Saturday, October 29, 2011

Number One With A Bullet

Jordan Theodore may have a new number this year, but Seton Hall's senior point guard has same competitive spirit and winning mindset. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

The prevailing feeling around the Big East is that Seton Hall will once again be a program in transition this season after the Pirates struggled in year one of the Kevin Willard regime. Now eight months removed from battling through a 13-18 campaign that the Pirates hit their stride toward the end of the season even after losing star guard Jeremy Hazell on two separate occasions, the boys from South Orange have hit the court harder and more focused than at any point a year ago; and leading the charge is a senior point guard who has seen pretty much everything, including a coaching change halfway through his collegiate career.

New Jersey product Jordan Theodore will now be counted on to pick up some of the slack in the absence of Hazell this season as he leads a young Pirates team with just one other senior in forward Herb Pope. To suggest that the former Paterson Catholic standout is merely up for the challenge would be an understatement. I have been a broadcaster and writer for five years now; and when I had the opportunity to interview Jordan this past Wednesday at Seton Hall's annual team media day, it only took a few seconds for me to realize who and what I was dealing with. Never before had I spoken to a player as mature and articulate as Theodore, who carried himself in our 15-minute chat better than some NBA veterans that have been playing professionally for over a decade.

Theodore first touched on life without Hazell, who left Seton Hall third on the all-time scoring list, and intimated that there would be more options for Willard to replace the productivity vacated by one of the best players in the Big East. "Now, the scouting report is not just 'Let Jeremy go off and keep the other guys contained," said Theodore, who will also be playing off the ball at times when Willard elects to play freshman point guards Aaron Cosby and Freddie Wilson. "They know I'm a good point guard, but they don't expect me to dominate."

Theodore, and Pope as well, are more than just seniors on this team; they are also the last connections that Seton Hall basketball has to Bobby Gonzalez, the former coach who was dismissed after four seasons despite gradually improving the Pirates' win total in each of his four years at the helm. (Gonzalez also recruited sophomore Fuquan Edwin, but was fired before he had the chance to coach his last signee.) For Theodore; who had thrived under the uptempo, run-and-gun style Gonzalez had spent seven years perfecting at Manhattan, the adjustment process came during his junior campaign, as it did with pretty much the rest of the team, which was a far cry from what Seton Hall basketball had come to be known for under its previous caretaker.

"Toward the end of my sophomore year, I was really excelling in Coach Gonzalez' system," Theodore said. "Last year, it was tougher on me because I was used to what he wanted me to do." However, the point guard has had the opportunity to get to know Willard over the last eighteen months since he was hired at the end of March 2010; and he has taken full advantage of being able to bond with his second-year head man. "Coming into this season, I don't think he has any problems with me running the show," said Theodore, who had discussed his having to adjust to the coach changing plays while the point guard called them on the fly.

Now entering his final season in South Orange, Theodore expressed a desire to enjoy each moment as it comes, since he "doesn't get these days back." After following in the footsteps of Hazell, Eugene Harvey and Paul Gause over his first two years, Jordan is now "the man," and is confident in his abilities as the focal point of the offense. "I'm up for the challenge of being that guy and leading this team," he said. Theodore has even gone so far as to change his jersey number from 10 to 1, becoming the second player in the New York metropolitan area to make that switch; following former St. John's swingman D.J. Kennedy, who moved from 10 to 1 prior to the 2008-09 season, and proceeded to be the team's leading rebounder in each of his final three seasons while also averaging more than ten points per game in each year.

"I just wanted a fresh start," said Theodore when asked about the decision to change numbers. "I felt like I needed to change it because I want to go out on top." The point guard left me with this nugget before preparing for the Pirates' practice later that day: "These other teams we're playing? They don't know what to expect. I'm ready to take on all the responsibilities that I have, and I'm ready to win."

So too are Seton Hall fans eager to embrace a winner once again after having not made the NCAA Tournament since 2006 despite finishing with a winning record in four years under Bobby Gonzalez.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Harrison Brings Texas-Sized Dreams To Queens

D'Angelo Harrison makes his entrance to St. John's, where he is already winning fans over with quiet confidence. (Photo courtesy of's Dan Martin)

For New York's team, their long-awaited opportunity to show the world what they will do for an encore has finally arrived.

Now just 24 hours away from an exhibition contest against C.W. Post that will serve as the first chance for the public to see the new-look Red Storm, the mantra around practice is that this game will be treated like a Big East affair against powerhouses such as Syracuse and Connecticut. Leading the charge is a freshman who has exuded a swagger without being pretentious about it, one who could become the best player on the team in a short amount of time. "We're going to treat them like they're Syracuse, UConn or Duke," said shooting guard D'Angelo Harrison. "We want to win this game."

To call Harrison "ready" would be an understatement, especially after what the native Texan has already accomplished prior to signing with Steve Lavin this summer and taking his talents to the corner of Union and Utopia. Following a senior year in which Harrison averaged 31 points per game in high school, the reputed shooter with a long-range game sure to conjure up memories of now-departed Red Storm legend Dwight Hardy is a soft-spoken prodigy who backs up his statements on the court in a manner reminiscent of another quiet man who eventually blossomed into the best of Norm Roberts' seven-man recruiting class back in 2007; a swingman from the streets of Pittsburgh named David Joseph Kennedy.

Much like Kennedy simply became the team leader through his on-court accomplishments, Harrison is on the same path to greatness. Assistant coach Rico Hines is among the guard's biggest fans as well. "I tell him every day that he could be the best shooter in America," said Hines at the Red Storm's midnight madness event two weeks ago. "I really believe that."

Already shooting for greatness both on and off the hardwood, Harrison was asked today of how his new team will play to the country's largest media market without the presence of the other residents of Madison Square Garden. "We'll create a spark," Harrison calmly stated in regard to how St. John's will capture the public's attention as life without the Knicks becomes more of a reality by the day. We want to continue what last year's guys did and bring New York back."

Harrison may not be the one who infamously guaranteed a national championship for the Johnnies, (backcourt partner Nurideen Lindsey did) but he has elevated his game accordingly since arriving in the Big Apple. "We've got to grow because we're about to play Duke and Kentucky," said Harrison when he met the media for the first time at St. John's midnight madness. "It's crazy, it didn't hit me until I got here. I'm actually going to be a part of this."

The next step in his young career begins tomorrow night, when fans around the world will get to see just how far St. John's has come since playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2002.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lasting Impressions: Big East Media Day

Some of the highlights in Wednesday's Big East media day came from Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, shown here preparing for an interview on with my friend and colleague Ralph Bednarczyk. (Photo courtesy of Big East Conference)

This "lasting impressions" feature will focus on reviewing some of the events and games throughout the season, while also offering analysis of what happened and a potential preview of things to come in some instances. For games, it will replace the former "postgame shootaround," and will simply be a reaction piece for events like the one currently being profiled, this past Wednesday's Big East media day at the New York Athletic Club in Midtown.

  • All realignment, all the time.
Realignment wasn't just a story two days ago, it was THE story. Not a single coach of the ten I interviewed was able to dodge questions related to the speculation surrounding conference shuffling and stability, and some coaches used this to their advantage. I'll mention some of the quotes later on in this piece; but for a complete recap of the realignment chatter, take a look at my most recent column on Johnny Jungle.

  • Rick Pitino had a lot on his mind regarding realignment.
The Louisville head man has seemingly become a voice of protecting the investment, so to speak. On his personal blog, Pitino has spoken out against what the Big East is trying to do to save itself; and was his brutally honest self once again on Wednesday. Pitino cited the Big East's failure to bring in football programs during the conference's last expansion as a tactical error this time around, saying that "ten years ago, we just thought basketball, basketball, basketball." Pitino also gave the first of many "money" quotes during the day when he revealed that his problem was with Pittsburgh and Syracuse making the decision to jump to the ACC within a two-day time span. Moreover, Pitino emphatically stated that "this was not a football decision," but rather a "basketball decision to strengthen the ACC," which is looking to reclaim its status as the premier basketball conference in the country.

