UMass, Duquesne Showing Just How Important Good Coaching Is

By Kevin Sweeney

In many ways, the UMass and Duquesne basketball programs are in the same place right now.

In other ways, they couldn’t be more different.

The UMass program is one with tradition, just 20 years removed from being perennial top 25 team in John Calipari’s tenure as head coach, an era capped by a Final Four trip in 1996. Duquesne on the other hand has always been little brother in its own city to mighty Pitt, without an NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 40 years and owning just two 20-wins seasons in that timeframe.

Yet both programs reached a crossroads this offseason, having to make coaching hires that would have a lasting impact on the uncertain futures of their programs. UMass chose the young Matt McCall, a 36-year-old with just 2 years of head coaching experience but an already-impressive resume from his time working his way up the coaching ladder at Florida under Billy Donovan. Meanwhile, Duquesne lured the 59-year-old Keith Dambrot, old enough to be McCall’s dad, from Akron to turn around their program. With more than 400 career wins to his name and the endorsement of LeBron James, Dambrot appeared a slam dunk to turn around the struggling Duquesne program.

Now, less than 10 months since taking over, both programs are in significantly better shape than they have been in quite a while. How? Despite their obvious differences, both McCall and Dambrot have employed similar strategies to bring their programs to relevance in such short amounts of time.

The Undervalued

Carl Pierre and Eric Williams Jr. might be the two best freshmen in the Atlantic Ten. They certainly are two of the most important.

Neither had a Division 1 offer at the conclusion of their senior season of high school basketball. Neither may be playing Division 1 basketball right now if not for the coaching changes that put McCall and Dambrot at the helm of their respective programs.

Pierre was leaning towards a year of prep school despite an outstanding career at BC High in Boston until McCall came calling. After seeing 7 players transfer out of the program following Derek Kellogg’s firing, McCall needed players who could contribute right away and fit the culture he was trying to build. The 6-4 sharpshooter known as an extremely hard worker and a gym rat was perfect for what McCall was looking. Now, Pierre is averaging more than 10 points per game and leads the A10 in 3-point percentage, and every time he plays it becomes harder and harder to fathom how he was available by the time McCall came calling in May.

Eric Williams put up excellent numbers and helped lead his team to a state championship in Michigan. Yet he didn’t receive his first Division 1 offer until April. He had developed a relationship with current Duquesne assistant Charles Thomas when he was with Dambrot at Akron, but it was far from a guarantee that Dambrot’s staff would have a scholarship available for Williams. But once at Duquesne, Dambrot had plenty of scholarships to work with, and after visiting campus, Williams was offered and committed to the Dukes. He’s currently averaging 14.2 ppg and 9.7 rpg and continues to impress with his composure for a freshman getting his first taste of Division 1 basketball. Williams is the type of kid that won Dambrot so many games at Akron, a hard worker who would take coaching and develop over 4 years into all-conference players.

The Transfers

While McCall and Dambrot each wanted to win right away, it would have been unrealistic to try to find enough immediately eligible talent to compete in the A10 given how late a start each got in building their rosters. Instead, the two programs cornered the market on transfers, with McCall bringing in 5 D1 transfers and Dambrot bringing in 6. Just two of those 11 combined were immediately eligible graduate transfers, and one of those, Jaylen Brantley of UMass, was unable to ever suit up for the Minutemen after a heart condition was discovered that ended his career. However, these sit-out transfers, who come from programs as large as Memphis, LSU, and Rutgers and as small as Miami (OH) and Akron, will provide massive talent injections to these two programs in 2018-19.

