Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bashir Mason Takes Over At Wagner

Just 28, Bashir Mason is now youngest Division I head coach, replacing Dan Hurley at Wagner. (Photo courtesy of Wagner men's basketball sports information director Kevin Ross)

Sometimes it doesn't matter how old you are.

Wagner College proved that this afternoon when introducing Bashir Mason as its new head coach. One month removed from celebrating his 28th birthday, Mason became the youngest Division I coach in the nation when he was greeted to a standing ovation on Wagner's Staten Island campus, replacing Dan Hurley; for whom Mason played while attending St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey during the early 2000s, after Hurley left the Seahawks to succeed Jim Baron at Rhode Island.

"We had a person right here who could continue to build our program," said Wagner athletic director Walt Hameline, who also serves as the Seahawks' football coach. "All the feedback I got about him was straight and forward. He's young, he's enthusiastic, he cares, and he's going to be real good." Hameline returned the enthusiasm by giving Mason a bear hug prior to officially christening him as the eighteenth head coach in the history of the Verrazano Warriors' basketball program. "We've started something the past two years," said Mason. "That job is not done yet. Wagner basketball is here, and it's here to stay."

Despite being only two years older than this writer, Mason carries himself with a poise and maturity far belying of his tender age. "Although I haven't coached a game, I kind of feel like what a head coach feels like," Mason stated. "I think it's a huge task to be a head coach at any age. I'm not really looking at my age. I'm just prepared to do the job."

Mason was the second assistant last year for Dan Hurley, with the former coach's older brother Bobby ahead of him in the pecking order. Also considered a candidate, Bobby Hurley instead decided to join Dan at Rhode Island, and Mason impressed both the Wagner administration and players enough for each group to trust he was the best choice for the position.

Mason returns four starters from a Wagner team that won a school record 25 games and finished second in the Northeast Conference, but loses both all-NEC guard Tyler Murray and sixth man Chris Martin to graduation. However, the new coach is expected to retain the stellar recruiting class that Hurley locked up prior to leaving Staten Island, as former Michigan State commit Dwaun Anderson and prep star Eric Fanning appear to have upheld their pledges to attend Wagner.

I got the chance to speak to Mason individually, and was quite impressed with how he conducted himself. When I asked him about the success of fellow young coaches Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens; both of whom have gone to the Final Four, Wagner's newest head man reaffirmed his feeling that 28 is nothing more than a number. "It backs up my belief that age isn't the issue," Mason admitted. "It's (about) your knowledge, your work ethic, your character."

Bashir Mason seems like he has perfected all three of those principles, and if his first impression is any indication, Dan Hurley's brief two-year stint at Wagner is only the beginning for what could be a long period of success for Staten Island's college team.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Six Years Later, Cronin Is Now King Of His World At Cincinnati

Six years ago, Mick Cronin had just one scholarship player on his roster when hired at Cincinnati.  Today, Cronin has resurrected Bearcats with consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances highlighted by trip to Sweet 16 this year.  (Photo courtesy of WFAN)

Six years ago today, the University of Cincinnati cleaned up the remnants of their divorce from Bob Huggins by hiring a 34-year-old hometown boy who was not only a Cincinnati alum; but a former Huggins assistant in his own right, and a man who had spent the prior three years as the head coach who took Murray State to two NCAA Tournaments following a two-year stint as a Rick Pitino disciple at Louisville.  Upon returning to his alma mater, he inherited just one scholarship student-athlete at a program that recruits, fans and media had left for dead in the wake of Cincinnati's arrival in the Big East.  Following what could best be described as a humbling rookie season as part of one of the strongest basketball conferences in the nation, hardly anyone could have predicted that this coach would lead Cincinnati to consecutive NCAA Tournaments and a regional semifinal appearance just a half-dozen years later.

That's just how Mick Cronin goes about his business.

Now 40, but still the third youngest coach in the Big East, trailing only Marquette's Buzz Williams; who is 39, and 36-year-old Kevin Willard at Seton Hall, Cronin has taken a situation he has likened to raising the Titanic and truly developed a main course out of table scraps at Cincinnati, improving the Bearcats' win total in each of his first five seasons at the helm and winning more than twenty games for the second straight year in a campaign that concluded two days ago.  Suddenly, the days of the Bearcats' seemingly endless trips to the field of what was then 64 under Huggins with players the likes of Nick Van Exel, Danny Fortson, Dermarr Johnson, Kenyon Martin and Jason Maxiell have become familiar again, albeit with new personnel such as Deonta Vaughn, Rashad Bishop, Larry Davis, Dion Dixon and Yancy Gates; as well as a change in philosophy this season brought about by an incident that could have left the program with its most severe black eye to date, but instead proved to be one of the best things that could have happened to Cincinnati basketball.

Cronin handled the aftermath of the December 10th brawl in the final seconds of Cincinnati's 76-53 loss to Xavier with the grace and class one would expect from coaches much older and much more experienced, and the melee proved to be a rallying point for his team in the weeks to come.  Just three months later, fans and professionals worldwide are still praising Cronin for his management of what would have been a locker room cancer at most other schools; but for someone who has covered Cronin closely the way this writer has for the past five years, such an act came as no surprise.

Cronin was my initial interview subject at my first-ever Big East media day in 2008; and despite his reticent, unassuming persona, I felt a connection to the man and the way he conducted business at a school that had been a basketball power throughout my youth.  The coach's affability and willingness to provide an honest answer to, and genuine interest in, every question anyone asks him became an endearing quality I had come to respect and praise in this space on several occasions through the years; and so developed a professional friendship, if such a term exists.  Cronin now recognizes my face and instantly says hello to me seconds later, as evidenced by his entrance to Big East media day this past October; not to mention last month at Madison Square Garden, where I was about to sign on for my pregame show before doing play-by-play for a St. Francis/LIU Brooklyn game that was played on the back end of a doubleheader between Cincinnati and St. John's.  

Any other coach would not have cared about the other game or its broadcaster(s) and gone straight to their postgame radio interview; but before either of us donned a headset, Mick Cronin walked up to my broadcast booth, shook my hand, and wished me luck on my upcoming call.  In an industry where not every coach is the friendliest or most sincere person in the room, Cronin is a different breed; one who does not let success get to his head, one who focuses on the task at hand and does not relent until the pursuit of his goal(s) is complete.  That is why I was not surprised to see Cronin react the way he did following the Xavier disaster, which included six-game suspensions to forwards Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodj.

Fast forward to this past Thursday night, where Cronin's Cincinnati Bearcats arrived in Boston for an East regional semifinal meeting against Ohio State, a school who; despite Cronin's desire to initiate a series between the two programs, chooses not to schedule Cincinnati, opting instead to stick with the status quo that is the Buckeyes' nonconference schedule.  After Cincinnati played an inspired game in what unfortunately turned out to be a losing effort, Cronin was asked about how far he has come in such a short time since arriving in the home of the Bengals and Reds; and offered a typical, at least in the eyes of those who know him well, response:

"Well, I hoped that we would have been here; but as you know, I would have liked to have won the game.  I think we've come a long way.  I take a lot of pride in that.  Nothing has been given to us.  We didn't take over a job where people were throwing money at our program and building arenas and practice gyms and facilities and all that.  We've worked extremely hard as a staff to get to where we are; and I think what you see when you watch our players play, even though we got outplayed tonight, in the Big East Conference, rebuilding a program has been a tough chore for a lot of people in the last ten years, especially since it has gone to sixteen teams."

"So the fact that we've climbed that ladder and that we've had some success in March is great; but from the day I took the job, it's always been a long-term proposition for me, so we're always trying to do things to get better each year and try to improve our facilities.  That's what our new AD is focused on.  We've got great support from our president.  We have challenges at our school, but everybody is doing everything they can to help us build our program back up, and it's an arms race out there.  For me, that's how I look at it.  It's a long-term approach.  For me, it wasn't 'try to come in, do whatever you can to win because it's somewhere I wanted to coach for twenty years and go play some golf.'  So, everything I've done is 'try to do it the right way, try to build it for the long term.'"

