Monday, March 28, 2011

A Mid-Major Night's Dream

Five years after George Mason did it in 2006, VCU guard Joey Rodriguez and head coach Shaka Smart lead Rams to Final Four as 11 seed out of Colonial Athletic Association. Ironically, VCU got into NCAA Tournament at George Mason's expense. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

Sixty-four teams have come and gone from the initial 68 to appear within the NCAA Tournament; and of the remaining quartet, each of the Final Four members have made themselves either loved or hated, depending on who you talk to. The only other common thread between the four programs is that hardly anyone expected them to be sharing the stage in Houston's Reliant Stadium this weekend.

After a scintillating 2010 Tournament where a small school from Indiana (they're back again this year) captivated a nation and nearly won it all on a halfcourt shot, we as college basketball fans have literally seen it all in this year's field of 68. From numerous upsets in every round thus far all the way to players who have made a name for themselves no matter what ultimately happens on Monday night, this year's edition of the NCAA Tournament has given us more than just "One Shining Moment."

Saturday night's national semifinals serve as living proof. In one matchup, you have tradition and notoriety. The winningest program of all time versus one of the greatest success stories of the 1990s and early 2000s, being supervised by two coaches whose relationship with one another is contentious at best; and even that is an understatement. Connecticut against Kentucky. Jim Calhoun and John Calipari one-on-one, one more time after their epic battles two decades ago when Calhoun's UConn squad squared off with Calipari's brash upstarts from the University of Massachusetts in a never-ending battle for New England bragging rights that left nothing spared. Yet in the conclusion of the doubleheader is a matchup that has basketball purists, BCS critics and proponents of a 96-team field salivating; a meeting that could be a double-edged sword for the future of college basketball as we know it for several reasons.

Virginia Commonwealth. The prototypical Cinderella story of this year's 68-team field, VCU survived the inaugural "First Four" play-in round after earning a questionable bid on Selection Sunday. Two weeks later, Shaka Smart's Rams are on the precipice of something big after unexpected victories over Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and most recently, Kansas yesterday afternoon. Should VCU win two more games, Smart, who turns 34 a week from Friday, will be the youngest head coach since 1940 to win a national title; and just the fourth African-American coach to cut down the nets. For a school that plays in the same conference as former national darlings George Mason, the Rams have landed in the Lone Star State in much the same fashion as the Patriots crashed the Final Four party back in 2006. For instance, both were No. 11 seeds out of the Colonial Athletic Association; and in a statistic sure to upset some people in Hempstead, both schools finished behind Long Island's own Hofstra University in the CAA standings.

VCU's opponent five days from today is the reigning king of storybook runs, the program reminiscent of the girl or boy next door you have a crush on. Butler University, last year a human embodiment of the classic movie "Hoosiers," this year looking to prove that their near-miracle was more than just an aberration. The Bulldogs and 34-year-old prodigy Brad Stevens have defied improbable odds yet again; and even though their regional opened up favorably for them in comparison to their path to the championship game a year ago, their encore is similar in that Butler once again eliminated both of the top two seeds in their quadrant of the bracket (Pittsburgh and Florida) just as they did last year, when they sent Syracuse and Kansas State to the exits in the West regional.

VCU and Butler. Butler and VCU. Two underdogs gaining the national limelight in a dream matchup for most, but a nightmare for others. How, you might ask? Well, for starters, having these schools play one another in the Final Four speaks for the parity in college basketball that cannot be replicated anywhere else on any other playing field; a sport where anything can and will happen to anyone and everyone if given the right opportunity. This matchup inspires the student-athletes at mid-majors to dream big with their fans in an era that has given rise to the little guy ever since Gonzaga started all the madness with their Elite Eight run back in 1999, and encourages athletic departments and administrators to sink more money into the programs. It also puts the pressure on college football's much-maligned judge, jury and executioner more commonly known as the Bowl Championship Series to either revitalize an archaic and flawed system yet again or finally disband and give way to the playoff tournament fans and coaches alike have long been clamoring for on the gridiron, which itself has seen the rise of mid-major institutions succeeding on the national level; prime examples being Boise State's numerous victories in BCS-affiliated bowls and Texas Christian's win over Wisconsin in the iconic Rose Bowl this past January.

However, as much as the imminent VCU-Butler clash will be a watershed moment for all the right reasons in sports, there are also some glaring downsides to this pairing. Chief among the negatives is the fact that the two mid-majors are playing one another before the national championship game. Nothing against Kentucky or Connecticut, but the prospect of two second-tier schools playing to determine who emerges the champion is far more appealing and intriguing to the casual fan than a preliminary matchup in the national semis; one where the winner is almost certain to have the odds stacked against them in the title game a week from tonight. The NCAA also loses far greater marketing potential with these two colliding in the Final Four. I know it's circumstance, but if VCU and Butler were on other sides of the bracket and won in separate games Saturday night, each of the NCAA's hundreds of Division I member universities would be gaining far greater sums on their bottom line through the myriad of revenue sources that would be brought in by a prospective VCU-Butler national championship.

Finally, the potential death knell for a matchup of mid-majors in the Final Four is a justification for expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams. The hot-button issue of expansion is still fresh in the minds of many college basketball insiders and hardcore fans after the NCAA decided to add three more teams to the field this year, giving birth to the "First Four" that produced VCU in the first place. This alone gives those in favor of going to 96 the opportunity to state their case by saying that had it not been for expansion, albeit gradual at that, Virginia Commonwealth would not even be here with the opportunity to make history. Many, including myself, have argued that if it is not broken; and the NCAA Tournament is clearly not, do not fix it. A 96-team field would give us a greater probability of having mid-majors play for the national championship; but if you looked at this year's bubble, it was far from a piece of eye candy. On top of that, the list of benefits of a national championship or Final Four meeting between Iona and Drexel (no disrespect to either of those two programs) is about as long as Bill Belichick's tenure as "HC of the NYJ."

No matter how you slice it, the national landscape in college basketball has been repainted yet again. However, we won't truly know whether or not to appreciate it right away. Butler and VCU will go a long way in determining what to make of this improbable month for better or worse, and they have already given new meaning to the terms "March Madness" and "Cinderella." Now they get to engage the masses on the grandest stage of them all.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Overlooked, But Still Overachieving

Originally a fallback for Arizona, Sean Miller now has Wildcats one game away from first Final Four since 2001. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

On an episode of the classic sitcom "All In The Family," Archie Bunker said of former President Gerald Ford: "He's doing a good job for a guy nobody voted for," a reference to Ford's succession of Richard Nixon following Nixon's Watergate-induced resignation. Last night in Richard Nixon's native California, those in attendance and the millions fortunate enough to watch or listen to the second game in the West regional semifinals took notice of a man who was initially overlooked before moving across the country to take over a program that has earned the reputation of a giant among men in a very quiet fashion.

In a rematch of the 2001 national championship game, Arizona put together a twenty-minute masterpiece in the second half to erase a six-point deficit over reigning champion Duke to defeat the Blue Devils 93-77 and gain a measure of revenge for their loss a decade ago. As the Wildcats prepare to face a red-hot Connecticut team with a trip to the Final Four at stake, not enough has been said about the man on the bench; one whose own success makes him a perfect fit for a program like Arizona. A man that has spent his career living in the shadows, yet somehow managed to go about his business and be one of the final eight in what is now three of the last six years. Brad Stevens may be underrated, but even he doesn't come close to matching the impressive, yet wrongfully disregarded, resume of Arizona coach Sean Miller.

