Sunday, January 29, 2012

New York May As Well Be Moe Town

If you didn't know who Moe Harkless was before yesterday, chances are you do now.  (Photo courtesy of Newsday)

After the dust from St. John's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002 settled, the attention around New York turned to the nation's third-best recruiting class that was delivered to the Big Apple by head coach Steve Lavin.  When three of the coveted prospects who had signed were declared ineligible, (two of whom actually decommitted and reopened their recruitment) the six men who came to the Red Storm showed signs of a promising future that would make what happened last season seem as though it were just the beginning.  One of the six ultimately transferred, but was quickly replaced when Amir Garrett was cleared to start his collegiate career.  Nearly three months removed from their first official game as collegiate student-athletes; two of these newcomers have stood out, one more so than the other.

Being that I am somehow (don't ask me why) regarded as a college basketball expert, I was asked the seemingly inevitable question of which freshman I thought would ultimately be the best player on the Red Storm team this season several times before the opening tip.  Honestly, my answer was D'Angelo Harrison.  Through the nonconference season, the sharpshooting Texan validated my faith with several standout performances against the likes of St. Francis and Fordham among others.  However, rising fast was a homegrown talent; one who has put the Big East on notice with his explosive offensive game and ability to fill the box score, while also serving as an unspoken leader on this team.  This man was unofficially anointed the face of the team shortly after the season started, and now it can be seen that such a move was made for good reason.

Having played high school ball a mere mid-range jump shot away from St. John's at Forest Hills High School before taking his talents to South Kent Prep in Connecticut; a school that produced former Johnnies Dele Coker and Rob Thomas among others, Moe Harkless earned a reputation of wanting to play the hero before he even suited up for the Red Storm.  The forward; who chose St. John's over Jim Calhoun and reigning national champion Connecticut in a high-profile recruitment, was enthusiastic about coming back home to continue the resurgence that was started a year ago.  Yet for a long time, it seemed that Harkless was holding something back on the court.  Yesterday afternoon against Duke; coupled with his record-setting 32-point, 13-rebound statement against Providence in December, has gone a long way in changing that.

Even though his 30 points led all scorers against the Blue Devils in a game that Duke led by as many as 22 before escaping Cameron Indoor Stadium with a hard-earned 83-76 win that head coach Mike Krzyzewski claimed "felt like a loss" after the game, Harkless was visibly far more animated than at any other point in his previous twenty games to date.  The only player who has had the distinction of starting every game this season for the Red Storm, Harkless was clearly upset about the final outcome despite increasing his team-leading scoring and rebounding averages to 16.6 and 8.8 per game, respectively.  "I wanted to win the game," Harkless said bluntly when asked about the change in demeanor.  "Coach (assistant Mike Dunlap, who is serving as interim head man while Lavin recovers from successful prostate cancer surgery) told us in practice how much he respects Duke, but he always wants to beat them.  He kind of put that in our heads.  This game was personal."

You could sense that judging by Harkless' offensive exploits, which included the first-half dunk pictured above that pulled the Red Storm to within three points midway through the opening stanza and forced Krzyzewski to call timeout.  "I think he grew up today," said D'Angelo Harrison, who served as the Han Solo to Harkless' Luke Skywalker with 21 points of his own.  Harkless has already "made it" to some degree in the college basketball world; as no less an authority than college basketball insider Jon Rothstein has bestowed one of his famous player comparisons upon him, comparing Harkless to former UConn big man Rudy Gay.  A week ago against West Virginia; when Harkless was the catalyst to an upset St. John's win with 23 points and 13 rebounds, the man responsible for his evolution during the season offered this assessment of his burgeoning star.  "He's got a long way to go to be a complete player," said Mike Dunlap following the West Virginia game.  "He's versatile, but his tool box still needs to be developed."

Dick Vitale and Al McGuire both said on numerous occasions that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores the following year.  If people are getting excited about Moe Harkless now, just imagine what he will blossom into in just a few more months.  If nothing else, the title of "best in the recruiting class" will be his by a landslide.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Midseason Review: Marquette

Two days removed from picking up his 100th career win, Buzz Williams looks to pave road to a new milestone Saturday against Villanova.  (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

They started out 10-0; lost four of their next six, and have answered back with a five-game winning streak that got their coach to the 100-win plateau for his young career that, at 39 years of age, is just getting started.  A team that lost their starting center to a torn ACL, yet has played stronger and harder than ever thanks to a resurgent bench that has exceeded expectations for a program that consistently overachieves.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Marquette basketball.

