Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Glenn Braica Reflects On Success At St. Francis

Just two years removed from assisting Norm Roberts at St. John's, Glenn Braica is now coach of the year in Northeast Conference after leading St. Francis from 11th-place prediction to 4th in NEC standings.  (Photo courtesy of WFAN)

Two years ago, I was fortunate to have latched on with St. Francis College as one of their play-by-play voices in an experience that has granted me some of the best memories of my young career.  One of the highlights of this experience was familiarizing myself with the staff of each of the Terrier teams; and in the case of the men's basketball program, reintroducing myself to a face I had seen many times during my three prior years as a broadcaster.

An assistant to Norm Roberts while at my alma mater, Glenn Braica returned to Brooklyn after a six-year stint in the second chair on the bench at St. John's.  Now in his second season at the helm of the Terriers, Braica has not changed.  His defensive mindset and willingness to spread the ball among several qualified scoring options has made St. Francis one of the unique programs in the Northeast Conference; and after taking the Terriers to fourth place in the NEC after being predicted to finish eleventh in the field of twelve, the ultimate honor in his profession was bestowed upon him yesterday when Braica was named the winner of the NEC's Jim Phelan Coach of the Year award.

With the Terriers preparing to host Quinnipiac tomorrow night in the NEC tournament quarterfinals, I had the chance to catch up with Braica earlier today to gauge his thoughts on St. Francis' overall performance as well as tomorrow night's postseason contest, and the coach had this to say:

Jaden Daly: Congratulations on being named Coach of the Year.  If you can, comment on the honor and what it means.

Glenn Braica: Thanks, Jaden.  Well, it's a tremendous honor.  Obviously, I feel there are other coaches in the league who deserve it just as much or more than me who had great seasons; but certainly, I'm honored to be selected among a great group of coaches.  I think our league has a tremendous group of coaches; and again, I'm honored to just be part of the league, and to get this, I'm very happy about it.

JD: Going into the NEC tournament, you have the same record (15-14) that you had last year, but you're 12-6 in the league this year after losing Ricky Cadell and Akeem Bennett.  What was the adjustment process this season from the beginning of the year to getting the No. 4 seed and a home game tomorrow night?

GB: Well, it was difficult losing Ricky and Akeem.  They meant so much to our team last year.  I'm happy to say they're both playing overseas and doing a good job with that, so we're real happy for them.  It was difficult at the beginning of the year, you know; we had nine road games to start the season, Dre Calloway went down with an injury and he was our other starting perimeter guy from last year.  We were kind of up in the air a little bit; but it's a testament to our guys' character, their work ethic, to their toughness, that they were able to get it together and have a fine season, because nine road games can do one of two things: It can either make you better, or it can break you.  I'm glad it made our team better, and it's a testament to our guys.

JD: Akeem Johnson really stepped up down the stretch.  After last year, how much has his consistency meant to your lineup?

GB: Well, he's done a great job for us and he's a terrific kid.  He works very hard, he's a serious kid about what he's doing, and he's getting payback.  He's getting payback for all the hard work he put in over the summer, in the offseason, and throughout the year.  We couldn't be happier with him.

JD: Stefan Perunicic and Travis Nichols have shot the ball very well from beyond the arc.  In the last couple of games, they've been banged up.  How have they progressed; will they be ready tomorrow night, and how different is this team without them?

GB: Obviously, whenever you have something good going that can take out two key pieces like Stef and Travis, it affects the team; and it probably did affect us last week, but you have to recover from that.  You have to move on.  As far as this week, we'll see what happens.  They've been getting treatment every day; they've been doing some stuff in practice, but you never know.  We have to be prepared to play with or without them.  Obviously, we hope it will be with them, and they've done a good job getting ready; you know, and we're just hoping that things fall right.

JD: You mentioned Dre Calloway going down for the year five games in.  Brent Jones and Justin Newton have stepped up in his place.  Is it more of an offense/defense thing with Brent and Justin, or have they managed to coexist on the court at the same time?

GB: Brent's probably a little bit more of an offensive player than Justin.  Justin has a tremendous basketball IQ; he's very smart, he's very tough.  He does a lot of things to help you win the game that don't show up in the box score; and he's older, he's three, four years older than Brent, and has a lot of experience.  Brent is tremendously talented and has done a great job progressing this year, and is obviously able to do some things as far as getting his own shot and getting the other guys shots that not many guys can do.  So, I think it's a good combination; and I think they've helped each other along through it, they've both stepped up in Dre's absence, and they've both done a terrific job.  We're very happy to have a senior like Justin, but Brent will be back for the next three years and we expect great things from him.

JD: Scouting Quinnipiac, you've beaten them twice in the regular season.  They've been on a roll since then and Tom Moore has his guys playing well.  What do they bring to the table?

GB: They bring a lot.  First of all, they're very well-coached.  Tommy does a great job with them.  They guard, they play hard, they're second in the country in rebounding, they do a great job on the glass; and they have two all-league players, so we've got our hands full.  You know, playing teams three times, those games mean nothing.  Just because we beat them, it doesn't mean anything.  We've got to go do it a third time.  Thankfully, it's at home, but it's going to be a war.  Both (regular season) games were wars, they could have went either way.  Fortunately, we were able to come out on the right side of those two games, but that doesn't help us Thursday night.  We've got to repeat and do what's necessary to win the game.

JD: You mentioned Ike Azotam averaging a double-double.  Jalen Cannon has done just as well on the glass averaging about nine rebounds per game, earning All-Rookie honors in the NEC this season.  Do you feel he's playing his best basketball now and is getting better at the right time?

GB: Yeah, he was much more ready than we thought he'd be coming in, but he's done a great job.  His rebounding statistics are off the charts for a freshman.  He's been terrific, he's been great, and he is getting better; and that's a testament to his work ethic, his makeup.  He's going to be terrific.  On the other side, Azotam is a great player as well.  We've got to do a great job keeping him off the glass.  They'll do some things to get him the ball.  We have to make him work for everything and try to limit his touches as much as possible.

JD: Were there any parts of the games against Monmouth and Fairleigh Dickinson that concerned you going into tomorrow night?

GB: You always have concerns, and some concerns change depending on the matchup and each game.  I think we've just got to regroup a little bit and get back to what we do well. You're not going to play well every game this season.  It doesn't happen.  Give those teams credit.  I thought Monmouth and FDU did a great job in beating us this weekend; but again, we just have to continue to do what we do, try to get better every day, and Thursday's a new day, a new season.  I know our guys will play their hearts out.  We'll see how it falls.

Join Seth Cantor and Jamaal Womack at 6:50 tomorrow night on for game No. 30 of the 110th season of St. Francis College men's basketball as the Terriers host Quinnipiac in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Northeast Conference tournament.  You can watch and listen to the broadcast by clicking the following link:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Previewing Arch Madness

Picked to win Missouri Valley in preseason poll, Greg McDermott and Creighton enter "Arch Madness" as No. 2 seed.  (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

Championship week may have started tonight with the Big South quarterfinals; but what could arguably be the best tournament of the thirty that will be contested begins Thursday, when the Missouri Valley Conference championship tips off in St. Louis for the 2012 edition of what has come to be known as "Arch Madness."

If you've read any of my work in the past, you know how much I appreciate the Valley; and after a regular season featuring a five-way tie for third place, (which is unheard of in most conferences) Arch Madness will be just a little more unpredictable than it usually is.  Reigning champion Indiana State will have to come from one of the first-round play-in games this time around, as the Sycamores finished one game behind the tie for third.  Greg Lansing's team will open play in the Gateway City Thursday night as the No. 8 seed, and will play Southern Illinois for the right to face regular season champion Wichita State in the quarterfinals the following afternoon.  Who stands out among the ten teams this year?  You'll find out with detailed analysis of the play-ins and quarterfinals, as well as picks the rest of the way.

