Category Archives: Basketball

Mostly High’s on Northwestern Basketball’s Trip to Spain

The Northwestern men’s basketball team just completed their trip to Spain, which featured five exhibition games against European professional teams.  The Wildcats finished the trip 4-1, their only loss coming in the trip’s opening contest against Estudiantes.

While the all around level of competition may not be on par with what the NCAA, or certainly MG_2340-300x200the Big Ten, have to offer, it was an opportunity for them to face competition long before most teams hit camp.

Before they left, coach Chris Collins spoke about this being an opportunity for them to spend time together, bond as a team and form chemistry. The trip would act as an extended training camp of sorts with a little European vacation thrown in, an opportunity that any college student, or anyone in general, would jump at.

In the game highlights the team looked good, struggling at times out of the gate but making adjustments and finishing strong. Their defensive intensity, something Collins has emphasized in pre and post game comments, was apparent in each of the last four games.

What jumped out to me was how balanced the scoring was. The Wildcats shared the ball, and outside of two dominant performances by Tre Demps in the last two games, the scoring was spread out pretty evenly, with as many as six players scoring in double digits in an individual game.

In game one, the team’s only loss, they allowed the most points to an opponent on the trip, 21 more than the next highest scoring opponent. It was a helpful wake up call for the ‘Cats, who may have underestimated their competition or had trouble adjusting to the different style of play. Northwestern made it close near the end of the game after a run by Estudiantes, but it wasn’t enough as they fell short 84-82. Demps led the way with 19 points, but they struggled to get stops the entire game.

Game two against Eurocolegio Casvi  was an entirely different story, as they started the game on an 8-2 run, and finished the half scoring 16 unanswered points. Sophomore Scottie Lindsey led the way with 21 points, but the broader story in this game was the dominent low post play of Joey van Zegeren, and the hot shooting of freshman Aaron Flazon. The two came off the bench and made huge impacts immediately, van Zegeren with some monster dunks and Falzon from beyond the arc. It was never much of a contest, as the Wildcats took this one 98-50.

In game three the Wildcats got off to a slow start against UCAM Murcia and only led by seven at the half, but another huge second half run put them up by 28 after three quarters. The scoring was led again by Lindsey, who had 20 points, and Demps who had 18. It was the second 20-point performance in a row from the second year forward Lindsey who is looking to make himself a regular rotation player come November. The ‘Cats breezed through the rest of this win, coming out on top 94-54.

Game four against CB Tarragona followed a pattern that had started to become all too similar on this trip – a slow start in the first half and a blowout in the second. The second half domination was due primarily to Demps’ hot hand from behind the arc. Demps finished the game with a trip-high 38 points in a 86-63 rout.

In the team’s final game against USA Toulouges, the Wildcats kept the pattern going with a slow start and a strong finish. The game was close until the end of the first half when Demps and Falzon got hot from behind the arc and put the Wildcats up for good. Demps led the way with 23 points, while Aaron Flazon scored 16 points and Scottie Lindsey added 13.

The biggest take away from this trip was never going to be the wins and losses, but rather the way in which they executed in these games.

There were concerns to focus on in these games primarily against teams that did not seem too terribly competitive. The slow starts are something to keep an eye on. It could have been a case of playing down to their competition or just not being focused to start games, but against better NCAA teams, they will not have the same ability to bounce back. Especially for an underdog Big Ten team like the Wildcats, they cannot afford to start games slow or complacent.

All in all this was a good trip for the team, if for no other reason than they all came back healthy. Some of the highlights of the trip included the play of Scottie Lindsey, who was consistently one of the top one or two scorers. Lindsey certainly made a case for increased minutes this season (he only averaged 15.1mpg last season), alongside starters Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Demps and Olah. The Wildcats’ bench showed that it could be promising, with solid play from their newest transfer van Zegeren and the freshmen Falzon and Dererk Pardon. Depth is going to be important this year as they look to win now and also develop their young players for the future.

The Wildcats will have a little time off before they really have to start focusing on the season, which kicks off in November with the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.

 

Northwestern Basketball Gears Up for Spain Trip

Northwestern basketball embarks on a trip to Spain this weekend, where they will tour the country and play five exhibition games against professional European teams. Schools are only NU Media Day Photo 8:19eligible for the trip once every four years, the last one made by Northwestern was in 2010.

Collins is clearly setting the pace and the mindset for the players as they prepare for the trip, where they will face Estudiantes, Eurocolegio Casvi, UCAM Murcia II, Andorra and US Toulouges.

