Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mustapha Heron commits to St. John's, will apply for hardship waiver

Mustapha Heron, Auburn's leading scorer this past season, committed to St. John's Thursday evening and hopes to get hardship waiver to compete for Red Storm immediately. (Photo by Draft Express)

Any lingering doubts of St. John's ability to compete in the Big East Conference next season appear to have been put to rest over the past 48 hours.

The Red Storm and its rabid fan base have reached an apex on its proverbial roller coaster this week, receiving news Tuesday evening of Shamorie Ponds' decision to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to Queens for his junior season, and upped the ante two days later by securing the verbal commitment of Mustapha Heron after the Connecticut native announced his intent to transfer from Auburn.

"Family takes precedence over everything," Heron -- whose mother, Thalia, has experienced health issues that prompted the desire to transfer closer to his West Haven home -- told the New York Post's Zach Braziller Thursday. "I wanted to be able to find a way to be close to home and still be playing in a great conference. Hopefully I can come here and have a great career here."

A soon-to-be junior, Heron -- Auburn's leading scorer on a team that advanced to the round of 32 in this past March's NCAA Tournament -- took an official visit to St. John's shortly after declaring that he, too, would withdraw from the NBA Draft and depart Auburn. His commitment was merely a formality after that, as St. John's defeated UConn, Fairfield and Boston College to win the services of the slashing 6-foot-5 wing that averaged 16.4 points per game for Bruce Pearl and the Tigers en route to an improbable Southeastern Conference regular season championship.

Heron immediately enrolled in St. John's summer session, per Braziller, and will begin his first courses on Monday. The Red Storm staff intends to apply for a hardship waiver on his behalf in order for him to be immediately eligible for the 2018-19 season -- and will seek external legal assistance if necessary -- but the newest weapon in Chris Mullin's arsenal is content to be patient if fate decrees such.

"I'm not in any rush to be a professional," Heron told Braziller with regard to his status for the coming year. "Right now, the priority is finishing school and being there for my mom."

Initially recruited by then-associate head coach Barry Rohrssen before committing to Auburn, St. John's adds Heron to a backcourt that has become one of the deepest and most talented units not only in the Big East, but also the nation. In addition to Ponds, Justin Simon also returns for his junior season while former Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year Mikey Dixon is eligible again after sitting out this past season following his transfer from Quinnipiac. Junior college newcomer L.J. Figueroa and sophomore Bryan Trimble will also compete for minutes alongside incoming freshman Greg Williams. Should Heron be able to play right away, the Red Storm could very well be a Top 25 program in the preseason polls, and a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender in a pivotal season for Mullin, his fourth at the helm.

"With the pieces we have," Heron told Braziller, "we definitely can be special."

Under Gerald Holmes' eye, Bloomfield College has become a Division II success

Nestled in shadows of bigger New Jersey programs, Gerald Holmes -- pictured here with MBWA Coach of the Year plaque -- has developed Bloomfield College into a program just as good as those of higher prestige. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

BLOOMFIELD, NJ -- A few years ago at an offseason event, a prominent Division I coach listened to an observer note how there is so much good coaching being done on the Division II and III levels, despite often laboring in obscurity with their efforts rarely chronicled by the media.

“There might be more coaching and teaching done on those levels,” the coach said, “because we spend so much time going around the country chasing kids on the recruiting trail.”

Bloomfield College head coach Gerald Holmes believes that is true to an extent. The fact of the matter is Holmes’ estimation that there are a lot of good coaches at various levels” The Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association recognized Holmes as one of those, selecting him as their Division II Coach of the Year this past season.Bloomfield finished 24-2 this season. They captured the CACC regular season championship with a 17-2 record, but were upset in the first round of the CACC tournament at home by University of the Sciences. 

“Fortunately,” Holmes said, “we received an at-large bid to the NCAA.” 

Bloomfield took advantage of that second chance, defeating St. Thomas Aquinas and Merrimack before top seed Le Moyne ended their season in the Eastern Regional championship game.

Holmes called his honor a team award, no surprise given the fact he has a plaque near his desk bearing inspirational sayings led off by "#1: Team First." He credits his players and staff for the award. That staff, due to budget constraints, does not have a full-time member. Part-time job, full-time dedication and commitment.

We settled in Holmes’ modest second-floor office on a warm late May morning. Bloomfield College is located on a small campus about eight miles from Manhattan. From his office, you can see the Bloomfield court in the process of getting some improvements. Before discussing anything regarding his career or program, Holmes asked, in reference to the Boston Celtics' Game 7 Eastern Conference final loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, “Did you see Boston the other night?" “(Al) Horford was killing them on the blocks and they start to shoot threes. Same with Houston. Miss 27 straight threes and how can you not go inside? We will use the three-pointer in our offense, but not go overboard with it.”

The Bloomfield mentor enjoys breaking down and discussing each game as if he were on the sidelines. He admits the regular season NBA is unwatchable, preferring the college game instead. The second season of the NBA -- the playoffs -- are a completely different story for Holmes.

