Sunday, October 27, 2019

NEC media day notebook

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK — Everyone is undefeated.

That is one of the highlights of these get-togethers and a reason everyone seems upbeat. 

Media day. 

The Northeast Conference held its own on Wednesday at Barclays Center with head coaches and players from each of the eleven member schools in attendance. Naturally, that  feeling of optimism was significantly in the air. No matter what the prognosticators say, there is a positive vibe all around.

While LIU got the nod from the league coaches as the preseason favorite, the general consensus is that five or six teams can break through and cut down the nets in March. Parity was the key word tossed about as NEC coaches discussed the race. Saint Francis University coach Rob Krimmel was even more specific, noting how his top-seeded Red Flash barely got past eighth-seeded Bryant in the NEC quarterfinals this past March. Central Connecticut coach Donyell Marshall feels the foundation of these preseason polls is returning players.

“A lot of times, they look at rosters and see how you finished last year and how many starters and players are coming back,” Marshall noted. “The newcomers are often overlooked and those freshmen or transfers can have an impact.” Marshall’s outlook is positive, as seven freshmen enter the program for this season. He did add the obvious: The Blue Devils want to surprise. How they do it is another matter. 

“Last year (a long 11-20), we had too many people trying to win by themselves,” he recounted. “This year, we are trying to share the ball on offense and try to play as a team.” With all the new faces on board, that is a challenge Marshall seems to embrace. 

Jared Grasso is not against March Madness, he just embraces the whole picture. Very often, we hear about the first week in March when discussing the Northeast Conference. As a one-bid league, it comes down to those all-important conference postseason tournament games.  Grasso is not totally sold on that concept. The Bryant coach realizes the importance of the tournament, but there is much more.

“For us, we try to emphasize being ready for every game,” Grasso said, “be at our best for each game, not be concerned about a few months later. You want to play your best late in the season, but we do not lose sight of now. For us, we want to be at our best when we face Brown on November 5.”

As is the case in recent seasons, Sacred Heart will play an uptempo style. That approach is something Anthony Latina enjoys and has employed during his days at the Connecticut school. Entering this campaign, Latina has an added weapon capable of allowing the Pioneers to run the NEC table, a serious rim protector in 6-foot-10 senior Jare’l Spellman, a shotblocker with game-changing abilities. 

“Early last season we really didn’t use him as well as we could,” Latina admitted. “The second half of the season, he came up big for us. This year, right from the beginning, we know what he’s going to do.” Spellman had an 11.9 percent block percentage, good for twelfth nationally in KenPom ratings.

FDU gained a few first place votes in the coaches’ poll. A repeat could be tough for the reigning champions, with the losses of Mike Holloway up front and Darnell Edge in the backcourt. This is far from a rebuild and the Knights will be a tough out. Coach Greg Herenda does have a good mix of veterans and new faces. Jahlil Jenkins is back at the guard spot. Another major cog for FDU will be Kaleb Bishop. At 6-foot-8, the senior forward is an inside presence especially on the boards. Bishop also has the versatility to step out and bury the three. Beyond those tangibles, Herenda is looking for leadership from  Bishop.  

“Senior leadership is vital,” Herenda said. “We have a lot of young players and look for Kaleb to provide that direction and leadership.” 

On the FDU schedule are non-conference meetings at Notre Dame and Kentucky. 

“We played Arizona my first year here,” Herenda said. “We have always gone out of conference for some tough competition. It’s a challenge and gets us ready for the start of conference play in January.” 

Elaborating on the last point,  a common denominator was member schools beefing up their non-league slates. And it is not about collecting a hefty check. 

“We will open at Georgetown and also play Kentucky,” said Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad. “We are not there for a payday. We are going in with our best effort. It’s great to have our kids get exposure to that level of a program, but we are going in to run what we normally run and we will be there to compete.”

LIU will visit national championship runner-up Texas Tech in November. 

“That’s great scheduling,” laughed Derek Kellogg, head coach of the newly-christened Sharks. “Actually, it’s a great barometer to see how we stand facing a Final Four team. It gives us a great indication of where we stand as a team.”

