Monday, January 31, 2011

A Long Time Coming

Less than 24 hours later, it's still surreal to see St. John's fans storming the court at Madison Square Garden after Johnnies' unlikely 93-78 upset win over No. 3 Duke. (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)

You can always argue a statement win for any team in any sport. Very rarely, if ever, is there a consensus; but in the case of a once-proud college basketball program that has shown flashes of wanting to return to prominence, those associated with its glorious past need not look any further than the end result yesterday afternoon on a court just as rich in history; and an opponent with four national championships under a man soon to be recognized as the winningest coach of all time, and quite possibly among the greatest ever.

There are many special connotations to St. John's taking down third-ranked and reigning champion Duke yesterday at Madison Square Garden in the 93-78 Red Storm victory that definitely ranks among the biggest upsets in college basketball this season, and chief among them is that all the hype and optimism that engulfed the corner of Union and Utopia back at the end of March when athletic director Chris Monasch made the bold choice of luring former UCLA head man Steve Lavin out of the ESPN broadcast booth and back onto the bench as the successor to Norm Roberts has finally come to fruition.

When Lavin took the job, you didn't have to be a college basketball expert to tell that the charismatic coach hit all the right notes in his first impression. Right away, you could sense that Lavin had a vision to see this program succeed once more; and more importantly, St. John's had a coach that wanted to be there to make it happen after weeks of name upon name deciding against going to Queens to resurrect New York City's college hoops team. Almost a full year later, the aura that some programs would look upon as a potential distraction; one that was embraced by the St. John's community, has only grown exponentially to the point where the Red Storm are on the verge of doing something that has not been done in nine years: Make the NCAA Tournament.

Yesterday, the Johnnies picked up their first victory over Duke since the great Marcus Hatten game back in 2003, one where the former Red Storm star drained a free throw after time expired to give then-coach Mike Jarvis the win in a season that saw St. John's win the NIT, only to have that crown vacated after the infamous Pittsburgh incident that cost Jarvis his job and led to the six-year tenure of Norm Roberts that restored the program's dignity after experiencing its lowest point since playing basketball competitively for the first time back in 1908.

However, this win is for more than just the fans. It's for the players, a group led by ten seniors who feel as though they have something to prove; a group that has grown tired of being the doormat of the Big East and New York metro area. It's for a coaching staff that came together this summer with the daunting and unenviable task of getting a roster of players they would only have under their tutelage for five months to buy into a new system only to have to start from scratch. It's for the nine recruits who will take the court next year with the opportunity to make a name for themselves over the next four years of their lives if they stay in Queens that long. It's for the beat writers and play-by-play announcers that covered this team and its players up close and personal since the day most of them arrived on campus as 18-year-old boys in the fall of 2007 and wrote about their struggles or called their games and watched them grow up through resilient efforts like their back-to-back wins against Georgetown over seven days in March 2009, and demoralizing losses such as DePaul in 2008 and Fordham last month. It's for the young boys and girls that harbor dreams of playing at the highest level. It's for anyone with the ability to be inspired through something so simple and unassuming as a sporting event. It's for a city desperate to embrace a winner on the hardwood after years of frustration with the futility of both their collegiate and professional residents until this season. This is for anyone who believes that anything is possible. This is for those who don't just expect the unexpected, but hope for and greet it with open arms. This is for anyone simply looking for a reason to believe, in anyone or anything.

As a fan, alumnus and media member of St. John's University, words cannot describe how much people like me have waited for a feel-good moment like the one that transpired yesterday in midtown Manhattan. However, I offer this piece of advice for anyone remotely affiliated with the Red Storm in any capacity:

Enjoy the emotional high and savor the memories, because regardless of how this season turns out, one thing remains certain:

It's only just begun. A bright future awaits in the Big Apple, one that we'll all have the pleasure of experiencing together as it unfolds right before our eyes.

Love them or hate them, St. John's is back, and you'll find that most people wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Postgame Shootaround: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

Ben Hansbrough continues his meteoric rise in Notre Dame history with his 19 point, seven-assist performance in 56-51 Fighting Irish win at Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

New York Yankees radio play-by-play announcer John Sterling informs his audience on numerous occasions that "you can't predict baseball." That may be true, but it's not the only sport with an unpredictable nature. While baseball may have the element of unexpected outcomes, (like every sport) no game is as up in the air as college basketball; and no conference is as less of a guaranteed lock as the strongest and best league in the country, the Big East. If wins by Villanova and Providence against Syracuse and Louisville respectively weren't enough to reinforce that belief, Notre Dame did the skeptics another favor with a road win in Pittsburgh that was equal parts improbable and impressive. The Daly Dose takes you one step closer with some insights and lasting impressions from last night's encounter between the Fighting Irish and the second-ranked Panthers.