Thursday, March 1st (all times Central)
#8 Indiana State (17-13, 8-10) vs. #9 Southern Illinois, (8-22, 5-13) 6pm: With the exception of their BracketBuster game against Butler nine days ago, the Sycamores have kept every game they have played close since a 26-point loss to Creighton on January 21st.  Although he has only started half the Sycamores' games, Dwayne Lathan has been the perfect scoring complement to point guard Jake Odum and swingman Carl Richard, who has now blended in more after helping lead Indiana State to a Valley championship last season.  In his first season as a starter, all Jordan Printy has done is lead the team with a 38 percent clip from three-point range while also becoming a deceptive scoring threat on every possession.  On the other side of the court, Chris Lowery may be on the hot seat in Carbondale; but despite just five conference wins, the Salukis have also remained competitive down the stretch.  The key for Southern Illinois will be the ability for Mamadou Seck and Dantiel Daniels to score as well as rebound inside, and supporting cast members T.J. Lindsay, Kendal Brown-Surles and Justin Bocot will need to step up in order to give the Salukis a shot at regular season champion Wichita State.  The Pick: Indiana State

#7 Drake (16-14, 9-9) vs. #10 Bradley, (7-24, 2-16) 8:30 pm: Hardly anyone could have expected Mark Phelps and the Bulldogs to finish .500 in the Valley this season, but their triple-overtime win against Wichita State in what could be the game of the year in the Valley this season proved that the boys from Des Moines were legit this season.  After losing big man Seth VanDeest at the start of the season, Rayvonte Rice and Ben Simons each stepped up to average over sixteen points per game to anchor Drake's offense while Kurt Alexander and Jeremy Jeffers established themselves as sharpshooters in the background.  Back in Illinois, Geno Ford's first season at the helm of the Braves wasn't as promising as the coaching staff may have hoped, but Bradley got a boost before the season when Taylor Brown was medically cleared to return.  Brown; who averaged nearly fifteen points per game to lead the Braves in scoring, also averaged just over six rebounds to finish second behind Jordan Prosser for the team lead in that category.  Dyricus Simms-Edwards also became one of the Valley's more versatile combo guards this season, averaging over two assists per night to go along with shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc.  This could be one of the more evenly matched games in St. Louis, and one in which it's not inconceivable to think Bradley has a realistic chance of winning.  However, the Braves will ultimately come up just a few points short.  The Pick: Drake

Friday, March 2nd
#1 Wichita State (26-4, 16-2) vs. Indiana State/Southern Illinois winner, 12pm: The winner of the play-in is at somewhat of a disadvantage in having to play two games in an 18-hour span, and even more of one when you look at the job that Gregg Marshall; regarded by this writer as the most underrated coach in the country, has done with the team picked in this space to win the Valley back in September.  The Shockers' biggest and most surprising contributor has been none other than leading scorer and rebounder Garrett Stutz, who has completed the near-impossible task of making fans forget J.T. Durley.  Point guard Joe Ragland continues to stake his claim as the best at his position in the Valley, with ball control and scoring ability that is unrivaled by most in the nation.  In addition to Toure' Murry, Marshall has received contributions from David Kyles, Ben Smith and junior college transfer Carl Hall on any given night for an offense that averages 78 points per game.  Indiana State matches up better with the regular season champions; but the Shockers will go through whoever they face in their first step on the road to the NCAA Tournament, where they will likely end up no matter what happens this weekend.  The Pick: Wichita State

#4 Illinois State (18-12, 9-9) vs. #5 Northern Iowa, (19-12, 9-9) 2:30 pm: If not for Gregg Marshall's dominance at Wichita State, Tim Jankovich would be a deserving Coach of the Year candidate for guiding the Redbirds from the back of the pack to the top half of the Valley standings.  Of course, a lot of this success has to do with the scoring and rebounding prowess of Jackie Carmichael, who averaged close to a double-double this season.  Tyler Brown and Jon Ekey have solidified themselves behind Carmichael as outside threats while the Redbirds' leader does his damage inside, giving Illinois State a multifaceted offensive attack.  The only problem is their draw.  Ben Jacobson has always had the Panthers prime to get up for big games, and this year should be no exception.  Northern Iowa may have just one double-figure scorer in Anthony James; but the Panthers have always been a defensive-oriented unit, with Jake Koch and Johnny Moran leading the charge on that side of the ball with averages of more than one steal per game.  Up front, Seth Tuttle is a high-percentage shot taker (66 percent) and not too bad a rebounder either.  This is a bigger game for Illinois State considering they are relatively new to this kind of pressure, which gives the Panthers the edge since they are no stranger to the big stage.  The Pick: Northern Iowa

#2 Creighton (25-5, 14-4) vs. Drake/Bradley winner, 6pm: A three-game losing streak late in the season took a lot of supporters off the Blue Jay bandwagon, but Greg McDermott's team has righted the ship going into St. Louis.  McDermott's son Doug, the likely Larry Bird Player of the Year, is a huge reason why.  A potential first-team All-American and maybe even Wooden Award winner, the sophomore swingman has put together one of the greatest seasons of any player in the nation by averaging 23 points and eight rebounds per night, not to mention shooting 61 percent from the field and 48 from three-point range.  The Blue Jays also have an edge that neither Drake nor Bradley will be able to stop in their two point-guard attack of Grant Gibbs and Antoine Young, both of whom average more than four assists per game.  Former Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique has shined away from the bright lights of the Big East and has given Creighton a strong presence inside that also has the experience of playing at a high level.  The Pick: Creighton

#3 Evansville (15-14, 9-9) vs. #6 Missouri State, (16-14, 9-9) 8:30 pm: With all the talk about the other three-headed monsters in the Valley, the Purple Aces have perhaps one of the best in the trio of Colt Ryan, Kenny Harris and Denver Holmes.  Ryan is an all-around threat, (20.5 points, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game) Harris does a lot of things that don't show up in the box score, and Holmes makes the motor run as evidenced by his average of 3.6 assists per game for coach Marty Simmons.  On the other side of the bench, Paul Lusk has done a solid job in his first season replacing the departed Cuonzo Martin at the helm of last season's regular season champion.  Reigning Player of the Year Kyle Weems has had just as good a senior season as his award-winning junior campaign, and is one of four Bears players averaging more than ten points per game.  Rookie Jarmar Gulley has vaulted himself into Newcomer of the Year consideration with a 50 percent clip from the field, and DePaul transfer Michael Bizoukas has been one of the better ball handlers in the conference with an average of 5.5 assists per game.  Missouri State only averages eleven turnovers per night, which forces Evansville's defense to step it up just a little more.  In what will be the closest and best of the quarterfinal games, Evansville's big three just gets the Aces over the hump.  The Pick: Evansville

Saturday, March 3rd
Wichita State/Indiana State-Southern Illinois winner vs. Illinois State/Northern Iowa winner, 1:30 pm: The Pick: Wichita State over Northern Iowa

Creighton/Drake-Bradley winner vs. Evansville-Missouri State winner, 4pm: The Pick: Creighton over Evansville

Sunday, March 4th
Missouri Valley Conference Championship, 1pm on CBS: The Pick: Wichita State over Creighton

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Luck Of The Irish Shines Upon Brey

Once again, Mike Brey has surprised everyone by doing more with less at Notre Dame.  (Photo courtesy of Rumble In The Garden)

Two years ago, Notre Dame endured an injury many thought would be the death knell for a season that started with enormous potential.  When Luke Harangody missed five games with a knee injury, Notre Dame retooled their offense and turned what could have been a disaster into an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Two years later, the Fighting Irish were thrust into a similar position when fifth-year senior Tim Abromaitis; who was suspended for the first four games of the year after it was revealed that he played in an exhibition game while redshirting for the regular season three years prior, was lost for the season with a torn ACL just two games after returning.  What head coach Mike Brey has done with an already young and relatively unproven Notre Dame team this season has been nothing short of miraculous.  After a rough nonconference schedule, Notre Dame now sits 18th in the country after a nine-game winning streak has propelled the Irish to a 20-8 record going into this afternoon's matchup against St. John's inside Madison Square Garden, where they have not won since March of 2004.

