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.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Officiating Fordham's intrasquad scrimmage: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

BRONX, NY -- We see the finished product, the game and its result. We analyze, as should be the case. But do we realize what goes on behind the scenes?

The preparation and work involved which often can separate a contender from pretender, the hours in practice where individuals and the team develop to their best potential. This is a vital  part of the game often overlooked by the casual fan.
On a quiet Sunday morning, the Fordham women’s basketball team was at work. A two-hour practice highlighted by an intrasquad scrimmage at Fordham Prep, a long jump shot from Rose Hill Gymnasium, was in order.
The Fordham women have a number of new additions to their roster and coaching staff as well. Among the returnees were several starters out with injuries, which prompted coach Stephanie Gaitley to remark, “it feels like we have all freshmen out there.”

Stretching gave way to conditioning and shooting drills. Free throws and some half court work were added before the scrimmage. Fordham went up against a scout team of former high school boys’ players. This is a practice widely used in women’s programs today.

Four ten-minute quarters, a normal college game, was the order. Yours truly also served as an official, giving a unique perspective. Coach Gaitley would occasionally call timeout to make a teaching point. Other than that, she watched with her assistants while taking time to address certain plays from a fundamental standpoint. Even with the likes of Lauren Holden, G’mrice Davis and Mary Goulding out, the teaching continued in earnest. Gaitley used the opportunity to further indoctrinate her younger players on how things are done at Rose Hill.  

Fordham won the intrasquad over the scout team by about 20 points. The scoreboard told us as much. Beyond that was the instruction and chance for the new arrivals to effectively work into the system under game conditions, another example of how those victories on cold winter nights actually begin and take root in the work put in during the fall.

Early arrivals to Fordham's Sunday morning practice:
Inside the gymnasium at Fordham Prep:
A plaque outside Fordham Prep's court, paying tribute to alumnus Donnie Walsh, best known as the former general manager of the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks:
Head coach Stephanie Gaitley putting the Rams through their paces:
Fordham in a pre-scrimmage huddle:
With practice complete, Gaitley addresses the team:
Official Joe Cruz, who shared the whistle with Ray for the intrasquad scrimmage:

Monday, October 9, 2017

2017-18 MAAC award predictions

An experienced veteran amid a conference-wide youth movement, Tyler Nelson should reprise his role among MAAC's leading scorers heading into his senior season at Fairfield. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Last week, we opened the month of October with our Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preview, in which Iona was our pick to win the regular season, followed by Manhattan, Monmouth, and an up-and-coming Niagara team whose upside positions them as a strong contender heading into the Times Union Center next March. To supplement that, we offer predictions on who the conference's regular season awards and recognitions will be presented to on both the men's and women's sides as we close in on the opening tip of the 2017-18 campaign one month from Tuesday:

Player of the Year: Tyler Nelson, Fairfield (2016-17 stats: 19.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.1 SPG)
Nelson is this year what Billy Baron was for Canisius three years ago: A senior leader among a conference that has gotten younger as a whole. The Stags' leading scorer loses two of his running mates in Curtis Cobb and Jerry Johnson, Jr. this season, but still returns a supporting cast that should earn Fairfield a preseason ranking in the top half of a conference it could very easily win if all breaks well for head coach Sydney Johnson, not to mention a handful of highly touted newcomers to the program. If everyone is able to involve themselves in the Stags' uptempo offense, the Massachusetts native should be able to average 20 points per game without breaking a sweat.

Rookie of the Year: Prince Oduro, Siena
The 6-foot-8 Canadian forward led his country's national team to a gold medal this summer and has not missed a beat since arriving in Loudonville, drawing rave reviews from not only head coach Jimmy Patsos, but also national media as well. All indications are that Oduro, who drew interest from Mississippi State before ultimately signing with the Saints, will be the starting center on opening night against College of Charleston, giving him a major opportunity to step into the shoes of Brett Bisping early and often as Siena embarks upon the challenge of having to replace four 1,000-point scorers in their starting lineup.

Sixth Man of the Year: Calvin Crawford, Manhattan (2016-17 stats: 9.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG)
The emergence of junior college transfer Pauly Paulicap, coupled with Crawford's ability to provide an instant spark off the bench in the opening minutes, will give Steve Masiello a myriad of options in Riverdale this season as the Jaspers bring the most experience back to the MAAC in the hopes of erasing a two-year stretch of misery compounded by an injury-ravaged roster. Crawford can play any of the three frontcourt positions, something that bodes well for Manhattan and their immense depth as the year goes on.

Defensive Player of the Year: Dominic Robb, Niagara
Robb's teammate, Chris Barton, is arguably one of the MAAC's better on-ball defenders, but the junior forward from Pittsburgh has an impact in the interior that is unique to any player in the conference. The 6-foot-8 Robb led the MAAC with 74 blocked shots last season, and should see his numbers go up as the Purple Eagles take the next step into a force to be reckoned with.

Coach of the Year: Steve Masiello, Manhattan
Chris Casey will see a boost to his candidacy if Niagara is indeed able to finish among the top five in the MAAC, but Masiello has a legitimate opportunity to complete a last-to-first turnaround this year as long as the Jaspers can stay healthy and use their experience to their advantage. In his first campaign at the helm six years ago, Masiello guided Manhattan to a 15-win improvement from his predecessor, Barry Rohrssen, yet lost out to Jimmy Patsos; then of Loyola, for Coach of the Year honors in a season where both teams ultimately made postseason appearances. Should the 40-year-old manage to return his team to the status it enjoyed just three years ago when winning a second conference championship in as many seasons, it could merit a distinction at the end of the year as he and his program shoot for a third league title in five years.

All-MAAC First Team (in alphabetical order)
Rickey McGill, Iona
Tyler Nelson, Fairfield
Matt Scott, Niagara
Micah Seaborn, Monmouth
Rich Williams, Manhattan

All-MAAC Second Team (in alphabetical order)
Nico Clareth, Siena
Jermaine Crumpton, Canisius
Kahlil Dukes, Niagara
Deyshonee Much, Iona
Zavier Turner, Manhattan

All-MAAC Third Team (in alphabetical order)
Chaise Daniels, Quinnipiac
Devine Eke, Rider
Stevie Jordan, Rider
Isaiah Reese, Canisius
Zane Waterman, Manhattan

Women's Basketball Award Predictions
Preseason Player of the Year: Alexis Lewis, Iona

Sixth Player of the Year: Sarah Shewan, Quinnipiac

Defensive Player of the Year: Aryn McClure, Quinnipiac

Coach of the Year: Brian Giorgis, Marist

All-MAAC First Team (in alphabetical order)
Samantha Cooper, Fairfield
Rebekah Hand, Marist
Alexis Lewis, Iona
Aryn McClure, Quinnipiac
Victoria Rampado, Niagara

All-MAAC Second Team (in alphabetical order)
Jen Fay, Quinnipiac
Maura Fitzpatrick, Marist
Alana Gilmer, Marist
Kamila Hoskova, Rider
Kollyns Scarbrough, Siena

All-MAAC Third Team (in alphabetical order)
Kayla Grimme, Manhattan
Sara Hinriksdottir, Canisius
Stella Johnson, Rider
Paula Strautmane, Quinnipiac
Kaylee Stroemple, Niagara

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Previewing the 2017-18 MAAC season

Conference champions twice in a row after last March's triumph, Iona heads into 2017-18 season as early favorites to become just third team in MAAC history to win three straight league crowns. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

In many ways, last season's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season was, in essence, one of déjà vu when compared to its predecessor.

Much like the 2015-16 campaign, Monmouth's strength and penchant for upsets against high-major opponents thrust the Hawks into the regular season championship and an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament for a second straight year. But once again, the mid-major darling was unable to claim the ultimate prize, falling to Siena in a semifinal upset and watching as spectators while Iona; who defeated Monmouth in the championship game two years ago, repeated in an overtime thriller the following night.

The sense of history repeating itself appears to have dissipated heading into the 2017-18 season, replaced instead by an aura of uncertainty and intrigue as each of the eleven MAAC programs retools in preparation for what should be quite the interesting season, for better or worse.

Conference champions three times and four-time NCAA Tournament participants under Tim Cluess, Iona now attempts to do what only La Salle (1988-90) and Siena (2008-10) have done: Win a third consecutive MAAC postseason tournament. The Gaels will need to adjust to life without all-conference forward Jordan Washington and cultivate a new front line, but the incumbent stable of guards headlined by junior Rickey McGill and senior Deyshonee Much should be more than enough for the Maroon and Gold to reestablish themselves among the league's elite, not to mention the return of sharpshooter Schadrac Casimir and swingman E.J. Crawford, whose driving layup in overtime of the MAAC championship game gave the Gaels a lead they would not relinquish. Graduate transfer Zach Lewis also returns to the league he spent his first two years in, as the Canisius expatriate arrives from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in tow.