UMASS DUQUESNE

The entire list of transfers becoming eligible in 2018-19 for UMass and Duquesne

Changing the Culture

At UMass, McCall inherited a roster made up of some highly-regarded recruits, but the culture surrounding that program was a mess. The team reportedly had some major chemistry issues, and fans rued the team’s disorganization in-game. While several of those talented pieces followed Kellogg out the door, that allowed McCall to change the vibe around the program immediately. Now, the team plays with a discipline and organization not seen in the Kellogg era. A perfect example of this is how McCall handled sophomore forward Chris Baldwin. Baldwin was benched in the Minutemen’s loss to South Carolina after playing a key role early in the season, and after the game, McCall criticized Baldwin’s approach. With just 8 scholarship players at his disposal, McCall could have easily continued to play Baldwin, but he chose to bench the sophomore and establish the culture he wants for the program. Baldwin has worked his way back into McCall’s good graces and played a key role in his team’s upset win over Georgia.

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McCall’s (pictured) ability to change the culture surrounding this UMass program is a big reason for the Minutemen’s early success this season. Photo by Will Hannum, [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Meanwhile, one of the biggest and most consistent winners in college basketball inherited a program that hadn’t seen many victories in recent years.

“I’m trying to make them understand how to win,” Dambrot said in November, per an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “When it’s 70-68 with three minutes to play, are they going to believe they can win or not? That’s going to be the key to the whole thing, because in the past they haven’t.

After struggling in close games early in the season, the Dukes have won 3 consecutive games decided by less than 10 points. That includes knocking off perennial A10 power Dayton 70-62 on Saturday in a game that the Dukes trailed 61-60 with less than 5 minutes to play. Simply put, Duquesne didn’t win those types of games under previous coaches.

A big part of that was getting all-A10 freshman Mike Lewis to buy into what Dambrot was selling, convincing him to stay at Duquesne and lead the program into the future. Lewis has thrived, averaging over 16 points per game, and the Dukes have improved on the defensive end, an area where Dambrot’s Akron teams always thrived.

Recruiting

It is commonly said that recruiting is the lifeblood of any college basketball program, and both McCall and Dambrot have put together dynamite classes that fit their program’s needs in 2018. UMass has 2 commits, landing top-150 wing Samba Diallo and 3-star point guard Tre’ Wood. Both are high-level talents and come from talent-rich areas, with Diallo coming from the metro New York area and Wood coming from Baltimore. Duquesne has already landed 5 commitments, including 4 of whom who stand 6-9 or taller. With Dambrot a coach who loves to play through the post with dominant big men, this is exactly the class Dambrot needed to build.

The future has been bright at both of these programs since the day their new coaches were hired, but the early success each coach has had gives me reason to believe UMass and Duquesne will be competing for Atlantic Ten titles sooner rather than later.

 

Notable Midseason Transfer Tracker

By Kevin Sweeney

As we reach the semester break across the country, we also reach the time for midseason transfers. Whether they be freshmen who quickly realized that their school is not the place for them or upperclassmen leaving the team for various reasons, there is certainly talent to be found midseason that could make a huge impact down the road. I’ll be keeping the list updated with impact guys who’ve announced they’ll transfer and where they wind up throughout the season.

Note: This is not a list of all midseason transfers. This is just a list of the top ones available. 

Curtis Jones, Indiana

A native of Richmond, VA, Jones saw his role diminishing under new head coach Archie Miller and elected to transfer. However, he’s a capable scorer on the wing who can shoot the 3 who’d be an excellent piece for a lot of clubs.

Update 1/1/18: Jones has committed to Oklahoma State, per Jeff Goodman of ESPN.

JaQuori McLaughlin, Oregon State

After a tremendous freshman campaign in which he averaged more than 10 points and 3 assists per game, McLaughlin struggled early on this season and dropped his production to under 3 points per game. A talented lead guard, look for a lot of Mountain West clubs to express interest in McLaughlin.

Jalen Harris, Louisiana Tech

Harris looks like an “up transfer” to me. The 6-5 sophomore wing was in the midst of a tremendous campaign, averaging over 15 points per game while shooting over 44% from downtown, but announced his intention to transfer on December 22. Look for lots high-major programs to be in contention for Harris’ services.

