NCAA Tournament: OBW’s favorite Cinderellas

T.J. Sorrentine. Photo Credit: Vermont Athletics / Sally McCay
T.J. Sorrentine. Photo Credit: Vermont Athletics / Sally McCay

This year’s NCAA Tournament is a tad short on the Cinderella story.

UCLA is the worst seed in the Sweet 16 at No. 11, and we all know the Bruins’ storied history. Wichita State and Gonzaga are the only Sweet 16 teams that don’t hail from a power conference. Neither could really be considered a Cinderella anymore, anyway, not with the Shockers two years removed from a Final Four, one year from a No. 1 seed and not even a week from a top-15 national ranking, and not with the Bulldogs, a No. 2 seed.

So Sam Perkins and Doric Sam took a trip down memory lane, recounting their favorite Cinderella stories from NCAA Tournaments past.

Sam Perkins

This is a really tough one for me. Although my earliest college hoops memories are of rooting on “Tark the Shark,” Larry “Grandmama” Johnson and the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, and I grew up in the John Calipari “Refuse to Lose” UMass Minutemen family (where my father played college hoops way back in the day), I’ve always been a fan of college basketball’s Cinderellas and underdogs, so choosing just one is hard.

I have to give honorable mention to the Casey Calvary/Matt Santangelo/Quinton Hall “The Slipper Still Fits” Gonzaga team of the 98-99 season that went to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed — THE team in which the entire subsequent Bulldogs program has built upon. That was one hell of a tough, physical, gritty team that showed no fear against the college hoops big boys, knocking off No. 7 Minnesota, No. 2 Stanford and then a Florida team featuring about a half-dozen future NBA players — I can still remember watching that whole run as a high school freshman, screaming at my TV with my brother, my good friend Noah, and his younger brother.

Also major props to the Bryce Drew Valparaiso team of a year earlier that went to the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed, shocking No. 4 Mississippi with “The Shot” in the opening round, before beating Florida State. That Valpo team had so many great story lines — Drew playing for his father, Homer, and drilling big shot after big shot, including one of the most improbable, full-court inbounds plays in college hoops history; twins Bill an Bob Jenkins; foreign 7-footers Anatas “Tony” Vilcinskas (Lithuania) and Zoran Viskovic (Croatia) chief among them.

The University of Rhode Island team that ended Valparaiso’s magical run in 1998 also deserves recognition. The 1997-1998 Rams were one of the most fun teams I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Yes, they were a No. 8 seed, and thus in the top half of their bracket, and they came from the Atlantic-10 at the tail end of the league’s golden era when the A-10 was putting anywhere from 4-6 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But this was a URI squad that was overlooked and undervalued in its own league, and a squad that no one — and I mean no one outside of the that locker room — expected to go to the Elite Eight and be a minute and a half (and essentially a blown inbounds) away from the Final Four. The Rams were super physical and extremely talented, with 6-foot-5 power forward Antonio Reynolds-Dean bringing toughness, intangibles and a heart the size of a basketball, playing alongside a dynamic backcourt of Cuttino Mobley and pint-sized Tyson Wheeler. But they were also selfless and a team that’s sum remained far greater than its individual parts.

However, my favorite Cinderella of all time remains the 2004-2005 Vermont Catamounts. Don’t get me wrong, the 04-05 Catamounts don’t have the NCAA Tournament resume of the teams listed above — they won a grand total of one game. But the Taylor Coppenrath/T.J. Sorrentine Catamounts will forever have a special place in my heart because they were a team that I got to know on a far deeper level than any other Cinderella. I watched the senior class that carried them from the time they were wet behind the ears freshmen (“puppies” as head coach Tom Brennan called them) to the final horn of their careers — a second round (back when the “second round” was the field of 32) loss to Michigan State.

The Catamounts had legitimate high-major level stars in Coppenrath, a 6-foot-9 backwoods Paul Bunyon of sorts who was country strong and could score from anywhere on the floor, and Sorrentine, a scrappy, smack-talking spark plug who played with crazy swag and had range from anywhere inside the state line. Both Coppenrath and Sorrentine were completely overlooked by the basketball establishment, and both used that to fuel them through their careers.

But the Catamounts were more than a two-man team (although both Coppernath and Sorrentine were completely irreplaceable) with the rest of the roster not only knowing and embracing their respective roles, but excelling at them (with players like Germain Mopa-Njila and David Hehn bringing tenacious defense and rebounding).

What was great about the 04-05 UVM squad was that they spent the entire season with a bullseye on their backs, not only in the tiny America East Conference, but on the national level, with feature articles in both ESPN the Magazine and SI, while also being followed around by a camera crew for ESPN’s “The Season” and playing in the marquee matchup of the inaugural Bracket Buster. And they responded every time.

Their 60-57 shocker over Syracuse was one of the most amazing events I’ve ever experienced, with the Orange selling out to stop Coppenrath and Sorrentine at all costs, and Mopa-Njila stepping up to have the best game of his career in the biggest game of his life (20 points on 9-of-10 shooting to go with nine rebounds, five assists and four steals). And, of course, there was Coppenrath knocking down the elbow jumper to force overtime and Sorrentine’s “nah, coach, I got this” shot “from the parking lot” to win the game.

The Catamounts were the ultimate underdog that grabbed their one, fleeting, shining moment. They were the embodiment of why I love March Madness. They also had an incredibly special meaning for me, as I had started watching Vermont with my father three years earlier (he was a big fan of the late Trevor Gaines and of Sorrentine), and had continued to watch them after he was killed in a car accident in January of 2004.

The year since had been one of the worst of my life, and following the America East had given me one final connection to him that couldn’t be severed by death or heartbreak, and the impact of Vermont’s win meant much more in keeping his memory alive than I can put into words.

Doric Sam
I’m probably exposing myself as a young’n of the OBW staff with this pick, but I remember being completely encapsulated with the 2010-11 VCU team during my senior year at Stony Brook. I even used them as the subject of an assignment in a broadcast journalism class, having my professor pretend to be Shaka Smart while I interviewed her (I aced that assignment, by the way).

