In Hoops We Trust: Small Fries Eye Big Prize

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on January 25th, 2017

This week, let’s take a break from discussions of the nation’s top 15 teams and all their tribulations. They get enough coverage already. Each year, there’s a bevy of small conference schools that threaten to upend the postseason hopes of middle-tier power conference teams with resumes that are, frankly, often more deserving. For now, they toil away in relative obscurity, their only chance at an appearance on any of the ESPN networks generally as a for-pay beatdown victim or in the finals of their conference tournament.

UNC-Wilmington and Several Other Mids Have Work to Do to Go Dancing Again (USA Today Images)

When a team from a small league can escape the non-conference season with a few wins over the Alabamas, Colorados, Seton Halls and DePauls of the college hoops world, they set themselves up for a chance at a low NCAA seed. More importantly, these schools must dominate their conferences to have any shot at an at-large bid. At season’s midpoint, here’s a quick look at several of them. All records are through Tuesday, January 24.

With a strength of schedule ranking in the 130s, UNC-Wilmington (17-2 (8-0 CAA), KenPom rank: 45, RPI rank: 26) does not have a shoo-in resume, but the Seahawks could end up with more than 25 wins and a credible at-large case. The current leader of the Colonial Athletic Association lost close games to Clemson and Middle Tennessee State, another mid-major contender, but there really aren’t any bad losses on its resume to speak of. But this is the perfect example of a team that cannot afford to lose more than one or two more games this season — and road losses might not kill them, but home losses surely will. College of Charleston sits one game back of UNC-Wilmington in the CAA but and owns an RPI of 67 and really has nothing to speak of from the non-conference schedule. Rather, the conference’s best non-conference wins came from third place Northeastern, which shocked Michigan State and beat Connecticut but has not been consistent enough to be taken seriously.

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In Hoops We Trust: Trust Coach, “It’s OK”

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on January 5th, 2017

When Grayson Allen suited up for Duke on Wednesday evening against Georgia Tech, much more than just an interesting news story erupted on social media. Writers and fans all jumped in to add their two cents on whether Allen’s remarkably swift return from his “indefinite” suspension for tripping an Elon player in a game last month was appropriate, adequate or even necessary. Predictably, most (presumably non-Duke) fans said Allen’s sentence was too short. And just as predictably, scribes across the spectrum said it was just enough and to trust the judgment of the legendary coach. Which, of course, (predictably) sent those same (non-Duke) fans into fits of eye-rolling at what they deemed as the writers’ (predictably) pro-Mike Krzyzewski response. Adding another layer to this is the news that Coach K is about to take a month-long leave of absence for back surgery, effectively handing over his team to assistant Jeff Capel. Toss in that Allen is the prototypical Duke “villain” personality (in attitude, demeanor, and, yes, race), and that the Blue Devils badly lost the only game Allen was “indefinitely” suspended for, and you have quite a little tempest brewing in Durham.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski answers a question during the 2016 ACC Men’s Operation Basketball in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Photo by Nell Redmond, theACC.com)

With back surgery looming, Mike Krzyzewski might have ended Allen’s suspension earlier than expected to ease the transition to Jeff Capel. (Photo by Nell Redmond, theACC.com)

It would be easy to see this as a craven move by a coaching lifer who is regularly given a tremendous benefit of the doubt by anyone in the basketball community. Or to see it as a sign of injustice for a white kid at the NCAA’s ur-basketball location. But to me, it’s pretty simple. Krzyzewski had Allen return after a one-game absence because the pressure would have been on Capel to mete out a punishment he didn’t inflict, and then to end that punishment when Capel deemed appropriate. That would be unfair to Capel and unfair to Allen. The coach who punished him should be the one that he signed with and the one absolving him, whatever that punishment might have been. You could argue that Allen deserved to miss more games, but not many more. Could Krzyzewski have handled the entire thing better from the beginning? Yes. Is this some case of malicious intent? Unlikely. Read the rest of this entry »

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In Hoops We Trust: Blue-Blooded Season

