CAA Hoops: The fully baked half dozen

Elon

Elon started the season Friday night at the top of the college basketball ladder. (Duke Athletics)

Like the solar eclipse, a preschooler’s attention span and my leaf-free front yard, opening weekend in college basketball has come and gone. After months of speculation, we finally #STDGA.

One thing you can count on in the early weeks each season is a wide disparity in the range of competition.

Elon, expected to contend for the CAA Hoops title this season, is a good example. It opened the season Friday at No. 1 Duke, which started five soon-to-be NBA pros, and lost by 29. The Phoenix returned home Saturday to face William Peace, which was an all-girls college for more than a century until it converted to co-educational five years ago, and won by 43.

November and December serve many purposes for college teams. Teams hope to jell, players adapt to balancing travel, practices, games, on-the-road study halls and early morning classes after late night arrivals. But now that the CAA has accepted its position as a one-bid league, coaches use the nonconference schedule to figure out their team and understand which players they can trust when the New Year arrives.

Because the CAA regular season matters. In the last 16 years, no team seeded worse than third has won the conference tournament and claimed the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. In the current 10-team configuration, Northeastern won as the 3 seed in 2015, UNCW as the 2 in 2016 and UNCW repeated as the 1 last season.

So, here’s a fully baked half dozen thoughts from the weekend. We’ll try to make this a regular deal.

Charleston’s offense

Unanimous league favorite Charleston showed its experience and resolve in gutting out a 68-60 overtime win over Siena at home. Playing without All-CAA forward Jarrell Brantley, who suffered a minor injury in practice, the Cougars looked lost on the offensive end. They shot 40 percent on 2-pointers, 20 percent on 3-pointers (5 of 25) and mustered only 0.87 points per possession against a Siena team that was 208th last season in adjusted defensive efficiency and is projected 250th this season. Missing a player of Brantley’s caliber hurts any team, obviously, but the Cougars spent too much time standing around against the Saints’ zone. Brantley’s ability to gain position and pass out of the mid-post, around the free throw line and in the short corner would’ve been helpful against the 2-3 zone.  Charleston plays one of the best defensive teams in the nation tonight at No. 7 Wichita State (9 p.m. CBS Sports Network). The Cougars have the personnel to become an excellent offensive team. They’ll need Brantley at full strength tonight. Of course tonight’s game also has two interesting side notes. C of C coach Earl Grant worked under Gregg Marshall at Winthrop from 2004-07 and during that span Marshall was the Cougars coach for 24 hours. Here’s a fun piece from King Kresse on what might have been.

Blue Hens Rising

Ryan Daly

UD sophomore Ryan Daly had 22 points, hitting 8 of 10 2-pointers in the win over Richmond.

Delaware went down to the Spider Hole and whipped a Richmond squad that’s expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10. Granted, the Spiders were missing their leading returning scorer, Khwan Fore, still, this is a signature victory for second-year UD coach Martin Ingelsby, who is building something special in Newark. Ingelsby landed Ryan Daly last season and he was easily the CAA Freshman of the Year. Kevin Anderson, a 6-5 freshman, scored 11 points in 31 minutes against Richmond and five of the eight Blue Hens who played are underclassmen. I picked Delaware seventh in the CAA in my Blue Ribbon preview. Is it too late for a mulligan?

Scheduling

As of today, the 10 members of the CAA are scheduled to play 22 games against teams in the KenPom Top 100. This number could grow as teams advance in preseason tournaments. Northeastern is again the conference’s scheduling stalwart, set to face five top-100 squads, including Stanford, Bucknell and Vermont. On the flip side, every CAA member is playing a non-DI foe this season, combining for 14 affairs against the likes of Wentworth (which I thought was a good golf course in England), Arcadia(n) – a fine layout in Myrtle Beach and Molloy (which for some reason makes me think of the Smails’ kid’s line about a Scotch ad in Caddyshack).

Too many golf references in one paragraph. Also, too much fluff on the schedule. It’s a shame the similar mid-majors of the world can’t figure out a way to meet more frequently in the opening weeks of the season. There are 351 teams in Division I, after all. Scheduling is complicated and coaches aren’t eager to visit Trask Coliseum or Alumni Hall. That being said, UNCW at Davidson, Delaware at Bradley and JMU vs. ODU should be accurate barometers for both squads in the next two nights.

What to make of Drexel

The Dragons were well shy of full strength in their home opener, a nine-point loss to Bowling Green. There were bright spots: Senior big man Austin Williams was perfect on seven shots and had a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds. Sammy Mojica, who was last seen firing up quick, contested 3-pointers in the North Charleston Coliseum, played like a veteran with 17 points on 13 shots and seven boards. There were bleak spots: Guards Kurk Lee and Troy Harper, a transfer from Campbell, missed 21 of 25 shots and the Dragons committed turnovers on one-fourth of their possessions. Drexel has a tough trip to Houston on Friday followed by a five-game stretch of reasonable games that should shed light on which way this season is headed for coach Zach Spiker.

Fornes is key for Seahawks

The sophomore guard had 11 points, five rebounds and four assists in 21 minutes for UNCW in its season-opening laugher over D3 North Carolina Wesleyan. As expected All-CAA forward Devontae Cacock and senior point guard Jordon Talley combined for 45 points to lead the way, but if the Seahawks plan to contend for their fourth consecutive regular season crown, they’re going to need a consistent third scorer. Fornes is extremely athletic and has a sweet stroke from deep. Bothered by nagging injuries in the offseason, Fornes possesses the tools necessary to thrive in the CAA. Keep a close eye on his stat line this season. UNCW faces one of the most exciting guards in the nation Saturday when Chris Clemons and Campbell come to Trask.

