Markel Starks is out to prove people wrong for overlooking him, Georgetown this year

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source: AP
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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — McDonough Memorial Gymnasium is a relic, a 2,500 seat “arena” that was built on Georgetown’s campus back in the early 1950s. Complete with bleacher seating and a row of doors 20 feet from the baseline, McDonough harkens back to the days before anyone on the Hilltop had heard of John Thompson Jr. or Hoya Paranoia. The gym feels much more like a place to catch a high school game than a Big East contest.

These days, McDonough is generally reserved for volleyball and women’s basketball while the men play across town at the Verizon Center, but it’s still where John Thompson III hosts practice. And it’s still where Georgetown raises banners. When you walk into McDonough and look up at the rafters on your right, you’ll those banners, commemorating trips to the NCAA tournament.

And nothing else.

Since the Hoyas made the 2007 Final Four, Georgetown has gone 2-5 in the NCAA tournament, failing to make it past the first weekend in each of their trips. Making matters worse is the fact that the Hoyas have lost to a team with a double-digit seed in each of those tournament trips: No. 10 Davidson in 2008, No. 14 Ohio in 2010, No. 11 VCU in 2011, No. 11 N.C. State in 2012. It culminated this past season with Georgetown’s most embarrassing loss yet, a whooping at the hands of No. 15 Florida-Gulf Coast, an upset that Georgetown has spent all offseason hearing about.

Being the reason a Cinderella becomes the biggest story in sports is not pleasant.

Gaining a reputation as the trendy upset pick in March is not a legacy to boast about.

(MORE: Check out the NBCSports.com Big East Preview. Where does Georgetown rank?)

“I’m sick of looking up at those banners, not having any letters under it,” said senior point guard Markel Starks. “I have high expectations, not only for myself, but for this team. Every day I have to come in here and look up there, and there’s nothing there. So for me, as a leader of this team, it’s heartbreaking.”

It’s a trend that Starks, who was named to the Preseason All-Big East team, has spent all offseason stewing over. He’ll be a senior this season. His college basketball career is over this spring, and the last thing he wants is for his career to come to a close with yet another upset early in the tournament.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Starks said. “I’ve had fun, through the good and the bad, and I want this senior year to be a good one. But when I think of guys that I really looked up to, the guys that came before me: Roy Hibbert, out in the second round. Chris Wright, out in the first round. Not to take anything away from their career, but I want to leave a legacy. I want to leave on a positive note.”

“Deep in the Big Dance. That’s what it’s about.”

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Georgetown is known for the big men they produce. Under the elder Thompson, those bigs were hall of famers like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Under JT3, we’ve seem names like Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe and Otto Porter work their way into the first round of the NBA Draft. Even Henry Sims managed to play his way onto an NBA roster.

The Hoyas may have another in their midst this season, as UCLA transfer Josh Smith has been granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. He’ll be playing on Friday, when the Hoyas take on Oregon at Camp Humphreys in South Korea, which gives JT3 an all-american caliber talent in the post if Smith is capable of playing 25 minutes a night.

The big men get most of the attention because of their success at the professional level, but for the Hoyas, it’s just as important for them to have excellent guard play as it is for them to have NBA players in the post. Think about the best Hoyas teams in recent seasons: Hibbert and Green had Jonathon Wallace. Monroe had Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. Sims had Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson.

That’s the role that Starks will play, and he’s talented enough to thrive as one of Georgetown’s primary offensive weapons.

Hell, if you ask him, he may tell you that he’s the best point guard in the country.

“It’s an honor, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s humbling. I feel like I had an outstanding year,” Starks said of receiving all-Big East honors and being named to the Cousy Watch list. “I want to win that award. It’s one of my goals. I haven’t received a lot of the other point guard accolades that I think I should have. I’m ready to check some names off this year. People need to know who I am.”

Starks made sure to run down the public relations checklist, saying that he didn’t want to take anything away from other talented point guards in the Big East and across the country, but having a conversation with him, it’s quite clear that he truly does have the confidence that he can go up against — and outplay — any point guard in the country. The fact that he more than held his own at the Kyrie Irving Point Guard Skills Academy back in June only solidified that believe.

At that camp, Starks went up against the likes of Kevin Pangos, Jahii Carson, Shabazz Napier, Semaj Christon, Justin Cobbs and even Irving. I was there for part of it. Starks more than belonged on that court; there were times that he thrived.

“Those guys deserve all the accolades that they get. But I can play, too. I can really play, too,” he said. “At times, you may not be able to see everything that I can do, but at the camps, I feel like that I outplayed a lot of the guys that get top level accolades. I’ll see some of those guys this year, and that’s where I want to do my talking.”

But it was a conversation with one of those point guards that has really kept things in perspective for Starks. He had a chance to talk with Aaron Craft, the Ohio State point guard that makes up for what he lacks in physical tools and natural scoring ability with leadership, toughness and defensive.

Most importantly, Starks said, Craft’s teams have played deep into March. He’s made a Sweet 16, a Final Four and an Elite 8, and could very well make it that far once again this season.

“Craft gets a lot of [press] because he’s a winner,” Starks said. “He’s a flat-out winner.”

Starks wants to prove that he belongs in the same conversation as the best point guards in the country. He wants to make people look silly for overlooking him. He wants to make us regret not including him on this list of top 20 point guards. He wants to put up the points and hand out the assists and throw the no-look passes and be the big man on campus.

Every athlete does.

But he also knows that will only get you so far if you can’t win when it counts.

“Doesn’t matter what you do individually, if you’re not winning?” Starks said. “You have to win ball-games. On the big stage. I can sit here and ramble on, but I gotta do it in the big lights. It’s not just big games during the season, it’s in the dance.”

VIDEO: Jordan Bell’s spectacular chase-down block

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Oregon big man Jordan Bell has been the best player on the floor for the Ducks against Kansas, totally changing the way that Kansas wants to play with his defense.

As of the time of this posting, he had nine points, 11 boards, seven blocks and three assists, but his impact is not solely limited to the shots he swatted — every Kansas player that gets into the lane is very aware of the fact that Bell is lurking around the rim.

The thought of him changes shots.

The best block he’s had today came midway through the second half, when he snuffed out a dunk attempt from Landen Lucas with an impressive chase-down block:

No. 1 Gonzaga reaches first Final Four with win over No. 11 Xavier

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It took 18 long years, but after Gonzaga exploded onto the national scene with a Cinderella run that came one possession short of the Final Four in 1999, after the program followed up that run with back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, after 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament marred by moments of unfathomable heartbreak, the nation’s preeminent mid-major success story is finally headed to the Final Four.

What will the ‘Gonzaga is overrated’ crowd say now?

Armed with a roster that included a pair of blue-chip guards in their back court, a trio of high-major transfers and a McDonald’s All-American and future first round pick coming off the bench, Mark Few knocked off No. 11 seed Xavier, 83-59, on Saturday night to win the West Region and punch his first ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, eight boards and four assists and Johnathan Williams III, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, added 19 points and nine boards as Gonzaga buried 12 threes and jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a game that never felt like it was in doubt.

And with that, the monkey on Mark Few’s back is now gone.

“It means everything that we could deliver for guys like this,” Mark Few said after the game. Few had been the winningest NCAA tournament coach without a Final Four on his résumé. “They believed in us when they came. This is what we wanted to do and set out to do, and these guys were unbelievable. I could not be happier for all these guys, all our former players and all of Zag Nation.”

Whether or not that monkey was deserved is a fair question to ask. Gonzaga has had an incredible amount of success in the NCAA tournament. They’ve won at least one game in 16 of the 19 NCAA tournaments, including this year, that they’ve been a part of, including five of the six years in which they were a double-digit seed. In 13 of the previous 18 NCAA tournaments they played in, they advanced as far or further than their seed suggested they should have. Only five times did they lose to a team that was seeded lower than them. They’ve won 17 WCC regular season titles and 15 WCC tournament titles during that span.

What they’ve done, the consistency of the success that they’ve had, is not something done easily.

And it’s not something that should be overlooked when you consider where this program was in the early 90s. When Few was hired as an assistant coach in 1990, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. The program, located in Spokane, Washington, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, had never been to an NCAA tournament. The school didn’t even have a weight room for the team.

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

“Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg earlier this week. “Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.”

Within five years, Gonzaga was in the NCAA tournament. Within nine years, they had won the league and reached the Elite 8. Within 15 years, the school opened up a sparkling, $25-million, 6,000-seat arena, chartering flights for road games and recruiting trips.

Today, Gonzaga is arguably a top ten program in the sport

It is, quite literally, college basketball’s best rags-to-riches story.

They shouldn’t need this to justify their standing in the sport. Few shouldn’t need this to legitimize himself as something more than a coach feasting on a conference that can’t compete.

“My legacy is I guess built on a lot of other things,” Few said on Friday. “It’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel about they were treated and coached and developed and all that.”

“I’m schlepping along right now like vastly far behind my father who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man. He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know. And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at.”

But that’s not how our sport works.

March means everything.

If you can’t win on the biggest stage, if you don’t have that level of success when all eyes turn to college basketball, then everything you did during the previous four months is written off.

It’s not fair.

But that’s just how it is.

And now, nearly two decades removed from their introduction into the national consciousness, Gonzaga’s detractors no longer have that leg to stand on.

WATCH: Xavier scores a basket off the ground, Macura’s buzzer-beater waved off

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Xavier, the No. 11 seed in the West region, needed a few break to go its way in order to stay with top-seeded Gonzaga in the first half of the Elite Eight matchup from San Jose on Saturday evening.

Just before halftime, the Musketeers got the ball to bounce their way. Literally. Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams and Xavier’s RaShid Gaston battled for a rebound. Williams inadvertently spiked the ball off the basket, off himself and off the backboard for a two-board bucket for Xavier.

The bucket was awarded to Gaston. It was two of Gaston’s five first half points.

Less than 30 seconds later, J.P. Macura tried to top Gaston’s unlikely field goal with a bank shot of his own. Following a bucket from Nigel Williams-Goss, Macura heaved a three-quarters court at the buzzer. However, after reviewing the play, it was waved off.

The Zags led 49-39 entering halftime.

Mike White and Frank Martin square off for a Final Four berth, as unlikely as it may be

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NEW YORK — Frank Martin is at South Carolina for one reason: He and his boss did not get along when he was at Kansas State.

There were other factors at play — South Carolina had an opening, he was offered a raise, he is back on the East Coast — but at the end of the day, Frank Martin is probably still coaching in Manhattan, Kansas, if his athletic director hadn’t forced him to hold star forward Jamar Samuels out of a second round NCAA tournament game against No. 1 seed Syracuse in 2012 after accepting a wire transfer of $200 from his former AAU coach.

“Please don’t ask me any questions on it,” Martin said after the game, his displeasure over the decision hidden about as well as Gregg Popovich hides his disdain for sideline reporters. “Because I had nothing to do with the decision. Any questions pertaining to this matter, please direct to John Currie, my boss.”

Why else would Martin, who had been to four NCAA tournaments and an Elite 8 in five years as the head coach of the Wildcats, jump ship for a program that had been to four NCAA tournaments since 1974 and had never won back-to-back NCAA tournament games? When the Gamecocks hired Martin, they were coming off a 10-win season where they finished dead last in the SEC.

It wasn’t exactly a destination job when Martin took over.

And Mike White may have had it worse at Florida.

Regardless of the sport, the hardest thing to do in coaching is to be the guy that replaces The Guy. Billy Donovan, with his two national titles and four Final Fours and ten total SEC championships, was unequivocally The Guy. Those are the shoes that White, who had never been coached an NCAA tournament game until he squared off with East Tennessee State on March 16th of this year, had to fill.

On Sunday night, in the unlikeliest region of this NCAA tournament, one of those two men will rise to the pinnacle of their profession, winning their way to the Final Four, a place not everyone thought was a possible when they signed their contracts.


(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

If Frank Martin didn’t win this season, if he had missed the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season after taking over in Columbia, it would have been time for us to start wondering just how long he was going to last.

He didn’t save his job by winning 25 games and earning a No. 7 seed on Selection Sunday, but he certainly kept himself from having to answer some tough questions heading into next season. Going five years without a tournament appearance at a Power 5 school is not the best way to earn a contract extension, even at a school like South Carolina, which doesn’t exactly have much in the way of basketball tradition.

“I dreamt of South Carolina being in this moment,” Martin said. “But I don’t go about my job every day acting like we’re getting there right now, this is the day, this is the year.”

