Friday, September 29, 2017

Veteran leadership and high upside makes Niagara a MAAC contender

Heading into his senior season, Matt Scott's versatility leads a Niagara team whose blend of experience and potential places them in discussion for a finish in top half of MAAC for first time since 2012-13. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

The last time Niagara was viewed as a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contender, the calendar displayed March, 2013.

To put that in perspective: Barack Obama had just begun his second and final term as President of the United States two months prior, Colin Kaepernick's star was as bright as it had ever been after taking the San Francisco 49ers within one touchdown of a Super Bowl championship, and Rick Pitino was about to embark on an emotionally charged national championship run with Louisville, the two scandals that eventually engulfed his Hall of Fame career nowhere on the horizon.

The Purple Eagles, led by head coach Joe Mihalich and sophomore point guard Juan'ya Green, a first team all-conference talent, won the MAAC regular season crown in a surprising league campaign that saw Niagara win ten of its first eleven conference games. The success carried over into the postseason, falling narrowly short against eventual MAAC champion Iona in the tournament semifinals before battling Maryland in the National Invitation Tournament later that March.

Since then, though, the program has had to rebuild. Mihalich soon left for Hofstra, bringing Green and swingman Ameen Tanksley with him to Long Island and taking the Pride to a pair of postseason appearances shortly thereafter. In his place, Chris Casey was left with a barren cupboard after making the jump from Division II LIU Post, and has struggled to make headway within the MAAC over his first four years on Monteagle Ridge, winning only 32 games and finishing no better than an eighth-place tie in league play.

This year has a different feel, however. With the core of seniors from last season having graduated and Niagara returning everyone from last year's 10-23 roster, the Purple Eagles suddenly have one of the more experienced units in the MAAC. Add to that a tremendous amount of upside in a league where uncertainty is abound in more places than one, and Casey has not just a deceptively strong dark horse on his hands, but also a legitimate contender to give projected conference favorites Iona and Manhattan a run for their money this winter.

"I expect us to take another step forward," Casey confidently projected when assessing the outlook for his Niagara team this season. "I think we have a chance to be good, I think we have a chance to be one of the better teams in the league, and I think we have a chance to win the league and go to the NCAA Tournament. We've got a bunch of guys back, we finally have some experience coming back. Our guys have worked very hard over the summer. They're a good group, a unified group, and we're really looking forward to getting started this season."

"It's important with any team," Casey said of the newfound experience he possesses in droves, namely in the form of senior guards Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes, as well as junior defensive stopper Chris Barton. "We haven't had any situations or any seasons where we've been able to bring a number of guys back. It's always been new guys, rebuild, rebuild. This year, we have a significant number of guys back, so it's invaluable. Before you get good at something, you have to go through it, go through the highs and lows of it and know what it is, and I think that's where we're at right now."

Scott will be the most integral of Niagara's many pieces this season. As a junior, the stat-stuffer from Brooklyn averaged 17 points per game and supplemented his offense with seven rebounds and three assists per contest en route to earning third team all-MAAC honors. With one more season to make an even greater name for himself, the sky is the limit for the Purple Eagles' Swiss Army knife, and his coach is equally as bullish on his prospects.

"There's a lot of people that know what he does and how important he is to our team," said Casey when sizing up Scott's impact. "I expect that he's a Player of the Year candidate. He's got a chance to have a terrific senior year. He's as strong as he's ever been, and I expect him to have a big year for us."

Behind Scott and Dukes is where Niagara will pose perhaps its biggest advantage, with a supporting cast that accounts for some of the MAAC's greatest depth. The aforementioned Barton leads the way in that category,, with junior forwards Marvin Prochet and Dominic Robb anchoring the interior while James Towns and Dwayne Pow see an additional share of minutes in the backcourt for a team whose two exhibition games in Costa Rica last month gave Casey a glimpse of what he has in his arsenal this season.

"I think the biggest thing was we performed well," he said of Niagara's trip in August. "In the past, we've been in situations where we're new, not quite as experienced. We played well, we played extremely hard, and that was evident watching the games in Costa Rica, but quite frankly, I expected that. I expect us to be better because now we have a little bit more experience. There's going to be another move forward."

