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.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hazell, Pirates Catch Bad Break

Seton Hall now faces more adversity as leading scorer Jeremy Hazell will miss next 4-6 weeks with broken left wrist. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

If you know anything about Seton Hall basketball, you can tell someone right away that a large part of the Pirates' success under first-year coach Kevin Willard depends upon the productivity of senior guard Jeremy Hazell, who entered this season with a chance to become the leading scorer in school history. Unfortunately, Seton Hall will now look to other options to pick up the slack after Hazell broke his left (non-shooting) wrist in the Pirates' Paradise Jam win against Alabama. The injury will sideline him for approximately four to six weeks.

Hazell lit up the Crimson Tide for 27 points before departing, and was averaging 24 points per contest while taking only 38 shots this season. With their primary option out of the lineup, expectations are that Jamel Jackson and Fuquan Edwin could be the first choices to pick up the slack until Hazell comes back.

Yesterday, I tweeted that Hazell's injury was a "good news/bad news" situation, (you can follow me on Twitter by going to by the way) with the bad news being Hazell's scoring would be vacated from the lineup. However, the good news (if there is any in South Orange) is that Hazell should be ready to go for the Pirates' Big East opener against South Florida on December 28th.

Postgame Shootaround: Tournament Edition

As the in-season tournaments heat up, we'll share some insights from the 2K Sports Classic and Puerto Rico Tip-Off as we prepare for the next round highlighted by the Great Alaska Shootout and Maui Invitational.
  • The Big East already has a rookie of the year frontrunner.
The name at the top of that list is Pitt forward Talib Zanna. In our recap of the Panthers' season-opening win over Rhode Island, we mentioned how everyone held the redshirt freshman in high regard before even playing a game; and after an ankle injury sidelined him last year, Zanna is making up for lost time and cementing himself as the long-awaited replacement for DeJuan Blair in the process.
  • Texas may not be a crazy pick to win the Big 12.
That's because the Longhorns are more talented than they let on, with freshmen Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson maturing far beyond their years. The loss of Damion James and Dexter Pittman will only be felt stronger as the season progresses, but Rick Barnes clearly has a lot to look forward to based on his performance at Madison Square Garden, especially from swingman Jordan Hamilton.
  • Demetri McCamey made the right decision to stay in school.
That is unless you're a Big Ten school other than Illinois, as McCamey has raised the bar in his senior season. Under his floor leadership, Bruce Weber has his most talented team in Champaign since 2005, when Deron Williams and Dee Brown quarterbacked the Illini into the national championship game. Big Ten fans (and college basketball fans in general) will be eagerly anticipating Illinois squaring off against Michigan State to see McCamey match up against All-American Kalin Lucas.
  • Maryland is a work in progress.
Gary Williams knew losing Greivis Vasquez would be hard to overcome heading into the 2010-11 campaign, but the Terps showed flashes of veteran brilliance against both Pitt and Illinois. However, Jordan Williams can't do it all himself. The 6-10 sophomore is playing like a young Blake Griffin (he looks a little like him too) when he doesn't get into foul trouble, and the whole team is deadly with their willingness to take open mid-range shots.
  • Don't expect the world from Harrison Barnes.
Just because the freshman superstar didn't make a shot against Minnesota doesn't mean Chapel Hill needs to be up in arms, but of course the Carolina fans have a different perception of reality. Barnes will develop at his own pace, and already he has demonstrated the ability to make the players around him better, with sophomore John Henson the primary example, averaging a double-double every game.
  • Is West Virginia better than last year?
The answer to that question may very well be yes, as Bob Huggins has managed to retool the Mountaineers and turn them into a solid all-around unit despite losing his two leading scorers. One name to keep an eye on this season will be Casey Mitchell. Not one of Huggins' preferred options last season, Mitchell made the coach rethink his strategy with 31 points against Vanderbilt, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Postgame Shootaround: St. John's vs. St. Mary's

The Steve Lavin era finally reached its much-anticipated debut, and unfortunately for the Johnnies, it was not a winning one; as St. Mary's rode the sharp shooting of junior Clint Steindl to a 76-71 victory. Even in a game loaded with moments that would have WFAN's Joe Benigno going on a rant for the ages if he were a Red Storm fan, there are many more positives to take from Lavin's return as St. John's returns home tomorrow night for their Carnesecca Arena opener against Columbia. On a side note, since I brought up Benigno, I would also like to mention that tomorrow night's game will also be a battle of update anchors at "The Fan." Not only does midday anchor John Minko serve as the radio voice of the Johnnies, but morning man Jerry Recco provides play-by-play for the visiting Lions.

