final stop on the coaching circuit. Beyond the numbers on the floor and wins on the sidelines, Anne Donovan was a pioneer and inspiration in the women’s game. She was honored by her Old Dominion alma mater in 2008 as an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for her contributions to women’s basketball.


An outstanding inside player, Donovan could relate and teach players at all positions during her coaching days. Sue Bird, a standout with Seattle for years, credits Donovan for being responsible for much of her professional and international success. Bird was a key member of the 2004 WNBA championship outfit in Seattle.


The last few days, the messages and tributes for Donovan have been numerous, the memories morphing into an outpouring of love and devotion from so many involved in the women’s and men’s game as well. Anne Donovan was a true inspiration, an inspiration to someone with a basketball, a desire and a dream to reach a certain height through hard work. She inspired not only players, but coaches as well. In fact, all who love the women’s game undoubtedly find her an inspiration and an icon.


Very often, icons are placed on a pedestal and not available, per se, to the average person. Not so with Anne Donovan. She had time for everyone who she came in contact with. It was a sincere interest and giving time on her part that set her apart.


Anne Donovan will be missed. The lives she impacted, though, are significantly better. Her legacy lives on.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Katie Smith: Liberty needs to learn how to win

At 3-5 on young season, Katie Smith recognized opportunity to improve in first year as Liberty head coach, stressing need to win above all. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

WHITE PLAINS, NY -- Following a hard-fought loss to the Phoenix Mercury one week ago, Katie Smith talked about doing the little things.

Those all-important items included caring for the ball, boxing out, following defensive assignments, and the like, things that do not materialize in the box score. Smith’s New York Liberty team has been competitive and very close, even with four setbacks decided by six points or less before their 78-63 loss to Las Vegas Wednesday night.

“I thought holding a high scoring team like them them to 78 would give us a great chance to win,” Smith remarked, citing the Aces’ average of 81 points per game entering Wednesday’s contest. However, it did not, the offense being a major reason why, and her primary issue at this point.

Aside from the turnover situation -- the Liberty committed 13 miscues in Wednesday’s loss -- a chief concern for the Liberty is getting complimentary scoring. Tina Charles is the number one option. Against Las Vegas, Charles led all scorers with 19 points, slightly off her 22-point per game average. Kia Nurse, the rookie out of UConn, has been effective early on as well, averaging 14.6 points per outing. With teams constantly doubling down -- as defensive minded Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer did --  as Charles gets the ball down low, supporting cast members such as Nurse have to step up and hit shots on a regular basis. Too often on Wednesday, Charles was doubled and forced to pass out of double-teams as the ball was reversed for an open perimeter look. The Liberty have shooters and they need to respond.

Bria Hartley, part of cadre of Liberty guards, backs down a Las Vegas defender. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Having guards again is a plus. Brittany Boyd is back from an injury. Against Las Vegas, Epiphanny Prince made her season debut. Prince could represent the shooting needed to take pressure off Charles.

“Epiphanny needs to get her legs back,” Smith said. “Once she rounds into playing form, she can help us.”
For Smith, though, it all comes down to coming up with added options.

“There are multiple ways to win,” she said. ‘You can play a knock-down, drag-out game, you can drive and kick. Teams are doing a nice job of doubling Tina. We have to learn to make plays around her.”

At 3-5, there is appreciable time remaining in the season. With the compressed schedule, though, it will be a challenge. Practice time and film sessions are at a premium as weeks of three games are becoming the norm. Beyond the numbers, Smith summed up the Liberty’s situation best.

“We have to learn foremost how to win,” she bluntly stated.

Monmouth stressing accountability within program as rebuild continues

Monmouth's growing pains last season prompted King Rice to admit he was to blame for some of Hawks' adversity, but veteran head coach insists his team will be better this season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

One minute, King Rice and his program were on top of the world, winning 55 games over two seasons, collecting within its grasp a pair of regular season conference championships and trips to the National Invitation Tournament along the way.

The next, the Hawks picked up the pieces after graduating a program-changing senior class, enduring a tumultuous first season of a rebuild, yet simultaneously laying the foundation for what could very well be a group that leaves with similar accolades by the time its collective tenure reaches a conclusion.

Such is the cyclical nature of mid-major basketball, one in which Monmouth -- the giant-killing, bench-celebrating, attention-grabbing phenomenon of recent years -- is back on an upswing after an 11-20 beginning to life without a core led by point guard turned transcendent program legend Justin Robinson.

"With this group, we needed to start over and start fresh, and I didn't do the best job with that," Rice said of the Hawks' recalibration last season, one marked by two separate injuries to junior guard Micah Seaborn, projected to be an all-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference talent for a second straight campaign.

"Every year is a new year, regardless of if you're a returning team that has a lot of guys back and you're picked at the top, if you have a team that lost a lot of guys and you've got a lot of new guys that you're counting on. Whichever team you have, each year is a new year, and you truly have to start over every year. We've got a group of guys that did not like how our season went last year. Everybody's holding everybody accountable."

