Category archive: St. John's Red Storm

Mike Dunlap saved a season at Arizona.

He did something similar at St. John's.

Now he faces his toughest challenge yet with the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats.

A revered basketball savant among his coaching peers, Dunlap has become the "fix-it man."

One of Dunlap's disciples in the NBA said Monday night upon learning the Bobcats hired him: "He has the most organized approach to player development ever. He makes players better. He's brutally honest and extremely loyal. He will not stop working. He gets through obstacles with unbelievable problem-solving lenses. He's very thorough."

He'll need to be with the Bobcats, who finished with the worst record (7-59) in the NBA's lockout-shortened season.

Of course, he'll need players to succeed. But his ability to handle adversity has been on display at two high-profile stops in college.

Dunlap was not the face of Arizona when he served as interim coach in 2008, when Lute Olson retured. Russ Pennell was the one who stood up on the sideline and handled the postgame and weekly media responsibilities.

But it was Dunlap who was the conductor of a team that somehow managed to go 21-14 in 2008-09 and reach the NCAA Sweet 16.

Former Oregon coach Ernie Kent, who knew his job was on the line, tabbed Dunlap to help with the tactical aspect of the game in 2009-10. Kent didn't survive a 16-16 season, but Dunlap was one of the most sought-after assistants again.

When Steve Lavin got the St. John's job, he pursued two people -- Dunlap and his mentor Gene Keady. He knew he needed both to be successful in his return to coaching.

Dunlap has his quirks. He is much more at home on the court and watching tape than he is promoting himself or a program/franchise.

Yet he was in the spotlight again this past season, his second at St. John's. He pursued a few head coaching jobs a year ago, getting deep in the interview process at Wyoming before going back to the Red Storm when the Cowboys chose former coach Larry Shyatt.

His decision to stay put was a blessing to Lavin, who had major prostate cancer surgery in the fall and lasted only four games on the bench before retreating to a suite at Madison Square Garden or his home to watch games and avoid stress. The strain of coaching was too much for Lavin's battered body to handle during the recovery stage.

The team was young and took a number of hits during the season, but still finished 13-19 overall and 6-12 in the Big East.

Sure, Keady was on the bench in an emeritus, sage-like role. But Dunlap was the reason Lavin believed he could take his time recovering. If someone with less experience had to handle the day-to-day operations, Lavin may not have stayed away as long to focus on recruiting and rehabilitation.

"During this past season, Coach Dunlap and the rest of the staff held it down on campus, which allowed me to better focus on a full recuperation from surgery while simultaneously hauling in another stellar recruiting class,'' Lavin said Monday night.

Last week, St. John's added the No. 77-ranked player to the 2012 class in 6-foot-8 Chris Obekpa, a defender and shot-blocker the Red Storm desperately needed. They had already recommitted Jakarr Sampson after he had to go to prep school for a year and nabbed junior college scorer Orlando Sanchez.

Lavin crisscrossed the country, New England and New York to recruit while Dunlap ran the day-to-day operations.

Dunlap helped develop NBA talent at Arizona and St. John's, including Moe Harkless, a certain first-round pick in next week's NBA draft.

His connections to Charlotte's brass are strong. He worked under George Raveling at USC and Iowa. Raveling is extremely close with Charlotte owner Michael Jordan through Nike. The respect Dunlap has in Denver hasn't withered, as George Karl and Tim Grgurich are known to be fans. If Grgurich joins Dunlap in Charlotte, it would give the Bobcats two recognizable development coaches on one bench.

Bobcats general manager Rich Cho said Monday night that getting a coach with a "strong emphasis in player development was extremely high on our priority list."

The roster, with Kemba Walker and the No. 2 pick, demands this. They are the new faces and future of the franchise. Bismack Biyombo is a potential rising talent, too.

"Mike is more than prepared for this job," said Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik, a former Denver Nuggets coach who got to know Dunlap when he was the head coach at Metro State.

"He's simply a basketball junkie,'' Bzdelik said. "He has traveled the world -- literally -- to study the game. Everyone needs talent. No one is a genius of the game. But he'll do a great job with the X's and O's and the preparation and the motivation and teaching and developing.

