The NCAA Tournament is in Boston for the fourth time since 1999, and each time it’s held here, the participants go away raving about the city and the venue. For three days, at least, Boston is a college basketball town.
But nothing happens in a vacuum. College basketball has been happening all around us for months in five conferences - the Ivy League, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the America East, the Northeast Conference, and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference - and with that in mind, it occurred to me that it might be a fun idea to get a little taste of what it’s like at each of the 21 Division 1 college basketball schools in New England.
So it was me and my Ford Focus, equipped with the Sirius-XM satellite radio (without which I would never even think about backing out of the driveway) trundling off to every Division 1 spot at least once. Some, naturally, drew repeat visits. You must go as far north as Patrick Gymnasium at the University of Vermont and as far south as Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn., home of the Fairfield Stags.
I’d like to paint a brave portrait of driving through blizzards to accomplish my mission, but you’d know better. The only day with any weather problem was the one in which some snow and slush made it necessary to go from Orono, Maine, to Burlington, Vt., via Hampton, N.H. Not exactly Admiral Peary stuff.
A few conclusions: 1. Referees call far too many offensive fouls on unworthy defenders. 2. The old-fashioned runner, or floater, is back in vogue. 3. There are an astonishing number of small sub/pizza shops all over New England. How do they all stay in business? 4. You’d be surprised to learn who has the best sports venue in New England.
November 11: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, Conn.
UConn 70, Columbia 57
When it comes to honoring its basketball tradition, few schools can match the University of Connecticut.
There are banners absolutely everywhere. Wall-to-wall, top-to-bottom, they’ve got banners, banners, banners, and more banners, honoring both their men’s and women’s programs. There are banners for retired numbers, banners for national Players of the Year, banners for Big East championships, banners for Sweet 16s, banners for Elite Eights, banners for Final Fours, and, of course, banners for national championships (seven for the women, three for the men). There are Hall of Fame banners for men’s coach Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma. There might be more, but who can count that high?
On this night the grand occasion is commemorating the 2011 men’s NCAA championship, and the staffers are having a great deal of trouble pulling the string to reveal the latest championship banner. After what seemed like hours, they got the job done.
The game itself is not one for the ages. The defending national champs aren’t supposed to struggle with their Ivy League foe, but they do, in large measure because Columbia helps itself to 20 offensive rebounds. Veteran Calhoun-ologists know the postgame session will be a hoot.
“Let’s just say we had as tough a time rebounding as they had pulling the string on the banner,’’ grumbles Calhoun. “We were just awful. There’s no other word to describe it. Once we get boxed out, we stay boxed out. I told them we should cancel weight training for the rest of the year because it’s not doing us any good.’’ He then lampoons the idea that anyone would consider his team worthy of its game-time national ranking (fourth).
He further laments the lack of any scholarship guard on the bench, a circumstance that will be cleared up once the NCAA rules prized freshman Ryan Boatright eligible. Meanwhile, sophomore sensations Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier combine for 51.
“Napier is a pro guard,’’ says Columbia coach Kyle Smith. “And here’s how good Lamb is: I had no idea he had 30.’’
Nov. 23, 2011: Hart Center, Worcester
Holy Cross 80, Hartford 66
Only two New England schools can put up an NCAA championship banner, and Holy Cross is one of them. But 1947 is a long time ago and the Crusaders are now a member of the Patriot League, which, if basketball is played for a kazillion years, will not produce an NCCA winner.
The goal is to win that league and get into the tournament, and toward that end second-year coach Milan Brown has assembled a team that appears to have, within the context of its direct competition, quality depth. There is something to be said for a team with a bench that outscores its starters, 44-36, in the course of a victory.
“Everybody’s job here is to make my job hard about who to play,’’ says Brown. “If they can do that, we can be a good team.’’
A standout among all the equals in this game is Holy Cross junior forward Jordan Stevens, who bounds off the bench to shoot 6 for 7 (4 for 4 on threes), finishing with 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists in 25 well-earned minutes.
Nov. 29, 2011: Chase Arena, West Hartford
Yale 74, Hartford 69
Tonight I find myself speaking to a young man named Genesis.
For Genesis Maciel, alas, his career is closer to the end than the beginning. The 6-foot-9-inch senior from Los Angeles will not be around when, and if, the six freshmen who are the heart of this Hartford squad mature into a unit that can challenge for the America East title. It will be a season of lump-taking, and he will do his best to convey what senior wisdom he can to the lads.
“We try not to think about being freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors,’’ he says. “Right now we just want to win.’’
They battle hard in this one, playing evenly with favored Yale before losing a little bit of control in the final minute. With this loss, they fall to 0-5.
Among those freshmen is 6-6 Nate Sikma, son of Jack, the former NBA great with the killer step-back jumper. It is quite evident that with a little filling out and a little experience, Nate Sikma will become an All-League player.
Remember the name.
Dec. 1, 2011: Chace Athletic Center, Smithfield, R.I.
Central Connecticut 83, Bryant 51
Bryant coach Tim O’Shea was Al Skinner’s chief lieutenant at Boston College for many years. He spent several years coaching at Ohio University. He knows talent.
“That team can win the conference this year,’’ O’Shea says of Central Connecticut. “They’ve got three potential all-conference players.’’