Okay, I digress. Back to reality, and some of the nuggets that stand out from this morning's (unless you're still on the West Coast, then it's last night's) battle.
  • The tale of two halves lives on.
After holding a 31-28 intermission lead, the Johnnies unfortunately reprised their Dickens-esque play from last season with their inability to score early in the final stanza; paving the way for a 14-0 St. Mary's run that put the Gaels up by 13.
  • No Samhan, no problem.
St. Mary's proved there is life without their big man, with Clint Steindl leading all scorers with 22 points while Matthew Dellavedova added 15 off the bench. Steindl scored all but one of his 22 from beyond the arc with seven trifectas, effectively beating the 2-3 zone Lavin employed defensively.
  • Dwayne Polee is one special player.
If you read one of my recent pieces on, you'll find that I compared Polee's quiet confidence to my own when I started doing play-by-play for WSJU Radio when I was still in school at St. John's. With 16 points and an impressive dunk in the first half, Polee lived up to his own expectations, and everyone is saying the same thing about him that was said about me: "This kid's really good!" Those who know me well know that I'm much more humble when it comes to compliments if you're scoring at home.
  • These aren't the Johnnies of years past.
Under the defensive-minded style of Norm Roberts, St. John's wasn't a candidate to light up the scoreboard. Under Lavin, however, their style is much more uptempo. Aside from their 100-point exhibition outburst last week, the Red Storm turned a defensive chess match midway through the second half (44-40 with under eight minutes to go) into a track meet down the stretch, ultimately staying within reach all night before coming up just short.
  • Double your pleasure, double your fun.
Two guards named Malik, two guards that post career-high scoring totals while reaching double figures. Malik Boothe turned back the clock to his Christ the King days with 15, while Malik Stith added 13 off the bench and was especially vital to the Johnnies' survival late in the game with an impressive effort on both sides of the ball.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Postgame Shootaround: Seton Hall

After about a week away, it's time to continue our "Postgame Shootaround" with the now 1-1 Seton Hall Pirates. Despite opening with a loss to Temple this past Friday, the Pirates righted the ship with a thoroughly convincing drubbing of reigning Ivy League champ Cornell. Below are some of the things you can take from each game, starting with the first one against the Owls; and what Seton Hall can do to improve as the season moves on:

  • Shot selection is more important than who takes the shots.
Midway through the first half against Temple, the Pirates couldn't buy a basket; and most of their scoring drought was fueled by players rushing their attempts as opposed to thinking shots through. The Cornell win could not be more different, as everything clicked for Seton Hall en route to a 92-68 demolition of the Big Red.
  • As the Pirates' Big Three go, so too goes the team.
With the exception of Jeremy Hazell, Jeff Robinson and Herb Pope had games they would like to forget against Temple, Pope in particular going 2-for-10 in a night filled with missed chip shots. Yesterday afternoon against Cornell, Robinson added ten rebounds while Pope drained his second 3-pointer in as many games. If nothing else, at least Pope has added an outside element to his game similar to Justin Burrell during his sophomore season two years ago at St. John's.
  • Jordan Theodore looks like he's living up to the hype.
Only those close to the game know how good Theodore really is, and my colleague and college basketball insider Jon Rothstein of 1050 ESPN Radio in New York believes the Paterson Catholic product is the "most underrated guard in the Big East" as he enters his junior season. Theodore validated Rothstein's faith yesterday with a well-rounded 10 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, and has admittedly spoken about "being ready for the challenge" of leading this team under new head coach Kevin Willard.
  • The Pirates still need contributions from a number of others.
Ferrakohn Hall has only managed just nine points in the first two contests, while transfer Eniel Polynice has opened his debut campaign in the Garden State 1-for-12 from the field. Moreover, Fuquan Edwin, Theodore's high school teammate who surprisingly got the start in each game this past weekend, is only averaging three points a night; while Keon Lawrence has still yet to return to the form he once showed consistently at the University of Missouri.
  • The Paradise Jam could be deceptively helpful to this team.
Matchups against Alabama and either Iowa or Xavier aren't exactly the most favorable for a team this time of year, but they will provide experience against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, as Anthony Grant is now starting to prepare the Tide as he did VCU a few years back; and Xavier is always a force to be reckoned with. Should Seton Hall face Iowa, it would be an interesting battle as the Pirates face new Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery, who was long rumored to be the man who would replace Bobby Gonzalez in New Jersey before leaving Siena for the Midwest.