  • A double shot of Big Ben.
Pittsburgh fans are used to seeing a man named Ben succeed in their town thanks to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's two Super Bowl wins since being drafted in 2004. However, less than 24 hours after Roethlisberger brought yet another AFC championship to the Steel City, another Ben worked similar magic. The only difference is that this Ben wore a road jersey. Ben Hansbrough (yes, Tyler's little brother) paced Notre Dame with 19 points, 13 of which came in the final nine-plus minutes as the Fighting Irish upset Pitt 56-51. In fact, Hansbrough outscored the Panthers down the stretch 13-12.
  • Irish eyes are smiling.
They're also wide open after Mike Brey's team finally picked up its first Big East road win of the year after coming away from Marquette, Syracuse and St. John's on the opposite end of the boxscore. With their home wins against Georgetown, UConn, St. John's, Marquette and Cincinnati, the Irish are now 6-3 in conference play with four more games at the Joyce Center awaiting them. Should Notre Dame run the table at home, (a rather easy feat considering their homecourt dominance in recent years) a first-round bye in the Big East tournament will come in a gold and blue envelope as the Irish invade Madison Square Garden in March.
  • A shocking loss, but a quality loss.
If there is such a thing. Pittsburgh loses at the Petersen Center about as often as Hulk Hogan lost wrestling matches back in the 1980s, so the Notre Dame celebration Monday night really did come off somewhat surreal. In fact, it's just the 12th time a visiting team has come onto the Pitt campus and walked away victorious. Even though the loss came mere hours after Pitt was moved up to second in the polls following Kansas' equally shocking home loss against Texas, the Panthers were solidified as one of the best teams in the country; (let alone the Big East) and will once again be expected to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Whether or not Jamie Dixon and company can finally close the deal is another story for a later time.
  • The theory of evolution.
Darwin proposed natural selection. Mike Brey proposes depth. Back in January 2009 when Notre Dame came to Madison Square Garden to face St. John's in a game I called on WSJU Radio, Tim Abromaitis, Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash were trapped behind Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland and some guy named Luke Harangody; not to mention backup center Luke Zeller. Two years later, the new frontcourt triumvirate is making differences in South Bend that are far greater and unique than the aforementioned troika that led the Irish along with guards Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney. Nash and Abromaitis had off nights, but Scott made the difference when Hansbrough did not; connecting for 16 points (all five of his field goals came from beyond the arc, making Irish fans forget the long-range proficiency of former swingman Ayers) and nine rebounds in a performance that rivaled Hansbrough's 19 and seven assists for most well-rounded contribution of the night.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Full Court Press: Texas-Kansas Preview

Kansas looks to continue their home dominance tomorrow afternoon when Jayhawks host Kansas looking for 70th consecutive win in Lawrence. (Photo courtesy of CBS Sports)

Before we begin, I'd like to mention to whatever fans and readers that I may have that I had a choice between previewing two high-profile games that will tip off tomorrow. Since the other one that I'm electing not to cover (Villanova-Syracuse) is the front end of a home-and-home, (The Wildcats and Orange will square off again at the Wells Fargo Center on February 21st) and because there's more to this site than the Big East, we'll head to Allen Fieldhouse for the game of the year in the Big 12 featuring No. 2 and 2008 national champion Kansas and the team they welcome into the heartland, No. 10 Texas. For what it's worth, the Longhorns are the first team to make a return appearance in this segment of the blog, with their first coming against North Carolina last month.

#10 Texas Longhorns (15-3, 3-0 Big 12)
Head Coach: Rick Barnes

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Dogus Balbay (6-1 Sr., 4.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 55% FG, 54% FT)
SG: Cory Joseph (6-3 Fr., 11.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.1 SPG, 44% FG, 67% FT, 42% 3pt)
SF: Jordan Hamilton (6-7 So., 19.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 47% FG, 73% FT, 42% 3pt)
PF: Gary Johnson (6-6 Sr., 12.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 48% FG, 71% FT)
C: Tristan Thompson (6-8 Fr., 13.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 54% FG, 49% FT)

Key Reserve:
G J'Covan Brown (6-1 So., 9.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, 40% FG, 87% FT, 34% 3pt)

Keys To Victory:
Road Warriors - Although their win against North Carolina was on a neutral court in Greensboro, it really was a de facto road game. Not counting their 83-52 drubbing of Texas Tech, the Longhorns have only played one true road game; and that was their convincing victory at the Breslin Center against Michigan State. Texas is the clear-cut No. 2 in the Big 12 behind their opponent tomorrow, and this game could go a long way in determining whether or not that No. 2 will become a No. 1 in the near future.
Wing Man - Since Kansas starts three guards, Jordan Hamilton will be the biggest key for the Longhorns, as he will draw either Tyrel Reed or freshman sensation Josh Selby, creating a mismatch of at least four (maybe five) inches favoring the 6-7 Hamilton. Look for defensive rebounds to be the telltale stat line resulting from this matchup, as Hamilton's reach could very well be enough to hold the quickness of the Kansas backcourt at bay.
An Up-Hill Battle - Given that Kansas is taller than most teams Texas has played this year, don't be surprised if Rick Barnes plays big in Lawrence by sliding Hamilton down to shooting guard to accommodate 6-10 center Matt Hill. Hill has already started two games, and can provide an even matchup along with Tristan Thompson inside against the Morris twins.

