All the familiar sounds and sights of the basketball season, and the natural optimism of a new chance to put their skills to work, are a major comfort these days for the Illinois State men’s squad.
Head coach Dan Muller and his program are enjoying the little things after having to confront one of the biggest shocks imaginable - last April’s plane crash that claimed the lives of seven people associated with the program, including assistant coach Torrey Ward. They were returning home from the NCAA Championships in Indianapolis when hostile weather conditions brought the plane down.
Illinois State has constructed a memorial fountain outside Redbird Arena; all teams in the athletic department will wear an honorary patch as well, and the basketball team itself will be acknowledging Ward and the others throughout the campaign. Ever so carefully, the assignment is being tackled of getting back to work while reflecting on what happened in April.
“Looking back, and even when we were in the middle of it, one of the things that helped us all was continuing to have workouts,” said Muller, whose team went 22-13 last year and reached the second round of the NIT in the postseason. “We kept the schedule as is — yeah, there was recruiting that I missed and adjustments, obviously. We decided to do that on a volunteer basis early, but every player wanted to do that. It helped us get through it — one thing I did learn was sitting around and doing nothing is the absolute worst thing you can do. Sometimes, you can’t help it … but our focus was, what can we do to help the players and staff, and to help the families who are affected the most?”
“Once they came back to campus in the summer, in July, it slowly felt more normal. The truth is, even in a tragedy like that, life goes on. It’s not insensitive to the men and families we love, because it doesn’t mean you forget — they will never be forgotten. But we’ve got to figure out how to do the best we can with our responsibilities, and the people we care about. We all stuck together, and we had a lot of people helping.”
When the ball tips off for 2015-16, the lineup should be fortified by point guard Paris Lee, and forward DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell. Lee enters his junior season as a proven distributor of the ball, while knowing his role as a scorer is likely going to increase.
“We’ve been told about that need (of replacing points), and I may need to score more, attack more, and I’m OK with that. Of course, I need to get my teammates involved,” he said. “But as a group, we should be able to put more points on the board. We’ll be more uptempo, and some nights I’ll have it going, and other nights my teammates will. Points will come from different guys, in different ways.
“I’ve been watching clips from practice when we were in Spain (a team trip this summer), and I’m looking for those times I could attack, or when to get the others the ball. To be honest, I really don’t even think about the guy guarding me – I’m looking at my teammates and how they are being defended.”
“The difference from last year to this is he’s improved his body; he’s stronger and can be more physical at both ends. He’s an upperclassman who knows what I want and what I expect,” Muller said. “I trust Paris to lead. His scoring could increase, and he certainly could. But his job is to run the team, and I think he will score as much as the situation dictates it.”
Akoon-Purcell had a terrific debut year at Illinois State last season after transferring from a junior college in Oklahoma. He missed seven games with a hand injury (breaking it on the backboard pad against DePaul), but worked his way back and showed ability inside and outside to score the ball.
“My main focus was to work hard that offseason (before playing at Illinois State). But I’ve been used to being in new places for a while, and I just try to jump right in,” said Akoon-Purcell, who averaged about 13 points and six rebounds per game. “I knew something wasn’t right (when he broke his hand). I tried to keep the right mindset coming back. Plus, Russell Westbrook was coming back from something similar at about the same time, and that motivated me a bit as well.
“I haven’t looked at the numbers much, but I know (field goal percentage) wasn’t the greatest. I know what I need to do. I expect to be more efficient and consistent, and what I did was change my mindset and approach every practice like there’s nothing here being given to me. I want to work for everything.”
“DeVaughn did not have your typical struggles with the transition. To the point he got hurt, he was leading the team in scoring and was first or second in rebounding,” Muller said. “He’s coachable and talented, and naturally played hard. He’s one of the most talented players in our league, can score at many levels — he’s a competitor, and that’s where it starts for every player.”
Going forward, the Redbirds will try to explore the merits of playing a bit faster, and hope that an uptick in shooting efficiency will take root as well. The modern game certainly requires a steady hand from 3-point range.
“We’ve got to create offense, and we can do some of that by our defense and how fast we run. We do have to replace a couple of top scorers, but I think we’ve got four guys who can score in multiple ways, and help each other score as well,” Muller said. “We’ve got length and athleticism, but if you don’t shoot it well from 3, it’s just hard.”
