Northern lights shine brightly for new-look CAA

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Towson Athletics

If you want to know which way the wind blows in the Colonial Athletic Association these days, open your ears. The league that rode Virginia-based schools like George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion to attention-grabbing Big Dance victories sounds very different these days.

For starters, Northeastern University pahked their cah in the yahd by winning 14 league games and claiming the regular-season crown. Right behind them at 13-5 was Maryland-based Towson, led by Massachusetts native Pat Skerry, who took a league doormat and turned it into a winner in one season. New guy Joe Mihalich hopes to work similar magic in his debut season at Hofstra, a pronouncement he delivers in the hard-bitten tones of a big city police detective.

“When I got here, there were four players on the team,” Mihalich told NBC Sports via phone. “That was the bad news and the good news. I had to go out and get eight guys all at once, but I was able to get my guys. The kind of guys you need to get this thing turned around.”

(MORE: Click here to read NBCSports.com’s CAA Preview)

It’s common to hear a coach make upbeat noises when he takes over a moribund program, but that kind of confidence seems strangely warranted in the new CAA. Pat Skerry’s Towson team was built along similar lines, taking on players various and sundry in an attempt to improve on 2012’s 1-31 mark. Clearly, five wins would have counted as progress. Skerry’s team went out and won 18, despite the fact that APR missteps from the prior administration had his program on a postseason ban.

“It took a while, but they did a good job of buying in,” Skerry said, also via phone. “We didn’t talk about the ban, just about trying to get better each day. Maybe it wasn’t fair, but they handled it. Pride was the key piece.”

The Tigers are entering this season with much higher expectations, hoping to ride reigning CAA Player of the Year Jerelle Benimon to an NCAA berth. Skerry has surrounded his breakout star – a Georgetown transfer – with several complementary pieces.

“Jerome (Hairston) was on the All-Rookie team last year and he’s a lead guard who can score the ball,” Skerry said. “Timajh Parker will step right in for us this year, and our transfer from Vermont, Four McGlynn, is still a sophomore and he’s a very good shooter.”

In addition to the dramatic uptick in talent and team cohesion, Skerry is excited about the possibilities presented by SECU arena, the new $72 million home base for Tiger basketball. His team’s bright future was built brick-by-brick, quite literally.

To add a cherry on the sundae, the CAA tournament, long anchored in the Richmond Coliseum, has migrated to Baltimore this season. With Virginia-based founding members George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU realigned out of the conference, the shift makes some geographical sense.

Skerry acknowledges that the northern contingent: Towson, Delaware, Drexel and Northeastern in particular, stand to benefit from the changes. But he scoffs at the notion that the power will easily shift his direction.

“We added Charleston as well, and they beat our brains in last year,” Skerry said. “Elon’s going to be very good (in 2014), and James Madison are the reigning champs. We’ve got our hands full.”

Winning the league is, honestly, considered little more than a first step in the CAA, thanks to a rich history of giant-killing in the NCAA tournament.

source: AP
Joe Mihalich embraces the challenge of turning Hofstra around.

“We had our coaches meeting a few months back and one of the other coaches said ‘Hey, we’ve seen teams come out of this conference and be incredibly successful, get to the Final Four,'” said Hofstra’s Mihalich. “‘Who’s going to be the next VCU or George Mason?’ I do believe that somebody can do that.”

It may not be Mihalich this year, though he made strong moves to stabilize the Pride’s roster in both the short and long term. Hofstra added graduate students Dion Nesmith (formerly at Monmouth) and Zeke Upshaw (Illinois State) to serve as one-year elder statesmen, signed three skilled freshmen and let his four holdovers show them the ropes. Another layer of known quantities will debut next season, when Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley – who followed Mihalich from his last posting at Niagara – and former SMU guard Brian Bernardi are eligible to suit up.

Neither coach thinks it will be easy to seize a title in a league that hasn’t seen an auto-bid issued from north of the Mason-Dixon line since before the turn of the millennium.

“As John Chaney used to say, for us to win this year, we need the two women in our lives to be there for us,” Mihalich joked. “Mother Nature and Lady Luck. We’ve got to hope a lot of things break our way.”

Skerry, in a decidedly better place than last year, concurred.

“Make no mistake about it, winning is really hard,” the Massachusetts native said with a chuckle. “I think Doc Rivers said that.”

That being said…

“We’ve got a chance to be good. We’re not hiding from that.”

Top 2018 recruit R.J. Barrett names final five schools

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A top player in 2018 is down to five schools.

R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Monteverde Academy in Florida, announced Wednesday he’ll consider Arizona, Duke, Michigan, Oregon and Kentucky as his college destination.

Barrett is among those in the mix for the top spot in his class now with Marvin Bagley III reclassifying to 2017 this week and committing to Duke. He starred in Canada’s run to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships this summer, dropping 38 points on Team USA in a shocking semifinals win for the Canadians, who went on to defeat Italy in the finals. He averaged 21.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.6 rebounds per game during the event.

The schools to make the cut for certainly are of little surprise. They’re among the biggest brands in basketball and have been among the recruiting elites for years.

