Blogs > The Full-Court Press

The Trentonian's Full-Court Press blog is back and improved. We'll keep you updated on everything you need to know about Rider and Princeton hoops as well as the college basketball landscape.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Back off the PUP list

The TCHB battled a 48-hour bug and a non-blog-friendly schedule for the past week, but we're back and ready to go for tonight's UConn-Rutgers game at the RAC. 
Since we last checked in, Rider's MAAC losing streak grew to three, but the Broncs managed to snag a non-conference win over Cal State Northridge on Bracket Buster Saturday. 
The blog will chime in tomorrow on the Scarlet Knights, and have plenty of Rider coverage toward the end of the week in preparation for the Broncs games Friday against St. Peter's and Sunday against Fairfield. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Rain, sleet, snow and Ivy League basketball

For at least two months, I can't recall a single instance of wintery weather in Trenton. No snow, no sleet, no hale, no freezing rain. Sure, we'd get a night here and there when it would be really cold, but for the most part, I was beginning to think any kind of frozen precipitation only fell north of Exit 9 on the Turnpike. 
That all changed tonight, making it a bad night for Trentonian Princeton beat writer Joe O'Gorman and I to trek down I-295 to the Palestra to cover the 217th installation of the Princeton-Penn rivalry. (Joe wrote a column, to which we unfortunately have no link, and I wrote the game story. )
We left Joe's house in Bordentown at about 4:45. Should be plenty of time to get to Philly -- typically about 45 minutes away -- in time to park, grab a cheese steak, take our time walking into the building, get some game notes, and be in our seats 20 minutes before tip, right?
Wrong. 
On my unofficial scorecard, there were six accidents on 295 thanks to the weather, causing bumper-to-bumper traffic the whole way and delaying our arrival at the Palestra until almost 8:00. 
When we finally sat down, there were four minutes left in the first half. 
Fortunately for us, though, the second half was far more exciting -- and in some cases, bizarre -- than anything we missed. 
The Tigers rallied to get within a point and had a chance to win it when Noah Savage had an open look from 3-point range on the left wing. 
The shot rimmed out -- the second straight  time that's happened to a Mercer County team in the final seconds -- and Penn's Remy Cofield got the rebound. 
That's when chaos broke out. Zach Finley fouled Cofield, then exchanged words with Brian Grandieri. Both players were assessed technicals, effectively offestting one another, so Cofield shot two free-throws, making both, and Princeton got the ball back. 
9.3 seconds left, 66-63, a chance to win it. 
Right?
Wrong. 
No one but the refs -- not Sydney Johnson, not anyone on press row -- saw exactly what happened, but Savage was called for a technical foul, giving Penn two free throws, the ball, and for all intents and purposes, the game. 
It was my first chance to see the Tigers this year in person, and also my first trip to the Palestra. 
If it hadn't been for the weather woes, it would have been a great night of college hoops. 
But a few bits of good news: Joe and I got home safe and sound, the game was exciting and if you're a Princeton fan, you have reason to be optimistic about your team. 
They lost last night and certainly will lose at least a few more before the year ends. But slowly and surely, the Tigers are getting better. 
Penn is a shadow of its defending-Ivy-League-champion self, but the Quakers are still a fairly talented team playing at home. And if the Tigers had gotten a couple bounces and a couple of breaks, they would have come away with a win. 
I didn't follow them closely last year, but I know it's not a game the 06-07 Tigers would have come close to winning. 