Just remember: If you can't get to the Pirates on TV or WABC, (770 AM) you can also listen to every Pirate basketball contest (men's and women's) on WSOU-FM, (89.5 FM or with Jason Guerette one of the many announcers on the on-campus student radio station of Seton Hall University.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Postgame Shootaround: Pitt vs. Rhode Island

This is the debut of a new feature, one where we'll recap a game and what you can take from it going forward through the season. First impressions are huge in college basketball, and last night's matchup between No. 4 Pittsburgh and Rhode Island went a long way in determining not just what to watch for, but what both teams are made of. In last night's battle, Rhode Island came to play early and demonstrated a knack for hitting outside shots before falling to the Panthers 83-75 at the Petersen Center. If you didn't see the game, you missed a really good one; but hopefully this will get you caught up and help prepare you for what lies ahead.
  • Brad Wanamaker is an elite player.
Don't believe anything that says otherwise as Jamie Dixon's senior guard has made a name for himself one too many times. Last night proved his clutch ability once again, as he made several huge plays that won't show up in the box score that sealed Pitt's victory down the stretch. What does show up in the stat lines is 24 points, 8 assists and 10-of-13 from the free throw line.
  • Remember this name: Talib Zanna.
Everyone raved about this kid a year ago before he even played a game. Now a redshirt freshman, Zanna showed that he could potentially be the heir apparent to DeJuan Blair with nine points and eleven rebounds. It will be interesting to see how Dixon uses his young forward as the season progresses.
  • Don't be afraid to go outside against Pitt.
This applies primarily to Big East teams like Villanova, Syracuse and even St. John's among others, teams that rely on long-range shooting to win games. Rhode Island shot 44% from beyond the arc last night (14-for-32) and seemed to will one 3 after another into the basket to keep the game within reach. For the Panthers, guarding against triple threats the likes of Corey Stokes, Brandon Triche and Dwight Hardy will need to become a greater priority in conference play.
  • Rick Pitino hit the nail on the head at Big East media day.
The Louisville coach told me last month that there was "no lock at the top" of the conference. After watching Rhode Island expose the Panthers and battle them throughout, Pitino was either prophetic or just simply knows what he's talking about, and it's definitely the latter. Rhode Island's efforts will be on the minds of mid-majors and fringe Top 25 teams that are playing the Big East during the season, and the chance of an upset is always there.
  • The Atlantic 10 isn't a two-team league this year.
Looking at all the predictions, it seems like Temple and Xavier were the only A-10 programs getting a great deal of hype. Add Rhode Island into that mix after what they gave you for forty minutes last night, and don't forget reigning NIT champion Dayton and NCAA Tournament participant Richmond, whose matchups against Seton Hall later in the year are now more appetizing than they originally were.
  • Both teams walk away winners in the grand scheme of things.
Even though it was Pitt who moved to 1-0 in the books, both teams were given the gift of being battle-tested early in the season. Jamie Dixon even said in his postgame press conference that Rhode Island was "too good to play this early on" in the season. The Panthers don't get it any easier as they head to Madison Square Garden next week to play Maryland and then either Texas or Illinois, while the Rams can use their back class in winnable nonconference games against Davidson, Providence and Boston College. Rhode Island also gets Florida later on in the year in Gainesville in a game that should be very similar to this one.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Champagne Super 'Nova

Despite losing his best player, Jay Wright has reloaded Villanova enough to the point where Wildcats remain Big East favorites. (Photo courtesy of Boston Globe)

After being a top 10 team for most of the season, Villanova's sensational run came to a startling halt at the hands of St. Mary's in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Seven months following that shocking defeat, I had the privilege of speaking with Jay Wright (a privilege that I am always grateful for) at last month's Big East media day. Being somewhat of a 'Nova fan in addition to my media status, I look forward to my engagements with Wright; and naturally the first question that came to mind is whether or not his team remained "humble, but hungry," a mantra the Wildcats adopted in practice going into last season as they attempted to replicate their run to the Final Four for the first time since 'Nova brought a miraculous national championship to the Main Line as a 9 seed in 1985. Needless to say, Wright quickly assured me that the demeanor around the practice court hasn't changed; and after losing seniors Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding, two players that Wright and I agreed were the "heart and soul" of the program, the Wildcats will need that "humble, but hungry" attitude to bring 'Nova Nation another long and prosperous month of March.

