Friday, October 20, 2006

Commuter schools and random thoughts

In the current college basketball climate, it’s interesting to watch how a euphoric three weeks can change a program, and in many ways, a school.

After George Mason upset UConn in the Elite Eight last season, the school received national exposure, became the so-called “media darling” (awful term), and head coach Jim Larranaga probably secured recruiting classes for at least the next three seasons.

Actually, it has happened this year. Check out the team’s season outlook.

The Patriots solidified commitments from a few junior college transfers, a declining trend with major programs which now opt for mostly prep school talent. Obviously, mid-major programs will take JUCO transfers. Are those players less refined than prep school athletes now? Topic for future discussion.

Basketball here, not academics. At least, not yet. Also a topic for future discussion.

Truth is, George Mason is one of the preseason favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association, even after losing three leading scorers to graduation. The Virginia-based commuter school and Larranaga are building a quality basketball program. The school is also increasing its enrollment numbers by 4 percent each year as part of a school-wide initiative. Even though this year’s enrollment numbers will not be released for a month or so, it will be interesting to see if those numbers exceed the average 4 percent increase because of George Mason’s run last March.

Interesting plan for a commuter school that's working.

Also, George Mason will play three nationally televised games this season and maybe a fourth with a few scheduling changes.

Finally, Larranaga was recently inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. Check out the list of inductees. Perhaps a little bit of six degrees of UConn, including Tom Penders.


Just like every year, Syracuse has secured a number of nationally televised games.
You’ll be able to see one-third of Syracuse’s schedule this season, including both dates with UConn. (Monday, Feb. 5, ESPN, and Saturday, Feb. 17, ABC).
The Huskies have 13 nationally televised dates.

Also, I like some early season Jim Boeheim training tactics. He brought the Orange up to Fort Drum in upstate New York (yes, further north than Syracuse).

But it was only for one day. Try that for a week. In the snow. In January.


Jim Calhoun did not mince words when he spoke after his team's 10-minute scrimmage at Men’s Basketball Madness. His reaction on the UConn bench during the festivities perhaps spoke volumes of his overall impression of the night.

Here’s an idea, though. Yes, Midnight Madness events are a nice opening to the season for fans. But maybe after a few weeks of practice (maybe a scrimmage when players are conditioned and a little more in tune with what the coaching staff is trying to do) UConn can try what Pitt has done the last three years.

Of course, any opportunity for an unnecessary injury or an unnecessary showcase is usually frowned upon. Again, just a nice alternative.


Always searching to say a good thing or two about New Jersey.

Finished reading “The Miracle of St. Anthony” this summer, a detailed account of the Jersey City school coached by Bob Hurley Sr. Good read if you get the time.

But that’s northern Jersey. Not sure if that counts. If you can still see Manhattan from your doorstep, your Jersey qualifications are in question.

But head downstate to Rutgers, the most popular commuter school in the country that, much like the rest of the state, is trying to reshape its public and political image. It has in some ways. I like the football turnaround. I also liked Quincy Douby’s basketball philosophy on the court last season.

Still, it’s always a toss up with Rutgers in the Big East every year.

This season is no different.

The Scarlet Knights had the most unbalanced scoring output last season of any Big East school. After Douby’s 25 points per game, no other Rutgers' player averaged double figures.

They finished 19-14 and have lost Douby to the NBA, but they return some talent. Where do they finish? We'll find out beginning next week at Big East media day at the Garden.

Final thought of the day and week. I came across this site about noted Rutgers’ alumni.

Of course, James Gandolfini of “Sopranos” fame wore tassels there after four years. But the list runs deeper. There are “Real World” contestants, a few rappers, a few NFL players and Kristin Davis from “Sex and the City.”

So apparently, if you want to star in a cable television show or play on special teams in the NFL, Rutgers is the way to go.

And if you’re really ambitious, you can be commissioner of the NBA.

See you next week.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

"Fresh" thoughts

Looking into the case of Johnson v. Robinson, c. 2006

Just five days into practice, every single player on the UConn roster remains confident (along with every student in Gampel Pavilion who practices with the scholarship players. Some days, you can find more players in Gampel than you can outside at Randy Edsall’s football practice. After this week, that will change. Just the coaching cliche of needing bodies.).

Obviously, the most intriguing competition has been between sophomore Marcus Johnson and freshman Stanley Robinson, which I wrote about in today’s Register. Both are confident. Both are talented. And most likely, only one will earn significant minutes this year and take on the spot vacated by Rudy Gay. Or, as I pointed out, they can play on either wing and pose some match-up problems with certain Big East teams.

That’s a big bonus when you bring in eight freshmen. All can play. Certain players fit certain situations better. And we will see a lot of this.

On a few conditions.

Johnson spoke about how he left to return home to Los Angeles in May and the UConn coaching staff told him to return to Storrs with some confidence. As I wrote about last week, Johnson played well during the Huskies’ non-conference portion of their schedule. Then they traveled to Marquette. Johnson went missing and was never heard from again the rest of the season.

Sitting after practice at Gampel on Wednesday, Johnson sounded very confident when speaking about his role on this team. Yes, UConn has only practiced five days. Yes, even as Johnson pointed out, he does have one year of experience on three-quarters of this team.

And yes, this is the first week of practice. The Huskies first exhibition is only 11 days away but their first big game is still almost three weeks away. Jim Calhoun has given the team today off, but when they return, expect much of the same for the next week.

Then there is Robinson.

No, not this Stanley Robinson.

This Stanley Robinson.

Why shouldn’t he be confident? Alabama Mr. Basketball. A member of the U.S. U18 team. A 2,000-point scorer in high school. He accepts the competition. According to Calhoun, when the staff took Johnson off Robinson in practice the last few days, Robinson had his way offensively. Once again, it is only the first week of practice, but Robinson seems to be the type of player who will only improve and perhaps flourish in this system. Johnson has the same potential.

The last thing Robinson said Wednesday after practice was this.

“I was recruited to replace Rudy Gay. That’s what I want to do.”

Right now, it’s the most interesting aspect of practice, aside from Hasheem Thabeet’s eligibility question, Jeff Adrien’s relentless physical presence, and Doug Wiggins’ “Fresh” tattoo on his right arm.

I told Wiggins that he wasn’t even alive when Doug E. Fresh became big. He laughed but then I checked Wiggins’ bio and his middle name is Edwards, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Keep Risin' to the Top.

I digress.

Let’s look at a few possible lineups if Robinson and Johnson are in the mix.

Go Big: Thabeet (if eligible), Adrien, Robinson, Johnson, Price (or any other guard here)
Go Small: Adrien, Price, Austrie, Wiggins, Dyson (a la Villanova from a year ago. This may happen against Marquette, which buys into the small-lineup theory.)
Go regular: Thabeet or Kelly, Adrien, Johnson or Robinson, Price or Wiggins or Austrie or Dyson.

OK, I’ll save myself and everyone some time here and point out that there are 169 lineup combinations Calhoun can use this season (note: Adrien will probably appear in almost all those combinations so that number may shrink.).

Within the first three weeks, you could see at least half of those. By December, maybe all of those.

But by Dec. 30, UConn’s first Big East game at West Virginia, that number will shrink.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Individuality concern

A concern during the first few days of UConn’s season has been the reliance on individuality, a common practice that is caused by 1) NBA influence, or 2) a summer filled with showcase tournaments, or 3) a little bit of both.

Obviously, this won’t fly in any college program. And yes, that will have to wait for David Stern’s league. Three weeks are needed to break these perceived bad habits. We’ll wait and see if that happens.

In the meantime, let’s look at point distribution compared with assists during the past decade (note: I have focused on the past decade for a few reasons. Success. Overall change of basketball culture. And personnel, which was much different 10 years ago).

Players averaging more than 5 ppg.
2005-06 - 6
2004-05 - 6
2003-04 - 7
2002-03 - 6
2001-02 - 6
2000-01 - 6
1999-00 - 6
1998-99 - 7
1997-98 - 6
1996-97 – 6

Players averaging more than 2 apg.
2005-06 - 2
2004-05 - 2
2003-04 - 3
2002-03 - 2
2001-02 - 3
2000-01 - 2
1999-00 - 2
1998-99 - 3
1997-98 - 3
1996-97 - 2

Simple math. Simple chart. Most productive years: 1999 and 2004. National championship seasons.

Now, most college teams will normally have at least five players averaging more than five points per game. At least four starters, even on mediocre teams, will put up those numbers. But to have that one extra unselfish player.

Think basic: two or three baskets over two halves. Not that difficult unless you play every night against elements of the flex or as some refer to it as, the Princeton offense.

This always bothers me a bit because most teams do not run the true Princeton offense, per se, they run elements of it, mostly the flex.

Hall of Famer Pete Carril is considered the godfather of this concept, and rightfully so, but his system used so many other elements. So fluid. So complex. Yet so easy at times. But when fans now see a backdoor layup, they think Carril and Princeton invented the concept.

There is one reason why this misconception has now become fact to too many fans: the 1996 NCAA Tournament when the Tigers upset then-defending-champion UCLA.

The power of look-in games during the NCAA Tournament.

I digress.

But since most UConn teams owned a somewhat deep bench, the Huskies consistently place six players in this category every year.

Here’s the problem. Two assists per game is not difficult when you’re a point guard, or even a perimeter player. A third option changes everything.

In 1999, Khalid El-Amin and Ricky Moore both averaged well over two assists per game while the missing component was Richard Hamilton, who averaged close to three. That means one extra pass a game led to two or three more points.

In 2004, Ben Gordon and Taliek Brown each did their job from the backcourt while Marcus Williams came off the bench for a spell, even though it was only for 16 games because of academic problems. Still, it evens out but with three true guards.

In 2001-02, Caron Butler, along with Gordon and Brown, added a third dimension to the ever-important distribution list. But where Butler thrived, UConn struggled, going maybe six players deep. Also, Maryland was not too shabby in the NCAA Tournament if I remember correctly. An Elite Eight appearance is more than a foonote for UConn.

In 1997-98, the same applies with El-Amin, Moore and Hamilton. Elite Eight loss to North Carolina. And in that game, Monquencio Hardnett had four assists. Hamilton had three. The rest of the team had four.

With this idea, the final stats are Two Elite Eight finishes along with two national titles.

Now, take this year’s team. Jim Calhoun can play five guards, all of whom have enough point-guard savvy in them. On the wing, Stanley Robinson or Marcus Johnson have the ability to create, but will they be unselfish?

This leaves the interior. Hasheem Thabeet, if eligible, does not own this offensive attribute. It’s not his style. Jeff Adrien does have this ability, but his focus has always been straight ahead on the boards. He is needed there.

Watch Curtis Kelly, though. Assistant coach George Blaney said a few weeks ago that Kelly possesses some of the same qualities as Charlie Villanueva from a few years back. In his only season, Villanueva averaged 1.3 assists but also led the team in scoring and averaged 8.3 rpg, just .1 off of team-leader Josh Boone in that category.

The point Blaney was trying to make is that the interior court-sense is there. At times, Kelly has been caught employing his New York style while players tend to stand and watch.

He is capable of becoming this balance. Will he be the needed piece? And will unselfishness become the norm instead of the exception?

Find out in a few weeks.

Clarification: In my A.J. Price story on Sunday, I wrote that Price was a McDonald's All-American his senior season. He was not. He was only a consideration before his high school senior season began.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Random Big East thoughts and links

A little break from UConn numbers and news in order to focus on the Big East and a disturbing artifact I came across.

Some UConn numbers will follow later tonight.


UConn will adjust with nine first-year players in the program.

