Posts tagged college basketball
Stop the madness: Ramblers run was about the team, not Sister Jean

On Saturday, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers improbable NCAA Tournament run finally came to an end at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines. The 69-57 defeat ended any chance of Loyola  becoming the first 11-seed in D-1 NCAA Tournament history to advance to the Final Four.

The stage was set for the Ramblers to make history, and the build up to Saturday's showdown with the Wolverines lead you to believe that Loyola had a legitimate shot at history.

Donte Ingram’s game winning 3-pointer versus 6-seed Miami, followed by Clayton Cluster’s game winning jumper to knock off 3-seed Tennessee officially anointed the Ramblers as this year's Cinderella story. But the run didn’t stop there.

Loyola came to Atlanta and defeated Nevada in the Sweet Sixteen, and after dominating Kansas State in the Elite Eight en route to the Final Four had all the momentum.

Now with the team putting together such an improbable run, you would expect the media to dig deeper into the background of the players that comprise this special bunch. 

But that didn't happened.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Instead of discussing the teams success, the majority of the focus was placed on 98-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt.

Sister Jean was dubbed the face of not only Loyola basketball, but the entire NCAA Tournament, and while this may be a feel good story to some, it took away the spotlight from the people who have worked hardest to earn it.

The Ramblers finished first in the Missouri Valley Conference with a record of 32-5,  finishing the season shooting 50% from the field and 40% from three point range as a team. The team also boasted the Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Ben Richardson.

With a roster that has no top 200 recruits, a star transfer player (Redshirt Junior Clayton Custer) and two players from local historic Chicago Public Schools (Senior Donte Ingram from Simeon and Freshman Lucas Williamson from Whitney Young), there were plenty of storylines the media could have chosen to explore during this historic March.

But while most basketball fans just want to learn more about the Ramblers, the national media went with the low hanging fruit; religion.

People often ask athletes to stick to sports, but they have no problem using their religion to claim a victory. And with a 98-year-old nun being wheeled in after every victory, the legend of Sister Jean grew to ridiculous proportions.

Loyola made Sister Jean available for the media on Friday as the same time as guard Marques Townes, the same player who hit the game sealing 3-pointer in the Sweet Sixteen against Nevada. Instead of interviewing someone who is actually a member of the team, the national media flocked to Sister Jean.

The large gathering for the team chaplain seemed to even catch Sister Jean off guard, who told reporters, “I never imagined two or three [cameras], let alone this large group.”

For most of these players, this was their one and only opportunity to be seen on a national stage, and although they weren't able to become the first 11-seed to play for a National Title, the media has to make a change.

Giving attention to Sister Jean was one thing, but to allow her to overshadow these players says a lot about the priorities of the University and the media. Not only were they shut out from the millions of dollars being generated off this magical run, they’ve became supporting actors in their own movie. 

Villanova puts an emphatic bow on the college basketball season in its national championship win
USA Today via Reuters

USA Today via Reuters

Imagine having your dream taken from your control, re-calibrating your approach, working your ass off then, you wake up to stories of salacious, dishonest & illegal activities as common as the sound of squeaking shoes in an empty gym after a loss. That was me with college basketball this season.

From African-American coursework, to strippers all the way down to impermissible benefits, it all points back to a system built upon the dehumanization & subsequent monetarization of black & brown bodies, the talent within them & the capacity for greatness that comes with it.

When you consider this country was “founded” by an angry twink who decided that since no one had posted to Instagram claiming America as their own, he would stake claim, manipulate its current inhabitants while kidnappingroyalty, who had proven their own volition expanding in their home countries, to tend the land for him, you realize its just par the course.

Considering basketball was first rocked by gambling, match fixing & point shaving in the 40s & 50s, during segregation, how do we plan to victim shame this time?

You, the people, being robbed of Billy Preston, Rick Pitino, De’Anthony Melton, Brian Bowen in what was arguably one of the best seasons ever speaks to the level at which the game currently stands.

Yet those in power, the same people who have fought tooth & nail to keep the proverbial foot on our necks, will never be able to touch the Porter Mosers, John Beileins.

The Jay Wright’s of the world.

Thank BasedGod for that.

John Patrick Beilein, strong name for a strong character. & it’s quite fitting because, for the second time in his career, he took a team that nobody was talking about & made a beeline for the last game of the season.

Never an assistant coach, Beilein has been confidently patrolling the sidelines since 1975 so none of this should come as a surprise or seem to be a fluke.

Players play.

