Monday, December 26, 2011

Catching Up With Ed Cooley

With eleven nonconference wins in his first season, Providence coach Ed Cooley has Friars ready for Big East opener tomorrow night at St. John's.  (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

After a year in which eleven of its sixteen programs made the NCAA Tournament last season, the Big East opens its doors for the 2011-12 campaign tomorrow night with two games to start the league schedule.  Notre Dame will travel to the Petersen Center to meet Pittsburgh, while the more intriguing matchup comes at Carnesecca Arena when the seven-man rotation of St. John's welcomes Providence College and new head coach Ed Cooley into Queens.  Earlier today, I had a chance to speak to Cooley as he prepares the Friars for their first conference matchup of the season; and the coach had this to say:

Jaden Daly: You're 11-2 through nonconference play.  What is the state of mind heading into the conference opener tomorrow night at St. John's?

Ed Cooley: We're trying to gain an identity of who we are, you know, and we're trying to change some of the cultural habits we had from a year ago.  Obviously, playing a tighter brand defense or trying to move the ball more efficiently on offense.  As we prepare for St. John's, we've got to prepare for an athletic group playing on the road.  We want to limit our turnovers and take advantage of our shots.

JD: You've been around the Big East before, having assisted Al Skinner at Boston College.  How has that prepared you as a head coach this time around?

EC: Well; as a head coach now, you kind of see things in a different dynamic.  The Big East obviously is still a very tough conference top to bottom; so you want to try to finish in the top half to give yourself a chance for postseason play, but the preparation remains the same.  The players may change, but the style of play with so many different teams is naturally the most difficult part to prepare for.  It's just hard to try to tell your kids everything about another opponent.

JD: Thirteen games in, has any one player impressed you more than some of the others?

EC: Well, Vincent Council's speed has really impressed me.  His speed has really stood out.  Gerard Coleman's ability to score the ball; and I would say (Bryce) Cotton's ability to make shots, but Council's speed has really caught me off guard.

JD: In addition to Vincent, Gerard Coleman is in the backcourt with him.  You started him off the bench for the first six games of the year, and now you've won seven in a row with him starting.  Is there a different dimension between Gerard in the lineup and Gerard off the bench?

EC: We tried to bring Gerard in off the bench to get some different dimension early; but what we found was that we were a different team when he was on the floor, so we wanted to make sure we started the game with our best unit on the floor.  We just wanted to make sure we started the game the best way we could, so we thought that was our best chance of winning the game.

JD: You've had four players average 35 minutes or more per game.  Against a team like St. John's with a seven-man rotation, how much of a factor is conditioning going to be for your team as well as theirs?

EC: Huge.  That's a great question...that's the one thing we concentrated on since we came on board here at Providence, to make sure we were in tip-top shape.  Our strength and conditioning has kind of been "1-A" to recruiting as a very important figure in how we build our program here, and we talk about our players all the time as being the most conditioned team with under four minutes to play in the game.  Being mentally tough will give us an opportunity to be more competitive.

JD: In addition to Vincent and Gerard, you've also picked up two breakout seasons from Bryce Cotton and LaDontae Henton.  What makes each of them so special?

EC: They've been receptive to learn.  They do have somewhat of an edge on their shoulder, not edgy enough for me, though; but they've been very coachable, and I think they've been very receptive to what we've been teaching.

JD: You just got Kadeem Batts back before the New Hampshire game.  How has he fit into the lineup, and what are you looking for most from him down the stretch?

EC: I'm looking for Kadeem to be a better leader.  Right now, we feel very rusty.  It's difficult to implement somebody, especially from a first-year coaching staff coming on board with all the fundamentals we taught early.  Because we knew we didn't have him for twelve or thirteen games; whatever it was, we didn't use him, so he's very rusty.  If he could defend and rebound like a four, he'll pick up the other offensive schemes as he gets into more gameday preparations.

JD: What is your impression of St. John's eleven games into their schedule and what they've done with just seven men on their roster?

EC: I think their coach (Mike Dunlap) has done a great job putting his players in a situation to have success.  You can see he's going through some adjustments with adding Amir (Garrett) into his lineup; but I love their length and athleticism, I love their youth.  They're very quick to the ball; the way they defend, they disrupt you, so we've got to make sure we're ball strong and ball quick to try to have some success on the road.

JD: What are some of the other keys to victory against St. John's tomorrow night?

EC: To make sure we've got to rebound the ball.  We can't allow any easy baskets.  We want to make sure that we continue to build our philosophy to play a full game.  We can't turn the ball over and we can't get outrebounded.

JD: Looking ahead past St. John's, you travel to Washington to play Georgetown on New Year's Eve.  How well do you feel you match up with the Hoyas, a team that was picked midpack in the conference and surprised a lot of people with two wins over Memphis and another one on the road at Alabama?

EC: Quite frankly, I haven't concentrated too much on them; but I know the way John (Thompson III) coaches his team...I think he does a great job preparing his unit, but we really haven't concentrated too much on Georgetown.  I think in a game-by-game approach; but by all signs, they're playing pretty well and I'm sure that will be another stiff challenge on the road.

JD: What are your expectations going forward through Big East play and hopefully postseason play after that?

EC: We want to try to make the season as long as we could make it.  I'm going to be happy with our players as long as we get maximum effort and our guys play with a sense of urgency.  Again, if we can keep the game to where we practice every day in under four-minute execution, we're going to give ourselves a chance to be a really competitive team.

JD: Just a general housekeeping update: Any injuries or any late developments coming out of practice that we should be aware of for tomorrow night?

EC: No, not at all.  Our team is healthy; our kids are really excited to play a road game tomorrow, and we're excited to get Big East play started.

Just a side note here: I had met Cooley at Big East media day in October and was impressed as to how accessible and welcoming he was to us media guys.  Two months later, conducting an eight-minute interview over the phone with Cooley felt like having a routine conversation with a friend or family member.  Everything that was said to me about him prior to his being hired from Fairfield still rings true several months later, and he is a man you cannot help but to root for and wish success to in the immediate future.

Cooley and the Providence Friars take on St. John's tomorrow night from Carnesecca Arena, with the game televised on MSG in New York and Cox Sports in New England.  If you can't get to see it, you can listen to it on WBBR 1130 AM in New York or WEEI 103.7 FM in Providence.  Tipoff is slated for 7pm.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Deja Vu In Riverdale For Masiello

Only three months into his first season as a head coach, Steve Masiello has already surpassed last year's win total at Manhattan.  (Photo courtesy of The Journal News)

Seven college basketball programs exist at the Division I level inside the city limits of New York, New York.  Of the seven, the winningest school this year is not the big name (St. John's) or the reigning NCAA Tournament team; (Long Island University) nor is it the academically acclaimed.  (Columbia)  It isn't the up-and-comer (Fordham) or Staten Island's finest (Wagner) either, nor is it my primary employer.  (St. Francis College)

Twelve games into the season, Manhattan College stands 8-4; two wins ahead of last season's 6-25 campaign that cost former coach Barry Rohrssen his job, and the Jaspers enter tonight's contest with George Mason on a five-game winning streak that hardly anyone imagined would happen so soon under first-year coach Steve Masiello.

