Saturday, July 21, 2018

Gael Nation leaves lasting impression in TBT opener

Gael Nation stands victorious after scoring 100-88 win over Sideline Cancer in opening round of The Basketball Tournament, where Iona alumni are attempting to win $2 million grand prize. (Photo by Basketball Society)

BROOKLYN -- To commemorate the Northeast Regional rounds of The Basketball Tournament, each of the participating teams was represented by a banner bearing their respective team logo on the wall of the Steinberg Wellness Center.

Each, that is, except one.

Gael Nation, a team of Iona alumni in a second go-round at TBT and its $2 million, winner-take-all grand prize, was not present among the banners Friday night, an innocuous slight that was noticeably rectified prior to Saturday's action. But while the Gael legends were invisible to the naked eye 24 hours prior to taking the floor, they left no doubt of their formidable presence in the field once present and accounted for, employing the high-octane style they learned under Tim Cluess and carrying it to a 100-88 victory over Sideline Cancer on the campus of Long Island University, setting up a second-round battle with Armored Athlete Sunday afternoon.

"We had the same philosophy every year at Iona," Sean Armand said of the familiarity with one another, a camaraderie that served as the driving force behind the Brooklyn native's team-leading 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting. "When we got the team together, it was easy to gel, so when we got back on the court, it was like we were back at Iona. Everyone's a little more experienced and a little bit better now, so it was kind of easy."

"We have a bunch of guys that, individually, are really good," head coach Colin Curtin added. "They're completely bought in, and I thought that was the reason why we scored so many points."

In standard Iona fashion, the first quarter yielded a slow start as Gael Nation struggled to find a second scorer early alongside former Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year David Laury, who set the tone in the opening minutes en route to an 18-point effort. Toward the end of the stanza, Armand galvanized his teammates, draining one of his four three-pointers and then coming back with a jumper off a turnover moments before the buzzer. The second quarter was equally as close as Sideline Cancer fought off a 10-2 Gael Nation run and regained the lead, but lost it for good on A.J. English's straightaway triple in the final seconds of the half, which sent Gael Nation to the locker room with a 49-47 cushion that was also forged by the stout defense of Aaron Rountree, the X-factor behind Iona's first of three consecutive MAAC championships in 2016.

"It's really important," said English of Rountree's understated impact. "Coach was saying that with these teams, the main scorers weren't the ones that went through in the tournament. But that's what Aaron does, and that's what I was telling Coach -- he wasn't at the first practice -- I told him he would love him because he does all the things that won't show up on the stat sheet -- keeping extra balls alive, running the floor, bringing energy -- whether he's shooting or not."

An explosion in the third quarter, keyed by Gael Nation's fast break and ball control in a period where the team committed only two turnovers, effectively decided the game as the Iona alumni turned a two-point advantage into one that ballooned to 13 points to put the game out of reach. The lead stood at 14 when the Elam ending -- which shuts off the game clock following the first dead ball with under four minutes to play, and then adds seven points to the leading team's score to create a game-deciding target -- was enacted. A baseline layup from English was the de facto game-clinching shot for Gael Nation, who placed five players in double figures amid a 55 percent shooting display.

"We've got guys that can do everything, and I think that's important in a tournament like this," Steve Burtt, Jr., the elder statesman on the roster, remarked after scoring 19 points. "We've got guys that can score, guys that can defend, guys that can do the little things -- the 50-50 balls, the hustle plays -- we can beat you in the post, we can beat you on the pick-and-roll. We've got a really special team, and as long as we lock in and work together, the sky's the limit for us."

Friday, July 20, 2018

Fairfield moves on without Nelson, yet still encouraged by potential and returning pieces

After graduating Tyler Nelson (left), Fairfield will have a new look to casual fans this season, but head coach Sydney Johnson is confident that Stags will not be worse off without all-time leading scorer. (Photo by the Connecticut Post)

When a school graduates its all-time leading scorer and arguably the most valuable player to a program in its conference the previous season, one question immediately comes to mind:

How do you replace him?

Fairfield is experiencing this dilemma presently, having to now navigate the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference without Tyler Nelson, the warrior guard whose four seasons in the Stags' red and white paved the way to a professional career that began in earnest this month with the Minnesota Timberwolves' Summer League team. But the runner-up in last year's MAAC Tournament has already gone past the first step on the journey to life without Nelson, a credit in large part to the unwavering faith and confidence of its head coach that both the players returning to the program and its newcomers would mesh strongly enough to maintain its status among the top half of the league.

"At this time last year, I was convinced that we had a supporting cast that was good enough," head coach Sydney Johnson recalled when assessing last season's conclusion and his team's prospects for the upcoming campaign. "I was very, very convinced that we had the supporting cast that was good enough. I don't think people believed me, and then I think with our slow start to the season, people doubted us. So what I can tell you is at the end of the season, and now going into 2018-19, I feel like we have good young players in the program now."

"I'm really excited that a number of them have had a year to get games under their belt. They continue to grow, but now they have a little bit of experience. We have good young players in the program, and now it's their turn to maybe grow and expand their roles and see how they can become the Tyler Nelsons, the Jerome Seguras, the Marcus Gilberts of the program moving forward."

With Nelson -- and second-leading scorer Ferron Flavors, Jr., who transferred -- having both departed, the bulk of the offense is up for grabs among the Stags' incumbents, but one player who could be one to watch this season is sophomore guard Jesus Cruz. A late signing by Johnson in the offseason last year, the Puerto Rico native made an impact for Fairfield on both ends of the floor, finishing third in points per game among his teammates but making a name for himself on the defensive side of the basketball by ranking among the top five in the MAAC in steals.

"I want him to just improve in those areas where we recruited him," said Johnson. "We told him we were going to give him an opportunity to play, and he can impact the game in many different ways. That's what he did defensively. He helped us rebound, he helped us defend, so I would say if he can keep doing that and establish some consistency from the three-point line, he's going to continue to blossom. It's time for him to turn it up a notch in all those categories."

