Posted on: October 10, 2011 10:21 am
Edited on: October 10, 2011 11:16 am

Realignment rumors reach the A10, CAA

By Matt Norlander

Before we go any further, just know that all that follows within this post, within conference realignment, within the universe, is reliant upon Missouri. Yes, Missouri, the latest Big 12 team dead set on screwing everything up for so many others. The Tigers want into the SEC, and once that happens, the Big 12 will be back to nine teams.

So then the Big 12 will be forced to act again, and it will probably be an aggressive, multi-team courting. From there, the Big East stands to get poached ... again. And we'll have trickle-down to the A-10 and CAA, where we'll have the second- or third-biggest tangible effect in college basketball.

Pete Thamel of the New York Times wrote Sunday night that Hofstra (a member of the CAA) president Stuart Rabinowitz has contacted Charlotte, Richmond and George Washington about possible inclusion into the Atlantic 10, which currently sits at 14 teams. Boston University, of the America East, also has received a phone call, per Thamel.

Rabinowitz is the president of the C.A.A. Council of Presidents/Chancellors. Hofstra declined comment Sunday night, but Yeager did not deny that conversations were taking place when asked about them last week.

“There’s a lot of informal conversations going on,” [CAA commissioner] Tom Yeager said. “Athletic directors are running into each other in the press box on Saturdays, and I think it’s a nonstop topic of conversation. We’re not going after anyone.”

Although the C.A.A. is sending feelers to A-10 members and others, a different college official said that the Atlantic 10 had expressed informal interest in adding C.A.A. members George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth.

The lunacy and needlessness of conference realignment has, for the first time, completely obstructed regular-season play. At least commissioners, presidents and chancellors had the courtesy of keeping this fidgeting to a confined space (during the summers) the past two seasons. No more. The time to continue to act is now, because so many want to move out of their arrangements, and they want to get this done as soon as possible, as to avoid conference exit fees and cut off affiliations sooner rather than later.

Is this good for college basketball? It's certainly going to change it. The Big East is on the verge of completely losing football, should the Big 12 go after West Virginia, Louisville and Cincinnati, which I believe is a veritable scenario, should Missouri get through the SEC threshold. If and when that happens, the Big East will still live on as a basketball league, but it too will pluck a few programs into its new existence.

The sad commentary of it all is that these smaller leagues, most of which don't have football-playing members, are now forced into a shuffle because the big guys have had unrest for well over a year now.

“Many institutions in conferences all across the country are gathering information, as well, as they review and analyze their current conference membership,” [Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin] said. “We will continue to keep all such informal inquiries that we might receive from individuals outside our membership confidential.”

The Big East presidents and athletic directors will have another conference call Monday. Although expansion will be a primary topic, no invitations are expected to be issued.

It's believed one of the primary points of discussion will be raising the league exit fee from $5 million to $10 million, which seems a hell of a lot more promising than holding a bake sale -- because both activities have about the same amount of influence over whether any of those programs (UConn chief among them) leave the Big East.

All of this is table setting for Missouri and the SEC. Right now, plenty of calls are being made and people are moving into place so they can act swiftly once the first official move sets off a chain of movement that will undo the mid-major college hoops configuration as we've known it.

Photo: AP
Posted on: October 7, 2011 12:58 pm

Former Hewitt commit onto ... the ALCS

By Jeff Goodman

Paul Hewitt's final words to me prior to last night's Yankees game were similar ones he uttered about seven years ago.

"It's a wrap," said George Mason's head coach, a New Yorker who is a diehard Yankees fan.

Just as was the case seven years prior, Hewitt was licking his wounds again.

That one was worse since it came against the Red Sox, but this one was ironic since Austin Jackson was celebrating on the field at Yankees Stadium as Hewitt was likely cursing out Alex Rodriguez for his inability to deliver in the clutch. Jackson is the same kid who was set to play point guard for Hewitt at Georgia Tech until the Yankees threw a hefty signing bonus at him and he opted for a career in major league baseball. Jackson was later traded by the Yankees to the Tigers. 

"It was ironic," Hewitt said. "I'm very happy for the kid -- even though it ticked me off to see the Yankees lose." 