One year older, one year wiser, and more battle-hardened, the Purple Eagles descend on this year's MAAC season with tangible expectations, which can be an unknown variable for a team with not used to a high bar being set. The aura around Niagara, though, does not project that, as the confidence and realization of having been through the wars has brought them into an alert sense of where they stand in comparison to their conference brethren.

"My guys have always played hard," Casey said of his team. "We've always competed, we've always been right there in games. We needed to get to a point in the program where we had experience and we have enough pop for us to get over the hump in those types of games. We approached that in a couple of spots last year, but certainly not enough, and I think this year is the year to take advantage of that. That's the biggest thing that's different about last year."

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Big East schedule: Takeaways for St. John's and Seton Hall

Chris Mullin and St. John's will get more opportunities to enhance home court advantage at Carnesecca Arena, with six Big East games on campus this season. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)

In a year where both of the Big East schools in the New York metropolitan area have a chance to make significant noise come March, each received a favorable draw when the league's 18-game conference schedule was revealed Tuesday morning.

St. John's, thought of as a dark horse to perhaps return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time this decade, or compete in the National Invitation Tournament at the very least, was the beneficiary of a schedule that sees all but three of their Big East home games on campus at Carnesecca Arena. Across the Hudson River, Seton Hall returns a quartet of seniors and preseason Top 25-caliber outfit to South Orange, and was rewarded with a pair of home games to kick off its conference season, while also having the advantage of contesting their last two games before the Big East tournament inside the Prudential Center.

Both the Red Storm and Pirates will commence league play on December 28, with St. John's hosting Providence in Queens while Seton Hall opens with Creighton for the second consecutive year, only this time welcoming the Bluejays to Newark after visiting Omaha on the same date in 2016. The two local programs will then face one another to conclude 2017, meeting on New Year's Eve in Newark in an affair that will tip off either at noon or 5 p.m. before the calendar shifts to 2018. The return meeting between St. John's and Seton Hall takes place inside Madison Square Garden, with a noon matinee on deck in the penultimate weekend of the regular season.

The opening tip of the 2017-18 campaign is still another eight weeks away, but here are some takeaways on both sides of the Hudson as the Big East seeks to build on a banner year following seven NCAA Tournament bids, the most for the league since its restructuring in 2013:

1) More chances for St. John's to build its Carnesecca Arena home court advantage.
The six league games on the Queens campus are the most in recent memory on the corner of Union and Utopia. There actually were five Big East contests played at Carnesecca in 2015-16, but the Red Storm's home game against Marquette was initially scheduled for Madison Square Garden before being postponed due to the blizzard that wiped out not only St. John's, but also Bruce Springsteen; who was slated to perform the following night, from the World's Most Famous Arena marquee. Nonetheless, the convergence of the Garden opening its doors to the Big Ten tournament at the end of February, plus the return of the Grammy Awards to the Big Apple, provides a unique opportunity for St. John's to use their 5,602-seat bandbox as a boon to their already vast upside as the season heats up.

"I keep saying that it's waiting to blow up," head coach Chris Mullin remarked of the effect Carnesecca and its atmosphere has on a game, no more evident than in the Red Storm's dramatic upset of Butler last December. "We've got to keep that going and sell this place out every night."

Attendance on campus experienced an uptick following the hire of Steve Lavin in 2010, and has remained close to capacity in almost every game of Mullin's tenure as well. Even with three of the six league games tipping off after 8 p.m., the quality of opponents; coupled with the potential for a postseason berth, should be enough to keep fans in the stands all season long.

2) On that note, only one late game for Seton Hall is a plus for Pirate fans.
Jerry Carino, who covers Seton Hall for the Asbury Park Press, frequently notes the direct correlation between tip times and the subsequent attendance, a keen observer to the fact that New Jersey traffic is just as instrumental as the Pirates' win-loss record in determining just how many people push through the turnstiles at the Prudential Center. As he himself said when analyzing Seton Hall's slate, the schedule affords one fewer excuse for the blue-clad faithful to eschew a trip to the Rock. Of the nine home Big East games, only the titanic February 28 showdown with Villanova tips off after 7:00, with the Wildcats and Pirates taking the floor at 8:30. The March 3 regular season finale against Butler still has a time to be determined, but on the whole, Seton Hall's ledger should be conducive to a positive turnout.