"It's very special," said Brey following Notre Dame's most recent victory against West Virginia this past Wednesday night.  "For this group to do it, I think it will be a great story in the history of our basketball program."  In regard to today's game against a Red Storm team that has won two straight after enduring growing pains with their all-freshman starting lineup, Brey referred to the impending matchup and Notre Dame's subsequent meeting with Georgetown at the Verizon Center on Monday as "a good challenge for a team that kind of loves challenges."

On the other side of the bench, the man who will match wits with Brey in just a few hours was ready to anoint him as the conference's coach of the year for a second consecutive season and fourth time overall.  "In my mind, he's the coach of the year nationally, or at least a candidate," St. John's assistant coach Mike Dunlap said in a pregame press conference yesterday; "but in our league, there's no doubt.  Each guy plays to their strengths.  It's in the subtle things that you see the job that he has done."

Brey's seven-man rotation may match St. John's six-man unit in terms of relative depth and conditioning, but the Irish players are far more talented and experienced than the young and athletic Red Storm squad.  Either way, the anticipated backcourt shootout between sophomore guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant of Notre Dame and freshman backcourt partners Phil Greene and D'Angelo Harrison of St. John's should be a fun battle to watch, as well as the collision inside between Luke Harangody clone Jack Cooley and St. John's power forward Moe Harkless, a contender for the conference's Rookie of the Year honors.

Something has to give this afternoon for both teams on the court at the "World's Most Famous Arena;" whether or not it is Notre Dame's nine-game win streak or failure to defeat St. John's in their own building since George W. Bush's first term in the White House, or St. John's two-game upswing after a four-game schneid.  The world could be witness to a coming-out party for the handful of rookies getting the start for the Red Storm, or maybe even yet another miracle by the Catholic university synonymous with "Touchdown Jesus."  The only difference, though, is that the man performing the supernatural is a basketball coach who just somehow gets the most out of the least whenever he is overlooked.  

Mike Brey gets another chance to turn skeptics into believers today.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Another Reason To Appreciate Mike Rice

Year two at Rutgers hasn't been easy for Mike Rice, and he admitted he might be to blame for it.  (Photo courtesy of Rutgers University)

One year ago after Rutgers was narrowly defeated St. John's in a Big East tournament game  that the Scarlet Knights deserved to win, (and I'm a St. John's alum) but lost on a blown call in the final seconds, I wrote a piece on how Scarlet Knights head coach Mike Rice should be appreciated after how he took the high road in his postgame press conference that afternoon; choosing not to criticize the officials when he clearly could have, instead stating "it's what it is" and that he and his team would control how they respond.

In the wake of Rutgers' most recent defeat; an 82-65 loss to Marquette that was the sixth straight for the Scarlet Knights, the second-year coach revealed something rarely seen from college basketball coaches just one day before Rutgers' second game this season against archrival Seton Hall.  With his players not responding to what the coach and his assistants were trying to impart on a young team that has missed the veteran leadership of graduated seniors Jonathan Mitchell, James Beatty, Mike Coburn and Robert Lumpkins, Rice realized that he himself was to blame for the lack of focus.  "I pushed the wrong buttons at times," Rice told the Newark Star-Ledger's Steve Politi.  "I've learned as much I've learned in 21 years of college coaching this year, and I've had to change."

Rice has always been respected by this writer for his candor, a sometimes brutal honesty that really opens the eyes of both media and fans and gets almost everyone to really see just how hard it is to rebuild a program like Rutgers that is in the shadow of local rivals while simultaneously trying to compete in arguably the strongest conference in the nation.  Rice admitted that this team is not like the three teams he coached at Robert Morris; where he won back-to-back Northeast Conference championships in his last two years, prior to landing in Piscataway, but also found out that he is accountable when players have a lack of motivation.

"I've learned that if the player turns you off, it's your fault," said Rice.  "A lot of the guys on this team need to grow and accept coaching; but my natural reaction is that by being meaner, I make them tougher.  The nastier I got, the more they stopped listening."

Rice may still be one of the most intense coaches in the conference; one that frequently tosses his blazer to the bench within the first five minutes of a game, yet one that has also earned the respect of Hall of Fame mentor Jim Calhoun, who praised Rice's desire and ability to do more with less at Big East media day in October.  Yet that intensity has given way to a more patient coach who is still navigating the waters of the Big East through a Jekyll and Hyde season for Rutgers.  The Scarlet Knights have had their high points this season with wins over Florida, Connecticut and Notre Dame, (and also a hard-fought loss to Syracuse that Rutgers was never out of the game in) but have also lost to LSU, Richmond, DePaul and Illinois State among others.

When Rutgers plays Seton Hall at the Prudential Center tomorrow; most of the attention will be focused on the Pirates and their efforts to make the NCAA Tournament behind seniors Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope, who are helping coach Kevin Willard win with a team led by recruits of former coach Bobby Gonzalez.  However, some more attention should be paid to the man on the other side of the court; one whose team may not be as glamorous as his opponent, but a man who is willing to adapt to his situations, even if it takes a change of tactics to get his message across.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Red Storm Red Hot After Upset Of UConn

St. John's celebrates 57-56 win over No. 2 Connecticut at Gampel Pavilion, now biggest win in program history. (Photo courtesy of CBS Sports)

It seems like every season brings a new milestone for St. John's women's basketball; and if the world really is ending this year as some people may suspect, the Red Storm are just too busy enjoying the moment.

In just one week, the program that had already been the better one on the court around St. John's Queens campus has experienced two historic accomplishments most schools spend their entire existence dreaming of reaching. After head coach Kim Barnes Arico became the winningest women's basketball coach in school history nine days ago against Rutgers, her powerhouse in the making stunned the University of Connecticut on a go-ahead three-pointer from Shenneika Smith with eight seconds left in regulation that gave the Red Storm a 57-56 lead that turned out to be the final score. It's worth noting that Geno Auriemma and UConn are like the New York Yankees of women's basketball; a consistently dominant program with more national championships than any other school, including three perfect seasons behind a Who's Who of WNBA talent. If that's not enough, the second-ranked Lady Huskies had won 99 straight games on their home court at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. How about one more nugget? The victory instantly became the biggest win in St. John's history, supplanting the Red Storm's 2010 defeat of then-No. 3 Notre Dame as the highest ranked opponent the Red Storm has beaten.

"We showed what we were capable of doing and what kind of team we are heading down the stretch," Barnes Arico said moments after the historic win. Next up for St. John's is a West Virginia team with a big win of their own, as the Mountaineers defeated Notre Dame in South Bend the same night St. John's completed a season sweep of Rutgers to give Barnes Arico her record-breaking 169th win at the helm of the Red Storm.

At 10-3 in the Big East and 18-8 overall, St. John's is in position to secure a double bye in the conference tournament next month in Hartford; but that is not the ultimate goal for St. John's, who is now very much alive for an NCAA Tournament bid as well. After standing firmly on the bubble following a loss to Marquette last month, the Red Storm have won seven of their last eight and five in a row to vault themselves into consideration for a top four seed in whichever regional they are a part of. Tonight is not the start of a new beginning, but merely the continuation of the latest Red Storm run to glory.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Theodore Leading Pirates Toward Promised Land

Four years later; Jordan Theodore may be a different player, but Seton Hall's senior guard hasn't forgotten what he's learned along the way. (Photo courtesy of CBS Sports)

In the wake of Seton Hall's resounding 94-64 thrashing of St. John's last night at the Prudential Center, I was part of a group of people in a huddle with Jordan Theodore, the Pirates' senior point guard who torched the Red Storm with a 16-point, 10-assist effort that vaulted him into Big East Player of the Year contention.

When I interviewed Theodore at Seton Hall media day in October, he blew me away with how well-spoken he was. Never in my five years as a broadcaster and writer have I come across a player as articulate as the former Paterson Catholic standout, and our conversation last night was just as much a pleasure as our 15-minute chat before the season amid a power outage at Walsh Gym.