After the former Warriors started out 10-0 despite losing Chris Otule just eight games into the season with the aforementioned knee injury suffered at Madison Square Garden against Washington in the Jimmy V Classic this past December, Marquette proceeded to drop two games against SEC opponents Louisiana State and Vanderbilt before losing two more conference games to Georgetown (one in which the Golden Eagles led by as many as 17 points) and then-No. 1 Syracuse.  Since that loss to the Orange, the blue and gold have won five straight; the most recent of which being a 67-47 win over South Florida that not only gave coach Buzz Williams his 100th career victory, but was also the best defensive game Marquette had played under Williams in the Big East.  I still don't completely understand the concept of tempo-free stats; but here's a closer look at this defensive masterpiece courtesy of our friends over at Cracked Sidewalks, one of the best independent college basketball blogs out there and an indispensable source for all things Marquette.

The keys to Marquette's success have been a group whose whole is much greater than their parts.  Once you get past first team all-Big East guard Darius Johnson-Odom; the team's leading scorer who also shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc in an act of accuracy that has earned him the nickname "3JO," you have fellow starting guards Vander Blue (7.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game) and Junior Cadougan, who is more or less a sophomore after having most of his freshman year wiped out due to injury.  Cadougan won't burn you offensively; but his ball control is better than some playing professionally, averaging 5.6 assists per game compared to just 2.4 turnovers.  This kid will definitely be something special in the future for any team fortunate enough to acquire his services.

Junior college transfer Jae Crowder has impressed as well; and could even be among the contenders for Most Improved Player in the Big East with his averages of over sixteen points and seven rebounds per game, not to mention shooting percentages of 51 from the field and 39 from three-point range.  However, it is the group that has replaced Otule by committee in the Golden Eagle rotation that has really impressed.  Since becoming a starter, sophomore Davante Gardner has taken his opportunity and run with it; averaging 10.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, highlighted by a career-high 22-point, 15-rebound effort on January 11th against St. John's.  It doesn't end there, though.

Todd Mayo has arguably served as Marquette's most valuable player, changing the game every time he is able to break away and make things happen in transition.  Mayo's two-handed slam provided the icing on the cake for the Warriors in their victory over Wisconsin, and looks like a natural heir apparent to replace Johnson-Odom as the starting shooting guard next season.  Fellow freshmen Derrick Wilson and Juan Anderson may not play much; but both, (particularly Wilson when he comes in for Junior Cadougan) along with Jamail Jones, have given Williams one of his better defensive units in recent years.

Oregon transfer Jamil Wilson rounds out the group, and the sophomore is getting better with each game.  After starting out slow, I (and I'm sure Marquette fans too) honestly did not know what to expect.  Wilson gradually showed flashes of brilliance, and has since backed it up with two consistent games; his 16-point, 7-rebound showing against Providence, and an eight-point game against USF that was hindered by foul trouble that limited Wilson to just 20 minutes.

"I just think we're in a really good groove," said Buzz Williams after the USF game.  After 21 games of a season where Williams' tracking of "paint touches" has garnered nationwide notoriety, the Golden Eagles head to the Main Line this Saturday to take on Villanova in search of Williams' 101st career victory.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Don't Write Iona Off Just Yet

Led by Mike Glover, Iona is still tied for lead in MAAC despite upset loss to Siena last night.  (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

A forward who averaged a double-double per game last year and a point guard that solidified his status as one of the best in the nation at his position coupled with a coach who has fought his own personal battles to succeed in the face of incredibly long odds.  That alone makes for a feel-good story in college basketball; but when you add in a highly regarded transfer from a school that came within two points of a Final Four, not to mention three of the best long-range shooters in their conference, the phenomenon surrounding Iona College becomes an event that you truly have to see in person just to comprehend its true power.

Even after three setbacks in the last month that have had critics rethinking their assessments that the Gaels would be a team on the precipice of something in special in March, Iona still stands 15-5 on the season and 7-2 in MAAC play.  Less than 24 hours removed from Iona's latest defeat; a 65-62 decision to Siena in which the Gaels opened the game on a 20-2 run, the fact remains that Iona is still the team to beat in the MAAC.

With senior forward Mike Glover averaging nineteen points and just under nine rebounds per game; and point guard Scott Machado being the only player in the nation with an average of ten assists or more per contest, the Gaels have used the college version of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to vault them into a dynamic offense, a high-octane show that averages 84 points per game collectively while shooting 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range.  In addition to the two seniors at the controls, Iona has three marksmen in guards Sean Armand, (who scored a career-high 32 points and set a MAAC record with ten threes against Siena at Madison Square Garden) Jermel Jenkins (who is reminiscent of a mid-major version of Dwight Hardy with his catch and shoot skills) and Kyle Smyth; while Taaj Ridley has emerged as Iona's "glue guy," doing a multitude of things that do not show up in box scores.  Then there is Momo Jones; the enigma of an Arizona transfer that, despite his unorthodox shot selection at times, is the Gaels' second-leading scorer and the man who will most likely enter the 2012-13 season as the face of the team after Glover and Machado have graduated.