Cruz will be one of the leaders in an up-and-coming backcourt, but perhaps the biggest strength for the Stags this season will be on the front line, where Johnson returns a pair of seniors in Jonathan Kasibabu and Matija Milin, both of whom will continue to mentor the next generation of Stag forwards, which includes sophomores Wassef Methnani, Kevin Senghore-Peterson and Omar El-Sheikh.

"They're both leading because they know the system," Johnson said of Kasibabu and Milin, each of whom having been starters and significant pieces in the rotation in all of their first three years in the program. "They know my expectations, they know how tough the league is, and I think they've been very good in trying to help their teammates. The second thing that they've embraced is competition in our own gym. They understand if they don't come to work -- they're the seniors, but we have good young players that are more than happy to earn minutes -- Jon and Matija have embraced competing and respecting the young players in our program, and allowing them to emerge as well. It's a nice balance there."

One of those young players that emerged during the second half of last season was point guard Aidas Kavaliauskas. Ineligible during the fall semester due to visa issues that also sacrificed his freshman season, the Lithuanian import burst on the scene at the end of December last year and instantly transformed the Stags' offense into a more cohesive, fundamentally sound unit, setting the foundation for his first full season as a junior.

"I think it's tough to become eligible mid-year and be handed the reins, but at any given time when Aidas was on the court, he could be leading the team," Johnson assessed. "Moving forward, it's great that he'll have a full 30 games. He's always been a really, really smart kid, he studies the game a lot. He and I have a lot of conversations throughout the year in terms of getting really good shots and getting guys on the same page. He's an incredibly selfless basketball player."

"When you have a whole lot of talent with guys who can do a lot of different things, it's really good to have a guy on the court that's just really like a conductor, who just wants to let that happen. That's one of the great strengths he brings us. He understands the big picture and is trying to keep guys connected, and be able to do things towards their strengths. What we're talking to him about, as much as anything, is to leave some room for you to do some stuff. If he can do that consistently, then that'll be a step forward for him."

Kavaliauskas will benefit from the arrival of Neftali Alvarez, a freshman guard from Miami heralded as perhaps Johnson's biggest recruit, one that Alvarez's mentor likens to NBA veteran J.J. Barea, as well as helping shepherd sophomore Taj Benning along to preserve Johnson's vision of raising Fairfield's profile with the infusion of youth.

"We've aggressively recruited a roster of guys who are going to share the basketball, are going to play really hard, and are going to embrace being really good teammates," Johnson said. "We have a lot of talent in our gym. The issue is just kind of getting them all enough reps to play together and grow throughout the season, get game experience, and then peak at the right time."

"The one thing I can tell you is this team is going to give everything they have. These guys are very competitive. People are going to enjoy seeing us compete, I can promise you that."

Friday, July 13, 2018

Fueled by growth and promise, Quinnipiac now builds upon strong foundation in year two

Baker Dunleavy came within two wins of MAAC championship in first year at Quinnipiac, where he has quickly positioned Bobcats for greater success in second season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Quinnipiac was not expected to be back in the conversation among Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contenders, at least not so soon after losing both of its top two scorers and making a coaching change following the 2016-17 season.

Picked last of eleven in the preseason coaches' poll -- and with a low bar set before them by several college basketball pundits -- the Bobcats were viewed as the token cellar-dweller in the MAAC, a program envisioned to merely tread water in what was initially thought of as a transition year behind head coach Baker Dunleavy, the successor to Tom Moore after the latter was fired following ten seasons at the helm in Hamden.

But Dunleavy -- a former Jay Wright assistant who helped his mentor build Villanova into one of the sport's elite, developing a core that went on to win a pair of national championships -- did not get that memo. Wins in six of his first ten conference games sent a resonant message to the rest of the league that his team was not to be taken lightly. Even after a late-season swoon in which Quinnipiac dropped seven of its last eight games, three of which coming in double overtime, the Bobcats recovered and went on a run to the semifinals of the MAAC Tournament, taking out Siena and Canisius before falling to Fairfield just two wins away from what would have been an improbable conference championship coronation, but not before exceeding even the highest expectations of program growth.

"That was what we were fixated on from the moment we took the job," Dunleavy said of raising Quinnipiac's profile both on and off the floor. "We certainly didn't have any expectations of having a 20-win team and winning the league in year one. I think we were very realistic that it was going to be a year where we needed to establish a foundation of what we wanted to be as a program and take that first step, so in terms of that, I was really pleased with our ability to play our best basketball at the end of the year."

"Anybody who followed our team and read our box scores knows we had a lot of heartbreak, we had a lot of close games, but we just really fought. We went through a grind and we came out on the other end better, and I wouldn't have faulted our guys if they had been worn out by it or weren't able to play at the end, but it actually made us better. That was actually what I was most proud of, our guys' ability to continue to get better when the results weren't going the way we wanted them."

An integral piece of both Quinnipiac's growth and ability to stay the course down the stretch was Cameron Young, a seldom-used wing under Moore who blossomed under the new regime last season to average nearly 19 points and seven rebounds per game on his way to all-MAAC recognition. Recently approved for an extra year of eligibility, Young will be the epitome of a program having received a taste of battle experience and now shooting to elevate its finished product.

Cameron Young, approved for additional year of eligibility by NCAA, will reprise his role as Quinnipiac's leading scorer and primary offensive option. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

"I'd be lying if I knew at this time last year -- going through the offseason -- that he would be our leading scorer," said Dunleavy of Young and his eventual production. "If I knew that he would have that role, I'd have done something differently in the summer. I could have done a better job with him."

"I think the extra year will help him a ton. He's a guy that will benefit greatly from just having one more year of continuity and understanding the system that he's playing in, and we've got a lot of new and young guys eligible this year, so having a guy back that played as many minutes and played in as many big moments as he did will certainly help."

