Monday, November 30, 2009

Siena Needs More Help From Reserves

There is considerable gloom and doom among the Siena faithful after their Saints got off to a 3-2 start (now 4-2) with losses to Temple and St. John's.

Your humble blogger will refer readers to one post made last year at this time, when Siena lost all three of its games in the 2008 Old Spice Classic; and, to two other posts written several weeks ago before Siena played its first game.

The summation of last year's post after the Old Spice losses: Don't panic. Siena played superior talent, and has room to improve.

The summation of this year's preseason posts, made after one publication named Siena as the 15th-best team nationally and another as the 20th-best: Let's get realistic, those projections are way too high.

Yours truly isn't always right, but when he hits the proverbial nail he's willing to take credit.

After last season's Old Spice Classic dropped Siena to a 2-3 record it won 25 of its final 30 games including a second straight win in the NCAA tournament's first round. Despite some early season panic by program followers, things turned out pretty well in 2008-09.

There's a little bit of that panic around again, particularly since the Saints probably won't crack the national Top 25 polls without a considerable run of victories that would have to start with Wednesday's game at Georgia Tech (which is in the Top 25).

But does any of that matter right now? Of course not.

Unless Siena came pretty close to running the table this year, it probably wasn't going to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA if it didn't capture the MAAC's automatic bid. The MAAC has only received one at-large NCAA invitation in its previous 28 years of existence.

The greatest negative affect that the early season losses have had on Siena is to diminish its Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) standing. That will impact where the Saints get slotted in the NCAA field, should it get there.

A year ago Siena was a No. 9 seed in a 16-team bracket. The position created a competitive first-round game in which Siena knocked off eighth-seeded Ohio State and, then, a game with a No. 1 seed and overwhelming favorite Louisville in the second round.

For Siena, or any MAAC team, to get beyond the tournament's second round, something never accomplished by a conference team, the likelihood is that it would need to be seeded No. 5 or No. 6 in a bracket. That opportunity has likely already been lost for Siena this season.

Still, Siena's best days this season are ahead. Despite the return of four starters and the league's top reserve from a year ago moving into the fifth starting spot the Saints remain a work in progress.

The return of five of the team's top six players, though, created more hype and expectations than the program has ever experienced.

It says here that all of that wasn't merited.

The loss of both the on-court production and off-court leadership of the 2008-09 conference Player of the Year Kenny Hasbrouck is being felt now. Clarence Jackson, the top reserve in the league a year ago, has moved into the starting lineup but the program has yet to duplicate the bench strength he helped provide last season.

And, therein lies Siena's biggest problem to date.

In its two losses, Siena noticeably wore down in the second half. It had a nine-point lead early in the second half of its 77-68 loss to St. John's, and a seven-point halftime lead in its eventual 73-69 setback against Temple.

Siena's top five reserves got an average of 30 minutes of court time in those two games and average 65 minutes of playing time in its four victories.

That statistic alone indicates that Siena is plenty good enough to beat the mid-major level teams on its schedule by wide enough margins to get its reserves extra minutes but that coach Fran McCaffery isn't yet comfortable enough with his bench players to use them extensively in close games.

But, it's early. Teams develop as seasons progress. Siena's improvement, and how it fares at tournament time, will likely be directly related to how its bench players develop.

There is potential help on the way for Siena. Guard Kyle Griffin, a transfer from La Salle, is eligible to play beginning Dec. 23. By all accounts, he has been effective in practices and is expected to fit into the playing group. Davis Martens, a 6-9 forward from Germany, is eligible to begin playing as of Dec. 31. Reports are that Martens is still becoming acclimated to what the Saints do on the court, but has the physical skills to eventually be a factor.

It's clear, though, that Siena will need contributions from one of those two, if not both, as well as further development of its bench players.

Currently, Siena's top reserve guard is sophomore Kyle Downey, who was inactive for the entire summer with a back injury. Its top reserve forward is another sophomore, Owen Wignot, who has been mostly inconsistent thus far. Its other three most-played reserves are freshmen.

It's also clear why Siena needs production from its bench. To play its uptempo style Siena needs fresh players on the court.

Right now, though, Siena isn't as good at doing that as it was last year, nor as good as its uptempo teams from a little more than a decade ago when current Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt coached the Saints.

Need proof? Hewitt's 1998-99 team that advanced to the NCAA tournament had five productive reserves who combined to average 32 points, 14.3 rebounds and 87.5 minutes of action per game.

His 1999-00 team that played in that season's NIT had six productive reserves who averaged 31.3 points, 14.1 rebounds and 85.5 minutes per outing.

Through six games, the current Siena team's top five reserves average 15.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 53.4 minutes per contest.

To further emphasize those numbers, Hewitt's 1998-99 team didn't have a single player average more than 27 minutes of playing time per night. The current Siena team has two players averaging more than 32 minutes per night and another at 28.8 minutes.

If Siena's bench players don't eventually develop to the point where they can provide the production that Hewitt's teams got from its reserve players ... well, that's when it will be time to start wondering if the Saints might not be able to duplicate their achievements of the past two seasons.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Some Women Leaders Now on Sidelines

Proof that there is considerable former playing talent on conference sidelines can be found in the answer to this question:

What two assistant coaches for MAAC programs rank as an all-time leader in a statistical category?

The answer is …

- Current Siena assistant Michelle Collins, who played for the Saints (1989-92) when it first joined the MAAC shares the top spot in career assist-per-game average with Liz Sterling of Fairfield (1981-84) at 5.69 per contest.

- Current Marist assistant Alisa Kresge, who played at Marist (2003-07) is the conference’s all-time leader in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.69.

Those stats come courtesy of the conference’s recent release, to media members, of a MAAC Record Book, the result of more than a year of research to determine all-time leaders not only in basketball but all sports played by conference members.

Here are more interesting statistics recorded by women's players:

The conference has produced five women’s players who have surpassed the 2,000-point barrier. They are:

1) Patty Stoffey of Loyola (1991-95) 2,467
2) Jeanine Radice of Fordham (1985-89) 2,417
3) Melanie Halker of Siena (1995-99) 2,021
4) Tonya Grant of Saint Peter’s (1986-90) 2,020
5) Shauna Geronzin of Canisius (1998-02) 2,012

Radice, though, is the top point-per-game scorer (21.8), followed by Stoffey (21.3) and Manhattan’s Sheila Tighe (1981-84), who averaged 21.3. Those are the only three players in conference history to average more than 20 points per contest over their respective careers.

Other all-time leaders:

Field Goal Percentage
1) Liene Jansone of Siena (2000-04) .591
2) Rachele Fitz of Marist (2006-present) .577
3) Katrina Fields of Fairfield (1981-85) .555

Free Throw Percentage
1) Jen Cole of La Salle (1989-92) .852
2) Beth Dickinson of Saint Peter’s (1999-01) .851
- Jeanine Radice of Fordham (1985-89) .851

Three-pointers per game
1) Heather Fiore of Canisius (1993-97) 2.41
2) Kim Kuhn of Niagara (1989-93) 2.39
3) Iris Beistline of Rider (1997-01) 2.22

Note: Amanda Cavo of Canisius is the league’s all-time leader in three-pointers made with 267, followed by Kuhn with 261 and Fiore with 260.

Three-point Field Goal Percentage
1) Peg Taylor of Siena (1989-92) .424
2) Micayla Drysdale of Canisius (2007-present) .411
3) Ann Mymm of Niagara (2000-04) .403

Career rebounds
1) Rosalee Mason of Manhattan (2000-04) 1,217
2) Katrina Fields of Marist (1981-85) 1,210
3) Midred Washington of Saint Peter’s (1993-97) 1,153

NOTE: Siena’s Melanie Halker (1995-99) is fourth in rebounds with 1,122 and is the only MAAC women’s player to rank in the top four in both career scoring and rebounding.

Assists per game
Mimi Harris of La Salle (1988-92) is No. 3 on the list at 5.63, behind Collins and Sterling.