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on December 15th, 2016

One of the biggest changes in college hoops over the last 10 years has been the rise of several consistently strong mid-major programs to the status of legitimate national title contenders. George Mason first crashed the Final Four party in 2006 with a gutsy, emotional Elite Eight win over #1 seed Connecticut. That paved the way for the rise of Butler (2010, 2011), VCU (2011), and Wichita State (2013), each of which were led by dynamic young coaches building winning programs. Throw in the likes of Gonzaga, San Diego State and Xavier, and the growing parity brought with it added competitiveness and a widening of the NCAA hoops pie. But this year is all about the blue-bloods. Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA are all in the AP top 10 for the first time since 1994. While some of those schools have maintained relevance over the intervening seasons, the simultaneous rise of the Hoosiers and Bruins augurs a shift back to the traditional power programs.

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

The “why” for this trend could very well be recruiting. Kentucky’s John Calipari was the first coach to truly embrace the one-and-done model of recruiting. The theory is basically that if you can gather the most talented players in the country — regardless whether all of them will be headed to the NBA after just one season — you should. Yes, there are challenges with youth, inexperience and with program continuity, but he proved with the 2012 National Championship and four Final Fours in five years that if you recruit the best players, challenge them in practice, and preach selflessness and defense, you can win. Mike Krzyzewski noticed and Duke jumped on board. Roy Williams also has a slew of McDonald’s All-Americans, and Bill Self has never shied away from recruiting one-year talents regardless of whether he plays them. UCLA this season joined the party with a pair of freshman All-Americans in Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. So far, Steve Alford‘s accumulation of talent has helped transform a formerly teetering program into the current #2 team in the country.

Conventional wisdom once held that experience trumps talent in the NCAA Tournament. This was the rationale for the VCUs, Butlers and Wichita States of the game. But as major programs blend experienced returnees with those talented NBA prospects, they often overwhelm their less athletic, overachieving rivals. So, does this early trend hold? That remains to be seen. Perhaps those talented freshmen will revert to traditional norms or hit the rookie wall as the long season works its way into spring. Or perhaps injuries will take a toll. Or maybe some of those power programs in smaller conferences will again crash the party. It wouldn’t be a shock. But so far this season, it’s been a feast for the rich. How fat they get we shall know in good time.

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In Hoops We Trust: On Early Returns…

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on November 30th, 2016

So, we’re three weeks in now, and while a majority of games have pitted teams expecting to win against teams expecting a paycheck, the holidays brought us some great major-on-major (and strong mid-major) action courtesy of a number of neutral site “tournaments.” North Carolina won Maui; Baylor won Atlantis; Gonzaga won the AdvoCare Invitational (okay); and Valparaiso won whatever the hell the “Men Who Speak Up Heavyweight Bracket” is. Geez, these things are getting worse than FBS Bowl Games (See also: the Poulan Weedeater Bowl). There have been a few surprises along the way. Butler, Baylor, and South Carolina are all undefeated with some good resume wins. Xavier and Creighton are lingering around and have the talent to stay there. Michigan State looks way down early after losing most of its experienced players to graduation. Indiana laid an absolute stinker on Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne (say that five times real fast)’s home court.

Another year, another season where Butler fans have a lot to cheer about. (Credit: Kyle LaFerriere)

Another year, another season where Butler fans have a lot to cheer about. (Credit: Kyle LaFerriere)

Meanwhile, some of the usual suspects sit atop the rankings. Kentucky is demoralizing lesser opponents, relying on arguably the best three-guard backcourt in the country. Defending champ Villanova is rolling thanks to an All-American start from Josh Hart. North Carolina has a lot of offensive weapons with five players averaging double figures. Duke is banged up but clearly has the goods. Kansas is relying heavily on its experienced backcourt and will need its other players to step up as the season moves along. No one can score against Virginia. And Gonzaga and St. Mary’s—both undefeated to date—look to be on a collision course (again) in the WCC. All in all, it’s been a great start to the 2016-17 season. There are lots of questions as yet unanswered — Who will slow down Kentucky and North Carolina? When will Duke get its hot shot freshmen into the lineup? Can Xavier or Creighton keep their undefeated runs into the Big East season and beyond? — that will keep us watching through the holiday season.

Some meaty made-for-TV games will help answer some of those questions. Get ready for North Carolina-Indiana (tonight), Kentucky-UCLA (Saturday), Gonzaga-Arizona (Saturday), and Kentucky-North Carolina (December 17), to name but a few. These and other well-matched tilts should give us a clearer picture of who the contenders really are as the new year turns. Read the rest of this entry »

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In Hoops We Trust: It’s Finally Here!

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on November 16th, 2016

It would be easy to open this debut In Hoops We Trust column with some sort of election metaphor, but haven’t we already exhausted all of those? Red. Blue. Bad. Good. Bah. Instead of focusing even more attention on the emotional land mine that our political season has been, maybe it’s time we look to college basketball to bring us together instead. (Excluding, of course, those ever-so-bitter rivals. Ain’t nothing gonna stop that.) In the spirit of unity, let us now gather ‘round the squawkbox, pennants high, our sauce-stained rah-rah sweatshirts on, cheering on Hometown U. against Directional State Tech. Let’s hitch a ride on the peace train, y’all, all the way to Phoenix.

The Season is BACK. (USA Today Images)

College Hoops is BACK. (USA Today Images)

After another tedious offseason of transfers, coach hirings and firings, speculative polls, NBA defections, off-court shenanigans, and Jeff Goodman troll stories behind a paywall, we’re finally here. And thank the heavens for that. To be sure, offseasons are unavoidable. And invariably they do set the tone for each new season. So this most recent one is no different. Players arrived on campus. Coaches bailed on hot seats (Vanderbilt and Memphis), while others claimed new thrones (TCU and, well, also Memphis). Fresh regimes begin in Stillwater and Palo Alto, while familiar ones reign in Chapel Hill, Durham, Louisville, Syracuse, East Lansing, Tucson and Lexington. One blue-blood rebuilds (UNLV), while some new bloods reload (Gonzaga and Virginia). A seat gets hotter (UCLA); another chills out (Indiana).

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Past Imperfect: Kentucky-Louisville & the Dream Game

Posted by JWeill on March 28th, 2012

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the original Dream Game between Louisville and Kentucky.

It was bound to happen someday. Despite Kentucky’s clear antipathy toward playing in-state archrival Louisville, there was going to come a time when it was simply unavoidable. That time finally came, was forced to come actually, on March 26, 1983, in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the Mideast Regional final, with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

No knowing observer was unaware of the possibility of a Bluegrass clash when the brackets were unveiled. Just a year prior, a similar tournament setup had been quashed when Kentucky was upset by Middle Tennessee State. This time around, the Wildcats got through, finishing off Bobby Knight’s Indiana squad, while Louisville was the one in trouble. After trailing significantly, the Cardinals edged Arkansas – coached by fairly-soon-to-be Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton — on a last-second tip-in. With both teams locked in to face each other, the pregame hype and buildup began.

Both teams, and their fans, were amped up for the 1983 Midwest Regional Final.

Media outlets immediately began to call the matchup “The Dream Game” or even, more simply, “The Game.” The players did their best to try and avoid providing any potential bulletin board material, but to limited effect. Wildcats backup forward Bret Bearup acknowledged the “thing that must not be said:” “Anybody on either side who says he hasn’t been thinking about this matchup since the tournament started is just saying what he’s supposed to say so he won’t get in trouble. I say what I’m not supposed to. I’ve been dreaming about this game. This is great stuff. ‘Course now I’m in big trouble.”

But while Louisville entered the game ranked No. 2 to Kentucky’s No. 12, at least one major participant felt that it was the mighty Kentucky program that had more to lose.

“The pressure is on Kentucky,” Louisville coach Denny Crum said in advance of the game, before needling the Big Blue Nation a little bit. “Our record is better the last 10 years. They have a chance to carve into our success.”

By tip-off, all the pregame discussions now past, everyone was ready. Tickets were at a premium and 12,489 showed up at the University of Tennessee’s Stokely Athletics Center for the game. Always eager to join a spectacle, Kentucky governor John Y. Brown wore a unique half-red, half-blue blazer to the affair.

Once the game finally got underway, it was Kentucky that broke quickly from the gate. Led by deft outside shooting by Jim Master and Derrick Hord, who each hit three early shots, the Wildcats raced to an early advantage, reaching a 23-10 lead just 10 minutes into the game. Louisville was playing tight, missing 16 of its first 20 shots.Crum’s roster was stacked, though, and the Cardinals’ talent began to show itself at last. Brothers Rodney and Scooter McCray found space underneath the basket and between them scored 12 of Louisville’s next 16 points. When Charles Jones hit a lay-up just before halftime, the UK lead was down to just seven, 37-30.

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Two Days in the Coliseum: Reflections on the CAA Tourney

Posted by JWeill on March 7th, 2012

Rush the Court contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Emailreports from Richmond, Va., at the Colonial Athletic Association conference championship.

Richmond Coliseum is not a pretty place. It’s old. The color of the inside can best be described as “concrete.” The rafters are dark and the seats darker. It boasts all the ambiance of an airplane hangar. Each year, at the Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament, the fans grumble about the decrepit surroundings and some columnist writes an article in the local paper talking about how old and lousy the Coliseum is.

And yet, somehow the inferior surroundings make the actual experience of watching the conference tournament there stand out all the more. Without the bells and whistles of a modern, NBA-style arena, you’re left with just the contrasting team colors and the fans that adorn them, the rival pep bands and a sort of pure college basketball that shines plenty all by itself.

This Sunday, the arena is buzzing. Old Dominion, two-time defending champion, is battling this season’s regular-season champion Drexel in the first semifinal. Drexel is the outlier, from far-off Philadelphia, while the other teams in the final four hail from the state of Virginia, including Virginia Commonwealth, which is less than two miles away. VCU will face George Mason in the second game, a rivalry that has already resulted in two hard-fought, borderline acrimonious meetings already this season.

Richmond Coliseum has been the site of the CAA tourney every year since 1990.

The teams here are the best in the CAA, the top four seeds. But they’re also all fundamentally flawed. That’s no damnation, it’s just the way things are. It’s part of what makes college basketball – especially mid-major conference college hoops – irreplaceable, and unmatched in its own specific glory. The Monarchs of ODU feature a player sporting goggles held on with a Croakie and a guy with a knee brace who limps visibly. The players’ names on the Drexel uniforms are comically large, as if designed for AARP approval. VCU’s starting center plays only 15 minutes a game and hasn’t scored more than 10 points in a game all season. One of George Mason’s starting guards shoots under 20% from three. What’s not to love about all that imperfection? In an imperfect world, we can all appreciate some less-than-perfection.

Each of the last four teams sees this event as its only sure path to the NCAA tournament. Only Drexel and VCU offer possible at large candidacies, and neither is overwhelmingly strong. For Drexel’s coach, Bruiser Flint, an NCAA bid would bring some much-needed legitimacy to his program. Old Dominion has been there before.

The opening semifinal starts with lots of intensity and not many shots made. The Dragons manage an early lead. ODU’s bench uses flash cards to call its plays, thus assuring that the players have no answer to the coach’s inevitable question of, “Why the hell did you do that?!”

A fan in the lower bowl holds up a homemade sign, simple scribbled words on a half-still-rolled white poster board that reads, “ODU SUCKS!!”It’s unclear to whom the fan’s allegiances are to, though not who they are against, apparently.

Sucking or not, Old Dominion works its way back into the game methodically, tightening the defense on one end and earning extra scoring chances with offensive rebounds on the other. But the Old Dominion crowd, once boisterous, is subdued by the deficit and their team’s inability to get into any sort of offensive rhythm. At a timeout, Big Blue, ODU’s lion mascot, who inexplicably wears a T-shirt under a jersey, tries to raise the spirits of the Monarchs fans. He fails. Drexel’s Dragon mascot is more cartoonish and more entertaining, a look of forever confusion molded onto his face. But neither has the sheer oddity of the VCU ram, Rodney, which looks a great deal more like a dog with horns attached than a ram.

Drexel’s big men Daryl McCoy and Samme Givens are built in a typically mid-major fashion, beefy and strong but not tall and long as their counterparts at Kentucky or Kansas or North Carolina. They create space with muscle and hustle, not with genes. Givens yells at Damion Lee, his teammate, “SCREEN, DAMION!” as an ODU defender rushes to set a pick on his blind left side. Lee doesn’t turn or acknowledge Givens, but as the pick is set he glides just outside it, sensing the body near him.

Thirty-two minutes in Monarchs star forward Kent Bazemore finally gets going, snaring a rebound above the rim and finding a teammate for a basket and foul that cuts the lead to 10 points for the first time in what seems like ages. As the teams go to a scheduled timeout, Bazemore appeals to the suddenly awakened ODU crowd with grand waves of his long, spindly arms. Drexel, as it has all season, finds a way to match the run, breaking a trapping press three straight times for easy baskets. Bazemore’s response is woefully short, and he grimaces at his own airballed three as it bounces meekly out of bounds. Read the rest of this entry »

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Past Imperfect: Rodrick Rhodes — Untouchable Cats’ Unwanted Man

Posted by JWeill on February 22nd, 2012

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the dominance of Kentucky’s 1996 ‘Untouchables,’ and the banishment of Rodrick Rhodes.

Rodrick Rhodes was a very good college basketball player. He was versatile, athletic, long and skilled. He was good enough as a teenager that most folks who knew of him figured he wouldn’t be in college very long, that one or maybe two seasons at Kentucky, his college choice, would be all that was necessary for Rhodes to showcase the game that would make him an instant NBA millionaire. A month into his freshman season, it looked like those lofty expectations were spot on. The Jersey City, NJ, native wowed national audiences, had ESPN’s Dick Vitale preaching his impending stardom and was set up neatly to slide in as the Wildcats’ next mega-star, following in the imposing footsteps of another former New York City-area prep star, Jamal Mashburn.

But Rhodes wasn’t Mashburn, either in internal strength or in shooting touch, and somewhere along the way to getting his name in the rafters, something changed. Rhodes showed some flaws, and by the end of his sophomore season, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino seemed to sour on Rhodes and on dealing with Rhodes’ older brother, Reggie, who Pitino felt was whispering NBA dreams nonstop into his brother’s ear.

Before Kentucky's run to the title, Pitino parted ways with Rod Rhodes.

Finally, following a series of disappointing showings by Rhodes in his junior season, including a miserable game in UK’s Elite Eight loss to North Carolina, Pitino had had enough. After the enigmatic junior forward opted to enter his name into the NBA Draft pool, Pitino moved on. When Rhodes bombed an audition for pro scouts and decided he wanted to return for his final season at Kentucky, Pitino reportedly told Rhodes he could redshirt if he wanted to return, but whether out of pride or exhaustion with his situation, Rhodes demurred and instead asked for his release to transfer. Pitino obliged and Rhodes the next great Kentucky star became the Rhodes the ex-great Kentucky recruit.

Pitino’s replaced Rhodes with Ron Mercer, a five-star small forward from Nashville who arrived in Lexington as the anti-Rhodes, preaching a willingness to play whatever role the team needed, never gripe about playing time and learn from his more seasoned teammates. The addition of Mercer and fellow recruit Wayne Turner completed Kentucky’s 1995-96 roster, which was built around senior All-America candidates Tony Delk and Walter McCarty, junior Derek Anderson and sophomore Antoine Walker.