Shaka Smart just had this energy and swagger about him — it was fun watching a young coach, one who doesn’t wear a suit jacket during games as if it’s a fashion statement, running up and down the sidelines like a madman, something not normally seen from coaches on the big stage. The advent of the “First Four” that year seemed ridiculous to me at first, but it helped the Rams make history by being the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. Their wins over Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State were impressive, but when they ran into No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight, I thought, “There’s no way.” But then power forward Jamie Skeen dominated inside and outside (four three-pointers) against the twin towers of Marcus and Markieff Morris on his way to 26 points and 10 rebounds.

The other true Cinderella team during my college basketball fandom was the 2005-06 George Mason team, but all that team really did was make me want to set fire to my bracket and say, “Who the f— is George Mason?” I wanted to know who VCU was, making that Rams team my favorite Cinderella squad of all-time.

Jabarie Hinds has found a new home and embraced a new role at UMass

Jabarie Hinds. Photo Credit: UMass Athletics.
Jabarie Hinds. Photo Credit: UMass Athletics.

Jabarie Hinds has finally found comfort, happiness and home on the court.

It’s been a long road to get here – far longer than the miles logged between his hometown of Mount Vernon, N.Y., to Morgantown, W. Va., and finally to Amherst, Mass. It’s a journey that has seen Hinds go from a top 100 high school prospect, to starter and star in the making as a freshman at a Big 12 school, only to find himself riding on the pine, before transferring to a rebuilding UMass program and embracing a role coming off the bench.

But it’s one he’s thankful for.

“I definitely think the journey has made me a better player and a better person for it,” says Hinds, who is currently averaging 8.2 points and 21.9 minutes per game as a super-sub for the Minutemen.

“I love having his intensity and speed coming off the bench,” says UMass head coach Derek Kellogg. “When the other team is a little tired or he can go against their secondary guys because his speed and ability to score becomes that much more evident.”

It’s a role that Hinds has embraced, but one he never imagined for himself when he was first setting out on his basketball own.

As a teenager at Mount Vernon High, Hinds was the big man on campus and a bona fide star. A two-time Mr. Basketball by the West Westchester County Basketball Coaches Association, the Class AA state Player of the Year by the New York State Sportswriters Association and the only player in Mount Vernon history to win five Section 1 championships, things came easy to Hinds, who was ranked the 73rd best player in the nation by ESPN, on the court and scholarships rolled in from every corner of the country.

Hinds eventually decided on accepting a scholarship from Bob Huggins at Big 12 power West Virginia. Hinds hit the ground running for the Mountaineers, starting 59 of the first 60 games of his career, averaging 7.4 points per game in each of his two seasons. But by the end of his sophomore year, Hinds decided that West Virginia just wasn’t the right fit for him, and after the season, received his release.

“West Virginia is a very good school, I was there on a full scholarship,” says Hinds. “But I just felt after my sophomore year I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing out on the basketball court”

Going through the recruiting process for a second time, this time as a transfer, proved to be a much tougher road than the one he walked as a high school star.

“It was a little stressful process honestly,” Hinds says of the time he spent searching for another school. “So for that I just wanted to find a different place where I could be more comfortable and that was more adjusted to my type of game and start from there.”

According to Kellogg, the seventh-year head coach found out about Hinds’ release at the same as the rest of the college basketball world.

“I think around the same time everyone else did, it was kind of word of mouth, and then they put a release out,” Kellogg says of when he found out Hinds was looking for a new team.

“Once I heard, I thought he would be a great fit here. We watched him a bunch in high school, we know his high school program very well at Mount Vernon and I always thought that in a fast, up-tempo game that he could be very effective.”

After going through the appropriate channels, Kellogg reached out to Hinds’ family and high school coach, comparing the guard to an old UMass player who had also attended Mount Vernon in New York.

“Chris (Lowe) played at the same high school, and he had a great career here,” Kellogg sayus. “They resemble each other a little bit in their play, so I thought that was a good interlude to him coming here.”

Kellogg thought Hinds would be a perfect fit for the kind of run-and-gun offense he wanted to execute, and Hinds was an easy sell once he met with the coach.

“Obviously we were excited because at the time we thought he was a guy that could help solidify our backcourt both as a point guard and also as a scorer,” Kellogg added. “He was able to put the ball in the basket at WVU and if you can do that in the Big 12 in that level of play, I was confident that given the right situation he could do it here in the A-10.”

“Coach (Kellogg) prays on pushing the ball, making plays and stuff like that, and that’s what I think I’m better at, just playing off instinct,” says Hinds.

NCAA transfer rules forced Hinds to redshirt last season, as the guard sat out as a spectator while the Minutemen punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years. Hinds admits that it was tough spend the season watching from the sidelines, but credits it as a learning experience.

“Yeah it was tough, but it wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be,” he says. “It went by real fast, seeing the games you wish you could be out there, but now I’m here about to finish my third year playing basketball in college, so it wasn’t that bad.”

Kellogg acknowledged the cabin-fever like difficulties Hinds, like all players, had to face sitting out, but credited him with making the most out of his time.

“It’s never easy. We do have some guys here who have been through it, whether it’s Derrick Gordon or some other guys, they were able to give him some positive advice,” says Kellogg.

“He was also able to practice so he did a good job of trying to learn the system, but there’s nothing like playing. It’s taken him a little while to get acclimated to the real game action and making his decisions. I think he’s shown flashes throughout the season and I think at this point he’s starting to get really comfortable.”

In his first full season at UMass, Hinds has been used in a countless roles, beginning the season on the bench, before starting six consecutive games from Dec. 7 to Jan. 3, only to move back on the bench. But he says he embraced his role on the team, no matter whether he heard his name called in the starting lineup or not.

“It wasn’t hard, I was playing either way,” Hinds says. “I was just trying to find my niche and I guess coach Kellogg did that just to see how I was gonna’ play as a starter, because I wasn’t playing that well off the bench and then he took me back out of the lineup.

