Saturday, February 23, 2008

Things Happen

The 1966-67 Citadel basketball team of which Conroy writes and of which the site garners its title finished the season with a record of 7-19. This year's Citadel squad is no better, they have a record of 6-20. Basketball State lists them as the 338th ranked team in the country. They are coached by Conroy's cousin Ed Conroy.

My acquaintance with loss has sustained me during the stormy passages of my life when the pink slips came through the door, when the checks bounced at the bank, when I told my small children I was leaving their mother, when the despair caught up with me, when the dreams of suicide began feeling like love songs of release. It sustained me when my mother lay dying of leukemia, when my sister heard the ruthless voices inside her, and when my brother Tom sailed out into the starry night in Columbia, South Carolina, sailed from a fourteen story building and plunged screaming to his death, binding all of his family into his nightmare forever. Though I learned some things from the games we won that year, I learned much, much more from loss. Pat Conroy on his losing season.

In spite of Conroy's words, it's difficult to think that either Pat Conroy or his cousin Ed Conroy have learned nearly as much as those players and coaches associated with the New Jersey Institute of Technology this year. NJIT is 0-28 entering their final game at Utah Valley University. They are coached by Jim Casciano, a former Drexel player who has a fairly impressive resume of coaching stops at the division II level. Last week, the school announced that Casciano would not be returning next year. Essentially, this is his last game as coach at NJIT. NJIT is the lowest ranked team in both the RPI and Basketball State rankings at 341.

I attend the game and sit directly behind their bench. There are a handful of other NJIT fans, all people from New Jersey living in Utah who recognize the dire need of support for NJIT at this time. I sit next to an assistant coaches' wife. She says that it is too bad the coaching staff is changing as the "momentum that has been built up this year is going to be killed." Only a coaches wife could find "momentum" in the 0-28 season.

NJIT is like today's opponent UVU in that they play as an independent at the division I level and are meeting the NCAA's three years of play requirement before becoming eligible for postseason play. This is only season two. Like Northern Colorado, Portland State and UVU who have all been written about in this blog NJIT's dream is the NCAA tournament.

As will happen when everything has gone wrong in a season, the NJIT flight is late and the game is delayed one hour. It doesn't help. NJIT gets the first basket of the game on a three point shot and there is hope as all four of us in the NJIT contingent get our first and only chance to cheer for a lead.

Coach Cariasco is a typical firey Italian coach. He calls time outs at appropriate times, uses his white clipboard to diagram mistakes during the time outs. He has players who leave the game sit next to him after exiting and he coaches them just as Mike Kryzewski and Eddie Sutton would do. The assistant's wife indicates that much of Cariasco's coaching style comes from Villanova's Jay Wright who is at least partially responsible for Cariasco's opportunity at NJIT. Earlier today Villanova upset UConn. Perhaps it is a good omen. With the coaching change she indicates that next year's potential game at the Palestra against Villanova for NJIT has already been canceled.

NJIT does appear to struggle offensively as a great deal of their offense is ran beyond the three point line and they struggle to get any inside opportunities. They do, however, dive for lose balls and get upset at bad calls - it's obvious they are trying to win, but they are not good enough.

The Highlanders entire season is perhaps best mirrored by play at the end of the first half when they play for the last shot in spite of a 21 point deficit. The clock ticks down and NJIT tries a long three pointer, which misses, UVU gets the rebound and Ryan Toolson throws in a 35 foot bomb at the buzzer. UVU takes a 24 point half time lead.

The 76-50 loss to UVU drops NJIT's record to a new NCAA record worst 0-29. Previously, only Savannah State (2005) and Prairie View (1992) had compiled 0-28 season records. In the end, NJIT's season and future is best summarized by one supporter sitting in front of me, "things happen" he says. He is right. Conroy writes,

Basketball has always been a game for the poor kids of the big cities, the game where the boys of immigrant families could prove themselves while navigating their ways along the mean streets of fierce ghettos whether they were Jews, Irish, Poles, Lithuanians, or the soon to be dominant black kids.