The country and media seems to have fallen in love with Stevens as the 34-year-old has guided Butler back to the Elite Eight after their near-miracle in the title game a year ago; and while their fascination with the man in charge of the Cinderella story from Indiana is definitely justified, Butler and Stevens do not compare to Miller. A former Division I player himself at Pittsburgh, the 42-year-old Miller made a name for himself as a coach while an assistant to Herb Sendek at North Carolina State in the mid-1990s before leaving for a small school named Xavier University in Cincinnati, accepting a position as the top assistant under former Butler and current Ohio State coach Thad Matta. When Matta left Xavier for the higher-profile gig two hours north on Interstate 71, Miller took over and had the Musketeers in a regional final three years later. It was the first of two occasions where Xavier would advance into the final eight; doing it again two years later and advancing to the regional semifinals the following year, only to come up short against the Pittsburgh program Miller had played for two decades earlier.

Here's where Miller's status of being overlooked comes into play. Longtime Arizona coach Lute Olson had announced his retirement prior to the 2008-09 season due to health problems, and interim coach Russ Pennell was not being retained after a season in which he guided the Wildcats to a regional semifinal appearance as a No. 12 seed. Pennell himself was overlooked initially, as almost everyone assumed Olson's interim replacement would be renowned tactician Mike Dunlap, who is currently the offensive mind on Steve Lavin's staff at St. John's. After the decision to look in another direction was made, the first choice of the Arizona administration was former Iowa State and Chicago Bulls head coach Tim Floyd, at that time the head man at Pac-10 rival Southern California. Floyd turned the Wildcats down to remain at USC, only to leave the Trojans two months later in the aftermath of an investigation surrounding former USC and current Memphis Grizzlies star O.J. Mayo. Miller, who himself had initially decided against leaving Xavier after being rewarded with a contract extension through the 2017-18 season, changed his mind three days later and arrived in Tucson. Two years and two recruiting classes ranked within the top fifteen in the country later, (including the one coming into the desert next year) Sean Miller has made Arizona relevant once again after their longtime icon called it a career.

With all the talk about Cinderellas and mid-majors across the nation ever since Gonzaga shocked the world and came within a game of the Final Four in 1999, everyone has become intrigued with the next rags-to-riches story in college basketball. There's nothing wrong with that, as even I have wondered who would be next to assume that throne after watching the rise of programs such as George Mason, Davidson and Butler over the years. However, in a world where we all look for diamonds in the rough, there is a program that has become something out of nothing over the years since Lute Olson took it over back in 1983. A program that came into last night not getting half as much attention as Butler, and walked off the court in Anaheim having literally shocked the world.

Twenty-seven consecutive winning seasons. Twenty-five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. The only school to defeat three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament on the way to winning the program's lone national championship back in 1997. It will never match the history and tradition of UCLA, but the University of Arizona has carved out its own niche in the Pacific 10. Just as the state of Arizona's largest city, Phoenix, has quietly grown year after year to the point where Phoenix and its metropolitan area rank in the top ten most populous cities in the United States, Arizona Wildcats basketball has never lost sight of the brass ring, adding one accomplishment after another to its record book despite not having the same glamour possessed by blue blood schools like Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky. The program defines underrated in that it has been able to earn respect more from its overall body of work than its name or any number of high school recruits could possibly give it. Head coach Sean Miller has grown the same way, a former teenage guest of Johnny Carson turned scholarship student-athlete before paying his dues as an assistant coach that eventually got a program of his own and turned it into arguably the most successful in the Atlantic 10. After just two seasons at Arizona, Sean Miller is doing the same thing he did so well at Xavier; and just like his tenure in Cincinnati, it is unfortunate that not enough people are taking notice.

Arizona will almost certainly be underdogs on Saturday against Connecticut as the Wildcats look to return to the Final Four for the first time since their runner-up finish in 2001; so with that in mind, I propose this:

Perhaps, given how Arizona and its coach have similar success stories of having made something bigger of themselves after being largely overlooked, maybe this year's Cinderella is not Butler. Maybe, just maybe, the Cinderella story of this year's NCAA Tournament comes to us from the Valley of the Sun, being written by a coach who really is doing a good job for a guy nobody initially voted for.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cooley High Harmony

Providence native Ed Cooley meets the media after being introduced as new head coach of Friars earlier today. (Photo courtesy of Providence Journal)

It is always exciting to see the beginning of a new era. From being able to introduce yourself to new people, to the promise of what lies ahead; there is a sense of optimism and eager anticipation of a bright future, and nothing can stand in its way. I was fortunate to be on hand at my alma mater of St. John's one year ago when Steve Lavin was introduced as the new leader of the Red Storm, and the one thing that stood out to me was how much Lavin embraced his new basketball family in Queens and wanted to be there to return the Johnnies to their former glory. One year later, Lavin has done exactly that after guiding St. John's to a 21-12 record highlighted by the Red Storm's first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years.

Today, a new era started a few hours to the north of "Daly Dose" headquarters, as Providence College introduced their replacement to Keno Davis in a press conference that marked the same optimism and excitement that I was able to experience personally upon meeting Steve Lavin last year. Providence native Ed Cooley officially joined the Friars as their fifteenth head man in school history after five years at Fairfield where he took a program that had been panned by critics and insiders and turned it into the class of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, departing with a regular season MAAC championship and second round appearance in the National Invitation Tournament.

Upon hearing that the Cooley hire had become official last night, I immediately tried to find out as much as I can about the new leader in Rhode Island in order to start preparing for what will be my first interview with Cooley at Big East media day this coming October inside Madison Square Garden. Right away, the first person I reached out to was my friend Bob Heussler, the WFAN update anchor I had the pleasure of working with as an intern back in 2007 and 2008. Heussler is of course the radio play-by-play voice of Fairfield basketball, so I knew right away that he had a great deal of contact with the new coach at PC. When I e-mailed Heussler last night to get a feel for what kind of a person (never mind coach) he was, he offered this response:

"He's not a good guy. He's a GREAT guy."

Within minutes of watching Cooley's press conference today, (credit goes to the PC athletic office and CBS College Sports for streaming it free on I was convinced that Bob Heussler said it best. Cooley seemed to hit all the right notes in his opening statement, an introductory speech in which the 41-year-old Ocean Stater said he wasn't "running from Fairfield University;" but rather sprinting home to the place where grew up in the inner city as one of nine children raised by a single mother.

Cooley comes to Providence in a move that also raises the diversity level in the strongest conference in college basketball. The native son of Providence is the Friars' first-ever African-American head coach, and joins Stan Heath, Oliver Purnell and John Thompson III as the fourth coach of color in the Big East. Based on my initial impression of him, Cooley definitely has the affability and humility possessed by Heath and a rich resume similar to Purnell's in that Cooley was an assistant under Al Skinner at both Rhode Island and Boston College before landing in Fairfield back in 2006. It should only be a matter of time before he reaches the success level enjoyed by Thompson, just four years removed from a Final Four appearance with Georgetown in 2007.

Before introducing the guest of honor, Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll and president Rev. Brian Shanley discussed their process of finding the right candidate to replace Davis, who had replaced Tim Welsh after a phenomenal first year at Drake in which he led the Bulldogs to a Top 15 ranking out of the Missouri Valley Conference and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The top quality in the minds of Driscoll and Shanley was someone who could be "a coach in life" before being a coach on the hardwood. Said Driscoll of exactly what he desired: "I wanted somebody who had built something out of nothing. More importantly, his players love him and they respect him."

Coming from Italian heritage, I will tell you that respect, honor and pride are probably the greatest qualities that our culture values; so if I need to make an assessment as to how Cooley will fare at Providence, I will say that it looks like a solid choice made by Providence. Let's not forget the other Big East program in New England that hired a rising upstart from a mid-major in Boston back in 1986. Twenty-five years and two national championships later, Jim Calhoun has become a legend after leaving Northeastern to turn the University of Connecticut into one of the greatest college basketball programs in the nation. I'm not saying Cooley will take Providence to UConn's level right away; but if the chips fall in the right places, the "marriage" the new coach referred to today will be a happy one for a long time. Not only has Cooley already restored hope to a school that was at one time among the class of the Big East under coaches the likes of Rick Pitino, Rick Barnes and Pete Gillen; he already has fans dreaming big with him after saying the following:

"Not only will we win here, we're going to win and we're going to win big."