  • Mike Brey is a broadcaster's and writer's dream to interview.
The Notre Dame coach is always among the most accessible in functions like this; and right away you will tend to feel at home with him because he takes an interest and appreciation in every question he is asked. Not only that, he legitimately enjoys talking to us media members. Brey brings his "A" game every time out, and actually came out with "interview of the day" honors if such a distinction was officially presented. Brey handled realignment very confidently, stating that although Notre Dame would land on its feet wherever it went, he did not want to lose the Big East. The coach surmised the situation better than any analyst I have heard to this point, saying that leagues, much like professional athletes, are listed "day-to-day" now in light of all the rumors. On the court, he mentioned that it would be a three-man race between Joey Brooks, Jerian Grant and Alex Dragicevich to determine who the fifth starter would be for the Irish. When I asked about his early-season scheduling, Brey imparted this nugget: "How smart am I? Three neutral site games: Missouri, (in Kansas City for the CBE Classic) Maryland (in Washington, D.C.) and Indiana. (in Indianapolis) I've got to get my head checked." Brey also likes the prediction of ninth in the preseason poll, saying his team has "been there, done that."

  • Jim Calhoun drew the biggest crowd.
As expected after UConn's miracle run to the national championship, all of us within reach of Calhoun's table flocked over to it as soon as he came into the room, an hour late in fact. Calhoun thought the event started at 11am, and was stuck in traffic after leaving Storrs at 6:30 that morning. Nonetheless, the Hall of Fame coach kept a strong poker face regarding UConn potentially joining the ACC, saying "we're in the best basketball conference in America. That's where we want to be." Calhoun also drew parallels between last year's squad and the team he brings back, stating that although he has a good team this time around, he has no one as magical as Kemba Walker at the moment.

  • The second session started by catching up to two all-around nice guys.
The first was Tony Luftman, the new voice of my employer Luftman, once a team manager for St. John's coach Steve Lavin while attending UCLA, is a broadcaster on the rise; having served most recently as the studio host for the Portland Trail Blazers before coming to the Big Apple for his new role as the voice of the Johnnies. He and I hit it off instantly through recollections of Dick Enberg doing NFL football on NBC in the early 1990s and how his duties with the San Diego Padres limit him from doing as much as he normally would. He also enjoyed hearing about the famous "landline game" I called on WSJU back in 2009. Simply put, I'm really looking forward to working with him. The second was USF head coach Stan Heath, who is by far the nicest and most friendly of all the coaches I have ever interviewed. I feel bad for Heath in a way since USF has never really been able to get over the hump since joining the Big East, unless you count the NIT appearance the Bulls made two years ago. Heath admitted to me that his team really wasn't ready for life without Dominique Jones last season, and is really confident with what he has this year. Augustus Gilchrist and Ron Anderson return up front while the Bulls bring in two transfers named Blake Nash and Victor Rudd to help them out. Throw in Shaun Noriega and backup point guard Anthony Collins, and you may have a sleeper team in the Big East that you can't help but root for given their affable leader.

  • Heath is atop the list of nice guys, but...
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin is a clear second. Cronin walked up and shook my hand before the event officially started, proving that he still remembers me and the fact that I am among his biggest supporters. In what is now my fifth year covering Cronin, his personality has fortunately never changed even in the midst of his program returning to its success of the past. His Cincinnati team should be one of the best incarnations of Bearcats hoops in recent memory, led by senior forward Yancy Gates. Cronin believes Gates will have a big season after putting it together and maintaing consistency down the stretch last year, and also expects big things from sophomore guard and White Plains native Sean Kilpatrick. Always an underrated interview, Mick summed up realignment with an honest quote, stating that there are people who "probably never felt so powerless in their lives."

  • It's really surprising that Buzz Williams' table is never crowded.
I just don't get it. Marquette is perennially good, and Williams is one of the best coaches and personalities in the conference. Somehow or another, he never draws a crowd on the third Wednesday in October. This lack of attention enabled me to get a one-on-one with Buzz for the third consecutive year. The coach was confident that guard Darius Johnson-Odom could be an all-American if he improved on defense, and continued to believe in point guard Junior Cadougan. Each of Williams' four newcomers brings something different to the table, and his continuity up front will ease some of the pressure on the familiar three-guard rotation the Golden Eagles play. If I saw it before media day, I would have definitely asked Williams about his rendition of "Sweet Caroline" from Marquette's midnight madness; but I didn't see it until later that night, and if you haven't yourself, you can now.

  • Everyone is going to love Ed Cooley.
The new guy was afraid of nothing and no one in his first Big East media day, embracing the challenges presented by his dream job in his home city of Providence. Cooley calmly shared his vision of the Friars with us in front of a greater media presence at the Providence table than in any of the previous three conference media days I had attended during the Keno Davis regime. Cooley had a message for his coaching brethren, saying he understands the history of the head men; "but they're in the same league with Ed Cooley, too." The coach also had what I consider to be one of the best lines related to realignment when he said "it is a little wild, but that's what makes it great. I think we all need wild in our life. Keeps it spicy." This man truly is a great guy, just like everyone had told me when he took the job; and you cannot help but root for him to succeed. To all the media members that have not yet met him and will be covering Providence this season, I will say this and only this: You will love him.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Inside The Big East: UConn

Shown here with CBS' Jim Nantz after winning third national championship last year, Jim Calhoun has very good chance to defend crown with UConn this time around. (Photo courtesy of Sports Radio 66, WFAN New York)

Big East media day is here at long last, as the sixteen institutions send their players and coaches to the New York Athletic Club in midtown Manhattan (filling in while Madison Square Garden undergoes a makeover) tomorrow morning; and the Daly Dose pick to win the conference will finally be revealed. Drumroll, please...

Connecticut Huskies (2010-11 Record: 32-9, 9-9 Big East and 2011 NCAA Champions)
Head Coach: Jim Calhoun (26th season at UConn, 607-230; 855-367 overall)
Returning Starters: G Jeremy Lamb (6-5 So., 11.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 49% FG, 37% 3pt, 80% FT, 1.6 APG)
F Alex Oriakhi (6-9 Jr., 9.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 51% FG, 63% FT, 1.6 BPG)
F Roscoe Smith (6-8 So., 6.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 38% FG, 79% FT, 1.2 BPG)
F Tyler Olander (6-9 So., 1.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 37% FG, 67% FT)
Other Key Returning Players: G Shabazz Napier (6-1 So., 7.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 37% FG, 33% 3pt, 77% FT, 3.0 APG, 1.6 SPG)
F Niels Giffey (6-7 So., 2.2 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 40% FG, 81% FT)
Key Losses: G Kemba Walker (23.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 43% FG, 33% 3pt, 82% FT, 4.5 APG, 1.9 SPG)
F Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (5.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 41% FG, 80% FT)
C Charles Okwandu (2.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 47% FG, 52% FT, 1.2 BPG)

When I had the pleasure of speaking to Jim Calhoun at Big East media day last year, I asked him what he thought of a Huskies team he would be leading onto the court just eight months removed from an aberration of a season; one in which UConn appeared in the NIT rather than the NCAA Tournament after their faint hopes of making the 2010 "Big Dance" were crushed in a 73-51 loss to St. John's in the first round of the Big East tournament. Calhoun's response to me was this: "If we're just really, really good when it's all said and done, I'll be happy."

If UConn's stretch run this past season, which included the Huskies becoming the first school to win five games in as many days to win the Big East tournament before resuming their magical run through the NCAA Tournament; and culminating it by cutting down the nets in Houston for the third time in Calhoun's Hall of Fame career isn't "really, really good," count me as one of those who would like to see what is. There haven't been many storybook runs like the one the University of Connecticut gave the world just six months ago. However, with success comes higher expectations; and in college sports, where student-athletes pursue professional excellence, it is not easy to replicate these Cinderella stretches. Calhoun and the Huskies will be Exhibit A of this axiom this season, as they will show the world what they will do for an encore without one of the greatest players college basketball has seen in recent years. Junior guard Kemba Walker graduated early and decided to leave his remaining year of eligibility on the table in the wake of UConn's national championship win, and was drafted ninth overall by the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats this past June. Also having departed are senior Charles Okwandu, who graduated; and reserve forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who transferred to Hofstra and will be eligible for the 2012-13 campaign.

What Calhoun brings back to the Nutmeg State is nothing to sneeze at, though. After a freshman season in which he wowed nearly everyone who covered him, shooting guard and sophomore sensation Jeremy Lamb will be the team leader this season. The 6-5 Lamb has already been considered the favorite for the Big East Player of the Year award given at the end of the season in the minds of some people; and regardless of whom you talk to, everyone believes the Georgia product is on the precipice of a great season.