Monday, February 11, 2008

All tied up


Rider blew an opportunity to take an insurmountable lead in the MAAC standings yesterday, losing 80-77 to Siena at the Broncs' Zoo. Instead of holding a two-game lead over Siena with four MAAC games remaining, the Broncs and Saints are now tied for first place, meaning the race for the regular season title is likely to come down to the wire. 
Trentonian sports editor Aaron Bracy and assistant sports editor Matthew Osborne joined me at the game, and between the three of us, today's paper has some pretty expansive coverage. 
I also wrote a Siena story for our sister paper up in Troy, New York, and covered the Rider women's game before the men's game. Pretty busy day. 
Here are some links: The game story. The notebook. The Siena game story. The box score. Aaron's angle on the Siena supporting cast. Matthew's musings on the Zoo crew.  
It wasn't the outcome Rider wanted, but it might have been the most exciting game I've ever seen. Rider coughed up a six-point lead with less than two minutes to go and fell behind 80-77 on a deep 3 from the top of the key by Josh Duell. 
Then it was time for one of the most exciting plays in college basketball: the baseball pass to set up a last-second shot. 
When a lot of people think about those plays, they think of the infamous Grant Hill-to-Christian Laettner shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight. 
But those of us from the Northeast know that the best such play of all time came two years earlier in East Rutherford, New Jersey. 
The assist was from Scott Burrell, who as the only player in history drafted in the first round in both basketball (by the Charlotte Hornets) and baseball (as a pitcher by the Toronto Blue Jays) was the perfect candidate to throw the pass. (He was also an all-state quarterback at Hamden High School in Connecticut, adding to the list of reasons he was capable of throwing a ball 94 feet with such zip and precision.) 
The basket was by Tate George, who hit a baseline jumper to propel UConn to a 71-70 win over Clemson in the East regional semifinal. 
Most importantly, the play produced the greatest newspaper headline and the best radio call in the last 25 years in college basketball.
The front page of the Hartford Courant read "It's late, it's great, it's Tate."
The radio call on the UConn radio network came courtesy of our good friend Bob Heussler, who now serves as the play-by-play man for ..... the Fairfield Stags. 
Which brings us back to Rider. 
The Broncs did a good job running the play they wanted to run. 
Ryan Thompson, playing the role of Burrell, inbounded the ball on the far baseline. 
Jason Thompson, four inches taller than everyone else on the court, was an obvious choice to catch the pass. He had three options: shoot, pass to Harris Mansell or pass to Kamron Warner. The pass was perfect. Jason caught it, turned to face the hoop and had a good enough look that he opted to shoot. Unlike UConn against Clemson and Duke against Kentucky, Rider's play did not have a happy ending. 
But it's time to look forward, and the Broncs' next game is Saturday at: you guessed it, Fairfield. 
It's a game in which the Broncs will be favored on the road but not one they are a lock to win. 
Tommy Dempsey told me last week Fairfield is a team that worries him because the Stags have gotten up for every game they've played against top-tier MAAC teams, winning at Loyola, at Siena and at Niagara. 
This is a good opportunity to all those Stags fans up in Connecticut and up and down the east coast to chime in. 
How do you think the game will play out? 


