Wednesday, July 1, 2020

UConn’s Big East rebirth a win not only for Huskies, but conference at large

Geno Auriemma and UConn finally return to Big East after seven-year absence Wednesday. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

July 1 marks a new fiscal year for many corporations. The books are closed at the end of the June 30 business day. July gives the opportunity to start anew. 

In the Big East Conference, the first day of July brings in a new beginning, a welcome back to a familiar face and charter member from decades back. The University of Connecticut is now back in the fold. The men and women’s basketball programs will have an impact from day one.

Here is a look at what the presence of the Huskies’ women’s team will mean to the conference, and to UConn as well:

BACKGROUND

Geno Auriemma arrived in Storrs in August of 1985. After a 12-15 first year, his only losing season at UConn, the program turned the corner and never looked back. This is a program with 19 Final Four appearances, 11 national championships, countless accolades, and a number of outstanding players having passed through its ranks. 
    
Auriemma has never apologized for a success regarded as beyond unprecedented. The UConn mentor has said others are free to use the model and challenge the Huskies. Recruiting is a major part of the story, no doubt. Beyond securing outstanding talent is a task of molding it into a cohesive unit, a unit with everyone buying into the philosophy and accepting their designated roles, not an easy feat and even more remarkable considering it’s been that way — and a big part of the run — for a good three decades-plus in the Nutmeg State.

During their time (31 years) in the Big East, the Huskies captured 19 regular season championships. The first year ending with a conference postseason title was 1983. The Huskies virtually turned the postseason tournament into a UConn Invitational, winning 18 titles. The last seven years saw the Huskies cut through American Athletic Conference competition like a hot knife through butter. Seven years, seven regular season and postseason titles. 

Opponents will be circling the dates for their meetings with UConn. There was a time the opposition did the same, but for different reasons. 

“We always checked the date we faced UConn,” said ESPN’s Doris Burke (Doris Sable in her playing days). She was an all conference guard for Providence in the mid-1980s, and she recalled, “UConn was not very good. It was virtually an automatic victory.” A win and a chance to pad personal stats. No more. 

It is safe to say conference opponents will still be circling the dates they meet the Huskies, but with a different mindset than that of Burke and her Providence teammates. No automatic wins over a weak link, but rather the opportunity to get a marquee victory, by virtue of upset,  over an established national power, not to mention, a succinct reminder to bring your A-game — or better — on those nights. 

PERCEPTION 

UConn left the Big East following the 2012-13 season. Louisville and Notre Dame did as well, relocating to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Suddenly, the powerful Big East was minus several Fortune 500-caliber programs. In addition, consistently strong teams the likes of West Virginia, Syracuse, South Florida and Rutgers were also exiting. The conference regrouped, featuring several respectable programs to form a 10-member group that was competitive, but on the national scene often, and unfairly, overlooked. 

UConn’s return changes that. Now, there is the presence of a consistently dominant program capable of continuing regular trips to college basketball’s final weekend. That is a situation that can only help, as the conference would stand to have a presence and recognition as postseason play progresses. 

COMPETITION

As noted, and not surprising, UConn’s return will mean a significant competitive step up. It is safe to say the Huskies will be a preseason favorite in the Big East. There will be challenges. DePaul, Seton Hall and St. John’s all played UConn in recent seasons and are keenly aware of what to expect. For all the other member schools, it is an exciting time. Those in programs as Providence and Butler, working their way up the ranks, will get an up-close look at what makes a perennial national contender tick. For all teams, it is an opportunity to face a program of legendary status at least twice a year, and if you can knock them off on that given night, an instant boost of credibility and gravitas.

RECRUITING

The Big East maintains a solid reputation of strong programs, strong academics and much better than average exposure in the media. Want another selling point? Telling a prospective student-athlete that she will have the opportunity to test herself at least twice a year against a perennial Top 5 program.  

FANS

Each year is a guaranteed visit from UConn, and outstanding draw, though this season will hinge upon how COVID-19 plays out. Personnel, as usual, is impressive. For the upcoming season, Megan Walker is no longer on board. A junior, Walker left Storrs early to enter the WNBA Draft, and was chosen ninth overall by the New York Liberty. Coming to an arena near you, the Huskies are led by Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, joined by the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class (behind Oregon) per ESPN, featuring highly-touted freshman Paige Bueckers. On the sidelines, the ubiquitous Auriemma will begin his 36th year at the helm. UConn recruits nationally. Looking at it closer, Philadelphia or New York-based talent weighing a big decision may find the Big East, with its competition and geography, a bit more appealing than UConn’s prior conference address. 

Auriemma knows his group will be the target. The UConn coach relishes the scenario, and night in and night out, will get everyone’s best shot. The school is back in the conference where, as previously noted, it enjoyed charter membership. In the Huskies’ most recent address, rivalries were virtually nonexistent, as the AAC was a geographic patchwork quilt of members. In the Big East, there are a number of schools the Huskies enjoyed years of competitive rivalry with. Those schools are not too far geographically from Storrs, giving alums a chance to see their Huskies without making the trip to the Nutmeg State. Seton Hall, St. John’s, Providence and Villanova are a few. In recent seasons, DePaul has provided opposition, as Auriemma and Blue Demons head coach Doug Bruno are very good friends who coached together on United States national teams.  
    
For the last few years, the Big East tournament has been in the midwest, notably Chicago’s Wintrust Arena. With UConn’s return, the conference can head back east on a rotating basis, as UConn has Hartford’s XL Center and Mohegan Sun Arena at its disposal.

For the Big East and UConn, July 1 signals not a beginning, but a rebirth. UConn should never have left the Big East. That is in the past. The issue is closed. After seven years the Huskies are, as the Maxine Nightingale song says, “right back where we started from.” 