Another Murphy

The final Murphy brother, Tomas, is a freshman at Northeastern. The 6-8, 220-forward wasn’t bashful in the season opening win over Boston U., taking 31 percent of the team’s shots when on the floor. He finished with 15 points on 6 of 12 shooting, adding six rebounds and three assists in 31 minutes. Northeastern’s Bill Coen excels at coaching and downplaying his freshmen, yet there was noticeable optimism in his voice this summer when I asked him about Murphy’s potential. Riddled by injuries in 2016-17, the Huskies appear to be nine or 10 deep and possess the versatility throughout the lineup to match an array of opponents. The sophomores thrown onto the floor out of desperation a year ago should benefit from the game experience as this season unfolds. The turnover count was high against the Terriers (26 percent of possessions) however attribute it to first-game jitters for junior point guard Vasa Pusica, who hadn’t played in 18 months after transferring to NU from San Diego.

 

 

 

CAA Hoops: Let’s Get it On

Welcome to toss-up Saturday in CAA Hoops.

Good luck picking a winner in the five games that open the 2016-17 conference schedule. KenPom projects a margin of four points or less in each one. The wily band of cigar-smokin’, cash-countin’ cats in Vegas will also keep the spreads tight when the morning comes (For Entertainment Purposes Only, of course).  Then again, tomorrow’s schedule could be a precursor to another highly competitive CAA season, considering seven teams are in the KenPom top 150. The conference is 12th out of 31 (between the West Coast Conference and Mid-American) and will remain in that neighborhood, give or take a spot, over the next two months.

So, Let’s Get it On.

You can find all the games at CAATV. (All advanced stats against DI competition only).

ingram_denzel-1

UNCW (11-2) at Towson (8-5), noon

KenPom: UNCW 68-64, gives Seahawks 64 percent win probability

The Seahawks are on pace to have the best offense in CAA advanced stats history, which began with the 2001-02 season. They scored 1.17 points per possession in the nonconference by combining a low turnover rate (14.2 pct) with sharp 2-point shooting (58.0). They’re top 10 in the nation in both categories. And, here’s a scary thought for CAA opponents: Chris Flemmings (26.6 pct on 3s vs DI) and C.J. Bryce (28.6 pct.) haven’t found their long-range touch yet. On the other end, UNCW has been the nation’s best at choking off the 3-point line. Opponents have scored only 16 percent of their points beyond-the-arc.

Towson picked up solid wins over surprising George Mason and Iona in the nonconference, suffered a bad loss to Robert Morris and narrowly missed upsets at Boston College and Maryland. Shooting continues to be a huge question mark for the Tigers (29 pct on 3s vs. DI). Also, coach Pat Skerry probably expected his veteran bunch to offer more resistance on the defensive end, where they have an adjusted efficiency of 102.7, which is 171st in the nation. A stat worth watching in this matchup, per Synergy Sports: Towson has scored only 72 points on 106 possessions in its press offense. That places the Tigers in the nation’s 14th percentile. More than one-fifth of those possessions ended in a turnover, which could be trouble against the Seahawks. Still, with virtually the same personnel on each team, Towson beat UNCW by 16 at home last year and lost by six points in Wilmington.

Charleston (9-4) at Elon (8-5), 2 p.m.

KenPom: Elon 64-63 (54 pct.)

The Cougars, who I tabbed second in the preseason, are again one of the nation’s premier defensive teams. They’ve won six of seven, and were tied with LSU in the final minutes before the Tigers 10-0 spurt, aided by a mystery traveling call on Joe Chealey, finished off Earl Grant’s squad. Charleston is 27th in adjusted defensive efficiency (93.3) and also shuts down the 3-point line, which will be critical against the Phoenix. The Cougs’ offensive numbers are less attractive. Charleston has shot poorly on 2-pointers (44.5 pct.) and 3-pointers (29.2 pct.). A closer look reveals they need fewer spot-up 2-point jumpers and more pick-and-roll action with Chealey and Jarrell Brantley. Per hoop-math.com, 31.2 pct of their field goal attempts have been 2-point jumpers, which is in the top third of DI.

charleston-hoops

 

Elon sputtered over the final weeks of the nonconference, dropping four of six although it fared admirably in losses to Georgetown and Duke. The Phoenix is a fluid offensive machine, fueled by balance and diversity. Sure, it loves the 3-point line, scoring 38.5 percent of its points from long range, however, it has converted 52 percent of 2-pointers and is 93rd in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. Coach Matt Matheny has a dependable nine-man rotation. Four starters average in double figures and Dainan Swoope is on the verge at 9.9 points per game. Dmitri Thompson, a 6-5 wing, is emerging as a defensive stopper who can guard multiple positions. Brian Dawkins has made 20 of 29 3-pointers in the DI games.

William & Mary (6-5) at Northeastern (7-5), 2 p.m.

KenPom: Northeastern 77-74 (60 pct.)