Lamb could run the point in stretches; but when Calhoun elects to play him off the ball, fellow second-year player Shabazz Napier will be the facilitator for the Huskies. After serving as Kemba Walker's understudy during a rookie season in which he averaged just under eight points and an even three assists per game in just 24 minutes, Napier will move into the starting five on an everyday basis with a chance to be the man who makes the motor run. Napier's spot as the first guard off the bench with the potential to make an impact early will be filled by one of the three highly regarded freshmen Calhoun brings into UConn this season; and that is six-foot guard Ryan Boatright, a Chicago native that averaged an eye-popping 31 points per game as a senior in high school last season.

UConn has always had great wings under Calhoun, from Donyell Marshall to Richard Hamilton to Caron Butler. Roscoe Smith should be no exception to that rule by the time he is done. An incredibly long 6-8 sophomore that can also play power forward, Smith averaged just over six points and five rebounds in his rookie season while also pulling in more than one blocked shot per night on average. Smith will also have the privilege of mentoring 6-8 swingman DeAndre Daniels, a late addition to Calhoun's incoming freshman class that was's tenth-ranked overall prospect last season; and one who can also play shooting guard in instances where Calhoun chooses to play bigger than usual. German import Niels Giffey is back as well for his sophomore campaign after spending the summer with his country's national team.

At power forward, 6-9 junior Alex Oriakhi gets another year to show off his prowess as the rebounding machine the Massachusetts native has come to be known. While Walker carried the load offensively for the Huskies last year, Oriakhi made too many plays on the defensive glass that did not show up in the box score to count, especially during his 13-point, 19-rebound outing off the bench in the Big East tournament against DePaul. Sophomore Tyler Olander, whose older brother Ryan will be one of the focal points for Fairfield this season, will also have many chances to improve this season after having some of the greatest performances in his young career during UConn's amazing stretch run last year. Finally, the biggest addition to the inside game for UConn will be their most recent arrival, a 6-11 freshman who committed no less than two months ago after he was rumored to be returning to prep school for one more season.

For those who have not met him, his name is Andre Drummond; and opposing frontcourts may regret being introduced to this 18-year-old big man sooner rather than later. One of the consensus top overall prospects in this past year's recruiting class, Drummond has drawn comparisons to another great Connecticut center before he has even played his first collegiate game; that being No. 2 overall NBA draft pick Emeka Okafor, one of Calhoun's strongest men in the middle during his impressive tenure at Connecticut that started in 1986, the year I was born.

As they usually do, the Huskies will alternate between their two home courts this season, hosting contests at the XL (formerly Hartford Civic) Center in Hartford in addition to their on-campus venue of Gampel Pavilion. Gampel is the site of UConn's first two games this season, with Columbia coming into Storrs to open the season on November 11th, while Danny Hurley and Wagner are next up for the reigning national champions three days later.

UConn makes its XL Center debut against Maine on November 17th, with Coppin State following on the 20th before UConn heads to Paradise Island in the Bahamas for a three-day tournament that could feature potential matchups with either Harvard or Florida State in the championship game one year after Calhoun's Huskies defeated Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky to win the Maui Invitational. Connecticut returns to the XL Center on December 3rd to meet Arkansas and new coach Mike Anderson as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge, with a home game against Harvard next up at Gampel Pavilion on December 8th; one that could be a return match against Tommy Amaker and the Crimson depending on how the Paradise Island tournament plays out.

UConn only plays one nonconference road game, but it will not come until January. Until then, Holy Cross and Fairfield come into the XL Center just before Christmas; and the Huskies open conference play December 28th on the road against USF. Calhoun will not be with the team for that game or either of the next two, as he will be serving an NCAA-imposed three-game suspension. Longtime assistant and former Seton Hall head man George Blaney will be in charge of the team during this temporary absence, which also includes a home game against St. John's on New Year's Eve at the XL Center and a road meeting at the Prudential Center against Seton Hall that will be the Huskies' 2012 opener when the two teams square off on January 3rd.

Calhoun will be back for the second half of the Huskies' New Jersey trip when UConn invades the RAC to take on Mike Rice and Rutgers on January 7th in Piscataway. Two days later, UConn plays host to West Virginia in a nationally televised "Big Monday" matchup at the XL Center. Notre Dame welcomes the Huskies into the Joyce Center next on January 14th for the first of two matchups between UConn and the Fighting Irish, and Cincinnati comes into Gampel Pavilion on January 18th just three days before the Huskies' sole nonconference road game, which comes in Knoxville against Tennessee and new coach Cuonzo Martin on January 21st. The Tennessee game is a reprisal of last year's tilt in which the Vols and former head man Bruce Pearl played UConn in the Nutmeg State.

After eight days off, Notre Dame wraps up a home-and-home series against UConn at the XL Center on January 29th. The Huskies open February in our nation's capital on the first of the month against Georgetown at the Verizon Center, three days before Seton Hall plays the second of two against the reigning national champions this season. The Pirates make the trip up Interstates 95 and 91 into the XL Center on February 4th.

UConn hits the road for two games immediately following the Seton Hall matinee, first to the Yum! Center for a "Big Monday" meeting with Rick Pitino and Louisville on February 6th before being welcomed into the Carrier Dome by Jim Boeheim and Syracuse five days later in what will be the first of two collisions between the Huskies and Orange. DePaul will come to Gampel Pavilion on February 15th, while Buzz Williams and Marquette are UConn's opponent at the XL Center on the 18th.

Following a Monday night clash with Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center on February 20th, UConn hosts Syracuse from Gampel Pavilion on the 25th; and hits the road for the final time this season when they close out February on the 28th against a Providence team that has defeated the Huskies three times in the last four seasons. UConn will host its final game of the season at Gampel Pavilion on March 3rd against a Pittsburgh team looking to avenge a last-second defeat in the Big East tournament on a memorable Kemba Walker crossover against former Pitt center Gary McGhee that you can see here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Inside The Big East: Louisville

The great Rick Pitino brings back all but two players as Louisville enters upcoming season as one of favorites in Big East. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

With Big East media day just two days away, it's time to shift the scene from one legend to another after profiling Jim Boeheim and Syracuse 24 hours ago.

Louisville Cardinals (2010-11 Record: 25-10, 12-6 Big East)
Head Coach: Rick Pitino (11th season at UL, 225-96; 597-220 overall)
Returning Starters: G Kyle Kuric (6-4 Sr., 10.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 51% FG, 45% 3pt, 76% FT, 1.2 APG)
G Peyton Siva (6-0 Jr., 9.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 45% FG, 68% FT, 5.2 APG, 2.0 SPG)
G Chris Smith (6-2 Sr., 9.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 46% FG, 40% 3pt, 68% FT, 2.5 APG)
Other Key Returning Players: F Rakeem Buckles (6-7 Jr., 6.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 48% FG, 61% FT, 1.5 APG)
G Mike Marra (6-5 Jr., 6.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 32% FG, 79% FT, 2.0 APG)
C Gorgui Dieng (6-11 So., 5.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 62% FG, 54% FT, 1.9 BPG)
F Stephan Van Treese (6-8 Jr., 2.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 70% FG, 31% FT)
F Jared Swopshire (6-8 Jr., DNP in 2010-11)
Key Losses: G Preston Knowles (14.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 38% FG, 38% 3pt, 81% FT, 3.1 APG, 1.9 SPG)
F Terrence Jennings (9.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 53% FG, 66% FT, 1.9 BPG)

More than one coach in the country is brutally honest when analyzing his own team, but none match the candor brought to the table in every interview Louisville head man Rick Pitino gives. This style was no further evident than in the aftermath of the Cardinals' round of 64 NCAA Tournament loss to Morehead State. When brought in by CBS as a guest studio analyst for the round of 32, Pitino was asked about the final play in which Morehead State hit a three-pointer to give them the win. "The coach had a dream, I had a nightmare," was Pitino's response to the sequences that led to Louisville's earlier than expected demise from the Big Dance.

After a 25-win season in which Pitino's Cardinals were ravaged by enough injuries to the point where the team managers were used in practice, Louisville comes back this season with three returning starters and nearly all of its bench from the previous season. Guard Preston Knowles and forward Terrence Jennings are the only departed players from last season, and their productivity will not be easy to replace. Nonetheless, the versatile and deep Louisville rotation should account for those two losses and offset the impact early on in the season.

After serving as a spot starter for each of the last two seasons, sharpshooter Kyle Kuric becomes a full-time starter as he enters his senior campaign, and should step into the shooting guard role vacated by Knowles almost immediately. Kuric has made a career of being an opponent's nightmare since his coming-out party against Syracuse in the 2008-09 season as a sophomore, and shot a staggering 45 percent from long range a year ago. Former Manhattan College transfer Chris Smith will join Kuric off the ball while Peyton Siva runs the point. Siva battled inconsistency in his sophomore season, one that saw the Seattle native average nearly six assists per game. A full season of being a Big East point guard is now under his belt, and it should enhance his on-court awareness on both sides of the ball. In addition to the aforementioned trio, junior Mike Marra will also see significant time in the Louisville backcourt.

