UNC-Wilmington Outlasts Towson In CAA Opener

By Kevin Sweeney

It may have been the first game of the CAA season, but it was clear from the day the schedule was released how important the New Year’s Eve matchup between Towson and UNC-Wilmington would have a big impact on the rest of the CAA season.

UNCW, the clear preseason favorites, made a statement, going on the road and leading nearly the entire way to beat a Towson squad picked second in the CAA preseason poll by a 76-67 margin.

In a game of contrasting styles, it was the Seahawks who were able to set the tempo, establishing the pressing, up-and-down style that’s a staple of Rick Pitino disciple Kevin Keatts’ team. UNCW was able to 19 turnovers, scoring 17 points off those miscues in the game.

However, the Tigers were able to hang around all afternoon thanks to their significant size advantage, owning the glass to the tune of a +10 advantage on the boards. They also got an excellent contribution from their bench, including 18 points and 14 rebounds from John Davis.  In a game in which the Tigers were -17 with star guard Mike Morsell on the floor, it was the Towson bench that kept them in it, totaling 29 bench points compared to just 9 from the Seahawk bench.

The game remained very tight throughout the first half, with neither team leading by more than five at any point during the opening period.  Despite 13 first half turnovers by the Tigers, UNC-Wilmington could not take control, shooting just 34% from the field and just 3-15 from beyond the arc. Even with the cold shooting, the Seahawks went into halftime with a 32-31 lead.

The second half was when the Seahawks began to assert control. After William Adala Moto gave Towson the lead with a layup less than a minute into the half, UNCW went on a 13-4 lead to seize an 8 point lead. Towson continued to hang around, with and-ones on back-to-back possessions by Davis trimmed what had stretched to a double-digit deficit back down to 5 with 12:33 to go. However, the Seahawks began to heat up from downtown, and that spelled doom for the Tigers. Denzel Ingram who shot 1-7 from three in the first half, made four triples in the second half in route to 19 second-half points.

Ingram’s 22 points led the attack for the Seahawks, while center Devontae Cacok added 17 points and 8 rebounds. Davis’s aforementioned double-double paced the Tigers, while Morsell added 13 points.

UNC-Wilmington, now 12-2 on the season, returns home to open 2017 on Monday vs Elon. Towson, who falls to 8-6 with the loss, will travel to James Madison for a Monday matchup with the Dukes.

Siena’s Struggles Continue In Home Defeat to Vermont

By Kevin Sweeney

Coming into this game, Siena had hoped that the Christmas break would serve as a restart button on what had been a disappointing season. 

However, tonight’s game against Vermont was more of the same for the Saints, as they fell 76-60 to Vermont in front of a frustrated crowd of 6,176 at the Times Union Center in downtown Albany. 

The Catamounts outplayed the Saints from the opening tip, but it took awhile for Vermont to pull away. Siena hung around for the entire first half, tying the game multiple times and never trailing by double figures. That said, the Catamounts held off a few Siena pushes to maintain control, getting a huge boost from Darren Payen off the bench. 

Last night on “Upstate Sports Edge”, Siena’s four 1000-point scorers were interviewed, and one point made by center Javion Ogunyemi about the Saints’ struggles was that they seemed to give up “a career high to a player who shouldn’t be anywhere near that number.”

Payen did just that, scoring a season-high 17 points, including 12 in the first half, giving the Catamounts a huge lift off the bench. Payen had been averaging just 3.5 points per game coming into the contest. 

Despite playing poorly, Siena had to feel pretty good about trailing just 36-30 at halftime. The game seemed like it was there for the taking, but the Saints could never capitalize. 

A steal by Siena’s Nico Clareth and a couple of buckets by Ogunyemi allowed Siena to quickly cut their deficit in half, but a pair of triples by Vermont’s Ernie Duncan quickly stole momentum right back for the Catamounts. 

The play that really swung the game in Vermont’s favor came with 13:33 to play in the game. Siena’s Lavon Long appeared to have converted an and-1 layup that could have brought Siena within four. However, the officials ruled the foul have new on the floor, wiping away the basket. Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos was irate, and was called for a technical foul. 

