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Mid-Majors Keeping up with the Big Boys

December 10, 2001 Columns No Comments

A Perfect Example of the Changing State of D-I Hoops

by Adam Shandler

The Hoopville holiday party was a blast!

Actually, since we’re all scattered all over the country, it had to be a virtual holiday party, but we had fun nonetheless.

Managing Editor Andrew Flynn rented out only the most primo chat room on AOL and catered it with virtual meals, a virtual bar and virtual entertainment. We had lots of laughs. I told some virtual jokes like (and stop me if you’ve heard this one) the one about the Memphis basketball player who received his diploma. Don Weinstein “LOL’d” so hard his “L” key nearly malfunctioned. Everything was cool until I spilled my vodka-tonic all over my keyboard and was asked to leave.

Can’t wait for the virtual Hoopville barbecue this summer!

What’s that? You clicked here for a basketball article? I can do that.

In another of its series of undersold basketball events, Madison Square Garden hosted the MAAC challenge on Saturday, December 8.

And the MAAC did challenge.

0-4 Fairfield faced a struggling Depaul team in the opener. It’s an early-season tradition for teams like Depaul to schedule the Fairfields of the world to pad their win totals and restore confidence. But the Demons, even though they escaped with a 94-90 win, should’ve taken nothing positive away from this win. Depaul edged a supposedly weaker team, from a supposedly weaker conference, that was more aggressive than they were and came within one possession of ruining the Demons’ trip to New York.

Depaul led by two at the half and then extended their lead to 81-73 in the beginning of the second half, but the Stags would not be denied “the challenge.” Fairfield put together a 12-4 run, tied it up at 85 with just over 2 minutes left and then a couple of turnovers did them in with 1:21 to go. It wasn’t a lack of talent that let the Fairfield victory slip away. It was both a lack of experience and depth. And those quirks will work themselves out once MAAC play begins – and opponents like Depaul will help them do it. You see Depaul-Fairfield is not just a tune-up for Depaul. It’s one for Fairfield as well.

What went wrong here? Why didn’t Depaul leave the Garden with a 30-point win?

Now I submit Exhibit B. Game 2: Manhattan vs. St. John’s.

St. John’s is assumed to be the better team because it hails from a bigger conference with more of a basketball reputation and shi-shi recruiting tools like playing most of its home game at Madison Square Garden. And most so-called basketball seers (the guys that trawl the newspapers for the sports betting lines and drool) probably would have picked the Red Storm to come out of this one with a win, albeit an ugly one.

Well it was. But it was St. John’s that was ugly. Manhattan Senior point guard VonDamien “Muggsy” Green stole the show – and the ball – to the tune of 20 points, 6 assists, and 4 steals, as the Jaspers blasted the Johnnies 85-68. Green’s counterpart, Marcus Hatten, who dropped 31 on Fordham just a week earlier, scored a measly 6 points on 1-of-9 shooting. The Red Storm as a whole shot just 33 percent from the floor.

But it wasn’t just the superficial numbers that made St. John’s look bad. Save for an early first half spurt, Mike Jarvis’ club looked lost, lethargic and uncompetitive. The Johnnies were playing the Jaspers, but they had the Hoyas, Eagles and Orangemen in their eyes. And that’s not to take anything away from Manhattan, who got contributions from everyone but the guy selling Seuss hats and cotton candy in the stands. The Jaspers just looked like they wanted it more. The Johnnies looked like they wanted be in their dorms.

Here’s what I am getting at.

Division I college basketball is reaching that startling juncture when mid-majors and big-timers are beginning to stand to on even footing. Don’t blame the mid-majors for getting better. Blame the big-timers for getting worse. Teams like St. John’s can tell you firsthand that the siren’s cry of the NBA is a team-killer for big-time college programs. Year-to-year inconsistencies make every year a rebuilding year and leave just a little more wiggle room for clubs like Fairfield and Manhattan (where sophomores ballplayers eventually become senior ballplayers) to break through.

And despite the famine of winning seasons or the paltry number of players they sent to the pros, teams like Manhattan and Fairfield will be able to recruit the quality player. Maybe not the blue chip, McDonald’s All-American, but the quality player. The quality player is looking for ample playing time and the opportunity to play, not be, the likes of St. John’s and Depaul. The Mickey D’s all-star just wants a one-to-two year development program before jetting for the NBA.

So take heed big-time college programs. These “cupcakes” you schedule at the start of your seasons may give you indigestion – and a few early losses you didn’t expect. While you’re getting the kinks out with the newest version of your starting five, a mid-major team with seven returning seniors is making you like the Washington Generals. You’re job is getting harder.

And the mid-majors are getting better.

Unsolicited commentary:

– Hey, Fairfield dropped 90 on Depaul. That’s gotta count for something.

– While not deep, Fairfield is balanced. The Stags had 4 players in double figures led by Nick Delfico’s 19. Sudanese Forward Deng Gai looked sharp in his first big game as a freshman. He finished with only 8 points but scored 6 in the big second half run.

– Freshman point guard Tyquawn Goode (I have a black belt in Tyquawn Goode, betcha didn’t know that) is lightning-quick and most of the Stags’ success in the transition game should be credited to him. Goode is a smaller, younger version of fellow MAAC point guard Von Damien Green – exciting to watch and, for a rookie, not terribly mistake prone.

– Senior forward Sam Spann, who is playing his second year of Stag basketball after transferring from Syracuse, knows he is a big time player. And he is. Spann is a multi-taking player with great leadership abilities and obvious talent. But sometimes he’ll try to do too much on his own. Spann took the occasional ill-advised shot against Depaul, when getting his teammates involved would have been the better option. Patience will come once the season really gears up and Sam realizes how capable the rest of this team is. Patience, young Jedi, patience.

– Since losing to Syracuse in the opener, the Jaspers are on a 6-game win streak. St. John’s was their best win to date and, unless Iona shapes up, they could be the early-season contender for MAAC champion. Manhattan hosts Hofstra in what could be the best mid-major game in the New York-area. (December 21)

– The St. John’s game was the first in which Luis Flores was not the top scorer. Not too worry Flores-fans. Luis is still leading the team in scoring average (19.1 pts/gm). He and Green make one of the best, most underrated backcourts in mid-major ball. To the delight of coach Bobby Gonzalez, both guards are interchangeable. Each can score, each can set it up.


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