Wright State sneaks by Green Bay

by - Published February 28, 2009 in Conference Notes

DAYTON – Wright State coach Brad Brownell was amazingly calm after winning a nail-biter 65-64 against Green Bay.

In the span of 26 seconds Wright State came within hair of blowing a four-point lead and losing.

In that short 26 second time frame Wright State’s Scott Grote made two free throws to put Wright State up 63-59.  Green Bay brought the ball down and Ryan Tillema was fouled by Todd Brown and made both free throws.  The score was 63-61.

The inbound pass was to Mike Grote and he threw it right into the hands of Green Bay’s Troy Cotton.  He turned around and made a short jump shot as Grote fouled him.  Cotton made the foul shot and Green Bay led 64-63 with 16 seconds to go.

The Raiders ran a play for N’Gai Evans.  He got the ball at the top of the key with nine seconds left, drove down the lane and hit a layup to put Wright State (18-12, 12-6 HL) up for good at 65-64.

The excitement wasn’t over as Green Bay rushed the ball up the court and Cotton got off a weak shot that was tipped, then batted around a few times and finally the ball got knocked up court far enough from the basket that Green Bay could not get a shot off even if they could have gotten to the ball.  As the buzzer sounded 6465 fans let out a sigh and started applauding.

“They converted the last play, we didn’t.  I thought it was a heck of a basketball game,” said Green Bay coach Tod Kowalczyk.  “Both teams played with unbelievable heart and character.  It was a tremendous college basketball game, unfortunately we came out on the short end.”

In the first half the Phoenix held a small but consistent lead most of the game.  It ranged from one point to as high as six points at the 7:01 mark at 22-16.  The defense of both team dominated the action with Green Bay taking a one point lead into the locker room at halftime at 27-26.

In the second half the offense picked up a little led by Green Bay’s Ryan Tillema with 22 points as he went 10-17 including 5-8 from 3-point land.  Cotton also scored 15 of his 22 points.  Wright State’s offense improved too with Brown scoring 14 of his 19 points. The score still stayed close with the score tied five times and 13 lead changes.

Wright State’s coach Brad Brownell felt that the win on Thursday against Milwaukee gave his team some added confidence that helped his team prevail tonight.

He said, “In the second half the tempo changed they pushed it more trying to be more aggressive.  It put us on our heels just a little bit but our guys felt comfortable and confident after the win Thursday night.  Our overall confidence and our ability was the difference tonight.”

Game Notes:

  • Green Bay leads the all-time series with Wright State 21-18.
  • On Wednesday, senior Mike Schachtner was named to ESPN the Magazine’s Academic All-America Second Team, becoming the school’s first three-time selection in any sport.
  • MidMajority.com’s Kyle Whelliston was at the game dressed in a snappy suit, looking a little like the Dayton Daily News writer Marc Katz.  Katz is pretty old school in that he rarely covers a game without his tie and jacket.  For at least a night press row looked a little more classy.
  • Green Bay is the second seed in the Horizon League Championship and they will not play until 7 p.m. on Saturday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
  • Wright State’s seed will not be determined until later tonight but they play their first round Horizon League Championship game on Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

Quick Hitters on Dayton, BU, Harvard and Columbia

by - Published February 28, 2009 in Columns

Quick hitters as we head into the final weekend of regular season play for many conferences:

