Friday, January 13, 2006
Updated: January 16, 10:33 AM ET
The road trip from hell
By Kieran Darcy
Fifteen thousand, one hundred and sixty-four miles in the air (approximately). Twenty-one flights. Many, many more bus rides. Tires you out just thinking about it, doesn't it?
After playing their first 14 games away from home, and enduring all that travel, the Coppin State Eagles will play their first home game of the season Saturday night, against Norfolk State. They're not the last team in America to play its first home game -- South Carolina State and Baylor also will make their home debuts on Saturday. And they're not winless, like Morgan State (0-13), North Carolina A&T (0-12) and Baylor (0-1, after being prohibited by the NCAA from playing nonconference games this season). But still, it's fair to say Coppin State has had the toughest road of any team in the country.
Why? Just take a look at their opponents. After losing three straight to Charlotte, Lehigh and Alabama State in the BCA Invitational in Laramie, Wyo., Coppin State played (and lost) at Clemson, Xavier, UCLA, Oklahoma, Illinois, Pittsburgh, Michigan and Michigan State, all before New Year's Day. Then the Eagles opened conference play by losing at defending MEAC champ Delaware State, before finally notching their first two victories of the season, at Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M.
Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell, who also serves as the school's athletic director, admits the school profited financially from many of these games because they were "guarantee games," in which the visiting team is promised a certain amount of money. But Mitchell insists that this was not the primary reason for putting together such a schedule. He says he adopted his scheduling philosophy from Temple coach John Chaney, famous for his own tough schedules, and whose basketball camp Mitchell worked at for nine years. "My main concern is to toughen my players up," Mitchell says. "Coach Chaney always preached that it's about how you lay your foundation. If you lay a soft one, you have a tendency to fold easily. If you lay a hard one down, it makes you tougher."
Sophomore forward Darryl Proctor agrees that the tough road will benefit his team -- which features 11 freshmen and sophomores, and no seniors. "It helped us bond and mature more," Proctor says. "Playing these big teams, you've gotta mature real quick."
|Coppin State battled the best it could against the likes of Michigan State.|
And all those losses weren't blowouts, by the way. The Eagles played particularly well against UCLA and Oklahoma. Against the Bruins, they led 35-30 at the half before losing 69-57. And against the Sooners, they stormed back from 28-9 down at the half before falling 57-47.
Despite all the losses, Coppin State is expected to be in the thick of the MEAC race. So don't be shocked if you see the Eagles in your bracket come March. And big boys beware. As a No. 15 seed in 1997, Coppin knocked off No. 2-seeded South Carolina, then lost by a single point against Texas in the second round. And this group certainly won't be intimidated by facing a national power in the NCAA Tournament.
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No matter what happens the rest of the season, the Eagles already have achieved some measure of success. "I always dreamed about playing all these schools," Proctor says. "Coppin gave me that opportunity."
Did you know Usher plays for Vanderbilt University? OK, not really. But his body-double does -- at least according to several of Shan Foster's teammates, as well as scores of other people who have confused Foster with the famous singer. He does indeed bear a resemblance.
Nevertheless, it seems somewhat appropriate that Foster is playing his basketball in Music City, USA. And the 6-foot-6 sophomore with the sweet outside stroke is quickly reaching hero status in Nashville -- particularly after scoring 16 big points, including four 3s, in leading the Commodores to a 57-52 victory over Kentucky on Tuesday. The win was Vandy's first at Kentucky since 1974.
|Shan Foster's been an offensive force for Vandy. And he does look a little bit like Usher, doesn't he?|
Shan (pronounced Shane), a Kenner, La. native who was recruited by the likes of Kansas, Illinois and LSU, chose Vanderbilt because he liked the coaching staff and the fans. He was starting by mid-December his freshman year, and finished last season averaging 9.2 points per game, third on the team. This season, he's pacing Vandy at 16.0 ppg. And the team is off to a great start at 11-2, 2-0 in the SEC.
Foster's specialty is his outside shot -- he was second in the SEC at 44.5 percent from beyond the arc a year ago, and he's shooting 44.2 percent from there this season. But believe it or not, he actually played center back at Bonnabel High -- that's what happens when you're a few inches taller than everyone else on your team. But he wasn't crazy about it. "It was kinda killing me," Foster says. "If I took a 3, I got subbed out. If I dribbled up the court, I got subbed out."
But he had a nice shooting touch, and he got to play on the perimeter for his AAU team. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was confident Foster could make the adjustment to playing on the wing full-time. And after putting in extra practice on his ballhandling and shooting, Foster has proven him right. "We always believed he would be a great player here," Stallings says. "He just became that player quicker than we thought he would."
Foster is a nightmare to defend. It's bad enough that he's 6-6 with a deep shooting range. But he also has a 6-11 wingspan, and releases the ball a little behind his head with those long arms. "It's a little unorthodox," Stallings says. "But it's not unorthodox when it gets to the net."
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And he might not be Usher -- but that doesn't mean Foster's not caught up in music, too. He started singing in his church choir when he was just 4 years old and taught himself to play piano in high school. He has written a few songs, even recording a song with teammate Mario Moore.
Music's still got a hold on him -- Foster has contemplated pursuing a music career after his hoops days are over. For now, he's totally focused on basketball. But his teammates won't leave the Usher thing alone. "Every time we go out to eat, they always call me Usher, real loud, so everybody can hear it and thinks I'm him."
One day soon, maybe they'll all know better. Maybe they'll all know he's Shan Foster.
A little cheesy? Perhaps it was. But I still have to give Mike Krzyzewski credit for what he did before the Blue Devils' game against Maryland on Wednesday. At the team's final practice before facing the Terps, Coach K had all his players and coaches go to the center court logo at Cameron Indoor Stadium and sign their name.
A year ago, Maryland scored a rare victory over Duke at Cameron. But Coach K's gesture, seemingly about the Blue Devils owning their home court and protecting their home court, certainly seemed to inspire his players; they thumped the Terps 76-52. Duke already had one (extremely) close call at home this season, needing a 45-foot prayer from Sean Dockery against Virginia Tech. After this, I doubt Duke will lose a home game the rest of the season.
You can't help but be impressed by Florida's 15-0 start as it has risen to No. 2 in the country. The Gators' balance is incredible -- all five starters are averaging between 12.0 and 13.7 points per game. Can you believe this team was unranked to start the season?
Speaking of unranked ... take a guess as to how many ranked teams Florida has left on its schedule the rest of the season? Ready for the answer?
That's right. As of this week's polls, the Gators won't face another ranked team. Can they run the table? I highly doubt it. The SEC still presents plenty of challenges. And other SEC teams might be ranked later in the season. But it's still startling to see Florida ranked No. 2 and no other SEC team in the Top 25. The Gators definitely won't face quite the competition their fellow undefeated teams, Duke and Pitt, will in their respective conferences.
After UConn's 67-66 victory over LSU on Saturday, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said about senior Hilton Armstrong (according to The Associated Press):
"He said, 'Put me back in. I'm going to score on anybody they put on me.'"
Pretty bold words from Armstrong, a player who hasn't exactly lived up to his potential since coming to UConn. But he backed them up, scoring six key points in the final four minutes (despite having four fouls) to help UConn come back and steal that victory. And he followed that up with 14 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in the Huskies' win over Cincinnati on Monday night.
|It's tough to get a shot off against Hilton Armstrong when he's active in the paint.|
All the talk about UConn of late had centered around the return of point guard Marcus Williams from his suspension -- along with the inconsistent play of star forward Rudy Gay. Then the Huskies were creamed at Marquette in their Big East opener, also Williams' debut. But thanks to Armstrong, the Huskies bounced back with two big victories. And if Armstrong can continue to provide this strong a presence in the middle, UConn will be even tougher than people think.
Thoughts from games I watched this past week:
• I figured Kentucky's offense would struggle at times. But I never thought these guys would look as bad as they did against Kansas and Vanderbilt. Way, way too much standing around.
• Still having trouble getting used to Boston College playing in the ACC. And it looks as though BC's having a little trouble adjusting, as well, with an 0-3 start. At this point, the Eagles would be lucky just to get into the NCAA Tournament.
• Michigan State's Paul Davis and Indiana's Marco Killingsworth got tangled up and exchanged a few words Wednesday night. Now that would be a heavyweight fight.
• Duke looked like a very beatable No. 1 team a few weeks ago. Now, I must admit, I'm starting to wonder: Who can beat them?
As bad as Kentucky's 73-46 loss Saturday at Kansas was, it doesn't compare to the beating the Wildcats received the previous time they visited Allen Fieldhouse, on Dec. 9, 1989. Final score? Kansas 150, Kentucky 95. The 150 remains the most points Kansas has ever scored in a game. And the margin of defeat is the second-largest in Kentucky history.