Rich Kelly was equally as vital to Quinnipiac's success last year, thrown into the fire as a freshman point guard in much the same vein that Ryan Arcidiacono -- whom Dunleavy helped cultivate at Villanova -- was for the Wildcats in 2012-13. After having gone above and beyond in proving his worth in a strong rookie season, Kelly will no longer have the burden of having to carry the program thanks to the Bobcats' incoming freshman class, which will allow for him to add more facets to a burgeoning skill set.

"If you told me at the beginning of last season that he would be available to play in every game, I'd be impressed," Dunleavy reflected. "He had a shoulder injury in September and I knew he was going to take his lumps. To be playing his best basketball was really cool to see, and I think it allows him to play a more reasonable amount of minutes. He can play better when he's on the court."

"There were games last year -- I think at Iona, I played him 48 minutes. That's certainly not ideal for anybody, especially a freshman point guard. But he handled it valiantly, and I think this year, with how our roster is constructed, will allow him to play even better because he'll get a little bit more rest."

Now having spent a year expanding their game, Young and Kelly will serve as mentors of sorts to the newest crop of Bobcats, a perimeter-rich quartet of guards that includes a pair of New Yorkers in Bronx native Tyrese Williams (Cardinal Hayes) and highly-touted Long Island prospect Savion Lewis (Half Hollow Hills East) as well as Philadelphia's Tyree Pickron and Maryland product Matthew Balanc, all of whom serve as a testament to the recruiting prowess of associate head coach Tom Pecora, who consistently managed to land high-major talent during his head coaching stints at both Hofstra and Fordham. In addition, Travis Atson and Kevin Marfo -- both of whom sat out last season after transferring from Tulsa and George Washington, respectively -- are eligible this year, and have three seasons remaining to blossom into all-league players in their own right.

"They got the benefit of a year of being in practice and watching our team up close, so they have a bit of a head start," Dunleavy said of his two transfers. "Those guys will give us an older, more physical presence as they start, even though they're only sophomores. And as far as the freshmen are concerned, I think we addressed our greatest need in recruiting off the bat with four perimeter guys that can do multiple things. They can all dribble, pass and shoot, they're all good athletes, they all come from winning programs, so I think there will be a great opportunity for all of them to contribute right away."

Marfo, in particular, is a focal point on the front line, as the 6-foot-8 forward will fill the void left by the graduation of Chaise Daniels, giving the Bobcats a more physical post option that can both impose his will in the paint and stretch the floor for the likes of Jacob Rigoni, who shot over 45 percent from three-point range as a freshman last season.

"I really believe he can be as good of a frontcourt player as there is in the league," said Dunleavy. "I think he's a guy who brings physicality and toughness, and incredible mobility right away. We're really excited about having him on the floor for us. Another unsung hero for us, especially at the end of last year, was Abdulai Bundu. He started a lot of games for us, and is just a warrior. I love coaching him and I'm so glad he's back for us. He'll be a great senior leader."

"Those guys will play a lot of minutes for us at the five position, just like Abdulai did last year with Chaise, and I think they give us great mobility and great presence, and two tough rebounders. As far as Jacob's concerned, he had a really good freshman year. I think his confidence as a scorer, as an aggressive playmaker, really grew as the year went along. I really hope that he and Rich, as freshmen, gained the experience to make them like juniors now, because they played so many minutes. They're going to be very experienced sophomores in terms of all the situations they've been put through."

With all that being said, and with an emphatic first salvo having been fired last season, the outlook in Hamden is understandably positive and geared more toward a potential run into March, but Dunleavy is remaining grounded before the ball is tipped, projecting optimism but not running into the trap of exuding an excessive amount of confidence.

"It's almost like last year again, but with guys that are more familiar with what we want to do on the court," he said of the preparation for year two. "But when I say it's like last year, there are so many new parts to plug in, so for me to say, 'Hey, we want to be dominant from the get-go,' might be unrealistic. Again, I think our goal last year was, 'Hey, let's get better as the season progresses and let's play our best by the end of the year,' and I really felt like if we could do that last year, we would be a tough out in the conference tournament and that proved to be the case."

"I think if we do that this year and get better, and play our best at the end, we'll be on another level. We made it to the semis last year, and I think we can be a team that is a serious factor in our league, but the bottom line is we play in a really good basketball league with good teams and good coaches, so all we can really control is just being the best version of ourselves and keep getting better. With all these new parts coming in and new guys playing with each other, we've just got to keep that growth mindset."

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Monmouth becomes first MAAC school to release non-conference schedule

Sophomore Deion Hammond leads Monmouth into a season rife with upside and yet another strong non-conference schedule. (Photo by the Asbury Park Press)

Traditionally, Monmouth is usually among the first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference programs to release its non-conference schedule every season. Tuesday afternoon was no exception, as the Hawks became the first of eleven MAAC schools to reveal the first portion of its ledger for the 2018-19 season, a 13-game amalgamation of teams headlined by Kentucky, but also including several other marquee opponents.

Three games will be contested in the friendly confines of the OceanFirst Bank Center, but the lack of home dates did not stop King Rice from comprising a slate that will test the Hawks appropriately and immensely as he and his program continue the upward ascent from an 11-20 season in year one of the post-Justin Robinson era.

Monmouth's season opener will take place in West Long Branch for a third consecutive season, as the Hawks will welcomes Lehigh to the Jersey Shore on November 6. The Mountain Hawks are also the third straight Pennsylvania school that Monmouth will open its season against, having debuted against Bucknell last season and Drexel the year prior. The contest precedes a five-game swing to road or neutral sites, beginning with Colgate, a Patriot League school like Lehigh, on November 9; and continues with a trip to Philadelphia to face Saint Joseph's (November 12), followed by three games in the Myrtle Beach Invitational, an eight-team tournament headlined by West Virginia. The full bracket and field for the tournament will be released later this summer.

Monmouth returns home for the Thanksgiving holiday to continue its in-state series with Princeton, who visits West Long Branch on Saturday, November 24. From there, a four-game road trip awaits, starting with the long-awaited trek to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky on November 28, the second half of a two-year series with the Wildcats whose opening game was contested at Madison Square Garden last December. Upon returning from Lexington, the Hawks head to the Sojka Pavilion on December 1 to return last year's meeting with Bucknell, then take on a pair of New York opponents in the Empire State, squaring off against Hofstra (December 5) and Albany (December 8), the latter being the last game before final exams.

The penultimate game of Monmouth's non-conference journey is one in which Yale returns the favor from last season by visiting the Hawks on December 20. A ten-day hiatus for the Christmas holiday separates the Yale game from the final tuneup before league play, which comes on New Year's Eve at the Palestra against Penn, a team that defeated Monmouth in a quadruple-overtime thriller in West Long Branch last November.

Monmouth Non-Conference Schedule (all times TBD)
Tuesday, November 6:
 vs. Lehigh

Friday, November 9: at Colgate

Monday, November 12: at Saint Joseph's

Thursday, November 15 - Sunday, November 18: Myrtle Beach Invitational (opponents TBD)

Saturday, November 24: vs. Princeton

Wednesday, November 28: at Kentucky

Saturday, December 1: at Bucknell

Wednesday, December 5: at Hofstra

Saturday, December 8: at Albany

Thursday, December 20: vs. Yale

Monday, December 31: at Penn

Greg Herenda reflects on FDU's past, present and future

Greg Herenda (second from left) supervises morning workout at FDU. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

TEANECK, NJ -- A few players were being drilled through their paces. The screen and roll, with its options, was the topic of a Monday morning workout. The assistants -- Bruce Hamburger, Patrick Sellers and Peter Lappas -- led the session as the head coach observed everything. If need be, said head coach interjected to emphasize a point in the execution, an essential teaching moment that is so much a part of Greg Herenda. 

The FDU mentor, entering his sixth season, is first and foremost a teacher of the game. Without micromanaging, his stamp is on everything regarding the program. The results, for the most part, have been positive as the Knights have gone from pretender to perennial contender under his watch. Herenda took over the job of reversing the school's fortunes back in the summer of 2013. Rebuild was not the word. The prior three seasons saw FDU post 15 wins, total. The program was in complete disarray. 

“The task was daunting to say the least,” Herenda recalled in his office following the workout. “We had six scholarship players. Academics were in a mess and our APR was awful. We had to get this going from the ground up.” Hamburger came over from Saint Peter’s and proved to be invaluable as the Knights looked far and wide for players.

"It was an overhaul from A through Z," Herenda said. “Back then, we could offer kids a dream. Now we have a championship instead of selling a dream, we have reality, competing for championships. It is something Coach K went through at Duke. He arrived on the promise of a dream, now he sells kids on playing for championships.”  

The past season saw FDU go 13-18 and 9-9 in Northeast Conference play, the Knights' campaign ending in agony in the NEC Tournament semifinals, dropping a heartbreaking contest to eventual champion LIU Brooklyn by one point.

“Last year was a tale of three seasons,” Herenda reflected. “We had a senior (Darian Anderson), a future hall of famer, go down early, come back and go down late. In his absence, some young kids stepped up. Jahlil Jenkins really came on. Darnell Edge proved to be one of the best three-point and free throw shooters in the nation. Overall, I was very happy we could compete having most of the year without Darian.” 

As the spring moved into summer, with preparations in full, Herenda still could not get that LIU game -- decided on a late foul -- out of his mind. Although it is time to move on, the memory lingers. Preparing for next year, he has a number of veterans, including junior Kaleb Bishop, Jenkins -- now a sophomore -- and the senior Edge, returning. The marquee player may very well be Mike Holloway. Herenda feels the 6’8” senior could be the best post player in the NEC. There is an added feature in the New Jersey native's return. 

“We want a bookend for his career,” Herenda said. “Mike came in as a freshman and we won the NEC. We would like to see another championship in this, his senior year.” 

One of the difficult facts of NEC life is transfers. Too often, teams will see a player emerge only to transfer to a higher-profile school. Herenda is old school in his feelings, but does see where the players are coming from.

“A lot of them look at LeBron and see what he is doing changing teams," he surmised. "They naturally want to do the same to get themselves in the best position to win. It happens not just in college, but high school and AAU. Even at our summer camp, we have kids who want to play on someone’s team. It’s something we as coaches may not like, but have to deal with.”

A prime example is Marques Townes, who left FDU for Loyola-Chicago, where he ultimately played a significant role in the Ramblers' run to the Final Four.

“He was a player we identified and recruited,” Herenda said of Townes. “He decided to leave, we missed him, but we were happy to see him wind up on a team that went to the Final Four.” 

Herenda added that Townes’ presence and contributions during Loyola’s runs sent a message to his former FDU team. 

“It showed our guys there is a fine line between getting into the tournament and winning a game or two," said Herenda. "There is not a big difference.”

Still, there is another issue with players jumping from the NEC to a higher-profile school. 

“We have great coaches and assistants in this conference,” Herenda said. “What happens is we identify a kid the Power Fives pass on. We develop them, then the Power Fives see the finished product after we did the groundwork.”

Thoughts of the NEC Tournament moving were also brought up, as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and Colonial Athletic Association will be shifting its postseason tournament venues after the 2018-19 season. 

“There has been talk,” Herenda said, “but ultimately the coaches like the format (playing each game at the home of the higher seed).” He also noted a neutral facility like Barclays Center would be nice but attendance could be a factor. 

“Let’s say you are at Barclays and got a Mount St. Mary and Bryant final," Herenda proposed. "Those are two schools a distance away and final game attendance may not be that good. As it is now, the format insures a good home crowd and atmosphere. Coaches will take that atmosphere even if it means going on the road. And we have historically been a good road team.” 

The conference championship in 2016 at Wagner is the highlight. In addition, the Knights have recorded road wins over Rutgers, Saint Joseph’s and Seton Hall under Herenda’s watch. Next season the Knights will travel to Rutgers, UMass, Providence, Princeton, South Florida and Holy Cross. 