Blocks per game
1) Ayanna Brown of Fairfield (2000-02) 2.58
2) Gail Strumpf of Fairfield (1997-01) 2.12
3) Stephanie Geehan of Fairfield (2006-current) 2.06

Steals Per Game
1) Blanche Jones of Saint Peter’s (1981-85) 3.27
2) Mimi LaMagne of Canisius (1993-97) 3.21
3) Christine Fryer of Fairfield (1992-96) 3.07

Assist to turnover ratio
1) Alisa Kresge of Marist (2003-07) 2.69
2) Tori Horvath of Iona (2003-07) 2.56
3) Mimi Harris of La Salle (1988-92) 2.05

Some interesting team statistics…

- In 2007-08 Marist became the only conference team to record 2,500 points (2,502) in a season.
- Only two teams, both from Holy Cross, averaged more than 80 points per game over a full season. The Crusaders scored 82.8 per game in the 1987-88 season and 80.7 per outing in 1986-87.
- The 1986-87 Holy Cross squad shot .501 from the field, the only time a conference team has gone a full season at better than 50-percent accuracy.
- The 2008-09 Canisius team set the conference record for most three-pointers made (252) in a season.
- The 1987-88 La Salle team shot an incredible .560 percent on three-pointers (47-of-84).
- Fairfield has the top five best blocked-shots-per-game averages for a full season … 5.87 in 200-01, 5.74 in 2008-09, 4.93 in 1983-8, 4.72 in 2001-02 and 4.63 in 1984-85.
- - Saint Peter’s has the two best steals-per-game averages over a full season … 14.54 in 1988-89 and 14.0 in 1985-86.

A Look at MAAC's All-Time Stat Leaders

Here’s a question that MAAC basketball fans/historians should know: Name the only two players from the conference to finish their careers with more than 3,000 points.

The answer is Lionel Simmons of La Salle (1986-90) with 3,217 career points and Keydren Clark of Saint Peter’s (2002-06) with 3,058.

And, now, the rest of this trivial pursuit won’t be that easy.

How about a guess on what player ranks No. 3 on that particular list?

That would be Kevin Houston of Army 91983-87) with 2,325 points. After him comes Juan Mendez of Niagara (2001-05) with 2,210 and Steve Burtt Sr. of Iona (1981-84) with 2,153.

The information comes from a publication recently released and provided to media members by the conference, the first compiled MAAC Record Book for all sports, not just basketball. It is a treasure trove of interesting tidbits, and great fodder for a blog.

The information was gathered by Jill Skotarczak, the MAAC’s assistant commissioner for media relations; and Ed Clinton, the conference’s director of media relations. It has been a year-long project of research and fact-checking and is provides information and perspective not previously available. It is much appreciated, and this blogger will share some basketball highlights.

While Simmons is the all-time leading point scorer, Clark is No. 1 in points per game average (25.9 to Simmons’ 24.6). Butt is No. 3 at 23.2, followed by Luis Flores of Manhattan (2001-04), 22.7; and Jim McCaffrey of Holy Cross (1984-86) 22.2.

Here are many other leaders for men:

Field goal percentage
1) Harry Hart of Iona (1991-93) .628.
2) Pete DeBisschop of Fairfield (1981-83) .603
3) Darrell Barley of Canisius (1992-96) .601
Active player Alex Franklin of Siena is No. 4 at .575 through Thanksgiving.

Free throw percentage
1) Luis Flores Manhattan (2001-04) .880
2) Kevin Houston of Army (1983-87) .869
3) Bo Larragan of Marist (1997-99) .863
Active player Nick Leon of Saint Peter’s is also at .863 through Thanksgiving.

And, a note: Siena’s Scott Knapp is actually the all-time leader in this category (.891) but wound up a few free throws short of the minimum 2.5 made per game to qualify for statistical leadership according to NCAA guidelines.

3-pointers made
1) Kedren Clark, 435
2) Will Whittington of Marist (2003-07) 362)
3) Jerry Johnston of Rider (2002-05) 326
4) Scott Knapp of Siena 293

3-point FG Percentage
1) Tim Legler of La Salle (1986-88) .456
2) Jim Cantamessa of Siena (1996-00) .449
3) Harris Mansell of Rider (2005-09) .443

Career Rebounds
1) Lionel Simmons of La Salle 1,429
2) Jason Thompson of Rider (2004-08) 1,171
3) Drew Henderson of Fairfield (1989-93) 1,080

Assists Per game
1) Jared Jordan of Marist (2003-07) 6.95
2) Glenn Williams of Holy Cross (1985-89) 6.21
3) Sean Kennedy of Marist (1998-02) 6.04

Blocked shots per game
1) Deng Gai of Fairfield (2001-05) 4.44
2) Harry Hart of Iona (1991-93) 2.67
3) Damon Lopez of Fordham (1988-90) 2.63

Steals per game
1) Jason Rowe of Loyola (1996-00) 2.86
2) Billy Wheeler of Manhattan (1986-88) 2.61
3) Randy Woods of La Salle (1989-92) 2.50

Assist-to-turnover ratio
1) Ronald Moore, Siena (2006-active) 2.58
2) Jared Jordan of Marist (2003-07) 2.52
3) Javone “Bam” Moore of Canisius (1993-97) 2.43

ALSO … a smattering of team statistics for men:

- Most points in a season: Siena holds the top two spots: 2862 points in 1999-00 and 2,829 points in the 1990-91 season. But, the Holy Cross team of 1987-88 has the best point-per-game average of 87.9, followed by the 1999-00 Siena team (86.7).

- Best-shooting teams: The 1984-85 Iona team shot .538 from the field. Saint Peter’s teams of 1981-82 and 1982-83 follow at .535 and .531, respectively.

- The 1997-98 Siena team is the only one in conference history to shoot over 80 percent (.803) from the foul line. The 2002-03 Manhattan team is next at .788, followed by the 1998-99 Siena team (.787).

COMING ATTRACTION: Taking a look at statistical leaders for women’s basketball.
And, here's a preview question ... name the conference's five women's players to finish with more than 2,000 career points.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Personnel Updates: Who's Out, Who's Back

There have been, or will be, some key personnel comings and goings from around the conference in the early part of this season. Here are some updates:

Canisius has lost two players recently, both expected to be key reserves.

Chris Gadley, the 6-foot-9, 300-pounder who matched a MAAC record with 25 rebounds in a game last season, is sitting out the first semester to concentrate on academics. Gadley was not suspended, and was not asked to leave the team. The move was entirely his own decision, according to reports, in order to give him more time to improve his academic work. If all goes well, he could return to the team after the first semester.

Rob Gagliardi, a 6-2 guard and one of the more highly-touted freshmen coming into the conference this season, appears lost to the Golden Griffins for the season. Gagliardi has returned to his Whitby, Ont., home to deal with an unspecified illness. Canisius coach Tom Parotta addressed Gagliardi’s situation at a recent luncheon for program boosters. Upon his recovery Gagliardi is expected to return to the program, but is likely to be red-shirted this season.

At Manhattan, standout guard Rico Pickett missed his team’s most recent game, a 75-70 loss to William & Mary. Pickett, a transfer from Miami Dade Junior College, had averaged 10.5 points through the Jaspers’ first two games. He was suspended for a “violation of team rules.” A school spokesman said that there is no timetable for Pickett’s return, but indicated that the guard could return this week, although it isn’t know if that includes tonight’s game at home against Florida Atlantic.

R.J. Hall, expected to be the starting point guard at Marist, is sitting out the first semester due to an academic suspension. Hall is currently a sophomore. As a freshman he averaged 6.9 points and 2.1 assists per games, third- and second-best, respectively, for the Red Foxes.

The returns of Gadley, Hall and Pickett will boost their respective programs.

Marist, off to an 0-2 start (including a 75-38 defeat at Hartford in its most recent game) will get another lift in the second semester when 6-10, 270-pound Casiem Drummond, a mid-season transfer from Villanova last year, becomes eligible. Drummond had some effective games at Villanova and might provide the type inside play from a big man the MAAC rarely sees. Or ... he could have difficulty fitting into the Red Foxes' style of play. It should be interesting to see how things develop here.

He won’t be the only mid-season addition expected to help a conference team.

