Blogger Spotlight: Talking NY hoops with Big Apple Buckets

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Chicago-area college basketball hoops fans got some bad news this spring.

John Templon, the guy behind Chicago College Basketball, moved back to New York. But it was bad news for just a minute. Chris Burrows replaced him in Chicago – and John began a new blog, focusing on the 11 NY-area teams.

And, as anyone who’s read John’s work at ChicagoNow or at Rush the Court, it’s great stuff. So who better to feature in the latest Blogger Spotlight?

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Q: You recently moved from Chicago to New York, which probably feels like a completely different world in terms of college hoops. How’s it feel to be back to your roots and the NYC metro area? And have you gotten plugged into that college hoops scene yet?

A: I’m sort of doing the transition between Chicago and New York right now. It’s great to be heading back home. The tri-state area has always been where I feel most comfortable and I’m excited to be moving back. The two hoops scenes are radically different. One thing I’ve noticed is that both have a strong focus on high school prospects. There’s a lot of basketball talent in both cities that’s getting away. During my three seasons in Chicago I didn’t see a single NCAA Tournament team, I’m hoping that changes in NYC.

The breadth of the New York scene is incredible. That’s why I’ve decided to limit myself to 11 college basketball teams around the city that fall into the “mid-major” category. Maybe it’s because I grew up with season tickets to Princeton in the 1990’s, but I think that level of basketball has some great untold stories.

Q: The move also meant switching from Chicago Now to a new blog, Big Apple Buckets. How’s the response been thus far?

A: The response has been great considering the fact that I started right as college basketball season was ending. Blog traffic for a college basketball blog typically peaks right around Selection Sunday. Well, a month after that I decided to open up shop. Considering the circumstances it has been an excellent experience thus far. My most popular posts were my look at Sydney Johnson’s move from Princeton to Fairfield and a look at all of prep school Northfield Mount Hermon’s Ivy League connections.

Overall though, things seem to be going as planned. Traffic is growing steadily. (Now if I could get my new Twitter account to do the same.) Starting when I did has given me a chance to sort of get back in touch and learn about the leagues I might not know as much about. While I’ve followed the Ivy League since the age of six, some of the others like the CAA and America East are pretty new to me. Now I have the chance to really dig into the numbers and stories of those conferences without the pressure of writing a ton every day.

Q: Any big projects in the works for summer? I always find I have to start mine before June otherwise the summer just slips away and all this stuff I envisioned just kinda never happens…

A: I really want to look at player development at the mid-major level this summer. Collecting the data for the study is going to be the toughest part and I just need to get started. But the plan is to look at how players go through their careers at schools in the conferences that are typically the top ones right outside the seven major conferences in terms of conference strength (C-USA, MVC, WCC, CAA and Horizon League).

I’ve always found myself wondering if there’s the potential for a player like Hofstra’s Mike Moore to really burst out following the graduation of a star player like Charles Jenkins and I’m hoping this database will help me answer those questions in the future.

Q: So you’re more than doubling your Chicago workload with number of teams? You’re going to be busy watching teams that should have more success. How do you ensure a team like St. John’s doesn’t overshadow everything in terms of coverage? That’d be the easy temptation given all the talent Steve Lavin’s bringing in.

A: Doubling the teams is going to be quite the challenge. I attended 49 games live last season and wrote about dozens more while over at ChicagoNow. I really think that going to live games helps you get a feel for the fans and the atmosphere around the team. With twice as many teams to cover I’m not exactly sure what my plan is going to be, I’ll start scheduling in September with the games I definitely want to hit and the fact that the Ivy League and MAAC regularly play on Friday nights is definitely going to help. I’m hoping to get up to around 60 (or more) games next season if I can.

The St. John’s question is one that I’ve managed to sidestep in the creation of the new site. I’m planning on focusing 99 percent of my coverage on the mids. Occasionally, due to their unique situation as the big boy in the city, I’m sure I’ll touch on St. John’s (the recent Momo Jones situation being a good example), but I doubt I’ll be writing too much about the Red Storm no matter how successful Lavin’s brand new bunch is this season. I’m going to leave that to people like Pico over at Rumble in the Garden.

As for the success. Please let that be the case. Iona, St. Peter’s and Long Island all look like they have the chance to be good next season and Columbia has the potential to surprise some people as well. With so many teams I’ve got to have a few winners.

Q: The mid-major player development question should be really interesting. Every team should have a few candidates for that. Does that mean it’d be easier to target any teams headed for big seasons as well? Or would that require too much broad analysis related to those team’s schedules and conference opponents?

A: I think most of my analysis is going to be on the offensive side of the ball (usage rate, offensive rating, the four factors), so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to determine about team success. That said, once I get the data store I envision that I’ll be able to do some work with similarity scores for teams. Here’s Ken Pomeroy talking about it for players in 2007 and here’s a great piece by John Ezekowitz from last season about teams. Both those posts illuminate some things via similarity scores and I’m hoping that this project can do more of the same.

Obviously there’s a lot of value from getting a standardized data store that you can draw inferences out of and I guess that’s where I really want to start. It’s going to be a good combination of my programming, analytics and journalism background.

Q: How do you approach your blog coverage? Do you let news dictate your analysis? Do you lean toward some teams over others? I mean, let’s face it, some schools and coaches are just more interesting, even past the wins and losses.

A: I base my coverage on a few different things. First, if news breaks about a school that I’m following I try to jump on that if there’s something new that I can add to the conversation. Wins and losses do end up dictating a lot about what teams you cover, but location, especially for someone like me that likes to cover games live, plays a big part too. I went to a lot of Loyola (Ill.) games last season because the Ramblers had a veteran team – that failed to live up to its potential and ended up costing Jim Whitesell his job – and were less than a mile away from my apartment in Rogers Park. On the flip side, I only saw two Chicago State games live last season for two reasons: It was hard to get down to 95th and no matter how interesting the game is it’s hard to get your average reader excited for a Great West battle.

That said, I’m glad I went to those games because schools like Chicago State almost never pop up in the media and there are some interesting stories there. For instance, Tracy Dildy is bringing in six junior college players in his 2011 recruiting class (two are in Juco Junction’s Top 100). In an ideal world I’m a fan of the plucky underdog and that’s what the Great West represents to me in the college basketball world. Moving to New York I plan on dipping down to check out NJIT because I think the Highlanders are a team that’s on the rise under Jim Engles.

Since I’ll probably have to prioritize even more this upcoming season I’m not quite sure what my strategy is going to be next season. I’ll try to get to each of the 11 schools live at least once earlier in the season and then I’ll start adding games based on win/loss records, special events, opponents and ease of schedule. Otherwise I’ll see what’s getting traction in terms of readers and go from there.

That dilemma though is one thing I like about covering a metro area instead of just one team. There’s so much out there and you just have to pick and choose the good ones to really blow out. That’s also why readers at Big Apple Buckets are going to see quite a few link posts, because I’m finding no that there’s often a link that I think is worth sharing with my readership that just doesn’t need me to add another 300 words. (SBNation does this the right way with their Fan Shots.) It’s another great thing about blogging.

Q: Picking and choosing is always tough, even during the offseason. I often find myself wanting to blog more, but I can never decide if it’s because I want to or because I think I should. Sometimes, less is actually more, right?

A: I have the same problem, especially when there’s an idea that could be expanded to all of the conferences I’m covering. It’s hard to find that finish line. When I was writing at ChicagoNow my posts tended to be pretty lengthy (500+ words), I’m trying to go with a slightly shorter, but just as informative style over at Big Apple Buckets. The advantage of starting over I guess.

I’d also say this: I think one of the best things a journalist or blogger can do these days is provide synthesis of all the information that’s available on the web right now. People seem to appreciate you digging out important bits and presenting it in digestible pieces. My small tournament bids posts have always been a fan favorite and I think it’s because it’s a place where fans can figure out all the bids for the NIT/CBI/CIT as soon as you can find them on the web. I’m always trying to think of more things like that I can do.

Q: Favorite player you saw last year?

A: I was really glad that I got the opportunity to see Kemba Walker play against DePaul last season. Yes, it was DePaul, but it was just hilarious the mismatches that he was able to create with his speed on the dribble and shooting ability. What’s crazier is that 31 points on 10-17 shooting wasn’t even that impressive of a game for Walker last season.

In terms of Chicago players my favorites were Geoff McCammon (Loyola) and Cleveland Melvin (DePaul). With McCammon it was his scoring ability. If he was hot that night you always felt like he could drop 40 on someone. Melvin is a long, athletic forward that really represents the future at DePaul. He’s going to be an All-Big East type player for Oliver Purnell as he gets more confident around the basket and gets to play more in that system. Melvin has incredible quickness. He grabbed a number of his own misses just because he moved faster than anyone else on the court.

Q: Best coach/team you covered while in Chicago, both in terms of appeal and in hoops ability?

A: I don’t think your average college hoops fan realizes this, but Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody is actually pretty hilarious during press conferences. He’s not afraid to tell you what he’s thinking. Last season’s Northwestern team was probably the best team I covered while in Chicago, but I want to mention the 2008-09 Chicago State team. With 5’8 point guard David Holston leading the way that Cougars team played one of the most enjoyable brands of basketball I’ve ever watched. A 19-13 record was quite the accomplishment for an independent and I still remember the joy at the Jones Convocation Center the night of their final home game against Houston Baptist and the hope for a smaller tournament bid that unfortunately never came.

Q: How’d you get into blogging and how much longer do you foresee yourself doing it?

A: As the sports editor for a small college weekly during my undergrad days I finished college and missed writing every day, so I started a personal blog. Going to Medill for graduate school I wanted to find a topic I was passionate about and continue that in a more meaningful manner. That became Chicago College Basketball. I really enjoy blogging and I plan on doing it for a long time. It feels good to see someone link to something I wrote or for my site to hit a daily high in page views. I think blogging about college basketball fulfills a part of me that wants to write but on my own schedule and about the topics that I want to explore. Being your own editor is a great feeling.

You can read more of John’s writing at nycbuckets.com and follow him on Twitter @nybuckets.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.