Mark Selig is the RTC correspondent for the Colonial Athletic Association. You can also find more of his written work at jamesmadison.rivals.com or on Twitter @MarkRSelig.
A Spotlight On Towson Athletic Director Mike Waddell
It’s Sunday morning and I send a direct message via Twitter to Towson athletic director Mike Waddell. It’s probably not the most conventional way to request a five-minute interview that will turn into a half-hour, but Waddell isn’t the most conventional A.D. Minutes later, Waddell messages back: “Call Now,” along with his cell phone number. And seconds later, another message: “6 minutes response time. Lol.” Think of Waddell as a first-responder – the fire-truck bowling down the street, sirens blaring, a crisis to confront. His emergency here is public relations. The most accessible athletic director in Division I athletics – unofficially, at least – lives to market the once-sorry program that he’s helping turn around in a blink. His impact since taking over Towson athletics in September 2010 is far-reaching, but let’s just focus on basketball, which, as he notes, is “the one sport that can be a revenue generator” in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Towson AD Mike Waddell Has Stuck With Pat Skerry, A Move That Has Paid Dividends With The Tigers Making Noise.
After a 26-point win over James Madison on Saturday, Towson is 10-9 and 4-1 in the CAA. The school hasn’t had a winning record this late in the season since 1999-2000, which, technically, is last century. Bill Clinton was still in the Oval Office, not at the Golden Globes. The Tigers are not eligible for the CAA Tournament or any postseason play this season because of academic sanctions which go back to the previous regime. It’s a shame too, because Towson could be one of the best stories in college basketball. After a 1-31 season, the Tigers are one of the top teams in the CAA. Who knows if they’d win the league title, but CBS would practically explode if it had the chance to craft one of those feel-good segments you see every March. Inevitably, that segment would have to start with the vision of Waddell.
Following the 15th consecutive losing season for Towson hoops, Waddell said goodbye to coach Pat Kennedy. He looked at his own athletic program, at the coaches in charge of the sports that were succeeding, and aimed to fill the men’s basketball opening with a gritty, like-minded candidate. “Who are we going to bring in who can grind the way these people grind?” Waddell asked himself. The A.D. says the first person on his wish list was Pat Skerry, then an assistant from Jamie Dixon’s staff at Pittsburgh. Skerry grew up just outside of Boston and has the hearty accent to prove it. More importantly, he expected success and knew there wouldn’t be shortcuts to attain it. Waddell hired Skerry, who hopped into a kitchen lacking any utensils last season. Year One was an expected disaster, but Skerry has quickly brought in enough talent – including three Big East transfers – to now compete.
The roster isn’t home grown, but it looks scary good for the future. Barring the unforeseen, only fifth-leading scorer Bilal Dixon will be gone next year, which could be a new era for Towson basketball. In addition to boasting a deep roster featuring do-everything forward Jerrelle Benimon and flourishing guard Jerome Hairston, Towson will open a sparkling 5,200-seat arena, it will be eligible again for postseason competition, and it will have the CAA Tournament in its backyard for the first time. George Mason, Delaware and Drexel will again be among the favorites to win the CAA next year, but Towson will be more than just a dark horse pick to claim its first Colonial title, at First Mariner Bank Arena in Baltimore.
Mark Selig is the RTC correspondent for the Colonial Athletic Association. You can also find more of his written work at jamesmadison.rivals.com or on Twitter @MarkRSelig.
Chris Ouch!: Drexel learned that top scorer Chris Fouch will miss the rest of this season with a broken right ankle. It’s a tough blow for the Dragons and their senior, who also missed all what would have been his freshman season with a knee injury, before winning rookie of the year as a sophomore. Fouch, a 6’0″ sixth man and shooting specialist, led the Dragons in scoring two seasons ago and was leading them through three games this year with a 16.7 PPG average. That puts more of a burden on guards Frantz Massenat and Damion Lee, a pair of CAA first team preseason picks.
Everybody’s Got A Loss: Any unrealistic dreams of a perfect season by a CAA team were dashed this week when upstart William & Mary followed its 3-0 start with a pair of losses. Surely we didn’t expect to see any team go deep into the season without a tarnish, especially given the teams W&M beat to become undefeated. The Tribe had a shot to upset Wake Forest – maybe the worst team in the ACC – after doing so two seasons ago, but dropped that game after snapping their unbeaten streak against Miami (OH).
Bright Lights Unkind To Hens: When Delaware beat Virginia in an NIT Tip-Off game, it set up a trip to Madison Square Garden for the Blue Hens. Playing on ESPN for the world to see, Delaware couldn’t muster another upset. It lost 66-63 against Kansas State, and then was trounced 85-59 in the third-place game by Pittsburgh. Devon Saddler, at least, looked like a superstar in NYC, scoring 60 points in the two games combined.