Jennings may be gone up front, but sophomore center Gorgui Dieng remains. The Senegalese big man is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Big East, averaging just under six points and nearly two blocked shots in his rookie season. In addition, junior Rakeem Buckles returns from injuries that limited him to just sixteen games a year ago, the last of which being a torn ACL. Steve Van Treese returns to provide depth to an inside corps that welcomes promising 6-8 freshman Chane Behanan, who scored 20 points in the Cards' first intrasquad scrimmage Friday night before leaving with a sprained ankle. Louisville's biggest return, however, will be that of Jared Swopshire, who comes back after missing all of last season with a groin injury that was surgically repaired. Swopshire averaged over seven points and six rebounds in his last on-court action during the 2009-10 season, his sophomore campaign.

Louisville opens their season with a homestand at the Yum! Center, which enters its second season as the Cardinals' home court and was proudly described to me by Pitino as the "finest arena ever built" when I asked about it at last year's Big East media day. Louisville first welcomes Tennessee-Martin on November 11th, with Lamar and new coach Pat Knight coming to the home of the twin spires two days later. The Cardinals have only one nonconference road game this season; but it is a big one, as Louisville heads to Hinkle Fieldhouse to renew their recently created rivalry with reigning two-time national runner-up Butler and coach Brad Stevens, who opened the Yum! Center a year ago.

A November 22nd meeting with Arkansas State follows, with Ohio University and star point guard D.J. Cooper invading Louisville on the day after Thanksgiving. Big West favorite Long Beach State meets the Cardinals on November 28th before Vanderbilt comes in on December 2nd as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge in what should be an early-season matchup of two Top 10 programs. Nonconference games against IUPUI and Northeast Conference opponent Fairleigh Dickinson, who now features former Cardinal George Goode, are next for Pitino and company before Josh Pastner, Will Barton and Memphis come into the Yum! Center on December 17th.

College Of Charleston and Western Kentucky are the last nonconference home opponents for Louisville, which opens its Big East ledger at home against Georgetown on December 28th. Following the conference clash with the Hoyas, the Cardinals head into Rupp Arena for what will be an admittedly hostile New Year's Eve showdown with Kentucky in a rivalry that has been escalated even further following Wildcats head man John Calipari's comments at "Big Blue Madness," when the coach neglected to mention Pitino, who won a national championship in Lexington back in 1996, among the many bright spots in Kentucky basketball history.

The Cardinals open 2012 inside Madison Square Garden against Steve Lavin and the youngest team in St. John's 104-year history before returning home on January 7th to meet Notre Dame. Providence welcomes Louisville into the Dunkin' Donuts Center three days later before the Cards open a home-and-home series against DePaul at the Yum! Center on January 14th. Two road games against Marquette and Pittsburgh, the latter of which opens a home-and-home series at the Petersen Center, follow on Louisville's slate before Villanova comes into the Bluegrass State to square off against Pitino's team on January 21st.

The Cardinals return to the East Coast on January 28th when Pitino disciple and Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard welcomes them into the Prudential Center, with Rutgers and Connecticut opening February for Louisville with home games at the Yum! Center. A trip to Morgantown to face West Virginia on February 11th precedes the first of two matchups with Jim Boeheim and Syracuse, who travel to Louisville two days following the Cards' clash with Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers.

The back end of a home-and-home with DePaul opens a two-game road trip that also includes a trip to Cincinnati to face a Bearcats team led by former Pitino assistant Mick Cronin. From there, Louisville plays its last two home games of the season, first against Pitt in the back end of a home-and-home series before entertaining USF on senior night at the Yum! Center on February 29th. The Cardinals' final regular season contest comes on March 3rd against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in what could very well be a battle for a double bye in the Big East tournament, which tips off on March 6th inside Madison Square Garden.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Inside The Big East: Syracuse

Despite being subject of conference realignment chatter, Jim Boeheim and Syracuse are still contenders in Big East this season. (Photo courtesy of Albany Times-Union)

As Big East media day draws closer, we go from analyzing Mick Cronin's emerging contender at Cincinnati to the group up at the Carrier Dome that brands itself as "New York's college team."

Syracuse Orange (2010-11 Record: 27-8, 12-6 Big East)
Head Coach: Jim Boeheim (36th season, 856-301)
Returning Starters: F Kris Joseph (6-7 Sr., 14.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 46% FG, 37% 3pt, 71% FT, 2.2 APG, 1.5 SPG)
G Scoop Jardine (6-2 Sr., 12.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 42% FG, 36% 3pt, 66% FT, 5.9 APG, 1.6 SPG)
G Brandon Triche (6-4 Jr., 11.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 42% FG, 33% 3pt, 84% FT, 2.9 APG)
C Fab Melo (7-0 So., 2.3 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 61% FG, 36% FT)
Other Key Returning Players: G Dion Waiters (6-4 So., 6.6 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 41% FG, 33% 3pt, 81% FT, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG)
F C.J. Fair (6-8 So., 6.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 54% FG, 61% FT)
Key Losses: F Rick Jackson (13.1 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 59% FG, 53% FT, 2.2 APG, 2.5 BPG, 1.3 SPG)

Syracuse University is synonymous with many things in college basketball. Be it the 30,000-plus fans at the Carrier Dome, the Hall of Fame career of head coach Jim Boeheim, the world-famous 2-3 zone defense, a Who's Who of NBA superstars; or even the claim that they are "New York's college team" despite the presence of an equally successful and tradition-rich program within the Big Apple in St. John's University, the Orange have earned the respect of most of the nation's fan base simply by backing their claims up on the court in recent years.

Following a round of 32 NCAA Tournament loss to Big East rival Marquette last season and a controversial decision by university administrators to bolt the Big East in favor of the ACC starting in 2014, the longest-tenured coach in the Big East (Jim Boeheim is entering his 36th season at the helm of his alma mater) returns four starters from last year's 27-win unit, the record 33rd campaign in which Boeheim was amassed at least twenty victories in a season.

The one starter that has departed leaves a huge hole inside, as power forward Rick Jackson averaged a double-double per night while also making things happen on the defensive side of the ball with averages of over two blocks and one steal per contest. Jackson's spot in the lineup will be filled by committee. Sophomore C.J. Fair could get the inside track given his 6-8 stature, but it would not be surprising to see Boeheim insert 6-10 sophomore Baye Moussa Keita into the post as well to complement seven-footer Fab Melo inside for the Orange. Rakeem Christmas, a 6-9 Philadelphia native much like Jackson who is the centerpiece of Boeheim's incoming freshman class, could also see a significant amount of minutes up front. On the wing, Kris Joseph returns for his senior season after leading the Orange in scoring last season. Once regarded as a potential lottery pick, Joseph will be entering his final campaign in upstate New York looking to prove that he truly does belong at the next level.

In the backcourt, Boeheim will rely on Antonio "Scoop" Jardine to run the point once again. A high school teammate of the aforementioned Jackson, Jardine is a fifth-year senior after a medical redshirt and broken foot cost him the 2008-09 season. Jardine averaged nearly six assists per game in his second season back from the injury; and will again serve as one of the two main focuses of the Syracuse offense, with the other being backcourt partner Brandon Triche. A 6-4 junior who also shares deep Syracuse lineage being the nephew of 1987 national runner-up team member Howard Triche, cousin of former Orange standout Jason Hart, and a product of the same Jamesville-DeWitt High School program that led Boeheim to current New York Knick Andy Rautins, Triche had a breakout sophomore campaign with averages of eleven points and nearly three assists per game; and the sharpshooter could be a first team all-Big East player by the time the Orange put the 2011-12 season in the books. Sophomore Dion Waiters will also be an integral part of the rotation after having a productive rookie season a year ago. Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-5 freshman who made waves this past weekend by dunking on Fab Melo at Syracuse's "Midnight Madness" event, will join fellow rookie Trevor Cooney as role players that could see valuable playing time in situations where Boeheim chooses to play small by running three guard-sets.

