Sunday, November 30, 2008

College games and a little girl

Perhaps the biggest upset of the season so far was Wisconsin's win last night over seventh-ranked Baylor, 59-58. What happened? Baylor's been steamrolling, and Wisconsin isn't supposed to be a very good team.

In other upsets, Nevada defeated eighth-ranked Louisville, and nineteenth-ranked Arizona State fell to Florida. That parity thing is just spreading like a virus.

As for Pac-10 teams Saturday night, California stayed unbeaten in their defeat of Iowa, and Oregon State continued to surprise. They beat Arkansas Friday night, and came very close to defeating North Carolina the next night, 78-82. Could the Beavers finally be for real? Daniel and I think they are. I've been wanting the Oregon schools to show up for a while, so this is good news to me.

And speaking of Oregon, I'm happy to say that the Ducks beat Wyoming tonight, 51-45. Let's go, Bev Smith!

One of the five Pac-10 teams that wasn't in some kind of holiday classic this weekend was UCLA. They beat Cal Poly Wednesday, and must have chilled and gone shopping because their first game back is today, against Cal State Northridge. Game report later, of course.

Changing gears, by now many have seen the video of the five-year-old girl from Northern California dribbling two and then three basketballs at once. She is both skilled and adorable:

Milan Simone Tuttle has been getting tons of press for this video, which originally appeared on pro baller Rod Benson's blog. Here's one feature:

She's also been on TV:

The day before Thanksgiving, Milan was a guest on the Ellen DeGeneres show, which is now on youtube.

I'm writing a story on her and on the place where she got the training, Triple Threat Academy of San Leandro, CA, for fullcourt. Today I talked to Milan's mother, Renee Tuttle, and I was as impressed with this woman as I was with her daughter.

Renee and her husband Jon encourage their kids to do what they want instead of pushing them into sports and other activities. They are being incredible sticklers about completing school work before anything else, and it's already instilled in their kindergartener. They also insist she remain humble, because "we still have to go home, and I have to go to work and you have to go to school," Jon Tuttle said.

Could we just get these people to parent all the young ballers of America? Life for us teachers and coaches would be so very much more simple.

Mykiea Russell: Don't Believe the Height (Part 3)

Mykiea Russell is the new point guard for the Umpqua Community College women's basketball team. She began showing what she was made of the moment she got there.

In a scrimmage against Linn-Benton CC a couple months ago, Mykiea scored 19 points and collected nine steals. As the team has begun their regular season, she has usually been the second-leading scorer.

Her coach, Dave Stricklin, wrote in her team profile that at 5'0", Mykiea is the shortest player to ever don a Riverhawks uniform, but she might also be the quickest. He predicted she is "destined to be a UCC fan favorite." Similarly, a reporter for the Roseburg News-Review noted her "knack for getting to the basket" in a recent story.

But why is Mykiea there? Because some coaches believed the height.

"As we talked to (college) coaches last year, some had an issue with my height," Mykiea said. "They were worried about me getting posted up on defense."

Her longtime club ball coach Michael Brox called up a well-respected coach he knew - Stricklin - and told him about Mykiea. Stricklin came to Los Angeles last March for a ceremony inducting him into the California JCC hall of fame (he coached there before going to Umpqua). During that trip, he paid Mykiea a visit at her home.

"We just hit it off right away," Stricklin explained.

Right after Labor Day, Stricklin got a call from Mykiea.

"'I'm coming up,'" Stricklin recalled her saying. "I said, 'for a visit?' and she said 'no, I'm coming up to stay.'"

Mykiea arrived the first weekend in September, about three weeks before school was to start, and before any of her teammates. Stricklin did the only thing a coach could do: he put her up at his house with his family. And it wasn't long before she "became part of the family."

In fact, Mykiea fit in so well with Stricklin's teenaged children that when he took her along when registering one for school, the secretary thought he was also enrolling Mykiea.

All last-minute notifications aside, to understand the sheer bravery involved in Mykiea's move, first consider that the population of Roseburg is 20,117, and the number of people in Los Angeles is 9,948,081. Then, realize that the area where Mykiea went to high school is virtually all African-American and Hispanic, while Roseburg is 93.56 percent white and .3 percent African-American.

Unsurprisingly, Mykiea discounts those differences, and scoffs at the notion the she is brave.

"I don't see it like that," she said.

Indeed, Stricklin told her what to expect on his visit.

"I told Mykiea about the non-racial diversity, and she said 'I don't care,'" he said. "I also told her that Roseburg is not a party house. That if you're looking for a wild atmosphere, this isn't the place."

Mykiea has adjusted the way any evolved inner-city kid would: she is jonesing for her Christmas visit home, but she likes where she is going to school, likes her team, and is cool with where she is right now.

"Roseburg is the most boring place on Earth, but on the other hand I don't have to worry about what I'm wearing, and there are no distractions," she said.

Culturally, though, Mykiea has had to make some adjustments. Roseburg is populated with older people - many of whom are lifelong Roseburg residents. Mykiea said she has felt, at times, that some residents "have never seen a black girl in their lives."

"I've had to answer questions - a lot of questions," she said.

For her fortitude, Mykiea finds herself in one of the most successful junior college programs in the Northwest. Stricklin, with a 586-112 record in 21 years, has produced 12 regional championship teams. Every year the goal is the same: win another championship.

"Practice is so hard - oh my goodness," Mykiea said. "The first practice he told us we were going to go as hard as Tennessee.

"He wants 100 percent the whole three hours, and nothing less. Even if you mess up, you have to mess up going hard."

Stricklin said he and assistant coach Linda Stricklin - his wife - also keep player's futures in mind.

"We work so hard to get them to the next level," he said.

Mykiea said she might not have ever thought of a junior college as a possibility if it weren't for one of the most famous graduates from JC ranks - Tennessee's Shannon Bobbitt. Mykiea called Bobbitt, who is also infamously short, "my inspiration."

While playing ball, Mykiea is taking a full class load and majoring in film - the other love of her life. Stricklen also set her up with a work-study job, so she has some extra money in her pocket. Life is good, although the weather is a little colder in Oregon than what the young baller is used to.

Mykiea doesn't consider herself brave, but I am old enough to be her mother, and I know better. I teach high school in South Central Los Angeles, and not many kids there would pick up and go to a place they've never been to, that is so different from what they've known. Indeed, most only go as far as Southwest Community College, just down the road from Mykiea's alma mater, Washington Prep High School.

And most kids with Mykiea's skill level - who had made the LA All-City first team two years in a row - that couldn't get to a D1 school simply because of their height, would be at least a little depressed or bitter.

Not Mykiea. She is positive, optimistic, hopeful. She laughs a lot. And she is working hard.

"I just finally, really got in shape," she said last week. "So I'm going to stay in shape."

I know she will. And I have no doubt that she is kicking ass at the Clackamas Tournament in Portland this weekend. I just wish JCCs got more love and it was easier to get scores and stats from up there.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep being a Mykiea fan. Stricklin said he'll send me an Umpqua CC women's basketball T-shirt and team poster when they're ready, and I'll happily wear the shirt around Los Angeles.

Go on with your bad self, young lady. You remind me why I'm a women's basketball fan in the first place.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mykiea Russell: Don't Believe the Height (Part 2)

Russell became Mykiea to me last year, as I had the pleasure of getting to know her a bit. And Mykiea had an amazing senior year playing for the Washington Prep Generals.

Buoyed by their success the previous year, the team came out strong and immediately started racking up victories. Their only real opponents in the Marine League were Narbonne, back from suspension and fully loaded with five Division I-level seniors.

In addition to her incredible quickness, Mykiea is an expert at handling and distributing the ball. If she wasn't finding the perfect Washington player for the assist, she was taking the ball to the rack herself - at 5-foot-nothing - and scoring. In fact, Mykiea was the leading scorer on her team last year, despite being the shortest by far.

On an offensive set, the ball always seemed to come back to Mykiea. Such a natural point guard I have hardly witnessed. I can still see her in my mind's eye, racing around the top of the key with the ball, head slightly forward, like a vulture waiting to pounce.

She gave opponents fits.

I told Mykiea recently that at least one opposing coach last year admonished her team at a timeout to clamp down on Mykiea, because she said "the offense runs through her." Mykiea seemed surprised.

"Noooo, it didn't!" she protested.

I told her, "but it seemed like it did."

Mykiea had a career-high 10 assists and scored 16 points in a Jan. 11 game against King-Drew, and posted 12 steals and collected four boards against Gardena Jan. 23. In the Jan. 16 Carson game, she had seven rebounds, eight steals and 11 points.

Here's a highlight reel to show what the girl can do:

In Washington's first matchup with rival Narbonne on Jan. 18, Mykiea poured in a season-high 25 points as her team came close to upsetting the Gauchos at home. The Generals hadn't beaten that team in 12 years, but it felt like they were getting close; Washington was visibly hungry. As the players went through the hand-slap line after the game, I felt a sense of foreboding.

On Feb. 6, Narbonne traveled to Washington for the second meeting. This is where I fully understood the uniqueness of that school.

Washington Prep High School stands in the heart of one of the roughest areas of South Central Los Angeles. It is in "Crip" gang territory. Two years ago there was a shooting on campus; last spring there was another one.