Preston Parks, Citadel

Markelle Fultz. Malik Monk. Dennis Smith Jr. Those were the only 3 freshmen to average more points per game than Parks did last season. The dynamic combo guard averaged 17.5 ppg in The Citadel’s up-tempo system last season, and was improving as a distributor this season while averaging over 13 ppg before announcing he’d be transferring in late November.

Update: Parks has committed to UT-Martin.

DeAndre “Pedro” Bradshaw, Belmont

A playmaking wing, Bradshaw was a 3-star prospect coming out of high school, but never played a game for the Bruins before it was announced he was transferring in early December. Tai Young of Verbal Commits tweeted that Bradshaw would be visiting Missouri State on 12/19 and Washington State 12/21-12/23, so we could be hearing shortly on where Bradshaw’s next destination will be.

Update 12/27: Bradshaw has committed to Eastern Kentucky, per Evan Daniels of 247Sports.

Jordan Tucker, Duke

Tucker leaves Duke after just 1 semester witch the program after seeing very little playing time. A former top-100 recruit who Duke swooped in to land late after missing out on Kevin Knox, Tucker will be a valued commodity on the transfer market. The 6-7 forward can play either the 3 or the 4 and has excellent floor-spacing ability. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Syracuse, who recruited Tucker hard before Duke got involved, makes a push to bring Tucker back to his home state.

Schnider Herard, Mississippi State

A 6-10 Big man who saw his role cut drastically after playing a big role as a freshman, Herard’s intention to transfer was announced on New Year’s Eve. Many saw Herard, a former top-100 recruit, as a breakout candidate this season after averaging 5 points and 5 rebounds in about 18 minutes per game for the Bulldogs last season, but the emergence of freshman Abdul Ado at the Center position has significantly cut Herard’s role on this team long-term. Look for plenty of Sun Belt and Conference USA programs to be interested in this Plano, Texas native.

Asante Gist, Eastern Kentucky

Gist put together a maginificent freshman campaign in 2016-17 at Eastern Kentucky, averaging nearly 16 points and 4 assists per game. But his numbers dropped precipitously this season, and Adam Zagoria reported that Gist has received his release from EKU. He’s the type of undersized combo guard that thrives at the mid-major level.

This list will continue to be updated as the transfer season goes on.

Sluggish Start Too Much to Overcome for Providence

By Kevin Sweeney

To say that Providence limped into tonight’s matchup against Houston would be an understatement. Already without Emmitt Holt for the season due to injury, the Friars were without Maliek White and star guards Kyron Cartwright and Alpha Diallo weren’t close to 100%.

Those absences were evident from the start, and the Friars were unable to overcome a 20 point second half deficit despite a furious comeback, falling 70-59 to Houston at Mohegan Sun Arena as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase. Rob Gray led the way with 24 points for the Cougars, who grab another nice win for their resume come March.

For much of the night, the Friars couldn’t do anything on the offensive end with their best creator (Cartwright) and best wing scorer (Diallo) both extremely limited. Yet the Friars were able to hang around in the first half thanks to some stingy defense and went into the intermission trailing by just 8. However, they weren’t able to continue that defensive success in the second, as Gray exploded with his team’s first 8 points of the second half to help open up a lead that would balloon to as much as 56-35 with 11:55 to go.

Then, the Friars began to slowly chip away. A 13-2 run got the Friars back within striking distance, and Providence would get as close as 8. But the comeback just never seemed to quite get the spark it needed to be completed, as a few big buckets by Houston as well as a couple momemtum-changing misses by Providence kept the Cougars lead safe.

“We know the type of team we can be, Providence head coach Ed Cooley said. “When you are missing 3 or 4 starters, it’s hard.”

On the health of Cartwright and Diallo, Cooley said that both wanted to give it a go, but it was clear they weren’t healthy when they were out there. Health has to be the number one concern for the Friars going forward as they take on Sacred Heart on Friday before opening Big East play on December 28 at St. John’s. The Friars were led by Rodney Bullock, who had 24 points and 8 rebounds in the contest.

