Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Grasso's trademark excitement only grows stronger with Bryant's opening tip looming

Bryant head coach Jared Grasso (center) fields questions from several interested media members at Northeast Conference media day. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Bryant University was an afterthought through much of last season, a 3-28 campaign that turned out to be the swan song for Tim O'Shea, the head coach who shepherded the Bulldog program through its baptism into Division I athletics a decade ago, reaching the postseason and several Northeast Conference tournaments along the way. Yet at the same time, the school needed a new face to take the next step in Rhode Island, guiding it through its adolescence at the highest level, so to speak.

Enter Jared Grasso.

The longtime Tim Cluess assistant who helped turn Iona into a mid-major juggernaut with five NCAA Tournament appearances in seven seasons, hired in Smithfield in April to resurrect the Bulldogs on the heels of helping make history in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference -- Iona became just the third MAAC program to win three straight conference tournaments this past March -- has wasted little time injecting new life into a college basketball landscape already vibrant with the success of in-state rivals Providence and Rhode Island, and it has started with his relentless drive to be nothing but the best.

"I've had a chip on my shoulder since I was fifteen years old playing high school basketball," Grasso said of what has fueled him to begin writing the newest chapter of his career. "That hasn't changed. I think I still have that same chip, and now it's starting to improve as a coach. I had the brief stint at Fordham, which really helped me to prepare for this, but you never think -- when you're always talking about preparing to be a head coach, you think about having a spring, summer and fall, where at Fordham, I was given the job on Tuesday and Thursday night, we were playing a game -- I think now, I've really had a chance to instill my style of play and my philosophies and my culture, and I think my time at Fordham; and especially my eight years at Iona with Tim, have prepared me for this challenge." 

"Yeah, I have a chip on my shoulder, as do the guys on my team, because let's face it: We were 3-28 last year, one of the worst teams in the country, and our guys never want to feel like that again. I think I have a blueprint that can get us to the level we want to get to if our guys are willing to work, and they have worked very hard so far. The biggest thing I learned from Iona was how hard you have to work, every single day, in everything you do, to give yourself the chance to be successful. It's a lot of hours and it's long practices, and it's guys coming back at night to the gym to get shots up. It's long days. It's not easy. Guys have to understand how hard you need to work to win a championship, and that's been the biggest piece for me, instilling in our guys: a) the work ethic needed to do it, and b) the confidence to understand that we're not that far away."

The grinder mentality was ingrained into Grasso seemingly in utero: His father, Fred, enjoyed an illustrious career as a coach at various levels on Long Island, and even under Rick Pitino during the former national championship-winning coach's tenure with the New York Knicks. From as long as he could remember, young Jared developed the passion and commitment requisite to turn basketball from a hobby into a life form, and even after the elder Grasso passed away last November, the lessons under the learning tree are still being heeded as his boy embarks on his new endeavor.

"He was the most influential person in my life in general when it comes to basketball," said Jared of his father. "Being the son of a coach, there's a lot of basketball conversations that went on over the years, and he knew -- it's funny, he would always talk about 'when the right opportunity comes, you're gonna get it,' -- there were times I think my dad wanted it more than me, so he could be a part of it and be around for it. It's bittersweet, but all the lessons that I've learned and the things that he taught me in life -- both as a person and a coach -- are things that I'll carry over to our players. Again, it's bittersweet not having him around for this moment and this point of my career, but I know he's watching down and couldn't be more proud of what I am right now."

While Fred Grasso and Cluess are the major influences on Jared's basketball life, the 38-year-old firebrand draws a striking comparison to one of his current contemporaries in the New England region: UConn head coach Dan Hurley. Eight years ago, Hurley capped his rise from the high school ranks into Division I athletics with a two-year run at Wagner in which he turned the Seahawks into a 25-win outfit with a victory over the University of Pittsburgh before taking over at Rhode Island in 2012. Shortly before his first season in Kingston, Hurley spoke of feeling like he needed to go outside his comfort zone -- the New York/New Jersey region -- to prove himself as a head coach, and to prove that he could carve out his own niche in uncharted territory. An Atlantic 10 Conference championship and back-to-back NCAA Tournaments served as the impetus behind his move to UConn, and Bryant's new leader has found a similar parallel in going away, so to speak, in order to validate and vindicate himself.

"Absolutely," Grasso proclaimed. "I think I have something to prove out of the region, and I think it's a great opportunity. Bryant's an unbelievable place with unbelievable leadership, and I really do think it's a sleeping giant job. I think we have the chance to be, hopefully, an elite NEC program moving forward, and that's what my expectation is. I've told our guys I'm not concerned about what happened in the past. I know we have the opportunity to build here, and I really think it could be a special, special situation. I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't think it was a place where we could be successful over the long term. I think the future can be very bright for us."

Eight years ago, there was a strong push to hire Grasso -- at 29, the youngest head coach in the nation when he replaced Dereck Whittenburg at Fordham midway through the 2009-10 season -- full-time on the Rose Hill campus. Frank McLaughlin, the athletic director at the time, saw things differently, ultimately hiring Tom Pecora and extending his contract two months into a tenure that was cut short after five years. Undaunted, Grasso moved on to join Cluess at Iona, and learned more about himself in the process.

"I thought throughout the process, I was ready to run my own program," he said. "I felt that if I kept the Fordham job, that I would have had success there, and I knew that when I got the right opportunity, that I was going to be successful wherever it may be. I had a couple of opportunities out of the region that I didn't pursue because my father had been sick, and I wasn't going to leave New York when my father wasn't doing well. This is the opportunity that came about, and it's the perfect fit for me. I've learned you have to have a little bit of patience, and if you can live life from back to front, it'll be a lot easier to understand why things happen. Now that I'm in this position, I can look back and I can say, 'okay, now I know why I had to go through all these things to have this opportunity again.'"

"But I ended up in the perfect place for myself and the perfect situation for myself. I've always been looking for a program that I can build, and for me, it's exciting where we're coming from. I like the challenge and the task of trying to build something. Sometimes, the reality if Tim Cluess had moved on or retired and I had to take over at Iona, I would have had some difficult shoes to fill. It's hard to do what's been done there. Here, I'm really excited about building this thing with my ideas and my philosophies, and my culture."

