Monday, October 30, 2017

5 Thoughts: Buzz abounds as Pirates prep for new season

Kevin Willard addresses media in press conference portion of Seton Hall media day, where No. 23 Pirates shared expectations and goals for coming season. (Photo by Seton Hall University Athletics)

By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ -- There’s a bit of a different feeling in the air these days in South Orange. For the first time in a decade, the Seton Hall Pirates come into a season with legitimate expectations. Hot on the heels of two straight NCAA Tournament bids and boasting three seniors who have already scored over 1,000 career points, a large contingent of media gathered at Walsh Gymnasium for Seton Hall’s media day activities, myself included. Here are some thoughts:

1. In The Air Tonight

One thing I noticed about the atmosphere inside Walsh Gym- it was lighter than in years past. Now, of course, the players have a lot to do with that, what with the returning talent and seniority that the Pirates' core possesses breeding cofidence, but during stretching before an open practice session, the players were in great spirits, enjoying themselves while preparing to go to work. I'm not saying that Seton Hall isn't taking the expectations seriously, because they are, but the optimism bled over into how everyone acted in South Orange on Monday. It was nice to see that side of the team show itself.

2. Supporting Cast

While the senior class gets the attention, and rightfully so, the Pirates' surrounding cast of characters may have a big part in how far the team can go this year. Head Coach Kevin Willard talked about guys like Myles Powell, Jordan Walker, Myles Cale and Sandro Mamukelashvili and what they add to the core of seniors as reasons that he believes the team is deeper this year. Powell, for example, has worked on his defense and has his body trimmed down even further from the strides he made last year. Cale, despite only being back on the floor for a month after an injury, is feeling better physically and ready to contribute offensively. Walker, who seemed very much an embodiment of the optimism that I mentioned above when we talked to him, brings quickness and energy as a projected backup to Khadeen Carrington. All of these players will be important as they look to complement Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Carrington as well as Ish Sanogo. And then there's....

3. Sandro

A lot of the players and media alike have been gushing about Mamukelashvili, the freshman forward from Georgia who has played in Italy and down at Monteverde Academy in Florida for former St. Patrick's head coach Kevin Boyle before coming to Seton Hall. Talking to him, he seems mature for his age, and talked about himself and his game without much hesitation. I asked him who he models his game after, and he mentioned current Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons and Euro legend/former Chicago Bull Toni Kukoc. Reports are that his skill set is tremendous, and he did confirm a love of passing the ball as one of the things he adds to the ballclub. There are natural comparisons to the last European forward to play for the Pirates in Patrik Auda, but Mamukelashvili is less of a physical presence and more skilled, not to mention a little taller and a better shooter than Auda was as a freshman.

Regardless, with all that his teammates and coaches have said about him, it's hard not to get excited to see how that translates onto the floor. His last name, by the way, is pronounced "mah-moo-kell-osh-VEE-lee." 

4. Scrimmaging Around

Seton Hall has already had a scrimmage against Boston College, and while it was a closed-door scrimmage, the Pirates reportedly got off to a bit of a slow start, but picked things up as things went forward. Mamukelashvili and Sanogo both echoed those sentiments, with Sanogo, the anointed dean of all things Defense, saying that the team got better defensively overall as the scrimmage went along, but still has some work to do. The Pirates have two exhibition games on their schedule coming up, one on Thursday against La Salle; which is a charity game at Walsh Gym with proceeds going to aid hurricane relief efforts, and also one on Saturday against LIU Post. Fans anxious to see the Hall in action should attend one of those, particularly the one against La Salle, a fellow Division I team.

5. Staying Grounded

Kevin Willard said that he doesn't want to temper the expectations too much, but wants his team to keep working hard despite the excitement that fans are understandably feeling. That obviously falls on the head coach, but I would argue that this team is well-equipped to handle those pressures. A couple players said that while the write-ups and honors are nice, the team still feels like it has a lot to prove. That sounds a lot like the constant mentality of Angel Delgado, the team's best player and an All-American. Delgado is never satisfied, playing with a chip on his shoulder ever since he got to South Orange, and doesn't care an ounce about his own numbers as long as the team wins in the end.

Now that he and his classmates are seniors, in true positions of leadership, if the team follows through on that mentality held by Delgado, that they still have a lot to prove, I think the Pirates will fulfill those lofty expectations. 

The season is just around the corner, and you can forgive Seton Hall fans for smiling just a little wider than before as the calendar turns to November. After talking to players and observing at media day, they certainly have reason to do so.

Kevin Willard quote book: Seton Hall media day

On tempering enthusiasm and expectations going into the season:
"Yeah, I think it's something that's a little bit of a work in progress a little bit right now. I don't want to temper them too much, because I think it's exciting and I think these guys have worked hard to get the recognition they're getting, but at the same time, keeping their focus on how they got here is very important -- not losing the work ethic and the focus that they've had to get them to achieve this point. Now it's just trying to get them to focus a little bit harder to kind of get to achieve a little bit more."

On the pieces in Seton Hall's backcourt:
"The young guys are really, really doing well, they're really impressive. Myles Powell has played as good as any freshman or sophomore that I've ever had. He is just playing fantastic on both ends. Last year, obviously he was a great offensive weapon, this year he's really working hard on the defensive end. Myles Cale, for a guy that missed six months with shoulder surgery and has only been playing for a month, is progressing tremendously, and he really gives us some added scoring. His athleticism is tremendous. Jordan (Walker) is continually -- I think everyone needs to be patient with Jordan just for the fact that he's only 18 years old, and the more he matures, the better he gets. Eron Gordon is playing tremendous, he did a great job for us the other day in our scrimmage, and Khadeen (Carrington) -- I don't really consider Khadeen transitioning to the point guard. He's played so much of it for me already, he's had the ball in his hands so much over the last three years. I think the biggest thing for Khadeen, and we were just talking about it, is understanding that there's so many levels of a point guard that he's responsible for. It's almost like being a father in that you always come last. He's gotta understand as a point guard that the last thing he's gotta worry about is him. He's gotta worry about, 'am I getting the big fella (Angel Delgado) the ball, am I finding Myles Powell shots, am I getting Desi (Rodriguez), how's my team playing?' I think that's the big thing I'm looking for from him over the next month, to see him really develop that responsibility. He's done a really good job with the basketball stuff, which I had no worries about, but now I think we're going to switch our focus on him understanding the deeper zen of the role."

On buying into preseason hype:
"I think we're a pretty good basketball team. We're definitely as deep as we've ever been -- the two sophomores, EG and Myles, Sandro (Mamukelashvili), Myles Cale, Jordan -- have given us probably as much depth as we've ever had here. If you compare last year's team to this year's team, we're obviously more experienced, and we're just so much deeper than we were last year. We played eleven guys double-digit minutes on Saturday (in a scrimmage against Boston College), and all eleven guys played well. Again, I'm excited about this team, and our goal is to stay extremely focused and extremely driven."

On changing his style of play:
"We will press a little bit more, because we've got to get up and down. I think one of our strengths defensively will be wearing teams down a little bit, but as far as going towards -- Angel's still going to be playing Angel's minutes, and Desi, Khadeen, so we're going to be much deeper, but we're still going to rely on the guys who got you where they got you."

On the Big East schedule:
"Two things: I was really thankful to the Prudential Center for opening those dates at the end of the season so we could have senior night. I think our last two games are at home, and that's the first time that's happened in a long time. For this group to be able to have senior night on their last game in the conference, at home, I thought was tremendous that the Prudential Center went out of their way to open up those dates, and the league understood that this group has been here and they deserve a great senior night. The only thing I was unhappy about was having two bye weeks in the first seven games, but I think everything else the way it ended up, you can't complain about anything. I'm really pleased with the way the league has really worked well with Fox, Fox has worked well with the league; and honestly, Prudential Center has been tremendous."

On Seton Hall's non-conference schedule:
"We had a lot of budget concerns. That's why we played a lot of games neutral. It saves a lot of money. I think the schedule is a good challenge. I think it's fun, it's good for the players, it sets up a lot with the league schedule, the teams we're playing. I try to get a mix of teams that grind it out, teams that run, because I think our league is really unique in the fact that we have so many different styles of play. It's a good challenge for us. We're going to have to bring it every night."

On excitement stemming from crowds:
"For me, it really doesn't matter. It really matters to the kids. Home court advantage in college basketball is really important, and no matter what you say when you come out for warmups and you've got 11,000 people in that building, it goes a long way in how kids play. The one thing that we've had tremendous over the last four years, our student section has been as good as it gets. It really has. It's not easy. We've had a lot of Wednesday night games, which makes it tough because it's not easy for our students to get on a bus, go down to the Prudential Center and watch a game, then get back on the bus and come all the way back home and get back. It's not easy for them, but our students have been absolutely phenomenal. Last year, we had the largest student crowds ever. Our kids, when they come out and they see the students there, they understand -- they do the same thing. They get on the bus at 4:45, they go down there. They understand the commitment that it takes, and it's just been -- having our students support us the way they have has been phenomenal."

On what he likes most about Seton Hall's frontcourt:
"Angel. I like Angel. Our frontcourt is great for the fact that I know at the four spot, I have Ish (Ismael Sanogo) and Mike (Nzei), and I don't have to worry about that. I know what Ish and Mike are going to do on a nightly basis, and then you throw Sandro in there; who, at 6-foot-10, he's a phenomenal passer. He's really starting to shoot the basketball well, he can space the floor differently than what we've had in the past. Our frontcourt is a lot of fun just because we can do a lot of different things from an offensive standpoint. Our zone offense is back a little bit just because we flash guys in there that can make plays, and obviously any time you have a guy like Angel Delgado, where at any point you can just throw the ball inside, you're going to be successful. Trying to get all these guys the right minutes is probably my biggest challenge, because they can all play 30-plus minutes a game right now, plus I could throw Big Ro (Romaro Gill) in there. Big Ro is 7-foot-1, long, runs the floor great, getting better. It's fun."

On Sandro Mamukelashvili and his similarity to Patrik Auda:
"Sandro's a little bit more skilled than Patrik was, and he's a better shooter than Patrik was at this stage. Patrik was much more physical, and Patrik was here my second year. Pat really blended in well with Jordan (Theodore) and Herb (Pope). He was a good complement to those guys, and he really did a good job with Jordan and Herb. Patrik would have had a much better career if he didn't have his foot injuries. He had two really bad foot injuries that really hurt him. Sandro's longer than Patrik, he's almost three inches taller, he's got a longer wingspan, he shoots better. He's a little bit more Americanized to the game, playing for Montverde, playing for Kevin (Boyle), so the fact that he played in America for a year and the fact that he played for arguably one of the best high school coaches in the country, I think has really given him a leg up, and he's been here all summer. Sandro is much more advanced than when Patrik was here, I think for different reasons."

On Angel Delgado's evolution from his freshman season to today:
"I think the biggest thing with Angel in the last three years is his maturity. He was young when he came his freshman year, and he's really gotten into developing his body. He's a legitimate 245 pounds, he's under 10 percent body fat. I think the biggest thing is, mentally, he's really matured on the court and off the court; and I think when that happens, your game can grow with your maturity. And I think more than anything, that's really helped him more than anything."

On how he can adapt to his personnel:
"I think the biggest thing when you have ten, maybe eleven guys, I can try to play a little bit more aggressive on defense. But I still have to protect Angel, I still have to protect Khadeen. At the same time, you want to play aggressive, but there's certain things you have to do to keep your best players on the floor. I think we can try to wear down teams and be a little more aggressive at times, but at the same time, since you do have who I think is the best college basketball player in the middle, you have to do a lot to protect him. And that's something that as you game plan, you might want to play up and down, you might want to play really fast. When you have a dominant big man, you better make sure you protect that dominant big man."

On what caught his attention in the scrimmage against Boston College:
"I was happy I got to play eleven guys. Maybe I thought we'd be a little bit farther ahead of schedule, but I think it was really good to play outside competition to see what we need to work on. I think that's what I'm happy for, more than anything, I got to see what we really need to work on. I wish we could have five to six scrimmages a year, to be honest with you. I think they're so beneficial, just because you're not banging each other up in practice for three hours. I think Khadeen played the most minutes with 21, no one else played more than 21 minutes. To get everybody time and get somebody else to kind of see where we're at -- Jimmy Christian does a phenomenal job coaching his team, they're extremely well-coached. To go up against a high-caliber team to kind of see where we're at, I think that's what I was most happy about."

On his new walk-ons:
"Shavar (Reynolds) played 11 minutes. Phil (Flory) couldn't play -- he had a concussion -- but Shavar is one of those hard-nosed, tough kids, really good defensively. He'll see some time this year just because he's gonna earn it, to be honest with you. He's good enough to be on a lot of teams and be playing major minutes for a lot of teams that we're going to play, and then Phil -- Phil's good, I don't know what else to say about Phil. Phil's one of those guys that -- it's not easy to walk on here. To have Phil and Shavar elevate in practice, they've pushed our guys. It's been great to have."

On being picked second in the Big East Conference, and the league in general:
"Well, (Chris) Mack had to vote for me because I beat him in golf in August. I always vote for Ed (Cooley), Ed always votes for me, that's just because we go back to the MAAC days. I don't think LaVall (Jordan, Butler's head coach) voted, it was more Chris (Holtmann) at that time. I think you could take one through six in this league right now, and anybody can beat anybody at any given time. You can almost take one through nine, in my opinion, and on any given night, one of those teams is going to beat you. It's as deep and as well-coached of a league as any, and I think what makes the league really tough is the league gets old. You look at Villanova, seniors. Us, seniors. Xavier, seniors. Providence, seniors. Marquette has gotten old. We're a league that has gotten really, really good players, but we also keep them for a long time. I think when you have guys like Ed Cooley and Chris Mack, and obviously Jay (Wright) coaching these guys for all these years, it just makes the league that much more difficult. And then you look at guys like at St. John's, I think they have one of the best backcourts, they could be a really good frontcourt with their athleticism -- you look at them, they've gotten older. The league -- again, I think one through eight, one through nine, is really, really good, and it's going to be a great challenge and a great test."

"I think for the most part, most of these guys have been in this league a long time. They understand preseason rankings don't mean anything, you've really got to go out and back it up on the court. I think it's a good honor for the fact that the coaches have respected this group a lot, but at the same time, I think all these guys realize this league is unbelievably tough and unbelievably good that you just have to go out and you have to prove it every night."

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Herenda and FDU confident in rebound year, but highlight need to improve shot making

Greg Herenda and Mike Holloway field questions about Fairleigh Dickinson and their prospects, which include second-place prediction in Northeast Conference poll. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

BROOKLYN -- There are times in the course of analysis we over look a simple fact. Caught among the analytical formulas, spreadsheets and video study to see what happened, we miss a very easy detail. You must put the ball in the basket on a consistent basis.

In 2016, Fairleigh Dickinson made a late run, culminating in the championship of the Northeast Conference postseason tournament. This past season, the Knights dropped their final six games to finish 11-19 and exited the NEC Tournament in the first round. Adding to the frustration was the final loss coming at the hands of Wagner, whom FDU defeated in the prior year’s final.

“The difference from 2016 and last season was we didn’t make a lot of shots,” FDU head coach Greg Herenda said at the conference media day Wednesday morning. “In 2016, we made shots and got hot at the right time. Last year we had the defense and rebounding, but the coin flipped. We did not make shots.”

Moving ahead, Herenda is excited, not just optimistic, about the prospects this season.

“We have a good group of very athletic players,” he said. “This is a fun team to coach. Last year, we had a detour, but in our case, the train does not stop.”

Using the transit analogy, you could point to Mike Holloway as the team’s conductor. The 6-foot-8 junior scored 11.4 points per game last season. In addition, he grabbed a team-high 6.3 rebounds per outing. Holloway is considered one of the conference’s top returnees.

“Mike spoiled us early,” Herenda said. “He shot 57 percent from the floor his freshman year. At this point, he can be upper echelon in our conference. He’s had had two great years playing and academically. He’s a leader and our captain as a junior.” From his perspective, Holloway spent the offseason working on his body. At a formidable 260 pounds, there was no need to add bulk. Rather, the work was more specific. “I spent a lot of time with conditioning,” Holloway said, “and working on my jump shot.”  

Darian Anderson, a senior guard named the NEC’s Preseason Player of the Year, and the team’s leading scorer last year at 17 points per game, is also back. The key, however, is the newcomers, and Herenda is decidedly excited about what they bring to the program.

Jahlil Jenkins is a 6-foot freshman point guard with excellent quickness. Herenda likes how Jenkins is rapidly developing to the demands of the college game.

“He is a player who is really going to be special,” Herenda predicts of Jenkins. Tyler Jones, a 5-foot-11 freshman guard and Elyjah Williams, his 6-foot-7 classmate, are a pair the coach feels will be solid additions. Noah Morgan, a 6-foot-5 Mount Vernon product, is another promising freshman. “We could start two freshmen and bring two off the bench,” Herenda stated. Relying a lot on first-year players can be tenuous, but FDU’s fifth-year head coach has the feeling this group has an accelerated learning curve.

“The whole team connected over the summer,” Herenda said. “Not just in summer school, but off the floor as well. There has been a development of a family atmosphere and it shows on and off the floor,” to which Holloway added, “the freshmen have really adapted to what we want to do on and off the floor.”   

Freshman orientation will come soon enough. The Knights open on November 10 at Seton Hall. Non-conference meetings also include Penn State, Princeton, Saint Peter’s, Iona, Rutgers and Maryland.

“The other night I was watching the Nets game,” Herenda said. “(Rondae) Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon were playing. Those two were at Arizona, and the first game I coached at FDU was at Arizona. But that is what we want to do. We want a tough non-conference schedule to better prepare us for the NEC.”
Herenda terms the NEC an equal opportunity conference.

“I was an assistant at Seton Hall and the Big East had teams like UConn, Syracuse and Georgetown, who were powerful year in and year out,” he said. “As an assistant at Yale, we had to contend with Penn and Princeton consistently at the top. In those situations it is hard to win. That is a reason I came here. You have many good players and coaches in the NEC, but there is an opportunity to get better and move up. When we won it in 2016, we were picked ninth in the preseason poll. That is a great example of this league’s parity.”

Still, it all gets back to making shots, specifically when the game is in the balance. The Knights shot 33 percent from three-point range and 50 percent inside the arc in conference play but came up dry at inopportune times, which left them wanting.

“For us, the difference will be the ability to consistently make shots,” Herenda said. “That is what lets you win in March.”

The Friendship Of Basketball

By Andy Lipton
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops


Another NBA season has started and the college season is about to begin. Discussion about how teams will fare is the order of the day. But three recent New York City basketball events reminded me of one of the most important and enduring legacies of the game of basketball: Friendship.  

Watching and listening to basketball players and coaches from long-ago eras brought that home to me. Here are just a few examples.

LOU CARNESECCA
Coach Lou Carnesecca with his former player and current St. John’s coach, Chris Mullin and with former CCNY player and coach and New York City basketball legend Floyd Layne. (Photo by Andy Lipton/Daly Dose Of Hoops)There may not be a more beloved sports figure in New York than Lou Carnesecca. He is the epitome of friendship.
You could point to his 526-200 record at St. John’s, leading the Johnnies to post-season tournaments all 24 years he coached there, the eighteen NCAA tournament appearances and six NIT appearances, the twenty or more wins in 18 season, and basketball Hall of Famer, and say “enough said.” But you would miss the essence of the man.

Engaging, warm and personable, Looie is one of the friendliest human beings you will ever meet. He loves people and you feel it as soon as he starts speaking with you. You meet him for the first time and he speaks to you like a long-lost friend. And to the people he knows well, he is a loving friend. 

My dad, who got a kick out of Looie twisting and contorting his body on the sidelines as he tried to impart body English to the play on the court, once met Looie at a restaurant. My dad had never met Looie before. My dad went to his table to say hello and Looie invited my dad to sit down at his table.

Coach Carnesecca was recently honored by the Brooklyn USA Athletic Association at its 43rd anniversary celebration as they inducted him into its Basketball Hall of Fame. The Association was founded by people experienced in education and athletics to help young people in the Central Brooklyn community.

SATCH SANDERS AND KEVIN STACOM
Former Boston Celtics greats Tom "Satch" Sanders and Kevin Stacom catch up at New York City Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. (Photo by Andy Lipton/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

At the reception for the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame induction, I saw former Boston Celtics Tom “Satch” Sanders and Kevin Stacom in conversation. You may have forgotten that Sanders coached the Celtics for a little more than a year. Although they didn’t play on the same Celtic teams during their careers, Satch coached Stacom in the 1977-78 season, and the camaraderie among former Celtic players, is a heritage cultivated by coach and general manager Red Auerbach, the patriarch of the Celtic family.

Hall of Famer Sanders, who went to Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and New York University, is New York City basketball royalty. He won eight NBA Championships with the Celtics during the 1960s, for many basketball fans of that decade, the gold standard of basketball, and his NYU team in 1960 made the NCAA Final Four. 

Stacom, one of this year’s inductees into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame, went to high school in Queens at Holy Cross. One of his Providence College teams made the NCAA Final Four in 1973, and Stacom won a championship with the Celtics in 1976.

CHRIS MULLIN AND PATRICK EWING
Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing reminisce at Big East media day, held on Madison Square Garden floor which played host to many of their earliest and fiercest battles. (Photo by Andy Lipton/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Patrick Ewing, the new Georgetown men’s basketball coach, stated at the recent Big East media day that when he was offered the Georgetown position, he called Chris Mullin, the St. John’s coach, for advice.

To put it mildly, St. John’s and Georgetown did not like each other when they played each other in the mid-1980s. It was fierce and intense competition. Mullin played for St. John’s back then and Ewing played for Georgetown.

Make no mistake about it, rival players can develop a dislike for each other based on what happens on the court, but along with the dislike, there is often respect. The respect is born of an understanding of what the competition is trying to achieve and what they are going through to achieve it. The understanding is there because both sides are trying to achieve the same thing. As the years go by, the respect of those basketball rivals often blossoms into friendship when they get to know each other off the court and realize that off-court personalities are often different than the on-court personas.

DR. SOLLY WALKER
Minta Walker, Dr. Solly Walker’s wife, poses with a number of her family members and Lou Carnesecca. (Photo by Andy Lipton/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

At the Brooklyn USA Athletic Association’s celebration, there was a memorial tribute to one of its founding members, Dr. Solly Walker, who passed away in May.

Walker, who was a Scholastic Player of the Year and an All-City player at Boys High in Brooklyn, played basketball for St. John’s. He was the first African-American player at St. John’s, and his teams went to the championship games of the NCAA Tournament in 1952 and the NIT in 1953. Back then, the NIT was as prestigious as the NCAA Tournament.

In the 1951-52 season, St. John’s coach Frank McGuire was told by Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp not to bring Walker to Lexington to play in the St. John’s-Kentucky game because of his race. McGuire stood up to Rupp, telling him to cancel the game. The game was played, and Walker played in it.

Dedicated to his large family and the community at large, Dr. Walker was an educator who taught children with special needs and became a principal. He was also the coordinator of youth services for the City of New York, responsible for the creation and implementation of educational and recreational programs. Mel Davis, the former Boys High, St. John’s and New York Knicks player who emceed the luncheon, wrote this about Dr. Walker:  

“I could never repay Dr. Solly Walker for the strength of his personal commitment to me and for what I have and what I have become.”

I could feel Dr. Walker’s legacy as I met a number of his children and grandchildren at the luncheon. They were warm, gracious, and friendly. I was assigned to sit at one of the Walker family tables. When I was seated, I expressed some concern that I might be taking a spot of another family member. One of Dr. Walker’s grandsons, Kevin Walker, dispelled that concern, saying to me, “you’re part of the family.” I was honored. Although I never met Dr. Solly Walker or saw him play, before the luncheon was over, I felt like I knew him.

Near the end of the luncheon, Carnesecca, along with Mullin, former New Utrecht, St. John’s and NBA player George Johnson, and Davis stood together to announce that Walker’s number would be retired at St. John’s.


The following are some of Carnesecca’s remarks about Dr. Solly Walker at the luncheon:

Chris Mullin quote book: St. John's media day

On the passing of St. John's legend Solly Walker and what he meant to the program:
"Yeah, he was a pioneer, not only to St. John's, but to the history of basketball. In 1951, he was the first African-American player to play for St. John's, and one of the great things about this program is it's got a tremendous history across the board. Within the men's basketball program, we've had historic figures as coaches and players, and it's always been about equality, diversity, going back to Joe Lapchick, Frank McGuire, Coach Carnesecca, so as we teach basketball and our student-athletes take their courses, there's an education to be had for the history of our program. Coach Carnesecca always stressed that with us, I do with my players. I was just at an event on Sunday -- Brooklyn USA -- with Coach Carnesecca, and it was a big tribute to Solly Walker. The Seton Hall game at the Garden, I think it was two years ago, there was tremendous support. His basketball career speaks for itself, but more importantly the way he conducted himself, handled adversity post-basketball career, he was a huge mentor to so many people in Brooklyn, so I have tremendous respect (for him). I guess he left his mark and his legacy on and off the court."

On the biggest question mark surrounding St. John's:
"Well, the focus is on improvement, and defensively, individual improvement -- take care of your own guy, take that individual challenge on -- we do that defensively. We've done really well in our team schemes and guys are picking us up. We've got to get a little better individually, we have to rebound better, and offensively, it's simple -- be unselfish. We're able to score the basketball, and when you have a bunch of talented guys who can do it, it's really better when they do it together. Those are the two things that we stress. I think we're doing a good job of it, and pretty soon, we're going to go out and find out who we are."

On Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon:
"I feel they're going to have a tremendous impact. We'll have to wait and see, but that's what my feeling is. As you mentioned, both Justin and Marvin come from tremendous college basketball programs with great coaches, and then having them here for a year, not including individual training but also working with our team concepts, really helps. And when you just look at them physically, you can just see the impact players like them have on our roster just from a physical stature. Add the fact that they've got college basketball experience, it's a huge plus for us."

On why St. John's has become attractive to transfers:
"When you look historically -- I know when I played, we always had a few transfers come in -- it's probably more prominent now. It's always been pretty prominent here in general. Some may leave New York and love it, some may leave and miss it. That's what the dynamic has kind of consisted of. In college basketball now, I don't think it's really isolated to St. John's, the Big East, or anything. I think it's pretty much nationwide."

On expectations for Shamorie Ponds:
"He had an historic season last year, he scored the most points ever for a freshman, and when you look at the list of players that have come through here, that's pretty significant. But I think he's stronger, quicker, he's got a better understanding of what it takes, and he's got another great season ahead of him."

On Jay Wright's assessment that St. John's is an NCAA Tournament team:
"I hope he's right."

On Ponds and Marcus LoVett, and what he has seen from them going into their sophomore seasons:
"There's no substitute for experience. I think both had great seasons last year, they had a lot of minutes on the floor. They got to learn what it takes to win in the Big East, what it takes to win on the road, and I've asked them this year to do a little bit more -- help us on the boards, become catch-and-shoot players on offense, stay aggressive on defense. In the first part of practice, they've been great."

On the new chapter of the Georgetown rivalry and Patrick Ewing as the Hoyas' head coach:
"It's a rivalry that's been around for a long time. Obviously, Patrick and I, our careers have mirrored each other in the same timeframe. I think we're going to renew some old stories, but it's about the players now."

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

NEC Media Day: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

BROOKLYN -- On the baseball circuit, offseason meetings and dinners were part of what was termed the rubber chicken circuit. The media days of the past few weeks are nothing of that sort. In fact, the bill of fare today included turkey sandwiches and Caesar salad. Oddly enough, chicken was also on the menu.
   
The Northeast Conference held its annual preseason get-together at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. As they have done in the past, the conference schools showcased both men’s and women’s programs with representation by a coach and player from each program.
   
The exhibitions are right around the corner. Regardless, the individual schools are all undefeated, albeit at 0-0, with the accompanied enthusiasm and optimism that comes as port of the equation. The coaches and players were interviewed both as part of a video as well as in breakout sessions with more media members. Exposure was the order of the day.

Like many conferences around the nation, the NEC is billed the proverbial one-bid league. That does not deter the league administrators, led by commissioner Noreen Morris, from putting out the best possible product and ensuring the coverage is at its optimum.
As mentioned here before, many of the quotes take on the scripted format, such as “we can compete with anyone,” “our kids are all buying in,” and “there are no nights off in this league.” They are echoed in these types of sessions throughout the nation. On this day, Wagner mentor Bashir Mason thought outside the box. When asked how his team could improve, he answered, “stop listening to me.” It was such a notebook filler by the end of the session that Mason reminded yours truly he had the line of the day. In another special day tipping off the NEC season, that answer was arguably the best from the three media days (Big East and Big Ten also) of the past two weeks.

Outside Barclays Center before tipoff of the media day festivities:
NEC commissioner Noreen Morris during her introductory address:
St. Francis Brooklyn head women's basketball coach John Thurston and senior forward Alex Delaney find a moment of clarity before their first round of interviews:
Bryant's Tim O'Shea and Wagner's Bashir Mason, sharing a few thoughts:
Before LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers took the floor Wednesday night, the NEC received the marquee treatment:
New LIU Brooklyn head coach Derek Kellogg and fifth-year senior guard Joel Hernandez field media inquiries:
Wagner's Tanasia Russell, shown here during an interview for NEC Front Row:
A look at the NEC Front Row set during their live broadcast:
The subway beckons as media day comes to a close:

Takeaways from Iona's exhibition game

Tim Cluess addressed Iona's exhibition game Tuesday by saying he was largely encouraged in big picture on a night where Gaels raised $3,000 to aid hurricane relief efforts. (Photo by The Journal News)

NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- For the 24 minutes and 20 seconds in which Iona and Army West Point were able to play their impromptu exhibition contest Tuesday night, the Gaels' strengths and weaknesses were on full display inside the Hynes Athletics Center.

For starters, Iona's vaunted offense came out in full force through the opening minutes, scoring 23 points before what would normally be the 16-minute media timeout in the first half, only to see the defensive efforts compromised in allowing the visiting Black Knights to shoot 59 percent from the floor in their abbreviated 63-61 lead that turned into a de facto victory after the game was halted moments after halftime due to a slippery floor that was only aggravated by the oppressive humidity both in and out of the building. The main objective of the night was met, though, in the form of $3,000 raised by the Iona athletic department, with all proceeds from Tuesday's affair donated to assisting in relief efforts in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico as each area continues the recovery process from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

In between, there were several observations, which will be highlighted in no particular order as Iona prepares for their season opener in Albany on November 10:

1) Rickey McGill took the first step toward potential first team All-MAAC recognition.
Each of the Gaels' three point guards to play for Tim Cluess before the junior from Spring Valley (Scott Machado, Momo Jones, and A.J. English) eventually added a first team all-conference honor to their resumes before leaving New Rochelle, with Machado and Jones being named Player of the Year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference before calling it a career at the collegiate level. McGill had an understated 15 points in 20 minutes, but complemented his production with five assists and three steals as he assumes the mantle of premier point guard in the MAAC following the graduation of Monmouth's Justin Robinson.

Named to the preseason second team shortly before Tuesday's contest tipped off, McGill was quick to downplay the accolade, calling it "just another award" while declaring himself more focused on his team and helping Iona become only the third program in league history to win three consecutive conference tournaments. And as an extension of Cluess on the floor, he was quick to praise the work ethic of his teammates as they seek history this season.

"From last year, I feel like this group works harder than last year's team," McGill candidly admitted. "This team wants to learn so we can have everything ready for games like this. They just come out and work hard."

2) Zach Lewis provided a memorable first impression in an Iona uniform.
The more educated supporters among the Iona fan base will certainly recognize the fifth-year senior from his time at Canisius, where he was an All-Rookie selection and third team All-MAAC talent as a sophomore before transferring to UMass for his junior season. In just 22 minutes of action, Lewis torched the nets to lead all scorers with 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting, which included within its totals makes on six of eight three-point field goal attempts; but more importantly, earned high praise from his new coach, who saw his potential firsthand for two years from the opposing bench.

"If I could pencil him in for 27 points in 22 minutes anytime, I would do that," Cluess quipped. "Zach brings some leadership to our team. I think he just fits the way that we play. I think he's enjoying playing with the freedom that we have here. He gets up and down the floor, he shoots, he drives it. I think he's better getting to the basket than what we've had here since probably A.J. graduated, and he gets to the foul line as well, he makes plays for guys. He's becoming, in our estimation, a better all-around player."

3) Injury updates on some of the Gaels' role players:
Deyshonee Much, a preseason second team all-conference member, missed the contest due to a foot injury, but he is expected to be 100 percent in ample time before the November 10 season opener at Albany. Schadrac Casimir played 17 minutes as he continues to recuperate from three hip surgeries over two years, but is admittedly still not all the way there in his rehabilitation.

"In practice, he has been progressing fairly well," said Cluess of Casimir's road back. "I think now is a big step from practice to a game. He's gotta have the confidence to go out and just play, and play with a little more abandon than what he's playing with right now. He looked like he went out tentative out there, and he hadn't been doing that a lot in practice. I'm hoping to see him -- over the next couple of games and into the early part of the year -- start to put his game into a little bit of another gear and get back some of that freshman year confidence."

