NCAA Tournament: Northwestern developing new mentality as it enters foreign territory

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By Netta-Lee Lax

SALT LAKE CITY — Going into the 1995 PSAL High School Basketball Championship, one could argue that Stephon Marbury was under pressure. A family touted as New York City basketball royalty, three of the four Marbury boys had failed to bring Lincoln High School a city title. Stephon, considered to be one of the best young talents in the nation, had also failed in the years prior. Now in his senior season with 11 seconds left and his team up by just a point, Marbury stepped to the line. This was his last chance to win the coveted title. There he stood, just 18 years old, on the line at “The World’s Most Famous Arena”. Two dribbles and one deep breath, the future NBA All-Star looks to the hoop and sticks his tongue out as his fingers glide off the pebbled leather.  The tension in the air is palpable, even in watching the old film. Marbury would sink both free throws before jumping in the air ecstatically as he realizes that he had just done it – a Marbury boy had finally won a title for Lincoln. The pressure, for the moment, was released.

“I’d be hard-pressed to think there was anybody in the country that played with more pressure than us, the constant daily, will they make it, are they going to collapse, is this the Northwestern we’re always used to seeing?” – Northwestern coach Chris Collins

With just over four minutes left in Northwestern’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, Dererk Pardon stepped to the line.  Northwestern led Vanderbilt, 57-55, but as Pardon prepared to shoot his free throws, the pressure that Northwestern coach Chris Collins alluded to seemed to boil over. The raucous crowd simmered down and my palms started to sweat. I covered Northwestern basketball throughout my four years at the school and often feel personally invested in their success. To this point – in the entire history of the program – these two free throws made for the biggest moment in program history. I typed up my notes, my hands too shaky to scribble anything legible, “Still over 4 minutes left when Pardon hits a pair from the line, but you’d think this was Stephon Marbury about to clinch the city title at MSG.” This was, for Northwestern fans, a moment of legend.

“The last time out before my free throws, Coach said, it’s about toughness, that was in my head the whole time” recalled Pardon, “And before one of my free throws he said, I believe in you. And that gives you a lot of confidence.”

Deep breaths taken, eye on the prize, Pardon sunk them both. Over the course of the next four minutes, Northwestern would go to the marked line four more times. In the last two minutes of the game, the lead would change hands six times.  One might even argue, the pressure was mounting.

As Collins put it, “Your stomach is churning, because you want it so badly.”

The crowd grew quieter and quieter every time Vanderbilt took the lead and louder and louder each time Northwestern stole it back, but those free throws – that was where you could really sense how much this meant to this team, to this staff and to these fans.

They call them the Cardiac ‘Cats. Northwestern is better known for its failures in the athletic realm than its successes. The last time I covered the Wildcats at a major basketball tournament was the 2012 Big Ten Conference Tournament. An event marked by a first round meltdown that assured Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer would never burst the bubble and make it to the dance. It was the final game in a season filled with last minute collapses (Looking at you, Jared Sullinger). But the history of struggles on the hardwood can be traced back to the very first NCAA Final Four which was played on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Yet until today, Northwestern was the only  power conference team to have not danced in March. The further you dig into Northwestern’s basketball history, the more heartbreak you find. From legitimate tragedy when former coach Ricky Byrdsong was murdered while walking with his two children, to unfortunate parts in historic events like Wilt Chamberlain scoring 52 points in his University of Kansas debut or as one article described it the “spanking” of Northwestern. Legendary coaches like Tex Winter (head coach from 1973-1978) have tried and failed (Winter finished with a 42-89 record) where Collins has finally succeeded. In the last five years, Northwestern has won two bowl games (having not won a single bowl game for 64 years prior to 2013) and now has at least one victory in the NCAA Tournament. This is foreign territory they’ve encountered. This is a new sort of Wildcat mentality.