“I think more than anything [we’re looking forward to] the team bonding, the camaraderie, the chemistry”, said coach Chris Collins when he spoke to reporters at their practice on Wednesday. “Obviously you want to win the games, you wanna play well, you wanna try to see things about your team, but those things are secondary to what I think a trip like this can do for a team in terms of how they bond and the chemistry they have going forward”.

The biggest adjustments being made in practice as preparation for this trip involve playing with European rules, including a small ball, deeper three point line, wider lanes and a 24 second shot clock.

“Its been great to see guys up against the clock”, said Collins. “So you learn you have to push it up quicker, you have to get into your sets quicker, and then when it does get to five or six seconds on the shot clock, you can’t panic. You have to use those last few seconds to really get a good shot and I think those are gonna be huge things as we head into the college basketball season”.

Coming off a positive end to last season, the Wildcats are looking at this trip as an opportunity to build off of that success both on and off the court. The team has been spending more time together in the offseason, building their chemistry but also focusing on their games and their conditioning. There were some noticeable changes in some of the guys when they came out for practice Wednesday. Senior center Alex Olah is leaner, as are fowards Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey and point guard Bryant McIntosh. They are hoping to gain more versatility in their lineups where Law can not only be stronger in the post, but can also bring it up at times, taking some of the pressure off of McIntosh and allowing him to play off the ball at times.

Even with all of that, the success of the Wildcats this season will on their leading scorer, senior Tre Demps. Demps is coming off his best season at Northwestern and is looking to continue to improve as a player a leader, which starts with keeping the high expectations in check.

“I’m really not thinking about March”, said Demps. “If you’re thinking about March then you’re not really thinking about what it takes to get there, and what it takes to get there is buying in every single day, doing things right every single day, practicing hard, and not letting a day go by where you didn’t get better.”

Collins is very high on Demps, who he has only had for two years. He has worked hard this offseason on being more efficient in the lane, being able to finish more consistently at the hoop and improving his defense as well, a shortcoming in his game he is not afraid to address. He has matured nicely, as evidenced by his feelings about not looking too far ahead, and his eager to take on a leadership role this season along with fellow captains Alex Olah and Sanjay Lumpkin.

“He’s gotten better each year”, said Collins”. “No one works harder on their game. There’s an added maturity to him….and its nice to have that on the team. He’s obviously gonna be a big scorer for us and thats gonna be a great role, but, he’s also gonna have some ball handling duties as well, which he was anxious to add to his game and give him a chance to have the ball in his hands and bring it up a little bit, so I think you’ll see him in that role a little bit as well”.

This trip will be a great opportunity for this team to get a head start on the season, playing against international competition. It will not only benefit the players, but it’ll also benefit Collins, who is entering his third season and is really starting the settle in with this group. He knows that there will be a sense of urgency for his seniors this season, but he is quick to temper the excitement surrounding the team.

“We wanna be a team that’s talked about in March, but to do that, you can’t skip steps along the way. It’s August right now and we don’t talk about March, we talk about what we’re doing for this Spain trip. I think teams can really hurt themselves if they get too far ahead. I tell our guys all the time, to me words like “upside” and potential”, the only thing that means is you haven’t done anything. And even though its exciting to hear positive things, we have a long way to go and we have a lot to prove and I want these guys to come to the gym everyday trying to get better, not only individually but as a team.”

The team takes off on August 22nd and returns on September 1st.

 

 

Northwestern Basketball Names 2015-2016 Team Captains

Entering his third full season as Northwestern basketball head coach, Chris Collins has named his team captains for the 2015-2016 season – redshirt senior Tre Demps, senior Alex Olah and redshirt junior Sanjay Lumpkin. MG_2340-300x200

Last season was a mixed bag for this young but promising Wildcats team. After a strong start to the season, the team went on to lost ten straight games, before finishing off the season strong with big wins over Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana and a double overtime win over Michigan.

While the team’s overall record last season was among the bottom tier of the conference, the team has a lot to look forward to entering the season and the positive outlook starts with these three captains.

Demps was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 12.5 ppg. He was a big part of the team’s final five wins and has emerged as their most reliable scorer and one of their best perimeter shooters.

Olah was the team’s second leading scorer last season behind Demps, and led the team in rebounding. Last season was his best yet and enters his senior season as the Wildcats’ all-time leader in blocked shots.

Lumpkin emerged last season as a defensive specialist, leading the team in steals.

The Wildcats are not expected to make a huge jump in the Big Ten next season, a conference still stacked with powerhouses, but there is reason for optimism. Collins has clearly had an impact on the team both on the court and off, including recruiting. Collins agreed to an extension this off season. They will return all five starts from last season, which will allow them to build off the chemistry they began to establish at the end of last year as they hope to contend for the school’s first NCAA tournament bid.