His basketball philosophy is steeped in the teachings of Dean Smith and John Chaney. Holmes marvels on how Chaney’s Owls were so proficient in not turning the ball over, a testament to Chaney putting the fear of God in his players during pre-dawn practices and having outstanding lead guards (Howard Evans is a personal Holmes favorite). Holmes also subscribes to Chaney’s philosophy to play anybody anywhere, and does the same in his program. He also admired Smith’s four corners, so effective in a pre-shot clock era. From Smith comes the axioms of playing hard, smart and together. Over the years, his offenses have altered very little.

“We basically run five out on offense,” he said. “We have run three-out, two inside, but mostly five-out. We do not have a lot of sets. A good part of the offense is reading and reacting to what the defense is giving you.” 

It is a system predicated on thinking rather than memorizing. 

“The game is relatively simple,” he said. “This is not rocket science we are dealing with.” 

Holmes’ formula for recruiting is simple.

“I want players who are tough, skilled and have a high basketball IQ,” he stated. Realistically, he noted if a recruit is above the board in all three he’s going to Division I, a fact of recruiting life. He notes that a skill set and IQ can be improved, even through college. Toughness, however? Not so.

“You have to have that in you,” Holmes said of that attribute. “I want kids who are tough, can get through adversity. That is a number one priority in my recruiting.” 

Holmes, who recruits a fair amount of New Jersey kids, prefers to get those who played for coaches who are tough and demanding. Phil Colicchio of Linden is mentioned. Ben Gamble of Mater Dei also was cited. 

“We have had success with Linden kids,” Holmes said. “We haven’t gotten a Mater Dei kid yet, but we are close and we will.”

Holmes will venture out of state -- even country -- to obtain a player. The Garden State, though, is a fertile recruiting area, as noted in an anecdote of sharing an offseason beer with a New England coach who recruited a New Jersey kid. 

“Coach,” Holmes joked, “you beat us to one of our players.” The coach replied, saying, “the 48th-best kid in New Jersey is probably equal to the second in Massachusetts.” As Holmes went on to add, ‘there are kids not even rated by recruiting services in New Jersey who can play on virtually any college level.”

AAU is mentioned and Holmes realizes the recruiting game dictates you pay attention to that level and its coaches, but the AAU game, in his estimation, has gone a long way toward stunting the growth and development of the game.

Division II and III coaches frequently do not get the call from bigger programs in search of a new coach. Regardless, given the years of success at this level, one can wonder if Holmes is on anyone’s radar. Is there a desire to coach at the Division I level?

“Definitely,” said Holmes. At 53 years of age, he has put in for Division I jobs in the past, with hardly an interview being granted. “In another year, I think I will hire an agent,” he says. “If nothing comes up after that, I’m happy to stay right here at Bloomfield.”

Holmes played at Columbia High School in nearby Maplewood, before going on to NJIT. He began his coaching career as a junior varsity coach at Columbia before accepting an assistant position at NJIT. Then it was off to Bloomfield, first as assistant and then to the head coaching position he has held for the last 16 years. Over that time, Bloomfield has captured ten regular season conference championships, eight postseason titles and as many NCAA appearances. Under Holmes’ watch, Bloomfield has been recognized as one of the region’s strongest Division II programs.

Suffice to say the rhythmic bounce of the ball on the floor or asphalt is part of Holmes’ DNA. For a number of years, he has also officiated games as a certified member of Board 33. In fact, he likes to tell a story about being interested in a coach to add to his staff having directed a girls' AAU team. The team was organized, fundamentally sound and extremely well-coached. The coach -- Billy Armstrong -- declined the offer, as he was in charge of his own Bergen Catholic High School program during the winter months.

Before heading out, Holmes had me meet with Bloomfield women’s coach Vanessa Watson. He realizes I enjoy following and officiating the women’s game, so a meeting with Watson was more than a courtesy. She had a storied run at powerful Shabazz High School before stepping down as girls' head coach. After a few years away, Watson decided to get back in and when Bloomfield was looking a year ago, they were thrilled to realize the feeling with Watson was mutual. We discussed some of those Shabazz players, teams, and just the women’s game in general' as well as the ideas of how much the game -- not always for the better -- has altered over the seasons.

On the way out, Holmes called out, “if you come to see us, please come early, as the women play just before us.” 

Holmes backs the Bloomfield women and supports their efforts wholeheartedly, bringing his primary belief full circle: Team first.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Shamorie Ponds withdraws from NBA Draft, will return to St. John's

Shamorie Ponds announced his decision to return to St. John's for junior season, where he will lead Red Storm into a campaign where NCAA Tournament expectations are abound. (Photo by Newsday)

The waiting was the hardest part for St. John's fans, but the Red Storm fan base did not let it kill them, nor let it get to them.

Shamorie Ponds, the Johnnies' transcendent sophomore guard and NBA Draft prospect -- who used nearly all the allotted time before the May 30 deadline to withdraw himself from consideration for next month's draft -- has decided to put his professional aspirations on hold for at least one more year, opening the door for his return to St. John's for his junior season.