For both parties, it’s great.

For UConn, Big East return is truly a family reunion

Some of UConn's greatest memories, such as 2011 Big East championship above, will be rekindled Wednesday when Huskies’ return to their longtime conference becomes official. (Photo by UConn Athletic Communications)

Martin and Lewis. Carson and McMahon. Abbott and Costello.

Connecticut and the Big East.

Some things just cannot be mentioned without the other, and Wednesday morning, the latter two are once again reunited after a seven-year divorce brought about by football and its tendency to drive the bus in athletic spending. Yet down the long and winding road traveled since 2013, the American Athletic Conference is all but a distant memory now as UConn has given its fans — and on a larger scale, the college basketball world — reason to smile in the form of the Huskies’ return to the Big East stage as the COVID-19 pandemic completes a fourth month of wreaking havoc on the country.

“We’re very excited about it,” assistant coach Tom Moore, now in his second stint at UConn after spending 13 years on Jim Calhoun’s staff before becoming the head coach at Quinnipiac in 2007, said of UConn’s long-awaited homecoming. “I think the coaching staff is more excited about it than our players, because it hasn’t hit the players yet as to what this will mean. I think they’re going to realize it when they start to see the difference in crowds, God willing that we have crowds this year, and of course, the first Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. I don’t think they’ll realize the enormity of this move until we play a couple of Big East games.”

“They’re going to feel how important this is to our fans, because our fans are going to go crazy about this. Our fans are nuts about this and how excited they are, and how anxious they’ve been for this to happen for such a long time. I’ve talked to so many fans I knew from the first time I was here, that I’ve sort of reconnected with since I’ve been back, and the first thing out of their mouth was, ‘When can we go back to the Big East?’ The guys that are from New York, New Jersey, the DMV, what they don’t realize is there are no pro sports teams in Connecticut. UConn is THE pro sports team. I can’t wait for our guys to experience that. It’s going to be much bigger than they can imagine.”

While UConn’s players are experiencing newfound territory, the coaches guiding them are not. Head coach Dan Hurley played in the Big East at Seton Hall, Moore helped develop all-conference talent the likes of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Caron Butler, Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor during his first tenure in Storrs, Taliek Brown won a national championship in 2004 — and hit an iconic half-court shot in the Big East tournament two years prior, and Kimani Young briefly served on Norm Roberts’ staff at St. John’s in the late 2000s. But for all the experience in the league on the Huskies’ leadership group, the evolution of the conference since the Big East’s reformation in 2013 has made an even stronger impression.

“All of us coaches, when we have an off night, we’re college basketball fans for that night, and it always seemed like there was one or two great Big East games on every night,” said Moore, highlighting the Big East’s television contract with Fox Sports. “They do a really good job, I think, of making the Big East a really well-packaged product. You’re watching that great game on Wednesday, and they’re talking about the doubleheader they have on Saturday. That’s impressive to me, and from a basketball standpoint, the thing that I’ve been impressed with is the schools in the Midwest that they’ve added.”

“They’ve all brought something of value to the league, and that’s why I think it’s one of the best basketball conferences in the country. So even though we lost great programs when the football thing hit, we also gained some really good basketball schools that are more than holding up their end of the bargain.“

Where Butler, Creighton and Xavier have made immediate impacts upon joining the Big East, UConn is positioned to do the same in its second act. Already projected as a top-half team in the league, the Huskies’ mix of veterans and youth, led by potential all-conference guard James Bouknight, is a lethal combination.

“I’m glad we’re doing this in year three rather than year one or year two,” Moore admitted with regard to the conference realignment. “We just feel, internally, much more ready for something like this now than we would have been when we just got here. We just feel like it’s more of our program. From top to bottom, we have a little more of our culture imprinted and stamped on the program. We’re young and old. We’ve got some older players who’ve been around and are going to help us a lot like Josh Carlton, Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley, but we have some really exciting young players, too, James Bouknight, Akok Akok, Andre Jackson, R.J. Cole, Jalen Gaffney and Adama Sanogo.”

“We’ve got really talented young guys who are going to have to grow up quick, but I do think — for the first time — we’ve got real quality depth, and we also have a mix of old and young. We have more talent up and down the roster and more balance, but I think it’s going to be eye-opening. It’ll be a real test for both our old and young players.”

As the time draws closer for a return to familiar surroundings, the celebration of reaching the promised land, for the time being, takes on greater precedence, and rightfully so. With the past having been a glorious time to be a UConn fan, and with greater things bound to arrive in the future, there really is no time like the present to usher the Huskies back to the Big East.

“People don’t realize it,” Moore reiterated. “People don’t realize how crazy our fans are. They take over, they all come down on the train and they all skip work. We’re their pro team and it’s their chance to shine. It really is neat. You’ll see guys my age with their fathers, and you’ll see a 50-year-old guy with a 75-year-old father, and they’ll be like, ‘We’ve been going for 30 years! I used to take him when he was a baby!’ It’s just something that sort of bonds Connecticut people.”

Monday, June 1, 2020

Fordham women’s basketball: A tempo-free review

Bre Cavanaugh displays lockdown defense that has become calling card for Fordham under Stephanie Gaitley. (Photo by Karen Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

Fordham’s final record stood at 21-11, and had COVID-19 not shut the season down, there would have been at least another game, maybe more. 

The Rams’ women’s basketball team was defeated by Dayton in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament semifinal, ending its season abruptly before the coronavirus pandemic did the same across the country days later. With the season playing on, coach Stephanie Gaitley’s group would have been in line for a WNIT bid and possible opening-round home game. A closer tempo-free look gives some insight of the team’s characteristics, with all numbers provided courtesy of Her Hoop Stats.
   