“It’s guarantee money,” Herenda admits. “The other thing is the competition is very good and we are away from home. Come conference play, a tough battle might not seem as difficult to our kids after what they have seen in non-conference.”

Herenda finds fan support good, but would naturally be welcome to more. 

“We have a really good product in our conference,” he said. “When I was an assistant at Seton Hall, Syracuse, Georgetown and UConn ruled, and after that, everyone else was in a group. Here in the NEC, it seems things are more wide open for teams to emerge.” 

Herenda feels fans venturing to NEC games can get close to the action and enjoy. 

“Imagine sitting a few rows from the bench and seeing the talents of a Joel Hernandez (LIU’s star of last season’s run)? That’s great for a fan,” he said. Herenda did point out an early February home win over Wagner on a Sunday afternoon saw a packed Rothman Center. 

“That was a great atmosphere that day,” he said. “That is what we are aiming for on a regular basis.” 

Times at the Northern New Jersey campus are exciting. 

“We have a new president, and we will have a new AD as David Langford retired," Herenda added. "There are changes going on and the university is moving forward.”

The Knights have won a combined 33 games the past three years in conference play. Another, and by no means trivial, source of pride for Herenda is the team leading the NEC academically two of the last five years. The talented group of returnees will join notable recruits including Brandon Powell a 6’2” guard out of Middletown, NY. Marc Dadika -- a 6’8” forward -- is local, having played at nearby St. Mary in Rutherford. In addition, Oscar Okeke -- who played at St. Anthony -- is a 6’10” player who has committed, but awaits acceptance.  

The prior season is in the rearview mirror, with the current one seeing the Knights thinking championship. As Herenda notes without hesitation, “we have definitely raised the bar here.”

Monday, July 9, 2018

MAAC Monday: Early all-conference predictions

Isaiah Reese, who received three votes for MAAC Player of the Year last season, should be preseason choice heading into junior season at Canisius. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

MAAC Monday returns with another special offseason edition, one in which we will attempt to gauge the impending preseason all-conference honors that accompany the release of the coaches' poll in October.

Coming up with a list of 15 players to bestow all-league distinctions upon is not the easiest task during the season, and we'll post the disclaimer now that our award editions of MAAC Monday over the course of the year are probably the longest to put together, outside of the first set of tiebreaker scenarios. Last season, we had Jermaine Crumpton and Kahlil Dukes -- who split Player of the Year honors in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference last season -- on our preseason second teams, with Crumpton's teammate, Isaiah Reese, left off our preseason list when we posted it in May. The latter will not happen again, as the junior guard may perhaps be the frontrunner for Player of the Year billing this time around. Here is our full list of 15, three months before the actual vote is revealed:

First Team
Preseason Player of the Year: Isaiah Reese, Canisius (16.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.7 APG, 2.2 SPG, 46% FG, 88% FT, 36% 3-pt FG in 2017-18)
Roland Griffin, Iona (11.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.4 APG, 53% FG, 67% FT)
Stevie Jordan, Rider (12.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.6 SPG, 45% FG, 66% FT)
Dimencio Vaughn, Rider (16.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.8 SPG, 51% FG, 76% FT, 35% 3-pt FG)
Cameron Young, Quinnipiac (18.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 42% FG, 75% FT, 30% 3-pt FG)

Analysis: Reese, along with teammate Takal Molson, tested the NBA Draft waters this offseason and gained valuable feedback from professional scouts before withdrawing and returning to Canisius, where he will lead the Golden Griffins into a season where the expectations are at perhaps the highest level since the program's 1996 MAAC title. It is not inconceivable to see Vaughn, Rider's leading scorer last season, get some votes for Preseason Player of the Year after his revelatory campaign as a redshirt freshman, and he will be a central figure for a Broncs team that returns nearly everyone from last year's regular season championship outfit while welcoming a pair of high school teammates in Ahmad Gilbert and Kimar Williams following their transfers from Minnesota and Florida International, respectively. Jordan is the man who makes the motor run in Lawrenceville, and after a Rookie of the Year-caliber season was supplemented by an even stronger production as a sophomore, the rock-solid point guard will be an even more integral piece to the puzzle for Kevin Baggett. Young, who received an extra year of eligibility during the offseason, instantly makes Quinnipiac a top-tier MAAC team this season, and will benefit greatly from the influx of guards that Baker Dunleavy and associate head coach Tom Pecora have recruited into Hamden. The wild card here is Griffin. Do not be surprised if the actual vote lands Rickey McGill on the first team, especially given the league's track record of rewarding its seniors, but Griffin has been hyped up by several coaches between the MAAC Tournament and the present day, justifying Tim Cluess' repeated gushing that he would be an even stronger component of the Iona machine this season. If the hype is any indication, Griffin -- the former Illinois State transfer -- could have a David Laury-esque impact in New Rochelle as the Gaels shoot for an unprecedented fourth consecutive MAAC championship. For what it's worth, Laury was the Preseason Player of the Year in 2014-15, and backed it up with regular season honors the following March as well.

Second Team
Rickey McGill, Iona (13.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 5.6 APG, 1.5 SPG, 45% FG, 70% FT, 38% 3-pt FG in 2017-18)
Takal Molson, Canisius (12.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 44% FG, 69% FT, 37% 3-pt FG)
Brian Parker, Marist (17.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.4 APG, 47% FG, 71% FT, 32% 3-pt FG)
Pauly Paulicap, Manhattan (10.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.5 BPG, 56% FG, 62% FT)
Frederick Scott, Rider (12.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 52% FG, 38% 3-pt FG)

Analysis: McGill, probably the one player in the MAAC that does not get anywhere near the credit he deserves for leading Iona by example on and off the floor, heads into his final season as the floor general behind the hardware for the reigning conference champions, and should have a final productive coda to one of the more decorated careers in league history. Molson will take the next step forward after a Rookie of the Year campaign turned into one where professional scouts took notice of the homegrown talent on the wing, one who will have Canisius ready to replicate their overachieving efforts of one year ago. Parker heads into his senior year with a possible first team nod if past voting is any indicator, and will have a chance to augment his defensive skills and become a more complete player under new head coach John Dunne, who undoubtedly has prepared himself to unleash a talent he coached against for three years at Saint Peter's. Paulicap, a junior going into his second year in the Manhattan program, is arguably the most explosive player in the conference, especially in the lane and under the rim. The argument can be made that Paulicap had the strongest debut season for any first-year Steve Masiello player, and with four seniors having graduated this past May, there is no question that the Elmont native is the face of the retooling Jaspers now. Scott is a redshirt sophomore much like his teammate, Dimencio Vaughn, and showed an innate ability to run the floor like a point guard despite his size on the front line. If he can improve his free throw shooting, Rider will go much further in March than expected.

Third Team
Jordan Allen, Rider (13.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 38% FG, 83% FT, 39% 3-pt FG in 2017-18)
Jesus Cruz, Fairfield (9.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, 43% FG)
Deion Hammond, Monmouth (12.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 41% FG, 67% FT, 39% 3-pt FG)
Malik Johnson, Canisius (7.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.5 SPG, 44% FG, 74% FT, 34% 3-pt FG)
Marvin Prochet, Niagara (10.3 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.0 BPG, 42% FG, 71% FT, 38% 3-pt FG)

Analysis: Allen, narrowly edged out by Molson in the Rookie of the Year race last season, has the benefit of playing alongside the likes of Jordan, Vaughn and Scott, which allows him to create mismatches on the floor and score at will if he can exploit defenses. He will need to develop more discipline as a volume shooter, however, if he is to be a continued boon to Rider's season. Cruz could very well be the most underrated player in the conference this year. A late find for Sydney Johnson last season, the native of Puerto Rico came out of the clouds to turn into one of the MAAC's best two-way players last year, and with both of the Stags' leading scorers having moved on -- Tyler Nelson to the professional ranks and Ferron Flavors, Jr. having transferred -- Cruz could find more opportunities on the offensive end this season, especially with a full year of Aidas Kavaliauskas running the point. Hammond is ready to step into the vacated role of Micah Seaborn as Monmouth's primary weapon, and definitely has the long-range chops to do so. In fact, head coach King Rice was adamant about wanting to get him more touches last season as a freshman. A pair of Western New York players round out the third team here, with Johnson getting recognition for the impact he makes both with the ball in his hands and by enhancing the talent level of those around him, and Prochet -- the MAAC's leading rebounder last season -- getting a nod as he heads into his senior season, one in which he may average close to a double-double per game.

Honorable Mentions
E.J. Crawford, Iona (12.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.1 APG, 46% FG, 80% FT, 34% 3-pt FG in 2017-18)
Tyere Marshall, Rider (10.3 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 51% FG)
James Towns, Niagara (9.1 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 2.1 APG, 48% FG, 79% FT, 36% 3-pt FG)

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Schott's Book Review: All The Dreams We've Dreamed: A Story of Hoops and Handguns on Chicago's West Side

(Photo by Jason Schott/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Jason Schott (@JESchott19)

All the Dreams We've Dreamed: A Story of Hoops and Handguns on Chicago's West Side
By Rus Bradburd
Chicago Review Press, 288 pages, $26.99

As a graduate of Marshall High School and a former member of its storied men's basketball team, Shawn Harrington was excited to return to the school, located in Chicago's Garfield Park neighborhood, as an assistant coach.

Harrington was a talented point guard while a student at Marshall, and appeared in the iconic basketball documentary film "Hoop Dreams." His mother had dreamed of getting Shawn "far away from Chicago" and its gangs and gun violence. When he received a scholarship to play college ball at New Mexico State, it seemed he was well on his way to beating the odds of his circumstances.

The birth of his daughter brought him back to Chicago, and Shawn found a way to return to the school and pay it forward in his role as an assistant coach.

In January of 2014, Marshall’s struggling team was about to improve after the addition of a charismatic but troubled player. Everything changed, however, when two young men opened fire on Harrington’s car as he drove his daughter to school. Using his body to shield her, Harrington was struck and paralyzed.

The mistaken-identity shooting was followed by a series of events that had a devastating impact on Harrington and Marshall’s basketball family. Over the next three years, as a shocking number of players were murdered, it became obvious that the dream of the game providing a better life had nearly dissolved.

All the Dreams We've Dreamed is a true story of courage, endurance, and friendship in one of America's most violent neighborhoods.

Author Rus Bradburd, who coached Chicago high schools and 14 years in college at UTEP and New Mexico State, has an intimate forty-year relationship to Chicago basketball and a longstanding friendship with Shawn Harrington.

Bradburd tells Shawn’s story with empathy and care, exploring the intertwined tragedies of gun violence, health care failure, racial assumptions, struggling educational systems, union apathy, corruption in athletics—and the hope that can survive them all.

Shawn Harrington, the subject of All The Dreams We've Dreamed. (Photo by Jason Schott/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Here, Bradburd writes of visiting his mother while recruiting him to play for New Mexico State, "I had an appointment to visit Frinda Harrington, Shawn's mother, later that day. When I met him the next week in Missouri, I could use all this as leverage, emphasize that I was the first one principled enough to spend time with his mother and high school coach."

"Frinda Harrington lived on the block of 1100 North Kendrick, in an area known unofficially as K-Town because of the street names: Kildare, Keeler, Karlov, Kilbourn. Technically, the block is now considered West Humboldt Park, but it sits near the border of three other neighborhoods: West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park, and Humboldt Park. Real estate agents rename neighborhoods for their own benefit, so parsing out the boundaries can be confusing. Shawn says nobody ever called it anything but Garfield Park or just the West Side. Much of the area is known for its poverty and violence (and exceptional basketball) but the Harrington's block was relatively stable."