"He's definitely going back to St. John's," Ponds' father, Shawn, told ZagsBlog's Adam Zagoria moments after CBS Sports college basketball insider Jon Rothstein was first to break the news of Ponds' career plans early Tuesday evening.

Winner of the Haggerty Award, presented to the best player in the metropolitan area as judged by the New York media, Ponds closed his tour de force sophomore campaign by averaging 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game, the former figure leading the Big East in scoring. The Brooklyn native worked out for four NBA franchises while testing the waters this past month, gaining valuable professional feedback as he continues to raise his game to the next level.

"This helps me, definitely," Ponds told Zagoria. "I'm now on the NBA radar, and next year, I should be projected; if I have a solid year, better than where I'm projected right now."

Ponds' return positions him among the frontrunners for the Big East Conference's Preseason Player of the Year honor, by virtue of his sophomore stats and the departure of upperclassmen ahead of him. St. John's also welcomes two other starters back to Queens next season, with senior forward Marvin Clark II and junior guard Justin Simon hoping to improve upon a 16-17 season marked by eleven straight losses to begin conference play. Transfers Mikey Dixon and Sedee Keita are also eligible after sitting out this past year.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Grasso ready to dive into year one at Bryant

Just over one month into his tenure, Jared Grasso has wasted little time in quest to raise Bryant up from depths of last year's 3-28 campaign as former Iona assistant returns to head coaching chair. (Photo by Bryant University Athletics)

Jared Grasso had seen and heard his name thrown into conversations for several head coaching vacancies over the past three years, as each advancement by the Iona program for which he served as Tim Cluess' lead assistant into the NCAA Tournament fueled a fire that had become an annual rite of passage in and around the metropolitan area. Over that time, the question of whether or not the Long Island native and basketball lifer would set out on his own shifted, becoming a matter of when more so than one of if.

The inevitable became reality six weeks ago, when Grasso departed New Rochelle -- four Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships and five NCAA Tournament berths later -- to succeed Tim O'Shea at Bryant University, replacing his retired predecessor after a 3-28 season and ushering a new era of hope and prosperity into Smithfield, Rhode Island.

But why Bryant, a three-plus-hour drive from his home base, and a program with only one postseason appearance since taking the step up to Division I a decade ago?

"From the outside looking in, it was always a job that I was intrigued by," Grasso, who just turned 38 this past Friday, said of his new employer. "It reminded me a little bit of Quinnipiac, where I went to school -- beautiful campus, great facilities, and unbelievable leadership -- and it's something that excited me. After my first conversation with (athletic director) Bill Smith, I knew it was a job I wanted. I felt like it was the right fit for me."

With a satisfactory comfort level firmly in tow, Grasso -- a tireless grinder and Energizer bunny of sorts in the coaching ranks -- has already gotten to work in terms of evaluating his roster and setting up his staff, already making noise on the recruiting trail to blend youth with a base of experienced players the likes of Adam Grant and Ikenna Ndugba, a backcourt that will enter the coming season among the best in the Northeast Conference, as well as forward Sabastian Townes and a host of other Bulldogs that have already warmed up to their new leader, displaying a passion to improve just one month into the new regime.

"I think Adam has been terrific," Grasso said of Grant, who will head into his junior year Bryant's leading scorer last season with an average of 15.6 points per game. "He can really score the ball. He's a kid who really would have fit into the way we played at Iona, which is the way we want to play here -- get up and down the floor, really score the ball. Our backcourt, with him and Ike, are experienced guys who have played a lot of minutes."

"Sabastian Townes was a double-figure scorer last year. There are some pieces that are coming back that played major minutes, and there are guys who I think can continue to improve. I'm not expecting this to happen overnight, but I think they've bought in and they've started to understand mentally what my expectations are, how hard we're going to work, and I think our guys have embraced it and are taking steps in the right direction."

Grasso already got fans excited at his April 2 press conference, when he alluded to intending to employ the same uptempo attack he and Cluess spent eight seasons honing to perfection at Iona, where the Gaels ranked among the NCAA's most prolific offenses every season the two were together. But for the son of a coach and right-hand man of a winner with a Midas touch at every level, such a style is the only way he knows.

"I've always been a guy, having played for Joe DeSantis in college and having worked for him at Quinnipiac, who has always been an uptempo guy," Grasso said. "Then, having been blessed to work with Tim Cluess -- one of the best offensive basketball minds in college basketball, bar none -- I'll carry a lot of the principles of his style of play. I said in my press conference that I truly believe I got a Ph.D. in basketball and life from Tim Cluess, and I'll carry over a lot of how we ran our program, and a lot of philosophical stuff and style of play will be very similar. I inherited Ike and Adam, who are as good a backcourt as any of the returning guys in the league, and with the pieces we've added into the mix, I do think we have guys that can play that style. Moving forward, I think we'll be able to do it more and more."

With each passing day, Grasso continues to relish the second chance he is now living, eight years removed from being thrown into the fire of a difficult situation, succeeding Dereck Whittenburg at Fordham and being the interim head coach of the Rams at the tender age of 29, at the time the youngest head coach in the nation. Since the trial by fire on the Rose Hill campus, a wiser veteran has emerged, using his rookie experience as a guide for how to be more efficient this time around.