With a Gaitley team, the first thing you look at on the tempo-free side is defensive efficiency. For this past 2019-20 season, the Rams showed an 84, an outstanding margin good for 39th among 353 Division I teams. Fordham’s offensive efficiency checked in at 93, a respectable mark placing 144th on a national scale and of little surprise with the offense, as a few new players were on board and — as noted — defense is the staple of the women’s program at Rose Hill. The three most recent seasons illustrate this, with the Rams recording defensive efficiencies of 86, 87 and 88 in 2018-19, 2017-18 and 2016-17, respectively.

Fordham did not shoot that well overall, measuring only a 45 percent effective field goal clip. From 3-point range, the Rams shot 36 percent while recording a 50 percent mark inside the arc. A significant statistic was only 14 percent of their points came at the foul line. Fordham was unable to draw a lot of fouls in its offense, but when the Rams did, they cashed in to the tune of an 80 percent rate. Once again, in this case, you could live — to a degree — with the numbers. On defense, opponents shot an effective field goal percentage of 41, with Fordham allowing just 40 percent inside the arc and only 30 from distance. From the line, the opposition scored just 17 percent of its points. Fordham did not get to the line as much as wanted, but also kept opponents off it quite well. 

The turnover rate was 16 percent, a good number as teams strive to stay under 20. Of added note, this was a  significant number, as Gaitley was breaking two freshman guards into the Rams’ rotation. On defense, the number was 18 percent, indicative of the fact that Fordham did not live defensively on turning the opposition over.

Rebounding was on the minus side. The Rams’ offensive rebounding percentage was 27, while the opponents checked in at 28 percent. A minus-1 differential is not desirable, nor in this case is it disastrous. Here, it was rather a case of Fordham not getting many second opportunities while limiting opponents from converting their own putbacks.

This was a relatively young team needing time to develop. Not one senior was among the leaders in usage. Bre Cavanaugh, a redshirt junior, led the way with a 29 percent rate. Kendell Heremaia, a junior, checked in at 26 percent. Freshman point guard Anna DeWolfe (22 percent) and sophomore Kaitlyn Downey (21.5) followed. 

Fordham was a middle-of-the-road field goal shooting team. The Rams did not get a great deal of second chances, yet all that was offset by an outstanding turnover rate. They kept turnovers at a minimum. Cavanaugh, the team’s leading scorer (19.5 PPG), counted on as a first option especially in the clutch, checked in with an excellent turnover rate of just 5 percent. Defense, as noted, was the staple of Fordham’s success, not a full-court pressing variety but the type locking you down in half-court settings and often forcing a contested and/or unfavorable attempt as the shot clock  drained. 

Something that cannot be measured in numbers was resolve, the willingness to buy into what the staff was emphasizing. The Rams started 0-4. With a young team finding its way, that could spell trouble. Fordham never wavered, stayed together, promptly winning eight of its next nine before heading into A-10 play. They went 13-6 (including postseason) to finish third in conference play.

Next season, with everyone a year more experienced and under the tutelage of Gaitley and staff, winning ways should continue for the women at Rose Hill.

Monday, May 4, 2020

McGraw rides off into sunset after 33 years at Notre Dame

Muffet McGraw chats with Ray Floriani outside Notre Dame bus following Fighting Irish’s win over Fordham last November. (Photo by Karen Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

The news came as a complete surprise. 

On a sun-splashed weekday afternoon, the announcement was made: Muffet McGraw was stepping down after 33 years as head coach at Notre Dame. 

Instantly, a few thoughts came to mind. The Fighting Irish were coming off an uncharacteristically down year, finishing at 13-18. Their season ended in a 67-65 loss to a five-win Pittsburgh team in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament’s opening round. There was no March Madness. Had it come to pass, it certainly would not have included McGraw’s group. Despite the rough season, there was no hint of the coaching chair at South Bend even rising a degree on the proverbial thermometer.

Another thought came to pass on the difficulty of maintaining a top flight program these days. Notre Dame won the national championship in 2018 and was runner-up a year later. Regardless, the competition is increasingly tougher. UConn is not going away. The same could be said for Baylor and South Carolina. Mississippi State, whom the Irish defeated for the national title two years ago, lost coach Vic Schaefer. He’s now directing the Texas Longhorns, certain to eventually give Kim Mulkey’s Baylor Bears a run. Beyond the marquee programs, mid-majors these days are now getting better and providing more than early-round fodder for the higher seeds.

McGraw’s own conference, the ACC, is getting better each year. Louisville is an outstanding program. Jeff Walz’s Cardinals won the league, but were upset by Florida State in the tournament semifinals. North Carolina State went on to defeat the Seminoles in the final. In all, six schools won 20 or more games. With Courtney Banghart at North Carolina, expect her Tar Heels to improve on the 16-14 mark of her first year in Chapel Hill. Life is not easy on Tobacco Road.

After sizing up these thoughts and ideas one thing was certain: Muffet McGraw realized it is time. She directed the Irish program for 33 years. Her resume shows two national championships, 24 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, nine Final Fours and 936 victories. She began her career as an assistant at her alma mater, Saint Joseph’s, in Philadelphia, Then it was on to Lehigh as a head coach from 1982 through 1987. Even at an early stage in coaching, she inspired and empowered women. One such player, Cathy Engelbert, used that inspiration from those days in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to ultimately become commissioner of the WNBA. McGraw, bestowed many honors during her illustrious career, is a deserving Women’s and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.

The realization was there. The clock struck midnight. The late Al McGuire always spoke about the fact that you cannot coach forever. McGuire felt it should be tucked together in a certain timeline. That timeline varies per individual. For some, it can be a decade or less. For others, like McGraw and Mike Krzyzewski, who is still on the Duke sidelines, the measure comes in decades. For McGraw, this was it, a time to exit gracefully and pass the reins.

