Friday, April 27, 2012

Three-Point Schott: St. John's Notebook

D.J. Kennedy's NBA debut is one of many things making headlines around St. John's University. (Photo courtesy of Rumble In The Garden)

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the newest member of the Daly Dose family in this piece, and that is Jason Schott. Jason covers St. John's basketball and a variety of other local teams for, and just spent his first season covering the Red Storm this past year. A talented writer and dynamic personality who is also a proud member of Madison Square Garden's "Row C Dream Team," Jason will offer his views and recaps on college basketball here as well in a column fittingly titled the "Three-Point Schott," and he can also be found on Twitter at @JESchott19.

By Jason Schott - St. John’s beat writer – Twitter @JESchott19

This is a digest of recent news from the St. John’s Red Storm Men’s basketball team, including news on Head Coach Steve Lavin, D.J. Kennedy, and Moe Harkless.

St. John’s Head Coach Steve Lavin will deliver the Commencement Address this year at St. John’s Queens and Staten Island campuses.

The Staten Island graduation will be on Saturday, May 12th, and the Queens graduation will be the next day, Sunday, May 13th. Also being honored at the Queens event will be the Very Rev. Perry Henry, C.M., D.Min., William Collins (‘76C) and Patricia Ann Norris McDonald.
Lavin battled prostate cancer all year and had surgery on October 6th. Lavin only coached four games this season due to the recuperation, and he is now cancer free.
Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M., the President of St. John’s University, said of Lavin, “Steve Lavin has a great affinity with our student body and is a popular choice for this year’s commencement ceremonies.”

D.J. Kennedy, a leader of the 2011 NCAA Tournament team, was signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers for the remainder of their season on April 21st.

Kennedy was a key part of that 2011 team, one of many seniors that graduated that year. His season was cut short by a knee injury suffered in that year’s Big East Tournament.

Kennedy had to have knee surgery, and battled back from it to play in the NBA’s Development League for the Erie BayHawks, where he put up big numbers. In 44 regular season games for Erie, Kennedy averaged 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 4.4 assists in 37.4 minutes per game.

“I am thankful to the Cavaliers for giving me the chance to pursue my NBA dream. This is an incredible opportunity and I want to thank my family, friends, and fans for sticking with me throughout my career and my comeback from injury,” said Kennedy.
St. John’s Head Coach Steve Lavin said of Kennedy, “We are pleased D.J. will now realize his dream of playing in the NBA. D.J. and his teammates helped springboard the Johnnies back to national prominence.”

Kennedy said of Lavin, “Special shoutout to Coach Lavin and all of my coaches at St. John’s for believing in me and preparing me to help my dream come true. I am very blessed.”
In his time at St. John’s, Kennedy ranks high in many categories, including being 12th on the all-time scoring list with 1.504 career points. He also is 11th on the all-time rebounding list with 781, the fifth most 3-pointers with 122, and his 183 steals ranks sixth in St. John’s history.

Moe Harkless was honored by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association (MBWA) as their 2012 Rookie of the Year. This is the latest honor for Harkless, who was named the Big East Conference  Rookie of the Year in March.

Harkless declared his intention to enter the NBA Draft at a press conference on March 19th. He has been training in Florida at the IMG Academy, along with St. John’ alumnus Anthony Mason, Jr.

Harkless said, “Coach Lavin and the entire coaching staff have been really supportive and they’ve helped me out a lot. Coach Mike Dunlap and coach Rico Hines are two coaches who have NBA experience and they worked really hard to help me get better. Everyone was a huge help.”
Harkless will be the 14th player who played under Lavin to be selected in the NBA Draft. He said of D.J. Kennedy, who played under Lavin in 2010-11, “I’m really happy for D.J. getting called up and having a chance to compete on an NBA roster. I’ll be excited to join him and potentially some other Johnnies in the league.”

Also honored by the MBWA was D’Angelo Harrison, who also had a superb freshman season for St. John’s. Harrison was named to their second team as voted on by a panel of New York area basketball media.

The honors were presented on Thursday, April 26th at the 79th NIT/MBWA All-Met Haggerty Awards dinner at the Westchester Marriott in Tarrytown, NY.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

2012 Metro Area Award Winners

No coach was responsible for a bigger turnaround than Steve Masiello, who took 6-25 Manhattan team into CIT after winning 21 games in his rookie season in Riverdale.  (Photo courtesy of Manhattan College)

With the Haggerty Awards dinner taking place tonight and several other local college hoops scribes offering their take on the best of the metropolitan area, I thought I would do the same.  The actual winners have been announced already, but here are the 2011-12 Daly Dose Of Hoops picks among the best in the region.

Player of the Year: Scott Machado (Iona) - 13.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 9.9 APG (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)
I've covered many great players in five years as a broadcaster and writer, (including newly-minted NBA rookie D.J. Kennedy, who I will have more on in a later post) but no player that I have ever seen has as much potential to be a superstar for the next decade the way Machado does.  Without question the best point guard in the nation this past season, Machado was the driving force behind Iona's return to the NCAA Tournament with his scoring ability and second-to-none passing talent.  His triple-double against Marist was simply the highlight to a great season filled with numerous alley-oops to Mike Glover that served as the Gaels' answer to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, as well as a truly deserving recognition as the MAAC Player of the Year.

Rookie of the Year: Moe Harkless (St. John's) - 15.5 PPG, 8.6 RPG (Photo courtesy of New York Post)
In St. John's all-freshman lineup, the Queens native was something Red Storm fans had spent the past several years clamoring for: A big man that had a perimeter game to go with a body inside.  Just the second St. John's player to win Rookie of the Year honors in the Big East, Harkless made a statement in his conference debut with his 32-point, 13-rebound virtuoso performance against Providence, one that set single game records for a Big East freshman.  The forward is likely to become St. John's first NBA draft selection since Omar Cook in 2001, adding to Steve Lavin's already rich coaching legacy.

Most Improved Player: George Beamon (Manhattan) - 19.0 PPG, 5.6 RPG (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)
The likely favorite for MAAC Player of the Year honors next season, Beamon had the biggest breakout season in recent memory for anyone in the area.  A 6-4 swingman, the junior was Manhattan's leading scorer, averaging more than double the Jaspers' second options with his nineteen points per game and deadly 43 percent shooting clip from three-point range.  With a defensive game that complements Steve Masiello's Louisville-influenced style of play, Beamon thrived into a two-way player that will only get better in his senior year next season.

Sixth Man of the Year: Sean Armand (Iona) - 9.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 47% 3pt (Photo courtesy of Bleacher Report)
A mid-major version of former UConn guard Rashad Anderson, Armand provided the same impact for the Gaels that Anderson did on the Huskies' 2004 national championship team.  A shooter by trade, Armand also made things happen inside the three-point line too, earning the reputation of being one of the MAAC's biggest X-factors despite only being a sophomore.  With Scott Machado and Mike Glover graduating next month, Armand will join Momo Jones as one of the faces of an Iona program looking to defend its regular season conference crown.

Defensive Player of the Year: Fuquan Edwin (Seton Hall) - 12.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.0 SPG (Photo courtesy of Washington Post)
Seton Hall's last link to Bobby Gonzalez is the former Paterson Catholic standout, and the former coach's last recruit was as much a star on the defensive end for Kevin Willard's Pirates as fellow Gonzalez products Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope were on the offensive side.  Edwin led the nation in steals for most of the season with an average of three thefts per game, and was inexplicably denied this honor in the Big East by Syracuse's Fab Melo.  Going into his junior season, the swingman will be the face of a Pirate program looking to rebuild as Theodore and Pope graduate.

