Emeka Okafor

Preseason Big East Player of the Year: the gift and the curse?

1 Comment

At Big East media day on Wednesday it was announced that the coaches selected Louisville senior point guard Peyton Siva as their preseason Player of the Year.

That’s quite the honor for Siva, who is coming off of a season in which he struggled with health early but once at full strength helped lead the Cardinals to a Big East tournament title and the Final Four.

Siva averaged 9.1 points and 5.6 assists per game in 2011-12, and he performed better in postseason play to the tune of 11.3 points and 6.0 assists in Louisville’s nine games (Big East and NCAA tournaments).

With the preseason honor Siva will now look to do something that hasn’t been done in the Big East in nearly a decade.

Not since the 2003-04 season has the preseason choice for Big East Player of the Year gone on to win the honor at the end of the season (UConn’s Emeka Okafor).

In fact, as Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard reported, league coaches have shown themselves to be pretty good at completely missing on the honor.

In each of the last five seasons there’s been an example of a Big East Player of the Year winner not receiving any kind of honor in the preseason.

Last year, the coaches tab Pittsburgh’s Ashton Gibbs as the preseason Player of the Year. However, the post-season award went to Marquette’s Jae Crowder, who in the preseason wasn’t on the coaches’ first or second all-conference teams.

The same happened in 2010-11. Georgetown’s Austin Freeman was the preseason pick, meanwhile the year’s eventual winner; Notre Dame’s Ben Hansbrough, was left of the coaches’ preseason all-league teams.

Ditto in 2009-10. Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody was the preseason player of the year pick. Syracuse’s Wes Johnson would end up with the post-season hardware despite the fact that he wasn’t on either the first or second all-conference teams in the preseason.

In 2008, the coaches chose Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert for preseason player of the year. Harangody, just a sophomore, won the post-season award. Harangody had not been on the coaches’ preseason all-league teams.

In 2009 UConn’s Hasheem Thabeet, who was honored in the preseason, shared Big East Player  of the Year with a player in Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair who was not.

The question for this season: if it isn’t Siva then which of the other players not named to the Big East’s first and second teams is most capable of rising to the challenge?

One player to keep an eye on: Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins. While Jack Cooley (first team) and Jerian Grant (honorable mention) had their names called on Wednesday Atkins did not.

The junior from Columbia, Maryland averaged 12.1 points and 4.1 assists per game last season, and while he was second on the team in assists (Grant) playing on a talented team that can win the conference could help Atkins’ case.

There’s also Michael Carter-Williams, C.J. Fair and James Southerland at Syracuse to take into consideration, and Cincinnati’s Cashmere Wright wasn’t named to a preseason All-Big East team either.

Siva’s a worthy choice for preseason Big East Player of the Year, but a look at the recent history of the honors shows that it may be someone not on the preseason radar who takes the trophy home in March.

Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Debate!: Who you got? Lute Olson or Jim Calhoun

Leave a comment

In 2008, Lute Olson retired from coaching at the ripe old age of 74, having spent the past 25 years taking Arizona from a West Coast afterthought and turning them into a national championship program that was a mainstay in the top 25 through the majority of his tenure. Just four years later, Jim Calhoun retired from UConn having built the Huskies into one of the nation’s premier basketball programs when no one believed it could be. 

Both Calhoun and Olson single-handedly built programs from the ground up and turned them into national players in locations where basketball wasn’t a priority. But here’s the question of the hour: who was more impressive? Whose is the better “program builder”? Raphielle and I will now do our best sports bar impression and argue this out. Hopefully, things stay peaceful. 

Rob: UConn basketball was nothing prior to Jim Calhoun arriving on campus from Northeastern in 1986. In their seven seasons in the Big East up to that point, UConn had managed to make just a single NCAA tournament and, when Calhoun was hired, were coming off of 9-19 season. Within four years, Calhoun had managed to win the NIT, take home the Big East regular season and tournament titles, and advance to within a Christian Laettner buzzer-beater from the Final Four. As of his Thursday retirement, UConn had won 10 regular season conference titles, seven conference tournament titles, made four Final Fours and taken home three national championships. Those 25 years are packed with more history and tradition than all but a handful of programs have managed to put together since James Naismith invented the sport.