O’Shea is referring to 6-6 senior Ken Horton, 6-3 senior Robby Ptacek, and 6-foot freshman Kyle Vinales, each of whom come out of this game averaging in excess of 20 points. One doesn’t ordinarily see anything like this in college basketball - at any level.
Bryant starts three sophomores, a freshman, and a junior. It is coming off an 84-59 loss at Notre Dame and its confidence level is a bit low. This game begins with a 13-0 Central run, and that’s enough to ensure victory.
“It was just a horrendous shooting night [18 for 56] for us,’’ says O’Shea, “especially against a team with a start like that who was shooting lights-out [an 18 for 29 second half].’’
O’Shea does have a budding star in 6-6 sophomore Alex Francis. Anyway, it’s not about this year.
“We want a team ready for next year, when we officially begin conference play,’’ he says. “And we have two impact transfers. The idea in this league is to finish fourth, get a home game in the tournament, and go from there.’’
Dec. 3, 2011: Conte Forum, Boston
Boston University 75, Boston College 61
New England is awash in young teams for which the future is, well, the future. But Steve Donahue’s Boston College team may trump them all with nine freshmen on the roster.
The Eagles aren’t supposed to defeat defending America East champ Boston University, and they don’t. They lead early (25-16), and they hang reasonably tough for about 30 minutes before BU’s Darryl Partin (27) takes over.
“I thought we played 30, 33 minutes of pretty good basketball,’’ says Donahue. “We competed. The guys get a little more confidence every day. But Darryl Partin is as good a scorer as there is in college basketball.’’
BU runs BC out of its own gym in the second half. “High school kids don’t transition well in most aspects of the game,’’ notes Donahue. “There’s a delay in all aspects of their game.’’
Donahue has altered his lineup continually, and says he will continue to do so. “No one has earned any minutes,’’ he explains. “We don’t have an established college basketball player in the program.’’
“It will be a lot different when I’m out of here,’’ says senior John Cahill. “Today we played five freshmen at once some of the game. But we have talent. Some day down the road this team will be a force to be reckoned with.’’
Dec. 17, 2011: Lundholm Gymnasium, Durham, N.H.
New Hampshire 73, Marist 56
“New Hampshire basketball’’ is not a concept that resonates all across America. Or even in Durham, N.H.
“People say, ‘Oh, if they win the league, all they’ll get is a play-in game,’ ’’ says Jim Jeannotte, who has broadcast UNH basketball for 31 years. “After all the losing games I’ve broadcast, I’ll take it.’’
As would coach Bill Herrion, who truly believes he is building something here. His team enters this game at 3-4, the setbacks by 3, 6, 5, and 6 points and all punctuated by atrocious foul shooting. There is no significant gap in the talent level between the Wildcats and their conference foes. “We’re not bad,’’ says Herrion. “This is my seventh year here. I’m a New Englander. I understand. We have had to battle a losing culture here. I’m not lying when I say it was a case of being expected to lose here.’’
Dec. 22, 2011: Case Gym, Boston
Bucknell 75, Boston University 61
There’s a big problem before the game even begins. D.J. Irving can’t play.
D.J. Irving makes BU go. He penetrates, he makes the open shot, and he hounds the opposing point guard. But he was hit in the head against Villanova nine days previously, still suffers from intense headaches, and cannot play.
But on this occasion it might not have mattered all that much.
This is Bucknell’s night. Sometimes it’s like that. From a 17-17 situation Bucknell expands it to 46-29 by halftime, 20 minutes of action in which the visitors are hot from the floor and commit just one turnover. Truth be told, I have come specifically to see Bucknell’s Bryson Johnson, the pride of Pictou, Nova Scotia, one of only two Nova Scotia-breds ever to play Division 1 ball in America. Billed as a 3-point shooter extraordinaire, he makes an immediate impact on the game with his long-range shooting, finishing with 12 bench points.
It’s also my first in-person look at smooth center Mike Muscala (20 points, 11 rebounds), and, yes, he could play for any big-boy team out there.
Not having Irving is one thing - BU coach Joe Jones can accept that. Something else bothers him far more. “They beat us, 34-17, off the glass,’’ he moans. “I’ve never seen that before.’’
Dec. 31, 2011: Lavietes Pavilion, Boston
Harvard 74, Saint Joseph’s 69
The students are away, but it’s still SRO at Lavietes on New Year’s Eve. That’s the new reality of Harvard basketball.
At halftime Harvard is shooting 50 percent from the floor (16 for 32), has made five threes, and is trailing by 10 (48-38). That’s because the Hawks are shooting in an other-worldly manner. A minute or so into the second half, Saint Joseph’s is a surreal 21 for 26 from the floor, and they aren’t all layups, either.
But Harvard hangs. No one on earth thinks Saint Joseph’s can keep that up, and it can’t. Harvard chips away, taking its first lead of the second half at 69-68 on a Brandyn Curry drive with 1:49 left. The game comes down to this: Ahead 1, Harvard gets the ball back and runs the clock down. Kyle Casey, en route to a 26-point, 10-rebound game, nails a 3-pointer from the right wing an instant before the shot clock expires, with 39.8 seconds left. That gives the Crimson a 72-68 lead. “We hung in there,’’ says coach Tommy Amaker. “Our kids have been tough all year, and defense has been our calling card.’’