Now there's another man Charlie Sheen should take lessons from when he says he is winning.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A New Head Man In This Slice Of Paradise

With Barry "Slice" Rohrssen's dismissal from Manhattan, a revolving door of candidates have emerged in Riverdale. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

A school in the northwest Bronx that has gone to six NCAA Tournaments out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference looking for its 23rd head coach to join a list that includes such luminaries as Steve Lappas, Fran Fraschilla and Bobby Gonzalez. In short, this brief description outlines Manhattan College and its search for a new sideline general to replace the departed Barry Rohrssen, dismissed after five years as the successor to Gonzalez when the charismatic upstate New York native left for Seton Hall. The list of candidates to replace Rohrssen, known to basketball insiders as "Slice" has been discussed extensively; (more on that later) and will be showcased here with the names of some possible candidates.

1) Norm Roberts - The former St. John's coach turned SNY analyst has a pick of mid-major jobs in the area after his year off from the bench. Roberts is also in the mix at Fairfield now that Ed Cooley will be introduced at Providence tomorrow; and despite his lack of interest in the position, is also a candidate at Monmouth. Having coached at New York City's marquee program for six years, Roberts knows the terrain; and the level of talent he can bring into the MAAC fits right in with his defensive-oriented system that features a rotation of ten or eleven men offensively. Roberts can also be trusted to run a clean program without taking any shortcuts.

2) Steve Masiello - Rick Pitino's disciple at Louisville was among the first names to be mentioned when Rohrssen's departure became public information. Masiello has not been a head coach at the collegiate level, but other Pitino assistants such as Mick Cronin and Kevin Willard were in the same boat before getting their big break at Murray State and Iona, respectively. Pitino has also been known to sing the praises of his deputies about as well as Donald Trump is known to negotiate real estate deals.

3) Bob Cimmino - A real dark horse in this race, Cimmino would come to Riverdale from nearby Mount Vernon High School in Westchester County. Cimmino also does not possess a collegiate track record, but neither did Danny Hurley before he was hired at Wagner this past spring; and Hurley took a team expected to finish at the bottom of the Northeast Conference and led them to a 9-9 record in the NEC and a conference tournament appearance. Cimmino has also coached stars the likes of Detroit Pistons guard Ben Gordon, as well as Rutgers forward Jonathan Mitchell and West Virginia's Kevin Jones when they were prep standouts; so he would undoubtedly be able to attract elite talent if offered the job.

4) Darren Savino - Mick Cronin's top assistant at Cincinnati was exactly that at Rutgers before jumping ship in the wake of Fred Hill's resignation. Savino is a recruiter by reputation and a fixture on the AAU scene, an important aspect of New York recruiting. Savino has been hyped as someone who knows almost everyone in AAU, which could open up the city for Manhattan to compete with Steve Lavin and St. John's to keep local talent within the 718 area code.

5) Tony Chiles - Steve Lavin's first hire on his dream team at St. John's has gained stature after serving on the Johnnies' miracle run to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. Chiles has experience at Riverdale as an assistant under Fran Fraschilla in the mid-1990s, and knows the MAAC exceptionally well with his tenure at both Manhattan and Iona. The Columbia graduate also knows New York recruiting intimately, a big plus for a mid-major in this area.

6) Mike Dunlap - Chiles' colleague and fellow Lavin deputy is the X and O mind that guided the Red Storm's return to glory, and has silently been targeted for head coaching gigs across the country. Keep this in mind, Jaspers fans: If Dunlap were hired today and introduced tomorrow, he would already be reviewing game film on Thursday morning, and would bring immediate success into Draddy Gym; not to mention his notorious motivation techniques that include his baseball bat, a tactic recounted by my friend and colleague Dan Martin of, who I'm proud to say has also done a wonderful job as one of the men that succeeded me as WSJU Radio's sports director.

7) John Dunne - Very rarely do you see someone take a position within their own conference, but Dunne is under consideration after guiding a resurgence at St. Peter's that resulted in the Peacocks winning the MAAC Tournament as a No. 4 seed before falling to Purdue in the NCAA Tournament. A former Seton Hall assistant, Dunne would be a strong recruiter in both his native New Jersey and the greater New York area as well. Dunne is also a former Jasper assistant, having served under John Leonard in 1998-99 before Gonzalez took over the helm of the Jaspers.

8) Steve Pikiell - Another dark horse who would come to Manhattan off a down year at Stony Brook, but his sub-.500 finish included an appearance in the America East championship game against Boston University. In other words, think Tom Pecora getting the job at Fordham following a lackluster season at Hofstra. The only difference is Manhattan is regarded to be a step up from Exit 62 off the Long Island Expressway.

9) Jim Ferry - One of the longest shots on the board, and I can tell you this personally having covered Ferry through my firsthand work in the Northeast Conference. The reigning NEC coach of the year, Ferry has silently built a reputable program in nine years at Long Island University and capped it off with the Blackbirds' first conference title since the days of Richie Parker and Charles Jones back when I was approaching my eleventh birthday in 1997. Aside from losing guards David Hicks and Kyle Johnson to graduation, Ferry has the core of his team coming back at LIU next year; and probably would not be interested in starting over.

10) Al Skinner - Another pipe dream, Skinner has a successful pedigree at both Rhode Island and Boston College; and was rumored to be a candidate for the St. John's position last year before Steve Lavin emerged from the woodwork and rode into Queens on a white chariot. Skinner's personality and lackadaisical recruiting could come back to hurt him if offered another shot in Division I, however; and after hiring one of the better recruiters in the country in Rohrssen, Manhattan athletic director Bob Byrnes would likely want to keep that characteristic prominent in his next choice.

If you come up with any other candidates, please let us know either by adding a comment or chiming in via Twitter, using the #mcmbbcoachingsummit hashtag created by myself and my two biggest fans; Manhattan College alum and hoops enthusiast Dave Rochford, along with his younger brother Quinn.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Buzz From Weekend #1

Buzz Williams and Marquette were last Big East team to get into NCAA Tournament, and now his Golden Eagles face North Carolina in Sweet 16 Friday. (Photo courtesy of ABC News)

One week and 52 eliminated teams later, we have reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament; and as usual, there have been expectations fulfilled (three of the four No. 1 seeds are still alive) and surprises abound. (How many of us honestly had the immortal Marquette, Richmond, VCU, Florida State and Butler still alive at this point?) Players have become legends, coaches have become unemployed, some coaches have found new life as studio analysts, (Rick Pitino did very well in the studio with CBS this weekend, and Mike Rice made six hours of pregame on CBS College Sports interesting and exciting) and the overall presentation of the tournament has been open to criticism. As far as that last point, I won't reference it until after the nets are cut down, because I have quite a lot to say about that. Until then, let's focus on the many other nuggets that have commanded and received our attention over the last seven (yes, the First Four still counts regardless of whether or not you hold value in it) days.