"They'll need to be patient, so he can develop a team that obviously needs an injection of talent," Bzdelik said.

Lavin said Dunlap was in the picture throughout the search process, even though his name wasn't mentioned with Jerry Sloan, Brian Shaw or Quin Snyder.

And that's exactly how Dunlap has operated in his career -- never front and center.

He had no choice at Arizona or at St. John's. He had to take over a significant role and stabilize two critical seasons. The Arizona situation set up the program for Sean Miller's arrival. He gave Lavin the freedom to recruit and recover, knowing he didn't have to rush back.

Lavin and St. John's owe Dunlap are in debt for his service.

Now, Charlotte will receive the benefits. The hire may seem odd to the mainstream public. The talent level is low by NBA standards, so he will have a hard time winning. But he won't shirk his responsibilities as a teacher of the game. And he won't give anything less than his best.

His departure is a major hit to the St. John's staff. But to NBA personnel, it was a sign that the Red Storm had a well-respected, hidden gem who needed a chance to succeed where others have failed.

The Big East will send out its annual straw poll to its coaches to get their preseason predictions about the strength of the league's teams to help put together next season's conference schedule.

The league office said Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Pitt's Jamie Dixon will be allowed to vote in the poll, even though the schools are leaving the conference for the ACC. They weren't invited to the conference meetings earlier this week in Florida.

The results of the poll will determine which teams face each other twice during the conference schedule. Having a tiered system based on those predictions has worked well for the Big East, rather than the predetermined rotations of which teams play each other twice used by the Big Ten, ACC and SEC.

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Big East Logo
Bill Streicher/Icon SMIBig East coaches are confident the formula the league uses to determine conference schedules ahead of each season has helped in getting more NCAA tournament bids.

The Big East had 11 teams in the NCAA tournament in 2011; it sent nine teams last season. Coaches firmly believe handling scheduling this way is the reason.

"We've been able to give the league the flexibility to balance the schedule," Cincinnati's Mick Cronin said after the Big East meetings wrapped up Tuesday morning in Ponte Vedra Beach. "The repeat opponents have been set up by the hierarchy of the league in the summer. Something has been done right. We've had 11 teams and then nine teams in the NCAA. The coaches were against 18 league games but then it has helped us get more teams in [the tournament]."

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey agreed that the formula has worked for the Big East.

"It has driven us to get more bids," said Brey, who added it was odd not to have Boeheim at the Big East meetings for the first time during Brey's tenure at Notre Dame. "We've got to stay with this formula. It's not too constrictive. We don't want a rotation. We've got to keep an open mind. Some of it is by design, some of it is by luck, but it has really worked. You can sit there as a coach and say, 'If you're in the top eight, you're in the tournament.'"

There were 13 men's basketball coaches in attendance at Monday's meeting. Four coaches stayed to meet with athletic directors Tuesday. UConn's Jim Calhoun and Louisville's Rick Pitino weren't in attendance and neither were coaches from incoming 2013 members Temple (Fran Dunphy), Memphis (Josh Pastner) and SMU (Larry Brown).

According to Brey, the 11 other coaches in attendance, outside of him and Cronin, were: Stan Heath (South Florida), Ed Cooley (Providence), Kevin Willard (Seton Hall), Steve Lavin (St. John's), Mike Rice (Rutgers), Jay Wright (Villanova), Buzz Williams (Marquette), John Thompson III (Georgetown), Oliver Purnell (DePaul) and 2013 new members Donnie Jones (Central Florida) and James Dickey (Houston).

Heath said that there was even discussion about possibly opening up to 20 games from 18 when the new teams come into the conference.

"We had some conversation, but nothing was shot down," Heath said.

Heath, Cronin and Brey all said there was a renewed sense of optimism in the room, especially with presentations from television executives from NBC and Fox. ESPN and CBS have the current Big East rights, but the league will enter a new negotiating period in the fall.

"There was excitement over the TV presentation possibilities," Cronin said. "The Big East can't negotiate now but there was interest in our product. You could see people spending valuable time on the presentations and they say we'll be even stronger with the media market changes in adding Dallas, Houston and Orlando, which only helps the big picture."