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Then it was ten


In one of the most entertaining games I've seen this season, Rider beat Niagara last night 80-76 to win its 10th straight. 
Here's a link to the story in today's paper, and one to the box score. 
Usually, since the seats at Alumni Gym come all the way down to the sideline on the side of the court where the press table would normally be, the print media sits on the baseline at the far end of the gym. 
Last night, there were so many NBA scouts there to watch Jason Thompson -- 14 of them, from 12 different teams (the Sixers and Bucks each had two scouts there) -- along with a few extra reporters, so the nice folks at Rider eliminated a row of seats at center court and put together a makeshift press table. 
Sitting at center court was nothing new -- that's basically where the press sits at most arenas -- but since we were essentially in the stands, I was treated to an up-close experience with the students that make the Broncs' Zoo famous. 
A few highlights of that experience: 
  • A girl sitting in the front row noticed that the Niagara game notes were in front of me on the table and asked me, in disbelief, "ARE YOU FROM NIAGARA? Because if you are, this is NOT a good place to sit." I explained to her that I was from neither Niagara nor Mars. I was a reporter who had simply been moved from his normal seat to a different one because a lot of people were at the game. 
  • A guy sitting in the row behind us was absolutely furious at one of the refs, who he believed was out to get the Broncs. He shouted multiple times: "YOU'RE WORSE THAN TIM DONAGHY!"
  • I'm not sure if she knew his name, but one of the girls sitting near me has a crush on Lamar Johnson. "I think number 13 is adorable," she said. 
Now, back to the Rider students who were on the court: Unlike the last two wins -- at Marist and at Siena -- the Broncs did not seem to scream out "We're going to the NCAA Tournament!" But they beat an upper-echelon MAAC team, and it was a team that had beaten them four times over the past two seasons, including their first meeting this season. 
I've looked at virtually everything you can look at in the box score, and there isn't any category in which the Broncs dominated. That's what happens when you win by four points. 
As always, Rider shot the ball well: 46.4 percent. Niagara shot 40.6 percent, but to Rider's credit, the Purple Eagles shot only 34.2 percent in the second half. 
The Broncs also did a good job defending Charron Fisher in the second half, when he scored only 10 points. A word though about Fisher: in some ways, he's a lot like former St. Peter's star Keydren Clark, who once led the nation in scoring: he scores a ton of points, but a big reason for that is the incredible amount of shots he takes. 
That isn't to say Fisher isn't a great player, but after seeing him in person for the first time this year and only the third time in the last two years, I came away relatively unimpressed by a guy who came in averaging 26.7 points per game. 
He scored 30 points, but he needed 27 shots to score them -- almost a third of Niagara's shots. He was 1-for-7 from 3-point range and at least five or six of the shots he took had no chance of going in. A couple were from impossible angles and a couple didn't even hit the rim. Many of those times, he would have been far better off driving to the hoop or trying to find an open teammate. 
He also struggled from the free-throw line, where he made only three of seven attempts. That was surprising, since he came in shooting 80 percent from the line, and it was costly: many times when games are decided by such a small amount, free throws can make a big difference. 
On Rider's side, Jason and Ryan Thompson scored 18 and 16, respectively, but I thought the the biggest plus was that Harris Mansell also scored 16. Mansell came in averaging just a shade over 13 and still hadn't been shooting the ball the way he did last year. Last night he was 3-of-6 from behind the 3-point arc, 4-of-8 from the floor and 5-of-5 from the line, making two free throws with 1.6 seconds left to seal the win. 
Siena beat Marist last night in overtime, so the Saints remained just a game behind Rider heading into tomorrow's showdown at Alumni Gym. If the Broncs win that one, it's hard to imagine them not winning the MAAC regular season title. If they lose, all bets are off and we're in for a heck of a two-team race in the final four games. 

Friday, February 8, 2008

A fight for Friday

Rider hosts Niagara tonight at Alumni Gym in the first of two games this weekend that will shape the race for the MAAC regular season championship. 
Here's a link to the advance in today's paper, which features on Niagara's Charron Fisher, the second leading scorer in the country at 26.5 points per game. 
Fisher scored 36 points when Niagara beat Rider earlier this year in Buffalo, and the Broncs will have to make sure that doesn't happen again if they want to win their 10th straight. 
Tyrone Lewis, a sophomore averaging 16 points per game, is also a dangerous threat, and senior guard Stanley Hodge is a big part of their success as well. 
As well as Fisher has played, though, the consensus is that Jason Thompson is almost certain to be the MAAC player of the year. One person who voiced that opinion clearly during Wednesday's MAAC teleconference was Loyola coach Jimmy Pastos. 
"Fisher's a great player. I like Fisher," Pastos said. "But Jason Thompson is an NBA player. Jason Thompson is different than anything anyone else has, and that's what makes Rider special. Tommy (Dempsey) has done an outstanding job. He's the coach of the year for sure, but what he's done, Jason Thompson is a first-round pick. To get him to play at that high level every night, that's why I think Rider is the favorite. When you have an NBA player on your team it's different, and I see him as an NBA player." 
. . . 
And since I know a lot of TCHB readers are Fairfield fans, here's what Ed Cooley had to say about the play of his team, which  has been maddeningly inconsistent and for the most part, disappointing. 
"We're having kind of a strange year," Cooley said. "We've brought in five new kids, we're trying to blend them in with the young kids we had from last year. I'd call our team civil. We have about 17 different personalities as far as the way we're playing. I like the way we're playing right now.
" If we can have some more consistency defensively, I feel we can be a better unit. I think we addressed our ball-handling when we addressed our lineup to go with a smaller lineup. So I like the way we're playing right now, coming off a split in Buffalo and I think for those of you who followed our scores up there, we were heckle on one night and jeckle on the o other. I'm really proud of our kids. We're working hard. We're one of the younger teams, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the year because I think we're going to finish the season well."