The group that calls itself "New York's college team" opens at the Carrier Dome against two New York programs, first on November 12th against Fordham and Tom Pecora before welcoming Manhattan and new Jaspers head man Steve Masiello into Syracuse two days later for their first game in the Preseason NIT. A matchup against either Albany or Brown awaits the following night, and Colgate comes into the Carrier Dome on November 19th as the final tuneup for the Orange before their latest trip to Madison Square Garden, which has become a sea of orange for every Syracuse contest in recent years. The next set of de facto home games for the Orange will commence the night before Thanksgiving, and will conclude the day after Thanksgiving with an appearance in either the championship or consolation matchup.

Billy Donovan and Florida invade the Carrier Dome on December 2nd as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge in what could be the best nonconference matchup anywhere this year. Home games against Marshall and George Washington are next up before the Orange make their first road trip of the season, taking on NC State and new head coach Mark Gottfried in Raleigh on December 17th. Bucknell and Tulane serve as Syracuse's final nonconference opponents when each makes their way into the Carrier Dome just prior to Syracuse's Big East opener on December 28th against Seton Hall. After the home encounter with the Pirates, the Orange will ring in 2012 in Chicago when they face DePaul on New Year's Day before traveling to Providence three days later.

Syracuse welcomes Marquette into the Carrier Dome on January 7th before invading the Wells Fargo Center four days later for a Wednesday night meeting with Jay Wright and Villanova. Providence and new coach Ed Cooley will come into Syracuse to complete a home-and-home series on January 14th, and Pittsburgh will take the Carrier Dome court two days later for a "Big Monday" collision with the Orange. A road trip featuring contests against Notre Dame and Cincinnati is next on the ledger for Boeheim and Syracuse, who close out the month of January with a Saturday afternoon home game against West Virginia on the 28th.

Syracuse makes a return trip to see its rabid fan base at the Garden to open the month of February when St. John's welcomes the Orange into the Big Apple on the 4th in what will be the latest installment of a heated rivalry with Empire State bragging rights at stake. The Johnnies will also be looking to avenge a bitter Big East tournament loss to the Orange last March in a game that marked the tragic end of D.J. Kennedy's career when "The Hitman" suffered a torn ACL early in the first half. Home matchups against Georgetown and Connecticut follow the game against the Red Storm before the Orange become road warriors once again for contests against Louisville and Rutgers.

Syracuse welcomes USF into the Carrier Dome on February 22nd for a Wednesday night home game, with Jim Calhoun and reigning national champion UConn next three days later. The February 25th showdown between the Orange and Huskies at Gampel Pavilion will be the back end of a home-and-home series between the two programs that participated in one of the greatest games ever just three seasons ago when they played their six-overtime epic in the 2009 Big East tournament. The Orange will hold their senior night in the back end of a home-and-home on March 3rd, when Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals play the final regular season game for both teams at the Carrier Dome.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Inside The Big East: Cincinnati

White Plains native Sean Kilpatrick leads Cincinnati into future, which should include a finish near top of Big East standings. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Buzz Williams and his three-guard set at Marquette were profiled in-depth in our last piece, and following him is another young and underrated Midwest coach intent on crashing the Big East championship party.

Cincinnati Bearcats (2010-11 Record: 26-9, 11-7 Big East)
Head Coach: Mick Cronin (6th season at UC, 87-77; 156-101 overall)
Returning Starters: F Yancy Gates (6-9 Sr., 11.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 51% FG, 58% FT, 1.2 APG, 1.3 BPG)
G Dion Dixon (6-3 Sr., 11.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 42% FG, 36% 3pt, 76% FT, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG)
G Cashmere Wright (6-0 Jr., 8.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 42% FG, 35% 3pt, 74% FT, 3.9 APG, 1.3 SPG)
Other Key Returning Players: G Sean Kilpatrick (6-4 So., 9.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 44% FG, 38% 3pt, 72% FT, 1.5 APG)
F Justin Jackson (6-8 So., 2.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 53% FG, 30% FT)
Key Losses: F Rashad Bishop (8.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 41% FG, 37% 3pt, 82% FT, 1.7 APG)
F Ibrahima Thomas (5.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 50% FG, 60% FT)
G Larry Davis (4.5 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 38% FG, 34% 3pt, 73% FT)
F Darnell Wilks (3.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 43% FG, 64% FT, 1.1 APG)

I'll speak as a fan for a moment before I introduce the Cincinnati Bearcats, who advanced to the NCAA Tournament round of 32 last season before being eliminated by eventual national champion and fellow Big East program Connecticut. Cincinnati is one of those programs I cannot help but root for, thanks to an unassuming 40-year-old head coach that has quietly worked his way back to the top of the ladder and built his program back into the proven winner it had been while I was growing up under Bob Huggins.

In the four years that I have been fortunate enough to cover Mick Cronin, he has always been among the best interviews of my career; and has never given the impression of being too big for a particular media member like certain other coaches within his conference have been toward both myself and others. The soft-spoken Cronin holds nothing back when asked of his team and the expectations surrounding it, and does not mind sharing information with you. A broadcaster's and writer's dream to cover, Cronin should undoubtedly continue to find the success he so greatly deserves this year, as he enters his sixth campaign at the helm of his alma mater Cincinnati, which returns three starters and two major role players from last year's squad in the hopes of maintaining a Top 25 ranking in the upcoming season.

Homegrown talent Yancy Gates is now a senior, and the 6-9 power forward has improved by leaps and bounds since I called a game of his as a freshman back in 2009 at Carnesecca Arena. After averaging nearly twelve points and seven rebounds per game last season while also battling inconsistency through stretches of the year, Cronin and his staff believe Gates is ready to hold it together throughout the year; and the big man could be a first team all-Big East selection by the time the smoke clears on the season. Justin Jackson, who as a freshman gave many Big East teams fits trying to figure him out when inserted into games from the bench, should move into the starting lineup for his sophomore season. Despite not scoring as much as Bearcats fans would have hoped last season, Jackson's length and athleticism makes him a natural Big East forward; and he will only get better with time and age.

In the backcourt, senior Dion Dixon has made the transition from sixth man behind Deonta Vaughn to starter and team leader; and Dixon will anchor the guards for Cronin again this season following a junior campaign in which he averaged over eleven points per game while also shooting 36 percent from three-point range. Alongside him, last year's rookie sensation returns for his second season in the form of Sean Kilpatrick. A year ago, the White Plains product burst onto the scene for the Bearcats by averaging just short of ten points and a little over three rebounds per game; and shot 38 percent from long range, good enough for the lead in that department among Cronin's regulars. However, despite the presence of two gifted shooters in Dixon and Kilpatrick, the man who truly makes the motor run for Cincinnati is junior Cashmere Wright, who returns to serve as Cronin's point guard while Dixon and Kilpatrick play off the ball. Wright, who missed his true freshman season three years ago with a torn ACL, has come back better than ever; and averaged nearly nine points and four assists as the Bearcats' facilitator last season. Coach Cronin also welcomes a talented freshman class into the Queen City, highlighted by 6-7 swingman Shaquille Thomas and former Rice High School forward Jermaine Sanders. Junior guard JaQuon Parker is also back to provide added depth in the backcourt.

The Bearcats open their season with six consecutive games at their home court of the Fifth Third Arena, with the first coming on November 13th against SWAC school Alabama State. Jacksonville State, Presbyterian, Northwestern State, Marshall and Miami of Ohio are next at home for Cincinnati before traveling to Athens, Georgia for a December 2nd SEC/Big East Challenge matchup with Mark Fox and the Bulldogs. Following the Georgia game is an intriguing nonconference contest, the 2011 installment of the annual "Crosstown Shootout" against intracity adversary Xavier on December 10th. Last year, the Bearcats picked up a resounding 20-point win at home after Xavier had won each of the previous three meetings with Cincinnati; and will invade the Musketeers' home court at the Cintas Center looking for a repeat. Depending on how long Xavier center Kenny Frease is out after being suspended indefinitely earlier this week by head coach Chris Mack, Cincinnati could have it a little easier inside.

A road game against in-state rival and Horizon League contender Wright State is next before the Bearcats return home for matchups with Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Chicago State. Cincinnati wraps up its nonconference schedule on December 29th with a neutral court showdown against Oklahoma, and opens Big East play on New Year's Day against Pittsburgh at the Petersen Center. Home games against Notre Dame and St. John's, the latter of which opens a home-and-home series, await the Bearcats before traveling to the Verizon Center on January 9th to meet Georgetown. Villanova comes into the Queen City five days later to play the front end of a home-and-home matchup.