“Now my main role is coming off the bench and trying to give the team energy and just adapting to that role and taking it the best way I can.”

With a deep back court featuring Trey Davis, Gordon, and Donte Clark, Kellogg knew he would need to use some of his backcourt talent as reserves, and found that Hinds’ energy and team-first mentality were perfect to provide instant energy off the bench.

“It was just one of those things where I was trying to find out where he was most comfortable,” says Kellogg. “Early on he was most comfortable off the bench, I thought I’d give him a starting role for a little while, and then the best thing for our team was him coming back off the bench.”

And since moving back to the bench, Hinds has elevated his play, scoring in double-digits in six of the Minutemen’s last 11 games, including a season-high 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting at URI on Feb. 17, followed up by 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting against 25th ranked VCU. In a Feb. 11 contest at St. Bonaventure, Hinds drilled a game-winning 3-pointer to gave UMass a vital conference win.

“I worked hard this summer trying to get better on my jump shot and still have more work to do on other things like studying the game,” Hinds says. “Knowing I’m making an impact some games out here for my team is very special.”

Kellogg knows how important it is to get these contributions from Hinds, and appreciates the effort he is getting from the guard.

“I think it’s great. We obviously, like most teams, need points. We gotta’ put points on the board and for him to be able to balance his great defense with his ability to distribute and also put the ball in the basket has been beneficial for our team to stay in and win some games,” he says.

Moving forward, Kellogg hopes Hinds continues to keep up his energy as the heads into the Atlantic-10 conference tournament.

When asked if he had any goals he would like to achieve, Hinds keeps it simple.

“Just trying to win as much as I can before my college career is over.”

DeAndre’ Bembry has never cared about awards, he just wants to win

DeAndre' Bremby. Photo Credit: Sideline Photos, LLC / Saint Joseph's Athletics
DeAndre’ Bembry. Photo Credit: Sideline Photos, LLC / Saint Joseph’s Athletics

A monster. A beast. Unstoppable. Whatever adjective you want to use to describe the night Saint Joseph’s sophomore DeAndre’ Bembry had against UMass on Wednesday — and his play all season long — probably isn’t enough. Bembry, a 6’6” forward, poured in 33 points, ripped down 14 rebounds and played all 40 minutes the Hawks 82-71 road win at the Mullins Center.

The thing is, he doesn’t care about praise, awards or individual achievements, and didn’t dwell on his numbers after the game. All Bembry cared about was the win.

“All I care about is we got the win,” said Bembry.

It was the latest chapter in Bembry’s utter domination of the Minutemen, as the Charlotte, North Carolina native has now scored a total of 58 points and grabbed 22 rebounds in two games against UMass this season.

“I can’t point out what exactly I’m doing right, but I’m just playing my game,” said Bembry of his success against the Minutemen. “I like the pressure, like going by the players and making plays for other players or myself. But, I can’t really point out why it’s UMass.”

Coming into Wednesday, the reigning Atlantic 10 Co-Rookie of the Year and now Atlantic 10 Player of the Year candidate was leading the league in scoring at 17.8 points per game, while averaging 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 steals, and 38.6 minutes on the year.

“I was raised playing that type of basketball, the pressure all up on you” said Bembry of his ability to shred opposing defenses game planning around stopping him at all costs. “I just understand how to get by and just make a play for someone else or myself.”

Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli has been impressed with his star forward’s play for the past two years, but particularly his play as a captain this season.

“If we had a winning record, he’d be an All-American, but we don’t. No one in this league will hear me scream and shout if he doesn’t get Player of the Year in the league. I get it, the player of the year probably should come from the best team, and that’s not who we are,” said Martelli.

Bembry’s heroics helped the Hawks (12-15; 6-9 A-10) grab their first road win since Dec. 20 at Marist. Coach Martelli was proud of his team for sticking through the tough season as a unit.

“I wondered whose feelings would come out in the game, because UMass having put so much into the VCU game and Rhody [Rhode Island] last week, that’s a tough trip at Rhody, at VCU,” he said. “I didn’t know with us losing at Dayton and St. Bonaventure, whose spirit would come out, and I thought we gave a very spirited effort.”

In addition to Bembry’s play, Martelli also got a plethora of 3-pointers from his team (9-of-13 from downtown), which entered the night as one of the worst shooting teams in the Atlantic-10 from beyond the arc.

“I don’t know whether to be more excited about a road win or 82 points, because there have been weeks where we haven’t scored 82 points and that’s playing multiple games in a week. I thought we really did a nice job offensively,” said Martelli.

After scoring double figures in 23 consecutive games, including four double-doubles, Bembry said he didn’t care about his own stats, and just wanted to start winning.

“It’s just confidence with this team, really, that’s the biggest thing,” said Bembry of his teammates Chris Wilson and Jai Williams, who combined for 28 points. “I’m just worried about the wins, any one I’ll take, really. Throughout the whole year, most of the game that we lost, we’ve been leading the whole second half. We just have to learn how to finish the games out.”

Despite an at times trying season, Martelli and Bembry said they have never lost determination in finishing out the year on a high note.

“I’ve said this all year about our team, I’ve been disappointed not discouraged. Because they’re nice kids, they come to work hard, we have a special player, but I’ve just been so disappointed,” said Martelli.

UMass head coach Derek Kellogg added to the sentiment of Bembry’s huge night.

“We tried to do a lot of different things. We doubled him a bunch. Guys didn’t speak loud enough and he got open a couple times, but he still has to make those threes. He still has to make those shots, and I thought he did a good job of getting to the free throw line.”

Bembry was 10-for-11 in free throw attempts, getting to the line at will.
“I said it before the game, but I think he’s the best player – or pretty close to the best player – in our league. At least the two times we’ve played him, he looks like a guy that could play at the next level,” said Kellogg.