Mercer’s attitude was just what Pitino needed for this, his best chance to win a national championship. Always an ace recruiter and at the time arguably the best cultivator of professional-grade basketball talent in the college game, Pitino had assembled a team for the ages, one whose dominance would be matched only by its remarkable cohesion, especially on the defensive end. The Wildcats would work with a rotation of about 10 players, most nearly interchangeable in their ability to shoot, run and press their opponent and in their unmistakable talent.

“I’ve never had 10 players so close in ability,” Pitino said at the time.

The result of all that ability was an onslaught of skill and length that observers and pundits touted before the season as among the best ever assembled at a college program. There appeared to be no flaws. The Cats had shooters and big men and length and coaching. How fascinating, then, when just two weeks into Kentucky’s season this supposedly unbeatable basketball machine in blue would go down in defeat at the hands of a Massachusetts squad in many ways Kentucky’s mirror opposite: slow where UK was fast, frontcourt heavy where UK was not, reliant on a short rotation where Kentucky featured depth. It was an unlikely rivalry that would continue the entire season to college hoops fans’ delight.

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Past Imperfect: Parrish Casebier Was All Wrong

Posted by JWeill on February 9th, 2012

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the forgotten rise and fall of Evansville’s Parrish Casebier.

Things were never quite right with Parrish Casebier. Born in Owensboro, Kentucky to unmarried black parents, he was adopted at age two by a white family and brought across the Ohio River to live in tiny Rockport, Indiana, where he spent his youth struggling with being different. His younger sister was later adopted by the same family, and together they endured the taunts and bitter looks that came from neighbors, other kids and even some family.

Though he became a basketball standout at South Spencer High School, where he was the state’s second-leading scorer as a senior, even his own coach didn’t always like him. And at 6’3”, stocky, with short arms and little lift, Casebier was built all wrong for big-time college basketball. He was a forward with a guard’s size and a guard with a forward’s handle. In the world of Indiana high school basketball, Casebier’s muscle and will made him a star. But college coaches were mostly unimpressed.

Though Casebier could fill up the net, once scoring 49 points in a game two times in a mere two weeks, there was just something off. He talked back to coaches and got in fights almost daily. He skipped classes and all but dared the school to take away the one thing that made Casebier not just different but better. While further upstate Indiana-bound legend Damon Bailey was wrapping up his storybook prep career before heading off to play for Bob Knight at Indiana, Casebier was trying to earn a place on the state all-star roster or working out for mid-major college coaches.

Some of that lack of interest was due to Casebier’s size and lack of athleticism, but some of it, too, was an unspoken reputation for being a difficult kid, a kid with issues. But college coaches, especially at the lower levels, still take talent, even troubled talent, and Casebier clearly was one. So he picked the school that had first offered him a scholarship, the University of Evansville, over Western Kentucky and Indiana State. Schools like Evansville live off of under-recruited kids who don’t fit the profile that major colleges have for what a player is ‘supposed to be.’ And 6’3” power forwards are not supposed to be successful at the college level. The coach of the Purple Aces, Jim Crews, had been a longtime Knight assistant and he knew he was getting in Casebier a volume scorer who he would have to manage off the court. And for much of the time Casebier played in Evansville, things went fine, on the court.

Casebier was a star at South Spencer High School in Indiana.

Being different was something Casebier had adapted to, even if he hadn’t always done it willingly. Hardly an athletic marvel, Casebier instead relied on craftiness and shot fakes, often pumping three or even four times before shooting. The result was a school record for free throws attempted. There was some precedent for a game like Casebier’s. With his build, he offered a similar skill set to that of NBA star Charles Barkley, who was a capable but uncommon shooter from distance, and whose bulk belied his quickness and grit. But Casebier lacked Barkley’s otherworldly athleticism. And also his sense of self.

“He causes a lot of matchup problems,” Loyola of Chicago head coach Will Rey once said, “because he posts up. He scores on putbacks. He can shoot threes.”

As a freshman, Casebier averaged 15 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, not bad for an introduction to college ball, even in an off-the-radar conference nationally. The team was mediocre, but young, and the future looked bright indeed.

But before his sophomore campaign, the other side of Parrish Casebier also began to show itself. Before the season began, Casebier was one of several Evansville students caught in a textbook-selling scam and the soon-to-be basketball star was forced to sit out the first five games of the season. It was a trend of on-court/off-court swings that would manifest itself multiple times over the years, as was his generally dismissive response to being caught. It was, he told everyone, no big deal. They had singled him out because of his status. Read the rest of this entry »

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Past Imperfect: The Ballad of Fire & Ice

Posted by JWeill on January 26th, 2012

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the dynamic duo of  Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe.

Clearly, NC State coach Jimmy Valvano loved nicknames. He reveled in being “Jimmy V”. He started referring to his erratic star big man Charles Shackleford as “Shack” long before Shaq was Shaq. So it’s not surprising two star freshmen in 1987 would eventually get their own aliases.

But taking a glance at the pasty white point guard from Florida and his reed-thin fellow freshman from Maryland, would anyone have ever come up with the monikers “Fire” and “Ice”? Perhaps not at first. But it didn’t take long for Chris “Fire” Corchiani and Rodney “Ice” Monroe to earn their nicknames, and much more.

Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani made up one of the NCAA's all-time great backcourts.

Corchiani meshed well with the fiery (and proudly, even comically, Italian-American) Valvano right off the bat. A Florida prep legend that was named Florida’s Mr. Basketball in 1986 and again in 1987, Corchiani was a passionate and talkative pass-first point guard, a coach’s son who loved winning basketball games even more intensely than he hated to lose them. By the time he left for Raleigh, Corchiani had set Florida prep marks for both career points and career assists.

Monroe had also had a record-breaking high school career, establishing a Maryland state high school record for scoring with over 3,000 points. Coming out of Baltimore’s tough Catholic league, Monroe had his pick of programs, but ultimately chose the Wolfpack over his home state school. This was due in part to the departure of popular Terrapins coach Lefty Dreisell, but had more to do with the chance to play alongside Corchiani, whom Monroe had first met at a high school camp a year before. As any good scorer knows, playing with someone who can get you the ball means more chances to shoot. Both had been point guards in high school, but Valvano knew what he wanted.

“[Corchiani] was a point [guard] who thought pass first and shoot second. That’s why it was a joy to play with him because I thought shoot first. We really had a great combination,” Monroe said later.

Coach Jim Valvano was always close with his fiery point guard.

With future pros Chucky Brown, Vinny Del Negro, and Shackleford already in the fold, Monroe’s immediate role would be as instant offense off the bench, and that’s just what he was. Corchiani, meanwhile, moved seamlessly into the starting lineup and racked up 235 assists as a freshman. Valvano’s motion offense meant lots of looks for Del Negro and Brown, and lots of cleanup for Shackleford. Monroe came in launching as the team’s sixth man. After a 24-win campaign, however, NC State was shocked by Murray State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the beginning of a pattern of NCAA struggles that would haunt this vaunted duo.

It would be as sophomores that the Fire and Ice duo would more fully gain national attention. With Del Negro gone to the NBA, Monroe got his shot, and shoot he would. Playing the game with a quiet intensity, and never afraid to hoist up a deep one, Monroe was the icy compliment to Corchiani’s fiery temperament. Riding Monroe’s three-point bombs, Brown’s interior brawn and Corchiani’s total floor game, NC State won 22 games in 1988-89 and earned a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament, where it dispatched South Carolina and Iowa easily.

The Wolfpack’s run would be stopped, however, on a questionable traveling call on Corchiani that negated a potential game-tying bucket with under two minutes to do. With Alonzo Mourning doing damage inside (12 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 blocks), Georgetown would go on to beat NC State, 69-61. Still, the season had been a good one, with the Wolfpack finishing the regular season as ACC champions and reaching the Sweet 16. Hopes were high for the next year, with Fire and Ice returning as upperclassmen and talented young big man Tom Gugliotta joining the starting lineup.

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