The Tribe salvaged a somewhat disappointing nonconference segment Thursday night with an impressive 11-point defeat of old CAA rival Old Dominion. Daniel Dixon went berserk, hitting 11 of 15 shots – including five 3-pointers – to score 36 of the Tribe’s 65 points. The trip to Boston marks the third of a rough four-game road stretch, and if the Tribe hopes to escape the league’s northern extreme with at least a split it probably needs better shooting from Omar Prewitt. He’s hit 48 percent of 2s and 32 percent of 3s in the Tribe’s nine DI games. It’s been either sink or swim for wing Greg Malinowski. He has five games of double figure scoring and five games of three points or less.

Northeastern has won three consecutive road games against top-100 KenPom teams (Vermont, Michigan State, Oakland), which has never been done by a current CAA member. So hats off to Bill Coen and friends. (It’s worth noting that 2006-07 Drexel defeated Villanova (21), Syracuse (41) and Temple (131) on the road in succession). The Huskies also handled UConn (101) on the road earlier. Since UNCW and Charleston are the only top-100 teams, the Huskies must feel confident they can beat anybody in the Association. The 6-10 sophomore Jeremy Miller has been ultra-efficient, hitting 27 of 41 2s and 15 of 33 3s. He’s been dangerous as a spot-up shooter, as the receiver in the pick & roll and on cuts to the basket, per Synergy Sports data. Getting him another touch or two wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Huskies’ offense.

Hofstra (8-5) at Delaware (7-6), 2 p.m.

KenPom: Hofstra 71-68 (60 pct.)

Being a Hofstra basketball fan must feel like riding down Space Mountain while strapped into the seat backward as a mild psychedelic courses through your veins. They’ve climbed from ordinary to  outstanding, fallen to awful and risen again during their 16 seasons in the CAA. It’s too early to tell where the Pride will land this season but it has one trait in common with its predecessors: terrific guard play. From Stokes to Agudio to Jenkins to Green, the Pride has had perimeter players who can dribble, pass and score. Eli Pemberton could be the next legend in Hempstead. The freshman continues to thrive and receives ample help from veterans Deron Powers and Brian Bernardi. Hofstra has won 6 of 8 after a slow start and has an impressive adjusted offensive efficiency (108.4). Not letting opponents shoot 38 percent on 3-pointers would be a good way to improve the defense.

Delaware won its seventh game Wednesday night and it was the most impressive yet for rookie coach Martin Inglesby’s squad, a 63-54 defeat of Iona. Shooting has been a problem – 44.2 percent on 2-pointers, 29.1 percent on 3-pointers but the Blue Hens have shown a willingness to defend and rebound, both of which are a direct reflection of effort. Inglesby swooped into Philadelphia and scooped up Ryan Daly, and the 6-4 freshman is leading the squad in scoring (12.0 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 rpg). He appears headed for an All-Rookie team selection, giving the Hens hope for the future.

Drexel (6-7) at James Madison (2-11), 2 p.m.

KenPom: JMU 70-68, 56 pct.

In what could be a preview of pillowfight Friday in North Charleston, the surprising Drexel Dragons face the disappointing Dukes. Zach Spiker has already exceeded expectations in his first season at Drexel. Specifically, the Dragons appear to have a backcourt for the future in freshmen Kurk Lee (14.8 ppg) and Kari Jonsson (10.3 ppg). Spiker has also influenced his team’s shot selection in a positive manner. The 2-point jump shot is the least efficient (worst) shot in college basketball. In each of the last two seasons, Drexel has made 32 percent of its 2-point jumpers. But this season, only 24 percent of Drexel’s field goal attempts are 2-point jumpers, compared with 39 percent last season. In turn, the Dragons are scoring 1.032 points per possession (153rd in nation) compared to 0.962 ppp last season (302nd).

James Madison plays Youngstown State on Jan. 7th in Frisco, Texas for the FCS national championship. Bryan Schor passed for 2,800 yards and 27 touchdowns to pace an attack that pumps out 48 points per game. The Dukes defeated top-ranked North Dakota State 27-17 on Dec. 17th to advance to the title game. JMU football has a 13-1 record.

 

 

 

 

 

CAA Hoops: Sorting through the muddled middle

 

elon-mens-basketball

Luke Eddy’s shooting has lifted Elon to a strong start (pilfered from Elon Athletics)

Conference power rankings seem pointless once the actual conference schedule starts. The standings speak for themselves. However, a solid month into the 2016-17 season and still three weeks removed from scuffling with familiar faces, this seems like a good time to assess the 10 teams in the CAA, attempt to put them in a sensible order.

First, here are my preseason predictions, which appeared in the 2016-17 Blue Ribbon Yearbook: 1. UNCW, 2. Charleston, 3. Towson, 4. Hofstra, 5. William & Mary, 6. James Madison, 7. Elon, 8. Northeastern, 9. Delaware, 10. Drexel

Every CAA team has played at least seven games. The ambitious youngsters at Hofstra are 10 games deep. And all but William & Mary return to action this weekend.

caasked

With roughly 30 percent of the regular season behind us, the top of the CAA is clearly defined and, unfortunately for those in Harrisonburg, so is the bottom. In case you missed it, JMU AD Jeff Bourne fired Matt Brady after last season. Brady led the Dukes to a 40-25 mark the last two seasons, 19-13 in the CAA and they shared the 2014-15 regular season title. Last season, the CAA matched its highest ranking ever (ninth) out of 32 Division I conferences, per KenPom.com. The CAA was also ranked ninth in KenPom in 2010-11, which, along with 2005-06, is considered the strongest season in conference history as six teams won 20 games, three (George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU) reached the NCAA tournament and the Rams made their remarkable run to the Final Four. JMU won 21 games that season, finished 10-8 in the CAA and beat VCU in Richmond in the regular season finale.

