Tiger Slam? Stop That Train

Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the 2019 Masters during the final round of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Augusta, Georgia. [MICHAEL HOLAHAN/THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE]

Dreaming again of White Chocolate Georgia Pecan cookies and hanging out under the ol’ oak tree.

Thrusting me back into reality was a question posed somewhere on the interwebs. A golf fan asked a golf writer if Tiger could win the Grand Slam. Simmer down, please.

Yes, what he accomplished at Augusta National last week was special, significant and signals his return to pro golf’s elite – if for some reason observers didn’t include him there after he finished top-6 in the final two majors of 2018 and won the Tour Championship.

Yes, he’s won before at the next two major championship venues. He claimed the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, site of the PGA Championship, May 16-19. And has a rich history at Pebble Beach, where the U.S. Open returns in June, winning by a record 15 shots 19 years ago. Those two facts will give the TV folks plenty of material in the weeks ahead.

Also, don’t be surprised if Woods challenges for the No. 1 spot in the official world golf ranking by the end of the season. He jumped from 12th to sixth Sunday night and Paul Azinger said Monday morning forget the rankings, Woods is No. 1 right now. Per usual, Zinger makes a good point.

But he’s not going to win the Grand Slam. (Yes, I remember writing Saturday morning that he wasn’t going to win the Masters). There are too many talented players and too many variables in golf. Do I expect him to contend? Sure. Just don’t get carried away. The pro golf landscape has shifted since last Thursday, not changed entirely. Dozens of players are talented enough to win a major. Remember that 26 pros won their first major in between Woods’ victories at the 2008 U.S. Open and 2019 Masters. Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and a host of others are on that list and aren’t likely to go anywhere.

Love or hate CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, but he’s covered the biggest sporting events for more than three decades and calls the 2019 Masters the best of them all. Bold statement made two or three days after the green jacket was slipped on Woods’ shoulders.

One more thought: Yesterday, I was standing in line in my local grocery store. The manager was helping the cashier by bagging meat and produce bought by the customer who was ahead of me in line. The customer was not wearing golf clothes. I can’t say for certain that either man plays the game. The manager said to him, “That was some golf tournament last weekend, wasn’t it?” Three days later in a town 275 miles away, a major golf tournament was still in the conversation. No offense to Koepka, Rory or anyone else. But that’s how Tiger moves the needle. He’s the only golfer, ever, whose presence transcends the sport.

Still, it was special.

If you haven’t had enough yet, here are words to read from the 2019 Masters.

Below is my four-part series for Augusta.com on the enhanced fifth hole at the Masters.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

I wrote this for Forbes SportsMoney

Michael Bamberger wrote this for Golf.com

Jon Gordon’s book, The Energy Bus, is a favorite. Read his thoughts on why Woods’ win was so popular.

Here are final thoughts on the week for StarNewsOnline.

A Tiger Storm at The Masters

Tiger Woods celebrates his birdie putt on #15 during the second round of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Friday, April 12, 2019, in Augusta, Georgia. [NIGEL COOK/FOR THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE]

There’s a big storm coming. Saturday’s third round should be completed without interruption, however, the southeast U.S. sits in the bullseye for a classic spring storm – lightning, wind, rain, etc. – as a cold front bears down on Augusta, expected to arrive Sunday afternoon.

Geoff Shackleford, whining less than usual, makes a good point. If the forecast remains this dire, push the final round of the 83rd Masters Tournament to Monday. He’s spot on with this take, what we have entering Saturday is quite possibly the best Masters leaderboard of our lifetime – deep with talent, rich with storylines. It deserves a uninterrupted conclusion. And the safety issues are real.

And oh yeah, Tiger. My words for the Augusta Chronicle and Gatehouse Media on Woods’ second-round 68. If you’re looking for more details on the security guard’s slip and trip in the Augusta straw, check out John Boyette’s column here. Also, hat tip to Golf.com writer Dylan Dethier for tracking down the security guard.

While we’re on the Tiger subject, I don’t think he’s going to win this weekend. (Then again, I picked Justin Rose who is down the road). It would be a incredible moment, one of the best in golf history if he ended a nearly 11-year major championship drought and earned a fifth green jacket. The impact he makes on golf fans was on display in high definition in the waning light Friday afternoon as he created electricity that only he can.

Still, there are two areas he has to improve over the final 36 holes if he wants to add another remarkable page to his unparalleled legacy:

Par 5 scoring: Woods has birdied only three of the eight so far. Throw in a sloppy 3-putt bogey on No. 8 yesterday and he’s only 2-under on the holes which present the best scoring opportunities at Augusta National. Here’s how Woods and the other contenders have fared on the par-5s.

Short Putting: Woods is 26 of 29 on putts inside of five feet, which is 89.7 percent and tied for last among those who made the cut. He’s 4 of 8 on putts from 5-10 feet, which is T-48 in the field. On a jam-packed leaderboard, filled with major champions and world class players, avoiding mistakes this weekend will be critical. Missed short putts are momentum crushers. Woods made 58 feet of birdie putts on 14 and 15 in the second round, sandwiched between 20 feet of missed opportunities on 12, 13 and 17. Even one of the all-time greats has jangled nerves at age 43. Making the ones he never used to miss is an essential step in Tiger’s path to victory.

The Sun Is Out, The Sky is Blue-ish

Kevin Kisner walks off the #13 green during the first round of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Augusta, Georgia. [ANDY NELSON/FOR THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE]

Brooks Koepka’s comments after his opening 66 Thursday at the Masters reminded me of those Tiger Woods used to make.

Because he teed off in the last threesome of the first round a reporter asked if he’d paid attention to the scores shot earlier in the day.

Koepka watched a few holes to check out hole locations and see how putts breaking.

“But I mean, I could care less what other people are doing. Doesn’t matter to me. I’m there to play a round of golf, and whatever they do isn’t going to affect me.

Later, he was asked if he’d paid any attention to comments Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee made earlier in the week, criticizing Koepka for losing 20 pounds as he prepared for a . Chamblee, never bashful about sharing his opinion, called it “the most reckless self sabotage that I have ever seen of an athlete in his prime.”

Koepka’s responded with his 66 and these comments: “Well, I lift all the time. I lift too many weights, and I’m too big to play golf. And then when I lose weight, I’m too small. So, I don’t know (laughter). I don’t know what to say. I’m too big and I’m too small. Listen, I’m going to make me happy. I don’t care what anybody else says. I’m doing it for me, and obviously it seems to work.”

He glanced over at the leaderboard before the last phrase.

Here’s a quick recap of the first round for Forbes Sports

Tiger drove it better but missed a half-dozen quite makeable putts in a 2-under 70.

The bigger, badder 5th hole was big and bad on Thursday, ranking 4th most difficult on the course.

Alan Shipnuck sat down with Jack Nicklaus, the man who knows more than anyone about the Masters and Augusta National Golf Club.

Welcome to The 2019 Masters

Came up a hair short on the approach to No. 9. Easy bogey.

About six or seven years ago, my wife and I came to Augusta National for a Monday practice round. The day was ideal. Two nights before we’d been to a smoking Neil Young solo show at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. As we walked the grounds, she told me she understood why I loved this place so much, calling it a Disney World for golfers. We sat under the pine trees in Amen Corner and enjoyed a sandwich and a drink as the breeze whispered above, sharing a peaceful moment in a spot unlike any other. This place is special. It’s not perfect and scars linger from past injustices, but the powers that be are moving in the right direction. The par-3 Contest is one of the things that sets Augusta apart.

The time has come to lengthen the 13th hole, the par-5 which requires only a mid-to-short iron second shot for the game’s longest hitters. Pushing the tee back 30 yards would prohibit players from carrying the trees on the left corner, and would restore the integrity and original intention to the hole.

Last year, I was one of the lucky ones, winning the media golf lottery and playing Augusta National the Monday after the Masters. Here are my thoughts a year later.

My colleague Doug Stutsman and I caught up with Masters champions on Wednesday and asked them about Tuesday night’s dinner. Apparently, the 90-year-old Bob Goalby, 1968 champion, held court with great tales about the legendary Ben Hogan.

Doesn’t matter how many times a man has driven down Magnolia Lane, the feeling remains the same. Fuzzy Zoeller, who has been here for the last 40 years since he won as a Masters rookie in 1979, still gets the chills.

Caught up with three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo, the CBS Analyst on Wednesday at the par-3 contest. Here are his thoughts on the tournament. He feels the softer conditions give more players a chance to claim the green jacket.

I think it’s opened up the field, more guys have a chance particularly guys who don’t have a lot of years under their belt here. Traditionally when it’s firm and fast you really have to know where to land it. You have to be really smart, you have to know where your misses are going. Just cause you’ve got a wedge in your hand, you can’t get carried away. You hit it six feet right of the flag, it’s a good shot, but it’s the wrong six feet. You can miss the green. You’ve got to know where to go left, right, short and long. With it being soft, as we’ve seen in the past, you can just aim and fire. And just go for everything for a while. It will be treacherous by the weekend.

Super Tuesday

No. 12 from a different point of view on another day

Tuesday at Augusta is the big interview day. One by one, the stars of golf and Masters legends file into the Media Center Interview Room (no cell phones allowed). You’ve probably seen Player A and Green Jacket moderator sitting beside one another at the podium. There are chips in our badges which the moderator uses to identify the folks asking the questions. High-tech stuff. Koepka, Phil, DJ, Spieth, Rahm, JT, etc., etc. They all came in and gave their thoughts on their game and the course. Hole 5, extended 30 yards to 495 yards this year, has been a conversation piece. Expect to see a new front left hole location there. With these soft fairways and southern winds forecast, expect the fifth to play long and difficult. I won’t be surprised if it has the highest stroke average of any par-4 at week’s end.

Hard rain fell this morning but the skies cleared in the afternoon and the practice grounds were active. There’s a chance for rain / storms Thursday and Friday. It’s been 1983 since the Masters has needed a Monday finish. Hopefully that streak stays intact.

Here’s a insightful piece from a smart analyst, Mark Broadie, the inventor of the Strokes Gained statistics used by the PGA Tour, who explains the difficulty of hitting approach shots close to the hole at Augusta National. Longer putts equals more 3-putts.

Tiger Woods elaborated on this point during his Tuesday press conference, reflecting on his first decade at the Masters when the course played five hundred yards shorter and he often needed only a sand wedge and never more than an 8-iron, for his approach shot to most of the par-4s and could reach the par-5s with a mid-to-short iron second shot.

Tiger’s chances hinge on his performance with two clubs – the ones pro golfers use to start and finish most holes – the driver and the putter. His performance with both has been mixed this season but the rest of his game looks strong. Can he find some magic in his bag at age 43?

Patrick Reed is back in Augusta, this time as the defending champion of the Masters. He’s a enigmatic, if not divisive figure. Hardly the first golfer who marched alone to the beat in his earbuds, still relationship issues – teammates, parents, siblings, seem to follow him around.

For most, golf is a recreational release, a social endeavor enjoyed with friends and family. While certain characteristics might translate to the pro game, more frequently at this level it’s a solitary pursuit, one that demands supreme confidence and untold hours of time spent alone. Man, club, ball, hole. Don’t let the science of DeChambeau fool ya. It can be downright primal: see ball, hit ball, chase ball. Repeat. Reed is here this week, serving a bone-in Cowboy Ribeye to the Champions and trying to repeat but does anybody care? Words for Forbes SportsMoney.

This next part works best if read aloud in a thick Southern accent.

We conceive that the ideal here is that our greens should hold a shot well-struck with backspin but should not hold an improperly played ball. Our greens are of such generous proportions that it is not difficult to hit some part of them but the combination of slopes plus speed introduces serious problems for the player who has failed to place his approach shots reasonably close to the cup.

Bobby Jones, 1949

Just Another Masters Monday

No more chipping, no more driving, no more putting, no more watching

It’s wet, y’all.

Hard rain started falling at Augusta National sometime around 4 p.m. and there’s more in store. But we’re not going to let it dampen our spirits. Oh no.

Tiger Woods played nine holes this morning. He didn’t talk (to the media) so I stalked him for a few hours and wrote some words. Just doing my duty out there in the rye grass jungle. Tiger hasn’t putted so well this year. He looks very 43 on the greens.

I think Justin Rose is going to win the Masters. You can put your money where my mouth is at about 12-1 odds in Las Vegas, or Philadelphia – Pennsylvania or Mississippi, either one – or with your friendly neighborhood bookie, if you have one of those. Also, trying to predict golf tournament winners is hard. Justin Rose came to the interview room for his scheduled 15 minutes and I wrote more words.

Texas Tech 58, Virginia 53.

There’s a strict no cellphone policy at Augusta National, media included. We’re required to leave our phones in this beautiful building when we head out on the course. Each time, before I sit down in the golf cart that shuttles us to the area right of the first fairway – where the old press building was located – I double check my pockets to make sure I haven’t mistakenly left my phone in my pocket. I do not want to find out what happens to those who forget. I’ve been in my share of trouble on this Earth. While not having a phone can be inconvenient such as when you need to contact an editor and tell him the perfectly excellent reason you haven’t returned to the media center in four or five hours, it’s also refreshing as hell to look around a large group of people and see faces and not the tops of heads. People, myself at the top of the list, are forced to be present and observe. Nobody is shooting videos or snapping photos or hollering at somebody to watch the video they just shot or photo they snapped. It’s civil, really. As in civilized. Nobody loves their phone more than I do but being free of it for hours at a time is part of what makes this a special week.

Earlier today I interviewed another of my musical heroes, Warren Haynes, for 10 minutes from the back porch of the Augusta National Media Center. What a life this is. He’s playing Greenfield Lake in Wilmington the end of the month with his heavyweight band, Government Mule.

Bears in the kitchen, Tigers on TV …

Living Over & Over, Again

I’m writing words in many places these days and grateful for each opportunity.

Most of it gets posted on Twitter, but not everyone has Twitter. Sometimes I’ll throw a link on Facebook, but to be honest I have a strange relationship with Facebook. We spend weeks, months apart yet it’s my only line of communication with certain people. Sometimes a post will slip through the cracks, which helps explain my annual omission from the Pulitzer list. Sometimes my mom doesn’t know where to find my stories. And that other reader.  

Next week, I’ll be in Augusta, covering the Masters for the Augusta Chronicle. The newspaper, as it says on its Wikipedia page, is known for its Masters coverage. You can believe that. (I’d link to the page but I’m not sure if any of the other information is accurate). Having the opportunity to write words on those pages is a highlight of my year. Even though I’m ineligible for the media lottery this year I’ve decided to make the trip anyway. Guess, I’ll have to make my bogeys elsewhere on the Monday after somebody named Justin Rose slips into something green. While down there amid the azaleas, which I’m told are in peak bloom for the first time in four years, I will also be contributing to Forbes’ SportsMoney blog and The Caddie Network which are both great sites. I’d say that even if they weren’t kind enough to allow me space to scribble. Writing about caddies. Talk about a perfect fit.

Talk about how you feel after losing the game. Talk about what happened on the last play. Talk about your first pet. Talk about how you feel about losing Fluffy under the scorer’s table on the last play … Sorry for the aside, it’s possible I listened to three too many NCAA tournament press conferences.  

Sometimes, I even rinse off the old Blackberry and get a SCOOOOP!

Maybe there should be more of that. Reporting shall remain. 

There are so, so many talented writers. I read a lot, as much as I can digest, looking for tricks to steal and trying to figure out how a writer made a sentence work or hammered a theme or reported a story, in hopes that I can keep getting better. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’ll put some of that here. 

Sometimes I have opinions on things. Those will fit here. 

Time waits for no man. Like one of my heroes Gregg Allman sang, with soul: 

So I, ain’t a-wastin time no more
‘Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things 

Come back, poke around. 

CAA Hoops: Colonial X returns

Hofstra - JWF

Hofstra guard Justin Wright-Foreman is the first CAA hoops player to have three 35-point games against conference opponents since Towson’s Gary Neal in 2006-07.

Offense wins championships – Bill Walton

Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears – Bob Dylan

We awoke from the slumber and the landscape did not look the same. Sure, there were basketballs, rims and nets. Cheerleaders stood on the baseline and big cats sat on the sideline. The courts still measured 94 feet. People stood and cheered when they weren’t staring down at their phones. Coaches paced and shouted, officials whistled and pointed. Bands played and babies cried.

And the players passed and dribbled as we remembered, looking to the sidelines for instruction, making crisp cuts and leaping high in the lane.

But the ball, it went into the basket from everywhere, and often, rippling the net and sending the 10 men quickly in the other direction. They made dunks and layups, 3-pointers and bank shots, tip-ins and pull-ups, flew above-the-rim after making steals and tossed in prayers as they fell out of bounds. Buckets, buckets, buckets, I tell you there were buckets everywhere.

There’s a whole mess of candidates for Colonial X, our ranking of the 10 men who rule the conference. The CAA leads the nation in efficiency (109.6). There are 14 players shooting 40 percent or better on 3s, 15 players shooting 53 percent or better from the field and 11 players hitting 85 percent or more free throws.

As always, we’re looking for efficient, consistent production and winning is important. Offensive Rating + Usage is a neat way of measuring a player’s impact on the game, per possession.

Justin Wright-Foreman Hofstra(126.7 O-Rating, 32.1 usage – CAA only)

JWF is third in the nation in scoring (25.6 ppg), which is the highest CAA scoring average since future NBA pro Blue Edwards of East Carolina averaged 26.7 ppg in 1988-89. His stats in the six conference games are ridiculous. Wright-Foreman has created an eight-point-per-game lead with 30.5 ppg and also dished 4.5 assists per game.

A polished, diversified offensive skill set makes him such a tough cover. Wright-Foreman scores effectively at all three levels and spreads around the shots. He’s attempted 356 field goals – 46 percent were launched beyond-the-arc, 30 percent in the mid-range and 24 percent at the rim. Coaches typically love to see an opposing player jack a 2-point jumper. Not true in this case. Wright-Foreman has connected on 47 percent. Guards claimed the last three CAA Player of the Year honors. Here’s how JWF stacks up.

Player School / Year PPG APG FG Pct. 3PFG Pct.
Thornton W&M ‘14-15 20.0 2.9 45.6 40.2
Green Hofstra ‘15-16 17.8 7.1 39.8 36.2
Williams Northeastern ‘16-17 21.4 5.3 46.3 33.3
Wright-Foreman Hofstra ‘17-18 25.6 3.1 45.2 33.3

Nathan Knight (122.4 O-Rating, 30.9 pct. usage)TribeScript_Round3Version

The sophomore forward is averaging 20 ppg, eight rpg, shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 75 percent from the free throw line. No CAA player has produced similar numbers since 1992-93 (sports-reference.com). His numbers are even better in conference play, and he’s also handing out two assists per game as coach Tony Shaver moves him around the floor and enables him to become a playmaker. 

Heretofore known as The Commodore, here are the closest comparisons to Knight’s combination of scoring, rebounding, shot blocking and field goal accuracy.

Player School / Year PPG RPG BPG FG Pct.
Hodge ODU ‘93-94 19.4 9.0 2.4 54.7
Hodge ODU ‘96-97 18.1 8.6 2.5 55.0
Evans Mason ‘98-99 17.2 8.5 2.6 55.7
Battle Drexel ‘02-03 15.1 8.2 3.7 52.9
Knight W&M ‘17-18 20.0 8.0 2.5 54.9

 

PrintJoe Chealey (122.6 O-rating, 24.6 usage)

For a coach, the only thing better than watching a talented fifth-year senior point guard run your team is watching him clip the nets after leading your team to a championship. Rest assured, that’s the primary priority for Chealey and his teammates, who are 3-3 but also have difficult road trips to Towson and Elon behind them. Chealey has been terrific all season, putting up 19 points per game in CAA action and handing out 16 assists while committing only eight turnovers in 227 minutes.. He’s second in the CAA with 37.8 minutes per game. I wouldn’t take him off the court, either.

Chealey

Joe Chealey has made 101 free throws against Division I opponents this season and is 46 of 51 vs. CAA squads.

Jarrell Brantley (114.7 O-Rating, 30.4 usage)Print

The 6-7 forward is still only a junior. When he plays his best Charleston wins. Check out his splits in the Cougars’ three conference victories and three defeats. He and his senior point guard teammate  combine to form the best 1-2 inside-outside punch in the league. Now, if the Cougars can just resume defending like its 2015-16, they’ll be happy with how this season turns out.

Ws: 24 ppg, 16-24 2PFGs, 8-13 3PFGs

Ls: 17 ppg, 16-32 2PFGs, 4-12 3PFGs

Zane Martin (110.1 O-Rating, 29.2 usage)Towson

The sophomore guard is atop the conversation for most improved player in the league. He began to flash his potential late last season, erupting for 17 points in the CAA tournament victory over Northeastern, but was inconsistent. This season he’s been as reliable as a traffic jam on the Beltway. Martin has eight 20-point efforts in the Tigers’ last 13 games. He’s failed to score in double figures only once in 17 games and his strong body and aggressive, driving style fit perfectly in coach Pat Skerry’s no-nonsense program. The Tigers are another 3-3 team liable to emerge from the pack soon, with three of their next four games at home.

Devontae Cacok (104.5 O-Rating, 27.6 usage)CacokPrint

Last season, Cacok was surrounded by four excellent 3-point shooters and playmakers, could count on 1-on-1 coverage in the paint and, as a complementary piece in a top 20 offense scored all his points on lob dunks, putbacks and by outrunning his man in transition for more dunks. He shot 80 percent to set a national record that’s safer than Dimaggio’s hitting streak, Nicklaus’ major championship count, Wilt’s 100-point game, or hearing someone screaming about ‘Fake News.’ This season, the athletic muscular forward can count on two or three defenders surrounding him at all times. I’ve owned sport coats that were less snug. He’s the center of attention on every opposing scouting report and has been asked to expand his range. And he’s still leading the nation with 12.9 rebounds per game.

Elon_PrimaryTyler Seibring (134.6 O-Rating, 20.0 usage)

The 6-8 forward picks his spots and makes his shots. He’s taking them more frequently during conference play – 26 percent of Elon’s shots when on the floor compared to 22 percent for the season – and is accurate from everywhere, hitting 62 percent of 2-pointers, 48 percent of 3-pointers and 86 percent of free throws. He reminds me of former ODU star and 04-05 CAA POY Alex Loughton (GOOGLE IT, KIDS), except he’s a better long range shooter. All but one of his 47 3-pointers this season came in catch-and-shoot situations.

David Cohn (140.5 O-Rating, 20.7 usage)TribeScript_Round3Version

The Tribe’s captain is a gutsy leader who directs the conference’s best offense (117.5 points per 100 possessions) with aplomb. Vocal and energetic, he’s fast in the open floor and keeps the ball and teammates moving in the halfcourt. Cohn has scored 67 points in the last three games and his shooting percentages are just plain silly in conference play – 65 percent on 2-pointers, 50 percent on 3-pointers and 96 percent at the line. He’s also second in the CAA with a 2.6 assist-turnover ratio in conference games.

DelawareRyan Daly (106.1 O-Rating, 24.5 usage)

From simply a numbers perspective, Daly doesn’t belong in such elite company. But he’s the most valuable player in the conference. He’s an essential component of any Blue Hens’ success. With seven scholarship players, coach Martin Ingelsby has led UD to a 4-2 CAA record. Take Daly off the roster and the Blue Hens would have zero conference victories and not many overall. Whether it’s snagging a late offensive rebound to preserve a road win at UNCW or rarely committing a turnover (8 in 237 CAA minutes) or playing a league-high 93.5 percent of minutes in conference games, Daly has done whatever’s needed to give his squad the best chance to win the game.

NortheasternVasa Pusica (114.0 O-Rating, 24.7 usage)

I expected Pusica to be a game manager, floor leader type in his first season with the Huskies after transferring from San Diego. But he’s also given coach Bill Coen another dependable 3-point shooter (16 of 44 in conference) and more importantly, late shot-clock playmaker. The Huskies’ average offensive possession in CAA games lasts 16.9 seconds – 9th in the conference – and Pusica has proven to be comfortable when time is dwindling. Other than the winter weather, switching coasts has turned out to be an astute move for Pusica and the Huskies.

 

CAA Hoops: There’s something happening here

Wins like these make a season special. William & Mary was awful until it was amazing Thursday night. The Tribe won a game it had every reason to lose. The ending was so dramatic, frenzied, improbable, coach Tony Shaver figured he might forego his typical postgame cool down period and watch a replay of the final minute some time around 3 a.m.

Sure the comeback came against the last-place team at home. William & Mary had no business trailing James Madison by 20 points in the first place. Down nine points with 45 seconds remaining, the Tribe appeared to be losing hold of first place before having a chance to know how it felt.

Then, Connor Burchfield stole the ball. Known for his shooting because he’s one of the best in the nation but having an off night (1-for-6 on 3s), the slender senior from Concord swiped the ball from Stuckey Mosley and converted the layup.

Through most of the first 35 minutes the Tribe was outhustled, executed poorly and allowed too many offensive possessions to end with dribbles into danger, straying from the driving, passing and ball sharing which enabled it to enter the game as the nation’s best shooting team. Players complained about officials’ whistles, made silly passes and missed the open shots they’d been hitting.

But when Burchfield cut the deficit to seven points with 43 seconds remaining, Kaplan Arena got loud, the team’s belief grew even stronger and the Dukes helped out any way they could, missing four free throws and committing two turnovers in those final possessions.

Matt Milon rattled in a 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds remaining to tie the game. Burchfield tipped the ball away from Mosley enough to throw off his timing before he launched the potential game-winner and the game went to overtime.

JMU scored five points in the final 150 seconds. But the Dukes were feisty if not polished. After falling behind by four points in overtime, they regained a one-point lead with 1:15 remaining when freshman Matt Lewis (game-high 22 points) buried two free throws. Milon answered again, cutting backdoor to take a feed from Burchfield and finish the layup. Burchfield made another steal (and later a block) and the Tribe did winning things to increase its lead to two games over five teams in the conference standings.

When the final buzzer sounded, the 1.36 points per possession and 64 percent shooting William & Mary allowed in the first half had long been forgotten. And in less than 48 hours the Tribe welcomes Towson, who Shaver described as one of the toughest and most talented teams in the conference. After being picked 8th in the preseason poll, William & Mary has played with a chip on its shoulder for most of the season, Shaver said. The Tribe lost that edge for a while on Thursday night but picked it back up just in time.

Observations

  •  Two-time CAA Player of the Week Nathan Knight struggled early against JMU’s aggressive defensive game plan. He never looked completely comfortable and foul trouble set in during the second half, sending him from the game with 2:32 remaining and his team trailing by 10. Knight needs to develop his right hand because conference opponents are going to sit on his left. Still, on an ‘off-night’ he ended up with 21 points, five rebounds and 12 of 12 on free throws in 29 minutes.
  • JMU’s Matt Lewis played like an all-league guard in the first half (6 of 7, 19 points). He played like a freshman in the second half (0 of 6, 1 point). He’s going to be a good player for the Dukes. I like his confidence, speed and shooting stroke. He’ll play a bunch of minutes and be a 1,000-point scorer, at the least.
  • William & Mary is winning hard fought games because individuals are proving they are more than one-dimensional players, for the good of the team. Not only did Burchfield make significant contributions on the defensive end, but Justin Pierce overcame a 1-for-5 shooting effort by snagging 17 rebounds – with 16 in the last 25 minutes. The Tribe is overcoming a lack of depth – Shaver’s rotation is essentially six players with cameos from forward Cole Harrison and guard Oliver Tot – because players understand they have to fill multiple columns in the box score and make contributions that go beyond.

CAA Hoops – Towson & Charleston, again

Brantley

Jarrell Brantley has been ferocious in CAA play, leading Charleston to a 2-1 record. The Cougars forward averaged 23.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and shot 64 percent in the first three conference games. 

Charleston and Towson were picked in the top three of every credible CAA Hoops preseason poll, including the official one, voted on by media, coaches and the athletics communications representatives from each member school.

The Cougars, returning their top seven players from a 25-win team, were the unanimous pick to win the regular season and with good reason. The Tigers also welcomed back the bulk of their roster from a 20-win outfit and haven’t disappointed, stringing together 10 consecutive victories already in the 2017-18 campaign.

Today at 2 the teams conclude their regular season series, meeting for the second time in nine days. Why so soon? This is silly and should have been avoided.

I understand that building a regular season schedule for a 10-team conference is a complex challenge. Teams can’t play more than three consecutive games at home or away. Loose geographic partnerships and Thursday-Saturday (or this week Friday-Sunday) pairings have eased travel concerns in a conference that stretches from Boston to Charleston but also forced certain games to be played in a specific order. There are many moving parts. Changing the date of Charleston’s trip to Towson might have also affected their first game on the trip, Friday night at Drexel (which the Cougars would prefer to forget). Pleasing all 10 teams is impossible, unrealistic and shouldn’t be considered. Regardless how it’s laid out, some team must start the CAA slate with a three-game road trip or extended homestand. Argue on about the favorable or unfavorable order in which a team’s games are assembled but one important trait cannot be denied:  The CAA is one of 17 Division I conferences that crowns a legitimate regular season champion because each team faces each opponent home & home.

CAA Standings 01-07-18As the old folks used to say, it all comes out in the wash.

Still, for the sake of the conference there’s no reason Towson and Charleston should conclude their series before the spring semester starts. Having the teams meet on opening day was a terrific idea. Why not start with a battle between the two teams who could very easily meet again on the final day of the season, 10 miles down the road, with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line. But teams evolve as a season unfolds. Players improve and regress, rotations change, coaches tweak strategy and hope their late February product shines brighter than what they put on display in early January. The outcome of today’s game will likely have significant bearing on the final standings and tiebreakers and such. If the Tigers hope to win the regular season, they can’t afford to fall to 1-3. Charleston, which headed north eyeing the outright lead better fix its defense or it will head home .500, nearing the quarter pole.

The second meeting should have been scheduled for mid-February. But it’s today, and we’ll be watching.

Charleston won that first meeting 73-62, of course, as Jarrell Brantley, Joe Chealey and Grant Riller were spectacular. Brantley’s efficiency has been ridiculous in three conference games – 15 of 23 on 2-pointers, 8 of 13 on 3-pointers, 16 of 18 on free throws. His offensive rating (produces 124.3 points per 100 possessions) is even more impressive when factoring in an obscenely high usage rate (31.3 pct. of possessions). If you want to be picky his 14 turnovers are not ideal but I’ll bet Earl Grant is fine with an errant pass or two from the 6-7, 250-pound mismatch problem. To put it simply, college basketball assistant coaches commonly use another name – actually, there are two – to describe a player like Brantley. For the sake of the children, neither one can be written in this space.

Charleston won the first game at the free throw line. The Cougars outscored the Tigers 54-53 on field goals. Towson narrowly won the offensive and defensive rebounding scuffles. Charleston was 22 of 28 on free throws. Towson was 9 of 15. There’s your margin.

Keys for the Tigers? Taking more free throws, making the Cougars’ big three shoot a bunch to score their points and getting more than six points and five shots from Mike Morsell, who could score 32 or 2 this afternoon and I’d be shocked by neither one.

There are four other games this afternoon as the teams wrap this four-games-in-nine-days flurry and in most cases return home to resume classes.

JMU @ Northeastern, 2 p.m.

Coachspeak: Don’t let a loss beat you twice. JMU had victory ripped from its mitts by Justin Wright-Foreman in Hempstead on Friday night. I don’t believe the young Dukes will bounce back quickly. Vasa Pusica isn’t going to win a footrace or jumping contest anytime soon but he’s quickly becoming a star at Northeastern. He’s hit 55 percent of 2s and 47 percent of 3s in CAA play while assisting on more than one-fourth of the Huskies’ hoops. This one could get ugly.

UNCW at Delaware, 2 p.m.

The Seahawks snatched defeat from the hands of victory last week in a 58-56 home loss to Delaware. The Blue Hens snared not one but two critical offensive rebounds following missed free throws in the closing seconds and even though they would’ve been even money to drop a basketball into the Atlantic Ocean from the end of Johnnie Mercer Pier, they won a game they had no business winning. What does that mean about today’s game? I have no idea. CAA teams have made 45 percent of 3-pointers vs. UNCW.

William & Mary at Drexel, 4 p.m.

We can go on-and-on about the Tribe’s offense, have before and will again. But here’s a number to follow: 1.03 – that’s how many points per possession (adjusted) William & Mary allowed in its first three CAA games. It’s the second-best defensive efficiency in the conference. If the Tribe can remain in the top four, it will remain in the regular season title race until the final week of the season. That being said, the Tribe could be in trouble today. The Dragons are full strength and riding high after the upset of Charleston. There are many promising pieces on the Drexel roster and Alihan Demir (20 pts., 6 rebs, 4 assists vs. Charleston) has been excellent of late.

Elon at Hofstra, 4 p.m.

Justin Wright-Foreman hit a 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds in regulation to send the Pride into overtime against JMU on Friday night and the Pride won 87-81. Wright-Foreman finished with 26 points and leads the conference in scoring. He’ll join the 1,000-point club with nine points today and we’re betting he gets there because he’s scored 89 points in three CAA games despite shooting poorly from beyond-the-arc (6 of 23). Elon is one of the better shooting teams in the conference but has a turnover problem (20.3 pct of possessions in conference games).