  • The Jimmer.
Jimmer Fredette has done nothing but defy convention all season at Brigham Young, and his consecutive 30-point games in his first two tournament outings have done nothing but enhance the legend of the shooter from Glens Falls. Up next for The Jimmer is Florida; and if you remember BYU's double overtime win against the Gators in the first round of last year's tourney, Jimmer went for 37 against a Florida team that brings back almost everyone from their surprising appearance as a 10 seed in 2010.
  • Some of the best players you've probably never heard of.
Unless you're an avid college hoops fan, you didn't know names like Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried, Kevin Anderson, Joey Rodriguez and Derrick Williams until this weekend. All except Faried (whose Morehead State team was eliminated by Richmond in Saturday's round of 32) are still alive and looking to add encores to their already impressive tournament performances.
  • Mid-major coaches looking to move up.
It happens every year: A coach leads a mid-major to a better-than-expected finish in the NCAA Tournament and takes a position at a bigger program. So far, the leading candidate for this profile is VCU's Shaka Smart. Smart has guided his Rams to stunning upsets of Georgetown and Purdue after knocking off USC in the First Four to advance to the first regional semifinal in school history. Florida State is next in line for this latest 11 seed from the CAA to make a run in the "Big Dance," and if the Rams emerge victorious, only Kansas or Richmond will stand in the way of VCU becoming the new George Mason, who was also an 11 back in 2006 when the Patriots went on their miracle run. Besides Smart, other mid-major coaches looking to make a splash and a big payday include Richmond's Chris Mooney, (rumored to be going to Georgia Tech) Blaine Taylor of Old Dominion, and although he's under contract for the next eleven years and insists he's not leaving, Butler's Brad Stevens.
  • Farewell, orange blazer.
Yes, it's the end of the Bruce Pearl era (photo courtesy of Deadspin) at Tennessee after the Vols were soundly defeated by Michigan in the round of 64 after Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton issued a press release indicative of the administration's wait-and-see decision regarding their embattled head coach, who was reportedly out before the game even took place. While the charismatic Pearl may not land on his feet immediately due to the NCAA investigation surrounding his infamous barbecue incident, he won't be out of the picture for long.

The Way I See It: Sweet 16 Predictions
East: Ohio State defeats Kentucky, North Carolina defeats Marquette
West: Duke defeats Arizona, UConn defeats San Diego State
Southwest: Kansas defeats Richmond, VCU defeats Florida State
Southeast: Wisconsin defeats Butler, BYU defeats Florida

Thursday, March 17, 2011

West Regional: An Insider's Guide

The road to a repeat for Nolan Smith and reigning national champion Duke begins tomorrow in Blue Devils' backyard of Charlotte against Hampton. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

Our final regional preview comes after a 2-for-2 night on the second set of First Four play-in games, and we'll even recap the previous picks at the end of this one as an added bonus. Sixteen more teams and one more hour before West Virginia and Clemson officially start the madness. Here we go.

#1 Seed Duke vs. #16 Seed Hampton - If you still had any doubt about the Blue Devils attempting to defend their national title, Kyrie Irving may be making his long-awaited return in Charlotte tomorrow after missing the last 26 games with a toe injury. In his absence, Nolan Smith has picked up an ACC Player of the Year award while also minimizing a down year for forward Kyle Singler. Duke might not win the national title, but they'll definitely be one of the last 32.

#8 Seed Michigan vs. #9 Seed Tennessee - The Wolverines are the biggest beneficiaries of the Bruce Pearl controversy, as the embattled Tennessee head man may not be back in Knoxville next season according to the Vols' athletic director's press release that stated the administration would "decide once we're out." Tennessee is the epitome of big game team, however; with wins over Pitt and Villanova (the 'Nova win isn't as big now) on neutral courts, and most of this team was around last year when the Vols knocked off Kansas and Kentucky before advancing to the Elite Eight in the Midwest.

#5 Seed Arizona vs. #12 Seed Memphis - Past meets present for Tigers coach Josh Pastner, a former Arizona assistant. Memphis had been among the last teams out before their run to yet another Conference USA title, and now they draw the unenviable task of attempting to neutralize Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams. Only a sophomore, the Wildcats' big forward will attempt to control the game in what could be a springboard for coach Sean Miller to take a higher-profile job, but don't expect the former Xavier boss to leave Tucson right away.

#4 Seed Texas vs. #13 Seed Oakland - I'm legitimately surprised by the amount of people discounting the Longhorns here, even if their regular season campaign did feature a trademark Texas slide. The Grizzlies come in out of the Summit League (Mid-Continent Conference for my fellow old-timers) led by forward Keith Benson and former St. John's transfer Larry Wright, who is still an outside threat all these years later. Oakland's undoing will be on the glass, as the Grizzlies do not have the bodies necessary to compete with the Texas frontcourt of Jordan Hamilton, Gary Johnson and freshman Tristan Thompson.

#6 Seed Cincinnati vs, #11 Seed Missouri - Mick Cronin finally gets into the "Big Dance" with the Bearcats, but the affable head man still isn't getting any respect for turning this program around after it was essentially left for dead following Bob Huggins' departure. The lack of respect plays its way into the draw as well since the Bearcats draw a Missouri team that is a tough out just for the simple fact that they're coached by Mike Anderson, he of the "40 Minutes Of Hell" school of thought. The matchup between guards Marcus Denmon (Missouri) and Dion Dixon (Cincinnati) will be fun to watch on both sides of the three-point line.

#3 Seed Connecticut vs. #14 Seed Bucknell - The Huskies finally got a break after having to literally run the gauntlet by playing an unprecedented five games in as many days on their way to a Big East championship. Next up for the Kemba Walker Show is the Patriot League champion Bucknell, who upset Kansas back in 2005 as a 14 seed for those scoring at home. If UConn has showed anything over the last week, it's that Kemba isn't alone. Freshman Jeremy Lamb has developed into a great shooting guard, and Alex Oriakhi and Tyler Olander have given the Huskies some depth and presence on the boards. Throw in a sixth man that would start on any other team in fellow frosh Shabazz Napier, and you have a team destined for a deep run in March.

#7 Seed Temple vs. #10 Seed Penn State - Penn State coach Ed DeChellis leads his upstart Nittany Lions into battle against a Temple team that was among the class of the Atlantic 10 all season. Talor Battle and Juan Fernandez will be engaging in a shootout if Penn State is unable to show the defensive prowess they exhibited in their 36-33 (no typo) Big Ten tournament quarterfinal win over Wisconsin.

#2 Seed San Diego State vs. #15 Seed Northern Colorado - The Mountain West champions look to win their first NCAA Tournament game against a school making its first appearance. The only good thing for the casual fan is that they'll be introduced to the player who has earned the title of best player you've never heard of this season: Aztecs power forward Kawhi (pronounced Ka-WHY, like the Hawaiian island of Kauai) Leonard, a sophomore who averages a double-double every time he takes the court.

The Way I See It: Predictions
Second round:
Duke defeats Hampton
Tennessee defeats Michigan
Arizona defeats Memphis
Texas defeats Oakland
Missouri defeats Cincinnati
UConn defeats Bucknell
Temple defeats Penn State
San Diego State defeats Northern Colorado

Third round:
Duke defeats Tennessee
Texas defeats Arizona
UConn defeats Missouri
San Diego State defeats Temple

Sweet 16: (Regional semifinals)
Duke defeats Texas
UConn defeats San Diego State

Elite 8: (Regional final)
Duke defeats UConn

Final Four Predictions:
Duke defeats Ohio State
Kansas defeats Kansas State

National Championship:
Kansas defeats Duke (Most Outstanding Player of Tournament: Kansas F Marcus Morris)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Southwest Regional: An Insider's Guide

Kansas' Morris twins (from left to right: Markieff and Marcus) will make sure the road to Houston goes through them. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Halfway home in previewing the four regionals, and 1-1 in "First Four" play-in picks if you're scoring at home. Nonetheless, we move on in giving a closer look into the NCAA Tournament; with the Southwest next up in the field of what is now 66.

#1 Seed Kansas vs. #16 Seed Boston University - If you look at this Jayhawks team, you'll wonder how they fell victim to Northern Iowa in the second round last year. However, what does not kill makes you stronger. Led by guards Tyshawn Taylor and freshman Josh Selby, Kansas does not always need their twin towers (literally) of Marcus and Markieff Morris to pull them out of the fire. The Terriers make their return to the NCAAs out of the America East under new coach Pat Chambers, a former Villanova assistant.

#8 Seed UNLV vs. #9 Seed Illinois - One of two matchups in the second round (oh, the technicalities) where a coach takes on his former program, as UNLV head man Lon Kruger faces an Illini team he coached in the early 2000s before leaving to take over the Atlanta Hawks. While UNLV can score with the best of them, Illinois poses two big men in Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis that will give any opponent fits. The key will be how much freshman Jereme Richmond will be able to exert his will for Bruce Weber and Illinois.