This has been a season for the record books in many aspects for Bembry, whose overall scoring average of 17.8 points per game is only bested by the likes of former NBA stars Jameer Nelson (20.6) and Delonte West (18.9).

Awards have been rolling in for Bembry as of late, including the National Jesuit Player of the Week on Feb. 5, Philadelphia Big 5 Player of the Week on both Jan. 26 and Feb. 2, and Atlantic 10 Co-Player of the Week on Jan. 26. But Bembry never pays them much notice.

“It’s not something that he worries about. When I talk to him about accolades and player of the week and all of that stuff, the only thing he looks me in the eye and says, ‘Did we win? If we win, then I’ll take the award,’” said Martelli.

In fact, Bembry felt like he didn’t deserve the Philadelphia Big 5 Player of the Week, because the Hawks had suffered a loss earlier that week, and wouldn’t even let Martelli announce the award to the team.

“We haven’t had many guys have a year like this, but at the end of the year DeAndre’ will want to be judged by wins and losses. So if it doesn’t go his way, that’s not why he put in all his time in spring and in the summer to get better,” said Martelli.

Bembry added the final exclamation point on the night with a monstrous dunk late in the game on Wednesday night, drawing a big reaction even from the partisan UMass crowd. But according to Martelli, individual attention and accolades have never been what gets his star forward going.

“It doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t mean anything,” said Martelli. “He’s a champion, he was on a championship team last year, he was the Rookie of the Year, but he’d trade all of those for the championship rings.”

Poor shooting dooms UMass men’s basketball

Poor shooting doomed the UMass men’s basketball team on Wednesday night in an 82-71 home loss against Saint Joseph’s, the Minutemen’s third straight defeat.

The Minutemen, who fell to 16-12 on the year and 9-6 in the Atlantic-10, went 6-of-24 from beyond the arc, shooting an abysmal 33.8 percent from the field. Freshman Donte Clark and redshirt junior Jabarie Hinds, two of the Minutemen’s hot hands in recent games, combined to hit just five of the 21 shots they attempted, including just one three-pointer out of nine attempts.

In the postgame press conference, Minutemen head coach Derek Kellogg acknowledged the shooting performances from both sides as one of the main reasons for the outcome of this contest.

“You can’t go 6-for-24 from the three-point line and then have them go 70 percent,” said Kellogg of the Hawks 9-of-13 performance from downtown. “I think that was a huge difference in the game.”

Perhaps the biggest difference in this contest was the play of Hawks sophomore DeAndre Bembry, who exploded for a career-high 33 points, adding 14 rebounds and four assists along the way.

In the second half alone, St. Joe’s made four of the five threes, with Bembry hitting both long-range shots he took.

UMass finished 23-of-68 from the field, with the foursome consisting of Maxie Esho, Clark, Hinds and Demetrius Dyson attempting 45 shots and only hitting 13.

Entering the night, the Hawks were shooting just 29 percent from three-point range, but Kellog knew Saint Joe’s could get hot from downtown.

“It seems to be the case. Every game you watched on TV was if they shot the three ball well they had a chance to beat teams, and it seems ironic that two of the times were against us,” he said. “I mean, 9-for-13, some of them were open, but Bembry hit one where Demetrius fell and was at his feet and then he hit one in the corner that was tough.

“They got into a rhythm, I thought we got them out of it for a little with our press and then we did defensive rebound two or three times, so hats off to them. (Chris) Wilson hit four threes last game and three tonight, and then (Isaiah) Miles making threes is uncharacteristic for them.”

Although his team was coming off a rough two-game road stretch against University of Rhode Island and Virginia Commonwealth University, Kellogg made it clear that there are no excuses this late into the season.

“I would say we didn’t play our most energized game, a few times we were trying to get into the press and guys were slow getting there,” he said. “Then when they started making plays I thought that deflated us and then to top that off, when you have wide open threes about nine occasions and you don’t make them that can be difficult to withstand.

Added Kellogg, “We’ve played well when we make some threes and then loosen it up and then Maxie and Cady can work it inside, we just didn’t make them tonight.”

Despite the difficult night shooting, the Minutemen still finished with five players in double figures, with senior big man Cady Lalanne recording a double-double of 14 points and thirteen rebounds. Dyson, who logged his own double-double in the previous contest versus VCU, added 12 and seven.

Brendan Casper: Effort is everything

Brendan Casper. Photo Credit: Sideline Photos, LLC / Saint Joseph's Athletics
Brendan Casper. Photo Credit: Sideline Photos, LLC / Saint Joseph’s Athletics

Despite receiving no offers from Division I schools to play basketball, Brendan Casper wasn’t going to giving up on his dreams of playing at the highest level of college basketball.

So instead of taking the safe route and attending a Division II or III school, the sophomore from Audobon, Pennsylvania, decided to stay in state and join the Saint Joseph’s basketball program as a preferred walk-on.

“My dream was always to play Division I, from the time I was a little kid and I started playing,” he says. “I felt that I could compete at this level because I always had confidence in my game. Even though Division I schools didn’t offer me, I still felt I had a good shot at competing, so when the opportunity to came to walk on at St. Joe’s, I wanted to prove everyone wrong and show that I still had a shot at playing.”

Hawks head coach Phil Martelli says there were many qualities about Brendan that he valued as a coach.

“His incredible love of the game of basketball, his desire to improve, and willingness to accept a limited role,” Martelli says when asked what led to offering Casper a spot on the team. “This kid was a high school star and now he’s coming into college and we’re telling him unless there’s some mistakes along the way, there’s not gonna’ be playing time.

“Since he’s been with us, what I admire the most is his willingness to compete and improve.”

In his freshman year with SJU, Casper only appeared in eight games, logging a mere 15 minutes total. But in his second year as a Hawk, he has taken the court in 20 contests, most notably a 20-minute effort on Dec. 6 against Big 5 rival Villanova in which he recorded nine points and nine rebounds, both setting career-highs.

As someone who grew up in the Philadelphia area watching Big 5 basketball, he says that was a game he would never forget.