In Reynolds' absence, Corey Fisher will most likely be the primary option; and if you've watched the Bronx product evolve over the years since arriving as a freshman three years ago, you'll agree that he could easily be crowned the conference player of the year in the Big East. Fellow senior Corey Stokes will join Fisher in the backcourt, and Wright insists that the Coreys are definitely not lost boys. "They've been everything we expected," said the coach of his fourth-year backcourt anchors. Maalik Wayns steps up from a stellar freshman campaign into the starting lineup, with Antonio Pena back at power forward for his senior season. After missing most of the early portion of last season due to contracting hepatitis, center Mouphtaou Yarou is back and is healthy.

The Wildcats' bench will most likely be paced by Dominic Cheek, who goes into his sophomore year as the team's sixth man and his presence on the floor may once again provide Wright with the ability to play his unorthodox yet effective four guard lineup. In fact, the coach is looking forward to playing "four quick," telling me emphatically "Oh yeah!" when I asked of the feasibility of a four-guard lineup. Wright also hinted that the team may also play some zone defense, a change from years past that was implemented in 'Nova's exhibition against the University of the District of Columbia. Bishop Loughlin (NY) product JayVaughn Pinkston looks like the most promising freshman on Wright's roster, and hopes are he could be as good as Curtis Sumpter, the last Loughlin recruit to play on the Main Line.

The Wildcats open their season Friday at the Pavilion against Bucknell before they progress to the Preseason NIT. When I asked Wright about the importance of potentially playing in Madison Square Garden before the Big East tournament, he boldly stated "if you can get here and play on this floor before the Big East tournament, it's an added benefit." Villanova heads into its annual Big 5 schedule from there against Philadelphia rivals St. Joe's, Penn, La Salle and Temple. The Wildcats' Big East opener comes against Rutgers on January 2nd at the Pavilion.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Boeheim Gets Some Orange Aid

Now a sophomore, Syracuse guard Brandon Triche is one of biggest keys of the season for Jim Boeheim and the Orange. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

At Big East media day two weeks ago, Syracuse was not surprisingly picked to finish near the top of the conference. What was surprising was when I noticed the poll at Madison Square Garden and saw the Orange picked lower than they should be. Despite losing three of their top four scorers; including reigning conference player of the year and Minnesota Timberwolves No. 1 pick Wes Johnson, Syracuse comes back bigger and maybe better than last year for the immortal legend that is Jim Boeheim.

Johnson, power forward Arinze Onuaku and sharpshooting guard Andy Rautins are gone, (Rautins was drafted by the Knicks and Onuaku was undrafted) but the Orange have reloaded with freshman sensation Fab Melo among others. The hype surrounding the Brazilian seven-footer was so immense that he was named the preseason rookie of the year, and Boeheim mentioned that he and the other freshmen on the roster will be able to contribute right away. Besides Melo, the rookie class also includes guard Dion Waiters, a 6-4 Philadelphia native who will see noticeable action as Boeheim's sixth man.

Waiters will sit behind junior Scoop Jardine and sophomore Brandon Triche on the depth chart in the backcourt, and Boeheim is high on his two other guards. In fact, Triche has "made a big jump" between his freshman and sophomore years according to Boeheim. If the flashes of brilliance and sweet shooting he displayed come back stronger this season, Syracuse fans may not clamor for Rautins (who attended the same high school as Triche) right away.

Up front, the Orange will play their trademark 2-3 zone, with Kris Joseph stepping into the small forward position as he looks to become the next great Syracuse wing, following a Who's Who of players the likes of Johnson, Lawrence Moten and some guy named Carmelo Anthony, who managed to bring Syracuse its only national championship in the one and only year he showcased his talent at the Carrier Dome. Joseph will be joined by power forward Rick Jackson, who returns to the starting five for his senior season; but this time without his longtime rebounding partner Onuaku. When Melo is not on the court, don't be surprised to see sophomore and fellow seven-footer DaShonte Riley in the middle.