Coach of the Year: Steve Masiello (Manhattan) (Photo courtesy of Manhattan College)
If you can only use one word to describe Masiello, perhaps the best choice would be "intense."  A disciple of both Bobby Gonzalez and Rick Pitino, the 34-year-old Masiello channels each of his mentors in equal parts, even displaying his unbridled competitive fire during the playing of the national anthem.  Introduced as the new head coach just over a year ago in Riverdale, Masiello picked up where Barry Rohrssen left off, leading the Jaspers to a fifteen-game improvement from last season and a 21-13 record that qualified as the nation's biggest turnaround.  With the core of his team returning to Draddy Gym for another season, Masiello will have one of the favorites to win the MAAC next season.

Daly Dose Of Hoops All-Metropolitan Teams

First Team
Scott Machado, Iona
Moe Harkless, St. John's
Jordan Theodore, Seton Hall
Mike Glover, Iona
Julian Boyd, LIU Brooklyn
Herb Pope, Seton Hall

Second Team
George Beamon, Manhattan
Rakim Sanders, Fairfield
Jamal Olasewere, LIU Brooklyn
D'Angelo Harrison, St. John's
Mike Moore, Hofstra

Third Team
Jason Brickman, LIU Brooklyn
Chris Gaston, Fordham
Momo Jones, Iona
Brian Barbour, Columbia
Akeem Johnson, St. Francis

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Farewell To A Legend

Kim Barnes Arico accepts Big East Coach of the Year award during conference tournament in Hartford. After spending ten years restoring Red Storm program, Barnes Arico will take over at Michigan. (Photo courtesy of St. John's University)

Before I go any further, let me inform all of you that this piece is going to be a little more personal and autobiographical than some of my previous work, so please try to be patient with me on this.

Prior to January 2008, all I had known about St. John's women's basketball was the fact that the program existed. In fact, I can vividly remember the first time I did play-by-play for a Red Storm women's game, and admittedly mentioning that I had yet to see the team that was quietly becoming the best-kept secret and greatest success story in the New York basketball landscape. St. John's January 2008 contest against USF served as my first in-person experience of women's basketball, and after my broadcast partner Reginald Bazile helped educate me and anyone else listening to WSJU on St. John's and the team's tendency to regularly start three guards, I slowly became more and more enamored with coach Kim Barnes Arico and her group of underrated stars led by Kia Wright, Tiina Sten, and the "Mac Attack" of Monique McLean, Kelly McManmon and Joy McCorvey; along with newcomers Sky Lindsay and Coco Hart, not to mention role players such as Kristin Moore, Recee Mitchell and Victoria Hodges.

That team's appearance in the WNIT was only the beginning. Over the years, St. John's became home to future greats the likes of Da'Shena Stevens, Nadirah McKenith, Eugeneia McPherson and Shenneika Smith; but while the names and numbers changed, the architect behind a program that had been left for dead took St. John's to four NCAA Tournaments over her ten years at the helm, becoming the winningest coach in program history along the way. Included in that decade of dominance were three straight trips to the field of 64, the most recent of which culminating in St. John's first-ever regional semifinal appearance. That was just the icing on an extravagant and rich cake that embodies St. John's women's basketball, a program that now has produced a Big East Coach of the Year and consistent victories against the Who's Who of the women's game, chief among those victories an upset win against the University of Connecticut, regarded as the New York Yankees of women's hoops. The Red Storm's 57-56 victory over the Lady Huskies on February 18th was made even more memorable considering it came on UConn's home court at Gampel Pavilion, ending what was a 99-game UConn home winning streak.

However, as the old adage states, all good things must come to an end.

Today, St. John's is without their charismatic leader, as Kim Barnes Arico has left the corner of Union and Utopia to work similar magic at the University of Michigan, where she will be introduced on Monday afternoon as the new coach of the Wolverines. As a St. John's alumnus and broadcaster, I had become relatively close to Barnes Arico and her team through covering them over the years, and can say that she was one of my favorite people to be around. Over ten years, Barnes Arico turned a nonexistent doormat into a national powerhouse, and made it seem relatively effortless by exhibiting a calm and determined persona that always brought the best out of everyone who came into contact with her.

I am almost certain that Barnes Arico was offered far more than she was paid at St. John's, and having been essentially raised by a single mom after my parents separated when I was 13, I can definitely relate to Barnes Arico; a mother of three who turns 42 in August, wanting greater financial security for her family. I cannot blame her for making the decision in that regard. As far as perhaps having accomplished everything possible at St. John's, I also have no hard feelings there, as hardly anyone could have scripted the fairy tale that was authored in Queens over the last decade. Let's be honest, who would have ever pictured St. John's defeating Connecticut, Notre Dame and Rutgers on a regular basis before 2002, when Barnes Arico arrived in Queens?

Many will point to this past season as the beginning of the Barnes Arico legacy, but that story began in 2006. That was the year that the Red Storm, led by Wright and McLean, made their return to the NCAA Tournament and defeated California in the first round before narrowly falling to eventual national champion Maryland in a game Reginald Bazile still recollects as if it just went final last night.

Most fans will miss Kim's competitive fire and her determination to win at all costs, but I personally will miss the little things that made her so easily approachable. Most of my greatest memories of Barnes Arico took place off the court, from discussing her training for last year's New York City Marathon; which she finished in just over four hours, to her colorful postgame press conferences. Honestly, those gatherings will not be the same without either of her daughters sitting on her lap, or the occasional question from her son Trevor, which added a much-needed human element to the competition on the court.

People have asked for my reaction to Barnes Arico leaving, and although I am still in a state of shock; I feel in some ways like a parent, one whose child is just going away to college to start their freshman year. As a broadcaster, St. John's women's basketball was like a child to me, one that I saw in its infancy and continued to watch grow through adolescence and adulthood. Replacing Kim is no easy task for whomever Chris Monasch decides to entrust this budding dynasty of a program to; be it Barnes Arico's top assistant Joe Tartamella, or another name who could crawl out of the woodwork in much the same way Steve Lavin did when he was brought in as the replacement for Norm Roberts two years ago.

The University of Michigan's iconic fight song begins with the verse "Hail to the victors valiant, hail to the conquering heroes." "The Victors" also hails the "leaders and (the) best" within its hallowed lyrics, and the classic 1990s movie "The Sandlot" bears the powerful advice that "heroes get remembered," "but legends never die."

Kim Barnes Arico is all of these wrapped up into one: A victor valiant. A conquering hero. A leader, a hero, a legend; but most of all to the St. John's basketball program and the fans that she now departs as the all-time winningest coach of, the best. There is no doubt in my mind that she will do for Michigan what she spent the last decade doing for St. John's and a fan base that helped her build something really special out of nothing.

If you appreciate success stories the way I do, all you can do is look back and simply give thanks, while extending your best wishes from a distance.

From someone truly blessed to have covered your program for five years as a broadcaster, student, writer, and fan, I say this:

Go get 'em, Coach, and thanks for the memories.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Brown Returns (Again) At SMU

71-year-old Larry Brown is back in saddle again after agreeing to take vacant head coaching position at SMU. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

Brett Favre, eat your heart out. The quarterback's college basketball coach equivalent has just returned, albeit with significantly less drama than the Super Bowl winner's soap opera-esque retirement dances, but still enough to entice bookmakers to perhaps create prop bets as to just how long he will be around.

Early yesterday afternoon, multiple sources were reporting that Larry Brown (yes, that Larry Brown) had agreed to fill the vacancy created over a month ago at Southern Methodist University after the Mustangs fired head coach Matt Doherty. Brown, who turns 72 in September; and has not coached since parting ways with the Charlotte Bobcats in 2010, reportedly finalized a deal yesterday with athletic director Steve Orsini that would bring the only coach to win both an NBA and national championship to Dallas to take the reins of the Mustangs, who move from Conference USA into the Big East in 2013.

SMU was also reported to have hired Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich to serve as "coach in waiting" in the event that Brown leaves sooner than expected, something he has become reputed for doing while in the NBA. However, such a deal between Jankovich and SMU is not official at the moment, and quite honestly, should Jankovich leave Illinois State; it may be perceived as a lateral move, as the Redbirds return everyone from a team that won 21 games and reached the NIT after going from ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference to a third-place tie.