They will play five exhibition games in Spain from August 22nd – September 1st, and will kick off the 2015-2016 season on November 13th at home against the UMass Lowell River Hawks.

Review: 30 for 30 – “I Hate Christian Laettner”

laettnerChristian Laettner is one of the greatest and most maligned college basketball players in NCAA history. His legacy as a hero to Duke fans and a villain to most everyone else is what made him such an intriguing centerpiece for the latest 30 for 30 documentary, “I Hate Christian Laettner”, directed by Rory Karpf.

Growing up a die-hard NBA basketball fan myself, I was only peripherally aware of Laettner at Duke. The only real memory I had of him before watching this documentary was his big shot against Kentucky, and his stint as 12th man on the 1992 “Dream Team” and his overall lackluster NBA career. What I did not know was the hatred of Laettner that goes all the way back to his high school days and still lives on to this day. The documentary focuses on the “Five Points of Laettner Hate” – Privilege, White, Bully, Greatness and Looks – but what really stood out to me about the story was the focus on the perception of Laettner not being reality.

The truth is that Laettner is a blue collar kid from Buffalo, NY. The perception of him as a priveledged white kid came from him going to Nichols High School, a predominantly white college prep school. The reputation was further perpetuated when he went to Duke, a school known for having privileged students from rich families and a basketball program known for solid fundamentals and winning. The fact that he played for one of the all-time great programs in college basketball along with his background, his sometimes dirty play and his exceptional skill made him an easy target for hatred.

This documentary does a great job of focusing on both what made him great and what made so many people angry about him. He wasn’t an innocent player who received his reputation unfairly, but he was far from the image that was built by his reputation. The interviewees gave honest depictions of their relationships with Laettner, be it as a teammate, opponent or family member. Typically a documentarian has an opinion on the topic that they are trying to impose on the work, but I really appreciated that Karpf didn’t appear to be trying to push one opinion over another. It was neither an attack piece nor a glamour piece. The depiction of Laettner was as honest as the man. My only criticism of the documentary was that they talk about how Laettner’s repuation followed him through the pros and to this day, and yet we saw very little between college and present day. I would have liked to hear and see more about his NBA career and why he never became a star at the pro level.

Even though Laettner never became the NBA star that he was in college, his legacy lives on. In four years at Duke he led his team to four Final Fours and two National Championships. His game-winning shot against Kentucky will be engraved in the minds of college basketball fans forever, and this documentary is proof that his reputation has the most hated player in NCAA history will never be forgotten.

 

 

Bring on the Madness!

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One of my favorite times of year is finally here – March Madness. The good weather, the high stakes, and basketball on television nearly every minute of every day. Now, I am by no means an NCAA aficionado. I don’t watch every minute of every regular season or even conference championship game. But since when does being an expert make you more qualified to pick winners when it comes to the NCAA tournament? Sure there are trends to follow and hot players and teams heading into the tournament, but what truly makes March Madness great is its unpredictability – the “madness” if you will. It is one of the few sports bets you can make where the biggest college basketball fan has little advantage over the casual viewer. The thing I love about it is that no matter who much I know about any of the teams going in, I am going to become as emotionally invested as any other fan once that first game tips off. I actually think I approach this with a bit of an advantage over someone rooting for their alma mater. My college doesn’t even have a team, so I go in completely unattached and open to jumping on and getting behind whoever I think is the most fun to watch. It is one of the few times for me where a loss doesn’t equal heartbreak. Its like speed dating. I don’t have a life-mate, nor am I looking for one. I’m just going out looking to have fun.

With that said, lets make some preliminary picks. These may not be the picks I stick with, but they are the ones I like right now after actually watching a good amount of college basketball this year and using a healthy mix of good, solid research and pure gut prediction. I’ll go region by region.

Lets start in the Midwest. I only see one real upset coming out of the Midwest, and that is 12th ranked Buffalo topping 5th ranked West Virginia in the first round. Aside from the history of upsets in the No. 5 vs. No. 12 portion of the bracket, I think there is a lot to like about Buffalo and they are a perfect underdog to get behind. This is their first trip to the tournament, coached by former NCAA star and NBA player Bobby Hurley. Their main weapon is big man Justin Moss, who nearly averaged a double-double this season. With a few notable injuries on West Virginia and a little cinderella magic dust, I can see this twelve seed moving on. I like Notre Dame, but they struggle to get stops on the defensive end. Teams with stars typically have success in the tournament, and Maryland potentially has one in Melo Tremble. But this region starts and ends with Kentucky, and I believe it ends with them. They are more than just hype, this is a team nobody wants to play. They have depth and were dominant all season long. Sure someone could always sneak up on them, but as of today, this is my team to come out of the Midwest.