- Mick Cronin following East regional semifinal loss to Ohio State; March 22, 2012

Whoever said nice guys finish last obviously has not met Mick Cronin.  For those who have not, Cincinnati's last two seasons should be reason enough to sell you on the belief that the Bearcats are once again a force to be reckoned with not just in the Big East, but the nation as well.  

To expand on Cronin's analogy to raising the Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio's character of Jack Dawson in the blockbuster 1997 movie "Titanic" emphatically proclaims "I'm the king of the world!" when he stands on the bow of the mighty ship and looks ahead to the wide open Atlantic Ocean.  It may have taken six years, but when he reviews his latest masterpiece of a season before starting to prepare for the 2012-13 campaign; Mick Cronin has undoubtedly earned the right to make the same bold proclamation, based solely on what he has done in reforming a once-dominant basketball legacy and placing it in a position to add even more accolades and milestones to its already rich and storied history.  Two factors set it apart from the movie and real-life ship, however.  For one, this is real life; and secondly, at the rate Cronin and his staff are going, there is no iceberg in the immediate vision of R.M.S. Bearcat, just clear and smooth sailing in a body of water few envisioned the University of Cincinnati being able to stay afloat.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hurley Era Begins At Rhode Island

Rhode Island athletic director Thorr Bjorn introduces Dan Hurley yesterday as Rams' new head coach following brief success in two-year tenure at Wagner.  (Photo courtesy of Providence Journal)

For the second time in as many years, a new era in basketball has begun in the state of Rhode Island.

Almost a year to the day in which in-state rival Providence welcomed Ed Cooley back home following a five-year stint at Fairfield University in which he transformed the Stags from a MAAC doormat to the class of the conference, Rhode Island made a coaching change of their own by hiring Dan Hurley away from Wagner College on Staten Island yesterday.  Hurley, who guided the Seahawks to a school record 25-win season this past year; replaces Jim Baron, who was dismissed after going 7-24 with the Rams in a campaign marked by the struggle to replace leading scorer Jamal Wilson after he left the team in December.

"When a special opportunity comes along like URI, you're going to go for it," said Hurley shortly after being introduced as the 19th coach of a program that has not been to an NCAA Tournament since their run to a regional final in 1999 behind former UCLA coach Jim Harrick and future NBA star Lamar Odom.  "It just became really appealing and something we're excited about.  It's been done here at a high level, and it's going to be done again at a high level very quickly."

Despite having turned just 39 in January, Hurley has been a winner throughout his coaching career; from his nine-year tenure at St. Benedict's Prep, where he developed future NBA talent the likes of J.R. Smith and Samardo Samuels, to his 38-23 record in just two seasons at Wagner, where he inherited a team that finished 5-26 in their last season under former coach Mike Deane.  Hurley's older brother Bobby, who was the point guard on Mike Krzyzewski's two national championship teams at Duke in the early 1990s before joining Dan as his top assistant coach at Wagner, will take his talents to the Ocean State as well.

The new coach wasted little time emphasizing his vision for resurrecting a program that was once the class of the Atlantic 10.  "We want to be real aggressive and attacking at both ends of the court," Hurley said.  "I think it's something the kids will embrace.  Our culture is going to be established quickly in terms of doing the right things, and no one will work harder.  We have every intention of delivering sooner rather than later."

Hurley inherits a roster that graduates just two seniors; but could also lose guard Billy Baron, who is expected to seek a waiver that will allow him to transfer and play immediately, especially if his father and former coach Jim becomes the new head coach at Canisius, a vacancy he is expected to fill.  Rhode Island also brings back leading rebounder Jonathan Holton, who returns for his sophomore season next year; as well as Serbian sharpshooter Nikola Malesevic, who missed eight games in the middle of the season with a broken hand before recovering late in the season.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hurley Leaves Staten Island For Rhode Island

After just two years at Wagner, Dan Hurley leaves Seahawks following 25-win season to replace Jim Baron at Rhode Island after former Rams coach was fired following 7-24 season.  (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

In the spring of 2010, Dan Hurley was still the head coach at St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey, one of the Garden State's three nationally regarded high school programs.  Two years later, the former Seton Hall legend is now en route to his second job in the college ranks.

Following a season in which he guided Wagner to a school record 25 wins, Hurley officially accepted a six-year deal this morning to replace Jim Baron at the University of Rhode Island.  The 39-year-old rising star will be introduced as the Rams' new head coach in a press conference tomorrow afternoon in Kingston, where he takes over a Rhode Island team that comes off a 7-24 campaign and loses only two graduating seniors.

Hurley went 38-23 in two years at Wagner, nearly doubling the Seahawks' win total this past season from their 13-17 mark in the 2010-11 campaign.  His older brother Bobby, who was the point guard on Duke's back-to-back national championship teams in the 1990s before joining Wagner as Dan's top assistant coach, will be going to the Ocean State as well in the same capacity.

Wagner is expected to once again be one of the contenders to win the Northeast Conference next year along with LIU Brooklyn and Robert Morris, as they return four starters despite losing all-NEC guard Tyler Murray and sixth man Chris Martin to graduation.  Hurley also lined up a stellar recruiting class highlighted by former Michigan State commit Dwaun Anderson and Pennsylvania prep standout Eric Fanning before informing his team earlier today of his intentions to move on.

Hurley's replacement is unknown at this time, but Cincinnati assistant coach Darren Savino; a former Rutgers assistant whose strong connections to local AAU coaches will help Wagner remain relevant in metropolitan area recruiting, is a logical candidate for the job.  More information will be provided on this developing story as it becomes available.

Analyzing Harkless' Decision To Declare

Moe Harkless' impending draft selection will make him first pick to come out of St. John's since Omar Cook in 2001.  (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

After Moe Harkless officially announced his intentions to sign with an agent and enter this June's NBA draft, I was asked to determine whether or not the Queens product had made the right choice in leaving St. John's after one season; a decision which will likely make him the first Red Storm player selected in the draft since fellow one-year wonder Omar Cook, who was a second-round choice in 2001.

Naturally, the decision to turn pro after one year is even more of a double-edged sword than leaving after two or three years in college, maybe just as much as the former practice of leaving out of high school.  The case studies are as positive (Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant) as they are negative, (Brandan Wright, Greg Oden) but one more variable in this instance makes it even harder to judge: Harkless' one year was one in which his team did not make the NCAA Tournament.

The list of one-year players without an appearance in the field of 68 on their ledger is filled with just as much success (Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Trevor Ariza; who like Harkless was a Steve Lavin recruit that ultimately didn't get to play for him, albeit under different circumstances) as professional failure, (Omar Cook, Dajuan Wagner, Lance Stephenson) but Harkless' burgeoning talent solidifies him as a quality prospect worthy of his projection as a fringe lottery pick.  Moreover, Harkless expressed his desire to take care of his mother, who raised the forward by herself; and coming from someone whose mother was both mother and father to me before and after my parents separated when I was 13, I admire and applaud Harkless for his decision to support his family financially.

Ultimately, there is no way to find out how wise a decision this is until he steps on an NBA court; but from a short-term perspective, especially given the future of St. John's and recruiting prowess of head coach Steve Lavin, there is no time like the present for Harkless to advance his career and take his talents to the next level.

Harkless To Declare After Just One Year

After capturing Big East Rookie of the Year honors, Moe Harkless is ready to move onto professional ranks, where he stands to be first St. John's player since 2001 to be selected in NBA draft. (Photo courtesy of Newsday)

In the grand scheme of things, he will have left before most people could truly appreciate him; but for those who got to see Moe Harkless up close and personal, nearly all would agree that his talents made his decision to turn pro easier.

The freshman forward; who this past season became just the second Red Storm player to win Big East Rookie of the Year honors, announced his intention to forgo his final three years of eligibility in a press conference yesterday afternoon at Madison Square Garden that was also attended by head coach Steve Lavin. Harkless is projected as a mid-first round pick after a rookie campaign highlighted by two games in which he scored 30 or more points, as well as a dominant showing against a physical Pittsburgh team in the Big East tournament two weeks ago.