"I tell people all the time that those three or four months were probably the most beneficial of my career," he reflected. "You're always preparing to become a head coach. I was kind of thrown to the wolves becoming an interim head coach, and I've learned all the things you need to do to run a program. When you're an assistant, you have ideas, but at the end of the day, the head coach makes those decisions. I think having the opportunity to sit in that seat and understand what it encompasses, and everything that comes with being the head coach, prepared me for this time around, where I knew what to expect."

"I learned a lot at a young age, and again, a lot of it was by fire," he reiterated. "It turned me into a better assistant coach when I went back to work with Tim, and prepared me to be a better head coach. I do think that I'm much, much better now having had the chance to develop, learn, and be around some really good people."

By the same token, Iona's latest run of three straight MAAC championships -- becoming only the third school to accomplish that feat -- proved to Grasso just how valuable and laborious such consistency can truly be. 

"Being around winning and learning what it takes to win at a high level is something that I don't take for granted," he said. "You realize how hard it is to win. Sometimes people look at the success we had at Iona and take it for granted at times. Winning is really, really hard, and when you do it consistently -- and to do it at the level that Tim has at Iona -- it's something special, which is why I carry over so many things I've learned from him."

However, the perennial success in which Grasso played an integral part is now in his rearview mirror, replaced by a shared hunger with his players to turn a three-win outfit into a contender in a wide-open NEC that has traditionally been friendly to upstart programs over the years.

"The rebuild has energized me and excited me," Grasso gushed. "It gives you a little bit of a chip on your shoulder with something to prove, which is what I felt when I was a player. I get so enthused by the opportunity to come to a place that I think is a great fit, and a place where we can turn this into a program that is talked about. I think we have everything in place to do that. This has excited me and kind of reenergized me."

"It's also hard, per se, to turn a program around." he added. "But we have something to prove now. Now, we're the hunters, not the hunted. It's different having your back against the wall again with something to prove, and it's something that excites me."

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Greg St. Jean named NABC 30 Under 30 honoree

Greg St. Jean, shown here exhorting his St. John's team, was honored by NABC as 30 Under 30 honoree Thursday. (Photo by

By Jason Schott (@JESchott19)

St. John’s Red Storm men’s basketball assistant coach Greg St. Jean has been named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches 30 Under 30 list for 2017-18, which recognizes a group of up-and-coming young coaches in college basketball. St. Jean is among 15 Division I coaches, and one of just two from the Big East Conference, to receive this distinguished honor.
The 27-year-old St. Jean recently completed his third season on Chris Mullin's staff at St. John’s, and is the primary manager of the Red Storm’s player development program, scouting and game planning responsibilities, as well as the team’s video operations and statistical analysis. During his tenure in Queens, three St. John's players have been named to the All-Big East Freshman Team, including Shamorie Ponds; who this past season, elevated his game to All-Big East First Team status and led the conference in scoring before capturing the Haggerty Award last week. St. Jean has also been instrumental in the development of transfers at St. John’s. Most recently, he helped Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon enjoy career seasons in 2017-18 after training under his tutelage during their year in residency following their arrivals from Michigan State and Arizona, respectively.

Teach, love, inspire: The passion with a purpose behind Stephanie Gaitley's Fordham program

Stephanie Gaitley capped off latest postseason run at Fordham with Maggie Dixon Coach of the Year honors from MBWA. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

BRONX, NY -- The sign sits on the edge of the desk, almost missed among an office -- populated by books, binders, plaques and the like -- your basic head basketball coach’s office. The sign, with its inscription, is quite adept at drawing the visitor in.

Teach. Love. Inspire.

The sign sits in Stephanie Gaitley’s office at Fordham. Interestingly, it almost perfectly sums up her three-plus decades as a head coach, a career that recently added MBWA Maggie Dixon Coach of the Year honors to an illustrious resume. This past season, Gaitley led the Rams to second-round WNIT appearance, furthering the winning culture she established upon her arrival in 2011.

“The award is an honor," Gaitley said. “But this is a collective award, as the coaching staff, players and support system make this all possible.” Gaitley was honored to have bestowed upon her an award named after Maggie Dixon, the former Army head coach who died tragically in 2006 and was a mentor and inspiration to all who knew her. Gaitley did not get to know Dixon personally, but did realize she was a young star on the rise, finding out a great deal more from Maggie’s brother, Jamie, the former University of Pittsburgh head coach now at his alma mater, TCU. Gaitley and Jamie Dixon were in a clinic together a few years back, the latter having spoke volumes regarding his sister’s legacy.

There is no offseason. That concept has gone the way of the Edsel. In this unseasonably warm first week of May, the Fordham basketball offices have assistants at their desk handling their various duties. The pace may not be regular-season hectic, yet there is work -- a fair share of which is recruiting-oriented -- that needs addressing. In this setting, Angelika Szumilo is seated, her iPhone in hand. She politely says there is a call coming she would have to take should the phone ring. During our discussion, it did not.