Now to the East. I don’t see an obvious favorite coming out of this region. To me the team to watch out for is Michigan Stage. Don’t be fooled by their seven seed. You can never count out a Tom Izzo coached team, who will be coming in with a seven seed and a big chip on their shoulder as a result. I think they could get past two seed Virginia, but may have trouble with a team like Oklahoma. In fact, I’m going to take Oklahoma out of the East. They finished the season hot and have one of the best starting fives in all of college basketball.

Now to the West where Big Ten champion Wisconsin holds the top seed, but I think Arkansas is the dark horse team to watch in this region. Arkansas can flat out score and are led by SEC player of the year Bobby Portis. Wisconsin is probably still the favorite and Arizona will be a tough out, but I am not buying Wisconsin. Bo Ryan has them right there every year and they are as fundamentally sound as a college basketball team can be. If the tournament were a “best-of-seven” scenario, Wisconsin might be my champion. But this tournament is about momentum as much as it is about skill and I see them being beaten on any given day by a team playing with more heart. I’m going to take Arizona out of the West because of how well they play against ranked teams.

Finally, we visit the South region. The South has my true Cinderella team, Stephen F. Austin. SF Austin is a great offensive team who made noise in the tournament last year and I think have a favorable bracket to do it again. But to me this region comes down to whether or not Duke and Gonzaga are for real. Duke is a favorite every year and Jahlil Okafor may be the best player in the tournament. Gonzaga is one of the top teams every year, and this may be one of the best teams they’ve had in recent years, but the ‘Zags have a tendency to disappoint come tournament team. If either one of these teams come up with a let down, look out for Iowa State in the South. I like them every year, probably because of my affinity for head coach Fred Hoiberg, but I also think they can shoot lights out.

So, my Final Four looks like this: Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, Iowa State. And my National Title game? Kentucky over Iowa State to win it all. Kentucky is just too skilled and too deep. They have everything that makes a championship team, and as much as I love to ride an underdog, I just don’t see them being upset on their road to becoming NCAA National Champions.

The Sweet Snell of Success

As we head into the NBA All-Star break, there are a number of positive stories coming out of Chicago. Derrick Rose seems to be finally returning to form. Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler are All-Stars this weekend. Joakim Noah is looking more and more like last season’s Defensive Player of the Year. After struggling through much of January, the Bulls now find themselves 2 1/2 games out of the two seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the second half of the season.hi-res-7742632431ecbfef4c83d527f017118e_crop_north

The big story this year has been the emergence of Butler, who made his first all-star appearance this weekend. Butler was the 30th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft by the Bulls and saw very little time on the court in his first two seasons. It took an injury to Luol Deng for Butler to emerge, and he took advantage of the opportunity. After barely playing in the first half of his second season, Butler averaged 40 minutes per game in the second half of the season and became a solid part of the Bulls’ rotation.

Sound familiar? Tony Snell was the 20th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of New Mexico. Barely used and often looking out of place in limited playing time in his rookie season, Snell led the Bulls’ summer league team in scoring and looked to be primed for a break out season. But backcourt depth and coach Tom Thibodeau’s relience on veteran players gave way to very little opportunity for Snell early this season. As was the case in Butler’s second year, injuries gave Snell an opportunity early this season to play but had trouble establishing himself in those games. Snell quickly found himself back in Thibodeau’s doghouse, the recipient of a couple DNP-CD in a row. But since Mike Dunleavy missed 19 games with an ankle injury, and much to Thibodeau’s surprise, Butler can’t play more than 48 minutes in a game, the door re-opened for Snell, and he has made the most of it.

After another DNP-CD agains the Rockets, Snell has made an impact in his last four games, averaging 18.3 points in just over 30 minutes per game. In his last two games playing in place of the injured Butler, Snell averaged 23 ppg only missed 4 shots. He provides the Bulls with a long, athletic wing player (a description that has long had GarPax salivating) who can hit three pointers, defend on the perimeter, and has a surprisingly effective drive game. And while there will surely be more growing pains in only his second NBA season, Snell is starting to fit the description for exactly what the Bulls are missing.