POY Stock Watch
It’s too early to crown a Player of the Year in the CAA, but there’s no harm in using the first handful of games for each team to set a baseline for the race. These five have earned front-runner status with their early play.
Devon Saddler has been outstanding so far this season (US Presswire)
Joel Smith – The Northeastern guard wasn’t named to the league’s preseason first or second team, but he’s stepped up in the absence of a teammate that was – guard Jonathan Lee, who’s out with an injury. Smith is second in the conference in scoring (17.8 PPG) and leads his team in assists and steals.
Devon Saddler – Delaware’s power guard leads the league in scoring (22.2PPG), even if others surpass him in efficiency. If Saddler can display the all-around game to match his bucket-making prowess, the comparisons to former Hofstra guard Charles Jenkins – a two-time CAA POY who’s now in the NBA – will materialize.
Marcus Thornton – It’s a point guard’s league, and Thornton might be the most responsible primary ballhandler, even if he’s just a sophomore. He’s shooting 54.2 percent from the field and is as consistent as they come.
Jerelle Benimon – Towson coach Pat Skerry promised in the preseason that Benimon would be a “beast,” and the Georgetown transfer has delivered. Round up his rebounds and he’s averaging a double-double, adding a measure of toughness that Towson desperately needed.
Keith Rendleman – That UNCW is .500 after six games should earn Rendleman a trophy itself. As mentioned before, he’s the only consistent player on his team, but he brings it every night and has made a lacking roster competitive.
On the heels of transfer announcements from Gerard Coleman and Bilal Dixon, the rumors started swirling at Providence in early April that yet another guard — then-sophomore Bryce Cotton — asked for his release and was set to leave the program. The thought was that with Vincent Council returning for his senior year and at least two superstar guard recruits entering the program, Cotton saw the writing on the wall and was headed for a place that offered more playing time.
The Friars Have A New Star Of The Show, But The Team Should Be Happy It Has Him At All
Friars’ fans did not take the news well but the discussion was never about losing a starting guard, it was about losing “depth” and a solid player who could back up Council and uber-freshmen Kris Dunn and Ricardo Ledo. Never mind that the then-sophomore was coming off a season in which he had averaged 38.6 minutes and 14.3 points per game, the message was already clear. Cotton was a nice player, but he wasn’t Council, or Dunn, or Ledo.
Fast forward to present day and you can bet that the Providence faithful is thanking its lucky stars that Cotton decided to stick around. The backcourt logjam that was supposed to eat into Cotton’s minutes never materialized. In fact, the backcourt has gone from an area of strength to an area of weakness almost overnight. First Dunn had shoulder surgery, then Ledo was ruled ineligible, and then, early in the team’s season-opening win over the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Council injured his hamstring, leaving him sidelined for an undetermined amount of time.
Strange League Makeup: Perennial contender VCU left for the Atlantic 10, leaving 11 teams in the CAA, but only seven of those squads will participate in this year’s league tournament held in Richmond. Outgoing Old Dominion and Georgia State are ineligible under CAA bylaws, while UNC-Wilmington and Towson are ineligible for any postseason play because of low APR scores. College of Charleston recently approved a move from the Southern Conference and will likely join next season.
Can Bruiser Take The Dragons Dancing? Drexel’s 12th-year coach has won 199 games with the Dragons, but Bruiser Flint has never brought the team to the NCAA Tournament (his last Tourney appearance was in 1998 with UMass). The Dragons, champions of the regular season last year, are the favorites to repeat and this time also win the conference tourney now that VCU isn’t around to boast what was essentially home-court advantage at the Richmond Coliseum. Flint has had his share of headaches in the Virginia state capital, but a lot of them would go away if he could just snip that Coliseum net.
Frantz Massenat Leads The Dragons As Preseason Favorites. (AP)
Multiple Bids? That seems to be the question every year in the CAA, a conference that sent multiple teams to the tournament in 2011, 2007 and 2006. Without VCU – a fringe Top 25 team – that appears unlikely. But a team like Drexel could theoretically build itself a strong enough at-large résumé and then get upset in the CAA Tournament. It would take a big season from a George Mason or Delaware to have the Colonial flag waved at multiple NCAA sites, though. Old Dominion, ineligible for the league title, created a rugged enough non-conference schedule for itself to be an at-large consideration, but the Monarchs probably aren’t talented enough this year to breeze through that slate.
Over the next couple of week’s we’ll be checking in with each of the high mid-major leagues as to their mid-summer offseason status. Up next: the CAA.
Michael Litos is the RTC correspondent for the Colonial Athletic Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @CAAHoops and find him online at CAAHoops.com.
Three Key Storylines
A Different Look. Perhaps no conference faced the realignment wars more head on than the CAA. Georgia State announced in April it was moving to the Sun Belt effective in 2013. VCU and George Mason were both wooed by the Atlantic 10 — Shaka Smart took his Rams to a new conference while Paul Hewitt’s squad stuck. And Old Dominion followed Georgia State, making a football-driven decision to go to Conference USA. The summer was mostly spent managing off-court drama, so the season tip-off will be welcomed. Due to a longstanding CAA rule that programs leaving the CAA are not eligible for championships, ODU and Georgia State will essentially play lame duck seasons. When you factor in Towson and UNCW’s ineligibility due to APR results, the CAA Tournament — annually a raucous affair that plays to a sold-out Richmond Coliseum — will be a seven-team battle in March.
Frantz Massenat Returns For Drexel, The Early Favorites In The New-Look CAA. (AP)
Southern Bias No More? No team north of George Mason has won a CAA title since the conference expanded in 2000 to include four America East programs. In fact, VCU, Old Dominion, and George Mason have combined to win six straight CAA championships and eight of the last nine. However, VCU has moved to the A-10 and ODU is ineligible due to its impending move to Conference USA. Drexel finished 16-2 last year, losing to VCU in the CAA Tournament finals and Delaware returns every key player, adding St. Joseph’s transfer Carl Baptiste. Plus, BillCoen has a senior backcourt and one of the conference’s top players in sophomore QuincyFord. That leaves Hewitt’s team to fend off northern aggressors to keep the streak going.
Channeling Medeleev. Several CAA coaches face as many chemistry concerns as X-and-O hurdles. Hofstra’s Mo Cassara could start as many as five transfers, led by former UConn Husky Jamal Coombs-McDaniel. The Pride went 14-4 and 3-15 in Cassara’s two seasons in the conference and his ability to combine elements could give rise to either record this year. PatSkerry has a similar challenge at Towson. Skerry is rebuilding around a trio of Big East transfers that includes former Georgetown Hoya Jerrelle Benimon, Providence grad BilalDixon, and South Florida transfer Mike Burwell. And RonHunter replaces six seniors with a blend of freshmen (including his son, RJ Hunter, who turned down offers from ACC and Big Ten programs) and Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins. Hunter may also get Southern Cal transfer Curtis Washington eligible.
When it rains it pours for a Connecticut program that remains in flux, primarily due to the impending NCAA tournament ban faced by the Huskies next year due to a sub-standard Academic Progress Rate (APR) score. Well, Jim Calhoun and company may be facing the death nail now that the Big East has ruled it will follow suit and keep Connecticut out of next year’s Big East Tournament should the NCAA ban hold up under appeal. Big East spokesman John Paquette, while in New Orleans for the Final Four, said that Big East Presidents met on March 7 to discuss the matter and came to a “conceptual agreement”. Prior that declaration the Big East had no official position on a team’s conference tournament status should it be banned from NCAA tournament play. In fact, the new rule goes against past precedent as Syracuse was allowed to play in the 1993 Big East tournament despite not being allowed to plan in the NCAA Tournament. There is no official time table with regard to a ruling on Connecticut’s APR ban appeal, but it could come as late as July because of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance’s (CAP) meeting schedule.
We noted here yesterday that CBS Sports’ Jeff Goodmantweeted that three Providence players: sophomores Gerard Coleman and Ron Giplaye along with red shirt junior Bilal Dixon were looking to transfer, noting that Giplaye and Dixon were “definitely” gone, while Coleman “could” be. In response to Goodman’s claim, a post out of Providence quoted head coach Ed Cooley as saying, “the report out there is not true as far as I’m concerned.” Cooley did confirm that Dixon, who is in his fourth year and graduating, will not be with the Friars next year. As for Coleman and Giplaye, Cooley said he met with each of his players on Tuesday and there was no mention from Coleman, Giplaye or anyone else about transferring. Despite Cooley’s comments, rumors remain strong that both players will, in fact, be leaving. Not all of this is new information. Dixon’s status was leaked about midway through the season and it was sealed when Providence conducted senior night festivities in his honor at their last home game. After the game Dixon addressed the crowd, saying that he will miss Providence. As part of that mid-season buzz, both Dixon and Giplaye were said to be transferring to Towson where former Providence assistant, Pat Skerry, is the head coach. Wagner has also been mentioned as a destination for Dixon, who is a New Jersey native.
There were no reported fights between Louisville and Kentucky fans yesterday in dialysis centers, beauty parlors, hardware stores or any of the usual venues of conflict so we are going to stretch this Providence transfer story into a buy none, get two free special this morning. As noted in the GoLocalProv.com report referenced and linked above, Gerard Coleman and Ron Giplaye were teammates with AAU powerhouse BABC. BABC, of course was also the home of some guy named Nerlens Noel who you may have heard of. Noel was recently the subject of a controversial New York Times piece that, in part, focused on his relationship with Chris Driscoll. Driscoll was a Providence assistant under former head coach Keno Davis who rose to that level more than in part due to his involvement and connections with BABC. Driscoll, who is believed to still have an advisory relationship with Noel, was depicted in the article as using less than honorable tactics to secure players and climb the ladder. It is not known if Driscoll continues to have a relationship with Giplaye or Coleman but the GoLocalProv.com piece speculated that he could be the source. Interestingly, should Giplaye and Coleman transfer that would run the total to three BABC alums looking to leave Big East schools, as they would join former Connecticut big man Alex Oriakhi in looking for new homes.
It appears Louisville head coach Rick Pitino will have to put his Hall of Fame dream on hold for at least another year. Pitino was a finalist for induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame but, according to an ESPN.com report, was informed yesterday that he was not selected. Pitino, who was reportedly and understandably disappointed about the news, is preparing for his sixth Final Four with a record three different schools (Providence and Kentucky were the others). While we are sure Pitino would have loved to get the nod this year, it is just a matter of time before he gains induction.
We have kept you posted on the recruitment of Chris Obekpa, a 6’9” center in the class of 2012 that is highly coveted among Big East schools. Oregon has emerged as a late contender in the sweepstakes and Obekpa will take an official visit to Eugene before making his decision. Cincinnati, Connecticut, DePaul, Providence, and St. John’s appear to be the finalists along with Oregon, but other schools remain in the mix. Obekpa has officially visited Cincinnati, DePaul and St. John’s, while paying unofficials to Connecticut and Providence on the same day. His teammate at New York’s Our Savior New American (OSNA), Felix Balamou, recently gave a verbal commitment to Steve Lavin and St. John’s which prompted talk of a package deal but OSNA assistant coach Eric Jaklitsch remains steadfast that Obekpa and Balamou’s decisions are mutually exclusive of one another. Obekpa will be playing in the All-American Championship, an all-star showcase event, on Sunday in New Orleans.
Brian Otskey is the RTC correspondent for the Big East conference. You can also find him on Twitter @botskey.
The Week That Was
A Rough Week for the Big East: Conference teams lost 13 times this past week to the likes of UCF, Illinois State, Northeastern, and Richmond among others. Only three undefeated teams (Syracuse, Louisville, and Marquette) remain and of the 13 teams with at least one loss, only three (DePaul, Seton Hall and Georgetown) have not yet recorded a bad loss. As we enter December, the middle of the conference doesn’t appear to be as strong as in years past. The Big East has a handful of great teams and a host of teams that appear to be very average at this point. It’s a long season, but the chances of seeing nine or ten NCAA bids from this league are certainly not promising.
Syracuse and Marquette Take Home Titles: The Orange defeated Virginia Tech and Stanford at their second home, Madison Square Garden, to win the NIT Season Tip-Off while Marquette took home the Paradise Jam championship, albeit against a so-so field. Both teams struggled in their respective championship games, but managed to pull it out down the stretch, the sign of a good team. Each team’s schedule ramps up this week against a pair of top ten teams as Syracuse hosts Florida on Friday and Marquette visits in-state rival Wisconsin on Saturday.
Tim Abromaitis Tears ACL: There was awful news out of South Bend late last week when it was announced that Notre Dame fifth year senior forward Tim Abromaitis tore the ACL in his right knee during practice on Friday. The loss of Abromaitis is a huge blow to a Notre Dame team already with two neutral court losses on its resume and a pair of road games coming up this week. The Fighting Irish rotation is pretty much only seven deep now with only three or four reliable scorers. Point guard EricAtkins has played very well, but Scott Martin and Pat Connaughton will have to step up in a big way for Notre Dame to have any chance of making the NCAA Tournament.
With A Big Game Against Florida Looming Friday, How Will Jim Boeheim Keep His Team Focused Amid The Bernie Fine Scandal?
Syracuse (6-0) – After feasting on four cupcakes to begin the season, the Orange were impressive late in victories over Virginia Tech and Stanford in the NIT Season Tip-Off. They struggled for the better part of both games, but the ability of this team to flip the switch and play like the top five team it is is something that will suit them well outside of conference play. However, Syracuse had better play well for 40 minutes once the Big East season arrives or else they’ll lose more games than you think. Jim Boeheim’s team ranks in the top ten nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, one of only four teams at the moment. Syracuse has done a great job forcing turnovers leading to easy points in transition. Dion Waiters appears to have taken his game to the next level as a sophomore with transition play being a big part of that. How this team is affected by the Bernie Fine investigation, if at all, is something to watch over the next few weeks. This week: 11/29 vs. Eastern Michigan, 12/2 vs. #6 Florida.
Louisville (6-0) –Rick Pitino was successful last year by molding a team of role players into a cohesive unit with no superstars through an incredible focus on defense. Louisville looks to be following that same formula again in 2011-12. The Cardinals rank third nationally in defensive efficiency and only one opponent has scored more than 54 points. Of course, offense is Louisville’s biggest challenge. Peyton Siva is back, but Pitino’s rotation has been scaled back due to injuries to Wayne Blackshear and Mike Marra. Blackshear may be back but Marra is lost for the season with a torn ACL. Louisville struggled against Ohio and has another tricky game with Long Beach State on Monday. Freshman Chane Behanan (9/9) is stepping up in the absence of Blackshear while Gorgui Dieng has been a shot-blocking machine in the paint at three rejections per game. This is a big week for the Cardinals as their competition gets stronger. This week: 11/28 vs. Long Beach State, 12/2 vs. #20 Vanderbilt. Read the rest of this entry »
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our Big East update comes from frequent RTC contributor Brian Otskey, co-author of Get to the Point.
Connecticut Revels In National Championship Glory: Connecticut’s storybook year continued on into the offseason as the Huskies were invited to the White House for an event with President Obama on May 16. The team presented the president with a #1 UConn jersey and posed for photographs after being lauded for their remarkable accomplishment. Connecticut made one of the most improbable runs ever en route to the third national championship in school history, all coming since 1999, going 23-0 outside of Big East regular season play. Nobody could have predicted the way last season unfolded and the NCAA Tournament as a whole was a microcosm of that. Connecticut’s national title made up for a lackluster performance by many of the record 11 Big East teams participating in the tournament. Only one other Big East team (Marquette) managed to make it to the second weekend’s Sweet 16. Life without Kemba Walker has begun in Storrs and while the Huskies will be among the 2011-12 Big East favorites, it’ll be very interesting to see who steps up and how the team performs without its warrior. Jeremy Lamb appears to be ready to take over but the way Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi handle their larger roles will be the difference between a team contending for a Big East title and one that finishes fourth or fifth.
Kemba & Co. Celebrated in Style (H-C/B.Hansen)
The Ed Cooley Era Begins In Friartown: After Keno Davis stumbled to an 18-36 Big East record over three seasons in Providence, the Friars desperately needed someone to revive their moribund program. Providence has made only two NCAA Tournaments since its 1997 appearance and the last one was eight seasons ago in 2003-04. Enter Ed Cooley, a Providence-born 41-year-old with the fire in his belly needed to succeed in arguably the toughest job in the Big East Conference. Cooley will instill a system of discipline and fundamentals with a special attention to defense, three attributes of successful programs that were sorely lacking under Davis. Cooley’s Fairfield team ranked #22 in the nation in defensive efficiency last season and he improved the Stags’ record each and every year he was there. Providence, a small Catholic school with hardly any recruiting base along with limited facilities and resources, is an incredibly difficult job even before you have to go up against bigger schools like Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh along with tradition-rich programs such as Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette. Cooley must spend his first season laying the foundation for longer term success. He won’t turn this program around overnight but more discipline on and off the court and hard work on the recruiting trail can turn Providence into a solid Big East competitor. We can’t think of many people better suited than Cooley to get the job done at Providence. While it will be a long and difficult process, brighter days are ahead for the Providence program with Ed Cooley at the helm.
Signs Of Life In The New York Area: New coach Steve Lavin and St. John’s brought the buzz back to the Big Apple last winter as the Red Storm earned its first NCAA bid in nine seasons. “Lavinwood” has moved east, but St. John’s now enters a year full of mixed feelings. Cautious optimism as well as uncertainty rules the day with nine new faces, part of the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class, making their way to Queens in 2011-12. Malik Stith is the only returnee of note after Dwayne Polee, II, decided to transfer closer to home at San Diego State. St. John’s may be the most unpredictable team in the Big East entering this season. The potential exists for a terrific year if Lavin can mold all this raw talent into a cohesive unit capable of playing with any team in the conference. However, issues with young players, commonly involving playing time and egos, are also very possible and it takes only one incident to destroy the locker room and wreck the season. The Johnnies have enough talent to make the NCAA Tournament again, but Lavin will have to totally adjust his approach to make that happen. With hardly any experience on the roster, he can’t simply roll the ball out and hope for the best. This season will be the biggest test of Lavin’s coaching career on the court, but he faced an even more difficult challenge last year, coaching the entire season with prostate cancer while keeping it a secret until this spring. Turning St. John’s around with that constantly in the back of his mind is an a commendable achievement and we obviously wish Coach Lavin the best of luck fighting this awful disease.
Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, Mike Rice and Rutgers appear to be building a program to be reckoned with down the road. The Scarlet Knights have been a dormant program for 20 years, never once enjoying a winning season in any of its 16 years as a Big East member. That may be about to change, although it appears unlikely that Rutgers will crack the .500 mark in league play this season. The fiery Rice reeled in a top 25 recruiting class and now must build on a season of close calls and what-ifs. Rutgers was competitive last year, but could only manage five Big East victories. It’ll take time for the new players to adjust to the collegiate level but bigger and better things should be expected from Rutgers in the years to come. Rutgers, a large state school, has the capability of becoming a pretty good program. All it needs is a commitment from the administration, facility upgrades and great recruiting. Rice is taking care of the latter, now it’s time for the Rutgers brass to provide him with the resources needed to build a top flight program. Rutgers needs major facility upgrades (a RAC renovation has been talked about for over a year), but fundraising has been a major problem. With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie trying to get the state’s financial house in order, there is going to be a lot of resistance to an ambitious project such as this one at the state’s flagship university.
Last week we spent some time praising the work of two of the most familiar faces in the college basketball coaching world, Rick Pitino and Bruce Pearl, in getting their teams off to sparkling starts in the aftermath of some rough off-court patches. Today, I’d like to recognize some perhaps less well-known coaches who have turned awful offseasons of a different sort into solid starts for their respective teams. At Providence, Oregon and Iowa State, the basketball programs all went through turbulent summers full of personnel changes and uncertainty, but thus far the coaches at each of those programs has fought through the adversity to earn a combined 29-9 record for the three schools, albeit against maybe some lesser competition. None of the three schools are necessarily expected to be major contenders for NCAA Tournament berths, but at least they’ve got their programs headed in the right directions after rough offseasons.
Marshon Brooks Has Been a Revelation This Season
For Keno Davis and the Providence Friars, the offseason was an absolute nightmare – not that 2009-10 was all that great to begin with. The Friars lost their last 11 games of last season on the way to a 12-19 record, during which time junior guard Kyle Wright abruptly left the program. After the season was over, a new rash of bad news hit the Friars. First, it was announced that point guard Johnnie Lacy and center Russ Permenter would be transferring out of the program. Then, a couple days later, Lacy and freshman center James Still were charged with felony assault, leading to Still’s eventual dismissal. A month later, the bright spot in the Friar program was extinguished when leading scorer and rebounder Jamine “Greedy” Peterson was kicked off the team. About a week later, assistant coach Pat Skerry left to head to Big East rival Pitt, and in the process, severely hurt Providence’s recruiting with incoming 2010 recruit Joseph Young announcing that he would be staying closer to his Houston home for college. After Davis lost some face in refusing to allow Young out of his scholarship for a time, he was eventually released and allowed to enroll at the University of Houston. Next, 2011 commit Naadir Tharpe announced that he was withdrawing his commitment to the Friars and opening back up his recruitment. And finally, for good measure, Kadeem Batts suffered a disorderly conduct charge in July. In short, it was a miserable offseason.
But, in the face of all of that turmoil, the Friars are off to an 11-2 start to this season. Yes, they’ve dropped games to La Salle and Boston College, and for every win over a Rhode Island and an Alabama, there’s a win over Central Connecticut and Prairie View A&M, but at least Coach Davis has not allowed the negative momentum of the offseason to boil over into a disastrous 2010-11 campaign. Senior wing Marshon Brooks has developed into a versatile threat (22.9 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.5 BPG, 2.0 3PG) and a team leader, while sophomores Vincent Council and Bilal Dixon are each developing into serious Big East-level talents. Council is among the top ten point guards in the nation in assists, with seven per game (he had 16 in a game against Brown), while Dixon has been killing the boards on both ends, to the tune of 9.7 rebounds per night (more than three of those on the offensive glass), and adding almost three blocked shots a night. While much more serious competition awaits the Friars come Big East play, Davis has focused on tightening things up on the defensive end where PC ranked in the bottom 100 teams in Division I last year in defensive efficiency; now PC ranks in the top 100. There is certainly a ways to go for this Friar team, and the talent level is still such that any dream of a run to an upper-division Big East finish should be tempered with, you know, sanity, but Davis has taken what was a disastrous offseason and settled things down in Providence to the point where the program is no longer in freefall and is playing up to their talent level. There are sure to be plenty of losses (and losing streaks) in conference play, but expect the Friars to beat a team or two that they have no business beating, and to be competitive on a regular basis.
So the Big East came back down to earth this past week. It was bound to happen. The conference wasn’t going to boast seven undefeated teams all season long. While Syracuse, Louisville, and NotreDame won marquee matchups, Georgetown, Pitt, Marquette, Providence, and NotreDame (again) got knocked off this past week, and Villanova and WestVirginia struggled against inferior opponents.
Player of the Week: Marshon Brooks, Providence: I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of people around the country that haven’t heard the name Marshon Brooks before because, you know, he plays for Providence. But it’s about time you start noticing this young man. In the past two weeks, there may not be a player in the country in more of a groove that Brooks. Since a 3-12 performance in a win over Wyoming on November 24, Brooks has been on fire, averaging 28.9 PPG and 8.2 RPG, collecting 11 steals and ten blocks, and shooting 55%/83%/46% over a six-game stretch. In the last week alone, Brooks averaged 31.3 PPG and 8.3 RPG as the Friars went 2-1, their lone loss a two-point decision on the road against Boston College.
