Thursday, October 19, 2017

Big Ten Media Day: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK -- The festivities continued.

On Thursday, Madison Square Garden played host to the Big Ten media day. The conference will stage its postseason get-together at the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” so it was natural to tip off the season in the storied edifice.
Commissioner Jim Delany opened the event, with remarks from the conference coaches following. Media also had the opportunity to interview coaches and players in breakout sessions. As expected, some responses fell into the category of scripted. The word “excited” was employed to the nth degree. There were meaningful opinions regarding the move to a 20-game conference schedule next season, as well as the week off between the conference tournament starting a week earlier.
Sometimes, these media days embrace a universal value or topic. This was certainly the case on this sun-drenched fall day. While the FBI investigations in college basketball were mentioned, there was another item, for the time being, drawing more attention: The opportunity to showcase the Big Ten Tournament at the Garden was something discussed by all coaches. And, it should be stressed, it was a subject talked about with a fervor suggesting the said coaches would hit the sideline in a New York minute. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo called the Garden the Mecca of basketball. He is not the first, but does have firsthand experience coaching on the big stage a number of times.  
There was a notable air of excitement among coaches of the self-proclaimed best conference in America, not a bit of surprise in that regard. The conference with over a century of history and midwestern roots is now headed east for its debut on Broadway.

The Big Ten with the official welcome in the Madison Square Garden lobby:
Some of the players in attendance, entering the Garden:
Two legends exchanging pleasantries: Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo and Hall of Fame writer Dick Weiss, the longtime national columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and New York Daily News:
The ever-present concourse bar, not open for business on this day:
The nerve center of the day's activities, the media work room inside MSG's theater lobby:
Rutgers forward Deshawn Freeman strikes a pose:
A discussion panel between Minnesota players and head coach Richard Pitino, live on the Big Ten Network studio set:
The aforementioned Richard Pitino, fielding questions in the media breakout session:
Ray with Big Ten rookie Michael "Mex" Carey, the longtime former athletic communications director at Georgetown who made the move to Michigan State in the offseason:

Seton Hall ranked No. 23 in preseason coaches poll

Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez pose at Big East media day, where Seton Hall was picked second in league just before No. 23 ranking in preseason coaches poll. (Photo by Chris McManus/

Seton Hall already received high praise from the coaches in the Big East Conference on Wednesday, when the Pirates were picked second in the league's preseason poll, securing a first-place vote from Providence's Ed Cooley.

Just over 24 hours later, national plaudits have made their way to South Orange, as Seton Hall will begin the season ranked as the No. 23 team in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

The preseason ranking is the first for the Pirates since the 2000-01 season, when Tommy Amaker brought a tenth-ranked squad into battle alongside the likes of Andre Barrett and the late Eddie Griffin, among others. It is the first time Seton Hall has been inside the Top 25 since March of 2016, when they were ranked 20th in the Associated Press poll and 21st in the Coaches Poll following their victory over Villanova in the Big East Tournament championship game. The preseason AP poll will be released at the end of the month.

Seton Hall is one of three Big East teams to be ranked in the Coaches Poll, and one of six receiving votes in some way, shape, or form. Conference favorite Villanova enters the year as the sixth-ranked team in the nation while Xavier, a West Regional finalist in last season's NCAA Tournament, begins the 2017-18 campaign at No. 17. In addition, Butler, Providence and Creighton garnered support from the coaches who comprise the poll.

The Pirates begin the regular season on November 10, when they host Fairleigh Dickinson at the Prudential Center to begin a four-game homestand.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Big East Media Day: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK -- Everyone begins undefeated.

The slate is unblemished. Media day is upon us, and it often turns out to be somewhat of a feel-good get-together. Coaches, for the most part, are upbeat. Optimism is the order of the day. Quotes, many times scripted, are dutifully recorded.
This Wednesday morning saw the Big East Conference festivities held once again at Madison Square Garden, fitting since the men’s conference season ends on this Garden floor. Why not let it start at the same storied locale? The media day showcases the men’s programs in the morning. The women have the  floor in the afternoon.
An introduction by commissioner Val Ackerman was followed by panel discussions among the coaches before a breakdown into smaller groups. Coaches and selected players of the ten schools spoke of their aspirations and hopes for the upcoming campaign. Again, all are still undefeated. A highlight for the men’s session was Patrick Ewing discussing how he arrived in  our nation’s capital as the new Georgetown coach. Interrelated was Chris Mullin of St. John’s remarking that Georgetown-St. John’s with Ewing on the opposing bench is “kind of surreal.”
After the obligatory break for lunch, a time to relax and socialize a bit in a relaxed setting, the women were up. Camera, recorders and notepads were primed for the proceedings. Defending champion Marquette topped the preseason poll. Coach Carolyn Kieger harbored no concern about being the favorite. The Marquette mentor even expressed the notion that having pressure means you are good.
Media day, as previously noted, is not a pressure-filled affair. That will come soon enough when the teams are competing in earnest. For now, the mood is decidedly more relaxed. As Big East senior associate commissioner John Paquette said, “media day, to me, starts the season.” To those partaking in the day’s festivities, it certainly does.