But handling adversity and showing both composure and determination are traits the Redbirds have been forced to evolve ever since April.
“It was so tough at first. We want to use it as motivation, because coach Ward was a motivator for us all,” Akoon-Purcell said. “One thing I’ve noticed is, if I’m not going totally hard, or if I’m hanging my head about something, I think about what he would say.”
“That was definitely a terrible day, terrible week, terrible month, however you want to say it. I try to use it as fuel,” Lee added. “The day it happened, Coach said we could cancel the workout we had scheduled, but he left it up to DeVaughn and me if we should do that. We chose to do it, to get our work in because coach Ward would have wanted us to be in the gym. That was an emotional time … coach Ward is always on our mind.”
Seton Hall makes its first trip to the Cancun Challenge in 2015. The Pirates will take on NC State and Northern Iowa in their two games at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya.
Most college basketball coaches would be crying a river if they were in Anthony Bozzella’s shoes this season, but the third-year Seton Hall women’s coach is feeling an ocean of calm despite the challenges ahead.
More than 50 points per game from his 2014-15 roster is out the door, a profound hit for a program that went 28-6 on the season and claimed Seton Hall’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1995. That set a school record for victories and elevated the buzz around Bozzella, who got the team into the postseason WNIT in 2013-14 for the first Pirates postseason bid in seven years.
The thought of not losing ground after all that hard-earned progress is something driving the players and coaching staff – it’s a unifying notion when everyone is trying to figure out how to work together as smoothly as that last, established group.
“One of the things we’re proud of is that this is a program that can develop. We want to have a lot of good players graduate because that means you’ve had good players,” said Bozzella, who came to Seton Hall after 11 years rebuilding the program at Iona. “When we took over, we had good players in a poor system, so it worked for us to run our system on the very first day.
“What we need to do now is to make sure the talent level is equal to what we had before, because we’ve lost a lot of players. It’s been a challenge this preseason with seven new kids, and they’ve had to deal with all the conditioning we emphasize, and a lot of running. But with the individual work they had to put in, which is a significant amount, we’ve definitely seen the improvement.”
If reconfiguring his lineup is no saga, it’s probably because Bozzella knows what a real drama looks like. When he started at Iona, the Gaels had a streak of 20 straight losing seasons, and his first year was a 1-27 character test on every level. Heck, even his first year (2013-14) at Seton Hall required a lot of patience as he replaced Hall of Famer Anne Donovan and dealt with a lot of eye-rolling as he incorporated his scheme.
He’s got two cornerstones for the season ahead, at minimum. Tabatha Richardson-Smith averaged 17.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game as a junior last season, fulfilling her promise in everything from 3-point shooting (a strong .375 mark) to defense (79 steals, two off the team lead). Also expected to provide stability is Iona transfer Aleesha Powell, a senior who was recruited by Bozzella at his previous post.
“Tabatha is the best scorer I’ve ever coached. At 6-1, she can do so many things, is a tremendous athlete, and a very talented rebounder,” Bozzella said. “Contributing in more ways is something she wants to do, and she’s prepared to take the bull by the horns – she’s already developed her game as one of the top scorers around, but she want to be one of the top players.”
“I know I’m going to get face-guarded a lot. I’ve been working more off screens, do some more ball-handling, work in some pull-ups,” Richardson-Smith said. “I want to create more space for myself, get to the basket, use some floaters. I think my shooting overall will go up, but not necessarily 3-pointers. I don’t want to limit myself.
“Leadership is another important role this year. I want to be more vocal; we’ve got a lot of new people, and I want to tell them, ‘this is going to happen,’ because I’ve already experienced it. I don’t want to let them get hit by it in their first game. You just want to be ready to help everyone out there, because you never know who’s going to come off the bench some game and have to hit a free throw to win it.”
Powell started 65 games in her three years with the Gaels and gives Seton Hall an immediate asset at point guard, which is a huge topic after the departures of first-team Big East stars Daisha Simmons and Ka-Deidre Simmons. Able to hit the 3-pointer and solid at the free-throw line, Powell will be in heavy rotation.
“It was very hard to sit out (last year as a transfer), because I’m a competitor, but I was able to practice every day,” Powell said. “That allowed me to work on my game against a lot of good players, and I put a lot of time in on my ball-handling, pull-ups and passing. Those times helped me get better defensively as well. It definitely was all mental. If I came in prepared and understood practice was my opportunity to improve, I was able to stay sharp. It really was a mental thing, being prepared every day.”