Cincinnati takes its first two-game road trip of the Big East season on January 18th, when the Bearcats head to Gampel Pavilion for a showdown with UConn prior to taking on Bob Huggins and West Virginia three days later in Morgantown. A home game with Syracuse and road trip to Piscataway to take on Rutgers close out January for Cincinnati, with DePaul being welcomed into Fifth Third Arena on February 4th.

The Bearcats hit the road again after that to wrap up a home-and-home series with Steve Lavin and St. John's at Madison Square Garden on February 8th, and head to the Bradley Center three days later for the first of two meetings with Marquette. Three home games against Providence, Seton Hall and Louisville are next on the Cincinnati ledger before a trip to Florida on February 26th to face USF. Cincinnati's senior night takes place on February 28th at home against Marquette, with the final game of the regular season being a March 3rd tilt against Villanova at the Pavilion.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Inside The Big East: Marquette

Described as a "hoops savant" by coach Buzz Williams, Darius Johnson-Odom will fly to new heights for Marquette this season. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

Bob Huggins and his alma mater of West Virginia had the spotlight yesterday, and next up is the unlikely Sweet 16 participant from the Big East a year ago.

Marquette Golden Eagles (2010-11 Record: 22-15, 9-9 Big East)
Head Coach: Buzz Williams (4th season at MU, 69-37; 83-54 overall)
Returning Starters: G Darius Johnson-Odom (6-2 Sr., 15.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 43% FG, 36% 3pt, 71% FT, 2.4 APG)
F Jae Crowder (6-6 Sr., 11.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 49% FG, 36% 3pt, 62% FT, 1.6 APG, 1.3 SPG)
C Chris Otule (6-11 Jr., 5.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 55% FG, 58% FT, 1.5 BPG)
Other Key Returning Players: G Vander Blue (6-4 So., 5.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 39% FG, 61% FT, 1.6 APG)
F Davante Gardner (4.6 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 58% FG, 75% FT)
G Junior Cadougan (6-1 Jr., 4.0 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 42% FG, 64% FT, 3.2 APG)
Key Losses: F Jimmy Butler (15.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 49% FG, 35% 3pt, 78% FT, 2.3 APG, 1.4 APG)
G Dwight Buycks (8.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 46% FG, 41% 3pt, 68% FT, 3.4 APG, 1.1 SPG)

Four jerseys. Three guards. Two consecutive years of producing a first-round pick in the NBA draft. One constantly underrated program that will once again be going into the season having flown under the radar in the minds of analysts, and will once again surprise everyone.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Marquette basketball.

The Golden Eagles have made a trademark of this unexpected success for years, even back when Mike Deane was coaching in the 1990s and even through the Tom Crean era that was highlighted by the school's Final Four appearance in 2003, their first since the great Al McGuire brought a national championship to Milwaukee in 1977. Head coach Buzz Williams returns for his fourth season at the helm of Marquette; and for the first time in his relatively short tenure, Buzz (his real first name is Brent, by the way) finally has more players coming back than he does leaving, a change from recent years in which the likes of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, Dominic James and Lazar Hayward among others have come and gone. "This is my first time since my first year that we have more returnees than newcomers," said Williams when interviewed recently by college basketball insider Jon Rothstein.

A big contributor to that factor is the presence of 6-2 senior guard Darius Johnson-Odom, who will almost certainly be a first team all-Big East selection by season's end; and possibly the conference's Player of the Year. Johnson-Odom, described last year by Williams as a "hoops savant," comes into his final campaign off a season in which he was the Golden Eagles' leading scorer, averaging nearly sixteen points per game and shooting 36 percent from three point range, not to mention making several highlight reel-worthy plays that helped Marquette defy the odds from their No. 11 seed in the Big East to earn a trip to the Sweet 16, where they were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in Newark by Roy Williams and North Carolina.

Joining Johnson-Odom in the backcourt trio that has become a staple of Marquette since the days of Travis Diener, Steve Novak and some guy named Dwyane Wade, who has since gone on to become one of the best in the NBA while playing for the Miami Heat, will be sophomore Vander Blue, who was a highly touted recruit last season. Blue averaged just five points per game a year ago while making the transition to the Division I level, but has improved over the offseason to the point where Williams has stated that he would "help us more because he has a better understanding" of the game and the competition. Replacing Dwight Buycks at the point will be Junior Cadougan, the Canadian import entering his junior season. Williams has raved about Cadougan to no end every time I mention him in an interview; and although he is really a sophomore in relation to his playing time, both myself and his coach are confident that he will have a breakout year as the primary facilitator for the Golden Eagles.

Up front, Jimmy Butler is gone after he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, but Williams returns the services of senior forward Jae Crowder. One of the many junior college transfers to have come to Marquette in recent years, Crowder made quite the first impression in the Big East last season by averaging nearly twelve points and seven rebounds per game while also shooting 36 percent from beyond the arc. Crowder will be the power forward in most situations while 6-11 big man Chris Otule comes back for his junior season to man the middle for Williams.

Sophomore Davante Gardner headlines the bench for Williams, and the coach has gushed about the development of both the 6-8 Gardner and the aforementioned Otule. "They've put me in a position to think about finishing a game with one of them on the floor," said Williams in the Jon Rothstein interview. Sophomore forward Jamail Jones, who competed in eighteen contests for the Golden Eagles last year, will also be an integral part of the Marquette rotation. Williams also welcomes freshman Todd Mayo to the team, a 6-3 guard who Williams believes is reminiscent of former New York Knick John Starks; as well as former Oregon transfer Jamil Wilson, a 6-7 swingman returning to his native Wisconsin. In addition, the Golden Eagles bring in two more freshmen in 6-6 swingman Juan Anderson, who should see a sizable amount of minutes following a conclusion to his high school career in which he averaged over sixteen points per game; and six-foot guard Derrick Wilson, a three-time player of the year in high school that could push Cadougan for minutes at the point.

Marquette opens their season at their home court of the Bradley Center with two games against Mount St. Mary's (November 11th) and Norfolk State (November 14th) before heading to the Virgin Islands to take part in the Paradise Jam, with three games that will take them up to Thanksgiving week. A home game against Jacksonville precedes the Golden Eagles' annual showdown with in-state rival Wisconsin, which takes place at the Kohl Center in Madison on December 3rd. Three days later, the Golden Eagles head to Madison Square Garden to take on Washington in the Jimmy V Classic, a one-night tournament that also includes fellow Big East program Villanova.

Home games against Wisconsin-Green Bay and Northern Colorado follow the excursion to the Garden; and Marquette will next head to the bayou to face Louisiana State in Baton Rouge on December 19th before two more nonconference games at the Bradley Center, with the first coming against Wisconsin-Milwaukee on December 22nd. One week later, Marquette will host Vanderbilt in what should be one of the more intriguing and competitive interconference contests all season, as the Golden Eagles will be going up against Kevin Stallings and a Commodores team that brings virtually everyone from last season back, headlined by John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and big man Festus Ezeli.

Marquette opens 2012 and Big East play with a New Year's Day home game against Villanova that is sure to go down to the wire like every other meeting in recent memory between the Golden Eagles and Wildcats. Road games against Georgetown and Syracuse precede a three-game homestand in which Marquette will pay tribute to its glorious history, first on Al McGuire Night January 11th against St. John's. The 95th anniversary celebration of Golden Eagles basketball comes next when Pittsburgh invades the Bradley Center three days later, with Rick Pitino and Louisville coming into town on January 16th for a Martin Luther King Day matinee.

A road trip to Providence and home game against USF are next on Marquette's ledger before the Golden Eagles wrap up a home-and-home series with Villanova on January 28th at the Wells Fargo Center. A home meeting with Seton Hall closes out January, and Marquette hits the road immediately following for collisions with Notre Dame and DePaul. Three years ago, Marquette ended the Fighting Irish home winning streak, and could be in line to do that again when they come to the Joyce Center on February 4th.

The start of a home-and-home series with Cincinnati is next for the Golden Eagles on "National Marquette Day" at the Bradley Center on February 11th, with a road game at the XL Center against Connecticut preceding Marquette's penultimate home game on February 22nd against Rutgers. A road trip to West Virginia and then Cincinnati to complete the back end of a home-and-home series concludes February, with the Golden Eagles celebrating senior night at home on March 3rd when Georgetown will square off against Marquette for the second time this season.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Inside The Big East: West Virginia

Bob Huggins could be excluded from a best-dressed list, but don't count his West Virginia team out of Big East. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

After profiling Jamie Dixon and Pitt, the next topic of conversation is the Panthers' archrival.