What happened? Well, Rick Pitino's Kentucky team was shorthanded because of the NCAA probation the program was under. But Pitino continued to employ his trademark full-court press, even as the deficit got out of hand -- and Roy Williams' Jayhawks, even his bench players, continued to break it for easy baskets. Reportedly, Williams and Pitino exchanged some harsh words late in the game -- Williams didn't know what to do since Pitino insisted on keeping the press on, and even offered to call a timeout so the Kentucky players could get a breather. Suffice it to say Pitino wasn't too pleased.
There are some great dunkers around college basketball -- Memphis' Rodney Carney immediately comes to mind. But this week I'm dishing out a "D" in the art of the dunk to Duke's J.J. Redick, who slammed home the first dunk of his career against Maryland.
Can't give him an "F" 'cause he did admit after the game that the dunk was "kind of weak." But it was a 2-on-0 break. Redick had no one in front of him. Not that I was expecting a windmill or anything. But come up with a little pizzazz, J.J.! All we got was a simple two-handed stuff and a brief extra moment hanging on the rim. Not nearly enough to get him into the NBA Slam Dunk contest next year.
Can't wait to watch him in the 3-Point Shootout, though.
|A sight you probably won't see again.|
Heard enough about "Glory Road" yet? Probably. But whether or not you see the movie, think about picking up the book -- legendary Texas Western coach Don Haskins' autobiography, which includes extensive coverage of the historic win over Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA championship game, of course.
Well, a lot of you agreed with me last week -- 38.3 percent of you said you were most excited to watch the Big Ten this season. The runner-ups were the Big East (25.4) and the ACC (20.4).
For this week's poll, I want to throw another quote at you. This one is from Adam Morrison, after Gonzaga knocked off St. Mary's at St. Mary's on Saturday, avenging a defeat to the Gaels there a season ago (quote from The Associated Press):
"We know the fans down here are pretty much front-runners and they came to see us play, so we tried to put on a show. They probably couldn't tell you their own starting lineup, but they could tell you ours. We came down here to try to blow them out of the water."
I know St. Mary's is Gonzaga's chief conference rival. And I know Morrison is a fiery player who likes to talk. But how do you feel about what Morrison said? Do you like his attitude? Too cocky? Cast your vote at the top right of this page.
And remember, please send me questions for next week's column, or nominations for the different subject categories. You can e-mail me here. Now, here are a couple of the questions I received in the past week:
Is Pitt for real? I know that our schedule had been quite soft up until the South Carolina game, but they looked good against a solid Wisconsin team and won that double-OT thriller over Notre Dame.
-- Ron, Atlanta
Pitt (13-0) is "for real" in the sense that it should make the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers have an experienced scoring guard in Carl Krauser (17.7 ppg), a solid big man in Aaron Gray (13.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg), and a dynamic freshman forward, Sam Young, who's improving by the game (he's averaging 8.8 ppg, but scored 16, 16 and 15 against South Carolina, Wisconsin and Notre Dame).
But are the Panthers Big East contenders? Probably not. They do have a relatively favorable conference schedule -- they play Providence and Marquette twice and don't have to face Villanova. But remember -- the Panthers have left Pittsburgh for only one game, against South Carolina. Let's see how they fare Sunday at Freedom Hall against Louisville.
How can the Big Ten be the best conference when they can't beat the ACC in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge?
|Carl Krauser has led Pittsburgh to an undefeated season so far.|
-- Andrew, Raleigh
Yes, I know, the Big Ten lost the Challenge again. But don't get carried away about that. The ACC won six games, the Big Ten five. But among the Big Ten's top eight teams, five won (Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State); Indiana lost to the No. 1 team in the country, Duke (albeit in Bloomington); Minnesota (which I would rank No. 8 in the Big Ten) lost at Maryland; and Wisconsin lost by three at Wake Forest.
The ACC picked up half of its victories by having some of its lower-echelon teams beat the Big Ten's bottom three teams (Clemson over Penn State, Florida State over Purdue, Virginia over Northwestern). Yes, one of the ACC's better teams, Boston College, didn't participate in the Challenge. But I'd still say the ACC's "victory" is of questionable merit.
One of the last great nonconference matchups before the Big Dance, along with a couple of conference dandies:
Villanova at Texas (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS): Can the Longhorns handle 'Nova's four guards? Can the Wildcats handle LaMarcus Aldridge?
UConn at Syracuse (Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN): 'Cuse is back in the Top 25, finally
but can the Orange protect their Carrier Dome floor against the Huskies?
Illinois at Indiana (Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN): Another battle between two Top-10 teams. Can the Illini's D shut down the Hoosiers' O?
Kieran Darcy is an editor at ESPN.com and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.