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.

March Madness: The 2014-2015 America East basketball season in dunks

With a the NCAA Tournament dreams dashed for seven of the America East’s nine teams, and a day remaining before the March Madness showdown between bitter rivals Albany and Stony Brook for all the marbles, One-Bid Wonders decided to take a look back at the America East basketball season that was in dunks. Take a look and enjoy — all nine America East teams and quite a few players are represented.

Who was the conference’s best dunker? What was the best dunk of the season? Leave us a comment below.

America East men’s basketball Dunks of 2014-2015 from Samuel Perkins on Vimeo.

March Madness: Sam Perkins and Ryan Restivo break down America East basketball

In anticipation of the America East championship and the start of March Madness, which tips off with top-seed Albany facing three-seed Stony Brook at 11 a.m. Saturday, OBW’s Sam Perkins linked up with Big Apple Buckets’ Ryan Restivo and the America East’s Jared Hager to take a look back a the season that was, before looking ahead to the championship game that will be.

The trio shared a great deal of laughs, as well as insider insight over the course of the night, with topics ranging from their overall impressions and biggest surprises during the regular season; thoughts on the change in the conference’s post season format, from a single-site tournament to a high-seed host playoff; the best game of the post season; and of course, detailed breakdowns and predictions of the big game itself.

Give it a watch and then flame away at Restivo.

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball Defensive Player of the Year

Dre Wills. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Dre Wills. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

OBW America East men’s basketball Defensive Player of the Year
Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont

Plain and simple, Wills might be the best perimeter defender the America East has seen since Derrick Jackson graduated from Maine in 2003 – and, with all due respect to Marqus Blakely, may be the best Vermont defender since Kevin Roberson. The incredibly strong, exceptionally athletic Wills drew the nightly assignment of defending the opponents best back court scorer (and, on occasion, even a front court scorer) and nine times out of ten completely took them out of the equation, giving Vermont head coach John Becker the basketball equipment of Revis Island – during Darrelle Revis’s prime.

Wills not only blanketed opponents, he flooded passing lanes, picked pockets, crashed the defensive glass and blocked shots at a shockingly high rate for a diminutive guard (roughly one block per game).

Awards — OBW Jason Grochowalski America East men’s basketball Sixth Man of the Year

Named in honor of former Boston University Terrier Jason Grochowalski, who earned All-Conference First Team honors while coming off the bench during the 2003-2004 season.

OBW Jason Grochowalski America East men’s basketball Sixth Man of the Year
Cam Ward, Fr., G, Vermont

Ward provided a huge spark off the bench for the Catamounts, averaging 6.3 points and 1.9 assists in 19.1 minutes per game, shooting 44.1 percent from the floor and 40.8 percent from downtown. Ward brought quiet swagger and confidence off of the bench, and embraced taking – and making – the big shot. He also didn’t display a hint of ego coming off the bench. With three more years of eligibility, he has all the makings of a future star.

Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)
Cam Ward. (Courtesy Photo/Brian Jenkins/University of Vermont Athletics)

Awards — Austin Ganly OBW America East men’s basketball Dunker of the Year

Named in honor of the most awe inspiring and authoritative dunker Sam Perkins has seen come through the America East doors. Sure, a dunk is only worth two points on the scoreboard, but often times, it’s worth so much more.

OBW Austin Ganly America East men’s basketball Dunker of the Year
Devarick Houston, Sr., F, UMBC

Devarick Houston. Courtesy Photo / Gail Burton / UMBC Athletics
Devarick Houston. Courtesy Photo / Gail Burton / UMBC Athletics

This was an incredibly tough choice between Houston and Dre Wills. Wills, shorter by six inches, was perhaps the best leaper in the conference and was fearless getting to the rim and finishing with absolute authority in traffic. Houston, an incredible leaper in his own right, spent year playing up around the top of the square, and finised off alley-oops in Sports Center worthy fashion. In the end, Houston’s sheer volume of dunks proved to be the tie breaker by the slimmest of margins over Wills, who we are sure will grab an OBW Dunker of the Year award or two before his career is over.

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball First Team All-Conference

Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Sam Rowley. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

The creme of the crop, the best of the best, the Fab Five. Without further ado, here’s our America East men’s basketball All-Conference First Team. Flame away.

OBW America East First Team All-Conference
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany

After showing flashes of being a completely and utterly dominant player, Rowley has finally embraced his role as the Great Danes’ go-to scorer, team leader, and the best player on the league’s best team. With the best low-post moves in the league (“crocodile rolls” as head coach Will Brown calls them), and the ability to finish with either hand, the 6’5” Aussie was an absolute matchup night mare this year, ranking second in the league in scoring (14.3 ppg), fourth in scoring in conference games (15.1 ppg), third in overall rebounding (7.7 rpg) and fourth in rebounding in AE play (7.5 rpg) while ranking fifth in overall field goal percentage (53 percent) and second in field goal percentage in AE play (56.3 percent).

Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany
No one in the league hit more big shots than Evan Singletary, who drilled game winning daggers throughout conference play, while also stepping in to Peter Hooley’s role as the team’s go-to perimeter scorer while also flawlessly running the Great Danes offense. Singletary ranked seventh in the league in scoring and scoring in conference play (12.7 and 12.9 ppg), and also made a huge impact on the defensive end.

Jahad Thomas, R-Fr., F, UMass Lowell
Definitely our most controversial pick, we already know we’re going to catch a ton of flack for this. Yes, Thomas is a freshman. Yes UMass Lowell finished sixth in the standings, and yes Thomas missed the final seven games of the season due to a torn ACL. But in 22 games the 6’2” battering ram was absolutely dominant – more dominant than any America East player not named Jameel Warney or Sam Rowley, and the AE’s version of Charles Barkley. Thomas also faced more defensive pressure – constant double and triple teams and even Box-1 defenses on multiple occasions – than any other America East player other than Warney and all he did was deliver, bulling his way to the hoop and earning every single one of his buckets and rebounds. Thomas tied for second in the America East in overall scoring (14.3 ppg) fifth in rebounding (6.5 rpg), and shot 52.3 percent from the floor (sixth overall). He also always seemed to be making the big play in the games biggest moment and was also the River Hawks best defender.

Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
What do you really need to say about Warney? He led the America East in overall scoring and scoring in league play (16.3 and 17 ppg, respectively) as well as overall rebounding and rebounding in AE games (10.4 and 11.4 rpg, respectively), and in blocked shots both on the season and in conference play (2.4 bpg, 2.3 bpg), and led the entire nation in double-doubles, all while facing double, triple and quadruple teams every night. Dude was a beast.

Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont
Dre Wills did absolutely everything for Vermont. He was the Catamounts best defender, best rebounder, best intimidator, spark plug, enforcer, and most efficient scorer. Wills led the league in field goal percentage both overall and in league play as a 6’1” guard (58.6 and 60.9 percent, respectively), while completely taking out opponents’ best scorers, and also made a big impact blocking shots and distributing the ball. The kid did everything.

Awards — America East men’s basketball All-Conference Second Team

(Credit: Travis Watcher/UMBC Athletics)
(Credit: Travis Watcher/UMBC Athletics)

This was one of the toughest years we’ve had distinguishing between our Second Team All-Conference and our First Team, with 10 truly quality selections. With that being said, here’s a look at the OBW America East men’s basketball Second Team All-Conference

OBW America East Second Team All-Conference
Cody Joyce, Jr., F, UMBC

Despite playing with no reinforcements – and we mean none – in the low post, and facing relentless defensive pressure, Joyce established himself as one of the best front court players in the league, ranking fifth in the league in scoring (13.5 ppg), second in scoring in league play (16.1 ppg), sixth in overall rebounding (5.7 rpg) and fifth in rebounding in conference games (6.4 tpg).

Tanner Leissner, Fr., F, UMass Lowell
Leissner emerged as the Wildcats best player, go to scorer and complete game-changer, ranking sixth in scoring in conference games (13.1 ppg), third in rebounding in conference play (8.5 rpg), sixth in overall scoring (12.8 ppg) and fourth in total rebounds (7.4 rpg), while serving as the focal point of the Wildcats offense.

Ethan O’Day, Jr., F, Vermont
If not for ongoing foul issues, O’Day would likely have been on our First Teamer, as whenever he stayed on the floor he was a complete game changer, ranking Eighth in the league in both overall scoring and scoring in conference games (11.9 and 12.7 ppg, respectively), finishing second in field goal percentage (56.7 percent) second in blocked shots (2.2 bpg) and tied for first in blocks per game (2.3 bpg).

Carson Puriefoy, Jr., G, Stony Brook
Puriefoy had an up and down season overall, but when he was playing well, he was electric, pushing the Seawolves offense, getting to the rim and knocking down tough shots. He ranked fourth in overall scoring (13.9 ppg), fifth in scoring in league play (13.4 ppg), second in assists (3.4 apg), and fourth in assists in AE play (3.4 apg).

Peter Hooley, R-Jr., G, Albany
Hooley missed nine games to be by his mother, Sue’s side during her final days as she fought against colon cancer, but he was a game changer whenever he was on the court, averaging 13.7 points per game and 2.4 assists per game, while shooting a robust 44.1 percent from the floor and 35.5 percent from downtown. He also continues to have the immeasurable “clutch” factor, hitting big shots at big moments.