Szumilo played at LIU Brooklyn under Tony Bozzella, now the head coach at Seton Hall. After her playing career ended, she joined Gaitley’s staff at her alma mater following Bozzella's move to Iona. Szumilo feels blessed to have been involved with two outstanding coaches, two who had differences, but shared marked similarities.

“Tony was an offensive coach,” Szumilo said. “His strength was offense. Stephanie is defensive, detail-oriented. She emphasized defense from day one.” 

Two qualities shared by the two coaches are family and passion. 

“Tony is very passionate about the game,” Szumilo said. “Stephanie has that passion as well. Both are very family-oriented in what they do. That is common among both coaches.”

The family includes their immediate family and the team as family. 

“Stephanie is obviously a great coach, but a great person as well,” Szumilo said. “Whether you play 40 minutes or one minute, she will give you the same consideration and attention.”

Clare Berenato, the director of basketball administration and office mate of Szumilo, added of Gaitley: “She is about everyone, not just staff and players, but fellow coaches, maintenance workers, security. She treats everyone so well and respects what they do.”

Fordham went into the past season with a young relatively untested roster. The Rams finished 24-10. A 12-4 record in Atlantic 10 play landed the Rams in third place in the conference standings. They advanced to the conference tournament quarterfinals before dropping a tough game to Saint Joseph’s. A WNIT appearance saw victories over Harvard and Drexel before Virginia Tech ended their season. Coming into the campaign Gaitley maintained cautious optimism. She was not sure what to expect. A few unexpected personnel losses during the offseason compounded the situation. A summer tour of Italy and Spain afforded the young Rams much-needed work and the opportunity to develop a chemistry.

Fordham was aided by the development of redshirt freshman Bre Cavanaugh. The 5-foot-8 guard averaged a team-leading 17 points per game, capturing Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year accolades. Cavanaugh had her moments early, but was still trying to gain consistency. A 20-point performance in an early December double-overtime victory at St. John’s in early December was her coming-out party, per Gaitley. 

“After that game, Bre was confident and on her way,” she said. In effect, it was an outstanding job by Gaitley, as the Rams simply grew as a team during the season.

Gaitley credits several mentors for shaping her basketball philosophy. Her Ocean City (NJ) High School coach, Pat Dougherty, taught her to hate losing. Gaitley has instilled in her players the extent of despising to lose, even in practice drills. Harry Foster, Pat Summitt, Harry Perretta, and the late Dick Burnhardt of Monsignor Bonner, all have shaped her coaching. Ironically, the strong Philadelphia influence did not include Geno Auriemma. 

“Actually,’ Gaitley said, “when I was transferring after my freshman year at Delaware, Geno was a Saint Joseph’s assistant and was recruiting me, but I chose Villanova.”

Her present job at Fordham is the latest in several stops that have included rebuilding efforts. The one at Rose Hill arguably was the most challenging. Gaitley knew the Fordham program was strong in the 1980s and early 1990s, but had fallen on two-plus decades of hard times. She confided in then-men’s coach Tom Pecora about the job, and ultimately signed on when the administration proved they wanted to give a winning commitment. One of the first things Gaitley did after taking the job was talking to the departing seniors, asking why they chose Fordham. That information would help her recruiting approach. There was a recruiting class in place when she signed on. The transfer route was utilized to build the roster. Her first season, in 2011-12, yielded a 12-18 record.

“They played hard,” Gaitley fondly recalls of that first squad. “They just didn't know how to win. They were learning.” 

A turning point in year two came at Charlotte. The Rams defeated a 49er team -- on national television -- that had handled them by 25 a year earlier at Rose Hill. That game was a springboard, as the Rams advanced all the way to the A-10 championship game before suffering a narrow loss to Saint Joseph’s at Barclays Center. The 26-9 record included a Sweet 16 WNIT appearance, marking the program’s first postseason tournament victories since 1980. Since then, the Rams have not looked back and have a strong program in place.

Next year looks promising. The Rams do lose an outstanding inside player in G’mrice Davis, yet there are a number of returnees -- led by Cavanaugh -- who have a year of indoctrination to the system and are poised to hit the ground running. 

“I think we will have good chemistry,” Gaitley predicted. “We should have good ball movement on offense, but replacing what G’mrice gave us, especially in rebounding, is something we will have to work on.”

Her basketball beliefs are well-rounded in defense. If one wants minutes, she first and foremost must defend. The offensive approach is one suited to personnel, not forcing your players to fit into a rigid system, but rather employing one that puts them in the best place to be successful. Gaitley admits to changing over the years from her initial days as a head coach at Richmond back in 1985.

“I have become more open-minded,” she admits. “I am willing to listen more." She has become more selective in recruiting, taking a long look at a recruits' parents. 

“In today’s environment, parents can be part of the problem, but they can also be part of the solution,” she says. Above all, she wants players who -- according to the oft-used phrase -- are all in. Gaitley tells her team, "if anyone is unhappy, I will sign your transfer papers the minute you want me to.”

Malcontents are not evident at Rose Hill. It goes beyond Gaitley’s 600-plus victories. Her door is always open. Discussions are not limited to what transpires on the court. She is there to listen and advise on other aspects as well.