"It has been my lifelong dream to play in the NBA," said the Queens native; who played just a three-pointer away from St. John's while at Forest Hills High School, "and I'm excited to have the opportunity to make the jump. The future is never guaranteed, and I feel like the opportunity and chance to pursue that dream is available right now."

Harkless also intimated that he is not merely testing the waters as other prospects have done in the past, and intends to hire an agent in the coming weeks. Should he indeed be one of the sixty names called at the Prudential Center on June 28th, he will become the first St. John's player selected since Omar Cook; ironically also a one-year player in Queens himself, was taken in the second round in 2001. For Harkless' coach, the forward represents the latest in a long line of professional talents he has turned out over his career, but first since coming to New York after spending seven years with ESPN following his dismissal from UCLA in 2003.

"He will be an example that shows that if you come to St. John's, great things can happen," said Steve Lavin. "Our program is so proud of what Moe accomplished this year, and we're genuinely happy for him as he moves on and realizes his dream."

Harkless' spot in the lineup next season will likely be taken by incoming recruit Jakarr Sampson, who recommitted to the Red Storm last week after being declared ineligible upon signing with St. John's last year. The Red Storm also return each of their other seven scholarship players, with Lavin expected to add at least one or two more to his recruiting class in the weeks to come.

Monday, March 19, 2012

After Melee, Cincinnati & Xavier Fight Their Way To Sweet 16

Kenny Frease bears scars from aftermath of Crosstown Shootout in December, but now both Xavier and Cincinnati have recovered from incident with each school advancing to Sweet 16. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

December 10, 2011 will go down in college basketball history as one of the sport's darkest hours following the final seconds of a heated intra-city rivalry between Cincinnati and Xavier. Three months later; after multiple suspensions, reinventions and questions as to how each program would recover, both schools have fought (no pun intended) their way to a claim as a regional semifinalist in this year's NCAA Tournament, which resumes Thursday night in Phoenix and Boston.

Cincinnati will be one of the teams competing in Boston Thursday night; as the Bearcats will take on Jared Sullinger and Ohio State for the right to face either Syracuse or Wisconsin two days later, with a trip to the Final Four serving as the reward for the victor. Despite a six-game suspension for forward Yancy Gates that some feel may not have been harsh enough a sentence for his role in the December fracas, Cincinnati has redefined their style on both sides of the ball. Even after Gates' return to the lineup, coach Mick Cronin has played a smaller lineup that uses 6-3 guard Jaquon Parker as its swingman since the infamous 76-53 loss to the Musketeers that can now be considered a turning point for each program.

"We were able to get past it because of the leadership of our university," Cronin stated last night following the Bearcats' 62-56 victory over ACC champion Florida State. "We've been on a mission to define what Cincinnati basketball is all about and our kids have banded together to do that. The kids have really shown what they're made of, and that's why I'm proud of them."

For the Bearcats' adversaries, however, the road to the Sweet 16 has been longer and full of more twists and turns than an episode of "Survivor." After the 23-point win over Cincinnati vaulted Xavier to an 8-0 record and the No. 8 ranking in the nation, the Musketeers dropped five of their next six in the wake of suspensions to guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons; as well as a four-game ban for freshman forward Dez Wells, and have been a .500 team since then, going 11-11 to finish the regular season and winning two out of three games in the Atlantic 10 tournament before opening their latest NCAA experience with wins over Notre Dame and Cinderella Lehigh.

"We always knew we had talent in the locker room," said Xavier center Kenny Frease, whose career-high 25 points lifted the Musketeers past Lehigh; "but for some reason, things weren't clicking for us." Senior guard Tu Holloway looked at the incident as motivation following a January trip to Fordham in which the brawl was still fresh in the minds of the fans in attendance at Rose Hill Gym. "I remember going to New York and Coach (Chris Mack) talking to us about how everyone was taking shots at us around the country," said Holloway, a native of Hempstead, Long Island. "I never forgot that day because I knew it was a head coach who was disappointed in the way we were playing; and after going through so much, we're still standing today. It just shows the character."

Xavier's coach; who now prepares for a showdown with Baylor, was appreciative of the opportunity to continue a run of success that started under Pete Gillen and the late Skip Prosser and extended into the reigns of Thad Matta and Sean Miller, but at the same time remained grounded and realistic about what lies ahead.

"It's an amazing accomplishment," Chris Mack said last night, "but it's not something that we want to be final for our program. I'm just proud of this group to come together, but we've got more work to do and more basketball to play."

One program had to retool their strategy on the court after their biggest piece was unavailable. The other had to regain its bearings after negative publicity affected their performance. Three months later, both schools stand better than they ever did and are looking like true survivors; to quote Elton John, with the prospect of an improbable run to a Final Four, or maybe even a national championship, very much alive.

March may be about madness; but in the cases of Cincinnati and Xavier, this March especially is one that brings the feeling of vindication for two teams who were quickly and unfairly judged immediately following an incident both would like to forget, only to emerge stronger than they were before taking the court against one another in December.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

New York Still Alive Thanks To Norfolk State

Queens product Kyle O'Quinn exults in shocking 86-84 Norfolk State victory over Missouri, as Spartans become third straight MEAC school and just fifth ever to upset a No. 2 seed in NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

The one New York City representative in this year's NCAA Tournament was eliminated last night in LIU Brooklyn's 22-point loss to Michigan State; but earlier in the day, a school that may as well be a program based in the five boroughs with all the local flavor on its roster registered what ranked as the tournament's biggest upset until Lehigh provided their own shocking victory against Mike Krzyzewski and Duke hours later.

In a West regional round of 64 game, 15th-seeded Norfolk State became just the fifth (Lehigh eventually added themselves to the list as No. 6) team from that slot in the bracket to eliminate a No. 2 seed by virtue of the Spartans' 86-84 victory over a Missouri squad that was the popular choice to represent the regional in the Final Four. Norfolk State was also the third consecutive school from the Mideastern Athletic Conference to defeat a No. 2 seed, joining Coppin State, who defeated South Carolina in 1997; and Hampton, who accomplished the rare feat in 2001 after toppling Iowa State.

As mentioned before, LIU Brooklyn was the only New York City program in the field of 68 this year; but when one looks at Norfolk State's roster, the casual fan may mistake the Spartans for a local AAU team. With eight players hailing from the largest city in the United States, Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans now has a roster full of kids with dreams as huge as the metropolis half of them call home. Ironically, Norfolk State defeated LIU Brooklyn earlier in the year when the two-time reigning Northeast Conference champions traveled to Virginia, scoring a 73-62 win that served as the Blackbirds' last loss before Jim Ferry's team went on a nine-game winning streak that was halted by Robert Morris six weeks later.

Of the octet of New Yorkers on Evans' roster, their biggest contributor; both from a physical and statistical perspective, is Kyle O'Quinn. A 6-10 senior from Jamaica, Queens, O'Quinn was the epitome of an unheralded prospect coming out of Campus Magnet (formerly Andrew Jackson) High School in Cambria Heights. O'Quinn's lone scholarship offer came from the Norfolk State program he has now spent four years at, and the senior had perhaps his finest hour last night in a 26-point, 14-rebound performance against an undersized Missouri team coached by fellow Queens product Frank Haith that had no true answer for O'Quinn's monstrous interior presence.

"We even messed up my bracket," gushed O'Quinn shortly after the Spartans had done the improbable and sent most of the nation to a likely defeat in their office pools. "We always go into the game with a sense of confidence. I never thought there was an upset alert until the buzzer went off."

For Norfolk State; who also nearly upset Marquette in the championship game of the Paradise Jam earlier in the season, O'Quinn has been the man at the forefront of the Spartans' first-ever NCAA Tournament experience, one now enhanced by a win. Selected as the MEAC Player of the Year, O'Quinn is averaging sixteen points and ten rebounds per game. However, if you ask him what may be in store down the road, he'll be the first one to highlight the uncertainty that comes with a professional career.