Thursday, February 7, 2008

We're back

With national signing day, desk work every day and extra basketball stories to write, it's been a crazy week. That isn't an excuse for the lackluster blogging output on the TCHB; it's just an explanation for the four-day period during which the TCHB was quiet. 
But we're back and we have a lot to catch up on, such as: 
For reasons we'll get into some other time, it's not as easy as you might think to track down links to stories written just a couple of days ago. Because of that, the feature story I wrote earlier this week about Rider point guard Justin Robinson seems to have disappeared completely from cyberspace. If anyone finds it out there, please let me know and I'll put up a link. I also wrote a story on Jason Thompson's passing ability, I have a link, but right now it doesn't work, so I'll work on that. 
Tomorrow's paper will have an advance of the Rider-Niagara game featuring on the Purple Eagles' Charron Fisher. 
A few other things to touch on: 
  • There was no winner in the TCHB Super Bowl pick em. Not only did no one correctly guess the score; not one person even picked the Giants to win. 
  • I had to work last night in the office, but I taped the double header on ESPN, which featured UConn winning its sixth straight by beating Syracuse and Duke topping UNC in Dickie V's return to ESPN. 
  • The first and (I think) only MAAC teleconference was yesterday. Tomorrow's post (I swear, there really will be a post. I guarantee it.) will have some notes and quotes from the call, which seemed to have a decent amount of media participation. 
  • Rider is playing very good basketball lately. The Broncs are by far the hottest team in the MAAC and they look like the best team in the MAAC heading down the stretch. But I'd love to know who gave them a vote in the AP top 25 this week and what that person was thinking. If anyone can give me a logical argument that Rider is as good as or better than any team in the top 25 or any of the other teams receiving votes, I'd love to hear it. 
  • Quick plug for the Rutgers football blog, which is back up and running and has some notes on signing day. 
  • A couple of thoughts on baseball season, which is right around the corner: 1) The TCHB would like to go on the record with this now, as to ensure we're one of the earliest publications to officially make the prediction: the 2008 World Series champions will be the New York Mets. 
  •  2) For the first 21 years of my life I wore my Red Sox fandom on my sleeve. When I was a freshman in college I'm fairly certain I once went two weeks straight wearing Red Sox stuff to class every day without wearing the same shirt twice. When the Sox finally conquered the Yankees and then won the World Series in 2004, I couldn't have been happier. Now, though, while I'll still quietly root for the Sox, I have to tone it down. I'm going to be the Trentonian beat writer for the Trenton Thunder, the Double-A affiliate of ..... The New York Yankees. So it looks like all the Yankee knowledge I've stored up over the years from living in the tri-state area and (before moving here) going to Yankee Stadium with my grandmother (I can name every retired number without hesitation) will be put to some kind of use. Obviously, I'm going to be objective about everything, but in a way, this means I'm joining the extended Yankee family. I told this to a friend of mine the other day. His response? "Ruth, Gehrig, Dimmagio, Mantle, DOODY?" 