The Monmouth team that challenged Iona for MAAC supremacy the past two seasons must also replace the anchor of its exploits, as two-time reigning conference player of the year Justin Robinson has now graduated and is plying his wares in Russia. The show goes on in West Long Branch, however, as junior Micah Seaborn becomes the face of King Rice's Hawks on the heels of a first team all-league showing as a sophomore. Redshirt freshman Ray Salnave, a former pupil of legendary Cardozo High School head coach Ron Naclerio, steps into Robinson's point guard shoes along with Austin Tilghman, while the glut of big men that was so integral in Monmouth's depth the past two seasons welcomes Zac Tillman back into its fold as a fifth-year senior after redshirting the season before.

Siena, who defeated Monmouth in the MAAC Tournament a year ago, is perhaps the team hardest hit by graduation. The Saints will need to replace its quartet of 1,000-point scoring seniors, but junior Nico Clareth finally has the opportunity to take center stage in a conference that ushers in a youth movement of sorts. Clareth, along with incoming freshmen Roman Penn and Prince Oduro, will form a new core that Jimmy Patsos has admitted he is excited to see develop in the Capital Region as a new era in Siena basketball begins.

A familiar sight among the top half of the conference before injuries ravaged their roster in each of the past two seasons, Manhattan brings forth the MAAC's most experienced unit into head coach Steve Masiello's seventh season at the helm. Three of the Jaspers' projected five starters have NCAA Tournament experience, led by fifth-year senior Rich Williams, who returns from a torn meniscus that shelved the Brooklyn native for the entire season last year. Fellow seniors Calvin Crawford, Zavier Turner, and Zane Waterman are all capable scorers who can balance Williams' leadership and hustle, while sophomore Aaron Walker, Jr. stands on the precipice of a breakout season in Riverdale.

Fairfield loses stalwart forward Amadou Sidibe to graduation and the sharpshooting duo of Curtis Cobb and Jerry Johnson, Jr. to transfers, but the Stags remain forwardly placed as head coach Sydney Johnson and his uptempo brand of basketball continue to thrive in the Nutmeg State. Fairfield boasts the likely Preseason Player of the Year in senior guard Tyler Nelson, but all eyes will be on his supporting cast; namely point guard Jerome Segura and forward Jonathan Kasibabu, if the Stags are to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly two decades. Niagara possesses experience in droves as guards Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes look to improve upon their already impressive stat lines, with junior guard Chris Barton perhaps a legitimate candidate for the conference's Defensive Player of the Year honor. The Purple Eagles' depth and versatility in the interior make Chris Casey's fifth season on Monteagle Ridge a must-watch campaign, as the talent level in Western New York has reached its highest point since the former St. John's assistant assumed the reins of the program in 2013.

Canisius, Niagara's crosstown rival, loses the services of Phil Valenti and Kassius Robertson; the former to graduation and the latter to Missouri via transfer, but Reggie Witherspoon does not have an empty cupboard going into his second year directing the Golden Griffins. Sophomores Malik Johnson and Isaiah Reese could very well be one of the best backcourts in the conference by the end of the year, and forward Jermaine Crumpton's ability to knock down long-range shots will prove vital in the Griffs' run-and-gun style. Saint Peter's, whose loss to Canisius in February provided the fuel that started an 11-1 record to conclude the season, loses Trevis Wyche and Quadir Welton from a group that brought the program its first-ever postseason championship by winning the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. Despite the losses of Wyche and Welton, as well as Chazz Patterson and Cavon Baker, senior marksman Nick Griffin remains to shepherd the Peacocks into a changing of the guard. Nnamdi Enechionyia should be counted on for a bigger role in the offense, and as any astute follower of the MAAC knows, head coach John Dunne is one who should never be counted out of any situation, no matter how dire it may seem on paper.

Staying in New Jersey, Rider must begin its first season after Jimmie Taylor and Kahlil Thomas, but Kevin Baggett and the Broncs possess one of the more dynamic young pieces in the league with sophomore point guard Stevie Jordan. How the Philadelphia-area native adjusts to being the unquestioned team leader will be a storyline to pay attention to this season as Rider looks to get greater productivity from its role players. Keep an eye on forward Tyere Marshall, whose finish to the regular season last year suggests he will be more than just a fleeting mention in scouting reports as the 6-foot-8 sophomore transitions into a starting role. In a similar vein to Rider replacing Taylor and Thomas, Marist must do the same with Khallid Hart. Head coach Mike Maker enters a make-or-break fourth season in Poughkeepsie with Brian Parker and Ryan Funk back for their junior seasons, but additional scoring options need to emerge in order for the Red Foxes to make tangible progress in the MAAC this season. Fortunately, Maker believes Aleksandar Dozic, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Marshall, is one of the high hopes that he has placed a great deal of trust in as he goes about the arduous journey of resurrecting a once-proud winner. Finally, change is no more evident than in Hamden, where Quinnipiac welcomes a new head coach to the MAAC in Baker Dunleavy, the longtime Villanova lieutenant who has now set out on his own as the successor to Tom Moore. Dunleavy will not have reigning conference Rookie of the Year Mikey Dixon or fellow All-Rookie selection Peter Kiss in his maiden voyage, but the return of senior forward Chaise Daniels has given the new Bobcat mentor a reliable rock to build his team around. Freshman Rich Kelly will be thrown into the fire at the point guard spot, but with the tutelage of a coach who helped develop Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson into all-Big East talents at the same position, the prospects for Kelly to reach his potential rank very promising going into his rookie year.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1) Iona - Legendary wrestler Ric Flair said it best, stating that "to be the man, you gotta beat the man." The Gaels' back-to-back league titles and lethal offense, coupled with experienced guards in a backcourt-centric MAAC, make them the primary target in everyone else's crosshairs to start the season.

2) Manhattan - Four years ago, the Jaspers carried the anguish and bitter aftertaste of a three-point loss to Iona in the 2013 MAAC championship game through the offseason into what turned out to be their first of two consecutive NCAA Tournament berths the following year. Last season's heartbreaking loss to Rider in the final seconds of the MAAC Tournament's opening round is not as painful, but it is a memory that will undoubtedly motivate the most experienced team in the conference, and after being humbled in each of the past two seasons, Steve Masiello and his band of brothers in Riverdale are ready to unleash their frustrations.

3) Monmouth - Justin Robinson is irreplaceable, but the Hawks' depth and talent is still plentiful enough for the headliner of the past two seasons to reserve a seat at the table amongst the elite of the MAAC. While all eyes will be on Ray Salnave and Austin Tilghman as they attempt to fill the void Robinson and his 2,000-plus points in a Hawks uniform leave, Louie Pillari is the X-factor that finally gets to make a name for himself on a regular basis this year. He, too, will be a player to watch.

4) Niagara - Mounds of upside blend with deceptively strong experience to form a legitimate contender in Western New York, something not seen since Joe Mihalich left for Hofstra in 2013. If Matt Scott is able to replicate his averages of 17 points and seven rebounds per game from a season ago, the stat-stuffer from Brooklyn will be in the Player of the Year conversation early and often for Chris Casey and the Purple Eagles.

5) Fairfield - The Stags will count the conference's Preseason Player of the Year as their own in Tyler Nelson, but as his teammates go, so too will Sydney Johnson's squad. A highly touted freshman class will help Jonathan Kasibabu and Jerome Segura in their junior and senior seasons, while Matija Milin must continue to evolve beyond his already strong perimeter presence.

6) Canisius - Jermaine Crumpton could very well lead the MAAC in scoring this season, but the Golden Griffins' most attractive quality will come from the backcourt, where the deft passing of Malik Johnson and underrated scoring potential of Isaiah Reese will make significant strides in Reggie Witherspoon's second year at the helm.

7) Siena - Jimmy Patsos admitted a ranking near the middle of the pack was a fair assessment for the Saints as they embark on replacing four seniors that took them to within a point of the NCAA Tournament. Now the unabashed leader on and off the court, enigmatic junior guard Nico Clareth will need to maintain his consistency if Siena has any hope of remaining in the MAAC's upper echelon.

8) Rider - Much like Nico Clareth at Siena, Stevie Jordan will be a topic of conversation as he steps into the spotlight. The Broncs' second and third options behind him will need to be consistent, though, as will their suffocating defense.

9) Saint Peter's - Losing four seniors from a championship team is something John Dunne has had to address previously, doing so after the Peacocks went to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. The affable head coach believes his program is in a better place now than it was six years ago, and is counting on the incumbent talent led by Nick Griffin and Nnamdi Enechionyia to usher the Peacocks through a year of retooling.

10) Quinnipiac - Baker Dunleavy's first season will not lack the trials and tribulations of trying to instill a winning culture at a mid-major seven years removed from its last conference championship game appearance. Nonetheless, the pieces are in place for a turnaround, and the Bobcats may very well better this prediction by the end of February.

11) Marist - Simply put, the seat is getting warmer for Mike Maker as the Red Foxes return, undaunted, to their battle to right the ship. The biggest key for Marist will be not just the production of Aleksandar Dozic, but also of the ability to identify and develop multiple scoring options besides Brian Parker and Ryan Funk.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Veteran leadership and high upside makes Niagara a MAAC contender

Heading into his senior season, Matt Scott's versatility leads a Niagara team whose blend of experience and potential places them in discussion for a finish in top half of MAAC for first time since 2012-13. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

The last time Niagara was viewed as a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contender, the calendar displayed March, 2013.

