Friday, December 31, 2010

11 To Look Forward To In '11

One of the few sure things next year will be the day Mike Krzyzewski surpasses Bobby Knight to become winningest coach in NCAA history. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

Since it's the last day of the year, what better way to recap it than by previewing the year ahead? In honor of 2011, the following are eleven items of interest to even the slightest of college hoops fans going into the new year.

1) Mike Krzyzewski - Coach K enters the second year of the 2010s with 880 career wins, (second all-time) and there's a good chance that Krzyzewski will pass Bobby Knight's mark of 902 before the nets are cut down in Houston on April 4th. If Duke runs the table and goes undefeated, he'll end up with 908, which means the Blue Devils can afford five losses over the next three months. With games against Florida State and Maryland upcoming, not to mention archrival North Carolina, the chance of Coach K having to wait until next season to reach the summit is likely, but the possibility of him doing it this year is much higher.

2) Jared Sullinger - The man I thought was the most overrated freshman at the start of the year still has my vote for first-team All-American. Even after an off night (by his standards) tonight against Indiana, (19 points, 9 rebounds) Sullinger will only take his talents to another level as the Big Ten season progresses. One matchup where the 6-9 rookie will be particularly showcased is at home against Michigan State on February 15th.

3) Notre Dame - The Irish opened their Big East season with a 69-55 upset of Georgetown Wednesday night, and they ring in 2011 at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. While the Orange may look like a major hurdle for Mike Brey and company, Notre Dame gets their next two after that at the Joyce Center against UConn (who narrowly escaped USF at home earlier tonight) and St. John's. Brey told me that the homecourt advantage his team has enjoyed in recent years still helps them, and if the Irish can get two of their next three, they will be in the driver's seat for an NCAA Tournament return appearance in March.

4) St. John's - My alma mater seems to be the New York Jets of college basketball. Some games you think the Johnnies will dominate don't go the way you hope, and some games where the Red Storm appear to be overmatched end up being wins for Steve Lavin's bunch. Examples include the loss to Fordham three weeks ago and the win over West Virginia Wednesday night in Morgantown. Heading into Providence tomorrow night, St. John's has ridden momentum from a hot-shooting Dwight Hardy to an 8-3 record while not having to rely solely upon team leader D.J. (The Hitman) Kennedy. Justin Brownlee is still my pick for the most improved player in the country, and he gives the boys from Union and Utopia a clutch performance every night.

5) Cincinnati - While we're in the middle of the Big East, let's take a moment to recognize the undefeated Bearcats. At 13-0, Cincinnati currently leads Seton Hall as I write this, and it's nice to see Mick Cronin finally enjoy some well-deserved success with this team after being rumored to be on the hot seat for all the wrong reasons. Cincinnati should (barring a meltdown) be a tournament team for the first time since the Bob Huggins administration, and Cronin's big test will come against Xavier on Thursday in their annual crosstown shootout. In fact, that game will be a test for casual fans who watch, as those new to the game will find it difficult to tell Cronin and Xavier coach Chris Mack apart.
Separated at birth? Maybe Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin (left, photo courtesy of and Xavier head man Chris Mack (right, photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated) were.

6) Kalin Lucas - The Big Ten player of the year in preseason voting and one of the most explosive (definitely the most complete) players in the country when he's healthy. Lucas still isn't 100 percent, and he'll be the first to admit that as one of the reasons why the Spartans started 9-4 this season, the most recent of those nine wins being a 71-62 Big Ten opener against Minnesota this afternoon at the Breslin Center. The good thing about this is that Lucas can take his time to recover with Durrell Summers and Draymond Green leading the charge for the rest of Tom Izzo's group. One thing is for certain, and that is when Lucas is completely healthy, Sparty is one of the best units in the country.

7) The Missouri Valley - The best conference to watch as a fan of pure, old-school college hoops. Yes, the Big East is the strongest league from top to bottom; but if you're like me and you enjoy watching teams play knock-down, drag-out battles for forty minutes while leaving everything out on the court, the Valley is for you. Right now, Wichita State looks to be the class of the conference, a credit to Gregg Marshall and his standing as one of the most underrated coaches in the land. If you're still not sold, look back at what he did with Winthrop. Long story short, it will be fun to watch teams like Northern Iowa make their usual run in what should be a two-bid league come March as opposed to the traditional one.

8) North Carolina - Almost everyone assumed this would be the year Roy Williams and the Tar Heels broke down the door and re-entered the NCAA's elite. Maybe not just yet after their showing against Rutgers Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. Even though Carolina won by 23, they looked like a team that still hasn't hit their best stride yet, something that will prove costly when the heart of the ACC schedule comes around to Chapel Hill. Harrison Barnes has also yet to come into his own. While UNC will indeed make the tournament, (they're way too talented not to in my opinion) don't expect anything higher than a 7 seed in the Big Dance.

9) Tennessee - The Vols have been this year's Texas Longhorns, with their share of big wins (Villanova and Pitt on neutral courts) and upset losses. (Jacksonville, UNC-Charlotte, USC, College of Charleston) Bruce Pearl also starts his suspension for the first eight games of the SEC schedule, but returns to the bench for the Vols' last remaining big non-conference tilt against Kemba Walker and UConn. While the Vols should still be good enough to be a tournament team, an appearance in one of the 8/9 games would be their likely destination.

10) Mike Rosario - Currently sitting out after transferring from Rutgers, the Jersey City guard returns to the court for his junior season in November as a member of the Florida Gators. Rosario will be the second Big East expatriate to play for Billy Donovan, following former Georgetown forward Vernon Macklin. In a coincidental twist of fate, one of Rosario's first games comes at the RAC next year when Florida travels to Rutgers to face off against the highly touted recruiting class Mike Rice brings into Piscataway in the fall.

11) St. Francis College - I'll pay homage to one of my employers with the last mention by referencing the Terriers and their surprising start to the season. While Glenn Braica doesn't have the most glamorous record at 7-5, St. Francis is a perfect 6-0 on their home court at the Pope Center; and has veteran leadership in the backcourt with senior guards Akeem Bennett and Ricky Cadell. To make it even better on the corner of Remsen and Court, super sub Akeem Johnson continues to impress off the bench. Think of him as a poor man's version of former Marquette forward Lazar Hayward, only without the outside shot and a more imposing paint presence. The Terriers are also undefeated in NEC play, and could be in the mix for a home game in their conference tournament if the chips fall in the right places.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Postgame Shootaround: UNC vs. Rutgers

As a North Carolina fan in New York, I haven't had the chance to go see the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. So, when Carolina came to Madison Square Garden to play Rutgers, I jumped at the chance to finally see Roy Williams' bunch. It took 24 years, but seeing UNC was a highlight for me as a fan before their 78-55 victory against the Scarlet Knights. Enough about me, though. Here are the lasting impressions from this one.