#5 Seed Vanderbilt vs. #12 Richmond - Vandy is getting overlooked due to a lackluster SEC resume and the late-season run from the Atlantic 10 champion Spiders. While the Commodores will look to run from the opening tip, Richmond point guard Kevin Anderson will feed it inside to senior power forward Justin Harper, who I feel is just moments away from breaking out on the national landscape.

#4 Seed Louisville vs. #13 Seed Morehead State - Louisville is a wise guy pick to upset Kansas and potentially make the Final Four out of the Southwest; but Rick Pitino's team will need to use its myriad of shooters to do that as they start off against a Morehead State team led by NCAA all-time rebounding leader Kenneth Faried, who will undoubtedly be at the center of every Cardinals miss.

#6 Seed Georgetown vs. #11 Seed Southern California or Virginia Commonwealth - Georgetown gets a huge boost with the return of Chris Wright, their point guard who missed the last week of the regular season and the Big East tournament with a broken left hand. The Hoyas would also benefit from USC winning tonight's First Four matchup, as the Trojans are still distracted with the incident surrounding head coach Kevin O'Neill at last week's Pac-10 tournament. If VCU emerges victorious, however, watch out. Jamie Skeen is a double-double waiting to happen, and Joey Rodriguez is capable of going for 20 points on any given night. The Rams will also have some numerology on their side as well. The last three CAA teams to enter the "Big Dance" as an 11 seed all won their first games. (George Mason in 2006, who of course went to the Final Four; this VCU program that defeated Duke as an 11 in 2007 on a last-second shot by Eric Maynor, and Old Dominion after the Monarchs upset Notre Dame in last year's tournament)

#3 Seed Purdue vs. #14 Seed St. Peter's - Kelsey Barlow being suspended may hurt the Boilermakers, but not right away as Purdue should be able to dictate the pace against a St. Peter's team making their first appearance in the field of 68 since 1995. If the Peacocks are able to stay with Purdue, it will be an audition for head coach John Dunne to parlay his success into a job at a major program.

#7 Seed Texas A&M vs. #10 Seed Florida State - Probably a matchup that could go either way in this regional, as Khris Middleton and the Aggies will look to overcome an FSU team that defeated Duke at home back in January and didn't stop there on the way to a third-place finish in the ACC. Former St. John's recruit Derwin Kitchen is still playing, and has influenced many a game for the boys from Tallahassee. Look for him to do the same in this one.

#2 Seed Notre Dame vs. #15 Seed Akron - The Zips come out of the Mid-American Conference to take on fellow Midwest program Notre Dame, who could very well have been a No. 1 seed given the way they have played. If Akron has any chance of contending with the Fighting Irish, their biggest key to victory is this: Guard the perimeter.

The Way I See It: Predictions
First Four play-in game:
VCU defeats USC

Second round:
Kansas defeats Boston University
Illinois defeats UNLV
Richmond defeats Vanderbilt
Louisville defeats Morehead State
VCU defeats Georgetown
Purdue defeats St. Peter's
Florida State defeats Texas A&M
Notre Dame defeats Akron

Third round:
Kansas defeats Illinois
Louisville defeats Richmond
Purdue defeats VCU
Notre Dame defeats Florida State

Sweet 16: (Regional semifinals)
Kansas defeats Louisville
Purdue defeats Notre Dame

Elite 8: (Regional final)
Kansas defeats Purdue

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Southeast Regional: An Insider's Guide

If Brad Stevens is to lead Butler back to national championship game, it will have to be from No. 8 seed in Southeast. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

Yesterday, we took you through the East in the first profile of the four regionals that make up the NCAA Tournament. This time, it's the Southeast that gets an in-depth look. Any one of about eleven teams could realistically win the most open of the four parts of the bracket. The weakest draw meets some of the strongest teams as we take you through the principles involved.

#1 Seed Pittsburgh vs. #16 Seed UNC-Asheville or Arkansas-Little Rock - The Panthers won't know who they face until the "First Four" play-in is in the books, but Pitt should be the better team as long as they don't have flashbacks to 2009. For those who don't remember, that was the year in which the Panthers were the top seed in the East; but couldn't put No. 16 East Tennessee State away until the final minutes, and the Panthers will also be looking to finally close the deal and get past the Elite Eight.

#8 Seed Butler vs. #9 Seed Old Dominion - Two of the many teams that were wrongfully seeded meet in the nation's capital to give us one of the better matchups of the second round. (Again, we have to get technical) Kent Bazemore will be the X-factor for the Monarchs, especially if he can get Butler's Matt Howard into foul trouble.

#5 Seed Kansas State vs. #12 Seed Utah State - The Wildcats are getting hot at the right time, and have five proven scorers to back them up in case leader Jacob Pullen has an off night. For all Utah State has accomplished in the regular season, this could be the time of the year where a soft schedule could hurt them. The Aggies are a solid team; but outside of their win against a St. Mary's team that was left off the bubble, they really haven't set the world on fire.

#4 Seed Wisconsin vs. #13 Seed Belmont - Belmont is the trendy upset pick after their 30-win season and Wisconsin's 33-point effort against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. However, the Badgers are not the team you want to get into a track meet with. Despite their lack of productivity against Penn State, (which can be credited to the Nittany Lions controlling the tempo throughout the matchup) Bo Ryan's squad has two proven leaders in Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer; not to mention underrated big man Keaton Nankivil.

#6 Seed St. John's vs. #11 Seed Gonzaga - The Red Storm and Steve Lavin make their long-awaited return to the "Big Dance" for the first time since 2002, and will attempt to "Do It For D.J." after senior guard/forward D.J. Kennedy tore his ACL in the Johnnies' Big East tournament quarterfinal loss to Syracuse. Kennedy's absence will prove critical on the boards, as Justin Brownlee, Justin Burrell and Sean Evans will have a hard time matching up with the Zags' bruising frontcourt duo of Elias Harris and Robert Sacre. If St. John's is to win, it will come on the glass. However, the matchup of shooters Dwight Hardy and Steven Gray should be fun to watch.

#3 Seed Brigham Young vs. #14 Seed Wofford - Wofford brings back almost everyone from a team that nearly upset Wisconsin in the first round last year. Senior Noah Dahlman (whose older brother Isaiah played for a national championship as a walk-on at Michigan State) will attempt to do what many teams have tried and failed to: Stop The Jimmer. If Jimmer Fredette does have an off night, the pressure will fall to Jackson Emery and Noah Hartsock to bail the Cougars out.

#7 Seed UCLA vs. #10 Seed Michigan State - A matchup of two former national champions could be among the best of the first weekend. The trio of Reeves Nelson, Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt goes up against Sparty's own triumvirate of Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green and Durrell Summers. UCLA big man Joshua Smith will likely be the most important man on the court. If he is effective, the Bruins could be on their way to the round of 32.

#2 Seed Florida vs. #15 Seed Cal-Santa Barbara - UCSB surprised many by winning the Big West, but their luck will likely run out against a Gator team making their return to the "Big Dance" after losing a thriller in overtime to The Jimmer and BYU last year. Local product Erving Walker leads a team that includes glue guy Vernon Macklin (the former Georgetown transfer) and proven shooters Kenny Boynton and Chandler Parsons that will look to send Billy Donovan to his third Final Four in six years.