"I don't know," O'Quinn firmly said. "I hope somebody picks me up. I don't know what my future is. Winning on Sunday, how about that? Let's take small steps." The Cinderella Spartans next take on former two-time national champion Florida tomorrow, with the winner moving on to Phoenix for a regional semifinal date with either Murray State or the same Marquette team that has already beaten Norfolk State twice this season.

If they can get past Billy Donovan and the Gators tomorrow night, then maybe; just maybe, the third time could be the charm for Norfolk State. Either way, the Virginia school with the New York flavor has proven Jay-Z's "Empire State Of Mind" lyrics of "concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there's nothing you can't do" to be true no matter what happens the rest of the way.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The 2011-12 Iona Gaels: One Magical Season

After a disappointing end to their season last night; Tim Cluess, Scott Machado and anyone else affiliated with Iona have more than one reason to smile. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

Only one hour has elapsed since Brigham Young came back from a 25-point deficit to defeat Iona in the NCAA Tournament, and I'm still trying to wrap myself around the game that turned out to be a tale of two halves: A 55-point opening stanza in which the Gaels played some of their best basketball all season, and a 20-minute comeback by a BYU team that; even after the loss of all-universe guard Jimmer Fredette, is still one of the best teams in the nation.

I got to see the Gaels up close and personal eleven times this year, thanks in large part to sports information director Brian Beyrer and his assistants John Higgins and Nick Guerriero, the latter of whom was my producer for broadcasts at St. Francis College prior to taking the job in New Rochelle. I had heard of the Gaels' success last year in passing after reading numerous Associated Press recaps in which big games from Mike Glover and Scott Machado were recounted, as well as chronicled the transfer of Momo Jones from Arizona. Once I got to see this team live for the first time against LIU Brooklyn on November 28th of last year, I was immediately impressed with the Gaels and their dynamic offense.

Being an only child whose parents separated when I was just 13; I tend to become easily attached to people and things I like, and Iona basketball became one of those things. The Gaels were easy to embrace, with a future NBA point guard in Machado throwing alley-oops to a gifted forward in Glover who is his own human interest story after going through his own personal hell just to play at this level. Even with the mercurial and sometimes questionable shot selection of Jones, the Gaels had three proven scorers; and with outside shooting threats Sean Armand, Jermel Jenkins and Kyle Smyth coming off the bench, Iona looked as though they could not be stopped.

Then the first of two dramatic comebacks occurred at their expense on January 12th, when Manhattan College erased an 18-point deficit in the final eight minutes to defeat the Gaels on a buzzer-beating three-pointer on Iona's home court of the Hynes Center. A loss to Siena in which Iona opened the game on a 20-2 run followed by a loss to Fairfield in the semifinals of the MAAC tournament had critics questioning whether the Gaels were overrated. A much-debated at-large selection into the NCAA Tournament Sunday night had Iona fans feeling justified and confident that their team would show the nation that they were more than just a hype machine; and for 30 minutes last night against Brigham Young, the Gaels were proving their critics wrong until BYU closed out Iona 28-12 down the stretch to send coach Tim Cluess' team home to New Rochelle empty-handed, and leave a painful and career-ending memory for the five seniors on the Gaels' roster.

In the hour that has transpired following the BYU comeback, I have seen several people saying that Tim Cluess cannot coach. Let me be the first to tell you that although Brigham Young head man Dave Rose did coach a better game, Cluess cannot be crucified for three meltdowns over a 33-game season in which his team did what they were supposed to do. Not only did Iona win a regular season MAAC championship, the Gaels also became just the second team in the 31-year history of their conference to receive an at-large invitation to the field of 68. On top of that, Cluess has won wherever he has been; from St. Mary's High School in Manhasset to Suffolk Community College to C.W. Post to Iona, where he is 50-20 (an astounding .714 winning percentage for those of you scoring at home) in just two seasons at the helm of the Gaels since replacing Kevin Willard, who failed to reach the postseason with some of the players Cluess has now taken to the "Big Dance." You can question the leadership of Scott Machado if you wish; or even the shot selection of Momo Jones, but without either of them, and without Mike Glover as well, Iona is not the same. Still competitive, but not the same.

Anyway, this team should be admired for just being one of the 68 chosen ones. Regardless of the fact that their season ended in a failure, Iona College captivated their fans and media in a way that few teams have been able to do. I was fortunate to cover my alma mater St. John's in their run to the NCAA Tournament last year after two losing seasons in which I did play-by-play as a student, and this year's Gaels squad has taken me on a ride that ranks as one of my most enjoyable experiences in five years in the industry. For that, I say thank you. To Scott Machado, Mike Glover, Randy Dezouvre, Jermel Jenkins and Trinity Fields, I wish each of you the best in whatever lies ahead. To head coach Tim Cluess and his staff, thank you for being so easily approachable no matter what the outcome was. Keep doing what you do, and this current success will only be the beginning. To Brian Beyrer and his staff, thank you for having me. It has been an honor to cover one of the best mid-major teams in the nation; and if you are so kind enough to let me, I would love to come back to the Hynes Center and cover the Gaels again next year.

Everybody loves the little guy in the fight, and Iona College won a lot of people over on a season that should be remembered more for their 25-win campaign that was filled with far greater highs than the second-half collapses that ultimately ended this dream season.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

No Melo, No Problem

Despite Fab Melo's sudden ineligibility, Syracuse remains a force to be reckoned with in East regional. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

Those who are as closely affiliated to St. John's University as I am may kill me for what I'm about to say considering the general sentiment my alma mater expresses toward the subject of this piece, but Syracuse University is in no way hamstrung by this afternoon's declaration that sophomore center Fab Melo would be ineligible to play in the NCAA Tournament.

In fact; based on what I've seen from the Orange over the last two seasons, the top seed in the East regional may be even better without their seven-foot Brazilian.

Melo has definitely come a long way this year following a disappointing rookie campaign, but his absence from the lineup actually does the Orange a favor in that Syracuse becomes more athletic. With Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita combining to replace Melo in the middle of Jim Boeheim's world-famous 2-3 zone defense, Syracuse can get out in transition more often and turn matchups against prospective early-round opponents such as Kansas State, Southern Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Harvard and Wisconsin into their favor. In addition, not having Melo gives the Syracuse backcourt a chance to shine as well. Even though Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche do not have numbers that set box scores on fire, Big East Sixth Man of the Year Dion Waiters; whom college basketball insider Jon Rothstein compares to NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, will get more chances to show the nation his amazing potential.

In the bottom half of the East bracket; Ohio State looks like the team to beat if they can get past Gonzaga or West Virginia, but the Orange have the offensive firepower to withstand two of those schools, as well as Cincinnati, despite losing to the Bearcats in the Big East tournament last week. The one wild card, however could be Gonzaga. The Bulldogs will have to overcome a trip to Pittsburgh; which is a de facto home game for round of 64 opponent West Virginia, but if Gonzaga's own seven-footer Robert Sacre can continue to draw fouls and be a force inside, a potential regional final matchup with the Orange could turn into a trap game.

Either way, those who took Syracuse to make a run in the tournament need not be alarmed; for although most people are revising their brackets out of sheer panic, it does not change the fact that Jim Boeheim's Orangemen (yes, that's an old school reference for those of you scoring at home) are still both the most talented team in their regional and a safe bet to reach New Orleans at the end of the month.

For The Record...

With other commitments this week, I haven't been able to put an in-depth preview of each regional together, so I'll give my First Four picks now and post a picture of my bracket in the days to come.