The culture of which Grasso speaks, one rooted in endless self-improvement on and off the court, as well as treating others the way they treat oneself, has taken on a life of its own in just a short period of time. Bryant's new coach openly embraces the players he has inherited just as strongly as those he recruited, proudly declaring them to be his in much the same vein he would his two sons, two-year-old Jared Anthony and one-month-old Cole Gregory. As such, he has emerged as a staunch defender of his guys, and is willing to run through a brick wall for them the same way his players have demonstrated they would for him.

"I owe it to those guys to give them everything I have to finish their careers the right way," said Grasso. "So although I didn't recruit Adam (Grant) and Ike (Ndugba), I'm here for them, to help them have a great experience their last two seasons. That's been the most important thing to me with our returning guys, giving them everything I have so they can finish their careers the right way."

Head coach once again, Grasso's boundless energy has only multiplied since making the move from Long Island to Rhode Island. He simply knows no other way, and the zeal for which he is approaching his rebuild is no surprise to those who have come to know him.

"My adrenaline rush hasn't stopped since April 1, when I took the job," he said. "I've had an adrenaline rush for a long time, but I have the same adrenaline and competitiveness every day. One thing you can guarantee, whether my sons have me up all night and I've slept for two hours, or my kids are back in New York and I got ten hours of sleep, I'm gonna walk in the gym with the same approach and the same energy, and the same passion for competitiveness. That's what programs can be built around. If we can come out and compete every night, I'm very optimistic that we'll have a chance to be very good this year."

Monday, October 29, 2018

2018-19 LIU Brooklyn season preview

By Nelson Castillo (@NelCastNY)
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

Not many expected to witness LIU Brooklyn men’s basketball to lift the Northeast Conference championship trophy last March but yet that is exactly what happened. The LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds went into the 2017-18 season with new head coach Derek Kellogg and a sense of the unknown. Many panned the head coaching change last offseason considering LIU had won twenty games in 2016-17 under former head Jack Perri but the change was made and to the credit of Kellogg, he did what he is known to do best, recruit.

Guys who had began making plans to leave LIU Brooklyn returned. Other guys who had a relationship with Kellogg from his previous coaching job at UMass came along with him. The rest had to learn to buy in.
Although it was a slow go at first as LIU went 5-8 in non-conference play, the Blackbirds began finding their groove in NEC play but they were still a .500 team entering the final weekend of the regular season.

That is when things finally really began to click. Two wins that final weekend got them a four-seed and a quarterfinal home game. Another NEC quarterfinal win and a pair of upsets got them another home game for the NEC semifinals. After sweating out a one-point win against Fairleigh Dickinson, LIU and their 17-16 record had to go on the road to face the NEC regular season champs Wagner, who hadn’t lost at home all season, for the NEC championship. The odds seemed against them.
Yet, LIU defied the odds with a Joel Hernandez performance that will live forever in Blackbirds’ history along with one of the better defensive team performances of the season. They celebrated their fourth championship in seven seasons on Wagner’s home floor and capped a season few really saw coming with an NCAA tournament appearance. Kellogg and his supporters all got the last laugh.

“It was rewarding because I thought the kids through everything that kind of went on with me taking over as the coach had great attitudes.” said Kellogg, now in his second year at the helm, at the annual NEC Basketball Media Day. “I thought in the locker room they had a good culture and they worked really hard and bought into kind of my philosophy and also the vision we had for the season which was to ultimately to win the conference championship and go to the NCAA tournament.”

Derek Kellogg and his LIU Brooklyn team comes into year two as the defending champs but similar to last season, are considered a contender but not the team to beat in the NEC. That distinction belongs to Saint Francis U., who once again similar to last season, is looked as the favorite to hoist the NEC championship trophy come early March.
That works fine for LIU as it takes the target off their back and lets them focus on trying to repeat the formula that eventually got them to a championship last season. A formula that will certainly need to be adjusted with one key departure and a couple of new additions.

The obvious question for LIU entering the 2018-19 season, who replaces Joel Hernandez, LIU’s top scorer last season and an All-NEC first team selection. Well, the short answer is no one player can. It is always hard when a team’s best player is no longer around but that now opens the door for new guys to step in and try and become that main guy.
The first LIU player that comes to mind is 6’6” senior guard/forward Raiquan Clark (17.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 55.6% FG, 75.0% FT). Clark was named third team All-NEC last season after finishing second behind Hernandez on the team in scoring and leading LIU in rebounding. Clark is the ultimate high-motor guy. He never seems to stop working on the basketball floor. That high-motor worked for and against him as he was able to draw nearly seven fouls per game which helped get him to the free throw line 244 times, tied for 14th in the nation but he also turned the ball over 143 times, second-most in the nation only behind Oklahoma point guard Trae Young.

“He brings good energy and he can really play.” said Kellogg of his star returnee. “I love the edge that he has. I think he can become a monster defensive player and a monster rebounder. I’m not shy if he has aspiration of playing at the next level someday. He has to guard four positions and do it well. I don’t mind if he brings the ball up as a kind of a point forward, I think he can continue working on his shooting. But all in all, I think it is his edge is what makes him so good.”
Clark’s slashing ability along with his work ethic on the glass as well as being able to make shots out on the perimeter makes him one of the harder players to guard on this Blackbirds’ team. If Clark can cut down on his turnovers this season, he will be a lock for All-NEC first team and could put himself in the conversation for NEC Player of the Year.

Two more guys who could see their production spike upwards are the starting backcourt of 5’11” junior guards Jashaun Agosto (11.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.2 apg) and Julian Batts (10.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.3 apg). The two have combined to appear in 132 games and make 113 starts in their first two seasons at LIU.

Agosto improved on both his rebounding and assist numbers from his freshman while keeping his scoring average nearly the same. His shooting percentages took a slight dip especially from three where he shot just 32.7 percent last season. Agosto though rarely took a rest as he played over 36 minutes per game and in six games last season he played at least 38 minutes in a game including three of 40 or more. He is lightning quick and Kellogg’s faster paced offense really fit his style of play. He is also comfortable having the ball in big moments of the game such as in the final seconds vs FDU in the NEC tournament semifinals in which he drew the foul and made two clutch free throws which sent LIU to the NEC finals.