#2 Kansas Jayhawks (18-0, 3-0 Big 12)
Head Coach: Bill Self

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Tyshawn Taylor (6-3 Jr., 8.9 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.4 SPG, 49% FG, 73% FT)
SG: Josh Selby (6-2 Fr., 12.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 40% FG, 83% FT, 42% 3pt)
SF: Tyrel Reed (6-3 Sr., 9.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 41% FG, 88% FT, 37% 3pt)
PF: Marcus Morris (6-9 Jr., 17.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 61% FG, 67% FT, 40% 3pt)
C: Markieff Morris (6-10 Jr., 13.2 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 57% FG, 67% FT)

Key Reserves:
F Thomas Robinson (6-9 So., 8.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.0 BPG, 62% FG, 47% FT)
G Travis Releford (6-5 So., 5.7 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 56% FG, 63% FT, 46% 3pt)
G Brady Morningstar (6-4 Sr., 4.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, 44% FG, 83% FT)

Keys To Victory:
70 - The Chicago Bulls hold the record for most wins in a single NBA season with 72. With a win tomorrow, Kansas will extend their record home winning streak to 70 if they can walk off the court in Lawrence victorious.
Loud Noises! - Allen Fieldhouse has been described as the loudest arena in the country in addition to being among the toughest to play in. Kansas needs to use that to their advantage to throw a deceptively strong and quick Texas team off its game, and force the Longhorns to make uncharacteristic mistakes that can put them in a deep hole from which it will be difficult to recover.
Double Your Pleasure - It's no secret that the Morris twins are the forces behind Kansas' undefeated start. Before the addition of Josh Selby, Marcus and Markieff have made the motor run for the Jayhawks going back to their days as role players on the 2008-09 team that defended the national championship that was brought to Lawrence the season before. While Markieff may be the taller brother and leading rebounder of the two, it is Marcus who is more dangerous; scoring more while also shooting 61 percent from the field and an unbelievable (for a big man) 40 percent from beyond the arc.

So, Who Wins?
This truly is a matchup that can go either way, as Texas has shown its ability to compete with teams that appear to overmatch them, while Kansas is simply one of the best teams in the nation and a probable Final Four representative this April. While I've mentioned several times that Texas winning wouldn't surprise me, Kansas will simply be too much for the Longhorns this time around. The good thing for Rick Barnes is that his team will be better in the years to come, which should make the chances of bringing a win over the Jayhawks into Austin much higher.

Your Final: Kansas 81, Texas 73

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Postgame Shootaround: Big East On Big Monday

What's better on a Monday night after football season (well, during the NFL playoffs, where all games take place over the weekend) than a pair of marquee matchups from the best conference in basketball where every team on the court is ranked in the top ten of both major polls? If you're anything like me, nothing compares to that. That's what we got yesterday, with Villanova and UConn locking horns in a twilight start at Gampel Pavilion while Syracuse and Pitt turned up the lights and intensity in the nightcap at the Petersen Center. Kemba Walker won the game for the Huskies (raise your hand if you've heard that one before) in the final seconds and Pitt continued their homecourt dominance with an eight-point win over the Orange. What to take from all this, you might ask? Hopefully we can help you with that.

  • ONIONS!!!!
If Bill Raftery had the call of the UConn-Villanova game, that would have certainly been included in the broadcast vernacular after Kemba Walker's latest game-winning shot with 2.5 seconds left provided the final margin in the Huskies' 61-59 win over the Wildcats. While Villanova should be unaffected by this heading into the Carrier Dome for their matchup Saturday night against Syracuse, you never know in the Big East.
  • No Joseph, no problem.
When it was announced that Syracuse's Kris Joseph would miss the Orange's showdown with Pitt Monday night due to a concussion, I assumed it would turn into a double-digit Panther win. Despite this feeling, I was still surprised to see Pitt open the game on a 19-0 run, and even more surprised to see the 'Cuse come back with a 17-0 stretch of their own to close within two. Pitt ultimately prevailed 74-66, but the Orange come out a moral winner (if there is such a thing) in the sense that they competed much better and harder than initially expected in the absence of their leading scorer. It is still unclear as to whether or not Joseph will be back for the Orange against Villanova this Saturday in the latest renewal of their high-octane, shoot-'em-up rivalry.
  • Nothing comes closer to home.
If you're a sucker for pointless minutiae like me, you'll recognize that line as the jingle for a line of commercials for Stouffer's frozen entrees in the early to mid-1990s. However, when describing Pittsburgh and their dominance at the Petersen Center, there really isn't a better way to put it. Pitt's latest home victory against Syracuse improved the Panthers to 145-11 all-time at their on-campus venue since its 2002 opening, good enough for a staggering .929 winning percentage. Kansas may have the all-time record for consecutive home wins; and the "tough places to play" can be debated until we're all blue in the face, but when the aforementioned record is thrown into the conversation, there is no doubt (to me at least) where the concept of homecourt advantage rings truer and stronger than any other arena in the country, and it's in the Steel City.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sully Pilots Miracle In Columbus