The infusion of young talent such as MAAC All-Rookie selection Deion Hammond, as well as the emergence of fellow freshmen Melik Martin, Marcus McClary, and George Papas over the second half of the season to an experienced core of role players the likes of Austin Tilghman and Zac Tillman projected to bring a prosperous long-term future to West Long Branch -- and still does -- but Rice was quick to point out that the initiative to assume leadership roles did not cultivate itself rapidly last season, yet has taken root this offseason.

"Those guys were leaders coming into the program, but they felt like they were young, so they didn't feel like their voices were as loud or weren't going to be accepted as much," he intimated. "We worked on that a lot with them, and those guys are leading in a lot of different ways now. We want them to be better as sophomores than they were as freshmen, and all of them have made that step already."

"All four of those kids had great freshman years," said Rice. "Everybody gets caught up in having impact and this and that, but those kids -- from when they got here to the end of the year -- have gotten better. George got mono in the middle of the season -- he played 45 or 50 minutes in our (four-overtime) game against Penn and then he got sick -- it just kind of happened. The impact that they made in our program -- Deion was on the All-Rookie team, Marcus really got better as the year went along -- you make big strides between your freshman and sophomore seasons, and right now, they look like different kids."

A parallel can be made between this coming season and the growth that Monmouth made between the 2013-14 season -- the program's first in the MAAC after departing the Northeast Conference -- and 2014-15, when the Hawks went from an 11-21 outfit to one that won 18 games and came within one win of a conference championship game, falling victim to a record-setting three-point barrage from Iona in the semifinals. Regardless, Rice -- always blunt and brutally honest in his self-critiques -- did not shy away from admitting that he was partly to blame for last year's struggles, and has taken preventive steps to ensure that the next iteration of Monmouth basketball will thrive compared to that which came before it.

"I'm not a guy that makes a lot of excuses," he said. "We had a lot of talent on our team last year, and I didn't do the best job as the coach. I need to be a better coach, I need to do a better job of reaching my young men on a daily basis, I need to do a better job of making sure my staff reaches our team. I don't think I created an environment last year for these kids to have fun, and that really showed through in areas when you watch our games."

"This happened to me when I had Justin and Josh (James) and all those guys, too. At some point, I felt like I was taking the fun out of it. I had to get out of the way a little bit to allow these kids to flourish and shine, and we're at that point again. I need to give them some space to flourish and shine, and I understand that more clearly now than I did at the start of last year. I'm making those changes with myself and my staff so that we can be better coaches, and if we're better coaches, our team will have better success."

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Laimbeer infusing winning ways with Las Vegas Aces

Bill Laimbeer's return trip to New York produced a win with Las Vegas Aces. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

WHITE PLAINS, NY -- Bill Laimbeer wants to win. 

He is a competitor, and one only has to look back on the tapes from his NBA days for evidence. Now in his first year coaching the Las Vegas Aces, whose overtime win at Indiana the prior night moved the former San Antonio Stars to 2-7, Laimbeer was facing his former New York Liberty team Wednesday night. But for 40 minutes, sentiment is tossed aside. Laimbeer is here to get a win.

The Aces -- by virtue of an outstanding second half -- did just that, defeating the Liberty by a 78-63 count before 1,419 at Westchester County Center. The teams were relatively even over the first half, with Las Vegas holding a four-point lead at the intermission. Following the first four minutes of the third period, that lead had increased to seven as the visitors began pulling away. The Liberty did score the game’s final five points in the waning seconds to add a glaze to the outcome, but make no mistake, it was a significant win for the Aces.

“From my first day of training camp, defense has been a priority,” Laimbeer said. “We are young, and our players are catching on to what we want to do on the defensive end. We need improvements, but I think we are coming around.”

Laimbeer stressed the fact that this was not an emotional game for him, but did sell his team on the fact it was their lone trip to New York this season, urging the Aces to make the most of it by showing local fans and media what they can do. 

As for facing his old team? 

“We first and foremost want to win,” he said following the Aces’ second straight triumph. “As far as facing my old team, it didn’t matter that much. We were concerned with what we had to do, but I have to say it was nice to see some familiar faces.”


Bill Laimbeer handles postgame media obligations in return to New York. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

He spoke of his time with the Detroit Shock and the Liberty, connecting to his present position. 

“We won a championship in Detroit, we didn’t here," he said, "but we are aiming for that in Las Vegas. We have good management on the same page about winning and we look at the Golden Knights as a model of what can be accomplished.”

For now, though, is win number three -- the second in two nights -- and as Laimbeer added in a partially humorous vein, “our first win streak in franchise history."

The Aces placed four players in double figures, led by Dearica Hamby with 17 points and Kayla McBride with 16, while No.1 overall WNBA Draft pick A’ja Wilson added 13. On the flip side, Wilson’s 3-of-11 shooting from the floor yielded a positive, proving the Aces will not rely on the South Carolina product to provide an opportunity to win. The night before, her career-high 35 points led Las Vegas to their win at Indiana.

“She’s coming along fine,” Laimbeer said of Wilson. “We have to have shooters around her. Outside shooters open things up and will make her even more effective as time goes on.”

For Laimbeer, relaxing postgame thoughts of Dallas in two days could be put aside for a moment. The Aces will have played their fourth road game in six days after Friday. 