While Patsos has been known to get himself “T’d up” in order to fire up his team, the technical had the opposite effect tonight. The technical started a 12-4 run for the Catamounts that gave Vermont a 61-46 lead with just over 10 minutes to play. Siena would never trim the lead to single digits again, and the Saints faithful slowly filed for the exits. 

One strange stat about the game was the number of offensive fouls. With the introduction of the freedom of movement rules as well as the expansion of the restricted area, offensive fouls have become few and far between. In tonight’s contest, there were 10 offensive fouls, the most I’ve seen in a game this season. 

Vermont continues to have Siena’s number, as the Catamounts have now won the last 7 meetings between the schools. There has been talk of moving the series to the Glens Falls Civic Center, about halfway between the two schools, for future meetings. 

Payen’s 17 paced the Catamounts, while Trae Bell-Haynes added 16 points. Brett Bisping posted a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds for the Saints. 

Siena resumes conference play on Monday, when they begin the MAAC’s infamous western road trip, in which teams travel to Buffalo for games against Canisius and Niagara. Vermont has one more non-conference game, a home tilt with Harvard on January 2, before opening America East play. 

Wichita State Survives Tough Road Test From Indiana State Behind Willis, McDuffie

 By Kevin Sweeney

Indiana State has been one of the most enigmatic teams in college basketball. The Sycamores knocked off a very good Butler team and fell just short against Power 5 foes Iowa State & Stanford. However, they have had some inexplicable losses, including a blowout defeat at the hands of Western Kentucky. Tonight, the good Sycamores showed up, and it took a career game by Darral Willis Jr. to stop Indiana State from upsetting the 3-time defending Missouri Valley regular season champions in Wichita State. 

It was clear from the outset that Indiana State would give the Shockers all they could handle, as a quick 8-0 run gave the Sycamores an early 15-9 lead. The teams traded spurts throughout the half, as Indiana State used some big 3-pointers to hang tough despite a big first half by Willis, who had 15 of his game-high 25 points in the opening stanza. After a 3-point play by Willis gave the Shockers their largest lead of the half, 32-26 with just over 4 minutes to play, the Sycamores responded with a half-closing 12-6 run to tie the game at 38 going into intermission. 

The Shockers began to pull away early in the second half, using a 15-3 run to take a 58-47 advantage, their first double-digit lead of the game. It was highly-touted sophomore Markis McDuffie, who had struggled to live up to the considerable hype so far this season, who keyed the run, scoring 6 points and grabbing a pair of rebounds during the run. McDuffie finished with a season high in points with 22. The Shockers never trailed after that run, but the Sycamores put up a very strong fight. Using the 3 to their advantage, 5 out of the next 6 field goals by Indiana State were triples, with a deep 3 by Jordan Barnes trimming the Shockers’ lead to just two with 3:42 to play in the game. That was as close as the Sycamores would draw, as Wichita State got stops when they needed to and made their free throws to close the game strong. 

One major factor in the game was rebounding. The Shockers held a 47-30 advantage on the boards, including snatching 16 offensive rebounds that led to numerous second-chance opportunities.  

Wichita State’s attack was dominated by Willis’s 25 points & McDuffie’s 22. Landry Shamet added 14 for the Shockers, who move to 11-3 on the season. 

Indiana State used a balanced attack, with six players recording at least 7 points. Brenton Scott led the way with 14 points, while Everett Clemons stuffed the stat sheet with 5 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists. The loss leaves the Sycamores 6-7 on the season. 