Freshman sensation Jared Sullinger has a new title at Ohio State: Leader of No. 1 team in the country. (Photo courtesy of Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Two years ago today, Captain Chesley Sullenberger became a national hero with his calm demeanor during what came to be known as the "Miracle on the Hudson." Two years later, a new "Sully" has emerged; and he has displayed the same unflappable resolve in the Midwest while leading an already-perennial Big Ten contender into the national elite. Call it the "Miracle in Columbus" if you will; and the pilot of the Ohio State Buckeyes' plane is none other than freshman superstar Jared Sullinger.

Barring a meltdown against Penn State later today, the Buckeyes should be the No. 1 team in the country in the new polls on Monday following top-ranked Duke's road loss to Florida State Wednesday night; and much of their success is a credit to Sullinger, who averages 17 points and 10 rebounds a night for one of the four remaining undefeated teams in the nation. Thad Matta has had many great teams since coming to Columbus from Xavier, including the 2007 squad led by Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. that reached the national championship game; but one would be hard pressed to find a former Ohio State player as talented as Sullinger, among the clear favorites for national player of the year honors. The only downside to the freshman's record is that he will almost certainly be playing in the NBA next season; but his coach has gone down that road many times with players ranging from Oden and Conley to reigning player of the year Evan Turner, drafted second overall this past year by the Philadelphia 76ers. "I've almost learned over the time, when the season ends, you kind of sift through the NBA process," said Matta. "Take a look at what's going to happen. Sort of sit down in the summer and say, 'Here's what we got, let's make it work."

What Matta has with Sullinger is something that almost no one envisioned would come to fruition so soon. Although the freshman forward received his fair share of hype before even suiting up in Columbus, he has already exploded onto the scene with a 40-point outburst earlier in the season against IUPUI while also recording eight double-doubles in the Buckeyes' 17-0 start. The best part about this young stud, you might ask? He doesn't let success go to his head, and knows where there is room for improvement. "I key in on rebounding," said Sullinger following Ohio State's victory over South Carolina, one in which he dominated the Gamecocks for 30 points and 19 boards. "If I'm not rebounding, then I'm not playing hard. Nineteen rebounds. I was really into the game."

Any time you can get a player like that, the results will speak for themselves, and Ohio State has nothing but great things headed their way as long as their freshman leader is on the floor. He may wear jersey No. 0, but Jared Sullinger has already taken this team to No. 1, and the goal for the Buckeyes may not necessarily be remaining in that position; but getting there on April 4th in Houston when the final buzzer sounds on the NCAA campaign.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Return of the Starting Five

Fresh off a 47-point performance against Utah, BYU's Jimmer Fredette takes center stage in the college hoops landscape. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Paging the superstitious: Last night, in addition to being January 11th, (significant for being 1/11/11) several defining moments became part of the final highlight reel for Division I college basketball. From a stat line that defines legend to a comeback from a team that some were on the verge of leaving for dead, last night changed the landscape, so much so that one of our recurring segments in 2010 will make an earlier return than initially anticipated. Without any further ado, the 2011 debut of the starting five covers the following quintet of college hoops nuggets and happenings:

  • Jimmer.
Just the mention of his first name is enough for everyone to know that Brigham Young guard Jimmer Fredette leads our recap, and that would have been our open even before his 47-point outburst on the road last night against Utah. Jimmer put 32 on the board for the Cougars in the first half alone, including a halfcourt buzzer-beater at the intermission, and ended the night just two points shy of his career-high 49 against UNLV. On a night where Kemba Walker was held to 18 (how many times can you say "held to 18?") against Rutgers, the Jimmer Show became the headliner on the NCAA scoring list, as Fredette passed Walker to become the country's all-time leading scorer. National Player of the Year? It's easier to see after last night.

  • This is madness!
The reference to "300" can only mean that we'll follow it up with "this is Sparta!," which of course gives away the fact that we're alluding to Michigan State. Whoever decided to write Sparty off before last night is having a major change of heart after Tom Izzo's boys scored the last nine points of regulation to tie the game at 53 and ultimately prevail over Wisconsin 64-61 in overtime. Kalin Lucas had 17 for the Spartans, but the highlight of this matchup was Draymond Green showing that he truly is a leader. Green's career-high 26 should be the first of many performances where the junior shows just how much of an asset he really is down the stretch.

