Archive | September, 2013

It Is the Quiet Ones You Have to Watch: Colorado

23 Sep

When you hear talk of the Pac-12 heading into the 2013-14 season, you hear about Arizona and Oregon for good reason as Sean Miller and Dana Altman have their respective on the nation’s conscience.  Then people talk about the changes that have taken place in Los Angeles.   UCLA was able to lure Steve Alford out a shiny new 10-year contract at New Mexico to replace Ben Howland. The Trojans of USC also hired a new head man and if you watched any of the NCAA Tournament you surely heard all about him (and his supermodel wife) and his Florida Gulf Coast Eagles as they were the talk of the tournament.  Andy Enfield has taken his talents to LA to try and turnaround the Trojans.

But much like I wrote about Virginia earlier this month, there is a team that is flying under the radar that deserves some attention when talking about the Pac-12.  In two years in the conference this team has 45 wins, 2 NCAA bids and a Pac-12 Tournament title but yet the Colorado Buffaloes seem like they are the kid on the playground trying to squeeze their way into the “cool kids” inner circle.

Colorado’s rise to not just a good basketball team but a good basketball program begins with 4th-year head coach Tad Boyle.  Boyle, who resurrected the Northern Colorado program and led the Bears to the school’s first-ever post season appearance in 2010 was named to take the reins in Boulder in April of that year.  In his first year (and the team’s final year in the Big 12) Boyle led the team to a school record 24 wins and a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Semifinals where the fell to Alabama 62-61.

In 2011-12 Colorado moved to the Pac-12.  Facing a new set of foes and the challenges of adjusting to a new league Boyle and the Buffaloes put their new counterparts on notice by matching the prior season’s 24 wins and capturing the Pac-12 Conference Tournament Championship in the process.  The Buffs then upset UNLV in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to #3 Baylor in the 3rd round.

Last season the team finished 21-12 earning themselves a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament making Boyle the first Colorado coach to lead his team to three consecutive post season appearances.  The Buffs once again proved they were no afterthought in the league sweeping Oregon and splitting with California and Arizona in the regular season.

Boyle had also produced two NBA first-round draft picks in his short time at Colorado. Andre Roberson was drafted by Minnesota and then traded to Oklahoma City.  The junior forward finished the season 2nd in the country in rebounding, grabbing 11.2 boards per gam and Alec Burks led the team with 20.5 points per game during their run to the NIT semifinals.

Despite all that success and Boyle turning Boulder into a basketball school, 26 of the school’s 45 wins during the last two years have come at home the team still isn’t mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA.

Ask junior guard Askia Booker about all that talk and he says, “to be honest, it wouldn’t even matter to me, once you get out on that court none of that matters, all that goes out the window.  We are taking it day by day, practice by practice.”

Boyle has been a huge part of Colorado’s resurgence as a basketball school.  Booker says, “You could say he’s meant everything really. He’s shared his philosophies with the players and they’ve bought in and I think he’s changed the program all the way around.”

So entering their third campaign in the Pac-12 Colorado feels they have the right mix of experience, youth and depth to break through and look to be a perennial contender in the league.  Replacing the production of Roberson on the boards might be the Buffs biggest task but Boyle has plenty of options, and young ones at that available to him.  Sophomores Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson combined for over 19 points and 10.5 rebounds per game as freshmen.  Redshirt freshmen Wesley Gordon and Chris Jenkins add some depth to the frontcourt.  In addition to that quartet freshmen George King, Dustin Thomas and talented wingman Tre’Shaun Fletcher could all make contributions up front.

Booker says the two guys he is most excited to see are the redshirt freshmen Gordon and Jenkins.  “They’re both very athletic very talented basketball players that are going to balance and stretch the floor.  They can also go get the ball at the rim and dunk it.”

One of the most important dynamics in having a good team is a strong backcourt, and in a league loaded with good guards Colorado boasts a junior duo as good as any.  Spencer Dinwiddie and Booker are not only returning as the team’s leading scorers they are also the most experienced Buffs to see the floor for Tad Boyle.  As freshmen the guards were thrown right into the fire in Boulder both averaging over 20 minutes a game while combining for over 19 points, six rebounds and three assists.  Last season they were given the keys to the car and Colorado was rewarded for it getting 27.7 points and 5.2 assists from Booker and Dinwiddie.

Booker calls Dinwiddie, “one of the best guards in the country, at least from my perspective.  We don’t butt heads too much, we’re always usually on the same page, which is really good for our team, and that’s something we’ve been working on day-by-day since we got back to school.”

This season Colorado is not backing down during the non-conference portion of their schedule.  They kick off the season with a game against Baylor in Dallas, they host a very good Harvard team and have battles with former Big XII foes Kansas and Oklahoma State, all before Christmas.

The Buffaloes will have their mettle tested before conference play, but that is just the first step in having another successful season for Booker and his teammates.  The key to another successful season for Colorado is simple for Booker , “defend and rebound” he said succinctly.