“It was great, that’s what I worked hard for my entire life to be able to play big minutes in big time games,” Casper says. “I knew the significance of that game and that rivalry. For that to be my first game to put my name on the map and really show that I could play and for all the people that doubted me, for me to have that game, it really boosted my confidence. My family was there so it was a dream come true to have a big game in one of those rivalries.”

Casper has also seen minutes in games this season versus opponents like Gonzaga, Western Kentucky, George Washington and VCU.

“It’s great,” Casper says about the increase in minutes he has received. “I feel great that coach has the trust to play me. I’m in a situation where he needs to play me more in certain situations and I’m always ready. As a sophomore I can keep building off of this year.”

Casper added that unlike most walk-ons who don’t get their chance until late in their careers, he’s excited to gain experience in games and build off it for the future.

Another part of Brendan’s game that is well known is his extremely hard work ethic, which is something he’s always prided himself on.

“I’m not the most athletic player, I’m not the fastest player, but I’m not gonna; let anyone outwork me,” he says. “It’s something that I’ll always play by and even at this level the athleticism is at a different level.

“Everyone told me I wasn’t athletic enough but no one can tell me I can’t out work anybody.”

And that effort has left a big impression on his head coach.

“It motivates you to make sure his experience is really a life-changing one, not just an average one,” says Martelli. “You can always use him as an example for others to say ‘here’s a kid who not only is dedicating himself on the court, but dedicates himself to the classroom.’ He’s a wonderful teammate and a great example for all that’s good about college basketball.”

What people may not know is that this isn’t the first time a Casper has been coached by Martelli: Brendan’s father, Rob, played under Martelli at Bishop Kenrick high School in Norristown, making it to the state championship in 1980.

“It’s pretty cool,” Casper says of the connection. “It’s cool that Phil got to coach my dad and then 30 years later he gets to coach his son. My dad gives me good advice, which is come in, keep your mouth shut and play as hard as you can and everything with work out.”

Despite being related, Martelli said there aren’t many similarities between the two out on the court.

“When I coached Rob, he was probably the most athletic guy that I had coached up until that point in time. The love of basketball was the same, they loved playing the game, they love competing. You want them to grow as players, but you want them to grow as people as well and to create memories for a lifetime.”

When asked about the future, Casper says he’s just focused on improving each year, and is confident that he can help the team.

“Getting these minutes as a sophomore gives me an idea of what exactly I need to improve on moving forward, which is always a good thing,” he says. “Last year playing in practice against all of these players every day was very helpful. But this year getting the game experience and actually feeling what its like to be out there and playing in front of people and on TV and in big games, that’s been a big step up for me and really shows me what I can improve on in the summer.

“I still have two more years and just want to continue helping the team in any way I can.”

Dekeba Battee-Aston: A journey started with a single step

Dekeba Battee-Aston. (Courtesy Photo/Fordham Athletics)
Dekeba Battee-Aston. (Courtesy Photo/Fordham Athletics)

It has been said time and time again that life is not a race, but a journey, one that starts with a single step. For Dekeba Battee-Aston, a freshman center for Fordham, his journey to the Bronx started with a plane ride when he left his home of Brisbane, Australia for the United States at the age of 14 with hopes of pursuing his dream of playing basketball.

Battee-Aston was born in Cairns, Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef to Don Battee and Joanne Aston and moved to Brisbane when he was four. His father played college basketball at Wichita State and went on to play professionally overseas, which led him to Australia. Battee-Aston takes immense pride in his heritage.

“Probably one of my favorite parts about my life is just being able to call myself Australian,” he says. “It’s a great experience for anybody, really. I enjoy the weather, obviously, which is a lot different from here. The people, culturally, are completely different. Because it’s kind of a hub for a lot of the South Asian community and the Pacific Island community, you have a great mix of different family-based cultures.”

To have to go from that type of culturally-diverse community Down Under to Dallas, Texas, where his father and grandmother lived, would create a culture shock for anyone, let alone a 14-year-old kid.

“Massively,” Battee-Aston says when asked if moving to Texas was a culture shock. “Texas is just completely different. One of the central parts of America—when a lot of people think about the United States they usually refer to Texas, so Texas is about as American as you can get in some places. Always homesick, because all my family and friends were back home. But I knew what I was here for, so I made the most of it.”

***

Batte-Aston accepted that playing basketball in the states would be the best course for him. He said he went home every summer and sometimes over Christmas, which helped him get used to his new situation. But as a tall, yet still undersized freshman starting center for Richland High School, he faced an even more difficult transition on the court.

“It was a struggle, it was a different style of play. Back home, it’s a lot more European-styled—a lot of passing, a lot of screening, and not really as physically aggressive,” he says. “However in Texas, because it’s a big football state, a lot of the basketball players are also football players, so it’s tough. I was 6-foot-6 and like 190 pounds when I first came over and I played center for my high school as a freshman, so I was going up against seniors who were also linebackers and weighed 100 or 200 pounds heavier than I did, so it was hard to keep up.”

At the same time, Battee-Aston’s father was in the midst of an acting career. You may have seen Don Battee in the hit movies The Matrix Reloaded and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. So with Battee’s job taking him all over the country, his son had to move around along with him, leading to stints at multiple prep schools. Battee-Aston spent time at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas and other schools before ending his high school career at Northfield-Mount Hermon in Massachusetts.

“Mainly it was just personal preference. Because of my dad’s work, he travels a lot and him being American himself he already had these ideas of what schools would be best for me. We were kind of just winging it from the start, so he was just trying to find the best situation for me,” Battee-Aston says of the constant moving. “Sometimes it would work out, sometimes it wouldn’t. We were kind of coming in blind and we didn’t really have anybody who was able to guide us through the situation, so a lot of (me moving around) was mainly on us not being comfortable in the situation we were in or because Dad had to move for work.”

But the incessant shifting of his home had taken its toll on Battee-Aston over his four years in the U.S., so instead of going straight to college he returned to Australia and took a year off.