  • Speaking of madness...
The Missouri Valley should (and hopefully will) get more than one team into the 68-team field this March. If you've read any of my pieces, you know my affinity for the Valley. However, what I didn't expect was that Missouri State would start out undefeated in conference play. Led by Adam Leonard's long-range proficiency, the Bears are still perfect in the Valley, and are on the inside track to the Big Dance provided they can get through "Arch Madness" in St. Louis. If you're Wichita State, you're still in the running despite the loss; and don't count Creighton out either with former Rutgers forward Greg Echenique and Kaleb Korver (Kyle's little brother) leading the Blue Jays.

  • Beasts of the East.
Eight teams are currently ranked in the Big East, led by No. 4 Syracuse, who heads into the Garden tonight to take on St. John's in what could be a de facto home game for the Orange. In addition, fifth-ranked Pittsburgh invades the Verizon Center for a matchup with No. 19 Georgetown where a Panther win could hurt the Hoyas' NCAA Tournament hopes as they would drop to 1-4 in conference; and No. 17 Louisville takes on seventh-ranked Villanova in an outstanding coaching duel between Rick Pitino and Jay Wright. Maybe Pitino breaks out the white suit tonight.

  • Last, but not least...
I'll again use the last space in the starting five to shout out the Northeast Conference, but the honor won't go to St. Francis. (at least not directly) Wagner is 4-0 in NEC play despite their 8-7 overall mark, and looks to extend against the Terriers tomorrow night at the Pope Center in Brooklyn. All it took was three short months for Danny Hurley to change the culture in Staten Island, and the Verrazano Warriors have reciprocated with a four-game run after dropping four in December, including a near-upset of St. John's. It only gets better for Hurley, as all five starters come back next year and some new recruits make their way into Richmond County.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Postgame Shootaround: Upset Saturday

All in all, a grand total of eight ranked teams lost last night, and two more bit the dust today. (albeit to opponents that were also ranked) The list of upsets cut the number of unbeaten teams to five from seven; and proved that while some teams are overrated, some others may just be all they're perceived to be. Without any further ado, here's a look at the prospects going forward for each of the eight upset victims from 24 hours ago. On a side note, top-ranked Duke is being tested by Maryland as I write this, but the Blue Devils have taken a 32-31 lead into the locker room at the half in Cameron.

#8 Missouri (defeated by Colorado 89-76)
There are still a lot of positives to be taken from the Tigers simply due to their sideline presence. Mike Anderson's "40 Minutes of Hell" system has done very well in Columbia, and Mizzou is still one of the top three teams in the Big 12. Going on the road wherever you are usually puts you at a disadvantage, but the Tigers should bounce back well at home against Nebraska Wednesday night.

#11 Kentucky (defeated by Georgia 77-70)
Many have been talking about the Bulldogs and their status as an SEC up-and-comer; and given the abundance of freshmen in John Calipari's rotation, it really isn't much of a shock to see the Wildcats suffer an in-conference defeat this early in the year. If nothing else, most of the country finally got a look at Trey Thompkins and his massive potential. Kentucky should return to their winning ways Tuesday night when they welcome Auburn into Rupp Arena.

#12 Texas (defeated by #9 UConn 82-81 in overtime)
Kemba Walker was the difference in this game. The Huskies have him, the Longhorns don't. It's just that simple. The fact that Texas was able to stay with the Player of the Year frontrunner for so long speaks volumes about just how far Rick Barnes' squad has come. I still believe Texas is the clear No. 2 in the Big 12, (behind Kansas) and they get three games (on the road at Texas Tech before Oklahoma and Texas A&M invade the Erwin Center) to show that before their January 22nd collision with the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse. You'll hear it in this space first: The Longhorns are the biggest threat to Kansas' NCAA-record home winning streak in recent years, and it's not hard to see them walking into Lawrence and taking it to Bill Self's team.

#13 Georgetown (defeated by West Virginia 65-59)
The Hoyas have uncharacteristically dropped three of their first four to open Big East play whil relying heavily on the three guards that make their motor run. While Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark are all solid players, the fact remains that Georgetown lacks a dominant big man following Greg Monroe's departure to the NBA. Julian Vaughn and Hollis Thompson (not to mention Henry Sims) are still not ready to fill the massive hole Monroe was able to plug for two years. In addition, the Hoyas have been very erratic from long range while at the same time yielding threes in large numbers against the opposition. It doesn't get any easier for Georgetown with Pitt coming into town on Wednesday. In fact, a Hoya loss (which is likely considering just how good Pitt is) could seriously damage their NCAA Tournament chances unless they could go on a run late in the season.

#17 Kansas State (defeated by Oklahoma State 76-62)
The Wildcats may just be one of those overrated teams. After their run to the Elite Eight last year, people penciled K-State in as a Final Four contender despite the loss of guard Denis Clemente, who really was the heart and soul of Frank Martin's team in Manhattan, Kansas. Fast forward just a few months and K-State is proving that you don't know what you have until it's gone. With Clemente, this is a completely different team; one that would likely be firmly entrenched in the Top 5. To make matters worse, Jacob Pullen and Rodney McGruder haven't been themselves all season. Colorado comes into the Bramlage Coliseum on Wednesday fresh off their upset of Missouri and looking to catch lightning in a bottle twice.