In addition, fifth-year senior TK Edogi played sparingly after battling illness over the past few days, something Cluess acknowledged when he admitted he did not know if he would be able to suit up. Freshman Gavin Kensmil did not dress, as he is nursing a fracture in his foot and is in a walking boot.

4) E.J. Crawford taking on more of an interior game?
The hero of last March's MAAC championship game spent most of his time on the floor as somewhat of a paint presence, something the Gaels are desperately lacking after the graduations of both all-league forward Jordan Washington and valuable reserve Taylor Bessick, and even though he is only 6-foot-5, Crawford does present mismatch opportunities in Iona's athletic attack, which predicates itself on floor spacing.

"I'm hoping for him to start to become a more physical player than he was as a freshman," Cluess said of his reigning All-Rookie Swiss Army knife. "I think he can still knock down shots, but I think he's got to rebound better. We can't have him going out getting one rebound in 15 minutes of playing time. That's an area that, in fairness to him in practice, he had been doing a better job at that. He's got to battle more in there. We don't have a Jordan Washington who is going to grab a lot of those rebounds."

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Iona raises $3K in hurricane relief exhibition despite game being called due to floor conditions

Tim Cluess and Iona got off to vintage Gaels start in exhibition against Army, but raising $3,000 to assist in hurricane relief efforts trumped any kind of stats Tuesday night. (Photo by Iona College Athletics)

NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Returning to their first taste of competitive basketball since last March's NCAA Tournament, Iona came out firing in midseason form through the first four minutes, only to be done in by defensive woes as the game went on. But on Tuesday night, stats did not matter in the grand scheme of things.

Yes, the Gaels fell 63-61 against Army at the Hynes Athletics Center, in an exhibition contest that was called with 15:40 remaining in regulation due to slippery conditions on the playing floor, which players and coaches on both sides attributed to the excessive humidity, a wise decision made by Tim Cluess and his counterpart, Jimmy Allen, to not risk any potential injuries so close to the commencement of the season. And at the end of the day, it was not the points on the scoreboard that made the biggest difference, but rather, the $3,000 raised by Iona to donate toward the relief efforts in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, each of which was ravaged by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

"Honestly, I think this is something the NCAA should allow us to do every single year," Cluess humbly reflected when asked how much it meant to be a part of the primary purpose between the Gaels and Black Knights taking the court. "We don't do enough of that in college sports, and I think it's something that, with all the funds going to whatever organization you want that's going to help people, why wouldn't you do it every year? It's great that they allowed it this year, and I'm hoping in the future they'll allow it again."

With that said, there were other bright spots for the two-time reigning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions, such as Zach Lewis scoring 27 points in his Iona debut, making his return to the MAAC as a graduate transfer after beginning his career at Canisius.

"I love it here," said Lewis, who shot 10-of-13 from the floor and made six of his eight three-point field goal attempts. "We keep working hard and as a team, as the season progresses, we're just gonna keep getting better and better, and that's what I like about this team. We're learning every day and even after a game like this, I can promise you Coach will tell me tomorrow 50 things I did wrong in the game."

A former third team All-MAAC selection during his time with the Golden Griffins as a sophomore, Lewis showed flashes of the form that landed him among the MAAC's elite in the game's opening minutes, scoring 11 points in a 23-9 Iona run over the first 3:09. From there, Army took advantage of an Iona front line still adjusting to life without Jordan Washington, ending the night with 32 points in the paint and shooting 59 percent from the floor overall, but for Cluess, the numbers were not as much of a concern as feeling out his roster to see which combinations work best.

"It's not about just going out there -- in a regular game, we might not have changed our own momentum -- but we wanted to see if the guys we had coming in could keep that momentum going," he said. "It didn't work, and credit to them, they executed. Both teams were playing at a very high pace. It was a fun first half if you like offense, but obviously we have to find and figure out who's going to be in our rotation and give guys certain looks. For the first time out, I was encouraged."

Iona, Manhattan, Monmouth picked to finish atop MAAC, Tyler Nelson Preseason POY

Tim Cluess and Iona are consensus choice to win MAAC in a season where Gaels attempt to become just third program in conference to win three straight league championships. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

In a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference that looks to be anything but predictable going into the 2017-18 season, it is somewhat ironic that the three teams that have combined to win each of the last three regular season and postseason conference championships are ranked first, second, and third in the preseason coaches' poll, respectively.

Irony aside, the MAAC coaches sided with consistency when submitting their votes for the annual prognostication, naming Iona the consensus choice to win the league in a year where the reigning two-time champion looks to join La Salle and Siena as the only MAAC schools to win three consecutive conference tournaments. The Gaels received nine of eleven first-place votes and 116 points in the poll overall. Manhattan, winners of the MAAC Tournament in 2014 and 2015, secured the two remaining No. 1 spots on the ballot en route to a second-place prediction, the highest such expectation for the Jaspers since being selected third in the preseason poll three years ago, months before head coach Steve Masiello brought a second straight postseason crown to Riverdale. Monmouth, the regular season MAAC champion in each of the past two years before falling short of an NCAA Tournament berth, was picked third in a campaign where the Hawks lose two-time defending MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson, but return a deep roster with experience that has guided King Rice's program to 55 wins since 2015-16.

Fairfield and Niagara round out the top five in the preseason speculation, with the Purple Eagles being the pick to make a jump from the second half of the standings behind senior guards Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes, with Scott being named to the all-conference preseason first team. For the Stags, senior guard and leading scorer Tyler Nelson was selected as the MAAC's Preseason Player of the Year on the heels of a junior season where the Massachusetts native averaged 19.5 points per contest while guiding Fairfield to an appearance in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. Siena, Rider, Saint Peter's, Canisius, Marist and Quinnipiac; the latter of whom begins their first season under new head coach Baker Dunleavy, complete the poll.