Coaches coach & cheerleaders cheer, right?

Well, Trey Burke seemed on a mission in 2013.

As did Charles Matthews & Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman this season.

Sure, that doesn’t sound like much now but just a small reminder:

Beilein took this job during the final year of scholarship reduction due to the alleged involvement of former players in the Ed Martin scandal.

A guy who has coached at every level- high school, junior college & Divisions 1-3- also has shown a propensity for turning things around, scoring 20-win seasons at 7 different schools, including 4 D-1 schools.

The same goes for Jerold Taylor Wright, Jr.

Nothing happens singularly at any moment in the universe.

Jay Wright went to his college professor advising he wanted to coach college basketball & the support was provided, a year after his college career ended, he became a coach.

Circles are dope because they allow you to hold yourself accountable by never losing sight of where you started while simultaneously continuing to progress forward. It’s virtually impossible to get into coaching this way now.

Being someone who has tried, no degree, no love.

But what degree program teaches you to continue to instruct your kids to play the right way through the entirety of a record-setting Final Four game because you know that this single game isn’t what matters?

What STEM class is going to take you through the psychology of confidently telling college kids who’ve been taught that winning is all that matters, that they played their best game & it just wasn’t enough on that occasion after taking the best team in the country of out its rhythm for the majority of the game?

It’s a beautiful thing neither of these men gave up on themselves & continued to pursue a vision nobody could see but themselves.

To the naked eye, a 17-point loss is a waste.

Personally speaking, there aren’t two better advocates to what basketball is all about.

The beauty of it all is that it shows, if you do it right.

For the first time in months, Villanova looked rattled. Frustrated. The same team that punched Kansas in the mouth & wouldn’t stop, even once the dogs were called off.

Michigan went on to lose by 17 but also put together a gameplanto accomplish that.

On this day? In this moment, it wasn’t sustainable.

The journey is to get there. Villanova has built a product worth seeing every time. If UConn is bad for basketball, Villanova should be deported.

Remember, Donte DiVencenzo was on a redshirt the last time Villanova won a natty.

Last season, Omari Spellman was forced to sit out by the powers that be.

Something tells me North Carolina would be singing a completely different tune without that get out of jail free card.

What Duke used to be & mean to college basketball, Villanova now is. & the thing about Villanova is that you don’t have to have ridiculous test scores to get in.

The real story is in the process. College basketball was at its absolute best this year.

Arizona State going from unranked to top-5 to humming along the bubble.

Duke teasing us with the most talented youth movement since the Power Rangers only to remind us that experience trumps all while signing an even better class with more maturity, consistency & leadership.

Loyola, who gets to call the greatest city in the world home, captivated the nation’s focus & reminded us what this country was alleged to have been about from the beginning. Likely the least recruited team in their bracket 1-12. & one of the last four teams standing.

Bill Self, after losing an All-American caliber power forward to the powers that be throwing rocks & hiding their hand, found a way to beat that exact Duke team when nobody else seemed to be able to & stole a final four bid with the exact same team everyone said the streak would end with in December.

So, thank you Michigan. Villanova. Loyola, Kansas.

Even Duke, Kentucky, Virginia, UMBC, Mississippi State, UCLA, Marquette & St John’s.

Andrew Jones, we got love for you kid. Keep going.

Goodbye DeAndre, Marvin, Trae, Mikal, Mo.

Thanks for giving us the greatest season of college basketball yet.

Welcome Zion, RJ, Shareef, Romeo, Bol, Quentin.

You’re up next. A lot of people will compare you to those that come before & after, but we’re just excited to see what you have to offer this exact moment.

Ironically enough?

The last 6th man to win MOP?

The NCAA says its an invisible man because vacating wins means they don’t have to return any of the profits yet those same exploited athletes are supposed to act as if they never played.

Luke Hancock torched Michigan for 22 off the bench in that game. So even with 116 years of experience, Beilein still has to learn how to scout the entire team & not just a starting lineup.

Something tells me we’ll be congratulating that fella on a natty soon enough. The process has me 100% confident.

But for now, Villanova: Congratulations!

Keep balling on these ninjas, Shinobi Rose.

Notre Dame takes home the National Championship in the greatest women's Final Four ever

Sportswriters, editors, fans, haters, lend me your psyche:

Historically, basketball, the artform, is dismissed as “just a game” & treated as a means of entertainment.

Haphazardly cast aside as if we, the athletes, are simply fodder for the paying fan’s whetted appetite.

The reality is, our childhood drives our future.

Each & every one of us has the capacity to create the future we want & while some of us were allowed the entirety of the spectrum, some were not.

To many, sports are a waste of time. Waste of energy.

Being that this beautiful round ball saved my life, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who owes more to the game.

For years, it seemed, the stigma would just never change.

As time progresses, people learn, processes improve & experience is gained. For decades, our stories as athletes were told through clips, heavy edited & manipulated at the will of the parties tasked with telling said story which typically ends on a tangent unlike anything related to the initial point.

Well, today’s a new day.

In 2018, we are exercising self-love and self-care.

No more clickbait articles written by people who’ve never missed a free throw that could’ve won a game.

Or spent hours in a gym to pseudo-cope with the tribulations & trials that life brings.

The only place that feels safe.

It’s the only place that feels right.

Ask any qualified party & they’ll quickly rebut:

Basketball is basketball.

The best women’s Final Four ever just confirmed this.

 

But Ma Dukes always told me if you can’t improve the silence, keep it to yourself. Improve meaning add value to.

 

Which, for clarity, doesn’t include a tacky sense of humor.

See, there’s an unwritten understanding betwixt us hoopers.

We know that sometimes it is not at all about the crossover move or the dunk that ends up in the highlight.

When you’ve put in countless hours, as with most things in life, one day you see a shift & things are different. Easier even. Sometimes you do a basic R-to-L crossover stunt & the defender stumbles. Great coaching is going to make sure you pick up on that & attack that temporary weak spot. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Great coaching is also going to prepare you for the days outside of basketball. Ultimately? Success is measured in wins & losses but what can’t be accounted for on the stat sheet is in the process. The day-to-day. & for 17 years, this Notre Dame program has operated at peak efficiency.

Pro after Pro. Phenomenal woman after phenomenal woman.

But life has taught me that nothing in this universe happens independently.

Hence the importance of investing everything you have to give to yourself each day.

Just as you would in practice with every rep. Nothing feels worse in the moment than not being prepared.

See, April 1, 2001, ironically 17 years to the date of yesterday’s natty championship game, marked the first time Muffet McGraw got an opportunity to climb the ladder & cut down the nets as the last team standing.

Her point guard, a feisty, never-say-die Midwestern kid with swag before it even existed, had come back for a fifth season --after losing a year to injury--& found a way to will her team to the final four in her hometown of St Louis.

That point guard, bearer of the 33, now sits one chair to her left as her associate head coach & top recruiter.

Together they form a ridiculous battery that also includes the associate head coach of that ’01 team, Illinois’ own Carol Owens.

That battery knows what it’s like to not be prepared because they missed their window six years ago.

Skylar Diggins, the hometown recruit that changed the trajectory forever for the Irish accomplished so much for herself, women’s hoops & Notre Dame, except winning a championship. Three trips to the Final Four. Two natty championship games. Three lessons. All leading up to now.

Diggins, whose Twitter game flourished while her on-court game flashed during a sophomore run to the title game that likely should’ve culminated in a championship. That 2011 team bridged two generations & should have signified Notre Dame’s rise to join UConn & Tennessee as the premier programs in women’s basketball.

Then, Danielle Adams happened. After that, Brittney Griner & Breanna Stewart took over the game & by her senior year, losing in an upset to a UConn team it had beaten three times her senior year, Sky Digg had to move on realizing she missed her window. Apparently, she left it cracked.

You’ve heard the narratives about Notre Dame’s injury. Did you know that Kathryn Westbeld, the current iteration of the number 33, is originally from Kettering, Ohio? A stone’s throw from Columbus, the location of the Final Four.

Everyone was so focused on Kelsey Mitchell’s chance to come home & it was the silent assassin.

The leader whose filled every role asked of her with no complaints.

The kid who has persevered through injury, hardship & constant shifting around her. Westbeld likely never truly got comfortable.

A sophomore season, the first that allows for confidence & opportunity after a summer in the program, saw the player ahead of her leave the program, potentially to return before finally transferring.

Here junior year was marked by splitting starting time with a freshman, who decided she wasn’t happy & transferred to an Oregon program which might have its own trophy case soon enough.

Leading up to a senior season filled with injuries & limited bench support which has required her to play hurt, without practicing & consistently extended minutes.

Wearing 33 & coming home for the final four should have been the sign. Niele knew it too & she had her team prepared.

Prepared to battle to the very last minute.

 

 

 

Which is exactly the reason Mississippi State should remain encouraged. Building a program takes time. Did this team & the players on it deserve a natty for what they’ve done for their university? Absolutely.

Did Victoria Vivians deserve at least one SEC Player of the Year award during her tenure? Absolutely.

Did the best team in the SEC this year win the tournament title? Absolutely not.

Sometimes, things don’t go the way they should. Or, maybe better: the way we think they should.

That’s where your true character is revealed. Being able to realize that everything you accomplished is greater than you areis hard when you are the individual who did the work.

But everything happens for a reason.

Being a Chicago kid who never really fit in or felt right in Mississippi, it finally makes sense.

Having watched Alexis Rack, Mary Kathryn Govero, Latoya Thomas, Chanel Mokango & everyone else in between do everything they could to get to a Sweet 16.

Kendra Grant & Martha Alwal’s careers spanned Sharon Fanning-Oatis’ last days & Schafer’s first.

The seeds were being planted & you could tell when a team who hadn’t been there before lost to Duke in the second round on its home floor seemed upset that their season was over. Knowing they’d let one slip away that they more than earned. & they were right. Duke just got back to same point again this season.

While it would have been amazing to tell the stories of knowing Vivians since she was an 8th-grader forcing pictures to include her teammates, so they didn’t feel left out.

It would have been dope to see Roshunda & Malachi climb the ladder to cut the nets.

Seeing Blair & Morgan embrace knowing they’d completed a dream.

This wasn’t the time.

But the foundation is laid. The culture is there.

Something tells me that, in the same manner ND did Sunday, former Mississippi State players will be collected at the Final Four to support the current form to be treated to their first.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t take 17 years.

What teams to watch in men's NCAA tournament
ESPN

ESPN

The number one overall seed wasn’t ranked to begin the year --are we finally allowed to replace the voter’s panel yet?

We never got to see Billy Preston, Mitchell Robinson or Deanthony Melton play this season.

Allegedly, the investigation into corruption in college hoops has been completed yet penalties won’t be handed down until the day after the national championship.

Tony Bennett has built this Virginia program up in a way that many would’ve called a waste of time in this era. Defense first. A commitment to the program, the team above all else. So many other teams around the country are shifting their principles & allowing substandard activity to tarnish their legacy, meanwhile Coach Bennett is trying to bring back glory days reminiscent of short-shorts & players actually wanting to take your head off if it allowed an advantage to the ball.

Let’s slide a little further South: Mike Krzyzewski fought off the one & done model as long as he could. It’s fitting he’s the only coach to be successful with the model, winning a natty in 2015 with Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones & Justice Winslow leading the way. The difference with that team was a balance of experience & veteran leadership. Another of the freshmen, & likely the least successful pro of the bunch has been around every year since & a leader he is not. This team is likely the most talented & dynamic K has ever coached yet it also doubles as the most likely to be upset by a team that shouldn’t even be within 15 points of them. Attention to detail, a capacity for failure & pride is a huge part of success in college basketball. Duke seems to be lacking the entirety of this humble triumvirate.

Before we dive into the real point of this article, let’s make one last jump across the country. For all the confrustration (confusion + frustration) that has been Duke basketball, the hottest take in the country all season has been surrounding the Oklahoma Basketball Sooners & Trae Young. OU seems to have the most polarizing players in both of its high-yielding sports & they have taken advantage of the spotlight associated with it.

Did OU’s second half of the season warrant inclusion in the NCAA tournament over an Oklahoma St team it got run over by twice also swept Big 12 Champ Kansas?

So yeah. Most wide-open field ever.

Spoiler Alert: None of the teams mentioned above appears again in a positive light.

Gonzaga

Zach Collins is in the NBA & Przemek Karnowski could help many of the teams there. Yet Mark Few continues to reinvent himself every season & finds a way to make his team relevant from a national standpoint.

The OG vein of coaches typically bring a style & a system to the table & recruit to said philosophies. The millennial coach, the new generation coach that will have success & soon will become the standard will be basketball purists who enjoy the idea of each season being a piece of artwork. You have to enjoy the journey that becomes the painting that is your season. The demand for a winning culture either cultivates pressure or it creates opportunity. The Zags very likely will be one of the last teams standing again as they rate 6th in the country in defending the two.

New Mexico State/Murray State

To be completely candid, there wouldn’t be any amount of shock if every 12 seed in the tourney advances. The 5-seeds:

West Virginia, Kentucky, Clemson & Ohio State have all been exposed in one way or another. Fast forward to March & the 5-seed is never a gift.