3) One marquee matchup early, two more toward the end of the year.
For St. John's, their first truly big game takes place on January 9, when longtime rival Georgetown makes their way to Madison Square Garden. Although the Hoyas are projected to take a step back this season, the allure of program legend and former New York Knick Patrick Ewing taking over the reins of his alma mater promises to make the upcoming season an exciting one on the Hilltop for better or worse, and the first clash between Mullin and Ewing as opposing coaches in the third chapter of a rivalry that spanned both their collegiate playing careers and the NBA will be enough to generate a fair share of buzz. The Red Storm will get a second crack at Georgetown less than two weeks later on January 20 in the nation's capital.

Seton Hall's first major headliner occurs in the second month of the calendar year, coming on February 4 against Villanova. The noon tipoff will certainly be an appetizer for Super Bowl LII later that night, but of great interest for Pirate fans is the fact that the Wildcats will be welcoming them into the Wells Fargo Center, a change from the status quo over the past two decades. No fan base is as grateful for The Pavilion's renovations this season as Seton Hall, with the Pirates having not defeated Villanova on the road since 1994, when head coach Kevin Willard was a freshman in college. The return match with the Wildcats on February 28 in Newark sets up an intriguing finish to the season for the Pirates, with Butler; a longtime thorn in the Pirates' side since joining the Big East, coming to New Jersey immediately after Jay Wright makes his way into town.

4) All in all, both teams were taken care of on the schedule.
Willard has made no bones criticizing Seton Hall's past conference schedules, a trait attributed to his brutally honest nature and competitive spirit. This season, there is no reason for him to gripe as he heads into his eighth year in South Orange. The three-game road trips that have befallen the Pirates in prior years are nowhere to be found on this year's slate. There is a stretch of three out of four games on the road, all against the Midwest contingent of the conference (Butler, Creighton and Xavier), but with a rebuilding Georgetown at home to break up the travel, the strain becomes easier to mitigate. The same can be said of the five-out-of-seven spurt on the road to begin February, but Marquette (February 7) sandwiches journeys to Villanova and Georgetown, while DePaul (February 18) is a refreshing homecoming for the Pirates in between Xavier and Providence, with the aforementioned trek to Madison Square Garden to play St. John's serving as more of a de facto neutral site than a true road game.

On the Red Storm side, a deceptively strong opening gambit featuring Providence at home before Seton Hall and Creighton on the road may be the biggest hurdle that St. John's will have to clear. Getting a three-game homestand before facing Xavier on the road should give Mullin and his young charges mounds of confidence as they go further into January. Looking ahead, a trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse for a January 27 soiree with Butler looms as perhaps the most pivotal contest of the season for the Johnnies, with Xavier and Duke immediately on the horizon over the next seven days to follow, not to mention a February 7 trip to Philadelphia to take on Villanova.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Veteran intangibles bring Liberty into playoffs on highest of highs

By Andy Lipton
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

The past four weeks in August have yielded success for the New York Liberty. 

Ten wins in a row, four against the top teams in the league: Minnesota, Los Angeles, Connecticut, and Washington, taking its 12-12 record to 22-12 by the end of the regular season on September 3 and the third seed in the upcoming playoffs.

With apologies to Earth, Wind & Fire, will the Liberty be dancing in September?

If so, one of the reasons will be nine-year WNBA veteran Shavonte Zellous, who is the only Liberty player beside Tina Charles to start every game this season. She is the team’s second-leading scorer. At 5-foot-10, the former Pitt star has played small forward most of the year, doing what is necessary to help her team.

The lyrics of the great and legendary coach and general manager Red Auerbach might apply to Zellous. Speaking about the Celtics’ dynasty, Auerbach said, “our pride was never rooted in statistics."

Zellous brings more than just basketball ability and athleticism to the game – she is team-first, spirited and enthusiastic, and a vocal leader on the court. She also brings the experience of having won championships in her career, in the WNBA, the EuroLeague, and high school.

I spoke to Zellous about these intangibles on the last day of August at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility.