Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top Ten College Basketball Games of 2012 As Seen In Person

Sometimes, you need to get out of the house and just take a drive.  Such was the case Saturday night.  After staying indoors much of the day, I got stir crazy and went out for a bit.  I was supposed to have plans with a friend as well, but they fell through.  The bright side was that it forced me out of the house for a little while.  I got coffee to keep me going so I could write most of this article, money for Sunday's activities and gas for the car.  There's a bright side to everything, even failed plans.

What transpired Saturday night was that it also got me thinking on my year in review.  I had seen about sixty Division I and Division III men's and women's games in the calendar year of 2012.   I got to see several good NCAA Tournament men's teams in VCU, Iona and LIU.  I got to see the #1 women's team in the country, Stanford, play recently against a very gutty #19 South Carolina.  I saw many talented players, two of which ended up in the NBA; Kent Bazemore and Scott Machado.  Finally, I saw many exciting games and ten of them have made my Top Ten Games of 2012, one of which was a late year addition.  I also note some unique things I remember about each game.

Number 10 - St. Peter's vs. Iona -  The Gaels' Leave an Indelible Mark - I know what you're saying, what is a thirty seven point win doing in my Top Ten? Well, it's for the very simple fact that Iona went on a 31-0 run in the second half to turn a close seven point game into a blowout.  It was one of the most awesome displays by one team I had ever seen in a game.  Perhaps the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee was impressed too, as the Gaels eventually got an at large bid to the Big Dance.

What I always will love and now will miss about Iona games since I am now in South Carolina for the most part, is the Iona pep band.  They are an old school band.  They are the only pep band I know that plays Steely Dan's "Peg", a bouncy version of the theme song from "I Dream of Jeannie" and several Earth Wind and Fire songs, which are excellent songs for pep bands.

Number  9 - Iona vs. Manhattan - The Gaels Gain Revenge on the Jaspers - It was the final game of a Hofstra themed tripleheader, culminating at a raucous Draddy Gymnasium.  The Gaels were trying to extract revenge for the Jaspers' amazing come from behind rally at the Hynes Center earlier in the season. Iona would pull away for a convincing 81-71 win that wasn't even that close as the final score indicated.  But the atmosphere and a close first twenty minutes made the evening fun.

That night leaves several indelible memories.  First, you always have to be at Draddy early for a game, otherwise you will end parking in another state.  Thus was the case that night.  Second, the truly bizarre configuration of Draddy resulted in the only game I had ever had a partial, obstructed view of a basketball game.  Third, my little trouper of a color analyst, my now seven year old son Matthew making it through three games on the day.  He was still very much into watching basketball at Draddy that night and was bothered that he didn't have a full view of the game.  That folks is a basketball fan.

Number 8 - Stanford vs. South Carolina Women's Basketball Game - The Cardinal Withstand the Gamecocks in a NCAA Women's Tournament Quality Game - This is the only game from the 2012-13 season that has made my 2012 Top Ten and it was a dandy.  Imagine the 2010 Butler vs. Duke national championship men's game played as a women's game. It was a physical defensive struggle and the South Carolina fans made it a great atmosphere.

Here's the kicker.  It was the second game of a twin bill with the men's game vs. Appalachian State as the first game.  There was a late arriving crowd for the women's game.  How cool is that?  Dawn Staley has slowly but surely built a strong program in Columbia.  And once Frank Martin builds his program at South Carolina, the fans will be there for the men's game too.

Number 7 - Maine vs. Stony Brook - Seawolves win the Regular Season America East Championship - Perhaps the Black Bears-Seawolves game didn't have as large of a crowd of either number 9 or number 8 on my list, but it was still a sold out Pritchard Gym on Senior Day and the game had more meaning than those two games because a conference championship was on the line.  Plus it had a national TV audience thanks to CBS Sports Network.  Seeing the Seawolves win in front of their home crowd and hoist the regular season championship trophy in front of their fans made it extra special.

One of the things I most remember about this game is that legendary broadcaster Don Criqui broadcasted this game.  If you know your basketball from the seventies and eighties, Criqui broadcasted many college basketball games for NBC on Saturdays.  Heck, I remember fondly Syracuse's Roosevelt Bowie, Louis Orr and Don Criqui.  CBS gave the Stony Brook game a very cool retro feel with Criqui there.

Number 6 - Loyola Md vs. Fairfield - In the MAAC, It's Never Over Til It's Over Part Deux -  This game is memorable for me for several reasons- One, I got to go to Frank Pepe's before the game. Two, you had the Evil Black Curtain.  Three, you had a great rally by the Greyhounds late to knock off the Stags on their home court twenty four hours after Manhattan rallied to take down Iona in New Rochelle.  And finally,you had one Jimmy Patsos, quite possibly the craziest cat to coach Division I men's college basketball.  It made for a truly entertaining night in a contest that was televised to a national audience, even if only 2,000 people showed up for the game live.

I will always remember the end of the game.  After Loyola wins, Patsos is so fired up, he's yelling at the Loyola fans. He yanks his tie off and tries to throw into the Greyhounds fan section behind the Loyola bench.  The problem is the tie doesn't go very far.  Doesn't stop Patsos.  He goes behind the bench, picks up the tie, puts it around a Loyola fan and then gives him a hug.  It was a huge win for Loyola, which eventually made the NCAA Tournament by winning the MAAC Tournament.

Number 5 - LIU Brooklyn vs. Wagner - This Isn't Your Father's NEC -  A nationally televised NEC game.  First place in the Northeast Conference on the line.  The defending NEC champs, LIU vs. Team Hurley.  A sold out Spiro Center. Yes, sign me up for that please.  Dandy of a game too as the Blackbirds held off the Seahawks to win.  I truly believe it was the springboard for the eventual second straight NCAA Tournament appearance for LIU Brookyn.

There were several things that stood out at Spiro. First they have a basketball club called the College Hardwood.  How awesome is that!  Second, the Wagner student section did a terrific job that night.  Third, the PA system didn't do such a good job.  It was waaaaaay too loud and the game so needed a pep band there.  Pep band music > Canned music every time.  More schools should take after LaSalle.  The pep band plays the entire night.  No canned music (at least that's what it was at Gola Arena back in December 2005 when I was there for a Hofstra-LaSalle game).