Villanova is in a similar situation with five, including Antonio Pena.

Pena played with Sebastian Telfair at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn then prepped at St. Thomas More. That meant Sports Illustrated covers, a documentary “Through The Fire” which isn’t worth linking, and the adulation of every major program in the country.

All for Telfair.

Pena has entered a pretty good situation at Villanova. At 6-foot-7, he is physical and athletic and fits right into Jay Wright’s system. As a high school sophomore, he led Lincoln to the New York State Federation title after Telfair fouled out. Telfair was given the MVP trophy then passed it off to Pena.

Some people were shocked, including Pena, who has been asked a million times what it was like to play with Telfair. He answered the question as a sophomore. I’m sure he will be asked it again this year and probably when he’s 60.

This story pretty much sums up Pena’s career. Note when he’s first mentioned. This will not happen in Philadelphia.

He was rarely asked what it was like to play with Nyan Boateng, now a wide receiver at Florida. Boateng was one of the most versatile athletes to come out of the city a few years ago.

Nothing on Boateng’s profile about playing with Telfair.

Even though Villanova doesn’t play UConn until Feb. 28, watch Pena’s progress.


Members of the next wave of marquee Big East coaches have started to establish themselves over the past few years. John Thompson III has earned a few accolades. So has Tom Crean at Marquette.

Crean has a job for the next decade in Milwaukee. He penned a contract four weeks ago that takes him through the 2016-2017 season. With his much-publicized workman-like approach, Crean has earned a measure of respect throughout the country.

He is also only 40 years old.

When Marquette travels to Storrs on Jan. 10, last year’s victory over the Huskies in the Big East opener will no longer be fresh. No more Steve Novak.

But the Golden Eagles do have Dominic James.

James, the Big East Rookie of the Year, is now mentioned as one of the top guards in the country.

With an emphasis on guard play this season, the Golden Eagles may look similar to Villanova from a year ago.


Syracuse, UConn, Georgetown and perhaps St. John’s all have been mentioned in various publications as teams which will have an impact in the Big East, but it’s been some time since Providence received a nod.

The Friars do not appear on anyone’s radar this season.

Yes, they have a quality guard in Sharaud Curry, who was a Big East All-Rookie selection along with Geoff McDermott. McDermott, once a top national recruit, may turn in a headline-making performance or two this season.

But then that’s it.

As Tim Welsh enters his ninth season at the school, Providence’s prospects remain somewhat dim. Welsh, a native of Massena (N.Y.), the closest you can get to Canada without stepping into the country, has had an erratic career to date at Providence.

Eighth Year at PC: 12-15/5-11
Seventh Year at PC: 14-17/4-12
Sixth Year at PC: 20-9/11-5
Fifth Year at PC: 18-14/8-8
Fourth Year at PC: 15-16/6-10
Third Year at PC: 21-10/11-5
Second Year at PC: 11-19/4-12
First Year at PC: 16-14/9-9
Overall at PC: 127-114/58-72
Overall at Iona: 70-22
10-Year CAREER: 197-136
NCAA TOURNAMENT: 0-3 (1998, 2001, 2004)
NIT: 2-4 (1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 2002-03)
Preseason NIT: 3-1 (2004-05)

Maybe a year away?

We'll see.

By the way, this season marks the 20th anniversary of Providence’s last trip to the Final Four. Rick Pitino. Delray Brooks. Of course, Billy Donavan.

And my personal favorite, Marty Conlon.


Good friend of mine sent me this.

Yes, it is baseball related. But it also bothered me a bit so I had to share.

This could be the grossest misuse of synthesizers (actually, was there ever a good use for synthesizers?).

It’s nice to see the Detroit Tigers make the World Series. Like Providence, many fans recall the mid-80s as being a golden time in their respective teams’ history.

But this …


Is embarrassing.

It’s safe to say whoever put up the production money for THIS is no longer in the music business (note: so bad I linked it twice. Make sure to check the video as well).

I’ll return later with some UConn numbers.