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2013 NIT Season Tip Off Thoughts

17 Sep

The 2013 NIT season Tip-Off bracket is out and there are a couple of intriguing things that jump out.  The tournament culminates in the semifinals and finals at Madison Square Garden on November 27th and 29th.  There are four regional pods East, West, North and South that have four teams in each with the top eight teams in the tournament seeded 1-8.

In the West, top seed Arizona hosts Fairleigh Dickinson in Tucson, while #5 Rhode Island battles Division II Metro State who was the National runner-up by a single point.

In the North bracket #4 Rutgers hosts Canisius.  The other side of the bracket for me as  #6 Elon plays #8 Drexel.  Elon who is in its final season in the Southern Conference is probably is Davidson’s primary competition in the league. The Phoenix returns all five starters from a team that won 21 games last season.  They could be a team that finds its way to the Garden.

At the bottom of the bracket in the East #2 Duke hosts UNC-Asheville in Durham while #7 East Carolina faces Norfolk State.

Finally in the South in Tuscaloosa  #3 Alabama hosts Division II’s Stillman College who went 18-9 last season.  The other game in the South pits Georgia State against McNeese State.  Georgia State is in its first season in the Sun Belt and could be a formidable foe for Alabama (if they get by McNeese State) with coach’s son R.J. Hunter who averaged 17 points as a freshman, guard Devonta White and Kentucky (and N.C. State) transfer Ryan Harrow making up the back court.

Arizona and Duke may be locks to see New York Thanksgiving week but who joins them is not a foregone conclusion.

2013 NIT Season Tip Off Bracket

South Dakota State Attempts to Reload

15 Sep

We often hear about how a lot of big time college basketball programs don’t rebuild or retool, they reload. That can be seen best with the University of Kentucky who won the national title two years ago with a group of young kids headlined by freshman Anthony Davis.  Fast forward to this year and they once again have one of the most heralded recruiting classes in a long time including five of the top 11 recruits in the country.   With Julius Randle, the Harrison twins (Andrew and Aaron), James Young and Dakari Johnson the Wildcats are poised for another big year, by reloading.

When mid major schools have a star who graduates they usually go through some rebuilding growing pains.  South Dakota State is taking their own approach at reloading.   Over the last four years  the Jackrabbits have had a player from Minnesota who had a meteoric rise to stardom in the  Summit League that culminated in Nate Wolters being drafted in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft.

Wolters finished his college career as the league’s Player of the Year, a third Team All-American and the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,353 points and led South Dakota State to its first two NCAA Tournament appearances in school history during his junior and senior campaigns, putting the Jackrabbits on the map.

Wolters is gone and coach Scott Nagy is hoping to build upon what his star guard help build, not rebuild.   So Nagy went back to a well he was familiar with, Minnesota and plucked the state’s all-time leading scorer Duluth guard Anders Broman.  Not only did Broman break the record, finishing his high school career with 5,119 points he destroyed the record by over 1,000 points.  Broman pushed Kevin Noreen (now at West Virginia) and his 4,086 points  to second place, but Noreen’s stats were never certified by the Minnesota State High School League.  The leader in the record books was Ellsworth’s Cody Schilling with 3,428, until Broman came along.

Nagy is hoping the addition of Broman along with the senior leadership of Chad White, Jordan Dykstra and Brayden Carlson is enough to reload and keep South Dakota State atop the Summit League.

Creighton Faces New Challenges

7 Sep

In the off-season when the Catholic 7 of the Big East (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova) broke away to form their own basketball-centric conference they sought out teams of similar profiles.  The league then added Butler, Xavier and Creighton, three schools with varying levels of a basketball pedigree.

Butler has two appearances in the tournament title game and after a one-year stay in the Atlantic 10 the Bulldogs move to an even stiffer basketball test in the Big East.  Xavier joins the league after 18 years in the Atlantic 10 has 22 NCAA Tournament appearances since 1983.

The invitee that may be tested the most by the move to the Big East is Creighton.  Yes the Bluejays have a storied basketball resume much like their new brethren with 15 regular season conference championships, 12 conference tournament championships and 14 NCAA Tournament appearances as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference.

Creighton is a very good basketball team and the Missouri Valley is a good basketball conference but joining the Big East is a more consistent step up in competition.  The Bluejays might have made the jump at the right time with arguably their most talented roster in a long time to help them get acclimated to their new surroundings.

The Bluejays are led by All-American and the school’s all-time leading scorer Doug McDermott , who decided against the NBA and returned to Omaha.  When his friend and fellow senior Grant Gibbs was granted another season of eligibility it put Creighton over the limit of 13 scholarships.  So McDermott did what any good friend would do, pay his own way (or at least his dad, coach Greg McDermott would) and play as a walk on.

The only loss to a squad that made the 3rd round of the NCAA Tournament was big man Gregory Echinique.  The loss could pose a problem for the Bluejays as the Big East will a different level of front court player than Creighton was used to in the MVC.

With the only big men on the roster being junior Will Artino, sophomore Geoffrey Groselle who  averaged only 4.4 points and 3.2 rebounds a game last season and freshmen  Toby Hegner and Zach Hanson.  Interior play could be an issue for the Bluejays this season.

On the perimeter is where Creighton’s bread is buttered with an experienced group of guards and wings led by McDermott and Gibbs.  In addition to those two they have seniors Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat and juniors Austin Chatman and Avery Dingman, all four guards should play significant roles this season.  Coach McDermott also brought in guard Devin Brooks from Iowa Western Community College as someone who can help defend athletic guards and create his own shot on the offensive end, something the Bluejays struggled doing last season.

Year after year the same debate takes place during the college basketball season.  One person says the mid majors can’t compete with the “big boys” on a consistent basis, while the opposite side proclaims that the mid majors never get that chance because the “big boys” won’t play them consistently.  This season on some level we may get an answer as we watch Creighton compete in the newly constructed Big East.

Don’t Forget About Virginia in the ACC

6 Sep

The ACC has seen a few changes in the off-season with the additions of Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the league adding to an already deep basketball league that is steeped in tradition.  Heading into 2013-14 the league blue-bloods Duke and North Carolina should be top contenders in the league while the trio of newcomers should all have little trouble getting acclimated to their new surroundings.

If there is a dark horse to challenge the upper echelons of the ACC the choice might be the Virginia Cavaliers.  Coach Tony Bennett is entering his fifth season at the helm of the Cavaliers.   Virginia returns their top five scorers as well as the lone returning member of the First Team All-ACC in senior guard Joe Harris.  Joining Harris is fellow senior and arguably Virginia’s breakout player of the 2012-13 season, senior forward Akil Mitchell.

Since Bennett’s arrival in Charlottesville five years ago the Cavs have done nothing but improve.  Winning just 10 games the season before naming Bennett the head man Virginia has increased its win total every year since, culminating in a trip to the NIT Quarterfinals last season.  The biggest staple in Bennett coached teams is their defense and this Virginia team is no different.  Last season the Cavs finished 16th in the country in field goal percentage defense holding teams to 38.8% shooting while also holding teams to just  55.6 points per game, ranking them 5th in the country.

Mitchell says the marriage between Bennett and Virginia has worked so well because, “The type of player coach Bennett recruits, the type of system that he runs, the high character guys that he looks for are adapted to winning games.”

So why is Virginia primed to take the next step to the upper echelons of the ACC? With wins last season over Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina, N.C. State and #3 Duke and their top five scorers all returning to school, the Cavs are battle tested, experienced and young enough to handle the league’s best.

Another reason Virginia is a prime candidate to breakthrough to the tops of the conference is because of those five returning scorers.  Tony Bennett has a full house to rely on with a trio of sophomores in Justin Anderson, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey backing the senior duo of Harris and Mitchell.  Add to the mix redshirt sophomore Anthony Gill who is eligible after sitting out a year after transferring from South Carolina and the Hoos have the ingredients to challenge in the ACC.

Speaking of Gill both Bennett and the team are expecting the SEC transfer to be a big addition to crew in Charlottesville this season. * Bennett said about Gill, “At practice last year we would say ‘Boy, I wish we had Anthony this year,’ But it’ll be good to have him in the years to come.”

Mitchell adds about Gill, “He was my high school teammate. He brings a lot of physicality, his versatility and his ability to cause mismatches with other big men, his quickness, his strength and he will also bring a little extra experience that we need at a multitude of different positions.”

After averaging just 4 points and 4.4 rebounds a game his sophomore season, he became a fixture in the Cavaliers’ starting line up late in January of his second year and hasn’t looked back.  Now one of the senior leaders on the team Mitchell came into his own last season averaging 13 points and nearly nine rebounds per game good enough for third in the conference.  He also registered 12 double doubles including 19 points and 12 rebounds in the upset win over Duke, while also holding Mason Plumlee to just 10 points and seven rebounds.

That was last year, what does Mitchell think about the upcoming year and the new-look ACC?

After last year’s run to the NIT Quarterfinals Mitchell says this year he is, “looking forward to being successful, playing with these guys, they are my brothers.  I can’t wait to win with them and put this thing together like I had the plan of doing four years ago.”

In order to achieve that goal, Mitchell and his brothers will have to face some challenges including some new ACC foes.  The prospect of playing Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse is one he looks forward to.  “They’re great teams, they’re also completely different.  Coming from the Big East it’s a completely different league, it’s more physical.  It’s a different style of basketball.  They bring a little versatility to the league, something we haven’t seen in the ACC schedule.”

Before they get to face those new foes the Cavaliers must get through non-conference play, a part of the schedule Mitchell has high hopes for. “We’re gonna try and win every last one of the games. Our biggest goal should be to be undefeated come conference play.”

If Virginia hopes to return to the NCAA Tournament Mitchell thinks the team needs to improve on, “learning how to finish games, we left a few games on the table last year. There were some games we probably could have edged out had we been more discipline, done the right thing here or there.  We have to be more discipline and more willing to scrap at the end to pull those tough games out.”

The ACC may have the usual top teams and some formidable new challengers but Tony Bennett and his Virginia Cavaliers are looking to throw their hat in the ring full of ACC contenders.

 

NOTE: * Tony Bennett quote courtesy of Sporting News College Basketball preview

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