With the second half of the MAAC season starting Friday night for the Gaels when they travel to Connecticut to take on Fairfield, Iona will be looking for a repeat of their January 15th game against Loyola.  In that encounter, the Gaels shook off a lackluster first half to pull away as the game went on en route to a 74-63 victory just three days after a crushing home defeat against Manhattan that saw Steve Masiello's Jaspers erase an 18-point deficit to win the game on a buzzer-beating three from freshman Emmy Andujar.  "To be honest with you, I thought we had a hangover from the loss the other night;" said Iona head coach Tim Cluess following the Loyola game, referring to the Manhattan debacle three days prior.  "I was hoping we would snap out of it."

Three days from now, Iona gets another shot at redemption.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wayns' World

In just his junior season, Maalik Wayns has carried Villanova on his back despite 10-10 record.  (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Jay Wright has turned out more guards in his eleven years on the Main Line than most fans can count; a Who's Who of backcourt stars the likes of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Kyle Lowry, Mike Nardi, Dwayne Anderson, Scottie Reynolds, Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher.  The latest in this chain of succession from the school known as "Guard U" is a homegrown talent that has managed to emerge from the shadow of some of the greatest players in program history to not only carve out his own niche, but proceed to establish himself as one of the best players in the nation despite some criticism over his ability to be the face of the team.

Three years ago, Maalik Wayns was brought to Villanova by way of Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia; and although trapped behind Reynolds and Fisher on the depth chart, made an impact in his freshman campaign by averaging nearly seven points per game in just 15 minutes per night.  Last season, Reynolds' graduation allowed Wayns to crack the starting lineup on a full-time basis and move Fisher off the ball in certain situations, and the newly-minted sophomore did not disappoint when he posted averages of 13.8 points and 4.5 assists per game.  With Fisher gone following the Wildcats' round of 64 loss to George Mason in the NCAA Tournament following a college career in which he reached a Sweet 16 and Final Four in his first two seasons, Wayns established himself as the man in the Villanova backcourt.  Only one question remained.

Would he be ready to run the show?

At Big East media day prior to the start of this season, I had the opportunity to catch up to Jay Wright; and one of the questions I asked was whether or not he had confidence in Wayns to be the face of the team, and how much having Reynolds and Fisher around to mentor him would impact his decision making on the court.  "I think he's been waiting for this," said Wright.  "There's some pressure that comes with it, but I think he's handling it well."

The way Wayns has played through twenty games this season, "well" would be considered a major understatement.  Aside from a three-point outing he would like to forget against Syracuse; where he went 0-for-7 from the field against the top-ranked Orange, every other performance during his junior campaign has yielded at least ten points, including his 28 yesterday against St. John's in a game where the Wildcats erased a 10-point deficit over the final five minutes of regulation and prevailed in overtime, as well as his career-high 39-point, 13-rebound magnum opus against Cincinnati eight days ago.

"I'm just trying to make plays and help my team win," said Wayns yesterday after his free throws in overtime gave the Wildcats a three-point lead that turned out to be the winning margin at the buzzer.  "I'm trying to be aggressive."

On a team in which no seniors are part of Jay Wright's rotation, (the last time Villanova experienced something like this, the Wildcats advanced to a Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed in 2008) Wayns has given Villanova a consistent scoring threat that is not afraid to take his game to another level when needed.  His 18-point average is something that Scottie Reynolds did not accomplish until his senior year, and a feat that Corey Fisher never got to add to his list of recognitions in four years on the Main Line.  What's even more impressive is the fact that barring a decision to forgo his final year of eligibility, Wayns will have one more campaign at the helm of the Wildcat offense with a more experienced team that already has one of the nation's better recruiting classes lined up for 2012.

Not only is he ready to run the show, Maalik Wayns has already gone on a national tour with it, igniting crowds both inside and outside 'Nova Nation.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Stan The Man Has USF On Right Track Once Again

Picked to finish 14th in Big East preseason poll, Stan Heath has USF tied for fourth after home win over St. John's.  (Photo courtesy of the University of South Florida)

Every year since the conference's 2006 restructuring, there is always one team that finishes far ahead of anyone's expectations in the Big East.  Cincinnati and St. John's were the darlings of the Big East last season.  Marquette claimed the title in 2009; and the 2010 Cinderella story is among the finalists to earn this distinction for a second time, after a season in which the premature departure of the program's star player appeared to set it back after just arriving in the conference a few years ago.

