By Kyle Koso
According to the schedule, teams coached by Dale Layer and Buzz Williams will lock horns during the 2014 Cancun Challenge.
But if Williams got locked out of his house, Layer would be the guy carrying the extra key. And while both coaches spare no effort on the X’s and O’s, Williams would be the first friend there should Layer need help with the spare tire.
Through all the address changes, roster turmoil, athletic department dramas and recruiting-trail restaurant regrets, Layer and Williams have been able to count each other as true allies in the mad scramble of NCAA D-I men’s basketball. As the 2014-15 season approaches the starting line, Layer is in his sixth year as head coach at Liberty University (Big South Conference); Williams is set for his debut as head coach at Virginia Tech (ACC) after six seasons running the show at Marquette. Liberty plays at Virginia Tech on Nov. 19 in one of the US-based games of the Cancun Challenge.
The two campuses sit not even two hours apart, so Layer and Williams can actually see each other when their schedules break the right direction. The connection dates back to the four years (2001-04) where Williams served as an assistant on Layer’s staff at Colorado State; Williams brought Layer aboard for one season at Marquette before Layer exited in 2009 to take the helm at Liberty.
“Buzz is one of my dearest friends. Now, I’m not looking very forward to playing their team, but for Liberty to be playing Virginia Tech is a positive, no matter the sport. I know a lot of folks are looking forward to it, but I’ve got mixed emotions,” Layer said. “I know we will see each other in Cancun, and practices or other places, and that should be fun.
“The relationship we have is a great value. He’s taught me a lot, and I admire him – he’s worked for me and I’ve worked for him, and it’s a personal relationship more than anything. We’re about an hour and a half apart, so I can scoot over there if possible. One of his sons came to a camp of ours this summer, and he stayed at our house all week.”
Williams is equally conflicted about the Nov. 19 matchup and nearly pulled the plug on the idea of the Cancun Challenge because of his mixed feelings playing a close friend. He even joked about changing shirts and swapping benches during the game, just to detach from the awkwardness of the moment.
But the tournament fit the schedule correctly, and in taking over a team that has finished last in the ACC for three straight years and not seen the NCAA Tournament since 2007, Virginia Tech had to button down something useful.
“I don’t look forward to it, and we almost didn’t play for that reason. I can’t quantify enough the impact coach Layer has had on my life personally and professionally,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t have had the chance to advance in my career, post-Colorado State, without his tutelage.
“Coach is the best human being I’ve known who is also a coach; he’s left a huge imprint on my heart and my resume. He’s made me a better parent, a better spouse … there are a lot of stories within the story.”
Indeed, both coaches have experienced highlight-packed runs as well as sobering weeks where nothing goes right, as alumni and the sports press either jump on the bandwagon or jump on their necks. Together in 2003, Layer and Williams saw CSU win the postseason Mountain West Conference tournament to put the Rams into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 seasons, but Layer was not brought back after his contract expired in 2007.
Williams had a lot of success at Marquette, reaching the Elite Eight in 2013, but changes on the hoops landscape convinced him the more stable history of the ACC made it a better bet for his long-term security.
“With all the AD’s (changing out) and the turmoil at CSU, Coach couldn’t have represented CSU any better. Obviously we’ve talked about that,” Williams said. “And in leading up to me taking this job, he was the only coach I talked to in that four- or five-day period. He’s where he’s supposed to be and is at peace with that, and I’m where I’m supposed to be, and I’m at peace with that. I’m way closer to Coach now than I was when I worked for him.”
“It’s good to have friends in the profession, who have gone through similar situations,” Layer added. “I’ve talked with Buzz about everything, from the profession to family, what he’s reading, what church he goes to, his camps – it’s very valuable.”
When it comes to the product on the floor, both coaches are trying to embrace the positives and resolutely work on the obvious areas of concern. Liberty will be looking to groom a large number of newcomers to the program, but Layer’s teams have a way of playing their sharpest by the time March rolls around.
