Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Welcome to the Big South (Recap of Campbell v. Coastal Carolina)

I got a message Thursday night from Matt Cayuela, writer for the Mid Majority and otherwise known as @MBHH, Myrtle Beach Happy Hour.  He's the man who knows all the happy hour places in the Myrtle Beach area.  Matt sent me a message Thursday night saying he had an extra ticket for Saturday night's Campbell v. Coastal Carolina game.  It took me all of five seconds to say "Count me in. I will buy dinner."

Immediately after South Carolina's win over Arkansas, I hopped in the car and took the 2 1/2 hour drive from Columbia to Coastal Carolina, which is located in Conway, a few minutes from Myrtle Beach.  The route is basically I-77 to I-20 East through Florence, to US 76 and then Route 501 where Coastal is located.  Along the way, I stopped for gas and a banana shake at a Pilot/Dairy Queen. Sadly I was driving, so I didn't have time for a Blizzard.

Despite driving past our meeting point, I quickly u-turned and parked at Tongy's Schmackhouse, a very good sports bar/restaurant located in the University Commons, a mall located right across from the university. I met Matt and he drove us over to the HTC Center, the Chanticleers new arena.

The HTC Center, which just opened this season, seats 3200, about the same occupancy of Rose Hill Gym. It reminds me of LIU Brooklyn's Wellness Center. It's a very nice arena and you best like teal, which is the Chanticleers' team color. Our seats were located in the last row of Section 114, which is dead center court. The HTC Center is the home for the Big South Tournament for the next three years and it's a worthy home for the Tournament.

Now when you are playing on the level of the Big South, you have to be creative in recruiting players. That's because there are a significant number of colleges in the North and South Carolina area, with many schools at higher D1 conferences. And both Campbell and South Carolina are very creative when it comes to recruiting.

In the case of Campbell and coach Robbie Laing, it's welcoming transfers, whether JUCOs or transfers from higher level Division I schools. Campbell has from my count five JUCO/community college players and four Division I transfers - forward Antwon Oliver (Iowa State), Darius Leonard (Kent State), Reco McCarter (VCU) and Darren White (James Madison). White was Campbell's leading scorer until he went down with a season ending injury. Campbell's style of recruiting is working as they entered the game 5-1 in conference.

In the case of Coastal Carolina and Cliff Harris, it's recruiting foreign players. The Chanticleers have five players from foreign countries - El Hadj Ndieguene and Badou Diagne (both from Senegal), Michael Enanga (Cameroon), Uros Ljeskovic (Montenegro) and Tristian Curtis (Bahamas). And having foreign players results in humorous banter. During the game, Ljeskovic, a freshman, turned over the ball. Matt commented to me "You know how freshmen are, especially Montenegran freshmen."

The Chanticleers jumped out quickly to a 12-4 lead as Kierre Greenwood hit a three point play. But the Camels responded with a 9-2 run as McCarter buried a three pointer to cut the CCU to one, 14-13 with eleven minutes left in the half. But the Chanticleers extended the lead back to five 18-13.

The Camels responded again with another 9-2 spurt. Darian Hooker hit a three pointer and was fouled. He made the free throw, then later hit another three pointer to tie the game at twenty. Andrew Ryan capped the spurt with a jumper and the Camels had a 22-20 lead with 5:45 left in the half.

The Chanticleers would respond by ending the half on a 9-0 run led by their three leading scorers on the season, Anthony Raffa, Greenwood and Warren Gillis. Gillis tied the game at 22, then Raffa buried a three pointer to put the Chanticleers up three. Greenwood would score the last two baskets and CCU went up at the half 29-22.

During halftime, CCU honored its over 250 student athletes that had a 3.0 or higher for the previous semester, including five students who had a perfect 4.0. Then right before the start of the second half, as Matt had warned me at the start of halftime, the PA system played "The Interlude". It's a video of the Chanticleer doing various dance moves to a song, which includes "The Robot", and the fans are welcome to follow along. Matt did his part and got up and danced. I just watched in amusement.

The second half started exactly as the first half left off with the Camels in a scoring drought. Perhaps it was "The Interlude" that affected them as Campbell failed to score for the first six plus minutes of the second half. The Camels had not scored in close to twelve minutes until Trey Freeman hit a layup with 14:52 left in the game. Fortunately for Campbell, CCU had only scored six points in the second half and was only up 35-24.

But that was as close as the Camels would get in the second half as the Chanticleers outscored them 15-6 over the next five and half minutes. Tristian Curtis started the spurt with two jumpers and Greenwood capped it with two free throws to put CCU up 50-30 with nine minutes left in the game.

Since most of my coverage on my blog the last several seasons has been the CAA, I have got to know the VCU Rams and their media/fans through Twitter extensively. Coming into last season, Reco McCarter was a highly thought of recruit who had been recruited by several major schools and ended up going to VCU. Because of VCU's incredible depth of talent, McCarter barely played. In fact, McCarter became famous among the VCU fans on when he played, which was mostly in blowouts.

Not surprisingly, McCarter transferred to Campbell, close to his home, received a waiver to play this season and currently starts for the Camels. You can see why VCU originally recruited him. He is six foot six, very athletic, can drive to the basket and hit the three. As Matt noted, the Camels have a lot of those type players, what you would call tweeners. Not big enough to play the #4 on the major college level and bigger than your average #2 guard. In fact, Campbell has nine players on the squad that range six foot four to six foot six. With the exception of the injured White and Ryan, they are all listed as forwards.

I was hoping for a good game from McCarter. But outside of the three pointer in the first half, he somewhat struggled. He missed an open layup, then fumbled a pass on what would have been an easy layup. In the second half, McCarter missed two free throws. Things were so rough for McCarter that on one play he got the ball and had an open lane for a layup. But Coach Laing called timeout as he started his drive. McCarter would end up with eight points on three of ten shooting in twenty seven minutes.

With the Chanticleers up twenty and the game no longer in doubt, the last several minutes were highlighted by the strong performance of the Camels' Leek Leek, one of their "tweener' forwards. He scored twelve points in the last nine minutes of the contest, hitting jumpers, layups, free throws and even a three pointer. Leek ended up scoring fourteen points more than double his season average going into the game.

However, Leek's one man late second half run wasn't enough as the Chanticleers defeated the Camels 73-59. Raffa and Greenwood combined for thirty eight points, ten rebounds, five assists and five steals. Ndieguene had nine points and eight rebounds. Hooker led the Camels with fifteen points.

The Chanticleers shot forty nine percent from the field and hit twenty two of their thirty one free throws. The Camels actually shot better from three point range, ten of twenty five, than two point range, eleven of thirty one.

After the game, Matt and I headed back to Tongy's. He had the wings and I had a burger called the Bear. Both of us agreed the food was quite good. With a long drive back to Columbia, I washed down three iced teas, much to the surprise of the bartender. After the third iced tea and the bill was paid. Matt and I said our goodbyes. I told him I enjoyed my first Big South game and plan to visit the HTC Center again soon.

Maybe I will even be there for the Big South Tournament.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Huge First Half Run Propels South Carolina to Big Win over Arkansas

Entering Saturday's contest vs. the Razorbacks, the Gamecocks were looking to get their first SEC home win of the season. More importantly, South Carolina was trying to stem the tide of close games they have played in conference all season. They had played five games, all decided by single digit margins. One game was decided in overtime, their sole conference win at the time over LSU. The Gamecocks had late second half leads in three games, only to lose all of those games - Mississippi State, Auburn and Missouri. And in the fifth game, South Carolina trailed Vanderbilt by two, 51-49 with a little more than a minute left before losing by seven points.
Their opponent, Arkansas, entered the game faring somewhat better, having won three of their first five conference games, all at home. In their three home SEC wins over Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, the Razorbacks average margin of victory was nineteen points. However in their two road losses to Ole Miss and Texas A&M, Arkansas lost each game by double digits. You figured maybe something had to give yesterday.

After a wonderful rendition of the national anthem by a local fourth grade school chorus, at the start of the game, it looked like the Gamecocks were the ones giving. The Razorbacks rolled out to a 15-3 lead in the first four and a half minutes, due in large part to junior guard Rickey Scott, who scored eight points in the run, three more than his season average. After Scott buried a three to put Arkansas up by twelve, South Carolina coach Frank Martin had no choice but to call timeout with 15:39 left in the first half.

Whatever he said in that timeout must have resonated with his team. Over the span of the next
five and half minutes, the Gamecocks went on a 13-0 run. South Carolina forced three turnovers in that span and when Michael Carrera hit a jumper to give the Gamecocks a 17-16 lead with ten minutes left, the nearly eleven thousand fans in attendance at Colonial Life Arena roared in approval.

When Arkansas regained the lead, 18-17 on a layup by the Razorbacks leading scorer on the season, B.J. Young, it seemed like we had another close SEC contest. It made sense, considering all the close games that the Gamecocks had played on the season.

But South Carolina was far from done. Over the next six plus minutes, the Gamecocks outscored the Razorbacks 19-2. They accomplished this with the three pointer, hitting four in that span, including two by Brian Richardson and one by Lakeem Jackson, his second on the season in three attempts. Jackson's jumper ended an overall 32-4 run by South Carolina and gave them a 35-19 lead. It was the second time in a calendar year that I had seen a 32-4 run.

Two three pointers by Bruce Ellington and Eric Smith, whose shot was basically a turnaround shot clock beating prayer, capped a 40-11 onslaught. South Carolina led at the half 43-26. Richardson already had thirteen points in the first half.

The question starting the second half was whether South Carolina could keep down one of the top twenty scoring teams in the country in Arkansas. Within a few minutes of the second half, the answer was yes. The Razorbacks went scoreless over a three minute period and the Gamecocks extended their lead slightly to twenty, 52-32.

Arkansas did have one spurt on them, mainly due to Marshawn Powell, who scored six straight points for the Razorbacks to cut the Gamecocks' lead to twelve, 55-43 with about ten and half minutes left in the game.

But from there, South Carolina responded with a 16-3 spurt over the next five and half minutes. Laimonas Chatekevicius layup capped the run and the Gamecocks were up 71-46 with five minutes left in the game. South Carolina would end up winning 75-54.

The Gamecocks held the Razorbacks to twenty four points under their season scoring average. Arkansas was held to thirty four percent from the field, including a horrid two of sixteen from beyond the arc. Young, who had been averaging over sixteen points per game, was held to seven points on three of twelve shooting. Powell, Arkansas' second leading scorer, led the Razorbacks with twenty two points and thirteen rebounds.

South Carolina shot a blistering fifty seven percent from the field including seven of twelve from beyond the arc. Richardson had a career high twenty points. Ellington added fourteen points and Jackson added eleven points and three assists. Ellington, Jackson and Richardson combined to shoot eighteen of twenty five from the field (seventy two percent).

There was a moment that stood out to me about midway through the second half with the game no longer in doubt.  Carrera was trapped at the wing trying to get the ball to Ellington. After several seconds, Carrera lost the ball. Martin immediately substituted for Carrera. While Carrera was leaving the court, his replacement left either a towel or a warmup shirt by the scorers' table. Martin grabbed the item and fired it down towards the bench. Right afterwards, Martin gave Carrera a talking to about the play, no doubt telling him what he should have done.

What it told me was that in the midst of the Gamecocks' most complete game of the season from both an offensive and defensive standpoint, Martin didn't want his players letting up at any moment. He knows that games like this will be rare in the competitive SEC. His players must be focused and make the right plays at the right time. With only four teams in conference over .500 at the moment, there is an opportunity for the Gamecocks to move up in the standings.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stats That Likely Correlate Into Success (Part I) - FG % Defense,Rebound Margin & Assist to Turnover Ratio

In October 2011, the New York Times Sports Quad Blog did a statistical analysis on what statistical categories are best indicators for teams making the Final Four. Their statistics showed that Field Goal Percentage Defense, Rebounding Margin and Assist to Turnover ratio are the three best indicators of Final Four teams.

Then in January 2012, the Quad blog did similar statistical analysis on the Colonial Men's basketball teams over a period of several years. Again, the best indicators for teams' success was Field Goal Percentage Defense, Rebounding Margin and Assist to Turnover ratio. Several coaches were interviewed for the article, including Hofstra head coach Mo Cassara, who is a big proponent of assists to turnover ratio.

I have long been a proponent of assist to turnover ratio as well. I believe ball possession and having more possessions is important (thus turnover margin) But it's equally important to create scoring opportunities while limiting your own turnovers. Hofstra leading the Colonial in assist to turnover ratio in the 2010-11 season I believe was a key factor in their success in the CAA and overall. The Pride finished 14-4, their best record in the CAA since 2006-07. It was also the season that had three other CAA teams make the NCAA Tournament.

I had originally planned to write an article to do statistical analysis on two other categories that I think are important to a team's success. One is turnover margin, which Shaka Smart believes is one of the most important statistical categories. The other is free throw percentage, which I believe has been incorrectly maligned.

I spent a part of yesterday and a good part of early this morning perusing over all five statistical categories. As a result, I've decided to break up my article into two parts. One part uses the Quad Blog's three statistical categories - FG% defense, Rebounding Margin and Assist to Turnover Ratio. The second part will be FT %, Turnover Margin and Assist to Turnover ratio.

The basis for my analysis is the following - I reviewed the overall statistics' leaders for each of the Division I conferences. The qualification for Part I was any team that was in the Top Four in all three categories - field goal percentage defense, rebounding margin and Assist to Turnover Ratio.

I found that twenty five teams are in the top four in each of those categories in their conference. Some conferences had no teams that fit that qualification. There were six conferences that had two teams. Here are the conferences and the list of teams that made the cut.

America East - Stony Brook
ACC - Virginia
Big 12 - Kansas, Kansas State
Atlantic Sun - USC Upstate
Big East - Syracuse
Big Sky - Weber State
Big South - Charleston Southern, High Point
Big West - UC Irvine
Conference USA - Memphis
MEAC - NC Central
Missouri Valley - Creighton
Mountain West - Colorado State, UNLV
Patriot - Bucknell
SEC - Florida
SWAC - Southern
Southland - Stephen A. Austin
Summit - North Dakota State, South Dakota State
Sun Belt - Middle Tennessee State, North Texas
WCC - BYU, Gonzaga

Of those twenty five teams, eight of those teams are in first place in their conference currently - Stony Brook, Kansas, Syracuse, Charleston Southern, Florida, Southern, Stephen F. Austin, Middle Tennessee State and Gonzaga. Eight teams are second in their conference - Kansas State, Weber State, Memphis, NC Central, Creighton, UNLV, Bucknell and North Dakota State.

Of those twenty five teams, only one team is under .500 overall and in conference - North Texas, who was fourth in the Sun Belt in each of those three categories. Three teams are at .500 - High Point, UC Irvine and USC Upstate. Each of those teams is currently over .500 in conference.

There were several teams that were in the top four of two of the three categories. Belmont just missed in rebounding margin, fifth in OVC, while first in FG percentage defense and second in assist to turnover ratio Butler was in the top four in the A-10 in FG percentage defense and rebounding. Likewise Ohio in the MAC for assist to turnover ratio and FG percentage defense. Southern Miss leads Conference USA in field goal percentage defense and rebounding margin and 6th in assist to turnover ratio.

Since we are maybe a third of the way through most conference seasons, it will be interesting to see if these teams will finish in the top four in all three categories in their conferences. Even more interesting will be to see how these teams fare in the conference postseason and NCAA Tournament season.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Iona Rebounds With Dominating Win Over St Peter's in MAAC Women's Basketball

Tony Bozzella's Gaels started the MAAC women's basketball season with a 3-0 start. All three wins were by double digits, including two wins on their Buffalo road trip over Canisius and Niagara, two teams picked in the top four in the preseason MAAC poll. The Gaels then dominated Manhattan at home, winning by thirty, 76-46.

But within the span of five days, the Gaels lost two in a row. First, Iona lost to Marist for the twenty seventh time in a row, a fourteen point defeat at the McCann Center. Then at home last Friday, the Gaels battled the Stags of Fairfield. Iona got within one point with four minutes left in the game, but couldn't get any closer as Fairfield won 60-54.

This is typical of a young team that has only one senior now that Haley D'Angelo has been granted another year of eligibility. Young teams are streaky, especially ones that start two juniors, one sophomore and two freshman with their sixth man being another sophomore. They look terrific for one stretch of time, then struggle for another stretch.

Their opponent last Sunday at the Hynes Center, St Peter's, had lost their first fifteen games, including five in conference. But three of their five MAAC losses were by single digits. Iona may have been expected to win. But having lost two in a row, the question was how would the Gaels respond in a game that some team might take lightly.

For the first two minutes of the game, Iona seemed in a fog. St Peter's was the more aggressive team and jumped out to an early 7-5 lead on a jumper by Jesika Holmes.

But the light switch turned on for the Gaels. They went on a 14-0 run which featured five straight points by an aggressive Sabrina Jeridore. Iona was up 19-7 after a Jiya Dorces-Eya layup.

The Peacocks were able to cut the deficit to ten, 22-12 with eleven minutes left in the half. But again the Gaels responded with another huge run. Iona outscored St Peter's 17-2 over the next four and a half minutes. Aleesha Powell, playing with confidence and in control, scored five straight points during that spurt. D'Angelo's layup capped the run and the Gaels were up 39-14 with six and half minutes remaining in the first half.

Iona entered the locker room up 48-25 at halftime. They had forced twelve St Peter's turnovers while only committing five themselves. The Gaels showed really good ball movement and were aggressive on the offensive glass. They had as many assists, eleven as they had offensive rebounds.

Powell and Damika Martinez already were in double figures scoring, each with eleven points. My color analyst, aka my son Matthew, who has attended many Iona women's games over the past three seasons noted "That's the most points I ever saw Iona (the women's team) score in a half." I had to concur.

Now with the game seemingly in hand, there's a tendency for teams to back off in the second half and not be as focused. Sure enough, St Peter's came out as the aggressor in the start of the second half. The Peacocks cut the lead to under twenty for the first time since eight minutes left in the first half. An Aziza May three pointer made the score 50-31.

Coach Bozzella could have called timeout here to get his team re-focused. Instead, he let his team refocus on their own. The Gaels responded with a 9-2 spurt as Joy Adams hit a three point play and then Martinez scored four straight points. Iona was up 59-33 with sixteen and a half minutes left in the game.

St Peter's though had one last run in them. The Peacocks outscored the Gaels 12-4. Kristal Edwards' jumper made the score 63-45.

But Iona also had one more run in them. Once again, the Gaels outscored the Peacocks 17-2, this time over an eight minute span. Adams and Powell combined for twelve of those points. Diana Hubbard capped the run with a three pointer, one of three on the day for her, to put Iona up 80-47 with less than five minutes remaining in the game.

Iona had as large as a thirty four point lead before winning by thirty two, 93-61. Bozzella extensively used his bench the entire game, with twelve players getting eleven or more minutes. The Gaels shot nearly fifty five percent in the second half and forty nine percent for the game. They had twice as many assists, twenty, as turnovers, ten.

Martinez led all scorers with nineteen points. Powell had a very strong game with fifteen points and five assists. Adams added fourteen points and nine rebounds. Jeridore had seven points, seven rebounds and four blocks. All eleven Iona players scored at least two points on the game. The Iona bench outscored the Iona starters 47-46.

Edwards led St Peter's with fifteen points. May added fourteen and Holmes chipped in with twelve points. The Peacocks were held to 37.5 percent from the field.

The Gaels have a very important battle for third place at home coming up against Niagara this evening, with a chance to sweep the season series from the Purple Eagles. They needed momentum going into the game and they got it on Sunday.

Perhaps it's the start of another successful stretch for this young team.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ignoring the Elephant in the Room (Recap of Hofstra vs George Mason)

I was reluctant to write this recap. How could I, as a George Mason fan, write about a Hofstra/Mason game, for a Hofstra fan's blog, without either annoying 75% of the audience of this blog, or annoying myself? I'm not sure I can, especially with Defiantly Dutch's simmering hatred for Mason undoubtedly hovering nearby. But I like playing with fire, so I'm going to try it anyway.

The first half was pretty much a rerun of so many other CAA rockfights from recent years. Erik Copes scored Mason's first field goal of the game. Hofstra went ahead 8-5 early on a Taran Buie three-pointer, helped out by 4 Mason turnovers in the first 4-plus minutes. But then, the Pride offense went into a funk, missing their next 13 shots and 3 of 5 free throws as the Patriots built a 21-10 advantage with 7:29 left in the half.

After a Hofstra time out, Daquan Brown made a layup, the visitors' fourth and final field goal of the first half. However, Mason's foul-prone defense conceded 11 free throws, and the Pride converted all 11, allowing them to keep pace with the Patriots offense.

At the half, the visitors only trailed 31-23, despite shooting a horrendous 4-25 from the field (compared to 11-25 for the hosts). The Pride made exactly one field goal in the final 14 minutes of the first half, but 14 (of 18) made three throws, compared to 7 (of 12) for the Patriots, kept them in the game.

The second half began just as many Patriots fans feared: Mason continued to look out of sync on offense, while the Pride looked energized, and began to attack the 8-point deficit. The home team had let the visitors hand around too long, and there was no way Hofstra was going to shoot 16% again in the second half.

Mason was held to one field goal in the first 5 minutes, while Stevie Mejia and Steven Nwankoni combined to score ten points, tying the game at 33 apiece at the under-16 media timeout. The Hofstra bench and the small band of Pride fans behind it were ecstatic, but Sherrod Wright had other ideas, scoring the next four to retake a lead that the Patriots would never relinquish.

The teams traded baskets for the next two minutes, but Mason began to settle in on defense, turning up the full court pressure and creating steals. Buie cut the lead to 4 at the ten minute mark, but Hofstra didn't score another field goal for eight minutes, giving up an 11-2 run that pretty much ended any hopes of a comeback.

In the late minutes, the Hofstra defense failed to get back in transition and were beaten several times, capped by a Sherrod Wright (who scored 21 points for his CAA-leading ninth 20-point game) scored on a breakaway dunk to make it 55-44 with 1:09 to play, and from there, the Patriots largely ran out the clock, winning 57-46.

The Pride only made 11 of 48 field goals for the game (including 1 of 13 three-point attempts), finishing with an astounding 22.9 shooting percentage. However, their 23 points from the field were augmented by an additional 23 from the free throw line, which served to keep the Pride in the game well into the second half, and the final score (somewhat) respectable. The Pride won't win if they can't shoot better than they did in this game, but their hustle and effort to tie the game early in the second half won my respect. It was evident before and during the game that Mo Cassara has done a lot to motivate and encourage his players in the face of what's been a very trying season.

One positive for George Mason continues to the the shooting of sophomore point guard Corey Edwards. He doesn't shoot a lot -- 3.1 attempts per game -- but he's shooting a team-leading 54.5% from the field (Wright is second at 50.5%) and an amazing 11 of 17 on three-point attempts. Edwards' prowess can be attributed to his patience. He almost never rushes or forces a jump shot, instead making sure he's squared to the basket and his feet are under him.

On the other hand, two areas seem to be the Patriots' constant sources of pain and frustration: finishing at the rim, and defending without fouling. Mason's starting big men, Johnny Williams and Erik Copes, finished 1 of 9 from the field, and both are shooting around 40% for the season. Copes has been slowed by his recovery from offseason hip surgery, but Mason fans expected much more from Williams in his return from a medical redshirt year. The Patriots need one or more of their post players to step up, whether it be Copes, Williams, Jonathan Arledge (who finished with 8 points and 7 boards on Saturday), Serbian freshman Marko Gujanicic (the reigning CAA rookie of the week), or even the rarely used Paris Bennett (hero of the ODU win).

Fouling, meanwhile, has been a team-wide problem. The quality of CAA referees isn't always very high, and some games in recent memory were clearly over-officiated, with even the whisper of contact called as a foul. That didn't seem to be the case on Saturday, at least in my eyes. The officials allowed quite a bit of contact under the basket, and they made their share of questionable calls in both directions, but the Patriots have no one but themselves for most of the 25 fouls they accumulated.

If Mason can cut down on their fouls while maintaining defensive intensity, their ability to hold teams' shooting percentages in check will start to pay off. If they continue to foul, there will be many more nights like Saturday, where a team hangs around solely because of the charity stripe.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Five Years Ago Today: Dre Smith's Perfect Day Sets an NCAA Record

Five years ago today, in a game at James Madison, George Mason junior guard Dre Smith set the NCAA record for most made three-point field goals in a game without a miss, making all 10 of his attempts and smashing the old record of 9-for-9. (The NCAA record for made treys in a game is 15, and many have exceeded 10 makes, but no one else has done it without a miss).

Smith's perfect performance, on January 19, 2008, has always held a special place in my college basketball memories, as it was the first road game I ever attended as a George Mason student. There was a large amount of smack talk on Facebook and various message boards (particularly revolving around JMU's "Rock the Convo" slogan for the game) and a significant crowd of Mason fans made the two hour trip southwest to the Convocation Center in Harrisonburg, Va. The smack continued upon our arrival, as many of the Mason students were seated just a few rows from the court, with only a corner separating us from one half of the Madison student section.

Immediately, almost everything went wrong for the Dukes, who fell behind 16-2 less than 4 minutes into the game. The near-capacity crowd was stunned. But JMU responded, hanging tight for the rest of the half, with only a late Patriots push extending the lead beyond 10 to 48-34 at the intermission. Dre Smith's halftime line consisted of 2 made three-pointers and 8 points total, barely gaining attention in what had been a furious half of scoring.

However, the second half was another story. Smith unloaded on three-point baskets at the 17:39, 17:01, and 15:13 marks as the visitors exploded to a 63-46 lead. The Dukes responded with a furious rally of their own, cutting the lead to 73-66 even as Smith bombed them twice more (9:56 and 8:50), at one point doing the only scoring for Mason over a 6-plus minute stretch.

Smith's eighth trey of the night, at the 6:02 mark, was the final straw, sparking a 10-0 run from which the Dukes never recovered. The hometown fans headed for the exits in droves, abandoning the building to a vocal, mocking chorus of "Rock The Convo," as chanted by myself and the other ecstatic Mason students.

Smith lined up another trey at 4:23 to tie the record, then broke it at the 1:30 mark. The final score was 96-75, led by Smith's 34 points. The Convo had definitely been rocked, although not in the way the hosts had intended. It wasn't just Smith who had a hot night, as the Patriots shot almost 66% as a team (for an astounding 1.50 points per possession), with John Vaughan scoring 20 points while Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell each added 16.

Some of us, myself included, were unaware of the history we had just witnessed until after the game. (Was it 7? 8? We'd lost track). The whispers started as we were filing out of the gym, as the word spread. No, we weren't crazy, he really hadn't missed a trey all night. Better yet, it was an NCAA record, someone asserted. The word spread. It wasn't 8. It wasn't even 9. He'd hit 10!

The next season, 2008-09, the NCAA moved the three-point line back one foot to it's current 20-foot, 9-inch specification. So can we call that the Dre Smith Rule? Not really, since the change was first announced in 2007, but if there were any remaining questions about whether the collegiate three-pointer needed a rule change, Smith erased them. And now, with the difficulty increased, it's a record that could last for a long, long time.

All ten three-pointers, from multiple angles:

A Tale Of Two Halves (Recap of James Madison vs. George Mason)

Traditionally, James Madison is George Mason's biggest rival in the CAA. However, with JMU routinely failing to be competitive for most of the last decade, and Mason having won 17 of the last 18 meetings in the series prior to last Tuesday night, there had been a sense, at least among younger Patriots fans, that VCU was becoming our true rival.

This burning passion was fueled by incidents like the Rams' repeated elimination of Mason from the CAA tournament (including Eric Maynor's incredible one-man comeback to beat Mason in the 2007 CAA championship), and Sherrod Wright's buzzer-beating three-pointer in a regular season match-up last year. But now that VCU has left the CAA for the Atlantic 10 (or 14, or 16), I believe we have to say JMU is once again Mason's primary rival.

The CAA schedule makers must not have seen things the same way, as they placed the Madison at Mason game on a weeknight for the first time in a decade, and compounded that by scheduling it on a Tuesday night in January, before the students had returned from break.

The first half was almost hard to watch. Erik Copes scored a quick two on the Patriots first possession, but then both teams got off to ugly starts from the field. A pair of Enoch Hood free throws gave the Dukes their first lead, 10-9, at the under-12 media time out.

Fouls and turnovers continued to be a theme, with more scoring done via the free throws than via field goals. Sherrod Wright, George Mason's undisputed leader, found no space to work in the JMU defense, failing  in his increasingly creative attempts to drive to the basket, but drawing numerous fouls. Wright would finish the game only 5 of 13 from the field, but he made 12 of 16 free throws.

Freshman Ron Curry finally provided a spark for the visitors, hitting three three-pointers in a three-minute span to give the Dukes a 29-22 lead with 4:27 remaining in the half. Taylor Bessick made it 31-22, and George Mason called time out. From there, the Patriots were able to contain the Dukes for the rest of the half, holding them to 1 for 4 from the floor, while cutting the deficit to 33-28, highlighted by a Corey Edwards steal and an emphatic Anali Okoloji dunk. Wright blocked Curry's three-point try at the buzzer.

Mason was not playing well, and despite the late spurt, it really felt like the Dukes could win. But with the deficit down to five, George Mason began to steadily chip away as the second half began. Complicating matters, starting center Copes, generally seen as the key to Mason's post defense, picked up his third foul less than a minute into the half.

The second half started slowly too, as the two teams largely traded baskets, before a Johnny Williams layup reduced the Dukes team to 41-38 at the 13:59 mark. Enoch Hood countered to make it 43-38, but then the Patriots began to push the pace and press full court, with Bryon Allen at point guard. Allen scored a layup when JMU failed to get back quickly enough on defense after Hood's basket. Then, Williams blocked a shot, and Paris Bennett passed ahead to Wright, to a cutting Allen, for a three-point play to tie the game.

Hood got open in the lane for a dunk, but again the Dukes didn't get back fast enough, and Allen found Wright for a wide open three-pointer, to finally give Mason the lead, 46-45, with 10 minutes to play. Goins made one of two free throws, and, after a Patriots miss, converted a layup, but freshman Marko Gujanicic answered for the Patriots, hitting a three-pointer on another nice pass from Allen.

Goins got the lead back for JMU one more time at 7:47, but then the Patriots went on a 9-0 run, fueled by their full court pressure and some very poor Dukes shot selection. Gujanicic hit a second three-pointer from almost the same spot, and Vertrail Vaughns and Bryon Allen each scored again on the fast break. Rather suddenly it was 59-50 with under 5 minutes to play, and the Dukes never recovered.

A Rayshawn Goins layup made it 62-57, but the Dukes could get no closer, as the Patriots made 6 of 8 free throws to close out the win, 68-57.  Gujanicic finished with his first career double-double, scoring 10 points and collecting 10 rebounds. Wright led all scorers with 23 points, while Goins led the Dukes with 13 and Curry added 11.

After shooting 5 of 10 on three-pointers in the first half, often wide open, the Dukes were held to 0 for 8 in the second half, as the Patriots seemed to adjust to what has been a season-long struggle to defend the arc. Meanwhile, the Patriots were 3 for 9 in the second half, after a miserable 1 for 5 in the first half, with all 3 coming in a short span. The flurry of late three-pointers seemed to open the lane up for Bryon Allen and others to drive to the basket.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fordham Scouting Report by A Daly Dose of Hoops

My good friend Jaden Daly came up with the idea of swapping scouting reports for Wednesday night's Fordham vs. Charlotte game.  You can find my scouting report on his site.  Here is Jaden's scoop on Fordham.

Hi everyone, this is Jaden Daly from A Daly Dose Of Hoops here, providing a closer look at the Fordham Rams as they prepare to invade Halton Arena for their first Atlantic 10 road game of the season against Alan Major and Charlotte. I cover the Rams on a regular basis, having already seen them six times this season, and would like to share some of what Charlotte can expect to see.

Game Reviews, Nuggets and Quotes

Starting Guards
Tom Pecora routinely plays a three-guard set, and junior Branden Frazier is the centerpiece of the Ram backcourt. Frazier, a Brooklyn native who was Pecora's first recruit at Fordham; and would have gone to play for him at Hofstra if Pecora were still there, has improved considerably in this, his third campaign in a Fordham uniform, coming into this contest as the Rams' leading scorer. Frazier, whose tendency to take ill-advised shots was once off the charts, has improved his shot selection dramatically, and has become more of a facilitator too as evidenced by his two double-doubles against Siena (20 points, 10 assists) and Duquesne. (16 points, 13 assists)

Bryan Smith is usually the second option out of the backcourt, and is honestly like a box of chocolates: You never truly know what you're going to get from the sophomore. One night, Bryan can knock down several threes from the corner like he did against Monmouth, (18 points) while he can be an enigma on others, like he was against Manhattan, fouling out and only managing one point on a free throw.

Finally, Mandell Thomas is the third member of the starting backcourt. A freshman who has just recently found his way into the opening five, Thomas is arguably the best pure athlete on the squad, finding ways to drive inside while also displaying a relentless defensive game. Thomas also has a flair for the dramatic block late in regulation, as he has rejected potential game-tying shots in the final minute on three separate occasions to offset his lack of offensive productivity.

Starting Forwards
The Fordham front line begins and almost always ends with Chris Gaston. A senior from New Jersey, Gaston is a first team all-Atlantic 10 selection this season, and is recovering from a torn meniscus that sidelined him for a month earlier in the season. When healthy, he is a walking double-double that can burn teams with his patented mid-range jumper, which sometimes looks like he is literally pushing the ball into the basket. Since returning from the injury in December, Gaston has lost half a step rebounding the ball, but is still far and away the Rams' best threat on the glass, which complements his natural scoring talent.

Ryan Canty usually gets the start alongside Gaston, and if there were an award for Most Improved Player in the A-10, it would go to the sophomore from Massachusetts. Canty was forced into the lineup while Gaston was injured, and has stuck in the starting five with several breakout performances such as his 18 points against Manhattan and double-doubles against St. John's, Princeton and Mississippi. With an average of seven boards per game, he is the second-leading rebounder on the team behind Gaston.

The Fordham reserves are a double-edged sword for Tom Pecora, primarily because of their youth. As high as the potential for these players is, each of the four major players in Fordham's contingent of substitutes is a freshman, all of whom are working on multiple facets of their game.

Travion Leonard is a 6-9 power forward who could be an all A-10 big man in the next two years, and has responded much better than most would have expected after losing 65 pounds in the offseason just to get himself into average playing shape. Ryan Rhoomes, another forward whose journey to Rose Hill mirrored the long and winding road that Mike Glover took to Iona, is a 6-8 forward with a natural knack for rebounding the ball in his limited playing time.

As far as Fordham's reserve guards, Jermaine Myers was getting the start at the point guard position and playing over 30 minutes per game until Mandell Thomas' emergence and Myers' lackluster offensive numbers forced the switch in Tom Pecora's lineup. Myers also needs to improve his defense, as he has been battling Branden Frazier for the dubious distinction of leading the team in turnovers.

Jeff Short has recovered from two knee surgeries to see significant minutes as a redshirt freshman, but his major flaw is more often than not trying to do too much to carry the Rams, especially if Frazier is on the bench. Every now and then, he'll hit the occasional three, but his offensive capabilities have by and large yet to materialize.

Strengths and Weaknesses
First and foremost, Fordham's greatest strength is its rebounding ability. The Rams have two gifted rebounders in Chris Gaston and Ryan Canty, with solid help from Travion Leonard and Ryan Rhoomes in that department as well, but that's about it. As far as weaknesses, we'll start out with the fact that Fordham has been unable to consistently play defense, especially in transition. Fordham commits more turnovers than it forces, and when matched up against faster competition, as they were against UMass with Chaz Williams at point guard against Branden Frazier, it does not usually end well. Fordham also struggles at the free throw line, shooting 67 percent from the charity stripe while their physical nature allows opponents to get to the line more frequently, creating for a higher percentage. Fordham is also much more vulnerable away from Rose Hill Gym, as they have yet to win any of their eight games on the road, a recurring theme for this program even before Pecora took over in 2010.

Tom Pecora is really trying to make something out of one of the closest situations to nothing. With all due respect, Fordham is arguably the most difficult situation in the nation to inherit, and it appears that the former Hofstra coach may be biting off a little more than he can chew in his third season with the Rams. A positive, however, is that he was able to reunite with former assistant coach Tom Parrotta after he was fired by Canisius last season. Parrotta, who worked with the big men as a Pecora assistant at Hofstra, is doing the same at Fordham; developing Ryan Canty, Ryan Rhoomes and Travion Leonard, with each showing their own flashes of brilliance.

Based on last year's matchup where Charlotte stole a heartbreaking win at Rose Hill against Fordham last season, the Rams have a winnable game on their hands for their Atlantic 10 road opener. A key will be to win the matchup of the Chrises, as Chris Gaston faces a player cut from a similar mold in Charlotte's Chris Braswell.

As good as Fordham has looked in their wins this season, they are still a major work in progress, and the relative youth on this team has come back to hurt them as they develop the experience that will serve them better over the next two seasons. The Rams stand a chance in this one, but they will need a near-perfect game based on their road history in order to come away from North Carolina victorious.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Little Things Make the Difference (Recap of Auburn v. South Carolina)

Coming off a two point loss at Mississippi State in a game where they had a six point lead with five and a half minutes left, South Carolina looked to rebound  in their home conference opener.  The Gamecocks were hosting the Tigers of Auburn.  Auburn had won their first conference game of the season at home defeating LSU 68-63.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day in Columbia yesterday where it reached a record temperature of 81 degrees on January 12.  As I got out of my car in a parking lot across from the Colonial Life Arena, I could see the fans were taking full advantage of the weather.  Many of them were dressed in t-shirts and shorts. Having lived in New York for forty six years and been subjected to Northeast winters, an 80 degree day is a welcome change.

As I made my way to the arena, there were a lot of scalpers asking people if they needed tickets.  Without fail, everyone they asked, including me, said "No thanks".  Finally one of the scalpers blurted out to his friend "It's just football and baseball where they need tickets!" Given it's Frank Martin's first year coaching the team, the scalpers need a little patience.

I was at the arena an hour before game time, but there is a reward for being the early bird - giveaways.  Members of the Carolina Girls dance team were giving fans a free hat.  It was probably for the first whatever number of fans that came in to see the game.  The moral of the story is the early bird gets the worm, the parking space and the giveaways.

The fans by me seemed to be in good spirits. It was probably the weather, but I think it also had to do with it being the first conference home game.  With the exception of Clemson, the non conference home schedule was devoid of any big name teams.  So the 9,119 in attendance were looking forward to facing a familiar SEC foe.

And the South Carolina pep band was firing on all cylinders.  They first started with a song by Chicago, the ultimate brass rock band.   Then they played "September" by Earth Wind and Fire, another song perfect for a pep band.  Later on they played my favorite song of theirs, Blondie's "Call Me".  Years ago, when Deborah Harry co-wrote that song, I wonder if she realized that it would end up being played by pep bands.  Probably not.

At the start of the game, it was evident that this was going to be another nip and tuck SEC affair.  Bruce Ellington, the hero of the Outback Bowl, appropriately started the scoring with a jumper.  This resulted in a loud "BRUUUUCE" cheer from the fans.  But Shaquille Johnson buried a three pointer to put Auburn up 3-2.

And that was the theme for the first twenty minutes of the game.  South Carolina would take a lead. Auburn would take it right back. All that was missing was the pep band playing "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better".

A three pointer by Damien Leonard followed by an Ellington layup gave the Gamecocks a 20-14 lead.  But Auburn scored seven straight points capped by a Noel Johnson three to put Auburn back up one, 21-20.  Leonard responded with another three pointer to put South Carolina back out in front by two.  Johnson countered with another three pointer and Auburn was back up one, 24-23.

An 8-2 spurt by the Gamecocks capped by another Leonard three put South Carolina up five, 31-26 with five minutes left. With LaShay Page's Gamecock career over due to an academic eligibility  issue (Page was a graduate student at South Carolina, having transferred from Southern Miss for his fifth senior season), Leonard and Brian Richardson have been given larger roles for the Gamecocks.  The sophomore Leonard responded on Saturday with his biggest game of the season scoring seventeen points.

Auburn would again rally, outscoring South Carolina 11-4.  Frankie Sullivan's layup put the Tigers up 37-35.  But the Gamecocks would score four straight points as Bruce Ellington's jumper put South Carolina up 39-37. A Sullivan free throw cut the lead to one, 39-38.  The Gamecocks had a chance to go up more at the half but Brenton Williams left his layup just short on the rim.  It would be one of those missed opportunities that would come back to haunt South Carolina at the end.

At the start of the second half, Sullivan continued to be the hot hand for the Tigers.  He hit two consecutive three pointers to give Auburn their largest lead of the game, 46-42 with sixteen minutes left.  The scoring pace would slow down considerably with South Carolina outscoring Auburn 7-2 over the next nearly three and a half minutes.  A Lakeem Jackson jumper would put South Carolina back up one, 49-48.

The teams would trade baskets and free throws for the next three minutes. Eric Smith hit one of his two free throws to put South Carolina back up one, 56-55.  An Ellington jumper and another Leonard three would put the Gamecocks up four, 61-57.

Again, Auburn responded. Without two of their top leading scorers, Chris Denson and Jordan Price, due to injuries, other players have stepped up for the Tigers. After Rob Chubb hit a layup, Brian Greene Jr buried a three pointer to give the Tigers back the lead 62-61.

Once again, the teams traded leads for the next two minutes. Smith's second three pointer in a row gave South Carolina the lead 69-67 with four and a half minutes left.  But two free throws by Chubb and a jumper by Greene Jr. put Auburn back in front 71-69.

Auburn's Allen Payne basically intentionally fouled Jackson off a timeout.  Jackson, who's  horrifically bad free throw shooting is well known, had actually hit two earlier free throws much to the delight of the crowd.  But with a chance to tie, Jackson reverted to his 28 percent free throw shooting self, missing both.  Jackson would make up for it later by finding Ellington for an open jumper to tie the game at 71 with three minutes left.

But the difference in the game came down to the free throw line.  The South Carolina fans were quite upset by the officiating for the entire game.  Strangely though, it was Auburn's bench that was given the only warning of the game. Still, the Tigers had twelve more free throw attempts than the Gamecocks and hit seven more free throws.  Two free throws by Sullivan would put Auburn up two 73-71 with 2:41 left in the game.

The Gamecocks had several chances to tie or take the lead.  But Ellington and Carrera missed jumpers. Then after an Auburn turnover, Smith missed an open three with the shot clock winding down. Sullivan missed a jumper but Chubb got the offensive rebound and was fouled by Carrera, who fouled out of the game.

Chubb only hit one of two free throws to put Auburn up 74-71 with thirty five seconds left.  Richardson had a good look at a three pointer but missed.  However South Carolina got the rebound and called timeout with nine seconds left.  Ellington rushed a three with seven seconds left on the clock and missed.  Auburn dribbled out the clock and had a hard earned 74-71 win.

Ellington, who was coming off a rough nine turnover game against Mississippi State, bounced back nicely with eighteen points, five assists, two steals and only had two turnovers. Leonard had nine rebounds to go with his seventeen points, six of the rebounds came on the offensive end.  Smith added ten points on three three point field goals and Jackson added ten points and three assists. Carrera only played twenty four minutes and had six points, seven rebounds, five on the offensive end and five assists.

Sullivan led Auburn with seventeen points while Chubb had sixteen points and ten rebounds.  Greene Jr came off the bench with fourteen points as he hit all six of his field goal attempts.  The Tigers shot fifty eight percent from the field.  

The statistics were very close.  Both teams hit eight three pointers and South Carolina made two more field goals, twenty six, to Auburn's twenty four field goals.  But again the difference was at the line. Auburn was 18 of 28, while South Carolina was 11 of 16.

Martin had to be pleased with his teams improved ball handling on Saturday. Wednesday night, they had only ten assists and twenty turnovers.  On Saturday, they had twenty assists and fifteen turnovers. Still, it wasn't enough to turn back Auburn.

In a competitive SEC, the little things mount up.  The missed free throws by Jackson, an open layup that falls short right before the half, a rushed three point attempt with time left on the clock, Carrera in foul trouble and playing only twenty four minutes and points off turnovers (Auburn 8, South Carolina 2). In the end, they cost the Gamecocks the game.

Still, in a seemingly down year for the SEC, the Gamecocks have time to right the ship.  They just need to take care of the little things - more free throw opportunities, Carrera staying out of foul trouble and capitalizing on opportunities down the stretch.

I understand that fully.  In my haste to tweet the final score and leave to beat the traffic, I left that free hat at my seat.

You have to take care of the little things.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Charlotte D the Difference in Win over LaSalle

In a conference as competitive as the Atlantic 10, every game is critical, especially when it comes to two teams whose early season records have set them up for a potential NCAA Tournament at large bid.  Such was the case Wednesday night at Halton Arena as Charlotte hosted LaSalle in the conference opener for both teams.

The 49ers and Explorers came into the game with a total of five combined losses.  LaSalle entered the game at 10-3, while Charlotte was 12-2.  However. neither team has an elite non conference win on their resume and both have a loss to Miami Florida.   In a stacked A-10, where four teams made the NCAA Tournament last season (Temple, Xavier, St Bonaventure and St Louis), another made the NIT championship game (UMass) and VCU and Butler have now joined in the fray, a 1-0 conference start seems even more important.

It was a clash of styles on Wednesday night.  LaSalle is one of the higher scoring teams in the country, averaging about seventy four points per game.  Meanwhile, Charlotte is one of the better defensive teams in the country, ranked tenth in the country in effective field goal percentage defense and in the top thirty five in three point field goal percentage defense.

I made the two hour drive from Columbia in rush hour traffic to Charlotte and got to the Halton Arena right before game time.   Desperately needing food, I went up to the concessions stand and ordered a Bojangles chicken sandwich and fries.  The attendant warned me the sandwich was hot.  She didn't tell me that it was actually nuclear temperature wise.   Combine that with the saltiest fries ever and I am glad I had a got a drink with the meal.

The teams came out and scored in each of the first three possessions of the game, with Charlotte taking a quick 4-3 lead not even a minute into the game.  Then over the next four and a half minutes, the teams combined to score another seven points as LaSalle had an 8-6 lead.

The 49ers would awake from their scoring funk with a 12-0 run over the next four and a half minutes.  A DeMario Mayfield three pointer would put Charlotte up 18-8 and LaSalle called a timeout with exactly ten minutes left in the half, desperate to find some offense against a suffocating 49ers defense.

At one point in the first half, the Explorers were shooting eight percent from beyond the arc.  No, that wasn't a misprint. Eight percent.  The main culprit was their leading scorer on the season, Ramon Galloway.  Galloway had a rough first half with much of the credit going to the Charlotte perimeter defense.  After hitting two of his first three field goal attempts, he proceeded to miss ten straight shots, most of them from beyond the arc.

That played directly into Charlotte's strength as one of the best two point FG percentage defensive teams in the country, ranked thirteenth in the category.  With the Explorers misfiring from three as badly as the 49ers T-shirt Gatling gun's misfiring during one of the media timeouts and the 49ers clamping down on any shots inside, the Charlotte extended their lead to 33-17 at the half.  Had the 49ers made a few of their free throws, the lead would have been twenty at the half.

LaSalle needed to score points quickly to get back in the game.  And give Galloway credit.  A graduate of the John Starks school of shooting ("When in doubt, keep firing), Galloway immediately buried a three pointer to follow a Jerrell Wright layup.  A Tyreek Duren layup made it a 7-0 run for the Explorers and just like that, the Charlotte lead was single digits, 33-24.

For basically the entire first half, arguably the 49ers best player, Chris Braswell, was out of it.  He wasn't aggressive on defense, wasn't hustling and took a couple of ill advised shots.  Having seen him twice now, Braswell can be brilliant with his passing and his inside post moves.  He can also be infuriating, taking long fallaway jumpers that never hit.  And the fans near me were not happy with Braswell and made their displeasure known.

But like the bad girl with the curl, when Braswell is on, he's one of the best forwards in the A-10.  And when they needed him, he came through.  After Duren's layup, Charlotte called timeout.  Off the timeout, the 49ers setup a play for their big man.  Braswell's strong post move resulted in a layup and one.  He made the free throw for the three point play.  The 49ers would add four more straight points to go back up sixteen 40-24 with sixteen minutes left in the game.

Charlotte couldn't put the game away however as LaSalle would hang around, mostly due to Galloway's second half heroics as he scored seventeen points in the final twenty minutes of the game.  With about three minutes left, Duren stole the ball and found a streaking Galloway who nailed a sweet reverse dunk that resulted in a large buzz from the crowd.  The Explorers were now down only six, 65-59 with 2:53 left in the game.

But Henry responded with an empthatic dunk of his own to put Charlotte up 67-59.  Despite Galloway, LaSalle would not get any closer.  The 49ers would get their first A-10 win of the season downing the Explorers 74-65.

Henry was the leading scorer for Charlotte with twenty points.  E Victor Nickerson added thirteen points, seven rebounds and four assists.  Darion Clark had twelve points and Mayfield added ten points. Braswell only had seven points on the night.  The 49ers shot 48 percent from the field and were 22 of 31 from the line.

Galloway led all scorers with twenty three points, but he had to earn them.  He shot 7 of 29 from the field, including a brutal 3 of 14 from beyond the arc.    He did also add nine rebounds.  The Explorers had twenty one offensive rebounds but couldn't take advantage of the second chance opportunities. Duren added twelve points, five assists and three steals, while Wright had eleven points and nine rebounds.  LaSalle entered the game shooting over 38 percent from beyond the arc.  On Wednesday night, the Explorers were 4 of 29 on three point attempts, thirteen percent on the night.  LaSalle shot thirty two percent from the field in general.

Charlotte had their conference opener win.   Every win is precious in the rough and tumble A-10 conference.  LaSalle left Halton Arena licking their wounds and still looking for that precious first conference win.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

For the Tribe, Close Losses Becoming a Habit (Recap of George Mason vs Willian & Mary)

Last Saturday afternoon I made the drive three hours south to Williamsburg, Va. with some friends for the George Mason game at the College of William and Mary. (I'd hoped to recap this game a little sooner, but I've tried to make it up by providing some photos this time).

The Tribe have had one of the better seasons in what has been an ugly non-conference showing for the CAA overall. They played a relatively weak non-conference schedule, but they beat pretty much all the teams they were supposed to beat. However, when faced with tougher competition, an unfortunate pattern has repeated itself. At Wake Forest, the Tribe blew a late lead and lost by six. At Richmond, they fell in double overtime. At Purdue, they again fell apart down the stretch and lost by seven. Double-digit losses to Miami of Ohio and Vanderbilt ended more poorly, but both times the Tribe was in the game at least until the second half. As a result, William and Mary were still very much an unknown going into the Mason game.

This was my first visit to Kaplan Arena, an 8,600-seat gym that the Tribe unfortunately rarely fills. On the whole, it was a pleasant experience. The seating bowl and sight lines are underrated. One inconsistency I noted was that the concession stands and restrooms seemed small for so large a venue, but they were sufficient for the 3,506 on hand. The College’s students were still away on winter break, which meant there weren’t many students on hand, and also, apparently meant there was no pep band, and only a token number of cheerleaders.

A friend of mine was able to score us tickets right behind the George Mason bench, which provided a rare glimpse into just how much communications happens during the game, and who the most vocal coaches and players are. I was surprised by how constantly some of Mason’s bench players were yelling to their teammates on the court -- for example, warning them about an open shooter on their blind side.

For once, George Mason got off to a hot start, hitting their first three shots for a 7-0 lead and forcing a quick William and Mary timeout. A Sherrod Wright fast break dunk made it 11-2 before the Tribe found their offense, fueled by back-to-back three pointers from guards Brandon Britt and Marcus Thornton. The two teams traded baskets for the next few minutes, leaving the score at 18-11 Patriots at the 13 minute mark.

From there, the home team began to tighten the game, as junior forward Tim Rusthoven asserted his presence in the paint for back to back buckets, and the visitors turned it over twice, then committed some cheap fouls. Tribe leading scorer Marcus Thornton cut the lead to 18-17 with a pair of free throws, before a Wright layup made it 20-17 at the 9:55 mark.

Mason's offense got back on track as Patrick Holloway picked off a pass under the basket, and lead the break back the other way, spinning around two defenders before passing ahead to Edwards in the corner. Edwards quickly passed back to a driving Johnny Williams for the dunk. The Patriots hit the three-pointers and turned offensive boards into baskets, stretching their lead to 31-23 at the under-4 media timeout.

Out of the timeout, a Thornton three-point play ended the 13-4 Patriots run, and ignited the crowd. Energized, the Tribe forced Mason into several bad shots in a row. More frustrating, especially for Hewitt, were several iffy calls by the officials. First, Wright appeared to be hit in the head and fouled hard on a layup, yet was called for a charge. Second, a Mason put back was waived off for supposed offensive basket interference, even though to my eye (and apparently Hewitt's) the ball hit the rim and deflected away from the rim before it was touched. Third, a Vertrail Vaughns three-pointer was waived off because of a three-second call in the paint (the only one of the game despite plenty of standing around by both teams).

All parties, not just the Mason faithful, became frustrated when the shot clock was inadvertently reset on an emphatic Erik Copes blocked shot, and the referees needed nearly five minutes to find the real shot clock time via video review. Hewitt spent most of the stoppage complaining about the previous calls, especially the interference play and Wright's blow to the head, and continued the conversation at halftime, before heading to the locker room.

Mason was fortunate that the half was almost over, because nothing broke their way over the last few minutes of the first half. The crowd was loud and in to the action, the Tribe were hot, and Mason couldn't get a stop or make a shot themselves, failing to score a field goal for the last 4:38 of the first half. The Patriots managed only a pair of Wright free throws and went to the locker room down 37-33.

During the first half, Mason coach Paul Hewitt began to experiment with a new lineup, placing both point guards (the starter Corey Edwards and his backup Bryon Allen) on the floor at the same time. This is a move that some Mason fans have speculated about for weeks, and it seemed to pay off, as Edwards acted at the distributor on offense, while Allen was able to focus on defense and his ability to run the floor and drive to the basket.

The second half began with the two teams slowly trading baskets for the first six minutes or so, but then Mason began to go on a run, as Wright scored two quick baskets and assisted on a third, giving the Patriots their first lead of the half on a steal and layup. William and Mary quickly called time out with 12:20 to play, trailing 45-43.The Tribe missed two three-point attempts on the ensuing possession, before Bryon Allen made a free throw for Mason, and Brandon Britt hit a layup to cut the Tribe deficit to one.

Edwards pushed the ball quickly up the floor after the made basket, finding freshman sharpshooter Patrick Holloway all alone in the left corner, and Holloway hit on a lightning quick three-pointer before the Tribe defense could get back. Mason had the momentum now, and Jonathan Arledge hit a pair of free throws to stretch the lead to 51-45 Patriots with 10:38 to play.

But the Tribe, and especially Tim Rusthoven, weren't done. Rusthoven found ways to get deep in the paint against the Mason frontcourt, and scored two layups and knocked down an and-one free throw to help cut the deficit to 53-51. Wright, who already had 18 points for the Patriots, countered with a layup, but then made a very bad decision, picking up a dead ball technical foul for taunting.

Marcus Thornton (19 points) made both technical free throws, and then a layup, trying the game at 55-all, and Brandon Britt added one of two from the line to pull the home team back ahead, 56-55. Now was the danger point for the Patriots. Yet again, the momentum was slipping away from them. But Wright stepped up, seemingly fueled by his frustration with his own mistake. The junior scored 10 points in a six minute stretch to finish with a career high 28, and Johnny Williams (9 points) added a huge three-point play.

The Tribe were forced to trade free throws for layups, and the Patriots made 7 of 11 at the line down the stretch. Four straight empty possessions for William and Mary (7-6, 1-1 CAA) provided an insurmountable 68-61 deficit, and Mason held off the Tribe for a 73-66 win. Yet again, the Tribe held a late lead (58-57 with 5:21 to play) before folding down the stretch, giving up a 16-8 closing run to the visitors.

Despite the loss, I was impressed by what I saw from the College. It's hard to believe that Tim Rusthoven (19 points and 11 rebounds) is still only a junior in what feels like his sixth season in the CAA. The 6'9" forward has learned how to use his size and proper positioning down low. Just about every time he was able to post up and get deep enough into the paint, he scored, often drawing a foul as well from Mason's frustrated big men. The legend of "Beasthoven" will continue to grow if he repeats his performance on Saturday.

Three players did all the scoring for the Tribe -- Rusthoven and Thorton with 19 and Britt with 18, but they got little help from their teammates. Fellow starters Matt Rum and Kyle Galliard finished a combined 3-11 from the field, and the bench contributed exactly 2 additional points. The big three put up some very nice numbers, but they're going to need some help from their teammates if William and Mary want to capitalize on a weakened CAA.

As for the visiting Patriots (8-6, 1-1 CAA), each game for the last month or so has brought continued development from Corey Edwards as the starting point guard. Saturday, Edwards (10 points, 5 assists, 1 turnover) was able to keep himself out of foul trouble and play 33 minutes. This development allowed Bryon Allen to slide over and play shooting guard, where he seemed much more comfortable.

Another positive for Mason (besides the obvious -- Wright's continued dominance) was that they didn't let their mistakes snowball this time. Lapses on offense or defense didn't last long enough for the Tribe to pull away. To be fair, the home team had some opportunities, but they didn't have the unbelievable luck that Northeasten had in shooting 64% in the second half against Mason earlier in the week.