Big East mascots provided a special greeting for the media in attendance:
The official welcome from the Madison Square Garden jumbotron:
The obligatory photo op of men's basketball coaches with commissioner Val Ackerman:
Villanova's Jay Wright, holding court during a breakout session:
MSG ushers made sure coffee was out in full force:
Ray with Steve Lavin, the former St. John's coach who is now an analyst for Fox Sports:
The women's basketball coaches with commissioner Val Ackerman:
Providence head coach Jim Crowley fields inquiries from the throng in attendance:
Seton Hall's Tony Bozzella meets the media:

Seton Hall senior class ready for its last ride

From left to right: Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado meet media at Big East media day Wednesday morning, where Seton Hall was picked second in league's preseason poll behind Villanova. (Photo by Thomas Chen/Seton Hall University Athletics)

By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)

NEW YORK -- Second place.

That’s where the Big East coaches predicted Seton Hall will finish in the 2017-18 season at Big East media day on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, higher than they’d been picked in the league since 2001 and behind only perennial conference contender Villanova.

The overwhelming reason, of course, is a core of seniors that most coaches would kill to have. For Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo, the Pirates’ four returning senior starters, this year represents their last in Seton Hall blue and white, the capstones on storied careers that have seen them go from talented, wide-eyed freshmen trying to make their mark to hard-nosed veterans now trying to cement their legacy. Such a case makes for a different feel entering this season.

“We want to just leave it out on the floor,” Carrington said. “Not that we don’t do that all the time, but it’s a different mindset knowing that there’s no next year.”

Despite that, the Hall’s senior class has already achieved much. As sophomores, they won the Big East Championship, the school’s first since the halcyon days of the early 1990s. Last season, they made a return trip to the NCAA Tournament despite losing Isaiah Whitehead to the NBA. But in the process, their improvements haven’t just been made on the court.

“We’ve gotten more mature,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve learned a lot the last few years and we’re looking forward to being leaders for this team and having a great season.”

“I feel like I’m a grown man now. I feel like I’m old- I have to stretch more,” Delgado quipped with a smile. “But being a senior, you have to be a leader, and lead the guys to do better things, on the court and off the court. I try to make sure they’re doing well in class and outside of basketball- not just in the gym. They say ‘it’s like you’re my dad,’ but I’m just trying to be a great leader and a great teammate.”

Delgado was the story of the offseason, coming off of a year in which he was the nation’s leading rebounder and one of the top post players in the entire nation, with AP All-American honorable mention, First Team All-Big East and Haggerty Award hardware (given to the top player in the New York metro area) to prove it, he had a choice to turn pro or to return to South Orange. He chose the latter, and his coming back to the Hall was not a decision made solely on emotion.

“I was really proud of how Angel matured as a man,” head coach Kevin Willard said of his All-American. “He went through the process, he listened to the people that were closest to him. And as we got the information, we realized coming back that he’s going to be one of the best players not only in this conference, but in all of college basketball and that he’s going to have a chance to probably improve his status.”

“It was tough, but at the same time it was easy,” Delgado added. “I didn’t feel good thinking about leaving. It was easy when I made the decision- (I felt) more calm and relaxed and more excited. So when I told coach, he said ‘let’s get to work,’ and that’s what we’re doing.”

Expectations for the Pirates are therefore at a high that they have not seen on campus in a generation, evidenced by their high pick in the preseason poll, and it’s because of the seniors that their head coach loves to praise.

“You look at winning the first Big East Championship in 23 years, being picked as high as we have,” Willard said. “You look at the way they represent the program- you have five guys who are going to graduate on time. They’ve done it on the court, but I think I’m most proud of how they’ve done it in the classroom, with community service… they’ve represented this university at the highest level both on and off the court, and that’s what I’m extremely proud of.”

On the court, Carrington sets the bar high for his team.

“I don’t think winning one game (in the NCAA tournament) is enough,” he said. “I think making a deep run- that’s where we’re going to set our goal. I feel like we can win a Big East championship- I think we have the talent to do that as long as we are on the same page, listen to coach and play hard like we usually do.”

In years past, Seton Hall has made defying expectations and finishing ahead of where they’re predicted to finish in the preseason a regular occurrence. This year, the senior core will be in a position they’re unfamiliar with- trying to live up to the expectations set ahead of them. Delgado wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’re not only going to be brothers in school, we’re going to be brothers in life,” he said. “I want to make history with them, I want to finish with them, I want to walk across the stage and get our degrees together. I’m really excited to be with these guys one more year.”

Despite mid-pack predictions, St. John's maintains NCAA Tournament aspirations

Chris Mullin fields questions from throng at Wednesday's Big East media day, where his St. John's team was picked sixth in league's preseason poll. (Photo by Doug Feinberg/Associated Press)

NEW YORK -- The Big East Conference placed seven teams in the NCAA Tournament last season, proving that the national championship won by Villanova in 2016 was not the aberration some had suspected it may be.

If a similar fate is to come to fruition this year, St. John's will be among the field of 68 as suggested by their sixth-place standing in the Big East's preseason coaches' poll, and despite the significant jump that would come from a 14-19 record one year ago to hearing their name announced on Selection Sunday, such an uptick is right in line with the program's mindset as the Red Storm enters year three under head coach Chris Mullin.

"When you're a freshman, everything is fast-paced," said sophomore point guard Marcus LoVett when describing the biggest takeaways he gleaned from his first campaign at the collegiate level. "You're just running, not really knowing what everything is. The fact that I know what everything is now will make it much better. Now I know what Big East play is, and I think all of that, the maturity and everything, has to factor in."

