Sunday, March 18, 2018

5 Thoughts: Seton Hall's season ends in valiant final battle against Kansas

Angel Delgado saved his best for last, closing his Seton Hall career with 24 points and 23 rebounds in Pirates' narrow NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas. (Photo by the Lawrence Journal-World)

Two days after Seton Hall broke a 14-year dry spell between NCAA Tournament wins, the Pirates' season came to an abrupt end, but not before its four-man senior class provided one final observation of how it will be ultimately defined.

Trailing top-seed Kansas by as many as 13 points -- and again by eight with just 80 seconds to play -- with a spot in the Midwest Regional semifinals at stake, Seton Hall (22-12) dug deep in a hostile road environment, keeping the game alive on the strength of Angel Delgado's impressive performance on the boards and Khadeen Carrington's defiant last stand over the final minutes of regulation before falling four points short Saturday night, losing to the Jayhawks in an 83-79 epic that cemented the legacy of a quartet that returns to South Orange with pride and the realization that it left the last beats of its collective heart on the floor, refusing to cede on its own volition.

As Kansas moves on to face Auburn or Clemson in Omaha next weekend, Seton Hall now begins the process of graduating the core of Carrington, Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Ismael Sanogo, and setting its sights toward what head coach Kevin Willard described as a bright future. We will do the same, offering a parting handful of takeaways -- from the home base in New York -- on the transpirings in Wichita:

1) No regrets, and a place in program history.
The late Vince Lombardi was known for several iconic philosophies during his career, which included a pair of Super Bowl victories, but none may ring more appropriate than the following:

"I firmly believe that any man's finest hour is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle -- victorious."
And so it is for Seton Hall and its seniors.

"I felt like my guys -- from the starting five to everybody on the bench -- gave their all," Sanogo, who was held scoreless after posting a double-double and serving as perhaps the most valuable player in Thursday's win over North Carolina State, reflected. "I couldn't ask for more than that."

"I think those who watched us play could say that we were tough-nosed, gritty kids," Carrington echoed after his final entry into the record books included 28 points, all but two of which coming in the second half. "We didn't take anything from anybody and we played hard, and that's what we tried to do from the time we stepped on campus. We tried to play for ourselves, for our coaches, our families, and for the name on the front of our jerseys."

As the final line of the Pirates' fight song states, fight, fight, fight, for the blue and white, and the glory of Seton Hall.

"We left everything out on the floor at every single game," Sanogo said. "And that tradition is going to carry on for the rest of Seton Hall's legacy."

2) 20/20 Vision
Delgado's 24-point, 23-rebound game was only the fifth 20-20 game in NCAA Tournament history since 1973, and first since Tyler Zeller recorded 20 points and 22 rebounds in a regional semifinal win for North Carolina against Ohio University in 2012. Even more impressive was the fact that the 23 boards were third-most in a single game in the tournament, and the first time a player amassed 20 and 20 against a No. 1 seed since Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon did it for Houston in 1983. Of the five to accomplish the feat, three -- Olajuwon, Joe Smith, and Tim Duncan -- went on to become No. 1 overall picks in the NBA Draft, which says even more about the company the 6-foot-10 potential All-America candidate has now joined after registering the 72nd double-double of his illustrious career, which could ultimately conclude with his No. 31 possibly headed to the rafters down the road.

"I thought he was obviously the best player in the game," Kansas head coach Bill Self imparted. "Carrington was pretty good, too, but he (Delgado) was a man, and we knew he was good. I think he's a terrific player. The thing that impresses me as much about him as anything (is that) he never forces it. He takes his time, and he's probably as good a passer (Delgado did have five assists) as he is a rebounder. He was great."

"Someone's going to be really happy with him next year," Willard assessed of Delgado and his professional prospects. "He's been doing that his whole career. He's just one of those guys that wins you games, and I think at the next level, that's a premium. He's not going to shoot the ball 30 times next year, but he's going to get the guy who does shoot 30 times four or five open looks, and that's something that's a premium."

3) One last charge from Mr. Clutch.
Over his four years in a Pirate uniform, it seemed as though Khadeen Carrington lived for the big stage and the big games, as the shooter-turned-point guard thrived on raising his game to another level in direct correlation to the stakes surrounding each respective contest. The first vestige of his clutch gene came in the 2016 Big East Tournament, when he -- and fellow Brooklynite Isaiah Whitehead -- launched their joint tour de force en route to the program's first conference championship in 23 years, then manifested itself on several occasions last season; particularly in his 41-point masterpiece against Creighton in a pivotal February game, and continued to reveal itself as a senior floor general. His last flurry of relentless pursuit came in the form of 13 consecutive points in just 54 seconds to rescue the Pirates from what looked like a dagger three-pointer from Svi Mykhailiuk that turned a five-point game into a more comfortable 71-63 lead for Kansas with 1:20 to play, beginning with a pair of free throws before a layup and two consecutive threes -- the latter a deep bomb that play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler remarked was hit "from Dodge City" -- brought Seton Hall within one possession. A final slashing layup followed before an off-balance three went in, but was disallowed as Myles Powell was called for a questionable illegal screen. All in all, the Bishop Loughlin product acquitted himself well over four years, especially as a senior proving critics wrong when cynicism arose over how well he would handle the change in position to point guard. He will be greatly missed, without question.

4) "I try not to think about what might have been..."
To paraphrase a 1990s country tune from Little Texas, Willard was asked by Zach Braziller of the New York Post whether he had any regrets about not doing more during the regular season to earn a lower seed, and offered a revelatory response, but not before delivering another playful zinger in the friendly back-and-forth slapstick routine between the two.

"There you go, Zach," Willard quipped. "Thataboy! Yes, that's the lesson I was trying to get through when we were having a little tough stretch in late January was understanding that a couple -- I think it was only two rough losses that we had -- were going to hurt our seeding. It's a lesson learned moving forward, and I think the next time we're in that situation, we'll make sure we won't make those mistakes."

5) Looking ahead to 2018-19:
Life without Seton Hall's seniors begins in earnest sooner rather than later, but the cupboard in South Orange will not necessarily be bare next season. Quincy McKnight, who sat out this season after transferring from Sacred Heart, will likely start in the backcourt alongside Myles Powell and can be counted on to be a combo guard that will ease the burden on Eron Gordon and Jordan Walker at the point. Taurean Thompson, who also sat out after leaving Syracuse, will likely be Sanogo and Michael Nzei's successor at the four, and will partner up with Sandro Mamukelashvili and 7-foot-1 Romaro Gill -- who redshirted this season -- on the front line, with Myles Cale the heir apparent to Rodriguez on the wing. The future is bright for Willard, and it could not have looked this promising without the legacy of the group that preceded next season's new wave, which also includes incoming freshmen Darnell Brodie, Anthony Nelson and Jared Rhoden.

"The legacy that I know they'll leave is the fact that the three guys I had sitting out, the young freshmen we had playing, the three or four guys we've got coming in next year, all understand what they need to do on an everyday basis to take the next step," Willard said, fighting back emotion in the process. "And that's going to be their greatest legacy, the fact that the consistency that they worked with, the consistency that they played on the floor, the consistency that we've won has given Seton Hall a very, very bright future. They won't understand it until they come back next year for a home game, and they'll be really excited about their legacy, because they'll watch it on the court."

Finally, on behalf of Jason Guerette, who has been an indispensable tag team partner on this site's Seton Hall coverage three years running, and myself, we thank you for making us a trusted source for following the Pirates, and it was our honor and privilege to help tell the story once again. Until next time, Onward Setonia.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Kevin Willard quote book: Kansas

Opening statement:
"I thought it was an extremely well-played game by both teams. I thought the kids really left everything out on the floor for both teams. I'm proud of the way my guys kept fighting back. I give Kansas a lot of credit, they hit a lot of big shots late and earned a hard-fought win."

On Seton Hall's seniors in their final game:
"It's why I love those guys, they're such special young men who have battled, sacrificed, who have grown. I think the hardest thing is they show up as freshmen and they think they know everything, and then all of a sudden, you watch them grow into men. Those four young men who just walked off this stage are terrific, unbelievable young men who represented us and myself with the highest character, and this game is exactly how their career is -- not pretty at all times, but absolutely unbelievable grit, unbelievable effort -- and they never, ever walked off the floor without giving it their all, and I think that's something that not a whole lot of kids can say for their career."

On what Seton Hall's seniors meant, and how he can put it into words:
"Not right now, I can't -- because I'll get emotional -- it's going to take me a couple days just because they're like my kids, they really are. That's all I've got."

On Angel Delgado's 24 points and 23 rebounds:
"I'll tell you what, I should have went to him more with (Udoka) Azubuike in the game. I kind of went away from him -- because I didn't want to wear him out -- a little bit just because of Azubuike's size, but someone's going to be really happy with him next year. He's been doing that his whole career. I just thought his offensive rebounding just kept us alive the whole game. His motor is second to none, and in 38 minutes against -- 22 against Azubuike -- having to guard Devonte' Graham's pick-and-rolls, that's an unbelievable effort by our big guy. Like I said, someone in the NBA next year's going to be really happy next year that he's on their roster."

On advice he would give to NBA scouts about Delgado:
"I don't have to say anything, I think they all say the same thing to me. They love his motor, they love his competitiveness. He's going to -- if you put him on a roster, you're going to win a lot of games. He's a coach's dream because he shows up every day -- he practices hard, he works hard, he's a great teammate -- and when the ball is tipped, he's going to get you nine, ten offensive rebounds, he's going to get you putbacks, he's going to get you extra possessions, and he's gotten really good defensively where he can guard fours defensively, so I think he's just one of those guys that wins you games, and I think at the next level, that's a premium. He might not be -- he's not going to shoot the ball 30 times next year -- but he's going to get the guy who does shoot 30 times four or five open looks, and that's something that's a premium."

On whether he second-guessed himself for not doing more in the regular season after tonight's game:
"I think that's the lesson I was trying to get through when we were having a little tough stretch in late January was understanding that a couple -- I think it was only two rough losses that we had -- were going to hurt our seeding. There's a huge difference in being a 7 (seed) and then being an 8, because you are playing a road game when you're on the 8-9 line. I think -- I watched Rhode Island vs. Duke for a little bit -- I think that was in Pittsburgh, and I don't know how many Duke graduates are in Pittsburgh -- but that was more of a neutral-site game. This was a great environment. The Kansas fans were engaged, they're smart, they're passionate, and you can understand why it's such a great program, and Bill (Self) is as good a coach as I've ever gone up against. He's just one of the best. So moving forward, yes, I think what my young guys and the guys sitting out have to understand is that some of those games in January and February, some of those games are the most important ones. Obviously you have to beat the Texas Techs, you have to beat some of the good teams, but a 6-seed or a 5-seed instead of an 8-seed is a huge difference."

On Seton Hall being capable of earning a lower seed:
"I think that's something that I've learned as a coach is when you coach four seniors that all have aspirations of playing and moving on -- I've talked to a lot of people this year about -- it's hard sometimes to manage all those expectations, and I think as the season went on, managing them sometimes got in the way of us playing. It's a lesson learned moving forward, and I think the next time we're in that situation, we'll make sure we won't make those mistakes."

On how to build toward next season:
"I love the momentum that we've created. Again, I think we've only gone to twelve NCAA Tournaments in Seton Hall's history, and we've got three in a row, which we take a lot of pride in. I think the biggest thing -- everyone talks about these guys' legacy -- the legacy that I know they'll leave is the fact that the three guys I had sitting out, the young freshmen we had playing, the three or four guys we've got coming in next year, all understand what they need to do on an everyday basis to take the next step. People talk about on the floor, but really, these guys showed up every day, they worked hard every day, and if you asked them if they were still up here, they would say -- and they wouldn't know it right now, but when they come back next year and watch us play -- they're going to know by the way Q (Quincy McKnight), Taurean (Thompson), Ro (Romaro Gill), all these freshmen work on an everyday basis. And that's going to be their greatest legacy, the fact that the consistency that they worked with, the consistency that they played on the floor, the consistency that we've won for the last -- I wouldn't even say four years, their freshman year -- has given Seton Hall a very, very bright future, and not a lot of kids understand that at this time. They won't understand it until they come back next year for a home game, and they'll be really excited about their legacy, because they'll watch it on the court. That's a long answer for that question, I apologize."

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Kevin Willard quote book: NC State

Opening statement:
"I'm really happy for my guys. The four seniors have put so much time, effort, and work into this program, and for them to be rewarded with a hard-fought win just kind of validates everything that they've done, all the work they've put in. I'm just really proud of them."

On how Seton Hall endured not having Desi Rodriguez to end the regular season:
"I think that's the biggest difference from -- and I've said it all year -- this year's team from last year's team. I really thought our freshmen were really starting to develop nice, and although not having Des did hurt us, I had a lot of confidence in Myles Cale, that he'd be able to step up, and if you look at what he provided us over those five or six games, I think everyone's kind of seeing what an unbelievable player Myles Cale is going to be, so that late into the season, you really can't pout, you can't cry about it. You've just got to have belief in your freshmen, and I have an unbelievable confidence in both Sandro (Mamukelashvili) and Myles Cale."

On Eron Gordon stepping in while Khadeen Carrington sat due to foul trouble:
"Eron Gordon played fantastic. He came in, and I'll tell you what he did better than anything, he defended and really was physical with (Markell) Johnson. I thought his defense and his physicality really did a good job of kind of getting them a little bit off their heels, and then offensively, he just kind of did what he's done for us all year -- he was nice and steady, got us in our offense, and really played well."

On what this win means for the program and Seton Hall's seniors:
"I was watching TV with my wife last night, and I was thinking about (how) I'm Mr. Negative and she's Ms. Positive, and I was thinking about what I was going to say -- especially if we did lose -- about their legacy. These four kids, and Isaiah (Whitehead), have worked really hard, and I think the biggest thing that if we had lost, I was going to be disappointed about, is I always preach to these guys: No matter what in life, if you work hard, you'll be rewarded. I think the biggest thing is these guys have worked really hard. They're not a lazy group. We practiced the best we've practiced the last four days after Butler, and just for them to get rewarded for their hard work, I think that was the biggest thing and the most -- that's what I'm feeling right now -- is that it kind of validates everything that we've done and the fact that they've worked so hard for four years."

On Khadeen Carrington's leadership:
"He's gotten a lot of unfair criticism throughout the year about not being a point guard, not being this, and all I've told him is that he's been an unbelievable leader. He's been an unbelievable point guard. He's sacrificed scoring at times, he's sacrificed the fact that he's gotta guard the best offender, and I've seen over -- probably the last month -- a young man growing into the position and a young man that's going to have a very bright future at that position."

On why he played Myles Cale after Angel Delgado fouled out:
"Just for the fact that we were going to need free throw shooting. They're fouling, they're going to press, they have another ball handler. I can move Desi to the four defensively and I can move Ish to guard the pick-and-roll -- which he's probably our best defender -- so it wasn't anything besides just having another ball handler out there."

On preparing for Kansas and head coach Bill Self, before and after the NC State game:
"I know Bill and I have unbelievable respect for his program and I've watched them play, so I know how they play. But this time of year, you kind of get in a bunker and you hold down, and we'll watch a lot of film with the team tonight and put our game plan together. But you know you're going to play the 1-seed and you know it's going to be a challenge because the 1-seed is the 1-seed for a reason, and Kansas is Kansas because they're a phenomenal program with great players. When I watch them, I have unbelievable respect for the way they play offensively. They're unselfish, the ball pops."

"I respect Bill because he doesn't play the same way every year. He went small this year because they space it out, and now all of a sudden, there are a lot more pick-and-rolls. Years when he's had big guys, he's gone to a high-low offense where it's really hard to guard because they go high-low and they have big guys. I think the biggest thing with Bill is he's adapted to his personnel -- and he's done it really well -- because obviously, I think he's won -- I don't know how many Big 12 championships -- 14? I don't know. It's like I had to take off my shoes to get to where he is. But I think that's the biggest thing I respect when I watch his teams: The offensive pace that they play at, but it's not the same play every single time. He really adapts to his personnel and he gets the most out of his personnel."

Iona's season ends with NCAA Tournament loss to Duke

Roland Griffin led Iona with 21 points in Gaels' loss to Duke Thursday. (Photo by The Journal News)

Tim Cluess' pregame message to his Iona team was to not die wondering whether the Gaels could beat Duke, urging his players to go out and leave everything on the floor for 40 minutes.

The three-time defending Metro Atlantic Conference champions fought valiantly, particularly in the first half, but the No. 2-seed Blue Devils were ultimately too much for Iona to handle as the Gaels fell in their Midwest Regional matchup, 89-67.

"They're one heck of a basketball team," head coach Tim Cluess conceded as Duke used a 16-4 run midway through the first half and then a 12-2 spurt to begin the second stanza to ultimately pull away and earn a second-round meeting with Rhode Island on Saturday in Pittsburgh. "We tried to throw a lot of things at them, and they responded in a different way."

Iona (20-14) matched their first-time foe in the early going, getting five quick points from Schadrac Casimir before the Blue Devils broke the game open for the first time with a 12-3 run to go up by nine points, all before the first media timeout of the game. However, the Gaels battled back when Roland Griffin -- whose 21 points were a team-high and only one point fewer than Marvin Bagley III's game-high of 22 -- provided a huge lift off the bench in an 11-2 stretch that tied the game at 19 apiece with 13:12 remaining in the first half.

Duke took advantage for good on the ensuing possession, as a Trevon Duval three-pointer sparked the game-changing swing in momentum that was compounded by Iona's inability to both handle the ball and get a stop as the Blue Devils opened a double-digit cushion.

"We thought the game was going good," said TK Edogi as he recounted Iona's start before Duke asserted itself increasingly as the first half drew to a close. "We just needed to get a couple more stops, and maybe the outcome of the game would have changed."

To the Gaels' credit, they continued to fight valiantly as the intermission approached, getting within 11 and threatening to go into the locker room within single digits, but the Blue Devils worked the clock in expert fashion on the final possession of the period, with Grayson Allen's three from the left wing beating the horn to send Duke into the locker room with a 53-39 lead that ultimately proved insurmountable as Iona was unable to keep up down the stretch.

"In a game like today, we have to shoot the lights out, and apparently, we didn't," Cluess said. "I'm proud of my guys' effort. They fought hard all year and I'm really proud of them for getting this opportunity."

Even in defeat, Iona acquitted itself well, as the Gaels rebounded from a late-season swoon to rediscover its stroke in the MAAC Tournament and enter its fifth taste of March Madness as a resurgent force with the potential to build on a budding dynasty next season, when Griffin, Casimir and Rickey McGill return to New Rochelle for their senior campaigns and a potential fourth straight conference championship.

"We have a shot to be very good again," Cluess intimated. "I do think our core is good, and I think we have some players sitting out this year that are really going to help us as well. We're constantly striving."

"I think we had eight new bodies that we were trying to work in, and guys didn't know each other at all, and I think by the end of the season, they took a lot of pride in their effort. These guys have some special bonds that will last a lifetime now. Our guys did a tremendous job getting where they did, so I'm really proud of them."

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Seton Hall's season ends with loss to St. Joe's in WNIT

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ -- A postseason bid represents a reward, recognition for the body of work a team accomplishes during the regular season. 

For both Saint Joseph’s and Seton Hall that was the case, the opportunity to extend the season and move on. The visiting Hawks seized it in what turned out to be a one-sided affair, scoring a 75-57 victory at Walsh Gymnasium on Wednesday.

Runner-up to George Washington in the Atlantic 10 Conference championship game. Cindy Griffin’s Hawks (19-14) entered Walsh on a roll, having won eight of their last ten. They came out with a mindset of doing all they could do to extend their season. This was not lost on Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella, who saw his group react in a completely different manner.

“I was extremely disappointed,” Bozzella said following the season ending loss. “It is hard to put into words. They had a good game plan. We just came out with no energy at all. I am very disappointed.” 

When asked which aspect of the Pirate performance was most disappointing, Bozzella was blunt in his response.

“We have only five minutes," he said. "I can go on for hours.”

Saint Joseph’s enjoyed a 39-28 lead at the half, a nice edge on the road, but not insurmountable by any stretch. The third quarter opened with junior point guard Alyssa Monaghan burying two open three-pointers. After the first four minutes of that period, the St. Joe's lead was sixteen. What added insult to injury was the fact that Bozzella had recruited Monaghan, but the Drexel Hill, Pa. native opted to stay close to home. Seton Hall (16-16) did get the deficit down to 13 on a few occasions, poised to continue a game-altering run. It never happened.

Chelsea Woods led St. Joe's and all scorers with 20 points. Amanda Fioravanti, at 6’1”, was a low-post threat the Hall struggled to handle, adding 19 points. Monaghan also contributed 15. Seton Hall had one double-digit scorer, freshman Selena Philoxy, who came off the bench to score 13 points.

Beyond that previously mentioned Hawk trio, Bozzella saw a good share of the damage self inflicted. Granted, the Hall did allow St. Joe's to shoot 46 percent from the floor and attempt 25 free throws, statistics Bozzella later termed "unacceptable." The area most upsetting to the Pirate mentor was turnovers. Seton Hall had 23 miscues on the night, a number produced by his group that Bozzella could not explain or rationalize.

Hawks head coach Cindy Griffin noted the mood following the A-10 final loss to George Washington was naturally disappointing.

“We had the chance to get the championship and get ourselves into the NCAA tournament,” she said. “Now we had to wait on pins and needles.”  Once the WNIT bid came, the Hawks were thrilled to keep playing. 

“We want to play as long as we can,” Griffin said. “And we want to represent the Atlantic 10, which is underrated in women’s basketball, in a favorable manner.”

In South Orange, Bozzella's fifth season at the helm of his alma mater ends with a .500 record, compared to each of his first three campaigns at Seton Hall, all of which saw the Pirates win at least twenty games and advance to postseason play. A year ago, the Pirates fell to 12-19. Of greater significance this time around was another invitation to extend their campaign. But while the Seton Hall mentor was pleased to get the bid, the experience in this one-and-done appearance raised some questions that beg addressing in the offseason.

“It was a shame how we played," he said. "We got a home game against a very good team from the Atlantic 10, and we did not play well. We want to take steps forward. In a few days, we will evaluate everything and make some hard decisions -- on our personnel, style of play, what we do as a program. To play this way is totally unacceptable. You see Saint Joseph’s. They came into our place with a game plan and played with no chaos.”

Consider this sequence at the end of the first half: Woods penetrated. Her shot was blocked, with the defender picking up the loose ball and igniting a break. As the passing lanes filled, a long pass was overthrown, far beyond the reach of the open Seton St. Joe's missed what appears to be the last shot, only for Seton Hall to fumble a rebound that wound up in Woods’ hands. In one motion, she shot -- and made -- a ten-footer. In a way, that was a microcosm of the way things went this season in South Orange.

“It was an up-and-down  season,” Bozzella said. “I was disappointed we lost some players for various reasons. We didn’t defend like we did earlier in the year. Our opener opposing coach, Pat Coyle -- who coached in the WNBA -- told me no one defended her Saint Peter’s team like that. She was impressed.” 

Again, Bozzella was happy with a WNIT bid, but certainly not so after the final buzzer.

“Totally unacceptable,” he flatly assessed of his team's effort. “We have higher expectations. Next year we are at UConn and UCLA, and face Georgia Tech, Princeton and Rutgers. In the offseason, we will take a long look at how we play and what we do. Ending like this is not something I want in my program.”

Photo Gallery (All photos by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Blending family and legacy, rather than chasing prestige, has made Cluess who he is

Linked once again to several coaching vacancies, Tim Cluess continues to focus on what he has at Iona, which includes fifth NCAA Tournament appearance this week. (Photo by Jaden Daly/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Tim Cluess' name has been thrown around for some of the higher-profile openings on this year's coaching carousel, which is as clear an indicator as the reemergence of leaves on the tree in one's front yard that it must be March again.

But the 59-year-old, less than 24 hours away from coaching in his fifth NCAA Tournament, is treating his latest associations with name-brand programs no different from the others that have come to pass over the years.

"I don't pay much attention to it," he admitted, dismissing the speculation that he is a candidate to fill the head coaching vacancies at institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh and University of Connecticut. "I know there's rumors everywhere, all the time. I guess my name coming up is a good thing. That means we probably had a good year. My guys know it's all about us, and that's all I care about."

"I've had a couple of opportunities where people have called me," Cluess said, indirectly referencing his involvement in Hofstra's coaching search five years ago before Joe Mihalich was ultimately hired, as well as the endless chatter of his potential exodus to St. John's. "I really haven't expressed much interest in it. It wasn't something that I thought would be the right fit for my family at the time. I'm thrilled to be at Iona, and we're just trying to get better there."

And Iona is just as thrilled to have Cluess, the Floral Park native who has won 20 or more games in each of his eight years at the helm, continuing his climb from the high school ranks into Division I college basketball with the added bonus of remaining less than an hour from his family, a longstanding bastion of Long Island basketball royalty.

"What kept me at Iona is probably the same thing that's kept me on Long Island my entire life -- family," he said with a visible and audible tone of pride in his voice and body language. "I love it there, I love the people that are involved. My family has gone through some medical issues for many years, and being there is the most important thing, not uprooting my family just to chase a job around."

Anyone who covers Cluess somewhat regularly is indoctrinated almost immediately into the family atmosphere within which he operates his program in New Rochelle. It is not uncommon to see his wife and sons sitting behind the Iona bench on game nights, and the inclusion of loved ones has trickled down, with associate head coach Jared Grasso often in the company of his young son, not to mention past Gael stars such as Mike Glover and Momo Jones prominently including their own offspring in the experience. On the court, the family aspect translates into Cluess' desire to see his players grow in both basketball intellect and the real-life ability to handle adversity, much like a father would teach his own child life lessons.

"He demands the best out of you every single day," junior forward Roland Griffin said of Cluess' wanting his players to achieve their respective potential. "It doesn't matter (who you are), he demands greatness out of you."

"He's like a basketball genius, honestly," Zach Lewis chimed in. "As far as plays go and how we play and how we work, and how to get the best out of his players, I've seen no coach do it better than him. Even when we're off the court, he's upstairs putting in a lot of work, watching film."

Some of the older members of Iona's deeply passionate fan base still wax equal parts poetic and nostalgic about the late great Jim Valvano, and how his mantra of daring to dream lifted the Gaels out of the wide shadow cast by St. John's and into its own exclusive niche before departing for North Carolina State. Since that time, Iona has seen several successful coaches -- from Pat Kennedy to Jerry Welsh and his son, Tim, to former program great and Valvano player Jeff Ruland -- come through its doors, but each would be hard-pressed to replicate what Cluess has managed to consistently produce since being hired in 2010 by Pat Lyons, now the director of athletics at Seton Hall.

"Jim Valvano's legacy is a huge one," Cluess said with a palpable awe. "We try to keep up that legacy. When I got there, that was one of the things I wanted to do, keep the legacy of those coaches and successful programs before us. That's what we're striving for every year."

So if he were to stay at Iona for the next two decades, resisting the urge to ply his wares at a more recognizable school just for increased exposure and a larger paycheck, would Cluess have any regrets about what could have been?

"I like coaching young men who want to be better, and moving to influence their lives to have better lives," he surmised. "Now do you dream of playing in those power conferences, where you can get maybe a higher-level talent and be able to compete at a different level? Of course you do. But it doesn't take away from anything that I enjoy doing, and I think that's as big a part of it than just coaching basketball. I'm blessed to do it."

"Basketball saved my life, and I do believe that God put me here to coach to help other people have better lives. I truly believe that."

Iona unfazed by pomp and circumstance entering clash with Duke

Zach Lewis leads Iona into NCAA Tournament matchup with Duke that may appear one-sided on paper, but Gaels' senior leader is not concerning himself with Blue Devils' mystique. (Photo by New York Post)

Five national championships, multiple No. 1 NBA Draft picks, and the winningest coach in all of college basketball, responsible for nearly 1,100 victories in a Hall of Fame career.

All of that is irrelevant to Iona this week.

"We're here to compete," Zach Lewis said Wednesday as the Gaels descended upon Pittsburgh for the final round of pregame preparation before tipping off their third consecutive NCAA Tournament experience, and fifth in six seven years, against Duke on Thursday in a Midwest Regional first-round matchup.

A perennial Top 25 outfit and among the richest of college basketball's blueblood programs, the Blue Devils can evince both ends of the polar spectrum of emotions in a straw poll of fans in all walks of life. But whether one loves or hates the names Krzyzewski, Allen, or Bagley, none of that matters once the ball is tipped.

"We understand the basketball tradition they have there," Duke senior Grayson Allen said of the Gaels, who first appeared on the national landscape under the late Jim Valvano over four decades ago. "They're not just a team that's lucky to be here. They do this, this is what they do."

"Talent is talent," head coach Tim Cluess said as he prepares to guide his Iona team into battle with Duke for the first time in school, history, hoping to become just the eighth No. 15 seed to win an NCAA Tournament game in the process. "When you get on a basketball court as a player, two minutes into the game, all of that adrenaline is gone and you're just playing basketball. That focus just appears. You don't know if there's anyone around you, you're just locked into what's going on."

With more experienced players the likes of point guard Rickey McGill, who will compete in his third NCAA Tournament game Thursday afternoon, the Gaels have a decided edge in players that have traveled the postseason terrain, an intangible that Duke's star-studded, freshman-laden roster does not possess, and one that another Iona veteran believes could be a difference-maker.

"We have experience with it," said Schadrac Casimir, the redshirt junior guard who enters March Madness as explosive a piece in the maroon-and-gold arsenal as any point since his return from hip surgery last season. "We're excited to get out there and try to set the tone for the new guys that haven't been here. I think once everybody gets a few plays down the court, the adrenaline will start running and everybody will be fine."

"I think it's going to help them as far as a comfort zone," Cluess added. "Being out there and knowing what the emotion is going to be like during the game, before the game, and everything we're going through right now, they can share that with our other players."

The experience is one of many factors, as Allen alluded to in his press conference, that suggest Duke is not taking its opponent lightly, or so it seems.

"They have a lot of guys that can beat you," he warned. "It's not a team that has a top scorer, a guy you have to watch. They have six or seven guys who can go off and be their leading scorer any game, so that makes them a dangerous team."

Call Iona what you wish, but the fact remains that Thursday's contest is nothing more than a business trip, one to which the Gaels travel with unflappable confidence and nothing to lose.

"We've got 40 minutes to play every game, and that's what we're going to try to do," said Lewis. "It's us against them. We're not worried about their powerhouse success and things like that, just 40 minutes that we've got to be better than them, just for that one day."

Kevin Willard quote book: NC State

Opening statement on facing North Carolina State:
“It’s great to be here, I think it’s a really good matchup for both teams, I think we’re both very evenly matched. Their guard play is some of the best guard play we’ve faced all year. I love their big guy (Omer Yurtseven), I love the way he can play inside and out, so we’re really looking forward to the challenge and just happy to be here in Wichita.

On Seton Hall’s physicality being a priority:
“Obviously, I think conference play – when you watch us in conference play – just the way our league plays, it’s extremely physical. But I’ve been impressed with how physical they are. (Torin) Dorn, for a power forward, is a lot like Ish, he can really play defense tough off the dribble. Their guards are physical, I think they defend and get after you, and it’s a really unique matchup in the sense that both teams play physical basketball. And obviously anybody coming from the Big East – if you watch us on film – that’s what you’re going to see just because of the way the league is kind of set up.”

On what this game means to Seton Hall’s senior class and its legacy:
“No matter what, I think these four guys have left a great mark at Seton Hall. I think more than anything, the way they’ve brought the fan base back from the way they’ve played, obviously is going to help if you win a game. But I just think how they’ve interacted with the fans, how they’ve kind of won a lot of big games, I think their legacy will be pretty good either way.”

On sensing importance of winning an NCAA Tournament game:
“Yeah, I definitely have a different sense with them this year than I had last year. It’s been less me trying to get them to understand the importance of being in this tournament and how hard it is to get into this tournament. I think they realize the opportunity that they have now, where I think after their sophomore year, they were just happy to be there. Last year, we had a chance to win the game – we were up four with a minute-and-a-half to go – and I think that loss really hurt them. It really kind of haunted them a little bit this year, so I think they understand, now more than ever, they have a chance.”

On slowing NC State down defensively:
“It’s not an easy task, to be honest with you. I think the hardest thing about them, as I watch film, is how balanced they are. It’s not just one guy. I wish I could say, ‘well, it’s just (Allerik) Freeman or it’s just Braxton (Beverly).’ It’s not. They’re so well balanced, and I think Markell Johnson does as good a job as anybody I’ve seen on film of getting in the lane and creating really good opportunities for his teammates, so I love the pace they play at and I just think they put so much pressure on you. They put four guys out on the perimeter, and they drive it and they attack you, and you never know who’s going to get you. I think that’s the hardest thing about it when you watch film is that they’re extremely balanced. They really, technically, have five guys scoring double-figure points, and over the last five games, they’re almost shooting 50 percent from the three. Then you add (Sam) Hunt into the equation – which over the last five games, he’s playing over 20 minutes a game – at times, they have five guys on the floor that can make shots, so I think that’s what makes them so hard to defend.”

On getting a different sense from this year’s team:
“I really feel the biggest difference has been in practice. We’ve been – it’s really hard this time of year when towards the end of February, you kind of wind down practice a little bit – you’re only going for like, an hour, an hour and 15 minutes, and then all of a sudden, you have four or five days where you have to kind of start practice back up, and I haven’t had a hard time getting them to practice again. We practiced yesterday for almost two-and-a-half hours, and last year, there was no chance I would have been able to do that. I had no problem getting them to practice. We’ll practice again for probably a good solid two hours, and they’re looking forward to practice, so I think from that mentality, that’s the biggest thing I’ve seen.”

Monday, March 12, 2018

Bonnies' NCAA Tournament return carries added meaning with UCLA matchup

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

The what-ifs are a big part of sporting debate.

They can vary over a wide range of topics and events. They fuel our passion for the specific sport. Arguably, there is no specific sport like college basketball to fire up those what-could-have-happened-if debates.

On Selection Sunday, St. Bonaventure wound up on the board paired against UCLA in a First Four matchup. For years, Bonaventure-UCLA remained an oft-discussed topic among Bona faithful. Seeing that pairing simply heats up the debate.

Personally, arriving at St. Bonaventure in the late summer of 1970, upperclassmen taught us two things -- to despise Little Three rivals Niagara and Canisius (even more so) -- and that the Bonnies would be national champions if Bob Lanier did not go down with an injury. The latter part, we believed even before arriving at the heart of the enchanted mountains. A little history is in order:

The Bonnies were primed for a big season, led by All-American center Bob Lanier. At 6’11”, Lanier was almost unstoppable in the low post and had the ability -- rare for big men back then -- to move outside and hit a fifteen-footer. They caught at least regional attention with a big win over a powerful Duquesne team at home in University (now Reilly) Center. The nation took notice as they defeated Purdue to win the ECAC Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, with Lanier going for 50 points in the championship. St. Bonaventure had just one regular season loss, a two-point loss at Villanova in the infamous Cat House.

The Bonnies entered the tournament at 22-1. First-round opponent Davidson, led by Mike Maloy, was a challenge. Bonaventure prevailed in a game contested at Alumni Hall (now Carnesecca Arena) on the St. John’s campus. The East regional semifinal opponent was NC State. South Carolina was one of the strongest clubs all season, but Frank McGuire’s Gamecocks were upset in the ACC final by the Wolfpack. Interestingly, the regionals were at Carolina Coliseum, South Carolina’s home court. NC State, with "Moving" Vann Williford, was dispatched, 80-68. The final was a rematch with Villanova.

During the consolation -- they had those even in the regionals back then -- while NC State was facing Niagara, Bonaventure and Villanova players were in the stands watching the third-place game. In the documentary "Unfinished Dreams," on that 1969-70 Bonaventure season, Billy Kalbaugh, the Bonnies’ point guard and Lanier’s roommate, tells of several of his teammates overhearing Villanova’s Fran O’Hanlon telling his girlfriend that having beaten Bonaventure, he did not expect a big problem. Lanier was one who heard this, and simply told the other Bonaventure players, "let’s go." Off to the locker room they went, fired up.

The regional final went to Bonaventure by a 97-74 count. The late-game sequence, though, remains more in Bona faithful's minds rather than the score or Eastern Regional championship trophy. About a minute or so before he was set to come out, Lanier was hit on the knee by Villanova’s Chris Ford during a scramble; definitely not intentional, but for the Bonnies, it was monumental. Lanier suffered a season -- and Bona career-ending -- injury.

The record will show Bonaventure gave an excellent effort at the Final Four, falling to a much taller Jacksonville team in College Park, Maryland. Matt Gantt, all of 6’5”, used his jumping ability to battle 7’2” Artis Gilmore of the Dolphins. The Bonnies lost, 91-83, then dropped a six-point decision to New Mexico State -- with future NBA center Sam Lacey -- in the consolation.

Larry Weise’s group finished 25-3. The question from that time in mid-March until today persists: Would a Bona-led Lanier (it was assumed Jacksonville would have been dispatched) take down UCLA? The Bruins were between franchise centers. Lew Alcindor was gone and Bill Walton two years away. In his latter years, UCLA’s John Wooden, always concerned with his team more than opponents, did admit that Bonaventure with Lanier and the way they were playing was a concern. UCLA had Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe at the forward spot. The feeling is Lanier would have dominated Steve Patterson with the ability to post or go outside. And as Kalbaugh noted in "Unfinished Dreams," the Bonnies were rebounding very well and really coming together, playing their best at the right time, spawning an ongoing debate and quintessential what-if.

Throughout this current season, it appeared Mark Schmidt’s Bonnies played to avoid a what-if, as in, what would be the outcome if Bona did not get the wins on a strong out-of-conference schedule or fall to upsets in the Atlantic 10? Would it be 2016 again, standing alone on Selection Sunday minus a dance partner? Following an opening night loss to Niagara (Little Three again), Bona was able to defeat the likes of Maryland, Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and Vermont. Conference play started with losses in four of the first six outings. The Bonnies were facing a possibility of their NCAA Tournament hopes being dashed. Then, they caught fire. Bonaventure reeled off a dozen straight regular season victories to close that part of the slate at 24-6. Included were two Reilly Center classics: A win over Rhode Island, undefeated in the A-10, before an ESPN2 audience, then the triple overtime thriller over Davidson on senior night. Win number 13 came in the A-10 tournament quarterfinals against Richmond before Davidson ended the run in the semis. The record, 25-7, was deemed acceptable to get in.

A contrast in circumstance, as 48 years ago, there was an opportunity to reach the pinnacle -- the top of the college basketball world -- an opportunity denied by an injury. Injuries, part of the game, are all too often beyond one’s control. Nearly five decades later, achieving a goal was realistically in sight. The Bonnies had the chance to respond and eliminate and what could have been scenarios. It was on them. When the Bonnies stood 2-4 in conference play with the season sliding away, Schmidt and his team knew they had to get back to basics: Defense. A commitment to that end of the floor. Continued scoring from Jaylen Adams, A-10 Co-Player of the Year, and Matt Mobley. The emergence of Courtney Stockard and LaDarien Griffin. All of those pieces entered into the equation. Down the stretch, it seemed almost every game fell under the label of a must-win. The Bonnies responded.

On Tuesday night in Dayton, they face a UCLA team they hoped to line up against nearly five decades ago. If they beat the Bruins back in 1970, they would be national champions. Of further note, if they beat the Bruins Tuesday, it will be the Bonnies' first NCAA tournament victory since that win over Villanova, a win that still carries the weight and ponderance of what could have transpired had the basketball gods been a bit friendlier.

Basketball Reference provided the records. No need to refresh the memory of the names from the past: Lanier, Kalbaugh, Paul Hoffman, Greg "Bubba" Gary and Gantt for the Bonnies. Wicks, Rowe, Patterson, John Vallely and Henry Bibby taking the floor for UCLA. On Tuesday, Adams, Mobley, Griffin and Stockard face a Bruin team -- whose lineup I admit having to partially look up -- coached by Steve Alford with Aaron Holiday, Kris Wilkes, Thomas Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman.

On Tuesday evening, the Bonnies and Bruins tip it off at UD Arena. History has its place and is of interest. The past will not be a concern to the coaches or players of either team. It is about getting after it, doing what needs to be done for 40 minutes, all about those proverbial two words: Survive and advance.

For a minute, understand there will be Bona faithful viewing; especially those of us remembering when gas was 25 cents a gallon, occasionally thinking back to March 1970. A glorious time in Bona basketball history and still a time with those ever-unfinished dreams, one that simply will no go away.

Nor do we let it.

LIU Brooklyn Selection Sunday Photo Gallery

Photos from LIU Brooklyn's Selection Sunday watch party of March 11, 2018:

(All photos by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)