Yet, the school has tremendous pride in its athletics programs, among other things. The night of the Narbonne game, the Washington gym had a healthy crowd that was loud, as usual. A group of boys ran the pre-game warmup music, including D4L and the Pop It Off Boyz - hardcore selections. The crowd stood fully behind its girls team, and cheered every basket like it was the national championship winner.

The Prep girls also had fun on their team. When shooting free throws pre-game, they had a ritual they always performed: once the shooter shot, the rest of the team would chant "Preeeep!" while they simultaneously slid over one to the left. Once they got to their new spot, they'd pick up their left knees and do a little "uh uh" dance bop thing. They always turned heads when they did that. And when I took my basketball girls from the school where I teach to see Prep play last December, I think they wished they were on that squad.

So in the February rematch game, Narbonne started out with a small lead, and by the second and third quarters, it had grown to as much as 10. Prep shrunk it to five and then the Gauchos blew it back up to 10, twice. But in the fourth quarter, the Generals clawed back and caught up. A free throw put the score even, at 44 points.

It wasn't any specific play that lead to the outcome, but a series of circumstances that kept repeating themselves. Narbonne couldn't rebound much, and they weren't boxing out. In fact, Mykeia out-rebounded the two Gaucho posts twice. The entire Washington squad seemed to be rebounding machines, and they made brilliant passes. They finished their plays and scored, while the Gaucho defense lagged.

It was a Mykeia three-pointer from the top of the key that put them up 47-44. A play later they had another girl at the FT line, and she sunk one shot: 48-44. Narbonne's Reiko Thomas unleashed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but it was too late: 48-47. The Gaucho era was over.

It was a monumental accomplishment for Washington to wipe out a 12-year-old losing streak to Narbonne. But they showed their class by calmly and stoically going through the handshake line while their fans were screaming and jumping around. Whatever celebration the team might have had, it was in the locker room.

Two weeks later the two teams faced each other yet again - ironically, for the same right to play for the city championship that Washington had played Dorsey for the previous year. It was the same flippin game. And this time it was at Washington, because they'd been seeded higher than their opponents.

Narbonne came out strong and took an early lead, which was a switch from the two previous games against Washington where they'd been slow out of the gate. The Gauchos built a 14-point halftime lead, but the Generals came out blazing in the third and went on a 10-0 run. Narbonne also got in foul trouble. Prep was behind by four, and things were scary for the Gauchos for a bit.

Then Narbonne turned on the gas and started to build some more points. It went up to a 10-point lead, which Washington cut to 6 a couple times. The Generals were relentless. But after a Gaucho timeout, the team held on to win by eight.

Mykiea was calm and relaxed after the game; no sign of the flower-banging aggravation of the previous year. She said she wanted to play ball and study film in college, as those were her two main passions in life. She also wanted to get out of the 'hood.

"It's just so negative," Mykiea said wistfully, but added that maybe someday, she'd like to come back and help out the area somehow.

She didn't know where she was going to college yet; there was a lot of uncertainty there. As if to mitigate such feelings, Mykiea smiled and said, "well, I've had a great high school career."

A week later, Washington again lost in the first round of the state playoffs. For the second year in a row, Mykiea was named to the all-city first team (she had made second team as a sophomore) - a tremendous accomplishment in a city the size of Los Angeles.

I provided a couple names of college coaches I knew that might be interested in Mykiea. Every time I talked to the Washington Athletic Director, I asked her if Mykiea had found a school yet. The answer was always no.

Why wouldn't a school be interested in someone like Mykiea, with more heart than an organ bank and the skills to match? I was truly puzzled.

In August I again talked to the AD, who informed me that Mykiea was going to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR. And she was going there "blind" - not having taken a visit first. I was dumbfounded.

Why was a player like Mykiea going to a junior college instead of Division I? Why a small town in Oregon? And why didn't she take a visit there?

Three months later, I discovered the answers to these questions.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mykiea Russell: Don't Believe the Height (Part 1).....aka the best high school basketball game I've ever seen

It was Feb. 23, 2007 - a chilly Friday night. The high school basketball team I had helped coach for the second consecutive year had finished its season two weeks before, leaving me free to check out playoff games. Armed with my coaches pass, I drove to Dorsey High School.

I'd been intrigued by both Dorsey and Washington Prep - the two teams matching up that night. Both were good squads of players with exceptional skills, from reputable programs. Still being new to Los Angeles, I wanted to see the faces to the names I'd heard.

The winner of the game would advance to the city finals eight days later, and Dorsey was the favorite by far. They had won their league, and seemingly everything else. They also had a couple of highly-touted players - one of them a senior point guard - who carried the team.

Prep was playing in the game because the champion of their league, Narbonne, was serving a suspension that year for playing an ineligible player (Morghan Medlock, now of Baylor) the year before. Washington, known for their athleticism, had a few name players - one of them being their pint-sized point guard Mykiea Russell.

The general attitude before the game was that Prep was lucky to be there, and Dorsey would scald them.

The Dorsey gym has a round roof, and windows on both ends of the court. You can literally walk right outside the gym and watch the game through the window. Double doors are also at one end of the court, between the windows. Occasionally when a player goes flying out of bounds and can't stop, she hits the door and lands outside. I've never seen anything like it.

One thing was apparent immediately: the Dorsey Dons are serious about basketball. Giant picture posters of the girls basketball team lined the wall on one side of the court, while the boys team was on the other side.

The requisite cheerleaders were in place and ready to go with their sassy attitudes and "bring it on" cheers. For example, during the game when Washington missed a free throw, the Dorsey cheerleaders would clutch their hearts and mockingly moan, "aww!" I loved it down to my toes.

The guy I sat next to ended up becoming a friend of mine. But I suppose it would be hard not to bond with a fellow basketball nut when you happened to see the best high school game of your life together.

I wish I could provide an entire game play-by-play, but I wasn't armed with a notebook that night and some of the details have fuzzed in the almost two years since. But here's what I do remember: Dons PG Erica Inge and Russell went at it all night long. So did their teams.

What was supposed to be a blowout was a back-and-forth game of heart-stopping proportions. Dorsey would score, Washington would answer; Washington scored, Dorsey answered. One team would make a small run and then would be stopped by the other team. Back and forth, back and forth. Dorsey was ahead once by six points, but that lasted all of eight seconds. For the rest of the time it was one point, two points, three points, or a tie.

Then, the last 20 seconds.

Washington had the ball. Their 2 guard fell to the floor and almost lost it as the Dorsey guard tried to claw it out of her hands. But the 2 somehow dished it to Russell, who streaked up the court and somehow cut through two guards with this crazy little dribble weave move. She went all the way to the rack for the score, and it was 54-53, Washington. Dorsey got the ball, but the Generals deflected the pass out of bounds. Timeout. Dorsey inbounded from the side and tried this play that didn't work. The crowd had been on its feet since 30 seconds to go. The tension in the gym was thick.

Washington inbounded from the baseline, but it was deflected, and the second Washington player tried to chase it. She couldn't get to it, and the ball went out of bounds. Dorsey ball with 6.5 seconds to go. The Dons were passing it around the key when Russell lunged, seemingly from out of nowhere. It was a total shock, and you could hear the cries in the crowd. She hauled ass down the court and laid it up and in as time expired.

Washington, 56, Dorsey, 53, said the scoreboard. Then came the thunderous explosion of screaming, as Prep cheerleaders started jumping up and down and the crowd of red-clad fans poured onto the court.

I sat there, mouth hanging open, while the rest of the Generals piled onto Russell. My new friend Don sat in stunned silence as well. To our right, two of the Dorsey seniors had fallen to the floor in grief. Friends surrounded them, trying to talk them into getting up, but they just laid there, inconsolable.

It was quite a scene, and it exemplifies the reason I love the high school game so much: there's an incredible amount of passion there. It seems like life and death much of the time - for sure in the playoffs, but at other games, too.

The Generals and their people began taking their celebration out that door I mentioned before. Don and I walked down to the court. I knew one of the Washington coaches from another school, and I asked her what grade Russell was in. She told me she was a junior.

Don and I exchanged info and said goodbye. But on my walk out, the Prep players were running around, giddy, while some adults males shouted sporadically, "who's house?"

I saw Russell to my left, with two teammates, giggling. I stopped and smiled at her.

"Congratulations!" I said. "You're amazing - your team couldn't have done it without you."

Russell's smile got a tiny bit bigger.

"Thank you, maam!" she said cheerfully, before turning back to her hyped-up teammates.

I walked to my car chuckling. Geez - she can play ball and she has manners too, I thought.

The following weekend I went to the LA Coliseum to watch the full day of games that would culminate in the city championship. Unfortunately, Washington was no match for the powerful Taft team, stacked with seniors. Taft was ahead by 10-12 for long stretches, but in the fourth quarter, the Generals turned it on and began to catch up. It was too little too late, though, and they lost 36-39.

In an emotional awards ceremony, the Washington principal thanked Coach Ricky Blackmon and told him how important he was to the school. Each player got a boquet of red roses, and I watched Russell bang hers on the floor during the trophy presentation. Petals scattered, but she didn't notice. She looked both grieved and irritated.

Three days later, the Generals lost in the first round of the state playoffs. But Russell and her team had captured my attention.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Guess who got married two weeks ago?

CP did.

And from the video, you can see she's cut her hair. Love the double-finger point at the end:

Much happiness to ya, girl.

More weirdness

Here are the current Pac-10 standings.