The Way I See It: Predictions
First Four play-in game:
Arkansas-Little Rock defeats UNC-Asheville

Second round:
Pittsburgh defeats Arkansas-Little Rock
Old Dominion defeats Butler
Kansas State defeats Utah State
Wisconsin defeats Belmont
Gonzaga defeats St. John's
Brigham Young defeats Wofford
Michigan State defeats UCLA
Florida defeats Cal-Santa Barbara

Third round:
Pitt defeats Old Dominion
Kansas State defeats Wisconsin
BYU defeats Gonzaga
Michigan State defeats Florida

Sweet 16: (Regional semifinals)
Kansas State defeats Pitt
BYU defeats Michigan State

Elite 8: (Regional final)
Kansas State defeats BYU

Monday, March 14, 2011

East Regional: An Insider's Guide

Jared Sullinger continues phenomenal freshman season with No. 1 overall seed Ohio State as Buckeyes are favorites in East regional. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

The greatest three weeks known to man have started with a resonating bang. That's right, it's NCAA Tournament time. Today, (and for the next three days) we'll take you through the brackets one regional at a time as we reveal the players and teams to watch before ultimately trying to make sense of this 68-team field to determine who represents who in Houston. Up first is the East regional, whose finals will be contested at Newark's Prudential Center, just about an hour away from "Daly Dose" headquarters.

#1 Seed Ohio State vs. #16 Seed Texas-San Antonio or Alabama State - The Buckeyes should roll over whoever their play-in opponet is. Led by freshman sensation Jared Sullinger and three-point threats Jon Diebler and William Buford, Ohio State also gets solid contributions from point guard David Lighty on a team that is a threat to win the whole thing on April 4th.

#8 Seed George Mason vs. #9 Seed Villanova - Five years ago, the Patriots shocked the world and knocked out three former national champions on their way to a Final Four appearance as an 11 seed. Jim Larranaga's bunch starts out with a former champion once again, (Michigan State in 2006, Villanova this time around) with another former champion probably waiting in the wings in Ohio State. The Wildcats come in looking to prove their late-season swoon was an aberration after their shocking first-round Big East tournament exit at the hands of South Florida.

#5 Seed West Virginia vs. #12 Seed Alabama-Birmingham or Clemson - Another team that won't immediately know its opponent, as the Mountaineers look to complete what would be an improbable road back to the Final Four after getting there a year ago. Led by Kevin Jones and point guard combo Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla, West Virginia will need to take advantage of their "First Four" play-in winner's fatigue in order to avoid the trendy 5/12 upset.

#4 Seed Kentucky vs. #13 Seed Princeton - If John Calipari can get past the Ivy League champion Tigers and West Virginia survives its first opponent, there will be an early rematch of last year's Elite Eight matchup in which the Mountaineers got the better of a highly regarded freshman class that included the names Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe. Kentucky's free throw inefficiency will be the center of attention if they are in a tight game early on.

#6 Seed Xavier vs. #11 Seed Marquette - Probably the best and most underrated matchup in the first week of the tournament. The Musketeers are always capable of their typical under-the-radar Sweet 16 run, and Tu (no longer Terrell) Holloway will bring his clutch act into Cleveland to meet the Golden Eagles of Marquette, who locked up an at-large bid with a run to the Big East tournament quarterfinals. Pay attention to Xavier's physical game against an undersized Marquette frontline. By the way, this game will be close. Want to know why? Two words: Gus Johnson. If you follow college basketball religiously, nothing else needs to be said.

#3 Seed Syracuse vs. #14 Seed Indiana State - The Orange pick up after an overtime (only one) loss to eventual Big East champion UConn in their conference tournament semifinals to face a Sycamore team that is getting hot at the right time after defeating the top two teams in their conference (Wichita State and Missouri State on consecutive nights) on their way to the Missouri Valley championship. Freshman Jake Odum will need to replicate his sensational showing in Arch Madness to have any shot of effectively breaking the vaunted 2-3 zone defense employed by Jim Boeheim.

#7 Seed Washington vs. #10 Seed Georgia - Usually, a 7/10 matchup is close; but this one is probably the most decisive of the four. Led by Isaiah Thomas in the backcourt and Matthew Bryan-Amaning up front, Lorenzo Romar's team gets a boost by bringing Venoy Overton back after he was suspended during the Pac-10 tournament to face a Georgia team that, by all accounts, may be a surprising inclusion into the field of 68. The Bulldogs will need to rely upon their supporting cast to bail out Trey Thompkins if the star forward gets into foul trouble.

#2 Seed North Carolina vs. #15 Seed Long Island University - LIU makes its return to the "Big Dance" for the first time since 1997 against a Tar Heels team that fell on its face against Duke in the ACC championship. You may call me crazy here, but DO NOT BE SURPRISED to see the Blackbirds not only stay in contention; but also take Carolina to the limit. Jamal Olasewere and Julian Boyd may be small in stature, but both are capable of shutting down a bigger Heels frontcourt that will be the key for Roy Williams. The most intriguing matchup of the night will be the one between the freshman point guards; as Kendall Marshall (North Carolina) and Jason Brickman (LIU) are both capable of scoring and dishing it out equally.

The Way I See It: Predictions
First Four play-in games:
Texas-San Antonio defeats Alabama State
Clemson defeats UAB

Second round: (I still call it the first round, but we have to be technical here)
Ohio State defeats Texas-San Antonio
George Mason defeats Villanova
West Virginia defeats Clemson
Kentucky defeats Princeton
Xavier defeats Marquette
Syracuse defeats Indiana State
Washington defeats Georgia
North Carolina defeats LIU (in a closer game than everyone will expect)

Third round:
Ohio State defeats George Mason
Kentucky defeats West Virginia
Syracuse defeats Xavier
North Carolina defeats Washington

Sweet 16: (Regional semifinals)
Ohio State defeats Kentucky
Syracuse defeats North Carolina

Elite 8: (Regional final)
Ohio State defeats Syracuse

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Johnny Come Lately

Sean Evans looks to help St. John's recover from loss of D.J. Kennedy in upcoming NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

After nine years of riding an emotional roller coaster, St. John's will finally take its spot among college basketball's elite once again; a place that could best be described more as "reserved" than "usurped." The Red Storm will learn their fate in approximately 15 minutes as the 21-11 Johnnies make their return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, looking for their first victory in the Big Dance since Mike Jarvis patrolled the sidelines on the corner of Union and Utopia back in 2000.

"I know that our body of work speaks for itself," head coach Steve Lavin said moments ago in an interview with CBS' studio team anchored by Greg Gumbel. When asked how the loss of senior D.J. Kennedy due to a torn ACL would affect his team moving forward, Lavin mentioned that it could "end up being a motivating factor" for this team as they look to advance deep into the field of 68. St. John's is one of four local teams in the tournament this year, joining conference champions Long Island, St. Peter's and Princeton.

St. John's may have to wait just a little longer in regard to who their opponent will be if they are announced as a 5 seed, as the Red Storm may potentially face a team coming off a play-in game in the new "First Four" round to be contested Tuesday and Wednesday. Various bracket projections list St. John's as anywhere from a low 4 seed to a high 6 seed, and the possibilities of who they will take the court against are still endless for another few minutes.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Full Court Press: Big East Championship

Preston Knowles and Louisville play for second Big East title in three years tonight against UConn. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

After four days, fourteen games, and countless memories that will last a lifetime; the Big East tournament reaches its conclusion tonight at Madison Square Garden as Connecticut looks to win an unprecedented five games in as many days against 2009 Big East champion Louisville, who makes its return to the title game for the first time since cutting down the nets at the Garden against Syracuse in 2009. With tipoff just 30 minutes away, we'll get you caught up before the ball goes up in the air.