Bracketology: Christmas Edition

By Kevin Sweeney

bracketchristmas

The Christmas holiday is a perfect time to decompress from all of the exciting college basketball of the first two months of the season and prepare for conference play. Most teams have ten or more games under their belt, and we certainly have a much clearer picture of what teams look like than we did before the season began. As teams head into conference play starting this week, here’s my predicted field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament:

*=Auto-bid

East Region:

  • #1 Villanova* vs #16 Eastern Washington*/NC Central*
  • #8 Iowa State vs #9 Colorado
  • #5 Cincinnati* vs #12 San Diego State
  • #4 Wisconsin vs #13 Fort Wayne*
  • #6 USC vs #11 UNC-Wilmington*
  • #3 Louisville vs #14 Harvard*
  • #7 Notre Dame vs #10 Auburn
  • #2 Gonzaga* vs #15 Winthrop*

West Region:

  • #1 UCLA* vs #16 Bucknell*
  • #8 SMU vs #9 Dayton*
  • #5 Purdue vs #12 Monmouth*
  • #4 Butler vs #13 UT-Arlington*
  • #6 Florida State vs #11 Nevada*
  • #3 West Virginia vs #14 New Mexico State*
  • #7 Virginia Tech vs #10 Oklahoma State
  • #2 Kentucky* vs #15 Vermont*

Midwest Region:

  • #1 Baylor* vs #16 LIU-Brooklyn*
  • #8 Florida vs #9 NC State
  • #5 St. Mary’s vs #12 Middle Tennessee State*
  • #4 Virginia vs #13 Valparaiso*
  • #6 Arizona vs #11 Northwestern/Texas Tech
  • #3 Creighton vs #14 Florida Gulf Coast*
  • #7 Maryland vs #10 California
  • #2 North Carolina vs #15 Tennessee State

South Region:

  • #1 Duke* vs #16 Texas Southern*/Sam Houston State*
  • #8 Texas A&M vs #9 Seton Hall
  • #5 Xavier vs #12 Temple/Clemson
  • #4 Oregon vs #13 Chattanooga*
  • #6 South Carolina vs #11 Rhode Island
  • #3 Indiana* vs #14 Akron*
  • #7 Wichita State* vs #10 VCU
  • #2 Kansas vs #15 UC-Irvine*

Last Four Byes

  • VCU
  • California
  • Rhode Island
  • San Diego State

Last Four In

  • Northwestern
  • Texas Tech
  • Temple
  • Clemson

First Four Out

  • Michigan State
  • TCU
  • Minnesota
  • Arkansas

Next Four Out

  • Michigan
  • Houston
  • Pittsburgh
  • Wyoming

Also Considered (No Order): St. Bonaventure, UMass, Miami, Syracuse, Memphis, UCF, Kansas State, Providence, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Utah, Ole Miss, BYU, San Francisco

Towson Finishes Non-Conference Slate Strong With Win Over Iona

By Kevin Sweeney

A win before a long lay-off can be huge for a team, as going into a break with some positive momentum can be incredibly beneficial for a team’s confidence when they get back on the floor.

Towson can take plenty of positives away from their final non-conference game, a 76-69 win over Iona in each team’s last game at the South Point Holiday Hoops Classic in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Tigers have a nine day break before their next game, a huge home match-up with CAA frontrunner UNC-Wilmington.

Simply put, the Tigers did all the things a team wants to do in a tough ballgame. They won the rebounding battle by 11, went to the free throw line 19 more times than the Gaels, and got strong contributions from their role players. In addition, they held the Gaels high-powered offense in check, allowing Iona to shoot just 41% from the field while not conceding a single fast break point.

In the first half, the Towson defense did a superb job of not allowing Iona to get any sort of flow offensively. Iona star center Jordan Washington was saddled with foul trouble, but was mostly ineffective when on the court as Towson’s young big men, sophomore Alex Thomas and freshman Justin Gorham, did an excellent job guarding the senior Washington. The Gaels had just one assist in the entire first half, as much of their work was done late in the shot clock in isolation looks.

Meanwhile, junior college transfer Brian Starr gave the Tigers a big boost offensively, scoring 7 points in the first half despite averaging just 3.9 per game coming into today’s contest. Starr finished with a career-high 14 points.

After back-to-back buckets by Iona guard Sam Cassell Jr. cut Towson’s early lead to 22-20, the Tigers went on a 15-5 run to conclude the opening half, taking a 37-25 lead into halftime.

Coming out of the break, it looked like Towson was ready to run away with the game, extending their lead to 15 in the opening stages of the second half. However, that would be the largest lead of the game for the Tigers, as Iona continued to hang tough. At times, Iona’s Jon Severe dominated, scoring all 20 of his points in the second half.

Every time Iona made a push to get back into the game, the Tigers responded well. After a Washington layup cut the Iona deficit to just 4 with 10:45 to play in the game, Towson went on a 13-3 run to reassert control.  That run proved to be decisive, as Iona never drew closer than 7 following the spurt.

Towson also did an excellent job of not allowing the Gaels to get back into the game down the stretch, making their free throws and protecting the 3-point arc.

Mike Morsell led the way for the Tigers with 19 points and 6 rebounds. William Adala Moto added 14 for Towson, who finished non-conference play 8-5 with quality wins over George Mason and Iona.

Iona, who was led by Severe’s 20 points and 12 from Washington, falls to 8-4 on the season. The Gaels return to action Wednesday on the road at Delaware.

 

St. John’s Finds its Stride in Blowout Win Over Syracuse

By Kevin Sweeney

CBS Sports college basketball writer Jon Rothstein frequently tweets: “College Basketball. Where the unexpected becomes the ordinary.” 

Tonight’s final score between St. John’s and Syracuse would certainly qualify as unexpected. 

The Orange, usually very tough to beat at the Carrier Dome, were absolutely dominated by former Big East rival St. John’s. When the final buzzer mercifully sounded, Syracuse was on the wrong side of a 93-60 score line, one of the worst losses of the Jim Boeheim era. 

The talented but inexperienced Johnnies, who were coming off consecutive losses to LIU-Brooklyn & Penn State, had no problems getting good looks against the vaunted Syracuse zone defense, recording a ridiculous 27 assists on 34 made field goals while shooting over 50% from the field. 

The early stages of the first half did not seem to have the makings of a blowout, as the Orange took a 14-12 lead with 12:42 to go in the half on a jumper by Taurean Thompson. Then, St. John’s started to heat up, hitting four triples in a span of less than 2 minutes to quickly turn a deficit into a double-digit lead. Freshman big man Richard Freudenberg, who was averaging just 1.3 points per game coming into the contest, scored 8 quick points during what became a 19-2 run that flipped the 14-12 Orange lead to a 31-16 advantage for the Red Storm. Syracuse did recover, pulling back within 10 at halftime to give some life to the Carrier Dome crowd. 

Syracuse continued to hang around early in the second half, with a trio of buckets by senior center DaJuan Coleman in the first two minutes of the half cutting their deficit to six. It was midway through the second half that St. John’s made their decisive run to take full control of the ballgame. After the under-12 media timeout, St. John’s went on a 30-6 run that lasted over 8 minutes to take an 89-54 lead with 2:49 to play in the game. It was the guard quartet of Marcus LoVett, Shamorie Ponds, Malik Ellison, and Bashir Ahmed that did the majority of the heavy lifting during the run, orchestrating the offense to break down the zone while playing stifling defense on Syracuse’s veteran guards. Perhaps more importantly, they played with a confidence not typically found in inexperienced players on the road. That young core, made up of 2 freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior, appears to be a group capable of eventually bringing the St. John’s program back to the heights of years past. 

Ponds led the way for the Red Storm with 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists. Ahmed posted 20 points while Ellison added 16 for the Johnnies. 

Tyler Lydon had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Orange, while Coleman and Thompson each had 10 points. 

Syracuse will have a terrible taste in its mouth going into a 6-day break for Christmas. They return to action Tuesday, December 27 at home versus Cornell. St. John’s will begin Big East play with a huge amount of confidence, and open the slate with Butler on Thursday, December 29. 

After Fighting For Eligibility, Isaiah Brock Thriving at Oakland

By Kevin Sweeney

Just over two months ago, it didn’t look like Isaiah Brock would play a single minute this season for the Oakland Golden Grizzlies.

Now, he’s a vital cog for an Oakland team off to its best start as a Division 1 program.

The 22-year old Brock’s story drew national attention in early October when the NCAA ruled him ineligible to play this season for not having the requisite high school grades.

However, Brock was not a typical college enrollee.