Barrett was originally part of the 2019 class, but decided to reclassify earlier this summer.”Really, it’s been a thought of mine for the last year,” Barrett wrote for USA TODAY, “but I wanted to wait and see how the season would go and how school would go and when everything went well it became more and more real so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.

“I’m right on track to graduate in 2018 and academically everything is great.”

 

Big Ten reveals conference schedule with early-December games

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We knew it was coming, but seeing it in black-and-white is still plenty jarring.
The Big Ten is going to play conference games in early December.

The league announced its full conference schedule Wednesday, unveiling 14 first-week-of-December games ahead of nearly a month-long hiatus before Big Ten play picks up again in January.

It’s a move that was forced after the Big Ten decided it needed to expand its east coast presence after its expansion to Rutgers and Maryland, and will be playing its conference tournament on the eastern seaboard for the second-consecutive year, this time at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The problem with MSG is that the Big East hosts its annual conference tournament there, meaning the B1G will have to play its tournament a week early, March 1-4. That means a week less of January, February and March for the conference to play its 18 league games. Thus the early December start. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster broke down the situation in even more detail – and bite – last spring here.

Every team in the league will play both a home and a road game during that league’s first week, a soft opening if you will. Whether teams like the change or not will likely come down to circumstance  – what players they have injured or suspended, what players their opponents have injured or suspended and any other host of issues, but it’s hard to believe with all things being equal, Big Ten coaches will like this move. They’re playing extremely meaningful league games less than three weeks into the season with other conferences getting nearly 2 months of preparation before facing their toughest slate of games.

The B1G, though, will have more favorable and interesting games – even if they’re programmed against college football championship games (including their own) – that week than any other conference can boast, which likely means some nice TV ratings. Given why this change is being made, that’s probably the priority anyway.

South Carolina adds Maine grad-transfer Myers

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South Carolina is adding some immediate help in its follow-up season to a Final Four run.

Wesley Myers, a graduate transfer from Maine, is joining the Gamecocks’ program, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein.

The 6-foot-2 guard gives Frank Martin’s team an instant infusion of scoring as they look to replace SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. Myers 16.9 points per game last year on 43.7 percent shooting, including a 34.3 percent mark from 3-point range.

He’s the second grad-transfer Martin has picked up this offseason, joining Florida Atlantic’s Frank Booker. The pair should help ease the transition from last year’s success to a much less experienced team that returns just a pair of starters.

Myers, though, doesn’t arrive in Columbia without some notable history.

Last year, after transferring to Maine from Niagara, was suspended after an altercation with a teammate, according to reports. He and teammate Marko Pirovic argued over locker room music, and the alleged ensuing altercation left Pirovic with a broken jaw, according to reports. Three other Maine players were suspended after telling a team athletic trainer that Pirovic had injured himself in a fall in the shower. Pirovic declined to press charges.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett: ‘We believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent’

Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP
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Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally spoke out on last weekend’s clash between white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and counter-protesters that resulted in the deaths of a 32-year old woman named Heather Heyer and two police officers involved in a helicopter crash:

Bennett does not exactly take a hard-line stance — the message is more about healing within the community and how much he loves his current hometown than it is about condemning what happened — but he does say “we believe in diversity and unity to its fullest extent.”

Kyle Guy, a sophomore on the Virginia roster, had this to say on Sunday:

UNC academic case finally reaches NCAA infractions hearing

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It has taken more than two years for North Carolina to appear before an NCAA infractions committee panel since initially being charged with five top-level violations amid its long-running academic scandal.

The two-day hearing begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee. The panel will ultimately determine whether the school faces penalties that could include fines, probation or vacated wins and championships, making this a major step toward resolution in an oft-delayed case filled with starts, stops and twice-rewritten charges.

“The hearing stage, no matter what size of a case, it’s a big deal to any university,” said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. “I’ve been a part of what you’d consider small cases, I’ve been a part of one of the largest cases. And trust me: The client feels the same anxiousness and apprehension no matter what size of a case it is.

“But I can definitely imagine with North Carolina, this is definitely a momentous occasion.”

The charges include lack of institutional control in a case tied to irregular courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The case is an offshoot of a 2010 football probe, with the NCAA reopening an investigation in summer 2014, filing charges in May 2015, revising them in April 2016 and then again in December.

The panel, which would typically issue a ruling weeks to months later, is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

UNC’s representatives were seen arriving for the closed-door hearing at a Nashville hotel Wednesday morning. The contingent included athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. Jan Boxill and Deborah Crowder, two former UNC employees charged individually in the case, were also seen with their attorneys.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in a broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor providing improper assistance on assignments.

Fedora wasn’t working at UNC during the time in question.

“There’s nothing that I can add to what happened before I ever got here,” Fedora said last week. “But I’m there for support. I think me being there is important — not only for the NCAA but the university — that it shows compliance is important to me and our program.”

The focus is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades. In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Keorneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority. In a May filing , the school stated it “fundamentally believes that the matters at issue here were of an academic nature” and don’t involve NCAA bylaws.

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

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