  • Brian Gregory said that while having Chris Wright healthy most of the season has certainly made a difference for Dayton, the effects of the injury last season are still evident in the time he missed. Wednesday night, he played just 26 minutes due to foul trouble, and Gregory felt there’s still a little relative inexperience showing up there.
    “Because of the time he missed last year, he’s going to make some mistakes that freshmen make, like with three fouls, you can’t go for a steal and take a chance on getting your fourth foul,” Gregory said.  “Or with four fouls, when a guy’s going to take a difficult post shot, you’ve got to make him shoot that and make him make it, you can’t reach in and get your fifth foul.”
  • Gregory, like counterpart Jim Baron, was busy advocating for the Atlantic 10 after the loss to Rhode Island. He said he feels the conference should get four teams in, which is likely more than they will ultimately get, noting that LSU is about to finish the SEC with the best conference record and Xavier, who the Flyers knocked off earlier in the month, beat LSU in Baton Rouge.
    “Sean Miller at Xavier said the other day, if you lose on the road in this league, you don’t have to apologize to anybody,” said Gregory.  “I’m not going to apologize for our guys’ effort tonight.  The problem is, right now some people will say that’s a bad loss to lose to Rhode Island on the road.  It’s a sore subject because what we’re doing right now in this league is what the real good leagues do – you just beat the crap out of each other for two months.”
  • While Wednesday was a wild night in college basketball, the prep ranks saw a game that would have fit right in. Blairstown (NJ) Blair Academy won the New Jersey Prep title with a 53-51 double overtime win over the Hun School from Princeton. There was plenty of drama in regulation and the first overtime, but the second overtime topped it. With the final seconds ticking away in a tie game, Blair junior guard Hakeem Harris grabbed an offensive rebound and somehow got off one last shot, and after bouncing around the rim it dropped to give the Buccaneers their first state prep title.
  • The reinvented Boston University team continues to impress considering the toll injuries have taken on this team. The Terriers have faced no shortage of adversity, but will finish the regular season in third place in America East. John Holland continues to get them started fast out of the gate, and Corey Lowe has become the man in the second half among their two best players. In Thursday’s 76-65 win over Maine, the 1,000th in the program’s history, the breakout performer was freshman Jeff Pelage, who posted his first career double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Pelage, who they have needed to contribute due to the injuries, has had some growing pains, but in the past week has started to really get it together.
  • In their 72-63 win Friday night, Harvard took full advantage of getting a few more chances against Columbia early on. The Crimson struggled from the field in the first half, but had more offensive rebounds (11) than the Lions had total rebounds (10). In the second half, they were simply more efficient in shooting 60 percent from the field and clinching the game at the foul line. Also important was that when the Lions cut a 15-point lead down to 6, the Crimson got key baskets to answer, starting with a clutch jumper by Oliver McNally with the shot clock running down.
    “We really did a good job on the glass,” said head coach Tommy Amaker.  “I was really impressed and pleased with how we were able to rebound the ball.”
  • A key for the Lions in the loss to Harvard was not being able to play with a smaller lineup. The Lions were without Asenso Ampim, who had been improving inside when healthy, as well as senior Joe Bova, and have been without Brian Grimes all season. Head coach Joe Jones said Bova is done for the season, finishing his career, and Ampim may be done for the season as well. That left no one behind senior Jason Miller, as Zach Crimmins has shown promise but isn’t ready to give them major minutes yet.
    “It’s had a huge effect on our team,” Jones said of the rash of frontcourt injuries.  “We have to learn how to play small.  We’ve been able to play some parts of the game small, but now we’ve got to play small and we have to play some of our younger guys more minutes than we’ve had all year.”
  • Another injury concern for the Lions came up Friday night. In the second half, junior guard Niko Scott went down with a badly sprained ankle. When he was helped off the court, he wasn’t putting any weight on it, so one has to think he’s at best questionable for Saturday night’s game at Dartmouth.
  • One other note on Columbia is that it’s clear Jones has continued to raise the talent level there.  It hasn’t happened quickly, but watching this team over the last few years it’s clear that there’s more talent all the time with varying degrees of experience.  With three games left, the Lions have their first winning Ivy season in 16 years in sight as they are 6-5.  Freshman Noruwa Agho has equaled Patrick Foley’s freshman point total of two years ago, and that was the most points by a Columbia freshman in over 10 years.

Rams Have Learned the Hard Way

by - Published February 26, 2009 in Columns

SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – As painful as last season’s experience was for Rhode Island, it is paying off right now in a way the Rams might not have imagined.  They remember what happened, and aren’t ready to let it happen again.

Last season, you will recall, the Rams started out like gangbusters.  They ran out to a 14-1 start and were nationally ranked heading into Atlantic 10 play.  A couple of early road losses slowed them before a four-game winning streak got them going again.  Then it all came crashing down after splitting the next two games, as they lost five in a row, including three straight at home in a crucial week.  The season ended with a three-game losing streak that included a tough loss in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and a heart-breaker in the NIT.

This season, the Rams didn’t have the same start or the same buzz.  That doesn’t mean they haven’t been good, but between last year’s events and an unconvincing win over rebuilding Brown to open the season, one can imagine that many weren’t going to get so high on this team so soon.  They exited non-conference play with a few more battle scars at 11-4, but it’s not as if they had bad losses, a point head coach Jim Baron made after last night’s thrilling 93-91 overtime win over Dayton.

“We’ve played a lot of people that everybody said to play, whether it’s BCS schools or ACC schools,” said Baron, who has led the program to three straight 20-win seasons for the first time in its history.  “We haven’t had many bad losses, and that’s the beauty of this basketball team.  And when you look at graduating three players and having a sophomore point guard and a sophomore center, I think this team really deserves credibility, especially with what we’ve done in the league.”

The Rams’ four losses were a close one at Duke, a battle against Villanova in the championship of the Philly Hoop Group Classic, a one-point classic at arch-rival Providence, and a four-point loss to Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City a day after players took their last final exams.  There’s no slouch in that group, as all four teams are at least in the NCAA Tournament discussion.

As Baron noted, they have good wins in non-conference as well.  They knocked off the top two CAA teams in Northeastern and VCU, the former on the road.  They beat Penn State in Philadelphia.  They beat Akron, which is a game off the MAC East Division lead with just over a week to go.  And in Atlantic 10 play, where they are 10-4, they knocked off Temple and Dayton, while losing close ones at Saint Joseph’s (a three-overtime classic), at home to Xavier and at Richmond and Temple.  There’s no shame in losing to those teams, especially with three coming on the road.

Whether or not that, along with a good finish in the next week and the Atlantic 10 Tournament, will get them into the NCAA Tournament is unknown.  But one thing is for sure: this team is a different one from last year in important ways.

“We learned from last year,” said Jimmy Baron.  “We’re not going to make that mistake twice.  Last year, we saw our name coming up on ESPN – we weren’t ready for the success we were having.  Now we’re having success late in the season, when it’s most important.”

Indeed, after going 2-6 last February, the Rams will exit this February with a 6-1 mark and having won nine of ten.  They finished last season by losing eight of nine and nine of 11.  This is a team that looks better each time out and seems to be coming of age.

“It shows the maturity of our team,” senior forward Kaheim Seawright said of Wednesday’s win.  “In November or December, we probably wouldn’t have won this game.  Ever since that win over George Washington in overtime, we’ve been winning overtime games.  Like I said before, we just needed one of those tough wins to realize that when a game is close and we go into overtime, we can pull it out.”