Brown does have significant college experience, having coached at both UCLA and Kansas in the 1980s; winning a national championship with the Jayhawks in 1988, but has also left both schools with sanctions and probation stemming from recruiting. Brown is also notorious for not playing rookies, something that could factor into the future of recruits Brian Bernardi and Blaise Mbargorba. However, his hire does create a buzz for the program that has never been seen before; and the school has widespread national attention for the first time since the "Pony Express" of the Mustangs' football program in the 1980s, a publicity that can only help SMU as they prepare to move into the Big East, where Brown will meet the New York media for the first time since his brief but controversial tenure as head coach of the Knicks. Most notably, Brown has found quick success mostly everywhere he has gone, turning the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers into consistent, long-term winners by the end of his tenure; not to mention guiding the Detroit Pistons to a five-game upset over a heavily favored Los Angeles Laker team that starred Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to win the 2004 NBA championship, a quality and track record that SMU is hoping he can add to with the Mustangs, who finished 13-19 under fellow North Carolina alum Matt Doherty last season.

After being turned down by Marquette coach Buzz Williams, Steve Orsini has found his man, even if it is someone whose last experience at the college level came before any of his new players were even born. While this hire can be spun in any direction, and while it is a positive move considering the SMU program's impending exodus to the Big East, it can still go either of two ways. Larry Brown will have moderate success at Southern Methodist for a number of years, or he will leave in a relatively short amount of time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Three Years Later, We've Come A Long Way

Fordham, Seton Hall and LIU Brooklyn were just some of the many institutions responsible for the exponential growth of this site, which was established three years ago today.  (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)

Three years ago today, what has now become a portal for all things college basketball was started on a whim inside the WSJU Radio office at St. John's University with no real direction upon its inception.  This morning, I look at the grand total of almost four hundred posts in this site's history, and still come away amazed at what has come out of seemingly very little.

April 17, 2009 was a night in which I created this space as a fallback in the event that my broadcasting career did not pan out.  Three years later, I am proud to say that I have not only made strides on the air, I have gained recognition for "A Daly Dose Of Hoops" that has amounted to far greater than anything I ever could have envisioned.  As it has turned out, "The Dose" is somewhat like a child to me; especially when you consider not just the way it has grown, but the rapid development in which its growth has undergone since its 2009 infancy.  Following a focus on college basketball that served primarily to both carve out my own niche among sports blogs, this space has transitioned from generic recaps of newsworthy items to its usual content of reviews, previews, opinionated content, and even bracketology for an entire weekend in March that I try to keep original, refreshing and informative whenever possible.  Apparently, whatever I have done lately has been significant, because the traffic boost that this site has received was so strong that it nearly quadrupled the total hit count from this day in 2011 over the last twelve months alone.

One year ago, I wrote my second anniversary retrospective with a total of 8,373 hits.  At the present moment, that number has made its way to a staggering (at least in my mind) 30,548, which translates to an even more unbelievable 265 percent increase in viewership for those of you scoring at home.  In fact, each of the last three months (including this one, which is on pace to break all-time monthly hit records) have generated over 2,800 views of any and all content on this site from literally all corners of the world.  For someone who spends every broadcast and post putting his passion for the game into words, this support means more to me than any of you will ever know; because after all, there would be no me had it not been for you.

There are a number of people, places and things that contributed to our monumental growth, and social media is chief among them.  Upon registering our 10,000th hit, the Daly Dose Of Hoops Facebook page was set up to provide another home for our content to go with a Twitter account that you can follow by clicking the link.  I am honestly not sure how many followers I had at the start of the season, but today the number stands at 390; and in that group that numbers just ten short of 400 is a list of luminaries the likes of Hofstra coach Mo Cassara, former Utah Jazz star Bryon Russell and former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, not to mention schools such as Marist, Iona, LIU Brooklyn, St. Francis College, Marquette and my alma mater St. John's, but most importantly, a great deal of common fans.  Of course, anyone who takes the time to read what I have to say is special just for doing so, and for that I am grateful.  While I'm thanking the people who made an impact on Twitter, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Sports Illustrated's Andy Glockner, whose retweet of this piece I compiled listing the world-famous comparisons made by college basketball insider Jon Rothstein helped drive it to a record 1,900 views and the title of most viewed article in Daly Dose history.  Rothstein himself is also going to get his well-deserved credit, as he has become not just a colleague, but also a great friend and inspiration over this past season.

Special thanks also goes to all the mid-major programs and sports information directors who were gracious enough to open their doors to me when I asked to cover their teams, not to mention the tremendous support I have received from both my broadcasting/writing brethren and the Northeast Conference office.  Brian Beyrer, John Higgins and Nick Guerriero, (Iona) as well as Joe DiBari, (Fordham) not only welcomed me; but treated me as though I were one of their own, and that gesture resonated with me much more than any of these men will realize.  It will give me great pleasure to visit the Hynes Center and Rose Hill Gym all season long next year if I am welcomed there again, and my one regret to not spending more time around these programs was that my schedule with St. Francis and St. John's precluded me from showing up more often than not.  Speaking of my two primary employers, I cannot thank Dave Gansell and Brian Morales at St. Francis; as well as Mark Fratto, Kristin Duffy and the rest of the staff at my alma mater enough for how much they have taken care of me both on and off the air since I ventured into the sports media world back in my senior year of college in 2007.

Now that the acceptance speech is out of the way, I do have an announcement to make; one that I will be spreading out through our various means of communication to anyone who is interested, as I am serious about this.  This past season was only the beginning.  The recognition and exposure that I have received from my work over the last few months has led me to want to further establish A Daly Dose Of Hoops as a brand.  Therefore, I am looking for a few more people to assist me in writing for this site for the 2012-13 season, and hopefully beyond in the hope that "The Dose" can maintain its presence at the high-major level while also covering more mid-major teams in the process.  If you or someone you know would be interested in such an opportunity, e-mail, and we will talk more.  I cannot offer anything extravagant at the moment, just the opportunity to branch out and become recognized.

This past year has been something I never thought possible, and I have all of you to thank for it.  Without you, there would be no me; and as I said when I did something similar a year ago today, all of you are much bigger parts of my life than any of you will ever know.

It is my hope that you continue to join me on this journey into the world of college basketball both on and off the court in the coming years, because the best truly is yet to come.  Year three was hopefully just the beginning of something that can be really special down the road.  I would love to have all of you share it with me.

Thanks again, my friends.

Jaden Daly
Founder and Managing Editor
A Daly Dose Of Hoops

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ferry Leaves LIU For Duquesne

Jim Ferry comes to Pittsburgh off back-to-back NEC championships at LIU Brooklyn upon introduction as new head coach at Duquesne.  (Photo courtesy of Yahoo! Sports)

Two coaches have now left the Northeast Conference for the Atlantic 10.  Incidentally, both of these coaches had top three programs in the NEC prior to making the jump.

Three weeks after Dan Hurley arrived at Rhode Island after two years at Wagner, Jim Ferry has followed suit, leaving LIU Brooklyn in favor of Duquesne University.  The 44-year-old Ferry, whose ten years at the helm of the Blackbirds made him the third-longest tenured coach in the NEC behind Dave Bike (Sacred Heart) and Howie Dickenman, (Central Connecticut State) officially replaced Ron Everhart as the head coach of the Dukes in a press conference held yesterday on Duquesne's Pittsburgh campus.  While Ferry heads to the Steel City to take the reins of a program that has not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1977, his former position at the helm of the reigning two-time NEC champions was taken by former associate head coach Jack Perri.

"It would have to take something special for me to leave," said Ferry upon his introduction.  "When I met these guys, (president Dr. Charles Dougherty and athletic director Greg Amodio) it was just automatic.  It just came together."  Ferry takes over a team that finished 16-15 last season, but lost star guard T.J. McConnell after the homegrown talent transferred to Arizona.

Ferry did bring a piece of Brooklyn with him, however; as both Rich Glesmann and Danny Lawson, each of whom served on his staff at LIU, will join his new staff at Duquesne.  In addition, the new coach hired Brian Nash as his associate coach in a move that may be surprising on the surface, but not when you consider the history between them.  Nash played with Ferry in college at Keene State, where Ferry eventually served as assistant coach; and the two grew even closer through the Battle of Brooklyn rivalry, as Nash matched wits with Ferry twice a year for five years at the helm of St. Francis, just a ten-minute walk from the LIU campus.

Speaking from an NEC media member's perspective, I always enjoyed having the opportunity to cover Jim Ferry over the years, and will miss him greatly despite still getting to cover him when Duquesne travels to Fordham.  His desire to run a program the right way and build it from the ground up will resonate instantly with Pittsburgh's blue-collar history and nature, and Duquesne will realize sooner rather than later that they hit a Roberto Clemente-esque grand slam with this hire.  The addition of Brian Nash to his staff helps both recruiting and in-game strategy as well as the overall image of the program.  I never got to cover Nash personally during my tenure at St. Francis, but mostly everyone associated with the Terriers who did still speaks very highly of him as well as his boss.  Moreover, his system will be a great fit for the Atlantic 10 as well, as he will find it easier to get guards to fit his style of play, not to mention being able to recruit big men that he could not necessarily get at LIU.  In a world where Xavier and Temple consistently serve as the class of the conference, it would not be a surprise to see Duquesne make a run toward the Atlantic 10's upper echelon. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Big East In Review: Syracuse

Syracuse's depth spoke for itself this season, as Dion Waiters was Orange's best player despite not starting a single game.  (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

The 2-3 zone defense.  A home court that regularly attracts over 20,000 people every night.  A Who's Who of talented players that have become even greater in the NBA.  There is also the Hall of Fame coach closing in on 900 career wins after completing his record 34th season with at least twenty victories.  This season may have ended with a loss in the East regional final, but you can add a ten-man rotation full of role players and future professionals to the long and storied list of trademarks for the program that has earned the right to be called New York State's college team, Syracuse University.

When I spoke to the legendary Jim Boeheim at Big East media day prior to the 2010-11 season that saw the Orange suffer an uncharacteristic early NCAA Tournament exit at the hands of Marquette, the first question I had for the coach was how he somehow always managed to recruit players who fit his system.  Boeheim may have a reputation for not always being the most personable among the Big East coaches, but on this day; the iconic Syracuse head man was very accommodating and forthcoming with me, as he clarified the fact that a coach never truly gets what he needs when recruiting; and explained how he has been able to coach someone who comes into Syracuse underdeveloped only to turn him into a player who has a long professional future, something Boeheim has carved a personal legacy out of in central New York as the sun sets on his 36th season at his alma mater.

Kris Joseph, the latest in a long line of productive Syracuse wings who was also the leading scorer for the 34-3 Orange this past season, is a prime example of that.  The Montreal native may have averaged just over thirteen points per game, but his leadership and tendency to do all the little things that do not show up in box scores outweighed his lack of productivity compared to other scorers in the conference, something that was proven when Joseph was named a first team all-Big East selection.  The senior is one of four players to leave the Orange, but graduates next month having done more than merely make an impact on an already rich tradition.

Senior point guard Antonio "Scoop" Jardine also graduates after completing his fifth year with averages of nearly nine points and five assists to go with a lethal 38 percent accuracy from long range.  Jardine came back stronger than ever from a torn ACL two years ago that kept him around for an extra season, and leaves the controls of Boeheim's offense in the hands of freshman Michael Carter-Williams.  At 6-5, Carter-Williams may be taller than most point men in the nation, but he averaged nearly two assists per contest while only playing an average of ten minutes a night.  Once he sees significant minutes, Carter-Williams will almost certainly join the likes of Providence's Vincent Council, Notre Dame's Eric Atkins, Marquette's Junior Cadougan and USF's Anthony Collins among the Big East's elite at his position.

Syracuse was dealt a minor blow when sophomore center and reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo decided to declare for the NBA draft, but the Orange have two replacements for the seven-foot Brazilian who are more than capable despite their offensive struggles this past season.  Freshman Rakeem Christmas and sophomore Baye Keita proved how indispensable they were to Boeheim's rotation when they had the unenviable task of filling in for Melo during the NCAA Tournament, but like Carter-Williams in the backcourt, the duo were victims of the Orange's massive depth, as they too were limited to a combined average of twelve minutes per game.  Sophomore C.J. Fair will join Christmas and Keita inside for the Orange as Syracuse once again has a decided size advantage when compared to their Big East rivals.  The Orange also welcome two more forwards to their rotation in DaJuan Coleman and Jerami Grant.  Coleman, who is no relation to; but draws comparisons to former Syracuse star Derrick Coleman, is a product of the Jamesville-DeWitt High School program that Boeheim has signed guards Brandon Triche and Andy Rautins from, and Grant comes to Syracuse from DeMatha Catholic in Maryland.  Grant will most likely be the long-term replacement for Kris Joseph, and if his name sounds familiar; it's due to his NBA lineage, as he is the son of former Washington Bullets forward Harvey Grant and nephew of Chicago Bulls power forward Horace, Harvey's twin brother.  Grant also has Big East bloodlines in the form of his older brother Jerian, the starting shooting guard at Notre Dame.

The aforementioned Brandon Triche returns to anchor the Syracuse backcourt for what will be his senior season, and should have an increased role in the offense after Dion Waiters declared for the NBA draft following a stellar sophomore year in which he averaged over twelve points per game despite never being part of Jim Boeheim's starting lineup.  Waiters was limited to 24 minutes per contest due to the wealth of talent on the roster, but was still compared to NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade by college basketball insider Jon Rothstein on several occasions.  Had Waiters remained in school, the Philadelphian would almost certainly have been voted the preseason choice for Big East Player of the Year.  Last but not least, swingman James Southerland will most likely open next season as a starter after a campaign that saw the Queens product average seven points in just sixteen minutes per game off the bench, a stat line which included several clutch shots and a 34 percent rate from beyond the arc.

Looking at the Big East, there are some contenders that stand out, such as Louisville, Cincinnati and Notre Dame; but if the status quo holds to form for one of the schools who will eventually be leaving for the ACC, the road to a double bye at Madison Square Garden will almost certainly be going through the Carrier Dome on more than one occasion.

Big East In Review: Marquette

Buzz Williams was just one of many highlight reel attractions for Marquette this season.  (Animated GIF photo courtesy of Midwest Sports Fans via SB Nation)

Four jerseys.  Three guards.  Two straight trips to the Sweet 16.  One coach and program that still gets no respect.  This is Marquette basketball, and this year's incarnation of the former Warriors provided more thrills and excitement that national champion Kentucky at various times during the season.

At 27-8 on the year, the Golden Eagles started out winning their first ten games despite losing center Chris Otule for the season with a torn ACL during Marquette's comeback win over Washington in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.  All coach Buzz Williams did was place more emphasis on defense and the concept of "paint touches" to go with a dynamic offense that uncovered the latest unheralded recruit turned star produced by Marquette, eventual Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder.