"Last year, I feel like we made a big improvement," senior forward Bashir Ahmed said amid a gaggle of media inside Madison Square Garden, site of the Big East's annual media day. "Over the summer, all the guys on the team have been working hard, Coach (Mullin) has really been pushing us, and I feel like this year, we're pretty confident with all the new pieces that we've added. We're just looking forward to it."

Chief among the new pieces Ahmed speaks of are Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II, the pair of transfers who sat out last season while learning the offense on the corner of Union and Utopia. Simon, a guard who arrives by way of the University of Arizona, is a combo guard whose defense will cause mismatches while also freeing up LoVett and Shamorie Ponds to play off the ball, while Clark, the 6-foot-8 forward who comes in from Michigan State, will be a refreshing complement to Tariq Owens and Kassoum Yakwe in the paint.

"Justin is a guard we didn't have," said Mullin of Simon and his inclusion into what could be among the best backcourt in the league. "We had two really dynamic guards but on the smaller side as far as stature, so it's nice to fill them in with a guy you didn't have. And then Marvin is a physical, versatile forward, a body type we didn't have on our roster."

"He's 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, and he can really move," LoVett chimed in when discussing what Simon brings to the stable of guards, moments before lauding Clark's size and ability to pop out for a mid-range shot. "He's long, he has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, so he's a great defender as well. You've got Shamorie, who could score the ball; me, who facilitates, it's a lot to deal with in the backcourt, but it's great for us."

In addition to the two transfers, freshman Bryan Trimble joins the Red Storm, a 6-foot-3 guard who turned down overtures from Florida State to sign with St. John's, and although his youth tends to get lost in the shuffle amid the experience, his presence has paid dividends.

"He's been great," said LoVett. "He's a freshman, so he's still learning the process of everything, but we've been helping him out through it all. He's a good shooter, and he's definitely going to be a help with the minutes he will play."

All told, the middle-of-the-road projection may cause some skepticism among fans, but the prevailing opinion around the team is that the three-year rebuild started when Mullin was hired to replace Steve Lavin will culminate in the ultimate payoff.

"The tournament is where we're going to get to," a confident LoVett stated. "That's what we've all been talking about, and the potential is crazy in the practices, just how everybody has been operating. We have a lot of athleticism, it's scary."

"They can expect a show coming soon," he proclaimed, offering fans a glimpse of what they can count on seeing once the ball is tipped. "They should be happy they have this group of young men going into battle. We're going to show them what we're all about."

Seton Hall picked 2nd in Big East preseason poll, St. John's 6th

Kevin Willard has reason to smile after Seton Hall was picked second in Big East preseason poll. St. John's added to optimism among locals with their sixth-place prediction. (Photo by the Asbury Park Press)

If last season's success carries over to this coming year of Big East basketball, both local teams should be setting an NCAA Tournament appearance as their respective bars.

Seton Hall, shooting for their third straight inclusion into the field of 68, fared the better of the two in the conference's annual preseason coaches' poll, being picked second among ten teams while St. John's is not far behind, having been predicted to finish sixth as head coach Chris Mullin continues to resurrect his alma mater. Villanova, the Big East regular season champion in each of the past four years, was once again the unanimous pick to win the league, followed by Seton Hall, Xavier, Providence, and Creighton rounding out the top five. St. John's, Marquette, Butler, Georgetown, and DePaul complete the 2017-18 prognostications. For Seton Hall, who received a first-place vote, it is their highest preseason speculation since the 2000-01 season, when the late Eddie Griffin was the Big East Rookie of the Year.

Both the Pirates and Red Storm possess multiple all-conference selections entering the season, with Seton Hall boasting a pair of preseason first team honoree in senior forward Angel Delgado and fellow senior guard Khadeen Carrington. The 6-foot-10 big man received first team all-Big East recognition last season en route to averaging 15.2 points and a nation-leading 13.1 rebounds per game, and captured the Haggerty Award this past April as the best player in the New York metropolitan area. Carrington enters his final season in South Orange as the Pirates' point guard, becoming the primary ball handler following Madison Jones' departure while reprising his role as the leading scorer for head coach Kevin Willard. Their senior classmate, Desi Rodriguez, garnered an honorable mention. Rodriguez, whose highlight-reel dunks helped contribute to an average of 15.7 points per game, will once again be counted on to be a dynamic source of offense on the perimeter.

Villanova's Jalen Brunson was named the conference's Preseason Player of the Year, following in the footsteps of former teammate and current Los Angeles Laker Josh Hart, who was last season's recipient. The Wildcats also snagged Freshman of the Year billing with 6-foot-9 forward Omari Spellman, who makes his long-awaited debut this season after being declared ineligible last fall. Brunson, Delgado and Carrington were joined on the first team by Creighton's Marcus Foster and Xavier's Trevon Bluiett.

St. John's talented sophomore backcourt was lauded by the Big East coaches for ranking among the best in the conference, as both Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett landed second team accolades. A somewhat controversial snub for Freshman of the Year following a rookie season that saw him average a team-leading 17.4 points per game as the Red Storm improved six wins from an 8-24 mark two years ago, Ponds joins LoVett, who averaged 15.9 points per contest as a redshirt freshman last year.