#18 Central Florida (defeated by Houston 76-71)
Let's be honest, we all knew UCF probably wouldn't be able to run the table this season. However, doing it as long as they did is a credit to the Golden Knights, who are still the C-USA frontrunner given the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Memphis since Calipari left for Kentucky. (nothing against Josh Pastner) Marcus Jordan has proven to be more than just the son of the greatest player of all-time, and he will lead UCF into battle against Southern Miss in what should be a return to the success his team has enjoyed throughout the season.

#19 Michigan State (defeated by Penn State 66-62)
Some losses are just inexplicable. Penn State hasn't exactly sent chills down the spines of Big Ten opponents, and the Spartans are among the best in the nation when they're on their game. Yet Sparty yielded a 6-1 run over the final two minutes at the Jordan Center to give the Lions a surprising (in every sense of the word) home win. Unfortunately for Spartan fans, the time to use Kalin Lucas' recovery as an excuse is running out. Michigan State could very well be a team judged mainly upon their Final Four run last March, and it doesn't get easier with Wisconsin making the trip to the Breslin Center Tuesday night.

#24 Vanderbilt (defeated by South Carolina 83-75 in overtime)
Honestly, the fact that the Commodores were ranked is more surprising to me than Carolina defeating them, as the Gamecocks still have several members of the team that upset Kentucky a year ago. While Vandy is still a tournament contender in the SEC, their Top 25 status came primarily as a result of an easy nonconference slate. In fact, don't be surprised if Kevin Stallings' squad loses their next one against Georgia.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Full Court Press: St. John's-Notre Dame Preview

Arguably the most improved player in the country, Justin Brownlee leads St. John's into South Bend looking for second straight road win against Fighting Irish. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

They're the talk of the Big East after opening conference play with three consecutive wins, and the buzz that has enveloped New York City since Steve Lavin replaced Norm Roberts at St. John's is reaching crescendos not seen since the glory days of Lou Carnesecca in the 1980s. After their stunning 61-58 disposal of No. 13 Georgetown, the Johnnies set their sights on another ranked opponent this Saturday when they take on 14th-ranked Notre Dame at the Joyce Center in South Bend. Although Notre Dame leads the all-time series, the Red Storm have taken two of the last three against the Irish; including a 69-68 win in the last meeting between the two schools back on February 14th of last year in the Hoosier State. On top of that, the last time Notre Dame was ranked when they played St. John's, the Storm pulled off a 71-65 upset at Madison Square Garden on January 3rd, 2009 in what still ranks as the biggest win of coach Norm Roberts' six-year tenure. Some of the personnel may have changed, but the method we use to get you prepared for the joust at the Joyce Center will not. Without any further ado...

St. John's Red Storm (10-3, 3-0 Big East)
Head Coach: Steve Lavin

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Malik Boothe (5-9 Sr., 4.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 39% FG, 59% FT)
SG: Dwight Hardy (6-1 Sr., 16.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.4 SPG, 44% FG, 92% FT)
SF: D.J. Kennedy (6-5 Sr., 11.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.5 SPG, 51% FG, 74% FT, 38% 3pt)
PF: Justin Brownlee (6-7 Sr., 14.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 55% FG, 72% FT, 38% 3pt)
C: Dele Coker (6-10 Sr., 1.1 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 33% FG)

Key Reserves:
F Justin Burrell (6-8 Sr., 7.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 59% FG, 52% FT)
F Dwayne Polee (6-7 Fr., 5.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 44% FG, 70% FT)
G Paris Horne (6-3 Sr., 6.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 51% FG, 50% FT, 43% 3pt)