Team of the Week: Syracuse Orange – The Orange’s win over Michigan State last Tuesday has been written about and discussed at length already, but it deserves mention once again. Granted, the Spartans are playing some poor basketball right now, but Syracuse still dominated them in the paint and completely flummoxed them with their zone. The Orange are just as good defensively as they were last season and may have an even better front line than last year’s team, headlined by the emergence of Rick Jackson as a double-double machine. They are still waiting on Kris Joseph to become a consistent scoring threat, and Scoop Jardine still has a tendency to make bad decisions, but the biggest issue standing between Syracuse and greatness appears to be their lack of perimeter shooting. Regardless, no team in the Big East is playing better basketball that the Orange right now.
Power Rankings (last week’s rankings in parentheses)
1. Syracuse (10-0) (5)
Last Week: 12/7 vs. Michigan State 72-58, 12/11 vs. Colgate 100-43
Next Week: 12/18 vs. Iona, 12/20 vs. Morgan State
2. Pitt (10-1) (1)
Last Week: 12/8 vs. Delaware State 70-42, 12/11 vs. Tennessee 76-83
Next Week: 12/18 vs. UM Eastern Shore
The Panthers took a pretty solid whooping at the hands of Tennessee last Saturday. Ashton Gibbs was completely taken out of the game by MelvinGoins, Pitt had no answer to Scotty Hopson defensively, and the Panthers were ineffective in finishing their second chance opportunities. To make matters worse, the game was in Pittsburgh. The tendency is to overreact to a beatdown like this, but I caution fans against doing that. I was able to watch the entirety of that game, and trust me, it had much more to do with how well Tennessee played than what Pitt was unable to do.
3. Georgetown (9-1) (2)
Last Week: 12/9 @ Temple 65-68, 12/12 vs. Appalachian State 89-60
Next Week: 12/18 vs. Loyola MD
Like Pitt’s loss to Tennessee, I caution Hoya fans against getting too worried about Georgetown’s first loss of the season. For starters, it came on the road against a Temple team that is top-25 material, played as well as they have all season on the defensive end, and got a career performance out of Ramone Moore, who went for 30. Georgetown still has a terrific backcourt and still has one of the most impressive non-conference resumes in the country. With the schedule they are playing, they were bound to be tripped up. If anything, that game proved that even Georgetown is susceptible to being taken out of their game by Temple’s defense.
4. Connecticut (8-0) (3)
Last Week: 12/8 vs. FDU 78-54
Next Week: 12/20 vs. Coppin State
The Huskies have slowly dropped in the Power Rankings, as they were second two weeks ago. This may look even more ridiculous considering that UConn has risen to #4 in both of the polls. My defense? Well, it’s the same thing that has been written every time someone has written anything about UConn this season — do they have enough outside of Kemba Walker? Roscoe Smith and Jeremy Lamb have been better the last two games, while Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi have come back to earth a little bit. The addition of 7’1 German import Enosch Wolf may help shore up UConn’s woes on the defensive glass, but I’m still not sold on this team.
5. Villanova (8-1) (4)
Last Week: 12/8 @ Penn 65-53, 12/12 @ La Salle 84-81
Next Week: 12/18 vs. Delaware
It’s a good thing that Corey Stokes decided to show up this week, as he was the Wildcats’ best player in both games this week, scoring 34 of Nova’s 65 against Penn before dropping 16 against La Salle. Corey Fisher seems like he is struggling with the pressure of replacing Scottie Reynolds. The skills are still there, as he’s still finding assists and getting to the foul line. His shots just aren’t dropping. He’s too good for that not to change.
7. Notre Dame 9-1 (6)
Last Week: 12/8 vs. Kentucky 58-72, 12/11 vs. Gonzaga 83-79
Next Week: 12/19 vs. Stony Brook
Notre Dame’s past week has me confused. Ben Hansbrough carried the Irish to a 38-27 lead late in the first half against Kentucky, but he had just two of his 21 points the rest of the way and the Irish looked completely lost on the offensive end of the floor, going for 13 minutes of game time without a field goal. They did, however, look solid on the defensive end until Terrence Jones took over in the final five minutes. Against Gonzaga, the Irish led by double digits for much of the second half, but allowed the Zags to score 14 points in the final minute and cut a ten-point lead to just two.