The coaches agreed that the conference tournament must include all members in 2013, regardless of that number.

Heath said he brought up to the coaches that former USF player Kentrell Gransberry never played at Madison Square Garden during his career at South Florida because all the teams weren't invited.

"It's meaningful to the players and the teams even if it's one game," Heath said. "It's a big part of being in the Big East."

The format for the 2013 Big East tournament is still being discussed. There are 15 teams in the league this season with West Virginia's departure. Connecticut is currently not eligible for the tournament since it is not allowed to play in the postseason because of an NCAA ban for poor academics.

The coaches said the plan would be a for 14-team tournament with two games on Tuesday (instead of the previous four) and the rest of the schedule going forward from Wednesday on during championship week with the remaining teams.

Brey said the number of games for an 18-team Big East is still an issue.

"Everybody wants to play everybody," Brey said. "We can't have no-plays. And we need all of the schools to come to New York. A lot of these schools do a lot of business around the Big East tournament. We've got to figure out a way to do this. We're going to figure this all out together."

The past three weeks have been quite a whirlwind.

I've seen 20 teams in a number of venues on both coasts.

So after a thankful day to be with my family -- and a big thanks to all my tremendous colleagues who grind every day on our editorial operation on and on both sides of the camera on ESPN -- here's a look at what I've picked up on after two weeks on the road. And remember, this only includes games I've seen in person.

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Michigan State vs North Carolina
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillIt doesn't get much more scenic than what we witnessed at the Carrier Classic.

Best venue: It was natural to be skeptical about whether or not the Carrier Classic could be pulled off. But it far exceeded my expectations. The Navy did what it does best -- tremendous organization. The enormity of the USS Carl Vinson was awe-inspiring. The men and women who serve on the ship, as well as the ship's leadership, couldn't have been more welcoming. They were so grateful to have a chance to show what they do on a daily basis. The two teams -- North Carolina and Michigan State -- were model guests and displayed tremendous appreciation. The pageantry of the event, from the patriotic opening to the scenic view of downtown San Diego, will be hard to ever duplicate due to the uniqueness of 11-11-11 and the inaugural nature of the game. And the outdoor game may have seemed like a gimmick, but it was well-played in spurts for being the season opener for both teams.

Best team: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have lived up to the hype as the No. 1 team in the country. They have flaws, especially their perimeter depth. But the overall length of the frontcourt, the ability to get out on the break and the potential to hit scoring spurts and run out on teams is impressive. The Heels have three players -- Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall -- who will compete for the ACC POY and two others -- John Henson and James Michael McAdoo -- who will be tough to defend.

Signature moment: When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski won game No. 903 against Michigan State, passed his mentor Bob Knight and became the all-time winningest men's coach in NCAA history. The impromptu embrace by Coach K and Knight was met by a swarm of photographers and a rare teary eye from Coach K. The moment was genuine, real and showed the true emotion of such an arduous task of grinding out wins in this sport for three-plus decades.

Most impressive half: Kentucky's complete domination of Penn State in the first half at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The Wildcats made it look like it was a guarantee game with an opponent from a weak Division II conference. To Penn State's credit, the Nittany Lions did respond the next day and beat South Florida. But Kentucky showed on this day that it had more offensive versatility with the emergence of Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer.

Most dominating performance: Jared Cunningham, Oregon State. Cunningham went off for 37 points in an overtime win over Texas in the Legends Classic. Cunningham was a highlight reel a year ago but has settled down, working on his game and finding ways to score in a variety of ways. Hofstra coach Mo Cassara said he was the best guard they've gone against in quite some time after Cunningham lit up the Pride for 35 in Corvallis prior to the Texas game. Cunningham is a legit Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate.

Best sub: Syracuse's Dion Waiters. Waiters jump-started the Orange with 11 points off the bench in the comeback win over Virginia Tech in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal. Waiters is a game-changer when he's on the floor. He gives Syracuse a different look because of his ability to get into the lane quicker than Scoop Jardine. He's not as refined as Jardine and can be hit or miss, but when he's on he gives the Orange a different look.

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Billy Kennedy
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Billy Kennedy was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease before the start of the season.