Both Seton Hall and St. John's open the season at home on November 10, with the Pirates ushering in-state rival Fairleigh Dickinson into the Prudential Center while the Red Storm roll out the welcome mat for New Orleans inside Carnesecca Arena.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

2017-18 Big East award predictions

The nation's leading rebounder as a junior last season, Angel Delgado will look add to his haul of accolades before calling it a career at Seton Hall. (Photo by Seton Hall University Athletics)

Big East media day takes place Wednesday morning on the Madison Square Garden floor, and in anticipation of the annual get-together at the home of the conference's postseason tournament, we will offer several pieces of content throughout the week. The run up to media day began with our conference preview, where Villanova is highlighted as the team to beat as the Wildcats shoot for a fifth straight regular season championship, and continues on with this set of predictions on who the league will bestow its awards upon at the conclusion of the season in March:

Player of the Year: Angel Delgado, Seton Hall (2016-17 stats: 15.2 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 2.2 APG, 54% FG)
The 6-foot-10 big man led the nation in rebounding as a junior en route to honorable mention All-American recognition and the Haggerty Award, presented annually to the best player in the New York metropolitan area. Delgado's impact was so noticeable that he tested the professional waters this offseason and looked to be headed for a professional career before a change of heart in May, opting to return to South Orange for one more season. With three of his fellow seniors alongside him for a last go-round at winning an NCAA Tournament game and making a deep run into March, Delgado will only burnish his legacy this season, and will ultimately be recognized as the best player in the conference before he walks off the floor for the last time.

Freshman of the Year: Omari Spellman, Villanova
The 6-foot-9 dynamo was a highly touted recruit for the Wildcats last season, and looked ready to contribute to a team fresh off a buzzer-beating national championship victory before being declared ineligible. The Cleveland native retains all four years of eligibility, and if absence truly makes the heart grow fonder, he will instantly be revered on the Main Line as he steps into the shoes of Darryl Reynolds as Villanova's rim protector.

Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Paschall, Villanova (2016-17 stats: 7.2 PPG, 3.8 PPG, 51% FG)
Once upon a time, Paschall was at Fordham, a former Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year who became the latest in a long line of Tom Pecora recruits to prove his mettle on the collegiate stage. Pecora's dismissal in March of 2015 opened the door for the Westchester native to take his talents to a higher level, and after getting in shape and taking on a role off the bench for Jay Wright, Paschall has become a different player, in essence. With the talent around him, it is not necessary for him to be the gunner he was as a freshman at Fordham, and his more complete game has already blossomed in the Big East. Now a redshirt junior, expect a similar impact in a reserve capacity, one that will enhance the Wildcats' already impressive credentials.

Most Improved Player: Tyrique Jones, Xavier
The vacancies down low for the Musketeers open the door for the 6-foot-9 sophomore to make a greater name for himself after a freshman season in which he averaged over four points per contest while starting 13 games. Kerem Kanter and Sean O'Mara will also see large roles in Xavier's 1-3-1 scheme, but expect Jones to provide just as much of a contribution for Chris Mack, with the uptick in minutes allowing the opportunity to make the most of his time on the floor.

Defensive Player of the Year: Khyri Thomas, Creighton
One of the winners of this award in a rare three-way split last season, the homegrown talent stands to be an even greater piece of the puzzle for the Bluejays this year. Already heralded by the Omaha media for his skill set when the ball is not in his hands, Thomas will make even longer strides on that end while also developing into a primary scorer alongside Marcus Foster in a junior season that is certain to garner him all-league recognition.

Coach of the Year: Chris Mullin, St. John's
While some conferences present this award to the coach who wins the regular season championship, the true meaning of a coach of the year is one who does the most with what is perceived to be the least. Mullin will not be picked near the bottom of the league with St. John's this season, but the Red Storm did finish eighth in the Big East one year ago, and possess the upside to make them a dark horse to contend and perhaps make the NCAA Tournament for the third time this decade, which should be enough to win this honor over the likes of Jay Wright, Kevin Willard and Chris Mack, all of whom have established programs under their watchful eyes.

All-Big East First Team (in alphabetical order)
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Shamorie Ponds, St. John's

All-Big East Second Team (in alphabetical order)
Kyron Cartwright, Providence
Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Markus Howard, Marquette
Khyri Thomas, Creighton

Honorable Mention All-Big East (in alphabetical order)
Rodney Bullock, Providence
Marcus LoVett, St. John's
J.P. Macura, Xavier
Kelan Martin, Butler
Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall

Big East All-Rookie Team (in alphabetical order)
Makai Ashton-Langford, Providence
Theo John, Marquette
Naji Marshall, Xavier
Aaron Thompson, Butler
Omari Spellman, Villanova

Previewing the 2017-18 Big East season

Regular season champions in each of the four seasons since Big East was restructured, Villanova seeks to maintain its stranglehold on league, which sent seven teams to NCAA Tournament last year. (Photo by Newsday)

Since the Big East Conference was restructured following the 2012-13 season, two things have been made quite clear to both the casual and vested fan alike.