Jan. 2, 2012: Pizzatola Center, Providence
American 70, Brown 61
Brown went to the NIT in 2003.
Brown was in the very first NCAA Tournament in 1939.
Brown won the Ivy League in 1985-86.
Well, I actually did know Brown won the Ivies in ’86 and went to the Big Dance. The other stuff was news until I went to see this sparsely attended afternoon game (Att: 773) at the dawn of the new year.
Injuries have wrecked coach Jesse Agel’s squad, so much so that he will start varsity wide receiver Tellef Lundevall and bring Patrick Donnelly, next year’s projected starting QB, off the bench, the two combining to play 35 minutes. “They’re not in there to score buckets,’’ Agel explains. “They’re in there to provide energy.’’
Agel’s lads simply lack the firepower to compete with the visitors from the more highly regarded Colonial Athletic Association.
“We need everybody to play well for us to be successful,’’ Agel says. “And at times we have done that.’’
Jan. 3, 2012: John J. Lee Ampitheater, New Haven
Yale 82, Holy Cross 67
Somebody tell me where I send the dues to the Greg Mangano Fan Club.
Here are the 6-11 center’s first four baskets in this wire-to-wire Yale victory:
1. A faceup 18-footer. 2. A lefty 10-foot banker in traffic. 3. A perambulation along the baseline starting from the deep left corner and culminating in a nice reverse layup. 4. A beautiful back-’im-in postup turnaround jumper from the right box.
It is the beginning of a 27-point, 13-rebound evening from, with all due apologies to UConn’s Andre Drummond, New England’s most skilled and proficient big man. Drummond may be a drop-dead Top 5 lottery pick, and Mangano may be heading for Europe, but if I’ve got to win a game for a New England school tonight, I’m taking Mangano.
After falling behind big-time early, the Cross make a game of it, closing to 61-57 with 8:56 left. Mangano converts a jumper and an old-fashioned 3-point play on a feed from Jeremiah Kreisberg and Yale stretches it out from there.
Jan. 4, 2012: Dunkin’ Donuts Arena, Providence
Syracuse 87, Providence 73
As a life-long box score freak, I’m framing this one.
I know I have just gone to the only Division 1 game this year in which 11 players have finished in double figures.
It’s a good game, too, even if you know how it will come out. Ed Cooley’s gallant band of six Friars will try hard, but there are just too many pedigree Orangemen to contend with.
As one NBA scout puts it before the ball is thrown up, “Syracuse doesn’t have a knock-your-socks off guy for us, a Top 5 killer guy, but they are loaded with talent.’’
Now there is one guy for the ’Cuse who may force an amendment to that statement. Speaking of Jim Boeheim’s 7-foot Brazilian center, Fab Melo, my sleuth says, “He is very much improved. I won’t say he’s ready for us yet, but last year he wasn’t even ready for Syracuse.’’
It’s an entertaining game, with some surging and counter-surging. Despite using only one substitute, Cooley guides his guys to within 6 (70-64) with 5:33 left before Syracuse supersub Dion Waiters drives for 2 and then drills a 3. Game over.
After paying tribute to the late Dave Gavitt, after whom a nearby street had been named that very day, Boeheim labels Waiters as “virtually the most unguardable guard I’ve ever had.’’
Jan. 5, 2012: Mullins Center, Amherst, Mass.
UMass 80, Fordham 76
Some guys just find ways to win. Chaz Williams is one of those guys.
So here is the 5-9 sophomore UMass point guard stepping to the free throw line. His team is leading, 77-76, with 12 seconds left. First one, no good. Second one, no good.
And Chaz Williams flashes into the lane, beats all those tall guys to the long rebound, grabs the ball, and gets fouled again. This time it’s swish, swish.
“Chaz Williams is going to be a great player for them,’’ says Fordham coach Tom Pecora. “I should know. I recruited him.’’
It’s true. Pecora recruited Williams for Hofstra. Then he took the Fordham job, at which point Williams bailed out and headed to Amherst.
Williams is a bit on the helter-skelter side and he, like so many kids today, is alley-oop crazy - including throwing an ill-fated pair to somewhat landlocked sub Freddie Riley, whose forte is shooting threes, not throwing ’em down). But by the time he is a senior, Williams could be a player of great significance.
The other player of interest for the Minutemen is 6-9 sophomore forward Raphiael Putney, a serious candidate to be a starter on the all-time all-skinny team. Generously listed at 185 pounds, Putney is a swift, agile praying mantis of a floor-runner and shot-blocker. The T-shirt under his jersey only makes him look skinnier.
Jan. 7, 2012: William H. Detrick Gymnasium, New Britain, Conn.
Central Connecticut 68, Robert Morris 53
Remember Central Connecticut, with its three-man offense?
Nothing has changed. It’s the way it was when we last saw the Blue Devils at Bryant in December, only more so. Ken Horton (21.0), Kyle Vinales (19.6), and Robby Ptacek (18.5) are the Central Connecticut piano players. The other guys are the piano movers.
Central beats Robert Morris by 15 with the 6-6 Horton (21), the 6-foot Vinales (18), and the 6-2 Ptacek (24) taking all but four of the team’s 46 shots while scoring all but 5 of its 68 points. What’s unusual about this is that it isn’t unusual. It’s how Central does business.