To put that in perspective: Barack Obama had just begun his second and final term as President of the United States two months prior, Colin Kaepernick's star was as bright as it had ever been after taking the San Francisco 49ers within one touchdown of a Super Bowl championship, and Rick Pitino was about to embark on an emotionally charged national championship run with Louisville, the two scandals that eventually engulfed his Hall of Fame career nowhere on the horizon.

The Purple Eagles, led by head coach Joe Mihalich and sophomore point guard Juan'ya Green, a first team all-conference talent, won the MAAC regular season crown in a surprising league campaign that saw Niagara win ten of its first eleven conference games. The success carried over into the postseason, falling narrowly short against eventual MAAC champion Iona in the tournament semifinals before battling Maryland in the National Invitation Tournament later that March.

Since then, though, the program has had to rebuild. Mihalich soon left for Hofstra, bringing Green and swingman Ameen Tanksley with him to Long Island and taking the Pride to a pair of postseason appearances shortly thereafter. In his place, Chris Casey was left with a barren cupboard after making the jump from Division II LIU Post, and has struggled to make headway within the MAAC over his first four years on Monteagle Ridge, winning only 32 games and finishing no better than an eighth-place tie in league play.

This year has a different feel, however. With the core of seniors from last season having graduated and Niagara returning everyone from last year's 10-23 roster, the Purple Eagles suddenly have one of the more experienced units in the MAAC. Add to that a tremendous amount of upside in a league where uncertainty is abound in more places than one, and Casey has not just a deceptively strong dark horse on his hands, but also a legitimate contender to give projected conference favorites Iona and Manhattan a run for their money this winter.

"I expect us to take another step forward," Casey confidently projected when assessing the outlook for his Niagara team this season. "I think we have a chance to be good, I think we have a chance to be one of the better teams in the league, and I think we have a chance to win the league and go to the NCAA Tournament. We've got a bunch of guys back, we finally have some experience coming back. Our guys have worked very hard over the summer. They're a good group, a unified group, and we're really looking forward to getting started this season."

"It's important with any team," Casey said of the newfound experience he possesses in droves, namely in the form of senior guards Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes, as well as junior defensive stopper Chris Barton. "We haven't had any situations or any seasons where we've been able to bring a number of guys back. It's always been new guys, rebuild, rebuild. This year, we have a significant number of guys back, so it's invaluable. Before you get good at something, you have to go through it, go through the highs and lows of it and know what it is, and I think that's where we're at right now."

Scott will be the most integral of Niagara's many pieces this season. As a junior, the stat-stuffer from Brooklyn averaged 17 points per game and supplemented his offense with seven rebounds and three assists per contest en route to earning third team all-MAAC honors. With one more season to make an even greater name for himself, the sky is the limit for the Purple Eagles' Swiss Army knife, and his coach is equally as bullish on his prospects.

"There's a lot of people that know what he does and how important he is to our team," said Casey when sizing up Scott's impact. "I expect that he's a Player of the Year candidate. He's got a chance to have a terrific senior year. He's as strong as he's ever been, and I expect him to have a big year for us."

Behind Scott and Dukes is where Niagara will pose perhaps its biggest advantage, with a supporting cast that accounts for some of the MAAC's greatest depth. The aforementioned Barton leads the way in that category,, with junior forwards Marvin Prochet and Dominic Robb anchoring the interior while James Towns and Dwayne Pow see an additional share of minutes in the backcourt for a team whose two exhibition games in Costa Rica last month gave Casey a glimpse of what he has in his arsenal this season.

"I think the biggest thing was we performed well," he said of Niagara's trip in August. "In the past, we've been in situations where we're new, not quite as experienced. We played well, we played extremely hard, and that was evident watching the games in Costa Rica, but quite frankly, I expected that. I expect us to be better because now we have a little bit more experience. There's going to be another move forward."

One year older, one year wiser, and more battle-hardened, the Purple Eagles descend on this year's MAAC season with tangible expectations, which can be an unknown variable for a team with not used to a high bar being set. The aura around Niagara, though, does not project that, as the confidence and realization of having been through the wars has brought them into an alert sense of where they stand in comparison to their conference brethren.

"My guys have always played hard," Casey said of his team. "We've always competed, we've always been right there in games. We needed to get to a point in the program where we had experience and we have enough pop for us to get over the hump in those types of games. We approached that in a couple of spots last year, but certainly not enough, and I think this year is the year to take advantage of that. That's the biggest thing that's different about last year."