Isaiah’s story began in Baltimore, where he was an outstanding football, basketball, and lacrosse player at Forest Park High School, where he also ran track. However, he never worried about his grades because he always planned to enlist in the Armed Forces. After graduation, a milestone that only around 70% of Forest Park students achieve, he enrolled in the Army.

He spent four years in the Army, putting his life on the line in the war zones of Afghanistan and Kuwait, where he served as a mortuary affairs specialist. His work earned him numerous awards and honors from the Army.

His time serving his country also led him to what would eventually be the next journey in his life: college basketball.  In 2015, Brock attended the “Hardwood Classic” in Kuwait, an event put on by the Troops First Foundation in which college head coaches coach groups of actively-serving troops in a basketball tournament meant to boost morale. Coaches such as Jimmy Patsos (Siena), Steve Lavin (St. John’s), Pete Gillen (Virginia 1998-2005), and Oakland’s Greg Kampe attended the event. Kampe met Brock at the event when their teams faced off. That began their relationship, and eventually, Kampe offered Brock a scholarship to play basketball at Oakland.

Kampe wasn’t sure whether Brock would ever be a major contributor for the Golden Grizzlies. In fact, he couldn’t guarantee that Brock would ever play a minute.

“I thought him being around my players would just be unbelievable from a leadership perspective. I wanted my players to meet him and be around him. And if he ever played basketball, that would be awesome, too. So I told him I couldn’t promise playing time. But I told him I could give him an opportunity to experience college basketball.” Kampe told Gary Parrish in an CBSSports.com article.

However, the story didn’t appear to have a happy ending in October, when the NCAA ruled that Brock would be ineligible to play this season due to his high school grades, despite having an acceptable standardized test score and being 5 years removed from taking a high school course. Brock had excelled in a pair of college classes he took online during his time overseas, and got an A and a B in his two summer courses at Oakland.

The story brought national scrutiny to the NCAA, and thanks to public attention and a letter written by Michigan congressman Mike Bishop, Brock was cleared for play just under 2 weeks later, just under a month before the season began.

While the decision seemed minor for Oakland’s team at the time, since Brock wasn’t expected to contribute much on the floor, it was definitely a cool story for Brock, Oakland, and the entire college basketball world.

What Brock has contributed on the floor has been beyond what anyone anticipated. He’s emerged as the starting center for the Golden Grizzlies and is averaging 6.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game so far this season. Last time out, he posted 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 blocks in a 74-53 rout of Robert Morris, earning him Horizon League Rookie of the Week honors for the second time in three weeks.

One of the people Kampe credits the most for his team’s incredible improvement on defense this season, from allowing 78.5 points per game to now just 66.6 points per game this season, is Brock.

“Since Benson (Keith, star at Oakland from 2007-2011) left, we’ve not had a rim protector.” Kampe said in an interview with broadcaster Neal Ruhl following the win over Robert Morris (Golden Grizzlies/Youtube). “Then we have the ultimate one in Isaiah. Word’s getting out, shots are getting blocked, shots are getting altered, and the mindset when they get in there it ain’t going to be easy and that someone’s lurking. That’s why it has changed.”

As for the offensive end of the floor, Isaiah has the ability to energize the crowd with some big dunks. 18 of his 32 field goals this season have come via the slam, a play that can change the momentum of the game all together.

The Oakland fans and the entire community have embraced Brock since his story began being told. Prior to their season opener on Veterans Day, Brock was honored in a pregame ceremony. Last week, he was invited to attend a Detroit Lions game and was brought onto the field to be honored as an Aplebee’s Hometown Hero.

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Isaiah Brock (10) waves to the crowd after being one of many veterans honored before the season opener against Bowling Green. (Photo Courtesy of Oakland University Athletics)

 

Up next for Brock and the Golden Grizzlies is a stretch of three games in four days against Northeastern, Michigan State, and Georgia. These critical games could show us whether or not this Oakland team can be real contenders with Valparaiso for the Horizon League title.

Oakland sits at 9-1 for the season. Could a trip to the NCAA Tournament be the next chapter in Isaiah Brock’s storybook season?

With what he’s accomplished already, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

 

 

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