No 5 seed has ever won a national championship & the only two to ever make a Final four (Butler & Michigan State in 2010) had arguments for being under seeded.

These teams find themselves here as they have tons in common: defensive systems committed to being disruptive, elite athletes who have committed to the system & a Buchanan from Mississippi that Smoove had a hand in cultivating before now.

These kids have worked their entire lives for this moment & chose the schools they did for a chance to shock the world.

What are the chances they both advance to the Sweet 16 out of San Diego? You’ll just have to watch & find out.

11-seeds

Congratulations Florida & TCU. You’ve drawn the teams with the most to prove in this year’s tournament without having fully established an identity for yourselves. This is your tape. Regardless of who wins either play-in game, not only are you playing a team of equal or greater talent, but the nerves are gone.

Houston, of its own volition, has the potential to shake up the tournament as a confident, well-coached Kelvin Sampson team has before but looking past Steve Fisher’s protégé would be a mistake. All four 11-seeds could change the trajectory of this tournament but be on the lookout for at least one. My bet?

The Ramblers of Loyola Chicago.

Arizona

The team with the most to prove, the most dominant player in the country on a nightly basis & the coach whose name has been drug through the mud the most over the last 60 days.

This is a team that has every reason to fail. Most bets have them failing & in order to win a national championship, teams have to thrive in adversity.

You have to have the capacity to win ugly games.

Win games with your third or fourth offense.

DeAndre Ayton gives Zona the type of game changing player necessary to accomplish these things.

Not to mention some veteran, frustrated help around him.

Michigan State

Is this the year it all comes together for Izzo & crew to bring home their second national championship? All signs say yes.

The most wide-open season field ever feels a lot like that tournament in 2000 that was filled with upsets & teams playing above their seeding.

That 2000 team had made the Final Four the previous year before losing to Duke. Cleaves could’ve gone to the NBA but decided to return to school. The rest is history.

The NCAA's one-and-done problem is the NBA's fault
(Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)

(Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)

The One and Done era is a timeframe in which no entity, organization or person wants to take credit for.  No one wants to take credit for 17 & 18- year-old basketball players in America not being allowed to make an honest living for themselves and their families.  When it is worded like that, it sounds worse than the NBA wanting their players to be a year removed from high school to enter their league.

Lots of people have thrown blame on everyone for this rule that the NBA instituted in 2006; agents, the NCAA (whom I love blaming for just about everything but this is not that time) and even the media.  Unfortunately, the blame lies with none of them but with, surprise surprise, the NBA.  More specifically, the front offices of all 30 teams in the NBA.

In the spring of 1995, pre-social media, there was a rumor that a high school senior out of Farragut Academy in Chicago was going to enter the NBA Draft.  Prep hoops back then was not the money hype machine that it is today so high school players weren’t big celebrities like they are today (see Williamson, Zion.). No one nationally had heard of this kid but thanks to these rumors, Kevin Garnett was starting to become a known name.

Garnett would not be the first player to go from high school to the NBA, as Moses Malone had that distinction in 1974, but he would be the first to make the leap in over 20 years. The Minnesota Timberwolves took a risk by drafting Garnett fifth overall in the 1995 NBA Draft but that risk soon paid off as he made his first All-Star team in only second season and looked to be the next evolution at the power forward position.

You may have heard in reference to all professional leagues that “it’s a copycat league”. That definitely fit the NBA from 1995-2005 when, due to the arrogance of the NBA front office execs they ushered in the One-and-Done era that required a basketball player to be one year removed from high school before they can declare for the draft.

Yes, the Timberwolves struck gold with Garnett in 1995, the Lakers did the same in trading for a young Kobe Bryant on draft night in 1996, the Raptors unearthed a diamond in the rough with Tracy McGrady in 1997 and in 2003, drafting LeBron was a no-brainer for any team, especially for the home state Cleveland Cavaliers.  The problem with those success stories during the decade is that NBA execs kept trying to recreate that by drafting high school players at a rapid rate who did not come close to the measurables of the prior four.

See, the problem isn’t that high school players entered the draft, the problem that they were drafted in hopes of being the next KG or Kobe or T-Mac or LeBron; or even the next Dwight Howard, JR Smith or Al Jefferson. But they won’t get someone else in another player, they won’t even get the second coming of another player; however that will not stop them from drafting a high school player high.