When Dominique Jones was at the University of South Florida, the dynamic shooting guard was a one-man show during the Bulls' run to a 20-win season and an appearance in the NIT.  When he decided to forgo his senior season shortly after that postseason trip to enter the NBA draft, Jones was a first-round selection who eventually won an NBA championship last season as a member of the Dallas Mavericks.  Needless to say, his presence was sorely missed by his former team; as USF struggled to a 10-23 record that included a mere three wins in conference play, not counting their upset Big East tournament win against a Villanova team that hit a downward spiral to close the year.

At Big East media day this past October, I had the pleasure of speaking to USF coach Stan Heath; who despite his team's lack of recent success, has managed to remain positive and uphold his status as one of the most pleasant coaches and interview subjects in the conference.  Heath admitted that last season was tough trying to adjust to life without Jones, who he referred to as "kind of a lifeline to our players" during his tenure in Tampa; but just nineteen games into this season, the Bulls have already surpassed last year's win totals both overall and in conference play after their most recent contest, a 64-49 win over St. John's this past Wednesday night.

Even in year two without Jones, USF is still going through a transition of sorts.  Their on-campus home court at the Sun Dome is undergoing renovations, forcing the Bulls to play their home games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum; where they are 6-1 this season, with the lone defeat coming at the hands of reigning national champion Connecticut.  However, the defeat to the Huskies was only a three-point loss, similar to the game in which USF played UConn hard throughout in the 2007-08 season only to lose by one point in overtime thanks to late-game heroics on the part of UConn guard Craig Austrie.  In addition, the Bulls have battled injuries throughout the year; with guards Anthony Collins and Jawanza Poland missing significant amounts of time at one point or another.  "It's a team that really wasn't together for the early part of the season," said Heath on a Big East coaches' conference call a week ago.  "Now we are."

Collins; along with Arizona State transfer Victor Rudd, have teamed with incumbents such as forwards Augustus Gilchrist and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick to vault USF from their 14th-place prediction in the conference's preseason poll into a three-way tie for fourth that would give the Bulls a first-round bye in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden if the season ended today.  With the close loss against UConn, coupled with an upset win over then-No. 24 Seton Hall, USF is currently one of many teams on the bubble at 11-8 overall and 4-2 inside the Big East.  With DePaul, Marquette and Providence next up on the Bulls' ledger before their road meeting with Georgetown on February 4th, it is not inconceivable to think USF could enter that showdown with John Thompson III's Hoyas 6-3 in conference play before taking the court at the Verizon Center in a game that could complete the comeback.

It may have taken two years to awaken a sleeping giant once again, but what makes this even more impressive is that USF has done it all without a particular dominating player.  Jawanza Poland, the team's scoring leader, averages just 11.1 points per game after missing the first eleven games due to injury.  Augustus Gilchrist is the only other double-figure scorer on the Bulls' roster; but USF has picked up contributions from their role players to the tune of a unit that makes up for their conservative offense with a defense that is the best in the Big East, yielding just 58 points per game while only allowing 31 rebounds, trailing only Pittsburgh in that category.

For a coach like Stan Heath, this deserved success is a long time coming.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Special Guest On Glover's Special Night

Former Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez embraces his former assistant Steve Masiello shortly after Jaspers defeat Iona 75-72 on buzzer-beating three from Manhattan freshman Emmy Andujar.  (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)

He may be nearly two years removed from coaching a college basketball program, but the time away from the bench has done nothing to change the side of Bobby Gonzalez that too many people out there fail to see for a myriad of reasons.  The charismatic, engaging, enthusiastic and personable Gonzalez that spent seven years turning Manhattan College into one of the most successful mid-major programs in the nation before matching or surpassing his previous season's win total in each of his four seasons at Seton Hall before his unceremonious firing in March of 2010 was back in full force last night, sitting two rows behind the Iona bench at the Hynes Center in New Rochelle to watch the Gaels take on his former Manhattan team now coached by former Gonzalez assistant Steve Masiello.  When I reintroduced myself to Gonzalez, (I had done play-by-play on WSJU for three St. John's-Seton Hall games and attended each subsequent press conference, and spent 35 minutes with him at Big East media day in October of 2009) he could not thank me enough for how much I have defended him since his dismissal from Seton Hall, which included this piece after rumors linked him to the coaching vacancy at Miami ultimately filled by Jim Larranaga.