Teach. Love. Inspire.

Simple and concise. A perfect description of the attributes of Stephanie Gaitley.

Christian set to raise bar and return Siena to MAAC's elite

Jamion Christian addressed media for first time as Siena head coach Wednesday afternoon. (Photo by Siena College Athletics)

In the 17-day life span of his third coaching search this decade, Siena athletic director John D'Argenio was the subject criticism for how the college for whom he serves handled the departure of former men's basketball coach Jimmy Patsos, yet remained dedicated to finding the right candidate to rekindle the fire and competitive swagger with which the Saints took the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference by storm in the latter part of the 2000s, winning three consecutive league titles and a pair of NCAA Tournament games to not only set a new standard for program excellence, but also a set of perennial expectations that its rabid fan base demands to be met to the letter.

And after skeptics emerged to pan the overall performance of the program under Patsos and his predecessor, Mitch Buonaguro, D'Argenio appears to have worked the count and hit a home run -- to use baseball parlance -- with the hiring of Jamion Christian, a two-time Northeast Conference champion at Mount St. Mary's whose magnetic personality, effusive charisma, and general zeal for life matches his young age of 36.

"Jamion was the first person we met with," D'Argenio said when referencing the search process, one that was noted for the alleged interest in the Siena job by none other than Rick Pitino, only to be brusquely denied shortly thereafter. "Obviously he's here today, so he made a lasting impression in that first meeting. During that initial visit, he laid out a great strategic vision -- about recruiting, about developing relationships with the players and about making Siena a MAAC championship team again. His ability to develop not just players, but people, I think is really what impressed us the most about him."

Presented with a formal offer to take his talents to Albany on Tuesday, Christian and Siena negotiated swiftly over the ensuing 24 hours, the end result being a five-year commitment on paper, but as evidenced by the body language and extroverted nature of the new head coach -- who commanded the Times Union Center with a type of gravitas normally associated with the heavyweights of this industry -- Krzyzewski, Williams, Boeheim, etc., one that may last even longer, with perhaps a more handsome payoff in the long run. 

"I had a chance to meet with the guys today and you could see in their eyes their passion for turning this program around and bringing it right back to the top," Christian reflected, prefacing his comments on addressing his new group of players with an honest introspection of not knowing whether he would have the opportunity to ascend the ladder after just six years in the Division I head coaching ranks. "It won't change unless people in the room want it to change." 

From there, the boyish and wide-eyed excitement was replaced by a firm commitment to improving the perception of a program coming off an 8-24 season, tinged with just the right amount of nurturing words that made all in attendance to hear them know that the new coach not only wants the best for his players, but feels a genuine obligation to cultivate and unleash it.

"We're coming at you and we're going to be in attack mode, and we're going to do that from day one," said Christian, known for his uptempo brand of basketball that came to be known simply as Mayhem while at Mount St. Mary's. "Each one of these guys has a heart inside them and they grew up with a dream to be the best basketball player they can be, and a dream to play in the NCAA Tournament and play meaningful games. We have an obligation -- as a coaching staff, as a family, as a college -- to help them fulfill that dream, and we're gonna get to work on that right away."

Winning the press conference almost always occurs, but when listening to Christian, described as a special kind of person by his mentor, Shaka Smart, the words spoken on Wednesday go beyond that. Sometimes, you can just tell when a coach is wired differently, and this appears to be such an instance.

"My pledge to you is I'm going to lead this program with the most enthusiasm of any coach you've ever seen, and my job is to get that enthusiasm to live out in our players every single day," Christian proclaimed. "We're going to achieve our own set of history. We're going to set a new standard that has not been seen before."

The ball will not be tipped for another six months, but judging by first impressions, it looks as though Siena's new leader is well on his way to accomplishing just that.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Siena hires Jamion Christian to replace Patsos

Shown here cutting net after winning Northeast Conference championship, Siena now trusts Jamion Christian to do for Saints what he did twice at Mount St. Mary's: Reach NCAA Tournament. (Photo by the Washington Times)

Nearly three weeks after Siena's investigation into allegations made against Jimmy Patsos, which prompted the now-former head coach to resign on April 13, the Saints reportedly have reached an agreement to bring a new leader to the Capital Region.

Jamion Christian -- whose tenure at Mount St. Mary's includes a pair of Northeast Conference championships -- will be introduced as the next Siena head coach, as reported by Rodger Wyland of WNYT in Albany and corroborated shortly thereafter by a number of local media outlets, including the Albany Times Union. ESPN's Jeff Goodman confirmed Christian's receipt of a five-year contract, and a press conference may happen as soon as Wednesday afternoon if all the contractual details are ironed out.

Christian, who turned 36 on April 18, brings a proven track record of success and an exciting style of play to Siena, a school hoping to reverse its fortunes after an 8-24 season and fallout that led to Patsos' departure after five years at the helm. During his time at The Mount, Christian -- a former assistant to Shaka Smart at VCU before striking out on his own -- compiled a record of 101-95 in six seasons, including a 67-39 mark in conference play, never finishing worse than fifth in the NEC under his watch.