  • Rutgers is still a work in progress.
While it still amazes me to see just how much Mike Rice has turned this team around in just two months, the Scarlet Knights are not reflecting their 9-3 record at the moment. Granted, Rutgers has had some solid games against Miami and St. Peter's among others, but this effort last night was a season low so far. Jonathan Mitchell had 20 in the losing effort, but the only highlight for Rutgers in the first half was Rice tossing his jacket with 14:30 left in the opening stanza. All in all, it will be a long Big East season for Rutgers even with immediate improvement.
  • Same name, different personality.
While Seton Hall's Robert Mitchell was forced to exit stage left, Jonathan Mitchell (no relation) is a completely different type of player. His 20-point game not only led all scorers, but it was done in one of the quietest fashions possible. A former Florida transfer, Mitchell has thrived under Rice and has become a potent mid-range shooter for the Knights. I'm not sure if anyone has made this comparison yet, but Mitchell really does remind me of former Villanova and current Portland Trail Blazers forward Dante Cunningham, except Mitchell has a better stroke from outside.
  • Something for everyone.
Last night at the Garden provided just that as both Rice and Roy Williams decided to play their walk-ons in the final minutes. Even with the outcome of the game in hand, it was nice to see both teams empty the benches inside the Mecca of college basketball, a venue neither frequents often. On the contrary, I'm not sure if I've seen anything more surreal than the block "R" that serves as the Rutgers University logo occupying halfcourt at the World's Most Famous Arena.
  • Carolina is no different from Rutgers.
There were times last night that the Tar Heels looked like a team capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. However, just as frequent were the stretches where North Carolina couldn't finish in transition and put the game away. This type of play will be a detriment come ACC season if Roy's boys can't put it all together. The Tar Heels won by 23, which is still good to see; but last night could have been a 40-point win with better execution.
  • This isn't your typical UNC squad.
Usually, there is one guy that makes the motor run for the Tar Heels. (Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, even as far back as Michael Jordan) This year, Roy Williams is led by a number of role players since Harrison Barnes and John Henson are still developing and have not come into their own. Leslie McDonald led the team with 14 off the bench while Justin Watts added 11, a positive for games against Duke and Maryland where the Heels will need all hands on deck.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Full Court Press: UConn-Pitt Preview

Ashton Gibbs leads Pittsburgh back home for Big East opener against UConn tomorrow night at the Petersen Center. (Photo courtesy of SportsNet New York)

Conference season is finally upon us, and there really isn't a better matchup to start the league slate than this one at the Petersen Center. Sixth-ranked Pittsburgh takes the court at its on-campus venue tomorrow night to welcome the No. 4 Connecticut Huskies into the arena known by students and Pitt fans as the "Oakland Zoo" in what will be the second conference game in Division I, (Penn State-Indiana tips off two hours prior) but the first in the Big East. While UConn has been a pleasant surprise since dispatching Michigan State and Kentucky on their way to a shocking Maui Invitational win, Pitt has held serve as the preseason pick to win the Big East, save for a loss to Tennessee in the SEC/Big East Invitational. With tipoff still another 24 hours away, we'll try to get you prepared for the first big showdown of the Big East season on Big Monday.

#4 Connecticut Huskies (10-0)
Head Coach: Jim Calhoun

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Kemba Walker (6-1 Jr., 26.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.1 SPG, 52% FG, 86% FT, 42% 3pt)
SG: Jeremy Lamb (6-5 Fr., 7.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 45% FG, 67% FT)
SF: Roscoe Smith (6-8 Fr., 7.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 42% FG, 85% FT, 44% 3pt)
PF: Alex Oriakhi (6-9 So., 11.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 55% FG, 62% FT)
C: Charles Okwandu (7-0 Sr., 2.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 43% FG, 25% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Shabazz Napier (6-0 Fr., 8.6 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2.1 SPG, 35% FG, 73% FT)
F Niels Giffey (6-7 Fr., 5.2 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 44% FG, 71% FT)

Keys To Victory:
KO - Kemba Walker (K) and Alex Oriakhi (O) have been the Huskies' 1-2 punch throughout the season, and each of UConn's ten opponents has gone down for the count due to the exploits of Jim Calhoun's young charges. Walker has yet to slow down from a torrid start to the season, and Oriakhi is averaging just about a double-double a night for the upstart Huskies, who were picked in the lower eight of the Big East at October's media day.
A Different World - Calhoun admitted that there's a different look to the team this season, as there is an outside-oriented team running up and down the court as opposed to the big, inside-out style Calhoun has managed to employ to his advantage for the last two decades. What is most impressive about the "small ball" Huskies is that they have managed to win convincingly under their new design, scoring 80 points a game while yielding only 62. Pitt lacks a big man aside from 6-11 Gary McGhee, so it should be an even matchup with UConn, whose tallest player after seven-footer Charles Okwandu is the 6-9 Oriakhi.
Super Sub - Shabazz Napier will be Kemba Walker's heir apparent whenever Walker decides to take the step up to the NBA, either this year or the following season. Considering how Walker and Napier have played, it might be in the best interest of both to have Walker declare for the draft following the season. Napier, his freshman backup, only gets about 23 minutes a night, but his numbers are much better than some starters at the point for other Big East programs. Consider this: Over eight points per game, just under three assists and a little over two steals a night. Not bad for the first guy off the bench.

#6 Pittsburgh Panthers (12-1)
Head Coach: Jamie Dixon

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Ashton Gibbs (6-2 Jr., 16.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 3.4 APG, 45% FG. 85% FT, 44% 3pt)
SG: Brad Wanamaker (6-4 Sr., 12.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.6 APG, 1.8 SPG, 50% FG, 76% FT, 36% 3pt)
SF: Gilbert Brown (6-6 Sr., 11.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.1 APG, 46% FG, 72% FT, 40% 3pt)
PF: Talib Zanna (6-9 Fr., 5.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 60% FG, 48% FT)
C: Gary McGhee (6-11 Sr., 5.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 50% FG, 43% FT)

Key Reserves:
F Dante Taylor (6-9 So., 7.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 70% FG, 56% FT)
G Travon Woodall (5-11 So., 6.7 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 38% FG, 67% FT)
F Nasir Robinson (6-5 Jr., 6.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 53% FG, 48% FT)

Keys To Victory:
Protect This House
- Any Pitt preview has to start with the Panthers' dominance at the Petersen Center. Since their on-campus home opened in 2002, Pitt has gone an eye-popping 141-11, good enough for an astounding .928 winning percentage. For those unsure about just how impressive that is, it's akin to your favorite NFL team going 15-1 for ten years straight, which is practically impossible to do given the parity in that league.
Thrice - Pitt will walk into tomorrow night's contest shooting 37% from the three-point line as a team. Two players (Ashton Gibbs and Gilbert Brown) are shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc, and it's no secret that those two are Jamie Dixon's best clutch players aside from all-around star Brad Wanamaker, who has to be on the short list for Big East player of the year just a month and a half into this 2010-11 campaign.
A To Z - We know about Ashton Gibbs and how vital his presence is to the Panthers even though it's Wanamaker who makes the motor run. The X-factor, however, is Talib Zanna. Earlier in the year, I mentioned that the redshirt freshman could be the long-awaited replacement for DeJuan Blair after his solid debut against Rhode Island. While Zanna's productivity has decreased since then, the Big East brings out the best in anyone and anything can happen in the best conference (arguably) in college hoops.

So, Who Wins?
Pitt has been battle tested already with the loss to Tennessee, even though that game has been compromised with the Vols' recent losing streak to Jacksonville, UNC-Charlotte and Southern Cal. UConn has two quality wins as well from their Maui Invitational performance, but nothing that has resonated nationally since the Kentucky game. While it will be a close game, (what game between these two isn't?) the Panthers' homecourt advantage will simply be too much for the Huskies to withstand as they will fall just short in a valiant effort.

Your Final: Pitt 89. UConn 84

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

89 Wins Later, UConn Still Streaking

UConn women's basketball head coach Geno Auriemma stands alone atop the world of consecutive win records as his Lady Huskies win their 89th last night with 93-62 rout of Florida State. (Photo courtesy of Albany Times-Union)

Through my 24 years, I've seen many things in the sports world. Not many have matched the significance of what I'm about to chronicle; and in retrospect, I take greater pride today having been a small part of it than I ever have in the 22 months since it happened.

