NCAA Tournament: Northwestern’s magical season creates hope for bright future

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By Netta-Lee Lax

“Hail to purple! Hail to white! Hail to thee Northwestern.” – The Northwestern Alma Mater

Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald waited by the tunnel for his basketball counterpart, Chris Collins, to leave the court after a dramatic loss to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But as he extended his arm to let me pass by, he smiled at me.

In that moment, it felt like he was waiting for me. In that moment I could not hide my allegiance. In that moment as the Northwestern band played the alma mater, I was a Wildcat through and through and so was Fitz, as he’s known by the NU faithful. In that moment, it took a lot of will power not to just hug Fitz and let all of the pent up emotions of the past week out.

The very first story I covered as a student was an attempt by Northwestern’s athletic department to legitimize its men’s basketball program. In 2010, Northwestern hosted its inaugural, and only, Friday Night Hoops open practice at the student gymnasium known as SPAC. That night they held a make-shift dunk contest won by senior Mike Capocci, who barely made the rotation that season. The staff had not let future pros Drew Crawford or John Shurna partake, worried they might injure its best players. A few hours later, Snoop Dogg played a concert with the whole men’s basketball team on stage at the now “old” Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern was trying to mimic programs like Duke, which fills Cameron Indoor when it holds open practices.

Instead, Northwestern emerged looking more like the knock-off barbie dolls at the dollar store with uneven eyes and immobile arms. It was not until last Sunday when Northwestern’s name was physically displayed on the bracket during the selection show that it sunk in that Northwestern now really has a legitimate men’s basketball program.

Over the past seven years as I’ve covered and followed Northwestern basketball, emotion has never been lacking.

When Michael “Juice” Thompson set a scoring record in the 2011 Big Ten Tournament, I could not comprehend a better feeling surrounding the team. The next season when the team collapsed in the same tournament and I entered their somber locker room, I thought the look on former walk-on Reggie Hearn’s face was the lowest I would ever see the team sink. Then this season happened. I was hesitant to buy in, worried that my masochistic basketball tendencies would drive me crazy.

But this was not the Northwestern I had come to know. This was not the Northwestern I had come to love and despise all at once. As Chris Collins noted in a press conference earlier this week, Northwestern fans were not sure how to handle this team.

“Is this the Northwestern we are used to seeing?” senior  Sanjay Lumpkin said, summing it up best. “This has been a magical season.”

It did not sink in that this was real. It did not sink for me until this morning when ESPN’s Mike Greenberg addressed a group of Northwestern alumni at a pep-rally.  As he pointed out that Northwestern was just one of six schools to win a bowl game and make it to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. It finally hit me. Northwestern is a legitimate Big Ten athletic school.

This week has been filled with a mix of deep grounding breaths, like the look senior Nate Taphorn had on his face when Northwestern went down 28-12 with just under four minutes left in the first half. It maybe began to sink in that this was his last game as a Wildcat when he crouched down along the sideline cheering on his team as they clawed their way back into the game against Gonzaga late in the second half.

This week has been filled with bizarre moments and strange calls. From the intentional foul by Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis when his team was up by one late in the game to the missed goal-tending call that led to a technical on Collins, there was rarely a dull moment.

At times during Saturday’s game against Gonzaga, there was a dreaded sense of familiarity as Northwestern played isolation offense and chucked up contested runners in the lane. But for the most part there was a newness that left most Northwestern fans, clad from head to toe in purple garb, looking at each other and saying, “Wow. This is awesome.”

Chris Collins’ motto is “Pound the Rock.” It comes from the writing of journalist Jacob Riis, who exposed the hardships of tenement life. The passage reads:

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

After Northwestern’s season-ending loss, redshirt sophomore Vic Law declared, “This is just the building block…this is just the beginning.”

The rock has just begun to show cracks, but it has not yet split. Next year the majority of Northwestern’s players will return to Evanston. The Wildcats will play away from campus as their home arena is renovated. Next year, as Collins explained, Northwestern will be “a different team.” But for Northwestern fans, for the students, for the alumni, for the staff and certainly for the players, this season will always stand alone. This team will forever be the first.

“We made history in a way that has never been done at this university, “ explained Law. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this for the rest of my life.”

Lumpkin told me after the win against Vanderbilt, “This is why we came here.” Lumpkin was referring to himself and his teammates, both past and present, and their drive to make it to the big dance, but in a way it was also true for the Northwestern fans.

Moments like this are why we are sports fans. Moments like this are why we put ourselves through the pain of watching a team we’ve invested so much energy and emotion in fall apart. Moments like this are what we come for.

So tomorrow I will watch the video of Fitzgerald running into the locker room of a victorious Northwestern men’s basketball team again, and I will think of the elation and the pride. I will think of my alma mater and what it stands for. I will remember why I continue to call myself a Wildcat.

Alma mater, praise be thine, may thy name forever shine.” – Northwestern Alma Mater

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.