Keys To Victory:
Bronx Bomber - Through the Johnnies' five-game winning streak since the shocking Fordham loss, Dwight Hardy has been the sparkplug for Steve Lavin, scoring at least 20 in each of his last four contests and six of his last seven. Lavin said following the Georgetown win that his staff has tried to encourage him similar to Burgess Meredith's affable Mickey character in the "Rocky" movies, and it looks like he's paying off. Maybe it's just a coincidence being that he's from the Bronx, but Hardy is one of many Johnnies playing the role of the 2009 New York Yankees on this Red Storm team. For those not sure where I'm going with this analogy, the Yankees' turning point that season came on June 24th against the Braves when manager Joe Girardi was ejected and general manager Brian Cashman was in Atlanta while the incident took place. The Red Storm view December 11th of last year as their turning point. What happened that night, you might ask? That was the night of the 21-point comeback staged by Fordham to upset St. John's on the Rams' home court at Rose Hill Gym in, you guessed it, the Bronx. Anyway, I digress. Hardy has also demonstrated an ability not to rely on his outside shot this year, and it's contributing to the Johnnies shooting 48 percent from the field as a team, a better number than the 45 percent carried by the Irish into Saturday night's matchup.
What Can Brown Do For You? - It's the slogan for UPS, and Justin Brownlee has been more reliable than those delivery guys in the truck this season. Brownlee has come from seemingly out of nowhere (he was the fourth or fifth option at best off Norm Roberts' bench a year ago) to be Steve Lavin's most versatile player, and also the most gifted in crunch time. Brownlee may have the hardware awarded to him as most valuable player of the Great Alaska Shootout and Holiday Festival, and he earned those trophies with gritty double-figure scoring and well-rounded overall efforts. For those not sold on his clutch performances, watch the end of this past Monday's Georgetown game, where the former junior college star drove in to rebound a missed Dwight Hardy layup for what proved to be the game-winning bucket that lifted the Johnnies over the Hoyas for the third time in their last four meetings. Brownlee has done a little bit of everything this season, and could exploit both Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash, depending on who he draws as a matchup.
Hit Me - If you're familiar with my work or anyone else affiliated with my former outlet of WSJU, you know that D.J. Kennedy has earned the moniker of "The Hitman," a nickname that has stuck since his sophomore campaign of 2008-09. (Credit Keith Arias for starting that legend while doing color commentary alongside me against Howard on November 22nd, 2008. In fact, Keith also shared the call with me for the aforementioned January 3rd, 2009 encounter between the Johnnies and Irish at Madison Square Garden) Nonetheless, Kennedy is a much better player when he recognizes the need to take the game over. A positive credit to St. John's evolution as a team this season is that other players have stepped up and alleviated some of the pressure Kennedy has faced earlier in his career, but the fact remains that the man who wears jersey No. 1 is still option No. 1, and priority No. 1 for opposing coaches. Expect his assignment of Tim Abromaitis to be the highlight matchup of the night, as both are mirror images of one another.

#14 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (13-2, 2-1 Big East)
Head Coach: Mike Brey

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Ben Hansbrough (6-3 Sr., 15.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 44% FG, 80% FT, 45% 3pt)
SG: Scott Martin (6-8 Sr., 10.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 45% FG, 63% FT)
SF: Tim Abromaitis (6-8 Sr., 16.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 44% FG, 80% FT, 40% 3pt)
PF: Carleton Scott (6-8 Sr., 11.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.8 BPG, 51% FG, 88% FT, 35% 3pt)
C: Tyrone Nash (6-8 Sr., 10.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 44% FG, 74% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Eric Atkins (6-2 Fr., 6.4 PPG, 2.9 APG, 3.4 APG, 39% FG, 63% FT, 35% 3pt)
F Jack Cooley (6-9 So., 4.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 67% FG, 65% FT)

Keys To Victory:
Boys To Men
- This has nothing to do with the Philadelphia-based R&B group, hence the different spelling. As someone who covers the Big East regularly, I look at Notre Dame this year and I see names that look like they've been on the roster forever. While Mike Brey's frontcourt of Tim Abromaitis, Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash have only spent four years in South Bend, it just feels that way because they've waited for the opportunity to shine. Having played alongside players the likes of Rob Kurz, Kyle McAlarney, Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers, Luke Zeller, Luke Harangody, Tory Jackson and Jonathan Peoples (all listed in order of graduation) will give you that feeling, and at the same time make these players better and more mature than they would be at other programs. Mike Brey told me at Big East media day that one of the things that impressed him last year has how his team "learned how to win" without Harangody, who was injured last year and missed almost half of his senior campaign, most notably the bulk of the Big East schedule. So far, the chemistry developed in the absence of Harangody, now a backup for the Boston Celtics, has been a boon to the Irish, and will continue to be. On top of that, what makes this matchup even more intriguing is the matchup of Notre Dame's all-senior starting lineup against St. John's quintet of fourth-year starters. The only difference is St. John's has five more on their bench to just one on the Irish bench.
Sizing Them Up - Notre Dame possesses four starters that measure 6-8, but aside from reserve 6-9 Luke Harangody lookalike Jack Cooley, that's as big as you'll get in South Bend. While some look at the size difference in the backcourt and at the small forward position and assume that it is a mismatch in favor of the Irish, but in reality it's about even for both sides. The one advantage Notre Dame may have is their outside shooting. (The Irish come into Saturday night's contest shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc as a team) If Hansbrough and Abromaitis (and possibly Scott Martin as well) can get into a rhythm early, they can effectively beat the zone defense that St. John's is sure to unveil at some point. However, the Johnnies have a history of coming to play against Notre Dame. Just look back to the aforementioned January 2009 matchup, when Kyle McAlarney was consistently shooting with a hand in his face, a credit to the relentless defense of Paris Horne. The Staten Islander McAlarney, who came into that game shooting 46 percent from long range, only made one trifecta on the day and was held to just 10 points as the Red Storm turned Notre Dame into a one-dimensional team that Luke Harangody had to keep in contention singlehandedly.
Walk The Line - Any team that plays St. John's will always look at free throws as a deciding factor given the Johnnies' struggles from the charity stripe in years past. As Notre Dame comes in shooting 73 percent from the line collectively, (compared to just 68 for St. John's) look for the Irish to be excessively physical as they attempt to draw fouls. On the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame has to be careful not to foul Dwight Hardy, who has missed just six foul shots on the year, good enough for a Mark Price-like 92 percent clip at the line.

So, Who Wins?
This truly is a matchup that could go either way. While Notre Dame has surprised many with their early success, (including home wins over Georgetown and UConn) they are just as easily vulnerable, as evidenced by their inefficiency to keep up with Kentucky and Syracuse in the second half. Throw in their historic dominance at the Joyce Center and you have a recipe for gold and blue success. St. John's has managed to obscure that aura just a bit after stealing a victory in South Bend last year, and will look for their third win in the last four meetings against the Irish. (Sound familiar? It should, because the Georgetown game had the same scenario) The Johnnies are in the midst of their second of eight straight games against Top 25 teams, and I do not exaggerate when I say that each game is a bigger gut check than the one that preceded it. Time now for the final 2009 comparison of the night, and this one is the most relevant: When St. John's welcomed Notre Dame to the Garden two years ago, it was their chance to prove that they could contend with the top of the conference. This time around, the Notre Dame game is an opportunity for St. John's to prove that it could not only contend for forty minutes, but contend throughout the season while continuing to make the statement that they belong among the Big East's elite.

Your Final: St. John's 77, Notre Dame 72 (in overtime)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thrice As Nice

Dwight Hardy takes flight for his fourth straight 20-point game as St. John's improves to 3-0 in Big East with 61-58 win over Georgetown. (Photo courtesy of

The last time St. John's defeated a Top 25 team, this happened. The Red Storm forced Luke Harangody to carry Notre Dame on his back as the Fighting Irish, ranked seventh in the country on January 3rd, 2009, succumbed to St. John's by the final of 71-65.

If that's not enough for you, just remember what happened the last time the Johnnies locked horns with Georgetown, last night's opponent, at Madison Square Garden. In a knock-down, drag-out battle, the Hoyas' attempt to tie in the final seconds bounced off the backboard and St. John's held on for a 64-59 win in the first round of the 2009 Big East tournament.

Two years to the day of their Notre Dame win, St. John's welcomed the Hoyas back into New York City as Georgetown invaded the Garden for the first time since March 10th, 2009; and the result was the same despite a personnel change on the home bench. Behind 20 points from senior guard Dwight Hardy, St. John's (10-3, 3-0 in the Big East) overcame a late Hoya rally to defeat Georgetown (12-3, 1-2) 61-58 for their third straight win to start Big East play and fifth overall following a demoralizing road loss to Fordham that saw the Johnnies blow a 21-point second-half lead. The 20 from Hardy marked his fourth straight game reaching that number, and sixth in his last seven. "This is why we both came here, and this is what we live for," said Hardy, who took part in last night's postgame press conference along with teammate Justin Brownlee, who added 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Brownlee was responsible for the game-winning shot once again, a driving layup after rebounding a missed jumper from Hardy inside of ten seconds remaining in regulation. Hardy drained two free throws to provide the final margin of victory for what became the first home conference win for Red Storm head coach Steve Lavin, who is now not only 3-0 in the Big East, but also 3-0 at the "World's Most Famous Arena."

"It's one of the biggest reasons I came back to coaching," said a jubilant Lavin after last night's win when asked about how he was impacted by the atmosphere at the Garden, something St. John's had not seen in six years under Norm Roberts. In fact, last night's game harkened back to the 1980s, when the Johnnies and Hoyas were constantly at one another's throats while Lou Carnesecca and John Thompson Jr. were pacing the respective sidelines. Georgetown did get 16 points from Hollis Thompson in the losing effort, but were done in by the lack of productivity from their backcourt. The trio of Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark, which collectively averages 46 points per game, only managed 20 (Wright and Clark had seven each while Freeman only managed six) against a stingy St. John's defense that forced thirteen Hoya turnovers compared to just four of their own. The Red Storm scored 17 points off the Georgetown miscues and shot 76 percent (16-for-21) from the free throw line, making their first eleven foul shots to win another key stat line, a victory that looms even greater once you consider that the Storm was outrebounded by a 35-24 margin.

Next up for the boys from Queens is, ironically enough, Notre Dame. Ranked 15th in the country, the Irish will welcome St. John's into the Joyce Center, where D.J. Kennedy's pair of free throws in the final seconds enabled the Storm to steal a 69-68 road win. Should St. John's pick up another W away from the Big Apple, they will improve to 4-0 in conference, and the case for them to be ranked for the first time since Mike Jarvis was roaming the sidelines on the corner of Union and Utopia will become even stronger. To top all that off, St. John's will welcome perennial rival Syracuse into the Garden a week from tomorrow in a matchup that will squeeze some juice (no pun intended) into New York City.