The junior college transfer from Georgia averaged over seventeen points and eight rebounds per game as an undersized power forward, and Crowder's 35 percent clip from three point range and average of 2.5 steals per contest made him a well-rounded player on both sides of the ball as he made the same kind of impact former Golden Eagle big man Lazar Hayward did two years prior.  Unfortunately, Crowder graduates next month; as does partner in crime Darius Johnson-Odom, a first team all-Big East selection who averaged better than eighteen points per game and shot 39 percent from beyond the arc to draw comparisons to Jerel McNeal, Marquette's all-time leading scorer.  Joining the man affectionately known as "DJO" and "3JO" in the backcourt were Wisconsin native Vander Blue (8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in an understated role) and point man Junior Cadougan, whose five-plus assists per night solidified his status as one of the Big East's better ball handlers.  Freshman Todd Mayo, whose older brother O.J. is of course the face of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, averaged eight points per game off the bench as Johnson-Odom's main understudy.  Mayo will join the returning Blue and Cadougan as the starting guards next season, while Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson platoon once again with a healthy Otule up front for Marquette.  Gardner averaged close to ten points per game before and after his own injury that cost him eight games this past season, and Wilson; a former Oregon transfer who returned to his home state, played arguably some of the best defense Marquette exhibited all season to supplement his seven points and four rebounds per contest.  Juan Anderson, Jamail Jones and Derrick Wilson will all return as well to headline the Marquette bench, as Buzz Williams once again has more players coming back to Milwaukee than he has grown accustomed to since replacing former coach and current Indiana head man Tom Crean.

Marquette also welcomes a four-person recruiting class at the moment, with verbal commitments from shooting guards T.J. Taylor and Jamal Ferguson; the latter of whom is ranked 31st at this position by, as well as 6-9 big man Aaron Durley and 6-8 power forward Steve Taylor, a Chicago native who is a fringe Top 100 prospect.  The Golden Eagles are also rumored to be involved with 6-10 center Phillip Nolan, a homegrown talent who is also said to be considering fellow Big East school St. John's despite the Red Storm's heavy interest in Chris Obekpa.

The losses of Johnson-Odom and Crowder may appear to be too much to overcome, but one look at what Buzz Williams brings back dispels that notion almost immediately.  Marquette should remain one of the deeper and more talented teams in the Big East just for the sheer fact that they reload as well as some of the more prestigious programs in the nation, giving fans more optimism around Marquette Nation.

Ring Out Ahoya!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Big East In Review: Notre Dame

No one expected Mike Brey to go this far with Notre Dame after Tim Abromaitis' injury.  (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

Six games into the year, Notre Dame's future was thrown into severe limbo when senior forward Tim Abromaitis, who had just made his return two contests prior after a four-game suspension at the start of the season, tore his ACL and went down for the remainder of the season.  Yet somehow, the Fighting Irish managed to rise above adversity yet again to secure the third-best record in the Big East under a head coach in Mike Brey who continually finds a way to not only do more with less, but do it better each time he has to.

This season may not have produced the Big East Player and Coach of the Year the way last year's 27-win campaign did, but Brey and the Irish still managed to surprise a lot of people with a roster that was a question mark when Abromaitis was still in the fold.  With his youngest team in recent years taking the court in South Bend, Brey got three players to average ten or more points per game; including sophomore Jerian Grant, who managed twelve points per game and a 35 percent shooting clip from three-point range after not playing last year.  Joining Grant in the backcourt was point guard Eric Atkins, whose twelve points and four assists per game complemented Grant while giving sharpshooting Scott Martin more of an opportunity to sit back and burn opponents from beyond the arc.  Up front, Jack Cooley developed a physical style that is just as reminiscent of former Irish legend Luke Harangody as Cooley himself is physically, averaging 12.5 points and almost nine rebounds per game.  Joining Cooley on the front line was swingman and two-sport star Pat Connaughton.  The freshman, who also pitches on Notre Dame's baseball team, worked his way into a starting role late in the year after taking the spot from Alex Dragicevich, who has since transferred.

Notre Dame is trying to get a sixth year of eligibility for Scott Martin, who missed a year with a torn ACL after transferring from Purdue; and could even do the same with Abromaitis, although it is unknown whether or not the Irish will do that considering that Abromaitis will finish graduate school next month.  The team also welcomes center Garrick Sherman to South Bend after he transferred from Michigan State this past season.  Sherman, who has two remaining years of eligibility; brings experience and size to a program that has craved it since Luke Zeller and Rob Kurz graduated several years ago, and his participation in two Final Fours under Tom Izzo automatically upgrades the leadership in Notre Dame's interior.  The Irish bring in three forwards for their incoming freshman class, a group headlined by Zach Auguste and Cameron Biedscheid; and with everyone coming back for at least another year aside from the still unknown futures of Martin and Abromaitis, the opportunities to cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame will be much greater in the coming season.

Big East In Review: Cincinnati

Led by Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati's resurgence is just getting started.  (Photo courtesy of Associated Press)

In six years, Cincinnati has quickly moved away from the acrimonious end to the Bob Huggins era and brought in a new era of prosperity and upward mobility under Mick Cronin. With the Bearcats' appearance in the East regional semifinal last month in the NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati is now back where the program had been for many years in the 1990s and early 2000s: A national powerhouse still looking to make a statement.

This season, early losses to Presbyterian and Marshall, coupled with the 23-point rout against Xavier that will forever be remembered more for the brawl between the two schools in the final seconds, made the wrong kind of statement for Cincinnati.  With Cronin's extreme makeover of the Bearcat offense, Xavier became not only a thing of the past; but more like a turning point for the Cincinnati season, as the Bearcats won ten of their next eleven going into Big East play and 2012.

Securing a double bye in the Big East tournament, where the Bearcats narrowly missed cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden in a six-point championship game loss to Louisville, Cincinnati entered the field of 68 having won nine of its last twelve.  Considered a dark horse to make a deep run after Syracuse had lost center Fab Melo prior to the tournament starting, Cincinnati knocked off Texas and Florida State before their defeat at the hands of eventual Final Four participant Ohio State in Boston.  However, that did not change the fact that Cronin has taken this team to greater heights than Cincinnati has seen in recent years, and with the wealth of talent the 40-year-old coach brings back for what will be his seventh season at the helm, there is no reason to believe that Cincinnati is not going to replicate their run to the Sweet 16.  In fact, the Bearcats may even be dancing longer.

The Bearcats only lose two seniors, but Yancy Gates will almost certainly be the hardest player Cronin has had to replace since taking the job in 2006.  His departure opens the door for Justin Jackson to play a significant amount of minutes as the long forward enters his junior season.  Senegalese import Cheikh Mbodj will also be among the favorites to take Gates' position in the lineup, and if Cronin can lure Chris Obekpa; a 6-10 recruit who is said to be choosing either Cincinnati or St. John's as his college destination, the task of replacing a player who averaged twelve points and nine rebounds becomes a lot easier.  In addition to Gates, guard Dion Dixon departs after a stellar four-year career that saw him rise from a reserve to the likes of Deonta Vaughn and Larry Davis into an indispensable part of the Cincinnati rotation.  The Bearcat backcourt remains strong, however; with Cashmere Wright back for another season at the point, this after averaging nearly eleven points and five assists per game this past year.  White Plains native Sean Kilpatrick becomes a junior next season, and could even become the Big East Player of the Year if he puts up similar numbers.  This past season, Kilpatrick was Cincinnati's leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, grabbed over four rebounds per contest, and shot a blistering 38 percent from beyond the arc as well.  JaQuon Parker returns as the Bearcats' "glue guy" after a promising campaign in which the Xavier incident actually opened the door for the 6-3 wing to average over nine points and five rebounds per contest while simultaneously doing a number of things that did not show up in the box score.  Jeremiah Davis and Ge'Lawn Guyn are the headliners of a deceptively strong bench, one that also includes Jermaine Sanders and Shaquille Thomas; who comes from successful basketball lineage, as his uncle Tim played at Villanova before enjoying a solid NBA career, while older sister Essence Carson is one of the faces of the New York Liberty after reaching the 2007 national championship game at Rutgers.