Connecticut Huskies (9th seed, 25-9)
Head Coach: Jim Calhoun

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Kemba Walker (6-1 Jr., 23.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.9 SPG, 43% FG, 81% FT, 34% 3pt)
SG: Jeremy Lamb (6-5 Fr., 10.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.6 APG, 47% FG, 78% FT)
SF: Roscoe Smith (6-8 Fr., 6.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 37% FG, 78% FT)
PF: Alex Oriakhi (6-9 So., 10.0 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 51% FG, 63% FT)
C: Charles Okwandu (7-0 Sr., 2.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 45% FG, 53% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Shabazz Napier (6-0 Fr., 8.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 39% FG, 76% FT, 35% 3pt)
F Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (6-7 So., 6.3 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 44% FG, 81% FT)

Keys To Victory:
One For The Thumb - No team has ever attempted to win five games in as many days to win its conference tournament, so the Huskies have made history no matter what happens tonight. Jim Calhoun's team has already played their way into the top half of whatever regional they are selected into tomorrow night, at least as a 4 seed and maybe even a 3 with a win tonight.
Gerry Who? - Every year, the name Gerry McNamara gets brought up when legends are made during the Big East tournament after the Syracuse guard singlehandedly lifted the Orange from the #9 seed that UConn is playing as this week to a conference title. This year, Gerry Mac is being overshadowed by Kemba Walker. The Rice High School product is averaging almost 28 points per game this week in victories over DePaul, Georgetown, Pitt and Syracuse; and the scary concept to the casual fan is that Walker isn't done yet. The point guard and first team All-Big East selection has gone for at least 20 in six straight games, and UConn will need his explosiveness one more time to win their first conference championship since 2004.
Unsung Heroes - The UConn bench has yielded a star performance each night this week. From Alex Oriakhi's double-double to Tyler Olander's career night last night against Syracuse, it seems like Jim Calhoun has found a different reserve to pick up the pieces when Walker is unable to find a road to the basket. With a Louisville lineup that plays guard-heavy, it wouldn't be surprising to see Shabazz Napier be the go-to guy off the bench for Calhoun tonight as he continues to capitalize on his audition to crack the Huskies' lineup when Walker almost certainly declares for the NBA Draft this June.

Louisville Cardinals (3rd seed, 25-8)
Head Coach: Rick Pitino

Probable Starting Lineup:
PG: Peyton Siva (5-11 So., 10.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 5.2 APG, 2.0 SPG, 45% FG, 67% FT)
SG: Preston Knowles (6-1 Sr., 14.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.8 SPG, 38% FG, 81% FT, 39% 3pt)
SG: Chris Smith (6-2 Jr., 9.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.4 APG, 45% FG, 69% FT, 40% 3pt)
SG: Kyle Kuric (6-4 Jr., 10.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 52% FG, 83% FT, 45% 3pt)
PF: Terrence Jennings (6-10 Jr., 9.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 53% FG, 66% FT)

Key Reserves:
G Mike Marra (6-5 So., 6.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 33% FG, 79% FT)
C Gorgui Dieng (6-10 Fr., 5.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 62% FG, 56% FT)

Keys To Victory:
Bombs Away - Even during the days of Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia, Pitino's Cardinals have always been an outside threat; and at 36 percent from beyond the arc this season, Louisville is no different. The Cards, much like UConn on their bench, have found a different shooter to step up every night. One night it could be Kyle Kuric, Mike Marra the next, or senior leader Preston Knowles the night after. Fellow guard Chris Smith, who also shoots 40 percent from three-point range, is also a potent and capable weapon if Louisville looks to bury the Huskies with early daggers.
Board Meeting - UConn had been getting outplayed on the glass before this week during Big East play, and Louisville needs to continue that trend if they have any hope of raising a trophy at the Garden for the second time in three years. The good thing for the Cardinals is that after Alex Oriakhi, UConn's rebounders aren't as strong as some of the other teams in the conference. Louisville outlasted a scrappy Marquette team and a shooting threat in Notre Dame to get this matchup; and although the primary target will be stopping the one-man show that is Kemba Walker, the Cardinals need to get the advantage in the rebound department to effectively put UConn away.
Special K - Preston Knowles entered this season as Louisville's lone senior, which helps Rick Pitino next season in that the rest of the team comes back next year. However, what people did not expect from Knowles was his ability to step up and be among the more underrated players in the conference in the absence of Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith, who graduated following last season. Knowles may look like a streaky shooter on paper; but is anything but on the court, as the senior is a feared man any time the ball is in his hands.

So, Who Wins?
In one corner, you have a team that has literally run the gauntlet by winning four games in as many days. On the other bench lies a team that is simply the best one standing after the early exits of Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, who were regarded as the class of the Big East throughout the year. The deciding factor in this matchup is overall depth of each side. UConn has solid players after Walker, but Jim Calhoun's squad still has not been able to find their way for long stretches during a game if their star is exposed. This alone is enough to tip the scales in favor of the Cardinals, who will take advantage of a fatigued UConn en route to a second conference championship in three years before they are the favorites to make it three out of four next year.

Your Final: Louisville 78, Connecticut 69

Friday, March 11, 2011

Big East Semis: An Insider's Guide

UConn and Syracuse meet in Big East tournament for first time on this stage since their six-overtime epic in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times)

After a 2-2 third day in the Big East tournament yesterday, we now shift our sights to the semifinals tonight. Actually, there was some of that going on yesterday after Syracuse defeated St. John's to secure a final four matchup with Connecticut, prompting me to be among the first to say the following two words when I came across my colleague Ralph Bednarczyk in the press room:

Six overtimes.

That's right, tonight marks the first time UConn and the 'Cuse have seen each other at Madison Square Garden since the instant classic that produced this T-shirt in upstate New York. (Photo courtesy of

Here we go with two games that will determine who faces off tomorrow night for a conference title.

#9 Seed UConn vs. #4 Seed Syracuse - The Kemba Walker express returns to the "World's Most Famous Arena" for the fourth time in as many days to take on an Orange team that was taken to the limit by St. John's even after Johnnies swingman D.J. Kennedy tore his ACL six minutes into the game. Walker is also one of just four players on either side (teammate Donnell Beverly and Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph of Syracuse being the others) to have actually played in the six-overtime marathon, as Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine was injured that year and medically redshirted.

#2 Seed Notre Dame vs. #3 Seed Louisville - Both teams used decisive quarterfinal wins to propel themselves into this meeting, and the Fighting Irish will most likely secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a win tonight. Louisville will be looking to avenge an 89-79 defeat at the Joyce Center earlier in the regular season in a game the Cardinals had chances to win in regulation before Notre Dame forced overtime. Pay close attention to a matchup between Louisville's Kyle Kuric and Scott Martin of Notre Dame on the perimeter, as whoever makes the most threes will likely be the winner.

The Way I See It: Predictions
UConn defeats Syracuse
Louisville defeats Notre Dame

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Big East Quarters: An Insider's Guide

Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough leads Notre Dame into action against Cincinnati tonight in Big East tournament quarterfinals. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

So we've reached day three of the Big East tournament; and if you're keeping track of our predictions, you'll see a 7-1 record. The quarters mark the debuts of the four double-bye recipients on the Madison Square Garden floor this week as the strongest conference in the country draws closer to crowning a new champion, which is now guaranteed following last night's Marquette win over reigning titleholder West Virginia.

#9 Seed UConn vs. #1 Seed Pitt - The Huskies proved their DePaul win was no fluke with a decisive 17-point victory over Georgetown yesterday, but that victory has been downgraded in the absence of Hoya guard Chris Wright, who is still out with a broken hand. On the other bench, the Panthers have been the class of the Big East all season thanks to impressive campaigns from Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker. While Kemba Walker alone changes the complexion of any game, the matchup to watch will be the inside battle between UConn's Alex Oriakhi and Gary McGhee of Pitt.

#5 Seed St. John's vs. #4 Seed Syracuse - The Johnnies make their return to the final eight for the first time since 2003 against a Syracuse team that handed them their only loss at the Garden this season. In what will be a battle in every sense of the word, the winner of this game will be the team that exhibits the most versatility. Syracuse has four players averaging double figures in points per game; and when St. John's gets four to score at least ten, they're 11-0. Adding to the already thick plot is the fact that the Orange are the one Big East team that St. John's ten-man senior class has yet to beat.

#7 Seed Cincinnati vs. #2 Seed Notre Dame - It was said on last night's ESPN broadcast that Bearcats coach Mick Cronin told his team that they weren't getting any respect. Unfortunately, it's true; and for a coach like Cronin that deserves every bit of success he gets as much as the players do, it's a shame. Notre Dame is on the inside track to a top seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can get the chips to fall in the right places this week, and all eyes will be on conference player of the year Ben Hansbrough against a lightly regarded Cincinnati backcourt.