Coach Howie Dickenman didn’t plan for anything like this. No one does. He’s so used to it now he barely addresses it during his postgame dissertation (the only way to describe a Howie Dickenman postgame session). Instead, he prefers to talk about a defense that has just held a good Robert Morris team to 30 percent (20 for 66) shooting.
“Occasionally when we have a possession on defense in practice and we run it perfectly, I blow the whistle and [say], ‘That’s a clinic!’ ’’ Dickenman says. “This was as close to a clinic game as we’ve had all year.’’
Horton moves into third place on the Central Connecticut all-time scoring list. Ptacek moves from 19th to 18th.
Jan. 10, 2012: Dunkin Donuts Center, Providence
Providence 90, Louisville 59
There is a lot of weirdness on this occasion, starting with the fact that Providence has chosen to honor its 1987 Final Four team on the night that squad’s coach, Rick Pitino, is present and running the opposing team - and he has no part in the ceremony!
Talk about awkward.
In fact, while the ’87 team is being presented to the 8,163 patrons, augmented by a video hello from Florida coach and team star Billy Donovan, the opposing team’s coach is inside his locker room addressing his players, who are trailing the Friars by 18 points en route to a thorough 31-point beatdown.
Louisville radio man Bob Valvano sums up the Cardinals’ evening. “I used to say in my coaching days, ‘Sometimes it’s the other guys’ movie - and you’re in it.’ ’’
Providence is absolutely terrific, shooting 53 percent and going 9 for 15 on threes as forward Kadeem Batts (27 points, 10 rebounds) and guard Bryce Cotton (27 points on seven field goal attempts, and you read that correctly) play like lottery picks. And Vincent Council goes for 14 assists.
“Today’s just a Friars day,’’ Friars coach Cooley says, “and we needed one.’’
Jan. 11, 2012: Alfond Arena, Orono, Maine
Boston University 77, Maine 68
Darryl Partin is a streak shooter. Excuse me, I mean S-T-R-E-A-K shooter.
Some guys are like that. No one can explain it.
The 6-6 Boston University senior is 1 for 10 in the first half, and Maine is ahead, 33-27, at intermission. He then comes out to score 24 points in the first 9 1/2 minutes of the second half. Is that streaky enough for you? He does this stuff all the time. “He’s a tremendous player,’’ says Maine coach Ted Woodward. “And we know that.’’
You can also see how important D.J. Irving (11 assists) is to the Terriers.
Maine goes from being 9 up with the ball in the first half to losing by 9. In terms of aesthetics, Maine is a far prettier team. The Black Bears move the ball nicely and provide their fans with some gorgeous examples of team play leading to baskets. But Partin, who is 6 for 7 on threes, is the equalizer.
Additional note: Maine may have the best pep band in New England.
Jan. 12, 2012: Patrick Gymnasium, Burlington, Vt.
Vermont 73, Binghamton 53
Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re Vermont, and you’re at home, you’d damn well better beat a team entering the game with an 0-15 record.
But this is a predictable wire-to-wire romp for the Catamounts, who, five years distanced from the Tom Brennan Era, have retained their connection to the community. Games here are more like high school affairs, with a distinct townie feel. It’s almost as if student participation is optional. Or unnecessary.
It’s particularly festive tonight, because the game’s primary star is Clancy Rugg, a 6-8 sophomore from, yup, Burlington, who scores 18 points. Vermont’s most intriguing player is 6-6 sophomore Brian Voelkel, who, despite looking more like a Division 3 tight end, is a pick-setting, offensive rebounding, and, above all, eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head passer (seven assists).
Two more Patrick Gymnasium features: 1. A fabulous saxophone national anthem by Dave Grippo. 2. The PA man intoning, “Four for three!’’ on successful shots from behind the arc by Vermont sophomore Four McGlynn. “I couldn’t be happier with the way we’re playing right now,’’ says Vermont coach John Becker.
Jan. 14, 2012: Matthews Arena, Boston
Northeastern 64, William & Mary 50
If you’ve never gone to a Northeastern home game at historic Matthews Arena, put it on your to-do list. It’s just a nice, cozy place to see a basketball game.
And there will be an additional reason to see a game at Matthews over the next three years. You’ll want to say you saw Quincy Ford back when.
You know how for some players the game looks easy, just makes perfect sense? Everyone else stumbles and bumbles around, while this other guy floats from Point A to Point B. And the shot comes out of his hand the way a pitch would come out of the hand of, say, Jim Palmer. That’s the Huskies’ Quincy Ford.
“I think it’s unbelievably scary how good he can be,’’ gushes William & Mary coach Tony Shaver. “There’s no phase of the game he doesn’t do well. He can shoot it. He can handle it. He can defend. His future is unlimited. It’s frightening as a coach in this league.’’
The 6-6 freshman has just come off the bench for 13 points and 10 rebounds. It’s his first double-double. “He just keeps getting better and better,’’ says NU coach Bill Coen. “His versatility helps us. He can guard the point guard. He can get 10 rebounds. He can hit the three. Someone that versatile helps both our offensive and defensive schemes.’’
Northeastern hasn’t had pro scouts hanging around since the late Reggie Lewis was making good news at Matthews. It will now.
Jan. 16, 2012: Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport, Conn.
Fairfield 61, Rider 52
A basketball moment doesn’t have to decide a game. It can just be a basketball moment.
