Thursday, February 5, 2009

League Coaches Tackle Many Topics

Notes and quotes on a variety of topics from a conference call of MAAC men’s coaches on Wednesday, Feb. 4.

… On Jan. 29, when Canisius played against Siena at the Times Union Center in Albany, the Golden Griffins’ 6-foot-9, 300-pound center Chris Gadley looked to be effectively shaking off the rust after missing several weeks with back problems.

But that process, for the Griffs’ big man who matched a MAAC record with 25 rebounds in an early season game against Maine, is far from complete.

“He’s still day-to-day,” said Canisius coach Tom Parotta. “He’s a very large human being, so any tweak at any time, whether he comes down wrong or he moves wrong can activate it. It’s something that has bothered him chronically over the past couple of years.

… The situation involving Fairfield’s senior guard Jon Han, a preseason first-team all-league pick, is expected to be resolved soon, maybe as soon as today (Thursday, Feb. 5).

Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley indicated that he and Han would meet with school administrators and come to a decision on the player’s future status in the program.

Han was suspended for a violation of team policy. It was reported that Han was suspended following a post-game incident after the Stags’ 65-60 loss to Manhattan on Jan. 26 in which the player was heard arguing with an assistant coach. Cooley, though, indicated in reports that the confrontation with the assistant wasn’t Han’s only transgression this season.

“No decision has been made yet, but it will be coming soon,” said Cooley, about Han, who has not practiced in the last 10 days. “His situation will be decided before we leave for our trip to Western New York (for games at Canisius and Niagara on Friday and Sunday, respectively).”

The Stags leave for the trip on Thursday afternoon.

Han’s situation isn’t Fairfield’s only woe. The Stags will be without sophomore forward Anthony Johnson for the rest of the year with an undisclosed medical situation, and without guard Warrren Edney for at least four more weeks (broken foot). Besides that, junior forward Greg Nero has been limited recently with back problems.

Amazingly, since the loss of Han, Johnson and Edney, Fairfield has won its last two games , with victories over Marist and Loyola to push its record to 7-5 in the MAAC and 14-9 overall.

… Iona coach Kevin Willard didn’t offer very much insight to a post-game brush off when he declined to shake hands with Niagara coach Joe Mihalich after a 65-53 loss to the Purple Eagles on Monday.

Published reports speculated that Willard perceived some late-game sideline gestures made by Mihalich as taunting.

In Wednesday’s conference call, though, Willard called the incident a misunderstanding.

“Something was said after the game, we cleared it up and that was the end of that,” Willard said. “It was a misunderstanding by both coaches. I have nothing but great respect for the job that Joe does and how hard his teams play.”

… No coach in the league seems to be looking forward to an upcoming BracketBusters game more than Willard. His Gaels will play at Boston University. Willard knows the area well, having worked for four seasons in Boston as a coaching associate with the Boston Celtics under Rick Pitino. After that, Willard followed Pitino to Louisville where he was an assistant coach for six seasons prior to taking over at Iona.

“I’m excited about taking my team to Boston,” said Willard. “It’s a chance for me to see some old friends with the Celtics, and to eat at a great North End restaurant I know.”

… Manhattan remains without 6-foot-6 forward Devon Austin (back injury), the Jaspers’ third-leading scorer (11.4 points, along with 4.9 rebounds per game), and arguably their best all-around player.

“He’s not with us right now, and we’re not sure when he’ll be back,” said Manhattan coach Barry Rohrssen. “ I don’t think he’ll be able to play Saturday (at Loyola). Beyond that, we’re not sure.”

… Let the MAAC Player of the Year debate begin.

Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos said his own sophomore Jamal Barney deserves consideration.
And, there’s a case to be made for the 6-foot-3 guard who began his career at Providence before transferring to Loyola.

Barney is the MAAC’s leading scorer (19.0 points per game), but has been hot lately. He twice went hit for at least 40 points in a game in January, getting 41 against Canisius on Jan. 3 and, then, 40 against NJIT 10 days later.

Over the past 11 games, Barney is averaging 24.5 points, and averages 5.6 rebounds on the year.

“We’re not the best team, but he means the most to our team,” said Patsos. “Guys we had here before him, Gerald Brown and Andre Collins (both transfers from major programs who were big-time scorers at Loyola) have shown him the way.

“He’s like an NBA guy, like George Gervin, in that he scores in a lot of ways. He’s just a really good scorer. He just decided to take the team over about Jan. 1, and he has been real good since then.”

… Marist gets one of the easiest trips for a BracketBusters game, a 95-mile bus ride to play at Hartford.

“I’m glad it wasn’t someone out west where it would be a plane ride,” said Marist coach Chuck Martin. “This makes sense geographically, and it’s a good opportunity to play a non-conference team and to give yourself to play against a different style of play and different personnel than what you become used to in your own league.”

… Joe Mihalich of Niagara is not only one of the league’s top coaches, but also one of its staunchest supporters.

“This is my 20th year I’ve been around the league (first as an assistant at former league member La Salle and, for the past 11 years, Niagara’s head coach), and the league has never been better. It absolutely, positively has been better,” said Mihalich. “There’s no game that you look forward to playing, on in which you don’t get that angina.