At just 34, Masiello is the ninth-youngest head coach in Division I; and has already changed the culture of a program seven years removed from their most recent NCAA Tournament appearance, one in which the Jaspers advanced to the round of 32 after upsetting Florida as a No. 12 seed.  A former Rick Pitino assistant at Louisville, Masiello made no secret of the fact that his mentor and father figure would have a huge influence on the team.  However, as much as Manhattan is reminiscent of the man who won a national championship at Kentucky in 1996 before taking over the Cardinals; Masiello is actually more of a mirror image of another former employer of his who also overachieved at a young age, whether the coach wants to admit it or not.

In 1999, Manhattan made a coaching change after John Leonard was dismissed, bringing in 36-year-old Bobby Gonzalez.  Gonzalez had previously been an assistant to Pete Gillen at Xavier, Providence and Virginia, becoming one of the nation's best recruiters that most fans had unfortunately never heard of.  When he got to Riverdale, critics and experts doubted Bobby's ability to get the job done.  Seven years and four postseason appearances later; (two NCAA Tournaments and two NIT berths) with a staff that included none other than a young Steve Masiello, who was hired shortly after he graduated from the University of Kentucky, Gonzalez turned Manhattan into a mid-major powerhouse before leaving for Seton Hall, where he gradually improved the Pirates with an increasing win total every year over four seasons before being unceremoniously (and wrongfully when you really think about it) fired in March of 2010.

Just two weeks ago, I got to see Manhattan for the first time this season when they hosted Tom Pecora and Fordham at Draddy Gym.  Having covered Manhattan's coaching search in a groundbreaking and unorthodox way over the month that it was active, (the much-celebrated #mcmbbcoachingsummit on Twitter) I paid particular attention to Masiello to see just how much of a Pitino clone he really was on the bench.  Only several minutes transpired before I noticed Masiello displayed characteristics similar to his former mentor.  From pacing the sideline enthusiastically to displaying the same demonstrative love for the game that most people mistake for unnecessary theatrics; Masiello is essentially recapturing the magic Gonzalez created in the wake of Fran Fraschilla's departure in Riverdale, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

In a conference where both of the top teams (Iona and Fairfield) are currently experienced, Masiello is a young influence on an even younger team that will eventually be the class of the MAAC before the core of the Jaspers graduate.  Masiello has already surprised the nation by overachieving; but through no fault of his own, he has surprised in another way by turning back the clock to a coach who put the Manhattan program on the map as opposed to the big name who won a national championship.  

Steve Masiello really is a lot like Rick Pitino, and I will not deny that; but whether or not people recognize it, the coach's style resembles Bobby Gonzalez just a little more.  Given how the Gonzalez era turned out in Riverdale, Jaspers fans should appreciate what they are blessed to call their own this season because it is the start of deja vu in the northwest corner of the Bronx.  Trust me when I say that it will not be long before Manhattan College is back in the spotlight again.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Bronx Tale That's Still Being Written

Just 21 months after coming to Fordham, Tom Pecora already has Rams moving up; not just in competition, but respect as well.  (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

It may be one of New York City's lesser populated neighborhoods, but the Bronx has had more than its share of contributions to the intricate landscape of the Big Apple.  The New York Yankees, Bronx Zoo, City Island, and Jennifer Lopez are some of the many people, places and things with their roots in the northernmost of the quintet of boroughs that comprise the largest city in the United States.  The Bronx is also home to two Division I college basketball programs; one of which (Manhattan College) has already surpassed last season's win total, and the other a perennial institution of positive academic repute that has struggled in recent years to resurrect its hardwood image after decades of mediocrity: A school that has produced great broadcasters the likes of Vin Scully, Mike Breen, John Andariese, Bob Papa and Chris Carrino; but for most of the immediate past, a basketball program left for dead by an apathetic general public until a coaching change ushered in a new era.  This era has already seen its share of highs and lows, but one look at the team on the court will leave you with the impression that the best truly is yet to come at Fordham University.

Just two seasons ago, the Rams were mired in one of their more forgettable campaigns in recent memory, a 2-26 campaign that gave temporary rise to the youngest head coach in the nation when then 29-year-old Jared Grasso moved up from the assistant coach's seat to replace Dereck Whittenburg midway through the season.  Despite showing a marked improvement in his brief tenure at the helm, Grasso was not retained after the season; and ultimately moved to New Rochelle once hired by Iona coach Tim Cluess as his top assistant.  The man who replaced him was seen as a rather surprising choice considering Fordham's past track record and the interest he received from several other high-major programs.  It was a hire that, despite the belief that the new guy may have settled, has still paid off far greater than one would imagine when looking at Fordham's record on paper.

Two years ago, Tom Pecora could have had any job he wanted.  A recognizable face in New York college hoops for parts of two decades as an assistant at Hofstra University before being promoted to coach the Pride after Jay Wright departed for Villanova, Pecora had earned a reputation as a recruiter during his time as one of Wright's deputies before continuing the tradition of success on Long Island during the 2000s, guiding Hofstra to three consecutive NIT appearances over his nine seasons in charge.  After a lackluster final season on Hempstead Turnpike, Pecora's resume was still impressive enough to merit consideration for the openings at Big East programs Seton Hall and St. John's.  A product of Queens Village, Pecora seemed like a natural fit for the Red Storm once Norm Roberts was dismissed after six years on the corner of Union and Utopia; and had he been pursued stronger by the university, would have done the exact same thing for the Red Storm he had for Hofstra: Build the program back to relevance while simultaneously maintaining his affable image.  Said my colleague Marc Ernay, a Hofstra alum who got to know Pecora quite well through his work for 1010 WINS, on many an occasion: "He would walk here (to St. John's) from Hempstead" if given the job.  Personally, I have said several times that I would have paid for his cab fare from Nassau to Queens had Steve Lavin not come along, for reasons I will detail later.  On the same day Lavin was introduced in a whirlwind press conference, Seton Hall brought Kevin Willard down from Iona to replace Bobby Gonzalez; but Pecora was already off the market six days before, taking over at Fordham University and injecting some much needed enthusiasm into Rose Hill in a decision that made even the most grizzled of media veterans go for a second look after he was introduced.