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball All-Defensive Team

Jaleen Smith. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Jaleen Smith. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

Dick Bennett once said, simply but profoundly, “For us to be successful on defense, we must get back and stop the basketball, eliminate easy baskets, keep the ball out of the lane, and bother the shooters.”

Bennett would have been happy with the five members of our OBW America East men’s basketball All-Defensive team, as they have those qualities in spades. Without further ado, here’s a look at our picks for the five best defenders in the “AE”.

OBW America East All-Defensive Team
Devarick Houston, Sr., F, UMBC

Houston, a 6’7” ball of energy and enthusiasm, was one of the best and most versatile defenders the league has seen in a long time, and literally spent time shutting down the 1-through-5 positions throughout the year. Whether it was blocking shots, picking pockets or rebounding the ball, he did it all.

Ray Sanders, Jr., G/F, Albany
An incredibly strong, tough and rugged 6’4” wing, Saunders was one of the most underappreciated players in the league and the unsung hero of the Great Danes, drawing the nightly assignment of covering the opponents best scorer.

Jaleen Smith, Soph., G, New Hampshire
A very long 6’4”, Smith played with tremendous energy and enthusiasm and emerged as arguably the best defender on the best defensive team in the conference, and spent the season running opposing scorers off of the 3-point arc and off the court entirely.

Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
Warney owned the glass, leading the league in defensive rebound both overall (6.9 drpg) and in conference games (7.3 drpg), while also leading the America East in blocked shots in conference play (2.4 bpg) while tying for the overall lead(2.3 bpg).

Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont
Wills was a one-man terror with the athleticism of a two-guard, the physicality of a power forward and the tenacity of a Tasmanian devil. Wills absolutely shut down opposing scorers, picked pockets, disrupted passing lanes, and also blocked shots (he ranked fourth in both overall blocks and blocks in conference games) and rebounded the ball (his 4.7 rpg led the Catamounts).

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball All-Rookie Team

New Hampshire freshman Tanner Leissner. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
New Hampshire freshman Tanner Leissner. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

It was a banner year for America East men’s basketball rookies. In previous years, we had a hard time finding five truly worthy players to fill out an All-Rookie squad. This season, there were another half dozen or so worthy candidates who didn’t make the cut. We admit, we copped out by selecting six frosh for our squad, but every one of them was damn good.

OBW America East men’s basketball All-Rookie Team
Jourdan Grant, G, UMBC
Grant shouldered a huge load all season long for the Retrievers as the teams only ball handler and flourished, leading the league in assists both in conference play (4.2 apg) and overall (4.0 apg) while ranking 19th in scoring in America East games (10.8 ppg).

Trae-Bell Haynes, G, Vermont
Bell-Haynes hit a bit of a wall down the stretch for the Catamounts, but over the course of the season he was completely dynamic as a one-man fast break, ranking second in assists in conference games (4.0 apg) and third overall (3.4 apg), while also shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor.

Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
As a true freshman Leissner established himself as the best and most important player for the best New Hampshire squad to set foot in Ludholm Gymnasium since the mid 90s. Capable of scoring from everywhere on the floor, the 6’7” power forward completely changes the Wildcats offense, ranking sixth in scoring both overall (12.8 ppg) and in league play (13.1 ppg), fourth in overall rebounding (7.4 rpg) and third in rebounding in conference games (8.5 rpg).

Kevin Little, G, Maine
Little missed nine games due to injury, and was gimpy for most of the year, but when he was on the floor, despite often times standing out as the only capable scorer on a depleted Black Bears roster, the dude straight lit it up, ranking third in America East play in scoring at 15.2 points per game (12.5 ppg overall).

Willie Rodriguez, F, Binghamton
Rodriguez is a true America East forward – 6’6”, not particularly athletic, but tough as nails — who finds ways to just get the job done. Rodriguez ranked 11th overall in scoring (11.6 ppg) and eighth overall in rebounding (5.5 rpg), and elevated his game in conference play, ranking eighth in scoring (12.7 ppg) and seventh in rebounding (5.7 rpg).

Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell
Thomas missed the final seven games of the season with a torn ACL, but before he went down he wasn’t simply THE best rookie in the league, he was one of the best players regardless of class. A 6’2” power forward, Thomas bullied players a half a foot or more taller than him while facing double and triple teams (and even the box-1 on more than one occasion) that only Stony Brook star Jameel Warney saw more of, and still finished the year third in overall scoring (14.3 ppg), fifth in rebounds (6.5 rpg), and sixth in field goal percentage (52.3 percent), while also anchoring the River Hawks defense.