The Pirates will look to 6-3 center Tiffany Jones for some extra punch in the middle as she starts her second full year with the program. And when Powell needs a breather or if Bozzella wants to go small, the team has graduate student Shakena Richardson, who played for Florida State and wanted to use her final year of eligibility to play in New Jersey, her home state. Freshman guard LaTecia Smith joins the group as a top 100 recruit, someone who was well below the radar earlier in high school.
Bozzella credits assistant coach Lauren DeFalco for that one – she went to a recruiting event while Bozzella was waiting for another to begin, and that’s where she saw Smith play. Seton Hall was well ahead on the recruiting process by the time Smith’s profile exploded as a senior in high school.
With all the work ahead, Richardson-Smith and Powell don’t feel distracted by the fact their college careers are drawing to a close. There may be a professional check to draw somewhere, someday, but being part of Bozzella’s resurrection process is entertaining, to say the least.
“He’s pretty much the same guy. Our relationship has definitely grown. We’ve all had to step it up here,” Powell said. “It’s definitely excitement, and there are no bittersweet feelings. It’s my last year, and I’m going to go out with a bang and be ready to help my team. I think about playing freely, playing my game. If I’m open, I’ll do something with that, take what the defense gives me.”
“I’m excited. You always think about what’s coming next, but I’m always trying to live in the moment,” Richardson-Smith added. “We’ve had a great team, but I think we can be even better, because we’ve got players here who can definitely help us. We have to find four starters, but I’m not worried about it at all.
“There’s nothing anyone can say (bad) about Coach or how he does things, with the success he’s had. He brings intensity, and he does it because he loves it, not because he gets paid. He’s a positive man, and he does everything he can to keep things on track.”
Duke makes its third trip to the Cancun Challenge in 2015; the Blue Devils also made the trip in 2006 and 2009. The team will play Idaho, Iowa State and Texas State in this year’s event, set for Nov. 26-28.
Heading into her ninth season running the women’s basketball show at Duke, Joanne P. McCallie is not the type to be easily startled or mystified by what happens on the court.
But the Blue Devils were put in some rather curious situations last season, where even someone with microscopic insight on her team could only look at the young women running the floor and feel a bit anxious. All those agreed-upon plans had to give way to game-to-game improvisations because of injuries and a lingering vacancy at point guard.
Duke still played its way to a Sweet Sixteen berth in the NCAA Tournament; the Blue Devils were tough, uninterested in sympathy, and next to impossible to beat at home. In the end, the team went no further in the tourney, and the final numbers showed some clear worry spots. In many ways, it was a Duke-ish type of year, more than a purely Duke experience.
“The staff did a great job; we were a coach down because of health issues, so we had (disruptions) on the team and the coaching staff,” McCallie said. “As a coach, the season made me better at my job; we had to be very creative. Seasons like that can be painful, even though we were 17-1 at home against some really good teams, but in the end I was inspired by what we went through. I can’t believe some of the things we were able to pull off.
“There were tears and frustration, because you are wanting things to be different and be better. It could have turned into victimology, and you always have to watch for that. The team was more vulnerable than usual. But that’s going to be one of my most memorable years of coaching.”
McCallie couldn’t help but remember some of the team’s unusual weaknesses. Most years, the turnover-to-assist ratio was about break-even, but this time around it was a downright downer (Duke coughed up the ball more than 18 times a game); the historically wicked-good 3-point shooting turned scary (just .324 overall); and a program that took pleasure in difficult road games was just 5-8 away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“The turnovers were ungodly and uncharacteristic. Three-point shooting, we led the country twice and certainly weren’t at that level last year,” said McCallie, who had a hard time digesting some of the poor defensive numbers the roster posted in ACC play. “Some of those (negatives) we just had to accept, those things out of our control. We had to rebound, be very blue-collar – we struggled on the road because we had no seasoned point guard, and we didn’t even have a pure point guard by position. It was a humbling experience. Anything that had to do with creativity and ball handling, like the assist-to-turnover ratio, was a problem.”
While all that struggling played out, the Blue Devils were also making hard-earned progress in areas that should make a difference this season. Another top-ranked recruiting class will provide help at point guard, but redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell looks more comfortable there after being forced into the job a year ago.