Think back to when you were 17 or 18 and the mindset you had. Now imagine one of the biggest organizations or companies in the world notices your talent and offers to make you an instant millionaire to work for them. You will have $10 million dollars in your bank account before you turn 21. The only catch with the job because, of course there’s a catch, is that you have to be the face of the company, improve rapidly, mature much sooner than you’re expected to and don’t do anything to embarrass the company even though you’re a kid. If that catch isn’t met, no big deal, your contract won’t be renewed and you’ll be seen as a bust and your ability to be hired elsewhere will be spotty at best. Sounds pretty unfair to me.

That is exactly what high school players are asked to do when they are drafted into the NBA, especially if they’re drafted in the lottery. Drafting an athlete into your league is risky no matter their age and background. Drafting an athlete that has experience, assumed maturity and has seen ups and downs throughout a brief career is a safer bet than a teenager that can jump high.  Be smarter NBA execs and remove your ego.  High school basketball players should be able to enter the NBA Draft and be afforded the opportunity to provide for themselves and their family. Doesn’t mean they should have the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Two coaches, 1000 wins
Facebook

Facebook

One thousand. The word itself likely was originally part of a compound meaning “a great multitude.” Going even further, first elements of the word have roots in meanings to include “strong, force” which is quite fitting considering there were only 8 total coaches in all of NCAA basketball history that have collected 1000 wins in their career. Were stood correct until January 17, 2018. Word on the street is that the list is subject to grow even longer sometime this year. But we’ll get into that in a bit. Congratulations Barbara Stevens. This is your tape.

“Bardy” Stevens came up during a time where being known as a female athlete came with a stigma that was embarrassing, shameful. So much so that in college, she captained & ran the point for Bridgewater State College before completing two years as a softball player & two more as a tennis player, earning captain rank between those lines as well. Needless to say, Stevens isn’t someone who allows her story to be measured or manipulated by others. Looking back, it’s no wonder she’s spent 40 years in coaching.

In those 40 years, Coach Stevens has achieved plenty:

  • 5-time (‘92, ’99, ’01, ’13, ’14)  WBCA National Coach of the Year (D-II)
  • 2002 Carol Eckman Award
  • 2002 New England Basketball Hall of Fame
  • 2006 Women’s basketball Hall of Fame
  • 2006 Clark University Hall of Fame

Yet, I still believe there’s no coincidence that in her first head coaching stop at UMass, Stevens crossed paths with the name many consider the greatest ever: Geno Auriemma. Prior to UConn’s establishment as a superpower, Geno was a first-year head coach too. They matched up in his seventh game & UConn ended up getting the win. Now 35 years later, the coaches are in the same class, 1 of 9 with 1000 career wins. Congratulations to Coach Barbara Stevens of the Bentley Falcons.

John Munson/The Star-Ledger

John Munson/The Star-Ledger

Now, if you hop on I-95S & travel about 4.5 hours, you’ll find yourself in Piscataway, New Jersey, home of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, and since 1995, stomping grounds of the legendary C. Vivian Stringer. The first coach in men’s or women’s basketball history to take three separate schools (Cheyney State ’82, Iowa ’93, Rutgers ’00, ’07) to the Final Four, Stringer is the definition of a pioneer. Six wins shy of 1000, upon her completion of said milestone the list will soon read like a who’s who, a Mount Rushmore of basketball genius:

Pat Summitt -Tennessee: (1098-208)
Tara Vanderveer-Ohio State, Stanford: (1018-235)
Mike Krzyzewski-Duke: (1082-330)
Harry Statham-McKendree (NAIA): (1117-499)
Herb Magee-Philadelphia University: (1053-417)
Danny Miles-Oregon Tech: (1040-437)
Geno Auriemma-Connecticut: (1010-135)
Sylvia Hatchell-Francis Marion, North Carolina: (1000-377)
Barbara Stevens-Clark University, UMASS, Bentley: (1000-25)

But on a personal level, the poppington melanin, the flyest shades you ever did see & her poised yet pointed response to ignorance carelessly lofted in the direction of her players after Don Imus’ infamous & ignorant rant about her ’07 team, illustrated just how much Stringer means to the progression of basketball in general & explicitly women’s basketball. The first African American coach to win 900 games, she will be the first to win 1000. The Black Coaches Association awards its annual Coach of the Year honor in Stringer’s name. The epitome of giving someone their flowers while they’re here. & deservedly so.