First, Villanova has been, and will continue to be until proven otherwise, the unquestioned standard-bearer in the perennial powerhouse league. The Wildcats have claimed each Big East regular season championship following the exodus of the football schools that helped shape the identity of the titanic conference, and are once again the heavy favorites to win a fifth straight title that Jay Wright and the 2016 national champions hope to supplement with a third Big East tournament victory in four seasons. Villanova loses senior mainstays Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, plus the imposing interior presence of Darryl Reynolds, but the Wildcats should boast the Preseason Player of the Year in junior point guard Jalen Brunson, who anchors an offense that will return Mikal Bridges to the starting lineup while also getting increased contributions from Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall, not to mention freshman Omari Spellman, who should be the preseason choice for Freshman of the Year honors after being declared ineligible last season. Native Philadelphian Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree is the other frontcourt newcomer to the Main Line, while Phil Booth is also back after missing his junior season due to injury.

Secondly, any remaining aspersions cast on the Big East and its long-term survival were put to rest in emphatic fashion last March, as the conference sent seven of its ten teams to the NCAA Tournament one year after Villanova brought the league a third national championship this decade. With a majority of last season's star power returning this fall, it is not inconceivable to think at least five or six teams will hear their names announced on Selection Sunday once again. One thing remains certain, though: The quality of the league from top to bottom is deeper this season than last, and the challenges to usurp the throne from the Wildcats will come from a bevy of hungry competitors.

On the heels of back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, Seton Hall comes into the 2017-18 season with a chip on its shoulder, seeking to erase the bitter aftertaste of opening-round exits from the field of 68. A quartet of seniors returns to South Orange for one last hurrah, led by All-American candidate Angel Delgado, the consensus best forward in the conference and strong contender for Player of the Year honors. Khadeen Carrington will need to be equal parts scorer and facilitator for the Pirates this season in the absence of Madison Jones, while Desi Rodriguez brings his slashing playmaker style back to the wing and Ismael Sanogo continues to be the lockdown glue guy in Kevin Willard's lineup. After a promising rookie campaign, Myles Powell is on the precipice of an even bigger breakout as a sophomore, and if Michael Nzei can become a productive backup to Delgado, the potential for The Hall having a season to remember will be limitless.

Fresh off a surprising run to the West Regional final just weeks after they looked dead in the water and bound for the National Invitation Tournament, Xavier enters the season with momentum and renewed enthusiasm for their usual consistent success. Seniors Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura anchor the backcourt for head coach Chris Mack while point guard Quentin Goodin prepares to develop further as a sophomore after inheriting the keys to the offense in the wake of Edmond Sumner's torn ACL last season. Up front, the Musketeers have several big men to help anchor the 1-3-1 zone defense, including graduate transfer Kerem Kanter, who will team with Sean O'Mara and Tyrique Jones. Kaiser Gates should be a force inside as well, with highly touted freshmen Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs being counted on to pay immediate dividends in Cincinnati.

If anyone has shown the ability to fly under the radar and deliver results year after year in the Big East, it has been Ed Cooley. Champions of the Big East in 2014, his Providence Friars put together another NCAA Tournament berth last season after being picked in the second half of the preseason poll, and return all five starters from that squad this season. Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock are surefire all-conference selections entering their senior seasons, with Jalen Lindsay, Alpha Diallo and Emmitt Holt more than capable of carrying the team on either of their respective backs on any given night. The addition of Makai Ashton-Langford, a Top 100 recruit who spurned UConn to sign with Providence, only makes the Friars deeper and much more dangerous on a roster that sees nine of its top ten scorers back in the Ocean State.

Chris Mullin's second season at the helm of his alma mater, St. John's, went much better than his first voyage, which yielded just one conference win and an 8-24 overall record. With more weapons in the arsenal this season, the Red Storm possess the upside that has been indicative of a postseason contender over the years, and look to be hitting their best stride at the most opportune of times. Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett come off a freshman season in which they guided the Johnnies' backcourt to the best defensive turnover rate in league play last year, and the sophomores will be looking to break into their patented transition game at every turn this season. Transfers Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon will be integral pieces to a lineup that can use Bashir Ahmed as the center in a smaller attack, but also as a wing man when Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens are on the floor in a bigger outfit on the corner of Union and Utopia. Another team with tremendous upside is Creighton, which possesses a pair of qualified scorers in Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, the latter of whom should be one of the most lethal two-way players in the Big East this season. The arrival of Kaleb Joseph by way of Syracuse gives Greg McDermott's Bluejays a proven floor general to step into the shoes of Maurice Watson, Jr. without missing a beat in Omaha.

Marquette, one of the seven NCAA Tournament teams in the conference last season, should be able to reprise its role again this year in a deeper and more efficient composition this year for Steve Wojciechowski. Now a sophomore, Markus Howard is still only 18 years old, and the sharpshooter stands to become a household name with his uncanny eye for smart shots and long-distance daggers. Newcomers Theo John and Harry Froling will not have it easy in replacing Luke Fischer, but the duo will lighten the load on Sam Hauser and fan favorite Matt Heldt in Milwaukee, making the transition easier for the Golden Eagles. Butler welcomes a new coach in alumnus LaVall Jordan after Chris Holtmann left for Ohio State, but the Bulldogs are still a sleeper thanks to seniors Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman, not to mention burgeoning sophomore point guard Kamar Baldwin. George Washington expatriate Paul Jorgensen is eligible once again, and provides instant credibility to the backcourt, while incoming freshmen Aaron Thompson and Christian David; both of whom reaffirmed their commitments even after Holtmann left Indianapolis, make their presence known early and often.