While rebuilding the Mount St. Mary's program, Christian installed a system largely influenced by his mentor, Smart, that came to be known as "Mayhem." Based on the same principles of the "Havoc" philosophy that turned Smart into a household name at VCU, Mayhem is largely predicated on defensive ball pressure and a greater emphasis on the three-point shot, using it as a weapon on offense while seeking to take it away defensively.

Christian became the choice at Siena after speculation that Patrick Beilein, the head coach at Division II Le Moyne and a popular choice to replace Patsos even before the Saints' job became available, was eliminated from contention when it emerged that athletic director John D'Argenio was prioritizing prior Division I head coaching experience in his prospective candidates, stressing his desire to find a coach who had had, according to the Times Union, "an experience like Siena." The rumor mill soon expanded to names such as Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara, Vermont head coach John Becker, Miami assistant Chris Caputo, Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey, and former LIU Brooklyn and Duquesne head coach Jim Ferry, now an assistant at Penn State. 

Most notably, Rick Pitino's name had surfaced as a potential candidate after spending this past season on the sidelines after he was fired at Louisville for his role in the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball that centered around Louisville allegedly paying Brian Bowen to sign with the Cardinals. However, Pitino -- still recovering from the scandal involving the alleged hiring of escorts to attend parties on campus -- swiftly denied any perceived interest in the opening at Siena.

Once Christian is officially introduced, he will need to hit the ground running with regard to recruiting, which picks up again with the July live period. In house, he will also work on convincing freshman guards Roman Penn and Jordan Horn -- as well as freshman forward Prince Oduro -- to stay in the program after all three were granted their respective releases and had been rumored to consider transferring. In addition, junior guard Nico Clareth; who left the program in January, is a wild card of sorts as far as potentially returning to Siena after being unable to find a new suitor for his services to this point in the offseason.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

5 Thoughts: Seton Hall offseason notebook

Kevin Willard prepares for life without his senior class as Seton Hall heads into 2018-19 with a mix of veterans, transfers and incoming freshmen. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

The offseason is now a month old as we head into May and a pivotal recruiting period, and for Seton Hall, the infancy of life without Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Ismael Sanogo has taken root in and around South Orange. The quartet of Pirate seniors will graduate in the coming weeks and move on to professional careers shortly thereafter, but what about the program the four leave behind? Here's a refresher on what has gone on inside The Hall since the final nets were cut at the beginning of April:

1) The beginning of the next chapter.
Carrington, Delgado and Rodriguez were all invited to Virginia for the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a premier showcase for some of the nation's best seniors. The uptick in competition did little to hinder the abilities of the Pirate trio, as Carrington helped lead K&D Rounds Landscaping to an appearance in the tournament championship game, while Delgado was at his usual dominant best for Portsmouth Sports Club, racking up 24 points and 23 rebounds -- ironically, his stat line from his collegiate finale in the NCAA Tournament against Kansas -- over two games. However, it was Rodriguez -- Seton Hall's leading scorer this past season -- who arguably helped himself the most, making the all-tournament team while scoring 53 points in three games for Roger Brown's Restaurant.

"Portsmouth was great," Rodriguez told Adam Zagoria shortly after the tournament concluded and after he met with several NBA scouts. "It was a very exciting experience for me. I was able to sit down in front of a few teams and talk. There's a lot of interest from teams who my coach and agent talked to, and who said good things about me. I was just happy I was able to compete."

Michael Nzei's return gives Seton Hall invaluable experience at power forward spot in wake of Angel Delgado's graduation. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

2) Mike's On...he's ready to go.
Mike Francesa makes his return to the WFAN airwaves Tuesday afternoon, culminating a retirement that lasted all of four-and-a-half months, but the Mike in the minds of Pirate fans is Michael Nzei, who has decided to return to South Orange as a fifth-year senior, putting to rest any speculation that he would leave as a graduate transfer.

The Asbury Park Press' Jerry Carino broke news of Nzei's return in April after he was informed by head coach Kevin Willard that the Nigerian forward -- whose high grade point average enabled him to land and excel in a financial internship last summer -- had no intention of transferring out of the program. 

With Delgado no longer in the picture, Nzei's veteran leadership and stability carries a greater price tag for the Pirates next season, as he will likely pair with Taurean Thompson down low after the former Syracuse recruit regains his eligibility one year removed from sitting out. Romaro Gill, the 7-foot-2 junior college transfer who redshirted last season, also figures to play a role in the Seton Hall front line alongside soon-to-be sophomore Sandro Mamukelashvili. Those four, plus incoming freshman Darnell Brodie and perhaps Valdir Manuel as well, will form a corps of big men with battle-tested experience and upside that should keep the Pirates in contention during Big East Conference play.

3) Goodbye, Farewell, Amen.
While the frontcourt has begun to take shape, the backcourt is in a greater state of retooling after it was announced that both walk-on Philip Flory and backup point guard Eron Gordon will transfer, both of whom declaring their plans within a week of one another.