"Michael Glover called me last night," said Gonzalez before I could even ask him why he was in the crowd.  "He said, 'Coach; you've been promising me that you would come to one of my games, and I'm a senior now.'"  Gonzalez admitted to me that he had his reservations about attending the game last night; as he had not been to a MAAC game since coaching Manhattan in 2006, and did not want the media or public to get the wrong impression about his motives for attending the game.  "I didn't want anyone to think I was rooting against Manhattan or Steve Masiello," Gonzalez told me; "but I told him (Glover) I would go and I would watch him.  I'm not here to root, I'm here for Michael."

Glover; who was initially recruited to Seton Hall by Gonzalez before being declared ineligible, which started a year-and-a-half battle by Gonzalez and Glover to get the Bronx forward cleared, scored his 1,000th career point midway through the second half on an alley-oop from point guard Scott Machado.  Glover finished the night with 18 points, good enough to give him a career total of 1,004 by the end of the night.  Unfortunately for Iona, Glover's milestone moment turned out to be bittersweet; as Manhattan outscored the Gaels 27-7 over the final eight minutes of the game, punctuating the dramatic comeback with a buzzer-beating three-pointer from freshman Emmy Andujar.  For someone who is more like Gonzalez than he may let on publicly, Masiello once again channeled his former mentor by taking down the popular choice to represent the MAAC in the NCAA Tournament in a similar fashion to how Gonzalez; with Masiello as an assistant, upset Florida in the first round of the "Big Dance" in 2004.

After the last-second shot was upheld following a review and Manhattan continued a celebration that actually started while the officials went to the replay monitor to deliberate whether or not Andujar actually beat the buzzer, Masiello made his way toward the Manhattan locker room.  However, his journey was interrupted by the guest of honor that came to see the home team's star player.

"I thanked him for everything he's done for me," said Masiello after the game when asked about the interaction with Gonzalez.  "It was great to see him."  Shortly after the current Manhattan coach made his way off the court, I went over to discuss the aforementioned meeting of the minds with the former Manhattan coach.  "I said 'You did a great job of keeping your kids in this,'" Gonzalez told me when I mentioned that it was nice to see Masiello engaging him after the game, which dispels the public myth of their icy relationship.  Gonzalez later told me that Masiello said he "had a great teacher;" which prompted him to respond by crediting Rick Pitino for Masiello's evolution after the coach left Gonzalez to serve as an assistant coach at Louisville, where he had spent the last six seasons before his introduction in Riverdale last April as Barry Rohrssen's replacement.  Masiello then told Gonzalez that most of his coaching was attributed to him, eliciting a congratulatory embrace from Gonzalez.

It really is a shame that Bobby Gonzalez makes headlines for alleged misdeeds involving a satchel; because he really should be gaining media attention for his positive impact on college basketball, which was once again exhibited last night just outside the New York city limits.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Emmy Gives Award-Winning Performance For Manhattan

Manhattan's Emmy Andujar beats buzzer to lift Jaspers over MAAC leader Iona 75-72.  (Photo courtesy of Iona College men's basketball sports information director Brian Beyrer)

Down 17 points at halftime, Manhattan College resembled a Bronx rival during the second half of their signature win a season ago.  The result was just a little more dramatic this time around.

In a game that closely resembled Fordham's upset victory over St. John's in December of 2010; one in which the Rams erased a 21-point deficit, Manhattan pulled out a magical final stanza of their own with 53 points over the last twenty minutes to hand MAAC powerhouse Iona its first loss in conference play, none more important than the three that came from freshman Emmy Andujar at the buzzer to lift the Jaspers (11-7, 4-2 in the MAAC) over Tim Cluess' Gaels (13-4, 5-1) by the final of 75-72.

"I was probably the last option," said Andujar of the shot that gave Steve Masiello his first signature win as a head coach.  The freshman finished with 17 points as Manhattan overcame a career-high 16 assists from Iona point guard Scott Machado and a milestone night from forward Mike Glover, who scored his 1,000th career point with 12:37 remaining in regulation.  Andujar's coach celebrated the win both before and after it was declared official.

"We've got a long way to go," said Masiello, whose Jaspers outscored Iona 27-7 over the game's final eight minutes.  "We want to get it back to where it was when I was an assistant."  Ironically enough, Masiello's former employer at Manhattan was on hand for the dramatic victory; as Bobby Gonzalez, who Masiello served under before joining Rick Pitino at Louisville, was among the sellout crowd at the Hynes Center in New Rochelle.

Manhattan guard George Beamon; whose 21 points led all scorers, had this to say following the game: "The way we play, we're going to keep coming at you.  We wanted to make a statement."

The Jaspers made their first statement with a 21-4 run that turned a 65-48 Iona lead with 7:58 remaining in regulation into a tie game before Glover (18 points, eight rebounds) made a free throw to give the Gaels a one-point lead.  From there, an already exciting game took on a life of its own; as Manhattan's Rhamel Brown (17 points and 11 rebounds off the bench) converted a missed layup from Michael Alvarado into a three-point play that put the Jaspers ahead 72-70, but the night was far from over at that point.