So here is Fairfield’s Colin Nickerson, who has played a solid game off the bench (12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists) at the line with 21 seconds left, his team up by 7 (59-52). He misses the free throw. Nobody moves. After a second or two, he moves into the lane, picks up the ball, and stuffs it with two hands. I’m waiting for an official to blow the whistle for a technical. It is illegal to dunk a dead ball.
But, whoa. Nickerson was shooting one-and-one, a fact that escaped every player on both teams - except Colin Nickerson. “Coach [Sydney] Johnson tells us every day to play to the whistle,’’ Nickerson explains.
This is not a good night for college basketball. This arena is miles from the Fairfield campus, and the student presence is negligible. The arena is ill-conceived. The scoreboards are quasi-useless. The overall atmosphere is terrible, and the game is a mess.
Fairfield has the best player on the floor. It is BC transfer Rakim Sanders, a 6-5 guy with a pro body and a pro attitude. It’s no secret he plays when he feels like it. He finishes with 13 points and 10 rebounds. With more interest, those figures might be doubled.
“He’s got a gear the rest of us don’t have,’’ points out Johnson. “He can do things that clearly separate him from the other four guys on the court. The challenge is to do that - a lot.’’
Only heard that one 143,657 times before.
Jan. 19, 2012: Hart Center, Worcester, Mass.
Lafayette 54, Holy Cross 43
What’s more horrible than a 14-point first half?
It might be a 19-point second half, especially if the other guys are going 6 for 9 on threes in those closing 20 minutes.
Twenty young men participate in this game and the most any of them could score was 11.Holy Cross distinguishes itself by placing no one in double figures. For that alone the Crusaders deserve to lose.
Trailing by a gruesome 24-14 at the half, the visiting Leopards hit their first seven shots in the second half to seize control. They outscore the Crusaders after the break, 40-19. About the only Holy Cross highlight on this dreary occasion is provided by the band, which features a Tebow move. Crusaders coach Milan Brown has to consider burying this game tape in his back yard.
Jan. 21, 2012: Leede Arena, Hanover, N.H.
Harvard 54, Dartmouth 38
How big has Harvard become? This is Dartmouth’s first official basketball sellout since Virginia showed up 12 years ago.
This is Harvard’s first league road game, and the Crimson are a bit lethargic at the outset. It’s only a 23-16 game at the half.
But the thing about Tommy Amaker’s crew is that there is always someone to rely on, and in this case it is freshman guard Corbin Miller, who comes off the bench to make three 3-pointers on his way to a 13-point game. The bench outscores the starters, 32-22.
It should be pointed out that Harvard’s lethargy is always confined to the offensive end. The Crimson D never takes a night off. This is the ninth time they have held the opponent under 50.
“A road win in a league game is always incredibly significant,’’ Amaker notes. “I think our defense was absolutely outstanding. We can rotate to keep guys fresh.’’
“They completely took us out of our offensive sets,’’ agreed Dartmouth mentor Paul Cormier.
One note: A female student participating in a timeout musical quiz could not identify “Sweet Caroline.’’ This young lady needs to step outside the library every once in a while.
Jan. 25, 2012: Thomas M. Ryan Center, Kingston, R.I.
St. Bonaventure 72, Rhode Island 66 (OT)
Finally! A game with lots of action.
Rhody enters at 3-17, but it’s quickly apparent the Rams are not 3-17 bad. They grab a 40-30 halftime lead against a Bonnies team whose 6-10 center, Andrew Nicholson (a foul-plagued 16 points, six rebounds), attracts pro scouts everywhere he goes.
Bonaventure comes back and it settles into a nice back-and-forth game, with Rhody’s Andre Malone not able to win it in regulation and the Bonnies then dominating the OT. You have to feel for Rhody and worthy coach Jim Baron. The Rams are now 1-4 in OT this year.
Rhody does not look anything like a 3-18 team. “This league [the Atlantic 10] is really balanced,’’ says Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt. “No one is going to run away with it.’’
“It was a game of two halves,’’ says Baron. “For some reason we came out flat in the second half.’’
The Rams may be last in the league, but Rhody has one distinction. Nobody, but nobody, shoots more stuff into the stands. There are 3,225 in attendance, and they’re all going home with something.
Jan. 26, 2012: William H. Pitt Center, Fairfield, Conn.
Wagner 73, Sacred Heart 54
When I arrived at Boston College 47-plus years ago, I quickly fell in with a group of fellow basketball junkies, some of whom were from Connecticut. They babbled about two high school deities of the day: 1. Calvin Murphy 2. Dave Bike.
Now I am talking to Dave Bike, nearing the end of his 34th year as coach of the Sacred Heart Pioneers, and I am honored. After his brilliant career at Notre Dame High in Bridgeport, Conn., he spurned college offers, including one from Bob Cousy at Boston College, to sign with the Detroit Tigers organization as a catcher. He spent eight years in their employ, rising as high as Triple A.
He started coaching at Seattle University in 1975, returned home three years later, got a degree, and began a stellar coaching career that includes the 1986 Division 2 national championship. Surely, there must have been some offers to relocate?
“Early in my [coaching] career, I was never real aggressive, trying to get out. It was never a situation where I had to leave. I’m not surprised I’m still here after all these years.’’