Eight days after one impressive streak ended when Brett Favre was ruled inactive against the Giants in a decision that ended the Vikings quarterback's run of 297 consecutive starts, another run was extended and became the most prolific of its kind in any sport in Hartford, Connecticut last night; when the University of Connecticut women's basketball team; a program that has been on top of its world since 1995, (back in the days of Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti) defeated Florida State 93-62 for the Lady Huskies' 89th consecutive win, breaking the long-standing record held by John Wooden's UCLA men's basketball team since 1974 as the longest winning streak in college basketball. Although Wooden was unfortunately not there to see it since he passed away in June, his grandson was; and Greg Wooden stated that his grandfather would have been honored to see a women's team break the record, because the legendary coach felt that the best basketball was played on that level.

UConn has had many names and faces over the years; a Who's Who of the WNBA that includes names like Lobo, Rizzotti, Nykesha Sales, Swin Cash, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles and Maya Moore. Moore may still be a senior and the likely top pick in the WNBA draft after this season; but she is already the school's all-time leading scorer and a simple pleasure to watch, and that was before she went off for 41 against the Seminoles last night. Upon hearing of the victory last night and watching the highlights on SportsCenter this morning, I immediately looked back to the night of February 11, 2009; which now stands as one of the two greatest moments in my young broadcasting career, and one that is by far the most historic.

On that night, top-ranked (not surprisingly, of course) UConn came to Carnesecca Arena to face my alma mater of St. John's in a Big East game that I had the honor of doing play-by-play for on WSJU Radio. Despite having graduated two months prior to the contest, I was still the student station's sports director, and had looked forward to doing this game since the 2008-09 schedule was released simply because of the mystique and excellence UConn had come to be known for was making its way to the corner of Union and Utopia. Needless to say, the broadcast is among my personal favorites for both significance and quality; but that's not the point here. What matters now is that I was on hand for a piece of history, and this feeling was shared by my colleague Reginald Bazile, who handled color commentary alongside me that night. UConn defeated St. John's 77-64 on a night where Moore had a double-double, posting 20 points and 11 rebounds to go with 21 each from Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery. Aside from the glitz and glamour that was the Lady Huskies, the most impressive part of that night occurred just by looking into the stands at Carnesecca, which were more than halfway filled with a sea of blue and white, thus making it a de facto home game for UConn. That was the moment in which I truly appreciated this program and how far it has come. Forget about the fact that this team hasn't tasted defeat since April of 2008, the fact that their fans traveled well and took over an arena was enough for me to see just how much of an impact this team has had, and it is clearly a local, if not national treasure to the college basketball and sports worlds.

Now as the 89th consecutive victory has been celebrated, it is my hope as a fan and media member that the Lady Huskies will continue their run, maybe even getting to 100; because it is clearly the most exciting occurrence I've ever been on hand to experience; and if you're in any way affected by the simple thrills that organized sports evoke from the human emotional landscape, you will feel the same way after watching a UConn women's game.

This streak and these players truly are something special.

Postgame Shootaround: 2-3 Zone Returns

St. John's and coach Steve Lavin after one of their finest hours last night as Johnnies defeat Northwestern to win Holiday Festival for first time since 2005. (Photo courtesy of Mark Fratto, senior associate athletic director for communications at St. John's University)

The 2-3 zone makes its return just before Christmas, and as was the case in its last edition, we'll recap two games from last night's college hoops slate before previewing three that tip off tonight.

  • Underrated big men really do exist.
Chief among them is Davidson's Jake Cohen. Just 24 hours after taking a hard shot from Justin Brownlee in the Wildcats' 62-57 loss to St. John's Monday night, Cohen showed no ill effects from the apparent injury as he was a deciding factor in Davidson's 76-69 victory over St. Francis in the Holiday Festival consolation game. Cohen had 17 points before ultimately fouling out midway through the second half, and his 6-10 size is the perfect complement to Brendan McKillop and J.P. Kuhlman in the backcourt.

  • We are...back?
St. John's fans sure hope so after the Red Storm rebounded from crushing losses against St. Bonaventure and Fordham to take the Holiday Festival with a gritty win over Davidson and arguably their most complete performance last night against Northwestern, one where Steve Lavin's Johnnies shot 60 percent from the field (80 in the second half) en route to the 85-69 victory. Among the most important and welcome sights from the Red Storm win last night was Justin Burrell coming alive for 17 points and nine rebounds in an outing that made people think it was 2007 all over again, when a then-freshman Burrell arrived on the scene as one of the more impressive rookies in the Big East. With St. John's opening their conference slate a week from today in Morgantown against West Virginia, Burrell is one of the many pieces that needs to step up for the Johnnies on a consistent basis if they are intent on "taking the baton" from former coach Norm Roberts and making the NCAA Tournament as Lavin has stated numerous times to be the program's mission statement.

  • Upset special in upstate New York?
Don't count Drexel out against Syracuse tonight. The Dragons upset Louisville last week on the Cardinals' home court at the new Yum! Center, and five of Syracuse's wins have been by ten points or less, including the most recent Orange victory, an 83-77 decision this past Saturday at the Carrier Dome against Iona. The highlight matchup should be in the backcourt between the two sharpshooters; Drexel's Chris Fouch and Brandon Triche of 'Cuse.

  • Marc vs. Mac
That's one of the marquee collisions tonight in Champaign, as Marcus Denmon and Missouri take on an Illinois team led by Demetri McCamey, who continues to prove that he made the right decision to stay in school. Missouri has been impressive all year, and it will be interesting to see how the Illini combat Mike Anderson's "40 minutes of hell" mentality just days after a shocking loss to Illinois-Chicago.

  • Backcourt battle #2...
This one actually takes place first tonight, and it comes from the Breslin Center. Fresh off a big win in a de facto road game at the Greensboro Coliseum against North Carolina, Texas heads into East Lansing to take on a Michigan State team they defeated a year ago before their mid-season swoon. While Dogus Balbay runs the point for the Longhorns, the matchup to watch here will be freshman Cory Joseph, who hit the game-winning shot Saturday against the Tar Heels, going against senior All-American Kalin Lucas, who is still recovering from the Achilles injury suffered during the Spartans' run to the Final Four.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Roberts & Hall Explore Different Options

After two-plus years where he showed flashes of brilliance, Quincy Roberts has decided to leave St. John's on same day Ferrakohn Hall announces his transfer from Seton Hall. (Photo courtesy of

Two years ago, Quincy Roberts was thrust into the starting point guard position in his freshman campaign at St. John's when Malik Boothe tore a ligament in his thumb that required surgery just prior to the Johnnies' Big East opener. Now, after an injury-plagued Red Storm career, Roberts has decided to move on.

St. John's men's basketball sports information director and senior associate athletic director for communications Mark Fratto issued a press release earlier this afternoon highlighting Roberts' intent to transfer after three years on the corner of Union and Utopia. The redshirt sophomore was praised on his way out by head coach Steve Lavin, and leaves the university in good academic standing.

Roberts was not the only one to announce his decision to play elsewhere, as Seton Hall's Ferrakohn Hall has opted to leave the Pirates after three semesters playing under Bobby Gonzalez and Kevin Willard. Despite Hall's tremendous upside that was referenced in nearly every interview I conducted with Gonzalez or Willard, he was unfortunately never able to find a consistent spot in the Pirates' rotation, even after the loss of Jeremy Hazell to a broken wrist.