On the ensuing possession, Iona got a miraculous floater to tie the game after guard Momo Jones was knocked down shortly after getting his shot off.  "I thought we were going to go to overtime," said Scott Machado after Jones' game-tying basket.  "He put up a Hail Mary, and it went in."  Manhattan called a timeout after the ball was advanced past halfcourt with one second left, which provided Andujar with enough time to launch a three-point effort from the right wing that banked off the backboard and into the net just as the light went off to signify the end of regulation.  As the officials deliberated whether or not the shot counted; the Manhattan players rushed off the court and into the locker room while Masiello remained on the court, in about as much shock as the Iona bench on the other end of the hardwood.  Once Manhattan returned to the court; the officials signaled that Andujar's buzzer-beater was good, providing college basketball with its first great game of 2012 and arguably the best game the sport has seen since Kemba Walker's stepback jumper from the free throw line to defeat Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament during UConn's historic run to the national championship.

Manhattan gets a day off following their comeback win to prepare for their next contest; which takes place Saturday night when Siena invades Draddy Gym in Riverdale, while Iona must regroup from what head coach Tim Cluess termed a "disgrace" when the Gaels host Loyola (Md.) on Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

St. John's Solidifies Future With A&M Transfer

Opponents just two months ago, Jamal Branch and God'sgift Achiuwa will now be teammates following Texas A&M guard's decision to transfer to St. John's.  (Photo courtesy of Sweet, Sweet Lavin's Kieran Lynch)

He may not take the court for another eleven months, but St. John's has found their point guard of the future.

One month removed from the shocking decision of Nurideen Lindsey to transfer last month, the Red Storm secured a long-term commitment at the floor general position when Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch announced his intentions to take his talents to Queens via Twitter yesterday shortly after New York Daily News writer Roger Rubin broke the revelation.  Eleven games into his freshman season; the 6-3 freshman averaged 4.2 points and 2.5 assists per game for the Aggies, with a career-high ten points against Mississippi State in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden in November.  The following day, Branch posted seven points and five rebounds in 24 minutes against the Red Storm team he now gets to call his own.

Branch chose the Red Storm over the University of Maryland and coach Mark Turgeon, who recruited the Kansas City product prior to leaving College Station for the opportunity to replace the legendary Gary Williams.  After spending the first part of the season backing up senior starter Dash Harris, (who he outplayed on several occasions) Branch became available for St. John's coach Steve Lavin about two weeks ago.  If he enrolls at St. John's for the spring semester, (which starts next week) he will be eligible to play sometime around Christmas.

Branch's presence in the lineup will enable combo guard Phil Greene to return to his natural position off the ball alongside D'Angelo Harrison, and will add yet another dimension of speed and excitement to the Red Storm transition game and press defense.  Moreover, his height will create mismatches in St. John's favor during the Big East schedule against smaller point guards the likes of UConn's Shabazz Napier (6-1) and Providence's Vincent Council (6-2) among others.  

For those looking for a player comparison, Branch is somewhat like former Johnny Malik Boothe, only with a few inches taller and a greater scoring talent.  He won't set the box score on fire; but Branch will win the vast St. John's fan base over with his rapidly developing complete game that is already an upgrade over the rather one-dimensional nature of Lindsey, who excelled at driving inside and attacking the basket.  This kid can do it all; and in less than a year's time, he'll be doing it under the bright lights of the largest city in the country and "World's Most Famous Arena."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Crosstown Brawl An Unlikely Turning Point

While Cincinnati has won seven straight following loss to Xavier; the Musketeers haven't been the same since the infamous postgame brawl, dropping five of their last six.  (Photo courtesy of CBS Sports)

Not very often do you have a scene in college basketball that ends up making one team better while their opponent falls off the tracks.  Four weeks removed from a Crosstown Shootout between Cincinnati and Xavier that will forever be remembered more for the postgame fight than the Musketeers victory that took place that afternoon at the Cintas Center, such an occurrence is exactly what we have seen as we now enter January 2012 and the world of conference play.

Following an incident in which Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin emphatically explained his embarrassment to the media after the incident left literal and figurative black eyes on the players, teams and game in general, Cincinnati forwards Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodj received six-game suspensions when some felt they should have received a worse fate.  Gates and Mbodj; as well as reserves Octavius Ellis and Ge'Lawn Guyn, (who were also suspended) are back on the court for the Bearcats, who have surprisingly won seven straight since the December 10th brawl.  The first five games came against competition some may consider weak, (Wright State, Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Chicago State and Oklahoma) while Cincinnati's last two have been impressive Big East victories against the two teams that were the class of the conference a year ago in Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.