“The biggest thing with a young team is teaching them to win,” he said. “We are 3-7. I'll take that for now. We're still learning how to win, and these games and experiences are teaching our younger kids.”

Monday, June 11, 2018

MAAC Monday: Returning scoring by percentage, and how important it really is

Our offseason MAAC Monday content, which will be spaced out over the course of the next several weeks, begins today with a look at returning offense through the lens of percentage of total points from the previous season. We will also take a closer look at just how crucial continuity is in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference by looking at similar numbers from the previous three seasons and where each school finished in the final regular season standings. With that said, here are the preliminary figures for 2018-19, and if there are any roster changes we did not take into account, please inform us so that we can update our totals accordingly:

2018-19 returning scoring, by percentage, among MAAC schools from highest to lowest:
1) Rider (94.7 percent)
2) Marist (87.0)
3) Saint Peter's (72.4)
4) Quinnipiac (72.0)
5) Monmouth (65.9)
6) Canisius (65.3)
7) Siena (55.2)
8) Niagara (50.4)
9) Fairfield (49.5)
10) Iona (49.0)
11) Manhattan (25.2)

2017-18 returning scoring by percentage among MAAC schools from highest to lowest, followed by eventual regular season and postseason finishes:
1) Niagara (86.9 percent, finished 3rd in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals and lost in CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament first round)
2) Manhattan (75.7, 5th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals)
3) Marist (59.6, 11th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament first round)
4) Fairfield (56.6, 6th in regular season, MAAC Tournament runner-up)
5) Iona (46.0, 4th in regular season, MAAC Tournament champion, lost in NCAA Tournament round of 64)
6) Canisius (43.8, 2nd in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals and lost in College Basketball Invitational first round)
7) Monmouth (38.0, 8th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament first round)
8) Saint Peter's (35.1, 9th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament semifinals)
9) Rider (31.4, MAAC regular season champion, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals and lost in National Invitation Tournament first round)
10) Quinnipiac (30.9, 7th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament semifinals)
11) Siena (27.5, 10th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament first round)

2016-17 returning scoring by percentage among MAAC schools from highest to lowest, followed by eventual regular season and postseason finishes:
1) Marist (89.9 percent, finished 10th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament first round)
2) Monmouth* (88.7, MAAC regular season champion, lost in MAAC Tournament semifinals and lost in National Invitation Tournament first round)
3) Siena (81.8, 4th in regular season, MAAC Tournament runner-up)
4) Saint Peter's# (80.7, 2nd in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament semifinals, CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament champion)
5) Fairfield (69.5, 5th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals and lost in CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament first round)
6) Manhattan& (62.5, 11th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament first round)
7) Canisius (58.0, 7th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals and lost in CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament first round)
8) Rider (54.8, 6th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals)
9) Niagara (54.3, 9th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals)
10) Quinnipiac+ (52.6, 8th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament first round)
11) Iona (39.0, 3rd in regular season, MAAC Tournament champion, lost in NCAA Tournament round of 64)
* - Monmouth's total includes Zac Tillman, who redshirted during 2016-17 season.
# - Saint Peter's total includes Cameron Jones, who redshirted during 2016-17 season.
& - Manhattan's total includes Rich Williams and Matt Maloney, who redshirted during 2016-17 season.
+ - Quinnipiac's total includes Aaron Robinson, who redshirted during 2016-17 season.

2015-16 returning scoring by percentage among MAAC schools from highest to lowest, followed by eventual regular season and postseason finishes:
1) Fairfield* (82.5 percent, finished 5th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament semifinals and lost in CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament first round)
2) Rider (72.5, 8th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals)
3) Iona (70.2 percent, 2nd in regular season, MAAC Tournament champion, lost in NCAA Tournament round of 64)
4) Monmouth (69.3 percent, MAAC regular season champion and tournament runner-up, lost in National Invitation Tournament second round)
5) Siena# (64.2, 3rd in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament semifinals and lost in College Basketball Invitational first round)
6) Canisius (50.4, 7th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals)
7) Manhattan (48.7, 6th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals)
8) Marist (47.2, 11th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament first round)
9) Niagara (41.7, 10th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament first round)
10) Saint Peter's (36.4, 4th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament quarterfinals)
11) Quinnipiac (34.0, 9th in regular season, lost in MAAC Tournament first round)
* - Fairfield's total includes Amadou Sidibe, who redshirted during 2015-16 season.

This coming season will mark the third time in the last four years that the majority of MAAC schools will return half of their offensive productivity from the previous campaign, with the only exception being last season, when only four teams had an incumbent mark greater than 50 percent. The departure of household names such as Justin Robinson, Jordan Washington, and Siena's four seniors after the 2016-17 season made last year seem as though it were a down year for the MAAC on paper, yet four teams still managed to receive postseason invitations, down just one from the season before.