While it has not been announced where Roberts or Hall will end up, both will transfer effective at the end of the current semester, which will allow potentially for each player to get a leg up on his new team's system.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Full Court Press: Texas-UNC Preview

Our full court press returns with a detailed closer look at this weekend's marquee nonconference matchup between Texas and North Carolina in the Longhorns' latest big game before heading to the Breslin Center for their clash with Michigan State.

#25 Texas Longhorns (8-2)
Head Coach: Rick Barnes

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Dogus Balbay (6-1 Sr., 4.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 56% FG, 67% FT)
SG: Cory Joseph (6-3 Fr., 11.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 44% FG, 70% FT, 42% 3pt)
SF: Jordan Hamilton (6-7 So., 18.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, 44% FG, 77% FT, 41% 3pt)
PF: Gary Johnson (6-6 Sr., 11.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 51% FG, 72% FT)
C: Tristan Thompson (6-8 Fr., 11.3 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 48% FG, 48% FT)

Key Reserve:
G J'Covan Brown (6-1 So., 9.0 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 39% FG, 79% FT)

Keys To Victory:
On The Board - Even after the loss of all-time Big 12 rebounding leader Damion James to the NBA, the Longhorns are just as strong on the glass with the frontcourt trio of Johnson, Thompson and Hamilton; who combine for over 22 rebounds each night, accounting for more than half of Texas' average per game. (43.1) While their backcourt scoring is suspect after their rookie sensation Joseph, the 'Horns make up for it with their long-range proficiency.
Tenacious D - Both teams are strong on defense, but North Carolina has been known to yield some higher than usual point totals while Texas comes into Greensboro tomorrow holding opponents to just 61 points over forty minutes. Their opponents also average 15 turnovers when they play the Longhorns, and Carolina enters this matchup right on target with that statistic.
Hot Wings - Jordan Hamilton may only be a sophomore, but he's the experienced one at the wing in this game. That's because Hamilton's counterpart is none other than freshman sensation Harrison Barnes; who despite his uncanny ability to make plays and lead his team, has still shown that signs of maturity are on the way. If Hamilton can exploit Barnes' rookie status and force him into making more mistakes than usual, Texas will have conquered one more obstacle on their way to facing the Spartans.

North Carolina Tar Heels (7-3)
Head Coach: Roy Williams

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Larry Drew (6-2 Jr., 5.2 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 4.0 APG, 37% FG, 65% FT)
SG: Dexter Strickland (6-3 So., 7.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 48% FG, 70% FT)
SF: Harrison Barnes (6-8 Fr., 11.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 35% FG, 74% FT)
PF: John Henson (6-10 So., 10.5 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 53% FG, 35% FT)
C: Tyler Zeller (7-0 Jr., 15.8 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 51% FG, 76% FT)

Key Reserves:
F Justin Knox (6-9 Sr., 6.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 61% FG, 78% FT)
G Reggie Bullock (6-7 Fr., 7.7 PPG, 44% FG, 44% FT, 43% 3pt)
G Leslie McDonald (6-4 So., 7.1 PPG, 48% FG, 62% FT, 43% 3pt)
G Kendall Marshall (6-3 Fr., 3.8 PPG, 3.5 APG, 61% FG, 50% FT, 56% 3pt)

Keys To Victory:
Home Cooked Meal - It's not really a home game since it's in Greensboro, but you can bet the Tar Heel fans will travel down Tobacco Road to only make it harder for Texas to compete with their hometown team. In what should be an atmosphere just as electric as what you would find at the Smith Center, Carolina gets an advantage before the opening tip that will be left in the hands of the players to control once twenty minutes are placed on the clock.
The Muppet Show - Tyler Zeller is the Tar Heels' leading scorer; but if you look at the stats and box scores, you'll find that it's John Henson that makes this team go. Roy Williams' prized recruit from a season ago has grown by leaps and bounds as he enters the midpoint of his second campaign in Chapel Hill, averaging a near-double-double a night, and it will be a battle on the glass on both sides, as Henson and Zeller go up against Gary Johnson and Tristan Thompson, with the Harrison Barnes-Jordan Hamilton matchup taking on yet another important facet in this game.
Guard It With Your Life - Texas' guard play is good, but not great. The same can be said of North Carolina. However, the Tar Heels possess something the Longhorns do not: A champion. Larry Drew, although a backup to Ty Lawson at the time, is one of three regulars in Williams' rotation (Zeller and Justin Watts the other two) still remaining from the 2009 national championship team. Drew has improved his ballhandling to the point where he averages two assists for every turnover, making up for his lack of scoring.

So, Who Wins?
Texas enters on a two-game winning streak after their surprising loss to USC, while Carolina has won three straight after their loss to Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. A concern here is (and rightfully so) UNC yielding 91 to Long Beach State in their last; and Texas has the prospect of facing Michigan State on the road after this one goes final, something that could make the Longhorns susceptible to a bounce on Wednesday at the Breslin Center. Carolina still has to prove they are back to their normal dominant selves, and the fact that they're still not there yet is the deciding factor in a game whose scales will ultimately tip toward the Lone Star State as Texas gets a quality road win.

Your Final: Texas 87, North Carolina 80

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Your Starting Five

Kansas freshman Josh Selby finally makes his long-awaited debut Saturday night against USC. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

Another week in the college basketball world has come and gone, which means it's time once again to recap what happened in the past few days and set our sights on the immediate future in the latest edition of the starting five.

  • At long last...
The Josh Selby show makes its way to Kansas. After sitting out the first nine games of the Jayhawks' season, the highly-touted recruit makes his debut at Allen Fieldhouse Saturday night against USC. However, it's still unclear as to just how much we'll see of the most talked-about freshman in Division I, as Kansas coach Bill Self is not sure exactly what Selby's role will be. All we do know is that he will see most of his minutes at the shooting guard position until he has acclimated himself to the Jayhawks' offense enough to be able to run the point. In retrospect, the nine-game absence should have no ill effect on Selby's progression and maturity, since Kansas still has several nonconference games left on their schedule and two Big 12 games against Iowa State and Nebraska that look like convincing Jayhawk wins on paper. By the time Kansas travels to Baylor on January 17th in a marquee matchup on Martin Luther King day, (try saying that five times fast!) Selby should be as far along as some of the other elite freshmen across the country in learning their teams' systems and understanding their styles and methods of play.

  • All I want for Christmas is an upset win.
If you're a supporter of Oakland University or Drexel, Santa left something under your tree that didn't have to be wrapped. Just three days after nearly pulling off a win at the Palace of Auburn Hills against Michigan State, the Grizzlies went to Knoxville and shocked No. 7 Tennessee after senior guard Larry Wright (yes, the former St. John's marksman) hit a 3 that proved to be the icing on the cake for Oakland in their 89-82 victory over the Vols. Not to be outdone was the Drexel Dragons upending Louisville on the Cardinals' new home court at the Yum! Center behind Gerald Colds, the former New York City prep star who played his high school ball for Oliver Antigua at St. Raymond's in the Bronx. On top of that, there was another near-upset in Memphis between Josh Pastner's Tigers and Ohio Valley Conference title contender Austin Peay, who led Memphis midway through the second half before eventually falling in overtime.

  • The kings of Kings County (and the rest of the five boroughs)
Of the seven Division I programs in New York City, the one with the best record at this moment is not St. John's. It's not Columbia, Fordham, LIU, Manhattan or Wagner either. Yes, interestingly enough, it's St. Francis that holds the title of Big Apple school with the most impressive ledger. At 6-3, the Terriers are perfect at home (5-0 at the Pope Center, the gymnasium on the first floor of their downtown Brooklyn campus that resembles an office building) and former St. John's assistant Glenn Braica is implementing the same system that former boss Norm Roberts used in Queens for his six-year tenure at the helm of the Red Storm. Led by senior guards Akeem Bennett and Ricky Cadell, St. Francis is also receiving valuable bench contributions from forward Akeem Johnson, who has gone for 21 and 22 points in each of his last two games, the latter a career-high in the Terriers' 69-61 win Tuesday night over Dartmouth. Next up for the Terriers: The Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, where they will play Northwestern, followed by either Davidson or St. John's.