In her first full year in 2014-15, Greenwell had a breathtakingly busy run, missing by a single minute the all-time Duke record for minutes played in a season. A terrific shooter with quick hands on defense, Greenwell was an anchor when the season threatened to get away from the squad, averaging 14.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while leading the team in steals.
“There was definitely a lot on my plate coming in. It was a good learning experience; technically I was a freshman but it didn’t feel like it,” Greenwell said. “I had about a year of practice time (while redshirting) so I had some experience before getting thrown into it. I grew a lot over the course of the season. One thing Coach strives for is to have us be able to play multiple positions, and not just limit yourself to what you did before. You never know when you will be called on to do something out of your comfort zone.”
When the rotation was sometimes whittled to just eight players in uniform thanks to injuries, Greenwell used her hard-earned savvy to do damage inside and outside. It’s hard to overstate the stability she provided in a time when it was needed desperately.
“Playing point guard was (a big challenge). I think of myself as a ball-handler, but not a true point guard, and we didn’t have one," she said. "Coach would call on me to start the offense from the top, and I had to get used to smaller, quicker guards covering me. That could be tough at times.
“Last year was a different type of season, and the lack of guards was a big part. People were playing in unnatural positions – we’d have posts bringing the ball up the floor, that sort of thing. But we still got to the Sweet 16 as a young team. You’ll see a different team, more like the Duke you know, because we have a lot of athleticism and quickness, maybe not as much size.”
“(Rebecca) was incredible, an All-American in every respect. We just kept asking, and she just kept giving,” McCallie said. “She played the 1, the 2, the 3 – so versatile, and she grew in so many ways. She’s a huge competitor who absolutely hates losing, and I’m very excited for her going forward.”
Most preseason rankings will have the Blue Devils near the top 10, in all due respect to McCallie’s resume (541-201 in 23 years total, a .729 winning percentage), the depth of her recent recruiting classes, Greenwell’s presence and the return of junior forward Oderah Chidom, a 6-foot-4 thumper down low who missed 13 games after dislocating a shoulder. But the most impressive weapon Duke employs is arguably 6-5 sophomore swing player Azura Stevens.
Stevens, a second-team preseason All-American in Sporting News, spent much of the off-season doing two productive activities – hitting the weights, and playing on the USA Basketball U19 World Championships team that traveled to Russia. She started all eight games for Team USA, which ran the table and won the gold medal.
“Russia was awesome, a blessing in general to go play overseas and get a taste of that,” Stevens said. “One thing I worked on was playing down low more, being physical, working on my game near the basket. I’ve worked hard to get stronger; I’m just naturally thinner than most 5’s or 4’s, but right now, I’m just embracing the contact.”
Stevens also played a ton of minutes as a freshman and soaked up information on how she could broaden her skills and be more useful to a roster that was scrambling for answers. She averaged more than 14 points and eight rebounds per game and shot .512 from the field.
“I think it was a good year, but at the end of the day we didn’t win the championship, and that’s always my primary goal,” she said. “There were frustrations, and we were in a tough spot being pulled in different directions (in the lineup). But one of the benefits of last year was we gave it our all, even playing out of position. We can use what we learned.
“I like both (playing post and wing); it depends on who is defending me, and it’s all about the matchups. If I’ve got a smaller defender on me, I’m trying to get down lower and use my height, and if I’m guarded by a bigger girl, I will bring her out and make a move to go around her.”
Greenwell has also taken her downtime to think hard about how to best use the lessons learned from a demanding season. She was set to play for an international team as well last summer, but caught some bad luck with an illness and an ensuing case of pneumonia – she’s feeling just fine now.
“I’ve been learning how to deal with what the defense gives you. Learning how to run off screens properly, the ways to get open, I didn’t realize the details that can make all the difference,” Greenwell added. “You change a few things, and it goes a long way to making you better. Another thing Coach has talked to me about is slowing the game down. You can’t always go 100 percent every second – it doesn’t make the defense think as much as they should have to.”
Greenwell, Stevens and the Blue Devils really didn’t have the luxury to think last season, dealing with dramatic changes from week-to-week and resembling a work in progress. But armed with new, unique skills, Duke should have the brains, speed and brawn to look more like itself again.
Event officials announced webcast and live stats details today for the 2015 women’s Cancun Challenge, played Nov. 26-28 at the all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya.