Raphielle: When Lute Olson arrived in Tucson in 1983 the Wildcats were just five years removed from joining the then-Pac-10, and it would be an understatement to say that the Wildcats he found weren’t equipped to be a factor in the conference. That changed quickly. He took a team that won four games with little talent and pushed them to 11 in his first campaign, and from that point forward Olson would fail to reach 20 wins in a season just twice: 1986-87 and 2007-08. Like Calhoun with Bridgeport’s Chris Smith, Olson’s most important recruiting victory early on was keeping Tucson native Sean Elliott in the Old Pueblo. By the time Elliott was a junior (Olson’s fifth season) the Wildcats were in their first Final Four. From that point forward it was almost as if Olson ran a conveyer belt from McKale Center to the NBA, and a number of those players had a tangible impact at the next level. Olson won 608 games in his 25 seasons at Arizona, which works out to an average of 24 wins per season (24.3 to be exact), 11 Pac-10 championships, five Final Four appearances and a national title in 1997. And we can’t gloss over him taking the Wildcats to 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances (yes 1999 was vacated but that’s a bit silly) either.

Rob: I’ll give you consistency. The fact that Olson was able to get Arizona to 23 straight NCAA tournaments is downright mystifying. Calhoun had some ugly season mixed in with his national titles. But the key word in that sentence is “titles”. Plural. Calhoun won three of them, and while there may be some element of luck when it comes to his 3-0 record in national title games, the fact of the matter is that Calhoun was able to capitalize when he had the talent on his roster.

And while Olson’s track record of getting players to the NBA is inarguable, it’s not like Calhoun was winning with future all-Euroleague players. He sent just as many players to the next level. What’s most impressive about Calhoun’s pros is that there weren’t many that entered the program as guaranteed lottery picks. Andre Drummond was a pro, everyone knew that. The same with Rudy Gay and Charlie Villanueva. But Jeremy Lamb wasn’t a top 10 recruit. Ray Allen was overlooked coming out of high school, and he went on to become the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA. Emeka Okafor chose UConn over Vanderbilt and Arkansas and went on to become national player of the year and the No. 2 pick. Ben Gordon was the No. 3 pick that year, and he was closer to a top 50 recruit than he was a guaranteed NBA all-star.

Raphielle: Oh here we go with the “titles” talk. Yes titles are important, there’s no denying that. But let me ask you something: which power forward are you taking, Robert Horry (7 titles) or Charles Barkley (0 titles)? There’s the flaw in that argument, because winning a championship involves a certain level of luck in addition to skill. Were there a few forgettable “one and done” trips for Olson? Yes, but to get your team to the tournament for 23 straight years is a major achievement. And in those 23 trips the Wildcats’ average seed was a 4-seed (4.4 to be exact).

As for the NBA talent we can argue that one all night as both programs have sent many players to the NBA to not just occupy a roster space but make things happen. But which school is known as “Point Guard U”? I’ve got love for Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and Travis Best but we’re not talking Georgia Tech here. That would be Arizona, with players such as Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Jason Terry, Mike Bibby and Jason Gardner have run the show at one point or another. When it comes to “unexpected” pros, how many thought Gilbert Arenas would become what he was (pre-idiotic gun incident) when he was in high school? And he’s got a nice list of off-guards/wings when looking at players such as Richard Jefferson, Andre Iguodala and Miles Simon (just to name three).

Rob: The Robert Horry-Charles Barkley comparison isn’t fair. Players are much different than coaches. The better comparison, in my opinion, would be who would you rather have coaching your team in the NBA: Pat Riley or Lenny Wilkens?

There’s no denying Olson’s success with point guards (can’t believe you didn’t mention Kenny Lofton in with that group). That also just so happens to be the only position where UConn doesn’t have a storied history when it comes to producing NBA players.

Thus far, we’ve determined that Olson was really good at putting together teams that earned four seeds and sent point guards to the NBA while Calhoun could develop off-guards, wings and big men while building teams that won titles. That right?

Raphielle: Pat Riley was the epitome of smooth, so I’ll give you that argument. I didn’t mention Lofton because he went pro in baseball; I’d think that his raw athleticism (didn’t play baseball until his junior year and ended up getting drafted despite limited PT) had more to do with that.

And I notice that you conveniently left out Olson’s title in your wrapping up of the discussion. That suddenly not count? Yes Calhoun has more, that’s been established, but do we really just say “well Lute produced point guards and 4-seeds”? Winning titles is about luck in another aspect: recruiting. If your school produces guards at a higher rate it’s going to be tougher land the elite big men that generally win titles at the college level (Duke 2010 being the most recent exception). Just ask Villanova’s 2006 team what happened when they ran into Joakim Noah, Al Horford and company. But back to Arizona, in the Final Four trips they lost the Wildcats ran into Stacey King (1988), Corliss Williamson (1994) and Carlos Boozer (2001). Those great big men at the pro level? Hell no, but they were damn good in college. All I’m saying is that in a one-and-done scenario you have to be careful to completely gloss over how much of a crapshoot the tournament is.

Rob: Changing gears a bit, the most interesting part about the debate between Calhoun vs. Olson is how similar their exits were. Both found themselves caught up in NCAA red tape (Calhoun because of Nate Miles and the APR, Olson because of the Cactus Classic) while battling health issues, which eventually became too much and resulted in a September retirement.

The difference, however, is that UConn ended up with Calhoun’s “coach-in-waiting” — Kevin Ollie — getting a chance at the job, while Mike Dunlap couldn’t work things out with the Arizona brass to take over for Olson. It worked out for the Wildcats, however, as their interim coach led them to the Sweet 16 (quite Olson-esque, eh?) before Sean Miller took over and became arguably the best recruiter in the country this side of Coach Cal.

More institutional pull = better coach, right?

Raphielle: Yeah but Calhoun also finished out “in his office” so to speak, so I wouldn’t be so quick to make that correlation. More difficult to have a say when you’re not around on a consistent basis. That led to Olson not getting his wish of Dunlap being the man more than anything. Arizona mishandled that situation for three years and frankly lucked out that Sean Miller was available (oh, he landed Rondae Jefferson today). And Ollie got a 1-year contract, which while it’s something that he’s more than used to given his NBA career it’s not the best situation to have on the recruiting trail. So sure Calhoun “won” in getting his guy the job, but we’re really not going to know how big of a win it is until next March when their season ends and Ollie is evaluated.

So who’s got the “juice”? Guess we’ll agree to disagree on this one.

With added athleticism, Abdul-Malik Abu drawing high-major interest from across the country

Leave a comment

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.–Last summer, Abdul-Malik Abu was a rising sophomore with a wide body that he wasn’t afraid to throw around in the lane. The secret was, though, that he wasn’t nearly done growing or developing.

Now a rising junior, Abu has completely reshaped his body, hitting the weight room and transforming his game from being primarily under the rim to flying well above it.

“I think it helped me from a scholarship standpoint and from a game standpoint,” he told NBCSports.com at the Live in AC tournament in Atlantic City, N.J.

“I was a little under the basket, but I liked to pretend that I wasn’t under the basket,” he said with a laugh. “Last year, I still liked to dunk and stuff, but when you actually work on your body, you get stronger. And I hit a little bit of a growth spurt, which helped my game.”

College coaches have flocked to his games on the AAU circuit this summer, with one Division I coach calling him “a young Emeka Okafor.”

“My downside used to be ‘Oh, he needs to work on his body. He still has that baby fat,’” Abu explained. “I still have some, but now coaches see that I’m more explosive and say, ‘That’s something we can work on here.’”

He claims interest and offers from a long list of schools, among them Maryland Notre Dame, Seton Hall, Providence, Miami, Kansas, Michigan State, Temple, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Rutgers, and others.

He maintains that his recruitment is wide open, saying he is looking simply for the “best fit.”

And, if he keeps playing this way, he’ll have a long list of suitors to choose from.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Former UConn forward Rudy Gay to play in Jim Calhoun charity game, receive Role Model award

Leave a comment

Rudy Gay will be among the former Connecticut players in town for Jim Calhoun’s charity game this upcoming week, but he will also be getting another honor, according to Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant.

Gay is set to receive the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce’s “Role Model of the Year” award for his work in the community.

Among the work he has done in the Memphis area and across the country is a Christmas toy drive for children from single-parent households, a fundraiser for the Stax Music Academy, and a literacy awareness campaign.

He starred for two seasons at Connecticut from 2004-06, averaging 13.6 points per game and 5.9 rebounds. The 6-9 native of Baltimore, Md., went on to be drafted 8th overall by the Houston Rockets, but was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, where he has spent the duration of his career to this point.

Gay competed with the United States at the 2010 FIBA World Championship, a team that won gold for the US for the first time since 1994.

Calhoun’s charity game, which Gay will take part in this year, has been an annual hit, featuring past Connecticut stars, including Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Caron Butler, and Richard Hamilton.

This year’s game will take place Saturday, August 4, at 7:30 PM.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Hoop Group Buzzer Beater Classic (NYC) Preview

Leave a comment

NEW YORK, N.Y.–The Hoop Group Buzzer Beater Classic tips off Saturday and runs through Sunday, concluding the 2012 July live recruiting period.

Below is NBCSports.com’s preview of the 17U and 16U divisions:

Marquee Player 17U: Isaiah Whitehead, Juice All-Stars (N.Y.)

Whitehead picked up the intensity on Day 2 of Live in AC this week, so expect that to continue here at Buzzer Beater. He is crafty, knows how to use his body to create space, and is capable of taking over a game if he wants to.

He has had high-major coaches trailing him throughout July. That’s not changing anytime soon.

Player to Watch 17U: Reggie Cameron, NJ Playaz

Cameron is an elite shooter and a Top 100 prospect in the Class of 2013. At 6-7, 215 pounds, he has the size to compete at the high-major level and has a long list of offers, among them West Virginia, Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, Rutgers, and many others.

Favorite to Win 17U: Sports U (N.J.)

With a triple threat of guards Josh Brown and Hallice Cooke, along with wing DeAndre Bembry, Sports U made it to the finals of Live in AC before losing to a strong Team Takeover (DC) squad.

Sports U took home the championship at the Under Armour Summer Jam this July, which was the latest in a long streak of strong showings in 2012.

Marquee Player 16U: Abdul-Malik Abu, Expression Elite (Mass.)

The young, talented Abu has transformed his body since last summer and is now an explosive force around the rim. As has been mentioned, one Division I coach compared him to a “young Emeka Okafor,” an elite rebounder with moves around the basket.

Player to Watch 16U: Wade Baldwin, Sports U

Baldwin has an offer from Northwestern, a smart kid with a good frame and the ability to score. He has length and is a solid passer, which makes him versatile on the offensive end. Like the 17U team, Sports U 16s are a team to keep an eye on.

Favorite to Win 16U: Expressions Elite (Mass.)

This team had a strong showing at the Summer Jam Fest last week, falling in the semifinals. Jared Terrell is still injured, but Abu and fellow forward Alec Brennan lead an Expressions team that is the favorite this weekend.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

‘Live In AC’ Preview Part II: Team Takeover (DC) favorites to win 16U

Leave a comment

Wednesday begins another five-day live recruiting period for Division-I coaches and, along with the events going on in Las Vegas, “Live in AC” begins in Atlantic City, N.J.

Below is a preview of the 16U division, which feature high-major talent and should draw high-major coaches to the stands to watch and evaluate. Check out NBCSports.com’s preview of the 17U right here, as well.

Marquee Player 16U: Dwayne Morgan, Baltimore’s Finest

UNLV has been hot on the trail of this Top 15 recruit from the Class of 2014. Uber-athletic and full of potential, the 6-7, 190-pound forward has a bevy of high-major offers, including from Georgetown, Florida, LSU, Miami, Maryland, NC State, Missouri, South Florida, and Seton Hall.

Roy Williams and the Tar Heels are even showing interest, of late.

Morgan is still learning how to harness all of the physical skills that he has, but his athleticism and intensity on both ends of the floor make his game very malleable and appealing to college coaches.

Favorite to Win 16U: Team Takeover DC

The backcourt combination of Phil Booth and Dion Wiley make Team Takeover one of the Top 5 16U programs in the country.

Wiley is a silky smooth shooting guard with offers from schools that include Georgetown, Maryland, and Rutgers, while Booth runs the point and has similar interest and offers, including those same three schools as Wiley, plus Indiana, Seton Hall, Villanova, and others.

Takeover begins in Pool K, along with the New Jersey Roadrunners and U-Play (Can.).

Team to Keep an Eye on 16U: DC Assault Gold

Led by guard Romelo Trimble, DC Assault is battling it out with Team Takeover for supremacy in the Washington, D.C. area. Byron Hawkins, who could likely be headed to a mid-major-type school at the collegiate level, rounds out the backcourt.

As a side note, Karl Towns, who played for John Calipari on the Dominican National Team during Olympic qualifying, will not be playing for Sports U.

Player to Keep an Eye on 16U: Abdul-Malik Abu, Expressions Elite

At Hoop Group’s Summer Jam Fest, one Division-I assistant called him “a young Emeka Okafor,” and its warranted. The 6-8 forward has trimmed down since last year, adding muscle and becoming explosive around the rim.

Tom Izzo and Michigan State recently offered the rising junior, adding to his impressive list that already includes Cincinnati, Iowa State, Providence, and Rutgers. Abu is an elite rebounder and effective low-post player around the rim, and is working to develop his game outside of the paint.

He will likely be playing without high-major counterpart Jared Terrell, who sprained his ankle during that same Hoop Group tournament this past week.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_