Niagara, which opened with a 13-3 overall record then lost three of four but has now won its last three games.

“I think, when we were 13-3, our team felt like it had gotten to where we needed to be and it was almost as if the job was done. We forgot why we were good,” added Mihalich. “Now, I feel like the feeling is back. At least I hope it is. We just won two road games (at Manhattan and Iona), and that’s like gold, it’s so difficult to win on the road.”

… Mihalich also had a great perspective about the BracketBusters situation (his team will host Niagara in one of three games involving MAAC teams that will be televised by ESPN).

“We’re ecstatic and proud to have earned a national TV game (hosting Illinois State),” said the Niagara coach. “There are two reasons to be playing in the BracketBusters. One is what has happened to us, to get a national TV game. The other reason is scheduling. It’s so hard to schedule, so hard to get teams to come to your place, and to find the right team. It gives you another scheduling opportunity.”

… Rider coach Tommy Dempsey, whose team hosts UMBC in this year’s BracketBusters game, said he didn’t mind having to travel to Cal State Northridge to play in the event a year ago.

“I can speak to the positive experience we had (in the BracketBusters game) last year, even though we had to fly across the country,” said Dempsey. “At the time we were in first place in the MAAC, and Cal State Northridge was in first place in its league.

“We had some alumni parties back home for people to watch on TV, and everyone was really excited about the game. And, we won by one point. It wasn’t only the national TV exposure, but getting a high-RPI win on the road was a big reason why we did end up in a post-season tournament (in the CBI tournament).

“We were hoping for a TV game again this year. Heck, if they want to put you on TV then you go to the end of the earth. If not, then you hope for one that makes sense (geographically).

Rider gets a game that makes plenty of sense, hosting UMBC this year and, then, having to travel for the return date against the Baltimore school, about an hour's ride away, next season.

… Rider is also banged up physically, according to Dempsey. One of the team’s senior guards, Lamar Johnson, a potent force off the bench, is done for the year with an injury. And, senior Harris Mansell, traditionally a long-range shooting threat, has been battling an elbow injury all season that doesn’t allow him to shoot in practices. “I think he’ll find a way to make shots down the stretch, but he hasn’t been the same since he got hurt (earlier this season),” said Dempsey.

… The third-youngest team in the country, in terms of the age of its players, is Saint Peter’s.

It likely means better things are ahead, and the team’s play of late might be a harbinger. The Peacocks have won two of their last seven games, lost another by a point and another by two points.

“We’re improving day-by-day, and it starts out in practice,” said Saint Peter’s coach John Dunne. “I’m just very happy with how we’re growing on a daily basis in practice. Guys come to practice hard every day, and focus on the scouting report and game plan. When you see guys talking about the game plan during a game, you know they’re paying attention.”

…Siena coach Fran McCaffery’s team reaped the benefits of a 2,500-mile trip to play at Boise State in last season’s BracketBusters game, so he’s not complaining about drawing Northern Iowa in a home game on Feb. 21 that will require an 1,100-mile trip for the return engagement in Cedar Falls, Iowa, next year.

Last year Siena used its game with Boise State as a springboard to a late-season run that ended with a trip to the NCAA tournament and, once there, a first-round upset victory over Vanderbilt.

The Saints were 16-10 and had lost their previous two games prior to their trip to Boise State. Once there, the earned an impressive win and didn’t lose again (winning seven straight, including three in the MAAC tournament) before falling in the NCAA tournament’s second round to Villanova.

Northern Iowa is currently the top team in the Missouri Valley Conference and has won its last 10 games.

“There’s no question about the benefits of games like this,” said McCaffery. “I talked very openly about that at the start of the season about the potential benefits of scheduling like we did this year.”

Siena has already played Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Wichita State in non-conference games this season. Games against those high-caliber opponents, coupled with a 17-5 overall record thus far, helped Siena be rated No. 20 nationally in the most-recent Ratings Percentage Index.

"First, we wanted that kind of difficult schedule to help us secure consideration for an NIT bid if we were not to win our league’s regular-season title,” said McCaffery. “If we do real well, then maybe we’d get consideration for an at-large berth (to the NCAA tournament) if we don’t win our league’s tournament (and an automatic bid to the NCAA’s). If you don’t win the conference tournament, the only way to be on the board for an at-large berth is to play other teams that are in it (the NCAA tournament).”

The other advantage is that Siena could get a favorable seeding if it gets to the NCAA event and its RPI remains high, as it would with a victory over Northern Iowa.

Several of the early “Bracketology” predictions currently have Siena getting a No. 11 seeding in a 16-team region.

… Siena’s attempt to finish out strong and, possibly, be the first team to finish league play unbeaten since the 1989-90 La Salle team won’t be easy. Siena is currently 11-0 in conference play and plays next at Rider on Saturday in a rematch of last season’s MAAC tournament championship game.

“We recognize the difficulty of what remains, beginning with the Rider game on the road,” said McCaffery. “We’ve also got a road game with Iona, which we only beat by one point at home), and a road game with Niagara, which is one of the premier teams in the league, and a road game at Canisius. Coupled with the BracketBusters game, we’re facing a formidable schedule the rest of the way.

“But, so far, we’ve shown a certain level of mental toughness to remain undefeated. More will be necessary to remain unbeaten."

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