Thursday, September 14, 2017

Big East schedule: Takeaways for St. John's and Seton Hall

Chris Mullin and St. John's will get more opportunities to enhance home court advantage at Carnesecca Arena, with six Big East games on campus this season. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)

In a year where both of the Big East schools in the New York metropolitan area have a chance to make significant noise come March, each received a favorable draw when the league's 18-game conference schedule was revealed Tuesday morning.

St. John's, thought of as a dark horse to perhaps return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time this decade, or compete in the National Invitation Tournament at the very least, was the beneficiary of a schedule that sees all but three of their Big East home games on campus at Carnesecca Arena. Across the Hudson River, Seton Hall returns a quartet of seniors and preseason Top 25-caliber outfit to South Orange, and was rewarded with a pair of home games to kick off its conference season, while also having the advantage of contesting their last two games before the Big East tournament inside the Prudential Center.

Both the Red Storm and Pirates will commence league play on December 28, with St. John's hosting Providence in Queens while Seton Hall opens with Creighton for the second consecutive year, only this time welcoming the Bluejays to Newark after visiting Omaha on the same date in 2016. The two local programs will then face one another to conclude 2017, meeting on New Year's Eve in Newark in an affair that will tip off either at noon or 5 p.m. before the calendar shifts to 2018. The return meeting between St. John's and Seton Hall takes place inside Madison Square Garden, with a noon matinee on deck in the penultimate weekend of the regular season.

The opening tip of the 2017-18 campaign is still another eight weeks away, but here are some takeaways on both sides of the Hudson as the Big East seeks to build on a banner year following seven NCAA Tournament bids, the most for the league since its restructuring in 2013:

1) More chances for St. John's to build its Carnesecca Arena home court advantage.
The six league games on the Queens campus are the most in recent memory on the corner of Union and Utopia. There actually were five Big East contests played at Carnesecca in 2015-16, but the Red Storm's home game against Marquette was initially scheduled for Madison Square Garden before being postponed due to the blizzard that wiped out not only St. John's, but also Bruce Springsteen; who was slated to perform the following night, from the World's Most Famous Arena marquee. Nonetheless, the convergence of the Garden opening its doors to the Big Ten tournament at the end of February, plus the return of the Grammy Awards to the Big Apple, provides a unique opportunity for St. John's to use their 5,602-seat bandbox as a boon to their already vast upside as the season heats up.

"I keep saying that it's waiting to blow up," head coach Chris Mullin remarked of the effect Carnesecca and its atmosphere has on a game, no more evident than in the Red Storm's dramatic upset of Butler last December. "We've got to keep that going and sell this place out every night."

Attendance on campus experienced an uptick following the hire of Steve Lavin in 2010, and has remained close to capacity in almost every game of Mullin's tenure as well. Even with three of the six league games tipping off after 8 p.m., the quality of opponents; coupled with the potential for a postseason berth, should be enough to keep fans in the stands all season long.

2) On that note, only one late game for Seton Hall is a plus for Pirate fans.
Jerry Carino, who covers Seton Hall for the Asbury Park Press, frequently notes the direct correlation between tip times and the subsequent attendance, a keen observer to the fact that New Jersey traffic is just as instrumental as the Pirates' win-loss record in determining just how many people push through the turnstiles at the Prudential Center. As he himself said when analyzing Seton Hall's slate, the schedule affords one fewer excuse for the blue-clad faithful to eschew a trip to the Rock. Of the nine home Big East games, only the titanic February 28 showdown with Villanova tips off after 7:00, with the Wildcats and Pirates taking the floor at 8:30. The March 3 regular season finale against Butler still has a time to be determined, but on the whole, Seton Hall's ledger should be conducive to a positive turnout.

3) One marquee matchup early, two more toward the end of the year.
For St. John's, their first truly big game takes place on January 9, when longtime rival Georgetown makes their way to Madison Square Garden. Although the Hoyas are projected to take a step back this season, the allure of program legend and former New York Knick Patrick Ewing taking over the reins of his alma mater promises to make the upcoming season an exciting one on the Hilltop for better or worse, and the first clash between Mullin and Ewing as opposing coaches in the third chapter of a rivalry that spanned both their collegiate playing careers and the NBA will be enough to generate a fair share of buzz. The Red Storm will get a second crack at Georgetown less than two weeks later on January 20 in the nation's capital.

Seton Hall's first major headliner occurs in the second month of the calendar year, coming on February 4 against Villanova. The noon tipoff will certainly be an appetizer for Super Bowl LII later that night, but of great interest for Pirate fans is the fact that the Wildcats will be welcoming them into the Wells Fargo Center, a change from the status quo over the past two decades. No fan base is as grateful for The Pavilion's renovations this season as Seton Hall, with the Pirates having not defeated Villanova on the road since 1994, when head coach Kevin Willard was a freshman in college. The return match with the Wildcats on February 28 in Newark sets up an intriguing finish to the season for the Pirates, with Butler; a longtime thorn in the Pirates' side since joining the Big East, coming to New Jersey immediately after Jay Wright makes his way into town.

4) All in all, both teams were taken care of on the schedule.
Willard has made no bones criticizing Seton Hall's past conference schedules, a trait attributed to his brutally honest nature and competitive spirit. This season, there is no reason for him to gripe as he heads into his eighth year in South Orange. The three-game road trips that have befallen the Pirates in prior years are nowhere to be found on this year's slate. There is a stretch of three out of four games on the road, all against the Midwest contingent of the conference (Butler, Creighton and Xavier), but with a rebuilding Georgetown at home to break up the travel, the strain becomes easier to mitigate. The same can be said of the five-out-of-seven spurt on the road to begin February, but Marquette (February 7) sandwiches journeys to Villanova and Georgetown, while DePaul (February 18) is a refreshing homecoming for the Pirates in between Xavier and Providence, with the aforementioned trek to Madison Square Garden to play St. John's serving as more of a de facto neutral site than a true road game.

On the Red Storm side, a deceptively strong opening gambit featuring Providence at home before Seton Hall and Creighton on the road may be the biggest hurdle that St. John's will have to clear. Getting a three-game homestand before facing Xavier on the road should give Mullin and his young charges mounds of confidence as they go further into January. Looking ahead, a trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse for a January 27 soiree with Butler looms as perhaps the most pivotal contest of the season for the Johnnies, with Xavier and Duke immediately on the horizon over the next seven days to follow, not to mention a February 7 trip to Philadelphia to take on Villanova.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Veteran intangibles bring Liberty into playoffs on highest of highs

By Andy Lipton
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

The past four weeks in August have yielded success for the New York Liberty. 

Ten wins in a row, four against the top teams in the league: Minnesota, Los Angeles, Connecticut, and Washington, taking its 12-12 record to 22-12 by the end of the regular season on September 3 and the third seed in the upcoming playoffs.

With apologies to Earth, Wind & Fire, will the Liberty be dancing in September?

If so, one of the reasons will be nine-year WNBA veteran Shavonte Zellous, who is the only Liberty player beside Tina Charles to start every game this season. She is the team’s second-leading scorer. At 5-foot-10, the former Pitt star has played small forward most of the year, doing what is necessary to help her team.

The lyrics of the great and legendary coach and general manager Red Auerbach might apply to Zellous. Speaking about the Celtics’ dynasty, Auerbach said, “our pride was never rooted in statistics."

Zellous brings more than just basketball ability and athleticism to the game – she is team-first, spirited and enthusiastic, and a vocal leader on the court. She also brings the experience of having won championships in her career, in the WNBA, the EuroLeague, and high school.

I spoke to Zellous about these intangibles on the last day of August at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Development of role players key for Liberty during eight-game win streak

Lindsay Allen may not be Liberty's leading scorer, but Notre Dame alum is one of several integral role players for head coach Bill Laimbeer as New York pushes toward postseason. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- Bill Laimbeer would have a restful night Sunday. A 30-point victory will do that, not that the New York Liberty coach expected as much.

Laimbeer believed his team would defeat the Chicago Sky at Madison Square Garden. The expectations, though, were not of a superlative 92-62 dismantling of a team that gave them their last home loss back on July 14. The thing that has Laimbeer in a serene state of mind is the play of his bench.

Laimbeer knows as well as anyone how important bench play becomes as a team attempts to advance through the playoff rounds. Having good players in reserve is a key. Having those players buy into your philosophy and accepting their roles is an undeniably special trait. The Liberty have it.  
In the aftermath of their eighth straight win and 20th overall, Liberty players were asked what they may improve on with the playoffs on the horizon. To a player, they spoke not of offense, understandable after racking up 92 points. Rather, the focus; in typical Laimbeer fashion, was defense and rebounding, how they continue to get better day to day in both areas. The term “lockdown defense” was used quite a bit.