“I just went home to be with my mom, because obviously being over here for four years took a toll on me. So I decided to go home and be with my mom and my stepdad for a while, and also try and take a break away from basketball and see what I really wanted to do with my life, because to continue with basketball would’ve been a really big decision for me and with all the moving I had done I wasn’t 100 percent sure who I wanted to be,” he says.

Dekeba Battee-Aston. (Courtesy Photo/Fordham Athletics)
Dekeba Battee-Aston. (Courtesy Photo/Fordham Athletics)

***

They say you never really know what you have until it’s gone, and Battee-Aston said he needed to be without basketball to realize how much he missed the game.

“I think it really put my life in perspective and it really helped me make this decision to come back because I knew what I wanted once I was away from it,” he says.

Much to his surprise, Battee-Aston’s size and potential still drew interest from schools despite taking a year away from the sport. One of the schools who continued to inquire about the Aussie was Fordham.

“During his time in prep school, when he was a sophomore we saw him play so we put him on our sophomore list. And then last year when we were tracking guys, we said, ‘Whatever happened to ‘Keeba?’” Fordham head coach Tom Pecora recalls. “We found out he was in Australia and then we called him up for a visit. He and his dad came up and visited—his dad grew up uptown in Harlem so he was very comfortable with the area. Obviously the academics of the school appealed to him, he’s a good student and a bright young man, so that’s how it all came together.”

“At the time I was really just working a day job, which was OK, but I was looking for something more. My dad said Fordham had been in contact with him, and I just took that opportunity,” Battee-Aston says. “There were a couple of other schools my dad had been in contact with, but out of all of them Fordham was the most interesting. When I came on the visit and talked to the coaches, I just loved everything about this program and about this school. It was a no-brainer for me.”

Battee-Aston said his father’s influence was significant to his decision to return to play basketball and he never felt any pressure to live up to his father’s accomplishments.

“He only ever tried to do what was best for me,” he says. “Of course, because of his work and stuff it made it hard because I would have to leave teams and go to other teams, try and make new connections with new players and new coaches, and that was always hard. But I reckon if I didn’t have him I never would’ve been able to make it anywhere in basketball, so I’m really glad to have him.

“My dad would tell you himself, even though I haven’t gone on to play in Europe or anything, he thinks I’ve surpassed him already,” he continues. “Honestly, I think he would’ve been happy with anything; he tells me all the time that he would’ve been, and I believe that. But with the friends that he had who were hall of famers in the Australian basketball league, the truth is I was born to play it. It’s just something that I’ve always enjoyed playing, something that I feel most comfortable with. I feel like it’s my natural habitat.”

***

Dekeba Battee-Aston. (Courtesy Photo/Fordham Athletics)
Dekeba Battee-Aston. (Courtesy Photo/Fordham Athletics)

When Battee-Aston finally made it to the Bronx, he still faced some major adjustments at Fordham after being away from basketball for so long.

“Well, he was out of shape,” Pecora says. “The year off hurt him in that sense, but he’s done a great job working on that. He’s probably down 20 or 25 pounds. His game was a little rusty, too, but he’s got great enthusiasm, he’s smart on and off the court, and he’s making progress and getting better every day. That’s what we look for from our young players, especially our big young players.”

“Well out of shape,” Battee-Aston stresses. “I had that year off and it was just such a shock for me that I was even here—I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I was still here, because it didn’t seem real at first.”

He embraced the work he had to do to get back into playing shape and has been able to earn some minutes for the 8-16 Rams while playing behind veteran players.

“It speaks volumes to his character,” Pecora says. “He comes from great stock, his parents are wonderful people. He’s determined, he came in and had no false lesions of what he can do right away. He never fought us on the idea of getting in better shape, he understood it would allow him to play more minutes and his conditioning was number-one. A lot of guys would come in and fight you on that, and he hasn’t, he’s been very positive about the whole experience.”

As Battee-Aston continues to work off the rust in his first year, it has his coaches and teammates excited about his potential for the rest of his career.

“I think the sky’s the limit,” Pecora says. “This offseason will be huge for him, to get himself into great shape coming into next year. If he’s able to do that, his skill-set will continue to grow because of all the extra work we do in the spring, summer and fall and his role will increase as we move forward. I think he can progress and play a lot more minutes next year and then the following year compete to be our starting center.”

Battee-Aston also can’t help but to look forward to his future with the Rams.

“All I see is going up,” he says. “I only see upwards potential. Obviously I came from a completely flat situation where I just wasn’t playing basketball, so I honestly think I can only get better. That’s what I look forward to.”

Dekeba Battee-Aston. (Courtesy Photo/Fordham Athletics)
Dekeba Battee-Aston. (Courtesy Photo/Fordham Athletics)

Trey Davis leads UMass to sixth-straight win

Junior point guard Trey Davis was the difference maker for the Minutemen on Saturday, pouring in 26 points behind a flurry of 3-pointers to push the Minutemen to an 82-74 win over Duquesne and remain in a four-way tie for first place in the Atlantic-10.

“I just wanted to win the game, that’s all I’m excited about,” said Davis, refusing to accept any individual praise for his monster game.

Despite extending their winning streak to six, UMass struggled late to finish off Duquesne in an Atlantic-10 matchup Saturday night at the Mullins Center in Amherst. Leading 55-45 with 11:55 left, the Minutemen seemed to get complacent, giving up an 11-2 run over the next three and a half minutes.

“I’m not sure we took our foot off the gas pedal, but we made a couple not very good basketball plays,” said head coach Derek Kellogg of his team’s inability to go for the proverbial jugular.
“When you go up ten and you’re at home, you got to do a little better job of making better basketball decisions at that point. We’ll watch tape and try to rectify some of those things and continue to get better. I think we can still get better.”

After a sluggish start where the Minutemen trailed the Dukes by 10 with 15:24 remaining in the first half, Kellogg’s squad ended the half on a high note with a buzzer-beater courtesy of a Jabarie Hinds’ 3-pointer.