Number 4 - UMass vs. Drexel NIT Quarterfinals - Minutemen Rally to Take Down the Dragons at the DAC - There is nothing like a sold out DAC for a basketball game.  Drexel looked like they were going to again show the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee that they truly messed up by not taking the Dragons, as they went out to a seventeen point second half lead.  But the Minutemen rallied to give the Dragons their first home loss of the season.  It was one hell of a game.

It was memorable for several reasons.  First, obviously a huge UMass comeback down seventeen in the second half that stunned the home Drexel crowd.  Second, it was the night I found out that I didn't get a job in Colorado, which actually worked out better for me.  Third, how often do you get a parking spot literally right in front of the arena?  Yup that was the night.

Number 3 - Manhattan vs. Iona - It's Never Over Till It's Over in the MAAC -  One of the wildest games of the regular season.  The Gaels leading at home in the Hynes Center by seventeen points with seven minutes left.  Manhattan rallies late and hits a three pointer at the buzzer to win.  It was surreal.

This Jaspers-Gaels classic was unfortunately a foreshadow of a problem that Iona would have throughout the season, blowing huge leads.  The Gaels would do this again at Siena later in the regular season.  Finally, Iona blew a huge lead in their first round play in game against BYU.   The sense of "I have seen this before" dread watching the Cougars rally in the second half against the Gaels started from this game against the Jaspers.

Number 2 -  Georgia State vs. George Mason - Byron Allen's Game Winning Shot in CAA Quarterfinals -  You had your classic CAA knockdown rockfight with the Panthers and the Patriots. Georgia State rallies late to tie the game, only to lose in heartbreak fashion with Allen's basket with 3.4 seconds left, which I captured on video from my seat on press row.

What I will always, always remember is Panthers' Head Coach Ron Hunter's emotional post game press conference.  It was truly honest, raw and heartbreaking.  It's a shame that Ron Hunter was only in the CAA a couple of years (Georgia State leaves for the Sun Belt after this season).  I got to meet with him after the press conference and he is genuine, funny and was really kind to Jerry Beach and me. He even joked with us about the IUPUI - Hofstra CBI game seen by only 952 people.  Class act.

Number 1 -  George Mason vs. VCU - The Patriots Stage a Near Impossible Comeback But Fall Short  -  In the second game of the CAA Semifinals, VCU rolls out to a 22-0 lead, then actually extends it to 32-4.  The sold out "neutral" Richmond Coliseum crowd was DEAFENING.  It looks like George Mason is going to be blown out of the building.

But the Patriots didn't fold up their tent.  They actually whittle that twenty eight point lead down to six with three minutes left before eventually losing by ten 74-64.  Yes, there were closer games than this in the countdown.  But considering the raucous "neutral" crowd (yes there were a good number of Mason fans, but it was mostly a pro VCU crowd) and the huge deficit, what George Mason did was nothing less than heroic

What I will always remember is the perspective you get sitting on the court.  I had been going to the CAA Tournament for years starting in the 2002-03 season.  Until this past March, I always sat in the stands.  This time, I was on press row.  You truly don't have an appreciation of how loud a sold out crowd in Richmond Coliseum is until you are on the court.  It was truly an incredible atmosphere.  It was also the last time I would see in person VCU in the CAA.

2012 was a great season college hoops wise.  May 2013 be just as good for all college hoops fans everywhere.  Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

For Hofstra Fans, It's Not As Bad As It Seems

If you are one of my marines, aka the few, the proud, the readers of my site (or my now 300 plus Twitter followers), even though I make Columbia, South Carolina my home, you know I bleed blue and gold.  I still have my Pride season tickets and I was in Brooklyn last weekend for their Barclays Center debut.

It's been a very rough last couple of months for the Hofstra Pride.  First their two best players, Taran Buie and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel were suspended for violation of team rules, which sparked concerns about their previous problems at other schools.  Second there was of course the arrests of the four players, two starters and two key reserves, on burglary charges. Right now, there is currently the eight game losing streak, punctuated by a 20-0 Tulane second half run at the Barclays Center last Saturday.  Finally, when maybe his return would spark some hope with the Pride faithful, it was learned last Friday that Coombs-McDaniel would be out for the season (and perhaps longer) due to problems with his micro-fracture surgery on his knee.

Some might tell you, like the Statler to my Waldorf, aka Defiantly Dutch, that Hofstra has no luck at all. You could say the Pig Pen dark cloud years started with the NCAA Tournament snubbing of Hofstra in 2006, when our "arch rival", the team the Pride beat convincingly both times that season, George Mason, made it as an large team while Hofstra had to settle for the NIT and Tom O'Connor conspiracy theories.

Then the Patriots proceeded to twist the knife in that wound by making the Final Four that season.  Until Florida knocked off Mason in the semis, Hofstra was the last team to have beaten them that season.  It was followed up by the next season, where Hofstra, the preseason favorite to win the CAA, went down in flames to "arch rival" George Mason and a late game vapor lock by Greg "Playstation" Johnson in the CAA Tournament quarterfinals.

Then there was Tom Pecora in 2011 leaving behind a successful team that had Charles Jenkins for a bigger payday and finally achieving his goal of being in the A-10 by taking the Fordham head coaching position. This resulted in the abdication of Hofstra by two All CAA Rookies in Chaz Williams and Halil Kanacevic.  Then there was the infamous thirty days of  Tim Welsh as coach of the Pride until a DWI arrest and failure to let the then athletic director Jack Hayes know about the arrest resulted in his resignation.  

Despite what turned out to be a heroic aftermath of the 2010-11 season led by new coach Mo Cassara and Charles Jenkins that resulted in 21 wins, a third place finish in the CAA (where the other top three teams made the NCAA Tournament) and their first CAA Tournament semifinal appearance since 2006, there was always a "What if" had Kanacevic and Williams stayed.   That was followed with an ugly 10-22 record last season which included a 3-15 conference record, topped with a drubbing by Georgia State in the first round of the CAA Tournament.  Which leads us to all that has happened with this season.

Heck, you could even say that the dark years started after the last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2001, when Jay Wright packed up and left for Villanova, which turned out to be a great move for him.  Yes, Hofstra hasn't made a NCAA Tournament appearance since Wright's departure.

Well, when I was reviewing the draft of Alan Kelly's  George Mason vs. Richmond recap article, the idea for this article hit me.  Despite all the bad that has seemingly happened the last six, heck even eleven years, Hofstra has had it good compared to many other teams, including many in the CAA.  

Let's look at some facts since the start of the 2001-02 season. 
  1. Hofstra has had six winning seasons and five seasons of twenty or more wins. Compare that to Tom Pecora's Fordham, who has had one winning season over the past eleven seasons, the 2006-07 season when the Rams were 18-12 and no twenty win seasons.  St John's has had five winning seasons, three with 20 or more wins. Stony Brook has had three winning seasons during that time,  two seasons with twenty or more wins. Manhattan has had six winning seasons, four with twenty or more win seasons. Iona has had four winning seasons, all with twenty plus wins. LIU Brooklyn has had three winning seasons, two twenty plus win seasons.

    As far as CAA comparisons, Drexel has had seven winning seasons since the start of the 2001-02 season, but only three times with twenty or more wins. James Madison has had two winning seasons, both with twenty or more wins. Northeastern has had six winning seasons, two times with twenty or more wins. William and Mary has had  two winning seasons with one twenty plus winning season. Delaware has had three winning seasons, but no twenty or more win seasons. Towson has had no winning seasons in the past eleven seasons.
  2. Hofstra has three NIT appearances since 2001-02 season. St John's has two NCAA appearances and one NIT championship. Manhattan has two NCAA tournament appearances and one NIT appearance.  Iona has two NCAA Tournament appearances.  LIU Brooklyn has two NCAA tournament appearances.  Drexel has five NIT appearances. Stony Brook has two NIT appearances.  Northeastern has two NIT appearances. William and Mary has one NIT appearance.  Delaware, James Madison and Towson have no NIT appearances.
  3. Hofstra has one player in the NBA, Charles Jenkins (who sealed Golden State's seven point win last night over Philadelphia with a steal and two free throws with eleven seconds left).  Of the current other CAA teams, only ODU (Kent Bazemore, Jenkins' teammate on Golden State), Northeastern (Minnesota's Jose Juan Barea) and Towson (San Antonio's Gary Neal) have NBA players as well.
  4. Hofstra has made at least the CAA Tournament semifinals three times including their inaugural 2001-02 season.  Drexel has made at least the CAA Tournament semifinals three times as well.  Since they joined the Colonial in the 2005-2006 season, Northeastern has made the CAA Tournament semifinals twice, while since 2001-02 Delaware and William and Mary have each made the semis twice (with William and Mary also making the finals twice as well) and Towson made it once.  James Madison has never made the CAA Tournament semifinals in the last eleven seasons.
I did not include for comparison purposes George Mason, ODU and UNC Wilmington, because, in fairness, they have each made at least three NCAA tournament appearances in that time frame - UNCW has three NCAA appearances - 2002, 2003, 2006. ODU has four NCAA appearances - 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2011 and an NIT appearance in 2006.  George Mason's NCAA appearances were of course 2006, 2008 and 2011.

So if you look at the numbers, you can say that Hofstra may not have the number of NCAA tournament appearances of several teams CAA teams like Mason, ODU or UNCW or local teams like St John's, Manhattan, Iona and even LIU Brooklyn.  But as far as winning seasons, twenty or more win seasons and NIT appearances, they are on par or ahead of most CAA and local teams.  

Then if you look at the big picture of other national major, mid major or low major teams that have struggled for years, things look brighter for Hofstra.  For example, until this season, Canisius hasn't had a winning season in this century.  Since they joined Division I in the 2005-06 season, Kennesaw State hasn't had a winning season and including so far this season, the Owls have won a total twelve games since the beginning of the 2010-11 season. 

USF has a legendary history as far as NCAA championships, thanks to Bill Russell.  San Francisco won two national championships in 1956 and 1957 with Russell and made an additional Final Four appearance in 1958. Yet, despite having five winning seasons since 2001-02, the Dons have had only one twenty or more win season in the past eleven seasons and haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 1998.

Providence has made the NCAA Tournament fifteen times and made the Final Four twice in their storied history.  Yet since the 2001-02 season, the Friars have made the NCAA Tournament only once, have three NIT appearances and only one twenty plus win season among their four winning seasons in that time frame.

DePaul has twenty two NCAA Tournament appearances and two Final Four appearances.  Yet they only have one NCAA appearance since the 2001-02 season (2004), three NIT appearances (defeated Hofstra in 2007) and three twenty or more win seasons during that time frame.  The Blue Demons have not had a winning season since the 2006-07 season.

These are just a few examples of colleges with struggling programs.  Several such as Providence (who lost to Brown last night), DePaul and San Francisco have long, storied programs.  There are many other schools that would love to have had six winning seasons, five twenty plus win seasons and three NIT appearances the past eleven seasons.

Yes, Hofstra is struggling right now and that is mainly due to injuries and suspensions, not to lack of talent - see their win over South Dakota State, the only team to have defeated New Mexico and that was at the Pit.  Will it take some time for Hofstra to regain its footing in the CAA?  Likely.  But it may not take the four seasons that it took Tom Pecora to turn Hofstra into a winning program.

Despite the last season and a half, Hofstra fans need to look at the longer body of work of this basketball program.  Compared to a lot of other Division I programs over the past eleven seasons, there is a lot to be thankful for if you are a Pride fan.  It just may not look that way right now. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

This isn’t a rerun: Sherrod Wright wins it at the buzzer (Recap of George Mason vs Richmond)

The first game of the inaugural (Virginia) Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic doubleheader this past Saturday in Richmond, Va., provided a finish that more than validated Governor Bob McDonnell’s vision in creating what will hopefully be an annual four-school, all-Commonwealth event.

With 5.8 seconds left, George Mason and Richmond found themselves knotted at 64-all. The Patriots retained possession after a Spiders foul, and guard Sherrod Wright inbounded to point guard Corey Edwards, who drove the right side of the lane, then suddenly spun and passed out to Wright.

The redshirt junior has become known for hitting big shots, and he rose and fired, absorbing a collision with his defender, to swish a three-pointer as the horn sounded. With the soft smack of leather against nylon, a long streak of futility at the Richmond Coliseum ended for the Patriots.


By way of introduction, I'm a George Mason student and diehard Patriots basketball fan. I'll be writing about George Mason and the CAA here for the rest of the season. This is the holiday-delayed first installment of what I hope will be a regular contribution. Thanks, Gary!


The city of Richmond, and especially its Coliseum, has not been kind to the team from Fairfax. Mason has won many games in the Coliseum against other out-of-town guests, but when faced with a hometown squad, they always seemed to lose. The CAA tournament has been held at the Richmond Coliseum every season since 1990, with Richmond participating up until 2000, and VCU participating from 1996 until last March. In that entire time, Mason never won a single game against either school in conference tournament play.

Even in their best years, playing the Coliseum has been a struggle. The two best teams in Patriots history, the 2006 Final Four team and the 2011 Round of 32 team, both earned at-large NCAA bids after crushing conference tournament losses (to Hofstra, and to VCU, respectively).

The Patriots had fared slightly better at the Coliseum in the regular season, most recently defeating VCU in February 1999. However, with the Spiders departing for the A-10 after the 2001 season (not to face Mason again until this past Saturday) and with the Rams relocating to the Siegel Center for 2000-01, the futility streak expanded to regular season play.

After a decade of painful losses, Mason finally broke through at the Siegel Center in February 2011, with a 71-51 shellacking of the Rams on national television (improbably, this loss awakened a sleeping giant, and Shaka Smart's squad went to the Final Four barely a month later).

But the Coliseum streak continued, right through the 2012 CAA tournament. Mason went home early from Richmond last March, falling to VCU on a supposedly neutral court for the fourth year in a row and the sixth time in the last nine tournaments. With VCU departing in the offseason for the A-10, and the CAA tournament shifting to Baltimore after one final hurrah this coming March, that could have been the end of the story. However, one last opportunity presented itself, with the establishment of the Governor’s Classic. The Patriots were chosen to face Richmond (for the first time since 2001!) in the early game, with Old Dominion versus Virginia to follow.

The pregame scouting reports should have been fairly simple. Richmond came in having taken 32 three-point attempts earlier in the week against Kansas, and shooting 38% from long range for the season. The Patriots, meanwhile, entered having consistently been ranked as one of the top teams in the country at defending two point field goals, yet one of the worst at defending against the three.

Richmond took full advantage, hitting two treys in the first minute and sinking eight of their first ten attempts from beyond the arc. Darien Brothers was especially hot, beginning the game five-for-five. In fact, with all their hot shooting from the outside, the Spiders did not score a two-point basket until over 15 minutes into the game.

On the Patriots side, leading scorer Sherrod Wright (Mason’s only double figure scorer at over 16 per game) kept Mason in the game early. The junior accounted for 11 of Mason’s first 21 points, including a sequence in which he made a layup, stole the inbound pass right under the basket, and dunked to tie the score at 11.

Offense was in style early, and after about 9 minutes of trading baskets, the game was tied at 21. Each team began to make defensive adjustments, and Mason’s offense bogged down as Wright faced additional pressure, while Richmond was forced to start to look inside for points. Sloppy play and turnovers on both sides slowed the pace, with Richmond pulling away late to lead 41-32 at the half.

With the final seconds ticking down for Mason, in a foreshadowing of coming events, Sherrod Wright forced up a long three-pointer, which missed everything, and may have been tipped. It dropped into the arms of freshman Patriot Marko Gujanicic, who alertly laid it up, albeit milliseconds too late to count.

The second half was defined by three major runs. First, Mason came out with a renewed focus to defend the three, especially against leading scorers Darien Brothers and Derrick Williams. Defensive intensity and some timely hot shooting fueled an 11-3 Mason run to cut the deficit to 44-43 with 16 minutes to play.

Momentum shifted as Mason’s offensive ground to a stop again, victimized by turnovers and poor shooting, while the Mason defense fouled Richmond five times in about a minute and a half. The run was finally stopped by a Patrick Holloway jumper and a Corey Edwards uncontested layup, but not before an 12-2 run had given the Spiders a 12 point lead with 7:31 to play.

It seemed likely that Mason had expended all their energy in closing the initial gap at the start of the half, and that the game was now slipping away. Instead, Richmond opened the door, as over the next few minutes Edwards drew a charge, then Trey Davis missed a pair of free throws, then Richmond committed four turnovers against Mason’s full court pressure and missed two rushed three-point attempts.

Mason took what they were given, as Wright’s three-pointer made it a seven point game, then Edwards and Anali Okoloji scored in transition cut the deficit to three. Back-to-back turnovers by Wright slowed the comeback, however Richmond got only a single Darien Brothers (20 points) made free throw from the miscues. With two minutes to play, the Spiders still clung to a four point advantage, 62-58.

The sophomore Edwards, who has emerged as Mason’s new starting point guard in recent weeks (an ever-revolving position for the Patriots, dating back to the beginning of last season), came up with a big steal for the Patriots. The ball found it’s way into the hands of the sweet-shooting Holloway, who promptly knocked down a trey, cutting the Richmond lead to one, 62-61, with 1:53 to play.

Spiders forward Alonzo Nelson-Ododa promptly turned the ball over again, and Jonathan Arledge stuck back Edwards' miss for the Patriots first lead of the game, 63-62. Spiders coach Chris Mooney called timeout, but he was powerless to stop his team’s collapse, as Greg Robbins lost control of the ball on a drive to the basket seconds later.

Robbins fouled Edwards in the act of shooting, and the point guard converted one of two free throws for a 64-62 Mason lead with 54 seconds to play. Richmond walked the ball up the court, running as much clock as they could. Derrick Williams (14 points) missed a three-pointer, but teammate Cedrick Lindsay was there to put it back and tie the score with 19.8 seconds to play.

Mason had been in these tight end game situations many times already this season, with mixed results (a blown five point lead to New Mexico in the final 12 seconds looms especially large), and inconsistency in such situations surely played a role in the demotion of former starting point guard Bryon Allen. This time, the Patriots could not be denied. The Spiders had a foul to give, and they used it with 5.8 seconds to go. Paul Hewitt used Mason’s final time out, and from there, Edwards (career-high 13 points) ran the designed play to perfection.

Mason’s defensive pressure, compounded by unforced Spiders miscues, allowed the Patriots to  close the game on an 18-3 run and win the contest at the buzzer, as Wright (22 points) replicated his walk off heroics from last February’s win over VCU. If there had been any question previously, it was now crystal clear: Sherrod Wright is The Man for Mason.

For me personally, and for a lot of Patriots fans, a burden was also lifted that afternoon. A regular season win, even such an important and exciting one, can't undo all those years of conference tournament heartache. Only cutting down the nets this March, on what should finally be a truly neutral court, can begin to do that. But we don't have to dread the Coliseum anymore.

Monday, December 24, 2012

One Hundred Reasons to Watch Iona (Recap of Norfolk State vs. Iona)

Last season, I had the pleasure of covering live twelve Iona men's basketball games.  There is no more fun team to watch live in Division I College Basketball than the Iona Gaels.  Yes, I said that and mean that.

What makes Iona fun is their type of play.  Under Head Coach Tim Cluess, they are disciples of Paul Westhead, the "Guru of Go" and his type of play known as "The System".  It's based on simple math - More Possessions + More Shot Attempts = More Points.

The Gaels' last season went 25-8 and made the NCAA Tournament as an at large.  They held a twenty five points lead vs. BYU before the Cougars rallied to defeat the Gaels 78-72. It was the first time Iona had made the NCAA Tournament since 2006. Going into yesterday's game, Cluess' record at Iona is 55-25 through two and a third seasons and has won twenty five games in each of his first two seasons.

Last season's team was an offensive juggernaut.  The Gaels scored 82.9 points per game and shot fifty percent from the field on the season. Yes, that's not a typo. Fifty percent. Iona also averaged 19.3 assists per game.  The man responsible for most of those assists at 9.9 assists per game, Scott Machado, now plays for the NBA's Houston Rockets.

This season, the Gaels are eleventh in the country this season in scoring points at eighty one points per game and are in the top one hundred in most offensive categories, including third in the country in free throw percentage at 79.3 percent.  They are first in the MAAC in field goal percentage at 45.3 percent and first in the MAAC in assists per game at 15.6 assists.  Momo Jones and Sean Armand, key members of last season's NCAA Tournament team, are first and third in the MAAC in scoring - Jones averaging 22.2 points per game and Armand 18.8 points per game.

Yesterday, I took my two sons, Matthew and Jonathan, appropriately dressed in Iona gear and made the drive up to New Rochelle. Surprisingly, despite several crazy shopper drivers on the road, there was only the usual Sunday afternoon traffic. We made good time until the usual backlog starting at Exit Nine on the Hutchinson River Parkway.  Yes, the traffic was for Exit Thirteen, the Cross County/Saw Mill River Parkway exit, which has been that way since the dawn of the highway.  One thing I don't miss living about in South Carolina is New York traffic and I laugh when people in the Palmetto State complain about traffic, which seriously pales in comparison to the Big Apple.

At the Hynes Center, the Gaels were hosting another NCAA Tournament team from a season ago, Norfolk State.  The Spartans knocked off #2 seed Missouri in the second round of the tournament in March and won twenty six games last season.  Norfolk State also has their own NBA player in Kyle O' Quinn.  Quinn, who was the Spartans' leading scorer last season and had twenty six points and fourteen rebounds  in the win over Missouri, plays for the Orlando Magic.  The Spartans third leading scorer from last season, Pendarvis Williams, leads Norfolk State with 15.3 points per game.

So on Festivus, you had two NCAA Tournament teams playing each other.  And the 1,855 in attendance that nicely packed the Hynes Center in New Rochelle were in for a treat.  A treat that Iona gave its fans four times last season (and I saw two of those games).

One of the reasons I believe Iona entered the season at 5-5 is that despite the scoring of Jones and Armand, they lacked the inside scoring presence they had last season with Michael Glover. Glover was their leading scorer in the 2011-12 season averaging 18.3 points per game. Glover required a double team and that opened up passing lanes and other Gaels for open threes or the drive to the basket.

Enter one David Laury.   The highly regarded Laury is a sophomore who just became eligible one game prior to yesterday.  The highly talented six foot eight forward scored twenty one points and had fourteen rebounds in a loss to LaSalle and was making his Iona home game debut.

After Norfolk State jumped out to 4-0 lead, Laury wasted no time making an impact. He scored five of the first twelve Iona points off assists from Da'Shawn Gomez.  His three point play gave the Gaels a 12-6 lead with fourteen and half minutes left in the half.  Laury then extended the lead to ten points, 23-13 on another layup with ten a half minutes.

Williams responded for Norfolk State with two three pointers to cut the lead to six, 25-19.  But again Laury proved to be unstoppable as he scored on his second three point play of the day and the lead was back to nine 28-19.  It would be part of a 10-0 Iona run capped by an A.J. English three pointer and the Gaels were up 35-19 with five and a half minutes left in the half.  The lead would be extended even further to 41-24 with a little over two minutes left in the half.

The other main reason Iona has been a .500 team this season is their defense, or lack thereof.  Entering yesterday's game, Iona was next to last in the MAAC in scoring defense, giving up 75.8 points per game.  The Gaels are 251st in the country in effective field goal percentage defense at 51.1 percent.

So it stood to reason that Norfolk State would get back in the game with an 7-2 spurt in less than a minute to cut the lead to twelve, 43-31.  But there was that man Laury, who again hit another layup to put Iona up fourteen, 45-31 to end the half.  Laury already had twelve first half points.

One of the great things about going to Iona men's home games is the wonderful Iona Pep Band.  The pep band started the day with a jazzy version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Then later, they played some Stevie Wonder and Walk this Way by Aerosmith.  But it would be the Pep Band if they didn't play "Peg" by Steely Dan.  After an emphatic block by Laury led to an under twelve media timeout in the first half, the band fired up a version that Donald Fagin would be proud of and which I tweeted to Jaden Daly who was out covering the Fordham game.

During halftime, there was a girls' basketball game being played.  After one of the girls airballed a wide open jumper, my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew commented "I would have hit that".  Shortly thereafter, Guy Falotico, an Iona alum known as @IonaGuyF on Twitter, joined us and we talked during the first half. Guy knows my love of the Pep Band and when Walt and the boys started up "I Dream of Jeannie", I had to stop and tweet the news, which gave Guy a good laugh.  Later on the great Nick Guerriero, assistant SID for Iona and play by play voice for the women's basketball team stopped by to say hi. It's always good to see the folks at Iona.

The start of the second half saw Iona extend their lead to nineteen, 56-37.  Laury had five points during this time, including his third three point play of the day.  But Jones was the second half scoring force for the Gaels. He would score sixteen second half points.

Norfolk State had slowly whittled the Iona lead back to fourteen, 67-53 with ten minutes left.  But the Gaels would outscore the Spartans 24-8 over the next five minutes.  This is when Armand starting find his rhythm from beyond the arc, nailing three three pointers.  Tre Bowman capped the run with a three pointer of his own and Iona was up 91-61 with five minutes left.

This is when Matthew turned to me and said he wanted to see Iona score one hundred points.  And sure enough, Nyandigisi Moikobu nailed a three pointer with thirty eight seconds left.  There were no coupons for free tacos but the Gaels sent their fans home happy with a 100-72 win.

Jones led all scorers with twenty four points, five assists and was a perfect twelve for twelve from the foul line.  Laury had twenty points and seven rebounds.  Armand had twelve points as he shot four of eight from beyond the arc. He also added seven points, three assists and two steals.  Sledge had twelve points and eight rebounds and Taaj Ridley had ten points and nine rebounds.

Williams, Rashid Gaston and Zieyik Estime all scored in double figures and combined for forty of Norfolk State's seventy two points.   The Spartans were twelve of twenty nine from beyond the arc.Williams and Estime each had four three pointers.

With the win Iona moved to 6-5 on the year.  Matthew had his one hundred points. Jonathan had a good time watching the game and I had another fond memory of the Hynes Center.

Special Thanks to Jamie Fogarty, Senior Associate AD at Iona, for her help on Sunday. Very much appreciated.

An Arena Grows in Brooklyn Part 2 (Recap of South Carolina vs. Manhattan)

Four months ago, I left my position at Hofstra for the University of South Carolina.  For twenty eight years of my life, I had spent most of my days on the campus located in Hempstead, New York.   Now I spend my work days on the campus located in Columbia, South Carolina.  I went from a mid major basketball school to the heart of the SEC, home of big time college football.  So it was ironic that on Saturday, I would be attending a tripleheader where my two worlds collided.  

In the first game, I proudly wore my Hofstra Basketball sweatshirt. My alma mater had played well for twenty minutes, only to see it be on the receiving end of a 20-0 run at the start of the second half before losing to Tulane.  But right before the tip-off of South Carolina vs. Manhattan, I took off my sweatshirt as I was wearing underneath a Gamecocks Basketball T-shirt.  I wasn't the only one in the Northeast CAA contingent wearing Garnet.  Mike Brodsky was proudly wearing USC athletic wear to support his friends at South Carolina.

Both Manhattan and South Carolina were missing their best players for the game.  The Jaspers' George Beamon has been battling injuries all season and sat out the game as Coach Steve Masiello wanted to get him ready for MAAC conference play. Meanwhile, Gamecocks' guard Bruce Ellington didn't make the trip as he was preparing with his fellow football teammates for the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. 

Once again, I was sitting with Tieff, Mike Brodsky, Victoria Rossi and Alex Faust for this second game.  I was joined by Ray Curren, who was covering the third of four games for the Mid Majority on the day.  We were going to see a much closer game than the first game of the tripleheader.

South Carolina came out strong.  As I had seen already several times this season, other than Ellington, the Gamecocks' two other best players are Michael Carrera and Brenton Williams.  Williams nailed two three pointers, while Carrera added a three pointer and a layup as well. They combined for all of South Carolina's points early as the Gamecocks went up 11-3.  

But also as I had seen several times this season, the Gamecocks allow their opponents to stay in the game. The Jaspers responded with 18-7 run over the next six minutes.  Shane Richards hit his second of six three pointers on the day to put Manhattan up 21-18 with 10:19 left in the half.

Neither team would score for nearly three minutes until Lakeem Jackson hit a layup to bring South Carolina within a point, 21-20.  It would be part of a Gamecocks' 9-2 spurt capped by a layup by Carrera to put USC up 27-23.  After Manhattan rallied to tie the game at 27, the Gamecocks had another spurt as Brian Richardson nailed two three pointers and Carrera added a free throw to put South Carolina up 34-27.  They would enter the half up six, 36-30.

Carrera was already impressing our group as he had twelve points and six rebounds, which helped South Carolina to a 23-9 rebounding edge at halftime.  He is undersized as far as SEC forwards at six foot five inches.  But Carrera plays with the heart of a six foot nine kid and has a high basketball IQ.   

Someone at the Barclays Center has a twisted sense of humor.  At halftime, they posted the score but listed it with Hofstra and Tulane instead of South Carolina and Manhattan.  The scoreboard folks were rubbing salt into a fresh wound for Pride fans like me.

The second half saw South Carolina extend its lead to seven points, 38-31 on a Jackson layup.  But Manhattan responded with a 10-0 run.  Again, Richards was in the mix, nailing another three pointer.  The Jaspers led 41-38 with fourteen minutes left.

But the Gamecocks came back with a 10-0 run of their own.  South Carolina forced five Manhattan turnovers over a four minute span. Richardson scored five of those ten points and the Gamecocks were up 48-41 with ten and a half minutes left. 

The next several minutes became the Brenton Williams show.  Williams scored eight straight points, the last of which was a three pointer that gave the Gamecocks their first double digit lead of the game.  South Carolina was up 58-47 with five minutes left in the game.

The Gamecocks would go scoreless for the next two and a half minutes.  But Manhattan only managed four points during that span.  Williams assisted on a Jackson jumper and South Carolina was back up nine, 60-51 with just under two and a half minutes left in the game.

But Manhattan refused to quit.  Mohamed Koita and Richards each hit a three pointer and the lead was down to three, 60-57 with 1:21 left.  The Jaspers got the crowd back in the game. 

However the Jaspers turned the ball over on each of their next two possessions and would not score again. Richardson, Williams and Carrera, the three leading scorers on the day for the Gamecocks, would each hit one of two free throws.  It wasn't pretty, but it was effective for South Carolina, as they won 62-57.

Williams led South Carolina with seventeen points.  Carrera, whose only point in the second half came on that free throw, still had thirteen points and Richardson added twelve points.  Jackson just missed a double double with nine points and eleven rebounds.

Richards led all scorers with eighteen points on six of twelve shooting from beyond the arc.  Rhamel Brown just missed a double double with ten points and nine rebounds.  He would have easily had more points if he was better than two of ten from the free throw line. Donovan Kates, however, had a good day at the line as he was eight of ten, which helped him score thirteen points for the game.

It was the eighth win on the season for Head Coach Frank Martin, who at times on the sideline looked like he needed some Pepto Bismol.  His team gave him reason for an upset stomach with nineteen turnovers, but they still won.  In fact, they are only two wins away from matching last year's win total, ten.  The Gamecocks didn't win their tenth game last season until my birthday, February 15.  

And despite how fiery Martin is, it wasn't him that got the technical foul call.  Manhattan's Masiello got a technical in the second half, which contributed to that game changing 10-0 South Carolina run.  As for Masiello, he has to hope that George Beamon is ready for conference play.  Manhattan, the preseason favorite to win the MAAC, is only 3-7 so far this season.

I said my goodbyes to the Northeast CAA gang and Ray Curren, who was staying for the Seton Hall - LIU Brooklyn game for his canasta of hoops on the day.  Tieff and I made our way back to Atlantic Terminal, then said goodbye at Jamaica station as we each had separate trains to Bellmore and Hicksville respectively. 

I know what you're saying.  How could I pass up a third game of a basketball tripleheader?  After spending the rest of the evening looking at Christmas lights with my wife and two boys, I hope the picture to the left answers your question.  

Plus, the basketball season is still young.  I still had a game to see on Sunday with Iona hosting Norfolk State and there are plenty of more games left to see.  And oh yes, I am making plans to be at Barclays again in March for the Atlantic 10 Tournament. 

Also, after seeing your alma mater in the first game and then your new home team play the second game, that was a fitting end to my basketball day. Anything more would have been anticlimactic.

Besides, two is a nice even number, in basketball and in life. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

An Arena Grows in Brooklyn Part I (Recap of Tulane v. Hofstra)

“Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”   From A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 
I never read a "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn".  But I have seen many times the classic Bugs Bunny  "A Hare Grows in Manhattan" which refers to the famous book during the cartoon.  Yesterday, for the first time, I was getting to see the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for a college basketball tripleheader.  I had bought tickets for the game earlier in the week from Stubhub.  Instead of paying the seemingly going rate of $55 per ticket, I found Section 29 Row 7 seats for $24 a piece.  Pretty good deal.

If community activists and local residents had their way, just like the doomed West Stadium project, the Barclays Center would never have been built.  After numerous court battles and various rulings by the New York State Supreme Court, the New York Court of Appeals and Brooklyn Supreme Court, which allowed eminent domain for the project, construction started in March 2010.

By the way, whatever happened to the affordable Cablevision sponsored housing project that was supposed to take place instead of the West Side Stadium?   Yeah, nothing ever happened.

The Barclays Center is right across from the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.  It's really easy to get to by train. Take the LIRR (whether from Penn Station or if you on Long Island) to Jamaica. Then take the train to Atlantic Terminal.  Go outside and walk directly to Barclays Center.  There is also the Atlantic Avenue – Barclays Center subway station which is accessible by the 2, 3, 4, 5, B, D, N, Q and R subway trains.  You can't ask for a more conveniently accessible arena.

Barclays opened in March, 2012 to eight consecutive sold out shows by Jay-Z.  The Nets have moved there and as a result, they finally have a true rivalry with the Knicks after all the years toiling at the Izod Center.  Barclays Center also saved the Islanders from moving out of state. The hockey team will move there for the 2015 season, if the NHL is still in existence at that time.  In the short time Barclays has been open, it has made a major impact in the city and financially for businesses in the area that sorely needs business.

Finally, the Barclays Center is making a name for itself in college basketball.  Looking to get certified as a NCAA regional location, it already it is hosting the Atlantic 10 Tournament in March 2013 and already has been the home to several college basketball events, including a doubleheader last weekend with St John's and Michigan.  Then yesterday, it hosted The Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational tripleheader - Tulane vs. Hofstra, South Carolina vs. Manhattan and Seton Hall vs. LIU Brooklyn.

I took a 12:51 LIRR train from Bellmore and transferred at Jamaica for the Atlantic Terminal train.  My friend Tieff was going to meet me at Barclays.  After I sat down on the train, someone like him walked by  me, followed by a taller guy wearing a jacket with "Britain" on the back. I figured they were so close walking together that it couldn't have been him.

But figuring what the heck, I called him on his cell.  He answered and said he was on the train to Atlantic Terminal.  I asked, was a guy in a "Britain" jacket following you.  He said "Yes".  I told him to come back because he had walked right by me.  Sure enough, I see Tieff on his phone heading towards me.  Small world.

We got to Atlantic Terminal an hour before game time.  So we headed up to Atlantic Terminal Mall, conveniently located across from the Barclays Center.  Though the mall was swamped with Christmas shoppers, there were actually open seats at the Buffalo Wild Wings.  Tieff and I enjoyed our lunch watching Temple upset Syracuse at Madison Square Garden.  When we left Buffalo Wild Wings, there was a huge wait for tables in the alcove area of the restaurant.   Guess we beat the shoppers' break there.

As we headed outside and crossed the street, I was struck by the entrance to Barclays Center.  It includes an Oculus, an opening to the building roof structure.  If that didn't strike you, once you entered the arena, the giant scoreboard will strike you.

As told to me by Tieff, unlike the Michigan - St John's doubleheader, the upper level section of the arena was curtained off.  It looked like the cousins of the Evil Black Curtain in Webster Arena adorned the upper level section of the arena.  It made Ray Curren, my friend and writer for Mid Majority who was there for the tripleheader, and I feel at home.

Still there were more people there for the first game then Tieff and I had thought.  Hofstra was wearing the home whites and Tulane wore the road green, as a team nicknamed the Green Wave should do.  It turns out, as my friend Mike Brodsky, who was there for the game to root on South Carolina and meet up with a lot of  our fellow northeast based CAA friends, noted that Tulane has a large alumni base in the New York region.  That was affirmed when a chant of "GREEN...WAVE" occurred in the second half.

As most of you are aware, Hofstra has struggled since four of their players were suspended from the team after being arrested for stealing student laptops and other electronic items.  Entering yesterday's game, the Pride had lost six straight, including four games after the incident.  But you have to support your school through good times and in bad, and I was wearing my "Hofstra Basketball" sweatshirt.

And in the first half, my alma mater gave me hope that they might break the losing streak.  Unlike their previous game against Wright State, Hofstra started out strong.  The Pride's leading scorer on the season, sophomore guard Taran Buie scored eight of Hofstra's first twelve points giving the Pride a 12-8 lead over the Green Wave.

Hofstra extended the lead to seven, 25-18 on a Moussa Kone dunk with six and a half minutes left.  But Tulane responded with an 8-0 run as the Green Wave's leading scorer on the season, Josh Davis hit a resounding dunk to put Tulane up 26-25 with a little under three and a half minutes left in the half.  But Hofstra's Matt Grogan would hit a shot clock beating jumper to tie the game at thirty at the half.

During the game, it was a local CAAHoops/NYC metro hoops gathering in Section 26.  You had Mike Brodsky, a Northeastern alum known as NUHF, you had Jaden Daly, from Daly Dose of Hoops, Alex Faust, play by play voice of the Staten Island Yankees and Merrimack College Athletics as  well as a Northeastern grad and hockey expert, Victoria Rossi, a Hofstra grad/WRHU member and Northeastern graduate alum, who does web production work, Chris Heimall, another Hofstra grad who does play by play for Manhattan College now, the legendary Defiantly Dutch, Jerry Beach, Ray Curren, who might break the Mid Majority record for games covered in a season, Tieff and myself.   It made the two basketball games we watched even more fun.  And yes, Mike, we have it better.

I was glad that I was with such good company because within four minutes of the start of the second half , the game was basically over.  That's because Tulane guard Ricky Tarrant became a one man wrecking crew. He scored the Green Wave's first thirteen points by himself.   Tarrant nailed three consecutive three pointers, then added two free throws and a layup.  It was part of a Tulane 20-0 run that turned a tie game into a blowout.  With sixteen minutes still left in the game, the Green Wave were up 50-30 on Hofstra.

Unfortunately for the Pride fans in attendance, the Tulane lead actually expanded to thirty points, 67-37.  No one who had seen the first half would have thought that Hofstra would have been outscored 37-7 in the span of basically eight minutes.  Tarrant would score twenty one of his game high twenty eight points in the second half.

The Pride would eventually cut the lead down at the end to twenty one points before losing 83-62.  Buie who had started out so strong with eight points in the first seven minutes of the game, only had seven more points the rest of the game, but still led Hofstra with fifteen points. Steve Mejia had nine points, eight rebounds and six assists.  The Pride though shot only thirty eight percent.  Mejia and Buie combined to shoot an ugly six of twenty six from the field.

Due to having only eight scholarship players, Hofstra has had two walkons, Matt Grogan and Adam Savion play significant minutes.  The bright side was they combined to shoot five of seven from the field.  Also, 6-10 forward Daquan Brown played his first game for the Pride after sitting out due to NCAA eligibility rules.  In just seven minutes of play, he had three blocks.

Tulane was led by Tarrant's twenty eight points, eight rebounds and five steals.  Davis had eighteen points, nine rebounds, four assists and three blocks.  Jordan Callahan added fifteen points for the Green Wave.  Coming into the game, Tulane was averaging only two blocks per game.  They had six vs. Hofstra.

Adding insult to injury for Hofstra fans was the news that South Dakota State, behind Nate Wolters' twenty eight points, upset previously undefeated #16 New Mexico 70-65.  This was the same Jackrabbbits' team the Pride beat at home 66-63 when they had their full team.

I feel for Hofstra Coach Mo Cassara.  Those four kids that were arrested ruined their lives and potentially a very good basketball season. It's almost impossible to overcome the loss of two starters and two key reserves.  Then on Friday, it was announced that Jamal Coombs McDaniel, who was counted on to be a key member of the Pride's team this season, was out for the year due to a knee injury. Things just can't get worse for Hofstra fans.

After the game, Tieff and I need a break before the second game and some consolation.  It came in the form of custard ice cream at the Junior's Cheesecake concession stand right outside of our section.   The custard was very good.

I still had one more game to watch, but it only took two hours for the Barclays Center to impress me.  The sight lines for basketball were good, the arena is beautiful and the trip to get there was easy.  You can't ask anything more for an arena.  It's the biggest thing in Brooklyn sports since the Dodgers left.

And just think, this might not have all happened had a few "community" activists had their way.  Glad common sense won out...this time.