Cincinnati has one more recruit coming in besides Thomas, who is basically a redshirt freshman at this point.  Also joining the Bearcat family will be swingman Titus Rubles out of Blinn Community College in Texas.  If that school sounds familiar, it may very well be due to the fact that it produced Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Cam Newton just three years ago before the Carolina Panthers quarterback transferred to Auburn.  Again, Cincinnati may also land Chris Obekpa when the prospect announces his decision to sign later this spring.  Regardless of who else comes on board, Mick Cronin has several pieces to make yet another run at Cincinnati; and this time, it might not be over after just three games in the NCAA Tournament.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Big East In Review: Georgetown

Henry Sims' breakout senior campaign was responsible for moving Georgetown into top half of Big East.  (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

Just as the University of South Florida did this past season, Georgetown advanced further than most had predicted, going from the middle of the Big East to a fifth-place finish that got the Hoyas a bye in the conference tournament and a round of 32 appearance in the NCAA Tournament.  However, for all the positives around the nation's capital, Georgetown is still perceived as a team that has been unable to get it done when it matters thanks in large part to their four straight early exits in the NCAA Tournament.  Next year should change that perception, as the Hoyas return a young core of a team that loses only two seniors in center Henry Sims, whose six rebounds per game and average of over three assists per contest complemented his offensive touch; and first team all-Big East guard Jason Clark, who will be remembered just as much for his sharp shooting as he will for being a consummate leader on and off the court.

Swingman Hollis Thompson's decision to declare for the NBA draft this June will leave an opening for one of the returning players to be the face of the Hoyas next season after a junior campaign in which Thompson shot a blistering 43 percent from three-point range and 46 percent from the field, drawing comparisons to former Georgetown star Brandon Bowman.  One person who can become the main attraction for Georgetown will be Nate Lubick, who prepares for his junior season; while joining him up front will be Otto Porter, who will become a full-time starter after a rookie year that saw the Missouri native average nearly ten points and seven rebounds off the bench.  Porter could very well be the next great Georgetown forward, and will have 6-8 wing Greg Whittington as a supporting cast member as well.  Markel Starks will more than likely be the starting point guard next year, while Jabril Trawick and Mikael Hopkins also return for their sophomore seasons to provide more depth on John Thompson III's bench.

Georgetown only has two recruits coming in by virtue of their many underclassmen, but both are highly regarded.  Brandon Bolden is a 6-10 center that can be as useful for the Hoyas as Henry Sims and Julian Vaughn before him, and is in the same mold as those two; while D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, a 6-3 point guard is ranked 22nd in the nation by  Smith-Rivera turned down offers from UCLA, fellow Big East school Louisville and North Carolina State; who defeated the Hoyas in the NCAA Tournament, to play for Georgetown, where he will see significant minutes in the backcourt for a team that is one of many on an upward movement in our nation's capital.

Big East In Review: South Florida

Stan Heath did more with less better than any other coach in Big East this past season at USF.  (Photo courtesy of Voodoo Five)

Before I go any further, let me preface this by saying that I picked the University of South Florida to finish last in the Big East back in October the same way many other people did.  How were we to know that the Bulls would end up advancing to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament?  All speculation aside, USF truly was the Cinderella story in the Big East for the second time in three years; with Stan Heath, who in my five years has earned the distinction of being my favorite interview and the nicest guy you can ever cover, earning well-deserved conference Coach of the Year honors.

Maybe the Sun Dome should be renovated again next season.  With the Bulls forced to play most of their home games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum while their on-campus venue was being fixed, USF managed a 14-2 record between the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the University of Tampa.  Their opening contest in the conference, a 60-57 loss to UConn that was eerily reminiscent of their overtime loss back in 2009, should have served as the foreshadowing of what was to come.  From that moment on, the Bulls won twelve of sixteen to vault themselves into the NCAA Tournament field (at least in this writer's opinion) going into the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.  Yet here were the experts (I won't name names for the sake of being professional, but anyone and everyone who knows USF knows who the leader of this brigade is) maligning the Bulls' less than spectacular nonconference record, stating it would preclude them from a spot in the field of 68.  They should have known better.

After nearly defeating Notre Dame in the Big East tournament, head coach Stan Heath remarked that his team's style of play wasn't the most attractive, but that beauty was "in the eye of the beholder."  California found that out in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, when USF led 36-13 at halftime.  Victories over the Golden Bears and Temple before a loss to Ohio University got USF to a 22-14 record that hardly anyone expected would be the end result for a team still searching for a happy medium after Dominique Jones declared for the NBA two years prior.

What makes this team even more impressive was that the Bulls were a cast of role players by and large.  Think about this: USF did not have a single player averaging more than ten points per game, with senior big man Augustus Gilchrist (9.5 points per game) serving as the team leader.  When Gilchrist wasn't getting it done, two new faces made their presence known in a big way.  Swingman Victor Rudd, an Arizona State transfer, made his first impact by singlehandedly defeating St. John's back in January; while freshman Anthony "AC" Collins, despite being a rookie, solidified his reputation as one of the best point guards in the Big East by averaging over five assists to go with nine points per contest.  Junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick blossomed with his extra playing time, becoming a sharpshooter off the bench with his 41 percent clip from beyond the arc, with Shaun Noriega and Blake Nash providing valuable offense in reserve roles as well.  Hugh Robertson and Ron Anderson Jr. may not have always filled up the box score, but both came to be known as high percentage shot takers that always made sure they were in the right place at the right time.  Then there was Jawanza Poland, who for all the missed layups, endeared himself to Bulls fans with his high-octane style.

Four players make their way to Tampa next season in a recruiting class that is headlined by swingman Musa Abdul-Aleem, a junior college transfer from Georgia.  The Bulls also get Waverly Austin should he be declared eligible, as well as forward Zach LeDay and shooting guard Javontae Hawkins, ranked 23rd at his position by  Stan Heath's son Jordan, who was injured prior to the season and did not play, may also rejoin the team.  All in all, USF may not be the most exciting team to watch, but the Bulls got the job done.  Next season will hopefully provide more of the same.  If nothing else, all those (myself inclusive) who failed to take the Bulls seriously this season now have something to steer them in a positive direction if they make the same mistake again.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Big East In Review: Louisville

Rick Pitino still intends to celebrate after miraculous Final Four run with Louisville.  (Photo courtesy of New York Times)

Following a season last year in which his team had to use its managers during practice to make up for the multitude of injuries that had befallen them, Rick Pitino would have been more than satisfied with just getting Louisville back to the NCAA Tournament.  What he received was far greater than anyone would have expected.

Fresh off their second Big East championship in four years, the Cardinals went to their second Final Four under Pitino, disposing of former national champions Michigan State and Florida along the way before narrowly losing to Kentucky.  For a coach like Pitino who has taken four schools to the field of 68, and one of only two (John Calipari being the other) to guide three programs to a national semifinal, this latest run gives the 59-year-old even more of a case for the Hall of Fame induction he most certainly deserves.

"They made me really, really proud," said Pitino shortly after his team was eliminated last week by Kentucky.  This run was no different from last season, as several Louisville players were injured at one point or another; namely swingman Mike Marra, lost for the season just two games in.  With one of their shooting threats unavailable, Pitino's two seniors stepped up in more ways than one.  Kyle Kuric, a role player through each of his first three seasons, became the Cardinals' leading scorer with averages of 12.6 points per game and 33 percent from three-point range; while Chris Smith, a one-time Manhattan College transfer, shot 40 percent from beyond the arc and drained clutch shot after clutch shot during Louisville's run.  Fellow guard Russ Smith (no relation) averaged over eleven points per game off the bench in his sophomore campaign, and is well on his way to becoming the latest in a long line of exceptional Pitino guards.  Speaking of backcourt prospects, junior point man Peyton Siva had by far his finest season in the Commonwealth.  The Seattle native may have only averaged nine points per game, but his biggest strength lies within the way he facilitates the Cardinal offense.  With an average of close to six assists per game, Siva enters his final year as one of the best point guards in the Big East.  Louisville also has Wayne Blackshear back for a full season after the freshman wing made a significant impact down the stretch.