In 2013, Brady led the Dukes to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994, when Lefty Driesell was the coach. Brady had a 139-127 (.523) overall record in eight seasons at JMU and was 40-30 in the CAA in his last four. By comparison, in the eight seasons before Brady arrived, JMU had a combined record of 77-145 (.347) under Sherman Dillard and Dean Keener. The Dukes were 31-85 in conference during that span.

2012 MBB-Philadelphia

Duke Dog, when his basketbowl was full and his coat was clean (stolen from a rando on Pinterest)

Anyway, there’s a muddled middle, again. Will Hofstra ever defend? Why does William & Mary keep missing so many 3s? Who are Elon’s most important players? Let’s get to it.

1. UNCW (7-1)

Best Win: East Tennessee State (88 KenPom); Worst Loss: Middle Tennessee (83)

The Seahawks aren’t perfect. The frontcourt depth is suspect. C.J. Gettys transferred to Rutgers and Chuck Ogbodo is suspended, sent home last month following the first of three games in Nashville. There goes 13 feet, 10 inches of paint protection. Opponents have exploited the interior, shooting 54.8 percent on 2-pointers (301st in the nation). And UNCW still fouls too frequently, leading to 24.1 free throws per game for the other team.

But their pressure remains fierce, forcing turnovers on 24.1 pct of possessions (17th) and Kevin Keatts has collected a cast of consistent finishers – 57.6 pct. on 2s (11th). The athletic, muscular sophomore Devontae Cacok has made the freshman-to-sophomore leap and ODU grad transfer Ambrose Mosley has knocked down 3s (40.7 pct vs. DI teams), as advertised.

Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and C.J. Bryce form the best perimeter trio in the CAA.

 

2. Charleston (6-3)

Best Win: Davidson (63); Worst Loss: UCF (72)

Entering their game Sunday, against old SoCon rival Davidson, the Cougars’ season had essentially gone according to form. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat and didn’t have a bad loss. One could argue they should have handled UCF at home, but with 7-6 Tacko Fall in the middle, veteran guards in the backcourt and Johnny Dawkins on the sidelines, the Knights are the best defensive team in the nation.

Charleston gave a glimpse of what it could become in the second half against Davidson. The offense came alive for the Cougars, who are top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency again. They shot 56 percent and held the potent Wildcats to 5 of 20 shooting and 22 points. On the season, the Cougars have an abysmal effective field goal percentage of 44.8, but that’s more a reflection of poor shot selection. More on that, tomorrow.

 

3. Elon (6-3)

Best Win: @Northern Illinois (164); Worst Loss: Charlotte (188)

Last week, I picked the Phoenix as one of seven pleasant surprises in college basketball and consecutive defeats to Georgetown and UNC Asheville haven’t changed those feelings. The home loss to the Bulldogs, though, magnified what center Brian Dawkins has meant to Elon this season. After scoring in double figures in seven of Elon’s first eight games, Dawkins missed all five shots and mustered one point in the 11-point loss to solid UNCA (127).

The talented sophomore class at Elon (Seibring, Santa Ana, Swoope, Eberhardt) is trending in a positive direction, but the key players in the early success have been Dawkins and point guard Luke Eddy, who is producing like he did prior to his late 2014 ACL injury. Eddy had a 120.9 offensive rating through nine games that season and in the two games before he got hurt, scored 43 points on 24 shots against Missouri and Duke.

Both veterans have shot the ball significantly better than they did last season.

PPG Offensive Rating FG Pct. 3PFG Pct.
Dawkins 15-16 5.6 92.1 51.3 20.7
Dawkins 16-17 12.1 120.5 62.9 63.2
Eddy 15-16 10.5 95.4 39.7 26.0
Eddy 16-17 12.1 117.8 48.5 42.9

 

 

4. Towson (5-4)

Best Win: George Mason (151); Worst Loss: Robert Morris (265)

Pat Skerry wanted to challenge his veteran group in the early going. The Tigers opened by beating old CAA friend Mason and that win looks even better now that the Patriots have won six in a row. The Tigers just missed wins at Maryland and Boston College, and at home against an Old Dominion squad that makes us nostalgic for the rockfights of yesterday.

Towson creates extra opportunities with excellent offensive rebounding (12th, with 39.8 percent) but squanders possessions via turnovers (21.4 pct.). Poor shooting has also been a problem. Per Synergy Sports, 22 percent of the Tigers possessions have ended in a spot-up jumper. They’ve scored only 122 points on those 145 trips, which drops them into the bottom fourth in Division I.

Mike Morsell has scored 14 points or more in Towson’s nine games vs. DI foes, boosted his output at the free throw line by drawing 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes.

morsell

Mike Morsell is third in the CAA in scoring 18.0 ppg. (Hijacked)

5. Hofstra (6-4)

Best Win: Columbia (217); Worst Loss: Sacred Heart (325)

The Pride is 296th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. It has surrendered 1.13 points per possession and 77.9 points per game. It’s not good, Dino.

Hofstra has defended poorly in two vital areas: beyond-the-arc, where opponents have made 8.6 per game at a 41 percent clip and at the rim, allowing 61 percent (215th). In the halfcourt, they’re one of the worst teams in the nation defending the pick & roll and handoffs. They are also in the bottom one percent of 351 DI teams in defensive transition.

On the bright side, Rokas Gustys is leading the nation in rebounding and scored a season-high 20 points last time out against St. Bonaventure. The freshman wing, Eli Pemberton, has been brilliant also, with four 20-point games and a 139.3 offensive rating.

 

6. Northeastern (4-6)

Best Win: UConn (78); Worst Loss: LIU Brooklyn (279)

The Huskies have been up-and-down, as expected and are riding a three-game losing streak, which can be blamed on poor defense (248th in adjusted efficiency).

T.J. Williams, however, is playing like his pants are on fire. There’s a long 18-game conference schedule ahead, but he’s on pace to have a historic high-usage, high-efficiency season that would put him in the company of CAA legends. And, who saw this coming? Williams played less than half the minutes last season and took only 14 pct. of the Huskies’ shots, compared to 28 percent this season.

(Charles Jenkins led the nation in efficiency in 2010-11 among players used on at least 28 percent of possessions)

Player Offensive Rating Usage
Charles Jenkins, HU ‘10-11 123.5 28.4
T.J. Williams, NU ‘16-17 122.2 30.6
Damion Lee, DU ‘14-15 118.4 28.1
Eric Maynor, VCU ‘08-09 116.2 33.0
V. Vasylius, ODU ‘06-07 114.8 28.3
Gary Neal, TU ‘06-07 113.6 34.0

 

7. William & Mary (3-4)

Best Win: Liberty (245); Worst Loss: Hampton (323)

Traveling 40 miles down I-64 and handing Hampton its first win against a DI opponent was not the best path for the Tribe to take into a 13-day exam break.

W&M was 5 of 23 from beyond-the-arc and scored only 0.92 points per possession against the Pirates, continuing a season-long slump from long range. The Tribe has hit 32.9 percent against DI teams, which is below the national average and is its worst 3-point effort since the 6-26 season in 2011-12.

The Tribe’s perimeter defense has also been porous. They gave up 124 points to the five starting guards for Central Michigan and Hampton, in their last two losses.

Greg Malinowski scored 14 points against Hampton, though, which provides a flash of hope for the future. The rangy wing suffered a concussion in the preseason and has struggled to find form since. Nathan Knight is a promising 6-10 freshman. He scored 14 against Louisville and 11 at Duke.

 

8. Drexel (4-4)

Best Win: High Point (290); Worst Loss: Niagara (281)

drexelZach Spiker inherited a mess in Philly. The Dragons were 288th in minutes continuitywhich means they had a host of new faces expected to take on new roles.

I’ll have more on this in the next post, but Drexel fans should be encouraged by a) talented freshman guards Kurk Lee and Kari Jonsson b) enhanced offensive aptitude. Spiker’s personnel will only improve in the upcoming seasons, but he’s already pouring the mortar necessary to build an efficient attack.

On the other end, the Dragons are doing a fine job defending the basket, holding opponents to 45.8 percent 2-point shooting.

 

9. Delaware (5-3)

Best Win: Bradley (271); Worst Loss: Austin Peay (289)

It’s hard to get a good handle on the Blue Hens, because they’ve played a schedule ranked 312th in the nation – and that doesn’t include their two wins over non-Division I schools. The Delaware situation was on the brink of irrevocable damage, but all signs point to Martin Inglesby being the upgrade required to inject energy into the fan base in Newark.

Like their old rivals up the road at Drexel, early statistical evidence reveals a more sophisticated and reliable offensive scheme. In short, brighter days lie ahead.

Injury halted Chivarsky Corbett’s season after four games last season. But the versatile 6-7 wing is scoring, shooting and rebounding like he was before he tore his ACL. He’s part of a balanced attack where six players average between eight and 12 points.

 

10. James Madison (1-7)

Best Win: Longwood (338); Worst Loss: Montana St. (227)

The Dukes won at Longwood last week after opening the season with seven straight losses. As Ken Pomeroy pointed out recently, new coach Louis Rowe didn’t inherit any automatic wins on the early schedule.

I watched the Dukes at Charlotte last week. (I’ve seen UNCW, W&M and Charleston (3x) live as well). The Dukes had a solid game plan. Their mistakes weren’t egregious, although the intent was unclear on many offensive possessions. On-floor leadership was difficult to identify and a JMU fan would probably hope to see more outward emotion. Down the stretch, they just looked like a team playing as if it expected to lose. I’ve seen that show before.

From a statistical view, the Dukes are 342nd in turnover percentage and 248th in effective field goal percentage. Those are two deep potholes on the road to good offense.

Phi Slama Jama, Jimmy V & a twist of fate

My wife and I watched the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, ‘Phi Slama Jama’ Sunday night. Like most of the series, it’s terrific.

I was 10 years old in 1983 when Houston and N.C. State met for the national championship. My mom, my sister (nearly four years older) and I watched every game on N.C. State’s run to the championship. We weren’t Wolfpack fans but loved college basketball. The game got in my blood early. I was going to play point guard in the ACC, no question. State was the ultimate underdog with a lovable coach. They were easy to pull for.

A rare March snowstorm hit Eastern North Carolina during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The power went out and the three of us sat around the fireplace and listened to the games on the radio. The Cardiac Pack beat Virginia and 7-4 center Ralph Sampson twice in three weeks, which seemed impossible even to someone with my lack of experience.

N.C. State kept winning, each one more improbable than the next. Then it was time for the Final Four. Houston played Louisville. There was a ball and two baskets on a court. But the teams were playing a different sport from another planet. It was fast, amazing and most certainly above the rim. Dunks and dunks and blocks and dunks.

We didn’t have cable at that time, not that they were airing anything that resembled what happened in that national semifinal. My college basketball viewing consisted of whatever ACC game was on TV each week. Raycom, Bones, Packer and Thacker, manual scoreboard in Carmichael, Sail with the Pilot.

There wasn’t a shot clock. The ACC had great players and coaches but nobody played like the Cougars and the Cardinals. Virginia and North Carolina had played a snoozer in the ACC championship game the year before. (I searched the interwebs for video footage, but luckily, thankfully, none exists. As an aside, four future Division I head coaches and three future Naismith Hall of Fame members played in the game – and they only scored 92 points!).

unc-uva

At some point during the second half of that one, as the Tar Heels held the ball for what, to a nine-year-old, seemed like 4,000 straight minutes, I walked outside and started shooting baskets on the goal in my backyard. Probably missed the end of the game. I didn’t miss one second of Houston – Louisville, just stared at the TV when it was over.

Two nights later, Whittenberg makes the heave, Charles dunks it and Jim Valvano runs around the court seeking someone to hug. But the part we always overlooked, over here on this side of the country, was just how close Benny Anders came to stealing the pass and rewriting the ending. As we were watching the sequence in ‘Phi Slama Jama’ my wife said something to this effect: just think if he steals that pass, his life turns out better, but because he didn’t Jimmy V won the national championship and there’s a foundation that helps so many people.

She was absolutely right. One play changed the fate of so many.

I’ve always been fortunate to be around smart ladies.

My sister, Ashley, died of breast cancer in June of 2012, four weeks after my first daughter, Kate, was born. She loved college basketball. As adults, whenever we talked on the phone this time of the year, the conversation generally turned to hoops and stayed there. Oh sure, I’d get the necessary updates on my nieces, how they were doing in school and such, but she lived in California and needed the latest scoop from Tobacco Road. I was glad to help. She’d tape games shown at 4 p.m. her time and watch them later without knowing the score. She knew basketball and loved to watch, was unafraid of good-spirited trash talk on social media. When I covered the NCAA tournament, she’d pay close attention to the televised press conferences, hoping to hear me ask a question.

This is Jimmy V Week, of course, on ESPN. There’s a doubleheader tonight in Madison Square Garden. Like so many college basketball fans, I’ve watched the famous “Don’t Give Up” speech a dozen times. It’s become a holiday tradition on the screen at our house, as familiar as The Grinch or Clark Griswold. Cancer is everywhere, and it sucks. We’ve all been affected by it. Valvano’s words will ring true forever, even to the generations that never saw him coach a game. He was authentic, charismatic, flawed but genuine. I’ve heard great stories about his early days at NC State, this Italian guy from New York traveling to small towns across the state on the booster club circuit. The fans hung on every word.

The foundation bearing his name has awarded more than $170 million in cancer research grants since 1993. A endowment handles expenses, directing every dollar donated to research. That’s not the case with other organizations.

“your family, your religion and the Green Bay Packers”

 

Just like we left off, wherever we were

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So, this blog was born a year ago. And I’ve used it much less than I’d hoped. Rats. It was supposed to trigger a great book idea, help me hone my craft and such. Somewhere along the road though, writing words for the people who write me checks interfered with all those plans. Fatherhood takes more time than they let on. Sleep is good, when it comes. There were bands to see, that won’t change. I could tell you I’ve been spending too much time playing golf, but it’s untrue and a flimsy excuse in the first place.

This space hasn’t been completely useless. It provided a good place to write about two heroes who passed. It served as a good venue to display a hunk of pork I cooked. It gave me a place to ramble on about a band that I love. It allowed me to critique a Masters meltdown and what it might mean for the young victim. But for the most part it just sat here, vacant and neglected, buried under interweb tumbleweeds.

Time to populate this place.

What triggered such an idea?

The other day, while falling down a college basketball rabbit hole, I stumbled across the website CAAHoops.com. Or, what’s become of it. The last post came at the end of last season, prior to UNC Wilmington’s game against Duke in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps the kids who were running it graduated and moved on to other (paying) adventures. Perhaps there was no one left to assume command of such a thankless position. Regardless, it was a bummer. Before he and VCU departed the conference, Michael Litos invested time, sweat and Stellas into building the site and attracted a strong following across the blogosphere. We became friends through our mutual interest in scribbling somewhat coherent thoughts and following mid-major basketball. As the kids say, what a time (it was) to be alive: Final Four x 2, epic coaching searches, conference shuffling – we rarely wanted for entertainment or amusement. Boy gossip, my wife calls it.

Glimpsing his abandoned old site, frozen in late spring, delivered the requisite kick in the pants to a) resurrect this one and b) use it as a place to write about CAA Hoops. My paying gigs are sweet, but I have opinions to spout that will not fit in a 140-character box. Sometimes I become aware of news and have no place to break it. Other times, I just want to have fun and chop out sentences covering the conference I know best. By the middle of the week, I will have seen 4/10 of the league play live. Other assignments should send me to exotic locales like Elon soon and back to Charleston later. To my northern friends, we’ll see your teams (and hopefully you) when your teams come south. Also, I enjoy annoying certain people in the conference office.

The goal is to post at least once a week. Maybe we’ll have a Colonial X revival once the conference season begins. Raise the tent, pass the biscuits, hallelujah! As a warning, it won’t be all basketball all the time. Was it ever? But there are handy tabs along the side so you can avoid midnight ramblings about six-minute dobro solos or an odd essay detailing how Jerry’s voice changed drastically from tour-to-tour in the early-to-mid 80s. That’s Garcia, not Beach.

As for the barbecue, there’s enough for everyone. Always.

 

Encounters with the King

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Arnold Palmer was everywhere around our golf shop in the late 1970s and early 80s. You could find his name and umbrella logo stamped on clubs, shirts, hats. When the tournament came on TV in the afternoon, there he was again, smiling as he rode up on a tractor or pitched a certain brand of rental car. As he walked the fairways, his days on the leaderboard had come and gone, but the fans still cheered.

Throughout our great state of North Carolina, his legend was greater still. People talked about walking beside him in Greensboro, having a beer with him in Pinehurst, watching him escape the trees one more time in Augusta. Golfers arrived from Charlotte driving a Cadillac they bought at Arnie’s dealership, which was number one in the nation in sales, of course. In business, his touch never wavered.

Wake Forest, a small Baptist college, has always been on the bottom rung in the “Big Four,” but Arnie alone turned it into a national golf power, paving the way for Wadkins, Strange, Haas, Simpson and the rest. Everyone, it seemed, had a story about the time they shook hands with Arnold Palmer.

Mine comes in the Southern California desert, 1998.  I was caddying for the veteran professional Larry Rinker in the Bob Hope Classic. We needed a spot to hit balls on the practice tee at PGA West’s Palmer Course, which was one of four courses in the tournament rotation. There was space open next to a white-haired man who had at least 10 drivers lined up, leaning against his golf bag. He’d pick one up, give it a waggle, make his familiar slashing swing, watch the ball, give the club another look, maybe hit another shot or two with it, then move on to the next one.

He was pushing 70 years old, virile not frail. Looked strong enough to wrestle a mountain lion to the ground if one was stupid enough to come down into the Coachella Valley and take him on.

I shook his hand. It was big and strong. Arnie started banging drivers again. Jay Haas sidled up to watch and started telling this story. Sometime in the mid-70s, when Haas was fresh out of college at Wake Forest, he and Palmer played in the same corporate outing or exhibition. The host hotel messed up Haas’ reservation and he didn’t have a room. When Arnie heard about his fellow Demon Deacon’s fate, he told Haas he could sleep in the extra bed in his room for the night.

So, Haas told the story from the perspective of a 23-year-old rookie pro rooming with a legend he adored. Palmer laughed at the memory of two grown men sharing a room on the road.

“Hey Arnold, do you still carry that wrench with you, so you can adjust the shower head?,” Haas asked.

“Damn right boy,” Palmer replied. “I’ve got to have some water when I shower.”

Other business travelers might face a weak, drizzly shower on occasion, but not Palmer, the pilot, the professional, the philanthropist, the friend to us all. He was prepared.

Sometime later we played with Peter Jacobsen, one of many pro golfers Palmer mentored. Jake recalled a function early in his career where he and Arnie had to sign hundreds of autographs to benefit a charity.

Arnie caught Jacobsen scribbling his way through a batch, stopped him and told him very clearly: “Take your time and sign your name where people can read it.”

Jake discussed the dozens of other pointers Arnie had shared – from thanking tournament hosts to leaving the courtesy car clean. There was one way to operate as it pertained to carrying yourself and treating people. Being a professional went well beyond busting 300-yard drives and collecting trophies.

About a decade ago, I was a staff writer at the Wilmington (NC) StarNews. The Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame sent an email announcing Palmer’s induction. The tone was embarrassment. How could such a hall exist and The King not be included? Regardless, Arnie was going to be in Pinehurst and there was media access. Because he had been a regular participant in Wilmington’s PGA Tour stop, the Azalea Open, winning in 1957, there was a local angle to pursue.

We gathered in a conference room in the Carolina Hotel, probably two dozen media types. Arnie, pushing 80, arrived on time, answered our questions and gave us more than we could’ve asked for, like always. After asking him a question about Wake Forest during the Q-and-A, I waited to discuss his longtime friendship with a Wilmington area family. He answered politely, although in hindsight my shaggy hair and scruffy beard might have cut our time short. A Coast Guard man from a Steel City believes in shorn and shaved.

Two years ago, I was in the Bay Area of northern California caddying for Albin Choi in a Web.com Tour event. We were paired with Arnie’s grandson Sam Saunders during the first two rounds. Our gallery consisted of a walking scorer, a standard bearer and a hippy who didn’t seem too concerned with the golf. The scene couldn’t have been further from what his grandfather experienced each time he played.

There wasn’t much small talk that day. But on one hole, there was a break as the third member of the group waited for a rules official to arrive. I asked Saunders how his grandfather was doing and told him I appreciated any chance I’d had to be around him.

Saunders said thanks and smiled. I knew he’d heard those words a million times before.

He was the coolest golfer ever. Nobody could possibly do more for golf than Palmer did during the last 70 years. He left us hundreds of courses to play, tournament highlights to watch, books and articles to read.

Legend?

If ever there was one.

 

So long, Guy

There’s not much I can say about Guy Clark that somebody hasn’t said already. I didn’t grow up listening to his songs necessarily, but once I started hearing them it was easy to want more.

The legendary Texas songwriter died yesterday at 74.

This profile will tell you what you need to know about Clark. It came across my Twitter feed one morning in early January 2014. I was preparing to board a plane for Hawaii and storing up reading material for the journey. Read that one twice. A perfectly constructed story about a fascinating subject. Any instructor who tries to teach folks how to write profiles would be wise to use this one as example number one.

Afterward, I downloaded two or three recent Clark albums and passed those hours over the Pacific enjoying his weathered voice, noticing how he always picked the precise word to help tell those stories, how he made you feel as if you were right there among those characters. The credit card bill got paid, eventually.

Whether it’s Emmylou Harris or Steve Earle or dozens of musicians in between, I’ve heard them all praise Clark as generous with his time. He showed artists how to turn a phrase and make their songs better. He was interested in the songs they were writing at that moment. It was always about the craft – and rarely easy. Helping others. If that’s a piece of your legacy, you’ve done alright.

Here’s another good read from someone who knew him well.

Still, here’s my favorite Guy Clark song. Heard it 15 years ago or so, introduced to Guy’s songs through his old late-night buddy, Townes Van Zandt. Captures the desire of a man eager to get the hell out of town and make a new start. If you’ve ever been in that spot, you know what he means. Besides, it’s not a simple trick, singing about vanilla wafers and hanging on to your dignity. He pulled that off, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Friday

Can’t get enough of this band right now … I know there is bluegrass in their name (my soon-to-be-four-year-old grasped the play on words by herself immediately because she’s already smarter than me, which I understand is a low fence to climb but still considering my advanced age it won’t be long before she’s able to use her intelligence against me if she so chooses. So keep us in your thoughts. And I know every parent thinks their kid is smart and maybe everybody is right).

And yes, these fellas play the requisite bluegrass instruments – banjo, mandolin, big stand up bass, dobro-ish thingy – but the music crosses many genres, especially their selection of cover songs (When Doves Cry, Money for Nothing, Time, Could You be Loved, Wind Cries Mary, China Cat Sunflower, Atlantic City, etc). Paul Hoffman (the mandolin player) is a helluva songwriter with a fine voice and outstanding beard.

Also, the band hails from Michigan which is a beautiful place to hang out in the summer and ride a jet ski across their Great Lake with a tall, cold beverage in hand and a soft, warm body on your back.

The spirit is real.

 

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Smoked pork shoulder is good. A man can write all the fancy pants sentences he wants. He can opine about basketball games and golf tournaments until he’s hoarse. He can walk a golf course in the hot sun with a bag of instruments on his back til his feet ache. He might make a putt on occasion. But those activities are silly distractions compared to a honest day’s work stoking fire and cooking meat to feed his family, small people some of them may be.

What a time to be alive, watch this cat pitch and Vin call it, sleep be damned.

Will write more soon.

Coming ’round Amen Corner

The great Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post used the Tweets from her legendary father to write this excellent column about Jordan Spieth, 22, whose Green Jacket dreams drowned Sunday afternoon amid the confounding winds of No. 12 at Augusta National. Despite fighting his swing and swinging a new driver, Spieth played 71 damn fine holes. Though most of us will remember only one.

He’s not the first golfer to abandon his game plan when the sledding became rough. Not the first champion to falter either, as Jenkins ably points out. There are others, of course, Norman, Hogan, Watson. Examine an elite pro from any era and you’ll find major championship wreckage nearby.

It’s easy to critique from the couch. Over the years, I caddied roughly 500 rounds on the PGA Tour, including a half-dozen majors. From the comforts of a hotel room at night, with hindsight as a guide, it was clear to see how decisions went awry. Still, on No. 12 Spieth left himself a challenging third shot after dunking his first. A 68-yard pitch off a tight lie to a pin tucked behind water is frightening in any situation. As a caddie, it’s a shot you try to avoid, when say, helping your player lay up on his second shot on a par 5. Even a pro with the sharpest short game can struggle to make clean contact. Spieth admitted it was hardly an ideal yardage. He chunked it, and as many have said in the last day or two, everyone who plays golf can relate. In that situation, re-teeing might have been a better option.

Spieth will replay the shot a hundred more times and make his own analysis. He’s played in three Masters and Bubba Watson and Danny Willett are the only golfers to beat him. It’s a remarkable record by any measure and the painful exit from Magnolia Lane is a road he’s been down before.

He’ll learn from it – and improve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Innocent Bystander

Cars stopped. People looked away. Cars crashed.

Hundreds stacked up on some interstate highway, if you believe what you see on the interwebs.

Been down those roads, late and recently, through the sweet heart of North Carolina. It’s tough out there sometimes, wondering what the cat beside you might have rattling around in his head. Boss trouble. Wife trouble. Money trouble. Maybe somebody forgot to mow the lawn. One eye on an iPhone and another in the ether, far beyond any simple help Siri might give. Over here cruising 75 miles-an-hour, real smooth, holding hard and fast to a fat jug of gas station coffee. Out there gambling on the highway, trying to use some sense.

So, this is how it begins.