Through just 38 games, Pecora is 11-27 at the helm of Fordham.  However, he has already eclipsed the win total from the two seasons prior to his arrival, and doubled it while adding one for good measure.  For those not mathematically inclined, (at least not on the fly) the Rams amassed just five victories between November 2008 and March 2010; and Pecora is doing it the same way he did it at Hofstra, coaching unheralded recruits up to the point where they become deceptively talented players over their four years on a team that flies under the radar in an Atlantic 10 conference dominated by the likes of Xavier and Temple, as well as a city in which St. John's gets the bulk of the media attention.  When the Rams overcame a 21-point deficit with two 16-0 runs in the second half to post a monumental upset against Lavin's Red Storm, it seemed for a fleeting moment that Fordham was on top of the world.  One year later, Pecora's squad nearly made lightning strike twice in an effort where the Rams gave St. John's all they could handle in the first half before falling 56-50 in the second game of the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden.  When I asked Pecora how he felt about his team following the game, (and their previous effort, a 74-59 win against Siena) he seemed very pleased to say the following:

"We're moving in the right direction.  I think there will be more games that we'll compete in more this year." - Tom Pecora on Fordham's upward mobility
Pecora hit all the right notes in his press conference as he usually does, but the true reason to appreciate him came after the media dispersed back to their computers.  This is where the mention to me offering to foot the bill for Pecora's car service had he been hired by my alma mater comes into play.  You see, Pecora is a typical Italian-American, a humble man with a charismatic and magnetic personality that he is not afraid to reveal to anyone at any time.  I was fortunate to be introduced to it last year at Rose Hill when Pecora took the time to personally introduce myself to me, and got to see it firsthand again when he stopped to chat with myself and two other friends of mine: writer John Miciotta and former St. John's alum/New York basketball superfan Tony Giacobbe, who I had known for several years before; as he had been an administrator at my junior high school back when Pecora was an assistant to Wright at Hofstra.  Seeing Pecora take so much time out of his schedule to engage three regular guys is something not every coach is inclined to do, and it becomes even more refreshing when you can see just how much the coach enjoys it.  This display of human kindness and schmoozing is enough to make even the most casual of fans want to root for a person of Pecora's nature; one who, much like his mentor Jay Wright, is a guy you could easily see yourself having a light-hearted conversation with at a bar or restaurant.

Fordham is still a long way from being regarded as one of the nation's elite programs, but their respectability and popularity are steadily climbing the ladder in a relentless attempt to catch up to some of the more established programs in their backyard.  Following this past Saturday's loss to St. John's, Tom Pecora also reminded those in attendance at his press conference that "Rome wasn't built in a day."

Slowly but surely, Pecora is building a winner at Fordham.  The hire that seemed puzzling at first now looks like a match made in heaven with each passing day, and it truly could not have happened to a nicer guy.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

State Of St. John's: A Roundtable Discussion

Despite not having head coach Steve Lavin for much of the season, St. John's is still trying to survive after last season's resurgence. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

Through nine games of the 104th season in St. John's basketball history, the Red Storm program currently sits at 4-5 following a 69-63 road loss to Detroit ten days ago. With a break in the schedule to accommodate final exams before the Johnnies take the court again this Saturday against Fordham in the Holiday Festival, St. John's was dealt yet another blow in a season filled with adversity when point guard Nurideen Lindsey announced his intentions to transfer effective at the end of the semester. With two games remaining before the boys from Queens open their Big East ledger against Providence at Carnesecca Arena a week from Tuesday, I wanted to provide an in-depth breakdown of the team most of us have grown to love in some way, shape, or form; perhaps even more so than we already have. However, I couldn't do such a thing alone, so I decided to turn this into a group effort. Joining me in this "meeting of the minds" will be two men who are not only emotionally attached to the corner of Union and Utopia as students and fans, but also as media members who see this team up close and personal just like yours truly does: WSJU sports talk radio host and contributing writer Kieran Lynch; and St. John's resident Joe Benigno, fellow WSJU sports talk host and Rumble In The Garden columnist Quinn Rochford. Along with me, Kieran and Quinn will chronicle the nine games prior to this point in a question and answer session that I like to call the first-ever "State of the Johnnies" address.

1) Nine games in, is the team where you expected it to be; and if not, what specifically has held it back?

Jaden Daly: Being that St. John's was going to enter this season with the youngest team in school history regardless of what transpired during the year, it came as no surprise to see this group struggle early on. Despite every obstacle thrown in the way of the Red Storm just five weeks into the 2011-12 campaign, being 4-5 with a schedule that has already seen three ranked teams appear on the ledger is just as good as being undefeated and the No. 1 program in the country. It's been said that things have to get worse before they can get better, and St. John's fans can definitely relate following the Pittsburgh incident in 2003. This group may not immediately replicate last season's NCAA Tournament appearance; but if they can float around .500 for the remainder of the season, it will be just as good.

Kieran Lynch: Any person that has followed the St. John’s program for any stretch longer of time longer than a year is familiar with dashed hopes and realistic expectations. This year is no different. As one of those aforementioned individuals, nine games in to this new era, I can’t take any issue with where this team is right now. Sure, everything could have gotten off to a better start, but cancer didn’t cooperate. Neither did the academic side of things. One could possibly say that had head coach Steve Lavin been around, things may have been different. Maybe he helps this team to victories against Northeastern and Detroit-Mercy, maybe even keeps them within striking distance of Kentucky. From the looks of it, one of the major reasons that guard Nurideen Lindsey is transferring is due to the absence of Lavin. The same list of scenarios could have played out differently had Amir Garrett, Jakarr Sampson, and Norvel Pelle qualified in September, but they didn’t. This team is severely undermanned and undersized and has taken their lumps because of it. Now, with Lindsey jumping ship, this tiny group is even smaller. We may very well be looking at a mediocre beginning to a brutal season, but the future is even brighter for these players once you add their coming experience to the mix.

Quinn Rochford: As close followers of St. John's basketball, we could have realistically projected a season defined by struggle. The reality of it is that we were a bit jaded by the excitement that surrounded the program throughout the spring and summer. Kieran can vouch for this as much as anyone: All we wrote about throughout August and September was the positive momentum that Steve Lavin had built with the NCAA Tournament appearance and heralded recruiting class. Every day was a new batch of good news. Then the news of Sampson, Pelle, and Garrett's ineligibility hit the world like a ton of bricks. No one saw something that drastic coming. I'd say it was then that expectations for this season changed. If on November 7th, just before the opener with William & Mary, you told me that St. John's would be 4-5 through nine games, it would have had to be acceptable. Youth and inexperience does pay its toll; but the way it has happened, especially with Lindsey's recent departure, a lot has changed in a month.

2) Which player has impressed you the most this season, and why?

JD: This may come as a surprise, but it would have to be Sir'Dominic Pointer. From the moment the Detroit native made it official by signing with Lavin last spring, all I knew about him was that he was a 6-5 swingman with a penchant for suffocating defense. Through the first few games, Pointer had slowly been brought along as the first substitute off the bench in a seven-man rotation. Such a gradual evolution would normally make a player's grade incomplete, but Pointer has provided so many more intangibles that even those close to the program could not have envisioned. From his ability to steal at one end of the court to his knack for driving the length of the floor for a bucket seconds later, the Motown product has become the X-factor that this team has so desperately craved for a long time. The departure of Nurideen Lindsey (more on that later) will likely enable Pointer to establish himself in the starting lineup, and will make his invaluable presence more of a common occurrence.

KL: All of these fresh faces have seen their ups and their downs in this small sample size of about a month. One player that stands out to me as being both collected and talented is Phil Greene. Greene has shown the ability to play the point, work an offense; and know when to drive, shoot, or dish it out. With the departure of Lindsey; Phil is going to be the go-to-guy as the distributor, and I think he is up for the task. He has shown he knows how to control a basketball in coverage and appears to have a high basketball IQ. A calm and collected figure in press conferences, he is always talking about working hard and being there for his teammates, which is something that will pay dividends for this team in the long term. Starting this past summer; all the way through the exhibitions, each member of the team mentioned Greene as the guy who was going to surprise everybody. He has risen to the challenge and now it is a matter of him growing fully into his new role.