Oregon State ahead of Stanford and Arizona State? Washington State at 6? USC at 9?

I know this won't last for long, but I have to laugh right this minute.


Team Conf. Pct. Overall Pct.
California 0-0 - 3-0 1.000
Oregon State 0-0 - 2-0 1.000
Stanford 0-0 - 3-1 .750
Arizona State 0-0 - 2-1 .667
UCLA 0-0 - 2-1 .667
Washington State 0-0 - 2-1 .667
Arizona 0-0 - 3-2 .600
Oregon 0-0 - 2-2 .500
USC 0-0 - 1-1 .500
Washington 0-0 - 1-2 .333

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oh, I guess it's the parity

I ran a search engine for parity in women's college basketball, to see if anyone had any theories about what had happened this past week. I found one story from the Oct. 6, 2008 edition of USA Today which doubted parity existed. Stories from 2005 and 2006 were more pro-parity, ironically. In one piece, Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer attributed the trend to more AAU teams, more clinics and more specialized attention for young people. You can't argue with that.

A generation ago basketball was a one-season sport; now it's year-round. And if your kid isn't dribbling with both hands before she's got Elmo's name out of her mouth, she's way behind.

So it's interesting that although it's the flooding of young girls into the sport, and intense development of them for play that has laid the groundwork for parity - that parity would first be seen at the professional level.

The first six years of the WNBA, the league had only two champions. In the six years since that time, there have been four more. Most all the teams that once lived in the basement of the league are near the top now (and one went back to the bottom after that). This past year we saw every single playoff series go to the maximum three games for the first time. Fresh faces were everywhere, and there were games when it seemed like any team could beat any other team at will.

So now it looks like it's trickling down to the college level. Unranked teams are beating ranked teams; highy-ranked teams are tumbling down like cards. (And it's funny that myself, who was raised by a father who always went for the underdog but grew up to love Tennessee is enjoying all of this immensely).

High school has to be next. Hell, old standby Christ the King of New York isn't even in the top 25 this year. It's schools like Woodson High of Washington D.C. and St. Michael's Academy of New York who are there instead.

This is an exciting time in women's basketball.

So unsurprisingly, today's top 25 is much different than last week's:

AP TOP 25 – Women’s College Basketball

1. Connecticut 3-0
2. North Carolina 5-0
3. California 3-0
4. Oklahoma 3-1
5. Stanford 3-1
6. Baylor 4-0
7. Louisville 3-0
8. Texas A&M 3-0
9. Tennessee 3-1
10. Maryland 3-1
11. Texas 5-0
12. Duke 3-1
13. Rutgers 2-2
14. Notre Dame 3-0
15. Auburn 4-0
16. Virginia 2-1
17. Vanderbilt 4-1
18. Oklahoma State 2-1
19. Purdue 3-0
20. Ohio State 3-1
21. Arizona State 2-1
22. TCU 4-0
23. Old Dominion 3-1
24. Michigan State 5-0
25. (tie) Iowa State 3-0
25. Xavier 2-2

And if you look real quick on the SEC page today, you'll see some standings you might never have seen before, nor might ever see again:

School SEC PCT. H A ALL PCT. H A N Last 5 Streak

Arkansas 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 4-0 1.000 4-0 0-0 0-0 4-0 W4
Auburn 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 4-0 1.000 2-0 2-0 0-0 4-0 W4
Ole Miss 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 4-0 1.000 1-0 1-0 2-0 4-0 W4
Miss. State 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 2-0 1.000 2-0 0-0 0-0 2-0 W2
Vanderbilt 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 4-1 .800 2-0 2-1 0-0 4-1 L1
Florida 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 3-1 .750 2-0 1-1 0-0 3-1 W3
Tennessee 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 3-1 .750 2-1 1-0 0-0 3-1 W2
Alabama 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 2-1 .667 1-1 1-0 0-0 2-1 W1
Georgia 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 2-1 .667 1-0 1-1 0-0 2-1 L1
Kentucky 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 2-1 .667 2-1 0-0 0-0 2-1 W2
LSU 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 0-1 .000 0-1 0-0 0-0 0-1 L1
S. Carolina 0-0 .000 0-0 0-0 0-2 .000 0-1 0-1 0-0 0-2 L2

Crazy, huh?


I attended my first high school basketball game this afternoon. Just checking things out. It was literally the first high school game in LA today. More will begin tomorrow and Wednesday.

Tomorrow I'm going to check out my girls as they and their JC team have another in-town game, at a college across the city. Wednesday I'm going to another high school game.

It's the holiday season.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What in the name of basketball is going on?

I've never seen so many upsets in one week in my life as we've seen this week.

Today, despite Stanford losing PG JJ Hones for what sounds like will be the season, the Cardinal destroyed Rutgers, 81-47. I turned it on after the Tennessee game and couldn't even watch it after a few minutes. Granted, I think the Scarlet Knights were overrated at 2, but I didn't see annihilation coming.

Michigan upset number 12 Vanderbilt. Florida upset 21st-ranked Florida State. Number 20 Auburn took down 18th-ranked Ohio State. And though neither is ranked, it's somewhat surprising that Temple beat Illinois.

So what's up?

Please, share your thoughts.


Some of my favorite Pac-10 teams won today, as Washington State beat Montana State and Arizona defeated UC Santa Barbara.

I wish Oregon had seen the same results, though. With their loss to South Dakota State today, they are at .500 on the season so far.

UCLA lost to Maryland today, and I'm less surprised by that. Those who were there said the Bruins looked good in the second half, as usual.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Candace Parker sighting, college scores

CP is back in Los Angeles.

After traveling to Connecticut last week to film her ESPN spot - and god knows where else her jet-setting self went - my girl Monique spotted our superstar at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Marina Del Rey. The Sacramento Kings are in town to play the LA Lakers, and CP was following their bus in her vehicle. Everyone pulled up in front, and CP had the luggage in the back.

I guess she is staying with fiance Shelden Williams. Hopefully someone will capture a picture of her sitting courtside during the game.


The scoreboard lists games involving the top 25 teams on its first page, and there are only five of those games tonight. Nothing major there, unless you consider Detroit defeating 23rd-ranked chronic under-achieving Georgia an upset.

When clicking on the "all scores" tab, the reader sees that 71 other games were also played today. That's when I start contemplating (basketball) life.

I wonder what has happened to North Carolina State if Yale can beat them. (Once again, I didn't know an Ivy League school had a team).

I see that Miami, Ohio defeated a team called IPFW. But clicking on the IPFW tab still doesn't tell me what the letters stand for, nor where the school is (though from their schedule I am guessing Midwest).

There is a Madonna University? Well good lord. No pun intended.

Quinnipac defeated Vermont. Quinnipac? I hadn't heard of Longwood, Kennesaw State, Wagner, McNeese State, IUPUI, Lehigh, Coker, Towson or Campbell, either.

So all this makes me wonder what it's like to play for a small D1 school. I suppose it wouldn't be too much different than playing for one of the Jucos I'm writing about for my other gig, as many of the top schools are in small towns. We do all tend to forget that there are hundreds of D1 schools across the country, way beyond the top 25. To all you young women out there playing for a small D1, hats off to you. And I think I have my next story idea.........

Finally, I see that Seattle's own Jacqua Williams lead her Georgia Tech Yellowjackets in beating Mississippi Valley State tonight. Way to do it, girl.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Upset City! (and a not-quite upset)

I was here at the casa listening to the Vols grind one out against Chattanooga. That is, I was pacing and cussing - almost ready to get in the fetal position - as Tennessee crawled back from a deficit, missed a bunch of free throws, and hung on for dear life to win, 66-63. They hadn't yet won when word came through on the Summitt board that fourth-ranked Duke had been upset by unranked Hartford. That's the third major upset in six days.

The CBS College Sports announcer doing the play-by-play commented that the women's game is becoming like the men's game in that, on any given night, one team can beat another regardless of the ranking. A true and exciting statement.

THEN. Checked the scoreboard as the Tennessee game ended and #24 Old Dominion was about to beat #11 Virginia! Final score was 78-70, ODU.

Very interesting. And the Cal-Rutgers game doesn't start til 8 p.m. It's a free-for-all, y'all. I like it. (As long as the Vols don't lose)

Dawn Staley wastes no time in getting 'em signed

Staley Inks Early Signees for Top-10 Class

COLUMBIA – University of South Carolina head women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley announced that Ieasia Walker (Copiague, N.Y. / Copiague) and Monique Willis (Savannah, Ga. / A.E. Beach) have signed National Letters of Intent to attend the University and play basketball for the Gamecocks.

Both players will have four years of eligibility beginning with the 2009-10 academic year. The duo’s signing prompted The Collegiate Girls Basketball Report to rank the ninth-best recruiting class in the country.

“I feel very fortunate to bring to the University of South Carolina Ieasia Walker and Monique Willis,” Staley said. “Both of these young ladies are equally great people. We can’t wait for the day they put on their South Carolina uniforms.”

Walker is rated as high as the 17th-best player in the 2009 class by Blue Star Basketball. The All-Star Girls Report tabs her as the 19th-best, and tips her as the 10th-best point guard in the class. The 5-foot-8 Long Island product posted 19.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 5.1 steals per game in 2007-08, leading Copiague to the Suffolk Class AA semifinals. A three-time All-Suffolk County and all-conference selection, she earned a spot on the New York State Sports Writers Association Class AA All-State Third Team.