DePaul ushers in the opening of Wintrust Arena with a group eager to make strides under Dave Leitao. Junior swingman Eli Cain becomes the face of the Blue Demons with Billy Garrett, Jr. having graduated, and will count on Oklahoma transfer Austin Grandstaff to lead a supporting cast who must step up soon to expedite the rebuilding process. Finally, Georgetown replaces John Thompson III with program icon Patrick Ewing, creating a palpable buzz on the Hilltop after a handful of subpar seasons. However, the hill to climb has become steeper for the Hoyas, who will have junior center Jessie Govan leading the way in what the former national champion and Olympic gold medalist hopes will be a year highlighted more for fleeting moments of glory than humbling defeats.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Villanova - The road to a conference championship goes through the Main Line until proven otherwise. Not many teams have the ability to look stronger than the previous season in the wake of losing three starters, but Jay Wright and the Wildcats have an elixir for success that becomes stronger and more formidable with each passing year.

2) Seton Hall - The Pirates have been building for a banner year in each of the past two seasons, starting with March 2016's Big East title run before winning seven of their final nine regular season contests last year to erase any prospect of being on the bubble going into Madison Square Garden. The fever pitch has now reached a crescendo, and with a Top 25 outfit going into battle in South Orange, Kevin Willard has his best chance to knock the kings of the conference out of power.

3) Xavier - This could very well be Chris Mack's deepest and most talented team. The question now becomes one of whether or not the Musketeers can get over the hump and win a conference title.

4) Providence - The Friars are not the trendy pick to make noise this season, as the majority of last season's NCAA Tournament team comes back for Ed Cooley. If Providence knocks on the door to the top, chances are they will break it down sooner rather than later.

5) St. John's - Expect at least 18 wins and no worse than a National Invitation Tournament appearance for the Red Storm this season. Chris Mullin's team has the pieces to put it all together, and with a strong non-conference season, the Johnnies could very well have enough left in the tank to go dancing for a third time in eight years.

6) Creighton - Khyri Thomas will be no worse than a second team all-Big East selection this year, and Marcus Foster should be a Player of the Year contender. Those two, plus Kaleb Joseph and a deceptively strong freshman class, will keep the Bluejays in the thick of things throughout the year.

7) Marquette - The Golden Eagles are a victim of the middle of the league being wide open, but they should still be a postseason team barring a cataclysmic meltdown. Markus Howard might end up being the conference's leading scorer by the time March rolls around.

8) Butler - Losing Andrew Chrabascz will be hard for the Bulldogs to overcome, but senior leadership and an intriguing group of freshmen will mitigate any trouble spots for LaVall Jordan in his first season at the helm.

9) DePaul - The Blue Demons should be able to escape the cellar this season, but Eli Cain has a lot more to prove as the leader as opposed to being Billy Garrett, Jr.'s sidekick last season.

10) Georgetown - It's not going to be easy for Patrick Ewing this year, but the Hoyas will gain valuable experience that will serve them well for seasons to come on the Hilltop.

Pink Whistle: Fordham WBB Scrimmage

Ray with Abigail Corning, the former Fordham player turned director of basketball operations. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

BRONX, NY -- Early Sunday morning and the Cross-Bronx Expressway is cooperating. Take that and run with it.

WAXQ’s “Breakfast with the Beatles” and host Ken Dashow took me “Here, There and Everywhere,” with a stop at “Penny Lane.” On tap was an assignment at Fordham, this one necessitating a notebook, camera and officiating gear.
The Fordham women had an intrasquad scrimmage set for 10 a.m. Coach Stephanie Gaitley has seen yours truly officiate and allowed me to have the honor on this day. Though my experience is mostly high school, AAU and travel basketball, I did officiate a Seton Hall intrasquad scrimmage once during Phyllis Mangina’s time in South Orange, and it went very well.
I arrived at about 9 a.m., and by 9:20, early arrivals from the women’s team are making their way to Fordham Prep. I tell them I am officiating their scrimmage and they are happy to hear that, with one jokingly saying, “please don’t call any fouls on me.” We are using the prep gym at the south end of campus, as Rose Hill Gym is being used for an open house.
Getting settled, I notice the gym is named after Donnie Walsh, a well-known figure in New York and NBA circles, then talk a bit with Lauren Holden. The junior guard is out with a foot injury. In fact, also missing the scrimmage were Mary Goulding (knee injury) and G’mrice Davis due to a family issue. Holden said she looked at Rider and Yale in her recruitment. “I didn’t want to go Ivy League,” she said. “At Rider, I could have played with Julia Duggan, who I went up against in (Lower Cape May, NJ) high school. Fordham really was my main interest.”

Director of player development Samantha Clark, a former Ram standout, is the first on staff to enter. She introduced herself and I laughed, reminded of the numerous games she played that I covered. Clark oversaw stretching and warmup exercises. Before the scrimmage, there was a succession of 3-5 minute drills; full court dribbling and passing ending in layups on one end, and jumpers on the other. Free throws and a few half court sets are run at both ends. By the time the drills had begun, Gaitley and her staff were present. The drills provide a good method of getting the players ready to scrimmage at 10:30.
My partner had not yet arrived. Gaitley asked if I could start the scrimmage alone, which I agree to. We were going four ten-minute quarters, a regulation college game. The women were facing a scout team of former high school boys players. To round them out, director of basketball operations Abigail Corning; a good player during her recent days at Rose Hill, joins the scouts.
Working alone, I work C-to-C, as you would in a three-man officiating crew. Basically, you cover foul line to foul line and step down for baseline penetrations. A three-person crew will miss things. As one person, you will miss too, but just work as hard as you can.