Iona is slowly rebuilding an experienced core once again after seeing the majority of its roster turn over following the first of its three straight conference championships, or at least the numbers seem to indicate such. The loss of points and the names that went along with them, though, has not gotten in the way of Tim Cluess' knack for reloading with players that not only fit his system, but produce in greater and more versatile capacities than their previous destinations had seen. The Gaels return 49 percent of their scoring from this past season, but welcome in a pair of highly touted transfers in Robert Morris wing Isaiah Still and Eastern Kentucky guard Asante Gist, the latter of whom is a former star at St. Anthony under the great Bob Hurley, and will be eligible in December as he completes the remainder of his year in residence.

This season marks the third straight year that Marist ranks among the top three in returning production, but the Red Foxes have had little to show for it in the past two campaigns under former head coach Mike Maker, who -- for all his basketball acumen -- was hard-pressed to stop the bleeding on the defensive end. Marist will undergo a total 180 on that side of the basketball this season, as new head coach John Dunne has no doubt already stressed the importance of the same defensive fundamentals that took his Saint Peter's program to a pair of postseason tournaments under his watch in perhaps the most daunting environment in the conference to produce a consistent winner.

The intrigue surrounding Rider as the Broncs return nearly everyone from last year's regular season championship outfit -- while also adding Minnesota transfer Ahmad Gilbert -- will be among the top storylines to watch in the MAAC this season. Head coach Kevin Baggett has received fair -- and in some cases, warranted -- criticism for failing to advance past the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament in each of his six years at the helm in Lawrenceville, but the odds are in his favor here. Of the five teams returning more than 80 percent of their offense from the previous season over the last three years, three have made it to at least Sunday in Albany, with Siena nearly winning it all in 2017.

Moving up the New Jersey Turnpike, Shaheen Holloway inherits a steady roster as he begins his head coaching career at Saint Peter's, and should be able to mold the Peacocks' young and hungry backcourt instantly. Look for a season similar to that of Baker Dunleavy's first year at Quinnipiac last season, where the Bobcats showed flashes of competitiveness far ahead of their expectations and ultimately reached the MAAC Tournament semifinals. Even if Saint Peter's does not get that far in March, year one of their new regime should be an overall success. Speaking of Quinnipiac, the return of Cameron Young to an uber-talented stable of guards in Hamden only makes the conference's X-factor even more formidable, and the most likely threat to unseat Iona and Rider among the MAAC's elite. Canisius will be in the lead pack as well, led by probable Preseason Player of the Year Isaiah Reese and reigning Rookie of the Year Takal Molson, but the loss of Jermaine Crumpton will be a significant blow for the Golden Griffins until they have proven they can replace their four-year stalwart and workhorse. The same can be said of Monmouth and how the Hawks must replace Micah Seaborn, but his absence through the second half of last season will end up proving to be a blessing in disguise for King Rice this year. Deion Hammond will play his way into all-MAAC recognition by the end of the season, especially if Ray Salnave becomes the facilitator that everyone in West Long Branch predicts he will be.

Siena may have lost four of its top six scorers from last season, but the good news for Jamion Christian is that he has a cadre of shooters to help make the transition into Mayhem a seamless one. The Saints could very well possess two of the league's top ten marksmen in their own backcourt, as Khalil Richard returns alongside likely starting point guard Kadeem Smithen, who will return for his senior season.

Fairfield and Niagara look poised to take steps back, on paper at least, as the MAAC's top three scorers -- Tyler Nelson, Kahlil Dukes, and Matt Scott -- have all graduated from the two institutions. The Stags, though, are better equipped to sustain the blow of losing Nelson -- their all-time leading scorer -- as Jesus Cruz is in line for a breakout sophomore campaign while Aidas Kavaliauskas gets a full season to show off his passing skills after visa problems delayed his debut last year. Incoming freshman Neftali Alvarez, considered to be Sydney Johnson's best recruit since arriving in the Nutmeg State, will also be counted on to make an immediate impact.

Finally, Manhattan has only five players who saw minutes last season returning to the program this year, which makes Steve Masiello's eighth campaign in Riverdale his most challenging. The Jaspers will likely be viewed as a major underdog to begin the year, but that is exactly how their veteran coach wants it, as it will allow Pauly Paulicap to fly somewhat under the radar while maintaining his game-changing abilities on both sides of the basketball. The biggest key for Manhattan will be how Masiello's six-man incoming class -- which includes redshirt freshman Warren Williams, who will likely pair with Paulicap down low -- handles its collective baptism into the most physical style of play in the MAAC. If they develop ahead of schedule, a season similar to Masiello's 21-win debut in 2011-12 could be in the offing, but if the growing pains persist, it will just as easily be a trying and tumultuous five months.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Rich Ensor on MAAC Tournament, Atlantic City, sports betting, 20-game schedule

MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor addresses impending move of conference tournament to Atlantic City in press conference Friday. (Photo by The Press of Atlantic City)

In a message to commissioner Rich Ensor shortly after the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference extended its contract with Albany's Times Union Center by two years to keep its men's and women's basketball championships in New York's capital, the presidents of the eleven member institutions signed off with their support, but told Ensor to find a neutral site for the next bidding cycle, which covers the 2020-22 tournaments.