The players and the coach talked a lot about maturity after Wednesday night’s game.  Dayton has made a living winning these kinds of games all season long, entering the game 9-0 in games decided by five points or less.  They won their only previous overtime game as well.  Meanwhile, the Rams entered the night 3-5 in games decided by five points or less, although they were 2-1 in overtime games.

Wednesday night’s win is one more sign of this team growing up.  It comes at a good time, being down the stretch and considering it came against a team that looks to be in good shape for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.  Both coaches, naturally, were advocating for their conference after the game, but the more important comments were about the winning team and how it’s grown.

“The senior leadership on this team has been tremendous,” Jim Baron said.  “I think that has emulated over to the rest of the team.  You need upperclassmen to really step up and continue to keep us together, and I think those guys have shown tremendous leadership, tremendous fortitude, and great togetherness.”

The Rams have two games left in Atlantic 10 play.  They should be able to win both and finish the conference at 12-4, and winning out would give them a bye in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.  But after last year, this team takes nothing for granted and isn’t thinking past Sunday’s game at Duquesne, a team that Jimmy Baron noted is similar to them in style of play.

Horizon Notebook – The Battle for the Double-Bye

by - Published February 26, 2009 in Conference Notes

It has been just one day short of a month since I wrote one of these notebooks, and I hope you’ll forgive me when you see the new and improved Hoopville site that it’s posted on.  In four weeks of Horizon play that feel like forty, some interesting things have transpired in our league, some we might have expected – or should have expected – and some less so.  And some still to be decided on the final week of regular season play beginning tonight.

First – as always – there’s Butler.  Surprising to this writer, Butler has three losses in conference entering the final weekend of play, worst among which was a 71-67 home loss to uninspiring Loyola on February 15.  Still, the Bulldogs are 13-3, one full-game ahead of second-place Wisconsin-Green Bay.  With tie-breakers still murky (depending on the results this weekend at other venues), Butler will clinch the first seed with any combination of Butler wins and Green Bay losses this weekend totaling two, and clinch a tie for first with any combination totaling one.

Of course, the key is getting the first seed, the winner of which hosts the quarter and semifinal rounds of the conference tournament (and the final if they’re still playing).  However, with double-byes to the conference semis for each of the first two seeds, a two-game lead in the standings plus the tie-breaker over third-place CSU means that Butler has already guaranteed itself a seed no worse than second, and therefore has clinched that coveted double-bye in the conference tourney.

Butler hosts improved Youngstown State tonight at Hinkle, and Cleveland State on Saturday (noon on ESPNU), while Green Bay plays at Detroit tonight, and at Wright State Saturday evening.  After sitting in on CSU-Valparaiso tonight, this writer will catch both Butler’s and Green Bay’s Saturday games in person, with a drive from Indy to Dayton easily fitting in-between.

Back to Butler.  After starting 10-0 in the league, the Bulldogs brought their gaudy 19-1 record into the Resch Center in Green Bay for a rematch with the Phoenix on February 2.  With a full gym, local television audience, and many of us watching that telecast on the Horizon League Network, and focusing more on the double-bye available to the second seed than on overtaking Butler, Green Bay played a nearly perfect game.  Led by guards Troy Cotton and Rahmon Fletcher (19 and 13 points respectively, and stellar defense holding Shelvin Mack to 10), and a monster game from senior sixth-man Ryan Tillema (21 points on 5-10 shooting, and 6 rebounds), the Phoenix evened the season series with Butler with a 75-66 win.

Now with a loss in conference, Butler stayed the course, winning its next three, the second a rousing win in a great basketball atmosphere down at Wright State.  In that rarified atmosphere, Butler came out shooting the lights out (Zach Hahn was 5-5 in threes in the first half), went up big early, led by 18 at the half, and were never headed, winning by an identical 18-point margin.

Then there was Loyola.  The Bulldogs had beaten the Ramblers by 23 in Chicago earlier, and while I was speaking metaphorically, I had suggested earlier this season in another publication that Loyola may not have a Division I player on its roster.  Well, after wiping the egg off of my face, I can tell you that in what will be Loyola’s Super Bowl this season, they were led to a shocking 71-67 win by the perimeter play of Justin Cerasoli, later named conference Player of the Week (17 points, 5-8, 2-3, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 turnovers), and by truly remarkable interior play by Jordan Hicks (23 points, 8-16, 3-5, 8 rebounds, and a much better job fighting Matt Howard than Matt’s 30-point production suggests).  With Butler’s three starting freshmen – Gordon Hayward, Ronald Nored and Mack – combining for just 21 points and shooting just 6-24 (2-16 from the arc), perhaps February 15 was the night those frosh hit the proverbial wall.   That loss was followed three-days later by another, this time at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, by the score of 63-60.

Well, perhaps aided by Stephen Curry’s gimpy ankle, the ship was righted – at least for now – in Saturday’s Bracketbusters win at Davidson, 75-63.  Rather then Curry putting on the show everyone expected, the show this day was put on by Butler’s Hayward, who scored 27 on 6-12 shooting, 4-7 from the arc, 11-12 from the line, and grabbed 9 boards.  At least one of Butler’s freshmen seems to have come down off that “wall.”  And still ranked in the top 25 (with a RPI of 20), unlike everyone else in the Horizon (and everyone in the MAC, and in the Colonial), one would think that if Butler stumbles in the Horizon Tournament, it will still receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. (I guess all those Big East schools are rooting for Butler to win out.)