  • A Festivus for the rest of us!
That's right, the annual tournament at the "World's Most Famous Arena" is upon us again. The Holiday Festival starts up this Monday night at the Garden with the aforementioned Northwestern-St. Francis matchup, with Davidson-St. John's immediately following on the first night. From there, it's the consolation and championship games on Tuesday as the host Johnnies look to end their string of second-place finishes (which currently stands at four) to claim their first Christmas crown since 2005 against either the Wildcats or Terriers, who are this year's second local team, a role played in past years by Hofstra, Columbia and Marist.

  • Not a must-win, but...
North Carolina needs a statement win after losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in last month's Puerto Rico Tip-Off, and what better way to get one than at home against a Top 25 team? Yes, the Tar Heels already did that two weeks ago against Kentucky with their 75-73 win in Chapel Hill; but Roy Williams gets an equally strong test Saturday when Texas makes their way into Greensboro in what amounts to a de facto home game for Carolina. Stay tuned for a full court press pregame preview of that game later in the day, but while we have the space here, I'll make the bold prediction that while numerous cups of youth will be served, it will be the experienced hands that will decide this nonconference tilt.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Postgame Shootaround: St. John's vs. Fordham

Fordham students and fans storm the court at tiny Rose Hill Gym moments after Rams' 84-81 upset of St. John's. Fordham trailed by 21 at one point in the second half. (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)

College basketball is once again relevant in New York.

One week after St. Francis played (in my opinion) the game of the year in their 65-63 home win over Robert Morris, another mid-major from the five boroughs emerged from an epic victorious; and this time, it came against a more reputable and bigger name.

After trailing by 21 at one point in the second half, Fordham used not one, but two 16-0 runs over a span of ten minutes and eleven seconds to upset St. John's 84-81. While the loss was the second straight for Steve Lavin against the Atlantic 10, the win was the biggest for Tom Pecora since his arrival on the bench in the Bronx nine months ago from Hofstra. The Rams got 22 from Brenton Butler, who almost fouled out in the first half and committed nine turnovers on the night. Reigning A-10 rookie of the year Chris Gaston continued his double-double machine tendency as well, scoring 15 while pulling down thirteen rebounds.

So who goes where from here? We'll take a look at the rumblings from Rose Hill, as well as analyze each team's upcoming slate in this latest postgame shootaround.

  • Could 16 be the new 13?
What is it with St. John's and 16-0 runs? I would be superstitious if I were coaching or playing on a team that yielded that particular stat three times in four seasons. (DePaul in 2008, West Virginia last year) To add to that nugget, each of those 16-0 gamebreakers came in the second half when the Red Storm held a lead.
  • Fordham gets the best of both worlds.
If you want to call it that. After a ten-day hiatus, Fordham welcomes Kennesaw State into Rose Hill Gym before heading to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech, who lost to Kennesaw State rather handily earlier in the year. To add to the irony, Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt was (for a time) the man St. John's had targeted before Steve Lavin became a candidate, only to turn the Johnnies down.
  • Ghosts of Christmas past?
St. John's heads into the Holiday Festival from this crushing loss, welcoming Davidson to its host tournament at Madison Square Garden Monday night before taking on either St. Francis or Northwestern the following night at the "World's Most Famous Arena." For Red Storm fans, the expectation is a sweep for the school's first Holiday Festival championship since 2005. Following the get-together at the Garden, St. John's opens Big East play on the road against West Virginia and Providence.
  • "We don't just belong, we can win."
That quote comes from Fordham coach Tom Pecora, who mentioned it in his postgame press conference. After taking over a Ram squad that had gone 5-51 over the last two seasons under two different coaches, (Dereck Whittenburg and Jared Grasso) Pecora has matched the win total in just nine games with four scorers averaging more than ten points a contest; and fans of both schools are already looking forward to next year's rematch between the two inside Madison Square Garden.
  • College hoops is relevant once again.
If you're from the five boroughs like I am, then you can definitely agree with it. St. John's may be 5-3, but the buzz generated by Lavin's arrival is still lingering in Queens and has galvanized (to use one of the coach's favorite words) the Johnnies, who are led by ten seniors. Throw in a 5-4 Fordham team fresh of the aforementioned upset, plus solid performances from NEC programs LIU and St. Francis; not to mention Wagner's resilience under Danny Hurley, and the foundation for local success has been built.

Friday, December 10, 2010

This Week's Starting Five

Here's another new feature on the blog as we get closer to the start of conference play, (unless you're the NEC, whose conference openers were played last week in their unique split-season league ledger) taking a look at the happenings around the college hoops world earlier this week and previewing what's to come tomorrow:

  • Jimmy V Classic
We learned quite a lot from the Tuesday night tango at Madison Square Garden. Even without Josh Selby, (who makes his long-awaited return next week) Kansas proved they are capable of making the long run to what could be the Jayhawks' second national championship in four years. What has impressed me the most about Bill Self's squad is the ability to rely on not just the Morris twins in the absence of Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. Tyshawn Taylor and sixth man Thomas Robinson have been among the most critical components on this powerhouse, with Robinson pulling down six rebounds a night on average while only playing sixteen minutes. The team the Jayhawks beat is no slouch either, as Memphis is still dangerous even without the now-injured Wesley Witherspoon, who will miss the next five weeks following knee surgery.

In the nightcap at the "World's Most Famous Arena," one team showed they are still not there yet, while the other proved themselves in a big-game atmosphere. While Michigan State will indeed be the dominant squad many expect them to be come March, (I picked them to cut down the nets in Houston before the season started) Tom Izzo's boys still have some kinks to be worked out, as they usually do in nonconference play. Izzo even admitted his team was "spent" by their schedule that included an appearance in the Maui Invitational, a road game at Duke and a de facto road game against Syracuse at the Garden. On top of that, Kalin Lucas is still not fully recovered from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in the Spartans' second round NCAA Tournament victory over Maryland last March. On the other side of the court, Syracuse finally came out to play after a few nonconference scares; and of all the players I expected to have breakout seasons for Jim Boeheim, (namely Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche) none stood out more than senior Rick Jackson, who underwent a total makeover during the offseason. Jackson has arrived leaner and more dominant on the court for his final campaign in an Orange uniform, shedding his image as a big man who was done in by foul trouble to the tune of 17 points and 16 rebounds in 'Cuse's 72-58 win over Sparty.

  • Hopes and dreams in a hard cast
If you're a Duke fan, you're holding your breath when it comes to freshman point guard Kyrie Irving and hoping he's back in the 3-4 weeks he's now predicted to miss with his toe injury. If you're an opponent of the Blue Devils, "out for the season" is what you want to hear. As much as the North Carolina fan in me does not want to see Irving destroy the Tar Heels, losing him would be a major blow to the game as he really is a special player, averaging 17.4 points per game and being the biggest reason why Mike Krzyzewski is undefeated this season. If you haven't seen his 31-point performance against Michigan State last week, you need to catch up once the rookie makes his return.