The commissioner -- and the league -- did exactly that on Friday, declaring that the MAAC would move its postseason basketball tournaments to Atlantic City following next season's Albany farewell, holding a press conference at historic Boardwalk Hall to consummate the decision, choosing the 10,000-plus seat arena over Nassau Coliseum and the incumbent bid from Times Union Center.

"As we started narrowing down our choices between Nassau, Atlantic City and Albany, the presidents' message of trying to find a neutral site that could be a destination for our fans, and yet maintain our structure in terms of the format of the tournament and our revenue stream, was stressed," Ensor said after the formal announcement was made Friday morning. "It became apparent that, as you checked off those boxes, Atlantic City was hitting them all. It had a very attractive package, the financing and underwriting of expenses, it has a history of postseason events including Atlantic 10 tournaments, and the fact that it was very much a neutral site -- and also a destination site where we can get some very attractive options for hotels, dining, shopping and gaming -- all seem to indicate that the direction was to really to take a hard look at Atlantic City."

The league conducted a site visit at Boardwalk Hall in early February, reaffirming the positives listed above when considering a return to New Jersey -- who last hosted a MAAC Tournament when Trenton welcomed the league in 2003 -- and, as mentioned, the former home of the Atlantic 10 for six seasons between 2007 and 2012 before the league moved into newer digs at Barclays Center.

"By far, the energy, the marketing, the operational details -- it was apparent that they wanted the MAAC," said Ensor. "That was important to them, and they were willing to put behind it this package. We really made it work for us as a league, and when we went into the April meetings with the ADs and senior women's administrators -- they had all been on the site committee -- their recommendation was Atlantic City. And then when we had the presidents' meeting on Wednesday, we went through all the details, but we didn't spend an inordinate amount of time on it, because there was a full consensus that we wanted to be here in Atlantic City. The vote, in that case, was unanimous."

The move to Atlantic City marks the MAAC's return to a true neutral site for the first time since its three-year tryst with Springfield, from 2012 to 2014. While the MassMutual Center was an ambitious experiment, the move was largely panned due to lackluster attendance figures and early exits by schools with sizable traveling fan bases such as Siena and Marist, not to mention a lack of tourist attractions in the downtown area. When the concern of avoiding another pitfall came up, the commissioner was confident that such an issue would not present itself.

"I think it's an established destination site, and it's on the rebound in terms of the investment that's coming into the marketplace," Ensor pointed out. "The Hard Rock casino is opening this month, Revel (now the Ocean Resort Casino) is being rebranded and reopened. I think as a destination site, it works. It has multitudes of dining, hotel and entertainment options, which shows at the casinos, and also the gaming opportunities that are present. We're fairly confident that it's a much different venue and site than what we had in Springfield."

In addition to the ancillary benefits of Atlantic City, the Supreme Court's recent decision to legalize sports betting has made the MAAC's new home a topic of conversation on the gambling front as well, with nearby Monmouth Park poised to be among the first New Jersey venues to open a sportsbook in the immediate future. While Ensor admitted he did not expect the decision to be much of a concern, he did stress the importance of educating those in the MAAC about the impact it can wield.

"It wasn't so much a concern," he said. "We talked about it at the meeting, because we had our legal counsel present. I think there was some thought that we need to educate our teams, coaches and players better about some of the issues surrounding things like injury reports and so forth, that these are going to become much more important to a lot of people as they start gambling on games."

"There's an educational component to that, but on the other side -- on a strict interest in betting college basketball -- we thought that going to the last Saturday of the season, right before Selection Sunday, when all the interest is focused on college basketball nationwide, and now we're going to be in a city where there's going to be sports wagering -- not necessarily on the MAAC games -- that might lead to more attendance at the MAAC Tournament, just because there's fans in the area. It's a two-sided thing, but we do have to do a good job of educating our students and coaches about the dangers, too."

The MAAC also announced its intent to revert to a 20-game schedule, beginning with the 2019-20 season, after going back to its traditional 18-game slate for both this past season and the coming campaign, but Ensor was quick to point out that it was not a knee-jerk reaction to non-conference performance or postseason seeding concerns.

"At the end of the day, there are so many opinions on that," he said. "We said if the ADs want to revert back to this, we'll revert back to it. I don't know that the presidents think strongly one way or the other, whether it should be 18 or 20, but they were willing to defer to the ADs. We'll manage it at 20, and if in a few years they want to go back to 18, we'll manage that too."

With the journey to Atlantic City comes the concession of the MAAC's longtime Monday night championship game in the first week of March, six days before Selection Sunday. Boardwalk Hall has long been associated with the New Jersey state high school wrestling championships that weekend, which forced Ensor to move his own championships back five days, going head-to-head with power conferences such as the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conferences. However, the commissioner sees no negative effects of that move, maintaining a stance that the league's joining of an action-packed championship weekend across the sport will be more a boon than a bane to its bottom line.

"I don't think it's necessarily a negative for us," Ensor optimistically stated. "With our investment in ESPN -- we had 317 broadcasts this year and we're on schedule for, by 2022, to have 600 a year on their networks -- we know we'll have a platform for the games. Now, will it be ESPN or ESPN2? I don't know. We'll have to enter into negotiations with ESPN on that, but we know we can get the broadcasts to our fans that need to see it that way."