Most courageous: Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy and St. John's coach Steve Lavin. Kennedy is trying to come back from a series of health setbacks, most notably being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He went through incredible fatigue over a five-week stretch that weakened him and it doesn't help that he has bone spurs in his shoulder. The first-year A&M coach is beat up, but is making a comeback one step at a time. He's an inspiration and a model of perseverance.

Lavin, meanwhile, is returning from prostate cancer surgery that was more extensive than most. He had a seven-hour procedure to take out his prostate and also scrape other lymph nodes to ensure that the cancer was all gone. He said he is cancer-free, but is still working his way back from the exhausting surgery. Lavin has to manage his energy and that's why he was able to coach in the Garden for two days in a row but then needed to take a day off from the rigors of coaching earlier this week.

Biggest surprise: Stanford's blowout win over Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were obviously a bit distracted on Wednesday. Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who has been crushed by the horrific plane crash that cost the lives of women's coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, said there were no excuses. And there is this: Stanford was that good. Josh Owens scored 21 points and is, like Cunningham, a Pac-12 POY candidate. I'm not sure Stanford can continue this early-season success, but the Cardinal certainly have the look of an upper-division Pac-12 team.

Two to single out: Over the past three weeks, I took notice of two players who continue to exhibit maturity and professionalism in the way they handle themselves with the media and the respect they have for those older than them. Texas freshman Myck Kabongo has a tremendous presence about him. So too does Michigan State senior Draymond Green. You sense that both of these young men will be stars in whatever they choose to do going forward.

Player only scratching the surface: Kentucky's Anthony Davis will be a star by season's end with his ability to control the paint. He is such an immense talent with his length and game-changing shot-blocking. His offense will only continue to diversify.

Most important wins: Vanderbilt beating NC State and Oregon State in the closing moments. The Commodores found ways to win the Legends Classic with key defensive stops and timely shooting at the IZOD Center. The Wolfpack and Beavers are vastly improved from a year ago, but the Dores had to win these games to shed the sour taste of getting beat up by Cleveland State at home. Vandy will get big man Festus Ezeli back in a few weeks. So these wins were critical for this team's confidence.

Two teams to watch: Oregon State still has to win the games it should over the next month -- all against teams outside the power-six conferences and perhaps none against teams bound for the NCAA tournament. But the talent is in place with this team to make some noise in the Pac-12. The emergence of Ahmad Starks as a push-it point guard, the length of Eric Moreland and Devon Collier, the soft hands of Joe Burton inside and the scoring of Cunningham make this team a good watch.

NC State had talent when Mark Gottfried arrived and it has only gotten better. C.J. Leslie is a potential big-time scorer. Scott Wood can make shots. C.J. Williams and Alex Johnson are solid role players. DeShawn Painter is a rugged face-up and inside post player and the potential exists for Thomas de Thaey and Jordan Vandenberg to cause problems when they body people up in the lane. The ACC is weak beyond the top three, opening up a spot for the Wolfpack.

The great enigma: Mississippi State. After dropping a home game to Akron, the Bulldogs won the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer with wins over Texas A&M and Arizona. Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney provide one of the tougher matchups of any big man combo. Dee Bost is a veteran point guard who knows how to run a team. But the two players who may hold the key to this team are Deville Smith and Rodney Hood, a pair of freshman guards who can change the game with their speed and shooting when inserted.

Incomplete read: Drexel. The Dragons were without two of their top three guards in Chris Fouch and Tavon Allen. Yet Drexel pulled away from Rider in impressive fashion during the Tip-Off Marathon. The CAA favorite has a tough inside, undersized player in Samme Givens and a grinding guard who can get points in Frantz Massenat. But then the Dragons fell flat in the Virgin Islands and lost to Norfolk State and scored 35 points against Virginia. Let's see how Drexel does once it's healthy before giving a full review.

Best coaching jobs: Kansas' Bill Self and Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg. Neither team won when I saw them but they were going up against top-five squads in Kentucky and Syracuse. Self and Greenberg are maximizing the talent on their teams. They do have studs in Thomas Robinson (Kansas) and Dorenzo Hudson (Virginia Tech), but they get their teams to play as hard as they coach. Kansas' play in Maui deserves high praise and the Jayhawks will once again be in contention to win the Big 12. The Hokies will find a way to be on the bubble again. Neither team is as stocked as it has been in the past, but these two coaches will get these teams to reach their potential.