Defense was another priority among the coaches’ discussions. To a coach, they all prominently mentioned defense in their team assessments. 

“Defense is always our first concern,” said Wagner’s Bashir Mason, “this year more than ever, as we have so many players to replace.” 

While Mason realizes the Seahawks will dop a bit from the rarefied air of contenders he did add, “we want you to play very well if you are going to beat us.”

Many of the coaches favor the traditional man-to-man defense. A newcomer to the league, Joey Gallo of Merrimack is sold on the zone. 

“We play an extended 2-3 zone,” he said. “We want to come out, be aggressive and challenge the three-point line. We do not want you to be comfortable running your offense.”

“Right now, our practice are very competitive. The way we want to play is uptempo on both ends of the floor. We are still working on that and by mid-conference, I expect us to be a very good full court pressing team.” - Derek Kellogg, LIU

“We are good in some areas — not as good in some — but I think we can be a better team. We will spread things out more this year. Rather than one shooter, we have several that can hit those shots.” - Glenn Braica, St. Francis Brooklyn

“So far, we have had good competition in practice. Each day, guys come to work with intensity. I think a lot of that is due to Josh Williams. He raises the overall intensity level with his presence.” - Andy Toole, Robert Morris

NEC Media Day Photo Gallery

Photos from the Northeast Conference's 2019 men's and women's basketball media day, on October 23, 2019 at Barclays Center:

(All photos by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)\

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Previewing the 2019-20 MAAC season

Fresh off record fourth straight MAAC championship, Iona enters 2019-20 as prohibitive choice to extend its dynasty behind four returning starters. (Photo by Jaden Daly/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

On the heels of one of the more unpredictable seasons in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference history, order was somewhat restored one year ago, as Iona emerged from a 2-9 start to win ten consecutive games and power its way through the MAAC Tournament to claim an unprecedented fourth consecutive conference championship.

With four starters returning and a glut of depth usually not seen around New Rochelle, the Gaels are forwardly positioned to begin the 2019-20 campaign, which culminates in a new locale, as the MAAC shifts its postseason tournament to Atlantic City for the next three seasons. Iona hit a jackpot of sorts when head coach Tim Cluess, once considered among the candidates to replace Chris Mullin at St. John's when the Red Storm suddenly found itself in need of a new leader this past April, decided to remove himself from consideration and remain in command of his budding dynasty, and should yet again be the class of the league behind a well-rounded core anchored by senior forward E.J. Crawford. The Connecticut native enters his final go-round in maroon and gold in the best shape of his career, having lost 15 pounds as part of a summer conditioning program, and has committed himself to becoming a better all-around talent while the likes of Asante Gist, Tajuan Agee and Ben Perez all return to a rotation that could go ten-deep on most nights, and that does not even account for the possibility of incoming transfers Isaiah Washington and Mo Thiam potentially receiving waivers to play immediately. Behind the machine stands a group of hungry programs determined to play spoiler and break the stranglehold that the New York metropolitan area holds upon the conference, with eight of the last nine league champions hailing from, or just outside, the city limits of the Big Apple.

Siena returned to the forefront of the MAAC last season behind the unexpected outburst of production from first team all-conference guard and Rookie of the Year Jalen Pickett, who now heads into his sophomore campaign as a realistic threat to be the Saints' first conference Player of the Year since Ryan Rossiter captured the distinction in 2011. Evan Fisher has graduated and assistant coach Carmen Maciariello has moved one chair over following the departure of Jamion Christian to George Washington, but the Capital Region should still be able to boast a winning program as Siena blends experienced incumbents with an intriguing freshman class and two transfers in Donald Carey and Elijah Burns, both of whom sat out last year.

Rider appears to be the consensus second choice behind Iona on paper, with four returning starters much like the Gaels. Senior point guard Stevie Jordan remains one of the premier ball handlers in the MAAC, and Dimencio Vaughn continues to prove himself as a dynamic scorer. Up front, the pairing of Frederick Scott and Tyere Marshall should make a name for itself as one of the top front lines in the league. The concern for Kevin Baggett, however, remains the same, that of the program's inability to advance past the quarterfinals in March since the head coach assumed the reins in 2012.