Notre Dame did the right thing not courting potential suitors.  Niele Ivey, the school’s logical and rightful choice, spent last season as a Memphis Grizzlies assistant. Prior to that, she spent a dozen years as McGraw’s assistant. A former standout for the Irish, Ivey’s selection was a prudent one to say the least.

Realizing her value as a teacher, Notre Dame wants to keep her involved in some way in that capacity, whether she will be involved with students or mentoring young coaches. Nothing is certain, except that she will still be an integral part of Notre Dame. Should Ivey need someone to consult or seek guidance, McGraw will be close at hand.

After defeating Fordham on opening night in November, McGraw spoke outside Rose Hill Gymnasium near the team bus. She emphasized the growing pains of a young team, having lost five players to the WNBA, not to mention a tough schedule in both non-conference and ACC play. She seemed eager to meet the challenge. Realistically, she had been in a year-to-year evaluation mode. The 13-18 final ledger was not the deciding factor, as Ivey will inherit an outstanding recruiting class that should have the Irish back in national conversation sooner rather than later. For McGraw, the time was now.

On that unseasonably warm November evening, Notre Dame had defeated Fordham, 60-55. The host Rams gave Notre Dame a battle, but fell short. For Fordham head coach Stephanie Gaitley, it was more than getting an outstanding program to venture into the Bronx for a road game, it was also a reunion of a longtime friend in the game and matchup of two coaches with Big 5 Philadelphia roots, McGraw from Saint Joseph’s and Gaitley, who played for Harry Perretta at Villanova.

“My memories with Muff go back over 40 years when we worked Cathy Rush’s camp together,” Gaitley said recently. Part of the camp featured pickup games among the counselors. Gaitley knew whom she wanted as a teammate.

“I loved being on her team because she was a pass-first point guard and tough defensively, so you knew you had a good chance to stay on the court,” Gaitley recalled. “Muff and I would run into each other a few times in the summer in Ocean City, New Jersey (Gaitley’s hometown). She certainly has left her mark on the game and will continue her legacy in a new role.” 

Pass-first and strong defensively are apt descriptions of her Notre Dame teams, fundamentally sound outfits that fought through adversity, as in 2018, when four ACL injuries did not deter the Irish from claiming a national championship. McGraw’s teams were unselfish and sound, which comes as little surprise, as they adopted the persona of their mentor and applied it on the court. Beyond the wins and accolades, that might be the best compliment a coach can receive. 

For Muffet McGraw, it was simply time. Time to step away from the sidelines. For those who were part of or followed her program, what a time it truly was. Nothing lasts forever. She gave to the game over three decades. For that we are all thankful. Something, though, tells us she is far from finished from giving.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Ionescu’s instant impact and potential makes her perfect poster athlete for New York sports after COVID-19

No. 1 WNBA draft pick Sabrina Ionescu has already made her presence felt before even suiting up for New York Liberty, whose season is on hold due to COVID-19. (Photo by NBC Sports)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

The setting was Webster Bank Arena, a somewhat chilly, overcast March day hinting warmer temperatures were still weeks down the road. The Bridgeport Regional semifinals in the 2017 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship featured Oregon facing Maryland, while UConn and UCLA were set to square off in the other contest. The general consensus was that Maryland and UConn would battle it out the following Monday evening for a trip to the Final Four on the line. Oregon had other ideas.
    
Establishing an early lead and maintaining it, Kelly Graves’ tenth-seeded group went on to upset Maryland, the No. 3 seed, 77-63. On press row, women’s basketball guru Mel Greenberg quipped, “I think my lede will be, ‘Maryland ducks UConn.’” Two nights later, the Huskies romped, ending Oregon’s 23-14 campaign. 
    
The record shows Sabrina Ionescu scored a game-high 21 points against the Terrapins. The then-freshman guard shot 7-of-13 from the field (3-of-5 from 3-point range) and grabbed six rebounds while handing out a game-high seven assists. Her performance did not hint at a franchise player, a la an Elena Delle Donne,  performing before our eyes, as for the game, four Oregon players scored in double figures in a balanced attack. However, if there was a takeaway, it was how a freshman guard logged 38 minutes, hitting big shots, looked for teammates and consistently made the right decisions, a freshman playing with upper-class poise. 

Through her Oregon career, Ionescu’s numbers increased. The constant was those qualities she put on display that day in Bridgeport. In simple terms, she made her teammates better with contributions on the floor and encouragement, some of it tough love, in the huddle. The Ducks won 97 games her last three years, including this past season’s 31-2 mark, which undoubtedly would have had more entries in the win column had the coronavirus not ended the season.  

For the first time in its 24-year history, the New York Liberty had the first overall pick in the WNBA Draft. This was an obvious choice. Forget those numbers for a second. Concentrate on the fact that Ionescu is constantly dialed in and certain to raise the level of play during her time on the floor. On another note, she wants to be in the Big Apple. 

In recent years, first-round picks headed to struggling franchises may have said the right thing, but deep inside dreaded their fate, a reality of more losses in their first year than all of high school and college combined. In 1984, Michael Jordan was chosen by the Chicago Bulls. Rather than lament his fate, Jordan instantly set about a journey to make the Bulls relevant in championship conversation. Ionescu is committed to doing the same with the Liberty. To little surprise, Ionescu has been compared, by Graves, to both His Airness and Diana Taurasi in terms of desire, intensity, and what Graves calls “competitive greatness.” 

Ionescu is beyond the 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound, 1,000-assist numbers machine. She is wired into perfection. She told Bleacher Report of not sleeping well and/or getting sick before games, not due to fearing an opponent, but fearing not living up to expectations she set for herself and her team. She has an uncanny feel for the game. It was noted, in the same report, how she might release a shot not feeling a good spin on the ball, then apologizing to teammates for making — what she felt was — a bad shot. She also possesses the mamba mentality of her mentor, Kobe Bryant, one constantly working and seeking the road to basketball perfection. On February 24, Ionescu spoke at the memorial for Bryant, his daughter and seven others who died in the late January helicopter crash. That evening, she was in Northern California taking the floor for a meeting with powerful Stanford. The visiting Ducks prevailed, 74-66, with Ionescu scoring 21 points while securing her 1,000th career rebound on that night. 

Ionescu’s sojourn to Brooklyn is part of a complete overhaul of the Liberty: New home at Barclays Center, new coach in Walt Hopkins, new logo, new faces via the draft, and recent standout Tina Charles traded to Washington. 

On draft night, Oregon had three former players selected in the top ten. Satou Sabally was the number two pick by Dallas, while Ruthy Hebard went to Chicago at eight. The consensus among those in the college game is No. 1 pick Ionescu was the main reason the Ducks transformed from a WNIT team to national championship contender. 

Around Barclays Center, the feeling is that a similar transformation can take place. The Liberty added UConn’s Megan Walker in the ninth spot of the draft, acquired Jocelyn Willoughby of Virginia in a trade at No. 10, and chose Louisville guard Jasmine Jones at the No. 12 position. Jones’ Louisville teammate Kylee Shook, the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year, was chosen one spot later. With a relatively young group, Hopkins is looking for Ionescu to make her presence felt not just on a stat sheet, but as a leader as well. “She’s a phenomenal leader in multiple ways,” Hopkins told Newsday. “She’s not someone who stands back. She comes down on teammates and you can watch the way they respond. It’s not easy to be that kind of leader.”


The COVID-19 pandemic has everything on hold, not just for the Liberty in the hard-hit New York metropolitan area, but the entire WNBA as well. Ionescu cannot wait to get to New York and get started. About an hour after her selection, her Liberty jersey sold out on a fan site. Obviously, the fan base shares the former Oregon star’s excitement and anticipation.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The numbers all go to 11!

From Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, an empty scoreboard was the final visual on a great season whose conclusion was prematurely and heartlessly stolen from us. (Photo by Jaden Daly/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.

Before I go any further, if you’re a regular visitor to this great website, which celebrates its eleventh birthday on this day, you’ll know that the classic rock lyric ledes have been exclusively reserved for columns involving St. John’s University. It’s part of the unique manner in which I cover my alma mater, one inspired by friend Jerry Beach (whose book on the 2000 World Series was released earlier this month — you can order it here) and his once-frequent chronicling of Hofstra basketball, a program I’ll mention again in this space later on. Today, though, it — much like everything else that has gripped our world for the past five weeks since nearly all organized sports at every level worldwide were swept up in the COVID-19 tsunami — takes on a much different tenor in light of recent events.

Fittingly, I was in Atlantic City — and the opening to this piece is the introduction to the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s classic ode to the gambling capital of the Northeast — when the 2019-20 season was ripped from our hearts quicker, more forcefully and with lesser regard for any potential aftereffects than when Kris Jenkins stole a national championship from North Carolina four years ago. I guess I’ve matured enough now to where I can mention his name without any expletives, so I’d like I think that counts for something here. Anyhow, hardly anyone could have expected that the apocalypse I and a handful of other writers joked about when Iona’s 13-game Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament win streak was halted by Saint Peter’s on yet another last-second shot — the third time the Peacocks did that to the Gaels in as many attempts this past season — would be a harbinger of just that in the sports world. Only 15 hours later, a women’s quarterfinal between Fairfield and Siena that played out to an empty arena long after the Big East scrapped the rest of its tournament after Creighton and St. John’s went to halftime became the most surreal thing I’ve seen in 13 years in the game, beating out the leak in the Yanitelli Center roof, and one of the more unforgettable — for all the wrong reasons — scenes in almost 34 years alive.

The rest of that day, including the bus trip back to New York, was a complete blur. Then Tim Cluess resigned at Iona, after missing the entire season due to an undisclosed health issue. A week after that, as the NCAA Tournament would normally have played out, we were instead treated to rebroadcasts of some of the timeless March memories. Normally, we would all sign up for that, and while the effort to fill a gaping hole in our world should be commended and appreciated, it unfortunately just does not erase the hypotheticals of what could have ensued this year. All the legends and iconic moments of years past cannot replace the magic that would have been conjured by the likes of Obi Toppin and Dayton threatening to become the first true mid-major national champion in 30 years, of Cassius Winston and Myles Powell perhaps reprising their November showdown on the Final Four stage in Atlanta, of Virginia possibly making a run to a successful national championship defense, or of newcomers to the dance floor such as Hofstra and Rutgers, each of whom I had the privilege of covering on multiple occasions to watch their stories be written and eventually unfolded before capacity crowds. It truly is heartbreaking, but the best part is that both schools — and Hofstra got to celebrate a Colonial Athletic Association championship two days before it all came crashing down, and thus will raise a banner in Hempstead this November — are in great position to validate their success with deeper runs through March next season.

In a four-month stretch that started with mounds of promise in Seton Hall’s explosive opening-night win over Wagner and ended in a sea of helplessness as circumstances beyond everyone’s control blew the whistle, we had our typical roller coaster. There were highs — Seton Hall’s best season since 1992-93, Hofstra and Rutgers seemingly ending their decades-long droughts — and inexplicable lows such as the way it culminated. We bid farewell to a number of people: Myles Powell, Quincy McKnight, Romaro Gill, Mustapha Heron, Desure Buie, Eli Pemberton, E.J. Crawford, Tajuan Agee, Akwasi Yeboah, Tyler Reynolds, and the aforementioned Tim Cluess, just to name a few. We also had to say goodbye to Malik Johnson at Canisius, who had a very poignant answer to what he would miss most about the past four years

However, with departure comes rebirth. We get to cover Rick Pitino again. UConn is coming back home to the Big East, too. North Carolina will visit Monmouth eight days before Christmas, a present I and everyone else will look forward to opening eight months from today. We mentioned Hofstra and Rutgers, and St. John’s has an equally bright future in year two under Mike Anderson. So does Siena with Carmen Maciariello and his power of belief. Seton Hall, with Takal Molson and Bryce Aiken inheriting the Pirate blue torch, should be able to reach a fifth straight NCAA Tournament. Long story short, college basketball is like the phoenix: It bursts into flame when it is time for it to die, and then it is reborn from the ashes.

We will be, too. In a world of unknown variables, the best thing you can do is keep your glass half-full. That mentality has kept me going over the years, even more so now than ever before. When I clicked a few buttons on April 17, 2009 that eventually gave this site life, I did so with that same glass-half-full mindset that if my broadcast career failed, I still had a way to stay connected with the industry. Over a decade later, I am incredibly blessed to still have both, and enjoy tangible success with both. Your support means a lot, and it always has. I’m grateful to have a great staff with great people helping me out along the way, people like Jason Guerette and Vinny Simone, who are my tag team partners at Seton Hall and Hofstra, respectively. Vin contributes to MAAC Monday, too, so we can’t forget that. I’m beyond thankful for the dedication of Bob Dea for getting around via mass transit — the same way I do — to share his beautiful art in photographic form. I can’t say enough about all the special contributors I’ve had over the years and continue to take submissions from. The relationships I’ve forged with coaches, administrators, officials, media colleagues, and the next generation of journalists are some of the greatest gifts I can ever receive and redistribute.

Next, there is you, the great congregation of readers that are, more importantly, my fans and friends. You all are the reason why I do what I do, and continue to do what I do. When I have someone come up to me and tell me how much he or she loves this site, it means the world to me. It makes the long-distance road trips to places like Philadelphia and Providence — and all the other, further locales that have been visited over the years — worth it just for one compliment. If I can make somebody smile or laugh, my work here is done.

In years past, I’ve made a public service announcement in this annual display of gratitude by opening the doors to anyone expressing interest in joining the family. I’m going to spin that a little differently this time, because in the current scheme of things, I have something to get off my chest here.

The current societal climate is testing me in every way possible. Those of you who know me well know that I am naturally extroverted, and will interact with people just because I enjoy the ability to share words and exchange opinions, no matter how similar or different they are. That’s another reason why I’ve been so engaging to everyone, and will continue to be. But with literally unprecedented threats dictating temporary changes in tactics, it hasn’t been as easy to adapt. Therefore, if you ever need to talk — and this is not just about college hoops, it can be about anything: Sports in general, pop culture, what pizzeria you should order from next, or just life — I am more than happy to listen. Just reach out to me, however you feel most comfortable, and I will be here for you. We’ll get through this together, because without you, there is no me, and if I can be the second voice of optimism alongside you, we can make the best of the ever-changing variables currently out there now. I can’t give all of you a hug the way I always feel compelled to, but if I can provide a virtual equivalent, we’ll be able to make each other feel better as a result.

I never met Joe Suhoski before his passing two years ago, but he and I frequently interacted on Twitter, and his most prevalent and powerful message on that medium was a three-word edict that carries greater meaning with each passing day:

Love each other.

May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, may the rains fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Thank you for everything, every day over these past eleven years, but also helping to reaffirm the lyrics I’ll close with to tie everything together:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.

We will, too, and we will come back much sooner rather than later.

Rock on, my friends.

Jaden Daly
Founder and Managing Editor

Monday, March 30, 2020

2019-20 MBWA awards ballot

At the present moment, we stand a full 18 days into the offseason, a premature arrival of college basketball’s end brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic that has already affected thousands and swept up almost all organized sports in its tidal wave of destruction. But the disappointing conclusion to a great year has not stopped us from participating in an annual ritual around these parts, that of the Metropolitan Basketball Writers’ Association awards, honors that this writer is proud to have a vote on for the eighth consecutive year.

The yearly ceremony at the Westchester Marriott has been shelved this year in accordance with governor Andrew Cuomo’s request to avoid large gatherings wherever possible as New York and its surrounding brethren continue to recover, but the recognitions will still be handed out nonetheless. As I always do, both here in this space and on Twitter, I will reveal my ballot so that you can not only see how I voted, but offer your own opinions as well should you have any:

Lt. Frank J. Haggerty Award: Myles Powell, Seton Hall (21.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
Powell returned for his senior season with one goal in mind: To lead Seton Hall to its best season since the banner 1992-93 campaign. Extenuating circumstances prevented the Trenton native from having one final March to remember, but Powell wrapped up his career in South Orange by finishing third on Seton Hall’s all-time scoring list, as well as earning both Big East Conference Player of the Year honors and Associated Press first team All-America distinction, the first Pirate to achieve either since Terry Dehere 27 years ago. Powell will also become the first repeat Haggerty winner since Hofstra’s Charles Jenkins won his second of three straight awards as the best player in the metropolitan area in 2010.

Also considered: Desure Buie, Hofstra; E.J. Crawford, Iona

Rest of All-Met first team, in alphabetical order:
Geo Baker, Rutgers
Desure Buie, Hofstra
E.J. Crawford, Iona
Ron Harper, Jr., Rutgers
Eli Pemberton, Hofstra

All-Met second team, in alphabetical order:
Tajuan Agee, Iona
Romaro Gill, Seton Hall
Deion Hammond, Monmouth
Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall
Quincy McKnight, Seton Hall

All-Met third team, in alphabetical order:
Isaac Kante, Hofstra
Elijah Olaniyi, Stony Brook
Ray Salnave, Monmouth
Mike Smith, Columbia
Dimencio Vaughn, Rider

Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order:
E.J. Anosike, Sacred Heart
Raiquan Clark, LIU
Tareq Coburn, Hofstra
Zach Cooks, NJIT
Jahlil Jenkins, Fairleigh Dickinson
Jalen Ray, Hofstra

Rookie of the Year: Julian Champagnie, St. John’s (9.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.3 SPG, photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose of Hoops)
Mike Anderson gushed over Champagnie’s potential before the freshman from Brooklyn had even played a game, mentioning his belief at Big East media day that the former Bishop Loughlin would be an impact player. His conviction became reality early and often, as Champagnie — whose father played soccer for the Red Storm a quarter-century prior to the second-generation athlete’s debut on the corner of Union and Utopia — made a name for himself with his deft touch around the rim and nose for rebounding, skills that reignited during St. John’s resurgent stretch drive, which included signature victories against a pair of teams in Providence and Creighton that were ticketed for the NCAA Tournament before its cancellation two weeks ago.

Also considered: Aaron Estrada, Saint Peter’s; Rob Higgins, St. Francis Brooklyn

Peter A. Carlesimo Coach of the Year Award: Steve Pikiell, Rutgers (photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose of Hoops)
Given the state of Rutgers basketball before he was lured to the banks of the old Raritan by athletic director Pat Hobbs in 2016, what the affable and relentless Pikiell did this season in Piscataway qualifies as a modern-day miracle. In just four short years, Pikiell built the Scarlet Knights into the same team he developed at Stony Brook: A fearless, intense, defense-oriented outfit that competed in every game and fought each possession as if it were its last on earth. Before the season was halted, Rutgers stood 20-11 and was a lock to appear in its first NCAA Tournament since 1991. With nearly everyone coming back next season, plus a rookie class headlined by Top 50 prospect Cliff Omoruyi of Roselle Catholic, the future is brighter than ever for the State University of New Jersey’s program.

Also considered: Joe Mihalich, Hofstra; Mike Anderson, St. John’s

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Rick Pitino returns to college basketball, will replace Cluess at Iona

Rick Pitino, away from college basketball since 2017, is returning as Tim Cluess’ successor at Iona. (Photo by Sports Illustrated)

Rick Pitino is back in the college basketball landscape.

The Hall of Fame head coach, exiled by two NCAA scandals that led to his demise at Louisville in 2017, has agreed to become the next head coach at Iona College, replacing Tim Cluess, who resigned Friday after ten years at the helm in New Rochelle.

“My passion in basketball started in New York and will end there at Iona College,” Pitino said in a release issued moments ago by Iona. “Tim Cluess has done a spectacular job creating success and a winning spirit. I wish Tim a speedy recovery and Iona will always cherish his accomplishments.”

“At Iona, I will work with the same passion, hunger and drive that I’ve had for over 40 years. There is a real professionalism in how things are run here and this is a very tight, strong community. The priority in New Rochelle right now is helping students continue their education online in light of the coronavirus, and I very much look forward to the day when the community is back on campus and to get to work on further elevating this strong program.”

The only coach in NCAA history to win national championships at two different schools, as well as one of only two coaches — John Calipari being the other — to take three schools to the Final Four, Pitino, 67, had been coaching Panathinaikos in the Greek Basket League and EuroLeague since being fired by Louisville in light of the pay-for-play scandal involving Brian Bowen, who had allegedly been compensated by Adidas representatives to play at Louisville, a program for whom Adidas serves as the apparel outfitter. This came just two years after a scandal involving escort Katina Powell being paid to supply female escorts for Pitino’s players at Louisville between 2010 and 2014. The school later vacated its 2013 national championship as a result of a subsequent NCAA investigation, which cited Pitino with a Level i violation for lack of institutional control. However, Pitino met with NCAA officials while coaching in Greece, and believes he will not be disciplined any further.

“I feel very comfortable (with my situation),” he told the New York Post’s Zach Braziller. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I have total confidence in the judgment of the NCAA.”

His controversies aside, Pitino is arguably one of the world’s premier basketball minds and talent evaluators, having compiled an official record of 647-271 (770-274 including vacated results) in a career spanning over four decades at Hawaii, Boston University, Providence, Kentucky and Louisville, receiving the ultimate honor when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. He won the 1996 national championship at Kentucky before losing to Arizona in the title game the following season, and also coached both the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics in two separate stints in the National Basketball Association. In addition, he has developed countless professional players and seen 21 of his former assistant coaches become head coaches; namely his son, Richard, at the University of Minnesota, Billy Donovan of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Willard at Seton Hall University, and Steve Masiello at Manhattan College, against whom he will now coach twice a year as the Jaspers are Iona’s longtime Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference rival.

“I am delighted to welcome Rick Pitino to Gael Nation,” Iona athletic director Matt Glovaski said. “Rick is a Hall of Fame coach who has won at the highest levels, and he is committed to leading our student-athletes and our program to national prominence. He brings passion and energy, and shares our desire to build a winning program that will make our community proud.”

The timeline of events surrounding Pitino’s hire predates Cluess’ sudden resignation, as Iona boosters reportedly met with Pitino in Greece while the recently-concluded basketball season was still going on. Cluess had stepped away from the sideline to tend to an undisclosed health matter days before the year began, leaving the program in the hands of associate head coach Tra Arnold. Pitino’s relationships with Iona president Seamus Carey from his time at Kentucky and business relationship with Iona booster Robert LaPenta — who the coach is a co-owner of several thoroughbred racehorses with — were instrumental in luring Pitino back to the game he loved, and clearly missed.