Best teams: Nothing I saw changed my opinion that North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse are all legitimate Final Four contenders. I have yet to see Ohio State, but put the Buckeyes in that group, as well.

Best game I missed: Well, that one is easy. The Kansas-Duke championship game at the Maui Invitational will go down as one of the best 40 minutes of the regular season. What a show that was.

Big East off to a fast start

November, 29, 2010

The Big East was supposed to take a back seat to the Big Ten in the conference rankings.

So far no other conference is close to the Big East -- at least in winning early season tournaments.

The Big East has won six traditional tournaments (those with at least semifinals and finals played on a neutral court):

Pitt beat Texas to win the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York.
Georgetown beat NC State to win the Charleston Classic.
Connecticut beat Kentucky to win the Maui Invitational.
Syracuse beat Georgia Tech to win the Legends Classic in Atlantic City.
Notre Dame beat Wisconsin to win the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
St. John's beat Arizona State to win the Great Alaska Shootout.
West Virginia lost to Minnesota in the final of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Villanova lost in the final to Tennessee in the NIT Season Tip-Off.

On the flip side, DePaul had an 0-3 showing in the 76 Classic in Anaheim and Seton Hall won only one game in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas. Marquette failed to reach the title game at the CBE Classic in Kansas City, losing in the semifinals to No. 1 Duke.

But those last three are hardly blemishes for the league. The six wins and the two title losses speak much louder to its overall strength.

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Mike Brey
Cliff Welch/Icon SMINotre Dame coach Mike Brey is pleased with his team's 7-0 start, which includes a win at the Old Spice Classic.

"Every year the media wants to come up with another best league, some other conference," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. "Yet, we've done this year after year. We're easy to dismiss. But then we'll beat each other up in January and February and our RPI won't be as high so we won't get as many higher seeds."

The wins by Pitt, Georgetown, Syracuse and St. John's, based on the overall fields in each tournament, shouldn't have been a shock.

More surprising was Notre Dame winning in Orlando and certainly Connecticut's run in Maui.

The Irish were picked seventh in the Big East by the coaches in the preseason; UConn was picked 10th.

Notre Dame had to knock off a possible SEC darling in Georgia (playing without a healthy Trey Thompkins at the start of the event), then an offensively challenged Cal before disposing of the always pesky Wisconsin. UConn, though, had the more formidable task of beating Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, then Big Ten favorite Michigan State and the uber-talented Kentucky.

"We're going to get eight bids [to the NCAA tournament] again," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "That's what it looks like based on these early returns."

Connecticut has a national player of the year candidate in Kemba Walker. The Huskies also have some time to avoid a hangover from their Maui win with a soft five-game schedule (save a game against a surging Harvard, which just beat Colorado) prior to their Big East opener at Pitt on Dec. 27. The Huskies' next major nonconference games aren't until January (at Texas on Jan. 8 and home against Tennessee on Jan. 22).

Meanwhile, Notre Dame's week includes a matchup with Valley upstart Indiana State on Tuesday before going to Kentucky on Dec. 8 and then hosting Gonzaga on Dec. 11.

"It's a Big East week," Brey said. "That's why we set it up. There's nothing like having this experience."

Brey said the experience of having Tim Abromaitis, Ben Hansbrough, Tyrone Nash, Carleton Scott and even Purdue transfer Scott Martin play three games in four days in Orlando paid off. Brey also got much-needed scoring out of freshman guard Eric Atkins in Orlando, who scored 12 points in the title win over Wisconsin on Sunday night.

"We need Atkins and Martin to emerge for us to be really good," Brey said. "Ultimately, those two guys played well and found a rhythm. I really love this team. I've got a good vibe about them now. I'm so impressed with their focus and concentration. They all chased a common goal."

And that was to win a tournament championship. Ultimately by doing that, just like Georgetown, UConn, Pitt, Syracuse and St. John's did, the Irish proved that the Big East will have the depth to be an even tougher conference with enough good teams to possibly land 50 percent of its membership in the NCAAs in March.