The marquee game for Syracuse early in the year (and one I may attend as a fan) is their Jimmy V Classic matchup against Michigan State on December 7th at Madison Square Garden. Normally, one thinks de facto home game when Syracuse takes the court at "The World's Most Famous Arena," and when I asked Boeheim how playing to a sea of orange helps the team, he commented that it not only was "a good venue for us," but also that there "won't be so much orange" when Syracuse returns to the Garden on January 12th to play St. John's and new head coach Steve Lavin in a game sure to resurrect the once-dominant Johnnies-Orange rivalry.

Syracuse opens its Big East slate with a pair of games at the Carrier Dome, hosting Providence on December 28th and Notre Dame on New Year's Day before their first conference road game on January 8th against Seton Hall at the Prudential Center.

Oakland Zoo Opens Its Doors Again

Picked No. 1 in Big East preseason poll, Jamie Dixon and Pitt now face daunting task of living up to the hype. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

They have all the veterans, a necessary ingredient for success in the rugged Big East. For a team that was picked ninth last year and somehow finished second, there really isn't much further to go; but if you're Jamie Dixon and Pitt, you're spending the 2010-11 campaign justifying why you are the consensus choice to win the conference.

While the Panthers do bring back almost everyone off their team last year, including guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker to team with swingman Gilbert Brown and big man Gary McGhee, it remains unclear as to whether or not Pitt can not only hold serve in conference, but finally get over the hump in postseason play. Since Dixon replaced Ben Howland in 2003, the Panthers have made it past the Sweet 16 just once, losing a heartbreaking Elite 8 matchup in 2009 against Big East adversary Villanova on a buzzer-beating runner from Scottie Reynolds.

Dixon and the Panthers don't have it easy on their nonconference schedule, participating in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden with matchups against Maryland and either Texas or Illinois after facing the Terps. Pitt also plays in the new Consol Energy Center against Bruce Pearl and Tennessee before their Big East opener on December 27th against UConn at the Petersen Center.

Mr. Jones And Me...

Kevin Jones steps into the role of the big star at West Virginia following departures of DaSean Butler and Devin Ebanks. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

When you look at West Virginia, the Mountaineers are not the same bunch that knocked off Kentucky on their way to the Final Four. The reigning Big East champions lose DaSean Butler and Devin Ebanks this season, as both have gone to the NBA. Junior Kevin Jones is still there, and the expectation in Morgantown is that the Westchester County native carries the team back to where they ended their season a year ago.

At Big East media day, coach Bob Huggins stated his goal was to be "playing in the last game," and he has a team that is capable of making yet another deep run in the NCAA Tournament despite the loss of their two top scorers. Aside from Jones, Darryl "Truck" Bryant and Joe Mazzulla return in the backcourt for Huggins; who also gets sophomore big man Deniz Kilicli for a full season.

The Mountaineers open their season next Friday at home against Oakland University, significant only for the fact that Oakland guard Larry Wright is a former Big East player, having spent his first two seasons at St. John's. From there, West Virginia plays a very favorable nonconference schedule highlighted by a tournament in Puerto Rico before its Big East opener on December 29th against Steve Lavin and the aforementioned Red Storm.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

By George, They're Back!

If preseason hype is any indication, senior Austin Freeman will be one to watch this season as Georgetown looks to remain dominant in Big East. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

Not very often does a team that loses its best players retool so well to the point where they are just as good, or even better than they were in the previous season. Georgetown is the exception to the rule this year, as the Hoyas are back with guards Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark leading the team after center Greg Monroe decided to forgo his final two seasons to enter the NBA draft, where he was selected seventh overall by the Detroit Pistons this past summer.

Georgetown is normally a team whose big men have historically grabbed the lion's share of the headlines, (Monroe, Roy Hibbert, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, etc.) but Freeman in particular is getting it done from the backcourt. The conference's pick for preseason player of the year, the DeMatha Catholic product is fast becoming the most talked about Hoya guard since a young man named Allen Iverson back in the mid-1990s, and the soft-spoken Marylander has silently backed it up on the hardwood. Just because the Hoyas don't have a forward or center in the spotlight doesn't mean Georgetown's bigs are nonexistent, however. Senior Julian Vaughn and junior Henry Sims anchor the post presence that John Thompson III's squad have become notorious for over the years.