The Liberty players could not help making reference to the bench play that Laimbeer spoke of during his postgame meeting with the media. “The takeaway from today’s game is we can give a lot of people good minutes,” he said. “Every one of our bench players is ready every minute when they get the call.” For the game, the Liberty bench scored 43 of the team’s 92 points. Rebounding-wise, the reserves outdid the starters on the boards by a 30-16 count.

Bria Hartley has been a starter at guard. She has energized an uptempo attack, playing no small part in the team’s recent turnaround and winning streak. Her insertion into the lineup has moved Sugar Rodgers to a reserve role, a role the former Georgetown star relishes and fulfills in an excellent manner. On the afternoon, Rodgers scored seven points, grabbed seven rebounds, and handed out six assists. She played no small part in limiting the Allie Quigley- Courtney Vandersloot backcourt of Chicago to just eight points on 3-of-13 shooting. Kiah Stokes produced a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double. Rebecca Allen added nine while a pair of bigs, Amanda Zahui B. and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, added eight and seven, respectively. The contributions are impressive, yet exceed mere numbers.

“Our bench does their weight lifting and condition,” Laimbeer said. “They work hard in practice on a daily basis. It was great to give them minutes today. They genuinely had fun out there and played well.”

The experience could also pay dividends in the WNBA second season.

“Your bench is so important,” Rodgers reiterated. “In the playoffs, someone could get hurt, you could have foul trouble -- a number of things can happen. If you have players that are tested in reserve, that’s big.”

Lindsay Allen, a second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame this spring, scored two points with four assists and two steals in a 16-minute performance. She provides Laimbeer with yet another backcourt option. Allen spoke of sharing the ball on offense, working on defensive assignments, and getting better at the little things. The 5-foot-8 guard agreed on the importance of bench play throughout the season and its vitality in the playoffs. For her part, Allen is just going out, playing hard as she can. The same can be said for all the Liberty players waiting in the wings and enthusiastically answering Laimbeer’s call.

Liberty 92, Sky 62: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK -- The classic coaching cliche warns us that the season is a marathon, not a sprint.

On Sunday, the New York Liberty thoroughly dominated the Chicago Sky, 92-62. A little over a month ago the Sky, entered the same Madison Square Garden to confidently post a solid ten-point win. That was the last time the Liberty dropped a game on their home floor.
In the course of six weeks, so much has changed for these two teams. Chicago, at 12-19, is hanging on for its playoff life. The Liberty, enjoying an eight-game win streak, are 20-12 with a top four seed in their possession. The recent turnaround has been impressive. In mid-July, New York was struggling for a shot at the playoffs. Now they are being included in the same breath as a championship contender.  

What happened? For one, putting the ball in the hands of Bria Hartley, another former UConn product who has very quietly and efficiently accelerated and energized the Liberty attack. Of almost equal importance is the guidance of coach Bill Laimbeer. A former NBA player, Laimbeer has championship experience on the court and sideline. He realizes that if you adhere to what you do well, in this case defend and keep working hard on a daily basis, things should come around.

That is not always an ironclad guarantee. In New York’s case, that has proven to be the situation. There is excitement in the Garden these days. The Liberty are keeping a good pace as the final miles of this marathon wind down.

Looking north at 8th Avenue outside Madison Square Garden:
Liberty assistant coach Herb Williams, with pregame instructions for Tina Charles:
Under the direction of assistant coach Carlene Mitchell, Chicago runs through pregame shootaround:
A Big East battle revisited, as Bria Hartley defends Cappie Pondexter:
Chicago's Courtney Vandersloot, in deep thought during a free throw:
New York on the attack:
The view from the opposite baseline:
Head coach Bill Laimbeer with some words for the media after the victory:
While all attention right now is on the Liberty, the New York Rangers' locker room is ready for the start of the NHL season:

Monday, August 28, 2017

Liberty 92, Sky 62: Tempo-Free Recap

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- The Liberty, winners of seven straight, entertained the Chicago Sky for a Sunday matinee. The last time they were in New York, Chicago pinned a loss on the Liberty. That was back in mid-July, and the last Liberty home loss to date.

Sunday afternoon was decidedly different.

The Liberty came out strong and never looked back. In July, Chicago was the aggressor. This time around, it was the host New York squad, en route to a convincing 92-62 victory over the Sky to improve to 20-12, while Chicago fell to 12-19.   

The Liberty staked out a 15-7 lead, with Tina Charles leading the way. The standout forward became the WNBA’s 20th all-time leading scorer in these opening minutes. Charles scored seven points on an assortment of moves, first a catch from ten feet out saw her turn and go hard to the hoop. A baseline out of bounds play later left her one-on-one, overpowering her opponent before draining a pair of three-pointers. Chicago, as they did in their last appearance here, opted more for a perimeter game. By halftime, the Liberty owned a 46-29 lead. They held Chicago to just six field goals in the second quarter, only two of which came inside the paint.

NOTES: Any attempt by the Sky to establish an inside game was stopped by the physicality and strength of Charles and Kiah Stokes inside. Stefanie Dolson of the Sky had some success in the paint. For the most part, Dolson was a high post screener and outside shooter.

Normally, Shavonte Zellous is a key secondary scorer for the Liberty. However, she only had two points in the first half. Still, the Liberty led by 17. In very simple terms, the Liberty has a lot more than just one or two options at their disposal.

As much as there is discussed about Bria Hartley’s influence on the Liberty in recent weeks, another former UConn notable cannot be overlooked. Kiah Stokes, of late, has given an inside presence on both ends of the floor, not to mention supplying that proverbial energy the minute she checks into a game.  

In a 61-possession game through three quarters, the Liberty enjoyed a 118-82 edge in offensive efficiency.

Possessions: 83
Offensive efficiency: New York 111, Chicago 75

Effective field goal percentage: New York 46, Chicago 45
Free throw rate: New York 20, Chicago 23
Offensive rebounding rate: New York 44, Chicago 7
Turnover rate: New York 10, Chicago 27

Leading Scorers/Player Efficiency
New York: Tina Charles, 22 points/26
Chicago: Stefanie Dolson, 22 points/22

MISCELLANEOUS: Kiah Stokes led all rebounders with 10, with six of those on the offensive end. Chicago, by comparison, had two on the offensive glass for the entire game. The Sky also committed 23 turnovers for a 27 percent rate, while managing a microscopic seven percent offensive rebounding rate. The Liberty shared the ball with 25 assists on their 36 field goals, good enough for a 69 percent rate. Sugar Rodgers led the way with six helpers. The Sky had only six second half field goals in the paint, three on penetrations by Kahleah Cooper, a Rutgers product with a 17-point performance.

The Liberty put four in double figures as Hartley (11), Epiphanny Prince (11) and Stokes (10) joined Charles. Allie Quigley (two points) and Courtney Vandersloot (six) combined did not reach double figures for Chicago. Credit the Liberty defense on that one.

Final Thoughts
“You hope for a game where you get a chance to give your bench a chance to get minutes. It was a good win, a solid foundation for players working hard every day in practice. We knew Chicago played well against Connecticut and beat us here. This is about us, what we do. Rebounds and play defense, we can win. We clinched the fourth seed today. One is in front of us, but out of our control.” - Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer

“Hey, it’s what we do. Defend and rebound.” - Sugar Rodgers, when told Chicago was held to two offensive rebounds for the game.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Gulf Coast Showcase field revealed, Manhattan to open tournament against UMKC

Steve Masiello and Manhattan begin three-day Gulf Coast Showcase against UMKC on November 20 after eight-team tournament field was released Friday morning. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Manhattan's first of two in-season tournaments now has an official field that the Jaspers will now start preparing for.

The eight-team Gulf Coast Showcase announced its participants Friday morning, with the Jaspers leading off the three-day event on Monday, November 20, in an 11 a.m. contest against UMKC. Manhattan will face Georgia Southern or Missouri State the following day, either at 11 a.m. or 5 p.m., depending on the results of the first day of action. All games will be held at Germain Arena in Estero, Florida.

A member of the Summit League, UMKC finished 18-17 last season and competed in the College Basketball Invitational, but must replace all five starters from their 2016-17 roster. Sophomore guard Isaiah Ross, who averaged eight points per game as a freshman, is the top returning scorer for the Kangaroos and head coach Kareem Richardson; who, like Jaspers boss Steve Masiello, was a former Rick Pitino disciple at the University of Louisville before heading out on his own.