Batts plays the game as if he is a fifth-year senior. He is always poised but also plays the game with a certain toughness and doesn’t back down from anybody. Batts is an underrated shooter. He shot 41 percent from three last season in 161 attempts. He also had a nearly 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio while splitting his time at the point guard and shooting guard spots. Both Agosto and Batts combined to grab over 8.5 rebounds per game which is pretty remarkable for two guards under six feet tall. With the departure of Hernandez, these two might be the biggest beneficiaries in terms of getting more shot opportunities and seeing their overall scoring numbers increase.

One player who really couldn’t get it going for most of the season last year was 6’8” redshirt junior forward Julius van Sauers. The biggest reason for lack of consistent production last season was he couldn’t keep himself on the floor. He seemed like he was always in foul trouble. He was called for 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes. He played in all 35 games last season and started in the final 22 games but averaged only 11.2 minutes per game. Last season was not a reflection of what we’ve seen from him in the seasons prior. He has shown that he has good ball handling and good shooting touch from the perimeter. Even last season he was 9 for 21 from three and prior to last season he was 38 for 41 from the free throw line in his college career. It won’t not be a surprise if he starts out as LIU’s starter at the five spot but whether or not he can hold on to that spot will be what we will have to wait and see. There is a little more depth in the front line for Kellogg this season so if van Sauers can’t stay out of foul trouble or be more productive, he could see himself reverting back to a bench role.

The reason van Sauers could be looking over his shoulder is because of two frontline additions to this season’s roster in 6’9” redshirt sophomore Tyrn Flowers and 7’0” true freshman Ousmane Ndim. Flowers transferred to LIU Brooklyn last season after spending his freshman season with Derek Kellogg at UMass. He only started in six of 33 games his freshman season but had some productive outings including a 20-point game, 9-rebound against Pacific as well as three other double-digit scoring games. Right now, he is likely penciled in as the starter at the four position which would move Clark over to the three spot. Flowers shot just 36.7 percent from the field and slightly above 30 percent from three his freshman year playing in the Atlantic 10, it will be interesting to see if he improve those numbers with a year of sitting out and playing in the NEC. Ndim is a three-star recruit from Senegal by ways of ASPIRE Academy in Louisville, Kentucky. Kellogg out-recruited schools like Hofstra, Arizona State, LSU, TCU, Virginia, South Florida, Memphis, Houston and Oklahoma for Ndim’s commitment. Ndim is a true seven-footer and is the first seven-footer I can recall in the LIU Brooklyn program in all my years of following and covering the program. His likely impact early will be on the glass and on the defensive end altering and blocking shots. If Ndim could eventually become a low-post presence on the offensive end, LIU could have themselves a dominate center for the next few years. Time will tell. He’ll likely come along slowly and start out as a backup center behind van Sauers.
Another frontline guy will should see an increase in playing time this season is 6’7” sophomore forward Eral Penn. Penn appeared in 32 games as a freshman last season getting just under 10 minutes per game. Even though he got limited playing time last season, he showed some impressive flashes. He is athletic and has long arms and quickness which he showed on the glass and defensively. He blocked 24 shots which was second-most on the team. Penn was also highly efficient shooting the ball making 27 of 35 shot attempts. He will likely see most of his minutes at the 4 but he could play at the 3 and 5 positions as well.

The final big man on the roster is 6’9” senior center/forward Ganlandou Cisse who did not appear in a game last season. Mostly a deep reserve on LIU’s bench during his college career, he has appeared in 15 games in his three seasons with the Blackbirds. His claim to fame is that he made his first eight field goal attempts in his career until finally missing the last attempt he took in a game back in February of 2017.
Switching the focus back to the guards, one guard in particular who is looking to finish off his LIU Brooklyn career on a high note is 6’1” senior guard Raul Frias. The Miami native who has played just 10 minutes per game in his college career should see some more playing time this season as the reserve shooting guard. Frias is a bit of an enigma. He has a beautiful shooting motion and when he is on, he looks like he can’t miss. Yet, he is just a 33 percent career shooter from the field and a 30 percent career shooter from three. Last season was his best shooting season from beyond the arc and he only hit on 32.5 percent of this threes. He has had just one double-digit scoring game in his LIU career which spans 84 games. It is his time as a senior so it is final opportunity to play to his full potential and if that happens, look out for LIU to be dangerous from three.

Another guard who likes to shoot the ball from deep is 6’4” junior guard Ashtyn Bradley. He only saw action in nine games last season, mostly getting in at the end of games after appearing in 21 games as a freshman. Out of his 68 shot attempts in his career, 63 of them has come from behind the three-point line. He should finally see some legit playing time this season as instant offense guy coming off the bench at either the 2 or mainly the 3 position as the second shooting guard in a three-guard lineup. If Bradley can consistently connect on his shot this season and can grab some rebounds and play a little defense, he can legitimately get himself between 10 and 15 minutes of playing time per game this season and be a solid contributor.

One player that I would like to have seen a little more of last season was 6’1’’ sophomore point guard Shyheim Hicks. He only played in seven games last season and played in just three games in NEC play for a total of six minutes. In the two games in which he did see some extended playing time last season, at Brown and against Saint Peter’s in which he saw 19 minutes in both games, he played pretty well. He made freshman mistakes as you would expect but he didn’t like he was totally overwhelmed. Now, the thing is with Agosto and Batts ahead of him on the depth chart, it was hard for him to get much playing time. This season, if Kellogg decides to keep Batts more off the ball and give Hicks a shot at the backup point guard, he could see a bigger role but if Kellogg decides to keep the rotation to eight or nine guys, it will likely be more of the same for Hicks this season.

Craig Owens Jr. and Akron transfer Virshon Cotton round out the LIU roster. Owens Jr. was a walk-on who became eligible after the fall semester last season but did not appear in a game. He is now on scholarship. Cotton will sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules. He played in 29 games as a freshman last season, getting six starts and playing over 20 minutes per game. He averaged 7.3 points and made over 37 percent of his threes last season.
LIU Brooklyn finished first in the NEC last season in scoring at 76.2 points per game and fourth in offensive efficiency at 1.023 points per possession. They were 37th in the nation in tempo, getting over 71 possessions per game, best in the NEC. Look for more of the same for the Blackbirds this season. Derek Kellogg wants his team to play fast and get up and down the floor and put pressure on the opposing defense. They eclipsed the 80-point scoring mark thirteen times a season ago, more than doubling the times it occurred in the season prior.