One program who may very well take the next step could be Quinnipiac. The Bobcats will need to replace the reigning MAAC Player of the Year in Cameron Young, but the pairing of Rich Kelly and Jacob Rigoni will take Baker Dunleavy's squad a long way. Redshirt freshmen Savion Lewis and Matt Balanc only augment a cadre of guard depth that also includes a budding star in sophomore combo guard Tyrese Williams, and a deep freshman class ensures that the future will be bright in Hamden for years to come. Monmouth, who left the Northeast Conference alongside Quinnipiac to join the MAAC in 2013, is primed for a similar uptick as King Rice and the Hawks return arguably one of the conference's top backcourts in juniors Ray Salnave and Deion Hammond, the latter of whom may be flying under the radar somewhat after a promising rookie season was followed by a sophomore year that was overshadowed in some ways by Salnave's transcendent play down the stretch.

Manhattan enters the final year of a prosperous decade in what is seemingly a make-or-break season for Steve Masiello, who begins his ninth year at the helm with perhaps the most returning talent he has ever had in Riverdale, bringing everyone back with the exception of graduated seniors Tom Capuano and Samson Usilo. A healthy Pauly Paulicap, back at 100 percent after missing nearly all of last year due to injury, will enable Tyler Reynolds to play his natural small forward position as Paulicap and Warren Williams protect the paint, while Samir Stewart and Bud Mack shoulder the majority of responsibility in the Jaspers' backcourt.

Canisius will need to replace both Isaiah Reese and Takal Molson after the former was suspended during last season before ultimately turning pro, while the latter decided to transfer to Seton Hall, where the Buffalo native will most likely replace Myles Powell when he regains his eligibility next season. Senior stalwart Malik Johnson, perhaps the most impactful player in the conference that not enough people are talking about, will have a chance to be a headliner for Reggie Witherspoon this season, and the Golden Griffins have proven to consistently get the most out of their supporting cast. Look for this year to continue that trend. Saint Peter's loses a pair of program cornerstones in Davauhnte Turner and Sam Idowu, and burgeoning big man KC Ndefo is no longer on the roster, so year two for Shaheen Holloway could be somewhat of a rebuilding campaign. The Peacocks do get Cameron Jones back for a fifth year, and Penn State transfer Nazeer Bostick should get mounds of opportunities to play right away, instilling Philadelphia-honed toughness into the young Saint Peter's roster. Twins Fousseyni and Hassan Drame should see significant minutes right away as well, giving each of the New York products instant chances to live up to their hype.

Fairfield and Niagara begin new eras this season, as the Stags turn to longtime Steve Pikiell assistant Jay Young to lead the way, finally earning a well-deserved shot to run a program of his own. Young was dealt a blow when Neftali Alvarez decided to transfer to Mercer in the offseason, but Jesus Cruz and Landon Taliaferro return to anchor a deceptively strong stable of guards. The Purple Eagles fly into the year with a household name in Western New York, as Patrick Beilein -- son of newly-minted Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John, and to those of a certain age, not completely removed from his playing days at West Virginia -- embarks upon his maiden voyage as a Division I head coach with senior point guard James Towns in his arsenal along with sophomores Marcus Hammond and Raheem Solomon. Finally, Marist essentially starts from scratch after Brian Parker graduated in May, but John Dunne retains sophomore Darius Hines while also gaining Matt Turner, a 6-foot-3 guard who sat out last year after transferring from Santa Clara.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Iona - For the past three years, the introductory video on the scoreboards at the Hynes Athletics Center has begun with the playing of WWE superstar Bobby Roode's entrance music, "Glorious Domination." If all goes according to plan, the Gaels will be the MAAC's version of Booker T, five-time conference champions under Tim Cluess.

2) Quinnipiac - If Rich Kelly comes anything close to his sophomore year, he'll be a Player of the Year contender come March. A healthy Kevin Marfo and graduate transfer Aaron Falzon give the Bobcats more interior depth than in recent years, and Baker Dunleavy boasts the deepest backcourt in the conference.

3) Rider - Experience will carry the Broncs a long way, but all eyes will be on Kevin Baggett in Atlantic City if the program fails to escape the quarterfinals again. Bench productivity outside of Tyrei Randall, who is back after redshirting last year, is also a major concern.