QR: I've seen some really great things from each of the newcomers thus far. Throughout the bleakness of the last seven games, these guys have each shown something that Johnnies fans can be excited about. For me, that guy is Moe Harkless. There is something to be said about being productive. There's something way different that can be said about being productive and consistent. Harkless has shown that ability through nine games. He seemed to be pushed along early to become the face of the program, and he's backed himself up on the court. It seems unfeasible that any of these kids will leave (at least to go pro, anyway) after one year. Having Moe around for at least another year will be a treat for the Red Storm faithful.

3) Regardless of outcome, what has been the best performance from this team so far?

JD: It may not have been the prettiest of the Red Storm's four wins, but it would have to be their victory against St. Francis. After four minutes of a defensive struggle on both sides, St. John's caught fire when D'Angelo Harrison took matters into his own hands and dominated a weak Terrier defense from beyond the arc on the way to a career-high 21 points. Honorable mentions would have to include the win against UMBC and losses to Arizona and Texas A&M at Madison Square Garden. There are two common threads to those three matchups; and one would be Nurideen Lindsey being a critical factor for better or worse in each one, from his flirtation with a triple-double against UMBC to fouling out in the Arizona game when he started to take it over in the second half, and of course the two missed free throws against Texas A&M. For the record, the other similarity came in the stands of each game; and there are only about four other people who can truly appreciate this significance.

KL: Each of these past nine games, win or loss, has been a growing experience for this squad. Every game has its share of positives and negatives. With that being said, my pick would have to be the Lehigh game at Carnesecca Arena. St. John’s started the game behind as they do most times, (at one point being down 16) only to fight back and overtake Lehigh down the stretch to give them their first exciting win. You may read this and say “Huh? An early November game against a mid-major?” Yes. That game marked the original return of Steve Lavin, and it showed what this team was capable of when it plays cohesively with the man who recruited them doing ballerina leaps on the sideline.

QR: This is a tough question. The most spirited performance and the one in which the team seemed to be the most together was the close loss to Arizona in the 2k Sports Classic. Despite some serious foul trouble, Lavin's group led by eight points within the final ten minutes. Though Arizona hasn't even been the best Wildcats that St. John's has faced in a month, Sean Miller's team is pretty impressive. It's almost as if St. John's threw its chips into the middle of the table that night, to reference the great Jim Fassel. Once Lindsey fouled out and they ultimately lost, the air seemed to suck out of the team. They've been 1-4 since and have relinquished a considerable amount momentum, but the Arizona performance probably exceeds the four wins in terms of quality.

4) Now that Nurideen Lindsey has become the latest player to transfer, who do you expect to pick up most of the slack in the lineup?

JD: Losing Lindsey deprives St. John's of a double-figure scorer on paper; but fortunately for the Johnnies, Steve Lavin (when he returns) and his coaching staff have the services of a combo guard who is actually better suited to run the point than play off the ball. Through the first nine games, Phil Greene has shown flashes of brilliance while still trying to adjust to a Division I style of play. In addition, Greene's best moments thus far have come at Madison Square Garden; and the Chicago product will get the opportunity to run the Red Storm's uptempo offense at the "World's Most Famous Arena" for the first time on a full-time basis in just two days. If all goes well, Greene's performance will leave the fans feeling as though the program hasn't missed a beat since Lindsey's exodus became public a week ago.

KL: Going back to what I said about Phil Greene being impressive in the early going, he is going to need to pull the most weight after the departure of Nurideen Lindsey. Greene is going to feel a little bit like God’sgift Achiuwa has recently, as he will have no true replacement. Malik Stith will no doubt get more minutes, but it will still come down to Greene when it matters. As they say, every experience is a learning experience.

QR: Even though Nurideen wasn't considered by most as a true distributive point guard, he did run the offense. With that said, his decision to transfer hurts. St. John's is left with just six scholarship players until Amir Garrett is expected to return Wednesday, when St. John's hosts Texas Pan-American. Lindsey's departure creates a gaping hole that will need to be filled quickly if the Red Storm want any hope at success this year. I expect Phil Greene's time running the point to increase exponentially. It will be interesting to see how he fares with the added responsibility. Greene has shown that he can handle the ball and shoot a bit. Another guy that will see more minutes is Sir'Dominic Pointer. Pointer's defensive prowess will see the spotlight even more than it has thus far, but he'll need to become more aggressive offensively. St. John's fans would love more opportunities to yell: "Oh, Sir'Dom! You're a bad man!" (Credit STJ-TV play-by-play voice Tony Luftman for that signature quote) Lastly, Amir Garrett will provide some spark for the team. Since I've personally never seen him dribble a ball or attempt a shot, I'll leave further analysis for later.

5) As both a fan and media member, which game are you: a) looking forward to most; and b) most concerned about given the lack of depth on this team?

JD: The answer to the first question has to be the home game against Syracuse on February 4th at the Garden. Syracuse has historically treated the Garden like a second home court, and has even gone as far as to deem itself "New York's College Team." For fans here in the Big Apple, this claim by the Orange is viewed as blasphemy; yet Jim Boeheim's group has always managed to take their game to another level when they converge under the bright lights of midtown Manhattan. St. John's will also be playing with something to prove as they take on Syracuse and their world-famous 2-3 zone defense for the first time since their spirited Big East tournament battle in which D.J. Kennedy tore his ACL just six minutes after the opening tip. From a professional standpoint, I have to say that the Red Storm will face no greater test than the one they will get in Hartford on December 31st when they take on reigning national champion Connecticut. UConn will be without head coach Jim Calhoun due to an NCAA-imposed suspension, but the Huskies still have talent that can match up with St. John's in nearly every facet possible. Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier have become one of the best backcourts in the country, and freshman Ryan Boatright has been to the Huskies what Kemba Walker was off the bench in his rookie campaign three years ago. Moreover, 6-11 big man Andre Drummond has what St. John's does not: Size and a dominating interior presence.

KL: To put it simply as a fan, I’m looking for revenge. Two dates that rank high on my top games list are both at the Garden against Fordham and Syracuse. The former is fast approaching this Saturday as part of the Holiday Festival, while the latter will take place deep in the “gladiator pit” of Big East play in February. For the sake of revenge after last year’s debacle in the Bronx where St. John’s blew a 21-point lead, it is important for St. John’s to win against Fordham. Hopefully the coaching staff educates these new players about the recent history to give them a little extra motivation. They’ll need more than motivation, however, when they welcome Syracuse into town on February 4th. If you asked me if St. John’s could beat Syracuse right now, I’d say no way. Come February, the possibilities could be a little different. By that point, Syracuse will have been forced to leave the confines of the state of New York to enter Big East play. If there is one thing a college basketball fan knows, it is that no team leaves the Big East schedule unscathed. The hope as a St. John’s fan is that the team from Queens can be the ones doing the scathing to the team from the north.