Defensively, LIU finished in the middle of the pack in the NEC, in a conference that only had two teams finish in the top 200 in adjusted defensive efficiency last season so the league as a whole wasn’t terribly strong on the defensive end. LIU did have their strengths. They were one of the best teams in the NEC a season ago in defensive three-point shooting percentage and were in the top half in the nation (129th) in defensive effective field goal percentage. As it seems like always, there is room to improve on that end of the floor.
In many preseason previews, LIU Brooklyn is predicted to finish third in the NEC behind NEC favorite Saint Francis U. and Fairleigh Dickinson. Coincidently, the same two teams were picked one-two in the NEC men’s basketball preseason poll last season while LIU were picked sixth and ended up finishing in fourth.

The Blackbirds start their season on Tuesday, November 6th at the Steinberg Wellness Center against The College of New Rochelle, a Division III team. They will play a 12-game non-conference schedule which includes four home games. They will take a trip out to Belfast, Northern Ireland for two games in the Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic, against Albany and either Marist or Dartmouth on November 29th and 30th. LIU begins NEC play on January 3rd on the road against Sacred Heart and will play two conference games every week for nine weeks until the regular season finale at home on March 2nd versus Bryant. They will also return to the Barclays Center for a pair of yet to be announced home games for the seventh consecutive season.  
No team in the Northeast Conference has defended their NEC championship since LIU won the crown three straight seasons from 2011 to 2013. Since 2008, the only four schools to win NEC championships in that span are LIU (4), Robert Morris (3), Mount St. Mary’s (3), Fairleigh Dickinson (1).

“I’m telling these guys, let’s just enjoy this process.” said Kellogg on the prospect of trying to repeat. “It is one of the things you get to do once in your lifetime, so you might as well have fun doing it. Working hard, coming to practice everyday, and if we keep a good attitude like we’ve had this year and even through last year, I think we put ourselves in the opportunity to be in a similar position this year, hopefully playing in the NEC tournament and have a chance to win three games in three days.”

If LIU were to capture the NEC title again in 2019, they would be the first NEC team ever to win five NEC titles in a nine year span, besting the mark set by Robert Morris who won five of the first eleven NEC championships from 1982 to 1992.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Kevin Willard quote book: Big East media day

On participating in this year's FS1 All-Access game, in which he and Butler head coach LaVall Jordan will be wearing microphones:
"I don't know what I was thinking, to be honest with you. I didn't think it was that hard, and I tried doing it the other day in practice and it's hard. I watched Ed (Cooley) and Dave (Leitao) do it last year and I thought it was a really cool way to watch the game, and when they wanted to do it again this year -- and I think LaVall's so easy, he's so mild-mannered -- I thought that was easy and I was like, 'well, I think my players would enjoy it, at least one game without me going crazy on them.'"

"Fox really wanted to do it, and they've been such a great partner of ours that when LaVall said he'd do it, no one else was gonna raise our hand, so I said I'd do it. I willingly volunteered. I will never willingly volunteer again for that, but I would do it this one time. Fox really wanted to do it again, and Steve Scheer promised me he'd be doing the game. Steve's a good friend, he wanted to do it, and that's why I did it. He wanted to do it, Fox wanted to do it, they've been a good partner, Steve's a good friend, and you do things for friends."

"I do one segment of practice where I pretend like I'm on the all-access. It's hard, because it's not just what you say to the team -- that's easy -- but it's kind of the comments you make to yourself. There's so many times where you say 'MF' to yourself, like, 'that was a stupid play call,' or 'I can't believe this bulls---,' and you can't say that. That's where it's hard. The fact that we're doing it at Butler, and they're some of the nicest fans, so I don't have to worry about yelling at someone in the stands, that took that out of the equation, but I think it's unique. I enjoyed watching Ed and Dave do it, and I'm looking forward to doing it."

On being picked eighth in the Big East preseason poll:
"It's kind of where we should be picked, to be honest with you. If you look at the production that we lost -- our points, rebounds -- just from that stat alone, I think it's something that we've talked about as a team, that we have a lot of work to put in. But I like the way this group is working, I like the leadership we have so far. Quincy McKnight and Myles Powell have been phenomenal on the floor, so there's good energy, they're working hard, but as far as preseason rankings, we're probably where we should be. I think anytime you have outside motivation where you don't have to prod them every day, I think that's always, always good."

"I don't think that's where we're gonna end up, but from a preseason poll -- which are usually pointless -- that's where we should have been picked."

On seeing a similar mindset given his players' tendency to thrive on being overlooked:
"I do. I think the good thing about this group -- like, Myles (Powell) has been through it, Mike (Nzei) has been through it, Sandro (Mamukelashvili) and Myles Cale have been through it, but also having Quincy sit out, Romaro (Gill) sit out, Taurean (Thompson) sitting out -- it's a group that's been together, so it's not all new. We have eight guys that played with each other for two-plus years, so again, having outside motivation really helps."

On worrying about Seton Hall's schedule:
"Every night. I think the schedule's going to be good for us, it's gonna test us. When you are a little bit younger, I think you get a little bit of a false sense of security by playing an easier schedule coming into this league. I like my team, I want them to be battle-tested, and we put together a tough schedule to test them. I think today's kids, I don't think any kids lack for confidence, and as a team, to play against better teams and see what your weaknesses are so you can work on them, I think we've always built confidence in practice, not from games. I like the challenge that these guys are going to get."

On what his team could improve on:
"We should be -- by the time it's all said and done -- we should be a better defensive team than we were last year. We are not now, obviously, but when it's all said and done, with our length, with our athleticism, with having an inside presence now, a little bit of a shot blocker, we should be a much better and much more athletic team than we were last year."

On toughness being a concern without last year's seniors:
"It's more mental toughness than physical toughness. When you're getting beat down a little bit -- in this league, you're gonna get beat down every once in a while -- and with our schedule, you're gonna get beat down. I always knew, I never had a doubt that the older guys would just bounce back. They had very thick skin when it came to getting beat up, and that's the one thing that this group of guys -- Myles Powell and Mike Nzei have been through it, but the rest of the guys really gotta learn how to be a little bit tougher and a little more mentally tough, more than anything."