Jackson doubled in the fifth inning and scored the eventual game-winning run on Victor Martinez' base hit.

Hewitt said the plan for Jackson was to play both sports at Georgia Tech, but that changed when the Yankees threw in excess of $1 million his way.

Jackson's biggest asset on the court, according to Hewitt, was his speed. 

"He could really push the ball," he said. "He was a Ty Lawson-type guy. I'm not saying he was at the same level, but that's the type of player he was. Really fast from foul line to foul line." 

"I don't know if he was an NBA player," Hewitt added. "But one thing you know about him is he could perform on the big stage. He has the mental make-up."

Posted on: September 19, 2011 2:02 pm

VCU's SEAL training video

By Matt Norlander

Brought you the story last week of VCU's early-morning, surprise SEAL training sessions in preparation for the new season. Well, now the video's been cooked up and is ready for your digestion. The tug-of-war comes at the 2:45 mark. Crab-walking goes down around five minutes in. The water activity is near the end, at the 7:15 mark.

Pay no mind to the Linkin Park-esque instrumental soundtrack.

This is in complete contrast to my daily morning routine, for the record. But once the season begins I may consider 100 situps before posting The Layup Line.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: September 14, 2011 10:54 am
Edited on: September 14, 2011 11:12 am

VCU undergoes surprise SEAL training

By Matt Norlander

VCU’s players knew something was big coming this week, but had no idea they’d be enduring Navy SEAL training to kick-start their pre-season until Monday morning came and the vans whisked them away.

The location was tame (Richmond’s Joseph Bryan Park) even if the workout wasn’t. The group assembled outside the team's weight-room facilities at 6 a.m. Monday and Wednesday morning (they have one final grueling set of exercises Friday). They have gone through team-building and personal-challenge training in preparation for a season in which they’ll no doubt have a massive target on their backs.

“I knew there was going to be a ‘hell week’ but I didn’t know we were going to working with a SEALs,” senior Brad Burgess said.

The team gobbled down nutritional and energy bars and soon got to work. Fast. Monday was the team-oriented activities, evidenced by the photos within this post.

The idea for this September sweat session came after Rams strength and conditioning coach Daniel Roose did a two-week SEAL training class with John McGuire earlier this summer. McGuire, who was a SEAL for 10 years, has a really popular business all around Virginia; he frequently does solo training sessions, as well as group-oriented classes.

“The people in our program are all taking part,” head coach Shaka Smart said by phone Wednesday morning. That includes everyone from team managers to the SID, Scott Day. Though some guys, like svelte assistant Will Wade, dodged the training, instead hitting the road for more recruiting obligations. (That can be just as grueling.)

“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was a little sore, but I feel great," Smart said. "To be out there with the guys is such a thrill. You’re in there with them, shoulder to shoulder, in the push-up position. .... Everything’s competitive. Whether you’re an individual or a small group, you’re trying to win and get done before the others.”

Smart has become quite known for his eager and willing physical involvement with his team. During the Final Four open practices, he dove about the floor and took charges during the squad’s “Ironman” drill. On Wednesday, the group had to sprint to a field a half-mile away, then bear crawl — meaning on hands and feet, not hands and knees — the length of the field.

“That field was probably a hundred yards but it felt like a mile long,” Smart said. “But the great, great thing instructor McGuire preached was, when you get done, you don’t stand and rest. You go back to last. You go back to the last guy in line and help him finish.”

The workouts go from 6:30 to 8 a.m., though can feel three times as long. Burgess said at some points it was absolutely brutal, as you’d imagine. I spoke to him early Wednesday morning, and he sounded tired as hell.

“We carried each other, did a lot of push-ups,” Burgess said. There was also ab work, tug-of-war and sled-tugging. Wednesday morning was more individual workouts.  “We had to run, do bear crawls, crab walking. It was a lot of long-distance running. ... He’s trying to get our mental aspects of the game right. He teaches us to battle fatigue just like our coaches have all along."

Smart echoed that sentiment.

 “McGuire keeps telling our guys that you have to get outside yourself, think about the guys next to you,” the coach said. “He couldn’t say anything more fitting about we’re all about and what most teams are about this time of year.”