That should help ease the pain a give some hope for the future for a school in New Jersey.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Big Sky @ The Stott Center

On television tonight is the NBA slam dunk contest, Indiana vs. Michigan State, #1 Memphis escaping against Alabama Birmingham and UNLV at BYU in a showdown for supremecy in the Mountain West Conference, and Oregon playing for it's NCAA tournament life against Washington State. My heart and tonight my radio is at the Peter W. Stott Center in Portland, Oregon.

I once spent six months of my life as an uninvited guest of the Portland State University athletic department. Had I been invited, I'm certain I would still be there.

The Peter W. Stott Center is the smallest division I arena I have ever seen. After an overhaul prior to the 2002 season capacity was increased to roughly 1500. Almost every 4A/5A high school arena is larger than the Peter W. Stott Center. This list includes Highland High School in Salt Lake City, Utah where Weber State forward Steve Panos played his high school basketball, it includes Prairie High School gymnasium in Vancouver, Washington where Dan Dickau once starred, it includes Oregon City High School in Portland, Oregon which currently is ranked in USA Today's top 10 high school teams in the west and it includes Evanston High School where Jaycee Carroll played. Kyle Whelliston's own website, the bible of midmajor internet college basketball, "Basketball State" lists Portland State's home arena as the Rose Garden, but this is not true. Portland State University plays at the Peter W. Stott Center. It should be proud to play at the Stott Center. The highest seat is 11 rows from court level! There are over 350 division I schools and somewhere there might be a smaller home arena, but I have not found it.

After years of struggling at the division I level in basketball Portland State University actually dropped it's program for an extended period before starting it up again in 1996. Portland State's most storied player is easily Freeman Williams who once score 81 points in a college basketball game. Williams is one of only three players to average over 30 points per game over at least a three year college career. Pete Maravich and Oscar Robertson are the other two. He is familiar to most Utah Jazz fans as the player who was acquired in exchange for Dominique Wilkins when the Jazz selected Wilkins in the 1982 draft.

Portland State's best season came three years ago when they won the Big Sky regular season championship, but lost in the Big Sky semifinals against Weber State. My favorite arena -The Stott Center- was deemed too small to host the conference tournament which the Vikings won the right to host and the tournament was moved to the Portland Memorial Coliseum. Unable to adjust to the cavernous surroundings, the Vikings lost in the Big Sky semifinal to Weber State. A year ago Portland State once again reached the Big Sky semifinals against Weber State, but narrowly lost on the Wildcats home court.

Portland State is once again making a run at the Big Sky championship and NCAA tournament in their 12th year since restarting the program in 1996. They own a 9-2 conference record this year and once again are trying to overcome Weber State which sits in second place at 7-4 at the Peter W. Stott Center. A win tonight will almost guarantee Portland State the right to host the Big Sky tournament in less than a month.

Portland State's best player this year has previously been introduced to readers of this site as 5'6" Jeremiah Dominguez who is averaging 14 points per game. Only at Portland State could a 5'6" player be the star player, it's the beauty of lower level division I college basketball.

There are numerous lead changes and ties. Late in the game Brody Van Brocklin and Delonte Huff exchange three pointers. Weber State's 5'6" point guard Kellen McCoy actually outplays his 5'6" Portland State counterpart Jeremiah Dominguez by scoring 19 points, but Dominguez hits a 10 footer and four free throws to put Portland State up 74-70. A late three pointer by Van Brocklin cuts the lead to a point, but it's not enough for Weber State. Portland State wins 76-73 and virtually clinches the right to "host" the Big Sky tournament.

I can only hope that "hosting" this time will mean playing at the Stott Center and not some cavernous Portland Trailblazer homecourt or former homecourt.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Chasing the NCAA Tournament Dream

The Big Sky Conference is my favorite conference. More often than not a fan can garner a seat only a few rows from the action. The schools are located in "cool" mountain towns like Bozeman, Flagstaff, Missoula, and Portland. Tickets generally run in the $5.00 to $7.00 range. There has yet to be an at large birth for any school into the NCAA tournament from the Big Sky and this causes the post season tournament to take on an even more paramount importance. However, unlike other leagues which let every school into the their tournament, the Big Sky only allows its top six teams entrance. Additionally, the winner of the league hosts the conference tournament.