“Ieasia is a consummate point guard,” Staley said. “She has the qualities that I look for to manage our team. She has a natural feel for the game and will instantly make us better when she steps on campus.”

At 5-foot-8, Willis is rated No. 24 in the 2009 Class by All-Star Girls Report, and Blue Star Basketball has her at No. 59. She helped the A.E. Beach Bulldogs to the program’s fifth-straight Region 3-AAAAA championship in 2007-08, posting a double-double with 14 points and 15 rebounds in the title game. For her efforts her junior year, Willis earned a spot on the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association All-Class AAAAA South team.

“Monique is a player that somewhat went under the radar,” Staley said. “We are extremely pleased that she chose us over other SEC and ACC schools. She is electric on both sides of the ball. She brings a level of athleticism that is second to none."

- by, posted Nov. 20, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Diggins signs, college hoops stays upright on its axis for the night

Unsurprisingly, at least for me, was that Skylar Diggins decided to remain in her home state and signed with Notre Dame this week. At a press conference last night in South Bend, IN, the point guard unsnapped her high school letter jacket to reveal an "Irish 4" T-shirt. The third-ranked player in her class said she liked the idea of playing where her family could come to games. She will retain her number 4 in college.

In the meantime, second-ranked Kelsey Bone has said she may not make up her mind until the late signing period in April. That's interesting to me, as top-ranked players don't usually wait. I wonder what's up with the Bone?

No major upsets in college hoops tonight, although Texas A&M had to struggle mightily to hold off Michigan. And what is Texas doing beating up on Texas A&M Community College? That should have been a pre-season game.

In the world of the pros, the Shock signed Bill Laimbeer to a new two-year contract today. Like he was ever going to leave. He loves coaching that team.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

UCLA 66, Pepperdine 55.....and signees!

The bad news is that UCLA isn't yet a 40-minute team. The good news is that they can still lead the game and win, even playing as poorly as they did at times last night.

The Bruins shot almost 38.7 percent in the first half and 47.6 in the second, and a dismal 0 percent for 3-shots in the first and 33.3 in the second. They had 23 turnovers to Pepperdine's 17, and the Waves almost doubled UCLA's steals.

But the Bruins beat their opponents on the boards, and at 50 for the game, they are still averaging above their 2007-08 rebounding percentage.

I brought my girls to the game, so arrived a couple minutes late to see UCLA already had the lead. That didn't last long, however, as the Waves started their full-frontal attack - literally.

They unleashed a full-court press early in the first half, and generally played the Bruins very rough by pushing, elbowing and charging them. This wasn't helped by the fact that UCLA couldn't buy a basket, and there were some stanzas where they kept getting beat on defense. At a timeout late in the first half, Coach Nikki Caldwell walked all the way out to center court as her players were walking towards her, and either said something or just stared at them. She was not happy.

Doreena Campbell took the ball from half-court all the way to the rim for the score with 18 seconds left, and Tierra Henderson blocked a Waves shot to keep the score at 30-27 at the break.

The rebounding picked up in the first half and thank goodness, because the Bruins started with two missed free throws (they need to work on FTs) and two missed shots in a row - the first on a wide-open look.

Caldwell took junior center Moniquee Alexander out almost halfway into the second half. As she arrived at the bench, her coach stopped her and got really close to her face, using hand gestures to punctuate what she was saying. Alexander had a horrified look on her face. It's no doubt because of the respect she has for Caldwell.

"It's all about winning, and she reeks of excellence," Alexander told an Orange County reporter last month (1).

Right after she expressed herself to Alexander, Caldwell began saying things to the bench - you know, when the coach sees something on the floor she doesn't like and turns to the seated players and rails on about the mistake. I always get amused by that.

But shortly after that, the Bruins stepped it up on defense. Two trapped a Pepperdine player right in front of the UCLA bench, forcing her to lose the ball. Nina Earl scooped it up and took it in for the bucket, to our wild cheers. The Bruins also began a wicked full court press.

The offense also picked up a bit. Alexander redeemed herself with a nice spin move under the basket for the score, and Caldwell reacted by pumping her fist. Senior Chinyere Ibekwe had an amazing save, swatting the ball exactly to her teammate at she careened out of bounds on the baseline. The result was another bucket.

My seatmate Daniel asked, "Why weren't we seeing that earlier - the attacking-style offense?"

Great question. It seems that it takes the Bruins a while to warm up sometimes, but I suspect that will change soon. Recent stories in the school newspaper, The Daily Bruin, paint a team that is happy with the changes their new coach has brought this year.

"It was like a breath of fresh air," junior Erica Tukianien said. "You knew something was coming and something very good.

"She's an educator, she's a coach and she's a role model. I have so much respect for her and I want to buy into the system. I want to follow her and I want to make sure the team gets together and that we are successful." (2)

Those who followed former coach Kathy Oliver and have been to at least one Caldwell practice say the new coach uses a "tough love" approach focused on winning via discipline, with the long-term goal of winning a national championship. (1)

Caldwell has assigned players to a coach for monitoring, and she holds regular team meetings to keep communication lines open. If I hadn't already been a fan, I would be now. I've always maintained that poor communication is the root of most of the worlds' ills.

One thing that hardcore Tennessee fans like myself will appreciate: Caldwell has brought the towel tradition to Westwood. When a player goes into the game, she brings a towel to the player she's replacing, handing it to her as she leaves the floor. A class and courtesy thing, courtesy of Pat Freaking Summitt.

A personal highlight of the evening was that I finally got to talk to sophomore forward Christina Nzekwe. As I've mentioned before, I coached her in track and field when she was a high school freshman, in Seattle. Christina is a sweetheart, and I was so proud when I first heard she'd signed two years ago.

She explained that the reason she wasn't playing last night was that she'd sustained a concussion in practice Monday. She'll be out for a week, which sucks, as I've so enjoyed her increased playing time. But by the time the Bruins come back Nov. 30, she should be ready to roll.

In other news, Caldwell inked her first two committments today: Markel Walker of Pittsburgh, PA and Mariah Williams of Aurora, CO. Walker, a forward, is ranked fourth by ESPN. Williams will become the team's first shorter player, at 5'4". In a news release, Caldwell said she is very quick and takes it to the rack. Full release:

Go, Caldwell. I've said it before: this team is going to do great things.


Monday, November 17, 2008

And Tennessee drops a game

It's gonna be a bumpy season, but ultimately it'll be OK.

What the Best Coach of All Time had to say:

No other surprises tonight. But tomorrow, Rutgers gets to kick the crap out of Princeton. Princeton? I didn't know they had a team.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

UCLA 78, Cal State Fullerton, 62

In two out of three games this season, UCLA is looking like a second-half team. Given second choice after "40-minute team," I'll take second-half.

Fullerton got off to a quick start and an early lead, nailing several three-pointers to put them ahead 13-6 at 15:35. The Bruins then clawed back to within two, 15-17 at 9:47, but they were struggling; it took two rebounds to get the aforementioned basket.

It just seemed like UCLA was letting themselves get punked and pushed around by the aggressive Titans. It didn't help that they couldn't seem to buy a basket (first half shooting percentage was 34.4). And the main Caldwell ingredient was missing: rebounds. The Bruins weren't getting them.

But they kept battling, and there were flashes of brilliance. One was when Moniquee Alexander and Allison Taka defended a guard so hard she stepped out of bounds; that was tasty. They went on a run and again came within two, 24-26, when a timeout was called. We applauded them.

I also noticed in the first half that when the Bruins got a steal or a turnover, they ended their fast break looking a little out of control. They need to work on that, but it was good enough to put them in the lead by one at halftime.

UCLA began the second half with another run, and by the 18:05 mark they were up 42-34. They never looked back. There were some pretty, pretty plays, and the Bruins began making their layups (second half shooting was 51.9 percent).

Something else that magically reappeared in the second was the rebounding. The Bruins became board monsters again, and at least twice there were plays where they got two or three rebounds in a row (which doesn't say much for the shooting, but at least they're hustling to remedy their mistakes).

Afterwards, Coach Nikki Caldwell sounded a lot like her mentor Pat Summitt when she said of the game that there were "some spots where we looked OK."

"Our kids knew they had to press in the second half," she said. "I challenged them (at the half) because Fullerton got after us on D and in running the transition game.

"I want to make sure we're not getting it taken to us - we want to be taking it to them."
Shadows of Summitt were also evident when Caldwell said that in the second half, her team was playing "Bruin basketball."

I like it. I also really dig the balanced scoring attack. It's a good sign.

Things I learned about Caldwell today: she's not afraid to yank someone for the good of the team. She started Nina Earl at PG, and Erica Tukiainen was the back-up. Caldwell must have got pissed at Earl, because the first half was almost over and suddenly it was Tuki at PG and Taka backing her. Earl, Tierra Henderson, Tuki, Doreena Campbell and Chinyere Ibekwe started the game, but Christina Nzekwe and Alexander replaced Earl and Ibekwe to start the second.

There were a lot more people at today's game, which was great, except a lot of them were Fullerton fans. I'm hoping that as word gets out about the Bruins' wins, more people will show up.