In 2012-13, the Flames started out 0-8 but came around to win the Big South tournament and slip into the NCAA field.
“Everybody loves their team this time of year, but you have to go through some adversity to know what you have. I feel our team is much better than what people think, but you have to go through it,” said Layer, whose team was picked ninth in the Big South preseason poll. “Our league is very balanced, typically, and I think Liberty has the DNA to be a championship team. But there are eight or nine other teams in the league that are saying that now.
“We do have three starters back, so there’s a solid nucleus that has been around the block. And we have an influx of fresh talent, and I see us as more talented than we’ve been – we’re longer and more athletic. James Johnson will be key – he’s played at a high level at San Diego State, he’s got the confidence and the maturity, and the fact he’s 6-10 also helps.”
For Virginia Tech, Williams has as much emotional repair to do with his roster as there are new schemes to concoct. Analytics and pie charts showing the Hokies’ statistical command may not be a big concern.
He has a seven-year contract in his back pocket to provide the elbow room needed to grow the program, but the merciless ACC schedule will offer up a hefty headwind at the start.
“I can be too numbers-centric. But since I don’t know exactly where we are at, because we haven’t played a game yet and have had just two weeks of practice … it’s hard for me to gauge what those numbers should be,” Williams said. “I know the standard in my mind, but is that the way we should play? Are those appropriate numbers for this team? I’m trying to learn the nuances, and how we play does give us the best chance to win – I’ve just never played that way before.
“There’s a lot to overcome as it relates to what these kids have been through. They want to work and want to be coached, so there’s something to be said for that. Hey, all we want to do right now is work hard, play tough, get better today and do all that again tomorrow.”
It will only add to the number of stories Williams and Layer can file in their library.
By Kyle Koso
Temperatures in the United States are starting to tumble, but the sweat is just beginning to roll in the world of NCAA D-I basketball.
One of the rewards for eight men’s and eight women’s teams in 2014 is the Cancun Challenge at Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, slated for the Thanksgiving holiday window at the all-inclusive resort on the Yucatan Peninsula.
From Nov. 27-29, the women’s teams from Charlotte, Florida State, Furman, Hartford, Montana, Princeton, Wake Forest and Washington will each play three games at the newly remodeled Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya. The resort’s ballroom will be converted to a basketball court, offering fans a uniquely upfront view of the action.
On the men’s side, from Nov. 25-26, the Cancun Challenge welcomes Elon, Liberty, Miami (Ohio), Morgan State, North Florida, Northern Iowa, Northwestern and Virginia Tech. Each team will play twice on the ballroom-modified court.
A strong contender for the men’s title will be Northern Iowa, a team hardened by the rigors of play in the Missouri Valley Conference that returns all five starters from a year ago. Another squad drawing attention is Virginia Tech, which has struggled in Atlantic Coast Conference play lately but is now coached by Buzz Williams, who put together several quality teams at Marquette.
On the women’s side, Washington has a blend of youth and experience in a potent backcourt to present a stiff challenge, while Wake Forest has four starters back in action as well as an impact freshman, Amber Campbell, who rang up more than 4,000 points in her prep career.
Lesser-known programs are worth keeping an eye on as well, as these teams like getting a crack against the majors on a neutral court. For the men, North Florida (Atlantic Sun Conference) matched the program record for overall and conference victories in 2013-14. And for the women, Hartford (American East) and Princeton (Ivy) are expected to maintain their gritty, pesky standard of play.
Men’s game times are (all Central Standard Time): 12:30 p.m., 3:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Women’s times are 12:00 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 5:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Fans interested in purchasing game tickets can do so through the Cancun Challenge website CLICK HERE.
By Kyle Koso
If you don’t use your blinker before changing lanes, Seth Tuttle is going to lean on his horn.
If you hurriedly abandon your shopping cart in the parking lot, Deon Mitchell will frown and point out that collection zone right next to your car.