Meanwhile, Houston moves to 10-2 on the season behind Gray’s 24 points along with Galen Robinson’s 12 points and 6 assists. They open AAC play on December 28 on the road at South Florida.

Ponds Pushes St. John’s Past St. Joe’s, Red Storm Finish Non-Conference Strong

By Kevin Sweeney

By all accounts, it has been a successful non-conference slate for St. John’s. The Red Storm were off to a 9-2 start with some quality wins. Still, they had one more test to pass before entering Big East play, and they did so today, knocking off St. Joe’s 77-73. Shamorie Ponds led all scorers with 28 points, while Justin Simon flirted with a triple-double with 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists.

Facing a talented St. Joe’s team that has dealt with injuries early in the 2017-18 campaign, the Red Storm got all they could handle from the Hawks from the opening tip. It was a tight game throughout, with neither team ever able to claim a double digit advantage. While the Red Storm have been one of the best defensive teams in the country on the young season, the Hawks were able to find flow on offense from the get-go.

But when it mattered most, the Red Storm were able to find a way to string together stops on the defensive end. They held the Hawks to just 5 points in the final 4:59, with 2 of those coming on a meaningless lay-in by Newkirk with 3 seconds to go.

“That’s what coach has been preaching every game,” Simon said. “We won it down the stretch.”

Coming down the stretch of the first half, it seemed that St. John’s had all the momentum, regaining the lead after trailing for much of the first half to go into halftime with a 44-41 advantage. But the Hawks came out firing in the second half, with Shavar Newkirk posting 17 second-half points en route to 26 on the game and Taylor Funk finding his stroke from 3 to take a lead that would stretch to as much as 8. But the Johnnies had the answer, fighting back behind some big buckets from Ponds and locking in on defense late.

Simon and Ponds each played all 40 minutes, as St. John’s used just 7 players with Marcus LoVett injured. Bashir Ahmed added 16 points, and Tariq Owens provided a nice boost with 7 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 blocks.

St. Joe’s falls to 5-6 on the season, but there were plenty of encouraging signs in this one. Newkirk had his best game of the season as he continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered last season. Pierfrancesco Oliva posted 18 rebounds in the losing effort for the Hawks.

“We’ve shown our most improvement on the defensive end,” said Chris Mullin as he summed up his team’s non-conference slate. He said the team will have a few days off before refocusing for a matchup to open Big East play against Providence on December 28.

Basketball Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase Preview

By Kevin Sweeney

Today at Mohegan Sun Arena, we’ll have a doubleheader with big implications for the rest of the season. With non-conference play wrapping up, teams are looking to add that extra quality win to their resume that will look good come Selection Sunday. The event tips off at 4:30 eastern with St. John’s taking on St. Joe’s and continues at 7pm with Houston taking on Providence. I’ll be there covering all the action, with live tweets (@CBB_Central) and game stories. First though, we’ll preview the action ahead:

St. John’s vs St. Joe’s

A much-improved St. John’s team under Chris Mullin has gotten off to a 9-2 start behind a stout defense and excellent guard play, but they’ll be tested by a St. Joe’s team that has the talent to give the Johnnies all they can handle. Both teams will be without key pieces, as sophomore guard Marcus LoVett will sit for the Red Storm and sophomore wing Charlie Brown remains out for the Hawks. However, what will make this matchup so fun is the showdown between 2 of the better scoring guards in the country in Shamorie Ponds and Shavar Newkirk, a pair of New York City natives who are elite at getting their own shot and creating for others.

Matchup to Watch: Turnover Battle

St. John’s is one of the best teams in the nation at forcing turnovers, ranking 4th nationally by turning over their opponents 19.2 times per contest. However, St. Joe’s is elite at taking care of the ball, as they are 2nd in the country in ball security with just 8.7 turnovers per game. The Hawks will have to continue to take care of the ball and not give the Johnnies easy buckets in transition if they want to pull the upset.