Yet, when you get the rare chance to see the eyes behind those shades, you see that the passion is still there. The drive. Every name listed above carries heavy characteristics of a type-A personality. They have to. 1000 wins is peak insanity. Going to basketball practice every single day & finding a way to get excited about a group of kids who may or may not know what they want to accomplish, if anything that day. Rest assured, when they’re done. You’ll know it. Here’s Stringer after a conference game in December:

Needless to say, her passion is still there. Just like every other name on this list, these pioneers have already left their mark on this beautiful art we strive to push forward daily.  I thank you for setting the bar for myself & my peers to push even higher. I hope we make you proud.

Fundamentally Sound Ep.1

We debut a new women's hoops pod hosted by @TheFlyestHoopa 

Week 1 of our sessions will lay the foundation for the program to come. Fundamentally Sound was created with the sole intent of talking women’s hoops, non-stop with the singular goal of learning something new each time.

Here’s hoping you decide to commit.

What to watch out for in conference play

My favorite part of the holiday is that it brings the non-conference portion of the college basketball season to a close. Let’s be honest: some teams continually test their teams every season because they all understand the caliber with which they must hold players accountable to sustain, achieve or emulate the level of success, but most just don’t. Some will use youth or transfers as reasoning but at the end of the day, I’ve always learned best when being thrown into the fire & expected to figure it out. Conference play is the same concept.

Even for a freshman, the experience will be completely different in conference play because the veteran a team may have come to rely on might not be as available when they have a defender that knows their tendencies, or that shot that you were getting consistently against non-conference teams has been scouted & taken away. Teams know that while the early part of the year sets a tone, you want to be playing your best ball come March, which means closing the season strong into the conference tournament and then into postseason play.

Things can go a multitude of ways & the season itself is guaranteed to have peaks & valleys. Let’s take a look at two perennial final four contenders on each side.

Duke men's

The Blue Devils came into this preseason with all the hype after an underwhelming finish to last season; mainly due to the influx of what's been considered the best freshman class in the country. They’ve all had their struggles & growing pains, even losing a player to transfer yet they passed their non-conference exam with flying colors. They didn’t dominate every game & likely trailed way more than they should have, but they found ways to continue to win games. Then came the ACC opener, on the road, early in the morning, against a team that just lost a key guy to injury & starting two guys with North Carolina ties. Result? Duke took its first loss to Boston College. The beauty of the process? They wouldn’t have won the next game game against Florida State (more on they later) had they beat BC. Issa cycle.

Stanford women's

Oy. Losing to a team twice before December is bad enough. But having six losses before the calendar flips? AP poll voters were unsure what to do with the Cardinal for the last couple weeks, however, after dropping a home game to Western Illinois (Editors note: GO FUCKING NECKS!!!), you just kick them out & don’t worry about them anymore, right? Wrong. Facing a three-game losing streak, two of which to open Pac-12 play, Hall of fame coach Tara Vanderveer used her mix of cagey veterans & fearless freshmen to upset then 11th-ranked UCLA before knocking off a previously 10-2 USC squad. 312 consecutive appearances in the poll ended but the Cardinal came right back into the rankings this week at 24. If they can find some consistency after fielding a healthy roster for the first time all season, Columbus is still an option for this team.

Needless to say, whether for good or for worse, the conference season will tell a coaching staff a lot about what their strengths & weaknesses are, with more than enough time to adjust for postseason play. Let’s take a look at six teams in both men's and women's basketball that should be poised to make the most noise in March. The teams listed below were ranked lower than three in their conference preseason’s poll.

MEN

Florida State Seminoles (ACC)

I’m grateful Duke only has to see this team once during ACC play. Leonard Hamilton’s team came into Cameron Indoor Stadium confident & ready to steal a win. They proceeded to hit 15 threes and wouldn’t back down from the most talented team in the country. This game also seemed like the early separator for player of the year. Marvin Bagley III’s monstardom was on full display.

If this team can find a way to get into the postseason, they should make some noise. There was a bit of an over exaggeration of expectations after this team made its first NCAA tournament but look for Chris Collins to right the ship throughout the course of conference play & have his team in the conversation, if not into the tournament. If they can get in, they should be able to snag a win or two this time.

Oklahoma Sooners (Big 12)

If you love basketball in its purest form, you need to find a way to watch Oklahoma play. Lon Kruger has made a career of being an elite basketball coach. We’ve all played for that one coach who has one system & regardless the rhythm, rhyme or reason, they force players to fit into that mold. Buddy Hield splashed onto the national scene two years ago because Kruger catered to his skill-set. Now, he’s got a transcendent basketball IQ that’s native to Norman. Look out March. Guards win big games. & Trae Young has been the best guard in the country so far.

