Thursday, August 18, 2022

New-look Siena optimistic about MAAC, Italy trip

Infused with seven newcomers and a returning nucleus, Carmen Maciariello is intrigued by Siena's potential after three straight top-three finishes in his first three years at the helm. (Photo by Siena Saints Men’s Basketball)

While Iona commanded most of the attention in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference last season before Saint Peter’s historic NCAA Tournament regional final run last March, there was a third program threatening to steal the spotlight before the league descended upon Atlantic City for its postseason festivities.

Siena, the regular season champion of 2020 and 2021 that could very well have captured the postseason crown two years ago if not for the start of the pandemic, and last year had it not drawn Iona in the quarterfinals due to the MAAC’s COVID-induced seeding according to wins, was primed to strike as a dark horse of sorts before the final weekend of the regular season. However, losses to Niagara and Canisius, with star forward Anthony Gaines tearing his ACL in the latter game, sent the Saints on a tailspin before a shocking tournament quarterfinal loss to Quinnipiac that deflated a balloon from which most of the air had already been extricated.

However, a retooled Siena roster has honed its craft in the Capital Region this summer in advance of a 10-day trip to Italy that will give the Saints much-needed experience as they take aim yet again at a MAAC that is still anyone’s game as far as a league favorite is concerned.

“We made it to the MAAC tournament with gauze pads and Ace bandages, and probably some super glue holding some things together on these guys,” head coach Carmen Maciariello reflected prior to Siena’s departure. “It was unfortunate, but a top three finish and these guys worked hard. Now it’s turning the page. These guys want to win a championship. That’s why they came to Siena.”

“Our guys don’t want to finish third this year. They want to win the league, and I think we have a hungry group with older guys that have all different shared experiences, but also went through something last year that we never could get the steam we needed. We roll with the punches, we continue to adapt, adjust and manage, and for me, the true beauty is these guys being able to stay healthy and enjoy the game they love.”

Senior Jackson Stormo leads the charge in the frontcourt, a mainstay in the Saints’ lineup the past two years who also continues the presence of a vocal leader in the paint and in practice, something Maciariello has had on all his teams going back to Elijah Burns in his first season, Manny Camper en route to MAAC Player of the Year honors, and even Gaines last season. Stormo has already shown Siena's incoming forwards the ropes too, which makes the transition easier down low while the backcourt prepares to be led by a pair of sophomores in Jared Billups and Javian McCollum.

“I think Jackson as a person is a phenomenal kid,” Maciariello said of Stormo. “He’s got a big heart, and now he’s gotta take that next step and do it not only by his actions, but also using it in the spoken word. Guys are seeing that, but I also think guys are seeing how talented he is, especially the younger, newer guys, and even my staff. I think that alone is going to help him lead. When your best players are your hardest workers, usually everything falls into line.”

“I just think they’re competitors,” he added with regard to Billups and McCollum, the former of whom having played most of his freshman campaign on a fractured wrist that forced him to use his non-dominant left hand through summer workouts. “I think both these guys need to take a big jump for us to be successful. Jared has got to shoot the ball better from three and understand how he can score with his shoulders and his strength, and Javian’s gotta be a leader. He’s gotta be the straw that stirs the drink, the guy that’s the most loved-up guy on campus. Those are the guys that you know are special, and he’s got that in his personality. You could see the fire when he was healthy on the court. I was practicing him in a Tom Brady red jersey so he didn’t get hit, but at the end of the day, we need those two guys to stay healthy, stay the course.”

Michael Baer and Jordan Kellier also return to provide interior depth, with Jayce Johnson and Andrew Platek back to shore up the backcourt as all four are healthy for the first time since the start of last season. Seven newcomers are donning the green and gold for the first time, though, and Maciariello believes each one can contribute enough to make the Saints a formidable unit heading into the November 7 season opener at Holy Cross.

“Michael Eley is an interesting story,” he said of the Indiana native who will compete for minutes off the ball. “He had some American Athletic Conference offers at an early age, then he was going to go to prep school. He came on a visit and we had a candid conversation about what was expected of him, and he’s kind of a hidden gem. He’s a 6-foot-4 two guard, he’s athletic, he can shoot, he’ll help us defensively. Killian Gribben, who played for the under-20 Irish national team, will contend for minutes up front with Eduardo Lane, who came from San Jose State and is finally healthy. (Lane’s) a lefty who can stretch the floor, but people don’t know that he can shoot pretty good.”

International imports Zekeriya (Zach) Yigit Tekin of Turkey and Sveinn Birgisson of Iceland will have their opportunities to afford an impact as well, with the former earning plaudits for his basketball instincts as he continues to adapt to the American style and game.

“Zack is everything we thought he was,” said Maciariello. “We watched tons of film on him, he’s just a super high-IQ point guard, he’s making reads and plays just off natural instinct. Svenni from Iceland, is like a three-four who can shoot it, can put it down. I think he’s going to be a really good player for us. Mason Courtney and Brendan Coyle are two guys that are walk-ons, but are doing a great job of making shots.”

“I’m hoping to play everybody on this Italy trip just to make sure they get a taste of international competition. I think when you have a synergy that kind of seeps in, that’s what leads to special seasons. And that’s our goal every year. We’re looking to grow our collective unity and our love for one another on this trip, but then I want to see us defend at the highest level, I think that’s non-negotiable. I didn’t think we were good enough on the backboards last year, and we want to make sure we’re getting second chance opportunities on the rim. Hopefully that leads to some aggression for us, and I want to be able to score the basketball, I want the ball to move.”

Siena had hoped to be more of an uptempo outfit last season before circumstances dictated otherwise, so the focus on pushing the ball more has been central to Maciariello’s vision this season as he hopes to use the experience in Italy as a harbinger of things to come during the season.

“I want to play with pace and take great shots,” he reiterated. “You should hopefully see the ball hit multiple sides and us playing off of Stormo and playing off the high ball screen. I would say there’s more of a concerted effort to make sure we know how hard we have to cut and how much better shape we have to be in. Having 11 new guys last year, there was a lot to be a taught and I’m not sure we were able to pick up all the little nuances. This group here, I ask them before I put in anything.”

“We’re in a great spot. I really love this group. I’ve used the words ‘collective unity,’ just making sure that everyone understands it’s from the first guy all the way down to volunteer assistants, managers. The love for Siena basketball has to be at the highest level from A to Z, and I think that’s what these guys have understood. There’s that we, not that I or me attitude. It’s been really, really invigorating.”

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Andre Curbelo opens up on leaving Illinois, choosing St. John’s, and his expectations coming home

Andre Curbelo drives inside during St. John’s first exhibition game in Dominican Republic. Illinois transfer will team with Posh Alexander to run Red Storm offense. (Photo by St. John’s University Athletic Communications)

The transfer portal is now as much a part of college basketball as a federal tax return is to working Americans. You take the good with the bad, and hope for the best.

Relative to the hardwood, a refund occasionally pops up when an incoming student-athlete is attracted to a program and is rejuvenated, looking to once again establish himself in a new or otherwise familiar locale. For St. John’s, it may be more of the latter in the case of Andre Curbelo, who returns to the New York area he called home upon arriving from his native Puerto Rico after two seasons at the University of Illinois, who recruited the flashy point guard out of Long Island Lutheran in Brookville.

Curbelo, the Big Ten Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman in Champaign alongside eventual first-round NBA Draft pick Ayo Dosunmu, battled through a rocky second season marked not only by a concussion, but the lack of a confidant and positive presence in his immediate proximity following the departure of assistant coach Orlando Antigua — his lead recruiter — to Kentucky, two factors that led him back to the Big Apple.

“It was a tough year, a roller coaster,” Curbelo recalled as he described his emotions and thought process behind leaving the Illini and joining Mike Anderson and the Red Storm, who had shown mild interest in him out of high school before signing Posh Alexander and thus backing off on recruiting Curbelo. “When you’re not able to play for about two months, athletes tend to get a little bit discouraged and down, ‘when am I gonna get back,’ this and that. There were a lot of thoughts in my mind, was I going to get back? Was I going to be the same player? Clearly,
 I wasn't, but that’s in the past. I just gotta move on with a different mindset. I’m in a different place.”

“Ever since my concussion sophomore year, I started feeling a certain way. When things don’t go your way and you don’t have that support system — Antigua had left, so I didn’t really have a person over there — I feel like I struggled a little bit more. I don’t have anything to hide, I felt alone.”

Upon entering his name in the portal following Illinois’ NCAA Tournament exit last March, Curbelo rekindled a relationship with St. John’s assistant coach Van Macon, who was the point man in his initial recruitment two years ago and offered the trust and guidance he had sought since Antigua rejoined John Calipari in Lexington.

“I see him like an Antigua guy when I was back at Illinois,” Curbelo said of Macon and their bond. “I definitely feel that vibe with him and I’m just very thankful. I rely on that relationship a lot because he probably knows more than anybody else what I was going through at Illinois. We spoke about it, and my guardian, Jay David, I’m sure they spoke about it on the phone. Having that relationship is definitely very valuable, and throughout that recruiting process, it was just great to hear from (Macon). I felt like I could trust him, and I felt that his words were wise and he meant them. It definitely helped a lot, for sure.”

“When you’re in the transfer portal, a lot of people reach out, ‘come here, come there,’ but for me, I just wanted to be home with the right people because at the end of the day, you have to make it a mental game. And with me, if you’re not mentally right, you’re not really going to perform the way you want. So coming home and having that right support system is going to help me go out there every night and feel like my family’s always in the stands.”

A high-energy personality with an ebullient smile and ever-present charisma, Curbelo is instantly recognizable on or off the court. And as far as needing to remind everyone who he is as a player, he believes that to not be necessary, as his work ethic and drive will breed success inherently.

“I’m going to say this: I’ve got nothing to prove, to be honest,” he reiterated. “I don’t think I have anything to prove. I think I’m aware of who I am and the kind of player that I am. All I gotta do is go out there with my teammates and give it my all, and the job will take care of itself. If anything, I’m going to come in more positive, smile a little more. All that helps me.”

Curbelo and Anderson have both been asked several times already this summer about the dynamic with Alexander, and how St. John’s will be able to coexist with two point guards running its offense. Anderson dismissed the notion of it being a hindrance, citing his prior two-headed floor general attacks at Arkansas as proof that such a formula was conducive to long-term results. His new backcourt addition was more pragmatic in his response, crediting his teammates for making his assimilation smoother as he counts the days before the Red Storm tips off against Merrimack on November 7.

“A lot of people are probably going to ask themselves, ‘how is this going to work?’” Curbelo revealed. “We’re getting along really good, and (Alexander) makes it easier. The guys are welcoming, but sometimes when I’m the new kid in town, I tend to get a little shy until I figure everything out, but they’ve made the process pretty easy.”

“I’m very hungry. I can’t wait. I’ve been telling everybody that I’m itching to play, and people that know who I am know that I’m anxious. I’m ready to play.”

Friday, August 12, 2022

St. John’s gears up for DR trip and first experience as a unit

St. John’s goes through final tuneups before trip to Dominican Republic, where Red Storm will play three exhibition games. (Photo by Thomas Cavanagh/WSJU Radio)

NEW YORK — Not often does one team lose its star player and raise the expectations within its walls, but after the offseason St. John’s experienced, the Red Storm emerged a stronger and deeper unit.

Julian Champagnie has since moved on from Queens to take his talents to the Philadelphia 76ers, but in his place stands a pair of highly-coveted transfers in Andre Curbelo and David Jones, supplementing the cadre of depth and versatility that the Johnnies retained heading into a pivotal fourth year under head coach Mike Anderson, a season that begins with a three-game exhibition in the Dominican Republic starting Friday and one that is anticipated to culminate in the NCAA Tournament seven months from now. But before the ball is tipped, Anderson simply wants to see what he has in the outfit that could very well have the most upside in a significantly altered Big East Conference hierarchy.

“I want to see what they bring to the table,” he said Wednesday before St. John’s final tuneup leading into its overseas excursion. “Obviously from a talent standpoint, we kind of know, but I just want to see what they can bring defensively, offensively, how they get a sense and feel for some of the other players on our basketball team. So for me, it’s more about getting familiar with one another.”

“They’re looking forward to playing against someone other than themselves. For the most part, everybody’s ready, set to go, and we’re looking forward to continuing to find out more about our basketball team. The time spent thus far has been very insightful.”

The makeup of this year's St. John’s team may be somewhat different in terms of the new faces, but largely consistent with the return of Posh Alexander and Dylan Addae-Wusu to the starting backcourt, while Montez Mathis takes on more of a reserve role alongside incoming freshmen Kolby King and AJ Storr, as well as sophomore Rafael Pinzon, who is 100 percent after being sidelined for much of last year with a finger injury and a separate bout of COVID-19. Down low, Joel Soriano — who has earned plaudits from Anderson and his teammates for his conditioning and initiative as a vocal leader — anchors the paint with Jones in Champagnie’s stretch four role and the sophomore duo of Esahia Nyiwe and O’Mar Stanley spelling Soriano in the de facto center spot.

“I think Joel has picked up where he left off last year, he gives us a presence,” Anderson reiterated, revealing his enthusiasm for how he hopes his forwards will perform. “Esahia continues to be that glue guy, but even more so, I think he’s a lot more comfortable passer, being able to catch and finish. I’m excited about those front line guys, and of course, you’ve got to remember, O’Mar had his moments last year.”

One of the major questions surrounding the guards on the corner of Union and Utopia is that of how Curbelo will mesh with Alexander, as both are pure point guards who also have a knack for scoring when needed. Anderson was quick to point out that some of his best teams in the past had a dual point guard attack, which he insists will be more of a boon for the Red Storm than a bane, and heralded Curbelo’s immediate impact as a veteran whose objective has been to acclimate the younger underclassmen behind him to life in college basketball.

“They like to give it up,” Anderson said of Alexander and Curbelo, and their respective tendencies to be facilitators. “They also like to score, too. If I’ve got two point guards out there on the floor, I think that bodes well for our basketball team.”

“(Curbelo) commands their attention. They’re always going to know he’s there. I think his demeanor on the floor, he’s always teaching. He had a moment the other day where he got after Kolby and it got a little physical, but that was Andre’s way of saying, ‘Hey, I gotta get you ready, man. You gotta help us, I gotta get you ready.’”

St. John’s has employed a businesslike approach through its ten allotted practices before arriving in the Dominican Republic, where its three games will take place Friday, Sunday and Monday. But regardless of records and results, the main reward for this potential sleeping giant is the chance to enhance an already strong team bond that could, if coagulated properly, prove to be the adhesive that lands the Johnnies among the field of 68 for the first time since 2019.

“The bonus to me is guys spending time with one another,” Anderson said. “These guys have been here all summer. You don’t have all the distractions, just a team and a basketball. I just think you’ll get a little sneak preview of what’s to come.”

Monday, August 8, 2022

Rutgers bids adieu to two program faces, but maintains team chemistry with veterans, newcomers

Rutgers players and head coach Steve Pikiell huddle at mid-court during Monday’s offseason workout. (Photo by Jaden Daly/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Winning truly does change perception.

Just within the last decade, Rutgers was still the low-hanging fruit on the college basketball tree, with fans and insiders alike piling on to take shots at the Scarlet Knights for the mere convenience and sheer ease of ripping a program once thought of as the worst among Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

A half-dozen years later, Rutgers is now synonymous with the high standard of consistent success, thanks in large part to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances — a third straight would have come if not for COVID — and the rebuild by head coach Steve Pikiell and his staff from the ground up to usher a new era into existence on the banks of the old Raritan.

“It used to be the place where coaches came to leave, and now they stay,” Pikiell said Monday as he addressed the changing culture, one of the many topics broached during a summer workout open to the media. “It used to be the place where coaches come to get fired, and now I’m going into year seven. That’s not the narrative anymore, and I’m excited that that’s changed. We’re all really valued, and that’s a really good sign, too.”

“This team is bigger than the tournament,” Paul Mulcahy added, stressing the lofty goals he and his teammates continue to place upon themselves. It’s an expectation, and we want to win the Big Ten. We’ve got bigger goals than making the tournament.”

For a team losing both of its twin-engined heart and soul in Ron Harper, Jr. and Geo Baker, such hefty aspirations might appear easier said than done. But with a veteran nucleus anchored by Mulcahy, Cliff Omoruyi and Caleb McConnell returning, not to mention the furthered development of role players such as Dean Reiber and Mawot Mag, plus the infusion of transfer guard Cam Spencer and a pair of promising freshmen in Derek Simpson and Antwone Woolfolk, the future is no less bright for the Scarlet Knights than it was at this time one year ago.

“You're going to miss some things with Geo and Ron, but I think we’ll be a little bit different defensively,” Pikiell admitted. “We’ll be different offensively in some ways, too, but I’m excited about that. This offseason has been good for us, it’s been good for me to figure it out. Anytime you get the leading dunker in the country back, you get the leading assist guy in the best league in the country and you get the best defender in the best league in the country, you feel pretty good about your team.”

“When guys graduate, other guys get opportunities. I feel very confident (Reiber) and Mawot are going to have really good years. Dean can guard threes, too, so his versatility excites me. I can play him a lot of different ways, I could go from playing Cliff — who’s above the rim — to playing Dean, who’s going to shoot threes from way deep when you move him around. I like the versatility of Aundre (Hyatt), Oskar (Palmquist), Dean, Mawot.”

The versatility of the Scarlet Knights’ interior was perhaps the boldest takeaway Monday afternoon, other than Spencer’s dead-eye accuracy playing off the ball alongside Mulcahy. Starting with Omoruyi, who appears to have been unleashed offensively, each Rutgers forward appears to have expanded on his skill set, which opens up a myriad of avenues for a team that relied heavily on Harper to plug those holes in the past.

“We’re going to expect a lot of (Omoruyi) this year,” Pikiell cautioned. “He’s going to have to play more minutes. He became almost a double-double guy every night, he’s gotta get to that point, and I know he can do that. It’s just been fun. He’s been a fun guy, and he’s improved as much as anybody in his two years.”

“This year, he’ll take on a new dimension, because I’m going to let him shoot the ball. Even last year, I was encouraging him to shoot the ball. He’s going to be a tough guy to match up with in the league (with) the way he runs and the way he’s committed to improving his game. His ceiling is so high.”

Omoruyi’s backup, who blossomed as a 3-point shooter down the stretch in pivotal Big Ten contests last season, has also added a new facet to his repertoire, which will open the door for his employment as more of a traditional big who can space the floor and offer a second post presence.

“I’ve done a lot of ball handling recently and working on my mid-post, just trying to create my own shot a little bit more,” Reiber revealed. “Playing a lot in the Big Ten last year made me realize everyone goes 110 percent, so you’re able to do a lot more when the pressure’s on. I feel like I’ve got a lot under my belt, so the experience compounding is going to help immensely, especially for the young guys coming in that don’t really know the Big Ten.”

While Simpson and Woolfolk, the two freshmen who signed last season, are still unproven under the lights, each has already offered mounds of potential. In fact, the former already turned heads with his athleticism and resemblance to Baker, whose former No. 0 the New Jersey native now dons to begin his collegiate career.

“He’s one of the most athletic guards we’ve had, I think, since Corey Sanders,” Pikiell said of Simpson, effusive in his praise. “He’s above the rim, he shoots the ball effortlessly, has a good feel for the game. Now he’s kind of learning our defenses and the things we want him to do, but his ceiling is tremendous and he’s really coachable, which I really like. He and his roommate, Antwone, have been really good additions to us. Antwone’s going to be really good, too.”

Rutgers went through a similar period of questioning last year when Pikiell promoted his team’s prospects before, during and after a rocky non-conference season, and is now facing the same uncertainty — to an extent — this year as its vocal leaders must be replaced. However, players and coach insist the synergy has not dissipated, cultivating further amid the incumbent players and new arrivals. 

“We’re really connected right now,” Mulcahy said. “We’re communicating at a high level, especially with a couple of the new guys. They’ve jumped in, their voices have been great. We’re really competing, and this group really loves basketball, which is fun to be around. 
There are a lot of voices who have been here, so we’re good.”

“It’s been a great group,” Pikiell echoed. “The newcomers have done a great job of picking up stuff, what I call our defensive vitamins, every day. It gives them a chance to get a really good feel, and it gives us a chance to try some different things and learn a lot about our team. We’ve got a good balance of the veteran guys that have been around, and the newcomers bring in some great energy, so that’s been fun for us.”

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Remembering J.P. Pelzman, a great writer and even better friend

J.P. Pelzman (right) surveys landscape in Madison Square Garden press room during Big East tournament. Pelzman, a longtime Seton Hall beat writer, passed away this week at age 57. (Photo by Jerry Carino/Gannett New Jersey)

Far too many times, we are dealt one sobering reminder after another that life is truly a blessing, and therefore, each moment should be celebrated to the fullest extent possible, for the prospect of tomorrow is never guaranteed.

Thursday afternoon served as yet another haunting caveat to such an uncertainty, coming to this writer in the form of a call from Peter Long, the men’s basketball media contact at Seton Hall, a program that has been central to this site’s brand and operation for most of the past decade. The message was one that is still difficult to process, and — given the subject — will be for quite some time.

It was at that moment that I learned J.P. Pelzman, longtime Pirate beat writer for the Bergen Record, where he also covered the New York Jets for many years after his tenure at Newsday (or “Snoozeday,” as he would jokingly refer to the Long Island periodical, one of his many memorable quips), had passed away earlier this week, leaving us at the way-too-early age of 57 but leaving behind a legacy and collection of memories that will be truly irreplaceable.

Anyone who covered Seton Hall, even just once, never forgot J.P. after meeting him. He would be the first person you would see upon checking into the Prudential Center press room, setting up shop at the first desk along the left side wall, usually with a plate of chicken fingers and french fries to keep him company. Sometimes irreverent, and ever the jokester — his impressions of fellow colleague Roger Rubin and more famously, Mike Francesa, would always be well-received in whatever workspace we shared — J.P.’s deft ability to straddle the line between levity and professionalism was unmatched by all of us, but always aspired to. When I started making more treks into Newark after expanding the scope of the site’s coverage, he welcomed me into the Pirate media family that still remains the favorite media circle to which I belong. Many a night came and went over the years where J.P., Jerry Carino, Brendan Prunty, Zach Braziller, John Fanta, Adam Zagoria, Jeremy Schneider, Jim Hague, Josh Adams, Jason Guerette and myself would go off on some tangent about another game, something else that may have occurred in the industry, or just a random musing after filing our postgame dispatches, and we would stretch the reverie late into the night before shutting the arena down. Those nights were not just an indoctrination into the life of a journalist, but now, memories that will be held a little closer for all eternity.

But behind what a stranger might perceive as a gruff exterior, and the endless Francesa jokes and Rex Ryan riffs, was an outsized heart to match the vast reaches of his gregarious personality. J.P. would never hesitate to assist anyone in any way, be it offering unsolicited yet always appreciated tips on how to improve in the business or different angles from which to approach a story, or simply complimenting you for the work you did yourself. 

After his mother had passed away several years ago, J.P. and I became closer, as we had more in common beyond the hardwood than either of us initially realized, having both come from broken homes and been raised primarily by single mothers. Through that tragedy, his being a victim of downsizing and penny pinching by Gannett, recurring health scares, and the pandemic, I made it a point to check in with him whenever possible, and looking back, I was glad I did. It’s a shame that the last two years cheated everyone in the media out of experiencing J.P.’s genius and professionalism, because his absence left a void among us that can never be adequately filled. 

Just last month, I had the honor of inviting him onto the Daly Dose Of Hoops podcast and instantly returned the favor when he interviewed me in a longform feature on Rivals.com that now stands among his final bylines. On both occasions, we spoke of the crossroads I came to in the middle of last season before the NCAA Tournament revitalized me and helped me realize I still had more to offer, and hearing him say that the New York/New Jersey college basketball landscape would be better off for having this site among it was an endorsement that meant more than he may have realized. But that was J.P. Pelzman in a nutshell. He made a far greater impact on every life he affected, but to him, it was just standard practice, a way of life.

As I mentioned earlier, writing these words and eulogizing J.P. evokes a state of shock that will not soon dissipate. I think, though, that he would appreciate the outpouring of kind words and fond recollections from his friends and colleagues as opposed to being recalled the way Mike Francesa acknowledged Tim Russert, Horace Clarke, Frank Robinson and Stan Lee in their final hours. You’re finally at peace now, my friend, and I hope you had a good week of practice and things, let me tell you. But I have one more question before I let you go:

Do you think J.P. Pelzman and Jason Pierre-Paul would ever have lunch sometime, kind of like a JPP get-together?

I’ll hang up and listen.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Even in his final days, Bob Lanier remained larger than life

Shown here in 2019, Bob Lanier returned to St. Bonaventure as Bonnies’ 1970 Final Four team, on which he starred, was honored. Lanier passed away Tuesday evening at age 73. (Photo by the Olean Times Herald)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

The prognosis was not favorable. A battle with cancer resulted in hospitalization in an intensive care unit. Prayers were sent from so many who were fortunate to know or know of him. On the morning of May 11, the news came via social media. 

On his Facebook page, Paul Hoffman, a sophomore starting guard on the 1970 St. Bonaventure Final Four team simply said, “RIP Bob.” Hoffman’s page, with the 1970 team picture in the background, told you all you needed to know about his feelings that day. 

Bob Lanier, at age 73, had passed. 

Similar messages soon flooded social media to remember Lanier, a truly great player, and a truly greater human being.

Lanier’s basketball career began in a humble manner. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound sophomore was cut from his Bennett (Buffalo, NY) High School team. Lanier was determined to prove the man who made the cut, coach Nick Mogavero, wrong. He worked tirelessly and eventually became an All-High choice his junior and senior years at Bennett, then praised Mogavero in a 1990 Buffalo News article, calling him a “very perceptive and compassionate coach, and a hell of a human being.” Lanier had approximately 80 scholarship offers and chose to play for St. Bonaventure and coach Larry Weise.

By the time his college days began, Lanier had grown to 6’11” and into a three-time Converse All-America selection for the Bonnies, ending his Bona career holding records in seven categories including points (2,067), points per game (27.6) and rebounds (1,180). In his sophomore year, as a key member of Bona’s original iron five (Bill Butler, Billy Kalbaugh, John Hayes, Jim Satalin and Lanier), the Bonnies fashioned a perfect 26-0 in the regular season, suffering their only loss in the NCAA Tournament to North Carolina in the East Regional semifinals. Lanier’s junior year saw the Bonnies finish 17-7.

Mention Lanier’s college career and that 1970 team instantly appears in the mind’s eye. A team he led to the Final Four, yet never got to play in after suffering a knee injury in the regional final against Villanova. A team on a mission. The debate continues even today. Could the Bonnies have dethroned reigning champion UCLA with Lanier? The issue is not really debatable among Bona faithful who wholeheartedly know the answer.

The first pick of the 1970 NBA Draft, Lanier enjoyed a 14-year career in the NBA, playing for the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks, becoming an eight time NBA All-Star. He was chosen MVP of the 1974 All-Star Game, with his number 16 retired by both the Pistons and Bucks. Following retirement, Lanier was an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, and later, an interim head coach with the organization. He was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1992.

Lanier won the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for the 1977-78 season for outstanding community service. His contributions off the court continued after his size 22 sneakers made their way to Springfield. He started the NBA’s Stay in School, now called Read to Achieve, campaign. The program is supported by all 30 NBA teams, 13 WNBA teams and 6 NBDL teams. The initiative supports the value of literacy and encourages adults to read with young children. The Bob Lanier Center for Educational, Physical and Cultural Development was founded in Buffalo in 1994, serving the youth in the area.

Lanier’s influence was impacted beyond Buffalo. It was worldwide. 

In a statement, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, “Bob Lanier was a Hall of Fame player and among the most talented players in the history of the NBA, but his impact on the league went far beyond what he accomplished on the court. For more than 30 years, Bob served as our global ambassador and as a special assistant to David Stern and to me, traveling the world to teach the game’s value and make a positive impact on young people everywhere. It was a labor of love for Bob, who was one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever been around.”

Lanier was awarded an honorary doctorate by St. Bonaventure in 1985 and the Gaudette Medal in 2004. The latter honor is the university’s highest service award.

Lanier was one who gave so much of himself and thought of others. In 1971, his rookie season ended on a Sunday in Detroit. Two days later, the Bonnies were playing Hawaii in a second-round game at Madison Square Garden. Lanier was in attendance and visited the team following the win over the Rainbow Warriors. In 2012, the Bona women were preparing for a NCAA Regional meeting with Notre Dame. During practice, a call was made to coach Jim Crowley. It was Lanier. Practice was halted as Bob spoke with the team, praising them while adding a message: “Enjoy this and live in the moment.”

When Larry Weise was inducted into the Atlantic 10 Hall of Fame a few years ago during the conference’s tournament in Brooklyn, Lanier traveled from Arizona to take his coach and wife, Julie, out to a celebratory dinner. There were countless other stories exchanged by Bona fans and alums on social media.

Lanier was outstanding in the low post and could move out to hit the mid-range jump shot. The latter skill was virtually unheard of for big men in that era. Lanier was a player who could be an enforcer if need be. He also showed a compassionate side, even in the heat of battle. 

The late Edgar Cartotto, a long time officiating mentor to yours truly among many others in stripes, often told this story. Cartotto was working a game with the Bonnies facing Canisius in Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. 

“I was too fast on the whistle to call a jump ball as a split second later Lanier ripped the ball from the opponent and laid it in,” Cartotto said. “I told him, ‘Captain Lanier, I’m sorry, I kicked that call.’” Big Bob smiled and patted me on the back and said, “Eddie, no problem. Don't worry about it.” Cartotto went on to say he and Lanier became friends and Bob would send a card and call him each Christmas. “Bob Lanier,” Cartotto added, “was one of the finest human beings I ever knew.”

A fierce competitor, the fire burned inside and manifested itself on the court. In December 1969, the Bonnies were set to face Purdue and Rick Mount in the finals of the ECAC Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. Purdue’s center, Bill Franklin, said pregame that Lanier, known as the Big Cat was going to run into the big dog in Franklin. Lanier simply went out and dominated Franklin with a Holiday Festival record-tying (with Oscar Robertson and Jimmy Walker) 50-point performance. The Bonnies defeated Purdue handily. Purdue coach George King was asked what he should have done against Lanier by replying, “put a muzzle on Franklin.”

A few months later, the Bonnies were set to play Villanova in the Eastern Regional finals. Back in the day, there were consolation games in the regionals. The St. Bonaventure players took their seats to watch the third-place game. A few rows ahead, Villanova guard Fran O’Hanlon was heard telling his girlfriend that since the Wildcats handed Bonaventure its only loss — a two-point setback at Villanova — they should be in very good shape to advance. Lanier heard the remark, simply said to his teammates, “let’s go,” and led them to the locker room to get ready. The Bonnies dominated the Wildcats in convincing fashion.

The Bonnies advanced to the Final Four, as noted previously, without Lanier, who suffered a knee injury late in the game. Decades have passed, yet the collective memories and emotions of 1970 have not. They affected Lanier deeply.

At the 2007 dedication of Bob Lanier Court at Reilly Center, Lanier was driven to tears recalling the disappointment of not playing in the 1970 Final Four. 

“We were kind of warriors, in this trench together,” Lanier was quoted by the St. Bonaventure website. “We had one focus, to win an NCAA title.” It hurt to watch the Bonnies drop a hotly contested national semifinal to Jacksonville as he recuperated, after knee surgery, in a hospital room.

Lanier stayed close with those 1970 teammates, often organizing reunions of the group through the years. In 2018 when the Bonnies faced UCLA in a NCAA First Four meeting in Dayton, coach Mark Schmidt had a pregame history lesson to make sure his club understood the meaning and significance of 1970. The Bonnies upset the Bruins on that memorable evening. Postgame, Schmidt remembered that 1970 team, and in an extreme touch of class and devotion, dedicated the win to them and their leader, Bob Lanier.

His health an issue, Lanier still made the trip to Olean in December of 2019 for the St. Bonaventure Basketball Centennial. He went to a team practice, not just to stop by, but talk to the players as a group and individually, especially big man Osun Osunniyi. Lanier graciously spent time with former teammates, fellow alums and friends over the course of that December weekend.

Among the outpouring of tributes pouring in, several stand out. Joe Manhertz, St. Bonaventure Director of Athletics noted:

“It was very sad to learn of the passing of Bob Lanier. He meant so much to so many people. Bob represented the best of what it was to be a St. Bonaventure Bonnie in competition and in selfless service to others. WE will miss him, but we will always celebrate him and continue to carry on his incredible legacy.”

“I had many good teams, but when Bob enrolled at St. Bonaventure University, he brought our program to a national level,” his college coach, Larry Weise, said. “Bob was not only a great basketball player, he was a wonderful person. He had an infectious personality and everyone liked him. He had a sense of humor as big as he was. He loved to laugh. God keep him safe.”

Mike Vaccaro, a 1989 St. Bonaventure graduate and New York Post columnist, summed it up in a most eloquent and meaningful fashion: 

“The spirit of St. Bonaventure is bigger than any one man, but no singular soul in 164 years has ever brought more honor, dignity, glory and love to bear at Bona’s than Bob Lanier. Bob transcended race, united a campus and, by the way, was one of the best basketball players who ever lived. He will be synonymous with St. Bonaventure eternally.”

Current Bonnies head coach Mark Schmidt told The Buffalo News, “Bob Lanier IS St. Bonaventure basketball. What says everything about Bob is that he was so humble and you would never know he was one of the top 50 players of all time. There’s not enough to say about what he means.”

Former Bona mentor and teammate Jim Satalin said in the same article, “From a basketball standpoint, he put St. Bonaventure on the map,” Satalin said. “He did so many things in the community and he did them for free. He did things nobody even knew about.”

Bob Lanier enjoyed life and leaves an indelible mark on us all. Many players, especially today, take what they can from the game. Lanier, in the final analysis, utilized the game as a method of reaching others, practicing the Franciscan and Bonaventure value of service.

He will be missed by his immediate family. Also by his Bonaventure family, in effect an extension of his immediate one. His contributions were immeasurable, and never will be forgotten.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

St. John’s notebook: Jones commits, potential target for last scholarship, OOC updates

DePaul’s David Jones joins Andre Curbelo as incoming transfers for Mike Anderson and St. John’s. (Photo by Rumble in the Garden)

By Jason Dimaio (@JasonDimaio1)

In what has been a surprising offseason so far for St. John’s, the Red Storm continued to turn heads with the addition of forward David Jones from DePaul.

The addition of Jones, a native of the Dominican Republic with two years of eligibility remaining, immediately improves a St. John’s roster that was desperate for a wing and a scorer following the departures of Julian Champagnie and Aaron Wheeler to the professional ranks. Jones averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds last year for the Blue Demons before choosing Johnnies over Illinois, Oregon and West Virginia after entering the transfer portal in April. 

The relationships Jones has with Joel Soriano and Andre Curbelo — who joined the program last month after transferring from Illinois — seemed to be a big factor in getting him to commit to St. John’s, as did the close proximity of several friends and family members, not to mention the recruiting efforts of assistant coach Greg “Shoes” Vetrone. Simply put, Jones fits the St. John’s program like a glove and provides a much-needed talent boost at the forward position.

Pieces are now starting to fall in place for St. John’s, as only one scholarship remains open. Tobe Akawa, a Class of 2022 prospect from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, has been on the radar of Mike Anderson’s staff, but he’s not alone as Pitt and Maryland are also in the mix, each having recently offered the senior. The Red Storm still needs a shooter to help fill the void left by Champagnie and Wheeler. If the Johnnies can land an impact shooter to complement the skill sets of Curbelo, Posh Alexander and Jones, the Red Storm will be a serious contender to finish near the top of the Big East, but potential and results are two very different things, as St. John’s fans know after the disappointment of this past year.

Mike Anderson's staff is known for working quietly, so it’s not clear who the Red Storm is exactly in on in the transfer portal, if anyone at all. It would not come as a surprise to some if St. John’s decided to not fill the last spot on the roster as there is somewhat of a backloaded roster after the starting five, but a name that can fit the Johnnies is St. Bonaventure transfer Dominick Welch. Welch has one year of eligibility left and averaged 12.3 points per game and 37 percent from 3-point range.

Will St. John’s reach out? Will the Red Storm go somewhere else, if anywhere at all? Time will tell but in what was looking like what might be a reset year in Queens, the narrative has quickly changed, and it will be interesting to see where things go from here.

NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE UPDATE: In addition to the previously announced game against Florida State in the Orange Bowl Classic on December 17, St. John’s will be opening its season at home on November 7 against Merrimack, as reported by CBS Sports college basketball insider Jon Rothstein.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Mount St. Mary’s to leave NEC and join MAAC, replacing Monmouth

Shown here after winning NEC championship in 2021, Mount St. Mary’s will now join MAAC as league replaces Monmouth. (Photo by Mount St. Mary’s Athletics)

In 2013, after Loyola University left the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the Patriot League, MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor was proactive in finding a replacement, extending invitations to Quinnipiac and Monmouth to leave the Northeast Conference.

Nine years later, as Monmouth is on the verge of leaving the MAAC to join the Colonial Athletic Association, Ensor has again reached into the NEC to find a successor, tabbing Mount St. Mary’s as the newest MAAC member. The Mountaineers will officially begin their tenure as the MAAC’s 11th institution on July 1, with a press conference to be held on campus Tuesday morning.

“On behalf of the MAAC Council of Presidents and the Committee on Athletic Administration, I am pleased to announce that Mount St. Mary’s University has been offered and has accepted membership in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, effective July 1, 2022,” Ensor said in a joint release issued by both the university and the MAAC. “The MAAC membership has sought to maintain a brand that stresses excellence in academics and athletics, and Mount St. Mary’s fully meets those criteria.”

“Today is a great day in the history of Mount St. Mary’s University,” Mount St. Mary’s president Dr. Timothy Trainor echoed. “In joining the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, The Mount gains the opportunity to compete with some of the finest Catholic colleges in the Northeast, elevating the university’s brand as well as the level of competition for our nearly 600 student-athletes and coaches.”

Since joining the NEC in 1989 upon its transition to Division I, Mount St. Mary’s established itself as one of the more successful men’s basketball programs in the conference, appearing in six NCAA Tournaments after claiming conference tournament crowns. Under the direction of the late great Jim Phelan, The Mount first tasted postseason glory in 1995 before winning the NEC again four years later. The Mountaineers would return to the NCAA Tournament in 2008 under Milan Brown, twice behind Jamion Christian in 2014 and 2017, and most recently, in 2021 with current head coach Dan Engelstad at the helm.

Mount St. Mary’s women’s basketball program also adds gravitas to the MAAC footprint, which returns to Maryland for the first time since 2013. On the women’s side, The Mount has nine NCAA Tournament appearances, the most recent of which having come in 2021 in tandem with the men’s program. Overall, Mount St. Mary’s captured 49 championships during its tenure in the NEC, and looks to raise its profile while maintaining its high expectations in the MAAC.

“What an exciting time for Mount St. Mary’s University,” athletic director Lynne Robinson reiterated. “I want to thank the MAAC Council of Presidents, the Committee on Athletic Administration, and commissioner Rich Ensor for giving us this tremendous opportunity to become a member of the MAAC.”

“We are honored to join this group of outstanding universities who all have strong traditions and proven commitment to academic excellence and student-athlete success. Joining the MAAC will no doubt energize the entire Mount community and enhance the experience of our student-athletes. We are eager to build upon our strong foundation of academic and athletic success as we begin this new chapter for Mount Athletics.”

Friday, April 22, 2022

For three decades, Jay did it his way, the Wright way

Jack Styczynski (left) interviews Jay Wright at Madison Square Garden in Big East Tournament. (Photo by Marc Ernay/1010 WINS, via Jack Styczynski)

By Jack Styczynski (@hoopsvista)
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

I'll never forget the first time I met him.

Jay Wright was entering his fourth of seven seasons as Hofstra's head basketball coach, and was holding a preseason practice. An alumnus of the school, I was on hand to write a story on his sophomore sensation Speedy Claxton for a new and relatively unknown web site.

Before things got started, Wright asked me my name and affiliation, and after the team broke its huddle, he called me over and said to the players, "This is Jack Styczynski with College Hoops Insider, and I want you guys to help him out today." 

When the day was over and I had everything I needed, Wright told me his sister was in the media business, he understood the profession, and he would always treat its members right. I had no idea where his career would ultimately go, but I was impressed. And I never saw him deviate from his promise.

A few years later when I was running the Hofstra site at Rivals.com, I got an even closer look at his program as he allowed me to spend an entire game day with the team. By that time, he had already led the school to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 23 years and I had a better idea he was headed for bigger things — and soon — but still had no clue I was hanging with a future Hall of Famer.

After leading the Flying Dutchmen to a second straight Big Dance, Villanova came calling. Wright had always followed the program, married a Villanova cheerleader, and eventually became an assistant coach there under Rollie Massimino. It was obviously a perfect fit. He had told me during that game day at Hofstra that Massimino had taught him about creating a family atmosphere and not to "mess with happy." He would achieve both as head coach on the Main Line, making it his ultimate stop.

Although I never covered his Villanova teams the way I did for his last two seasons at Hofstra, I did get his cooperation many more times for various stories on his squad or more general college basketball topics. He was a great quote and the only coach who ever asked me to e-mail him my work after it was written. I got a little bit of a laugh out of the fact that he always referred to me as "buddy" in person (as he did with a lot of the media), even though we had corresponded electronically many times and he introduced me to his players by name the first day we met.

Wright's 21 years as the head man at Villanova were not all smooth. The Wildcats fell short of the NCAA Tournament his first three, and after he got the ball rolling and they made the Final Four in 2009, things got rough again with a pair of late-season flameouts and a losing campaign between 2010 and 2012. By this time, I was a full-blown fan, so I was obviously thrilled when he turned things around once more, thanks largely to a point guard named Ryan Arcidiacono and a Big East Conference that was reconfigured in 2013 such that his program became the new king. By 2016, Arch was passing the ball to Kris Jenkins and "bang," Wright was a national champion.

Two years later, he had a juggernaut. The 2018 Wildcats ran through the NCAA Tournament with six double-digit victories and a squad featuring five future NBA players (not to mention Phil Booth). Now, Wright had two national titles and was clearly among the greatest ever college basketball coaches. The previous year, a panel of journalists had already ranked him the second best currently in the game, behind only Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

In 2021, Wright was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Last month, he led his fourth team to the Final Four. And this past Wednesday, he retired from coaching at the relatively young age of 60 the same way he does everything, with class.

The Wright way.

What a ride.
Jay Wright patrols Villanova sideline against Seton Hall, with then-assistant Kyle Neptune (seated, first from Wright’s left) looking on. Neptune will succeed Wright as Wildcats’ head coach after one season at Fordham. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Rick Pitino’s remarks advocate more for stronger MAAC, not for potential A-10 move

Rick Pitino addressed Iona’s offseason and non-conference schedule in Zoom call Tuesday, which also included push for MAAC to fortify its own standing. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Rick Pitino took to the (virtual) airwaves Tuesday, conducting a Zoom call with members of the Iona media to reference the Gaels’ incoming six-man recruiting class and non-conference schedule for the 2022-23 season in the wake of winning 25 games, a regular season Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship, and appearing in the National Invitation Tournament.

After Pitino gave a primer on each new addition, highlighting that he recruited freshmen more heavily this season because — in his own words — “I didn’t want to lose sight of building a program,” he laid out the non-league gauntlet for Iona, which includes a home game against Saint Louis, trips to Hofstra and New Mexico, a meeting with Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden whose date still needs to be finalized, and appearances at Mohegan Sun Arena and Barclays Center against yet-unnamed opponents. Upon taking questions from the media, a particular quote about realignment made the rounds on social media and was quickly consumed and, to an extent, misinterpreted. Highlighting the Atlantic 10 Conference, Pitino had this to say:

“If Richmond didn’t upset Davidson, they would have only had, out of 14 teams, one team in the NCAA this year. But I believe, with Loyola Chicago coming in, with Archie Miller going to Rhode Island and Frank Martin going to UMass, the Atlantic 10 is going to take off, because they just hired awesome coaches.”

“So we need to get into a multi-bid league. Can the MAAC develop into something like that? I don’t know, it depends on who they’re bringing in. I don’t know what’s happening with that.”

At first blush, with no context and not reading between the lines, it is easy to misconstrue that as Pitino perhaps positioning Iona for a move to the Atlantic 10, which has NOT — repeat, NOT — been discussed in any serious capacity. However, this latest round of Pitino being brutally honest with regard to his program’s standing reads more as a plea for the MAAC to be more like the A-10 in how it projects itself as a basketball conference. “We need to get into a multi-bid league” should be taken more as an inadvertent slip of the tongue and read as “we need to BECOME a multi-bid league,” especially with the following quote about MAAC expansion, which has been rumored to include Mount St. Mary’s from the Northeast Conference, but nothing etched in stone:

“What bothers me more than anything about the MAAC is that they don’t bring the coaches or athletic directors in on who they’re trying to expand with,” Pitino said, citing the meetings with university and college presidents in regard to prospective new members. “We have no clue to who they’re expanding with. They don’t bring any of us in on that.”

Pitino is many things, most notably a Hall of Fame coach and two-time national champion who will forget more basketball than the majority of us will ever learn. And at the end of the day, his remarks should be taken as a passionate defense for his conference to think forwardly as opposed to simply maintaining the status quo, rather than as someone looking to take the first boat out of the harbor.