Prediction: St. John’s 75, St. Joe’s 63

Providence vs Houston

The Friars have struggled so far this season, though they’ve been able to avoid resume-crushing losses in tight contests with Belmont, Rider, and Stony Brook. However, in no way is this team playing its basketball, and it enters today’s game likely without star senior point guard Kyron Cartwright and defensive specialist Maliek White due to injuries. Talented wing Alpha Diallo also isn’t healthy and is questionable for today’s action. Still, if the Friars could find a way to knock off a talented Houston club tonight, it would be a big boost of confidence and more importantly, a big boost to their resume come March. The Cougars come in at 9-2 behind one of the best guards in the country in Rob Gray. Kelvin Sampson’s team has been hot of late, ranking 5th in the country in momentum per Haslametrics.com. With an at-large resume that already features wins over Wake Forest and Arkansas, a win today would be yet another feather in the caps of the Cougars in their hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 and just the second time since 1992.

Matchup to Watch: 3-Point Shooting

Both teams are among the most efficient outside shooting clubs in the country, with Houston shooting 42.4% (11th nationally) from beyond the arc and Providence connecting on 40.8% (24th nationally) of their triples. Both also are in the top 100 nationally in defending the 3. Either team shutting down their opponent’s 3-point attack would be huge for their chances.

Prediction: Houston 79, Providence 70

Be sure to follow me on Twitter (handle is @CBB_Central) for coverage from what should be a great day of college hoops at Mohegan Sun Arena.

College Basketball’s “League Pass” Teams

By Kevin Sweeney

Named for the NBA’s TV package “NBA League Pass”, the discussion of the best “League Pass teams” in the NBA has been floated many times. The premise is simple: if you could only watch a certain number of teams in the entire NBA (5 is a common number to debate), which would they be? So, while us college basketball fans have the luxury of accessing tons of teams through ESPN3 and other online streams, it’s still an interesting hypothetical concept to be brought to a discussion about college basketball. After getting a massive amount of feedback yesterday to the tweet below, I’ve put together my list of 10 college basketball “League Pass teams”.

Oklahoma

There were only a couple teams that felt like locks for this list, but the Sooners were definitely one of them. Who doesn’t want to watch an incredibly efficient offense led by one of the best and most exciting players in college basketball? Norman native Trae Young has been a revelation for Lon Kruger, averaging nearly 29 points and 9 assists per game in an early push for the Wooden Award. The Sooners share the ball, get great looks, and play at an extremely fun tempo, and I can’t wait to watch them more as conference play gets going.

Nevada

If you like the new wave of positionless basketball, I invite you to turn on a Nevada game. You won’t be disappointed. The Wolf Pack can spread you out and attack the rim, or get cooking from 3 and start pouring on points in a hurry. Eric Musselman has assembled a roster nearly exclusively made up of transfers, and that influx of talent has given Nevada a roster that resembles that of any high-major team in the country.

UNLV

Staying in the Mountain West, we pivot to Nevada’s in-state rival at UNLV, which has been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises thus far. Senior point guard Jordan Johnson is all kinds of fun to watch create offense despite is generously-listed 5-9 frame, and the Rebels’ 2 stud recruits in center Brandon McCoy and power forward Shakur Juiston are each averaging double-doubles. They get up and down the floor, make plays, and are definitely one of the most fun-to-watch teams in college basketball.

Duke

If you watch college basketball, chances are you have a strong opinion one way or another about Duke basketball. They are always interesting, but they are especially interesting this year with a transcendent talent in Marvin Bagley and the most controversial player in college basketball in Grayson Allen. The Blue Devils are as explosive offensively as any team in the country, but more importantly, college basketball would be missing something without the Dukies.