The Ambience Award goes to the UCLA band, which each game starts a cheer that involved all four sides of the audience in saying: U! C! L! A! And today they also chanted "Right! Left! Right! Left!" each time three different Fullerton players fouled out. They probably wouldn't have done it if the entire Titan bench hadn't had the habit in the first of standing up and cheering wildly after their every basket.

I've always thought it cheesy to say "era." So I'll say this: the Caldwell gig is good so far.


Stanford lost to Baylor today!

Though I think Baylor is underrated and Stanford overrated, I'm still surprised by this, especially so early in the season. Two major upsets in the first weekend? Wow.

I met Tierra Henderson's mother at halftime. A really cool woman who revealed that younger daughter Brittany just signed with Kentucky. Momma Henderson said Brittany "always wanted to play in the SEC," and that she's looking forward to making frequent trips to "a complete basketball town."

It reminded me of Camille and Danielle LeNoir - two other D1-playing sisters. I would die of happiness if I had two major ball-playing daughters.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

All over the place

I'm not on top of my game this weekend, but not by choice; Verizon has lost Internet connectivity for an entire area code as of 8:30 a.m. today - my area code. So I'm at my UCLA seatmate's house on his computer. Bless him.

Kim just sent me a picture of the 2008 banner being raised before today's Tennessee game, and it's a beautiful site. If I were home on my own computer, I could post it for you now, but trust me, it's gorgeous.

Reiko Thomas missed the first last-second-of-the-game shot of her life last night as her Arizona Wildcats lost by one at the Hawaii Tournament. But they came back today to seal the win in game two. Seatmate and I were talking earlier, and I told him I think the Pac-10 is on the rise. I really do. Between Boyle, Caldwell, Butts and maybe either Jackson or Daugherty, things are looking up.

Today I went up to Glendale Community College to catch some games a tournament they were having there. Some girls very special to me were playing on the one team, but I knew coaches of one team in the other three games being played today, so I supported them too. At some point this season, I'm going to write a column here on the junior colleges of Southern California. A bit serious, and a bit fun is what it'll look like.

Finally, I have a confession to make: I'm now writing for If you have a subscription you can check out my first story, on foreign players at US colleges, on the front page.

I bought a hat a few weeks ago that I'm going to start wearing to work. It's a Santa hat, complete with white fringe and a puff on the end, only it's orange with black lines like a basketball. Because after all, this is my holiday season.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Let the games begin and let the recruits be signed

The second week of November is always a good one in college hoops, because it marks both the beginning of the regular season and the signing of the next recruiting class.

Most of today's scores for ranked teams aren't too surprising. The first games are just to get rolling, anyway.

Stanford 68, Minnesota 55
Rutgers 89, St. Joseph's 59
North Carolina 90, Western Carolina 56
Duke 77, Oklahoma State 68
California 63, Albany 39
Texas A&M 73, Mercer 45
Vanderbilt, 85, Texas A&M CC, 51
Virginia 78, High Point 48
Baylor 90, Florida Atlantic 45
Arizona State 76, Cleveland State 59
Ohio State 75, Butler 56
Auburn 81, Alabama A&M 53

There was one surprise today, however - unranked TCU beat #5 Maryland 80-68. What happened there? Hmmm.

As for recruits, fans seem to agree that Illinois, Cal and Baylor made out like bandits with their ridiculous recruiting classes.

Tomorrow there are four games for the ranked teams: My beloved Tennessee (ranked sixth) takes on San Francisco at home, Oklahoma (seventh) has a homer against UC Riverside, Georgia (25th) is at home vs. Alabama state, and Louisville (11th) takes on Tennessee Tech at their place.

Eight ranked team games are scheduled Sunday, and at that point, most every team in the country will have officially begun their season.

WOOT! I've been waiting for this.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Update on the globe-trotting Candace Parker

I missed this one last week, but the homey Hirsh did a nice interview with Candace Parker:

The biggest news out of this is her confirmation that she's not going to have shoulder surgery. That's incredible to me.

The funniest thing about this piece was how many times she used the word "excited" when talking about Obama.

The young woman leads an enviable life, bouncing from city to city to catch some games. It's beyond cool to think that female basketball royalty gets to do these things nowadays.

SEC preview: The South Carolina Gamecocks

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Southeastern Conference coverage continues today, with the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Basketball teams are all about the players, and always have been. But every once in a while the coach is the story more so than the athletes. For the South Carolina Gamecocks this year that is the case - times four.

It was a coup for University officials to land Staley last spring. I'm still wondering how they convinced the four-time Olympian to leave her hometown and head coaching job at Temple University to take over a program that has languished for years.

Staley earned her "legend of the game" status through her gritty play, her relentlessness in pursuing a career overseas before there was a WNBA, and for her competitive drive. Her player resume is dotted with copious "best player" awards. And Staley has also succeeded as a coach.

In eight years at Temple, her teams made six NCAA tournament appearances and won four Atlantic 10 Tournament titles. Since her retirement from basketball in 2006, Staley has coached two FIBA world games and one Olympics, winning two gold medals and one bronze.

As if all that weren't enough, Staley brought some help with her.

Lisa Boyer, who has been Staley's right-hand assistant since the 2002-03 season at Temple, joins her at SC as the recruiting coordinator and guard coach. Boyer has had numerous prominent assistant coaching positions, as well as a couple head coach jobs, in her 27-year career.

Staley noted that she has milked Boyer for all her coaching knowledge over the last few years, and said she "trusts (Boyer) with her life." In turn, Boyer said she is "thrilled to have the opportunity to get South Carolina women's basketball where it needs to be, which is among the top teams in the SEC."

When Staley's other two assistant coaches are put into the mix, it becomes apparent how deep the Gamecock coaching staff runs.

Carla McGhee was a two-time NCAA champion while at Tennessee, and is an ABL, WNBA and USA Basketball veteran. In 2006 and 2007, she served as the WNBA's director of player personnel, and this year was a consultant/ambassador for the Atlanta Dream.

McGhee's association with Staley goes back to the early 1990's, when Staley joined USA Basketball. The two were part of a squad that won the World Championship in 1994 and the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic games. The close-knit Olympic team has been credited for revitalizing women's basketball and serving as an impetus for today's professional leagues. (The year of preparation for the games is chronicled in the book, "Venus to the Hoop").

"(Carla) is in it to ensure that young people experience the success she has had in her career," Staley said. "After everything we went through together getting to the 1996 Olympics, for us to be standing on our own two legs says a lot. We grew up together, and we matured together as young women. She knows deep down that our hearts are always in the same place when it comes to young people and being competitive. When you have those things in mind, you are going to be successful."

Deep enough? Add Nikki McCray.

Another former Lady Vol, McCray was on the 1996 team with Staley and McGhee, and won a second gold medal in 2000. She has played in both the ABL and the WNBA, and for the last two years has been assistant coach at Western Kentucky.

"Nikki is hungry for success, and that comes from playing at Tennessee, where the coach never settles for anything less than being number one," Staley said. "That mentality is instilled in Nikki, and I want people around me like that.

"We spent two Olympic games together and have shared being successful in the very best arena there is to test yourself."

For Staley, to have people around her who she's known for almost half of her years, whom she's shared some of the most meaningful moments of her life with - that doesn't happen often. And it bodes very well for the South Carolina program. If nothing else, the chance that coaches will be yelling different things at players during games, as reportedly happened last year at Duke, will be next to nothing. Staley and her staff will not only be on the same page, they have written that page together.

At least for now, the amazing story of the Gamecock coaches eclipses the players. There are but three seniors on the team: Demetress Adams, Brionna Dickerson and C.J. Pace. Only Adams and Dickerson had a double-figure scoring average last year (10.9 and 10.4, respectively), their first time doing so in college.

Valerie Nainima, the lone junior, is a transfer from Long Island University. She shows promise not only because of her age, but her offensive game; she was the fastest player at LI to reach 1,000 career points.

Freshmen Charenee Stephens was named the fifth-best forward in the country by and ranked 33 by last year.

The remaining three sophomores and five freshmen have the requisite "best in state" and/or state titles that come with D1 recruiting, but Staley and company have their work cut out for them. This is a young, inexperienced team with emphasis on the inexperience.

Staley and her people can handle it, though. Further, I expect South Carolina to rise to the top of the conference within the next few years and begin having annual battles with Tennessee for the SEC crown. With about 130 years of basketball experience between them, coupled with cell fusion-like ties, you'd have to be crazy to bet against Staley and her staff.

Staley carried the flag in

Sunday, November 9, 2008

UCLA 107, SRP 63

After watching UCLA play its second game under Coach Nikki Caldwell, I'm not sure what to think.

Last week the Bruins began strong and faded. Today they started well, lost momentum and let SRP catch up, and then in the second half, they exploded offensively. UCLA had 38 points in the first half, and scored almost double that in the second. They had far fewer rebounds than in their previous game, and today they shot 44 percent in the first half and 71 in the second.

A little schizo? Naw - it was just the Caldwell Effect.

"I don't think they're going to want to practice with me tomorrow," Caldwell said in the post-game interview, glancing over her shoulder at the closed locker room door.

She added that the team "did a good job of taking the challenge" that she presented to them at half time.

"We played good man-to-man defense in the second half, and that's something we're going to be known for," Caldwell said. "We're going to play all 94 feet of the court."