This season Northwestern racked up the most wins in the 112 year history of the program and as March rolled in the ‘Cats all but secured a place in the big dance for the first time with an epic last-second win over the Michigan Wolverines. With less than two seconds left in regulation Nathan Taphorn inbounded a quarterback pass, throwing the ball the length of the court right into the hands of Pardon who laid it in for the Wildcat victory. That game, explained Collins, was a turning point for the team’s mentality.

“I’ve noticed ever since winning that Michigan game we’ve relaxed and got back to playing the way we were playing all year,” Collins said.

Nine days later the Wildcats again made program history when they won two games in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time. A few days after that they finally saw their name in the bracket, I “mean the watch party was a day we’ll never forget,” recalled Collins, “Because that was history. That’s a moment that will live with me and us forever, because that was doing something that’s never been done.”

Tonight was also something that had never been done before and the pressure was on.

“We are doing this for more people than just ourselves,” senior Sanjay Lumpkin said. “We are doing this for people like Billy McKinney, Jim Stack, Drew Crawford – all these older players that have played for this program. So many people have been a part of this.”

Pardon was a mere 52 percent from the line during the regular season and through the Big Ten Tournament, but he knocked down all six of his free throws in the final stretch of this game. He was infallible and unflappable.

“I was really proud of Dererk, especially” explained Collins, “He’s had his struggles at the line throughout his career. He works at it religiously every day. For him to walk up and make six in a row in the last [four minutes], I was really proud of him.”

Dribble, deep breath, swish.  The tension, for the moment, was released.

For Marist men’s basketball, an international recruiting tradition is at a crossroads

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College basketball recruitment in the United States can be a years-long, expensive journey that sometimes ends with disappointment. High school hopefuls spend several summers trekking across the country, taking the court for travel and AAU teams just for a chance to be noticed by Division I coaches. The culmination of these efforts is a scholarship to play at the highest collegiate level.

For those that are recruited by Division I institutions, it can be a dream come true. The continuous sacrifices made to showcase your talent in front of coaches from around the country has finally paid off. For others, a lack of offers from top-tier schools can make the entire process seem worthless.

Imagine avoiding the grueling process altogether and being recruited through a screen. Athletes aspiring to play overseas use highlight videos, Facebook messages and Skype sessions to communicate with coaching staffs. While competition for a spot on a Division I roster is as fierce as ever in the United States, international students can be recruited through a laptop or cell phone screen without even stepping foot on a court to impress coaches.

College basketball programs often do not have the budget or resources to travel overseas to watch a player live, or fly the athlete to a workout session in the U.S. The difficulty of judging players based on a highlight tape strays most away from international recruiting. Some coaches take advantage of the niche market and bolster their roster with top-notch foreign talent.

Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York sported six international players on their men’s basketball roster last season. European natives comprised more than a third of the roster, representing Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Montenegro, Italy and Finland.

International recruits pass up an opportunity to play under a contract in European professional leagues for the chance to play among United States competition. For players at Marist and other mid-major schools within the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, an American education is often at the front of mind.

Denmark’s David Knudsen started all 30 games he played in last season. (Marist Athletics)

“When you’re in Europe, you can try and receive pro contracts, but you can play pro basketball for many years. College is a one-time experience,” said David Knudsen, a 6-foot-5-inch rising senior from Copenhagen.

He played for the Vaerlose Basketball Klub in Denmark’s top league during the 2014-15 season. Injuries in consecutive summers leading up to college recruitment sidelined Knudsen, but a liaison from Denmark established a contact with Marist. Youth national teams in Europe can be a goldmine for college coaches, but only for those willing to take the risk.

Head coach Mike Maker was fired on March 5, after totaling a 28-97 overall record since he took the job before the 2014-15 season. John Dunne, hired on April 3, after 12 years heading Saint Peter’s, does not have the international recruiting experience that Marist has become accustomed to for decades. “That’s not an avenue that my staff has used,” he said. “When you’re recruiting, you don’t want to spend a ton of money on players that you might not be able to get.”

Dunne compiled a 153-225 overall record with the Peacocks. He has found a new home just over 80 miles north of Jersey City, but he already has a head start on his new gig after coaching against Marist twice each season. “I know they have seen the Saint Peter’s program from a distance and competed against us, so they understand our expectations,” Dunne said.