Although the Hoyas have a light nonconference schedule once again, what they lack in number of games, they more than make up for in quality of the games. Georgetown opens a week from Friday on the road against Old Dominion, who advanced to the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament. The Hoyas also have three consecutive games against Big Dance participants Missouri, Utah State and Temple, and travel to Memphis for a matchup with Josh Pastner's Tigers before opening Big East play on December 29th in South Bend against Notre Dame. The Hoyas' home conference opener comes against DePaul on New Year's Day.

The Perfect Storm Rages On

Steve Lavin finally gets to put his work on full display when St. John's opens season against St. Mary's on November 16. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

St. John’s finally takes the court for the first time in the 2010-11 season thirteen days from now when they tip off against St. Mary’s to officially commence the Steve Lavin era. However, as only its New York City locale can do, the hoopla surrounding the Johnnies and the first seven months of the Lavin administration continues to reach crescendos that had been unknown by the program since its 1999 Elite Eight appearance. The most honorable aspect of this additional media attention, you might ask? Lavin and his young charges have refused to let the publicity go to their heads for the most part, and their 46-year-old head man credits the “pragmatic approach” employed by world-renowned UCLA coach John Wooden and newly minted special assistant Gene Keady as the primary reason why he and his team has remained so humble.

Lavin and his staff have approached their maiden voyage at the helm of the Johnnies as one where they are “taking the baton” from predecessor Norm Roberts and continuing along on their climb to the top of the Big East. “We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made,” gushed Lavin during our interview two weeks ago at Big East media day at Madison Square Garden, an event where Lavin was the center of attention for over two hours. Game number one, which comes against a St. Mary’s team that reached the Sweet 16 a year ago and returns four of their five starters from last season will go a long way in determining just how far the Johnnies have come this offseason. ”I thought it was vital that we play a tough road game before we step into the Big East,” Lavin remarked, adding that leading a relatively untested team into tough conference road matchups would be considered a “mistake in our preparation.” St. John’s also matches up with reigning national champion Duke at the Garden, and heads to Pauley Pavilion on February 5th for the much-anticipated Lavin homecoming at Westwood against UCLA, but Lavin and his players are still preparing for their exhibition game Saturday night against Westmont College, whose head coach is Lavin’s brother-in-law.

While Lavin is still undecided about who will ultimately be part of his starting five, he was quick to rattle off the names of players who have really impressed him thus far. Not surprisingly, team leader D.J. Kennedy was the first name dropped by the coach. Although the size and skill of “The Hitman” has elicited praise from Lavin, the coach and his staff would like to “amplify his contributions at the defensive end of the floor.” Lavin also compared sharpshooter Dwight (Sheriff) Hardy to Jason Kapono, the former 3-point shootout champion who Lavin coached at UCLA that had “Reggie Miller range” as described by Lavin.

To use one of Lavin’s favorite words, the coach remained pragmatic when addressing the fact that most, if not all of his team, needs to have a career year to make the Johnnies’ dream of climbing the ladder into a reality. While Lavin insisted more than one player needs to be at his personal best all season, he singled out Justin Brownlee as a player capable of having a breakout season. Lavin’s testimonial didn’t stop there, as he lauded the former junior college standout as being one of the more gifted players on the squad; adding that Brownlee and freshman Dwayne Polee as being able to play four positions on the hardwood.

At Big East media day last week, Marquette coach Buzz Williams appropriately described Lavin’s arrival in Queens as a “perfect storm.” Only two weeks following that quote, the storm is as intense as ever; and appears to be gathering steam with each passing day.

Blue Man Group Returns To Jersey

Herb Pope is back, and so too are three other Seton Hall starters that look to send Pirates to NCAA Tournament for first time since 2004. (Photo courtesy of SportsNet New York)

Last year, they were the kings of the New York area with wins over local rivals St. John's and Rutgers before they were thoroughly humbled against Texas Tech in arguably one of the lowest and most embarrassing games in program history. The new season has now arrived; and after their NIT debacle against the Red Raiders that led to a well-received coaching change, Seton Hall is ready to contend again.