Georgia Southern is a much more experienced team should Manhattan see them in the second day of the tournament, as the Eagles return eight of their top nine scorers from an 18-15 team that also reached the CBI, each of whom averaged more than twelve minutes per contest a year ago. Although challenged from a height standpoint, the three-guard attack led by junior point guard Tookie Brown, with fellow junior Ike Smith and senior Mike Hughes alongside, is a formidable and potent scoring unit that will give any team opposing them their share of fits for 40 minutes. Should the Jaspers face Missouri State, they will have their hands full with an imposing front line headed by 7-foot-2 senior center Tanveer Bhullar, who arrives from New Mexico State, where he played alongside his older brother, Sim. Senior forward Alize Johnson is a 6-foot-9 lethal weapon for the Bears, and comes into his final campaign on the heels of averaging a double-double of nearly 15 points and 11 rebounds per game, no easy feat in the physically grueling Missouri Valley Conference. Obediah Church, the third piece of Missouri State's interior protection, is a 6-foot-7 triple threat of scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker all rolled into one, impacting Paul Lusk's Bears in a similar vein to how Rhamel Brown was Manhattan's lifeblood for four years in Riverdale.

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

The Jaspers' final game in the Sunshine State takes place on Wednesday, November 22, and will come against either of four teams, depending on how the brackets play out. Manhattan will meet Penn, Northern Illinois, Towson, or Florida Atlantic in this tilt. The Quakers should be much improved under Steve Donahue this season, returning nine of their top ten players from an Ivy League tournament appearance last year. Sophomore AJ Brodeur will be the focal point for Penn after a promising and efficient rookie campaign that saw the Massachusetts native average just under 14 points per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor. Fellow second-year teammate Ryan Betley will be a force to be reckoned with on the perimeter, having shot 40 percent from three-point range as a late-blooming freshman, and senior point guard Darnell Foreman will look to build on a junior season where he averaged a near-2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Northern Illinois, who astute football fans will recognize as the alma mater of former Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner, returns three of their top five scorers from a 15-win team coached by former Tom Izzo assistant Mark Montgomery. Junior forward Jaylen Key is a deceptively strong 6-foot-8 forward whose length and ability to find smart shots will pose a problem for any opponent, whereas sophomore Eugene German and junior Levi Bradley will be counted on to transfer their high productivity off the bench into the starting five for the Huskies this year.

Towson could be a repeat opponent for Manhattan this season, as the Tigers are also participating in December's Belfast Classic, with a potential matchup against the Jaspers in the cards for the Northern Ireland event's finale. A 20-win outfit last season, Towson should be forwardly placed in the Colonial Athletic Association under head coach Pat Skerry, as senior guard Mike Morsell leads the way following a 13-point-per-game average that led the Tigers in scoring a year ago. Senior guard Deshaun Morman, a high-major castoff at Cincinnati, will infuse more offense into the Towson backcourt, but size will be a concern with only three players taller than 6-foot-7. Should the Jaspers meet Florida Atlantic, they will see an Owls team that returns just two starters from a 10-20 squad last year. Point guard Nick Rutherford, who transferred to Monmouth in the offseason, leaves behind a gaping hole that former NBA player and Detroit Pistons head coach Michael Curry will attempt to fill with Payton Hulsey, a fifth-year senior who is using his final season of eligibility after transferring from College of Charleston. Senior Gerdarius Troutman is a dangerous outside shooter the Jaspers will need to contain, having connected on 72 three-point field goals at a 42 percent rate for the Owls a year ago. Up front, seven-foot senior center Ronald Delph arrives from Auburn to bring much-needed size to the front line, while Jailyn Ingram should see his marginal production from last season increase with a greater share of the workload. All in all, whoever Manhattan takes the floor against will be contributing to a furthering of the greater good, as the tournament setting is something the Jaspers' head coach hopes will bring them to a third Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship in five seasons.

"That's why we're doing that, to get this group ready for conference tournament situations, to put them in situations playing on back-to-back nights," Masiello stated when discussing his rationale behind scheduling Manhattan for two tournaments before the start of MAAC play. "I wanted to do that to this team early by design because I want the young guys to know how important they are. And when I say important, I don't mean come in and get 12 points, I mean come in and have our defensive intensity go up, be a spark plug off the bench offensively. I want them to see how beneficial that could be or how costly that could be early in the year."

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

After CIT championship run, Saint Peter's now braces for rebuild

John Dunne took Saint Peter's to CIT championship last season, but must now rebuild Peacocks as he enters his 12th year at helm in Jersey City. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

John Dunne has been down the road he must travel again this season.