QR: I'll keep the fan hat on for this question because, let's face it, that's what I am! There a few games that I'm really looking forward to, and the fun begins very soon. When the Johnnies face Fordham at the Garden on Saturday, St. John's looks to return the favor of pain to the Rams for last year's debacle at Rose Hill. Two games later, St. John's will welcome Providence to Carnesecca Arena for the Big East opener. No matter which way you look at it, this game will be winnable. It would be a great boost for this program and its fans if the team can start off conference play on a positive note. There are two more games I'm really looking forward to, which also fill the quota for the depth concerns. You guessed it, New Year's Eve up in Hartford and February 4th at the Garden. With the current roster, St. John's will struggle mightily against the Huskies and the Orange; but this guy can hope, can't he?

6) How much longer do you envision Steve Lavin's absence lasting?

JD: Lavin admitted that he may have returned prematurely when he made his triumphant comeback two games into the season, so the smart money is on the charismatic head man taking his time before he returns for good. At just 47, Lavin definitely has time and age on his side; and the coach will undoubtedly weigh that heavily before pulling the trigger on another trip to the sidelines. Most people will expect Lavin to make his next comeback before conference play opens on the 27th; but I'll be conservative and go with the Louisville game on January 3rd instead, with the sole reason being that Lavin wants to return at nothing less than 100%.

KL: With the state of the program at this present moment, I don’t see a way that Steve Lavin isn’t back on the sidelines by the end of the month. While I’m not his doctor and have no idea about how much energy he currently has, I’m sure he understands what he needs to do to get this program back up and running 100% again. I wouldn’t rule him out this Saturday since the game will be played in Manhattan. (Not like in Kentucky or Detroit) I think realistically, he’d be back by Big East play. If he weren’t, there would be a lot of uncertainty going into the top level of college basketball. I don’t know if this team would be ready for that, and I’m sure Lavin knows that. Obviously, the recovery period is a long one; (and who knows what is really happening) but if I had to hedge my bets, I would put it on Lavin definitely being back by the start of the Big East against Providence.

QR: When I was ignorant, I said he'd return for the Arizona game and remain on the sidelines for good. Then he came back eight days earlier. Then he announced a further absence. It was then that I came to the realization that Steve did. This recovery process is nothing to be playing around with. That was serious surgery that Lavin underwent, and recuperation should be taken equally as seriously. Jim Calhoun; who has dealt with prostate cancer and the same surgery before, told Lavin that the recovery process will last at least 2-3 months. Since that time period is now reaching fruition, I would expect Lavin back any day. With Lindsey's transfer announcement, this group needs its leader more than ever. A realistic expectation would be December 27th against Providence, but he needs to do what he needs to do.

7) Given everything this team has endured, what would be a reasonable expectation for St. John's when conference play opens?

JD: The emergence of Seton Hall and Georgetown coupled with teams like Providence and DePaul that have shown signs of improvement in their nonconference schedule should temper expectations for St. John's once the real season begins, that of the 18-game course in natural selection more commonly known as Big East play. We knew coming in that the Red Storm would need to pull off a miracle if they had any hope of reaching the 12-6 league mark that last year's team set, but this team isn't going to lay down and die either. This group could conceivably finish above .500 in Big East play; but just like Lavin's return, I'm not going to make a bold prediction and be left holding the bag for it if it doesn't work out. I'll be conservative yet again and go for 8-10 in conference, because there really are a lot of winnable games on the conference ledger for the Red Storm.

KL: With everything that has gone on, I think finishing .500 in Big East play would be a realistic and positive expectation. This team will surely have mind-numbing losses and big time wins in that stretch of time; but once again, this is all a growing process. The sooner Lavin returns, the better chance this team has of winning more games. As much as people like to say it, this team misses something without its leader. When you see Lavin come back, I think you’ll see the winning come back as well.

QR: Ultimately, this team's success is going to depend on a few factors. Obviously, the sooner Lavin returns to the sidelines, the better. There is no way around the fact that St. John's is a better, more confident bunch with Lavin around. Mike Dunlap has done a respectable job filling in for him, but he isn't who these kids came to Queens to play for. The six regulars all need to improve their games. It's safe to say that Harkless, Greene, and Pointer have improved since the first game. The Johnnies need God'sgift Achiuwa, D'Angelo Harrison, and even Malik Stith to join them. Lastly, it remains to be seen how much Garrett will help this team. A Lindsey-for-Garrett trade will virtually be completed on Wednesday. If Greene is able to run the point adequately, Garrett's size could be an added asset. In the end, St. John's isn't going to have as much conference success as it did a year ago. It's impossible. I would say if this team reaches seven Big East wins, they would have done a good job.

8) On a scale of 1 to 10; with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, where would you rank the stability of the program heading into the 2012-13 season?

JD: Even with three recruits ineligible and one from next year's class having reneged on a verbal commitment all within the span of three months, St. John's has a lot to look forward to since Steve Lavin is still running the show despite his health concerns. Anyone who doubts Lavin's recruiting ability and track record needs only to look at what the coach has accomplished in just 21 months on the job. From signing Dwayne Polee (who has since transferred) just weeks after being introduced to bringing in (at the time) the third-best recruiting class in the nation, Lavin should not have a problem overcoming his latest handicap. Besides that, everyone on this team will be back next season barring any additional transfers. Dick Vitale once said that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores; so having the core of this team for a second season will only enhance the ubiquitous buzz around the Red Storm program, and whoever decides to join the party as freshmen will be embraced from the start. If I had to pick a number, I would say the stability is at a 7 given both the current state of things and potential for what lies ahead.

KL: I would have to rank the stability of the program at a 6 or a 7 right now. The stability is 100% affected by the recruiting classes of the future. Losing Lindsey obviously hurts; and with the rescinded commitment of Ricardo Gathers, things don’t look pretty. However, that can all change in a heartbeat. Gathers has stated that St. John’s is still at the top of his list, and hopefully things will stay that way. If Lavin can convince Gathers to recommit to join Darrick Wood and then pick up one more solid name for the class, things will be solid for St. John’s. The real moment of truth (and Lavin has stated this himself as a goal) is going to be the 2013-2014 season, as St. John’s chases big name recruits to complement the would be experienced core group that are currently freshmen. In my view, that will be the year that we will truly see the return of St. John’s to the national spotlight and there is no better time than my final year on the Queens campus.

QR: The problem with ranking the program's stability is that we really don't know how stable it really is. Lavin has lost Lindsey, Ricardo Gathers, Jevon Thomas, JaKarr Sampson and Norvel Pelle to either transfer or decommitment. It makes you ask yourself: "What the heck is going on here?" Under the assumption that Lavin's health will reach full strength in the near future, it is safe to say that the program will be fine. There's a solid core of talent to work with. These kids have nowhere to go but up in terms of experience and effectiveness. We'll wait and see who Lavin is able to bring in as 2012-13 recruits in the coming days and months. Lindsey's decision to transfer gives rise to a lot of questions regarding program stability; but until told otherwise, I'll say that there's enough here for a strong foundation with a bright future.