Virginia

This is the team that will likely draw the most criticism for its inclusion, but I’m a huge fan of watching Virginia basketball. It may not bring the same excitement that a game featuring powerhouse offenses like Oklahoma or Duke would, but the Cavaliers are always extremely disciplined, well-coached, and play tremendous defense. Plus, it wouldn’t be fun to only watch offensive-minded clubs all the time, would it?

Arizona State

The biggest surprise of the college basketball season has been the scorching start the Sun Devils have been on, capped with an incredible win at Allen Fieldhouse yesterday against Kansas. ASU has perhaps the best backcourt in college basketball with Tra Holder and Shannon Evans leading the way, and freshman big man Romello White has been dominant to open his career in Tempe. At this stage in the game, the Sun Devils are a top 5 team in the country and certainly a team you wouldn’t want to miss.

Villanova

If I were building a basketball team, I’d want it to look like Villanova. The Wildcats are a machine, a model of consistency despite the up-and-down nature of college basketball. They cut well, run extremely efficient offense, and play unselfishly. Definitely a must-watch team in college basketball.

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Jay Wright is one of the elite coaches in college basketball and makes his team incredibly fun to watch. Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

UT-Arlington

As a mid-major lover, I had to get some true one-bid flavor in this group. And who better to do that with than UT-Arlington, which features one of the best duos in all of college basketball in Erick Neal and Kevin Hervey. Neal is the fearless, undersized creator that most mid-major coaches could only dream about landing, and Hervey is a legit NBA prospect at 6-9 with his ability to space the floor. The Mavs have shown the ability to pull upsets in the past (last season’s road wins at St. Mary’s and Texas come to mind) and they should be a team to watch in March.

Arizona

Since before the season even began, there was plenty of reason to care about the Wildcats. After assistant Book Richardson was arrested as part of the FBI investigation that shook the college basketball world, there was a lot of talk about the Arizona program. Then, a promising season appeared to be on the brink after a disastrous 0-3 weekend at the Battle 4 Atlantis. However, the Wildcats have rebounded well from that trip and once again look like one of the most talented and complete teams in college basketball.

Florida

The Gators have struggled of late, but it’s hard to forget the display they put on at the PK80 late last month, where they went 2-1 that played an exciting brand of basketball and took Duke wire-to-wire. Jalen Hudson is incredible at making uber-tough shots, and Chris Chiozza is the engine that runs the Gators at both ends of the floor. Combine that with a great X & O coach in Mike White, and UF still makes my list despite their recent skid.

Three Key Takeaways from WVU – Virginia

By Brendan Crowley

A rivalry game with big national implications went down on Tuesday night in Morgantown, as West Virginia won its 8th straight with a 68-61 thrilling victory over #15 Virginia. Despite the Mountaineers not being able to impose their up-tempo style on the game, they were able to come away with a huge home victory behind a big game from star senior guard Jevon Carter. Here are 3 key takeaways from what was one of the best games of a packed Tuesday night slate:

  1. Virginia’s Bench – The Cavs will be near the top of the ACC by year’s end there’s no questioning that, but in order for them to make that next step and become a contender in the conference they’ll need more scoring outside of Devon Hall and Kyle Guy. Both were sensational last night, as they’ve been all year, the guards’ 37 combined points is what kept UVA in the game during the 2nd half. Other players will have to step up to create their own shot as the season goes along with Guy receiving more and more attention each night.
  2. Pressure. Pressure. Pressure.- The Mountaineers have had a stifling defense all season and their ability to keep the Cavs on their toes the entire second half is what ultimately led to a West Virginia win. The Cavaliers’ 14 turnovers turned into points on the other end for the entirety of the game.
  3. Jevon Carter is the REAL DEAL – Last year’s Big12 defensive player of the year is back and better than ever before. He’s leading the nation in steals at a staggering 4.5 steals per game (yes,you read that correctly). Carter filled the stat sheet against the Cavs with 23 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists along with going 9/10 from the free throw line. West Virginia’s returning players will have a major impact moving forward and expect this team to continue its winning ways as the Mountaineers will next take a road trip to Pittsburgh.

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