4) Siena - Jalen Pickett has a tough act to follow after his dominant rookie season, but Donald Carey and Elijah Burns -- along with highly-touted freshman Gary Harris, Jr. -- will ease the burden as Carmen Maciariello starts his head coaching career with a promising future upon which to build around.

5) Monmouth - The Hawks will most likely be better than this rating four months from now. Ray Salnave is a first team all-MAAC talent if he can remain consistent, and Deion Hammond is, quite possibly, the most underrated player in the league. Look for Mustapha Traore and Sam Ibiezugbe to finally emerge from the shadows this year and become serviceable big men for King Rice to rely upon.

6) Manhattan - Steve Masiello brings back the most experience of any team he has ever had. The last time he did that, the Jaspers cut down a net and nearly upset Louisville in the NCAA Tournament five years ago. This year's iteration of Manhattan basketball has a lot of work to do to get to that level, but a return to the MAAC's upper echelon is certainly attainable for this group.

7) Canisius - No one talks about Malik Johnson enough. That will change this season, as the most impactful point guard in the conference gets a chance to be the main attraction in Buffalo. Jalanni White and Scott Hitchon will become the latest in a long line of ancillary pieces to become targeted options in Reggie Witherspoon's arsenal.

8) Saint Peter's - Losing Davauhnte Turner and Sam Idowu will be tough for the Peacocks to overcome, but Shaheen Holloway has already proven his ability to get a lot out of a little.

9) Niagara - Year one under Patrick Beilein does not look as imposing as initially thought, as James Towns, Marcus Hammond and Raheem Solomon lead a team that should be able to pick off a couple of teams ahead of them on any given night. Size is going to be a concern, however.

10) Fairfield - Jay Young will undoubtedly change the culture for the Stags, going from a run-and-gun outfit to a more defense-oriented group. Landon Taliaferro could be one of the MAAC's leading scorers and sharpshooters once again, and that will only help this team moving forward.

11) Marist - John Dunne admitted he would essentially be starting over in year two, as he inherited a senior-laden roster after moving to Poughkeepsie from Saint Peter's. This season will see its share of bumps in the road for the Red Foxes, but at the end of the day, it will serve Dunne and Marist well for next year.

Friday, October 11, 2019

JP's 4 Thoughts: Big things ahead for Seton Hall in 2019-20

Myles Powell was all smiles Thursday as he was voted Big East Preseason Player of the Year shortly after his Seton Hall team topped conference's preseason poll. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)

NEW YORK -- It seems like only yesterday that Kevin Willard was introduced as the head coach at Seton Hall in 2010. 

Hot on the heels of replacing Bobby Gonzalez, Willard was tasked with returning the Pirates to prominence in the Big East Conference.

Heading into 2019-20, his tenth season in South Orange, the fruits of his labor appear to have come in. At the Big East's annual media day Thursday at Madison Square Garden, Seton Hall was picked to win the conference title by the league's coaches for the first time since 2000, getting half of the first-place votes and edging out perennial favorite Villanova. Superstar guard Myles Powell was also named the conference's Preseason Player of the Year. It is the first time the Pirates have swept the top honors in the preseason poll since 1992, and expectations are officially high in South Orange this winter.

Here are four thoughts from the World's Most Famous Arena:

1. SuperPowell

With the expectations now placed upon both him and the team, I asked Powell how they would handle them, and he was quick to point out that the rigors of the Big East haven't changed despite the higher prognosis.

"We're taking it like we did last year," he said. "I'm telling these guys that the preseason (poll) doesn't mean anything. Last year, we were (picked) eighth. This year, we have the target on our back, and we're going to get everyone's best game. Last year, the conference was decided by one or two games, so we've got to be ready for the battles."  

It's easy to get caught up in the immediate future for Powell and the Pirates, but there have also been moments that have brought the journey over the last four years full circle for the Trenton native, such as when he spotted himself on a highway billboard recently, and pulled over to snap a picture for Instagram.