Siena, which has struggled to find help off its bench through its 2-1 start, has two players who should help solve that dilemma becoming eligible soon.

Guard Kyle Griffin, a transfer from La Salle, becomes eligible for Siena's game on Dec. 23; and, forward Davis Martens, a native of Germany, can begin playing on Dec. 31.

The 6-3 Griffin can play either guard spot. He was once highly recruited by Siena before opting for La Salle, where he played 15 games and averaged 3.5 points and 1.4 assists as a freshman during the 2007-08 season before a knee injury set him back. Griffin transferred to Siena between semesters last year and has spent the past year with the Saints rehabbing his injury. He has been participating in full practices for several weeks and is said to be near 100 percent.

Martens has the typical perimeter skills of a European player, but has also shown some strength inside, according to those who have watched him practice. Because he played games in a professional league (but was not paid) last year, he is required to sit out the Saints' first 12 contests this season.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Trouble at Manhattan: Pickett Suspended

Badad news for the Manhattan men's team.

It appears that its highly regarded newcomer Rico Pickett, has been suspended from the team.

Here's some information that appeared on the blog of New York Daily News college basketball writer Sean Brennan:

"... the Jaspers had suffered another loss when head coach Barry Rohrssen suspended junior guard Rico Pickett indefinitely for what the school is terming a "violation of team rules."

"The 6-4 Pickett, who played his freshman season at Alabama before transferring to Miami Dade CC for his sophomore season, scored 14 points in the loss to Princeton and was averaging 12.5 points and four rebounds through the Jaspers first two games. Pickett was an addition who was being looked upon to supply a good bulk of the offense at Manhattan this season.

"No one was saying how long the "indefinite" part of the suspension means for Pickett, but one thing is sure, he will miss Saturday's home game against William & Mary. The Jaspers have a quick turnaround and play Mike Jarvis' Florida Atlantic team Monday night at Draddy Gym before closing out the month with a trip to American on Nov. 25 before hosting the "Battle of the Bronx" against Fordham on Nov. 28.

Pickett's availability for those games is considered murky at best."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Other details about Pickett's suspension are not forthcoming. There is nothing on the school's website about Pickett's situation, and coaches are loathe to discuss suspensions.

Your blogger will say this: Pickett appeared to be one of the more-gifted players joining a conference program this season, and his presence, particularly on the offensive end, is strongly needed by the Jaspers.

Manhattan will certainly struggle in his absence. Without him in the lineup the Jaspers would likely be the primary contender for last place in the conference standings.

Top Women's Coaches, Castelli Nears 300

Here's a trivia question about MAAC women's basketball ...

What three coaches have won the most games while coaching a conference team?

And, the answer is ...

1) Mike Granelli, the former had coach at Saint Peter's.

Granelli recorded 483 victories while the Peahens were a MAAC member, from the league's inaugural women's season in 1981-82 through the 2003-04 season. Granelli retired after his last season at the Jersey City, N.J., school.

Overall, he had 607 career victories. All of those came at Saint Peter's, including nine seasons before the formation of the MAAC.

2) Dianne Nolan, the former head coach at Fairfield.

Nolan recorded 434 victories while Fairfield was a MAAC member, from 1981-82 through the 2006-07 seasons.

Overall, she had 517 career coaching victories over 33 seasons including five at St. Francis of N.Y. and two at Fairfield before it moved to the Division I level and joined the MAAC. She is currently an assistant coach with the Yale women's program.

3) Gina Castelli, the current head coach at Siena.

Castelli has 299 career victories. She is one game into her 20th season with the Saints. Victory No. 300 could come tonight (Friday) when Siena hosts Eastern Michigan.

Castelli has never been a head coach at any other school. She was an assistant for a season at Siena (1989-90) before moving into the top spot for the 1990-91 season. At the time she was the youngest Division I coach in the country.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

SI: Siena Ranked 20th; Blogger: Too High

Sports Illustrated hit my mailbox today, and there it is: Siena rated the No. 20 team nationally by the magazine in its College Basketball Preview issue.

It is believed to be the highest preseason rating ever accorded a MAAC team by SI. I'm not sure how long the publication has been picking a preseason Top 20, but it was not doing so back in the late 1980s, when La Salle surely would have cracked that group.

But, clearly, this year's Siena team has become the most-hyped since those days when the Exlorers reigned in the conference.

So, what does it mean? A few posts back this blogger had some unkind words for another publication that picked Siena as No. 15 nationally.

The thoughts for SI are similar. Sports Illustrated is considered to be one of the finest publications, if not the best, of its kind. But rating Siena No. 20 nationally ... its credibility takes a hit here.

(Side note ... the SI writer who produced the page-long Siena preview, Pablo S. Torre, did also make a positive reference to Margaret McCaffery's famous deserts, most notably French apple cobbler with caramel sauce. By all accounts, that particular dish served by head coach Fran McCaffery's wife, is second to none).

Here's one telling point about Siena. It has just one starter taller than 6-foot-7. Of the 19 teams rated higher, all but one have at least two starters taller than 6-7. The only other program that doesn't is Michigan, which has two likely future NBA players on its roster as well as one of the top freshmen nationally.

Among teams rated behind Siena is Georgia Tech, at No. 21. We'll see about how those two teams stack up when Siena plays at Georgia Tech on Dec. 2. If the Saints pull off the upset that night, then we'll revisit the debate about how how Siena should be ranked.

But, consider this: SI rates Georgia Tech the third-best Atlantic Coast Conference schoo, behind only North Carolina (No. 7) and Duke (No. 12).

Does anyone believe that Siena is better than all but two ACC programs?

Of course, it is all great publicity for the small Loudonville, N.Y.-based school as well as for the conference. Included in the preview is a nice picture of the Saints' senior point guard Ronald Moore.

How many MAAC players ever appear in pictures featured in a national magazine?

And, this might well be the best MAAC team since those La Salle glory days.

Best MAAC team ever? Definitely not. The 1989-90 La Salle team had one future NBA all-star (Lionel Simmons), another NBA first-round draft choice (Randy Woods) and a second-rounder (Doug Overton).

All the preseason hype and, now, great visibility in Sports Illustrated is the stuff that should be treasured by the Siena program and its players for a lifetime.

But your humble blogger just wonders is the Saints are being ranked about 10-to-15 places too high.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

MAAC Teams, Ubiles Show Early Form

A 6 a.m. tip-off? If his team would always play as well as its 58-34 victory over Monmouth Tuesday morning, Saint Peter's coach John Dunne would likely welcome many more early morning games.

Even if there was one complaint.

"I had every alarm clock in the house set for 3 a.m.," said Dunne. "My wife wasn't too happy."

Most others were, though. Dunne was surely happy with his team's effort, and Saint Peter's officials had to be overjoyed about the national exposure received from being in the first live college game ever televised by ESPN in the 6 a.m. time slot. A nice and enthusiastic turnout of 1,246 at the Yanitelli Center wasn't bad either.

It was a very good morning for the Peacocks, but what else would you expect from a team that includes a Bacon as one of its top players.

That would be Ryan Bacon, the 6-7 junior forward who had seven points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in the game. Junior guard Wesley Jenkins had 10 points and eight rebounds, and freshmen Darius Conley and Steven Samuels added nine points each.

Saint Peter's defense held Monmouth to 10-of-47 shooting from the floor (21 percent). It looked someone on the Monmouth side forgot to bring the coffee.

These tired eyes did watch a good portion of the telecast, and the Peacocks did indeed look very good.

Saint Peter's already had a strong nucleus of juniors Bacon, Jenkins and guard Nick Leon. The addition of new starters Conley, a powerful inside presence; and junior college transfer 6-6 Jeron Belin, a slashing forward, make the team even better.

Considering Monday's work, as well as a two-point loss to Seton Hall on a buzzer-beating 30-footer in its opener, your blogger firmly believes Saint Peter's is one of the four best teams in the league, and, if all goes well, could be even better than that.

Niagara also seemed to like the taste of orange juice as a pre-game beverage of choice. The Purple Eagles, in the 8 a.m. contest of ESPN's college hoops' 24-hour marathon coverage Tuesday, earned a 76-69 victory over Drexel.

Senior forward Bilal Benn had 19 points and 14 rebounds and junior guard Rob Garrison chipped in with 20 points and six rebounds for the winners.

Senior standout guard Tyrone Lewis, who is recovering from an ankle injury, did not play in the contest.

In Albany, N.Y., Siena had the latest game of three involving conference teams on the ESPN marathon event, a noon start. But, it looked like the Saints were the last team to get the day's wake-up call.

After scoring the game's first basket, Siena fell behind 20-6 with 8:19 left in the first half and didn't get another lead until Alex Franklin's layup at 15:39 of the second half.

The Saints never trailed again, had a 10-point, 55-45, lead with 44 seconds remaining and, then, cruised in.

Northeastern, with four of its five starters back from last season's 19-13 team, were content to play a deliberate style nad sprint back on defense to slow Siena's fast break.

If nothing else, it was a national showcase for the Saints' 6-foot-6 forward Edwin Ubiles who made his first statement about his candidacy for the conference's Player of the Year award.

Ubiles had 26 points (11-of-19 shooting), eight rebounds, three assists and four steals.

"I felt he was the guy we could go to today," said Saints' coach Fran McCaffery. "There was one point where we gave (point guard) Ronald Moore a rest, and we let Edwin move to the point.

"So, he got just about all our points, he guarded their best player (Northeastern guard Matt Janning, who scored 14 points) and, then, we asked him to bring the ball down court. And, Edwin was like `So what?' "

The three early day victories pushed the MAAC's record in non-conference play at that point to 11-4 thus far this season.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Wake-up Call: Prepping for a.m. Games

How to prepare for the coffee-time basketball game, a 6 a.m. start Tuesday?

That’s the situation Saint Peter’s faces, hosting Monmouth at the Yanitelli Center for a national viewing audience, courtesy of its role in ESPN’s 24-hour basketball marathon coverage that day.

Two other MAAC teams are hosting games: Niagara, in an 8 a.m. start against Drexel; and, Siena, in a noon start against Northeastern.

The noon game shouldn't be too tough on Siena in terms of following a relatively normal pre-game routine. While the working-stiff fans might have to call in sick, it still looks there will be a strong turnout. Early accounts are that there were already close to 5,500 tickets sold for the game as of Sunday.

Niagara, though, faces an eye-opener at 8 a.m., but no one has ever likely faced a 6 a.m. starting time before.

ESPN has confirmed that the 6 a.m. Saint Peter’s game with Monmouth marks the first time the all-encompassing sports network has televised a live college game in that time slot.

So, how do the Peacocks handle it?

“There will be a lot of extra coffee around for the coaches that morning,” said John Dunne, who has to be sharp a little extra early to speak at a school pep rally at 4:30 that morning. “Otherwise, we just won’t do a whole lot in terms of getting them up too early."

Dunne scheduled an 8:30 a.m. practice on Sunday “just for them to see what it's like to get up and moving early in the morning."

Monday’s day-before practice will be extremely light. Dunne said players won't even tape ankles prior to going on the court for that day's workout.

“On Tuesday morning, we’ll let the players get here as late as we possibly can do it, about 4:45 a.m.,” added Dunne. “We’ll have juices, Gatorade and fruit available in the lockerroom. We’ll let them drink and eat lightly when they’re getting tapped.

“But this won’t be any sort of normal pregame situation. We won’t go on the court until 20 minutes before the game. In that respect, it’s like playing the second game of a doubleheader. Then, we’ll just grind it out. It’s `Get out there and let’s go.’

“It is exciting for our players for our school and for our fans. There’s a definite buzz around. It’s exciting for our alums to see the school’s name in the newspapers for this. We’re trying to do some things to get the Saint Peter’s brand out there. I give a lot of credit to the administration for allowing us to participate. It should be a lot of fun.”

Once everyone wakes up, of course.

And, the best thing,” said Dunne. “Is that the game will be over in time for our players to attend classes that day.”

Mihalich’s Niagara players might miss morning classes, but they’ll be in time for afternoon ones.

“We’re not going to do a lot special in terms of day-of-game prep,” said Mihalich. “We’re not going to get up at 4 a.m. and have a full pre-game meal, or anything like that. We’ve had morning practices before. We’ve even had some good morning practices before, so we’ll have that type of routine for this.

We’ll probably start preparing two days prior in terms of making sure everyone’s eating well in the days before and sleeping well, getting to sleep early, at least two days before. We’ll handle it.

"This isn’t something you can do unless you have a team full of guys who love to play. Our guys don’t care what time they’re on the court, whether it’s midnight or 7 a.m. We’ve got a bunch of guys who just love to be out there playing.”

Mihalich said his team had a recent 7:15 a.m. practice, and handled it well.

“When we go early, we’re not eating bacon and eggs before we go out there,” added Mihalich.

As for the coach?

Shouldn’t bother me … what coach sleeps during basketball season?” he joked. “Honestly, I’m always in the office early. Maybe this time I’ll get there about 5:30, which is a little earlier than usual.”

But conference coaches involved aren't complaining. The national publicity and exposure associated with the novelty of early morning, nationally televised games makes getting up and playing a little earlier than usual more than worthwhile for those involved.

Powerful Illini Too Much for Siena Women

The least-enjoyable part of the Siena women's trip to Champaign, Ill., this weekend?

Surely its game against the University of Illinois.

As coaches like to say ... "bigger, stronger, faster, better."

Those were the advantages Illinois had over the Saints Sunday afternoon, taking an 85-53 victory.

If these eyes are any indication, Illinois was by far the best non-conference opponent a MAAC women's team is likely to play this season.

The Illini are loaded at every position, return every starter from a year ago and added the No. 3 recruiting class in the country. On top of that, they had a game under their belt (an overtime loss at Temple on Friday), so that setback probably provided a little extra motivation for the host team.

Illinois is picked to finish in the upper half of the Big Ten this season, and it's easy to see why. To beat it, opponents will have to handle its speed and athleticism, and Siena struggled with that, committing 31 turnovers in the contest.

Eight turnovers in the game's first seven minutes enabled the Fighting Illini to run out to a 22-8 lead. Siena got to within eight, 42-34, late in the first half and seemed to have somewhat solved the winners' athleticism edge.

And, then, Illinois scored twice at the end of the half on put-backs after the Saints failed to adequately block out, and had a 50-36 lead at the intermission.

Illinois forced more turnovers at the start of the second half and converted most of those opportunities to grab a 72-39 lead before Siena could get anything going again offensively.

The Saints made the trip so that its senior guard, Allie Lindemann, could play a game in her home area.

"It was good to come home," said Lindemann, afterwards. "I've always wanted to play a game on this floor. It meant a lot to me."

Trip Home for Siena women's Lindemann

How do you get 50 people into a mid-sized split-ranch home in Champaign, Ill.?

Offer a great meal of lasagna, a creamed chicken-pasta dish and world-class brownies for desert.
That's what the Siena women's basketball team, along with family members and friends, feasted on Saturday night at the Champaign home of the Lindemann family whose daughter, Allie, is a Saints' senior.

Siena is is here to take on Illinois in a 4 p.m. contest later today (Sunday). Your blogger is along, primarily in hopes of witnessing Siena coach Gina Castelli's 300th career victory at the school. Castelli is entering her 20th season as the program's head coach, but prefers much more just to get a victory today without worrying about her career victory total.

The contest and its surroundings is typical of of any road trip taken by a college team and your blogger's intent, by writing about it, is to highlight a little what transpires on trips of this kind.

Saturday night's get-together at the Lindemann home was one of the things programs do for away-from-home players. Teams traditionally try to get a non-conference home game in the home area of its players, and this weekend's is Allie Lindemann's trip.

That was clearly evident by the wide smile on the face of the Saints' guard for most of the trip, and the hugs and warm words she shared with family members and some local friends at Saturday night's dinner ... even when the slender Lindemann was teased about a large, framed photo on her family home's wall that showed her in a muscles-flexing pose.

Lindemann, a local newspaper's girls' Player of the Year for her senior season at Champaign Central High School, grew up watching the Illinois women's team play in the 16,000-seat Assembly Hall. Surprisingly, though, Siena's full practice Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning walk-through were the first times Lindemann ever played on that court.

She said that she often came to the Illinois campus for pick-up games, but those were always held at the school's facility that hosts full and separate practice courts for both the men's and women's teams.

It's a sign of the difference between Siena's mid-major level and Illinois' high-major status.

So, too, is Illinois' mode of transportation. The Illini played a game Friday evening at Temple, about 46 hours prior to today's tip-off with the Saints. But, rather than have to deal with the travel difficulties getting into the small Champaign airport via commercial airlines, Illinois got in via a charter flight, something it has for all its travel.

Siena, as do all MAAC programs, travels exclusively commercially. On this trip, the Saints flew Friday night into Chicago and, then, had a two-hour bus ride after that to get here.

Lindemann was featured in the game preview published in Sunday's edition of the Champaign News-Gazette, which included a picture of her from her high school days, a posed shot holding a basketball with her dad, Mike, looking on.

And, of course, the photo caption had her school's name spelled incorrectly ... "Sienna," rather than Siena.

That will become a portion of Castelli's pre-game talk to her team. So, too, will be the newspaper's prediction that "Illinois will steadily pull away for a fairly comfortable win," and the paper's assessment that "(Siena) isn't the most daunting task on the schedule."

A little disrespect always provides a little extra motivation.

So, too, should be a Siena fan section that might rival Illinois.

Lindemann's dad, Mike, is currently an assistant coach at Parkland College, a junior college located in Champaign. Prior to that he was the head coach of the Champaign Central girls' team for several years.

Lindemann said many of his former high school players, current players at Parkland and youngsters from a youth program in which he is involved, are expected to attend today's game.

Combine that with several dozen Lindemann family members and friends as well as several other of the team's parents who have traveled here and it should make for some strong crowd support for the Saints today.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

No Surprise, Marist Women Look Strong

The Marist women got off to a nice start to their non-league season, knocking off North Carolina A&T, 80-64, in the first round of the preseason WNIT played in Poughkeepsie.

Shocked? Hardly. The Red Foxes are gunning for their sixth straight regular-season MAAC crown. And, senior forward Rachel Fitz is chasing her third straight conference Player of the Year award.

Nothing indicated those two happenings won't occur. Marist got its typical strong play, and Fitz scored 30 points with 9 rebounds. Guard Erica Allenspach chipped in with 20 and 7.

The day's biggest surprise, though, had to be Fairfield's 74-48 demolition of Rhode Island behind freshman forward Katelyn Linney's 18 points. Guard Desiree Pina added 14 and forward Stephanie Geehan had 10. The Stags shot 10-of-18 from three-point territory.

Over the first weekend of MAAC play, conference women's teams finished 5-4.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rider Highlights Great Opening Night

And, so it begins. College basketball season is here for MAAC teams.

Opening Night played to rave reviews.

Seven non-league games involved MAAC teams, and conference representatives won five and gave high-level opponents close calls in the other two.

The highlight was clearly Rider's 88-74 victory at Misssissippi State, which entered the game ranked 18th nationally.

So, maybe Tommy Dempsey's vote for his own Broncs in the conference's post-season poll wasn't that far off base after all.

The other victories for conference teams came when Loyola knocked off Vermont, 78-66; Iona toppled Boston University (America East's preseason favorite), 82-73; Siena won at Tennessee State, 85-69; and, Fairfield defeated Central Connecticut, 67-58.

In the other games, Seton Hall nipped Saint Peter's, 53-51; and Auburn got past Niagara, 69-65.

Here's some game detail on the Rider victory:

Bronc forwards Mike Ringold and Novar Gadson scored 21 points each as Rider pulled off the first big upset of the season by beating No. 18 Mississippi State.

According to reports the Broncs drove to the basket relentlessly and hit 62.5 percent of their 3-point shots to knock off lifeless Mississippi State on the night the Bulldogs (0-1) received their 2008-09 Southeastern Conference championship rings.

Rider used a 15-5 run near the end of the first half to take a 47-45 halftime advantage and never relinquished it. Ryan Thompson scored 16 for Rider, Justin Robinson had 15 and Gadson added 11 rebounds.

Mississippi State started the season ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since starting 12th in 2004-05. The Bulldogs return all five starters and were picked to win the SEC Western Division this season.

But the Broncs, who return four starters from a squad that won 19 games last season, proved they're just as talented and didn't wilt after Mississippi State got off to a fast start.

Mississippi State scored six straight points to open the game and helped the Bulldogs to an early 11-2 lead. But Rider scored 18 points off 10 first-half turnovers to quickly get back in the game, and finished with a 20-3 advantage in that category.

The Broncs also outrebounded the bigger Bulldogs and used 11 offensive boards to score 13 second-chance points.

The Broncs were also dominant from long range thanks to lapses in the Bulldogs' perimeter defense, making 10 of 16 3-pointers, many of them wide open.

As for highlights of other games ...

- Seton Hall needed a 28-footer at the buzzer by Eugene Harvey to get past Saint Peter's, 53-51. The Peacocks had a 51-50 lead on Wesley Jenkins' jumper with 3.6 seconds remaining before Harvey's game-winner.

Saint Peter's held a 40-34 rebounding edge in the contest behind the front line of Jeron Belein (11 rebounds), Darius Conley (9) and Ryan Bacon (8).

- Iona got big performances out of two key returnees. Alejo Rodriguez, plagued by back problems over the past two seasons, had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore point guard Scott Michado had 16 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists against just two turnovers.

- Loyola's victory was led by senior guard Brett Harvey, who looks poised for a big senior season. Harvey had 23 points (5-of-7 from three-point range) and had four assists. A key newcomer, 6-foot-10 sophomore Shane Walker who transferred in from Maryland, had 9 points and 8 rebounds in his Loyola debut.

- Who's going to replace Kenny Hasbrouck at Siena? How about Clarence Jackson, the 6-3 junior who had a game-high 23 points against Tennessee State Friday? Jackson shot 7-of-9 from the field including 4-of-5 from 3-point land. Senior Alex Franklin had a big game, too, scoring 19 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Point guard Ronald Moore had eight assists.

- Fairfield's Anthony Johnson made a successful return to action after missing most of last season with blood clot issues. He had 18 points and 8 rebounds against Central Connecticut. Freshmen Derek Needham had 14 points and 6 assists, while Shimeek Johnson had 9 and 9. The Stags' injured players Greg Nero, Yorel Hawkins and Warren Edney all sat out.

- Auburn scored the last 11 points in the final 89 minutes of its game with Niagara to overcome a 65-58 deficit. Bilal Benn had 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Purple Eagles. Demetrius Williamson, who figures to get a lot of time in Niagara's frontcourt this season, had 16 points and 7 rebounds. Junior guard Anthony Nelson had 17 points, but Tyrone Lewis only scored two points in nine minutes. No details yet as to why Lewis played limited minutes.

Good Reading on Michigan's Beilein

One of the nice benefits of travel, especially for a former newspaper guy, is the opportunity to get one’s hands on some out-of-town newspapers. For some reason, they always look better spread out over a table than when viewed via the internet.

On a stopover in Detroit Friday afternoon, I had the Detroit Free Press to peruse. And, fortunately, it’s the day the paper printed its season previews of local college basketball teams.

One of the locals, of course, is Michigan which is coached by an old MAAC friend John Beilein.

Beilein spent many years in New York State, working nine seasons as head coach at Le Moyne of Syracuse followed by five seasons (1992-'97) at Canisius, where he put together and coached some of the top Golden Griffins' teams in recent memory.

At Canisius, his teams went finished 89-62 and advanced to three national post-season appearances, once getting to the NCAA's and twice to the NIT's.

After that Beilein moved on to Richmond, then to West Virginia and, now he's at Michigan.

And, here's a trivia question/answer: Beilein is the only active college basketball coach to record 20-victory seasons at four levels of the sport. He had 20-win years at Erie Community College, at Nazareth College (then an NAIA school), at Division II Le Moyne and on the Division I level (with four different programs).

Beilein's first Michigan team only got 10 victories. But, his second one finished 21-14 last season. In his 31 years as a head coach his teams have only finished under .500 four times.

Beilein's 2008-09 Michigan team advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was Michigan’s first trip to the NCAA’s in 10 years.

Think about that for a minute. I know the Big Ten is a power conference, but Michigan has one of the finest on-campus arenas in the country, has a student population of close to 30,000, has the requisite financial resources of a big-time program … and hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in the previous nine years. Whew.

Beilein, though, clearly knows how to find success. And that was emphasized in the lead paragraph of the Free Press’ preview of his team, which said:“As he climbed the coaching ladder, John Beilein’s system became proven by results.”

His current team has two potential future pros in junior guard Manny Harris (16.9 points per game last season) and senior forward DeShawn Sims (15.4). Beilein has also brought in one of the country’s top freshmen point guard nationally, Darius Morris.

Beilein’s team returns four starters. The only loss from a year ago was his point guard, so Morris is likely the fifth starter.

And, now, a quick story about the difference of athletic programs at that level and the MAAC.
A couple of years ago this blogger’s son applied to the University of Michigan. We made the trip to Ann Arbor to visit the school. The trip came just a few weeks after Beilein’s hiring there.

While my son was visiting the campus, I thought I’d make a quick stop over to see Beilein, who I had gotten to know during his time in the MAAC.

But, the doors to the Michigan arena were locked that day. Every single one of them. A couple of days later I called the Michigan sports information office to explain that I had been on campus, had tried to visit Beilein and had been locked out.

The response was that the school purposely keeps its arena doors locked. The perception is that sports are so “big time” there, that fans of the respective programs _ not just basketball, but obviously football, as well _ would arrive in hordes to talk to coaches if the doors were open.

It is, of course, a world removed from the pleasant, fan-friendly atmosphere that exists in the MAAC.

Doors of buildings that host athletic offices at MAAC schools are never locked (except at night).

One can walk into Saint Peter’s Yanitelli Center, Canisius’ Koessler Center, Niagara’s Taps Gallagher Center, Siena’s Alumni Recreation Center, etc., at any time. Odds are you can get a quick audience with a coach or an assistant coach if one has a few minutes to spare.

The opportunity to get close to coaches and athletes at the mid-major level is just one of a myriad of things that makes this blogger more than happy to have been involved with covering the MAAC for more than two decades, rather than doing the same at the high-major level.

Nothing against Big Ten basketball, or the ACC or the SEC, or any of the major conferences.
It might be a higher level of basketball and it might involved better athletes. But, the closest you’ll get to the coaches and players at that level is that high-priced seat you sit in to watch home games.

On The Road With Saints' Women

Your humble blogger is on the road this weekend, traveling with the Siena women’s basketball team.

I’ll try to touch on some aspects of the trip that are typical to all teams on road trips, and this one is as good as any to illustrate what just about any college team goes through for a one-game road trip.

This one should be a good one, Siena at the University of Illinois.

It’s a good one for me, personally, because it afforded the opportunity to fly in and out of Rochester to visit my collegiate son for a few minutes on the way out and, then, to spend more time with him on Monday on the way back culminating with attending a concert in which he is performing.

After that, it’s back on the road early Tuesday morning to get back to Albany in time for the noon Siena-Northeastern men’s game at the Times Union Center. Before departure, though, I hope to catch the first half of the ESPN telecast of the Monmouth at Saint Peter’s game that begins at 6 a.m.

As for the basketball portion of this road trip …

It won’t be an easy one in any sense for the Saints.

Begin with the travel. There’s no easy way to travel from Albany, N.Y., to Champaign, Ill. While there is an airport in Champaign, only a few miles away from the Illinois campus, Siena preferred to fly into Chicago, followed by a two-hour bus trip over the 120, or so, miles from Chicago to Champaign.

Flights into Champaign are almost all smaller planes, and there was some question about whether all the equipment that a college team travels with would fit on that type of plane. So, a bigger plan into Chicago followed by a 2-hour bus ride after that.

Illinois looks like the most-difficult opponent on the schedule for the Siena women. Despite a 10-21 record last year, the Fighting Illini have every key player back, plus the third-ranked recruiting class in the country. Talk about a tough opener for the Saints.

But, not an impossible one. The game marks the first opportunity for Saints’ coach Gina Castelli to get career victory No. 300.

Castelli is beginning her 20th season as the program’s head coach. If the win doesn’t come on this trip, then it could come next Friday when Siena hosts Eastern Michigan. But yours truly wants to witness No. 300 for the Siena coach for a variety of reasons. So, I wasn't going to miss this trip.

The trip is also particularly rewarding for Siena guard Allie Lindemann, a preseason conference third-team all-star selection. Lindemann is a native of Champaign and the trip is an opportunity for her family members and friends to welcome Lindemann home The likelihood is that Lindemann, as do all players getting back home for a non-league game, will have several dozen supporters on hand.

Here's Siena's itinerary, which is typical of any college team's road trip:

Today (Saturday)
9:15am Wake up Call
9:30am Breakfast
10:30am Time to get treatment/taped/stretched/medicated
11:30am Pack up the bus- put stuff on the bus
12:00pm Team Meeting in Coach Castelli’s room
1:00pm Depart for Practice
2:00pm Practice @ Illinois
6:00pm Dinner at the Lindemann home
9:30pm Team Meeting
11:00pm Lights out

8:30am Wake up call
9:15am Depart for shoot around
9:30am Shoot Around
12:30p.m. Pre-game meal.
4:00pm Game time

Monday, November 9, 2009

Questions, questions for MAAC Teams

Twenty questions and, hopefully, 20 answers that will help determine the shape of the conference standings this season.

Two questions per team, in order of predicted order of finish.


Questions: Can the Saints survive the hype ... and,, can Kenny Hasbrouck, last season's Player of the Year in the MAAC, be adequately replaced?

The strong guess here is that the hype ... Siena is picked as high as 15th by one off-the-wall publication, but mostly in the 20's or 30's nationally, by more responsible outlets ... won't be a major factor/distraction.

Head coach Fran McCaffery has already addressed it. Displeased with some early practices, he closed the workouts to fans and media recently, a move McCaffery had only made once previously in his prior four seasons with the Saints.

It's a good move. McCaffery gets his team' s undivided attention to hammer home his point that taking things for granted doesn't get it done. Siena, too, has dealt with hype before. The expectations for success were nearly as high last season, and the Saints handled that pretty well.

There's just too much talent ... all five starters are capable of having the type season to gain all-conference recognition ... and there's more depth in place than in recent years.

As for replacing Hasbrouck ... last season's Sixth Man of the Year winner in the conference last season, Clarence Jackson, steps in. Offensively, Siena won't suffer at all with Jackson in the lineup. Defense and leadership, though, were also key contributions Hasbrouck made last season. But, a three-player senior class will capably step into leadership roles (particularly point guard Ronald Moore) which should also help address any defensive concerns.


Questions: Who moves into the starting lineup, after the graduation of center Benson Egemoyne, and can Niagara overtake Siena for the conference title?

Egemoyne might not have been as noticeable a cog as the team's prolific tandem of forward Bilal Benn and guard Lewis, but the 6-10 center provided an important inside presence last season.

Replacing him will probably be done by committee Demetrius Williamson, a 6-foot-6 senior, will likely get plenty of time there, and a quick acclimation to the college game by 6-8 freshman Scooter Gillette would help significantly.

Niagara certainly could win this year's title. Its returning core of four starters -- Bilal Benn, Tyrone Lewis, Anthony Nelson and Rob Garrison -- doesn't take a backseat to any team's top four in terms of talent. Problem is that Benn is the tallest of that group at 6-5, so the Purple Eagles need a strong answer to its vacant center position in order to compete with the Saints.


Questions: Who moves into the starting lineup to replace graduated guard Harris Mansell, and can the Broncs fulfill coach Tommy Dempsey's expectation of a first-place vote (the only one not for Siena) in the league's preseason coaches' poll?

Easy answer first. The Broncs plug in Jhamar Youngblood, a good shooter who transferred in from Monmouth where he was a two-year starter and the Northeast Conference's Rookie of the Year as a freshman. Considering that Mansell battled injuries his entire senior season, a healthy Youngblood will be an improvement.

Yes, Rider could also dethrone the Saints. But, they'll have to find more depth than they had a year ago. The starting five is strong. The inside duo of Mike Ringold and Novar Gadson is as good as any. Senior 6-6 point guard Ryan Thompson might be the league's best player. Figure on 6-7 sophomore Brandon Penn, who had 13 points and nine rebounds in an exhibition victory over Division II West Chester University, to provide help off the bench.

Bottom line is that both Niagara and Rider are very good teams. But, Siena appears to be more than that. Yours truly has learned that nothing that happens in the MAAC is truly a shock. But, your blogger would be a little surprised if someone other than Siena, discounting serious injuries to the Saints' key players, were to win this year's conference crown.


Questions: Can the Stags compete for the upper echelon despite injuries and, can an influx of good young players carry the team if the injured upperclassmen aren't 100 percent?

Easy answers: No, and no.

Teams that rely on youth rarely make real noise in the conference. Fairfield has three good ones in red-shirt freshmen forward Shimeek Johnson and guards Derrick Needham and Colin Nickerson. Now, the bad news. Those three were the team's top three scorers in a recent exhibition game against Stonehill College. Not exactly a recipe for success. Almost universally freshmen rarely provide the requisite consistency of excellence to lead a team to success.

If the three freshmen aren't relied upon to be the team's primary weapons, though, then the Stags might be above average. It would mean that forwards Greg Nero and Yorel Hawkins and guard Warren Edney all get healthy enough to be contributors this season. None from that trio played against Stonehill.

The good news is that hard-working forward Anthony Johnson, who missed most of last season with a blood clot issue, did play in that game and is back to full health.

The bad news is there is much speculation out there that Nero might miss the season. If he does, or if he isn't at his best, then Fairfield won't be as good as it was picked in the coaches' poll.


Questions: Can a youthful frontcourt develop quickly enough to support a strong perimeter group, and can the Greyhounds contend for a league title?

Have to see how this plays out, although one of the expected two starters up front, 6-10 forward Shane Walker, already has a season at Maryland and a red-shirt season at Loyola under his belt, so he should fit in quickly.

The other potential starter up front is 6-8 freshman Julius Brooks, who played 20 minutes in a recent exhibition contest with Adelphi. How quickly Walker and Brooks become acclimated, and how much they can contribute will determine if the Greyhounds can finish in the upper half of the league this season.

The perimeter trio of Jamal Barney, Brett Harvey and Brian Rudolph ranks with any in the MAAC, but the Greyhounds' paint players weren't strong enough last season. How well Walker and Brooks develop will determine Loyola's fate this season.

Answer? Siena, Niagara and Rider are the clear-cut top three. Your blogger believes that Saint Peter's is the fourth-best team in the conference until the Greyhounds' front court proves otherwise.


Questions: What's here, beyond the "Big Three," and how good does that make the Peacocks?

Dynamic in the backcourt with sniper Wesley Jenkins (15.7 points per game) and point guard Nick Leon (15.1), and with 6-7 Ryan Bacon (11.5, 8.0 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) up front.

But, that's not enough. It makes Saint Peter's decent, but another piece, at least, is needed.

Still, there's positive progression here. Fourth-year coach John Dunne was 5-25 overall in the program's first post-Keydren Clark year (2006-07), finished 6-24 in 2007-08 and, then, 11-19 last season with a team whose best players were sophomores.

The natural improvement of Jenkins, Leon and Bacon, now all juniors, will help. So, will another piece.

Preseason workouts indicate that 6-7, 235-pound inside presence Darius Conley, forced to sit out his freshman season to work on his academics, could be a valuable contributor. Conley is strong inside, a trait the Peacocks need. The early reviews are that he can defend, rebound and score in the paint. If his preseason work continues into the season, then he's the additional piece that can help this team make a significant improvement this season.

And, then, there's Jeron Belin, a talented transfer from Monroe Community College who is still adjusting to the Division I level of play. If Belin eventually contributes, he's another piece to this puzzle.

Bottom line is this: Saint Peter's was going to be solid merely through the presence of the Big Three. If Conley solidifies the inside game, then the Peacocks will be better than that. And, if Belin contributes, too, then Saint Peter's is better yet.

This blogger thinks Saint Peter's is the fourth-best team in the league and the team most likely to challenge the Siena/Niagara/Rider upper group.


Questions: Can the Golden Griffins escape the lower half of the league standings, and how does that happen?

First answer: It's a possibility. The Griffs haven't had a winning season since 2000-01. Last year's record was 11-20, but that was progression from a 6-25 finish the previous season.

Another five-game improvement isn't an unrealistic goal for a team that returns every player of significance, as well as adds depth with some solid freshmen.

So, how does Canisius elevate its position in the conference standings?

It starts by taking better care of the ball. Senior point guard Frank Turner is one of the most-talented players in the MAAC. But the one knock is that he turns it over too often. Good point guards have twice as many assists as turnovers. Turner, though, had more turnovers (126) than assists last season (124).

It's a good sign that Turner and Rishawn Johnson combined for 10 assists and just two turnovers in a recent scrimmage with Binghamton. The fact that Canisius is, finally, a veteran team after struggling through the woes of youth in recent years, won't hurt either. Veteran teams traditionally have success in this conference. Canisius is a veteran team. It might not have the talent level of Siena, Niagara and Rider, but there is some talent in place. That, plus having an experienced group should ensure Canisius will flirt with a .500 record, and maybe be a little better than that.


Questions: How competitive will the Jaspers be this season, and who replaces Chris Smith, who transferred to Louisville?

Manhattan will be competitive, but probably won't creep into the top five. The talent level seems about the same as a year ago when the Jaspers finished 16-14 overall and 9-9 in the league, including a victory over Rider.

But, there just isn't enough in place to expect any significant improvement this year.

This blogger doesn't think the team will miss Smith, not with newcomer Rico Pickett coming aboard. Pickett, a 6-4 junior guard, started 20 of 29 games as a freshman at Alabama before leaving there to attend Miami Dade Community College last season (17.3 points, 4.6 rebounds).

He has looked very good in preseason, according to sources, and had a 22-point, 7-assist, 7-rebound performance in Manhattan's exhibition game against Kean University. He could easily wind up being one of the conference's better guards.


Questions: Will the parts fit, and is this truly a ninth-place team?

Iona was picked to finish ninth in the coaches' voting for their preseason poll. There's talent here. If the Gaels finish ninth, this might be the most-talented ninth-place team in many seasons. This blogger's strong guess is that Iona will finish higher than ninth.

How much higher? That depends on how everything fits into place. There is more transition here in terms of personnel than, maybe, any other conference program.

There are six freshmen on the roster, four true first-year players and two red-shirts. Add to that a 7-footer in Jonathan Huffman, who has lived on the perimeter in the past; and 6-8 power forward Alejo Rodriguez who missed the 2007-08 season with a back injury and wasn't anywhere near 100 percent last season.

So, in addition to the influx of new players, Huffman is trying to develop a better inside game (he reportedly gained 20 pounds in the off-season), and Rodriguez is trying to return to the form he flashed as a freshman in the 2006-07 season.

It will likely take a little time for all that to fall into place this season. Iona might not be a ninth-place team, but it probably won't finish too much higher than that.


Questions: Can it escape the cellar, and how good are the newcomers?

The answer to the second question will determine the answer to the first.

If the newcomers are good, then Marist will escape the bottom of the conference. The guess here, though, is that Marist will struggle to do that this season.

There are just two many variables ... six freshmen, two transfers who haven't played before. It doesn't add up to conference success.

Still, it does bode well for the program's future. What Marist needs is a year's experience for players to develop and blend together. Some of the newcomers should be very good. The best of those might be 6-3 guard Sam Prescott and 6-1 point guard Devin Price.

Other potential impact "newcomers" are 6-10, 275-pound center Casiem Drummond, a transfer from Villanova; and 6-3, 215-pound guard Daye Kaba, a transfer from Boston College.

How good are they? Drummond had some strong games at Villanova, but he also battled ankle injuries. And, he's not eligible until the second semester.

Kaba only played nine games at BC as a freshman and, then, seven games for a total of 17 minutes as a sophomore before leaving that program. A native of France, he is already 23 years old.

Bottom line here is that Marist will indeed vault out of the MAAC celler ... but, probably not this season.

Niagara Hoops Fortunate to Have Mihalich

Quick Quiz: What milestone does Niagara coach Joe Mihalich share with just five other college coaches?

The other five are Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Phil Martelli (St. Joseph's), Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Rick Stansbury (Mississippi State).

Anser: Those six are the only active college basketball coaches with at least 200 victories and a .600 winning percentage at one school.

Mihalich has 205 victories over 11 seasons with the Purple Eagles and a .608 winning percentage (a 205-132 record).

Mihalich, too, holds another milestone. No other coach in the history of the MAAC has been at the same school for so long. Mihalich is now entering his 12th season at the conference's northern-most outpost. Only former Marist coach Dave Magarity was at a current MAAC school longer. He was there for 18 seasons, but only the last seven of those after the Red Foxes joined the league in 1997.

So, this blog entry is meant to give a small measure of appreciation to the Philadelphia native who has not only resurrected a program that struggled for years prior to his arrival, but has taken it to new heights.

The Purple Eagles have been to four national post-season tournaments (two NCAA's, two NIT's) in the past six years, and this past season's 26-9 record accounts for the highest single-season victory total by a Niagara team since the 1921-22 season.

Mihalich has been at Niagara for so long that he professes allegiance to the Buffalo Bills rather than to any Philadelphia team, despite having spent the first 41 years of his life in the City of Brotherly Love, including 17 seasons as an assistant coach at La Salle.

And, Mihalich's tenure is likely to continue for years to come. At age 53, he's not the young, hot coach more often in demand when bigger schools come calling. He has surely had opportunities to move on in the past, but he has embraced the quality of life in the Niagara region, a nice place to raise a family, as well as the security of a good job at what has become a very good mid-major level program.

And, none of that might have occurred where it not for, hindsight will show, a decision by Siena administrators 15 years ago.

When Siena coach Mike Deane left that program in 1994 for a position at Marquette, Mihalich was on the very short list of potential replacements. If memory serves, he was one of two finalists for the position, and so sure he would get the position that he asked this blogger (then working for an upstate New York newspaper) about the quality of local school districts his children might attend.

Instead, Siena's other candidate, Bob Beyer, was picked over Mihalich.

Mihalich coached four more seasons as a La Salle assistant before getting his first opportunity as a head coach when Niagara hired him prior to the 1998-99 season.

Siena probably can't complain too much. Although Beyer proved to be a disaster as a head coach, his time there was followed by three terrific seasons under Paul Hewitt (now the head coach at Georgia Tech).

And, if history had been different, maybe current coach Fran McCaffery, who has taken the Saints to unprecedented levels of success, would never have landed at Siena.

But, no one is complaining at Niagara, either. The Purple Eagles have had Mihalich for 11 years so far and, probably, for many more to come.

For Niagara, things couldn't have worked out any better.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dolphins' Day with Upset of Syracuse

Tuesday was election night, but there was a certain college basketball coach happier about a certain result than any politician anywhere.

That would be Steve Evans, the head coach of Division II Le Moyne, a small school located in a suburb of Syracuse that exists in the considerable sporting shadow of Division I powerhouse Syracuse University.

But, for a night, Le Moyne got its moment in the sun in a preseason exhibition game with the Orangemen.

Final score: Le Moyne 82, Syracuse 79.

Those of you who don't know that by now haven't been watching ESPN, which gave the outcome prominent national mention Tuesday night.

What does all that have to do with the MAAC?

Evans was formerly an assistant coach at Siena for three seasons (1996-97, '97-98, '98-99), the last two of those under Paul Hewitt, now the head coach at Georgia Tech.

One of Evans' Le Moyne assistants, Gallagher Driscoll, served two seasons as an assistant coach at Loyola under that school's former coach Scott Hicks.

Call it just an exhibition game result, but those who follow central New York basketball know when the two programs meet it's much more than that, particularly for "little" Le Moyne.

Call it a little brother vs. big brother match-up. The big brother always wins. Although no records are kept for exhibition games, it's universally accepted that Le Moyne has never even been competitive in a number of exhibition contests against Syracuse, and has an 0-6 record in regular-season match-ups, including an 85-51 loss at the beginning of last season.

This time, though, little brother finally won.

Significance? Le Moyne is picked fourth in its own 16-member Northeast 10 Conference of Division II teams ("people don't realize how ridiculously strong the league is," said Evans). Syracuse is six seasons removed from the Division I national championship.

Here's how Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post Standard newspaper described the significance:
"Now, the LeMoyne Dolphins will the join Joe Namath’s New York Jets, Buster Douglas and Chaminade in upset lore."

In truth, the result is even more unlikely, more unexpected than any of those.

"For us to win ... it's bigger than a basketball game," said Evans. "There was no other story. It is just awesome for our school to get that kind of exposure. There's no amount of money we could spend that could bring the type of exposure this has brought to our school."

Evans said he knows the meetings with Syracuse haven't done much for his team in the past.

"We like to throw the ball inside, and they're just so big inside," said Evans.

Which means the 34-point loss in last year's meeting is the norm for the Dolphins.

"The best thing about the game every year is that we get a check (from Syracuse) for playing the game (at the Carrier Dome)," said Evans. "Every year I ask our guys if they want to play, and they do. They love it. This year I've got a team of upperclassmen who have been a lot of close games and who love to compete and know how to win."

The knew how Tuesday. The proverbial slingshots were never more accurate.

For 39 minutes and 50 seconds, Evans said, his team played as well as it ever has.

And, then, down a point and in possession, Evans called a play.

"It was a man-to-man play, and Syracuse switched to a zone," Evans said. "The play never works against a zone. What we wound up with was Chris Johnson (a sophomore guard) taking a shot from 24 feet out."

This, though, was the "Day of the Dolphin." The shot went in, giving Le Moyne an 81-79 lead with 10 seconds left. Syracuse then missed a shot to tie it, and the Dolphins added a free throw for the final score.

Evans' phone has been ringing off the hook ever since. Among those he has taken have come from mentors, including USC coach Kevin O'Neill (Evans was an assistant under O'Neill at Northwestern before coming to Siena), Jacksonville coach Cliff Warren, an assistant with Evans on Hewitt's staff at Siena; and, of course, Hewitt.

"I was told that Hewitt was at someone's house when the result was reported on ESPN, and he started telling people `Look at what my boy just did.' " said Evans. "And, then, he called me a little later, too."

Evans said there's almost nothing he can do to prepare his team for Syracuse.

"We really did almost nothing this time, except show our kids just one clip from last year's game," said Evans. "There was a play where (former Syracuse guard) Johnny Flynn drew a charge and went to the floor. Then, two of our guys reached down to help him up.

"I showed that clip, and said if anyone knocked down a Syracuse player and, then, helped him up this time that I'd pull their scholarships. You can't go into the Dome taking their pictures on your cell phones and, then, expect to do well against them."

But a level of respect in the other direction, where there was next to none before, surely exists now.

"Maybe we'll tell them (Syracuse) that they have to come to our place if they want to play us next year," said Evans, flashing his good sense of humor. "I'll make it a `guarantee game' for them. This time, we'll write them the check to come play us."

The game, Evans said, always gets Le Moyne's name out in the local media., but not necessarily in a positive sense.

"We played in our league's championship game last season, but no one interviewed me before the game," said Evans. "But, the day before this year's exhibition with Syracuse, there's a cartoon of a Syracuse player about to take a bite out of a hot dog roll with a Dolphin in it."

Finally, the publicity carries brings something considerably more positive for Evans' program.

The on-court ramifications? Who knows for sure.

"In terms of our regular season, we've done nothing in our minds," said Evans. "But, we've got a great memory."