Flory, the walk-on whose 17 minutes against St. John's with Rodriguez injured and Myles Cale in foul trouble arguably won a pivotal late February game for Seton Hall, reportedly decided to leave in order to transfer closer to home and earn more playing time. CBS Sports college basketball insider Jon Rothstein was first to report the departure, which was later confirmed by former Pirate Sports Network and current Big East Digital Network correspondent John Fanta, who added that Flory is immediately eligible wherever he lands.

Gordon announced his transfer via his Twitter account on Monday afternoon, and in the case of the Indiana native and younger brother of Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon, he is also seeking an increase in playing time. Willard's recruiting of Anthony Nelson and Jared Rhoden -- both of whom signed national letters of intent during the November signing period -- plus the development and maturation of freshman Jordan Walker, may have also been contributing factors, not to mention Quincy McKnight regaining his eligibility following his transfer from Sacred Heart.

Currently, the Seton Hall depth chart is as follows:
Guards: Quincy McKnight, Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Jordan Walker, Anthony Nelson, Jared Rhoden, Shavar Reynolds (walk-on)
Forwards: Michael Nzei, Taurean Thompson, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Romaro Gill, Darnell Brodie
Potential Newcomers: Valdir Manuel (verbal commitment, has not yet signed NLI)

4) The new kid in town.
Tony Skinn, remembered most for his role on George Mason's Final Four team in 2006 and most recently an assistant on staff at Louisiana Tech, was tapped by Willard to fill the spot vacated by Shaheen Holloway, Willard's long-time right-hand man and top assistant who replaced former Pirate assistant John Dunne as the head coach at Saint Peter's on April 12.

Skinn, 35, will be tasked with developing the Seton Hall guards in much the same vein as Holloway did for his eight years on staff at his alma mater, and is eager to add to the growth of his new group of players on and off the court, as noted by Jerry Carino shortly after the hire became public.

5) Three big non-conference games.
The non-conference schedule continues to be a work in progress, but the Pirates reportedly have three Saturday contests in December that will join an appearance in the Wooden Legacy tournament over the Thanksgiving weekend to form a typically formidable non-league schedule, something Willard has made a point to include as Seton Hall rounds into form heading into the Big East slate.

The Pirates will welcome Louisville and new head coach Chris Mack -- who fans have not forgotten from his time at Xavier -- to Newark on December 1 for the back end of a home-and-home series that Seton Hall won the opening game in last December, defeating the Cardinals on the road behind a then-career-high 29 points from Rodriguez, who also hit the game-winning basket. One week later, The Hall will make the short jaunt to Madison Square Garden, which has become a secondary home court of sorts, to face Kentucky on December 8 in a minor scheduling coup for Willard, who was able to get John Calipari and the Wildcats to come to the Big Apple as opposed to traveling to Rupp Arena as Monmouth will to fulfill the back end of a two-year agreement next season. Finally, the Garden State Hardwood Classic has been extended through 2026, a development reported by Carino Monday morning. Although a date for the annual in-state showdown with Rutgers has not been etched in stone, December 15 has been mentioned as a target for the latest installment of a rivalry that the Scarlet Knights claimed victory in last December for the first time since leaving the Big East at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season.

Maya Singleton concludes St. John's career with MVP-caliber senior season

By Andy Lipton
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

She was only at St. John’s for two years, but Maya Singleton; the Red Storm senior captain from Indian Head, Maryland, made her presence known on and off the court, making her a memorable St. John’s player.

Engaging and personable off the court, fans seemed to gravitate towards her, and after meeting her mother, Nebra, it comes as no surprise why.

Both the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association and the Big East Conference recognized Singleton's achievements on the court this season by placing her on the MBWA All-Met first team and All-Big East second team, respectively. Singleton gets my vote for the Red Storm’s most valuable player this past season. She was an all-around player and athlete as she rebounded, scored, played defense, set picks, blocked shots, and dove on the floor for loose balls.

Strong, with a svelte athletic physique, and well-conditioned, the six-foot Singleton moved well around the court. In the half-court offense, she moved. She could play with her face or back to the basket. She set picks and popped out or rolled to the hoop. In a guard-oriented Red Storm offense, Singleton was able to create offense from the center and forward positions, and led the team in scoring at 10.9 points per game. She has a soft touch on her shots. On defense, she can move quickly around the half-court, allowing her to guard her opponent and provide help to her teammates. Her long legs allow her to slide widely against a dribbling opponent, and her ability to quickly get to the boards to rebound or to get to a loose ball on the floor is quietly explosive.

Singleton recorded 18 double-doubles this past season, averaging a double-double for the season, ranking 14th in the nation. She led the Big East with 11.2 rebounds per game, which was 15th-best in the nation. She started 33 out of 34 games and averaged 30 minutes per game this past season. In her first season with the Johnnies, Singleton started only eight games, beginning near the end of that season when Imani Littleton went out for the season with an injury.

Singleton, who played her first two years in college at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, has the physical ability and basketball skills to continue to get better as she pursues a professional basketball career. Borrowing from the title song in the movie Flashdance, here’s hoping she takes her passion, and makes it happen.

Let’s take a look at Maya Singleton: