ESPN Events: VCU
Probably among those interested viewers were the Virginia Cavaliers.
A few hours earlier and about 170 miles to the north, the then-No. 14 Cavaliers extended their winning streak to 11 and won their program-best 14th conference game, trouncing Notre Dame, 70-49, to much less fanfare — they’re now No. 12 at 24-5, 15-1 in the ACC after dismantling Miami, 65-40, Wednesday night.
Just another Saturday for the Cavs.
“I think that’s something we’ve kind of always done. We’re not a super-flashy team,” said senior forward Akil Mitchell, the Cavs’ leading rebounder. He shot 7-for-7 and scored 15 points to tie the game-high. “We play defense. We kind of got off to a rocky start after a lot of attention this year, but being able to fly under the radar is exactly what we want to do.”
Mission accomplished so far for the Cavaliers, who were fourth in the conference in the preseason polls, behind Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina.
Their rocky start was a 59-56 loss to No. 14 VCU on Nov. 12, in which they missed 14 free throws, then back-to-back non-conference losses in early December, against Wisconsin – Virginia scored a season-low 38 points – and an uncharacteristic fall at Green Bay – allowing 75 points, ruining coach Tony Bennett’s return. The Cavs ended December by laying an egg at Tennessee, allowing a season-high 87 in a 35-point defeat. That left UVA 9-4 and apparently took care of any further national attention.
Few noticed the 69-65 heartbreaking loss at No. 23 Duke on Jan. 13, which left the Cavs 3-1 in the ACC. But they got defensive after that game – and haven’t lost. Unexciting as it might seem, the Cavs are 15-1 and alone in first in the ACC. They’ll take the former for the latter.
“It’s definitely not the prettiest style of basketball,” Mitchell said. “We defend. We play a hard-nosed, tough style of basketball. It might not be people’s favorite style to watch but it gets it done.”
The Cavaliers lead the nation in fewest points per game (55.5), are in the top 10 in fewest points per possession, field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage. They lead the ACC in key defensive categories, scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and rebounding.
Playing UVA is a shooter’s nightmare as they’ve now held their last 16 opponents under 50 percent shooting.
It’s what Bennett-coached teams are all about. In his seven seasons as a head coach Bennett, the National Coach of the Year in 2006-07, has seen four of his teams finish in the top five nationally in scoring defense. This season should make five in eight.
Since Bennett arrived in Charlottesville in 2009 from Washington State, which he led to the Sweet 16 in 2008, Virginia has raised its win total every season, and with the win Saturday, became the second school in ACC history to increase its conference win total five straight seasons.
With two games to go and a 1 ½-game lead on second-place Syracuse, the Cavs control their destiny in winning only the second undisputed ACC regular-season title in school history (they’ve shared it four other times, last in 2007). It would be the first outright title since 1980-81, when National Player of the Year Ralph Sampson led the school to its first Final Four. That team was the last Cavs team to start ACC play 13-1.
Unlike 1981, few expected a conference title this season.
“We’ve always kind of been underrated,” said Mitchell, who remembers Bennett showing him a poster of “Rocky” during his visit. “Myself, Joe [Harris], a bunch of our guys, the first recruiting class that coach Bennett put together was a bunch of guys that had something to prove.”
They’ve proved plenty this season. In ACC play they’ve clamped down on opposing offenses, holding 13 opponents at least 11 points below their season scoring average. That has resulted in runs such as the 25-0 tear Saturday, during which they scored on 15 straight possessions.
“When we’ve gotten a couple of stops in a row, the energy picks up. You can really see a team start to lose life when they’re struggling,” he said. “They start jacking up quick shots. It’s kind of like blood in the water. You can smell it.”
That defensive intensity has covered for an offense that ranks 12th in the ACC in scoring, seventh in field goal percentage and 11th in free throw percentage (fourth in three-point shooting). The nation will get a chance to appreciate the Cavs at 4 p.m. ET March 1, when they host Syracuse on ESPN in what could decide the top seed heading into the conference tournament.
“It’s a big game, but Boston College proved that every game is important,” Mitchell said. “We want to remind ourselves of what happened last year when we lost a couple, to remind ourselves of the pain of not making the tournament.”
Mitchell laughed at the prospect of being back on everyone’s radar. “To be on people’s radar, I don’t think that at this point we’ll even notice it,” he said. “We’re just enjoying the game. It’s so much fun that we don’t even realize what we’re doing.”
The University of Akron basketball team held its first practice of the 2013-’14 season last Friday. Led by 54-year-old coach Keith Dambrot, a 1982 graduate of the school, the two-time defending Mid-American Conference regular-season champions—only the third team in 30 years to earn that honor—personify that dangerous mid-major that flies under the radar, ready to pounce on an unassuming powerhouse foe. For the last eight seasons, Akron has won at least 20 games, one of 15 teams nationwide to do so. With Dambrot at the helm, it's the third-longest active streak of 20-win seasons among mid-major coaches (in 2004-'05 the team just missed the cut, winning 19). Last season, Dambrot earned MAC Coach of the Year after leading his alma mater to a school-record 26 wins, to MAC regular season and tournament championships, and to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years and the third time in five (the school has a total of four NCAA Tournament appearances). Ironically, the Zips were eliminated by VCU, which is coached by Shaka Smart, Dambrot’s assistant at Akron from 2003 through ’06. Akron knows what it has in Dambrot, who signed a 10-year contract in 2012, and received a one-year extension last month, taking him through the 2022-'23 season. A day before that first practice, Dambrot took time to talk with ESPN Events, touching on the tradition of Akron basketball, and the opportunity to play in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
Dambrot: We feel pretty good about our team. We’ve got eight guys that have played, and then we’ve got five talented new guys. So we’ll just try to put them all together and attack our weaknesses at this point.
Q: Do you see an advantage in the NCAA’s the new rules allowing more days to practice, even if the number of hours remains the same?
Dambrot: I like it better because I always felt like we were always rushing to get everything in before the first game, to make sure that we could play against the zone and we could play against full-court pressure. I felt like it was a constant rush. I like it this way because you’ve got more weeks to kind of figure it all out, and it’s not as much of a constant rush.
Q: You need to replace Zeke Marshall, the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year and the school’s all-time leading shot-blocker. Who are you looking at to pick up the slack?
Dambrot: We felt like we kind of stifled [sophomore] Pat Forsythe’s development a little last year because, as the season went on, Zeke played better and better and better and we didn’t give Pat as many minutes. But we thought early in the season, when we were giving him minutes that he played pretty well. So we feel like Pat can help us defensively. We also have two good young kids behind him; we have a big 6-9 ½, 300-pounder, Isaiah Johnson, who’s a freshman, and we have another 6-9, 235-pounder, Kwan Cheatham, also a freshman. So we feel like we’ve got good size in there, which has been a big advantage for us. We still have [senior Demetrius “Tree”] Treadwell at the big forward spot and [senior Nick] Harney behind him, who averaged 10 points a game. Harney will end up, at the beginning, playing that small forward spot, but he’ll also play behind Treadwell. So we’re still a pretty big team.
Q: What’s been the key to keeping Akron so successful during your tenure?
Dambrot: We’ve had good players. We’ve kind of taken an old-school approach. So I think from that perspective we’ve had good success because of that, but we’re smart enough to know it’s about the players. Over the last nine years the worst season we’ve had was our first, and that was 19-10. So we’ve won over 20 games for the last eight years. The majority of our team is four-year players—we’ve only taken one junior college player—so we’ve been able to keep guys for four years. We’ve built a winning culture here, and I think the guys that wore the uniform before these guys kind of teach the new ones how we win here.
Q: You have the most 20-win seasons and the most consecutive 20-win seasons in school history. You’re also the first Akron coach to have this many consecutive 20-win seasons since Bob Huggins coached the Zips. How do you see your place in school history?
Dambrot: Bob’s a great coach, obviously. I know Coach [Dan] Hipsher had three good years here. So we’re proud of those guys and what they’ve done. Over the last nine years, what our program’s accomplished has been to make Akron a really good mid-major program. What we’re trying to do now is not only sustain our success but take the next step. Those stages are hard to accomplish. You just have to continue to do things the right way to achieve all your goals.
Q: There are a lot of Akron alumni on the coaching staff. As an alumnus, how important is it to bring back former Zips who are familiar with the tradition?
Dambrot: We base everything on trust, loyalty and commitment. When you really look at it, other than Dan Peters, who is older than I am, every one of these guys has played for me at one point or another. We have coach [Terry] Weigand and coach [Charles] Thomas and Rick McFadden. Our [graduate assistants] were either managers or players for us. So we’ve kind of taken care of our own. That’s huge when you go out and recruit, because it’s kind of an extended family that we’ve gone out and created. It goes back all the way to when I was an assistant at Eastern Michigan and Charles played for us. So it’s not just one school. It’s been multiple schools. I think that kind of shows where you put your values.
Q: The Zips will play in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25). How important is it for the program to get exposure by participating in these early season tournaments?
Dambrot: It’s huge. Last year we played in Puerto Rico and played well [the team went 2-1, beating UNC Asheville and Penn State, losing to Oklahoma State]. This year we’re at Diamond Head. Just to be able to get those guys on a neutral floor is big. Last year we played the 59th-best out-of-conference schedule in the country, and this year’s schedule is even better. Getting on television is a key to recruiting, so we’re on television quite a bit. We go to St. Mary’s and to South Carolina and to Middle Tennessee and to Cleveland State. So we’ve got a really hard schedule.
Q: Among your most successful assistants to move on to major conference jobs is VCU head coach Shaka Smart. Did you know he was going to be as successful a head coach as he’s been?
Dambrot: I knew he was special, there’s no question about that. In a different kind of way I compare him a little bit to when I had LeBron [James, who Dambrot coached at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School]. You can kind of tell those guys that are special. So we’ve had Shaka and then Jeff Boals at Ohio State and Lamont Paris move on to Wisconsin. So we’ve had some good coaches here. We have some good coaches here now. I thought Shaka had a lot of traits that were going to get him the right opportunity and allow him to become a star.
"10" FOR TOUGHNESS: Will Long Beach State face formidable opponents in its non-conference schedule this season? Without a doubt, maintains ESPN.com’s Myron Medcalf, who rated the 49ers’ non-conference schedule a “10” on the “Toughness Scale.” Medcalf writes that the program “will face national title contender Arizona on the road in early November.” The 49ers open the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with a matchup against Michigan, another national title contender. The tourney also includes VCU and Georgetown. Big East title favorite Creighton travels to the West Coast for a matchup in early December. The slate ends with a matchup against Missouri in Columbia. Now that's a non-conference schedule.
HIGH HOPES FOR VCU: Which teams have the most to prove this season? VCU is in the top 10, according to ESPN's Eamonn Brennan. “Word out of Richmond is that this may well be Shaka Smart’s most talented team,” wrote Brennan about the Rams, which will be competing in the 2013 Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
SEMINOLE STANDOUT: The Sporting News lavished high praise on Florida State senior Okaro White, who was featured in the publication’s college basketball preview. White, who was featured on the cover of the magazine, is “precisely the sort of player head coach Leonard Hamilton has relied upon to build the Seminoles’ program: rangy, athletic, and willing to defend and block shots, all while steadily improving his polish,” noted the editors. “His ability to punish opponents inside and occasionally on the perimeter ensures that he’ll be a centerpiece as a senior.”
100 YEARS OF BASKETBALL IN PUERTO RICO: Led by Northeastern great Jose Juan Barea, Puerto Rico’s national team finished second in the 2013 FIVB Americas Championships in Caracas, Venezuela. Barea, the Northeastern standout from 2002-2006 who is coming off a career year with the Minnesota Timberwolves, led Puerto Rico to the championship game Sept. 11 in the 2013 FIVB Americas Championships in Caracas, Venezuela. Barea, who has scored 140 points and 38 assists in helping Puerto Rico to a 6-3 record in the tournament, dropped a 91-89 decision to Mexico in the finals after advancing to the finals with a 79-67 win over the Dominican Republic. By advancing to the “final four”, Puerto Rico earned a spot in the 2014 World Cup in Spain.
BUILDING A "LEGACY": Led by Doug McDermott of Creighton and Jahii Carson of Arizona State, SportingNews.com highlighted several players and teams that will be participating in the 2013 Wooden Legacy. McDermott was named a first-team pre-season All-American while Carson was named to the second-team. The site noted that McDermott “will be everyone’s preseason Big East Player of the Year." Carson deserves the honor. Some might initially question his ability to produce eye-popping numbers outside of the Missouri Valley Conference, but those questions won’t last long.
As for the top players by position, Marquette’s four players scheduled to compete in the 2013 Wooden Legacy were listed. In addition to McDermott (the top power forward) and Carson (the No. 4 point guard), Marquette’s Jamil Wilson and Davante Gardner were the 10th-rated power forward and center, respectively. San Diego State senior Xavier Thames was featured on the publication’s regional inset. The Sporting News ranked Thamas as “one of the Mountain West’s top-10 players and senior classmate Josh Davis as one of the league’s top-10 newcomers. Coach Steve Fisher, who is considered one of the conference’s top-5 coaches, also brings in the 66th-best recruiting class nationally. Fisher’s incoming class is two deep and ranks 10th nationally among groups featuring two players or less.”
CHARLESTON CHALLENGE: The 2013-'14 Charleston schedule features a season-opening game at Louisville and three games at the Wooden Legacy. Eight other opponents advanced to postseason play a year ago, including San Diego State (Charleston’s first-round Wooden Legacy foe). The Cougars will play either Arizona State or Creighton in their second Wooden Legacy game. “It is a great schedule, especially when you have the defending national champions on the road in Louisville and the defending ACC champions at home in Miami [also a possible Wooden Legacy foe on Dec. 1],” said coach Doug Wojcik. “We will also be tested early with tournament games out in Anaheim with San Diego State and Creighton or Arizona State in the next game as well as Marquette and Miami on the other side of the bracket.”
"SOME" Helping Hoya Hands: Georgetown coaches and players could be found pitching in on Aug. 27 in the southeastern corner of the District of Columbia at Independence Place, a housing project managed by SOME (So Others May Eat). “It's a great thing to know they care,” said Cynthia Smith-Lewis, property assistant manager for SOME, about the Georgetown team. “For the families to know that someone is investing in them to help their lives, it means a lot."
Making Coin: Josh Bartelstein, the captain of Michigan's national runner-up squad in the 2013 NCAA championship, spent three of his seasons in Ann Arbor writing the "J-Bart Blog" for the school’s athletic. According to an article posted Sept. 3 on ESPN.com by Eamonn Brennan, Bartelstein "figured out a way to not only archive all that great work, but make a little coin from it, too"—by releasing an eBook about the team. When announcing Bartelstein as the team’s “permanent” captain for the 2012-’13 Wolverine squad last November, coach John Beilein noted that the 2009 Wolverine walk-on was "the most selfless 'team, team, team' guy that I may have ever coached. That young man has the ear of the locker room, and he has the ear of the coaching staff as well."
Four-Peat: Long Beach State posted its 2013-’14 prospectus on its basketball website as the 49ers begin the season in search of their "fourth consecutive Big West regular season championship.” The 49ers matched UNLV as the last Big West school to win three straight regular-season crowns. The prospectus highlighted the return of Mike Caffey, an All-Big West Conference first-team selection. The 6-foot junior point guard was the 49ers' second-leading scorer last season (12.0 points per game).
The celebration of 100 years of basketball in Puerto Rico officially began last spring at the Olympic House (the former YMCA building where the first basketball court was located) with a photo exhibition that featured images ranging from the original court YMCA until Jose Juan Barea championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2010. Barea was "excited" and thankful about being chosen “to represent a generation of basketball in Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Rico Tip-Off participant Florida State will play at least nine teams that played in last season's NCAA Tournament and may play two of the four Final Four participants. Coach Leonard Hamilton knows it will be challenge for his team. "We are going to challenge ourselves again this season," he said. “The aspect that makes our schedule even tougher is the high number of quality opponents we will play all season long, including in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off."
Michigan announced its 2013-2014 non-conference schedule Aug. 23 featuring an appearance in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. "Once again we will have a very challenging non-conference schedule," said coach John Beilein. "As in our previous years, we expect our overall strength of a schedule will be one of the best in the NCAA."
Making the cut: In an Aug. 21 article on ESPN.com, John Goodman ranked the Top 25 X's and O's head coaches. Making the list were John Beilein of Michigan and John Thompson III of Georgetown. Goodman polled about two-thirds (around 250) of the Division I head coaches.
Worthwhile trip: In an Aug. 26 article by Coley Harvey in the Orlando Sentinel, coach Hamilton of Florida State was quoted as saying the Seminoles' two-week trip to Greece "was an eye-opening experience for our guys." During the overseas adventure, the Seminoles "practiced with and competed against the Greek national team.”
Florida State and Michigan will play on Dec. 3 in the 15th annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Wolverines will be at Duke (9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) and the Seminoles at Minnesota (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU) during the first of two days of play. All 12 Big Ten teams and 12 of the 15 ACC schools will participate in the 2013 Challenge, including the three newest ACC members (Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse). Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest will not play in this year’s event, as reported Aug. 15 on ESPN.com. …
The “Five Biggest Offseason Storylines” for the Atlantic Coast Conference is now available on ESPN.com as Jason King lists Florida State’s Okaro White as a "Most Important Player." White ranked second on the team in scoring (12.4 points per game) as a junior and shot an impressive 81 percent from the free throw line. The loss of clutch guard Michael Snaer to graduation means the onus will be on White and highly-touted freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes to be two of FSU's top performers. …
VCU will play four Atlantic Coast Conference opponents this season with the Rams facing Virginia, Florida State, Virginia and Boston College with three of the four games on a neutral court. Prior to meeting Florida State on Nov. 21 in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, VCU will play at Virginia on Nov. 12. It will be the first meeting between the Rams and UVA and VCU since 1998 and tips off a two-year home-and-home series between the schools. VCU will play Virginia Tech Dec. 21 at the Governor's Holiday Hoops Classic in Richmond with the Rams’ next game Dec. 28 against Boston College in the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at the Barclays Center. The VCU-Florida State contest will be the first meeting between the two schools since the Rams' thrilling 72-71 overtime victory over the Seminoles in the 2011 NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinal in San Antonio. VCU will host Northeastern on Nov. 29 in Puerto Rico. …
Charlotte's recruitment of hometown players was featured in an Aug. 11 “College Basketball Talk” article by Raphielle Johnson: “In many of the nation’s basketball hotbeds, a point of emphasis for college basketball coaches is to keep their area’s top talents home,” writes Johnson. “In Charlotte that’s been a task far easier said than done, however as many players have decided to play their college basketball elsewhere. But things may be changing for Alan Major’s program.”