Monday, August 21, 2017

St. John's non-conference schedule: 5 Thoughts

Shamorie Ponds and St. John's are positioned for continued upswing in third season under Chris Mullin, which begins November 10 against New Orleans. (Photo by St. John's University Athletics)

Year two under Chris Mullin saw St. John's complete a six-win improvement from his first season at the helm of his alma mater, as the Red Storm went from 8-24 to 14-19 after the infusion of freshmen Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett into the backcourt to enhance the rebuilding project that the all-time leading scorer on the corner of Union and Utopia began when he was hired to replace Steve Lavin in 2015.

Mullin's third season looks to have the same uptick that last year brought to the hardwood, as evidenced by an early look at St. John's non-conference schedule, released late Monday afternoon, a slate that comprises 13 games that cover both ends of the college basketball spectrum. The Johnnies will also play a yet-to-be-named opponent in an exhibition contest, as well as a closed scrimmage, as per Zach Braziller of the New York Post.

There are obvious highlights, such as the February 3 clash with possible preseason No. 1 in the nation Duke inside Madison Square Garden the day before Super Bowl LII, as well as the obligatory guarantee games against mid-majors the likes of New Orleans and Central Connecticut, the first two opponents on the Red Storm ledger. There are also several neutral-site contests, chief among them the Advocare Invitational in Orlando; the Thanksgiving weekend tournament that Big East rival Seton Hall participated in a year ago, and also including an underrated Mohegan Sun clash against Saint Joseph's, who should see a resurgence in a retooled Atlantic 10 this season.

With less than three months before the ball is tipped at Carnesecca Arena, here are some insights on the first half of the season for the Red Storm, with some matchups to watch as well as other items of interest along the way:

1) This year's non-conference schedule is more conducive to early winning.
With all due respect to the Advocare field, St. John's should; on paper, that is, be good enough to win two games, and hopefully earn a championship date with tournament favorite West Virginia on Sunday, November 26. Even with the trip to Orlando, this year's tuneup for Big East play pales in comparison to the first two non-conference ledgers that Mullin and his Red Storm teams played, schedules that included high-quality opponents in both the Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis tournaments. If all goes well, a 10-win performance in non-league play should be the expectation, with 9-4 the worst case scenario.

2) A Division II opponent? Don't go getting flashbacks just yet.
Some die-hard fans who want to see St. John's schedule marquee names to raise their RPI and computer rankings before conference play will be dismayed to see Division II Molloy College on the schedule for a November 20 meeting at Carnesecca, but the Lions' place in the season immediately following Nebraska's arrival (more on that later) is a perfect sandwich game in between one high-major and the three Advocare Invitational games that begin against Oregon State on November 23. The skeptics among the Johnnies' fan base need not fear for another St. Thomas Aquinas debacle, as this year's team is mounds more talented and battle-tested, unlike the patchwork group Mullin guided through a baptism by fire in his first season. Molloy will be the perfect opportunity for the Red Storm to work out whatever kinks still remain one week into the year, and also a good in-season exhibition; if such a thing exists, before stepping up to face higher competition.

3) Nebraska is an early test, but one the Red Storm should pass.
The Cornhuskers come to Carnesecca Arena for a November 16 Gavitt Games matchup, heading to Queens since Madison Square Garden is booked for the 2K Classic that night. Barring a cataclysmic meltdown, St. John's will almost certainly be 2-0 heading into this matchup, and they have the pieces to not only defeat Nebraska, but do so convincingly. Head coach Tim Miles could very well be on the hot seat in Lincoln after a 12-19 season, and returns three starters led by junior guard Glynn Watson Jr., the Huskers' top returning scorer from last season. Graduate transfer Duby Okeke, a 6-foot-8 warrior by way of Winthrop, will make a difference down low, but with only one player taller than 6-foot-8 and only two proven three-point shooters, Nebraska will have their work cut out for them against the Red Storm.

4) Sacred Heart might just be the most important game on the schedule.
Why, you might ask? Because of the sheer fact that it is a home game following the excursion to Florida and preceding the two neutral-site games on the West Coast against Grand Canyon and Arizona State. When Seton Hall competed in the Advocare last season, Kevin Willard smartly scheduled a home game against Columbia before the Pirates' next two contests in Hawaii, and was rewarded with a 95-71 victory that served as an early coming-out party for then-freshman Myles Powell. With two of the more pivotal games in non-conference play coming up immediately after the Pioneers come to Queens for the first time since 2007, the visit from Anthony Latina and Sacred Heart could prove to have the same impact as Columbia did for Seton Hall a year ago.

5) Two quality mid-majors before league play.
No hyperbole is needed to preview the December 17 contest against Iona in the Holiday Festival, the first between the Johnnies and Gaels since 1995. This should be an entertaining 40 minutes, matching the uptempo attack of Tim Cluess and the two-time reigning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions against another like-minded opponent in St. John's that will attempt to get out in transition early and often, returning most of last year's Big East-leading unit in defensive turnover rate. The team that makes the fewest mistakes should emerge victorious in a game where both could reach the 80-point threshold. Three days later, Saint Joseph's takes on the Red Storm for the first time since the 2013 National Invitation Tournament encounter in Philadelphia, one that ended on Sir'Dominic Pointer's baseline jumper at the buzzer. Phil Martelli's Hawks will be refreshed and primed to make up for a lost season last year, with both Pierfrancesco Oliva and Shavar Newkirk both returning from injuries. Lamarr "Fresh" Kimble will once again anchor the St. Joe's offense, a perimeter-oriented attack, in his junior year, with the help of James Demery and Charlie Brown on the wings. The key for the Red Storm in this matchup will be how well they can pound the ball inside to the likes of Kassoum Yakwe, Tariq Owens and Bashir Ahmed, as they will have a noticeable size and athleticism advantage.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Liberty 70, Lynx 61: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK -- There are times in the game when halftime adjustments are rather simple.

No grease board is needed, no reference to a playbook that may or may not be the size of the Manhattan phone book.

Sometimes the best alterations are simply verbal. Sometimes that is all that is needed to turn things around, exhibit A being the New York Liberty trailing the Minnesota Lynx 33-28 at halftime Sunday afternoon.