"We also think that, as people are focused on the automatic qualifiers, there's going to be a lot of talk about the MAAC and who's coming out of the MAAC, if there'll be an at-large out of the MAAC. With everybody focused on college basketball that weekend, there's some upside for us involved in this, too, and it differentiates us from a lot of our competition. We are up against the best teams in college basketball, and we're willing to be judged by that."

Friday, June 1, 2018

MAAC Tournament headed to Atlantic City beginning in 2020

Boardwalk Hall, seen here hosting Atlantic 10 Tournament in 2012, will once again welcome postseason basketball in 2020 when MAAC moves its conference tournament out of Albany. (Photo by The Press of Atlantic City)

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men's and women's basketball championships are once again on the move.

The conference, and commissioner Rich Ensor, announced that the tournament -- held for the past four seasons at Albany's Times Union Center, where it will once again be held next March in the building's final year of the current contract with the MAAC -- will move to venerable Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. The new venue will be the site of the MAAC Tournament for three years, beginning in 2020 and continuing through 2022, with league members Monmouth and Rider acting as co-hosts.

"It's a great thrill for me personally to have the MAAC Men's and Women's Basketball Championships hosted by Atlantic City in the world-famous Boardwalk Hall," Ensor said in a Friday morning press conference. "As a lifelong resident of the Jersey shore I know what a great destination site Atlantic City will be with numerous entertainment, hotel, gaming and dining options to compliment an exciting week of men's and women's college hoops."

The tournament was moved back to Albany before the 2015 season after a three-year experiment in Springfield, Massachusetts yielded suboptimal attendance figures. However, when the league's deal with Times Union Center was extended for two seasons beyond the three-year cycle that expired in 2017, there was a push among the MAAC institutions' administrators and presidents to return the tournament to a true neutral site. Times Union Center, the home court for Siena, has long been viewed as holding a home court advantage, even though the Saints have only advanced past the quarterfinal round once in the four years that the tournament has been back in Albany.

When he addressed the future of the MAAC Tournament in 2016, Ensor cited a desire to move closer to the New York metropolitan area, yet remained cognizant of the logistical obstacles that lie in such a path.

"There remains a strong sense among some of the MAAC presidents that if we can get into a metropolitan New York facility, it would help raise or elevate the entire brand, and I think we've known that for a long time," he said. "It's finding a building that is interested and also works for us financially."

Atlantic City's bid was selected in a unanimous vote among the MAAC presidents over Nassau Coliseum and Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, which hosted the MAAC Tournament in 2011, and the longtime casino hub gained traction as the prohibitive favorite after the MAAC conducted a site visit at Boardwalk Hall this past February.

With the move comes a scheduling change, however, as the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association holds the annual high school wrestling championships at Boardwalk Hall during the first weekend in March, which has traditionally been marked for the MAAC Tournament. The MAAC will move back five days, playing a Tuesday-through-Saturday schedule that culminates with the tournament championships being held the day before Selection Sunday, a slot on the calendar that is headlined by the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conferences contesting their own tournament championships, among others.

"The new dates place the MAAC Tournament in the weekend when all college basketball fans are anticipating team selections for the NCAA Championships and the league membership believes it will bring a new level of excitement for the teams and fans," said Ensor.

Ensor also announced the MAAC would be moving back to a 20-game league schedule, allowing for a double-round-robin between the conference's eleven programs, effective with the 2019-20 season, and eliminated restrictions that excluded MAAC schools from playing certain Division I teams. Prior to the 2017-18 season, the conference reverted to an 18-game schedule with an intent to promote stronger non-conference slates in the wake of Monmouth having been snubbed from the NCAA Tournament after winning the MAAC's regular season in both 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Future MAAC Tournament Dates

2020: March 10-14
2021: March 9-13
2022: March 8-12

Frankie Williams Charity Classic notebook

By Eugene Rapay (@erapay5)
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

WHITE PLAINS, NY -- Archbishop Stepinac's gymnasium was packed for the ninth annual
Frankie Williams Charity Classic, a tripleheader which featured just over 80 Division I-bound
and undecided top-ranked players, showcasing the best of the best in boys and girls high school basketball within the tri-state area.

The event, which is named after mentor and coach Frankie Williams, was first held in 2008, a year after he had passed away from kidney disease. The standing-room-only crowd got to witness the local stars of tomorrow and come together for a charitable fundraiser.

Many former participants went on to make their mark on the Division I college basketball scene, with some going even further. Current NBA players Lance Stephenson (Indiana Pacers), Kemba Walker (Charlotte Hornets), Tobias Harris (Los Angeles Clippers), and Hassan Whiteside (Miami Heat) are just a few of the professional players that participated in the Frankie Williams Charity Classic during their high school days.