McGuire doesn’t curse, doesn’t yell, doesn’t repeat himself. With him, it’s all about focus and following instructions. The strength coach, Roose? Yeah — he’s the complete opposite. Burgess said he's an intense guy. It's a balance needed and essential to these sessions.

Friday will be the toughest of the three days. The team will head to the James River to get the most accurate taste of true SEAL training. Will VCU be as good this season as last? Tough to measure and predict right now, but at least they'll be ready and trained in a way no other team is heading into the year.

And, by the way, I have to crowbar this nugget in. Smart has a lot on his plate right now; he's set to become the father of a girl any day. Today is the due date, though it looks like the newborn may show up a little tardy to the party.

Photos via VCU athletics
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: April 26, 2011 9:54 am
Edited on: April 26, 2011 10:02 am

Larranaga left George Mason at the right time

Posted by Eric Angevine

When a coach departs from a job he's held for a good while, the reactions range from resignation to disbelief to outright anger in the fan base he leaves behind. It resembles nothing so much as the breakup of a long-term romantic relationship. Some folks bad-mouth the ex, more out of hurt than true anger. Others take the more grown-up approach of wishing the other well, staying in touch, and moving on with their lives.

T.J. Doyle, of SBNation DC, takes the long view of the dissolution of the Masonnaga relationship (hm, that portmanteau thing doesn't work as well for institutes of higher learning and coaches as it does for celebrity couples), counseling both parties to enjoy newfound love.
Honestly, everybody wins in the long run. Larranaga gets to head off to Miami, seemingly happy about his choice to lead the Hurricanes' basketball program out of ACC obscurity. George Mason gets to hire an up-and-coming young coach to lead a team entering next season with high expectations (rightfully so). The ending of this saga is a win-win for all involved.
Teej makes an excellent point here. Mason Nation will miss Larranaga, but there are plenty of other fish in the sea, and the school is currently a pretty good catch, thanks largely to the growth experienced in that previous long-term relationship (yes, this metaphor is getting a bit creepy; it ends here).

In that respect, Larranaga may have actually done GMU a favor. The job should attract the cream of the crop of young, able assistant coaches - the types of guys who turn out to be Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart - rather than a tired old retread or unproven tyro. Thanks to Larranaga and Smart, the CAA enjoys a national profile that blows any other non-power-conference out of the water right now. Throw in ODU's Blaine Taylor, Hofstra's Mo Cassara, Bruiser Flint at Drexel and the new blood at Towson and Georgia State, and you're looking at a conference that boasts a very impressive collection of coaching talent. Mason has a perfect opportunity to transition smoothly from Larranaga right now, an opportunity that might not have been so tangible had they waited for the 61-year-old coach to run out of gas and retire.

There are brilliant assistants biding their time in towns like Columbus, Lawrence, Lexington and Durham, waiting for a perfect gig like this one to come along. 

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Obviously, a younger coach might view the Mason job as a stepping-stone. He might stay three or four years and then jump to the Big Ten, or, god forbid, the SEC. Big deal. VCU made it to the Final Four by making intelligent hiring decisions and building on the energy of each short-term fling (sorry, I said I was going to stop). On the other hand, they may get lucky and find a dedicated program-builder like Taylor (ten years and counting at ODU) or get in on the ground floor with the next Larranaga (he was 47 when he took over in Fairfax). The possibilities are as enticing as they'll ever be right now.

Mason wouldn't be a title-winning, Final Four banner-flying, national reputation-having program if Larranaga hadn't made it so over the past 14 years. Nobody can knock that result, no matter how much they wanted him to stay. Mason fans need to wish him well, thank him for his service, and maybe give him a nice set of golf clubs as a parting gift. Then they need to throw themselves enthusiastically into celebrating the promise of springtime renewal under new leadership.

This is a scenario in which everyone can end up happy.

Photo: US Presswire
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: April 22, 2011 9:28 am
Edited on: April 22, 2011 11:25 am

Coach Speak: Larranaga to Miami?

Posted by Eric Angevine

Unless Jim Larranaga really likes golf, there's no way he should take the Miami job. Today's news seems to indicate that Larranaga will move to Coral Gables, however.

Over the past couple of days, we've seen conflicting reports coming from Fairfax, VA and Miami, FL. Trying to follow the developments has given the poor editor of the George Mason Basketball Blog whiplash.

Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com just posted this interesting little tidbid about Coach Larranaga:
"George Mason's Jim Larranaga has had serious discussions with Miami officials about the ACC school's coaching vacancy, multiple sources told CBSSports.com on Thursday. Whether Larranaga is leveraging for a better deal from George Mason or on the verge of actually moving to Miami is unclear, both sources said. But the talks are advanced and ongoing, and the 61-year-old New York native has developed into Miami's top target."
More to come as this story develops. Hopefully it's just some smoke and perhaps Larranaga is trying to get another raise from George Mason. Keep in mind that Larranaga is widely viewed as the ambassador of the CAA (and mid-majors for that matter) and VCU's Shaka Smart is set to make about $500K more per year in his base salary.

Update: Steven Goff of the Post writes that George Mason granted Miami permission to talk to Jim Larranaga.

Update: According to 106.7 The Fan this afternoon some of the assistant coaches are looking for new jobs. Losing a guy like Chris Caputo would be a huge loss.

Update: Len Robbins from the NY Post reported that Coach L called a meeting to address the team tonight. Hard to think this would be for anything other than his departure from Fairfax.

Now Jeff Goodman of Fox Sports has stated there was so such meeting at George Mason. Wow.
It's tough to see why Larranaga would take the job, honestly, but it appears to be a reality. No official announcement has come out yet, and we've seen these things fall through at the last minute in other cases (Remember Billy Donovan to Orlando? Dana Altman to Arkansas?), but right now, the indication is that the 61-year-old coach will bolt.

It's easy to see why Miami wants him. He's been to the Final Four, He produces consistent winners, and he does it with integrity. Larranaga showed his priorities in the lead-up to the 2006 miracle season, when he suspended his best player, Tony Skinn, for punching Hofstra's Loren Stokes in the onions in a CAA semifinal loss. The one-game suspension held Skinn out of the 75-65 Big Dance upset of Michigan State that sparked the Patriots' epic run to the closing weekend. Not too many coaches would risk a huge loss to drive home a point to a kid who made a foolish mistake. It makes Larranaga seem like a guy who wouldn't be easily lured into a bad situation by mere money.

There's one other big reason this always seemed like a non-starter. Since 2006, the head coaching job at Providence College has opened up twice. Jim Larranaga played at PC from 1967-71, and seemed like the natural choice to take the job and return his alma mater to glory in the Big East, but each time he's let someone else take the job. If Larranaga doesn't want to return to his roots and rebuild, why on earth would he take a similarly difficult task in the ACC, far from his well-worn recruiting base?

The suggestion hinted at in the blog post above makes the most sense. Larranaga sees a hot young coach like Shaka Smart getting his just rewards, and he feels he deserves an honorarium. As the godfather of the CAA's growing national profile, he most certainly does, and there's no shame in using Miami's opening to jolt some money out of those who want to keep him happy in Fairfax.

According to the Washington Examiner, Larranaga has been in contract talks with GMU's AD since the end of the season. This flirtation with another job should have ACCelerated the process to keep Larranaga at GMU. There's still time, I suppose, but that time could end if an official announcement is made today.

Photo: US Presswire
Posted on: April 4, 2011 11:26 am
Edited on: April 4, 2011 11:47 am

Skerry to Towson an intriguing move

Can Towson reach the goal with Skerry in charge?

Posted by Eric Angevine

If the Towson Tigers got the man they wanted in new head coach Pat Skerry, and there's every indication that they're quite happy with him, they can thank VCU's Shaka Smart.

I say this because Towson has annually been one of the worst teams in the Colonial Athletic Association, and Skerry could probably have held out for a bigger job, given his recent status as one of Jamie Dixon's top assistants at Pitt. The 41-year-old was likely drawn to the post by the energetic efforts of new Towson AD Mike Waddell, and by the growing national profile of the CAA. Following George Mason's run to the Final Four in 2006 with VCU's similar results this season, the Colonial is becoming a serious destination conference for coaches on the rise.

Skerry is known as a top-notch recruiter in general, but especially so with athletes from the New England area. His ability to bring in better players, along with Waddell's commitment to building a program worthy of the league's profile, should mean better days ahead for the Tigers.