Early on, both teams were pushing the ball and attempting threes. As the quarter moved on, Gaitley had her Fordham team looking to break, but settling in half court opportunities if transition did not materialize. Force of high school habit had me ten-second counting in the backcourt, which I had to remind myself to stop. At the end of the quarter, I grabbed some Powerade and mentioned to Frank Gaitley, Stephanie’s husband, how clean the guard-to-guard play is. Hand checking is virtually non-existent. At the end of the first quarter, associate head coach Angelika Szumilo asks about a Euro penetration, as a player penetrating from an angle went to the basket and drew a foul as the defender moved her hip into the offensive player. My explanation was if the defense is totally stationary, there is no foul. She thought as much, but added a lot of officials will call it on the defense because there is a bump and the offense is displaced.
A change of lead in the first quarter saw Fordham establish a second-quarter lead it would not relinquish. Numbers 11 and 14 have size and had their moments down low. While the scout team is willing to attack the basket, the overall balance of the Rams took over. As the half ended, Abigail Corning patted me on the back, as if to say “good work.” Samantha Clark said halftime was three minutes, and time for me to replenish with more Powerade and jot a few notes in my notebook. Coach Gaitley informed me my partner had a location mixup and would soon be here. Early in the third period, he arrived. His name is Joe Cruz. His work is primarily in New York, and from the earliest possessions together, we were on the same page.
With a two-man officiating game, the coverage improved. On the lead, I can focus mainly on post play rather than trying to split vision as a crew of one. Working the game, I am always concentrating. In high school and travel games, I can pick up what coaches are saying to their teams. On this day, I knew Gaitley emphasized fundamentals and things such as getting back on defense, especially in the first half. I didn’t really notice too much of what she said, as my level of concentration was at a very high level for this competition.

The second half was very smooth and we finished up strong, hustling through the final possession. Joe and I both said we hoped to work again with each other. Gaitley commended our work. She also reiterated with a few key players out, the scrimmage still gave a great opportunity to get a further read on newcomers and returnees working their way into rotation.

A few final observations:
- Coaches and players got a laugh out of hearing my recent basketball assignment was third grade at Hoop Heaven. They know on that level, anything can and usually does happen. The kids can be all over and push the ball with no rhyme or reason, to which one assistant said, “some college teams do that too.”

- When you work a grade-school level game alone, there will be complaints when you miss something. Here, there were none, as the players realize you are one person running hard getting in best possible position, but you are human and will miss a few calls. The toughest part in this one working alone was officiating the baseline drives, which are difficult given defenders’ size and your angle.

- On this level, it is nice to commend a player for a good play. The lower levels may construe that as favoritism, but a few times heading down court after she hit a three, I let Abigail Corning know when she made a good shot. Opening the third quarter inbounding the ball to Fordham’s No. 10, I let her know she was doing a nice job hustling and keeping up the good effort. Again, as an official, it is a plus, as the players appreciate it too.

- These are Division I players, so we let them play aggressive and battle one-on-one in the post. If a player posted up looking for a pass and the defense put a hand on her, we called it. “I’m glad you officiated the post that way,” Gaitley said. ‘That hand on the back gets called during the regular season, so I want them to get used to that and not pick up that foul when it counts.” Needless to say, their skill set and body control is outstanding compared to what you would see even on the high school level. On another point, they do not attempt what they cannot physically do, even though some of their coaches may disagree with that point.

- As noted, hand checking was not too prevalent. Screens were set well and having covered Fordham many times last season, I could pick up how they ran their 1-2-2 offense, which was a bit different minus G’mrice Davis setting up on the blocks.

In the final analysis, it was just a great experience of being on the floor watching the teamwork up close on both ends of the floor. It was made even more memorable when coaches and players personally came up to say thank you for our work on the court.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Previewing the 2017-18 MAAC WBB season

MAAC champions for a second time in three years last season, Quinnipiac reached greater heights en route to Sweet 16, and is poised to return to NCAA Tournament again this year. (Photo by Vincent Simone/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Last year's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season provided a return to the top of the mountain for one team, while seeing a breakthrough on the part of the runners-up that should establish the foundation for continued success, as some others in the league retooled in preparation for a better campaign in 2017-18.

Of course, the lasting image from the MAAC one year ago was Quinnipiac, four years ago a member of the Northeast Conference, cutting down the Times Union Center net for the second time in three seasons before the Bobcats' memorable run to the Sweet 16 turned the program into a household name across the nation and gave head coach Tricia Fabbri the testimonial that only die-hard fans and astute women's basketball observers had bestowed upon her long ago.

There is one difference this season in comparison to the last Quinnipiac championship defense, though. Whereas Fabbri and the Bobcats essentially replaced their entire starting five in the wake of their 2015 MAAC title, the core of last year's historic unit returns to Hamden. In fact, only two players; Adily Martucci and Morgan Manz, have graduated, and only three others are seniors this year, which raises the prospect of a legitimate dynasty in the MAAC provided all goes according to plan.