"That's a dream come true," Powell said. "Especially coming from where I come from. When you're driving around, you always see billboards, and that one kind of caught me off guard. When I saw it, I kind of got teary-eyed, with where I come from, just being a kid from Trenton and to come out and do all this, playing with the players I played with, and for me to be the one who's up on the billboard, that means so much to me."

So, what can we expect for an encore? Powell says a more complete performance.

"Being a leader and making plays for my teammates," he said. "I learned so much playing for the USA in the Pan-Am Games this summer that you don't have to just score the ball to be effective on the court. I can go out and score 35 points, but everyone knows I can do that. If I go out and score 12-13 points, but with nine assists and a couple rebounds and we're winning, that means more to me than just going out and doing what everyone knows I can do."

Considering the maturation of the supporting cast around Powell, that could definitely take place this year. Speaking of which...

2. Sandro Slides Over

The best basketball teams tend to have a balance between inside and outside play. Terry Dehere had Jerry Walker and Anthony Avent. Shaheen Holloway had Samuel Dalembert. Isaiah Whitehead and Khadeen Carrington (and, to a lesser extent, Powell) had Angel Delgado.

Sandro Mamukelashvili could turn into that compliment to Powell this year. Averaging nearly double figures in scoring and rebounding last season while also having to bang with players who edged him out in overall size, Mamu now gets a chance to move back to his natural power forward position, which could allow him to show off more of the stretch-four style game that he was known for. That, in turn, could boost his confidence level, which he admitted would wane at times last year.

"I'm a lot more comfortable right now because Coach is telling me I'm going to have a big year," Mamukelashvili said. "He gives me more confidence, my teammates are giving me more confidence, telling me to keep shooting the ball and not think about my mistakes. I feel like I've grown up mentally. I was getting down on myself (last year), but now I feel more comfortable on the court. I feel like having that trust from my teammates and coaches, and playing my normal position, will give me a boost this year."

Confidence breeds consistency, and with not one, but two shot-blocking presences occupying the paint this year alongside Mamukelashvili in Florida State transfer Ike Obiagu and returning senior Romaro Gill, consistent play from the versatile Mamu would make Seton Hall a very dangerous team.

3. Willard's Bond

The bond between Kevin Willard and his star player is one that feels uncommon, even given that there are lots of coach-player relationships that stand the test of time. When Powell was going through the process of testing the NBA Draft waters this summer, Willard dropped everything and flew out to California to attend his pro day. Both men acknowledged the impact that had on Powell today, and you don't do those types of things without a special connection.

"Every day in practice, he has a level of enthusiasm that's contagious," Willard said of Powell as a player. "You love coaching a kid that loves to be in the gym, you love to coach a kid that wants the big moment. As a person, we've been through a lot together. We've grown together, and I think that's why he is where he is, and that's why our program is where it is.

Powell expounded even more on his bond with his coach.

"I didn't think we could get any closer, but I was wrong," Powell said. "This summer, with helping me through the (NBA Draft) process, with him taking a month away from his family in Peru at the Pan-Am Games with me and Myles (Cale), along with other kids in the Big East, it just showed how much he really cares about the conference and the kids he's dealing with. Coach knows I have his back, and I know he has mine."

"I wouldn't be the Myles Powell I am today if it wasn't for Kevin Willard," he added. "None of this would be possible if it wasn't for him believing in the fat kid that was 250 pounds three years ago."

4. Don't Sleep On Shadeen

The Pirates' men's basketball team isn't the only program that had a spotlight on it today in New York City. Seton Hall women's basketball was picked third in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, and for the first time since 1988, the Pirates also had the Preseason Player of the Year in senior forward Shadeen Samuels. 

Samuels led the Big East in scoring last year en route to being named the Most Improved Player in the league, and that gives Seton Hall both the men's and women's Preseason Players of the Year, a rare feat indeed and something that had not been accomplished in the Big East since 2003.

"I was so excited for her," head coach Tony Bozzella said. "She had to work for all of this, from averaging four points a game as a freshman and not playing in some games, then averaging seven-and-a-half points as a sophomore and going through a lot of ups and downs to where she is today. And she's not just a great offensive player, I think she's the best defensive player in the league, so for her to get the award shows that people have acknowledged how good she is. I give so much credit and the staff for working individually with her. It's easy to say, 'oh, just get better,' but she really has gotten better."