Cincinnati's seven-game winning streak can be attributed most to the new style the Bearcats have played since the suspensions.  In the wake of losing Gates for six games, Cronin opted instead to go with a smaller, four-guard lineup normally seen by Big East foe Jay Wright and Villanova.  So far, the decision has paid off.  "It's allowing us to play faster;" said Cronin in an interview with college basketball insider Jon Rothstein, "and that's creating more scoring opportunities."  Since the transition to "small ball," the Bearcats have averaged 81 points per game, compared to the 62 they managed on a nightly basis before and including the Xavier game.

Cronin's "four quick" look has enabled starting guards Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon to join sophomore scoring leader Sean Kilpatrick as the primary sources of production in the Cincinnati lineup, but the Bearcats' biggest key is 6-3 junior guard Jaquon Parker.  Once a reserve for all of last season and most of this year before the brawl, Parker has become a critical piece of the puzzle for Cronin on his latest hot streak now that he is fully recovered from an injury that sidelined him for the first seven games of the year.  "He's our big guard and people are looking at him and seeing a 6-3 guy getting seven or eight rebounds a game," said Cronin of Parker.  "He's really filling the role that Rashad Bishop (who graduated this past May) held down last year."  Cincinnati looks for their third straight win to open Big East play (and eighth overall) tomorrow afternoon, when they host St. John's in what should be the latest installment of a rivalry marked by rock fights where the first team to score 50 points is usually the winner.

Ten minutes away from the Cincinnati campus, the atmosphere could not be anymore different.  Once the eighth-ranked team in the country following the win over their archrivals, Xavier stood undefeated at 8-0.  Since the brawl and the suspensions of guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons; as well as freshman forward Dez Wells, the Musketeers have dropped five of their last six, including a home loss to Oral Roberts and two games in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.  After returning to their winning ways against Southern Illinois, Xavier has dropped two in a row; first to Gonzaga and most recently their Atlantic 10 opener against La Salle, prompting head coach Chris Mack to wonder just how much the fracas against Cincinnati took out of his team.  "It seems like a long hangover," responded the coach following Xavier's loss to La Salle this past Wednesday night when asked if the effects of the incident still lingered.  The same disparity in offense that has been so positive for Cincinnati can be related to Xavier as well, but not with the same results.  Before and including their meeting with the Bearcats, the Musketeers were averaging 74 points per game through an undefeated start to the season that included quality nonconference wins over Vanderbilt, Purdue and two-time reigning national runner-up Butler.  Since the brawl, Xavier has only put together 67 points per contest on average; but if you eliminate the two 80-plus point games against Hawaii and Southern Illinois, that number drops even lower to 59.

Xavier is also in action Saturday afternoon, playing their second Atlantic 10 game of the year just an hour away from Daly Dose headquarters at Rose Hill Gym in the Bronx; where awaiting them will be a Fordham team that is just now finally starting to get their well-deserved respect under head coach Tom Pecora after their first-ever win against an ACC team (over Georgia Tech) and upset win over a ranked Harvard outfit that has been anointed by many as the class of the Ivy League this season.  Fordham also has the guards to compete with Holloway and Lyons, as the backcourt of Branden Frazier, Devon McMillan and Bryan Smith is among the most underrated in the nation despite their youth.

Xavier may have won the battle following the Crosstown Shootout, but the general consensus is that Cincinnati has won the war through the first four weeks following the brawl.  Tomorrow afternoon could go a long way in once again reversing each program's fortune, for better or worse.

Xavier travels to Fordham in a game that takes place at 12pm Eastern time.  The game will be shown on the YES Network for those in the New York area and will be streamed on with the audio feed from WFUV. (90.7 FM)  Cincinnati hosts St. John's shortly thereafter, with the Bearcats' 2pm matinee against the Red Storm being broadcast on MSG in the New York area and across the country on ESPN3 for those who live outside the Big Apple or are Time Warner Cable subscribers.  St. John's also has an audio stream on, with the audio feed from John Minko on WBBR. (1130 AM)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The 11 Best Of 2011

Happy 2012, everyone!  Although a few hours late, I feel there's no better way to open the year than by recapping some of the highlights of the one that came before it.  So many games, so little space to fit them in.  Therefore, we give you the eleven that stood out above the rest over the twelve months that comprised 2011.