Green Bay followed up its monster win over Butler with a home win over rival Wisconsin-Milwaukee, that second win of the year over the Panthers strengthening its hold on the second seed.  At 12-4 and with a one-game lead on charging Cleveland State, the Phoenix also own the tiebreaker against the Vikings, and will lock up the second seed with a win tonight at Detroit (or with a CSU loss at Valpo).  Currently at 21-8 overall, one would think the Green Bay folks gave up whatever slim hope they were harboring for an at-large bid when they went oh-for-Ohio on their February trip to Youngstown State and Cleveland State in losing 77-73 to YSU and 83-75 to CSU.  The loss at YSU is perhaps the second-biggest upset all year long in the Horizon (second to Loyola over Butler).  Having righted the ship at home against Valpo, and then winning the Bracketbusters at Long Beach State 86-75, it is likely the Phoenix will get that double-bye in the tournament, play with a week’s rest on a neutral court next Saturday against a team that had to play Tuesday and Friday, and if they win get another shot at Butler in Hinkle the following Tuesday.  Of course, if Butler should be upset at home in Saturday’s semifinal, the Phoenix would host the final on Tuesday night up in frigid Green Bay.  Then, while nothing is assured, if Green Bay doesn’t win the conference tourney, one would think they have an excellent chance of going to the NIT.

At last, pre-season favorite Cleveland State figured out how to win; excluding a Bracketbusters loss at Wichita State, the Vikings are on a seven-game win streak.  Maybe it was the wakeup call of losing at YSU on January 23, a loss that with hindsight isn’t as bad as first thought.  Maybe it’s the return from injury of wing defender and rebounder D’Aundray Brown.  Maybe it’s the emergence of fellow sophomore Norris Cole (up to 8th in the league in scoring at 12.6 points per game, but more than that, a better and better defender at the guard position).  And maybe it’s the favorable February schedule.  But with its more difficult games at home in February, CSU has beaten Detroit at home, Wright State at home (despite Wright State having controlled tempo and outplaying the Vikes for 30 of 40 minutes), UIC away (on a monster 21-point, 7-9, 5-7 performance by freshman guard and Chicago native Jeremy Montgomery), Loyola away, Milwaukee and Green Bay at home, and then survived a struggle with YSU at home, 58-54, despite again being outplayed at home for three-quarters of the game.

Now that the Vikes are winning, just as earlier, the rock remains Player of the Year candidate undersized power-forward senior J’Nathan Bullock, who enters play tonight third in the league in scoring at 15.5 (behind Illinois-Chicago’s Josh Mayo and Green Bay’s Tillema), and fourth in the league in rebounding at 7.0 (behind only UIC’s Scott Vandermeer, YSU’s Sirlester Martin, and Butler’s Howard, and one spot ahead of the Horizon’s version of Duke’s Kyle Singler, Butler’s Hayward.

Behind Green Bay for second by both a full-game and the tiebreaker, CSU would have to sweep Valpo and Butler this weekend, and see Green Bay swept by Detroit and Wright State, to secure the second seed and a tournament double-bye.  And while the line in the sand isn’t quite as deep between the third and fourth seeds, both Wright State and Milwaukee are just a game behind CSU.  If the Vikes should end up tied with Wright State for third, the tiebreaker will give CSU the third seed.  With either Milwaukee or with both Milwaukee and Wright State, Milwaukee would get that third seed.  In any case, it is most likely that the Vikings will host a first round tournament game on Tuesday at Wolstein Arena.

Finally, sporting a 20-9 overall record, one might think the preseason favorites would have a shot at NIT if they don’t win the Horizon Tourney.  However, their signature win at Syracuse is looking less and less impressive, they lost their other games to major conference opponents (Washington, Kansas State and West Virginia), and worst of all, three of their 20 wins are against sub-Division I opponents.  So CSU is really 17-9, with two regular season games to go.  Again assuming the Vikes don’t win the league tournament, oddly, while CSU is the only team I can think of saying this about, the Vikes just might benefit by a third seed in the tourney, rather than a second seed.  That’s because a third seed at least gives the Vikes a chance at two more Division I wins (not great wins, but wins) in the early rounds of the conference tournament, before facing stiffer competition in the semi- and possibly final.  Those two potential wins, a win or wins they get on this Valpo-Butler trip to end the regular season, and potentially a semi-final win in the tourney, could get the Vikes’ D-I win total up to 20 or 21, and give Gary Waters’ group at least a shot at the NIT.

Having earlier lost Vaughn Duggins for the season, and more recently John David Gardner, Wright State has played the second half of its season without two of its best and toughest players.  Junior swingman Todd Brown from Canton-McKinley High School has emerged as the team’s best player, leading the team in scoring and second in rebounding with 11.3 points (17th in the league) and five boards.  But where Brad Brownell’s no-name group has excelled is at the defensive end, reminding this writer of Bob Knight’s early teams at IU with tenacious yet disciplined half-court man-to man defense, holding opponents to 56.1 points per game, second in the country entering bracket-buster weekend.  Shockingly given their personnel, the Raiders enter the final regular season weekend 16-12, 10-6 in conference, tied with Milwaukee in fourth place, with a shot at the third seed, and guaranteed to host a home game on Tuesday night.  And I wouldn’t want to be Green Bay coming to Dayton to end the regular season on Saturday evening, particularly if somehow, the Phoenix still need a win to finish second.

