Blogger Spotlight: George Mason’s rolling — is it ’06 all over again?

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From Sports Illustrated to ESPN, it seems everyone’s talking about George Mason basketball.

The Patriots have the nation’s longest winning streak (12), are close to wrapping up the Colonial Athletic Association crown and have a team capable of making another run through the NCAA tournament. Maybe even the Final Four again. They could make it 13 with a win Saturday against Northern Iowa in this year’s BracketBuster weekend.

How are the Patriots doing it? For that, I turned to Ryan Kish of georgemasonbasketball.blogspot for this week’s Blogger Spotlight. We talked about this year’s Mason squad, ’06 and more.

BONUS Blogger Spotlight! BracketBusters weekend seemed like a good time to amp up the non-BCS coverage, so come back in an hour when I post today’s second spotlight featuring Kyle Whelliston of The Mid-Majority.

Q: George Mason has won 12 straight games, he last two coming against a rival and the CAA’s second-place team. To say things are going well would be a massive understatement, right?

A: That would be correct Mike. Not only are things going well for Jim Larranaga and the Patriots but they are making their case nationally as one of the better teams not just among mid-majors but among the country. This 12 game streak is a new school record and they averaged over a 17 point margin of victory during it, something no other team in the country could boast about. They are executing to near perfection on both ends of the court on a nightly basis and it’s beginning to get them national recognition.

Q: Life’s good for the CAA in general right now as well. George Mason’s thriving, VCU and ODU are usually mentioned as NCAA tourney contenders and it seems Charles Jenkins does something ridiculous every other game. How would you rate the conference’s overall play and chances to win a few ncaa tourney games?

A: Hands down this is one of the best years we have seen from the CAA and that includes the 2006 season. As a whole they have done their work in the out of conference games and collectively done better than a few of the major conferences. Here’s an example from UNCW beat writer Brian Mull: “James Madison, the sixth place team in the CAA has 6 wins vs. the RPI top 100. Arizona, the first place team in the Pac 10, has 5“. Can they translate that into NCAA tournament wins? I think so because they have been creating havoc in the brackets almost on a yearly basis now between George Mason’s run in ’06, VCU taking down Duke in ’07, and ODU knocking off Notre Dame last year. Certainly it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the CAA get some NCAA tournament wins and I think if they get two squads in this year there is a very good chance one of them could reach the Sweet 16.

Q: The Patriots are no stranger to March wins, either. For those who haven’t seen this year’s team yet — or haven’t watched he hilarious video produced by the athletic department, describe this season’s mason team.

A: This year’s squad is very balanced, versatile and efficient. Jim Larranaga preaches team defense first and foremost however it took awhile for this younger group to buy into it. What we are seeing now is the resulting affects of the team coming together and making the consistent efforts on defense. It can be suffocating at times and they are excellent in forcing other teams into taking shots they are not comfortable with. Offensively they were always a strong group but not since Larranaga set a per-game goal of 16 assists per contest did things really start to take off. When they record 16 or more assists in a game they are 12-0 this season. Their sharing of the ball and their balance is what makes them so dangerous and difficult to defend. On any given night you could have one out of 5 or 6 guys score 15-20 points on you.

Q: Given that Mason’s 2006 Final Four team essentially played five guys, that depth and overall balance might come as a shock to some. But that’s been Larranaga’s style the last few years, hasn’t it? He can rely on Cam Long, Ryan Pearson or Luke Hancock for a chunk of minutes but he doesn’t have to.

A: Larranaga has some really capable guys on the bench but you are correct that he relies heavily on his starters this season like did in 2006. In the beginning of the season he did state publically that he didn’t have much faith in some of the reserve player’s efforts on defense. They all were effective scorers but they weren’t quite buying into the team defensive comcept that he preaches. Even when they are playing better on defense you will often see Larranaga continue to leave in his starters late in the game. It can be puzzling to fans at times but like you said it’s just his style.

Q: Still. Is there one indispensible player?

A: As good as forward Ryan Pearson has been, I’d still have to say that senior guard Cam Long is the most indispensible play on this team. His ability to be a floor general has really helped this team remain poised no matter what situation they have found themselves in. Aside from his leadership Long makes the guys around him better whenever he is on court and although there is a lot of talent on his team you can’t say that about any of the others.

Q: Saturday’s game against Northern Iowa is a Cinderella showdown of sorts. The Panthers beat No. 1 seed Kansas in last year’s NCAA tournament, then lost in the Sweet 16. Yet that doesn’t compare to Mason’s ’06 run, right? Not only did you guys beat a 1 seed (UConn), you took down the reigning champs and another Final Four team in Michigan State.

A: You sound like a promo commercial for ESPN’s BracketBuster weekend. I think both runs by each team were great for college basketball and for each schools. It did end up getting both of them on the cover of Sports Illustrated and proved that the CAA and MVC can produce strong NCAA tournament teams. Although I think the whole BracketBusters idea is a bit of an insult to mid-major schools I still enjoy the idea of watching a “Battle of the Cinderellas” and another good CAA vs MVC match-up.

Q: I did come off as a bit of shill, didn’t I? Couldn’t be helped. Non-conference matchups like this don’t happen often because there’s often nothing to gain from it for a program like Mason. In that regard, it just reinforces how rigged the game is against the non-BCS schools, right?

A: Scheduling is one of the many hardships for non-BCS schools like George Mason and while ESPN Bracketbusters is a nice touch to get schools another non-conference game opponent but it’s still a broken system.  George Mason is in the area of two other prominent BCS schools in Maryland and Georgetown yet you won’t find them on past schedules due to the Patriot’s recent success.  I get why these schools don’t want to schedule the mid-majors but I just wish it wasn’t always their decision.

Q: Fondest memory of that ’06 Final Four run?

A: As a senior at George Mason that year I would have to say watching them take down UConn at the Verizon Center in DC and then running through the streets telling every homeless person the final score. I’ll never forget the atmosphere that day and the thought that our school was American’s team.

Q: Love your blog. How’d you get into it? Judging by your first post, the ’06 run had something to do with it.

A: I was a freshman at George Mason in 2002 and fell in love with the basketball team and the defensive-minded head coach in Jim Larranaga. Watching them take down Tennessee at the Patriot Center in 2004 NIT was one of my fondest memories of following the team. Even after that it was still rare to find people to talk to about the team or find articles online. But after the Final Four run in 2006 there was an influx of media, students, alumni, and other fans searching for reliable news and updates about the team. I wasn’t really happy with the athletic department website so I started a blog as just a place to discuss the team. I just loved sharing my views on the team and was excited that there was finally a larger and more interested fan base for the team.

Q: How has your blogging style changed through the years? You incorporate a little of everything, from Q&As, to videos, link roundups and graphs of the Four Factors. Has that always been the case?

A: My blogging has drastically evolved. I used to just write my thoughts after a game, now I try to post as much content I can about George Mason basketball whether it be about recruiting, scheduling or player news.  As the site got more popular I slowly started to integrate the things you listed.  New tools seem to pop up all the time for bloggers and always enjoy integrating new features. 

Q: Moment of truth: How do the Patriots finish this season?

A: It’s hard to bet against a team like this who is so hot right now. I think they have done enough to warrant an NCAA tournament bid regardless of what happens in the CAA tournament but the real question is whether their dominance in the CAA will translate into wins in March? Usually teams riding a hot streak do well in the tournament and I think the Patriots are more than capable of winning some games at the big dance this year. I think their balance and versatility will take them far and surprise a high seeded team. Anything can happen but I wouldn’t want to seeded in the same region as George Mason if I’m an opposing head coach.

You can find Ryan’s blog at georgemasonbasketball.blogspot.com and follow him on twitter @gmuhoops.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.