Rider raised eyebrows around the MAAC last season, going from a team expected to finish near the bottom of the standings to reach the Women's National Invitation Tournament and give Quinnipiac a fight in the conference championship game. Reigning MAAC Player of the Year Robin Perkins has graduated, but the Broncs return a pair of all-league-caliber guards in Kamila Hoskova and Stella Johnson, which gives Lynn Milligan ample building blocks around which to construct the next generation in Lawrenceville. Perennial contender Fairfield is in a retooling year after losing Kelsey Carey and Casey Smith to graduation, but Joe Frager and the Stags return a trio of starters headlined by Canadian forward Samantha Cooper, a double-double threat who could be the best post player in the conference this season. A supporting cast of freshmen and sophomores will be counted on to progress ahead of schedule if Fairfield has visions of winning the MAAC and shocking the conference heavyweights they have kept company with the past several seasons. Champions in 2015-16, Iona is also a younger team this season, but the Gaels possess the likely Preseason Player of the Year in junior guard Alexis Lewis, who has helped Billi Godsey turn the page and maintain the status quo even after Damika Martinez and Joy Adams concluded their stellar careers in New Rochelle.

One team that went through the restructuring last season and is now poised to make a run at Quinnipiac for the top spot is their first MAAC adversary, Marist. Last season's sixth-place finish was an anomaly for Brian Giorgis and his ten conference crowns, but the Red Foxes are back stronger with the services of transfers Alana Gilmer and Grace Vander Weide to fortify an already potent rotation that includes Maura Fitzpatrick as a double-figure scoring threat alongside twins Hannah and Rebekah Hand, the latter of whom was the MAAC's Rookie of the Year last year. Siena returns senior guard Kollyns Scarbrough to Loudonville this season, but the Saints will have work to do in replacing Jackie Benitez and Meghan Donohue. Look for a more perimeter-oriented attack for head coach Ali Jaques this season as the young front line develops, with 6-foot-2 sophomore Maddie Sims being a name to watch as the year goes on.

The two Western New York programs should each be on the upswing this season. Canisius possesses a deceptively strong level of experience as Terry Zeh enters yet another season at the helm in Buffalo, with juniors Maria Welch and Sara Hinriksdottir both capable of blossoming into first team all-conference talents if the Golden Griffins reach their highest potential. Niagara has been befallen by injuries over the years, but when Victoria Rampado is at her best, very few teams are able to stop her. Rampado and Kaylee Stroemple will provide head coach Jada Pierce with one of the better interior duos in the MAAC, but the key will be getting the backcourt to augment their production. Monmouth got a promising sophomore season from McKinzee Barker to keep the rebuild in West Long Branch on schedule, and the Hawks were blessed with the All-Rookie contributions of Kayla Shaw, who now becomes the unquestioned leader for Jenny Palmateer's team. Manhattan is a year older, and should make strides in Heather Vulin's second season in Riverdale. Senior point guard Amani Tatum remains a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the ball, and if Kayla Grimme can match her breakout junior season, she should see a second straight all-conference honor in recognition of her being one of the best post players in the league. Finally, there is nowhere to go but up for Saint Peter's. Sophomore Zoe Pero, an All-Rookie selection last year, is in line for a breakout season, while seniors Sajanna Bethea and Talah Hughes look to finish their careers in Jersey City on a high note.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Quinnipiac - All but one player is back from last year's magical Sweet 16 run, raising the bar for even greater heights to be reached. Say it with us: Fearless. Focused. Fabbri.

2) Marist - Brian Giorgis' teams are at their most dangerous when they have something to prove. This year's Red Foxes are out to show the MAAC that not only was last year an aberration, but also that the longtime ruling program atop the conference is still alive and well.

3) Rider - Losing Robin Perkins will be difficult to overcome, but Lynn Milligan has the pieces in place to keep the Broncs competitive.

4) Iona - As Alexis Lewis goes, so too will the Gaels. Fortunately for those who bleed maroon and gold, she should be good to go all season, and at an elite level.

5) Fairfield - The key for Joe Frager will be his backcourt. Watch out for Katie Armstrong in 2018-19, though, as the 6-foot-2 transfer from Saint Joseph's could be a gold mine in much the same vein as Casey Smith.

6) Canisius - A true dark horse, the Griffs' success will depend on how much the supporting cast around Maria Welch and Sara Hinriksdottir produces.

7) Niagara - Much like their crosstown rival Canisius, the Purple Eagles' season will be contingent on how well the backcourt performs alongside Victoria Rampado and Kaylle Stroemple.

8) Siena - Ali Jaques and the Saints are retooling this season, and should be better than this by the end of February if past years in Loudonville are any indication.

9) Manhattan - Remember this name for the Jaspers: Kayla Grimme. By the end of the season, she will reprise her role as one of the best forwards in the MAAC.

10) Monmouth - The Hawks will be counting on Kayla Shaw to replicate her outstanding freshman season, but have work to do to climb into the middle of the pack.

11) Saint Peter's - Pat Coyle's team has shown flashes of brilliance, yet has not been able to get it to all come together. The Peacocks will need to be firing on all cylinders to change that narrative.