  • Speaking of freshmen...
Irving isn't the only first-year guy to make an impact, and he's not the only one I was wrong about either. Before the season started, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger struck me as a little overrated, and I'm not going to lie. It only took two games to change that opinion after his 26-point, 10-rebound performance against a then-No. 10 Florida team on the road in Gainesville. Little did I know that that was only the beginning for the Buckeye forward, who posted a school-record for freshmen with 40 points (and 13 rebounds as well) in last night's comeback victory over IUPUI. Sullinger will probably be one-and-done, but he will no doubt be a top 5 pick in June's NBA draft. However, he'll lead Thad Matta deep into the NCAA Tournament before that, you heard it here first.

  • SEC-Big East Invitational
After losing to North Carolina this past Saturday, I mentioned on Twitter (those who tweet can follow me at @DalyDoseofHoops) that the Wildcats still had to show me something if they really are better than John Calipari's Elite Eight team of one season ago. While Wednesday's 72-58 decision over Notre Dame wasn't the cure to every Big Blue problem, it certainly was a step in the right direction. With Tom Crean and Indiana coming in tomorrow, the Wildcats cannot afford to take a step backwards even though their schedule gets a little easier in the near future. The interleague exhibition resumes tomorrow from Pittsburgh highlighted by the No. 3 Pitt Panthers squaring off against Tennessee, who already owns a key win against the Big East in their Preseason NIT upset of Villanova. The key for the Vols will be their scoring from the wing and interior, and Pitt will be challenged to stop the one-two punch of Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris.

  • We are...
After seven games, 5-2 is respectable for St. John's even after a deflating home loss to St. Bonaventure this past Tuesday. At the Johnnies' pregame press conference this afternoon, senior guard Dwight Hardy mentioned the need to "dominate" the Red Storm's next opponent, which is Tom Pecora's Fordham team. The Rams, led by sophomore Chris Gaston, will need to rely on their long-distance prowess to break Steve Lavin's zone defense; and will also need to hit their free throws, something St. John's struggles with as well. This game looks like a convincing Red Storm win on the surface, but could be closer than expected if both teams fail to execute at Rose Hill Gym in the Bronx.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Mid-Major Mayhem

While St. John's may be New York's college basketball team, don't sleep on St. Francis; as Akeem Bennett and the Terriers are off to surprising 2-0 NEC start. (Photo courtesy of

I've made many mentions to "game of the year" matchups in recent posts; and out of the few to live up to the hype, no one could have suggested the closest match to hype and actual on-court epic would come from a school just outside Pittsburgh and their conference rival who plays on a court in Brooklyn that resembles a high school gym at a campus that looks like an office building.

Welcome to mid-major basketball.

Last night, St. Francis pulled off what I consider to be the most complete and thrilling forty minutes on the court this season by upsetting two-time reigning Northeast Conference champion Robert Morris on the Terriers' home court at the Pope Center by the final of 65-63. St. Francis (3-3, 2-0 in the NEC) was aided immensely by the Colonials landing themselves in foul trouble throughout the second half. In fact, St. Francis scored all of their final six points on free throws in the final 31 seconds. Senior guard Akeem Bennett led the way for the Terriers with 26 points, and not only drilled the final two foul shots; but provided the block on Robert Morris' final shot attempt that could have sent this thriller into overtime. Before you ask, this has nothing to do with the fact that I am the Terriers' basketball public address announcer and on-air personality for other sports at St. Francis. There is no bias here.

Ricky Cadell, Bennett's senior backcourt partner, added 18 of his own as the Terriers improved to 3-0 at home under new head coach and former Terrier assistant Glenn Braica. Robert Morris fell to 3-4, and 1-1 in the NEC with the loss in a game that was attended by former RMU coach and current Rutgers head man Mike Rice, who is doing quite well in his first season in Piscataway; and also impressed me by remembering me from our encounter back at Big East media day this past October.

St. Francis continues their homestand this Tuesday night against Colgate as the Terriers return to the nonconference portion of their schedule.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Postgame Shootaround: Michigan State vs. Duke

After last night's 31-point virtuoso outing against Michigan State, Kyrie Irving is clearly living up to the hype for Duke. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

In the pregame preview for Michigan State-Duke, I alluded to the fact that this was one matchup that could live up to its "game of the year" hype. Less than 24 hours following the clash at Cameron, I will affirm my belief while providing some reflections from last night's encounter in Durham.

  • #1 in your programs, #1 overall in June.
After last night, there is no doubt in my mind anymore as to how good Duke guard Kyrie Irving really is. The freshman went off for 31 points in the Blue Devils' 84-79 win, scoring 18 in the first half while holding Kalin Lucas scoreless through the first 20 minutes. Irving is more than likely one-and-done, (much to the dismay of Duke fans) and showed that the No. 1 overall pick is his to lose heading into next June's NBA draft.
  • This game was brought to you by the letter "K."
In addition to Irving and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, numerous other "K" men made an impression last night, with Korie Lucious leading the Spartans with 20. Not to be outdone were Kalin Lucas (14) and Duke's Kyle Singler, who had 15.
  • Michigan State's loss does not diminish the Big Ten.
Even though the ACC had the last laugh in the annual challenge between the two conferences, the Big Ten is still the second-strongest league in the country, and could possibly be the best depending on how the Big East ends up when conference play starts at the end of this month. With Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin all on the Spartans' level, five teams can legitimately call themselves conference champion material.
  • Last night was a "Rocky" game for both teams.
For those unsure of what I mean by this, I'll explain. Both the winner and loser were unhurt by this game in the big picture. In fact, both schools have a lot to gain from their meeting. The Apollo Creed of this matchup (Duke) maintained its undefeated record and No. 1 ranking, but Michigan State (playing the role of Rocky Balboa) gained more credibility from those who thought they would be no match for Duke by playing the reigning national champions to a five-point defeat.
  • Not only "game of the year..."
...but also potential national championship preview. Seeing as how Duke remains the class of the ACC and also how Michigan State consistently turns it up a notch in conference play every year, it wouldn't surprise me to see these two face off again this April in Houston, with the title possibly hanging in the balance.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Full Court Press: MSU-Duke Preview

If nothing else, tonight's clash at Cameron Indoor Stadium between Michigan State and Duke should be a coaching clinic between Tom Izzo (photo courtesy of New York Daily News) and Mike Krzyzewski. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

The hype finally comes to a head in Durham tonight with the first of many potential "game of the year" matchups. Forty minutes after Michigan State takes the Cameron Indoor Stadium court against Duke, we'll see whether or not all the hyperbole was well deserved. Until then, our "full court press" pregame preview segment makes its debut by sizing up the Spartans and Blue Devils.

#6 Michigan State Spartans (5-1)
Head Coach: Tom Izzo

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Kalin Lucas (6-1 Sr., 17.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 51% FG, 74% FT, 48% 3pt)
SG: Durrell Summers (6-5 Sr., 15.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 47% FG, 61% FT, 44% 3pt)
SF: Draymond Green (6-7 Jr., 14.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 4.2 APG, 2.2 SPG, 1.8 BPG, 58% FG, 55% FT, 50% 3pt)
PF: Delvon Roe (6-8 Jr., 6.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.5 BPG44% FG, 79% FT)
C: Garrick Sherman (6-10 So., 6.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 78% FG, 33% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Austin Thornton (6-5 Jr., 3.8 PPG, 53% FG, 4-4 FT, 38% 3pt)
G Korie Lucious (5-11 Jr., 7.0 PPG, 3.8 APG, 32% FG, 6-6 FT)
G Keith Appling (6-1 Fr., 6.5 PPG, 46% FG, 93% FT, 50% 3pt)

Keys To Victory:
Back To Front - Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers have arguably the most important matchups tonight as they draw Duke's backcourt of freshman Kyrie Irving and senior Nolan Smith. If Izzo decides to start Thornton over Green, it could create a matchup disadvantage early with Thornton giving up three inches to Kyle Singler on the wing for the Blue Devils. However, Izzo's deep and outside-talented bench could force Duke into a premature shootout with Korie Lucious and freshman Keith Appling more than capable of draining trifectas at any given moment.
Get Me Bodied - Derrick Nix is back with the team after taking some time off during Michigan State's Maui Invitational stint, and Izzo will need him at 100% tonight to contend with Duke's twin towers that are better known as the Plumlee brothers, as well as 6-11 big man Ryan Kelly. Kelly and Miles Plumlee have become this year's version of Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas, as both are interchangeable big men that give Duke the physical and imposing paint presence it needs to hold serve on their home court.
Green With Envy - Draymond Green has been one of the team's two most valuable players, and is probably the best matchup for Kyle Singler both inside and outside. The junior's rugged athleticism will be problematic for Duke's All-American if Tom Izzo opts to match him up with Singler, who could be forced into a giving mood if he does not get the open looks he desires.