Up front, the Cardinals lose Jared Swopshire to graduation, but bring back Rakeem Buckles for one more year to provide depth for arguably two of the better forwards in the conference.  Chane Behanan will enter his sophomore season coming off a rookie year that saw him average over nine points and seven rebounds per contest while posing a matchup problem for opponents simply due to his brute strength.  Behanan will be joined by Senegalese sensation Gorgui Dieng, who comes off a dominant second campaign that saw the 6-10 big man average over three rejections per night to establish himself as the Big East's premier shot blocker.  Dieng backed it up offensively as well, with averages of 9.1 points and rebounds per game to give Pitino a solid six scoring threats on a team that went 30-10 when all the dust settled on a miracle season.

Louisville only has one commitment at the moment, and it comes from six-foot point guard Terry Rozier, who turned down Cincinnati and former Pitino disciple Mick Cronin to play for the Cardinals. Louisville also picks up the services of forward Luke Hancock, who sat out this past season after transferring from George Mason. Hancock is said to have impressed Pitino and his staff in practice thus far, and is considered a lock to be part of the starting five next fall.  Already ranked as high as second in some early preseason polls, Louisville already has a lot of momentum to build on for next season.  Hopefully for Cardinals fans, the team can stay healthy throughout the year and give Rick Pitino even more leverage for what will ultimately be a spectacular Hall of Fame career once he finally gets enshrined.

Big East In Review: West Virginia

Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant leave West Virginia and Big East with four NCAA Tournaments and a Final Four to their credit.  (Photo courtesy of Associated Press)

Since he returned to his alma mater in 2007, Bob Huggins has brought West Virginia to arguably its highest level of success as a basketball program on the heels of five consecutive NCAA Tournaments and a Final Four in 2010.  This year's Mountaineers team only went 19-14, but the toughness and grit symbolic of all Huggins teams was ever-present in this West Virginia bunch before, during and after their round of 64 loss to Gonzaga.

In what would be their final season in the Big East, the Mountaineers opened the season 9-3 before winning their conference opener against Villanova to start what looked like yet another run to a double bye in the Big East tournament.  A stretch in which West Virginia lost seven of nine before winning two straight to close the regular season prevented that from happening, but the Mountaineers still secured a single bye into the second round at Madison Square Garden, where they fell to 2011 national champion Connecticut in overtime.

Mount Vernon product Kevin Jones, a forward who over his four years became one of the most underrated players in the nation; leaves Morgantown upon his graduation next month, as does Brooklyn native Darryl "Truck" Bryant.  Together, Jones and Bryant formed one of the best senior one-two punches in the nation: An all-around talent inside coupled with a dynamic combo guard.  Jones' averages of nearly 20 points and 11 rebounds made him one of only two players in the Big East (Seton Hall's Herb Pope was the other) to average a double-double for the season, while Bryant's 16.9 points per game would be good enough to make him the leading scorer on several other programs in the conference.  Behind them, power forward Deniz Kilicli enjoyed his finest season in a West Virginia uniform, pulling in nearly eleven points and over five rebounds per contest.

A Bob Huggins team is nonexistent without its several role players, and none filled that important piece of the puzzle more than freshman Gary Browne.  Underrated at the start of the season, Browne proved several critics wrong as the Mountaineers' campaign went on; not only averaging nearly three assists per game off the bench as a backup to fellow freshman Jabarie Hinds, but also singlehandedly winning a crucial game against conference rival Cincinnati with his clutch heroics.  The aforementioned Hinds, a product of Bob Cimmino's Mount Vernon High School program just like Kevin Jones, averaged over seven points and three assists per night in his first season at the controls of Huggins' offense.  In limited action, Aaron Brown proved himself to be a very capable scorer and shooter whose numbers translate to ten points and seven rebounds per game when adjusted for 40 minutes.  Brown also shot 39 percent from three-point range.

West Virginia leaves the Big East for the Big 12 this summer, and will almost certainly be projected to finish within the top half of their new conference, which includes rivals the likes of Kansas, Baylor and Texas among others.  Three new faces will also make their way into Morgantown, headlined by 6-9 forward Elijah Macon.  Macon, who could become the replacement to Jones over time, turned down offers from fellow Big East institutions Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to suit up for the Mountaineers.  He will be joined in the rookie class by a pair of shooting guards in 6-3 Eron Harris of Indianapolis and 6-5 North Carolina product Terry Henderson, both of whom were heavily recruited at the mid-major level.  Harris and Henderson are listed as three-star prospects by, which also ranks Macon as 57th overall in the nation among 2012 recruits.  West Virginia is looking at a new conference and new face of the team next season, but with the core of last year's group back, don't be surprised to see the same end result from Bob Huggins and company.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Big East In Review: Connecticut

Jeremy Lamb was one of few bright spots during emotional UConn season one year following Huskies' third national championship.  (Photo courtesy of Hartford Courant)

Last year, the University of Connecticut accomplished something that may never be duplicated, winning their last eleven games during the Big East and NCAA Tournaments to deliver the third national championship in program history to Storrs.  Seven months later, UConn was a different team following the departure of Kemba Walker to the NBA.  However, in typical UConn fashion, the Huskies soldiered on through a season in which the description of "roller coaster year" could be best described as an understatement.

Connecticut started the season 10-1 before opening conference play without the services of Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun, who was suspended for the team's first three Big East games for the Nate Miles scandal that Calhoun had absolutely nothing to do with directly.  Associate head coach George Blaney, who once guided Seton Hall through the Big East in the 1990s, was made the interim boss.  Calhoun eventually returned, but took medical leave in February after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis; and with Blaney taking over until the Hall of Famer returned on March 3rd against Pittsburgh, the Huskies had suddenly lost 11 of 16 games to find themselves on the bubble for a tournament in which they were the last team standing less than one year prior.  UConn eventually made the field of 68, but lost to Iowa State in the round of 64.

Among the first questions at the start of the season for the Huskies was who would step up and lead the team in the absence of Kemba Walker.  Sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb, who is widely expected to declare for the NBA draft in the coming days, took advantage of increased shooting opportunities on his way to first team all-Big East honors and an average of nearly eighteen points per game.  The Georgia product also shot 48 percent from the field while backcourt partner and fellow second-year star Shabazz Napier blossomed as the starting point guard, averaging thirteen points and nearly six assists per contest.  Once he was declared eligible, Ryan Boatright filled the role Napier occupied as a freshman last season; and provided glimpses of Walker's freshman year in the process, one that resulted in a Final Four appearance in 2009.  A native of Chicago who changed the game as soon as he took the court, Boatright quickly made a name for himself with averages of ten points and four assists per game on a team in which he was not the only outstanding rookie.

Andre Drummond, the conference's preseason pick for Rookie of the Year honors that ultimately went to Moe Harkless of St. John's, averaged ten points in his own right; but his biggest contributions were those on the defensive side of the ball, with averages of almost eight rebounds and nearly three blocked shots per night.  When Drummond was not under the boards, junior forward Alex Oriakhi; who just last week announced he would be transferring, teamed with fellow big man Tyler Olander and swingman Roscoe Smith to give UConn a combination of size and rebounding that defied their young age.

DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey also return to shore up the Huskies' bench, and if everything goes according to plan, UConn will bring back everyone except Lamb and Oriakhi.  Andre Drummond has been rumored to declare for the NBA draft as well, but other reports are also indicating the 6-11 center will be staying for his sophomore season despite the NCAA ruling on Thursday that denied UConn's appeal of a penalty that keeps them out of both the Big East and NCAA Tournaments next season as a result of low APR scores.  There is still a slight chance that the NCAA can change their calculations to reflect a four-year period that will get the Huskies back into the field, but UConn is out at the moment.