All games will be streamed live on YouTube and will be free to view for fans not making the trip down to Mexico. Live stats via GameTracker will also be available for all games. Both stats and live streams can be found at this link: CLICK HERE.
This year’s field features Duke (ACC), Georgia Tech (ACC), High Point (Big South), Idaho (Big Sky), Iowa State (Big 12), NC State (ACC), Northern Iowa (MVC), Seton Hall (Big East), Texas State (Sun Belt), and UAB (CUSA). Only Duke and UAB have competed in the event before with the Blue Devils making their third appearance (2006 and 2009), while the Blazers are coming for the second time (2010). Duke is 5-0 all-time in Cancun Challenge games; UAB is 1-1.
The Mayan Tournament features four teams (Duke, Idaho, Iowa State, Texas State) playing each other in a three-game round robin. The Riviera Tournament features the other six teams in a pool where each plays twice during their time in Mexico.
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – For the eighth consecutive year, all Riviera Division games in Mexico will be televised live on CBS Sports Network, Cancun Challenge officials announced today. The Riviera Division will consist of Maryland, TCU, Rhode Island and Illinois State.
Thad Anderson (play-by-play) and Doug Gottlieb (analyst) will be calling the action for CBS Sports Network. Anderson has worked as play-by-play for the Cancun Challenge since its inception in 2008. Anderson has been a sports broadcaster for 20 years calling football, basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball on ESPN, Pac-12 Networks and SEC Network. Gottlieb, a former college basketball standout at Oklahoma State, hosts the late-afternoon program on CBS Sports Radio. His show can be seen live on CBS Sports Network, where it is simulcast.
The Mayan Division features Rider, Cleveland State, South Dakota State and Houston Baptist. All Mayan Division games in Mexico will be streamed live on YouTube and will be free to watch. Fans can find links to watch streams: CLICK HERE. The tournament format includes two games in the U.S. with the Riviera teams hosting the Mayan teams before heading to Mexico for two more games played in their respective divisions. A champion is crowned in both divisions. All games are played at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, about 45 minutes south of Cancun.
CBS Sports Network is available across the country through local cable, video and telco providers and via satellite on DirecTV Channel 221 and Dish Network Channel 158. For more information, including a full programming schedule and how to get CBS Sports Network, go to www.cbssportsnetwork.com.
Tickets are now available for all men’s and women’s Cancun Challenge games played in Mexico for fans who did not purchase a travel package through Triple Crown Sports or an approved school fan package provider. All games will be played at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, roughly 45 minutes south of Cancun. To purchase passes and tickets for men’s and women’s games CLICK HERE. For questions contact Sarah Sullivan at 970-672-0533 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fans who purchased travel packages do not need to buy tickets; they are included in the package.
Men’s Games (Nov. 24 & 25, 2015)
Adults Student (ages 7-17)
All Tournament Pass (provides admission to all 8 men’s games) $250 $125
Riviera Division (Tuesday Session) $90 $45
Riviera Division (Wednesday Session) $90 $45
Riviera Division (Wed. Championship Game Only) $50 $25
Mayan Division (Tuesday Session) $80 $40
Mayan Division (Wednesday Session) $80 $40
Mayan division (Wed. Championship Game Only) $40 $20
Seating Location: open seating except for courtside and directly behind the team benches which are excluded
Student Tickets: admission for ages 7-17 (ages 6 and under free)
Adult Tickets: ages 18 and over
Session Passes: provide admission for the two specific games of each session, afternoon or evening each day
Riviera Division Teams: Illinois State, Maryland, Rhode Island, TCU
Mayan Division Teams: Cleveland State, Houston Baptist, South Dakota State, Rider
Women’s Games (Nov. 26, 27, & 28, 2015)
Adults Student (ages 7-17)
All-Tournament Pass (12 games) $135 $70
All-Day Pass $50 $30
Riviera Tournament Teams: Georgia Tech, High Point, NC State, Northern Iowa, Seton Hall, UAB
Mayan Tournament Teams: Duke, Idaho, Iowa State, Texas State
Anyone not staying at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya will be charged an additional $20 (US) fee per person for each day at the tournament. This covers unlimited access to the food, and drink (including alcohol for adults) concessions at the game facility. This is a mandatory fee charged by the resort to cover access to the concession stands at the games. The fee will be collected prior to admission to the tournament facility.