Tuesday: Mississippi Valley State over Western Kentucky
Iona over Brigham Young

Wednesday: Vermont over Lamar
South Florida over Temple

Final Four: Indiana, Michigan State, Syracuse, (more on that in the coming days) and North Carolina

National Championship: North Carolina over Michigan State

Monday, March 12, 2012

Albeit Indirectly, Bobby Back In NCAA After All

Shown here during his stint at Manhattan, Bobby Gonzalez still has an influence on this year's NCAA Tournament despite not having coached since 2010. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Before the curtain came down on what turned out to be his final season as the head coach at Seton Hall University, Bobby Gonzalez shared his one goal with the media: To bring the Pirates back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006; just weeks before he replaced Louis Orr in South Orange after a successful seven-year run at Manhattan College, where Gonzalez led the Jaspers to four postseason appearances, including a round of 64 victory over Florida in the "Big Dance" back in 2004.

Gonzalez unfortunately did not get the chance to take Seton Hall into the field of 68; but several of his former players and recruits, both in and away from South Orange, represent the coach in the postseason this year, proving that the man once described as the next hot coaching commodity after his 2003-04 season at Manhattan is still as shrewd an evaluator of talent as any coach in the nation.

Bobby insists he would like to coach again as he wraps up his second year off the bench since his acrimonious 2010 departure from Seton Hall, and whomever is inclined enough to take a chance on him will see that he is still just as good an in-game coach and recruiter as he was two decades ago as an assistant to Pete Gillen at Xavier and Providence. Moreover, his contributions to "NBC Sports Talk" on the NBC Sports Network are establishing him as a prominent presence in the college basketball landscape in much the same way Steve Lavin and Mark Gottfried were before their returns to the sidelines at St. John's and North Carolina State; where each took their new team to the NCAA Tournament in their first year with the program, respectively. With the second season starting in just under 48 hours, here is a closer look at each of the players who are making a case for Gonzalez to return to the college coaching ranks through their success on the court.

Steve Masiello (Manhattan): Although not a player, Bobby's former assistant at Manhattan College had a Gonzalez-esque rookie season in Riverdale; taking the Jaspers to the largest turnaround in the nation, winning 20 games this season after Barry Rohrssen had only won six the year before. Manhattan finished fourth in the MAAC, which produced NCAA Tournament teams in Loyola and Iona. Masiello and the Jaspers will play Albany Wednesday night in the opening round of the collegeinsider.com Tournament.

DeAndre Kane and Jamir Hanner (Marshall): Kane and Hanner were both verbal commitments when Gonzalez was still at Seton Hall, but each player backed out once Kevin Willard was hired by the Pirates and ended up at Marshall under coach Tom Herrion. Kane is the Thundering Herd's leading scorer, averaging over sixteen points, five rebounds and three assists per game; and while Hanner only plays sparingly, he is shooting 49 percent from the field and averaging over two rebounds per night while only averaging five minutes. Marshall opens play in the NIT at Middle Tennessee State Tuesday night.

Jordan Theodore, Herb Pope and Fuquan Edwin (Seton Hall): Everyone knows the Pirates' "Big Three" by virtue of their experience in the Big East and their life on the bubble over the past two weeks. The only players left in South Orange from the Gonzalez era, Theodore and Pope have led Seton Hall to their second NIT appearance in the last three years. Theodore; a second team all-Big East point guard who very easily could have made the first team, had the best season of his young career, averaging sixteen points and nearly seven assists per game while having more than twice as many helpers as turnovers in his senior campaign. Pope recovered from open heart surgery to average a double-double this year just as he did under Gonzalez in 2009-10; and Edwin, who committed to Bobby but never got to play for him, led the nation in steals while breaking the Pirates' single season record for thefts in a sophomore year where he could have legitimately earned Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors. Seton Hall opens their NIT slate at Walsh Gym Tuesday night against Stony Brook in a battle of two local programs.

Jesse Morgan (Massachusetts): A high school teammate of Pittsburgh reserve J.J. Moore in his hometown of Philadelphia, Morgan signed with Seton Hall; but after eligibility issues, was scooped up by the Minutemen and is a deceptive scoring option in Derek Kellogg's backcourt alongside Hofstra transfer Chaz Williams. Averaging ten points per game while also shooting 38 percent from three-point range, Morgan's 21-point performance against Temple in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals helped clear the road for eventual conference champion St. Bonaventure on the other side of the bracket. Morgan and UMass take on Mississippi State on Tuesday in the opening round of the NIT, with the winner to face Seton Hall.

Ferrakohn Hall (Memphis): Aside from Theodore and Pope, the junior is the only remaining player in the nation to have played for Gonzalez. A Seton Hall transfer now playing for Josh Pastner at Memphis, Hall is making the most of his second opportunity with his hometown Tigers. A regular starter; Hall does not burn teams offensively, but his work shows up on film when he sets up for Will Barton and Joe Jackson to lead the Tigers' offensive attack. When Hall's number is called, he shoots 50 percent from the field and is one of Memphis' best options on the defensive glass. Hall and the Tigers face Saint Louis on Friday night in their round of 64 matchup in the NCAA Tournament.

Chris Smith (Louisville): This New Jersey product and brother of Knicks guard J.R. Smith initially signed with Gonzalez and Seton Hall before being declared ineligible, then transferred to Louisville from Manhattan College. Now a starter for Rick Pitino; Smith averages ten points per game and shoots 40 percent from three-point range for the Cardinals, looking all the while like a poor man's Jeremy Hazell, who thrived under Gonzalez during his first three years at Seton Hall. Smith and Louisville open their road to what could be their first national championship since 1986 with a Thursday matchup against Southern Conference champion Davidson in the round of 64.

Mike Glover (Iona): Bobby's first recruit at Seton Hall is a talented forward whose journey to the NCAA Tournament is far unlike that of any other participant in the field of 68. Scooped up by Gonzalez out of American Christian; which also produced Sacramento Kings guard Tyreke Evans, Glover was declared ineligible during his freshman season and paid his own way through Seton Hall. After signing a letter of intent that he was subsequently released from at St. Francis once Brian Nash resigned; Glover's road to New Rochelle included a stop at the College of Eastern Utah, where he played his sophomore campaign. Once he took the court for coach Tim Cluess; Glover unleashed a style that MAAC teams had problems solving, muscling his way to a double-double average and first team all-conference honors last season before following that up with an 18-point, nine-rebound average that helped showcase the abilities of this year's player of the year honoree, Iona point guard Scott Machado. Glover and the Gaels, who are just the second MAAC team to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament in the conference's 31-year history, take on Brigham Young in a First Four play-in game Tuesday night in Dayton, with the winner to meet Marquette in the round of 64 two days later.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Iona One Of 68

After helping lead Arizona to Elite Eight last year, Momo Jones returns to NCAA Tournament with Iona.  (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

Tonight's results from the NCAA Tournament selection committee proved that all speculation and bracket projections surrounding the prospective field of 68 is just that.

For just the second time ever; and first since 1995, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference was awarded an at-large bid into the field, as Iona College survived life on the bubble long enough to earn a trip to Dayton in one of the "First Four" play-in games.  The Gaels are seeded 14th in what will be their first appearance in the "Big Dance" since 2006, and will face Brigham Young Tuesday night for the right to play Marquette two days later in Louisville.  Led by Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder; Buzz Williams' Golden Eagles are the third seed in the West regional, a group that includes conference champions Michigan State, Missouri, Louisville and Memphis among others.

"I'm thrilled that Iona College and our basketball team are going to the NCAA Tournament," said Gaels coach Tim Cluess on a conference call shortly after the small school in New Rochelle was announced by Greg Gumbel on the tournament's selection show earlier tonight.  "When I saw the excitement in our players' eyes and faces, I couldn't be happier.  They're going to have this memory for the rest of their lives."

Iona's first step toward what the Gaels hope will be a run similar to those of fellow mid-majors George Mason and VCU will come against a BYU team that, like Iona, won 25 games this season.  Despite losing do-it-all guard Jimmer Fredette after last season, the Cougars were among the nation's elite in their first year in the West Coast Conference under veteran coach Dave Rose.  "They're a different team since I last played them," Iona guard Lamont (Momo) Jones; who faced BYU while at Arizona, said.  "It's going to be a 'grind-it-out' game.  We just have to play Iona basketball."