It seems to me that the new coach is trying to wake up a team lulled into inertia by years of bad coaching. She's doing a good job of it, too. In the first half there were two instances in a row where the Bruins suddenly found themselves with the ball after a turnover, and the entire team hesitated. Both times, Caldwell shouted "GO!GO!GO!" at them. As if a fire alarm had gone off, they shifted into another gear and started fast breaking, like they should have been in the first place. In the second half, they kept up the defensive press almost the entire time.

Though my seatmate isn't as sure as I am, I think the team seems faster this year. I have no doubt that Caldwell is emphasizing strength and conditioning the way Tennessee does, and thank god for that. But I also think part of the reason the team seems faster is because they're more aggressive. Good signs, one and all.

In the first half, the rebounds weren't clicking well and neither was the offense. UCLA looked a bit out of sorts, and shots weren't falling. Caldwell talked to players individually during pauses in the game: "Chris! Hands!" and "Rebecca, you have nobody - back up." Assistant coach Tasha Butts yelled at the entire team at one point to stop fouling, which is a situation Caldwell brought up after the game, saying she "wasn't pleased" with the fouls by her team.

Somewhere in the 13 minute mark of the second half, Doreena Campbell sparked the amazing Bruin offensive run with two consecutive steals for a score. From then on it was a scoring blizzard from herself, Tierra Henderson, Nina Earl and Erica Tukiainen.

Some of the offensive sets were ridiculous. My favorite was the bowling-type assist from Campbell to Allison Taka for the score. There were quite a few other three-pass plays, as well. Tasty!

Caldwell started Christina Nzekwe, Henderson, Campbell, Tukiainen (replacing Chinyere Ibekwe from last week) and Moniquee Alexander. The resulting scoring was very balanced, which is another good sign:

Ugly spots for the Bruins, besides the fouling, were the free throws. Sixty-two percent (including 50 percent in the first half) is not where you want to be. They also need to work on shooting consistency.

My seatmate and I ended up sitting near one of the UCLA recruiting staffers, who was really cool. He said the reason he decided to check out the game today was because he always sees Nzekwe coming in to shoot early, and leave late. Now that's my girl! Reppin Seattle to the fullest.

Across the country, my other favorite team went similarly nuts on offense as they beat Love and Basketball 85-50. And like UCLA, Tennessee had very balanced scoring today. So many Vol weapons! *drool*

Friday, November 7, 2008

Pac-10 news

Arizona won their exhibition Tuesday night against Panhandle State, of Oklahoma, 85-33. Unsurprisingly, at least for me, was that Reiko Thomas lead her team with 20 points, made 16 of 18 free throws, and played 39 minutes. The girl is going to be a star, mark my words. Here's the box score:

Washington State also won their exhibition game last week, and have another one coming up this Sunday. One of the media relations people has started a blog for the Cougs, and it's pretty cool:

Cal has perhaps the coolest page right now, because of the video and accompanying song. Free game on Sunday, too:

I'm going to do some more SEC previews. I meant to do them this week, but it's hard with work to carve out that much time. I'll do what I can and at least get the majors covered.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tennessee 135, Carson Newman 55

Granted, Carson Newman isn't Vanderbilt or Rutgers, but I couldn't be happier right now about Tennessee's debut. Not because of the score, which was completely outrageous; but because of all that talent I saw out there tonight, and the balanced scoring. Six freshmen in double figures! Dig:

Kelley Cain has such a nice soft touch with the ball. Such hands that she makes it look so natural. She is going to be one of Tennessee's best bigs ever pretty soon. And Glory Johnson! That young lady is going to be a star. Lyssi Brewer won my heart with her double-double, and I like Shekinna Stricklen's game.

Honestly, though, I like them all. I really like what each brings to the team and I like the way they work together. The defense needs some work, but if there's one thing Pat Summitt's about, it's that. So in the long run, I'm not worried.

Briana Bass played more minutes than Cait McMahan, who was supposed to start and have Bass as her backup. So I wonder if Pat's just experimenting, or if she's flipped them and will have McCahan back up Bass. And though Bass is the same height as Shannon Bobbitt, she seems taller than Lil Bit. Bobbitt also seems faster than Bass, despite Summitt saying last month that Bass was the fastest guard she's coached. Who knows, but it's interesting to note that Bobbitt's birthday is Dec. 6, and she wore the number 00, while Bass' birthday is Dec. 7 and she wears number 1. Weird, huh?

I was surprised to learn that the reason Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh sat out tonight was because both cut a class over the summer. Now why would you want to test Pat Summitt? Crazy kids. But realizing we beat another team by 70 points without those two is frightening.

Tennessee fans, what do you have to say about this win and this new team? Are you excited? Please, discuss.

Monday, November 3, 2008

UCLA 86, Love and Basketball, 80

Nikki Caldwell and her UCLA Bruins set a tone yesterday, and the pitch was decidedly Tennessee: rebounds.

The new coach’s young team pulled down 57 rebounds in their first game of the season – an exhibition against Love and Basketball. That was 15 more boards than the Bruins’ season average last year of 42, and the difference was noticeable from tipoff. Caldwell alluded to it in an on-court post-game interview.

“Rebounds are a point of emphasis for us,” she said.

So, apparently, is a strong inside game, as UCLA repeatedly got the ball inside the paint for the bucket, particularly in the first half. That is another Tennessee emphasis, to be sure, and it’s a vast improvement.

Though the Bruins still have work to do, things are looking up for them like they haven’t for a long time. Caldwell told fans after the game what her long-range plans are.

“Our goal is to bring a national championship here to UCLA,” she said.

Once again, welcome to Los Angeles, coach.

Caldwell, who is still experimenting with her lineup, started Nina Earl, Christina Nzekwe, Chinyere Ibekwe, Tierra Henderson and Doreena Campbell. They got the team off to a fast start with their scoring and rebounding. Usually when a player missed, a teammate would step up and nail the put-back.

Earl was hustling for the ball, and it seemed like everyone was making their shots – no doubt because the Bruins shot 53 percent in the first half. Henderson and Campbell were also making their presences known.

In the second half UCLA faded a bit. They began missing shots in the paint, and weren’t pulling down the rebounds they had been. Caldwell’s displeasure was evident when she wondered aloud to the bench, “why aren’t we taking care of the basketball?” Shortly after that, she substituted in four players.

The Bruins buckled down, scoring more while limiting their opponents. At one point they lead by 16, but then seemed to run out of gas. They let Love and Basketball score too many points in the last few minutes, but held on to win, 86-80.

Besides the rebounding, UCLA team scoring was balanced – a good sign ( The offensive sets also looked good.

“We’re a work in progress,” Caldwell told fans.

Fading in games is one thing the Bruins need to work on, as their second half shooting was 32 percent. Free throws are another, as they shot 58.6 percent from the charity stripe. And it seems that the posts need to emphasize defense, as UCLA logged only two blocks in the game.

Now for the extras.

My seat is five rows behind the bench, on the aisle. I couldn’t have personally picked a better seat; I’m so close!

Tasha Butts was out with the team during pre-game warm-ups, watching them. At one point she glanced up and saw me, and we both waved.

The UCLA band has got a lot of spirit, and I give them props. During shoot-around they clapped out each player’s name and cheered when she would turn and wave. During opponent free throws they made monkey and bird noises to distract.

When Caldwell first came out, I didn’t recognize her from the back because her trademark short hair has turned into a bob. She looked great in a pants suit outfit with an open neckline.

During the game, she is usually crouched down to the floor in front of one end of the bench or the other. During timeouts, Caldwell is sitting on a stool in front of her team – a stool that reminds me a lot of the one Tennessee brought to Pauley when they played UCLA last December.

The entire coaching staff sits in the middle of the bench, with four players on each side of them. I’ve not seen that done before.

Caldwell is a calm presence. She didn’t say much to players the first part of the game, but as it went on, she would pull certain players aside and talk to them personally. She also addressed the entire bench at the end of the game.

I get the feeling that calm and exacting is her style, and I like that combination. Caldwell, Butts and Tony Perotti seem to have taken the very best of Tennessee, mixed it up with their own knowledge and are dispensing it. That’s why I think this team has great potential.

Caldwell also sees things the former coach did not. She started Nzekwe yesterday, who had never started a game in her college career. Nzekwe responded by pulling down seven rebounds and scoring five points.

The only downer yesterday was the lack of attendance. At one point, 20 minutes before tipoff, there seemed to be more in the band than in the audience. I really hope that Caldwell’s inevitable guidance of this team to the top of the Pac-10 will fill up Pauley Pavilion.

Next up, “SRP” next Sunday. The Bruins play their first real game Nov. 16, against Cal State Fullerton.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

SEC preview: The Tennessee Lady Vols (part 2)

Maria M. Cornelius is a Knoxville-based writer who covers the Lady Vols for She was kind enough to (virtually) sit down with me and provide her insight into the new team, which she's watched in action often this fall. I asked her several questions I was curious about that I hadn't yet seen addressed, and she was able to help me fill in the blanks.

S.F. : Can you say officially what you told me the other night, that they aren't focused on recruiting so much right now? Or can you allude to it in some way? Because I know there are specific NCAA rules on recruiting.

M.C.: By NCAA rule coaches can't comment on specific recruits until they sign the LOI. However, they are allowed to discuss the number of players they hope to sign from any given class. Over the summer Pat Summitt said Tennessee would likely sign two to three players from the class of 2009.