7. Louisville (8-1) (7)
Last Week: 12/8 vs. San Francisco 61-35, 12/11 vs. UNLV 77-69, 12/14 vs. Drexel 46-52
Next Week: 12/18 vs. Gardner-Webb
While finals generally signal a slowdown in college basketball, there was plenty going on in Louisville. All in the span of a week, the Cardinals received a verbal commitment from Rodney Purvis, the nation’s #1 point guard in the class of 2012, scored a big win over UNLV, and lost to Drexel amongst reports that Rick Pitino will coach the Puerto Rican national team. As for the Cardinals as they stand right now, nothing has changed about my opinion of Louisville since they beat Butler to open the season. When this team gets it going — when they are knocking down threes and forcing turnovers defensively — they can play with just about anyone in the country. When they don’t hit shots, as shown against Drexel, they will struggle. The biggest issue for Louisville right now? Their three-point shooters just aren’t all that good. As a team, they shoot 32.1% from deep (219th in the country) but 42.8% of their field goals are three balls (17th most in the country). Their top three in terms of attempts — Mike Marra (27.3%), Preston Knowles (34.7%), Peyton Siva (25%) — don’t shoot it well. Their best three point shooter, Kyle Kuric (42.1%), only takes a little over two per game. Think about this stat — in beating San Francisco, Louisville took more threes (36) than USF had points (35). They missed the same number of threes (26) as points they won by (26). I don’t know what that means, but it is kind of insane. (Note: The shooting stats were taken from KenPom before the Cardinals’ December 14 game against Drexel.)
8. Cincinnati (9-0) (8)
Last Week: 12/11 vs. Utah Valley 92-72, 12/14 vs. Georgia Southern 99-54
Next Week: 12/18 vs. Oklahoma
Will the Bearcats play somebody already? They are 9-0 on the season, but they haven’t beaten anyone in the top 100 according to KenPom, and their only wins against teams rated better than 199th are against Dayton and Wright State. I’m reserving judgment on this team until they get a real test, and that may not be for another month.
9. Marquette 7-3 (9)
Last Week: 12/7 vs. Texas A&M-CC 86-50, 12/11 vs. Wisconsin 64-69
Next Week: 12/18 vs. Centenary
Typical Marquette. Their three losses are by a combined 13 points. The same thing happened last season. The Golden Eagles played every good opponent tough, and once they figured out how to win and execute down the stretch, they started knocking off those tough opponents. I’m not worried about this team just yet.
10. West Virginia 7-2 (6)
Last Week: 12/7 vs. Robert Morris 82-49, 12/12 @ Duquesne 64-61
Next Week: 12/18 vs. Cleveland State
Did something happen between Bob Huggins and Casey Mitchell? It appears so, because the Mountaineers’ leading scorer managed just 35 minutes combined the past two games. He played only one second in the second half against Duquesne.
11. Providence 10-2 (12)
Last Week: 12/8 @ Boston College 86-88, 12/11 vs. Alabama 82-70
Next Week: None
It’s too early to say that PC is a potential NCAA Tournament team, not with their lack of quality wins. But with Marshon Brooks playing the way he has and Vincent Council and Bilal Dixon looking like they can be impact players in the Big East, this team has to be considered a sleeper to make a run in league play. The Friars open conference play at Syracuse and then with home dates against St. John’s and Pitt. I’ll reserve judgment on them until after those three games.
12. Seton Hall 5-4 (13)
Last Week: 12/11 @ UMass 78-51
Next Week: 12/19 vs. NJIT
Have the Pirates finally figured out how to play without Jeremy Hazell? The last two games, they have won by a combined 52 points and scored an average of 91.0 PPG. This team is playing defense this season. If the offense comes around, they’ll be climbing these power rankings. Seton Hall has talent.
13. Rutgers 7-2 (15)
Last Week: 12/8 vs. Marist 64-48, 12/11 vs. Auburn 63-54, 12/14 v. FDU 79-65
Next Week: 12/18 vs. Monmouth
The Scarlet Knights aren’t terrible this season, or at least is appears that way early on. They have a win over Miami FL and knocked off Auburn in a game that wasn’t nearly as close that the 63-54 final would indicate.
14. St. John’s 5-3 (11)
Last Week: 12/7 vs. St. Bonaventure 66-67, 12/11 @ Fordham 81-84
Next Week: 12/20 vs. Davidson
15. South Florida 5-5 (14)
Last Week: 12/12 @ Kent State 51-56
Next Week: 12/15 vs. Auburn, 12/18 vs. James Madison
16. DePaul 4-6 (16)
Last Week: 12/8 @ Indiana State 51-73, 12/11 vs. Ball State 77-79 OT, 12/14 vs. Milwaukee 61-47
Next Week: 12/18 vs. Loyola IL
The bottom of the Big East was awful this past week. St. John’s completely destroyed any kind of hope for this season by losing at home to St. Bonaventure and dropping a game on the road against Fordham (who won two games last season) after holding a 21-point lead. South Florida followed up a loss to Florida Atlantic where they scored 42 points with a loss to Kent State where they scored 51 points. DePaul was drubbed by Indiana State by 22 points (and had just 18 points at the under 16 timeout of the second half) and lost to Ball State. Yuck.
A Look Ahead
Aside from Drexel’s major upset to give Louisville its first loss at home, there are no interesting games played by Big East teams this week. None. The only game that comes close is when West Virginia hosts undefeated Cleveland State, and that is in very large part due to the finish those two had last year. Good luck on your finals, and enjoy your Christmas break, fellas.