"Shawn was Frinda's only child. She was also a Marshall graduate, and his closest relatives had gone to Marshall as well, which still had around twenty-five hundred students when his mother graduated. So deep was Shawn's connection to the school that he had actually been there before he was born. Frinda was pregnant as a senior."

"Frinda was petite, and she had a welcoming smile. In my experience, the majority of urban black recruits were raised by single moms, and this was true for Shawn. Frinda made no mention of Shawn's father, and I didn't ask. She offered a choice between strawberry and grape soda and set out a bowl of potato chips. A good sign, I thought, and a welcome surprise. What was unsurprising was Frinda's indifferent-yet-opinionated stance on her son's college recruitment. She seemed to be reading from the same script as nearly every other Chicago mother I'd meet over my fourteen years as a college coach."

"'I don't care which school he goes to,' she told me, 'just as long as it's far away from Chicago.' Far away from Chicago, she said over and over that day."

"The visit with Shawn's mother left me feeling confident as long as I was able to tune out my memory of (Marshall High School Head Coach) Luther Bedford's manner. As always, I'd brought along a souvenir media guide, which featured a map on the last page. I showed her the expansive distance between Las Cruces, New Mexico, and her town. She seemed disinterested in our winning team, overflow crowds, sunny weather, ESPN Big Monday TV contracts, or even our graduation rates and tutoring structure. What got her attention was that her son would be safe, a world away from Chicago's West Side."

All the Dreams We've Dreamed is an incredible work for basketball fans, but also people interested in studying society, and what it's like for those in Chicago trying to do good.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Vandersloot's steady hand keeps Chicago in contention

Courtney Vandersloot (No. 22) calls out directions during Chicago Sky's game at New York. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

You knew the ball would be in her hands with ten seconds remaining. 

At that point, the Chicago Sky held a two-point lead over the New York Liberty, inbounding in their front court with the pass going to Courtney Vandersloot, who was immediately fouled. Two shots later, Chicago was 6-9, closing out a 103-99 win over the Liberty.

“We are definitely starting to jell as of late, “ Vandersloot said following Friday’s win over the Liberty. “One thing is we have a full roster. Allie (Quigley) was out and I arrived late after playing in Turkey. Stefanie Dolson is playing well for us. At this point, having everyone together makes a big difference.”

The Sky were mired in a six-game slump before going on a win streak. The victory over the Liberty made it three straight for Chicago, a team currently finding its way and starting to win in the process. Vandersloot put together another solid performance, with 14 points and 11 assists against one turnover. Vintage Vandersloot. She credits a great deal of her development to her Gonzaga coach, Kelly Graves. 

“He was outstanding in all areas of the game,” she said of Graves, who has moved on building Oregon into a power in their own right. In Glory Hounds, Bud Withers’ outstanding book on Gonzaga’s rise to prominence, a few chapters are devoted to the women.  Withers noted how Vandersloot spent a few sessions training with one John Stockton.

“His son (David) was going into his first year, I believe, at Gonzaga, so John was around a bit,” Vandersloot recalled. “I reached out to him and we worked out together a few times. It was great.” Stockton showed her the finer points of shooting, ball handling and most importantly, passing, how one can hit an open teammate from a variety of angles, sometimes varying the release of the pass. 

“We worked out just a few times,” Vandersloot said. “Beside the technical, he talked about competitiveness as well. It was just great working with him."
To date, Vandersloot -- in her seventh season in the league -- averages 9.4 points per game, 7.3 assists and just 2.8 turnovers. The last figure is significant as turnovers were something the 5’8” guard struggled with early in her career. She is paired with Allie Quigley in the backcourt. Quigley’s college coach, Doug Bruno, serves as another mentor for Vandersloot and her teammate as well. 

“Doug goes to some of our practices and offers advice,” Vandersloot said of the DePaul head coach. “He’s a great guy and helps us a lot.” 

The advice has been well-received. With an appreciable amount of the season remaining and teams going through rough times at different stages, the Sky are optimistic and headed in the right direction.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Two letters, one irreplaceable gentle giant: A tribute to Jim O'Connell

From 2002: Jim O'Connell at National Basketball Hall of Fame, where he was honored with Curt Gowdy Award for his exemplary college basketball coverage. (Photo by Andrew O'Connell)

Every so often in life, there are times where circumstance renders one speechless, powerless, incapable of communicating the proper stream of thoughts for a subject that touched the heart more than even he or she could ever realize.

Personally, that happened to me for the first time in 2001, when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Almost 15 years old at the time, it was the first instance in which I had experienced a close -- yet all too distant -- loss, as someone I idolized was gone. The same feeling returned in 2013 when Pat Summerall passed away, and again -- perhaps hardest of all -- last December when Dick Enberg, my greatest influence and THE reason why I became a broadcaster, left us just four nights before Christmas.

The same twinge of unspeakable grief reared its ugly head Monday afternoon when a tweet from my colleague, Jon Rothstein, yielded an ominous announcement that I -- and probably everyone else I have shared press row with over eleven years in the business -- was totally unprepared for.

Jim O'Connell, national college basketball writer for the Associated Press, and along with Dick Weiss, the largest of all luminaries to ever sit courtside, was gone, taken from us far too soon at the way-too-young age of 64.

My initial reaction was one where I intimated that no amount of words could completely and accurately encapsulate just how much OC (pronounced "OCK") -- as he was affectionately known to everyone around the college basketball world, even though I always called him Jim -- meant to our industry, or how he gave endlessly with his bottomless pit of compassion, an experienced and grizzled veteran who simply made everyone better at their craft just by inhaling the same air. Admittedly, when I met him for the first time -- sometime in the 2007-08 season -- I had no concept of just how illustrious his career was, nor of the reputation he had earned and cultivated as one of the reliable and underrated titans of our profession. It was not until I had gotten to know him and work alongside him more often over the next few years that I discovered just how much OC embodied the quintessential sportswriter, an overflowing reservoir of encyclopedic knowledge complemented by the Irish gift of gab, a spinner of yarns that would leave all who listened in awe, and sometimes in stitches when grasping the sheer belief of what he had lived.