Even while carrying this momentum into the second half, UMass’ starters were not knocking down shots. Freshman guard Donte Clark was held scoreless until the final two minutes of the game, ending with three points, and redshirt junior Derrick Gordon was 1-for-6 from the floor.

“Some guys didn’t even play great today. I think a few guys played just average. If everyone gets on the same page every night, we got a chance,” said Kellogg on his team’s performance. “We missed four straight free-throws and gave them a chance to get back in the game. You just can’t do that when you’re trying to pull away.”

Those struggles left Davis to play the role of the hero, scoring his game-high 26-points, shooting 6-of-9 from the floor, 4-of-7 from behind the arc and a perfect 10-of-10 from the line.

“It takes some time to figure out how to score and run the team as a point guard,” said Kellog of Davis, who went from averaging just 3.3 points and 9.5 minutes per game as a freshman to 9.2 points and 23.3 minutes as a sophomore and now 11.9 points and 31.5 minutes per game as a junior.

“His confidence is as high as it’s been since he’s been here. He’s got a good feel right now with what I’m asking him to do,” said Kellogg of Davis’ role in the Minutemen’s six game winning streak.
In a streak of his own, Davis has now made 32 consecutive free-throw attempts.

“He can shoot and make baskets, which is a nice thing. If he continues to improve as the year goes on, I think we’ll continue on that upward climb as being a better team,” said Kellogg.

The Minutemen offense has changed considerably while Davis has been scoring, opening up space inside for forward Maxie Esho, who earned a double-double in the win with 13 points and 13 rebounds.

Davis said he understands his role on the team, but wants to keep improving down the stretch into crucial games in the next week.

“I’m doing things that I was never really used to doing and I see that being successful, so I just want to keep making my teammates happy and do little things like that,” said Davis.

According to Kellogg, the Minutemen’s difficulty to close out Duquesne began with their sputtering start, something they will try to amend before key matchups at Rhode Island and Virginia Commonwealth University on Feb. 18 and 21 respectively.

“We’re going to continue to try to work on game planning and have the guys locked in on what’s important,” said Kellogg.

With a log-jam at the top of the conference with URI, VCU, and Dayton, UMass is not worried about tie-breakers heading into the home stretch.

“I think it’s still premature to start trying to figure that stuff out, but I’d rather be tied for first then tied for not so we’ll go with it,” said Kellogg.

CAA coaches talk Dean Smith’s legacy, impact

It sounds so cliché: Dean Smith left an impact on everyone who ever picked up a basketball during his lifetime. It is a phrase — in one incarnate or another — that has flooded the airwaves, taken over television screens and been displayed across print articles every day since the legendary coach passed away at the age of 83 on Feb. 7.

Yet with each passing hour — and the thousands of new stories, told by players and coaches from every level of the game that continue to roll in — it is obvious that Smith transcended the tired sports clichés about the impact a coach can leave on everyone he comes in contact with and turned them into the gospel truth.

Even in the Colonial Athletic Association — a conference akin to a single grain of sand sitting at the bottom of the great wide Atlantic Ocean that is the ACC, the conference Smith called home patrolling the sidelines for the University of North Carolina for nearly four decades — Smith’s lasting legacy was paramount.

On Tuesday morning, all 10 CAA head coaches took time out of their weekly teleconference to talk about the impact Smith had left on them, and all — ranging from William & Mary head coach Tony Schaver, who played for four years as a walk-on under Smith, to James Madison’s Matt Brady, who only knew Smith as a fan from afar — were touching and unique.

“Other than my father, there has never been a male figure who has influenced me more than Dean has. Today, I look at it much more as a person than as a coach,” said Shaver, who played for Smith from 1972-1976. “He was such a great coach and such a great teacher. He was an incredible teacher of the game of basketball and how to live your life.“

“I never met coach Smith,” said Brady, “[But] he’s had such a tremendous impact not only on his program and the players he’s touched, but on everybody who aspired to be a basketball coach.”

Smith’s Hall of Fame career at North Carolina literally revolutionized the game, with the coach implementing systems and schemes that remain a part of the college landscape, while simultaneously continuing to evolve his system to suit the strengths of his roster every season.

“He taught us so much about basketball,” said UNC Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts. “When you look at it, I would say he’s a trendsetter. There’s not a program that you play in any conference that’s not running the Carolina back screens, the backdoors and everything else.”

With 879 career wins, 17 ACC regular-season titles, 13 ACC tournament championships, 11 Final Fours and two National Championships (1982 and 1993), Smith’s career will always be know for his gaudy numbers. But to Towson head coach Pat Skerry, Smith will forever be linked to a different kind of numbers, as the coach analyzed advanced statistics long before the term “sabermetrics” had ever been coined.

“It’s impressive that he was kind of ahead of the game with the analytics and the advanced stats,” said Skerry.

But for all of the coaches who had the opportunity to meet him, even in passing, the biggest impact Smith left had nothing to do with Xs and Os, but how he was as a man.

“As everyone keeps saying, it was the human side of him. The basketball side of him speaks for itself,” said Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich, who got to know Smith when he was working as an assistant at Dematha Catholic High School in Maryland in the late 70s and early 80s.

“A few years later when I was an assistant at La Salle I had just had twins, and I didn’t think he knew about it and he came up to me and asked all about them… he was an amazing person,” Mihalich remembered.

“I think his biggest thing was the way he maintained relationships with everybody and was always looking to help,” said Northeastern head coach Bill Coen.

Coen coached against Smith’s Tar Heels in the 1993 NCAA tournament as a University of Rhode Island assistant.

“I think at the 16-minute mark we were up 11-10 and Dean Smith called a timeout and we thought we were doing pretty well, and by halftime we were down by about 40,” laughed Coen.

Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint first met Smith when he was a young kid, all of 10 or maybe 11 years old, in Philadelphia. His father was helping the legendary coach recruit a local player.