And if you try to cut in line at airport security, 6-foot-9 forward Nate Buss will box you out.
Yes, expectations about behavior are at the highest level within the University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team, as a group of 10 returning lettermen and all five starters are back for the 2014-15 campaign. The Panthers, one of eight D-1 teams playing in the Cancun Challenge, have designs on muscling their way back to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference after taking a comparative backseat lately to the likes of Wichita State and Creighton.
Last year’s overall record of 16-15 and an upset loss in the MVC postseason tournament unified UNI in terms of a shared vision for this season. Tuttle, a first-team all-MVC selection as a junior last year, is back to handle the dirty work inside, while fellow seniors Mitchell and Buss (all-MVC second-team selections this preseason) bring additional savvy and tenacity to the roster. All that history has forged deep friendships, but like any band of brothers, it’s wise to bring a thick skin to any gathering.
“This group, guys have had to find where they fit in, not just on the court but in a leadership aspect. ‘How much can I demand from my teammates? Are we going to be able to get along after practice?,’” said UNI coach Ben Jacobsen. “It’s been a bit of a process. All I can say is, the balance is the best it has been. They are good about putting friendship aside and going after it at practice, expecting a lot from each other.”
“This is a close-knit group, and off the court we are always hanging out at someone’s apartment or whatever. But when it comes to winning, we go as hard as we can,” said Tuttle, who averaged 15.4 and 8.0 rebounds per game in 2013-14 and was a first-team, all-MVC choice this preseason. “We will hold each other accountable. If I’m out there not going hard enough on defense, someone’s going to come over and tell me to pick it up. And it’s not just the coaches. All of the players know you cannot take a single practice off.”
Urgency is the logical response when you consider where the Panthers have been, and where they want to go. In 2010, UNI beat No. 1-seeded Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and was 30-5 overall. While the program has been sturdy since that high-water mark, conference mates Wichita State (a No. 1 NCAA seed last season) and Creighton (before move to the Big East) have cast a wider shadow.
“These players have taken steps along the way, and there have been bumps. This group came in after two highly successful seasons, and their task was to continue at the same level,” Jacobsen said. “We’ve been in the postseason three of the past four years, but it hasn’t been at the standard this group wanted to accomplish.
“It’s a real positive that in the MVC, we have good basketball. People recognize that nationally, and those are good examples to have in our league. Our guys see that, and it helps from a motivational standpoint, to see that bar up there, up close. But we all know what this program has done before, and we know we are capable of doing it again.”
UNI appeared to have navigated the learning curve at the end of last season, winning five of six at one juncture, two of which were daunting road games. But at the MVC tournament, the Panthers fell behind by 19 points and couldn’t sustain a rally versus Southern Illinois, a team UNI had handled by 19 points nine days earlier.
The abrupt ending stung at the time and ached over the weeks to come. That sudden goodbye to the senior class just didn’t feel right, and in reviewing the season, the Panthers had to make some cold assessments about how they played.
“We didn’t play defense the way Northern Iowa is known for; we didn’t rebound as well as we needed to, either,” said Tuttle, who thinks the squad has a better handle on how to meet its potential . “On the offensive end, Coach sees it as free-flowing. We are going to play loose, but play together. We know to expect the extra pass, and we want to try and get the best shot each time down the floor.”
“Our offensive numbers were very good, but we can be more productive,” Jacobsen said. “We’ve got a year under our belt, a couple of new guys who bring us something. We should be able to do more inside, go to the block more. But we know how we want to play in the open floor.”
And as far as the Cancun event goes, Northern Iowa is eager to face some different competition and get a real gauge on its progress before the meaty MVC schedule begins.
“These trips are great. You get the bonding time with teammates and coaches, but also the fans who are going. It’s good for the program, good for those big donors, to all have some time with us,” Tuttle added. “But I also look forward to the competition. We’ll play Virginia Tech down there, and that’s a team we’d probably never see or ever get to have come to (UNI). “
And if the Panthers are fortunate enough to be the last ones standing in Cancun, they’ll be sure to do the right thing and turn out the lights.
By Kyle Koso
Three weeks after practice began for the 2013-14 University of Washington women’s team, backcourt veteran Jazmine Davis and star guard recruit Kelsey Plum sprinted arm-in-arm to coach Mike Neighbors and half-inquired, half-pleaded when they might get a chance to play on the same team for once.
Neighbors understandably had split up his speedster duo during drills, just to provide a balance on the floor as well as whet the appetite for competition between the two.
“Eh, I guess I don’t really see a situation where I’d have you on the floor at the same time,” Neighbors said nonchalantly. “I think we’ll just keep it as is.”
Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t have floated a more unsettling script – Davis, a junior coming off a season where she averaged 19.3 points per game, stood still in horror. Plum, a wizard guard out of San Diego and one of the truly electric freshmen of her class, also froze in her spot.
“Nah – I was wondering when you’d ask,” Neighbors laughed. “We’ll start tomorrow.”
Davis and Plum took off with the opportunity and formed one of the nation’s most difficult backcourts to contain, and the two are back again in 2014-15 with the Dawgs one of eight NCAA Division I teams taking part in the Cancun Challenge, Nov. 27-29.
Plum fulfilled her promise and averaged almost 21 points per game while being named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year; Davis added about 19 points per game herself and sits at 1,753 career points, only 274 from the all-time UW record. The Dawgs won 20 games for the third consecutive year and reached the quarterfinals of the postseason WNIT, falling at UTEP, 70-63, in front of more than 10,200 fans.
Evidenced by that heartfelt request to see what they could do together, Davis and Plum didn’t find it very mysterious when it came to blending their skills.
“I did nothing special, just put them on the floor. When you have two strong competitive people, I’ve learned they want to be around other competitive people,” Neighbors said. “People wanted to talk about there being a point guard controversy, and I just laugh. It never felt (awkward) inside the program, and I was there for every play. Kelsey and Jazmine could have scored three or 30, and not cared less.”
“It’s definitely a natural fit,” Davis said. “We have good chemistry, and sometimes we don’t even have to speak. But there are times, we will meet at half-court, talk and give encouragement to each other.”
No doubt, the entire UW program needed to lean on each other during that WNIT character test in El Paso, as the frenetic UTEP crowd stepped on the gas and never let up. The Dawgs made some late shots to keep it interesting, but UTEP took advantage of being stronger at the rim and hit its free throws in the final stretch.
Teams can talk about using adversity to better prepare for the future, but the UW women’s squad seems convinced it can get a long-term bounce from that noisy night.
“When we played that game, we all looked at the crowd and realized, that’s the first time we’d been in front of so many people. What we learned was, we trust each other and will stick together,” Davis said. “In that atmosphere, you can’t hear yourself or your teammates, so you have to know a teammate will be there in a certain spot on defense, or will make the extra pass. And as soon as the season ended, we wanted to know when we could start working out again.”
“It was an experience that’s very hard to re-create – you can pipe in all the fake music you want, but when people are screaming and there’s a guy shooting burritos into the crowd instead of T-shirts, that’s a (unique) atmosphere to be a part of,” Neighbors added. “It’s perfect for us, because we open at Oklahoma, and they’ll have 8,000 fans cheering for them.”
Ultimately, the frenzy level won’t be the primary attraction at Cancun, where Washington will take on Florida State (an NCAA tourney qualifier last year), Hartford and Furman. The beach and pool time is just a small part of the assignment, as the Dawgs know they need to solve questions about their frontcourt as well as get the dynamite backcourt to fire away more accurately.
“First and foremost, the (tournament) helps put UW on the map. We get to play high caliber teams, and to compete at that level is always fun and exciting,” Davis said. “We have a couple of players who can’t stop talking about it – they’ve got the countdown for Cancun going. No one’s ever been there (from UW); we don’t really know what to expect, but we know it will be good.”