Even more than I was surprised by Butler’s emergence, I’m shocked by what I’m seeing from Tony Snell. I had to see it to believe it. My only worry has we head into the second half of the season is what happens to Snell once the Bulls are fully healthy and get back to their regular rotation. Thibodeau  has, sometimes to a fault, over-valued Kirk Hinrich. I’ve been a Hinrich fan during his entire career on the Bulls, but he has really struggled this year and he is not a two-guard. With rookie Doug McDermott not getting an opportunity, Snell is the backup two/three that the Bulls need to backup Butler and Dunleavy. The big questions is, will Thibs allow Snell to take some of Hinrich’s minutes when everyone is healthy. This is an opportunity for Thibs to show that he can break habit and choose what is best for the team over his own stubbornness.

When the team is fully healthy, hopefully after the all-star break, this is how I’d like to see it break down:

Hinrich and Aaron Brooks can act like a tandem lefty/righty out of a bullpen. Call in Brooks when offense is needed, call in Hinrich when defense is needed and occasionally mix and match them with Rose to cause matchup problems on the other end.

Snell comes off the bench as a combo 2/3 to backup Butler and Dunleavy. He can play both positions and give Butler the much needed rest he so rarely gets.

Cut a few of Gasol’s minutes per game and allow the Bulls to use a lineup with Mirotic to help spread the floor against teams with bigs who have trouble guarding the perimeter.

And finally..

Start letting McDermott get a few minutes at the end of the second quarter and the start of the fourth. Let him regain some confidence and give the Bulls another weapon on the wing.

My gut is that the Bulls will not make a deal at the trade deadline, and if Snell can continue to make progress like this, they won’t need to. One thing is for sure, Gar Foreman and John Paxon know how to find gems late in the NBA draft, and Snell appears to be their latest success story.

72 is Safe

If you’re looking for the greatest team in NBA history, look no further than Randy Brown, Jud Buechler, Jason Caffey, James Edwards, Jack Haley, John Salley, Dickey Simpkins, Bill Wennington, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley.

Oh, and that Jordan guy, his buddy Scottie and some wacky-haired worm. 1996-Chicago-Bulls

I’m talking of course about the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, owners of the best regular season record in NBA history at 72-10. Not only did the Bulls only lose 10 regular season games, but they only lost 3 playoff games on their way to their first NBA title since Michael Jordan’s return to the court.

So, why are we revisiting this other than the warm feeling it gives me to think back on those glorious days? Because while teams will continue to get close (see this year’s Golden State Warriors, coached by a member of that team, Steve Kerr) I believe this record will never be broken.

There was no such thing as a “rest day”

During the Bulls’ 72 win season, Michael Jordan played all 82 regular season games. So did Steve Kerr. Kukoc played 81, Harper played 80, Pippen played 77. At no point did Michael Jordan decide he suddenly needed two weeks off like LeBron James did this year. Phil Jackson wasn’t benching his stars on the second of back-to-backs. He had his best players there and playing almost every night. And while resting your stars tend to lead to losses to teams they should not be losing to, teams don’t seem to mind anymore because, well, reason number two…

The regular season doesn’t matter anymore

Somewhere along the line, top tier teams started to figure out that they could coast a bit in the regular season and find a new gear in the final two months heading into the playoffs. This was not the way things were in the 90’s. Teams played hard and played to win every game. Seeding mattered and so did regular season awards. Stars were stars night in and night out. Which leads me to my next point.

Everyone wasn’t a star

The Atlanta Hawks should have had all five starts on the East All-Star team. Many other teams have 2-3 all-stars or future all-stars/hall of famers. There were less stars in the NBA in the 90’s, and the quality of reserve players has improved greatly. Teams then only had one, maybe 2 top caliber players. Now so many teams stack their roster with all-stars, the competition is greater and there are more great teams to compete with. No one team is unbeatable. And finally the biggest reason the Bulls’ record will never be broken.

They had the greatest player to ever play the game…and he had a massive chip on his shoulder

Coming out of retirement during the 1994-95 season, Michael Jordan was still shaking a lot of the rust off. Jordan only averaged 26.9 ppg, his lowest since his second year in the league. The Bulls struggled to a 45-37 record and were eliminated from the playoffs in a devastating series against former Bull Horace Grant the Orlando Magic. It had been a long time since Jordan and the Bulls went to the playoffs and didn’t go home NBA champions. Michael Jordan did not take losing very well. He came back the next year and averaged over 30 ppg on his away to his 8th scoring title, the league’s most valuable player award, All-NBA first team and All-Defense first team.  Michael Jordan was not going to be denied two years in a row. If he was going to come back to the NBA, he was going to return to being the best in the game. The unique circumstance that saw Michael Jordan briefly retire, return, struggle and return to glory is something I don’t think we’ll see again.

And thus, the 72-win Chicago Bulls will forever be the winningest team in NBA history.