It will be an interesting second half to the season for St. John's, and I hope all of you will be there to join us as we watch it all unfold. I would like to once again thank Kieran Lynch and Quinn Rochford for joining me in this venture, and invite all of you to follow all of us on Twitter as we keep you updated with college basketball at and beyond the corner of Union and Utopia throughout the season. You can follow Kieran @Kieran_Lynch, Quinn @QSTJHoops, and of course yours truly @DalyDoseOfHoops.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sometimes It Takes The Worst To Bring Out The Best

Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin addresses media minutes after bench-clearing brawl that marred Bearcats' loss to Xavier in latest installment of "Crosstown Shootout" between the two schools. (Photo courtesy of Fox Sports Ohio)

In the five years that I have had the pleasure of covering Big East basketball, I have come to know all the men who have coached in what is regarded as the best conference in college basketball rather intimately. Some of these coaches have been very easy to talk to, (Mike Brey, Jim Calhoun, Ed Cooley, Stan Heath, Jay Wright, etc.) while some others (whose names I will not mention for the simple reason that I don't want to single anyone out negatively) are a little harder to deal with when being interviewed.

When I first attended Big East media day in 2008, the first person I interviewed was Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. Only 37 at the time, Cronin was in the midst of turning his alma mater around after the Bearcats had seemingly been left for dead in the wake of former head man Bob Huggins' departure three years prior. After walking up to his table not knowing what to expect, I left a few minutes later with great quotes and a stronger knowledge of the Cincinnati team; and talking to the soft-spoken Cronin was like having a conversation with a friend or family member.

As the years passed and my involvement in the sport increased, Cronin remained just as affable; even this past October when the media and coaches convened once again for Big East media day. Fresh off a round of 32 appearance in Cincinnati's first NCAA Tournament since 2005, Cronin could just as easily have blown up-and-coming media guys like myself off and proceeded with his business, but that's not how Mick Cronin conducts himself. Just a few moments after walking into the media room at the New York Athletic Club that morning, the coach recognized me, shook my hand, and said hello. For someone of Italian heritage whose culture prides itself upon respect and honor, such a gesture from Cronin resonated with me; especially since I only get to cover him whenever Cincinnati comes here to New York for games in the Big East tournament or against my alma mater St. John's.

Despite all the positive testimonials I have given Mick over my five years in the media; and those of you who know me very well can attest to each one, a majority of my colleagues had yet to be convinced as to just how genuine the coach really is. Sadly, it took an incident less than 24 hours ago that should not have happened to show the world the side of Mick Cronin that I have been accustomed to seeing over the years.

In the final seconds of Cincinnati's 76-53 loss to intracity archrival Xavier in the latest edition of the annual "Crosstown Shootout" rivalry between the two programs, a bench-clearing brawl ensued. The melee was allegedly started after Xavier point guard and All-America candidate Tu Holloway appeared to talk trash in the direction of the Cincinnati bench. Holloway then appeared to have a minor altercation with Cincinnati reserve guard Ge'Lawn Guyn, who was ensuingly shoved by Xavier swingman Dez Wells. While this fracas was going on, Cincinnati power forward Yancy Gates threw a straight right hand at Xavier center Kenny Frease, who was then kicked by Cheikh Mbodj, Cincinnati's freshman backup center. As some of you may have seen yesterday, the lasting image of this brouhaha is Frease walking off the court with a facial laceration and black eye; not to mention the metaphorical black eye that has been given to the reputations of both programs. Rather than hide or use the microphone as a pulpit, Cronin took a stand and spoke out against what had happened on the court; and opened a lot of eyes in the process.

"There's no excuse for it, on our side, on their side," said an emphatic Cronin when asked about the brawl in his postgame press conference. "Guys need to grow up. From our standpoint, we will accept full responsibility; and it will be handled. There is zero excuse for that in basketball. You've got to learn how to win on one side, and you've got to learn how to lose on the other side." Cronin also brought up the real reason why his kids are on his team in a show of harsh reality not seen anywhere near enough. "All these kids need to realize they're here to get an education," the coach bluntly stated. "Very few of them are ever going to make a dollar playing basketball. They're here to get an education at two great universities, and they need to appreciate that. The world doesn't revolve around them, or around basketball." Another great quote from Cronin came when he lauded the academic prowess of the two programs. "Xavier's been a great school for years. We're trying to cure cancer at Cincinnati. I coach at a school where they discovered a vaccine for polio and created Benadryl. I think that's more important than winning a basketball game," Cronin said.

Some will argue that Cronin needs to put his money where his mouth is by disciplining some of his players; namely Yancy Gates, who for all intents and purposes is an exceptionally talented player, yet has had far too many mental lapses while playing excessively physical at times. Some will call for Gates to be suspended, (which he almost certainly will be) while some others believe he should be dismissed from the team for this latest transgression, regardless of this being his senior season. However, I am not one of those people who feel Cronin may be all talk and no action; as I am taking Cronin at face value after watching his press conference. I believe the coach when he said he had a feeling something was going to happen. Cronin went so far as to try to call a timeout AND implore the officials to stop play because he was sensing something ominous. Having spent enough time covering the coach, I immediately recognized his sincerity in admitting he had "never been this embarrassed" as a coach; as well as his vehement stance in stating his players would never see the court again if they acted in a manner unbecoming of the university.

Long story short, Cincinnati may have lost; and college basketball as a whole may have lost as a result of the incident, but initial impressions of this game's aftermath seem to indicate that the head coach on one side has walked away a winner for his quick and appropriate response to something that, by all accounts, should not have happened. Just as Mike Rice was praised for doing the right thing following Rutgers' loss to St. John's in last year's Big East tournament, the same can be said for yesterday's press conference involving Mick Cronin.

A sad truth in our society is that sometimes war brings out the best in a man, albeit inadvertently. Whether you've known him for five years and consider him a friend in the industry like I do; or if you've just heard his name for the first time from watching SportsCenter or clips of yesterday's game on YouTube, the 2011 Crosstown Shootout, one tainted by unsportsmanlike and unprofessional conduct, brought out the best in Mick Cronin. Unless proven otherwise, he has won a lot more than just a few basketball games with his actions. Mick Cronin has finally won the respect he has deserved since the moment he became a head coach, and it's been a long time coming.

Video footage of Mick Cronin's press conference courtesy of WCPO-TV Cincinnati

Friday, December 9, 2011

St. John's Loses Another As Lindsey Transfers

Just nine games into his first season in Division I, Nurideen Lindsey becomes latest to leave St. John's. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

Sadly, the streak continues; and for a team already short on depth and experience, it could not have come at a worse time.

In a stunning development, St. John's point guard Nurideen Lindsey announced his intent to transfer from the Queens institution at the end of the semester, which comes next week after final exams. Lindsey's impending departure now makes this season the eighth consecutive campaign in which the Red Storm has had one of their scholarship student-athletes transfer from their basketball program, one that fields the youngest team in its 104-year history this year.

