Saturday, October 28, 2006

Searching for Damon Bailey

When Sport Illustrated presented a spread that highlighted the top senior high school basketball player in the country all the way down to the top sixth grader, the college basketball recruiting landscape was in the middle of yet another shift.
Alonzo Mourning was on that list. So was Kenny Anderson. He was smiling. He was so small. Then he married a girl from “The Real World.” I digress.
The sport has remained a cyclical business; always evolving, always surprising some people on the periphery. It has happened again.
Nine high school sophomores have given oral commitments to colleges, including Alex Oriakhi and Jamal Coombs of the Winchendon School in Massachusetts. They plan to attend UConn in three seasons. This isn’t the first time this has happened. But the trend has accelerated and the Huskies have adapted.
In Sunday’s Register, we’ll look at how UConn deals with some aspects of recruiting. There is a method, but not an exact science. The game has changed. So has recruiting.
A new cycle exists and the UConn staff understands that. That’s why most outsiders believe the Huskies have excelled on the national level.
There are highs and lows and both rescinded and received commitments. There are rules. There are APRs. There is the NBA. It’s a precarious and changing business. What happens this year may change next, and then the same the year after that.
It’s complex.
There will be a few more early commitments from sophomores this year. Nothing is in writing. They just gave a school their word. They have to wait until signing day, November 2008, to make it official.
The most-intriguing story happened years ago in a basketball-crazy state. Damon Bailey became Indiana’s all-time leading scorer and the state’s Mr. Basketball his senior year. He had a short CBA career and never really reached the expectation level that was placed on him. He was a third-team All-American his senior year. He had a good college career, but not an outstanding one. Players like Bailey are almost now obsolete.
But a town and a state and a program had such high hopes for Bailey, even when he was younger.
He gave Indiana and Bob Knight his word.
Bailey orally committed to the school as an eighth-grader.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Thabeet's clearing, Other Big East notes

After he commended NCAA President Myles Brand and college athletics' governing body on its patient evaluation of each Clearinghouse case, Jim Calhoun turned his thoughts to a few anonymous Big East coaches who said in national stories that they thought Hasheem Thabeet's transcripts would eventually become an eligibility concern.
Those comments raised a few concerns on the other end, Calhoun said, causing further investigation into Thabeet’s case. Few names are attached to those comments now that the 7-foot-3 center from Tanzania is eligible.
Louisville and Cincinnati recruited Thabeet. Texas A&M and Georgia Tech were also on that list. UConn plays Louisville (twice) and Georgia Tech this season.
At Wednesday’s media day, Louisville coach Rick Pitino praised both Thabeet and the UConn program and took the extra step to applaud Calhoun as a top recruiter. Calls to Texas A&M, Georgia Tech and Cincinnati on Thursday were not immediately returned.
But when reached by phone in his office, Louisville assistant Marvin Menzies said the school did not stop recruiting Thabeet because the Cardinals' coaching staff had transcript concerns.
“If we thought he wouldn’t be eligible,” Menzies said, “we wouldn’t have brought him on campus for an official visit.”
Now, Cincinnati does have one foreign-born player on its roster. Adam Hrycaniuk is a 6-10 forward from Poland. Louisville has Juan Palacios, a preseason All-Big East selection who was born in Colombia but played three seasons at Our Savior Lutheran on Long Island after moving to New York in 2001. And Georgia Tech has sophomore forward Paco Diaw and Mouhammad Faye.
Both are from Senegal, but Faye ran into a transcript problem similar to Thabeet’s. He sat out the fall semester last season because of a delay in the translation of his academic transcripts. He was eligible for the spring.
The eligibility question will come up again at least three times this season.
The answer will probably be the same each time.

Once he is eligible to play, Louisville freshman forward Derrick Caracter will have an immediate impact for the Cardinals.
This is the problem. Caracter was suspended three games by the NCAA for accepting cash from a family friend who has ties to a sports agency. When asked about Caracter, Pitino knew his player was in the wrong.
“Derrick is a great kid, an absolute pleasure to be around. He’s going to be pretty good,” Pitino said. “But he’s got a problem. He doesn’t know how to say ‘no.’ People have said ‘yes’ to him his entire life. He has to learn how to say ‘no.’ A lot of kids like him are out there. He’ll learn.”

Georgetown forward Jeff Green, also a preseason all-Big East selection, started listing the toughest places to play in the Big East.
He then gave the short answer: Gampel.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Observations from Media Day

UConn’s most pressing question was answered before Big East media day at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
The NCAA granted 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet his eligibility after his transcripts from Tanzania qualified him for the Clearinghouse.
Yes, UConn is a much different team without Thabeet, as Jim Calhoun noted.
And the Huskies are much different with him.
The center, who has played just four years of basketball, is still learning but can already change a team’s complexion as well as the flow of a game.
That is, the coaching staff believes so.
“Remember, the last game he played was at Cypress Christian Community School,” Calhoun said. “I know what he can do at practice because I see it. That’s all we know right now. Cypress. Christian. School. When the season starts, that will change. We’ll see how he adapts. I do have full faith in him that he will.”
A little bit of a cautious optimist. Granted, Thabeet has yet to play one minute in a UConn uniform. He runs well, has good hands and has developed a few post moves.
And he is 7-foot-3.
I asked Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert, who is one of the most improved big men in the country, when and how he started turning things around.
He said the summer after his freshman year. Because he wanted to.
Now, early prognostication says Thabeet may be one-and-done and off to the NBA. There are still more than 30 games to be played and Thabeet’s development is just as crucial as UConn’s. So Calhoun has reason to be a cautious optimist.
There is something personal at stake, as well as something collective.
We’ll find out beginning Nov. 1 at Gampel Pavilion.

- There are three first-year coaches in the Big East; Mick Cronin of Cincinnati, Bobby Gonzalez of Seton Hall and Rutgers’ Fred Hill. Both Gonzalez and Hill will change college basketball in Jersey within the next five years.
Give it time.
Cronin, though, has taken an interesting path.
He is only 35, while completing his undergraduate work at Cincinnati, he coached the junior varsity at Woodward High School in the city. Then he was the video coordinator for the Bearcats in 1997, an assistant for three years after that, then jumped to Murray State, where he was Ohio Valley coach of the year last season.
Quick work. He is a coach’s kid.
Enough said.
Still, he has work to do, as do all three new coaches.
Cincinnati, Rutgers, Seton Hall were picked 13, 14, and 15, respectively.

- Best shoes: Villanova coach Jay Wright.
- Best suit: Villanova coach Jay Wright.
- Worst accessorizing: Villanova coach Jay Wright. Nice to see a coach take pride in his appearance, but Wright sported an NCAA-issued watch with a suit that screamed Rolex. He also received a salary increase last season.

- This wasn’t Rick Pitino’s first rodeo. Eye contact with each interviewer. Elaborate on every thought. Complete answer. Fills up your notebook.

- Tom Crean is one of the hardest-working men in college basketball. The Marquette coach rarely blinks during interviews. Must have been a reason why he sat really close to guard Dominic James on the dais. It appears the man runs a tight ship.

- St. John's Norm Roberts was repeatedly asked how difficult it is to rebuild a program. Give him some credit, though, and a little more time. He was handed a decimated program with a declining public image that once started a handful of walk-ons a few years back after a deplorable strip-club incident. Mike Jarvis did not leave him much but you wonder if it does happen, how many times will he be asked what it took to rebuild.
It’s happening right now.
But it's a question he may not be able to shake.

Preseason UConn rankings from a few publications and a commentator and a web site:
Athlon Sports: 14
Blue Ribbon: 10
Dick Vitale: 15 16
Lindy’s: none
Sporting News: none
Street & Smith’s: none
Basketball Times: 7

Looking for a scientific method for that one.

- This is the last season Big East teams will play under the current scheduling format. Each Big East team will play every school in the conference beginning next season.
- Once again, the Big East Tournament will only invite the top 12 teams to the Garden party in March, omitting the bottom four teams in the conference. This bothered Calhoun a bit while discussing the topic at media day. “Shouldn’t every kid get a chance to play at the Garden?” He asked. “If I were a kid playing in the Big East, I would love to play there at least once. Some of these kids won’t even get the chance.”
- The Big East final is scheduled for March 10.

More observations tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Some recruiting news

Anthony McClain, the 7-foot high school senior from Washington D.C., will make an unofficial visit to the University of Connecticut on Nov. 10 for the Huskies’ season opener against Quinnipiac.

McClain is the only high school senior UConn is heavily recruiting for next year. He would likely fill the void left by current freshman Hasheem Thabeet if the center leaves for the NBA after this season.

Thabeet’s eligibility is still in question as the school awaits word from the NCAA concerning his high school transcripts for the Clearinghouse. Meantime, McClain, who was tentatively scheduled to make an unofficial visit toward the end of this month, plans to attend the opener at Gampel Pavilion.

Rated as one of the top 10 centers nationally by various recruiting services, McClain is a wiry 230-pound shot blocker currently playing for Fort Washington (Md.) National Christian Academy. He averaged a double-double for National Christian last season with 12 points and 12 rebounds.

Georgetown, Maryland and Pittsburgh are also recruiting McClain. All three teams have interior players who will graduate or may leave early for the NBA, including Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert, the 7-foot-2 junior center, who was a second team All-Big East selection last season.

Defensive trends, media day eve

Today, we’ll look at some of UConn's favorite defensive numbers.

Tomorrow, I’ll share pearls of wisdom from Big East media day at Madison Square Garden.

First, some odds.

Early odds on Baba Booey showing up at the Garden: 100-1
Early odds West Virginia coach John Beilein will be asked about life after Pittsnogle: 2-1
Early odds Villanova coach Jay Wright will be asked about how he’s adapting without Ray-Foye, who have now become one person: 2-1
Early odds Jim Calhoun will be asked how eight freshmen are adapting to college basketball: 2-1
Early odds A.J. Price will be asked about legal/health matters: 2-1
Early odds that the smallest media pack will be centered around South Florida: 1-1
Early odds that I will have a good time smelling a mix of perfume and Old Spice during rush hour on the MetroNorth in the morning: off the board

I love trains.

Media days are always interesting. Coaches abhor them. Some players love them. Some players are nervous and give the standard, “I think we’re going to surprise some people.”

Look for some deeper insight, though, later Wednesday night.

Until then, let’s look at some defensive numbers.

For the past five seasons, UConn has led the country in blocked shots. If Hasheem Thabeet is ruled ineligible, that streak could be broken. With Thabeet, it’s feasible. Of course, everyone who added to that number last year for UConn is gone, expect Jeff Adrien. It will be interesting to see how certain freshmen react to the coaching staff when they are asked for more defensive productivity. In early practices, Jonathan Mandeldove and Gavin Edwards look like they can add to this number, as well as Curtis Kelly. From there, it could get interesting. Maybe Stanley Robinson can add to the mix. Interestingly, Syracuse, Cincinnati and South Florida (South Florida?) were the only other Big East teams to finish in the top 20 in this category. Six teams finished .500 or below but only three earned at least 30 wins.

Texas will probably stay close to the top with the addition of Kevin Durant, an early candidate for national freshman of the year. Rick Barnes brought him to Big 12 media day, saying that the freshman is that polished. Based on defensive philosophy alone, UConn will probably break the top 20, but how close to the top will they finish? Seventeen teams in the top 20 finished with winning records. Fifteen won at least 20 games. Yes, defensive margin does make a huge difference.

A UConn staple, the Huskies have finished in the top 15 in nine of the past 11 seasons in this category. It’s amazing how some teams finish with sub-.500 records in this category. It means A) your offense needs a serious upgrade, or B) you have drained all your resources on defense (see La.-Lafayette at No. 8 or St. John’s at No. 16). Based on defensive philosophy, UConn should once again finish in the top 15, only if a few things happen. Calhoun has mentioned that Jerome Dyson is one of the better perimeter defenders to come through the program in a long time (he has mentioned Chris Smith in the same sentence. It’s still early.). Interior defense shouldn’t be a problem. Perimeter may be a question mark. We’ll see.

Georgetown is the only Big East team to crack the top 20 in this category. Princeton is No. 2. The Tigers haven’t moved from that spot in a long time. UCLA, if you remember its Elite Eight performance, fits well at No. 10. Seven sub-.500 teams. Even though UConn finished in the top 20 nationally in point differential (No. 4), the Huskies won’t show up in this category unless they want to sacrifice percentages for wins. With too much offensive potential, players will be expected to work both ends of the court.

Some of those players have found out the hard way at practice so far.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Other new faces

Let's start the week off with an early season look at freshman classes around the Big East.

Much has been made of UConn’s young group heading into the season. A few talented guards. A looming eligibility question. An athletic wing player who is pushing for a starting job.

But there are others to note across the Big East. Bobby Gonzalez worked his New York City connections for Seton Hall during the late signing period. Louisville continues to build under Rick Pitino. St. John’s draws a recognizable name. Georgetown, Pitt Villanova and Marquette add a few big names, at least, for one year.

Here is a look at conference freshmen along with a few small quirks. The Big East coaches will pare this list down during Wednesday’s media day, placing instant expectations on a few.

Like UConn, West Virginia welcomes in eight freshmen, none of which are named Pittsnogle. The most notable regional connection is guard Joe Mazulla from Rhode Island. Expect the Moutaineers’ Big East opener at home against UConn to be sloppy but perhaps entertaining. Probably a good way to ease into the Big East schedule for the Huskies.

It’s still tough to watch a Cincinnati game without Bob Huggins on the sideline. When you turned on the television you knew what would happen over the next two hours; some tense moments, caustic sideline bursts, 57 headbands, a million close-ups of Huggins. That is slowly changing, but the Bearcats have added Deonta Vaughn, the only freshman on the roster. He was a two-time all-Indiana selection at a school called Harmony and played for ex-Bearcat Rodney Crawford. Also plans to major in criminal justice and enjoyed community service. Looks like the Cincinnati p.r. department is trying to bolster the program’s overall image. Much is expected of Vaughn, one of the more talented freshman guards in the class.

Still trying to figure out where DePaul belongs in the Big East. Once again, old images of a coach appear in Joey Meyer, who later surfaced in the NBDL. The NBDL? Still, guard play has always been noted at the school. Will Walker, a high-rated point guard in this year’s national class, will earn minutes behind or along with Jabari Currie, a name you will probably hear more than once this year.

Nice pick-up with Vernon Macklin, a McDonald’s All-American from Hargrave Military, where he teamed with UConn freshman Jonathan Mandeldove. Macklin will probably make the list Wednesday and adds depth to the Hoyas’ already strong frontcourt. Also, Georgetown brings in perhaps Baltimore’s top schoolboy talent in DaJuan Summers, and John Thompson III throws in a nod to Celtics’ coach Doc Rivers by bringing in his kid, Jeremiah.

Louisville pieced together one of the more complete freshman classes in the Big East, including Derrick Caracter, who was suspended two weeks ago. More on him in a minute. But it’s also difficult to overlook Wisconsin player of the year Jerry Smith, a versatile guard, Curtis Kelly’s teammate at Rice, Edgar Sosa, and McDonald’s All-American Earl Clark. Throw in walk-on Stuart Miller, an equine major (Smart kid. Kentucky. See him at Saratoga in a few years). But let’s get back to Caracter and his bio, written by Caracter along with some help from the school’s sports communications department. We find out that he likes to camp and has an uncle Rust and some people may not know that he likes to read, always nice to see. But we also find out that his bed is always made and his room smells nice. The bio just adds to a recipe for disaster.

Meet Syracuse’s Paul Harris.
Talented. Had a few problems when he was younger. The incident involving his girlfriend in 2004 included a toaster, according to the police report. Telling year both talent-wise and character-wise. Leading candidate for Big East top rookie honors.

Lazar Haywood will probably become the most recognizable name to come out of Marquette since Dwyane Wade. Most have similar aspirations for Haywood. Name will be on the coaches’ list.

Brady Quinn could fit right into this lineup. At Notre Dame, all five freshmen either look like Troy Murphy, are built like Troy Murphy or play like Troy Murphy. Probably the most nondescript roster you’ll find in the Big East, with the exception of guard Colin Falls.

Never mind that Pitt may claim the Big East title or will be favored to win it Wednesday, the Panthers have solidified some success with Austin Wallace and Gilbert Brown. No, this Gilbert Brown, the South Kent Prep and McDonald’s nominee. Wallace and Brown can have influential seasons this winter, if not, definitely next.

Rutgers’ freshman Hamady N’Diaye. The forward from Senegal attended Stoneridge Prep in California, one of the more-scrutinized prep schools in the country because of its suspect academic standards for basketball players. Rutgers does not even list a bio for N’Diaye.

When Bobby Gonzalez was hired late by Seton Hall, he knew he had to work quickly in order to piece together a decent freshman class. He did with three quality NYC-area players, including Kashif Pratt, another Rice product. Gonzalez also has Geoff Billet, the former Rutgers guard, on his staff. He could play a role on the bench like Mike Hopkins at Syracuse and his Jersey bloodlines will help the program the next few years in recruiting.

The rebuilding continues at St. John’s, and hopefully Norm Roberts will keep a pretty solid freshman class intact for a few years, led by Rob Thomas. No, this Rob Thomas, another South Kent standout. By February, he may become one of the top young Big East players.

13) OUCH
South Florida still trying to build. Trying. Trying. Providence? At a loss here.

At Hofstra, Jay Wright had good hair and better shoes even when they were well-traveled. Wright continues to make a name for himself as a tireless recruiter and one of the best young coaches in America, even though it feels like he’s been around forever. Along with UConn, Pitt and Georgetown, Villanova picks up Reggie Redding and Antonio Pena, both of whom will play immediately, and Scotty Reynolds, an outside candidate for top rookie honors.

By the way, I could be wrong. Troy Murphy turned out to be a pretty decent find in South Bend.