The topics ranged from the obvious game performance to what he has gone through over his four years in South Orange, from sitting behind Eugene Harvey and Paul Gause to where he is now as one of the faces of an 18-8 Seton Hall team that is on track to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.

"As I got older, I got wiser," Theodore told me. "I stopped playing at 99 miles per hour. I looked myself in the mirror, because during that six-game losing streak (which the Pirates snapped against Pittsburgh on Sunday) I wasn't playing well either." Very rarely do you see that kind of honesty and accountability in a player of his talent at his level in Division I college basketball. Yet that was only the beginning of an interview in which the most poignant and revealing nuggets came when I asked him about the difference in mindsets between current coach Kevin Willard and former coach Bobby Gonzalez, who recruited and signed Theodore in 2008.

Along with senior forward Herb Pope and sophomore swingman Fuquan Edwin; who committed while Gonzalez was still at Seton Hall but never played for him, Theodore is one of the last remaining connections the Pirates have to their erstwhile coach, who was unceremoniously fired in March of 2010 despite improving the program's win total in each of his four seasons. With all the negative publicity Gonzalez has garnered since losing his job, it was refreshing to see someone defend him for a change.

"Bobby was a great guy," said Theodore. "I learned a lot from him, especially off the court and how to handle myself. He taught me how to be a man." Theodore's praise for his former coach continued when he recalled his work ethic while trying to improve. "Bobby always wanted perfection," the star guard said. "I used to stay in the gym all day just to do things that would make him smile. I remember when we beat Georgetown during my sophomore year, and he played the clip from 'Any Given Sunday.'" (which you can see below)

Theodore even admitted that he considered transferring once Gonzalez was dismissed, intimating that "you want to play for the coach you committed to." The senior was unsure of Kevin Willard at the time that it took convincing from Iona point guard Scott Machado, one of Theodore's closest friends who played for Willard during his first two seasons with the Gaels; as well as a meeting with Theodore's parents and the incoming coach, before he was fully sold on Willard, whom he also credits with helping make him the player he is today.

After his insight into how much of an influence Gonzalez has been, he brought the interview full circle when asked about his desire to make the NCAA Tournament. "I dream about the tournament," he said. "It hurts being knocked out every year and watching my best friends play. I just want to walk across the court and see the NCAA logo. It's going to be a blessing. I might even tear up when I see it."

Theodore also related the tournament hopes the Pirates have to his former coach; who was never able to take Seton Hall into the field of 68 despite perhaps wanting to bring the program to the "Big Dance" maybe more than the players on his roster, with this quote. "I'm sure it would mean a lot to Bobby if me and Herb (Pope) made the tournament," Theodore told me; "but I can't taste it yet, and I say that because we've got five games left that we must win."

The first of those five games comes on the road this Saturday against a Cincinnati team that is also fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid in much the same fashion that Theodore and the Pirates are. If you are a fan who embraces feel-good stories like the ones created by Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin, Jordan Theodore is just as easy to root for; with a likability factor not seen by most athletes, not to mention a grounded perspective in which he lives in the moment, but never forgets what brought him there.

Maybe if Seton Hall does make the NCAA Tournament, it would be a silver lining for Bobby Gonzalez to see the players he groomed for the big stage playing for a national championship. One thing the experience will definitely be, though, is the platform that Jordan Theodore so desperately craves to exhibit his game on, a self-proclaimed blessing that will never be taken away from him.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Meeting Across The River

Next up for St. John's after gritty loss at Georgetown is metropolitan area rival Seton Hall. (Photo courtesy of WSOU)

For all the talk of Syracuse, Georgetown and Connecticut serving as St. John's biggest adversaries, perhaps the most bitter Red Storm rival is one located simply on the other side of the Hudson River in Seton Hall University.

Led by second-year head coach Kevin Willard and seniors Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope, the Pirates are 17-8 on the year and 6-7 in the Big East following their 73-66 home win over Pittsburgh yesterday. After finishing just 13-18 last season, the Hall is close to experiencing a similar reversal of fortune over two seasons to what St. John's accomplished by returning to the NCAA Tournament last season.

The Pirates and Red Storm meet again tomorrow night, and it's worth noting that the Red Storm have yet to walk off the court at the Prudential Center victorious. Seton Hall has owned this rivalry as of late with three wins in the last four meetings between the two schools, but most of the personnel on both sides has changed since then. To help us preview tomorrow night's pivotal New York/New Jersey matchup; I caught up with Jason Guerette, who is one of the standout play-by-play voices of the Pirates on WSOU, (89.5 FM and and Jason shared his thoughts on his alma mater (he's a senior at Seton Hall graduating this May) as well as their next big challenge.

Jaden Daly: Now that Seton Hall is back in the NCAA Tournament conversation, what is their most realistic seed at the moment?

Jason Guerette: Well, the Pirates still have a lot of work to do. They cannot afford another bad loss even more so than they could use a big win, because at this point a bad loss hurts more than a great win helps. That includes the need to beat St. John’s, DePaul and Rutgers without question, and quite honestly, Cincinnati is important as well because of the current proximity of the two in the standings. Joe Lunardi has the Pirates as a 12 seed right now, and if things break right for them, they could improve that by a couple slots. But again, they need to get there first.

JD: Aaron Cosby has really come on strong as of late. Has he been the most surprising player for the Pirates this season; and if not, who has been?

JG: I really liked this team ever since I saw them on media day back in the fall, so I wouldn’t say Cosby has surprised me the most, but from an outsider’s point of view, I think the most surprising player would have to be him. He’s been terrific shooting the ball and when he makes the threes (like he did against Pitt and Rutgers), it opens up lanes for Jordan Theodore and Fuquan Edwin to slash into and make plays. I think the team collectively has been a pleasant surprise as a whole, but I don’t know if I can pinpoint a true “most surprising” winner. Cosby’s been the most productive, though.

JD: If anyone has technically replaced Jeremy Hazell, who has made the biggest contribution to what was his spot in the lineup?

JG: Gotta go back to Cosby again for this one. Hazell was a special player who could stretch the defense to irrational proportions and whose very presence on the court changed the way teams defended the Pirates. He was also a volume scorer for much of his career. This year, Cosby has been more shooter than scorer, but he’s been much more efficient than Hazell. Both players have their positives and negatives, but I definitely think that Cosby fit better with Kevin Willard’s system.

JD: We've already mentioned Cosby, but how have the other freshmen performed so far this year?

JG: Freddie Wilson has done an adequate job as a backup point guard. He’s shown a confidence with the ball in his hands (probably because he had it on a string in high school) and has a strong handle, but he’s also shown flashes of scoring ability from time to time. Brandon Mobley has been terrific. He’s an energetic player who can really rebound the ball well. Offensively, he’s pretty much a jump shooter right now with not much of a post game to his name, but he has a ton of promise for the future. Haralds Karlis is another guy who many people (including me) think will be a very good player. He’s got great athleticism and length at a legit 6’5”, and although he’s had his troubles making jumpers this year, when it goes in it’s a work of art- high arc, and great lift. Because of depth reasons, Sean Grennan hasn’t played much.

JD: One thing Seton Hall has carried over from the Bobby Gonzalez era to the Kevin Willard regime is their dominance of the metropolitan area. What has made this Pirates team so good against St. John's, and even Rutgers?

JG: One thing that Gonzo was always focused on was beating the other Metro area schools because he figured that it would help him recruit the area if he could point to the wins. I think what’s made the team so good against their local rivals was the fact that for most of Gonzo’s tenure (at least the last half of it or so), the Pirates simply had better talent than either St. John’s or Rutgers. This particular year, the heralded frosh at both schools have sort of flipped the script from last year. Now, the Pirates have the leadership while the Red Storm and Scarlet Knights have players with the higher talent level (sans Pope/Theodore/Edwin).