Lindsey, a Philadelphia native in his sophomore season after playing in junior college last year, cited the health of his mother as the main reason behind his decision to leave; as well as the absence of head coach Steve Lavin, which has become a much bigger factor than initially anticipated for the Red Storm, whose loss to Detroit this past Monday dropped them to 4-5 on the year. After making a triumphant return in the second game of the season against Lehigh on November 9th, Lavin was expected by most to return to full-time duties and not miss a beat; but later revealed that he may have jumped the gun on his comeback. Assistant coach Mike Dunlap, who was in a similar situation at Arizona when he helped run the Wildcats while Lute Olson dealt with health issues of his own, has been serving as the interim coach throughout the season. Lavin has not coached a game since the Red Storm's loss to Texas A&M three weeks ago at Madison Square Garden, and praised his point guard by calling him a basketball player with a "bright future." In a press release issued yesterday by senior associate athletic director for communications and men's basketball sports information director Mark Fratto, Lindsey said the following:

"I came to St. John's for a couple of reasons. One was to be close to my mom, whose health has been up and down due to some past experiences. The second was to play for Coach Lav. In both instances, it has not worked out how I envisioned. I think Coach Lav is an amazing coach and person. He could have taught me so much. "I love St. John's, and appreciate all the love and support from the staff and school. I think this team will be special. I think what I'll miss most about St. John's is my teammates. Those guys are like my brothers, so I will continue to support St. John's and my brothers. Thank you for the memories, regardless of how brief."

Through nine games, Lindsey was St. John's third-leading scorer, averaging 11.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game; with arguably his finest performance coming on November 13th against UMBC, when he finished one assist shy of recording the first triple-double in Red Storm history since Ron Artest accomplished the feat in 1999. In his absence, freshman Phil Greene is expected to replace Lindsey at the point, with swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer likely moving into the starting lineup at the small forward position as the Red Storm will now employ a six-man rotation. Help is on the way, however; as forward Amir Garrett is likely to join the team in the coming weeks once he is declared eligible by the NCAA. St. John's will return to the court a week from tomorrow against Fordham in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, where they will look to avenge a bitter defeat at the hands of the Rams last year after blowing a 21-point lead and yielding two 16-0 runs in the second half at Rose Hill Gym in the Bronx.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Jimmy V: Once, Now, And Always Something Special

Jim Valvano's Iona Hall of Fame plaque inside the Hynes Center in New Rochelle reminds fan and nonfan alike just how much of an impact he made at such a young age. (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)

Sadly, there are some people in this world that, despite lists of accomplishments that transcend the realm of possibility, become greater legends in death than their celebrity stature in life. Examples include the likes of John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Princess Diana, Dale Earnhardt, and Michael Jackson. As ESPN has reminded us over the past seven days, Jim Valvano can also be added to that group of luminaries.

For me personally, Jim Valvano has always been a legend both on and off the basketball court; and the morning of April 29th, 1993 will always be one memory I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Over eighteen years ago on that day, I was just about four months away from my seventh birthday and nearly finished with first grade in elementary school; but my sports interest back then was as rabid as it still is as I write this today. Like I had done every morning, I woke up to SportsCenter at 7 a.m., when I learned that Valvano had died the day before. The coach known to the world simply as "Jimmy V" had lost his much-publicized battle with cancer. Now, to most six-year-old boys, such a tragedy would not be understood at that young an age. However, I had been hearing stories of Valvano and his legacy at Iona College as a result of my mother having attended the small school in New Rochelle. This is where the memory of Valvano's death becomes personal, as I immediately found my mother and shared the revelation that had just been announced to me. "Mommy," I said, not really knowing how she would react. "Jim Valvano died."

Within seconds, Julie Daly had become an emotional wreck. To her, Valvano was more than just a coach. Jimmy, who was hired by Iona at the tender age of 29 in 1975, the same year she had enrolled as a freshman at the school, had become a friend over the years. To this day, my mother can still recall Valvano saying hello to her in the parking lot every morning; and the zeal and passion for life he carried with him throughout his career.

That enthusiasm for mere existence followed Valvano, and his persona was reflected in the players he coached. Ultimately, he left Iona for North Carolina State, where he won a national championship in arguably the greatest college basketball game of all time as NC State defeated Houston on the famous Dereck Whittenburg pass that was emphatically dunked by the late Lorenzo Charles. The second lasting image of that night is Valvano running across the court looking for someone to hug. When I reminded my mother of that, her response was this: "Yeah, that sounds like Jimmy, alright."

Jim Valvano is hoisted onto the shoulders of a crowd who embraced him just as much as he embraced them, this following NC State's improbable national championship in 1983. (Photo courtesy of the V Foundation)

Finally, Valvano became an analyst for ABC and ESPN; and shortly before his tragic passing, he became even more iconic with his emotional speech at the inaugural ESPY awards a mere two months before God made the call to hire a new head coach. To this day, I have yet to see one person listen to the following performance and not show some form of emotion.

Looking back, I believe Valvano ultimately would have returned to the sidelines at some point. Being a local kid, one who was born in Corona and went to high school on Long Island, it would have come as no surprise to me if Valvano returned to the metropolitan area if he were still alive in the 1990s and 2000s; perhaps to his alma mater of Rutgers, or as I have suggested to several people, to my alma mater of St. John's University as the heir apparent to Lou Carnesecca. Ironically enough, a person similar to Valvano in both personality and competitive spirit did exactly this: A head coach who was successful at an early age at a program many consider an impossible situation given its incomparable history, who spent seven years as an analyst with ABC and ESPN much like Valvano did, only to come back and lead St. John's to heights not seen since Carnesecca was at the helm. If you don't know this man, his name is Steve Lavin.

Anyway, I digress. After ESPN assisted in the promotion of cancer research through their annual "Jimmy V Week" that culminated with the annual one-day tournament his foundation sponsors at Madison Square Garden, I felt compelled to pay tribute to a man I should have honored long ago; especially with an indirect connection that makes me feel as if I knew him, when in reality I never got the chance. Most people associate Valvano with his iconic quote "Don't give up, don't ever give up;" but I find a pearl of wisdom from the aforementioned ESPY speech to be the most meaningful and resonating part of his legacy instead:

"Think about it: If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's one heck of a day. If you do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."

He was something special in life, is something special today; and will always be something special until the end of time.

He is the one and only Jim Valvano, and there will never be another like him. Rest in peace, Jimmy V.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Opening Tips: Marquette vs. Wisconsin

Darius Johnson-Odom looks to lead Marquette to 7-0 start tomorrow against Jordan Taylor and Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of MSG Network)

The 118th battle of Wisconsin is once again upon us in the college basketball world, and it comes in another year where the annual collision between Marquette and Wisconsin is overshadowed by another marquee game on the national slate. While the world will be paying attention to North Carolina and Kentucky earlier in the day, (and rightfully so) those in the Midwest will be especially interested in the clash between the Golden Eagles and Badgers. For people like me that live in New York and do not have the Big Ten Network, I would seriously appreciate it if any of you who read this would be kind enough to provide me with a link to an online stream, be it the Marquette feed or the Wisconsin feed. Anyway, from the Kohl Center in Madison, we preview the two combatants, starting first with the lords of the four jerseys. I'm not sure what color the former Warriors will be wearing tomorrow, but I'm personally hoping for the light blue or the gold.