Wagner enters 15-4 overall, and its defense causes real problems for the Pioneers, who turn it over 14 times in the first half.
“They’re supposed to be a shot-blocking team,’’ muses Bike. “I guess we gave ’em the ball before they could block it. We minimized their shot-blocking.’’
Jan. 27, 2012: John J. Lee Ampitheater, New Haven
Harvard 65, Yale 35
No one on the Harvard side had the audacity to say he or she saw this coming. No one on the Yale side could quite believe what just took place.
“It’s extremely disappointing,’’ sighs Yale center Greg Mangano. “It’s embarrassing. That’s the right word for it. You saw it happen. We got embarrassed on our own court.’’
It had been the most eagerly anticipated regular-season game in recent Yale basketball history. A rare sellout crowd - the first since a game against Stanford three years ago - had come to see the Eli wipe that smile off Harvard’s face. But what they had just seen was a smothering Harvard defense hold their team to a ridiculous 35 points on 32-percent (13 for 41) shooting.
“Our identity is that we defend,’’ says Crimson coach Tommy Amaker, “and tonight we did it very well.’’
Another part of Harvard’s identity is depth. Amaker’s second team is much better than the majority of most previous Harvard first teams. In this case the X factor is freshman forward Steve Moundou-Missi, whose energy and shotmaking turn what starts out as a reasonably competitive game into a 30-19 halftime advantage.
A hardy band of Harvard followers approaches delirium. They even chant “Just Like Football!’’ in the waning minutes.
“Tommy’s got a group of players where everybody is equal,’’ says Yale mentor James Jones. “He’s really got nine interchangeable parts.’’
As good as Harvard has just played, a good Yale team has played mystifyingly sloppy ball.
Feb. 16, 2012: TD Bank Sports Center, Hamden, Conn.
St. Francis (N.Y.) 64, Quinnipiac 56
If the question is, “What’s the showcase sports facility in New England?’’ then I must instruct the operators to hold all calls, because we have a clear winner. It sits on a hill in Hamden, Conn.
I have saved the best for one of the last, although I can’t say I planned it that way. But when you tell people you’re going all over New England to see college basketball games, the first thing they say is, “Have you been to Quinnipiac?’’
The fact of the matter is that Quinnipiac got it right. Athletic director Jack McDonald, a Boston College guy from Braintree and former Eagles track coach, was the lucky AD who got to plan this building, which houses matching 3,200-seat venues for hockey and basketball.
After entering the structure, you turn right for hockey and left for basketball. On either side you’ll find theater seats, perfectly pitched in an oval to let fans enjoy the action. And you ought to see the locker rooms, meeting facilities, and other stuff, for both men and women. There’s none better in New England.
McDonald already has told me I would appreciate 6-7 freshman forward Ike Azotam, a Bostonian he describes as “a Paul Silas type’’ who goes for 12 points and 15 rebounds [six offensive]. And I can see what he means. The only problem is in this game he is out-Azotamed by St. Francis’ own Silas type, 6-6 Jalen Cannon, who helps himself to 13 points and 19 rebounds.
Feb. 18, 2012: XL Center, Hartford
Marquette 79, Connecticut 64
Hang around long enough, I suppose, and you’ll see everything. But I never thought I’d live long enough to see a UConn team playing in this building run right out to I-84.
UConn enters the game at 16-9, so we know the Huskies can lose. But UConn teams never lose like this.
There is trouble before the game even begins. The anthem is so astonishingly bad its tape should be handed out by local judges in lieu of prison sentences. But that incompetence is matched by UConn’s lethargy in getting back on defense. The Golden Eagles even fast break successfully on two occasions following made UConn baskets.
Undersized Marquette (no current starter over 6-7) is well-coached by Buzz Williams, and it is a team whose parts mesh perfectly. It is clearly understood by one and all that the preponderance of the shots will go to a pair of seniors, 6-7 Jae Crowder and 6-1 Darius Johnson-Odom, who oblige for 53 points between them. The others go about their business without complaint. There can’t be five more enjoyable teams to watch.
“I thought their speed and strength almost blew our doors off in the first half,’’ says UConn associate coach George Blaney, again filling in for the ailing Jim Calhoun.
Williams is ebullient. This is a great road victory. “In a world where we try to count everything,’’ he says, “not everything counts. You can’t quantify the head and heart and brains those two seniors have shown.’’
Feb. 19, 2012: Conte Forum, Boston
Duke 75, Boston College 50
No surprise here.
Boston College does hit its first five shots, jumping to a 13-7 lead. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski calls time to adjust his defense.
BC goes without a basket for the next six or seven weeks (actually, a shade under 14 minutes). The only reason it’s as close as 30-21 at the half is that Duke, aside from Austin Rivers, isn’t playing so great offensively, either.
Anyone who has come to see Doc Rivers’s kid did not go away disappointed. He “only’’ scores 16, but among his seven baskets are casual threes, explosive drives, and a 1958 floater or two. Throw in seven rebounds and a couple of assists and it’s a nice evening’s work.
“I believe his leadership, rebounding, and defense have all stayed at a real high level,’’ lauds Coach K. “And we trust him to put the ball in his hands and make something happen for us.’’ That’s rather serious praise for an 18-year-old from a man who coaches LeBron and Kobe on Team USA in his spare time.