The University of Northern Colorado is the newest member of the Big Sky Conference. The most that can be said for Northern Colorado's basketball program is that its abbreviation is the same as one of the most prestigious programs in the country -- UNC. Importantly, Weber State, tonight's opponent for the Bears, is incredibly 4-0 all time against "the" other UNC (that's right the University of North Carolina).

In fact, most of Northern Colorado's tradition is in football where they won a pair of Division II national championships. As a football based league, the Big Sky was an ideal fit for the Bears. Don't forget, the Big Sky was the launching league for both Boise State and Nevada which have gone on to have a national impact in football and basketball respectively in the WAC.

Yet, given the payout, prestige and notoriety that a school can get for making it to the NCAA tournament, Northern Colorado's emphasis has changed to basketball. Their arena, the Butler-Hancock Sports Pavillion has gone a complete overhaul with the addition of chairback seating and updated scoreboards. From 2002 to 2006 the Bears played as an independent and went through a transitional period required to become eligible for NCAA division I basketball membership. A year ago they played in the Big Sky Conference, but were not eligible for postseason play. Two years ago the Bears went 5-24. The head coach was fired and prior to the start of last year former player Tad Boyle was named coach. Last year, although not eligible for postseason play, the Bears in their first season in the Big Sky went 4-24 overall and 2-14 in conference play.

Readers of the blog will recall that since the advent of the modern NCAA tournament in 1948 only five schools that have fielded teams since 1948 have failed to make the field -- St Francis of New York, William and Mary, The Citadel, Northwestern, and Army. The Bears aren't likely to make it in their first year of eligibility. Ultimately, though that's the goal for the Greeley, Colorado school. Northern Colorado is leaps ahead of other division I schools like Utah Valley because Northern Colorado is in a conference that has an automatic bid. All the Bears have to do is find a way to win the Big Sky tournament.

Around the Dee Events Center, banners hang showing the success of tonight's Northern Colorado opponent - Weber State. Weber State has made multiple appearances in the NCAA tournament, twice making it to the regional semifinals and on two other ocassions making it to the second round of the tournament. In 1995, in fact, the Wildcats pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament, beating the other UNC, North Carolina.

The Bears have made some progress this year as they enter the game against Weber State with a record of 11-12 including a 55-52 win over Weber State in Greeley back on January 6th.

However, that is not the case tonight as Weber State takes a 26-24 halftime lead and then utilizes the shooting of Dezmon Harris who scores 20 points to beat the Bears 70-54. The loss drops the Bears into 8th place with a league record of 4-8.

In the parity driven league, former darling Portland State is leading the league with a record of 8-2. After the victory, Weber State is only a game behind the Vikings at 7-3. The top six teams make the Big Sky tournament and Montana and Montana State are tied for 5th/6th at 5-5, the Bears will need to make up 2 games during the final weeks of the season to catch them and keep their dream of making the field of 65 alive.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Mighty Mites

Jeremiah Dominguez scored 26 points last night for PDX State as the Vikings beat Montana 70-68. Dominguez hit 7 of 13 field goal attempts and currently leads the Vikings averaging over 12 points per game.

Dominguez is only 5'6" tall! It isn't hard to find his chief rival as the nation's best small player, just drive down I-5 to Eugene where 5'6" Tajuan Porter is averaging over 12 points per game for the Ducks.

Many would argue that Bob Cousy, John Stockton or Isiah Thomas are the greatest small players of all time. Let's make something clear, they were all at least five inches taller than either Dominguez or Porter! Hard to believe that the Ducks could have missed out on Dominguez as he is from nearby Salem. Perhaps they already felt Porter from Detroit filled their quickness niche. In a game that is designed for those with height, what is going on in Oregon with Dominguez and Porter is phenomenal! Inch for inch the best basketball is being played in Oregon.

The two did not play this year. Hopefully in future seasons as both players are sophomores. The matchup is too good to ignore.