JD: St. John's has never won at the Prudential Center since it opened. What is the biggest key for the Red Storm against a small Seton Hall lineup?

JG: Well, because St. John’s is so thin in terms of depth, even thinner than the Pirates, I think that they should play to their tempo, but not let the game become a track meet. Seton Hall likely knows of the lack of depth, especially down low, so I expect the Pirates to push the tempo and get out in transition. Attacking the basket should be Willard’s modus operandi to try and get the Red Storm in foul trouble, so to be honest, the major key for St. John’s is to make shots. If that happens, it will cut down on the transition opportunities for Seton Hall, and therefore prevent the Pirates from trying to enforce the tempo that they will likely want to do.

JD: Conversely, what does Seton Hall need to do to put St. John's away?

JG: For Seton Hall, it’s all about ball movement and ball security. St. John’s plays that extended pressure zone almost exclusively, and Seton Hall sometimes stalls when faced with a zone. The Pirates need to move the ball when faced with this particular zone because I think if they do that, they will eventually find a good shot. Avoiding turnovers will also be key, because I think St. John’s will need some easy baskets due to the great defense that Seton Hall plays.

JD: Finally, if the season ended today, who is the Pirates' most valuable player and why?

JG: The MVP is unquestionably Jordan Theodore. His evolution into a true point guard and leader has been the key to Seton Hall’s success this year. As he goes, so go the Pirates on the offensive end, and it showed in the losing streak as well as the winning this year.

Jason will not be calling tomorrow night's game; but should still be at the Prudential Center as a fan, and will be on the call for a few more Pirates games this season on WSOU. You can follow him on Twitter as well at

The Queen Of Queens

Once charged with resurrecting women's basketball at St. John's, Kim Barnes Arico now stands atop program's all-time wins list. (Photo courtesy of Newsday)

For a long time, it seemed as though the only way you were relevant in women's college basketball is if you were either the University of Connecticut or Tennessee. Eventually, that group expanded to include the likes of Stanford, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Baylor among others. However, the true success stories are those who do not have the glittering resumes of a Geno Auriemma or a Pat Summitt. One of these diamonds in the rough is as close as St. John's University in Queens, who now has a new winningest coach in the history of Red Storm women's basketball after sweeping Rutgers for the first time ever last night.

After the Red Storm capped off their 61-52 victory at the RAC in Piscataway for their fourth straight win against the Scarlet Knights, head coach Kim Barnes Arico picked up her 169th victory since taking over the reins of a program no one knew about outside of the St. John's campus back in 2002. For the 41-year-old Barnes Arico; a mother of three who is probably one of the most unassuming people in her profession, the victory was a milestone that made her the winningest coach in program history.

St. John's had won a grand total of eleven games in the two years before Barnes Arico arrived, and won eight her first year and ten in her second. The following year, St. John's made a surprising WNIT appearance that set the bar for a 2005-06 season in which the Red Storm won 22 games and were a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament that year, defeating Cal in the first round and nearly upsetting eventual national champion Maryland in a season that my former WSJU colleague Reginald Bazile still holds in high regard. Following a round of 32 appearance proved to be difficult, however, as injuries held the Red Storm to an 8-20 record the following season.

During the 2007-08 season that served as my first in the broadcasting industry, St. John's had done very well in year six under Barnes Arico, even holding their own at home against Baylor in a game that was much closer than the 81-58 final margin let on. Granted, the Red Storm had the unenviable task of guarding Angela Tisdale, better known as the face of Baylor before Brittney Griner came along. Long story short; Reggie had asked me to work the Red Storm's game against USF with him on January 8th of that year, and it was during that night on play-by-play that I finally got to see what made this program and this coach so good, the things that made them a better and more successful (at the time, and maybe still) than their masculine counterparts.

Since the 2006-07 season in which both of Barnes Arico's star players were injured, St. John's has reached the postseason every other year after that, recording two WNIT trips and back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. The Red Storm have advanced to the round of 32 in each of the last two seasons, and could do it again after this Rutgers win puts them on the fast track to a third consecutive trip to the "Big Dance."

UConn and Tennessee have always had a Who's Who of WNBA talent that was ready to play at a high level from the moment they walked through the doors. St. John's hasn't always had that same fortune; but over her decade of quiet dominance, Barnes Arico has managed to turn out more than just a few exceptional players. The casual fan does not know Angela Clark, Kia Wright, Tiina Sten, Monique McLean, Sky Lindsay, Kelly McManmon, Da'Shena Stevens, Shenneika Smith, Nadirah McKenith or Eugeneia McPherson, but the true fan who appreciates how far this program has come; or even media guys like myself and Reginald Bazile who were around when this program was still nothing, know where the keys to success lie in Queens, and could even recall role players like Kristin Moore, Recee Mitchell and Victoria Hodges, who never got the chance to prove how good they really were for various circumstances.

Ten years later, St. John's is now a force to be reckoned with in women's basketball; and for all the adulation Steve Lavin gets for resurrecting a program that had not been to the NCAA Tournament in nine years, the same level of attention should be paid to a coach who has fought from the bottom and built her program from the ground up to become the winningest coach in Red Storm history. When you get the chance to see Kim Barnes Arico and her team up close and personal, you have every right to just look back and marvel at what St. John's is all about. The program and coach have finally earned it after struggling for far too long.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Despite Close Losses, Fordham Still Improving

Junior forward Chris Gaston is one of many players giving long-suffering Fordham fans reasons to smile despite Rams' 9-14 record. (Photo courtesy of Fordham University)

Sadly, it's been easy to forget about Fordham basketball in recent times; and that was way before the meteoric rises of Victor Cruz and Tim Tebow, and even the most recent phenomenon created by Jeremy Lin. As the de facto middle child of the seven Division I college basketball programs in New York City, (along with Columbia) the casual fan may only realize the Rams' existence solely for their mere presence as a reputable institution of higher learning. However, what happens inside the iconic Rose Hill Gym is a life-altering experience that will leave even the most negative of fans optimistic that something will soon be made from what most perceive as nothing.

Over the last two years; Fordham has remained in the lower half of the Atlantic 10, but head coach Tom Pecora has upgraded the atmosphere simply through his past success and affable persona. In just his second season, Pecora has already seen his young team reach new heights after defeating Georgia Tech for the program's first win against an ACC school since 2005. Just five days later, the Rams followed that historic win up with a resounding home victory over a then-ranked Harvard team that is likely to represent the Ivy League in this year's NCAA Tournament.

"There's been marked improvement," said Pecora when I asked him what the overall mindset around the team was despite Fordham sitting five games under .500. "We had a winning nonconference record; we're going to have a winning home record, and just look at the crowds." Rose Hill has been averaging close to a sellout in seemingly every game recently; including the most recent contest in the oldest arena in Division I, a bitter 72-70 overtime loss to Dayton yesterday afternoon that Pecora insisted was a harder pill to swallow than last week's setback against UNC Charlotte.

"These were two games that could have got us into the conference tournament," a dejected Pecora stated after the Dayton game. "We had two games I thought we deserved to win, but we couldn't close them out. You've got to walk before you can run, but I'm not happy."

Considering how far the program has come since he arrived from Hofstra in March of 2010, even a fierce competitor like Pecora still has to marvel at how much his hard-nosed group has accomplished. Junior Chris Gaston has become one of the most underrated players in the Atlantic 10 despite playing out of position for the bulk of his career, and senior Kervin Bristol had one of his best games of the season yesterday against Dayton when he posted 15 rebounds. While Gaston and Bristol pose problems in frontcourt matchups for opposing teams, the young Fordham backcourt seemingly wills the Rams to victory in almost every game. Sophomore Branden Frazier; who initially committed to Hofstra last season before following Pecora to Fordham, is the face of the Rams' three-headed guard monster, but freshmen Bryan Smith and Devon McMillan have the same clutch makeup. In fact, McMillan scored eight of Fordham's thirteen points in a late-game stretch that brought them back against Dayton when the Flyers appeared to be pulling away. By the way, McMillan (and Frazier too) battled the flu to a point where his coach doubted whether or not he would be ready to go.