This decision has not changed the outlook in the Nutmeg State, and incoming recruit Omar Calhoun is still on track to join the Huskies out of Christ the King High School in Queens.  One thing is certain regardless of where UConn's season ends, and that is the fact that their team will embody the fighting spirit of their legendary head coach; so even if the Huskies are only a regular season team, their will to win and desire to prove the critics wrong will shine brighter than ever before.

Big East In Review: Seton Hall

Even though Seton Hall was relegated to NIT, Jordan Theodore's senior season will be one Pirates fans will not forget anytime soon.  (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

Over the past several years, Seton Hall has statistically been the dominant of the three Big East programs in the greater New York area.  A lot of this success is attributed to former coach Bobby Gonzalez, whose players helped increase the Pirates' win total in each of his four seasons at the helm.  When Gonzalez was replaced by Kevin Willard in March of 2010, the former Iona coach inherited a team ready to take the next step toward a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.  However, a 13-18 record marked with more setbacks than a New York Jets season discounted Seton Hall in the eyes of many critics and fans going into this past season.  Fortunately for those in South Orange, the combination of Willard's philosophies and Gonzalez's former players who were determined to bring their program back to its past glory provided a peaceful marriage during a 21-13 season.

Seton Hall eventually fell short of the field of 68, instead playing in the NIT following an end to the regular season that featured losses to two teams in Rutgers and DePaul who finished below the Pirates in the conference standings.  Those two losses, coupled with a close defeat at the hands of Louisville in the Big East tournament, precluded Seton Hall from reaching the promised land; and they concluded their 2011-12 campaign with a win over Stony Brook and loss to Massachusetts in the NIT, but the foundation for a new era in the Garden State is as strong as it has ever been.

The Pirates will have to replace two important pieces to their puzzle in power forward Herb Pope and point guard Jordan Theodore, both of whom will graduate next month.  After playing last season while recovering from open heart surgery the summer prior, Pope's numbers returned to his 2009-10 levels, as the Pennsylvania native once again averaged a double-double for the season (15.1 points, 10.4 rebounds per game) just as he had done two years before when the Pirates reached the NIT and lost to Texas Tech.  Theodore is arguably even harder to replace.  A point guard who conceivably could (and should) have been a first team all-Big East selection since his numbers and contributions were far greater than those of Georgetown's Jason Clark, Theodore leaves South Orange as the program's single season assist leader, (his 6.6 helpers per contest ranked eighth in the nation) and one of just four players in Pirate history with over 1,200 points and 500 assists over his tenure in New Jersey.  Theodore's strong leadership both on and off the court, coupled with a maturity far beyond the average level of a collegiate student-athlete, will be greatly missed over the years to come.

Nonetheless, the Pirates push on with mostly everyone else coming back.  Freshman Aaron Cosby will most likely be the starting shooting guard after a rookie campaign which saw him average nearly eight points per game and shoot 38 percent from three-point range.  The Pirates will also have the favorite for Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors in swingman Fuquan Edwin, who will begin his junior season at Seton Hall.  The last link between Seton Hall and Gonzalez, as Edwin signed while Bobby was still the coach; but never got to play for him, the Paterson Catholic product led the nation in steals, averaging three thefts per game.  Patrik Auda and Brandon Mobley will likely be the main characters up front next year in Pope's absence.  In his sophomore season, Auda broke through on the stat sheet with averages of nearly seven points and four rebounds per game; while the freshman Mobley provided clutch shooting (36 percent from three-point range) and natural rebounding ability despite missing nine games at the start of the year, as well as playing only 20 minutes per game on average.  Aaron Geramipoor also returns for his junior season, and whether he is in the game to infuse offense (as our friends at South Orange Juice consistently pointed out this past season) or just simply doing the little things under the rim that may not show up in a box score, the Englishman provides experience on a team that will welcome it with open arms next season.  The Pirates will also welcome back Haralds Karlis and Sean Grennan to their bench, while also introducing two new transfers in Gene Teague, a 6-9 big man by way of Southern Illinois; as well as Brian Oliver, a former Georgia Tech marksman whom many feel can assume the role previously filled by former Pirates legend Jeremy Hazell.

Freddie Wilson looks to be in the mix at point guard, although he will get competition in the form of Tom Maayan, a 6-1 guard from Israel by way of the Canarias Basketball Academy, the overseas school which produced Auda, Geramipoor and Karlis.  Seton Hall has also received a verbal commitment from 6-9 forward Raymon Austin, but he has not yet signed.  Kevin Johnson could also be a newcomer to South Orange if the big man whom Willard recruited last season is declared eligible.

On the surface, it looks like Seton Hall is in position to take a step back with the losses of Theodore and Pope, as well as walk-on and ESPN celebrity Peter Dill.  However, if you read between the lines, you'll see that the team from South Orange is actually going to mirror the 2011-12 incarnation of the Seton Hall Pirates: A squad who, despite being overlooked, will overachieve enough to leave a positive impression in the minds of their fans.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Big East In Review: Rutgers

Youth and 14-18 record aside, Mike Rice still improved in his second season at Rutgers, taking Scarlet Knights to 11th-place Big East finish after ending his first campaign in the No. 13 spot.  (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)

Just like St. John's, Rutgers entered the 2011-12 season in a similar situation.  After the loss of four seniors, three of whom were starters for head coach Mike Rice in his maiden voyage on the banks of the old Raritan, the Scarlet Knights seemingly rebuilt from scratch with one of the program's highest-rated recruiting classes in recent memory.  The end result was a 14-18 record which included within it just as many lows (losses to Illinois State, Richmond and DePaul) as there were highs.  (Upset wins over Florida and Connecticut as well as a near-upset of Big East regular season champion Syracuse)

In this campaign, Rutgers did uncover a hidden gem in the form of freshman guard Eli Carter.  Carter, a former star at St. Anthony's in Jersey City under Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley before transferring to prep school at Brewster Academy, was Rice's only player to average double figures this past year.  With a 13.8 points per game clip and 35 percent three-point shooting rate, Carter picked up the slack left by former point guard James Beatty by performing just as well on the ball as he did off it.  When Carter served as the Scarlet Knights' shooting guard, Jerome Seagears was Rutgers' main facilitator.  The Maryland native's three in overtime to defeat Seton Hall at the Prudential Center helped keep the Pirates out of the NCAA Tournament; and when Seagears was not at the controls of the Rutgers offense, fellow rookie Myles Mack was.  A starter at the beginning of the season, Mack came into his own once Rice brought him off the bench, highlighted by a 22-point performance in the Scarlet Knights' victory over Stony Brook at Madison Square Garden.  Junior forward Dane Miller was the team's leading rebounder despite an inconsistent offensive season that saw his productivity dip amid expectations that he would replace Jonathan Mitchell as the face of the program, while Mike Poole and Austin Johnson joined Mack as the main sources of production off the bench.

Rice's other incoming recruits were hampered by injuries (Kadeem Jack and Malick Kone) and lack of playing time, (Derrick Randall and Greg Lewis) but all four along with Austin Carroll; who will return with a medical redshirt, will help pick up the slack vacated by the transfer of sophomore forward Gilvydas Biruta.  Biruta averaged nearly ten points per game despite frequent foul trouble, and was without question the most important player on the court for Rutgers more often than not.  It is widely expected that he will resurface at Rhode Island, where he will reunite with former Wagner coach Dan Hurley, who coached Biruta at St. Benedict's Prep.

Rutgers does not have any incoming recruits for 2012 now that Jordan Goodman has decommitted, but the cupboard is more than full with a group of players that will once again surprise a lot of people next season.  Mike Rice set a goal of a winning record in the Big East prior to last season, and with everyone healthy as the coach prepares for his third year at the helm, the path to the upper half of the conference could be clearer even with the obstacle of having to replace Biruta, as Kansas State transfer Wally Judge will be eligible after sitting out this past year. It is widely expected that Judge will make an impact similar to former Rutgers big man and NBA draft pick Hamady Ndiaye, which will make for even greater optimism on the banks of the old Raritan.