West Virginia Mountaineers (2010-11 Record: 21-12, 11-7 Big East)
Head Coach: Bob Huggins (5th season at WV, 101-42; 691-253 overall)
Returning Starters: F Kevin Jones (6-8 Sr., 13.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 45% FG, 60% FT, 1.1 APG)
G Darryl "Truck" Bryant (6-2 Sr., 11.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 33% FG, 83% FT, 3.0 APG)
F Deniz Kilicli (6-9 Jr., 6.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 49% FG, 57% FT)
Other Key Returning Players: None
Key Losses: G Casey Mitchell (13.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 42% FG, 38% 3pt, 87% FT, 1.1 APG)
F John Flowers (9.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 47% FG, 76% FT, 1.7 APG, 2.2 BPG)
G Joe Mazzulla (7.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 46% FG, 67% FT, 4.2 APG)

One year removed from a run to the Final Four behind the late-game heroics of DaSean Butler, West Virginia struggled last season; finishing 21-12 and only reaching the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament after trying to replace both Butler and forward Devin Ebanks, who had been drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers following the 2009-10 campaign in which the Mountaineers reached the national semifinals. The good news in Morgantown is that coach Bob Huggins has three returning starters from each of the previous two teams coming into this season. The bad news, however, is that his bench is no longer as deep as it has historically been; meaning that West Virginia will need to rely on a combination of new faces and talent that has yet to prove itself if they are to be among the 68 programs to hear their names announced by Greg Gumbel on Selection Sunday.

Senior guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant, a local product by way of St. Raymond's in the Bronx, is the undisputed point guard now that Joe Mazzulla has graduated; and will be the primary option in the backcourt for Huggins as well. Up front, senior Kevin Jones and junior Deniz Kilicli will serve as the go-to guys inside. Last year, Jones and Kilicli averaged nearly 20 points and over 11 rebounds combined; and both could be double-double per night players under the right circumstances. Huggins' bench will be occupied by a number of incoming freshmen in a recruiting class highlighted by 5-11 guard Jabarie Hinds. Hinds comes to the Mountaineers from Mount Vernon High School and coach Bob Cimmino, the same program that produced Kevin Jones; and should make an impact immediately.

West Virginia opens the season on November 11th against Summit League favorite Oral Roberts before hosting Kent State four days later at 10AM as part of ESPN's 24 hours of college basketball. One last home game against Alcorn State awaits before a matchup with last year's NCAA Tournament darling Morehead State on a neutral court in Charleston, site of the Mountaineers' game with Marshall last season.

West Virginia returns home to face Huggins' former employer Akron before hitting the road to meet Mississippi State as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge. Next up is a clash with another former Huggins program, as Kansas State meets the Mountaineers in Wichita before three home games in Morgantown; the first of which comes against former Big East opponent Miami. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Tennessee Tech are next on West Virginia's ledger before the Mountaineers head to Las Vegas for showdowns with Missouri State and Baylor.

After opening Big East play in Morgantown against Villanova on December 28th, West Virginia closes 2011 two days later in Newark against Seton Hall, and plays its first contest of 2012 at the RAC against Mike Rice's Scarlet Knights four days later. A home meeting with Georgetown precedes a trip to the XL Center to face Jim Calhoun and reigning national champion Connecticut, with Rutgers invading the WVU Coliseum on January 14th to complete a home-and-home series. Four days later, West Virginia returns to Charleston to reprise their in-state rivalry with Marshall, who could be a contender in Conference USA under coach Tom Herrion.

A home game against yet another former Huggins school is next for the Mountaineers, as Mick Cronin and Cincinnati make their way into Morgantown on January 21st. Four days later, West Virginia heads into Madison Square Garden looking to avenge a bitter loss from last season when they take on Steve Lavin and the youngest team in St. John's history. Last season, the Red Storm opened conference play with a rather convincing win in Morgantown, a key in their 3-0 Big East start that set them up for their miraculous stretch run. The Mountaineers stay in New York to meet Syracuse at the Carrier Dome following their trip to the largest city in the United States, with Pitt closing out January on the 30th when the Mountaineers and Panthers play the first of two games in the Backyard Brawl.

A trip to Providence opens the month of February for West Virginia, with Notre Dame coming into Morgantown on February 8th for the front end of a home-and-home series. Three days later, Rick Pitino and Louisville are the next opponent the Mountaineers play host to, with Pittsburgh next on the schedule from the Petersen Center on February 16th. The back end of the Notre Dame home-and-home takes place next for West Virginia at the Joyce Center six days following the Pitt game; with Marquette and DePaul coming into Morgantown for the final homestand of the season, one that will take the Mountaineers through the month of February. West Virginia will play its final regular season game in St. Petersburg on March 3rd when they fly to the Sunshine State to face USF in their final tuneup before the Big East tournament.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Inside The Big East: Pitt

Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs passed on NBA draft to lead Panthers into his senior season. (Photo courtesy of NBC Sports)

After taking a look at what to expect from Jay Wright and Villanova on the Main Line, next up is the other Big East school in the Keystone State.

Pittsburgh Panthers (2010-11 Record: 28-6, 15-3 Big East)
Head Coach: Jamie Dixon (9th season, 216-60)
Returning Starters: G Ashton Gibbs (6-2 Sr., 16.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 47% FG, 49% 3pt, 89% FT, 2.8 APG)
F Nasir Robinson (6-5 Sr., 9.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 55% FG, 53% FT, 1.3 APG)
Other Key Returning Players: G Travon Woodall (5-11 Jr., 6.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 36% FG, 73% FT, 3.4 APG)
F Dante Taylor (6-9 Jr., 5.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 62% FG, 56% FT)
F J.J. Moore (6-6 So., 3.7 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 44% FG, 70% FT)
F Talib Zanna (6-9 So., 3.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 56% FG, 48% FT)
Key Losses: G Brad Wanamaker (11.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 45% FG, 33% 3pt, 76% FT, 5.1 APG, 1.4 SPG)
F Gilbert Brown (11.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 46% FG, 41% 3pt, 79% FT, 2.7 APG)
C Gary McGhee (6.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 57% FG, 49% FT, 1.3 BPG)

Every year for the Pittsburgh Panthers, it's been the same old story; much to the chagrin of their rabid fan base. Pitt sets the Big East and nation on fire with a stellar regular season record and a Top 10 ranking throughout most of the year, yet somehow cannot close the deal in the NCAA Tournament. Last season provided more of the frustrating status quo for the Oakland Zoo, when the Panthers were defeated in the round of 32 on a last-second comeback by eventual national runner-up Butler. Head coach Jamie Dixon now heads into his ninth season as Ben Howland's successor in the Steel City; but still has just one trip to the Elite Eight on his ledger, and will look to guide the reigning regular season champions of the Big East through the gladiator pit once again this season as his star guard returns for his final season.

Ashton Gibbs entered his name into the NBA draft following Pitt's shocking NCAA Tournament exit last season, but preserved his eligibility by not signing with an agent and withdrawing before the final deadline. Now a senior, the sharpshooting Gibbs will anchor a Pitt backcourt that will include the full-time presence of junior point guard Travon Woodall in the starting lineup. A product of Bob Hurley's perennial powerhouse program at St. Anthony's in Jersey City, Woodall has the unenviable task of replacing the former Mr. Everything for the Panthers, as he takes over for the now-graduated Brad Wanamaker.

Swingman Gilbert Brown and big man Gary McGhee also completed their fourth years last season; and will be replaced by sophomores J.J. Moore and Talib Zanna, with the latter of the two set to defy expectations and surprise a lot of Big East aficionados this season. One of the biggest contributors for Pitt during the first month of the season last year, Zanna's production declined during conference play; but the 6-9 power forward is one in the Ben Wallace mold that should see increased opportunities to make his presence known on the defensive glass. Fellow forward Dante Taylor, a Westchester County product, will push Moore for a starting spot; and could also establish himself as a force on the boards if Zanna gets into foul trouble. Senior Nasir Robinson may only stand 6-5, but he is just as much an inside presence as each of the aforementioned Pitt big men are.