The difference now is that this may actually be the year for the Gamecocks, but it certainly didn’t look that way a month ago, when, as Martin puts it, “we slipped a little bit.” It started with a four-overtime home loss to Alabama where the Gamecocks mustered all of 86 points. They would go on to lose three of their next four games and entered the NCAA tournament having lost six of their last nine games, their offensive efficiency dipping into the 150s on KenPom.

Put another way, South Carolina didn’t have the look of a team that was getting ready to take the college basketball world by storm.

They had the look, frankly, of every SEC basketball program not named Kentucky or Florida: Good enough to make noise in their league but not good enough to put together a run in a tournament featuring the best basketball programs in the sport. That characterization of #SECBasketballFever may not be fair, but it’s the truth. There’s a reason everyone is surprised by the presence of three SEC programs in the Elite 8, that the league is one win from Kentucky away from fielding half of the Final Four, and it’s not because the conference has made a habit of outperforming their already-middling expectations.

Florida, however, doesn’t fall into that same category, and that’s part of the reason that White was is such a difficult spot when he took the job over. The Gators have won national titles. They were in the Final Four in 2014; senior point guard Kasey Hill played in that game. They expect to win in Gainesville, even if they only pay attention to those wins once football season comes to a close, and Donovan is the one to thank for that.

“I always said ‘poor guy,'” Martin joked. “Whoever replaces Billy. Oh my God, poor guy.”

To his credit, White says that he hasn’t thought about the bigger picture, what it means to be replacing a future Hall of Famer, what it means to be able to maintain the success of a program with annual Final Four aspirations. The job is the job, whether you’re replacing a guy that got fired or a guy that left to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

He does, however, concede that the job wasn’t quite as easy as it may seem from the outside. Before he was even introduced as Florida head coach, White got Donovan on the phone to talk about the team that was about to be his, and Donovan told him precisely what he was going to be dealing with.

“I inherited a group that struggled under a Hall of Famer, that Coach Donovan struggled with,” White said, “and told me that I would struggle with, in terms of some entitlement and some immaturity.”

“They have come a long way. We have developed, our guys have developed, they have really matured. Some of it is natural, some of it is just natural maturity because sophomores are juniors now and juniors are seniors. … And then some of it is a little bit abnormal.”

“Mike’s been unreal,” Martin said. “He’s got those guys playing through his eyes. That’s powerful stuff.”

The result is that just two years into his tenure with the Gators and in the first NCAA tournament that he’s ever been a part of, White has a chance to get to his first Final Four.

Just like Martin.

And on Sunday, one of them will be headed for Phoenix.

As unlikely as it may be.

Indiana hires Dayton head coach Archie Miller

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Indiana is expected to hire Dayton head coach Archie Miller, the school announced.

The deal will be for seven years, according to The Vertical. Miller had spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Dayton, getting to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Elite 8 in 2014, while winning the last two Atlantic 10 regular season titles.

Miller had been targeted by seemingly every high major program with an opening since he reached the Elite 8, but similar to Shaka Smart when he left VCU, Miller simply waited for the right job to come long.

Indiana is the right job.

There had been some speculation that Miller wouldn’t want to take Indiana, that his dream job is Ohio State and that the idea of coaching in a fishbowl like Bloomington is not something that would be all that appealing to him. But Indiana is an elite job. It’s the kind of opening that happens once every four or five years, and if Miller had said no to the Hoosiers now, it’s very possible that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come along for years, if ever.

This hire is surprising, not because it’s the wrong hire — I think they got this right — but because Indiana actually made the right decision.

The overwhelming sentiment since Tom Crean was fired was that UCLA head coach Steve Alford would be named the next head coach at Indiana because the Hoosiers wanted an “Indiana Guy”. Alford was born in New Castle, he played at IU for Bobby Knight, he won a national title with the program. The goal was to get the Indiana fan base back, a fan base that was so estranged from the program that Indiana had to play an NIT game on the road as a higher seed because they were reportedly afraid of allowing ESPN’s cameras to see the empty seats.

But just because a hire appeases the fans doesn’t make it the right hire.

Miller was the right hire.

If they really want to get the fans back, winning is the best way to do it. Archie is as good of a bet to win at Indiana as anyone.