The Pirates as a program have made the postseason in five out of the last six years, building a foundation under the charismatic Bozzella that shows in the development of a player like Samuels, who was relatively unheralded out of high school. That type of development takes time and effort, and that's not lost on Powell.

"Whenever I go back to get extra shots or do something extra, I always see Shadeen right next to me," Powell said. "If it's me going to get extra treatment, or me staying in the weight room a little longer, I always see her. Just to have that in the Seton Hall family, that means a lot to the university. Props to her, too, because she deserves it."

The admiration of the two star players is also mutual between the two programs.

"I'm a big Myles Powell fan," Bozzella said. "I walked in the gym at a quarter to seven this morning and he's shooting. It's media day, he's got to get ready! And he's so respectful, he's such a nice young man. Kevin has not only recruited a bunch of great basketball players, but the kids are really great. They come to our games, our practice, they hold the door for me, they were respectful to my daughter when she was here, they're just a nice bunch of young men. I'm excited for them to do well this year."

Seton Hall men's basketball opens its season on November 5 on campus at Walsh Gymnasium against Wagner at 6:30 p.m., while the women open their campaign the following night at 7:00 against Sacred Heart. If all plays out according to the newfound preseason hype, this could be a winter to remember at The Hall.

Big East Media Day Photo Gallery

Photos from Big East Men's and Women's Basketball Media Day, on October 10, 2019:

(All photos by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Seton Hall picked to win Big East for first time since 1992-93, Powell voted Preseason Player of the Year

Myles Powell's senior season begins with Big East Preseason Player of the Year honors as his Seton Hall team was voted consensus choice to win conference for first time in nearly three decades. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

NEW YORK -- Before it even began, the 2019-20 season was already one in which the proverbial bar for Seton Hall would be raised to a level rivaling the Prudential Center rafters.

The Pirates got a preliminary firsthand look at the sky-high expectations Thursday morning.

For just the third time in program history and first since the 2000-01 season, Seton Hall was selected as the consensus No. 1 team in the Big East Conference preseason coaches' poll, receiving 77 points to pace the field, one clear of perennial league powerhouse Villanova, which enters a retooling phase on the heels of two national championships in four years and the graduations of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. The return of senior guard Myles Powell after a dominant junior campaign, coupled with the emergence of fellow senior Quincy McKnight; as well as juniors Sandro Mamukelashvili and Myles Cale, has Seton Hall primed for what could very well be a banner season in a year where the NCAA Tournament's East Regional -- a definite goal for this iteration of the Pirates -- returns to Madison Square Garden, a second home of sorts for the program in the latter of half of this decade.

In addition to being revealed as the pick to win the Big East, the Pirates also garnered further recognition in the form of Powell being named the conference's Preseason Player of the Year as he embarks upon his coda to a career that has taken root as one of the greatest tenures in and around South Orange through just three seasons. Powell was the driving force behind Seton Hall going from an eighth-place prognostication at this time last year to its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, galvanizing the Pirates down the stretch on the way to averaging 23.1 points per game and ultimately earning the Haggerty Award, bestowed annually upon the best player in the New York area, as voted by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association. The Trenton native now seeks to become just the third Seton Hall player to be named Big East Player of the Year at season's end, where he -- should he capture the honor -- would join program greats Dan Callandrillo (1981-82) and Terry Dehere (1992-93) as recipients of this illustrious accolade.

Certain to be ranked among the Top 25 teams in the nation when the preseason polls are officially released later this month, Seton Hall will face a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule as Kevin Willard enters his tenth season at the helm, a frequent occurrence in recent years. The Pirates' latest non-league slate, though, headlined by a November 14 showdown with potential No. 1 Michigan State in the Gavitt Tipoff Games, may be the most daunting in program history, let alone in Willard's tenure. Marquee matchups against Maryland and Iowa State are also on tap, as well as a trip to the Bahamas to compete in the Battle 4 Atlantis, where Seton Hall could face off against the likes of Gonzaga and North Carolina depending on how the Pirates fare in the tournament bracket.