The Gaels' style; and offense that ranks among the best in the nation, will run through senior point guard and MAAC Player of the Year Scott Machado.  Despite not making the tournament as a conference champion the way he had hoped, Machado remains eager to take the stage on a greater platform.  "We're very excited and very hyped to play," he said.  "We're getting ready to let people know where we're from and who we are."

Finally, the long and much-chronicled journey of forward Mike Glover reaches its destination as well.  Recruited by Bobby Gonzalez while the coach was still at Seton Hall, Glover was declared ineligible and had to pay his own way through his freshman year in South Orange.  From there, the Bronx product signed with St. Francis only to be released from that commitment when head coach Brian Nash resigned.  After a year at the College of Eastern Utah, Glover found his way home when Cluess and associate head coach Jared Grasso recruited him to Iona.  Two years and two first team all-MAAC selections later, Glover finally gets his chance at redemption.

Iona is still making last-minute travel arrangements for their unexpected trip to Dayton in less than 48 hours, but the excitement and hoopla around New Rochelle is at an all-time high.  "I don't care how frantic it is," said Tim Cluess.  "We're just thrilled to be a part of this.

The boys become men officially Tuesday night; and for Iona College, the lights have not been this bright since their last appearance in the NCAA Tournament six years before.  As one of only two local teams in the field of 68 along with Northeast Conference champion LIU Brooklyn, the Gaels have the chance to give New York another headline-worthy team to go with the Super Bowl champion Giants and New York Rangers, who lead the Eastern Conference as the NHL season draws to a close.  "I think we're just a hard-working group of kids who are going to give everything we have," said Tim Cluess when asked to describe his team.

It all begins Tuesday night.

Bracketology: Final Update

With unexpected run to Atlantic 10 title, Andrew Nicholson and St. Bonaventure have everyone scrambling to set 68-team field for this year's NCAA Tournament.  (Photo courtesy of Buffalo News)

After fourteen days of jockeying for position, the moment has arrived.

Michigan State's victory in the Big Ten championship moments ago has served as the final domino for the selection committee to put into place before this year's field of 68 is revealed about 30 minutes from now.  Just for kicks and giggles, here's one final attempt at trying to come off like an expert.

Midwest Regional (St. Louis)
1) Kentucky vs. 16) Mississippi Valley State/Western Kentucky
8) Saint Louis vs. 9) Connecticut
5) Indiana vs. 12) Seton Hall/Brigham Young
4) Florida State vs. 13) Colorado
6) Murray State vs. 11) West Virginia
3) Baylor vs. 14) Ohio
7) Saint Mary's vs. 10) Colorado State
2) Missouri vs. 15) Detroit

East Regional (Boston)
1) Syracuse vs. 16) UNC Asheville/Vermont
8) Gonzaga vs. 9) Alabama
5) Wichita State vs. 12) California
4) Wisconsin vs. 13) Davidson
6) Florida vs. 11) Long Beach State
3) Marquette vs. 14) Loyola (Md.)
7) Cincinnati vs. 10) Kansas State
2) Duke vs. 15) Montana

South Regional (Atlanta)
1) North Carolina vs. 16) Norfolk State
8) Iowa State vs. 9) Southern Mississippi
5) New Mexico vs. 12) St. Bonaventure
4) Michigan vs. 13) Marshall/Drexel
6) Memphis vs. 11) Virginia Commonwealth
3) Louisville vs. 14) South Dakota State
7) UNLV vs. 10) Texas
2) Ohio State vs. 15) LIU Brooklyn

West Regional (Phoenix)
1) Michigan State vs. 16) Lamar
8) Notre Dame vs. 9) Purdue
5) San Diego State vs. 12) Xavier
4) Georgetown vs. 13) Belmont
6) Creighton vs. 11) South Florida
3) Vanderbilt vs. 14) New Mexico State
7) Temple vs. 10) Harvard
2) Kansas vs. 15) Lehigh

Last Four In: Seton Hall, Brigham Young, Marshall, Drexel
First Four Out: Iona, Washington, North Carolina State, Virginia
Next Four Out: Miami, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Mississippi

Bracketology: Sunday Morning Update

Tim Cluess and Iona are still in mix as part of arguably the most wide open bubble in NCAA Tournament history. (Photo courtesy of Albany Times-Union)

For the third time this weekend, here's a clearer (hopefully) projection of the 68 teams that will make up the NCAA Tournament. This projection will be updated one more time prior to the NCAA Tournament selection show later tonight. Be advised that most of these seeds are virtually locked in regardless of what happens in the remaining four conference championship games that will be contested this afternoon. In fact, only the Atlantic 10 final has any major bearing on the field. So, without any further ado...

Midwest Regional (St. Louis)
1) Kentucky vs. 16) Vermont/Western
8) Saint Louis vs. 9) Kansas State
5) Florida State vs. 12) Drexel/Brigham Young
4) Georgetown vs. 13) Belmont
6) Creighton vs. 11) Virginia Commonwealth
3) Marquette vs. 14) Ohio
7) Saint Mary's vs. 10) Purdue
2) Big Ten runner-up (Michigan State or Ohio State) vs. Detroit

East Regional (Boston)
1) Syracuse vs. 16) Mississippi Valley State/Lamar
8) Iowa State vs. 9) Southern Mississippi
5) New Mexico vs. 12) Marshall (if St. Bonaventure wins today, they get this spot)
4) Wisconsin vs. 13) Davidson
6) Cincinnati vs. 11) Texas
3) Baylor vs. 14) New Mexico State
7) Florida vs. 10) West Virginia
2) Duke vs. 15) Montana

South Regional (Atlanta)
1) North Carolina vs. 16) Norfolk State
8) Notre Dame vs. 9) Alabama
5) Wichita State vs. 12) California
4) Michigan vs. 13) Colorado
6) Memphis vs. 11) Long Beach State
3) Indiana vs. 14) South Dakota State
7) UNLV vs. 10) Harvard
2) Missouri vs. 15) LIU Brooklyn

West Regional (Phoenix)
1) Big Ten champion (Michigan State or Ohio State) vs. UNC Asheville
8) Gonzaga vs. 9) Connecticut
5) San Diego State vs. 12) Xavier
4) Vanderbilt vs. 13) South Florida/Iona (if St. Bonaventure wins today, Marshall replaces Iona)
6) Murray State vs. 11) Seton Hall
3) Louisville vs. 14) Loyola (Md.)
7) Temple vs. 10) Colorado State
2) Kansas vs. 15) Lehigh

Last Four In: Marshall, Brigham Young, Drexel, Iona (if St. Bonaventure wins, California moves into this category)
First Four Out: Virginia, North Carolina State, Washington, Tennessee (if St. Bonaventure wins, Iona is the first team out)
Next Four Out: Miami, Mississippi State, Northwestern, Dayton

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bracketology: 7PM Update

Duke's loss could open door for Tom Izzo and Michigan State to take final No. 1 seed.  (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

After eight hours of sleep, it's time to update the projected field of 68 after today's conference tournament results.