Here are some of the standouts from Thursday night:

Boys' National Game
Nazreon Reid (2018/Roselle Catholic/Roselle, NJ): One of the highly-touted high school
players to headline the event, the LSU-bound big man made it look easy on the floor. Reid has a penchant for throwing down thunderous slam dunks that can drive a crowd wild, but he also proved to be more than just a one-dimensional player. The 6-foot-9 forward is nimble on his feet, showing off a couple of smooth stepback mid-range jumpers. He can even stretch the floor out to the perimeter, where he comfortably took and made a few three-pointers. With a solid physical frame and an ability to anchor the paint on both ends of the court, having these other skills to his game makes him that much more of an intriguing player to watch.

Alan Griffin (2018/Archbishop Stepinac/White Plains, NY): Griffin's stock was on the rise
throughout an impressive senior season with the Crusaders, one that culminated in the school's first-ever state federation title. A future member of the Illinois Fighting Illini, Griffin will look to take his ability as a talented scorer to the Midwest. Griffin is capable of scoring in a variety of ways -- catch-and-shoot, attacking the basket, pulling up off the dribble, and he certainly has the tools to do it. He is a quick, agile player--one that has great ball-handling, and can possibly be a game-changer when he gets hot. He can score at a high rate and is dangerous once he gets into a rhythm. Basketball runs in his DNA, as his father, Adrian, played at Seton Hall for four years and is currently an assistant coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder. His two siblings, Adrian Jr. and Aubrey, are also high school standouts.

Anthony Nelson (2018/South Kent/New York, NY): With Khadeen Carrington having graduated from Seton Hall, Kevin Willard is getting a player that is so reminiscent of the 1,846-point scorer. Both are New Yorkers, weren't exactly the most well-known high school prospects at a national level, and have similar skill sets. Nelson is that quick combo guard that can handle playmaking duties, but also thrive when he’s playing off-ball. He has excellent handles and is able to blow by his defender to finish at the basket -- even in traffic, too. Nelson also has a mid-range jumper in his arsenal and seems to be comfortable with taking shots off the dribble. If he is anything like Carrington, he will be dangerous within the next few years.

Franck Kepnang (2021/Macduffie Prep/Granby, Mass.): It's hard to believe that the bullish 6-foot-10, 220 pound center is just a rising sophomore. He has the physical build of someone well beyond his age and certainly catches the crowd's eye with the way he is able to viciously dunk the ball. Kepnang seems to always be looking for a posterizing, rim-rattling play, and often puts himself in great position inside to free himself for a slam. So far, he has four offers to his name -- Dayton, La Salle, Fordham, and VCU. It's only a matter of time before more schools take notice.

Savion Lewis (2018/Half Hollow Hills East/Huntington Station, NY): New York State's Mr. Basketball showed that he might actually be the best in the tri-state area, as he earned Most Valuable Player honors in the Boys' National Game. The Quinnipiac-bound point guard had his athleticism on pure display, with his blazing speed and quickness taking the lead as he drove past his defender and to the basket. He also can knock down shots from deep and has solid court vision in setting up his teammates.

Girls' National Game
Kadaja Bailey (2018/St. Mary's/Long Beach, NY): Joe Tartamella didn't have to work hard to sell St. John's to the 6-foot point guard. She had dreamed of being a member of the Red Storm, and once they offered her a scholarship, she took it right away. Bailey is capable of bringing a multi-faceted approach to Queens next fall. Known for her scoring ability, amassing over 2,000 points over her high school career, she proved to be able to contribute in other areas of the game. Bailey can also facilitate and create for others, as well as add a hard-nosed mentality on defense -- diving for balls, blocking shots, and giving a tough effort. She was named the Most Valuable Player of the Girls' National Game.

"It felt great; I actually felt like a superstar, I'm not really used to this," she said of taking home MVP honors and playing in front of a standing-room-only crowd. "I guess I gotta get used to it."

Maddy Siegrist (2018/Our Lady of Lourdes/Poughkeepsie, NY): Siegrist was also honored for her play, and like Bailey, just so happens to also be Big East-bound. The 6-foot-1 guard is headed for Villanova and the Main Line. It was clear from the opening tip that she is the type of player Harry Perretta enjoys, one that isn't afraid to crash the boards, fight for rebounds, and play tenaciously. Siegrist is excellent at cleaning up the glass, scoring a majority of her points off putbacks. She has a high motor, great leaping ability, and is able to rebound over multiple opponents. When she arrives at Villanova, don't be surprised if she throws a dunk down, she certainly can achieve the elevation to do so.

"It's been an amazing journey for me," Siegrist said, in reflection of her basketball career thus far. "It wasn't like I was in eighth grade and all these schools were offering me. It was really a process. Slowly, I was getting low level Division I and then it got bigger. It's just amazing to see how it all turned out."

Brandy Thomas (2018/Christ the King/Queens, NY): Coming from a storied high school girls' basketball program in Christ the King, Thomas will bring a tough, hardened approach to the basketball court when she suits up for the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds. Thomas might only be 5-foot-8, but she is capable of playing multiple positions and rumbling with whoever stands in her way. Misses don't seem to bother her much, as she maintains a confidence and high motor when it comes to approaching everything else on the court. She is a physical player and isn't afraid to play through contact inside. Her versatility and toughness will be instrumental to her success at the next level.