No. 16 Marquette Golden Eagles (6-0)
Head Coach: Buzz Williams (4th season at MU, 75-37; 89-54 overall)

Projected Starting Lineup:
G Junior Cadougan (6-1 Jr., 7.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 43% FG, 64% FT, 6.3 APG)
G Darius Johnson-Odom (6-2 Sr., 19.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 57% FG, 47% 3pt, 77% FT, 3.7 APG, 1.3 SPG)
G Vander Blue (6-4 So., 10.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 51% FG, 38% 3pt, 74% FT, 4.5 APG, 2.5 SPG)
F Jae Crowder (6-6 Sr., 19.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 59% FG, 44% 3pt, 76% FT, 1.7 APG, 1.5 SPG)
C Chris Otule (6-11 Jr., 6.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 60% FG, 60% FT, 2.0 BPG, 1.0 SPG)

Key Reserves:
G Todd Mayo
(6-3 Fr., 8.8 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 50% FG, 44% 3pt, 80% FT, 1.2 APG)
F Davante Gardner (6-8 So., 7.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 62% FG, 81% FT)
F Jamail Jones (6-6 So., 3.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 42% FG)
F Jamil Wilson (6-7 So., 3.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 45% FG, 75% FT, 1.2 APG, 1.2 BPG)

Keys To Victory:
- Come out firing. Wisconsin will look to slow the pace down to their methodical, grinding style that they put on full display Wednesday night against North Carolina. For a team like Marquette that averages 88 points per game, such a contrast in style will be a detriment for the Golden Eagles if Wisconsin can have their way with the tempo in the opening minutes. Marquette has earned the reputation as a high percentage shot-taking team, shooting 53 percent from the field. This track record of intelligent possessions may showcase a Golden Eagles team that could take some mid-range jumpers to combat the bombers on the Wisconsin side of the ball that shoot 44 percent from beyond the arc.

- Home sweet home. Sophomore guard Vander Blue is a Madison native that was also recruited by Wisconsin before deciding to sign with Buzz Williams and suit up in the blue and gold. Blue returns to his hometown for the first time in his collegiate career, and will get a grand homecoming by being the primary matchup against star Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor. However, don't expect the second-year player to do it alone. Said coach Buzz Williams in his pregame press conference when asked about Taylor: "I think he puts you in a position that makes many people have to guard him." Expect Junior Cadougan to also have his share of Taylor in matchups, which will show the world yet another special facet in the Canadian's game.

- Defense wins championships. In this case, it will win bragging rights considering how Wisconsin plays and what the Badgers bring to the table. Wisconsin has averaged 71 points per game through their first seven contests; but they have yielded only a mere 42, with their season high being the 60 they surrendered to North Carolina Wednesday night in Chapel Hill. Buzz Williams has already addressed this issue with his team, instructing the Golden Eagles to "play great defense in the first 25 seconds of the shot clock," and "even better" over the final ten. If Marquette can contest any open Wisconsin shot, (the Badgers will more than likely maximize the shot clock on either side of the ball) the road to a victory becomes clearer and smoother.

Defending their home court, we have the...

No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (6-1)
Head Coach: Bo Ryan (11th season at UW, 248-92; 631-195 overall)

Projected Starting Lineup:
G Jordan Taylor (6-1 Sr., 12.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 39% FG, 39% 3pt, 59% FT, 5.6 APG, 1.1 SPG)
G Josh Gasser (6-3 So., 8.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 54% FG, 65% 3pt, 80% FT, 2.1 APG)
G Ryan Evans (6-6 Jr., 9.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 44% FG, 33% 3pt, 60% FT, 2.0 APG, 1.9 BPG, 1.3 SPG)
F Mike Bruesewitz (6-6 Jr., 6.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 40% FG, 39% 3pt, 70% FT, 1.9 APG)
F Jared Berggren (6-10 Jr., 12.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 55% FG, 39% 3pt, 67% FT, 1.1 APG, 1.6 BPG, 1.6 SPG)

Key Reserves:
G Ben Brust
(6-1 So., 12.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 50% FG, 47% 3pt, 50% FT, 1.4 APG, 1.1 SPG)
F Frank Kaminsky (6-11 Fr., 3.6 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 56% FG, 36% 3pt, 33% FT)
G Rob Wilson (6-4 Sr., 3.1 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 50% FG, 50% 3pt, 100% FT)

Keys To Victory:
- Let the game come to them. Their style may not be the most attractive to basketball fans, but Wisconsin knows how to win. There is no other way around it. The Badgers have worn down all seven of their opponents this season with their grinder mentality; and although their most recent contest against North Carolina ended with the Badgers on the short side of the box score, Wisconsin took the Tar Heels to the limit for forty minutes without once allowing the preseason favorites to win the national championship to drive away when it looked like Carolina established some sort of control in the second half. Marquette is unfortunately not as talented as Roy Williams' squad, yet their claim to fame is that they have always been a deceptively strong foe that is always a tough out regardless of when one draws them on their ledger. If Wisconsin can force the Golden Eagles off their game and capitalize on the rare instances in which Marquette turns the ball over, (they only average 13 miscues per contest) this game has the potential to get real ugly right away.

- Floor general. Jordan Taylor is arguably one of the best point guards (maybe even players) in the nation, and perhaps his most impressive statistic is the senior leader's near-6:1 assist to turnover ratio. Through seven games, Taylor has racked up 39 assists; yet only turned the ball over a mere seven times, or once per game. Marquette will most likely start out with Vander Blue matched up on Taylor, but expect to see Junior Cadougan paired up with his counterpart at the point. It would come as no surprise to see Taylor double-teamed throughout the contest, which actually helps Wisconsin since Taylor is gifted enough to find more than one open option in that scenario.

- Play a complete game. Wisconsin has a proficient (an understatement) three-point shooting unit which has a collective clip of 44 percent from beyond the arc, good enough for 13th in the nation; and average only eight turnovers on a nightly basis. The Badgers are just as good, if not even better, on the defensive side of things. Through seven games, Wisconsin has yielded a nation-low average of 42 points per contest; and the 32 percent clip their opponents have managed from the field is third-best in the country. That latter statistic will come into play a lot more tomorrow with Marquette coming into the Kohl Center shooting 53 percent as a team.

So, Who Wins?

Most people insist Marquette will have to play a seemingly perfect game to defeat Wisconsin. However, as North Carolina showed the nation Wednesday night, better defense will negate good defense from the opposing team; and the Golden Eagles have always been one of the better defensive teams in the Big East, regarded as the best conference in college basketball. Wisconsin will have another big nonconference showdown against UNLV at home next Saturday, so the sense of urgency for the Badgers is at a season high, as Wisconsin does not want their next game (Wednesday against Wisconsin-Green Bay) to be one where the team comes in on a two-game losing streak. Marquette has an even bigger test immediately following their latest encounter with the Badgers, taking on Washington Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in a pivotal nonconference battle for both teams. It won't be the most visually pleasing forty minutes to a casual college hoops fan; but for the die-hards, it will be one of the best games of the year to this point, and one in which the little engine that could gets over the line first in a true battle of attrition. Wisconsin drops a close one at home to the Golden Eagles, who will move to 7-0 for the first time in five years.

Your Final: Marquette 61, Wisconsin 56