"He was so sick, I didn't think he was going to play," Pecora said. "He competed. He didn't shoot the ball well, but he competed. We need a game where all of them (McMillan, Smith and Frazier) play their 'A' game."

Sometimes; as Rocky Balboa proved when he first fought Apollo Creed, the loser of the battle doesn't always lose the war. There is still a long way to go before the program returns to relevance, but Fordham University is well on its way in a city that embraces the underdog and the unexpected.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

So Much Knowledge In Jon Rothstein

For comparisons to past greats, there's no one better than college basketball insider Jon Rothstein. (Photo courtesy of CBS News)

If you're a college basketball fan; no matter how rabid or casual, you've definitely seen the following, either in his online blogs or on Twitter:

So much (insert player name here) in... (insert player name here)

These player comparisons have become the calling card of college basketball insider Jon Rothstein, whose work for the CBS Sports Network and WFAN in New York finds him observing nearly every Division I program in the nation. Not bad for someone who was an update anchor at WEPN (1050 AM) in New York just a couple of years ago.

When I interviewed Rothstein last month for my halftime show during St. Francis' most recent collision with Wagner, I made sure to ask him about one of the two things (along with Phil Rizzuto-esque shoutouts to various restaurants such as Sutton Pizza on Manhattan's Upper East Side and Angelo's on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, which he describes as "off the charts") that have made him a de facto celebrity in the college hoops community. Rothstein informed me that through talking to scouts and coaches on an everyday basis, he was able to get a feel for certain players; which combined with his encyclopedic knowledge of the game, creates his exceptional gift of relating today's game to the casual fan who does not necessarily have a barometer for how his or her favorite players may translate to the next level. However, while some players can be correlated right away; not everyone has a match, as there are some out there who need multiple viewings to be accurately compared.

Below are some of the many comparisons that Rothstein has tweeted this season; an unofficial sign that a player has "made it" to some degree, and there will certainly be more in the days and weeks to come leading up to the Final Four in New Orleans. Did your favorite player make the cut? Take a look here.

"So much __________ in __________"

Jamal Mashburn in Jayvaughn Pinkston
Detlef Schrempf in Kyle Wiltjer
Marcus Camby in Anthony Davis
Gerald Wallace in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Wilson Chandler in Cleveland Melvin (and Tony Mitchell)
Clint McDaniel in Marcus Denmon
J.T. Tiller in Matt Pressey
Dan Majerle in Kyle Kuric
Oliver Miller in Reggie Johnson
Denis Clemente in Shane Larkin
Rashad Bishop in LaDontae Henton
Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson in Tyshawn Taylor
Antonio Davis in Thomas Robinson
Bison Dele (Brian Williams) in Fab Melo
Dwyane Wade in Dion Waiters
Ed O'Bannon in C.J. Fair
Jason Caffey and Scott Williams in Otto Porter
Hamady Ndiaye in Naofall Folahan
Sherron Collins in Velton Jones
Salim Stoudamire in D'Angelo Harrison
Damon Jones in Chris Crawford
Kelvin Torbert and Alan Anderson in Branden Dawson
Luther Head in Brandon Paul
Dante Cunningham in Ricardo Ratliffe
Tyrese Rice in Jabarie Hinds
Eric Maynor in Trey Burke
Russell Carter in Jerian Grant
Chris Childs in Eric Atkins
Antonio Pena in Brandon Davies
Mike Nardi in Dave Sobolewski
Brandon Mouton in Darius Miller
Todd Burgan in Rodney Hood
Steven Hunter in Baye Keita
Rudy Gay in Moe Harkless
Demarre Carroll in Jae Crowder
Dwayne Anderson in James Bell
Renaldo Balkman in Will Yeguete
Eric Hicks in Murphy Holloway
Brian Boddicker in Erik Murphy
Marcus Williams in Kendall Marshall
Lynn Greer in Terrell Stoglin
Jerome Jordan in Kodi Maduka
Sharaud Curry in Myles Mack
Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Matt Geiger in Kenny Frease
Nazr Mohammed in Mouphtaou Yarou (and Gorgui Dieng)
Charles Oakley in Herb Pope
Carl Landry in Draymond Green
Nate Robinson in Pierre Jackson
Brent Wright in Jordan Morgan
Teddy Dupay (left-handed version) in Zack Novak
Allan Houston in John Jenkins
Jeff Foster in Jeff Withey
Lawrence Moten in Kris Joseph
Erick Dampier in Yancy Gates
Richard Jefferson in Jeffery Taylor
Josh Harrellson in Jack Cooley
Theo Ratliff in Darrius Garrett
Robert Mitchell in Mike Poole
Trenton Hassell in Jabril Trawick
Eric Eberz in Kyle Smyth
Rashad Anderson in Sean Armand (and Andre Dawkins)
Gary Trent in Mike Glover
Makhtar Ndiaye in Moussa Gueye
Aaron Brooks in Joe Jackson
Reece Gaines in Sean Kilpatrick
Keon Clark in Bernard James
Ebi Ere in Eli Carter
Terrence Roberts in Derrick Randall
Brandon Bowman in Hollis Thompson
Brian Scalabrine in Nate Lubick
Josh Lomers in Jon Kreft
Eugene Edgerson in Jesse Perry
Craig Ehlo in Deividas Dulkys
Tim Hardaway in Maalik Wayns
Rashad McCants in Chris Allen
Greivis Vasquez in Nick Johnson
Pepe Sanchez in Scott Machado
Jonathan Mitchell in Jonathon Williams
Dwight Hardy and Alex Dillard in Jermel Jenkins
Richard Hamilton in Jeremy Lamb
Julian Wright in Quincy Miller
Andrew Bynum in Andre Drummond
Cuttino Mobley in Darius Johnson-Odom
Jimmy Butler in Brandon Mobley
Taquan Dean in Aaron Cosby
Alex Ruoff in Scott Christopherson
Charles Barkley in Royce White
Corliss Williamson in Chane Behanan
Udonis Haslem in Thomas Gipson
Steve Blake in Will Spradling
Toby Bailey in Rodney McGruder
Trajan Langdon in Chace Stanback
Ryan Wittman in Pat Connaughton
Julius Hodge in Dorian Finney-Smith
Charlie Bell in Keith Appling
Keon Lawrence in Briante Weber
Tyler Smith in Juvonte Reddic
Danny Green in Damion Lee
Eddy Curry (2006-07 version) in Joshua Smith
Jackie Manuel in Kim English
Levon Kendall (better shooting version) in David Wear
Joakim Noah in Kadeem Jack
Hanno Mottola in John Shurna
Corey Beck in Ty Johnson
Gerald Wilkins in Victor Oladipo
Vinnie Johnson in J'Covan Brown
Lee Humphrey in Brady Heslip
Chucky Atkins in Jordan Theodore
J.J. Barea in Angel Rodriguez
Troy Hudson in Dee Bost
Randall Hanke in Ryan Olander
Stacey Augmon in Amir Garrett
Charles O'Bannon in Kent Bazemore
Kalin Lucas in Jerome Seagears
Darrel Mitchell in Anthony Collins
Sean Elliott in Harrison Barnes
Tim Duncan (poor man's version) in Andrew Nicholson
Lavoy Allen in Keith Wright
Germain Mopa-Djila (Vermont 2005) in Steve Moundou-Missi
Josh Howard in Will Barton
Andre Barrett in Peyton Siva
Hilton Armstrong in John Henson
Sam Cassell in Shabazz Napier
Lamar Odom in Terrence Jones
Brandon Mouton in Darius Miller
Dan Dickau in Matthew Dellavedova
Earl Watson in Phil Greene
Jamar Butler in Gary Browne
Roy Hibbert in Henry Sims
Ronald Moore in Jason Brickman
Troy Murphy in Tyler Olander
Demetris Nichols in James Southerland
Loren Woods in C.J. Aiken
Shawn Taggart in Raphael Putney
Ray Allen in Bradley Beal
Trevor Ariza in Andre Roberson
Scotty Thurman in P.J. Hairston
Dion Dixon in Derrick Gordon
Randolph Childress in Isaiah Canaan
Sean May in Jared Sullinger
Jason Richardson (extremely poor man's version) in Doug Anderson
Eugene Edgerson in Ed Daniel
Khalid El-Amin in Junior Cadougan
Robert Horry in Christian Watford
Bobby Jackson in Russ Smith
Michael Doleac (poor man's version) in Rob Loe
Mark Madsen in Brian Conklin
Justin Gray in Kwamain Mitchell
Adonis Jordan in Jordan Taylor
Anthony Mason (better shooting version) in Deshaun Thomas
John Starks in Todd Mayo
Rik Smits in Tyler Zeller
Bo Outlaw in Quincy Acy
Travis Diener in Jordan Hulls
J.R. Smith in Terrence Ross
Brandon Rush in Wayne Blackshear
Willie Anderson in William Buford
Brian Davis in Travis Releford

Monday, February 6, 2012

Grown Up And In Control Of The MAAC

After all the criticism, Tim Cluess and Iona are back in sole possession of MAAC lead at 11-2 in conference play.  (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

For anyone who doubted Iona College; after their meltdown four weeks ago against Manhattan, after their inexplicable road loss against Siena, even after the loss to Hofstra in December that all but eliminated any shot of the Gaels receiving an at-large bid in this year's NCAA Tournament, their performance Saturday night serves notice that the road to the MAAC championship runs first through New Rochelle before ending in Springfield.

Following an electrifying 105-86 victory over Canisius Thursday night in which Momo Jones threatened a school record with his 43 points, the Gaels backed it up at Draddy Gym with an 85-73 road win against Manhattan.  For a team who was emotionally deflated after blowing an 18-point lead in the final eight minutes against the Jaspers on their home court, it was more than just a pick-me-up as the Gaels enter a stretch run that includes contests with MAAC contenders Loyola and Fairfield, as well as a BracketBuster showdown with Nevada.

"We can't take a night off because everybody's shooting," said Iona coach Tim Cluess.  "Teams are going to play well against us."

Manhattan certainly played well, cutting yet another 18-point lead to just nine in the final minutes before the Gaels regained control and capped off what could be their biggest win of the season with a Scott Machado dunk in front of a Manhattan student section that had directed unflattering chants toward the visitors from Westchester County from the moment Iona took the court for their pregame shootaround.  "We love the attention," said Machado; who finished with 18 points and nine assists, "but at the same time, we've got to live up to it."

Now at 19-5 on the year and 11-2 in MAAC play, the attention Machado speaks of will be magnified even more; almost to the extent it was at before the season even started, when most insiders were pegging the Gaels as a team on the precipice of a long run in March before nonconference losses to Marshall and Hofstra changed the perception of some of the pundits.  Thirteen games through an impressive MAAC slate later, the Gaels are slowly regaining their respect while in the process becoming a better and more fundamentally sound team.  "We've grown up in that we've finished off the last several games better," said Cluess after the Manhattan game that senior forward Mike Glover credited the sellout crowd in Riverdale for "motivating us to play harder."

Glover leads the team in scoring and rebounding with averages of 18.5 points and nine rebounds per game, but the man who makes the motor run is Machado.  A product of St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey, Machado actually played his freshman year for Cluess at St. Mary's High School on Long Island before transferring to the national powerhouse coached at the time by current Wagner head man Dan Hurley.  A potential first team All-American this season, Machado is arguably the best point guard in the nation.  Averaging a double-double with 13.6 points and ten assists per game, Machado is the collegiate Steve Nash; a gifted scorer, but also an equally proficient passer.  "He's as good as anyone," Manhattan coach Steve Masiello said of Machado.  "He's the best point guard in the country, bar none. He makes the four guys around him better."

The attention Machado and the Gaels have to live up to even more so now than ever before will be focused on Iona once again this Friday night in Baltimore, when they travel to the Reitz Arena to face Loyola for the second time this season.  The first time these two schools met was on January 15th at the Hynes Center in New Rochelle, where Iona shook off a lackluster first half in their first game since the Manhattan loss to come alive during the final stanza on the way to a 74-63 victory over Jimmy Patsos and the Greyhounds.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Super Bowl Saturday In The Big Apple

Jim Boeheim leads second-ranked Syracuse into Madison Square Garden for latest installment of heated Empire State rivalry with St. John's.  (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

Most, if not all, of the attention around New York this weekend is focused on the New York Giants and their quest to cap off yet another improbable run to a championship when they square off against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday.  What only the die-hard sports fans in the Empire State will see is a gridiron appetizer that stands alone as its own main event the day before, a battle for in-state bragging rights between a school that is the face of the college basketball landscape in the largest city in the country and the 2003 national champion that brands itself as the state's marquee college program despite enduring endless criticism from their downstate neighbors for that arguably valid boast.

At 10-12 this season and 4-6 in the Big East, St. John's has not achieved the level of success they enjoyed a year ago under Steve Lavin.  The senior-laden Red Storm advanced to the school's first NCAA Tournament since 2002 a year ago, giving a long-suffering fan base the hope and confidence it had clamored for since the days of Lou Carnesecca in the 1980s and early '90s.  However, it has been a long road back.  With the youngest team in program history and assistant coach Mike Dunlap guiding St. John's while Lavin has taken most of this season to recover from prostate cancer surgery he underwent in October, the Red Storm are just now starting to turn the corner after wins in two of their last three games.  A seven-point loss to Duke that serves as one of the most inspiring games the team has played this year sandwiches victories over West Virginia and DePaul; and next up for St. John's is a Syracuse team ranked second in the nation, but one that returns nearly everyone from the squad that the Red Storm nearly defeated in last year's Big East tournament.

"If D.J. (Kennedy, who tore his ACL six minutes into the game) played the whole game, St. John's would have won," said Rumble In the Garden columnist and Daly Dose enthusiast Quinn Rochford; who also believes that the Red Storm could also have ended what turned out to be a national championship run for UConn, although that is another issue.

Led by the dynamic duo of freshmen D'Angelo Harrison (16.4 points per game and 36 percent from three-point range) and Moe Harkless, (16.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game) the Red Storm have the offensive firepower to stay with the Orange.  The experience is another story, however; as St. John's will once again be starting five freshmen against a Syracuse starting five whose youngest player will likely be returning sophomore Fab Melo, who Red Storm head coach Steve Lavin dubbed the "air traffic control tower" of Syracuse's world-famous 2-3 zone defense.

"We know that they're young," said Lavin on a Big East coaches' conference call yesterday, "but we don't want to use that as a crutch or an excuse for not winning now."  "We want to be competitive this year and not wait for the future."  In today's pregame press conference, Mike Dunlap addressed the prospect of the game serving as a de facto home contest for the visitors while also referencing his team's knowledge of a long and storied rivalry.

"With all of the social media out there, the players are well aware of Syracuse, the fans, and all of that," Dunlap said.  "What's going to be great is that the Garden is going to be full, and the fact that it has a Syracuse flair to it too just adds to the rivalry.  Any of those challenges that our guys can face that they feel a little new about will ultimately be good for us."

About six hours north of St. John's, the mood and the feelings are just a little different.

Syracuse University really has every right in the world to brag when it comes to their program and their meetings with St. John's, and this is coming from a St. John's alumnus and broadcaster.  Although the Orange have won just 48 of the 85 meetings all time against the Red Storm, they have taken six straight and twelve of the last thirteen dating back to February of 2000.  In fact, Syracuse has not lost consecutive games to the Red Storm since 1993.

Prior to the 2010-11 season, I had the opportunity to interview Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim at Big East media day, and one of the many topics I asked the coach about was his team's ability to take over the "World's Most Famous Arena" in recent years.  Boeheim admitted that his team liked playing at the Garden, calling it a "good venue" for the Orange; but added that "when we play St. John's, there probably won't be too much orange," mentioning the equally rabid Red Storm fan base amid the sea of Syracuse fans in midtown Manhattan.

If there are any positive nuggets to take away from this for the Red Storm as they prepare for a David versus Goliath matchup, two come to mind right away.  The last time the Red Storm came into a game against Syracuse having lost six straight to the Orange, they beat them in 2006 at Madison Square Garden for what currently serves as the most recent St. John's win in the rivalry.  In addition; the last time the Red Storm were largely dismissed before taking the stage for a game of this magnitude, they thoroughly destroyed then-No. 4 Duke 93-78 at the Garden just over a year ago.

One school is New York City's college team; the other New York State's college team whether one wants to admit it or not, a title earned because of their consistency over the last decade while the other has just returned to the national spotlight.  Both schools treat this as a big game, and rightfully so.  Two teams looking to silence the other and their critics once and for all.  It doesn't get much better than this.  Heck, Giants-Patriots II may not even be able to live up to the hype and actual on-court happenings of this one.  It's going to be a wild and enjoyable ride at Madison Square Garden tomorrow afternoon.  If you plan on showing up, you won't regret it.  Trust me.

Get Well Soon, Jim

UConn's wild ride of a 2011-12 season continued this afternoon when it was announced that Jim Calhoun would be taking medical leave of absence effective immediately.  (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

In the ten months since the University of Connecticut capped off its Cinderella run through the Big East and NCAA Tournaments with the program's third national championship, the overall mood of Storrs, Connecticut has yet to approach the emotional high following the Huskies' April victory against Butler that set off a rousing celebration in the Nutmeg State.

Currently sitting ninth in the Big East with a 4-5 record in conference play and 14-7 overall mark, UConn will look to snap a four-game losing streak when they play host to Seton Hall at the XL Center.  However, the Huskies will be looking to end a stretch featuring six losses in their last eight games with heavier hearts than usual after it was announced today that head coach Jim Calhoun would be taking an indefinite medical leave of absence.

Calhoun, whose 867 career wins rank the Hall of Fame coach sixth all-time, will attempt to recover from spinal stenosis while he is off the bench.  Spinal stenosis is a lower back condition that causes severe pain and hinders one's mobility; and Calhoun has battled this affliction for several months, but it had not worsened to this level until just a few days ago.

"Last summer, Jim had some significant back pain and has seen two excellent back specialists," said Dr. Peter Schulman, Calhoun's personal physician.  "Jim has been able to manage it with physical therapy and stretching; but over the last several days, things have become worse and he is not able to deal with this on a day-to-day basis.  Right now, he is physically unable to coach."

Calhoun will be replaced by longtime assistant George Blaney while he is away, but all victories earned by the Huskies will still be credited to Calhoun's ledger.  The legendary head man is the second Big East coach to take an extended medical leave, as St. John's coach Steve Lavin has been away from the Red Storm bench since the fifth game of the year to recover from offseason prostate cancer surgery.

For the 69-year-old Calhoun, this represents yet another obstacle that has been placed in his way; an unfortunate motif throughout his life, and one that makes fans wonder whether or not he would have been better off retiring, as many insiders speculated he would following UConn's improbable run to a national title, and walking away a winner.

However, that's not Calhoun's way.  Coaching is virtually all he knows, and he's one of the best in the world at what he does.  The man will go as long as he can and as hard as he can, because that's what he's done throughout his career.

From being thrust into the role of man of the house at 15 years old following the death of his father; to leaving college to support his family, (he would eventually return) to his long and well-documented battle with prostate cancer, and even the scandals involving former recruit Nate Miles and current freshman guard Ryan Boatright that really are not his fault, Jim Calhoun is more a survivor than he is a head coach.  Regardless of one's opinion(s) toward the University of Connecticut men's basketball program, this has to be respected.

Calhoun and UConn are either loved or hated depending on who you talk to, (the former if it is me) but I would hope almost everyone would be pulling for him to overcome this latest health scare and get back on the bench to lead the Huskies to even further success, perhaps maybe even a fourth national championship in the near future.  Calhoun's drive and determination can keep him in this game for another decade.  Hopefully his health can be just as cooperative.

Get well, Jim.  We wish you all the best.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Haithers Gon' Haith

After critics questioned his hire, Frank Haith is having last laugh with Missouri.  (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

To the casual college basketball fan, Frank Haith is nothing close to a household name.  To the educated hoops aficionado, however, Haith is a genius this year; one who shocked those who analyze the sport for a living when he left the University of Miami for Missouri after Mike Anderson this past offseason, and has thrown himself into the role of national coach of the year frontrunner after a 20-2 start in which the Tigers have ascended as high as the No. 2 spot in the polls.  "It's been extremely gratifying so far;" said Haith earlier this season when interviewed by college basketball insider Jon Rothstein, "but we haven't had to deal with any type of adversity yet."

For someone like Haith, not having to deal with adversity is a change of pace from what he has gone through over the course of his 46 years.  Having worked his way through the ranks as an assistant for parts of three decades before finally getting his first head coaching job at Miami in 2004; Haith knows no other way than overcoming obstacles, be it professionally or personally.

Anyone in the city of New York remembers the tragic Sean Bell shooting in 2006; when Bell was murdered the day before he intended to get married, shot fifty times by three police officers.  How does this relate to the head coach at Missouri, you might ask?  Sean Bell was Frank Haith's nephew.

Haith, a Queens product who made his name assisting Dave Odom and Rick Barnes at Wake Forest and Texas, respectively, inherited one of the better teams in the Big 12 upon Mike Anderson's departure to Arkansas.  With all five starters coming back, the Tigers were expected to be contenders in a conference that was out there for the taking.  Before the opening tip of the season could be contested, Heath had to endure yet another kick to the gut when senior forward Laurence Bowers tore his ACL.  Bowers is sitting out this season with a medical redshirt and will return next year, an injury that forced Haith to rely on a four-guard lineup similar to the one Jay Wright honed to perfection at Villanova.

The four guards have been nothing short of spectacular.  Marcus Denmon has displayed an ability to score and run the point equally well in a season where he is fighting Kansas' Thomas Robinson for Big 12 Player of the Year honors.  In addition, Kim English has blossomed as a sharpshooter while Michael Dixon has come off the bench and provided a spark similar to the one Tom Izzo got from Chris Allen and Korie Lucious in recent years at Michigan State.  Finally, there is sophomore point guard Phil Pressey.  A 5-10 dynamo who is the son of a former NBA great, (Milwaukee Bucks legend Paul Pressey) Phil averages an astounding six assists per game setting the table for his older brother Matt, English, Denmon and senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe.

Not too long after Haith accepted the job at Missouri; he was implicated in the Nevin Shapiro scandal after the Miami booster's list of transgressions included the Hurricanes' basketball program, yet another in the litany of circumstances that have tried to stand in the way of a determined head coach who is finally getting the respect and recognition he deserves after spending eight years taking a dormant Miami program and turning it into a consistent postseason participant in an area where college basketball is far from being considered a hotbed.

Mike Anderson may have the "40 Minutes Of Hell," but Frank Haith has 40 minutes of a team that is a simple pleasure to watch just because they play the game the way it is supposed to be played.  A team that executes fundamentals and makes finesse plays look routine, one looking like a prototypical recipe for a long run into March.

When he took the job at Missouri, Frank Haith raised a lot of eyebrows.  Ten months later, eyebrows are not the only things being raised in the wake of Missouri's 20-2 start.  Frank Haith is turning heads one person at a time, much to the surprise of every critic whose initial reaction to the coaching change in Columbia was one of shock.  Some are still downplaying this hot start, calling it an aberration amid the likes of perennial Top 10 programs like Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State and North Carolina.

Long story short, Missouri looks like a program that is on top to stay; and for those still in denial about the Tigers' success, I offer this assessment:

Haithers gon' Haith.