Following halftime, the Liberty came out on the Madison Square Garden floor energized, especially on the defensive end. The result saw Minnesota limited to eleven third quarter points as the Liberty went on to post a 70-61 victory.
What transpired at halftime in the Liberty locker room? Simple, no diagramming of plays or major adjustments on the offensive/defensive end, just a subtle reminder or two from head coach Bill Laimbeer, a reminder that his club lacked energy and was out there playing rather than trying to win. For 20 minutes, his team was not who they really are. He probably added a mention that a better effort could take down a Minnesota team that is very much an elite ballclub.

As noted, whatever was said worked. It was all done without diagramming a solitary play during intermission. They tell us this is a simple game, but there are times coaching can be difficult. On this gorgeous Sunday afternoon, Bill Laimbeer had the perfect answer to his situation. The results were proof.

A panoramic Madison Square Garden view as Minnesota goes on the attack:
Official Natalie Sago during a free throw:
One of Ray's personal favorite images, as depicted in the Garden lounge: Mick Jagger meeting the late great Chuck Berry prior to a 1969 concert:
The scorers' table at halftime, with the remnants of some in-game cuisine:
Minnesota's Maya Moore at the free throw line:
The Garden jumbotron after the win:
A visibly satisfied Bill Laimbeer meets the media following Sunday's victory:

Defensive lockdown and strong second half helps Liberty clinch playoff berth, defeat Minnesota

Madison Square Garden scoreboard tells story as Liberty clinched playoff berth win 70-61 victory over Minnesota on Sunday. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- As the final buzzer sounded, signifying the New York Liberty having put win No. 17 in the books; with the team on the short end one of the league elite in the Minnesota Lynx, the Madison Square Garden public address announcer proclaimed the 70-61 victory as one that clinched a playoff spot for the Liberty. In the giddiness of the moment the promise of champagne was mentioned.

Getting there is job one. The Liberty, though a 17-12 team in the midst of a five-game win streak, are not along for the ride or mention of the postseason on their website. They have bigger things in mind. The first order of the day was withstanding the challenge of the 22-5 Lynx.

In the early going, Minnesota; not concerned about being on the road, was the aggressor. Their transition and perimeter game staked them to an eight-point lead after a quarter. Defensively, they were shutting down the Liberty’s primary option, Tina Charles. The second quarter saw the Liberty step it up a bit on the offensive end, albeit not enough to please Bill Laimbeer. The coach thought his team was fortunate to be in a two-possession game only trailing by five. He spent the better part of halftime not on play calling, but a simple challenge.

“We lacked energy,” Laimbeer said, “like we were here to play a game instead of trying to win one.”

The second half was the turnaround. The Liberty held Minnesota to eleven third quarter points. New York took the lead late in the third quarter and never looked back. It was the best of both defense, a Liberty trademark, and offense. Laimbeer went with a three-guard offense, receiving favorable results. The backcourt opened things up for Charles, who finished with a team-high 19 points.

“Tina is our horse, we know that,” Laimbeer said. “Tonight, I got to play three guards and it gave more opportunity. The extra time helped both (Epiphanny) Prince and Sugar (Rodgers).” Prince scored 15 points, Rodgers added 10, and Bria Hartley; the third of the triumvirate, had nine points while handing out six assists. The defense limited Sylvia Fowles, a 20 point-per-game scorer, to a quiet seven on the afternoon.

“Our defense locked in, especially the second half,” Shavonte Zellous said. Maya Moore of the Lynx was the game-high scorer with 22 points, but as Zellous said, “Maya is Maya. You will not completely shut her down, but we made her work for what she got.” Now the focus is on the playoffs, using the final five regular season games as a springboard.  

“We hope to improve on everything, which is standard coach-speak,” said Laimbeer. “We know who we are. We are solid across the board, have offensive weapons and play good defense. Now, it is mental toughness. We are expected to make the playoffs, now there are bigger things out there. We want to not just make it, but do things in the playoffs. We are in a good spot knowing we can compete home or away. Now, we need to understand how to win mentally. I’ve been down the roads as a player and coach. It becomes a whole ’nother animal. Minnesota wins games due to mental toughness. We are learning.”

“It is a long season,” Rodgers said in the Liberty locker room. “Now, you must keep your focus,” she added in reference to what Laimbeer said. “The playoffs, you have your opponent, you focus on that only. Everything else is blocked out. You are just concentrating on basketball and moving on in the playoffs.”

Zellous also noted about the long season that for many, it starts prior to the WNBA opener.

“For many of us, we compete overseas,” she said. ‘Then you have the WNBA season. It can be very demanding.” She, too, reiterated a lot of the mental gymnastics Laimbeer mentioned. The veteran guard sees a difference this season.

“Last season, we kind of coasted to finish the year,” she said. The Liberty were then eliminated at home by Phoenix in a single-elimination playoff game. “This is a new season. We have a group that is together, and we are competing and getting better every time out.”

An ideal situation for a team with championship aspirations.

Liberty 70, Lynx 61: Tempo-Free Recap

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- Ideally, August is the time of the WNBA season where you want to be at your best.

The New York Liberty, winners of four straight; including Friday’s victory at Connecticut, hosted the Minnesota Lynx.  Cheryl Reeve’s group entered Madison Square Garden having won two of their last three. There were few who would doubt Minnesota’s credentials as an elite club, sporting a 22-5 overall record.
In this Sunday matinee, the Liberty were far from their best in the first half. The final half, however, was one they may want to bottle, as they defeated the Lynx by the final of 70-61.

Pregame numbers of note: Minnesota entered with a league-leading 106 offensive efficiency against a defensive metric of 92, another pace-setting figure. The Liberty showed a 99 on offense while having the league’s third-best mark on defense at 98.

The Liberty showed the ability early on to share the ball. Unfortunately, they were not sharing it with Tina Charles. The former UConn standout was fronted down low with very active post defense. New York managed five first quarter field goals with Charles only accounting for one, a 13-footer. Minnesota looked to run, and if available, take the three-pointer. The Lynx hit two of their eight field goals from beyond the arc. In fact, another three field goals were just inside three-point range. Getting out in transition was the key to the Lynx taking the offensive initiative in a 19-11 lead at the end of the opening stanza.

The Liberty still trailed 33-28 at halftime. They did trim the deficit to one possession on several occasions in that second quarter, a good sign for Bill Laimbeer’s group as shots were starting to fall, as they shot 7-of-14 in the second quarter.

With six minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Lynx still had a 38-34 lead. The Liberty missed a few opportunities in the initial two minutes of the half. A bright spot was two of the three New York field goals were made by Charles. Given a rough start, the Liberty standout showed her veteran poise by staying in the flow of the offense and letting the game come to her.

The Liberty closed out the last two minutes of the third quarter on a 6-0 run, giving them a three-point lead entering the final ten minutes. As an added significance, it gave the home five some much-needed momentum. Epiphanny Prince’s offense (15 points) opened things up for penetration and post play. Almost overlooked was the defense on Sylvia Fowles. The Lynx’s leading scorer (20.4 PPG) was hounded defensively all afternoon. She ended the contest with just seven points on 3-o- 4 shooting, but did lead all rebounders with 15 boards.

Trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter, the ball was put in the capable hands of Maya Moore. The Lynx star canned three field goals from long distance in the last five minutes, but it was not enough as the Liberty sealed it from the charity stripe.

Possessions: Minnesota 72, New York 70
Offensive efficiency: Minnesota 85, New York 100

Four Factors
Effective field goal percentage: Minnesota 39, New York 51
Free throw rate: Minnesota 7, New York 24
Offensive rebound rate: Minnesota 33, New York 24
Turnover rate: Minnesota 13, New York 17

Leading Scorers/Player Efficiency
Minnesota: Maya Moore, 22 points/17
New York: Tina Charles, 19 points/20

NOTES: The free throw rate of Minnesota can attest on how they were largely a perimeter team for the afternoon. Outside of Moore’s late charge, the perimeter was not kind to Minnesota, as they shot 7-of-27 from beyond the arc. Offensive rebounding percentage was deceptive. Minnesota fared better while the Liberty came up with a number of possession-extending boards at key junctures. Minnesota is now 22-6. The Liberty improved to 17.12.

Final Thoughts
“We won. Got on them a little at the half. The first half was not who we are. We came to play, not win. No energy or sense of purpose made us fortunate to only be down four. We challenged them to show who we are in the second half. Don’t know if we contained Maya Moore, you are not going to stop her, she is a tremendous player. You want to limit touches and make her work for everything. The biggest difference was defending Sylvia Fowles. We kept them on the perimeter. The free throws showed that. Sylvia is very physical. If you let her dictate, she will score. We beat her to spots, made them swing the ball more, and forced them to be more perimeter overall.” Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Point guard issue one of many questions Siena hopes to solve this season

Replacing four 1,000-point scorers will be no easy task, but Jimmy Patsos is hopeful that Siena's returning players and new crop of incoming freshmen will keep Saints among MAAC contenders. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Siena's run to last season's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game was somewhat unexpected, as the Saints relied on Nico Clareth's second half bonanza to upset regular season champion Monmouth and earn a date with Iona for an NCAA Tournament berth, where the Gaels narrowly emerged victorious on Siena's home floor in a fierce overtime battle.

The Saints' quartet of 1,000-point scoring seniors has since graduated, with each signing professional contracts overseas, leaving some uncertainty in the Capital Region as the MAAC landscape has been significantly altered heading into the 2017-18 season. Yet through the question marks, there is still confidence abound at the school that remains one of the league's flagship members.

"Everyone's going to pick us sixth or seventh, and that's fine," head coach Jimmy Patsos remarked as he prepares for his fifth season at the helm of the Saints, whom he guided to a College Basketball Invitational championship in his first campaign as Mitch Buonaguro's successor. "I think that's a good thing for us. On paper, that's where we should be. I'm looking forward to coaching this team. I think we're going to get better as the year goes."

Replacing the likes of Brett Bisping, Lavon Long, Javion Ogunyemi and Marquis Wright will be difficult both on paper and on the floor given their immeasurable contributions to Siena basketball over the past four seasons; five in Bisping's case, but in their place stands an emerging core anchored by the flamboyant and charismatic Clareth that will be counted on to be the next wave of standard-bearers for the Saints, who are still seeking a return to their perch among the MAAC's elite after a 69-68 record over the past four seasons.

"Those guys did a great job," said Patsos of his now-departed senior class. "They never lost faith and they never lost confidence despite our tough start. Hopefully Nico and (Ahsante) Shivers learn from them, Kevin Degnan's got a little experience even though he sat out. One thing about the MAAC is you have to prove it. No one's going to give you anything."

Of the many dilemmas surrounding Siena heading into the year, there is perhaps none bigger than who will be the ultimate successor to Wright at the point guard spot. Roman Penn, who enrolled at the school in January and had the opportunity to practice with the team during the spring semester last year, appears to have the inside track, but incoming freshman Jordan Horn is poised to ensure that there will be another type of race held in the Albany area this season alongside those of the equine variety at nearby Saratoga Race Course.

"The thing about Marquis is he played the whole game, took the most shots, did all that stuff," Patsos recollected with regard to Wright. "We're trying to replace a guy that got us points, assists, great player, great leader, played a ton of minutes. That's tough to replace."

"Roman's hungry," said Patsos of Penn, a 5-foot-11 Indiana native whose early enrollment at Siena afforded him the opportunity to learn the Saints' system from Wright and get a feel for what is to be expected of him as he throws himself into the fire. "That proved to be a valuable thing, just to see the competitiveness of the MAAC. These kids don't know. These incoming freshmen have no idea how hard a league the MAAC is, how above the rim it is, great offensive teams, great coaches. Roman saw it for 17 games. He saw Iona's guards. When he saw Justin Robinson, I remember yelling at him at halftime, saying 'Hey, I told you how good he is! See how good he is now?'"

Penn and Horn will see immediate playing time in the backcourt, where they will join Clareth, Shivers, and Fairfield transfer Kevin Degnan in the starting five, according to Patsos. Evan Fisher and incoming freshman Prince Oduro, who helped Canada win the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup gold medal last month, will round out the Saints' rotation alongside sophomore Khalil Richard, with Sammy Friday and Tom Huerter, Jr. competing for minutes as well. All in all, the potential for growth is there with a team composed of holdovers from a deep run through the MAAC tournament, plus a handful of underclassmen poised to take the next step, a combination that Patsos believes has Siena in a favorable position heading into their three-game tour of Canada at the end of the month, as well as the Saints' opener against College of Charleston in November.

"It's one thing to be the sixth option, the fourth option, third option," he said. "It's one thing to play 24 minutes. Now you have to be the guys, and I think it's going to be very interesting for us this year. That's why we'll be picked sixth or seventh, but the league's wide open. I think Iona, everybody's going to concede that they're the No. 1 team, but after that, I'm interested to see. There's a lot of room for growth, a lot of opportunities for some guys that didn't play."

"What do I think? Nico and Shivers, they'll be exciting, but we might be a little more balanced," Patsos intimated. "I think we're going to be a lot better in December and January than we are in November, and we hope to be better in February and March, clearly. There's a lot of positive energy. We have a very hungry look. Some guys want to prove some stuff. Not one guy's going to have the ball in his hands all the time, and that's what makes me nervous. But we stay positive, and the future's bright."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Veteran Jaspers hungry to put last season's bitter end behind them

Rich Williams returns from injury this season to give Manhattan four seniors looking to atone for recent downturn as Jaspers seek third MAAC championship in five seasons. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Manhattan's season came to a heartbreaking end last March, befallen by a last-second three-pointer against Rider and betrayed by a game clock that had reached all zeroes less than a second before Zavier Turner appeared to have gotten what would have been a game-winning layup to fall, leaving an enduring reminder of what could have been during a 10-22 campaign whose curtain was dropped in the opening round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.

Five months later, the Jaspers have reemerged, bearing the scars of last season's disappointment as they enter a season in which their four returning starters and cadre of experience places them among the projected top tier of the MAAC in what those inside the program are hoping will be a year of resurgence and redemption.

"I think anytime you go through a year like last year, where you have injuries and you have a tough year, you have to find a positive in it," head coach Steve Masiello said when summarizing the climax of a season that did not go as planned for Manhattan, one in which Rich Williams; the Jaspers' second-leading scorer in 2015-16, was lost before it even began, having suffered a torn meniscus. "You have to embrace some of the things you went through, some of the embarrassment you went through, the long bus rides you went through, and really ask yourself: Do you want this to happen again? Do you want to be back in this situation again? What can you do to change that?"

"You discuss those things as a family, as a team, and you put that into action in your offseason," he continued. "I think so far, the guys have done a good job in that area."

In some ways, last season's final act seems reminiscent of the end of the 2012-13 season, one in which the Jaspers finished 14-18, but fell three points short of a MAAC championship, losing to Iona in the conference title game. In a coincidental, yet similar, vein, Manhattan navigated both of those seasons without the services of a star player; as Williams was out for the entire season last year, while George Beamon missed all but four games five years ago with a high ankle sprain that was aggravated when he tried to return in December. Fueled by the near-miss, the Jaspers went through practices the following summer and fall eager to claim what they felt was theirs, even displaying the 60-57 final score of the Iona loss on the Draddy Gymnasium scoreboard in every drill and intrasquad scrimmage. The tactic paid off handsomely the following March, as Manhattan knocked off the Gaels for their first of two straight MAAC titles, the fourth and fifth overall in school history. And although last year's frustration was not at the level of coming so close to a championship and subsequent NCAA Tournament berth as the Jaspers did in 2013, Masiello still sees the shared parallel in the two tales.

"I think there's some similarities there, without a doubt," he admitted. "I don't think this team had as much as a heartbreak. That team was three points away from getting to the dance, this team wasn't that close. I always feel the further you go, the more invested you become, the bigger the heartbreak is as well. I think this team definitely has some heartbreak with that. I wouldn't say it was to the level of that year, but I think the similarities are the same in the sense of we had a tough year, guys felt it, we had a very good player sitting out that we needed, and we have a lot of players returning. In those areas, I think there were a lot of similarities, so I'm curious to see how these guys respond to it, but I think we're set up to better ourselves."

This season, Williams returns as a fifth-year senior with the experience of playing a role in both of Manhattan's NCAA Tournament runs under Masiello. The Brooklyn native joins fellow seniors Zavier Turner, Zane Waterman and Calvin Crawford in what shapes up as one of the more experienced rosters not only in Riverdale, but in the MAAC as well, setting up what could be a fitting high note for the quartet to go out upon should the Jaspers hear their name in the field of 68 for the third time in five seasons.

"I think we're looking at a senior class that could, potentially, have four 1,000-point scorers," Masiello said, citing the accomplishments and upside of his veteran leaders. "There's a lot of experience, I think there's a lot of guys that have some great moments, some bad moments. More than anything else, they've seen just about anything you can see, and I don't mean that by arenas. I mean that by they've tried it their way, they've tried it my way, they've tried other coaches' ways. They've tried everything, and I think they understand what works and what doesn't. I think at this point in their careers, all these guys care about is winning, and I don't think you can say that when guys are younger."

"Certain guys care about getting their points, certain guys care about making their parents happy," he elaborated. "These four seniors, I can say, are committed to winning right now for the program. That's what's important about a senior class, because if your senior class isn't committed to that, it can be a problem. But when you have seniors committed to the cause, and we keep talking about this, keep the main thing the main thing; and that's our third (championship) in five (years), that's a great thing to have."

Seton Hall non-conference schedule: 4 Thoughts

Angel Delgado and Seton Hall embark on quality non-conference schedule that will once again prepare Pirates to be a Big East championship contender. (Photo by the Asbury Park Press)

Seton Hall's non-conference schedule, leaked several weeks ago by Jerry Carino; who covers the Pirates for the Asbury Park Press, became public Monday afternoon, featuring 12 games before the soon-to-be-released Big East slate begins for the Pirates.

Led by a four-deep senior class anchored by Angel Delgado and Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall begins their latest campaign on November 10 against in-state rival Fairleigh Dickinson before seeing five reigning postseason teams leading up to their final non-league tuneup, which comes at home on December 23 against Manhattan.

With our Seton Hall wingman Jason Guerette currently in the midst of baseball season in his other line of work as the voice of the Southern Illinois Miners, we are honored to fill in for his customary thoughts, offering opinions and insight on the Pirates' first voyages of the 2017-18 season before the ball is tipped for the first time:

1) This may just be Kevin Willard's strongest non-conference schedule yet.
The eighth-year head coach has taken his share of criticism over the years regarding his teams' schedules, particularly in the early stages of his tenure in South Orange. To his credit, he has been up front when defending this topic, and remains so to this day. But as Seton Hall has risen from the middle of the pack in the Big East to their status as an established contender, so too has the quality of the opponents the program has faced, and this season is no exception.

Welcoming Indiana, albeit a retooling Hoosier program under a new coach in Archie Miller, to the Prudential Center for a Gavitt Games matchup on November 15, only underscores this point, and then you have the NIT Preseason Tip-Off matchups against Rhode Island (more on that one later) and either Vanderbilt or Virginia the following day, both of whom were NCAA Tournament participants just five months ago. Add a road trip to Louisville and a home game against a quality mid-major in VCU, and you have marquee matchups that will not only be stern tests on the floor, but largely beneficial to the RPI and computer rankings as the season goes on. All told, six of the Pirates' dozen opponents finished the season with KenPom ratings inside the Top 50.

2) Almost all of the games are commutable.
Jerry Carino touched on this point as well, and with good reason. Aside from the December 3 trek to Louisville, an 11-hour journey door-to-door from the Seton Hall campus to the KFC Yum! Center should you be ambitious enough to drive it, every other game on the early part of the schedule is easily accessible. Besides Louisville, the four other road or neutral-site games are at Barclays Center (Preseason NIT), Madison Square Garden (Under Armour Reunion vs. Texas Tech), or the RAC, which is the site of this year's annual clash with Rutgers in the Garden State Hardwood Classic. The Pirates have always thrived on fan support, and with the Top 25 buzz surrounding the program as we count down to the first days of practice, a good attendance turnout will be all the more critical from opening tip to final buzzer.

3) Saint Peter's is back on the schedule.
The Peacocks did not play Seton Hall last season because the two sides were unable to come to an agreement despite encouragement on the part of Saint Peter's head coach John Dunne to continue the longtime series, marking the first time since 1949 that the two did not match wits on the hardwood. Whatever differences may have gone unresolved last season have obviously been quashed, as the Peacocks will once again face off against the Pirates, this time inside historic Walsh Gymnasium on December 12 in the renewal of a rivalry between two proud New Jersey programs. Defending Postseason Tournament champions, Saint Peter's will be retooled both in the backcourt and up front, but senior sharpshooter Nick Griffin will still be a force to be reckoned with as the Peacocks look for their second win over The Hall in the last five seasons.

4) All of the subplots.
In particular, four games stand out by having an angle that ties to Seton Hall, but before we delve further into that, take note of the fact that five of the seven other New Jersey programs are playing Seton Hall this season, which further promotes the rich basketball culture of the Garden State. Only Princeton and Rider are not on the ledger. 

Back to the storylines, if we may. First, the Thanksgiving night clash with Rhode Island (November 23) pits beloved Pirate Dan Hurley against his alma mater for the first time as head coach. Now in his sixth season at Rhode Island and coming off an Atlantic 10 championship, Hurley will have the Rams firmly positioned to repeat in the A-10, and the senior backcourt trio of E.C. Matthews, Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell will be a fun battle against Carrington, Myles Powell and Desi Rodriguez. Secondly, the Louisville game sees Willard square off against his mentor, Rick Pitino, for the first time since the Cardinals left the Big East in 2013. Next, the December 20 meeting with Wagner is significant in the form of Seahawks assistant coach Donald Copeland, who of course led the Pirates to the 2004 and 2006 NCAA Tournaments. Finally, the December 23 non-conference finale against Manhattan reunites Willard with Jaspers head coach and close friend Steve Masiello, with whom he served on Pitino's staff at Louisville before taking over as the head coach at Iona in 2007. If that isn't enough, Masiello was in consideration to replace Willard in New Rochelle before the Gaels decided to hire Tim Cluess in 2010. Bringing it full circle, Willard left Iona for Seton Hall to replace Bobby Gonzalez, who led Manhattan to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, with Masiello as his lead assistant.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Lincoln becomes first public school to win Hamilton Park Summer League

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

JERSEY CITY, NJ -- The time-tested coaching cliche tells us the foundation for championships in the winter is put together during the summer. There is truth behind that statement, yet the heat of the summer can be a source of success.

The Lincoln boys’ basketball team could certainly attest to that, having defeated Hudson Catholic, 64-56, to win the Hamilton Park Summer League championship this past Wednesday. The victory was significant on several counts.

In the 15-year history of this competitive high school circuit, St. Anthony won a dozen championships. Naturally, they were not in the field this year with the school having closed in June. Both Hudson, a powerful program of recent seasons, and Lincoln were in their first Hamilton Park final. With the victory, Lincoln became the first public school from Jersey City to capture the crown.  

Lincoln did what was needed, playing a strong first half to establish confidence and dictate the pulse of the game. The Lions led 29-26 at halftime as junior guard Dante Darby had 24 of the Lions points.

“We were aware of it,” Lincoln coach Bill Zasowski said of Darby’s scoring. “But it wasn’t a big deal. We do not have egos, and Darby was getting his points in the framework of the offense. Besides, he got a few layups off steals, thanks to his defense. He actually passed a few open shots up to feed his teammates.”

The second half saw Hudson try to limit transition and pay added defensive attention to Darby. Stepping up was D.J. Henderson, a senior guard, scoring 13 of his 15 points after intermission to take up any scoring slack. Hudson was the beneficiary of a strong performance from Shackylle Dezonie (14 points) and Jonathan Delgado with 13.  Danny Rodriguez added eight points and was strong on the boards for the Hawks. In the final analysis, Lincoln had the answers.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Lincoln lead expanded to 16 points. All good teams make that final run. Hudson had one left in them. A full court pressure defense forced a succession of Lion turnovers. The free-flowing fluid offense was struggling to get in gear. The seemingly comfortable double-digit lead was now a two-possession affair with the eternity of three minutes left.  Lincoln, thanks to timely and accurate free throw shooting, was able to hang on.

Were those last few minutes a bit unnerving?
“Were they for you? They weren’t for me,” Zasowski said with a touch of humor. “Actually, I was never worried. These kids find a way to win. Hudson made their run, but I have faith and the kids do that we could make plays. Look at us as a free throw shooting team. We are not that great on the line, but when the game is in the balance, we convert. These kids are winners.”

Darby, a point guard just under six feet in height, earned MVP honors, finishing with 36 points. Henderson, as noted, added 15.

“Colleges are asking about Darby’s numbers,” Zasowski said. “I said forget numbers, the kid can just dictate the course of a game and he makes his teammates better.” Zasowski also complemented Henderson saying, “DJ is just so passionate. He wants to cover the other team’s best player.”

That mindset epitomizes the entire team. Lincoln has enjoyed its moments of success. On a  consistent basis the girls’ program, headed by former Lion and Saint Peter’s standout Tom Best, gets more recognition.

“These kids want to be challenged,” Zasowski said. “They work hard, they are tough kids, but there is not an ego problem among any one of them.”

The Lincoln mentor realizes there is work ahead.

“Hudson did not have their entire team and neither did we,” Zasowski said. “That is the nature of summer ball. At the end of the day, this championship reminds each of our guys we can win. We will face Hudson during the regular season. They have won the Hudson County title several years in a row. If you want to win the counties, you have to go through Hudson.”

Make no mistake, this summer left an impression.

“This,” Zasowski said, “puts us on the map.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Breaking down Manhattan's non-conference schedule

Manhattan's leading scorer last season, Zavier Turner will once again be counted on to be driving force in Jaspers' backcourt this season, which begins November 15 against St. Francis Brooklyn. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Two years removed from their last taste of conference championship glory, Manhattan starts the process anew once more, hungry to return to the heights for which they have come to be renowned under head coach Steve Masiello.

The bar in Riverdale is always set with the goal of cutting the net on the first Monday in March at the Times Union Center, signifying a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship victory, and the first step toward what would be a third league title in five seasons was taken Friday morning, when the Jaspers released their non-conference schedule.

Beginning on November 15, when St. Francis Brooklyn steps onto the Draddy Gymnasium floor, and culminating in a December 23 matchup against Seton Hall, we will break down each of Manhattan's 12 contests before the start of MAAC play, offering a brief preview of the opponents and the road ahead in what the Jaspers and their fans are hoping to call a resurgent campaign.

St. Francis Brooklyn: Wednesday, November 15 - Draddy Gymnasium
The Jaspers play at home on November 15 for the second straight year, only this time, they will be looking for a better result after last year's 94-81 defeat at the hands of eventual Big South Conference champion Winthrop in an early-morning soiree that was part of ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon. For the third year in a row, they will take on the Terriers, a team that has nowhere to go but up following a 4-27 campaign marked by the lack of a true front line. Head coach Glenn Braica possesses a strong backcourt, though, as Staten Island's Glenn Sanabria returns to assume the controls from the point guard spot while sophomore Rasheem Dunn; St. Francis' leading scorer as a freshman, looks to be the former St. John's assistant's latest diamond in the rough as he shoulders more offensive responsibility in the wake of Yunus Hopkinson's graduation. Cori Johnson, a 6-foot-9 sophomore from Canarsie's South Shore High School, will be a difference-maker in the paint as he returns to the floor after missing the entire 2016-17 season due to injury.
Did You Know? Manhattan will be opening the season at home for the first time since 2011-12. In Masiello's debut as head coach, the Jaspers got 15 points and 10 rebounds from George Beamon, with Roberto Colonette and Donovan Kates also posting double-figure scoring totals in a 62-48 victory over NJIT.

Harvard University: Saturday, November 18 - Draddy Gymnasium
Tommy Amaker and the perennial Ivy League power Crimson make their first appearance on the schedule since a 34-point victory over the Jaspers in November 2012. Siyani Chambers has since graduated, but Patrick School product Bryce Aiken will be the man who makes Harvard's motor run, looking to build off the hype and success of a freshman season that validated his Top 100 ranking as a recruit. His fellow sophomore classmate, 6-foot-7 wing Seth Towns, should see an uptick in already solid averages of 12 points and four rebounds per game while another second-year player; 6-foot-9 big man Chris Lewis, protects the rim for a team with tremendous upside.
Did You Know? The Jaspers open the year with back-to-back home games for the first time since 2006-07, when they played their first five contests in Riverdale during Barry Rohrssen's first season on the bench, compiling a 2-3 record in that stretch. Coincidentally, one of the two victories came on November 18, a 79-77 win over Hofstra, who also appears on Manhattan's schedule this season.

Gulf Coast Showcase: Monday, November 20 - Wednesday, November 22 - Germain Arena; Estero, Fla.
The field for the fifth annual Gulf Coast Showcase has yet to be announced, but Manhattan will be competing in three games in as many days while in Florida. A breakdown of each team in the tournament will be posted at a later date once the participants in the eight-team event have been revealed.
Did You Know? Manhattan is the fourth team from the New York metropolitan area to compete in the Gulf Coast Showcase. Wagner finished third in the inaugural edition of the event in 2013, while Marist recorded a seventh-place showing the following year. Most recently, Hofstra finished third as well when they took part in the field last season. The Jaspers will also be taking a trip to Florida for the third time in the last four seasons, having played Florida State in both November 2014 and December 2016.

Fordham University: Sunday, November 26 - Rose Hill Gymnasium; Bronx, NY
The 110th Battle of the Bronx returns to Fordham's home floor this season, a court in which the Rams scored an 87-64 thrashing of an undermanned and injury-depleted Manhattan squad. The Jaspers settled the score last December in a gritty 60-53 victory that emphasized the defensive mindset that Masiello has made his calling card since taking over as head coach. His counterpart, Jeff Neubauer, loses the services of Javontae Hawkins on the perimeter; as well as combo guard Antwoine Anderson and power forward Christian Sengfelder to graduate transfers, but retains all-Atlantic 10 point guard Joseph Chartouny as the Canadian floor general enters his junior season. Fordham will be counting on junior forwards Prokop Slanina and David Pekarek to make more of an offensive mark alongside senior slasher Will Tavares.
Did You Know? Masiello is 4-2 lifetime against the Rams, but only one of those wins came at Rose Hill. In Fordham's 2012-13 home opener, Michael Alvarado took charge down the stretch, stealing a victory from the jaws of defeat en route to Mike Cohen Most Valuable Player honors in a come-from-behind 65-58 win in a season where the Jaspers ultimately reached their first of three consecutive MAAC championship games.

College of the Holy Cross: Friday, December 1 - SSE Arena; Belfast, Northern Ireland
Now two years removed from an improbable Patriot League championship as the conference tournament's No. 9 seed, the Crusaders will be Manhattan's first draw in the inaugural Belfast Classic. Head coach Bill Carmody loses four starters and four of his six top scorers from last season, leaving senior and Rutgers Prep alum Karl Charles as the team's primary option. Junior Patrick Benzan, Holy Cross' sixth man last season, will slide into the starting point guard role as a group of six freshmen step into the fire of Division I college basketball for the first time.
Did You Know? A former MAAC rival of the Jaspers, Holy Cross will be taking the floor against them for the first time since December 28, 2003. Dave Holmes led the way with 19 points in a 56-54 win at Madison Square Garden that was the first of back-to-back Holiday Festival championships for then-head coach Bobby Gonzalez in a season that is best remembered for the Jaspers' upset of No. 5 seed Florida in the NCAA Tournament less than three months later.

La Salle University or Towson University: Saturday, December 2 - SSE Arena; Belfast, Northern Ireland
Should the Jaspers face La Salle in their second contest across the pond, they will see a roster that returns five of its top seven scorers as head coach Dr. John Giannini seeks to bring the Explorers back to the top of the Atlantic 10. Senior B.J. Johnson, La Salle's 6-foot-7 leading scorer and rebounder one year ago, should be a surefire all-conference player as he anchors an offense that also boasts dynamic junior guard Pookie Powell and fifth-year senior point guard Amar Stukes. In Towson, Manhattan will see a team that is younger than both their own and La Salle's players, as head coach Pat Skerry retools on the heels of a 20-win season. Senior guards Mike Morsell and Deshaun Morman, the latter a transfer from Cincinnati, are still around to lead the way, but the Tigers have a void to fill in the interior, one they are hopeful of seeing 6-foot-9 junior Alex Thomas help secure.
Did You Know? Manhattan and La Salle have not faced off against one another since the Jaspers' 2013-14 season opener, a 99-90 double-overtime victory in Philadelphia that led to a 25-win effort and near-upset of Louisville in the NCAA Tournament later that year. Should Towson be the opponent, it will be the third meeting between the two schools and first since the 2011-12 season, when Manhattan posted an 81-62 triumph over the Tigers.

Morgan State University: Saturday, December 9 - Draddy Gymnasium
Five of the Bears' top six scorers return for head coach Todd Bozeman this season, led by senior and Harlem native Tiwian Kendley, who carved up the Jaspers for 40 points and a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in overtime last season. Kendley averaged 21 points per game while six-foot-8 senior Phillip Carr recorded a near-double-double with averages of 16.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game on his way to Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors. Junior guard Antonio Gillespie is Morgan State's most prolific three-point shooter among the Bears' incumbents, having connected at a 37 percent rate from long distance last season.
Did You Know? Phillip Carr is an alumnus of Transit Tech High School, as is Manhattan's Rich Williams, who returns for his senior season after a torn meniscus cost him the entire 2016-17 campaign. Also, while this is the fourth straight season in which these two programs have met, Morgan State comes to Riverdale for the first time since December 2014, when the Jaspers emerged with a hard-fought 73-69 victory highlighted by Shane Richards breaking the school record for career three-point field goals.

University of Tulsa: Saturday, December 16 - Reynolds Center; Tulsa, Okla.
The Golden Hurricane struggled to a 15-17 record last year, one season after a surprise NCAA Tournament berth. Nonetheless, head coach Frank Haith returns four starters as Tulsa attempts to climb back up the ladder in the American Athletic Conference. Fifth-year senior Junior Etou, a former Rutgers forward who played against the Jaspers in the 2014 Holiday Festival, led the team in both scoring and rebounding last season, and will look to do the same this year, as Jaleel Wheeler and point guard Sterling Taplin direct traffic in the backcourt. This is only the second meeting in the history of the two schools, and first since December 30, 1978, when Tulsa scored a narrow 77-74 victory. Steve Masiello was only 15 months old when that game was contested.
Did You Know? Two members of Tulsa's roster transferred to MAAC schools in the offseason. Forward TK Edogi is now plying his wares for the Jaspers' biggest adversary, Iona, as a graduate transfer; while freshman wing and Brooklyn native Travis Atson will sit out this season at Quinnipiac before suiting up for his first of three years with the Bobcats in 2018-19.

Hofstra University: Wednesday, December 20 - Center for Recreation and Sport; Garden City, NY (Adelphi University)
Although a Hofstra home game, the Pride will be calling Adelphi University their stomping grounds on this night, as the Mack Sports Complex on the Hempstead campus had already been booked for December's mid-year commencement exercises. Regardless, head coach Joe Mihalich; a longtime Jasper foe from his time at Niagara, brings his usual high-scoring backcourt into battle. Junior Justin Wright-Foreman burst onto the scene last season and made the transition from Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley smoother than initially projected, and should be a contender for Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year honors this season. Fellow junior Desure Buie is fully recovered from a knee injury suffered early last year, and former Siena castoff Kenny Wormley is back in the Division I ranks after a season in junior college to split time with Buie at the point while sophomore Eli Pemberton returns on the wing after a promising rookie showing. Up front, seniors Rokas Gustys and Hunter Sabety; the former one of the nation's leading rebounders and a walking double-double, form an imposing duo for the Pride whenever they can stay out of foul trouble. Hofstra's lack of depth in relation to Manhattan's double-digit rotation will be a story to watch during this contest.
Did You Know? Steve Masiello has never lost to Hofstra in any of his four matchups against Nassau County's flagship program. Last season's edition of this local rivalry saw the first of many breakout performances from Aaron Walker, as he posted a then-career-high 15 points in an 80-68 win that also saw Zavier Peart make each of his first eight shots from the floor.

Seton Hall University: Saturday, December 23 - Prudential Center; Newark, NJ
Arguably the marquee opponent in Manhattan's non-league slate, the Pirates come into this year off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and possess a quartet of seniors that will bring a likely Top 25 ranking onto the court two days before Christmas. The Hall's explosiveness begins with Angel Delgado, the reigning Haggerty Award winner who flirted with turning pro at the end of last season, only to announce he would be back in South Orange for one more go-round. The 6-foot-10 All-American is flanked by defensive wizard Ismael Sanogo in the interior, and on the wing by fellow senior Desi Rodriguez, who should be an all-Big East selection once again. In the backcourt, all eyes will be on Khadeen Carrington as he transitions into the point guard spot for a full season, with the goal for the former Bishop Loughlin star to be just as much a facilitator as he is a scorer. With sophomore Myles Powell stepping into the starting lineup, such a task will not be as arduous for Carrington as it may seem on paper. Getting additional minutes for forward Michael Nzei will be a boon for Seton Hall's chances, especially if Delgado finds himself in foul trouble. Elsewhere on the bench, incoming freshman Jordan Walker will serve as Carrington's apprentice at the point before taking on a larger share of the workload next season.
Did You Know? The history between the Jaspers and Pirates is rich, and more interwoven than most may realize. For starters, Bobby Gonzalez left Manhattan after four postseason appearances in seven years to replace Louis Orr at Seton Hall, a coach and team he had beaten in January 2003 at Continental Airlines Arena en route to the first of two MAAC championships. Moreover, Gonzo's replacement, Kevin Willard; now in his eighth season at the helm of the Pirates, coached against the Jaspers for three years at Iona before being hired at Seton Hall by Pat Hobbs. The Gaels were reportedly close to naming Steve Masiello as Willard's replacement before ultimately pulling the trigger on Tim Cluess, a decision that has paid off to the tune of three MAAC championships, four NCAA Tournament berths, and 20-win seasons in every year since Cluess arrived in New Rochelle. Finally, not only are Manhattan and Seton Hall the two most recent New York-area schools to win an NCAA Tournament game, but both teams did it in the same season, AND in the same building. As noted before, the Jaspers upset Florida by the final of 75-60 on March 18, 2004; also Gonzalez's 41st birthday, in the first game of the day at what was then known as the RBC Center, now PNC Arena, in Raleigh. Later that evening, Seton Hall, a No. 8 seed, defeated Lute Olson and Arizona by an 80-76 count to earn a second-round date with Mike Krzyzewski and Duke two days later.

Belfast Classic, Gulf Coast Showcase highlight Jaspers' non-conference schedule

Projected to be one of MAAC's top teams this season, Steve Masiello and Manhattan will use two in-season tournaments to test themselves before league play as part of non-conference schedule. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Five months after a last-second loss eliminated Manhattan from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, the Jaspers are back and ready to roll, releasing a 12-game non-conference schedule Friday morning that will prepare them for league play when that portion of the slate begins in late December.

For the first time since head coach Steve Masiello's first season in 2011-12, Manhattan will open its season at home, welcoming St. Francis Brooklyn to Draddy Gymnasium on November 15. This will be the third consecutive meeting between the Jaspers and Terriers, with Manhattan having taken each of the past two encounters since the inter-borough rivalry was rekindled in December 2014. The homestand continues three days later, as Ivy League contender Harvard makes their way to Riverdale on November 18.

The Jaspers will be competing in two in-season tournaments, beginning with the Gulf Coast Showcase, held from November 20-22. At the present time, the field for the eight-team event has yet to be revealed, but Manhattan will be playing three games at Germain Arena in Estero, Florida. Upon returning from the Sunshine State, a longtime local rival appears next on the ledger, as the Jaspers make the short jaunt to Rose Hill Gymnasium to take on Fordham in the 110th Battle of the Bronx, set for Sunday, November 26. Manhattan is 4-2 against the Rams in Masiello's tenure, and 57-52 all-time against their fellow Bronx brethren.

The meeting with Fordham sandwiches the Gulf Coast Showcase with the Jaspers' second multi-team competition, the Belfast Classic. While in Northern Ireland, Manhattan will first square off against Holy Cross on Friday, December 1, before entertaining either La Salle or Towson the following day. The last of three non-league home games is next on the schedule, as Morgan State returns to Draddy for a December 9 showdown. The Jaspers will be playing the Bears for the fourth straight season, but hosting the Baltimore school for the first time since December 2014, when Shane Richards became Manhattan's all-time three-point field goal leader at Morgan State's expense.

Following a week off for final exams, Manhattan hits the road for a stretch of three games in eight days, beginning against Tulsa on December 16. After the battle with the Golden Hurricane, Hofstra is next on the schedule, with the Jaspers and Pride matching wits on December 20 from Adelphi University. Hofstra's Mack Sports Complex will be the site of the university's mid-year commencement exercises that night, so although it is still a Hofstra home game, it will be held off their Hempstead campus.

Manhattan's final non-conference contest comes two days before Christmas, when the Jaspers take on Seton Hall in a December 23 matinee. All MAAC matchups will be released at a later date.

2017-18 Manhattan Non-Conference Schedule (all times TBD)
Wednesday, November 15: vs. St. Francis Brooklyn

Saturday, November 18: vs. Harvard

Monday, November 20 - Wednesday, November 22: Gulf Coast Showcase; Estero, Fla. (three games, tournament field TBD)

Sunday, November 26: at Fordham

Friday, December 1: vs. Holy Cross (Belfast Classic; Belfast, Northern Ireland)

Saturday, December 2: vs. La Salle or Towson (Belfast Classic; Belfast, Northern Ireland)

Saturday, December 9: vs. Morgan State

Saturday, December 16: at Tulsa

Wednesday, December 20: at Hofstra (Adelphi University; Garden City, NY)

Saturday, December 23: at Seton Hall