#1 Duke Blue Devils (6-0)
Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Kyrie Irving (6-2 Fr., 14.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.5 SPG, 49% FG, 92% FT, 41% 3pt)
SG: Nolan Smith (6-2 Sr., 16.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.7 APG, 53% FG, 70% FT)
SF: Kyle Singler (6-8 Sr., 16.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 45% FG, 95% FT, 37% 3pt)
PF: Mason Plumlee (6-10 So., 11.0 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 62% FG, 40% FT)
C: Ryan Kelly (6-10 So, 5.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 61% FG, 60% FT, 71% 3pt)

Key Reserves:
F Miles Plumlee (6-10 Jr., 4.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 53% FG, 62% FT)
G Andre Dawkins (6-4 So., 11.7 PPG, 56% FG, 77% FT, 55% 3pt)
G Seth Curry (6-1 So., 9.0 PPG, 1.8 APG, 1.7 SPG, 34% FG, 90% FT, 48% 3pt)

Keys To Victory:
Kyrie Eleison - It's time for Kyrie Irving to show what he's made of on the big stage, and his matchup with Kalin Lucas is by far his stiffest competition to date since arriving in Durham after playing for Kevin Boyle at St. Patrick's in New Jersey. Irving has proven himself to be the real deal early on, and could make a name for himself as America's best freshman with an outstanding effort tonight.
All In The Family - The Plumlee brothers have exploited opposing teams' undersized lineups throughout the season, and if the Blue Devils want to continue their torrid start to their title defense, Coach K will need that from the duo again versus Michigan State's frontcourt of Garrick Sherman, Derrick Nix and Delvon Roe. If Duke can force the Spartans into foul trouble, it could mean extended minutes for freshman Adreian Payne, an ideal situation for Duke given Sparty's relative youth up front.
Spread The Love - Not only can Duke shoot, but they're also much more gifted from a passing perspective than the world gives them credit for. If Duke can control shot selection while simultaneously avoiding a long-distance duel, Michigan State will be in for a long night.

So, Who Wins?
This is where you finally say "it took long enough" to reference the Cameron Crazies and the massive homecourt advantage the fans give the Blue Devils in their tiny residence. In fact, the last time a non-ACC team defeated Duke in Durham was ten years ago when St. John's did it back in February of 2000. However, the Blue Devils haven't had (no disrespect to Marquette, and Kansas State was out of their element early in the CBE Classic championship game) the opportunity to face a complete team the likes of Michigan State. In a matchup of experience versus experience, the team with two straight Final Four appearances pulls out a squeaker in Cameron and proves once and for all that records and streaks are indeed made to be broken.

Your Final: Michigan State 79, Duke 75

Monday, November 29, 2010

TCU Two-Steps Mountain West For Big East

Despite being a football school primarily, Gary Patterson and TCU moving to Big East helps the basketball program too. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

After a summer making headlines with the rumored addition of Memphis, Big East expansion is again taking center stage in the sports world. Only the Southern arrival is somewhat different, as Texas Christian has agreed to join what many feel is the strongest conference in the nation. In a developing story broken just three hours ago by legendary New York Daily News scribe Dick "Hoops" Weiss, TCU has accepted an invitation to become the 17th Big East member; and will be officially inducted for all sports on July 1, 2012.

Although TCU is by and a large a football school, the move has implications on all fronts. Of course, the gridiron gets a boost by adding a school that, with an Oregon or Auburn loss, could be playing for a national championship this season; but their basketball program is aided immensely too. Playing in a competitive Mountain West conference with likely tournament teams UNLV and San Diego State will only help the Horned Frogs as they prepare for the Big East, despite the higher degree of competition in arguably the best basketball conference in the country. Head coach Jim Christian is also a Long Island product, which could give TCU an inroad for future recruiting.

The Big East is still looking to expand to eighteen programs, but are unsure at the moment as to who the next debut will come from. Candidates include Central Florida and Houston, as well as the possibility of Villanova (already a member in basketball) moving its football program up from the Football Championship Subdivision. (formerly Division 1-AA)

First Impressions

We're very hard pressed to find anyone that thought Kemba Walker would drive past the competition this early into the season. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

Back at it off the Thanksgiving hiatus, and since there wasn't a Preseason NIT "Postgame Shootaround," I'll try to compensate for everything that happened over the weekend in this post, which features some observations and pleasant surprises after the first month of this season.

Player of the Month: Kemba Walker (UConn)

Not enough can be said about Walker's evolution as he entered his junior campaign, and it's still hard to comprehend that he's done so much so early. The point guard from the Bronx is averaging 30 points per game for the undefeated Huskies, who upended Michigan State and Kentucky on their way to the Maui Invitational championship.

Freshman of the Month: Terrence Jones (Kentucky)

In a rookie class headlined by Kyrie Irving, Harrison Barnes and Jared Sullinger, the Wildcat that almost signed with Washington has proven he belongs in the group of impressive first-year players. John Calipari is no doubt thankful for Jones' 21-point, 10-rebound nightly average, which is supported by shooting 50% from the field and nearly three blocked shots per contest.

Most Improved Player: Mouphtaou Yarou (Villanova)

When I spoke to Jay Wright at Big East media day last month, he was excited about Mouph's return after missing nearly half of his freshman season due to having contracted hepatitis. Wright had every reason to be pumped up for his big man's return, as Yarou has given 'Nova a style that hasn't been on the Main Line in quite some time with their guard-heavy lineups. The sophomore from Benin may only be averaging just under eleven points per game, but backs it up with 8.5 rebounds a night and a 60% shooting percentage.