From published reports, Lady Vol fans now know that three players verbally committed to Tennessee in Kamiko Williams, Faith Dupree and Taber Spani from the class of 2009, and Lauren Avant committed early from the class of 2010.

Since Tennessee only has four scholarships available to offer for the next two years, it is reasonable to conclude that the coaching staff is through with recruiting for 2009 and 2010 and is now evaluating the class of 2011.2.

S.F.: What does this Lady Vol squad remind you of - any teams of the past?

M.C.: It is tempting to compare them to the 2004-05 team because that was when the original "Six Pack" arrived on campus. But two of those players needed knee surgery before playing a minute for Tennessee so the class was quickly cut to four available that season.

That team also had three veteran seniors in Loree Moore and Shyra Ely, who both play now in the WNBA, and Brittany Jackson. This team has one senior in Alex Fuller.

So because of the youth on the 2008-09 team I can't really say that they remind me of any past team. They are charting some new territory here.

S.F.: How do you see the players meshing personally? Are they close and do they get along? How do their personalities blend? Anything interesting about specific players, i.e. so-and-so is tenacious during such-and-such a time, etc.

M.C.: They seem to genuinely get along very well. They arrive early to practice, stay late and are constantly cutting up and laughing with each other beforehand. Four of the freshmen are suitemates and two are roommates in the same dorm so they see each other a lot off the court. Add in mandatory study hall for freshmen by Pat Summitt's rule, and they pretty much spend most of the day and night in the same places.

Alex Fuller has embraced the role of elder stateswoman, and the four sophomores also have taken the youngsters under their wing.

Cait McMahan has a tenacious personality. So does Amber Gray. One interesting fact about Gray is that her grand-grandfather is Benjamin Hooks, the former executive director of the NAACP, Baptist minister and legendary civil rights activist. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and now his great-granddaughter plays for Tennessee. As Amber herself has said, he's one of the reasons she lives her life as a free woman.

S.F.: How do you see their games meshing on the court? Complementary? What do certain people need to work on? Strengths and weaknesses of each player?

M.C.: I think by midseason they will be used to playing with each other and will improve significantly from now to postseason. Right now they are not familiar with each other on the court - small things such as how a post player likes to receive a feed and where does the jump-shooter prefer to set up and when and where does she want to get the ball. They also need to learn when to bounce pass, when to fire it in there and when to take something off of the pass.

Alex Fuller - strengths, three-point shot, leadership, court savvy, communication, ability to run the floor; weaknesses, perimeter defense and undersized in the paint. But she has excellent footwork inside on defense and offense so she can make up for lack of height.

Cait McMahan - strengths, can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, also has a dependable perimeter shot, tenacious on defense, will take a charge from a player twice her size; weaknesses, three-point shot must become consistent to keep defenses honest, must learn the playbook inside and out after sitting out a year.

Angie Bjorklund - strengths, outside shot, she has considerable range and is very consistent, quicker on defense, better trapper, should get to the rim this season instead of just firing from outside, outstanding free throw shooter; weaknesses, must read the defense, ball security.

Sydney Smallbone - strengths, three-point shot is very consistent and release is faster this season, got stronger in the off-season and is quicker on defense, another outstanding free throw shooter; weaknesses - must make good decisions with the ball in her hand, reading the defense, ball security

Vicki Baugh - strengths, one of the most athletic players on the floor, can defend inside and out, good shot blocker, can run the floor with and without the ball in her hand, outside shot is much better with more range; weaknesses - coming back from ACL surgery so has yet to play full court, hard to assess her game completely right now for that reason. She does elevate the play when she is out there in the half-court sets.

Kelley Cain - strengths, excellent hands, throw it anywhere close, and she will catch it in the post, finishes at the basket, solid at free throw line, moves her feet on defense, can hit jumpers at elbows and short corners; weaknesses - catching up on conditioning after missing a year for major surgery to realign her right kneecap, must be able to run the floor at the minutes Tennessee will need her to play.

Briana Bass - strengths, cat-quick with the ball in her hands, lateral quickness as well as straight-ahead, has a solid shot from behind the arc, can also hit short jumpers, attitude is excellent in terms of being coachable' weaknesses - good one-on-one defender but must learn UT concepts such as switching and help-side, needs to hunt shots in the offense, not always look to pass

Alyssia Brewer - strengths, guard's vision in a post-sized body, excellent passer, can finish at the basket and shoot from outside; weaknesses - like all freshmen, learning the defensive principles, must run the floor (will come with conditioning) and not get out of position on defense

Amber Gray - strengths, good shooter, good passer, has good instincts on both sides of the ball, vocal, natural leadership tendencies, undersized for post but has a knack for rebounding position; weaknesses - conditioning has to improve, lost some time with a nagging quad pull in preseason, will have to be able to defend on the perimeter, too, at her size, like most freshmen, still grasping defensive principles.

Glory Johnson - strengths, like Baugh, a very athletic player and one of the fastest on the team, has a knack for rebounding, aggressive defender, can get to the rim, can literally defend all five spots on the floor, leaping ability is such that she would jump center if she started; weaknesses - shooting range is limited, must become a better shooter in the field and at the line, can recover on defense due to athleticism but must also learn concepts.

Alicia Manning - naturally talkative on the court, has some innate leadership abilities, excellent midrange shot and can stick threes, too, likes to rebound and will mix it up in the paint, gets up and down the floor very well; weaknesses, I sound like a broken record, but defensive concepts (freshman don't play this kind of defense in high school), reading the defense, ball security.

Shekinna Stricklen - oozes athleticism, glides across the floor, has a polished smoothness to her offensive game rarely seen in a freshman, has three-point range to roughly 23 to 25 feet, quick with the ball in her hand, will hit the glass, can run rim to rim, never seems to tire; weaknesses - very quiet, will have to raise her volume, must learn point guard as a backup, a position she has never played, like Johnson, her athleticism allows her to recover from a defensive mistake but must also learn concepts.

S.F.: How does Summitt feel about the team being picked second in SEC? What is Summitt's goals for the season?

M.C.: Pat Summitt thought they would be picked fourth. She sees youth and inexperience, though a lot of talent. The preseason rankings ultimately could serve as motivation for the team if players think they are being overlooked. She and her staff are so busy teaching this preseason that they haven't really paid attention to predictions and rankings.

S.F.: The team's response last week to the "punishment" practices was good. This bodes well, right? How mature are the freshmen?

M.C.: They get it and that does bode well. They made that mistake and bounced right back. So far they have handled the intensity and criticism without hanging their heads. It's a long season and freshmen can hit a wall, but this group all came here for one reason - they wanted to compete with the best and see how they measured up. They also are motivated by the fact that playing time is available this season since five starters left, four of whom did well in the WNBA. The personnel losses at Tennessee were huge. Someone has to fill them, and the coaching staff may go nine to 10 deep in the rotation. There are minutes available.

S.F.: In what ways/what things have Fuller and Bjorklund done to show they're leaders this year?

M.C.: Fuller adopted the team over the summer and made sure they knew how to get to class and which building was where. She has been the one they pepper with questions and they now call her "grandma."

Bjorklund has led by example - she is on the court early, stays late and has been a leader in the weight room, conditioning, etc. Her game is much improved. She wasn't satisfied with her freshman year. She raised her own bar.

Fuller, Bjorklund, Kelley Cain, Cait McMahan, Vicki Baugh and Sydney Smallbone also bring the freshmen over to their off-campus locations to make them part of the group. Early on, the returning players have made sure the freshmen feel like they belong.

S.F.: What's the format of a typical practice? Conditioning, stretch, warmups, then what? An example of a typical day in the life of a Lady Vol would be wonderful.

M.C.: The players must be on the floor 15 minutes before the official start of practice taped and stretching. Most are there 30 minutes beforehand and already shooting on their own. The coaches devise daily practice schedules - and each includes a "Thought for the Day" - and they practice basically non-stop for two to 2.5 hours. Free throws are always mixed into practice so they are being shot when the players are tired - game-like situations.

They begin each practice in a circle at center court and go over the thought for the day and handle any announcements or team matters, such as an upcoming event or whatever happens to be on a coach's mind to emphasize. This lasts anywhere from two to five minutes. One day Pat passed around a mirror and had each player look at it to remind them of accountability and that they are the faces of the Lady Vols.

They end each practice in the same circle for a breakdown of how practice went and any reminders that need to be made. If it's someone's birthday, Pat will sing to them.

S.F.: How hard is Pat riding them now?

M.C.: Very but with an eye toward building them up, too. With only five players on the roster who have logged an official minute as a Lady Vol, the staff is in total teaching mode. That means a lot of repetition and hand's on instruction. Preseason was used to install concepts and principles. As the season gets underway the volume will ratchet up. She is riding them hard now in terms of physical and up-tempo practices, but her tone with them is still relatively gentle. That will change as circumstances dictate.

S.F. How is new coach Daedra liking it?

M.C.: Daedra Charles-Furlow is "home." This is a dream post for a former Lady Vol. Although Dae, as she is called, is originally from Detroit, she considers Tennessee to be her true home. She was a post legend for the Lady Vols - a banner honoring her retired jersey hangs in the arena - and she is still young enough to relate to the players yet still be demanding of them.

new Lady Vols

Thank you, Maria, for taking the time to share your insight.

SEC preview: The Tennessee Lady Vols (part 1)

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Southeastern Conference coverage continues today, with a preview of the Tennessee Lady Vols.