11) Rutgers vs. St. John's; Madison Square Garden, March 9, 2011: (Big East Tournament) Mike Rice nearly stole one in the midst of the resurgence put together by the Red Storm; and after an inspired Scarlet Knights rally that started at the beginning of the second half with three consecutive three-pointers from James Beatty, Rutgers had St. John's on the ropes.  After Gilvydas Biruta could not hold an inbounds pass, St. John's forward Justin Brownlee stole the ball; but not before traveling, stepping out of bounds, and throwing the ball into the crowd before the final buzzer.  Tremendous job by Dave Pasch on the call for ESPN.

10) Ohio State vs. Indiana; Assembly Hall, December 31, 2011: A last-minute entry into this list, as Tom Crean's Hoosiers knocked off the second-ranked Buckeyes just three days after losing their Big Ten opener against Michigan State.  In a game that truly went down to the wire featuring one run after another, Indiana proved once and for all that they are back among college basketball's elite.  There isn't any video of the game yet, so I've enclosed Tom Crean's press conference instead.

9) Villanova vs. Rutgers; Louis Brown Athletic Center, February 8, 2011: Mike Rice makes the list again with what could be one of the biggest wins of his career against Jay Wright's Villanova Wildcats.  Ranked in the top ten, Villanova was a heavy favorite that looked headed to prevail in a rock fight until the Scarlet Knights' final possession.  After James Beatty expertly maneuvered the clock, Jonathan Mitchell drained a three from the right wing while also drawing a foul on Villanova guard Corey Fisher.  Mitchell hit the free throw to give Rutgers the one-point victory, which triggered a court rush at the RAC.

8) North Carolina vs. Kentucky; Rupp Arena, December 3, 2011: If not for a loss to UNLV the week before, the Tar Heels would be heading into Lexington as the top-ranked team in the nation.  However, it was Big Blue Nation that came into this contest with the top spot; and after a convincing win two days prior against St. John's, John Calipari's young Wildcats held their own against the preseason favorite to win the national championship in what served as a coming-out party for freshman forward Anthony Davis.

7) Harvard vs. Princeton; Whitney Gym, March 12, 2011: The Ivy League is the only conference that does not hold a postseason tournament, yet last year served as a de facto playoff considering Princeton and Harvard entered the last game of the year tied for the Ivy League lead.  Looking for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004, the Tigers got it from a buzzer-beating jump shot by Douglas Davis.

6) Rutgers vs. Florida; Louis Brown Athletic Center, December 29, 2011: Mike Rosario's homecoming after he left Piscataway to join Billy Donovan and the Gators turned out to be the introduction of Rutgers guard Eli Carter to the national stage.  The freshman scored a career-high 31, including one clutch shot after another, as the Scarlet Knights prevailed in double overtime.

5) Morehead State vs. Louisville; Pepsi Center, March 17, 2011: (NCAA Tournament) The first of many upsets in a year where VCU went to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed, courtesy of Morehead State's Demonte Harper.  Harper's three from the top of the key gave the Eagles a one-point win over Louisville, prompting Cardinals coach Rick Pitino to offer this analysis the following weekend when he was a guest studio analyst on CBS: "The other coach had a dream, I had a nightmare."

4) Kentucky vs. Indiana; Assembly Hall, December 10, 2011: The game that returned the Hoosiers to national prominence for those who doubted their exodus from the elite college basketball programs in the country.  With Indiana down by two, Christian Watford drilled a three-pointer from the left wing for the win in a postgame celebration highlighted by the disbelief on the face of Hoosiers coach Tom Crean.

3) Washington vs. Arizona; Staples Center, March 12, 2011: (Pac-10 Championship) Washington entered the Pac-10 tournament as a bubble team, and left it in the midst of a run to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament courtesy of Isaiah Thomas' stepback mid-range jumper for the win.  I'll be honest and say that this game is rated so high mainly because of the final call from the one and only Gus Johnson.

2) Pittsburgh vs. St. John's; Madison Square Garden, February 19, 2011: This game proved that even the most ambivalent of fans could be drawn to St. John's, as the Red Storm knocked off the fourth-ranked Panthers for their fifth win against a Top 25 opponent.  In the final seconds, Red Storm guard Dwight Hardy appeared to step on the baseline while driving inside to attempt his reverse layup that gave the Johnnies the 60-59 win; but as the world later found out, he was channeling his "inner Baryshnikov" with a performance coach Steve Lavin likened to Fred Astaire.

1) Connecticut vs. Pittsburgh; Madison Square Garden, March 10, 2011: (Big East Tournament) UConn's Cinderella run to their third national championship would not have been possible if Kemba Walker did not carry the Huskies on his back through the month of March.  Walker's true ability was on display in the final seconds here, as his crossover against Pitt center Gary McGhee gave him the advantage he needed to drain a buzzer-beater to send UConn to their third of what would be eleven consecutive wins to end the season.