Almost every night, without fail, OC would be the first person I would see in a media room, usually at Madison Square Garden in his customary perch, at the first workstation in the back row, facing the door. Looking back, that location was actually symbolic in more ways than one, as if you looked straight ahead, OC's weathered visage -- usually accompanied by a wide smile -- was the perfect personification of a press room gatekeeper. And it did not matter what lights he sat under, or what records the two teams taking the floor before him possessed, either. Whether it was Connecticut and Syracuse, St. John's and Seton Hall, or even Fordham and Manhattan, St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner, OC treated every game equally. Each game was a marquee matchup before the opening tip, during the 40 minutes of action, and even after the final buzzer.

Jim O'Connell (center), flanked by his son, Andrew (left), and Associated Press colleague Larry Fleisher (right) during Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Andrew O'Connell)

There were nights at Fordham in this site's infancy where myself, OC, and Anthony Sulla-Heffinger -- then working with the New York Post, where his copy was mostly available on the web -- were the only occupants of press row inside Rose Hill Gymnasium. Those nights are forever ingrained into my memory, where I received as an added bonus with my press credential OC's escapades, both directly and overheard during his numerous interviews on the WFUV halftime show. Fordham was a special place for OC -- he met his wife, Anne Gregory, also the school's all-time leading rebounder, there -- and his younger son, Andrew, became an alumnus much like his mother, and eventually the women's basketball media contact who was gracious enough to always make sure I had a final stat book handy so that I could add some numbers to my recaps and Tom Pecora transcripts. He always took care of everyone else first, and still does in his current line of work at St. John's, just like his dad.

The stories were legend, with the man telling them an even greater one. On the rare nights when OC ventured into Brooklyn or Staten Island to cover the Northeast Conference, they doubled in number and hilarity when Cormac Gordon, the longtime scribe at the Staten Island Advance, served as his wing man. When I got to cover the CBS Sports Classic in Brooklyn two years ago, which carried with it my first opportunity to cover -- in person -- the North Carolina program I had grown up rooting for, my affinity for the Tar Heels got out in the Barclays Center press room. Seconds later, my eyes widened as OC -- unprompted and with great fervor when you consider that he had been doing this since before I, someone who had not even accomplished one percent of his life's work, was born -- shared personal accounts of his chronicles of UNC's national championship runs. Jordan, Worthy, Daugherty, Montross, Stackhouse, Wallace, Jamison, Carter, Lawson, May, Felton, Hansbrough -- even sports information director Steve Kirschner -- all were recounted, in detail, as if he had stumbled upon each of them just yesterday. THAT was my true baptism to James Aloysius O'Connell, as former St. John's athletic communications director Mark Fratto always referred to him when OC would come to St. John's pregame media availability sessions.

It is still surreal -- and painful -- to think that come November, when I will return to the Garden, the familiar face of the gatekeeper will not be around to return my "Jim, how are you?" with an equally jovial "Hey Jaden, I'm doing good." I think that goes for anyone who had the pleasure of knowing OC over his four-decade career. But the memories remain, and that fact will keep all our hearts full, even if the man who afforded us such a legacy will not.

Jim, may the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

And when the time comes for me to walk into the great press room up above, I will not have to worry about getting in.

I know you'll be holding the door for me.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Little things mount up for Liberty in loss to Chicago

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

WHITE PLAINS, NY -- At some point, you have to give the New York Liberty credit for resilience and maintaining an upbeat attitude.

Friday evening’s 103-99 loss to the Chicago Sky left the Liberty at 4-11. The game against the Sky at Westchester County Center  came about 24 hours removed from a last-second loss -- courtesy of an Elena Delle Donne three-pointer -- at Washington. The resilience showed as the Liberty showed no ill effects of a heartbreaking loss, followed by a postgame bus trip that got them back in New York at 4 a.m. Against the Sky, they battled gamely in a contest with 11 lead changes and five ties, a game not decided until Courtney Vandersloot hit two clinching free throws with 10 seconds remaining. The positive, an attitude and mindset coming from coach Katie Smith, who -- despite a fifth straight loss -- sees good things in her club. 

“For two straight nights at Washington and here (against Chicago), we had very good effort out there," she said. "We did many things well, but I really would have liked a win out of those two games.”

A strong performance from Brittany Boyd was another positive. 

“She struggled to get in the flow at Washington,” Smith said. “Tonight she was aggressive, defended and was patient on offense.” Boyd finished with 10 points, six assists and zero turnovers in 27 minutes.

With practice time at a premium in this compact schedule season, there are added challenges for teams looking to improve. The Liberty schedule this week saw a game Thursday at Washington followed by one the next night at home against Chicago, with the back end of a home-and-home with the same Sky team on Sunday. After another travel date, Seattle -- with Breanna Stewart -- invades Westchester on Tuesday. Smith sees beyond the busy schedule and pared down preparation, noting, “in the league, we know what each other's teams run. What it comes down to is playing good one-on-one defense and getting help (if you get beat). Making shots is another thing, it comes down to stops and scores.”

The proverbial little things are another part of the game, Smith addresses. “Boxing out, getting loose balls and not fouling in certain situations are crucial.” 

For the Liberty, exhibit A came in the last few seconds of the second period. Holding a seven-point lead with five seconds left, the Liberty gave up a penetration basket by Chicago’s Cheyenne Parker. The ensuing inbound pass was intercepted by Diamond DeShields, who was fouled. DeShields canned both free throws. Instead of a seven-point lead at intermission, the lead was three, with momentum changing hands. 

“That sequence was big,” Smith admitted. “It may not have cost the game for us, but it was something you don’t want to happen (closing out the half).”

Smith, who has seen the WNBA on the floor as a player and bench as a coach, knows very well that little things in this league turn out to be huge. Thus far for the Liberty, little things have made a big difference.