“He sent me a poster of the Carolina team that lost in the Final Four. Every player signed it… At 10 years old that’s huge,” said Flint, noticeable pride in his voice all these years later. “Once I got in coaching, those guys actually talked about when they met me when I was 10 years old. [Smith] would say, ‘I remember you,’ and ask me how my dad was… that always put a special place in my heart about Dean Smith.”

But it was Smith’s former player, Shaver, on whom Smith left the biggest impact.

“There’s probably two percent of things that I’ve done in my career that is not exactly like the way he did them,” said Shaver. “He treated everybody fairly. He cared about everybody that was in his program, and I think the loyalty that he built because of that was the most impressive thing about his time at North Carolina.

“How he cared about people, and how he took a stand about what he thought was right. That goes from the Civil Rights movement right down to how he coached.”

For every CAA coach, from his surrogate son in Shaver to those who had never met him, Smith left behind an impossible void to fully fill, and an indelible impact that will never go away.

“When I woke up on Sunday to hear that he passed, it was such a said day because of all the players and people he touched,” said Keatts. “We’re going to miss him.”

“But,” said Coen, “his legacy will live on.”

The rainmaker: UMass’ Donte Clark ‘relieved’ after propelling team to fourth straight win

On a roster full of impact upperclassmen, it was freshman guard Donte Clark who proved to be the difference for UMass on Sunday evening. The 6-foot-4 guard played arguably his best game of the season, scoring 23 points to help push the Minutemen past La Salle 66-59 at the Mullins Center.

The sharp-shooting Clark scored 16 of his 23 points in first half, while adding a timely assist to forward Maxie Esho, to record the Minutemen’s (14-9, 7-3 Atlantic 10) fourth straight win.

UMass head coach Derek Kellogg acknowledged his guard’s play in the first 20 minutes.

“Obviously, Donte Clark playing so well in the first half gave us a nice offensive boost,” said Kellogg after the win.

It was a return to form of sorts for Clark to earlier in the season, when scoring came at a much higher rate and double-digits were a nightly occurrence, and it was feeling of joy for Clark when the shots kept falling after so many recent games when his shots seemed to come up just short.

“I got in the gym more, and got my shots up so I can be prepared for when I do start hitting shots,” said Clark of the hard work he put in to get back to his scoring ways.

Clark was asked after the game if he had any feelings of doubt in his abilities over the course of the season, and what it felt like to hit that first 3-pointer so early in the game.
“It was a relief,” said Clark with a large grin.

The 2014-2015 season has been a roller coaster ride of sorts for Clark, Who enjoyed a stretch from Mid-November to Mid-December when he broke double figures six times in nine games, among them a career-high 25 points on Dec. 7 against Florida Gulf Coast. But then Clark hit a a shooting funk, as many freshmen do when the scouting report comes out, breaking double figures only twice in his next 10 games leading up to Sunday.

But according to Clark, his resolve never wavered despite the bumpy stretch, thanks in large part to the influence of his coach.

“At the beginning of the season, I was basically knocking down my threes so I was just trying to get back there,” Clark said.

“I was on him in practice to shoot.” Kellogg told Donte, “‘Just shoot the ball, you’re a good player. You can score. I want you to shoot. I need you to shoot and score threes.’”

It was evident from the first five minutes of the game Sunday that Donte Clark’s shooting was back. With a season-high five 3-pointers, relief came sooner rather than later for the hard-working freshman, as he knew the results were not far away.

Clark proclaimed, “I’m always ready, that’s why I’m out there.”

Red-hot Jordan Price not enough for frigid La Salle

Despite a 30-point performance from redshirt sophomore Jordan Price, La Salle fell 66-59 at UMass on Sunday evening, dropping to 13-10 on the year and 5-5 in league play, eighth in the conference standings.

While Price was red-hot from the floor, the Explorers were colder than the frigid New England weather, shooting just 36.4 percent from the field, hitting just eight of 25 shots in the second half.

La Salle, which trailed by seven at half, did not score second half point until the 15:21 mark on two free throws by Price. The Georgia native scored the next 12 points for the Explorers, singlehandedly cutting UMass’ lead to four with eight minutes, 37 seconds left in the game.

Explorers head coach Dr. John Giannini thought his team put up a good fight against UMass in the second period, despite the poor shooting performance.

“I thought we really played hard in the second half,” Giannini said. “Their big guys are really good and made it hard on Jerrell (Wright). I think if we could’ve made a couple more free throws and if Jerrell had a little more success, we played good enough defense to win in the second half.

“We started the game as bad as we probably could.”

Despite taking an early 5-4 lead, La Salle gave up a 13-1 run to the Minutemen, thanks mainly to three three-point buckets from UMass freshman Donte Clark. Clark finished the game with 23 points, finishing just short of his career-high 25 points that came in an early game this season versus Florida Gulf Coast University.

In the opening 20 minutes, La Salle put up 30 shots, including nine threes, but was only able to connect on 12 attempts. It didn’t get much better for the Explorers in the next half, shooting an abysmal 32 percent.

Price, who came into this contest averaging 16.0 points per game, went 10-of-20 from the field, outscoring the rest of the team by one point. After him, the next highest point scorer was redshirt junior Khalid Lewis, who finished with eight points.

Giannini said a lot of issues in this one were mental, and stemmed from the tremendous work ethic of the Minutemen.

“They run so hard, and had so much success in transition, at their place and at our place,” he said. “It’s all our guys heard about for the past 3-4 days. We worked on it, we’ve played other running teams, but for some reason UMass is able to just really push the ball down the court against us.

“For two straight games now we don’t seem to have an answer.”

On the defensive side of the ball, there were many times when UMass had run down the shot clock, only to get fouled by La Salle.

“Those are daggers,” Giannini said when referring to the late fouls. “We tell our guys fouling is not good defense, but a lot of those instances they (UMass) deserve credit. They were patient, kept attacking, and were smart. Part of that is our fault, but they also deserve a lot of credit for that.”

The Explorers will look to bounce back this Wednesday when they travel to Virginia Commonwealth University for another major Atlantic 10 matchup.