Tied with Wright State, Milwaukee visits WSU tonight, a win guaranteeing the Panthers a finish no worse than fourth, and the tiebreaker for third if they gain a game on CSU.  The story of February for the Panthers (now 10-6 in conference, 15-12 overall) has been former reserve and junior college transfer forward James Eayers, 6-7 and listed at a svelte 340, but who knows how big he really is.  And he’s more of a perimeter than a post-player!  Showing a quick first step, great hands, and a wonderfully soft touch, Eayers has carried the Panthers through February, including 15 points (5-11, 4-8) in the Panthers’ huge home win over Butler, and is now averaging 11 points, shooting 42 percent, and 34 percent from behind the arc.

Beginning with its home win over CSU on national television in a packed gymnasium, Jerry Slocum’s YSU Penguins have had a truly spectacular month, at 6-4 overall and 5-3 in conference.  At a school that may be as hard to recruit for as there is in the conference (just ask Youngstown native D’Aundray Brown of CSU), Slocum has put the 7-9 Penguins in position to clinch the 6th seed and a Tuesday home game with a win either tonight against Butler, or Saturday at Valpo.  If YSU goes oh-for-Indiana, they will still host Tuesday if UIC beats Loyola Friday night (YSU has the tiebreaker over UIC), but would fall to 7th and travel on Tuesday if Loyola beats UIC.  For the Penguins, leading scoring junior two-guard Kelvin Bright has lacked consistency and is now Slocum’s sixth man; his 11.8 points per game are still 14th in the league.  Fellow junior DeAndre Mays has shown consistency and leadership at the point, averaging 11 points, nearly 4 assists, and sporting an assist/turnover ratio of about 1.5.  After dominating CSU at home, junior forward Sirlester Martin has improved at both ends, and is averaging 9.5 points and 8 boards (now second in the league in rebounding).  And European sophomore Vytas Sulskis has come back from a mid-season benching better than before, as his minutes and scoring are back up (averaging 10 points), and he dominated the last three quarters of last week’s 4-point loss at CSU at the offensive end.  And while media aren’t supposed to have favorites, I guess there’s a piece of me that hopes YSU holds on for 6th this weekend, earning one more home game.

After a monster non-conference season with wins at Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt, UIC has fallen victim to tougher defense in conference on preseason Player-of-the-Year Josh Mayo.  Box and 1′s, opponents’ best defenders, not helping off of Mayo, all have taken their toll, and the league’s leading scorer is down to 17 points per game, barely 1/10th of a point ahead of Green Bay’s Tillema.  The best job on Mayo was done by Wright State in late January, mostly by guard Will Graham, who held Mayo scoreless for most of the game, and in the end to 6 late and meaningless points in a 57-31 win over the Flames.  UIC did return the favor at home on February 18th, besting the Raiders 77-66 in overtime, though Mayo again found rough sledding against WSU, scoring just 13 on 4-15 shooting.  The Flames visit Loyola to end the regular season on Friday night on national television, airtime on ESPNU at 9 pm eastern.

While Loyola, Valpo and Detroit haven’t fared as well, each had its moment in February.  For Loyola, it was that stunning upset at Butler on February 15th.  For Valpo, it was a great comeback win at home over favored Akron in the bracket-buster this past Saturday, 74-66.  In a balanced attack, all five Valpo starters and sixth man De’Andre Haskins scored in double figures, and back in form, center Urule Igbavboa did what he does best, leading both teams in rebounds with 8.  Having pushed Butler to the brink in Hinkle on January 10th (having a chance to tie before losing by 4), Detroit was the last Horizon team to get a win in conference play.  But they finally got one, and on the road no less, besting Youngstown State in overtime on January 31, 68-64.  Leading scorer Tom Kennedy led the way that night with 24 points on 9-15 shooting.  Two games later Ray McCallum’s Titans got one for the home fans, besting Valpo 56-55 on a last-second free throw by Woody Payne.

Syracuse Dominates St. John’s

by - Published February 25, 2009 in Conference Notes

NEW YORK – The season hasn’t been an easy one for St. John’s. But there has been a competitive spark and tough battles, even in losses to highly regarded teams as UConn and Duke. Last night it was quite the opposite, as Syracuse thoroughly dismantled the Red Storm 87-58 at Madison Square Garden. The Orange grabbed the lead early and never looked back, and were dominant in virtually every phase of the game.

The three keys to this contest:

  1. The 2-3 zone. Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 was very active. Maybe there have been nights that hasn’t been the case, but the Red Storm caught Syracuse’s ‘A’ game on the defensive end. St. John’s struggled to get good looks or finish against the zone. The Red Storm shot 39 percent (21 of 53) for the game. Outside shooting was not there as St. John’s was 5 of 16 from three. The 2-3 also aggressively forced turnovers, which resulted in transition opportunities for the likes of Jonny Flynn (a game-high 21 points) and Eric Devendorf (17 points).
  2. Syracuse just played extremely well overall. They shot 64 percent from the field and forced St. John’s into 19 turnovers without the benefit of full court pressure. The Orange had 56 points in the paint and shared the ball by assisting on 25 of their 37 field goals. Flynn (8 assists) and Devendorf (6 assists) paced the Orange in that category.
  3. St. John’s trailed 39-18 at the half. The Storm came out early in the second half and had a number of defensive stops. On the offensive end they couldn’t capitalize to chip into the lead, and once Syracuse got going again it was too late. “We got stops the early part of the second half,” St. John’s coach Norm Roberts noted. “We didn’t take advantage of getting the score back (manageable) then we got frustrated. That’s something you can’t do in this league.”