Boys' Regional Game
Majur Majak (2018/Patrick School/Elizabeth, NJ): It's hard to miss a 7-foot-1 center like
Majak, who's definitely more than just a basketball player with a tall frame. The Boys' Regional Game Most Valuable Player is very mobile. Not only can he be an interior presence on both ends of the court, but he also welcomes the challenge of stepping out of the paint and defending guards. He was not shy to call out opposing guards to take them on one-on-one, and he was up for the challenge. It's a trait that might be overlooked, aside from the expected abilities that come with his size like rim protecting, dunking, and being able to block shots -- which he's pretty good at. He cleaned up a number of his team's mistakes, turning missed shots into putback dunks. Although he was named the game's MVP, he's maintaining a humble approach as he prepares to continue his journey at Saint Peter's.

"I go to the weight room and workout every day, because I need to get better," Majak said. "I feel myself -- I don't feel ready. I need to work hard to get better every day."

Brandon Redendo (2018/Trinity-Pawling/Stormville, NY): Although his shot was spotty at
times on Thursday night, he's previously shown a knack for being able to drain shots from well beyond the arc. However, his ball-handling and improved dribbling was evident. Redendo showed off his fancy footwork and crafty crossover moves to get to the basket. He got into a groove late in the game, but his physical tools remained consistent all-throughout. He is a shifty point guard that looks to set up others first and can certainly be an asset at the next level. The question for Redendo is, where? He is still undecided, but plans on making a decision at some point within the next week. He will be deciding between America East and Northeast Conference schools. Until that day comes...

"I've been working on quickness, ball handling...five or six times, going up and down the court, and just trying to get strong at the next level," Redendo said. "I can't just be a three-point shooter as a point guard at the next level. I have to get to the paint, look for my teammates, use my ball handling moves and stuff. After that, the three-point shots will come eventually, but setting up my teammates and getting to the paint is the most important part."

William Lee (2019/Bishop Loughlin/Bronx, NY): He was on the losing team of a fairly one-sided Boys' Regional Game. Despite this, with the way Lee played, you wouldn't have known that his team was down. At 5-foot-10, he wasn't the biggest player out there, but he was electrifying. He can thrive in catch-and-shoot situations, or even create for himself off the dribble. Lee is a quick and shifty guard, with excellent ball-handling skills. He was tenacious in his approach to all areas of the game, but was fun to watch once he got into a rhythm. Threes, layups, jumpers -- you name it, he is fearless, when he has the ball.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mustapha Heron commits to St. John's, will apply for hardship waiver

Mustapha Heron, Auburn's leading scorer this past season, committed to St. John's Thursday evening and hopes to get hardship waiver to compete for Red Storm immediately. (Photo by Draft Express)

Any lingering doubts of St. John's ability to compete in the Big East Conference next season appear to have been put to rest over the past 48 hours.

The Red Storm and its rabid fan base have reached an apex on its proverbial roller coaster this week, receiving news Tuesday evening of Shamorie Ponds' decision to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to Queens for his junior season, and upped the ante two days later by securing the verbal commitment of Mustapha Heron after the Connecticut native announced his intent to transfer from Auburn.

"Family takes precedence over everything," Heron -- whose mother, Thalia, has experienced health issues that prompted the desire to transfer closer to his West Haven home -- told the New York Post's Zach Braziller Thursday. "I wanted to be able to find a way to be close to home and still be playing in a great conference. Hopefully I can come here and have a great career here."

A soon-to-be junior, Heron -- Auburn's leading scorer on a team that advanced to the round of 32 in this past March's NCAA Tournament -- took an official visit to St. John's shortly after declaring that he, too, would withdraw from the NBA Draft and depart Auburn. His commitment was merely a formality after that, as St. John's defeated UConn, Fairfield and Boston College to win the services of the slashing 6-foot-5 wing that averaged 16.4 points per game for Bruce Pearl and the Tigers en route to an improbable Southeastern Conference regular season championship.

Heron immediately enrolled in St. John's summer session, per Braziller, and will begin his first courses on Monday. The Red Storm staff intends to apply for a hardship waiver on his behalf in order for him to be immediately eligible for the 2018-19 season -- and will seek external legal assistance if necessary -- but the newest weapon in Chris Mullin's arsenal is content to be patient if fate decrees such.

"I'm not in any rush to be a professional," Heron told Braziller with regard to his status for the coming year. "Right now, the priority is finishing school and being there for my mom."

Initially recruited by then-associate head coach Barry Rohrssen before committing to Auburn, St. John's adds Heron to a backcourt that has become one of the deepest and most talented units not only in the Big East, but also the nation. In addition to Ponds, Justin Simon also returns for his junior season while former Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year Mikey Dixon is eligible again after sitting out this past season following his transfer from Quinnipiac. Junior college newcomer L.J. Figueroa and sophomore Bryan Trimble will also compete for minutes alongside incoming freshman Greg Williams. Should Heron be able to play right away, the Red Storm could very well be a Top 25 program in the preseason polls, and a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender in a pivotal season for Mullin, his fourth at the helm.

"With the pieces we have," Heron told Braziller, "we definitely can be special."