“I took the job wanting it to be my last job,” Pitino said to Braziller. “I spoke to numerous people about it and I’m glad I’m ending it with a small Catholic school that has the potential to be built up into a major power. It’s a perfect fit at a perfect time in my life. My biggest regret in coaching was leaving Providence College. They were two magical years in my life. It was a small Catholic school with a small gym I loved so much. I’m going back to a similar situation. I know I’ll love it equally the same.”

“Rick has demonstrated that he cares deeply about helping student-athletes achieve great success on and off the court,” said Carey. “After a thorough interview process, we are confident that Rick’s experience and commitment to Iona and our community make him the right person to continue to build on Tim Cluess’ success. We welcome Rick and his family to New Rochelle and look forward to accomplishing big things together.”

Information on a formal introduction of Pitino to the Iona community has yet to be determined. Forbes’ Adam Zagoria reported that his contract is a five-year agreement, with terms not disclosed. The Journal News later revealed Pitino’s compensation will be “slightly less” than the $1.1 million annual salary Cluess received at the time of his resignation.

Siena vs. Manhattan Photo Gallery

Photos from Siena’s 63-49 win over Manhattan in the quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, on March 11, 2020:


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


Friday, March 13, 2020

Tim Cluess steps down at Iona after historic 10-year run

Tim Cluess’ tenure at Iona is over after Gaels’ head coach stepped down Friday. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Not even 24 hours after the abrupt end of the college basketball season, the end of an era has occurred in New Rochelle.

Tim Cluess, head coach at Iona for the past decade, announced Friday that he would step down from his position, but continue to serve the program in an advisory role.

“I want to sincerely thank the Iona College community and administration for the opportunity to be a part of Gael Nation for the past ten years,” Cluess said in a statement released Friday afternoon. “I appreciate the concern and care that the Iona community, particularly (President) Dr. (Seamus) Carey, has demonstrated for me and my family over the past few months as I have been dealing with a complicated health issue that kept me from coaching.”

“I look forward to my new role and assisting the College in every way I can going forward. On behalf of myself and my family, I want to thank Gael Nation, including every student-athlete I had the honor to coach, for all their ever-present and vocal support. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished together and look forward to supporting the program in my new advisory role.”

Cluess, who turned 61 this past Monday, made the jump from Division II LIU Post to Iona in 2010 and quickly made an impact, turning the Gaels back into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference powerhouse they had been in the 1990s and 2000s. In his tenure on the Hynes Athletics Center sidelines, Iona went to six NCAA Tournaments and earned just the second at-large bid in MAAC history, in 2012. The Gaels also won five MAAC tournament championships under Cluess’ watch, including the last four prior to this now-concluded season, becoming the first MAAC program to ever win four consecutive postseason men’s basketball tournaments. Until the 2018-19 season, Cluess’ teams had won at least 20 games in every year at the helm. He was replaced by associate head coach Tra Arnold this season to tend to an undisclosed health issue, but Iona’s record remained credited to him. He leaves Iona with a record of 211-125, and an overall mark of 331-158 in the college ranks after an equally successful stint at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset, where he went 265-78 and developed several future collegiate and pro players, most notably Danny Green of the Los Angeles Lakers.

At Iona, the list of Cluess’ players reads like a Who’s Who of MAAC history, with scores of all-conference honorees donning the maroon and gold such as Mike Glover, Sean Armand, A.J. English, Schadrac Casimir, Jordan Washington, Rickey McGill, E.J. Crawford and Tajuan Agee, and three more — Scott Machado, Momo Jones and David Laury — named MAAC Player of the Year during their senior seasons.

“We’re extremely proud of Tim Cluess and how he represented our program over the last ten years,” Iona athletic director Matt Glovaski said. “He elevated Iona men’s basketball and put us into the national spotlight on an annual basis. I want to recognize Coach’s resilience in dealing with a complicated health situation that kept him off the court this last season. We will continue to support Tim and his family as he manages this health matter, and are very happy he will continue to contribute in an advisory role and remain an important part of the Iona family.”

Several of Cluess’ former players and colleagues took to social media in the wake of the announcement to share their memories and support of their former coach.

“The man that changed my life,” Crawford tweeted. “I still remember the day Coach Cluess came to St. Thomas More and offered me my scholarship! Knew it was the right place from our first conversation.”

“TC changed so many young men’s lives during his years at Iona,” said Armand, Cluess’ first recruit at Iona. “Giving someone an opportunity is all you need sometimes, and he has done it for so many. Prayers up for my guy.”

“One of the best coaches I ever played for,” McGill echoed. “It hurts me that he has to end off his coaching career like this at Iona. Praying for him to get back 100% healthy.”

It is not known at this time exactly where Glovaski and Iona will go with a search process to find Cluess’ successor. Rumors have circulated that former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino is interested in the job and met with Iona boosters, but the leading candidate — and the most logical one at that — would be Jared Grasso, Cluess’ longtime former assistant who just completed his second season as the head coach at Bryant University. Grasso is also the popular choice among many of the former Iona players he helped recruit and develop in eight years on Cluess’ staff.

“Iona should hire Coach Grasso,” McGill added. “He helped build a legacy at Iona with Coach Cluess and produced over 20+ professional athletes.”

“To add to this, I know Jared Grasso would be the first person I would call if I was the AD,” Aaron Rountree III, an integral part of Iona’s 2016 MAAC championship team, tweeted. “(He) recruited basically every pro that helped build the dynasty that is Iona men’s basketball, and knows the MAAC (and what it takes to dominate it) as well as anyone. Ask any of the alumni.”