Photo: US Presswire

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Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 24, 2011 2:26 pm
Edited on: March 24, 2011 2:38 pm

Georgia State hits a quiet home run with Hunter

Ron Hunter was a brilliant hire for Georgia State

Posted by Eric Angevine

As we've seen this season, the Colonial Athletic Association is a growing destination for great coaches. Virginia Commonwealth, currently in the Sweet 16, is already in danger of losing Shaka Smart after just two seasons, but they're used to it. They sent Anthony Grant to Alabama and Jeff Capel to Oklahoma without ever breaking stride.

Other coaches, like ODU's Blaine Taylor and Jim Larranaga of George Mason, get frequent mentions for open slots at BCS schools, but neither has jumped yet. Hofstra's Tom Pecora left last season to work on turning around Fordham in the Atlantic 10.

That's great for the schools at the top of the league. What about the rest? Down near the bottom of the standings, year in and year out, are Georgia State and Towson. Both let their coaches go this month after disappointing play doomed their teams once again. Towson hasn't made a hire yet, but Georgia State made a bold move by hiring Ron Hunter away from IUPUI of the Summit League.

Why are these two a match made in heaven?

For Hunter, it's a no-brainer. As much as he might love IUPUI -- he's been there since 1994, when it was a D-II school -- he's only been to the NCAA tournament once since the school became eligible in D-I. That's because the Summit is stuck in one-bid purgatory. Even a great regular season doesn't mean much if a school doesn't win that final game in the league tournament.

The CAA, on the other hand, got three teams in this year for the first time. The last team in, the Rams, is the last one standing. The league's profile is bound to grow as VCU gets more of the spotlight. Nobody has forgotten that George Mason made a Final Four run in 2006, either. The league is sort of a shadow ACC, with teams in major media markets like Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Atlanta, where Hunter will coach. The GSU sports arena only holds 3,400, but that's a darn sight better than the 1,200 that fit in the Jungle in Indianapolis.

That's why Hunter wanted the job, but why did the Panthers want Hunter?

Ron Hunter is an obvious program-builder to those who pay attention. The year his Jaguars moved from D-I independent status to the Summit League, he came in sixth in the new conference. The next season, he was second, and won the auto-bid to play in the NCAA tournament in 2003. His teams have never come in any lower than fourth place since. Do that in the CAA, and you might just visit the Big Dance more often than not.

Hunter is also known as a humanitarian. Many coaches have gone barefoot to benefit the Samaritan's Feet charity, but Hunter was the first, back in January of 2008. It has given him more name recognition (or sole recognition) than any of his basketball exploits. When a program hires Ron Hunter, it broadcasts decency, humanity and security to recruits, parents, and fans. If there's ever a recruiting scandal at Georgia State under his banner, it will be the most shocking of events.

And the man can recruit. Don't doubt it. If you need proof, I'm going to give you one name: George Hill. The 6-foot-2 San Antonio Spurs guard is averaging 11.0 points per game in the NBA this season, despite his humble beginnings at IUPUI. Hill is an Indianapolis native who went to high school up around Butler's end of town, but he ended up with Hunter at the Jungle. Read his tweets @George_Hill3 and you'll get a sense of a man who absorbed that lesson of humility and compassion from Hunter and still displays it as a millionaire professional ballplayer.

Atlanta is undoubtedly richer in talent than Indianapolis. If Hunter can make a habit out of finding the George Hill-type player there, the Panthers will turn around very quickly. That might be easier now than at any other point in GSU's history, as powerhouse Georgia Tech is now behind them in searching for a new coach. Georgia State won't get that many of the great ones, but it only takes one, even one who takes some developing over four years, to make a difference. As a CAA-knowledgeable colleague, Jerry Beach, wrote recently: " Georgia State is also interesting b/c it just began playing football and seems to have designs on moving beyond I-AA as soon as possible (nothing concrete to back that up, just a hunch). That could eventually lift the program into a borderline BCS conference like Conference USA." Interesting, indeed.

All this by way of saying: keep an eye out for Ron Hunter and Georgia State. This could be the start of something big for a humble, shoeless man and an also-ran program.

Photo: US Presswire

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com