Paris Horne led St. John’s with 17 points. The Red Storm fell to 13-15 (4-11 Big East), while Syracuse improved to 20-8 (8-7). A crowd of 11,148 was on hand. A good portion were Syracuse fans with ‘let’s go Orange’ chants making it sound like a Syracuse home game.

“I praised our fans after Sunday (a home win over Seton Hall),” Roberts said. “We have good fans but there is nothing to stop Syracuse fans from walking up and buying a ticket.” True, but it seemed a great number of them did in relation to St. John’s followers.

Notes

  • Former Syracuse star Pearl Washington was seated right next to courtside. On one play Flynn scored on a great move and a fan yelled, “yeah Pearl” to which Washington turned, smiled and nodded his head yes.
  • Syracuse enjoys MSG, as the Orange are 82-76 at the Garden. Jim Boeheim is now 62-43 at the “world’s most famous arena”. “The 62 wins is more than Isaiah (Thomas) had here,” said one courtside neighbor.
  • The win also marked the 31st time Jim Boeheim has recorded a twenty-win season during his illustrious Syracuse tenure. “I only worry or think about the next game,” Boeheim said when asked to comment on his milestone. “I only worry about getting us ready and prepared to play our next game. It’s one game at a time.”
  • Boeheim also spoke about his team’s 8-7 conference record and the upcoming postseason. “We have lost five games to teams in the top 12,” he said. “Just because you do not beat those teams doesn’t mean you aren’t good. You might be 14th. If a team wins nine if ten against unranked teams does that make them a good team? Not necessarily so. I think the (NCAA) Selection Committee needs to look at the whole season and not emphasize how you finished up (down the stretch).”
  • Not one to forget: When Malik Boothe and Paris Horne were asked if they will remember this game, the St. John’s duo quickly and emphatically replied, “yes.”

Boston College Looks More Like an NCAA Team

by - Published February 25, 2009 in Columns

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Sometimes, you have to wonder how Boston College does it.  There’s nothing about this team at first glance that suggests they should be well on their way to the NCAA Tournament.  But after last night’s 72-67 win over Florida State, it looks more and more like Al Skinner’s team is on their way to the field of 65.

With this win, Boston College has now knocked off three of the ACC’s best teams, getting wins at North Carolina and at home over Duke and Florida State.  The latter two entered Tuesday night at 8-4 in the ACC and in a tie for second place.  The Eagles are 8-6, which means they will finish with at least a .500 record, and besides the three aforementioned wins, they have knocked off bubble teams Maryland (road) and Virginia Tech (home).  That might well be enough to overcome losses to Harvard and Saint Louis (the latter on the road).

“We had to go out and play like we wanted it,” said head coach Al Skinner.  “It didn’t matter who the opponent was, it was just more of a mindset for us.  It was just important that we try to win this game.”

What’s more, the Eagles have won without the kind of season many felt Tyrese Rice would have to have for them to exceed expectations.  His scoring numbers are just above those of his sophomore season, and while he could be en route to a career high in assists, this doesn’t quite measure up to last year.  In short, it’s not the kind of monster season many felt he needed to have for the Eagles to be in this position.  But the support cast has clearly been better, and on Tuesday night that was very evident.

Rakim Sanders (16 points, 9 rebounds) has been very hit-or-miss all season, bouncing back from a 2-point outing against Miami with 16 points and nine rebounds on Tuesday.  Biko Paris continues to give the Eagles more of a lift off the bench, scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds, playing with more confidence and being more aggressive each time out.  Rice called Paris “the real hero today”.

“Coach Skinner and Coach (Pat) Duquette always tell me to come in and just make a difference, and that’s what I did today,” Paris said.

There was no better support on Tuesday than Joe Trapani.  The Vermont transfer continues to play as well within his role as anyone, as in ACC play he’s averaging 14.1 points and 6.4 boards per game.  He went for 19 points and 7 boards on Tuesday, with 15 coming in the second half and many of the clutch variety.  No one was more important to this win.

“It was just a real fine night for him,” said Skinner.

Trapani first put the Eagles up for good at 29-28 with a layup.  After Florida State scored five straight to get within 42-38, Trapani hit a three-pointer to bring the lead back up to seven.  When the Seminoles got within 48-47, the Eagles got another basket, then Trapani got a key tip-in and a Rice three-pointer put them up by eight.  A couple of minutes later, Florida State got within 57-54, but Trapani hit another three-pointer to spark a 7-0 run.  And when Florida State got within 66-65 in the final three minutes, it was Trapani who came through again, hitting two free throws to push the lead back to three.

That all set the stage for the two plays everyone will remember about this game.  One was Rice’s clutch three-pointer with 22 seconds left that made it a four-point game.  After a Florida State turnover, Trapani had to inbound the ball, and after using the last timeout he made an errant pass.  He then scampered over to an area around where he thought Toney Douglas would take the ball, and managed to swat away Douglas’ shot with 12 seconds left.  Sanders recovered it and helped ice the game at the foul line.

And with that, the Eagles had once again pulled out a game that made one wonder how they did it.  They pulled out another game that puts them closer and closer to an NCAA Tournament bid that seemed unthinkable before the season.

Seminoles Revert to Old Form

by - Published February 25, 2009 in Columns

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Early on, it looked like Florida State might get their first win in Chestnut Hill.  But reverting to prior form changed that.

The Seminoles ran out to a 16-4 lead early on, and the Eagles couldn’t get started offensively.  But after that lead, the Seminoles started turning the ball over, and slowly but surely the Eagles took advantage.  BC would eventually take a 24-22 lead off a turnover, but a late three-pointer gave the Seminoles 25-24 at the half.

The key stats then, as would be the case at the end of the game, were Florida State’s 12 turnovers and Boston College getting 11 points off them.  By the end of the game, the Eagles had 24 points off 18 Florida State turnovers.  More than that, though, the turnovers had some collateral damage.

“Once we turned the ball over in that period, I thought we got very passive and stopped attacking and gave them opportunities to go on a big run,” said head coach Leonard Hamilton.  “I thought we were very fortunate to be ahead at halftime.”

In the two prior games, the Seminoles had a combined 19 turnovers.  They won both, including a road win at Virginia Tech.  They came into the game giving the ball away 15.6 times per game this season and with 95 more turnovers than assists, in part reflecting this team’s relative inexperience.

With those turnovers, the Seminoles needed to be more efficient offensively, and that didn’t happen.  They shot 38.6 percent from the field, and leading the way in that regard were Toney Douglas and Solomon Alabi, who shot a combined 9-29 from the field.  Thanks to a 12-12 effort at the foul line, the two combined for 35 points, but the lack of shot efficiency made the turnovers hurt even more.

“If you don’t take care of the ball and you’re not strong with it, they’ll deflect it right out of your hands,” Hamilton said.  “To their credit, they were a little more effective with their defensive scheme than we were taking care of the ball.”

The Seminoles still appear to be in good shape for an NCAA Tournament bid.  They are 21-7 overall and 8-5 in the ACC, with wins over Florida and Clemson (road).  They played Duke and Pittsburgh tough before succumbing, and wins over California and Cincinnati aren’t bad, either.  But given the near-misses during Hamilton’s tenure, one can figure the Seminoles will take nothing for granted.

Weekend Roundup – February 21st

by - Published February 22, 2009 in Columns

Maryland 88, North Carolina 85 (OT): A huge win for the Terrapins in trying to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.  They always seem to get one huge win, and this is it.

Florida State 67, Virginia Tech 65: The Seminoles look more and more like an NCAA Tournament team, getting this tough road win to go to 8-4 in the ACC.

Miami 69, Boston College 58: The Hurricanes sweep Boston College, which can only help to keep their slim at-large hopes alive.  But they’re running out of room for error.

Marquette 78, Georgetown 72: The Golden Eagles keep on rolling heading into the big showdown with Connecticut.  Meanwhile, Georgetown’s NCAA hopes are on life support.

Texas 73, Oklahoma 68: Even with Blake Griffin not playing much due to injury, the Sooners nearly pulled this one out.

Kansas 70, Nebraska 53: The Jayhawks help set the stage for Monday night’s showdown in Norman for the top of the Big 12.

Missouri 75, Colorado 63: The Tigers stay hot and right in the race for the top, even as they will take a back seat on Monday.

Oklahoma State 84, Baylor 74: Baylor’s once-promising season continues to slip away, as they’re now 4-8 in Big 12 games.

Washington State 82, UCLA 81: They’ve got a ways to go yet, but the Cougars may not be out as an at-large contender after this road win.  At 6-9 in the Pac-10 and with 13 overall losses, though, one has to think they don’t have much margin for error at this point.

Oregon State 65, California 54: Craig Robinson continues to get the results in his first season, as the Beavers are 7-8 in Pac-10 play.

Oregon 68, Stanford 60: The Ducks get their first Pac-10 win.

LSU 79, Auburn 72: Quietly, the Tigers keep winning as they add to the best record in the SEC.

Kentucky 77, Tennessee 58: The Vols continue to have a tough time, falling to 7-5 in the SEC.

Butler 75, Davidson 63: A good road win for the Bulldogs, even though Stephen Curry was limited physically in this game.

UNLV 75, Brigham Young 74: This makes the Mountain West race a little more interesting, as the Runnin’ Rebels improve to 8-5 while the Cougars drop to 8-4.

Saint Mary’s 75, Utah State 64: A huge win for the Gaels, one that should lock them up for an NCAA Tournament bid if Patrick Mills comes back and is healthy heading into postseason play.  For the Aggies, this solidifies them as a team that will only make it as an automatic qualifier.

Siena 81, Northern Iowa 75: The Saints may not get an at-large bid due to the lack of wins against the top teams they played in non-conference, but this win in one of the more highly-billed Bracketbusters matchups should help them going forward.

Radford 97, VMI 90: The Highlanders remain hot with their eighth straight win and ninth in a row on the road, and they clinch the top sed in the conference tournament.

American 56, Holy Cross 50: The Eagles take sole possession of first place in the Patriot League, and are in the driver’s seat to land the top seed in the tournament.

Dartmouth 66, Princeton 63: How about the Big Green sweeping the Penn/Princeton road weekend?  Not to mention, it’s yet another close game they have pulled out.

Harvard 66, Penn 60: The Quakers get swept at home in an Ivy weekend for the second time this season.

Bracket Buster: Northeastern Shuts Down Wright State

by - Published February 21, 2009 in Conference Notes

DAYTON — In this game of two defensive-minded teams, Wright State succeeded in shutting down Northeastern’s two top scorers, but their whole effort sprung a leak as Chaisson Allen exploded for 22 points and Eugene Spates had a career day, as the Huskies defeated Wright State 69-57.