After a pair of exhibition games, Pittsburgh opens Dixon's ninth campaign on November 11th by rolling out the red carpet for America East favorite Albany at the Petersen Center. The Panthers' homecourt dominance will get several chances to be extended early in November, with Rider, Long Beach State and LaSalle each making their way into the Oakland Zoo before Pitt heads to the iconic Palestra to square off against Penn in the Philly Hoop Group Classic on the night after Thanksgiving. On November 27th, Pitt will play the first of two consecutive games against intra-city rivals, first hosting Robert Morris at the Petersen Center before facing Duquesne three days later on a neutral court at the Consol Energy Center, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A rematch with Tennessee as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge is next up for the Panthers, who were defeated at the Consol Energy Center by the Vols last season in a game where Pitt was handed its first loss of the season. A home game against VMI awaits before heading to New York for a December 10th tilt with Oklahoma State at Madison Square Garden. South Carolina State heads to the Petersen Center on December 17th; and Pitt wraps up their nonconference schedule with two home games against Northeast Conference opponents, as St. Francis University and Wagner College coming into the Steel City before the Panthers open Big East play at the Joyce Center on December 27th against Mike Brey and Notre Dame.

Pittsburgh opens 2012 at home when Cincinnati invades the Petersen Center on New Year's Day, with a road trip to DePaul sandwiching a second home game versus Mike Rice and Rutgers. Away games against Marquette and Syracuse serve as the precursor to a three-game homestand that features dates with Louisville, Providence and Georgetown before the Panthers play the front end of a home-and-home series with West Virginia on January 30th in Morgantown in a matchup that will be the latest installment of the Backyard Brawl. Pitt opens February with a home game against Villanova six days removed from their showdown with the Mountaineers.

A two-game road trip starting with the front end of a home-and-home series with USF is next up for the Panthers, followed by a collision with Seton Hall in Newark at the Prudential Center. From there, Pitt wraps up the Backyard Brawl series when West Virginia returns the favor on February 16th at the Petersen Center; and USF will follow suit three days later when the Bulls wrap up their home-and-home series with Pittsburgh.

Rick Pitino and Louisville are the third home-and-home opponents for Pitt, and will welcome the Panthers into the Yum! Center on February 26th. Senior night for Pittsburgh comes on the anniversary of leap year when Steve Lavin and St. John's come into the Petersen Center on February 29th, with Pitt's final regular season game coming on March 3rd in Storrs, Connecticut against Jim Calhoun and reigning national champion Connecticut inside Gampel Pavilion.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Inside The Big East: Villanova

Now a junior, Mouphtaou Yarou should become a household name for Villanova this season. (Photo courtesy of New York Times)

Mike Rice and his seven-member recruiting class at Rutgers were profiled in depth yesterday, and next up on the list is the program that fell victim to the Scarlet Knights on a four-point play in the final seconds.

Villanova Wildcats (2010-11 Record: 21-12, 9-9 Big East)
Head Coach: Jay Wright (11th season at VU, 224-101; 346-196 overall)
Returning Starters: G Maalik Wayns (6-2 Jr., 13.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 40% FG, 82% FT, 4.5 APG, 1.2 SPG)
F Mouphtaou Yarou (6-10 Jr., 8.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 50% FG, 66% FT, 1.0 BPG)
Other Key Returning Players: G Dominic Cheek (6-6 Jr., 5.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 36% FG, 76% FT)
Key Losses: G Corey Fisher (15.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 42% FG, 33% 3pt, 79% FT, 4.8 APG, 1.5 SPG)
G Corey Stokes (14.9 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 43% FG, 43% 3pt, 89% FT, 1.3 APG)
F Antonio Pena (9.8 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 50% FG, 68% FT, 1.5 APG, 1.0 BPG)

Through the last decade, Villanova has always managed to find their way to the top half of the Big East standings, thanks in large part to a roster filled with talented players at each position and enough depth to last coach Jay Wright several seasons. After reaching the Sweet 16 in 2008 as a No. 12 seed with a roster comprised entirely of underclassmen, Wright brought the whole team back the following season and brought the Wildcats to the first Final Four in program history since their magical national championship in 1985. The honeymoon period ended abruptly, however, with two consecutive exits on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the most recent of which being a round of 64 loss to George Mason a year after Villanova was ousted in the round of 32 by St. Mary's.

With the exception of reserve guard Dallas Ouano, Wright has essentially a similar situation to 2007-08 in front of him as he begins his eleventh season on the Main Line. Every other player will be back next year, barring any transfers from one of the most stable and successful Big East programs in recent memory. The stability experienced by the fans of 'Nova Nation will take a significant hit this year, though, with the graduation of three mainstays that etched their names into the illustrious history of Villanova basketball: Forward Antonio Pena and the Coreys, guards Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher.

Fisher's replacement in the starting lineup will be junior guard Maalik Wayns, who will now run the point exclusively after serving as more of a combo guard when he was part of Wright's starting five last year. The 6-2 junior homegrown talent has had the benefit of learning from Fisher and Scottie Reynolds in his first two seasons; and after a sophomore campaign in which he averaged nearly fourteen points and over four assists per contest, Wayns will be the man everyone looks to on the Main Line this season, and his biggest test will be whether or not he will be able to handle the pressure of being a team leader for a full season after serving a piece of the supporting cast as a freshman and sophomore. Villanova's only other incumbent in the starting five is one who should defy expectations and have a year to remember. After a freshman season in which he was plagued by an early-season bout with hepatitis, 6-10 Mouphtaou Yarou blossomed as a sophomore, averaging eight points and seven rebounds per contest a year ago. With Pena having departed, Yarou should be the go-to guy in the paint for the Wildcats; and a double-double per night is definitely not out of the question for the junior from the African nation of Benin.

Jay Wright may not have the depth he has enjoyed in years past, but will still be able to play his trademark four-guard sets on the Main Line this season, as reserve guards Dominic Cheek and James Bell will return for their junior and sophomore seasons, respectively. Cheek and Bell should start alongside Wayns, with freshman guard Tyrone Johnson seeing a great deal of minutes at the point while Wayns moves off the ball in situations where Wright chooses to play "four quick." Johnson, a product of Stu Vetter's Montrose Christian program, and 6-9 power forward Markus Kennedy make up the centerpieces of Wright's recruiting class, which also includes the returning JayVaughn Pinkston, the forward from Brooklyn who was dismissed from the team for an off-court incident before last season began. Maurice Sutton returns as well to give the Wildcats a boost in the middle with his 6-11 frame.

Villanova opens the 2011-12 season with three on-campus home games at the Pavilion, first welcoming Monmouth on November 11th before playing host to Big 5 rival LaSalle and Delaware. After the homestand, the Wildcats head to Anaheim for three games in the 76 Classic, with a Big 5 game at the Pavilion against Penn serving as their homecoming from the West Coast on December 3rd. For the second year in a row, Villanova gets to play a game at Madison Square Garden prior to the Big East tournament, when Missouri and the Wildcats square off on December 6th in the Jimmy V Classic. Last season, Villanova played two games at the Garden against UCLA and Tennessee at the end of November in the Preseason NIT.

Villanova's first game at the Wells Fargo Center comes against Boston University on December 13th, and sandwiches Big 5 road meetings with Temple and Saint Joseph's. American University, who almost upset the Wildcats as a No. 14 seed in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, serves as Villanova's final nonconference opponent in their December 22nd matchup at the Pavilion, with the Wildcats opening Big East play six days later against West Virginia in Morgantown.

Next up for the Wildcats will be the front ends of two home-and-home series, first at Marquette on New Year's Day before USF comes into the Pavilion on January 5th. The Wildcats stay on campus three days later to host DePaul before welcoming Syracuse into the Wells Fargo Center for their third consecutive home game on January 11th. Villanova starts their final home-and-home series at Cincinnati on January 14th; with Seton Hall invading the Pavilion before the Wildcats make their second trip to Madison Square Garden on January 21st, when they look to avenge a 13-point loss at the hands of St. John's this past February at the Wells Fargo Center.

Speaking of the Wells Fargo Center, the back end of a home-and-home series with Marquette sandwiches two road games at Louisville and Pittsburgh in a stretch of games that take the Wildcats through the first weekend of February. Villanova next hosts Providence at the Pavilion on February 7th prior to flying to Florida to face USF in St. Petersburg on February 15th. Two games against Notre Dame and Connecticut at the Wells Fargo Center serve as the final two that the Wildcats will play in Philadelphia, as Georgetown and Rutgers welcome Villanova into the Verizon Center and RAC, respectively. The March 1st meeting between the Wildcats and Scarlet Knights in Piscataway will be the first since Rutgers upset Villanova on Jonathan Mitchell's aforementioned four-point play. Villanova's last regular season contest comes on March 3rd against Mick Cronin's Cincinnati Bearcats at the Pavilion.