"It's the fact that you have guys who haven't played 32 minutes a game, and it's not physical. All our guys are physically tough to play. It's a matter of just kind of getting them to understand the rigors of mental toughness, scouting reports, and being the guys now. I'm not worried about their physical toughness, it's more just getting them to understand it's a long season and a tough grind."

On what makes this year's team different:
"Being around these guys, they are a much more energetic, much more jovial group. They like joking around much more than the older guys did. The older guys were much more serious, much more focused, and I think that's just what happens as you get older. This is a much more energetic group, they enjoy -- our practices have been much longer, we've been going three-plus hours where I probably went an hour and a half with the older guys -- but one of the reasons we're going a little bit harder, a little bit tougher, a little bit longer is we're trying to create a little bit -- for them to understand mental toughness."

On life without the seniors:
"That happens to me every day I walk into practice, and I know when we don't get an offensive rebound for nine minutes, I'm gonna be wishing for Angel to be there. I miss them, I miss their personalities, I miss being around them. I'm gonna miss them basketball-wise. If I said anything otherwise, I'd be nuts."

On Desi Rodriguez and his professional career:
"He knew that was kind of the deal. He signed a training league deal, so we knew that was gonna happen. It's a great experience, and it's kind of what you need. He loved it and he got a great experience, but it's part of being a pro. You're going to get cut."

On Quincy McKnight at point guard and his transition after Khadeen Carrington:
"Quincy's much more of a point guard than Khadeen was, and he's been playing the point guard spot since last year. He was a point guard on the scout team, he was always the guy, and honestly with him and Anthony Nelson -- Anthony Nelson has really impressed me -- there's no transitioning. They're both point guards, so they've both been in that position the whole time, so I like that position probably the best of any that we have, besides Myles (Powell)."

"I think Quincy and Anthony will play a lot together, because we're gonna need Quincy to score. He's got a great unique ability to put the ball in the hoop -- not just shooting, he gets to the free throw line a lot, he's able to get to the lane and will get paint touches that way, not going through post-ups -- so Anthony and Q will play a lot together, and when Q's off the ball, we'll need him to score. When he's on the ball, he's gotta get other guys -- and he does a great job -- he's smart enough to realize when he's on the ball, he's gotta get Myles shots, he's gotta get the ball in the right guys' hands. When he's off the ball, he realizes it's his time to kind of go a little bit."

On Seton Hall's three freshmen and their prospective impact:
"Anthony's been a pleasant surprise. I love his toughness, he's got great court vision. He's probably the truest point guard I've had probably ever here. Jared (Rhoden) is coming off shoulder surgery. He's way ahead of schedule than I thought he'd be, he's doing great, and Darnell (Brodie) has been probably the biggest surprise of all the freshmen because I thought he'd have the longest to go, and he's probably advanced quicker than any freshman that we've had."

On Myles Powell as a preseason All-Big East second team selection:
"He will be -- if he has the year I think he'll have -- he'll be a first team All-Big East player."

On depth and talent:
"This is definitely the deepest at all positions: The point guard spot with Quincy and Anthony Nelson is tremendous, Myles Powell's as good a guard as anybody in the country, I really like Jared Rhoden and Myles Cale -- Jared's gonna play a little power forward too -- Mike Nzei is like, he's been the glue for four years. He just doesn't get talked about a lot with that last group. I always talk about him being as big a part of that senior group as anybody, so he's a guy that -- he's played 30 minutes a game and had 15 rebounds, so I know what I can get out of him -- and the center spot is somewhere that we're gonna be much different from what we've been in the past. We're longer, Taurean's a pick-and-pop kind of guy, Romaro is a guy that can pick-and-roll, throw lobs, is a shot blocker, so we are a little bit deeper. We were deep last year, but when you have four seniors you're gonna play 30 minutes, unfortunately, your bench doesn't get a lot of time, and that was around the league."

On Gill, Nzei and Thompson filling Angel Delgado's void:
"I don't think you can replace Angel. That's just not happening."

On how depth will define offensive production:
"We're gonna have to try to create points. It's something that hurt us last year, we were one of the worst in the league at creating turnovers. We had to work extremely hard to score. With this group, you're not gonna be able to just come down and throw the ball to Angel, which we did 47 percent of the time last year. We're gonna have to kind of create points, we're gonna have to create opportunities, and there's gonna be certain teams -- we want to play fast, but there's going to be certain teams where you play Creighton, you play Kentucky, you play certain teams -- that you're not going to, if you're going to beat them, you're going to have to play in the sixties."

"Right now, the only guy that's got a locked starting position would be Myles Powell. Everybody else every day is a good battle for positions, and I think that's something that's also been different this year. Guys are competing for spots and minutes."

On St. John's:
"I think they're gonna be really good. I think Chris has done a phenomenal job of being extremely steady in what he's doing, he didn't rush the process, he didn't do anything. I think he's done what he said he was going to do. He said he was going to take his time and build a program, and he's done a great job of doing that. I think they're extremely talented, and I'm looking forward to watching them play."

On Madison Square Garden and the Big East Tournament:
"I think this league has proven that this is our home. We had the highest attendance of any conference tournament last year. I think other leagues are trying to come in and get a week here and there, no one's trying to move in here. This is our home, and like I said before: People could come in. They want to come in a week before, a week after, that's great. This place is as good as it gets for college basketball, and it's why other people want to get in, but this is our home."

On continuity among coaches in the Big East, and whether it surprises him that coaches leave for better jobs:
"Not at all. If you look at Chris (Mack), Chris left for the University of Louisville. It's a top-five job in the country. We're not losing it to go to someplace else. Chris Holtmann went from Butler to making $4 million at Ohio State. To me, it's a compliment, and you look at -- Jay's been in the league 18 years, I've been in nine, Ed's been in the league eight -- if a top-five job opened, there's gonna be guys that might leave. Some of us have great jobs and want to stay. I think the guys who have been here the longest time have great jobs and realize how great the league is. It's a basketball league, but Chris going to Louisville, getting paid $4.2 million, that's crazy."

"I feel bad for him (Mack), I told him, 'You can't get away from Newark. You get out of the league, you go to Louisville and you go to Newark on December 1. He looked at me and he goes, 'What are you talking about?' I told him, 'you guys are returning home this year,' and he's like, 'Oh, jeez. I can't get out of Newark!"