Breakout Player of the Month: Justin Brownlee (St. John's)

Unless you're Red Storm coach Steve Lavin, you probably didn't have the "Johnny quicker picker upper" atop your list of players to watch in Queens. That's why the 6-7 senior has proven nearly everyone in the country wrong. Brownlee almost singlehandedly won the Great Alaska Shootout after D.J. Kennedy didn't have the tournament he had hoped for, and he shows no sign of easing up anytime soon. (For more on Brownlee, click here for this feature article written by my colleague Tim Dimas of WSJU Radio and

Definitely NOT Overrated: Tennessee

I was convinced of this in person Friday afternoon when the Vols outmuscled and outplayed Villanova to win the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden, and they gave VCU more than just a fight in their semifinal on Wednesday. Despite his shortcomings and criticism, Bruce Pearl can coach; and his players are more than happy to prove themselves on the court. Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum are two of the most under-the-radar scorers in the country; and if he stays beyond his freshman season, Tobias Harris could become one of the greatest players in not just Tennessee history, but SEC history as well.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Postgame Shootaround: Maui Invitational

So last night in Maui turned out completely unlike what I predicted in this space 24 hours ago, as UConn and Kentucky managed to win and provide us a Cal vs. Cal championship game, with Michigan State and Washington playing the consolation game for third place. Without further ado, my musings on the Hawaii hysteria:
  • If you don't know, now you know.
Kemba Walker gave us another superhuman outing with 30 points against the Spartans, limiting point guard counterpart Kalin Lucas to just 10 as Sparty was forced to have Draymond Green carry the team on his back. If you had told me Walker would be averaging 30.3 points per game, I would have called you crazy more than once; but the Bronx native is getting the job done for Jim Calhoun and will have freshman Brandon Knight to contend with tonight.
  • Speaking of freshmen...
Knight isn't even the best first-year guy on his own team. That honor is befallen upon Terrence Jones, whose 16 points and 17 rebounds helped Kentucky defeat Washington to advance to meet the Huskies. Jones continues to average a double-double in each contest, with his last one coming against a team he almost ended up playing for had it not been for a last-minute change of heart that saw him take his game to Lexington in an attempt to bring the Wildcats their first national championship since 1998.
  • The players may change, but the results remain the same.
I once again have to take a line from my friend and former colleague Joe Benigno, who has used this tag in many WFAN rants about his beloved New York Jets, because it applies to John Calipari. For all the great talent Calipari recruits on an annual basis, (even though most of it leaves for the NBA in that same time period) one thing has remained an unfortunate constant for Coach Cal: Free throw line inefficiency. The Wildcats could have beaten Washington by double digits if they made foul shots down the stretch as opposed to the 72-67 final margin. However, in typical Calipari team fashion, foul shooting down the stretch almost doomed the Wildcats in much the same manner that it cost Calipari's Memphis team the national championship back in 2008.
  • So who wins tonight?
First off, Michigan State actually gets off easy playing Washington in the third place game, as Kentucky (despite their charity stripe shortcomings) would have been a tougher and much harder to predict matchup for the Spartans. Tom Izzo needs only to focus on Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning even though Lorenzo Romar spreads the love, as noted by his five players averaging more than 10 points a contest. Where outside shooting was key for Sparty last night, tonight the biggest determining factor is guard play. Kalin Lucas needs to step up and show the world the player he has become over the last three years as opposed to the lackluster 10-point effort against UConn. Michigan State will win, but Washington will make the Spartans earn it.

In the championship, Kentucky has the marquee freshman talent, but they don't have the man who, if the season ended today, would be the Naismith and Wooden Award winner. Expect Kemba Walker to run circles around the Wildcat backcourt tonight. I mentioned UConn is a lot better than people give them credit for, even their own coach. I asked Jim Calhoun last month at Big East media day whether or not UConn would be a "sleeping giant," and he honestly didn't know. Tonight, the giant gets awakened and UConn solidifies themselves as more than just an also-ran, with Calhoun once again getting the better of Calipari in this latest chapter of their storied rivalry.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Postgame Shootaround: 2-3 Zone Edition

We'll take a different approach this time around with a "2-3 zone" edition of our traditional recap. For those unsure about how 2-3 zone will be applied here, it means we'll recap two games and preview three that will take place tonight.

  • Marquette still doesn't know just how good it is.
Buzz Williams's squad played their hearts out in an 82-77 loss to Duke last night, and that performance against a team most feel is the best in the land will only increase the number of Golden Eagles supporters. Jimmy Butler paced Marquette with 22 while newcomer Jae Crowder chipped in with 15 off the bench. However, a weakness Marquette has always had is its size, which was exploited by the Blue Devils throughout the night despite the presence of 6-10 center Chris Otule for Marquette. Mason Plumlee led Duke with 25 points and 12 rebounds, but it wasn't the rout everyone expected as Marquette remained within striking distance in each of the forty minutes.
  • It's not too late to jump on the K-State bandwagon.
After K-State dismantled a trendy Final Four pick in Gonzaga, one can expect absolute delirium tonight at the Sprint Center when the Wildcats play Duke. (we'll have more on that later) Frank Martin's team has shown that there is life without Denis Clemente and did it again last night behind their trio of guards. Jacob Pullen led the way with 18 and Rodney McGruder came within a rebound of a double-double.
  • Tonight features the first of many Final Four previews.
Duke and Kansas State (CBE Classic championship) will be, in essence, a de facto home game for the Wildcats, and it will be interesting to see how Frank Martin uses the atmosphere to his advantage. While it has come as a surprise to many that Will Spradling has yet to break into the starting lineup, I feel like Martin is doing himself a favor by leaving the lineup the way it is. When used right, Spradling reminds me of a smaller Corey Stokes in that he can just come in at any given time and start firing from beyond the arc the way Stokes has done at Villanova throughout his career. For the reigning national champions, the key to victory is simple: Exploit Plumlee as they did last night against Marquette, and the game will be theirs to control. Pullen against Kyrie Irving will be an underrated matchup to watch, as the freshman Irving looks more than just legitimate at the point for Mike Krzyzewski. As much as certain fans would like to see K-State win, (and if they do, they'll probably move up to No. 1 in the polls next week) Duke remains at this time the better team, and will pull out a squeaker.
  • Pullen vs. Irving is good...
...but Kalin Lucas vs. Kemba Walker is even better. Michigan State and UConn (Maui Invitational semifinals) will meet for the first time since their Final Four matchup at Ford Field in 2009, this time on a neutral court since the Final Four game was practically a Spartan home game. While Michigan State is virtually the same team from that game, (save for Goran Suton, Travis Walton and Raymar Morgan) UConn only has one player who saw significant minutes against the Spartans, and that is the aforementioned Walker. So far this season, the Rice product has gone off for 18, (Stony Brook) 42, (Vermont) and 31, (Wichita State) with 29 of those 31 coming in the second half for the Huskies' junior point guard. In Lucas, Walker gets his first real test at the position, defending against one of the most complete players in the country even after the Achilles injury that sidelined him during Michigan State's run to the Final Four. For the Spartans, Draymond Green is averaging a double-double while Delvon Roe is finally starting to show signs of his former dominant self before knee problems limited his capabilities. Just like the Duke-Kansas State game, there is one key and it is outside shooting. UConn isn't the most gifted from long range, and if Durrell Summers and Korie Lucious are on target tonight, this game could get ugly real fast. UConn is better than critics are giving them credit for, but Michigan State will be focused more than ever after toying with Chaminade last night and playing that game closer than expected. The Spartans should win convincingly.
  • The winner of this game...
...plays the winner of Kentucky vs. Washington, which is the other Maui Invitational semifinal. The most impressive thing about the Huskies is how well Lorenzo Romar has had them playing as a team. Five players are averaging more than ten points per game and two others average over nine a contest. Isaiah Thomas has been the most valuable, stepping into the role vacated by Quincy Pondexter and running this offense. Of course, John Calipari's latest group of freshmen has stolen the headlines once again, and the subplot here will be Wildcats freshman Terrence Jones. Jones is averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds per night, and if you remember, he had given Washington a verbal commitment over the summer only to renege at the last minute and sign with Calipari, bolstering his already stellar group of first-year talent. Kentucky has been pleasantly surprising from long range, particularly behind guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, the latter serving as Calipari's sixth man through the early stages of the season. While this group of Kentucky freshmen is (in my opinion) more talented than last year's class of Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe, there will be moments and opportunities for maturity for the Wildcats. One of those will come tonight as Washington gets what some feel will be an upset win, but a quality nonconference victory on a neutral court.