But how good is Duke, really? Are Miles and Mason Plumlee, college basketball’s answer to the Winklevi, good enough to get Duke to the Final Four? They are 6-10 and they do play hard, but it’s hard to judge their worth against Steve Donahue’s Kiddie Korps.
Props to BC freshman Ryan Anderson, however. He is clearly an Atlantic Coast Conference player. His 21 points and eight rebounds are a warning to the league that a new star will have been identified by this time next year.
Feb. 21, 2012: Mullins Center, Amherst
UMass 80, Xavier 73
Something good is brewing in Amherst.
It’s Year 4 of the Derek Kellogg regime, and I can hardly wait for Year 5, when this bunch really starts asserting itself. Meantime, this win over a talented Xavier team will provide decent offseason memories.
This one is about T-E-A-M, to be sure, but it’s also about a solidly built point guard named Chaz Williams, who when last seen in early January was a major trick-or-treater, mixing in good vs. bad plays in about a 50-50 split. And although he is officially credited with six turnovers tonight, who cares? Can’t recall any of ’em. What’s far more memorable are his 29 points, 9 assists, and 6-for-8 3-point shooting.
“That’s his best game, yeah,’’ says Kellogg. “It’s not close. He really came to play. Made his free throws, made shots, and his defense was the best it’s been all year.’’
“He completely dominated us,’’ agrees Xavier coach Chris Mack. “Most point guards can’t shoot a lick outside 6 feet. He’s a really good player. Twenty-nine points, nine assists. I don’t think we’ve faced a better guard this year.’’
Have I mentioned that, no matter what the program says, Chaz Williams is 5-7, maybe 5-6?
Raphiael Putney, a.k.a. the world’s skinniest man, has 13 points, 6 rebounds, and three first-half threes that broke the game open. But somebody, please get this man a cheeseburger!
Feb. 22, 2012: Matthews Arena, Boston
Northeastern 85, George Mason 82 (OT)
What a great win for the Huskies. You shoulda been there.
The least you can do is pencil a night for Matthews Arena for next year. With one exception, they’ll all be back.
But that exception helps writes the script for this one. It’s pretty cornball, though, and barely believable. The script calls for a glue guy who has only scored in double figures twice all year, and whose last such affair was 22 games ago, to score a career-high 22 on the night when seniors are honored when his mother is in the house. Swear to God.
His name is Kashief Edwards, and he is a one-year-only transfer from Niagara. Where does his 8 for 10 come from? Who knows? But it sure helps in this tense OT struggle. NU comes back from a 38-31 halftime deficit on a night when both teams are sloppy with the ball (22 turnovers for NU; 21 for George Mason).
But what the game lacks in artistry it makes up for in heart and passion. George Mason needs this game to help secure a No. 1 seed in the Colonial Athletic Association tourney. Northeastern needs this game for the soul. And no one, Edwards included, comes up bigger than junior point guard Jonathan Lee, who forces the action to the point of accumulating one of the great box score lines of the 2011-12 college season: 4-18-27. Yup, the young man goes 18 for 20 from the line.
Feb. 24, 2012: Lavietes Pavilion, Boston
Harvard 67, Princeton 64
It has come to this for the Crimson: beat Princeton and Penn at home to clinch a tie for the league championship. Then wrap it up with a road win over either Columbia or Cornell the following week.
The immediate problem is that Harvard has lost seven out of the last eight to Princeton, including the infamous buzzer-beater in the 2011 Ivy League playoff game, and coach Tommy Amaker privately fears the Tigers are “in our heads.’’
And it looks as if all the worst fears are confirmed when the visitors move to a 33-23 lead. Harvard is out of sorts, missing easy shots. But a spark is provided from 6-5 freshman Wesley Saunders. There is a 9-0 Harvard run, leaving Princeton ahead, 33-32, at intermission.
So it is “Show-Me-What-You-Got’’ time for Harvard in the final 20 minutes. And what Harvard gets is a classy performance by point guard Brandyn Curry, who gets the Crimson a lead at 57-55 on a 3-pointer, who takes it to the hoop for a 59-55 lead with 4:59 remaining, and who just plain assumes control of the game. “He has that knack,’’ says Amaker.
“Can’t say enough about our defense,’’ Amaker says. “I thought we had great concentration, great composure, and great confidence.’’
It’s one down on the weekend, but one very tough game to go in this back-to-back scenario. “It’s an incredible challenge,’’ says Amaker. “We have to turn around and play another very good team with the same type of energy . . . this league is won on Saturday night.’’
Feb. 25, 2012: Lavietes Pavilion, Boston
Penn 55, Harvard 54
It’s as big as an Ivy League game can get. The building is sold out. The Penn band has made the trip from Philadelphia. And ESPN3 is televising! Throw in the seniors being honored, and where else would you want to be?
It may actually be too much for the players, because the first half is pretty much a mess. The teams combine for just 36 field goal attempts, mainly because they also have combined for a miserable 21 turnovers. Harvard leads, 30-24, but Penn’s Miles Cartwright has been allowed to go coast-to-coast for an unmolested buzzer-beating layup from an inbounds situation. File that one.