There wasn’t a Tennessee fan around who wasn’t at least a bit worried when the Lady Vols saw all five of their title-winning starters graduate last spring. Coach Pat Summitt assured the crowd at the post-championship celebration, "the cupboard isn’t bare – help is on the way," in the form of seven super freshmen. And though I believe in Summitt more than I believe in most people, I still wasn’t at ease.

But I’m getting there now. And it seems, so is much of the Big Orange Family, aka Tennessee fans. Two weeks after official practice begun, and despite some collisions and other on-court mishaps, the new Lady Vols are downright promising.

The returning players have stepped up to lead, and have taken the new Lady Vols under their wings. The freshmen have thrown themselves into practices with a fierceness that stems from their belief in and dedication to the program and its philosophies - not to mention Summitt.

"It gives me a feeling of being honored to play here, having all of that history behind you,'' freshman Alyssia Brewer told the News Sentinel. "Being here lets you know that Coach (Summitt) has put that in your hands, to continue the legacy that has been here. That feeling is hard work." (1)

Summitt echoed the sentiment.

"The personnel may change from year to year, but our system won't change," she said. "We will play up and down basketball; we will press and run; and we'll establish a strong inside game. It's simply Lady Vol basketball.

"The caliber of players we have yera-in and year-out makes that happen, and our fans expect that level of excitement."

To be sure, team members have been paying their dues lately. Official practices begun two weeks ago with scrimmages against male practice players, and have not let up since. Practices are 2.5-hour non-stop affairs, laced with sprints for the freshmen to get them used to Tennessee conditioning and free throws for all to simulate game-like situations of shooting when tired. For the one day when players were lackluster in practice - Oct. 22 - Summitt laid down the law.

The Coach, senior Alex Fuller and sophomore Angie Bjorklund had traveled to Birmingham, AL for SEC Media Day, leaving assistant coaches Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Daedra Charles-Furlow in charge of practice. When Summitt called Warlick to check in, Warlick told her it was "not good." Players weren't exerting enough effort, and weren't responding well to coaching.

Summitt ordered a 6 a.m. practice the morning after the bad practice. Satisfied with what she saw, she called a Thursday afternoon session and liked the effort from players then, too. The new incarnation of the Lady Vols had passed a big test.

"It's an amazingly positive group,'' strength coach Heather Mason said a few days earlier. "Really hungry, wanting to see where they could go." (2)

But there have been complications along the way.

Fuller fell hard on her left knee the second day of practice, but escaped major injury. Then sophomore Cait McMahan and freshman Glory Johnson had a head collision. A few days later, sophomore Vicki Baugh's recovering knee (ACL tear from the April 8 championship game) swelled up after practice, slowing her progress.

Freshmen Shekinna Stricklen took a blow to the head the following Saturday, and sat out of practice Monday. This followed a minor elbow injury two days earlier, and a death in the family. Brewer sat with her, suffering from a stomach illness.

This past Wednesday, Johnson and freshman Amber Gray sat out practice with a banged knee and a sprained ankle, respectively. Johnson came back Thursday, but Gray's ankle is still swollen.

Could the youngest team in Lady Vol history have the jitters? Over-eagerness is more like it.

"I guess that's the exuberance and youth of our basketball team," Summitt said at a pre-season photo shoot with the team, who wanted to do a 'back-to-back-to-back' photo. "You've got to love their enthusiasm."

Ironically Summitt, who has headed the program for 35 years, also said before the season that their success would be "a direct result of how quickly we are able to get our freshmen class committed and engaged into this style of play and intensity."

Tennessee fans, take heart. The signs are good.

On a personal level there is also reason to be optimistic, as the 13-member team is reported to be getting along extremely well (more on that in part two). Fuller took time to orient the freshmen to campus this summer, and makes herself available for their questions. The young players began calling the lone senior "grandma."

Bjorklund has also taken on a leadership role, despite being only a sophomore, and supports and encourages Fuller, as well. The freshmen also look up to Baugh.

Fans have been treated to one open practice, which complimented the usual plethora of stories and photos that show up this time of year. Freshman Briana Bass is being compared to Shannon Bobbitt, who graduated last year. Both are 5'2", are ridiculously fast, and each have an infectious smile that endears them to fans.

Last week a photo ran in which Baugh had picked up a laughing Bass during practice to carry her across court. In an interview, Bass showed her sense of humor by revealing that she talks to herself during practice - as well as her injured body parts.

"I kind of like talk to myself,'' she said, "especially my (surgically repaired) knee, telling my knee, 'it's going be O.K.' " (1)

The Lady Vols will have plenty of options at each position. At point, there is McMahan, Bass and freshman Alicia Manning. Fuller, Johnson and Gray comprise the forwards, and the post roster features Baugh, Brewer and 6'6" freshman Kelley Cain. At two-guard are Bjorklund, Stricklen, Manning and sophomore Sydney Smallbone.

Last week Summitt said she would commit to only two starters so far: Johnson and Stricklen. But a few days later, the coach said she might have been premature to tag the two newcomers so early.

Message? There is a lot of playing time available this season. In fact, the field has perhaps never been so wide open. Every day is a chance for each player to prove she should be on the court, which is no doubt another reason for the urgency in practice.

Along with the bevy of new players, former Lady Vol Daedra Charles-Furlow joined the coaching staff this year, filling the shoes of former assistant Nikki Caldwell. From all accounts, Charles-Furlow has made a seamless transition because she feels like she has come back home (again, more on this in part two).

Despite the youth of the team, coaches chose Tennessee to finish second in the SEC, behind Vanderbilt, in a poll two weeks ago. Yesterday the Associated Press released their pre-season top 25, and the Lady Vols were ranked seventh on that list. No doubt, the rankings have much to do with the strength of Tennessee's schedule.

In December, the Vols face George Washington, Middle Tennessee, Texas, Old Dominion, Stanford and Gonzaga before traveling to New Jersey to take on Rutgers on Jan. 3. They have their first exhibition game this Thursday, and open the regular season at home Nov. 15 against San Francisco.

Summitt said other teams are waiting to pounce on her young squad.

"People are licking their chops to beat us,'' she said. "They're thinking: This is the time." (1)

But if you're like me, you never count out the greatest coach of all time. Summitt, already the winningest coach in the history of the game, needs 17 wins to mark her 1000th career victory. If she were any other coach I'd guess that win would come in March, if she's lucky. But I'm putting my money on January. You just don't bet against Pat Summitt.

I'm also not going to bet against the new Lady Vols. I have a feeling this team will eventually have a very 2007 and 2008 ring to it, and sooner than one might think.



Saturday, November 1, 2008

SEC preview: The Vanderbilt Commodores

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Today begins Southeastern Conference coverage, with the Vanderbilt Commodores.

If last year was a rebuilding year for Vanderbilt, as many said, then they did well. SEC coaches and media members last week tabbed the Commodores as this year's conference champions, topping Tennessee by 12 points and second runner-up Auburn by 27.

Yet, in an ESPN poll just released today, Vanderbilt is picked to finish 12th (while Tennessee is seventh - Whichever the case ends up being, the word is out that the Commodores will be in the running.

Much of this is due to what the Vandy coaching staff refers to as "the two-headed monster" of guards Jence Rhoads, a sophomore, and junior Jessica Mooney. Rhoads started her team's final 21 games last season and earned SEC all-freshmen honors, while Mooney was named the conference's sixth woman of the year. Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said the combination is dangerous because Mooney allows Vandy to "wear down other teams while we have fresh legs."

In that case, maybe the Commodores have a six-headed monster. After graduating three all-conference seniors in 2007, last year's team featured one senior and several underclasswomen. This year, all five starters, plus Mooney, return.

"We've never had that here," Balcomb said. "We've been graduating our leading scorer almost every year - usually more."

Last year's scoring leader was forward/center Christina Wirth. Along with fellow senior guard Jennifer Risper, Vanderbilt's second-leading scorer, the two are poised to lead the team. Balcomb said both are well-conditioned, and their "mental toughness" will lead a group that includes four sophomores and two freshmen.

Other returning starters are guards Merideth Marsh and Rhoads, and forward Hannah Tuomi. Marsh, a junior, played point guard in high school, but moved to shooting guard with the arrival of Rhoads last year. Balcomb was pleased with Marsh's work at the 2, and will keep her there.

The coach also indicated she will rely heavily on the bench this season for paint play - specifically, forwards Amber Norton, Rebecca Silinski and Amy Malo. The latter two have battled injuries the last couple years, but are ready to make a contribution.

Vandy's two new freshmen are Tia Gibbs from Louisville, KY and Jordan Coleman of Orlando, FL. Gibbs lead her team to a state championship last year, and was named Ms. Kentucky Basketball. Coleman won all-state honors in both track and basketball.

The Commodores get their start tomorrow with a home exhibition game against Tusculum. After a second pre-season game, their schedule gets brutal.

In November, they face Texas A&M, Western Kentucky, East Tennessee State and Michigan. A California trip will take them to Cal State Fullerton (I'm going to that one) and UC Riverside in December. After that, they go home to face Liberty and Notre Dame at the end of the month. The team will play their home games on a brand-new floor.

"Last season, we started what I thought was our best defensive team since I've been here, so I'm really looking forward to seeing what we are capable of defensively this year," Balcomb said.