Head coach at Saint Peter's since 2006, the affable 47-year-old Dunne faced a full rebuild six years ago, after the Peacocks emerged from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament with an automatic NCAA Tournament berth and league championship in their grasp. Hard times soon followed, but the program gradually picked itself back up in a manner similar to the grind-it-out style Dunne's teams employ on the hardwood. And after a similar deep postseason run that culminated with Saint Peter's capturing the Postseason Tournament championship, the program must start over again.

In many instances, a rebuild from a championship season where three starters; including a pair of all-conference talents, have graduated, can be a bear of a challenge. Yet having done this before, Dunne is a calm voice of hope heading into the 2017-18 campaign, and insists that this situation is much better for the Peacocks than the aforementioned 2011-12 overhaul, one that resulted in a 5-26 record at its conclusion.

"I think we're lightyears ahead of where we were for '11-12," he admitted when assessing his roster, one that must replace the immeasurable contributions of point guard Trevis Wyche, imposing post presence Quadir Welton, and MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Chazz Patterson among others. "We had very good role players that season in '11-12 that were an integral part of helping us win that championship, but we lost all our scoring. Even though we lost a ton of scoring with this year's graduating class and even with (Antwon) Portley transferring, we're very confident that we're going to have the ability to put the ball in the basket next year. We know we're not going to have the same experience, we know we're going to have build towards being a good defensive team, but we're confident that we have enough talent in the program."

Whereas Wyche and Welton split the reins as leaders on the offensive end last season for Saint Peter's, that task now falls into the hands of senior shooting guard Nick Griffin, the George Washington transfer who emerged as not only a lethal outside shooter last year, but also a formidable scoring threat from all ranges. With a year under his belt in the Peacocks' system, the Maryland native is poised to take an even greater jump than he did a year ago.

"Nick is the ultimate teammate," Dunne gushed. "He, more than anybody, sacrificed his game last year for our team, and I think he could have easily been playing 30-plus minutes for us. We expect him to have the same shooting consistency. I think he'll be able to do some more this year when we use some ball screens, and his minutes per game will increase."

Griffin and Nnamdi Enechionyia will be the lone returning starters from last season's 23-win outfit, but as mentioned before, a glut of role players are back in Jersey City for a greater share of the responsibility, which makes Dunne as optimistic as he has been heading into a year where casual observers of the MAAC will consider the Peacocks to be a team firmly positioned in the middle of the pack. Forward Samuel Idowu will be one of many who goes about trying to replace Welton, and Dunne anticipates him being able to play 20 minutes per game in the hopes of becoming "a nice weapon" for the Saint Peter's arsenal. Cameron Jones, who redshirted last season, joins Quinn Taylor and a healthy Mamadou Ndiaye as those who will see additional minutes. At the point guard spot, Dunne admitted losing Wyche will hurt, but he expects junior Davauhnte Turner to step in and fill the void with a seamless transition.

"He sat out last year and he was with the program the entire year," said Dunne of Turner, a redshirt junior. "He actually is a guy that's got a year under his belt with the program, which goes a long way in understanding what it takes at this level. He's also a guy that could play on or off the ball, put it in the basket; a strong, quick, athletic guy. He's got the same size as Trevy, just as strong, just as tough."

A handful newcomers arrive in the program this year, including Julian Powell, a 6-foot-9 Texan praised by Dunne for his athleticism and ability to run the floor, but is also an admitted work in progress. Jeremiah Livingston is a 6-foot-1 guard by way of Odessa Junior College, and is a penetrating combo guard who will be part of the backcourt stable along with Turner and Griffin. Finally, Manny Dixon is a 6-foot-5 wing from Trenton by way of Notre Dame High School who also figures to be part of the mix for a team whose future is brighter than some may suggest, and one whose brand of basketball may undergo a few cosmetic changes, but will remain largely unchanged on the surface.

"I think it'll be more of the same for us," Dunne opined. "We won't be as reliant on throwing the ball into the low post this year as we were with Welton, but we have some forwards that could play out on the perimeter a bit, so the court should open up a little bit more for us. We were efficient offensively, and I think we could score the ball with just about everybody in the league. We proved that even though people knock our style, and I think you'll see the same this year." 

Monday, August 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An ideal situation for a team with championship aspirations.