The second half is all push-and-pull, with Harvard continually threatening to take charge and the Quakers stubbornly refusing to bail out. What’s really worrisome for the Crimson is that, despite grabbing a 49-40 lead with 8:10 to go, it feels shaky because neither Kyle Casey, nor Keith Wright, nor Brandyn Curry - i.e. the three best Harvard players - are doing much of anything at the offensive end. Freshman Wesley Saunders is en route to being the man of the match.
When Saunders, the lad from Los Angeles, dunks one on a back-door feed from Curry it is 51-44 with 5:18 left. Eerily, for a second night in succession, the last Harvard field goal comes with way too much time left in the game, and this time the offensive lapse is fatal.
The general belief is that Penn senior guard Zack Rosen is the best player in the league, and he is about to verify that thesis. He scores the final 9 on a three, a pair of tough one-on-one twos, and the game-winning free throws earned by taking it to the hole with 23 seconds left.
For an instant, Harvard and its fans think Casey has regained the lead with a short banker with 3.5 seconds left, but the hoop is negated because Penn’s Tyler Bernardini gets the benefit of the doubt after moving in to take a charge. It’s extremely close, extremely marginal, and extremely final. Penn wins! Penn wins!
Rosen then preaches a classic Ivy league sermon. “We won it with defense,’’ he proclaims. “You can throw offense out the window in the final minutes. In the Ivy League, it’s who can defend, and who plays better on Saturday night.’’
CONNECTICUT (20-14) remained inconsistent to the end, winning its first two Big East tournament games over DePaul and West Virginia before losing to Syracuse. Seeded eighth in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament, it lost to Iowa State.
HOLY CROSS (15-14) took a run of six straight wins into the Patriot League tournament, where it lost in the first round to Lafayette. Coach Brown never did figure out exactly whom to play and how long to play them.
HARTFORD (9-22), found itself after an 0-13 start and even beat BU in the America East Tournament. Coach Gallagher’s belief in his kids appears to have been vindicated.
BRYANT (2-28) lost 27 of its last 28. Alex Francis finished with 17 points and 7.4 rebounds a game. Don’t forget those “impact transfers’’ Coach O’Shea promised.
BOSTON COLLEGE (9-22) lost game after game with killer dead spots, but managed an uplifting victory over league power Florida State. Ryan Anderson made the All-Rookie team. It lost to NC State in the first round of the ACC Tournament.
NEW HAMPSHIRE (13-16) had a late season run of 5-1 before losing to Albany in the first round of the America East tournament. Wildcats need to improve an offense that finished 301st in points per game (61.2) and 332d in assists (9.8).
BOSTON UNIVERSITY (16-16) blew hot and cold all year, losing to Hartford in the first round of the America East tournament. Darryl Partin finished at 19.6 points per game.
HARVARD (26-5) won the Ivy League outright to earn its first NCAA bid since 1946 (and first since the Ivies were formed in 1954). Seeded 12th, the Crimson lost to SEC power Vanderbilt.
BROWN (8-23) finished next-to-last in the Ivies and it cost Jesse Agel his job.
YALE (19-10) just couldn’t win the big ones against Harvard, Princeton, and Penn, and a case can be made that the Eli underachieved. Greg Mangano finished at 18.2 ppg and 9.6 rpg.
PROVIDENCE (15-17) had monumental ups (i.e. the amazing win over Louisville) and perplexing downs (a 79-47 Big East first-round tourney loss to Seton Hall). Friar Nation awaits the heralded recruiting class of 2016.
UMASS (25-11) lost to St. Bonaventure in semifinals of the Atlantic-10 Tournament. It beat Mississippi State (two OTs) and Seton Hall in road NIT games and then defeated Drexel in the quarterfinals Tuesday night.
CENTRAL CONNECTICUT (13-16) was maddeningly inconsistent, eventually losing in the first round of the Northeast Conference tournament to Wagner. Messrs. Horton (19.0), Vinales (17.9), and Ptacek (17.3) accounted for more than 75 percent of the team’s points.
MAINE (12-17) had a disappointing finish, losing seven of its last eight, including a first-round loss to Vermont in the America East tournament. Gerald McLemore (17 ppg) had a nice senior season.
VERMONT (24-12) won 15 of its final 17, defeating Stony Brook on the road to win the America East tournament title. It beat Lamar in an NCAA play-in game before losing to North Carolina.
NORTHEASTERN (14-17) peaked with a rousing home win over George Mason. The Huskies lost in the CAA quarterfinals to VCU. Quincy Ford earned All-Rookie honors.
FAIRFIELD (21-14) made a surprising run to the MAAC tournament finals as Rakim Sanders (26 points, 12 rebounds) led them past Iona in the semis. The Stags laid a major egg in the championship game, scoring 14 second-half points in a loss to Loyola of Baltimore.
DARTMOUTH (5-25) won just once in the Ivies (58-53 over Brown). The Big Green could not produce a double-digit scorer.
RHODE ISLAND (7-24) was the best damn 7-24 team in America, losing three in OT and playing people tough all year and going down hard (89-83) to UMass in the first round of the A-10 Tournament. But none of this could save Jim Baron’s job.
SACRED HEART (14-18) had great play from Shane Gibson (22 ppg) all year before losing in the Northeast Conference quarterfinals to LIU.
QUINNIPIAC (18-14) lost in the semifinals of the Northeast Conference tournament to LIU. Ike Azotam had a terrific 15-point, 9-rebound freshman season.