New head coach Kevin Willard inherits four returning starters from last year's team, and has been picked by many as a potential sleeper in the Big East. In fact, college basketball insider Jon Rothstein of 1050 ESPN Radio in New York feels the Pirates were largely injusticed by their 11th-place ranking in the conference's preseason poll, emphatically declaring to me at Big East media day that they would not finish there. Many others share Rothstein's insight, and the Big East newcomer Willard is just as optimistic.

"I've gotten great reaction from the local people," said Willard at Madison Square Garden in response to how his initial seven months at the helm of the Pirates had gone. So far, his style is a stark contrast from that of his predecessor. While Bobby Gonzalez ran up and down the court using only seven or eight players a game, Willard is more defensive-minded and is not afraid to spread the love by going to ten or eleven players in his rotation. Of course, the Pirates' go-to guys remain senior guard Jeremy Hazell and forward Herb Pope, who is once again healthy after an offseason hospital stay. Jeff Robinson also returns for Seton Hall after providing a spark midway through last season in an attempt to return the Pirates to the Big Dance.

Seton Hall opens their season with a matchup against Temple, and the schedule doesn't get much easier, with another nonconference test against NCAA Tournament participant Richmond later in the year. Said Willard at Big East media day: "If you looked at our schedule, it's going to be tough to have immediate success." There are some who beg to differ when looking at the core of the team returning, not to mention Mississippi transfer Eniel Polynice, who will be available immediately for his new team. In fact, Polynice has already earned his new coach's respect, and Willard is quite enamored with the fact that he can play four positions on the court at any given time. Of the freshmen on Seton Hall's roster, Willard feels Czech import Patrik Auda is the "most ready to play" of a class that includes Paterson Catholic product Fuquan Edwin, as well as former prep standout Anali Okoloji. Another key contributor getting lost in the shuffle early on as the Pirates continue to prepare for their opener is swingman Ferrakohn Hall. Willard mentioned his name several times during Big East media day interviews, and his rapid improvement has led Jason Guerette, who broadcasts Pirate basketball on WSOU Radio, to declare that Hall "should be a factor from the beginning."

The honeymoon hasn't ended in the Garden State yet, but if the buzz surrounding the Pirates is any indication, a happy marriage lies ahead for a school that is looking to return to its past glory, highlighted of course by its appearance in the 1989 national championship game.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Golden Eagles Flying Under Radar

People may be counting Marquette out, but Buzz Williams' team could be this year's sleeping giant in Big East. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Marquette basketball has used a three-guard lineup consistently for years at a time, going back to the days of Travis Diener, Steve Novak, and of course one of the NBA's best players in Dwyane Wade. Yet this year there is a little more uncertainty in Milwaukee as the Golden Eagles enter the 2010-11 season with a surplus of depth and versatility among their roster, a condition that elicited this response from head coach Buzz Williams at Big East media day last week: "I don't know who would start for our team."

The Golden Eagles' player is now on the next level, as Lazar Hayward became the latest Marquette product to be selected in the NBA draft, and expectations are for Chris Otule to step into Hayward's role as the primary option in the paint. At 6-10, Otule gives Marquette more size than they have had in recent memory, and there is a possibility that swingman Jimmy Butler could see some minutes at power forward. However, Williams' biggest strength is his backcourt, just as it was for previous head men Mike Deane and Tom Crean. Senior Dwight Buycks is back as the anchor, with Darius Johnson-Odom entering his junior season looking to prove that last year's breakout campaign was no joke. "He's really grown up as a person," said Williams when I asked him what the guard's biggest improvement was during the offseason.

How Williams fills the third portion of the backcourt triumvirate isn't as easy. The coach has former walk-on Rob Frozena, now a senior as one of his options to complete his troika, as well as freshman Vander Blue and sophomore Junior Cadougan, who missed most of last year due to injury after being highly touted by Williams as a newcomer. "He's a sophomore on the roster, but he's really a freshman relative to his playing time," stated Williams in response to my question of a healthy Cadougan's impact on the team over a full season.

The Golden Eagles return most of a team that reached the NCAA Tournament by opening their season in the CBE Classic, which features matchups with reigning national champion Duke and either Kansas State or Gonzaga, three schools Williams said were "all capable of winning the national championship." Prior to ringing in 2011 by facing West Virginia in their Big East opener, the Golden Eagles play another critical nonconference game at home on December 11th when intrastate rival Wisconsin invades the Bradley Center.