On finding perspective now entering his ninth year at Seton Hall:
"I think you kind of realize how lucky you are to be at a great spot and in a great league. There's not a day that goes by where I take this job for granted. In my opinion, it's one of the top college basketball jobs. If you look at what P.J. (Carlesimo) did back in '89, it's something to be in this area -- the New York/New Jersey/Northeast -- there's no better place to play college basketball or be part of college basketball than this area."

"It is nine years, and I tell recruits this: I have a 12 and a 10-year-old. My family's the most important thing in my life and them being happy, and we love living in New Jersey, we love being at Seton Hall. It really is a family place, and anyone that went there understands that. I love being there, so for me, it's not just about a job, it's about your whole family and the way you live, and we have a pretty good life, and I enjoy living where we live."

On how he has grown since taking over at Seton Hall:
"I've said this a lot of times: I wasn't ready for this job when I first got this job. Three years of head coaching, you jump in, you go across and you're looking at -- Calhoun was still here, Coach Pitino, Huggs, Mick Cronin -- it's something that it took a good three years to kind of realize: Who can recruit, what type of kid can we recruit, and how are we going to play with that type of recruit? Luckily, they gave me time, and I think it's worked out for everybody."

"This league has such great coaches. I work every day to try to get better and improve the staff, improve the team, improve myself. I still don't feel like, in this league, I don't ever think you're really comfortable. Maybe Jay. I think Jay's comfortable."

On Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado serving as examples of player development:
"I usually don't make it past 10:30 at night, but west coast games are killing me. It's a lot of pride. It's kind of what Seton Hall is, and the opportunity that kids have. It's a matter of we put a lot of work in with these kids -- individual instruction -- and as I tell recruits now, you're gonna get the opportunity in the greatest conference and one of the best media markets in the world to showcase your talents, and if you put the work in, good things are going to happen. And for a guy like Desi -- I don't think Desi was ranked in the top 300 -- to have an opportunity to sign a contract is a great feeling. You get a lot of pride from it, but it's a two-way street. Those guys put a lot of hard work in."

On having to clean up Seton Hall's program:
"When I came in, we didn't have a president, we didn't have an athletic director, we didn't even have a weight room at the time when I first got the job. The first couple of years were a lot of -- Dr. Estéban finally got hired my second year, Pat (Lyons) got hired the middle of my second year -- it was trying to figure a lot of things out in a conference without a lot of leadership. That's not an easy thing to do. Everyone needs help, everyone needs leadership, and luckily, Pat's been amazing. I've said a thousand times, he's one of the best athletic directors, and every year, I'm just thankful that a football school doesn't realize it. He's probably one of the best fundraisers and the best leaders I've ever been around, and then Dr. Estéban was just tremendous. The school was kind of going through a really tough transition eight years ago, and Dr. Estéban was extremely steady with his leadership. He didn't make a lot of changes, didn't do anything crazy, but he really got everybody going in the same direction, and when you have two really good people behind you and you know they have your back, you're able to focus on what you need to do and move in the direction that you want to move into."

On Seton Hall's facilities:
"We're way behind on a facilities standpoint. We need to -- we've done a lot of great things from the Olympic sports standpoint, which I think desperately needed to happen before anything else happened -- I think plans are for the baseball stadium to get renovated, which I think is something we really need. But if you look at what Providence has done, Creighton has done, Georgetown, Villanova, we're probably one of the only programs that doesn't have its own facility and is a little bit behind. We'll get there, and I think it's one of those things where we'll have to sit down and kind of see what we really need and what makes economic sense. We're kind of landlocked, so it's hard to build something like the Ryan Center, which is a beautiful building."

On Tony Skinn and Duane Woodward, and their assimilation into Seton Hall's staff:
"Tony and Duane both -- Duane played point guard for Boston College in this league and was as good a player as anybody in this league, Tony has Final Four experience, national team experience, has a different thought mentality, which has really been kind of cool for the guards, because he's played a lot of years in Europe, so he understands the pick-and-roll game from a different angle, from a different perspective. Duane's been great from the defensive standpoint with the guards. He played for Al Skinner, and he understands really defending the basketball. Both of them have been a really good help to the guards and the wings."

Wagner scores commitment from Darion Jordan-Thomas

By Jonathan Reyes (@werdynerdy)

Bashir Mason and his Wagner Seahawks gained yet another verbal commitment for the 2019-20 season, this time in 6-foot-7-inch, 190-pound forward Darion Jordan-Thomas, hailing from Brockton, Massachusetts.

Before Jordan-Thomas decided on Wagner, he also had Duquesne, UMass Lowell, Robert Morris and Hartford on his list. So why did he choose to don the green and white for the forthcoming four years? He said it came down to one thing: the coaching staff.

“They’re building a great program and are real motivated in the kids’ success,” Jordan-Thomas said. “I like how they’re a family. They really like each other, there’s no negative energy.”

“The main key reason that attracted me to Wagner was the first thing they told me: They want to have a good relationship on and off the court and build you,” he added. “It’s not just about basketball; they want to teach you the right things, what to do and not to do.”

When he visited Wagner’s campus, he mentioned three players in particular on the team who he thought were cool and solidified his feeling in the familial atmosphere: Nigel Jackson, Chance Anderson and Jeff Coulanges. Being around them, along with the 13 other guys, made Jordan-Thomas reflect on how he doesn’t see himself as quiet and how he could use that to become a leader with the guidance of Mason and the coaching staff. First, Jordan-Thomas thinks his athleticism and unselfishness will help build chemistry on the court with his new teammates and allow him to fit right in. He even went so far as to say once redshirt senior AJ Sumbry graduates at season’s end, he could help replace him and offer more next fall. For the time being, Jordan-Thomas is using his senior year at Woodstock Academy to prepare for his future as a basketball player and a man.

“I’m going to college and get to do what I love the most: play basketball,” he said. “That’s really what I’m focused on is basketball and becoming a successful man. I’m not even thinking about the NBA, that’s extra. I’m just excited to say that I made it to college, not a lot of people in my family can say that. I’m happy. All of this is really amazing and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

Friday, October 26, 2018

Pirates ready to pop cork on a fresh start

With his senior class having graduated, Kevin Willard now draws up new life and new situations for a Seton Hall team picked eighth in Big East preseason poll. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)

NEW YORK -- "A couple bottles of wine."