Mississippi State Bulldogs (SEC)

Remember how I mentioned that guards win big games? Well Mississippi State has probably the most underrated backcourt in the nation. Brothers Quinndarry & Nick Weatherspoon overshadowed the signing & subsequent transfer of McDonald’s All-American Malik Newman, & rightfully so. Add in Xavian Stapleton & Tyson Carter & that’s all All-Mississippi quartet of guards that can go with anyone in the country. The only thing keeping them out of regular conversation is lack of talent around them & shaky coaching. A run or two during SEC play is needed to hold onto a berth, but at 12-1 the team controls their own destiny.

Oregon Ducks (Pac 12)

Dana Altman is on the path to creating a west coast powerhouse, even if this seems to be a transitional year as key guys from Oregon’s deep run into the Final Four last season have moved on. New names must step up,but so far so good. Payton Pritchard is an electrifying young guard to match the one on the women’s team & Eugene has to be happy with the current state of hoops.

Murray State Racers (Ohio Valley)

Ja Morant is the most electrifying freshman point guard in the country. Shaq Buchanan was the most entertaining JUCO prospect in the country last year & now they team up every night to put on a show in the Ohio Valley Conference. Find tickets.


 

WOMEN

Syracuse Orange (ACC)

Quentin Hillsman might be onto something. I watched a ton of basketball during the U19 world championship this summer & was highly impressed by a group of French players, two of whom are taller than 6’0 and play on the wing. The other a gritty, tough, strong power forward who played even bigger than her solid size. Two of those players are on the roster & have yet to play this year (redshirt to play them together much?) and the other is already signed. Next year could prove to be the start of something special but don’t sleep on this year’s team either. Tiana Mangakahia & Miranda Drummond have been two of the most impactful transfers to play this season.

 

Rutgers Scarlet Knights (Big Ten)

Rutgers hasn’t looked like themselves in a few years. Part of that has been because Tyler Scaife has either had no help or wasn’t healthy. Neither of those is the case this season & Scaife has the team knocking on the national rankings again. C. Vivian Stringer is one of the best coaches our profession has to offer and not many coaches would have continued to believe in the process the way she has during a down couple of years that has seen players that likely wouldn’t have gotten time on a good team transfer even when getting quality minutes. Needless to say, things are headed in the right direction in Piscataway.

Oklahoma State Cowgirls (Big 12)

Sometimes, every step of the way feels wrong until you reach the spot you’re supposed to be in. Nobody will be able to tell that story more than OSU’s Loryn Goodwin. Transfer after transfer, trying to finally have an opportunity to play for a coach that recruited her, Goodwin still produced at every level she played at. Now, on the big stage, she’s shown up big time. She played extremely well in a tough environment in Starkville, Mississippi before losing to a still undefeated Mississippi State team. She also proved to be a quick study as they followed that up with a victory over UCLA, picked to win the PAC-12 in Los Angeles.

Tennessee Lady Vols (SEC)

This is a make or break year for Holly Warlick. To be candid, it should’ve come long before now. But to her credit, Warlick has taken advantage of the extra wiggle room she was given. With a determined, focused senior class anchored by the talented freshmen class, the house that Pat Summitt built is finally built in a manner she would be proud of. Proud of their performance? So far so good. With some good wins to boot. But beating teams in the non-conference only looks good when you back that up in conference. One of only four undefeated teams left, fourth in the preseason poll is looking mighty foolish.

Southern California Women of Troy (Pac 12)

This would’ve been an easy season to dial it in & wait for next season when he’s able to bring in his own recruits in addition to adding All-American transfer & sister of starting point guard Minyon, Mariya Moore to the fold. Not so fast says Mark Trakh. With a roster that includes three seniors who have been integral to the Cynthia Cooper-Dyke era at SC, he’s doing the right thing & working to put this team in positions to succeed. PAC-12 play will reveal whether this is a group of contenders or pretenders.

Belmont Bruins (Atlantic Sun)

Cameron Newbauer built a brand with this team that I personally questioned was sustainable after he left. The crew in Nashville bought into his culture almost immediately & it’s paying dividends even after he made the transition south. Aided by a couple high major transfers, this team is here to make noise this season. With victories over Gonzaga, Florida Gulf Coast, & Vanderbilt, where senior Kylee Smith began her career, this team’s focus will be in March. Trying to finalize one of the potential wins they’ve let slip in the NCAA tournament the last two years.