While Iona was picked to win the MAAC, the Gaels did not have a player selected to the preseason All-MAAC first team. Instead, guards Rickey McGill and Deyshonee Much, both second team honorees, are the only representatives from New Rochelle among the 15 players named. Manhattan has the distinction of being the only school to place one player on each of the three all-conference teams, with seniors Zane Waterman (first team), Rich Williams (second team) and Zavier Turner (third team) recognized. Monmouth's Micah Seaborn and Jermaine Crumpton of Canisius complete the first team, with Nelson and Seaborn being the lone unanimous selections for all-league honors.

The complete preseason poll and list of All-MAAC selections can be found below:

2017-18 MAAC Preseason Poll
1) Iona (9 of 11 first-place votes)
2) Manhattan (2 of 11 first-place votes)
3) Monmouth
4) Fairfield
5) Niagara
6) Siena
7) Rider
8) Saint Peter's
9) Canisius
10) Marist
11) Quinnipiac

All-MAAC First Team
Tyler Nelson, Fairfield (Preseason Player of the Year, unanimous selection)
Jermaine Crumpton, Canisius
Matt Scott, Niagara
Micah Seaborn, Monmouth (unanimous selection)
Zane Waterman, Manhattan

All-MAAC Second Team
Nico Clareth, Siena
Kahlil Dukes, Niagara
Rickey McGill, Iona
Deyshonee Much, Iona
Rich Williams, Manhattan

All-MAAC Third Team
Chaise Daniels, Quinnipiac
Nick Griffin, Saint Peter's
Stevie Jordan, Rider
Brian Parker, Marist
Zavier Turner, Manhattan

Delgado primed to make senior season his best season

Angel Delgado passed on turning pro for one more year at Seton Hall, and now stands on cusp of what could be an emphatic coda to his four-year career in South Orange. (Photo by NJ Advance Media)

NEW YORK -- Six months ago, the promising future Seton Hall now enjoys -- the second-place ranking in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, the No. 23 ranking in the nation, the three 1,000-point scorers in its senior class -- hung precariously, held in the hands of a 6-foot, 10-inch power forward who debated whether or not to take his talents to the next level.

Then, on a Monday afternoon in the middle of May, Angel Delgado put the speculation and the hand-wringing to rest with a social media post signifying that he decided to return.

Within minutes after Twitter was lit up with the news of the all-Big East big man and Haggerty Award winner sticking around for one more year in Pirate blue, fans were galvanized, hope sprung eternal, and the expectation for a banner year grew to be commonplace among those in the stands and those in the media. But in true Delgado fashion, while the plaudits are appreciated, they pale in comparison to the lofty goals the soft-spoken Dominican has set for himself and his team.

"I don't think like that," he intimated to a throng of reporters at Big East media day last Wednesday, addressing a crowd just steps off the Madison Square Garden baseline where he and his teammates celebrated a conference championship in his sophomore season, revealing the preseason predictions to be narrow-focused. "I feel like this team has something to prove, with a lot of expectations. We've just got to come to the gym every day -- I tell these guys -- come to the gym and play hard. Every time we step on the court, we've just got to prepare for the season the best we can. It's only a month away."

"I think differently," he reiterated. "I just think that I came back just trying to get better. We're trying to be a better team than last year."

And while the allure of a professional career was enough to convince Delgado to test the waters in the offseason, he and his coach ultimately determined that the pros of one more year in college; both on and off the hardwood, outweighed the cons.

"We were pretty close," head coach Kevin Willard conceded when detailing the process he entered alongside Delgado at the conclusion of his junior season. "If he could have got drafted in the low 40s, we would have went, because you're pretty much guaranteed a two-year first-round contract when you look at those guys signing, but that's not where he was projected. It was an educated decision. It wasn't just 'well, I want to do it," it was more important that we got the right information."

"If you're a junior in college coming to be a senior and you're a borderline guy, you can't pass up an education and getting your college degree," said Willard, a fact of life that helped sway Delgado toward returning. "You're playing Russian roulette with your career. So the big thing with Angel is he's going to graduate and he's going to have a chance to improve his draft status, so it was a family decision. I consider myself part of his family, and it was a family decision that we made."

Since that fateful spring, Delgado remains a popular figure around campus, and now suits up emboldened by the challenge of attempting to follow a 15-point, 13-rebound-per-game average; the latter number having led the nation, with an encore that will entrench his legacy in the annals of Seton Hall lore for generations to come, as well as the experience of having received professional feedback that can only serve him well.

"A lot of people showed me a lot of love," he proclaimed, symbolic of both the adulation from the Pirate fan base, as well as the evaluation from NBA scouts in the offseason. "Stuff like that helped me a lot, off the court and on the court. I was really excited to test the waters, and I'm really excited to come back and be the best player again."

"Everybody was like, 'please come back, please come back, it's only one more year,'" he elaborated, describing the pleas from the Seton Hall community. "Seven months passed quick. I don't even believe I'm a senior, and look how it is right now."

At the end of the day, Delgado's progression from enigmatic freshman to dominating senior has opened many eyes at both the local and national levels, but there is one thing remaining on his checklist, that being to have a final season that mirrors his overall career trajectory. When asked to expound on that point and whether winning just one NCAA Tournament game would be enough to satisfy his and his team's desires, he doubled down on the bar that had been set inside the locker room.

"Winning one game is not enough," he shot back. "Winning the whole thing is enough. That's what I think. We've gotta win the whole thing and prove to ourselves that we can win a national championship, so I really don't want to say I want to get out of the first round. I think we've got a real opportunity to go to the Final Four."

"God knows why He does these things," he wisely stated. "I always believe that God knows why He does everything. This is a new year, it's a new season, and we're ready for it."