That's what Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said when asked what the Big East bribed him with to get him to volunteer to be fully miked up in an all-access style broadcast of the Pirates' game at Butler on February 2.

Willard is kidding, of course, but it nevertheless is a departure from the norm for a coach who has been cautious at times with things like that in his nine years as head coach; though, to his credit, much less so as time has gone on.

"I've been practicing," the Pirates' skipper quipped. "I do one segment of practice where I pretend like I'm on the all-access. And it's hard, because it's not just what you say to the team -- that's easy -- it's the comments you make to yourself. There's so many times where you say to yourself 'oh, that was a stupid play call.'"

Willard will continue to work out the kinks in that respect, but it's not the only thing that is a difference from past routines, or what had been routines over the last four years. Seton Hall was picked eighth in the Big East preseason coaches' poll at the league's media day on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. The reason, without a doubt? The graduation of one of the most storied recruiting classes in program history.

Gone are the Big East's all-time rebounding leader and pillar of strength in the middle in Angel Delgado, defensive whiz Ish Sanogo, bruising wing Desi Rodriguez, and crafty combo guard Khadeen Carrington. They were the nucleus of a squad that went to three straight NCAA Tournaments, won the 2016 Big East Championship, put the program back on the map, and even consistently gave perennial conference favorite and reigning national champion Villanova the hardest time of any Big East opponent.

So, it's natural to see the Hall picked where they are in the initial rankings. But for all those four did on the court, their presence will also be missed within the program and in the locker room.

"That happens to me every day in practice," Willard said of looking around and not seeing his departed seniors on the floor. "I miss their personalities, I miss being around them. (Of course) I'm going to miss them basketball-wise. If I said anything otherwise, I'd be nuts."

"On and off the court, you miss those guys," junior guard Myles Powell added. "Like coach said, they represented the school well, they were funny, they were good leaders on the court. It's hard not to miss (them)."

That's not to say the cupboard is bare -- far from it, actually. Powell, who emerged as a force as a sophomore sniper, is back to lead a fresh group of Pirates, along with veteran forward Mike Nzei and his high motor inside. Powell was named to the preseason All-Big East second team, so the league took notice of last year's success. So have his teammates.

"Just being a leader," Powell said about what has changed for him on this year's iteration of the Pirates. "I was used to going to the seniors and Mike and asking them questions, and now I've got the freshmen and sophomores coming to me. So I'm just trying to take to my role of being a leader and do my best."

"I look to him a lot during practice for motivation because I believe his energy transfers to the rest of the team," Nzei said. "Even when he's not on my team during practice, I love it when he starts going hard, when he brings that energy. You've seen it in a lot of games, everyone else just follows (him)."

With the departure of so many valued minutes from last year, there are big voids to fill in the Hall's lineup. New to the team are Syracuse transfer and spot-up power forward Taurean Thompson, lanky rim protector Romaro Gill (who redshirted last year), and Sacred Heart transfer and combo guard Quincy McKnight. Sandro Mamukelashvili and Myles Cale, both of whom had their moments as freshmen last year, will be called upon in a larger role as well. Willard has added to them three freshmen in point guard Anthony Nelson, wing Jared Rhoden, and big man Darnell Brodie, who have received positive early reviews.

That group contains much skill and athleticism. What they lack at this point, according to their head coach, is the one quality that the departed class had oozing out of every pore: Toughness, though not in the way you may think.

"It's more mental toughness," Willard clarified. "You have guys who haven't played 32 minutes a game. All our guys are physically tough to play. It's a matter of getting them to understand the rigors of mental toughness, of scouting reports and being the guys now. I'm not worried about their physical toughness, it's just a matter of getting them to understand that it's a long season, a tough grind."

Speaking of toughness, the Pirates will be tested big-time by their schedule. Games loom with traditional powers Louisville (at home), Kentucky (on a neutral floor) and Maryland (on the road), along with a Gavitt Games road test at Nebraska and a home date with a possibly-sneaky Saint Louis team, all before the new year.

In short, one figures they may need to grow some toughness in short order. Come Big East play, everyone is difficult, though the Pirates aren't the only team with voids to fill -- Xavier and Creighton were also picked to take a step back in the preseason poll.

It's also tough to predict where the Pirates will end up with so much of the roster still to show of their skills in blue and white. But this is a team that, if the players take to their new roles quickly, could be making opposing fans, coaches, and players wish for a bottle of vino or two.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

UNC turns page despite questions and youth abound

Roy Williams addressed North Carolina's concerns at ACC Operation Basketball Wednesday. (Photo by Brian Wilmer/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Brian Wilmer (@sportsmatters)
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

CHARLOTTE -- For someone whose team is almost universally picked among the top three in the ACC this coming season, Roy Williams had a lot of things to get off his chest Wednesday at the league’s Operation Basketball event.

Whether voicing his displeasure over the ACC moving to a 20-game league schedule (“So I'm not in favor of it. Coaches had no voice in it whatsoever. And we go to the spring meetings, there's no talk about it. And then all of a sudden in July we're doing it. So that's what happened.”) or the voted-down hurricane relief exhibition between his Tar Heels and South Carolina (“It's frustrating, the response was frustrating, it's still frustrating.”), Williams was a popular guy with the media.

Oh, and there’s the issue of his team on the court.

Luke Maye earned plaudits from the league’s media, being named the ACC Preseason Player of the Year. Veteran stars Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams surround Maye, with forwards Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks among those who played supporting roles last year.

Many of the unanswered questions come at the top and bottom of the lineup. Joel Berry II’s departure leaves a chasm in the North Carolina backcourt, with his leadership and late-game heroics a hallmark of the program from which he graduated last year. Williams’ team also enters the season in search of a rebounding and post compliment to Maye, who snatched 10.1 boards per contest in 2017-18. Manley and Brooks averaged just shy of four apiece last season.

“The biggest thing for this team (is for) somebody to step up as a one and somebody to step up as a five, and for us to have a better overall awareness of what we’re doing on the defensive end of the floor. I think those are the two biggest challenges on our team,” Williams told a reporter Wednesday. “You give me some of those ones or fives (from Williams’ past teams) right now, then I’m gonna be really happy.”