South Regional (Atlanta)
1) Kentucky vs. 16) Mississippi Valley State/Western Kentucky
8) Iowa State vs. 9) Purdue
5) San Diego State vs. 12) Washington/Virginia
4) Louisville vs. 13) Belmont
6) Florida State vs. 11) West Virginia
3) Baylor vs. 14) Akron
7) Florida vs. 10) Xavier
2) Ohio State vs. 15) Detroit

East Regional (Boston)
1) Syracuse vs. 16) UNC Asheville
8) Saint Louis vs. 9) Colorado State
5) Creighton vs. 12) North Carolina State
4) Indiana vs. 13) Virginia Commonwealth
6) Murray State vs. 11) Kansas State
3) Marquette vs. 14) Loyola (Md.)
7) Saint Mary's vs. 10) Connecticut
2) Duke vs. 15) Montana

Midwest Regional (St. Louis)
1) North Carolina vs. 16) Lamar
8) Memphis vs. 9) Alabama
5) Cincinnati vs. 12) California
4) Michigan vs. 13) South Dakota State
6) New Mexico vs. 11) Arizona
3) Wisconsin vs. 14) Davidson
7) Notre Dame vs. 10) Harvard
2) Kansas vs. 15) Lehigh

West Regional (Phoenix)
1) Michigan State vs. 16) Vermont/Norfolk State
8) UNLV vs. 9) Texas
5) Wichita State vs. 12) Seton Hall
4) Vanderbilt vs. 13) South Florida/Iona
6) Temple vs. 11) Long Beach State
3) Georgetown vs. 14) New Mexico State
7) Gonzaga vs. 10) Southern Mississippi
2) Missouri vs. 15) LIU Brooklyn

Last Four In: Washington, Virginia, South Florida, Iona
First Four Out: Brigham Young, Drexel, Marshall, Northwestern
Next Four Out: Mississippi, Miami, Tennessee, Oregon

Note: Automatic bids that have yet to be awarded have been temporarily filled with projections that are highlighted in bold print.  This bracket will be continually updated throughout the night and Sunday as well once each conference championship is awarded in the hours leading up to the NCAA Tournament selection show.  Again, this is not the actual 68-team field, but merely a projection of what it will be.


Can John Calipari finally win national title? His Kentucky team stands to be No. 1 overall seed in upcoming NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Today begins the craziest 48 hours in the life of anyone affiliated college basketball in even its simplest form. That's because the challenge of reaching a consensus regarding the top 68 teams in the nation takes on a life of its own this weekend, with the final decision to be rendered on "Selection Sunday" tomorrow evening.

Bracketology will be featured here throughout the weekend, with periodic updates between now and just before Greg Gumbel signs on from the CBS studios in New York shortly after 6:00 tomorrow night. Without further ado, the first attempt at a bracket from yours truly.

South Regional (Atlanta)
1) Kentucky vs. 16) Mississippi Valley State/Western Kentucky
8) Iowa State vs. 9) Connecticut
5) Wichita State vs. 12) North Carolina State/South Florida
4) Louisville vs. 13) VCU
6) New Mexico vs. 11) Long Beach State
3) Baylor vs. 14) New Mexico State
7) St. Mary's vs. 10) Southern Mississippi
2) Ohio State vs. 15) Montana

East Regional (Boston)
1) Syracuse vs. 16) UNC Asheville
8) Saint Louis vs. 9) Alabama
5) Creighton vs. 12) Seton Hall
4) Vanderbilt vs. 13) Belmont
6) Florida vs. 11) Kansas State
3) Michigan vs. 14) Loyola (Md.)
7) Gonzaga vs. 10) Texas
2) Duke vs. 15) Lehigh

Midwest Regional (St. Louis)
1) North Carolina vs. 16) Lamar
8) Notre Dame vs. 9) Purdue
5) Cincinnati vs. 12) BYU
4) Indiana vs. 13) South Dakota State
6) Temple vs. 11) West Virginia
3) Wisconsin vs. 14) Akron
7) UNLV vs. 10) Harvard
2) Kansas vs. 15) LIU Brooklyn

West Regional (Phoenix)
1) Michigan State vs. 16) Stony Brook/Norfolk State
8) Memphis vs. 9) Colorado State
5) San Diego State vs. 12) Arizona
4) Georgetown vs. 13) Virginia/Iona
6) Murray State vs. 11) Xavier
3) Marquette vs. 14) Davidson
7) Florida State vs. 10) California
2) Missouri vs. 15) Detroit

Last Four In: North Carolina State, USF, Virginia, Iona
First Four Out: Washington, Drexel, Northwestern, Mississippi

Note: Automatic bids that have yet to be awarded have been temporarily filled with projections. This bracket will be continually updated throughout the weekend once each conference championship is awarded in the hours leading up to the NCAA Tournament selection show. Again, this is not the actual 68-team field, just merely a projection of what it will be.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Back To Back For Blackbirds

Jim Ferry cuts down net to signify second straight NEC championship for LIU Brooklyn.  (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)

After numerous local teams could not close the deal, LIU Brooklyn is headed to their second NCAA Tournament in as many years.

Playing Robert Morris again for the second year in a row; the Blackbirds (25-8) did not need overtime last night as they had the year before, taking control midway through the first half before methodically putting the Colonials (24-10) away over the final stanza to repeat as Northeast Conference champions with an impressive 90-73 victory before a sellout crowd at their home court of the Wellness Center in downtown Brooklyn.

"We set a goal to try to accomplish something and become great," LIU coach Jim Ferry said after the game and subsequent celebration.  "We started out 0-3 and people stopped paying attention to us.  With about 30 seconds to go, I turned to one of my assistant coaches and said 'Look what we just built."

What the Blackbirds have built is a program that; barring any transfers or drastic twists of fate, returns four starters and most of their bench from this year's team as they will look to become the first school in NEC history to win three straight basketball crowns, and a big part of the success lies within sophomore point guard Jason Brickman.

In his first season as a starter after replacing David Hicks, Brickman has become increasingly better as the quarterback of one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation.  His double-double last night (18 points, 11 assists) included an NEC championship game record for most helpers in a title contest, but it wasn't surprising to his teammates.

"He just finds you in the right spots every time," said backcourt partner C.J. Garner, who had 21 points of his own in the win last night to lead the Blackbirds.  "He always finds a way to get you the ball."

In addition to Brickman, there is the token human interest story that is Julian Boyd.  After not knowing whether or not he would be able to play after being diagnosed with a heart condition that triggered improper blood circulation no less than three years ago, the junior forward has only become the conference's unanimous choice for Player of the Year since then.  Last night, Boyd added to the accolades with an 18-point, 10-rebound performance that earned him the honor of being named the NEC tournament's Most Valuable Player on top of already being an indispensable asset to LIU's frontcourt.  It was fitting that Boyd provided what could be described as the dagger; an alley-oop from C.J. Garner that was replayed later that night on SportsCenter, and his coach could not have been happier.

"It's an unbelievable story," said Ferry in reference to Boyd's long journey back to the court.  "For a kid who had a year taken away from him to becoming the player of the year and the MVP, it couldn't happen to a nicer kid.  It's just a magical story."

Just as magical is the evolution of the Northeast Conference as well.  Each of the last three NEC champions has been a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but has played hard on each occasion.  In 2009, Robert Morris nearly upset Michigan State in the round of 64 before being outplayed by the Spartans over the final minutes, and took Villanova to overtime the following season.  Last year; this same LIU team played even with North Carolina through the first 30 minutes before the Tar Heels pulled away to a 102-87 win, but the quality of the league has improved so much that even people outside the NEC are able to see it.

"I think it's getting better and better," said Jim Ferry when asked about the NEC's quality and recent history as a tough customer in the NCAA Tournament.  "It (the league) is the best it has been in ten years."

Regardless of who they play, the Blackbirds will more than likely be something their opponent has never faced before: A team that can run up and down the court with the best of them, yet clamp down enough on defense to take a Top 25 team out of their element.  "For all of us to have that experience from last year, we'll feel more in place," said Julian Boyd when comparing facing North Carolina to whomever Greg Gumbel announces as LIU's draw this Sunday.

The Northeast Conference may not have a round of 64 victory to its credit; and only four 15 seeds have ever beaten a No. 2, the last coming in 2001 when Hampton shocked Iowa State, but if you're looking for an upset to shake up your bracket, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at LIU Brooklyn.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hofstra/Georgia State: An Experience Unlike Most Others

Richmond Coliseum in the calm before storm that was Colonial Athletic Association tournament.  (Photo courtesy of Gary Moore)

This post is a little different from most of the others here, and I'll tell you why.  Through my work this year covering more than just two teams this season, (yes, I've managed to branch out beyond my alma mater St. John's and employer St. Francis) I have been exposed to hundreds of media members, sports information directors, and even fans that have made this season one of the highlights of my career.  One of these people is college basketball superfan and blogger in his own right Gary Moore.  I had the privilege of meeting Gary at the end of December while covering Iona in their road loss to Hofstra, (Gary is a Hofstra alum who is also a season ticket holder at the Mack Center in Hempstead) and ran into him several other times at the Hynes Center in New Rochelle, where he frequently attends Gaels games alongside his six-year-old son Matthew, whom he refers to as his "color analyst."  Gary does great work on The College Hardwood; and when I found out that he would be covering the CAA tournament, I asked him if he would be interested in writing a recap of the Pride's game(s) for me.  Gary instantly agreed; and the following post chronicles not only Hofstra's contest against Georgia State, but the adventurous journey to Richmond that he made along with fellow Hofstra blogger Jerry Beach.  Needless to say, it is an experience that I hope to someday have the honor of replicating either for St. John's or anyone for that matter.  You can also find this post on Gary's own College Hardwood blog, by the way.

I always love this time of year.  March Madness has been embedded in my soul for easily over twenty five years.  My favorite part of March Madness is going to a conference tournament.  In my younger college days and mid twenties, I went to the Big East Tournament.  Now, it's the CAA Tournament that is near and dear to me.  With the exception of 2009, I have been attending the Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament since 2003.

At about 2:00 AM yesterday morning, my good friend Jerry Beach, aka Defiantly Dutch
, and I made the familiar drive down to Richmond, Virginia for what would be my ninth CAA Tournament.  The reason we left at 2:00 AM, is based on my experience, you want to avoid getting caught in the Washington D.C. traffic.

Dutch and I talked about music, Hofstra basketball and life in general.  I am glad he was able to go to the CAA Tournament as well.  I was especially grateful that he was John Candy to my Steve Martin. His good natured company and his sense of humor kept me awake on the early morning drive.  We made really great time and outside of a brief stop for cheap Jersey gas, we got to the outskirts of Richmond by 8:00 AM.  Dutch and I stopped at an Aunt Sarah's Pancake House for breakfast.

After breakfast, I dropped off Dutch in downtown Richmond at the Hilton Garden Inn as he was staying with a friend.  Afterwards, I took a nap in the hotel lobby, then made my way back to my car.  Then I took a short drive to a parking garage across the street from the Richmond Coliseum.

This year's CAA Tournament was going to be special for me.  It was the first time that I would have ever have media credentials for the tournament.  For the previous six years, I had covered the CAA Tournament from sitting in my seats in the Richmond Coliseum, taking the perspective of a fan.  This time I decided to sit on press row and thanks to the good folks at CAA Sports, who follow my blog and follow me on Twitter, I received media credentials.

So I entered the media entrance for the Richmond Coliseum and picked up my credentials for my site, CollegeHardwood.com.   Rob Washburn, my contact at CAASports, greeted me inside the arena and showed me where my seat was on press row.  Sure enough, my seat was next to Defiantly Dutch's seat.  The CAA knows the #CAAHoops Twitter and blogosphere all too well.

The CAA Tournament consists of four days.  The first round, otherwise known by Chris "VCUPav" Crowley as "Pillow Fight Friday", begins on Friday with four games, where seeds five through twelve play each other.   There is an afternoon session of two games; eight plays nine, then five plays twelve.  In the evening, seven plays ten and six plays eleven. 

Hofstra, seeded eleventh, was playing Georgia State, seeded sixth.  It was the second game of the evening session and the last game of the day. Neither Hofstra nor Georgia State brought a lot of fans, but there were enough other fans to make it a decent sized crowd, over 5200, for the last game at 8:30 on a Friday night.  The Pride entered the game with only three wins in conference on the season, but they had won two of their last three games, including a twenty nine point crushing of UNCW.  The ninth seeded Seahawks had earlier won their first round game, defeating the Dukes of James Madison.

Meanwhile, Georgia State, who in the preseason had been picked at the bottom of the CAA, finished sixth in the Colonial with eleven wins.  Ron Hunter, in his first year coaching the Panthers, took a team with the same talent that finished eleventh a season ago and made them a top tier team in the CAA.  Many people, including me, thought Hunter should have been picked Coach of the Year, but Bruiser Flint won the award. 

I saw the game the Pride played vs. the Panthers last month at the Mack Center.  Georgia State jumped out a to a 16-5 lead with their aggressive zone defense.  The Panthers controlled most of the game and won handily 59-43.  If Hofstra was going to be successful, they would need to score in transition and not let Georgia State setup their zone defense.

And that was the philsophy of Coach Mo Cassara.  The Pride quickly got out of the gate and took a slim early lead on a couple of layups as they didn't allow the Panthers to setup their zone before they scored.   Hofstra was playing with a lot of energy early on in the game.

But Georgia State was equal to the task.  Eric Buckner, who I believe was snubbed out of the CAA Defensive Player of the Year Award, was dominating offensively.  Buckner had seven quick points.  His emphatic dunk gave the Panthers a 15-13 lead right before the under twelve media timeout. 

In the past two years of the CAA Tournament, the sixth seed had lost to the eleventh seed.  Two years ago, James Madison knocked off Drexel.  Last year, I watched Quinn McDowell set a CAA Tournament record with thirty five points as William and Mary stunned James Madison.  After the first eight and half minutes, Hofstra was holding their own against Georgia State.  Could the sixth seed knock off the eleventh seed for the third year in a row?

The Panthers answered that question in the next eleven and a half minutes with a resounding "NO".

Buckner's emphatic dunk started a monstrous 24-4 run over the next eight and a half minutes to take a 39-17 lead.  Georgia State's swarming defense forced eight Hofstra turnovers in that span.  When the Pride didn't turn the ball over, they struggled to get a good shot off, missing six of their seven shots in that period of time.

Meanwhile, the Panthers were scoring at will on the Pride defense.  Georgia State scored forty five first half points, the most Hofstra had given up in the first half of a game during the season.  Georgia State shot sixteen of twenty seven from the field and eleven of twelve from the line.   The score was 45-24 at the half.  With the Panthers' swarming defense, the game was basically over.

All you could hope for if you were a Hofstra fan was that your team would play hard in the second half and make the game respectable.   Early in the second half, they did exactly that.  A Steve Mejia three cut the Georgia State lead to sixteen, 50-34. 

But as Hunter said in his post game press conference, Georgia State was playing "with a chip on its shoulder".  They felt as if they had been not given the respect they deserved at the CAA Awards Banquet and they played inspired, even angry.  They weren't going to allow Hofstra to get any closer.

The Panthers responded with a 23-6 run over the next nine minutes.   At the under eight media timeout, Georgia State was up 73-40.  In my nine years of watching/covering the CAA Tournament, I had never seen such a dominant performance.

There was a young boy sitting behind the Hofstra bench with a sign that said "Free Hugs".  The Pride looked like they could use some hugs, because they had just been run over by a tractor trailer truck with a Georgia license plate.   The Panthers would go onto win 85-40.  It was the biggest margin of victory in CAA Tournament history.

Georgia State held Hofstra to thirty four percent shooting, twenty eight percent in the second half.  Meanwhile, the Panthers scorched the Pride, shooting fifty nine percent in the game.  Georgia State outscored Hofstra 48-18 in the paint. 

Buckner was responsible for a lot of that damage, scoring twenty one points and grabbing eleven boards, four which came on the offensive end.  He was a perfect seven for seven from the field.  James Fields had fourteen points and Devonta White added thirteen for the Panthers.

Mike Moore, the leading scorer in the CAA had sixteen points for the Pride, but was only five of thirteen from the field.  Mejia had fourteen points, including two of four from beyond the arc.  Nathaniel Lester added eleven points.

Being a Hofstra fan at heart, it wasn't the ending I had envisioned.  Then again, having the Pride endure a 10-22 season was not what I envisioned either.   All you can do as a Hofstra fan is move on and hope for next season.  There is a major influx of talent coming in for next season.   Seasons may end, often in loss.  But hope is always eternal.  Right now, it needs to be.