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The need to seed

As I was driving back from Marist last Wednesday on the New York Thruway, a thought entered my mind for the first time: If Rider goes to the NCAA tournament, what seed will they get? 
I'm not sure if it's a thought that has entered Tommy Dempsey's mind. Coaches downplay stuff like that so much that really, it's not even worth asking him. If he's thought about it, I'm sure he hasn't mentioned it to his team. Maybe he hasn't mentioned it to anyone. 
But it's now late enough in the season to have at least some kind of idea of which teams have a realistic chance to be in the Big Dance. And especially after the showing they put on yesterday at Siena the Broncs have to be considered the team to beat in the MAAC and the favorite to win the conference title. 
With that in mind, it was worth at least glancing at ESPN's Bracketology to see where Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Broncs going. And if Lunardi's latest brackets were dead on, they'd be going right back to the New York Thruway, as a 15 seed, to play Georgetown in the first round. 
That bracket was updated before yesterday's win, so I'm not sure if the next one will be any different, but since we -- unlike the Rider coaching staff -- have the freedom to speculate about stuff like this, here's what I think the possible scenarios are for seeding if the Broncs win the MAAC tournament and clinch their first NCAA bid in 14 years: 
  • This is a big-time longshot, but if the Broncs go undefeated for the rest of the season, including a nationally-televised victory over a quality opponent on Bracket Buster Saturday, they would finish the season 27-7  (including a 16-2 MAAC regular season) and enter the tournament on a 19-game winning streak. The 2003-04 Manhattan team that came within a couple shots of going to the Sweet 16 is the standard-bearer for success in the MAAC. That team entered the tournament with a 25-6 record, having gone 16-2 in the MAAC, then, courtesy of the double bye they received in the MAAC tournament, won two more games in the tournament. They had won 12 of 13 coming in, with their one loss in their final 13 games coming to Rider. They got a 12-seed. So I think if the Broncs win out, they'd have a slightly better resume than the Jaspers did and have a chance at an 11-seed. Not necessarily a good chance, but a chance nonetheless. 
  • If they lose one game the rest of the way and it's NOT the Bracket Buster game, I think a 12 seed is still likely. The reason the Bracket Buster is so important is that it proves the Broncs can beat the best teams in other conferences, instead of just beating up on the MAAC. If the selection committee feels the MAAC is a weak conference this year, it would likely penalize the Broncs heavily for losing that non-conference game. If they lose one game and it is the Bracketbuster, a 12 would be possible but a 13 might be a little more likely. 
  • If they lose two games the rest of the way, they wouldn't enter the tournament on quite they lose the claim to being one of the hottest teams in the country, but still go in playing very good basketball and with an impressive win total and RPI. A 13 would be possible but a 14 might be more likely. 
  • If they lose three games the rest of the way, I think their standing would be more or less the same as it was entering the Siena game, when they weren't the clear-cut best team in the MAAC. If that happens the situation would be similar to the one that led Joe Lundardi to give them the 15 seed. A 15 wold be likely with four additional losses too. 
  • If they somehow lose more than four games the rest of the way -- which would mean stumbling into the conference tournament but rebounding in Albany to get win it -- they'd be destined for an unwinnable game as a 16-seed. 
What do I think it the most likely scenario? With three tough games remaining on the MAAC schedule (Niagara, Siena, at Loyola), I'd say the most likely scenario is for them to keep playing extremely well but lose one of their final six conference games. Especially because the opponent is unknown, you'd have to say the Bracket Buster is a toss-up. If that happens -- purely speculative, I know -- they'd enter the tournament with 25 or 26 wins, which I think would get them either a 12 or a 13. 
Since we're free to daydream and speculate here at the TCHB, what do you guys think? What is realistically possible? What is likely? How would the tournament committee judge Rider? 

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Back upstate

Greetings from the Times Union Center, where Rider and Siena are set to battle for first place in the MAAC. 
If Marist has the loudest crowds in the MAAC, Siena certainly has the biggest. They block off all the seats behind the basket, forcing all the fans to the middle of the arena here, and word is the place is expected to be close to packed today, with a crowd of better than 6,000. 
Siena and the U of Albany (UConn fans remember the U of A as the 16 seed that gave the Huskies a run for their money in the first round of the 2006 NCAA tournament) are the only tickets in town aside from the Albany River Rats, and they take their college basketball here in Albany very seriously. 
There's some extra buzz around this game for two reasons: first, the winner will be in sole possession of first place in the MAAC. Second, it's on ESPN2, and that always adds a little flavor to MAAC games, which are seldom televised. 
It'd be hard to overstate the importance of this game. If the Broncs steal a win here, they'll be considered the favorite to win the MAAC, and will be off to a 2-0 start in their most difficult four game stretch of the season. 
That doesn't mean a loss is the end of the world, especially since they get a rematch with the Saints in eight days at Alumni Gym. But a win means a nine-game winning streak, a spot alone in first place, and all the confidence and momentum you could hope for returning home. 
If you're able to watch the game, enjoy; whether or not you are, the TCHB and tomorrow's paper will have plenty of analysis. 
Have a great Saturday.