Greensboro native Coby White will be one of the guards called upon early in the season to provide some stability in the backcourt. White brings to UNC the all-time high school scoring record in the state (3,573 points), and averaged 15.3 points per game on the FIBA Americas U-18 gold medal team this summer to pace that club in scoring. White is the first North Carolina Mr. Basketball to don the Carolina blue since the man he hopes to help replace, Theo Pinson, took the honor in 2014.

“I think we’ll be okay, but I don’t wanna be satisfied with just okay,” said Williams of his team’s backcourt situation. “Coby’s gonna be good, whether it’s gonna be October, November, December, or where it’s gonna be. He’s gifted. He’s really gifted.” Williams also mentioned junior Seventh Woods as a potential key backcourt piece, while acknowledging the need for Woods to stay healthy. Woods missed 17 games last season due to a stress fracture in his right foot.

The post position presents its share of challenges, as well. A number of options exist in the paint, with none yet providing the stability Williams seeks. “Guys have gotta get better. Somebody’s gotta step up and do it, or I’ve gotta go back and play a little bit smaller,” said Williams. “In fact, Luke’s probably better offensively as a five, because the five guy’s gotta guard him, and go out there to 23 feet. It is harder defensively, it is harder to rebound, and it is harder to be able to bother the ball coming at you around the rim.”

Williams mentioned that Brandon Huffman, who shot 54.3 percent from the field last season, has been limited by a knee injury and only gone through a handful of practices. Manley and Walker Miller are “still not where I want (them) to be,” added Williams, while Brooks “is a guy that lets you complete more check marks in all the boxes about what you need your guy to do.”

To be certain, the three heralded new faces on UNC's roster (White, Leaky Black, and Nassir Little) bring impressive offensive credentials to Chapel Hill. Williams hopes to lean on the youngsters quite a bit on the defensive side of the ball, however, offering both a committee-based approach to the stellar defense provided by Pinson and the ability to shore up a perimeter defense that showed some gaps last season. While the Tar Heels ranked 38th in defensive efficiency in last season’s KenPom numbers, the club ranked 316th among Division I schools in opponent three-point shooting, at 38 percent.

“I think Coby is good defensively, has a chance to be really good. I think Leaky is very good defensively and has a chance to be really good. And Nassir is so athletic he can be really good as well and he works really hard. So I'm hopeful that all three of those guys can be very good defenders,” said Williams. Black and Little both provide impressive length on the wing (Black is 6-foot-7, Little 6-foot-6), with Black having led his Cox Mill High School team with 3.2 steals per game as a senior.

Despite the question marks ahead, league media projected the Tar Heels to finish third in the circuit in 2018-19, offering 20 first-place votes to Williams’ club. For UNC to reach its goals for the season, it will have the chance to exorcise two demons in one place when competing for the league tournament title. Not only will it hope to avenge last season’s ACC tournament championship loss to Virginia, it will look to erase the bad taste of the resounding NCAA tournament defeat handed down by Texas A&M on the same Spectrum Center court on which 2019’s ACC tournament will be contested.

“We know what happened here. And we know that we have some history now. And we've just used that as motivation in practice and in the preseason. Coach definitely hasn't let us forget it,” said Williams at Wednesday’s media gathering. “But we use it as fuel and motivation to get back there and not let it happen again in that same situation. So it's definitely something that we won't forget.”

North Carolina opens its season with road trips to Spartanburg, S.C., to take on Wofford (Nov. 6) and Elon, N.C., to face Elon (Nov. 9), before returning home to host Stanford in a Nov. 12 tilt. Those first three games will all be televised on ESPN network properties.

Ponds named Big East Preseason POY, St. John's picked 4th, Seton Hall 8th

Shamorie Ponds' junior season begins with Big East Preseason Player of the Year honors, the latest accolade for St. John's superstar. (Photo by Newsday)

NEW YORK -- As expected, Shamorie Ponds is the headline story as the Big East Conference officially commences its 2018-19 season.

Ponds, the junior guard who captivated the conference last season en route to first-team all-conference honors and a Haggerty Award at St. John's, was announced Thursday morning as the Big East Preseason Player of the Year as the league gathered for its annual media day at Madison Square Garden. His backcourt partner, fellow junior Justin Simon, was also recognized with a spot on the conference's preseason second team.

Last season, Ponds averaged 21.6 points per game for the Red Storm, highlighted by tour-de-force performances in St. John's upset victories over nationally-ranked Duke and eventual national champion Villanova, as well as a record-tying 44-point explosion against Marquette on February 10. The Brooklyn native also averaged 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game, and his 70 steals ranked second on the team behind Simon. This time around, he will be counted on to help the Red Storm live up to its fourth-place ranking in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, the highest standing it has earned in head coach Chris Mullin's tenure. Across the Hudson River, Seton Hall was picked eighth among the ten teams as the Pirates begin life without the senior quartet of Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Ismael Sanogo. On the bright side for the Pirates, junior guard Myles Powell earned a spot on the preseason second team as he transitions into Kevin Willard's newest team leader.

As expected, Villanova was revealed as the consensus choice to win the conference, with Marquette second and Providence third. Following St. John's, Butler rounded out the top five, with Georgetown, Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton and DePaul completing the poll.

2018-19 Big East Conference Preseason Coaches' Poll
1) Villanova

2) Marquette

3) Providence

4) St. John's

5) Butler

6) Georgetown

7) Xavier

8) Seton Hall

9) Creighton

10) DePaul

2018-19 Big East Conference Preseason All-Conference Teams
Player of the Year: Shamorie Ponds, St. John's
Freshman of the Year (tie): David Duke, Providence; Jahvon Quinerly, Villanova

First Team
Kamar Baldwin, Butler (unanimous selection)
Jessie Govan, Georgetown (unanimous selection)
Markus Howard, Marquette (unanimous selection)
Eric Paschall, Villanova (unanimous selection)
Alpha Diallo, Providence

Second Team (in alphabetical order)
Phil Booth, Villanova
Sam Hauser, Marquette
Myles Powell, Seton Hall
Justin Simon. St. John's
Max Strus, DePaul

Honorable Mentions
Martin Krampelj, Creighton
Naji Marshall, Xavier