Wright State coach Brad Brownell decided to go with a little bigger lineup to counter the Huskies height advantage to start the game by adding 6’9” Ronnie Thomas along with 6’6” Scott Grote. Grote scored just two points and had five turnovers of the Raiders’ 16 turnovers for the game. Thomas did put in 12 points and block three shots but Northeastern (18-9) shot better and only turned the ball over six times for the game. The Huskies started Nkem Ojougboh at 6’9,” Manny Adako at 6’8” and Spates at 6’8.”

Northeastern coach Bill Coen knew that Wright State played great defense and his team patiently worked the ball around until they found an opening and then made the shots when they had to.

He said, “Our defensive intensity was back. On offense we knew we had to be patient. Wright State uses your energy against you on defense against teams when you go right at them. They do a good job of sagging and helping each other out.”

Wright State (16-12) jumped out to a 7-2 lead at the 16:20 mark on a drive and layup by Will Graham but by the end of the first half the Huskies had taken control of the game led by Spates’ 13 first half points. His jumper with 4:14 to go in the half put Northeastern up for good as they went on a 16-2 run to go up 37-24 at the half.

Wright State out-rebounded the bigger Huskies 30-23 which helped them close the gap in the second half to five points with 3:18 left in the game but 27 seconds later Allen hit a jump shot and Northeastern’s players made six more critical foul shots to shut the door on the Raiders’ comeback.

“Story of the game was our turnovers. But their execution down the stretch was good. They run some unique things that you don’t see very much,” said Brownell. “Their discipline was good, they relaxed and out-executed us down the stretch.”

For the Raiders Todd Brown score 15 points and Cory Coperwood had 10 rebounds

Game notes:

  • Wright State leads the all-time series against Northeastern 2-1.
  • Northeastern seems to live and die with 40 percent shooting. They are 10-0 when they hold an opponent under 40 percent, 6-10 when they do not. They were close today, holding the Raiders to 41 percent for the game.
  • Northeastern needs to get a new travel agent. They had to hurry after the game to get on the road to catch a plane in Pittsburgh which is 41/2 hours from Dayton. Breaking their three game losing streak today must have made the ride seem just a little shorter.
  • Northeastern’s next game is Wednesday at Drexel at 7p.m.
  • Wright State’s next game is Thursday against Milwaukee at 7 p.m.

Notre Dame Finally Wins Another on the Road

by - Published February 21, 2009 in Columns

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Mike Brey told his players he would need 95 points on Saturday.  They gave him 103 instead, so it seems they took care of that.

“I knew we were going to have to score the ball because this team can really score the ball and is talented offensively,” Brey said, referring to host Providence.

Notre Dame’s 103-84 win over the Friars is another survival win for this team as they try to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.  The Fighting Irish improve to 15-11 overall and 6-8 in the Big East, and it’s their third win in four games.

“I’m proud of our group,” said Brey.  “This group’s taken a lot of big punches and has hung in there and come back and have stayed together.  I’m happy for them to perform the way they did today and just keep digging and scratching and clawing.”

The Irish were able to overcome a bad first half by Luke Harangody, as shooters Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers picked up the slack nicely.  Ayers had 18 of his 28 points in the first half on 6-9 shooting, including 6-8 from long range, while McAlarney had 17 of his 25 in the opening frame.  They also got a terrific effort off the bench from Jonathan Peoples, who had 14 points and nine assists, both career highs.

Brey was happy with how this team responded both to the game itself as well as after it.  They realize there is still plenty ahead, so they can’t get too high now.  Their hope is that it just boosts them.

“We just want to use this as a confidence booster,” said Ayers.  “Going into Wednesday, we want to go out and get four out of five with this next game.”

This stretch comes after the Irish had lost seven in a row, a losing streak that might have seemed unimaginable earlier this season.  They’re certainly not lacking talent, especially at the offensive end, and it’s a veteran group.  Brey noted several times that this team has been together and that a lot of relationships between the players have been built from their experience together.  The character of this team is clearly something that’s driving them forward at this point.

“Our seniors have been fabulous helping me manage the group,” said Brey.  “When you have great kids, you always have a chance, no matter how many times you get punched.  Those were some unbelievable blows that we have taken.”

“I know a lot of teams might not have fought out of that seven-game skid like that,” said Ayers.  “It shows a lot of character on the team, that you’re going out playing with your best friends, have each other’s back and get on each other and push each other.”

Still, even as the Irish have started winning again, the questions remain.  The seven-game skid suggests that they don’t have a big run in them to at least reach .500 and perhaps get one more good win the rest of the way to look like a better NCAA Tournament team.  But this team has also looked very capable at times as well.  That was certainly the case on Saturday.

Questions surround whether or not the team will play well enough down the stretch to get into the NCAA Tournament.  Brey thinks the group has done more than just live with it, seeming to even embrace it.  It’s one more intangible that can only help them make a good run in the final weeks of the regular season.

“I think if you look at the guys on this team, we’ve kind of been conditioned our whole careers to prove people wrong and really just play,” said McAlarney.  “Now we’re in that position.  We can’t really worry about standings, the NCAA Tournament, we don’t want to talk about that yet.  We just want to play and win as many games as we can.”

Although they’re not looking that far ahead, they have three of their remaining four games at home.  After going nearly two months on the road without a win, having that kind of schedule at the end certainly is favorable.  They took care of getting 95 points on Saturday, and now they can try to take care of a good finish.

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