#11 Seed Marquette vs. #3 Seed Louisville - The Golden Eagles all but sealed an NCAA Tournament appearance with last night's victory against West Virginia. Next up for Buzz Williams and Marquette is a Louisville team that has overachieved despite injuries to almost everyone on the squad to the point where coach Rick Pitino had to practice with team managers. The guard play will take center stage here, as a banged-up Cardinal frontcourt and undersized Marquette inside game will yield to the backcourts.

The Way I See It: Predictions
UConn defeats Pitt
St. John's defeats Syracuse
Cincinnati defeats Notre Dame
Louisville defeats Marquette

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Never Mind Charlie, Mike's A Winner

Rutgers coach Mike Rice meets the media minutes after Scarlet Knights lost heartbreaking Big East tournament game against St. John's. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

The world has been overexposed to the word "winning" over the past two weeks after the ludicrous and pathetic behavior displayed by Charlie Sheen, and recently by disgraced former Manhattan and Seton Hall head coach Bobby Gonzalez after his comments toward new Pirates boss Kevin Willard. (Click here to see exactly what Gonzo had to say) Fortunately for those who still hold the concept of winning in a high regard, in central New Jersey resides a man who embodies the true meaning of a winner despite an intensity that is often misconstrued for hysterics. They say that true genius is misunderstood. Whoever coined that adage may very well have known what was to come in the career of Mike Rice.

After a three-year tenure at Robert Morris in which he led the Colonials to consecutive Northeast Conference championships in his first head coaching job following various stops as an assistant coach for over fifteen years following his 1991 graduation from Fordham, Rice replaced Fred Hill this spring as the head coach at Rutgers University, and has transformed the Scarlet Knights from Big East doormat to scrappy upstarts in less than a year. His critics may be unable to see past his fiery on-court persona that includes emphatically tossing his blazer within the first ten minutes of a game, but such displays only drive home the fact that the 42-year-old Rice is just far more driven than his counterparts. More importantly, behind the passionate and intense demeanor lies a man who, once you get to know him, is among the nicest and classiest people you would ever want to know.

Last October at Big East media day, I met Rice for the first time inside Madison Square Garden as he unveiled his intentions for the new era of Rutgers basketball, and I honestly did not know what to expect. After an interview that lasted nearly nine minutes, I was able to sense that Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti may have tapped into a gold mine when he plucked Rice out of Pittsburgh and Robert Morris. The best was truly yet to come for a program that had seen better days, but not since their players' parents were college students themselves. I will admit to only taking a passing interest in the Scarlet Knights during the first month of the year, and was honestly a little surprised to see how well Rice had his team playing in the nonconference portion of the schedule. The coach unexpectedly won me over for the first time six weeks later.

Rice's former Robert Morris squad made its way into Brooklyn on December 4th of last year to take on St. Francis; and for those who don't know, I am the Terriers' public address announcer for home basketball games. On the way back to press row during halftime, I noticed a familiar face doing an interview with the Colonials' radio broadcast team. I'll never forget my reaction, which was me asking St. Francis SID Dave Gansell "Is that who I think it is?" Sure enough, it was Mike Rice, who was in attendance cheering his old players on; even jumping up over six feet in the air (or at least it looked that way) when Robert Morris drew a foul and a three-point play in the second half. St. Francis won the game 65-63, (ironically, that was the final score of today's St. John's-Rutgers game, which I'll get to later) but my postgame activity was what made me embrace an up-and-coming coach who was slowly molding his program into his own image.

When I said hello to Rice, he remembered me from our Madison Square Garden encounter, and told me such before I even had an opportunity to reintroduce myself. Being in my position as an aspiring broadcaster in a field where getting noticed is an eternal struggle, the fact that a coach, let alone one in charge of a Big East team, was able to remember me goes a long way with me. I spent a good five minutes with Rice talking about his team and the strides they had made, wished him luck in his upcoming game against Marist; and told him I would be in attendance to see Rutgers host North Carolina three weeks later at Madison Square Garden. That game against the Tar Heels was the second instance in which Rutgers won me over; only this time it wasn't the coach, it was a player. North Carolina dominated from start to finish, but Rutgers had frustrated Roy Williams' team enough to the point where the Tar Heels had difficulty finishing down the stretch and also found it hard to contain Rutgers forward Jonathan Mitchell, who finished with 20 points. Watching "J-Mitch" evolve over the course of the night proved to be an eye-opener for me, as the Scarlet Knights had a diamond in the rough who not only made contested shots and NBA-range threes, but embraced the inherent challenges in taking them. Leaving the Garden that night, I immediately circled February 2nd as a must-watch game; as the combination of Rice and Mitchell would be inside Carnesecca Arena that night to face my alma mater of St. John's.

The St. John's game was the third in which Rutgers won me over. About three hours prior to tipoff, (I'm usually among the first media members in the arena on game night, as it's a routine from my play-by-play days that I've never broken away from) I noticed a familiar face on the bench watching pregame shootaround. Seconds later, I was courtside greeting Mike Rice and welcoming him to Queens. Again, the coach remembered me from St. Francis; and asked me how things were going for me. Rice's team put on a valiant display later that night as well, coming back to tie the Red Storm in the final seconds before Justin Brownlee won it for the Johnnies on a reverse layup that he took with a broken thumb. Jonathan Mitchell, who has since become my favorite player in the Big East because he is so good yet so underrated, scored 21 in the losing effort for the Scarlet Knights. The fourth and final time Rutgers won me over came this afternoon.

When the bracket for the Big East tournament was finalized Sunday night and St. John's had drawn the No. 5 seed, all I could hope for was that Rutgers would defeat Seton Hall in the preceding 12/13 matchup. A Rutgers win would enable me to cover a rematch with St. John's in the Big East tournament, and I wanted to see it for many reasons. However, the selfish desire to see Rice and Mitchell one more time was the primary motivation. I didn't get to see Rice until the postgame press conference, which was an event in itself. After the aforementioned Justin Brownlee stepped out of bounds with 1.7 seconds remaining in regulation with St. John's up two, (I got an official game time from my friend and colleague Chris Carlin after the game) he then threw the ball into the crowd; but the officials, who had missed at least two other calls that Rutgers should have received, called neither and the game was over. Even as a St. John's alum and broadcaster, I couldn't help but think that St. John's had won a game it shouldn't have. (At least not at that moment) I'm sure more than one person in the Madison Square Garden media room was expecting a harangue directed toward the officials from the perceived loose cannon that is Mike Rice. Instead, the coach took the high road and proved just how much of a great person he is by surmising the last-second happenings with a succinct "it is what it is," although he did admit there was a mistake. You can see the end of this one for yourself by just pressing play below.

I had already regarded Rutgers to be the Rocky Balboa of the Big East in that although they lost the battle against St. John's, (Apollo Creed in this instance) they ultimately won the war. Mike Rice may be 0-for-2 against the Red Storm, but his maintaining composure at a time where mortal men would have melted under pressure only adds to the many reasons why he is a man to be respected and idolized. It just goes to show you that in a world where we unfortunately celebrate the out-of-control escapades of celebrities in a society where TMZ has become a credible news source, there really are true winners walking this planet, people that are great in their profession; but even better human beings. People like Mike Rice, who will lead Rutgers into the promised land much sooner rather than later. Gatorade had its world-famous "Be Like Mike" advertising campaign featuring Michael Jordan in the early 1990s; but in 2011, we should aspire to be like another Mike. Not many are made like Mike Rice, which is all the more reason why he should be appreciated.

The next time Charlie Sheen says he is winning, he shouldn't look in the mirror. Instead, he should just turn on a Rutgers basketball game and take a look at a true winner in Mike Rice.