Unlike his predecessor, the defensive-minded coach centers his recruiting focus on the Northeast. “That doesn’t mean we won’t venture out to the Midwest, West Coast or even internationally if we have a good lead,” he said. “But we are certainly going to pinpoint more recruiting in the Northeast.”

Tobias Sjoberg, a 6-foot-9-inch rising junior from Malmo, Sweden, was recruited to Marist under the conditions of Maker and his staff. “He told me that he wanted me to start and add some size to the team,” Sjoberg said. After acquiring interest from assistant coach Andy Johnston while playing in the U-18 FIBA European Championships and for Sweden’s U-20 National Team, Sjoberg was evaluated by Maker based on highlight videos.

“You really have to be careful recruiting any player, international or not, if you haven’t seen them play live,” Marist Athletic Director Tim Murray said. “Most coaches will tell you it’s really hard to evaluate off tape.” Dunne has a similar mindset, adding, “You also have to evaluate the competition level.”

John Dunne was hired after 12 seasons at Saint Peter’s. (Marist Athletics)

Against the norm, Maker went all-in on international recruiting, but it wasn’t a method out of the ordinary at Marist. A bobblehead of Rik Smits sat in Maker’s office as a constant reminder that the best player in the history of Marist men’s basketball hailed from the Netherlands. The second overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft shepherded the first wave of international players at Marist.

Murray was an assistant coach during Smits’ time at Marist, as was current Pistons General Manager Jeff Bower. “When Marist was recruiting international kids in the mid-80s, that was almost unheard of,” Murray said.

According to Business Insider, the NBA had a mere 1.7 percent of players born outside of the United States in the 1980-81 season. During that same decade, Marist often had a starting five that was mostly comprised of foreigners. The percentage rose to 7.6 percent in the 1997-98 season and nearly quadrupled in just under two decades, growing to 28.6 percent during the 2015-16 NBA season.

Marist was breaking barriers.

Smits teamed up with Frenchman Rudy Bourgarel, the father of Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert, to lead Marist to their only NCAA Tournament berths in 1986 and 1987. Bourgarel spent a decade playing professionally in France, but never made it to the NBA, a dream his son is now living.

Landing the 7-foot-4-inch Dunking Dutchman and Bourgarel sparked a history of international recruits at Marist, something that hasn’t left since it began. But four straight seasons with over 20 losses under Maker was a cause for concern. “Bottom line is it’s a win business and we didn’t win enough,” Murray said.

The Red Foxes were the doormat of the conference throughout Maker’s stint as head coach, but the hiring of Dunne, a fellow MAAC head coach, will bring a defensive mind to the Hudson Valley. And boy, does Marist need help on that end of the floor, ranking among the worst of all 351 Division I programs last season in points allowed (333rd) and turnover margin (344th). “From Murray’s view, I understand the decision because the results were not what we would have liked them to be,” Knudsen said.

The decision left players in shock, especially those from overseas that forewent a professional career in Europe on Maker’s word. “When he told me, I was pretty sad because this is the guy that recruited me, and I have great respect for him as a person,” Sjoberg said.

Tobias Sjoberg was recruited from Sweden by Mike Maker’s staff. (Marist Athletics)

Though a coaching change is not in the cards for any athlete when they sign a letter of intent, there is added pressure for international players to prove they belong in the NCAA. “You have to go into all seasons hungry and try to prove yourself,” Knudsen said. “I think Coach Dunne is more neutral and just looks at basketball.”

Keep in mind, Maker offered most of the six international players on the roster last season their only Division I scholarship. Adjusting to a new head coach, especially one that has only coached two international players since 2010, could turn a life-changing decision into a regrettable one. “One of the things I say to athletes is that nobody likes change, but you can deal with change in one of two ways,” Murray said. “You can embrace it and succeed, or you can resist it and fail.”

As for Sjoberg, he was essentially guaranteed a starting spot on the team by Maker, but a bit of unrest may build if these plans are jeopardized by new coaches. “I think every kid is uneasy about their role with a new coach,” Murray said. “Coach Dunne is going to look at things differently, so you have to basically re-prove yourself. It’s a clean slate.”

Just over a month into his position, Dunne is tasked with building a relationship with players familiar with his coaching style, but worried about their future role on the team. With any new coach, gaining trust is imperative. “I think communication is a really key component to successful coaching,” Murray said. “My paradigm is recruiting, communicating and coaching, in that order and in that priority.”

Dunne does not seem too worried about connecting with players, international or not. He isn’t placing players from overseas under a different umbrella, but rather evaluating athletes individually. “It’s like getting married,” Dunne said. “You don’t really know them until you’re living with them every day. It’s the same kind of thing, so you take it day by day.”

The journey to college for international students usually isn’t the high school standout, AAU all-star path that most athletes take. There is often a sit-back-and-wait approach, where coaches from national teams contact American schools about recruiting opportunities. European professional leagues remain a likely possibility for Division I prospects, but the college experience in the United States is a one-time opportunity.

Faced with an unexpected coaching change, international athletes are left up in the air about their place on a roster. Committing to a Division I program is rare for foreigners, but adapting to a new coach is worth the chance to play with the best collegiate players.

Marist has developed a pedigree of overseas recruits, so players like Knudsen and Sjoberg can rest assured that their talents will likely be valued under Dunne. “I think that he can do a great job with us as a team and myself as an individual,” Sjoberg said. “As long as we do our job and do our best, he’s going to notice that.”

Villanova betting favorite against Michigan in NCAA Tournament title game

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The Villanova Wildcats and Jalen Brunson have won every one of their NCAA Tournament games this year by at least 10 points, including a matchup against a team whose defense was just as stingy as that of their Monday night opponent, the Michigan Wolverines.

The Wildcats are 6.5-point betting favorites at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com against the Wolverines with a 145-point total for the NCAA Tournament championship game in San Antonio. It’s the largest line for the title game since 2010, when Duke laid seven points against Butler but only won by two.

The favored Wildcats are 8-1 straight-up in their last nine matchups against the Big Ten, the conference in which Michigan plays, while Villanova is also 10-1 against the spread in its last 11 games against Big Ten opponents.

The Wolverines are no slouches, having gone 14-0 SU and 11-3 ATS in their last 14 games, but they are the first team to reach the national final without playing any team seeded No. 5 or higher. Villanova is 9-0 SU and 8-1 ATS since March 1.

The main question with Michigan, which is 33-7 SU and 25-13-1 ATS, is whether a team from the Big Ten, whose best teams all play at a deliberate pace, can match up with Villanova, which plays at much faster tempo and leads the nation in scoring. Michigan, which is 4-27 SU in its last 31 games as an underdog of 6.5 or more, has one of the top defenses in the nation.

Villanova had a poor shooting day against Texas Tech, another strong defensive team, at the Elite Eight stage, but still won 71-59 to get the cover in that game.

The Wolverines, who are 7-0 ATS in their last seven games as the underdog according to the OddsShark College Basketball Database, aren’t super-efficient offensively but big man Moritz Wagner should be a tough check for the Wildcats.

Villanova, 35-4 SU and 26-12-1 ATS, might face some challenges with getting their trademark plethora of clean looks from the three-point line. Michigan has kept 12 of its last 14 opponents below their average number of attempted threes.

However, the Wildcats, who are 5-0 ATS in their last five games as a favorite, boast shooters who are big men – 6-foot-9 Omari Spellman, 6-9 Eric Paschall and 6-7 Mikal Bridges – that can find space to fire away, plus Brunson thrives at pulling defenders out of position.

While preparing for a John Beilein-coached Michigan team in fewer than 48 hours isn’t easy, Villanova is 3-1 SU in its last four games with one day off between games. The total has gone under in Michigan’s last six games with one day off between games. The total has gone over in 14 of Villanova’s last 18 games with a closing total of 145.0 or more.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.