Thursday, April 28, 2016

NCAA cost-of-attendance and why it matters

It's called the cost-of-attendance (COA) -- which is tuition, fees, books, supplies, room and board, transportation and personal expenses -- everything that goes into attending college full time for nine months.

Some schools give it -- including all in the Power 5 -- and some do not as part of the recruiting process. The amount varies by school, but COA is not a random figure. Financial aid officers at each school determine the amount and an athlete's personal situation can figure into the equation, whether that be because of medical, child care or transportation expenses.

We break it down below, but here's the crux:  The stipends that schools are now allowed to give have the real potential to be an issue further stretching the divide between the haves and the have nots.

There's always been a difference between Virginia/Virginia Tech and ODU/JMU. Now there's a difference between ODU and VCU, between JMU and Radford noting the COA figures below.

Think of it this way.

You're a college athlete, which is frankly, a year-round job even if it's a job you love. Given the commitment required to be successful -- practices, games, travel, conditioning, rehab in addition to a full academic load -- you cannot have an outside job. So that pizza that you want to order on Sunday night, that haircut, that trip home over the holidays -- all that factors into the cost of attending college, Unlike your peers who are not athletes, you don't the money to pay for it as you didn't work a summer job, a work-study job or anything of that nature as your commitment is to your team.

The new rule allowing COA stipends passed Aug. 1 after a vote by school and athletic reps from the five wealthiest conferences. It was seen as an answer of sorts to the ongoing national discussion about treatment of college athletes who receive no salary while coaches negotiate seven-figure contracts and television revenue balloons for the elite programs.

So in addition to scholarships that cover tuition and room and board, COA covers everything else. However, the NCAA did not mandate schools to offer it.  When recently hired Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks noted that cost of attendance will affect recruiting, he was essentially discussing the elephant in the room for schools not committed to the idea. Here's why that's a problem.

Programs including JMU and ODU already have to compete with the Power 5 and all the resources a big-time program can offer. That can be the difference between flying commercial to get back to campus the morning after a game vs. flying charter right after a road game so an athlete is in class the next morning. Power 5 schools can afford to pay coaches and assistants more money. They often have practice facilities with all the bells and whistles (though the new VCU facility isn't exactly a shack). Many can boast television contracts that provide that coveted exposure a smaller conference cannot fathom. Shae Kelley left ODU for her final year of eligibility because of the air time playing for Minnesota would give her on the Big Ten network; Kelley was drafted and now owns a WNBA championship ring.

How much does COA affect a recruit's decision making? Here's what we found out from visiting Boo Williams' Nike Girls tournament last weekend (a place where we caught up with Virginia's Joanne Boyle, said our hellos to new JMU coach Sean O'Regan and had an extensive chat with Hampton's David Six).

COA is such a new concept, teenage girls aren't necessarily asking about it, though several recruits we talked with are only talking to Power 5 schools to begin with. Right now it's a tool those coaches who offer it aren't shy about mentioning. It's not all the rage just yet, says Boo, noting, "It's too new." Now when it comes to recruiting guys, they're more savvy to it, he noted -- not surprising as girls basketball recruiting is still in its early stages compared to the boys.

In our state, JMU, Old Dominion, William and Mary, Hampton, Norfolk State and Longwood did not offer COA stipends in 2015-16.

The following schools gave these amounts per athlete:

George Mason: Average stipend of $3,600

Liberty: the first FCS school to offer cost of attendance in all 22 of its sports; figures not disclosed

Radford: Average stipend of $3,500

Richmond: Average stipend of $1,300

VCU: Average stipend of $4,100

Virginia: $3,180 for in-state undergrads; $3,600-$4,600 for out-of-state undergrads

Virginia Tech: Stipends of $3,280 in-state and $3,620 out-of-state

Hampton's Six said while COA makes the job tougher for coaches from schools that don't offer it, he continues to rely on what he can sell. "You can't buy family," he says. "You can't buy seeing your name in bronze if you win an NCAA tournament game, offering a kid a chance to do something at a program that's never been done before.

As for COA, "I don't worry about what I don't have," he says.

Presidents at JMU and William and Mary were among nine leaders from Division I schools in opposition to COA. According to a Sept. 26, 2015 story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that quotes from an letter on each college's website: "The widely held public opinion that athletic programs at every institution are 'profit centers' for the institution and that the athletes are being taken advantage of in the quest for revenues is simply not true."

Though ODU has not announced plans to offer COA, athletic director Wood Selig hasn't ruled it out for the future. While the MEAC is allowing each of its member institutions to decide on COA, commissioner Dennis Thomas said it is an unlikely course for conference schools at this time.

While we list these numbers, we're not passing judgment. It's not a stretch to say that non-Power 5 schools face a much larger financial burden than the big boys; they simply do not have the revenue stream that television contracts and major college football provide. The A-10 is helped, in part, by being a basketball-centric conference.

The bottom line for WBB is this. Recruits make college decisions based on a number of factors. They talk to coaches and potential teammates. Some have family connections to a school. Campus life is a factor and of course, academic reputation comes into play. Television exposure, or lack thereof matters as do practice facility, arena, fan base and of course, the intangibles. Elena Delle Donne could have gone to any school in the country and chose Delaware.

COA is not going to be the only factor in luring recruits to a program. But it is an enticing enhancement not easily dismissed. Much like per-diem money is coveted among athletes as it's real dollars and cents, imagine being an 18-year-old kid and having a few extra grand to reduce your financial stress if you want extra cheese on that pizza or a trip home for the few days off you have for Christmas break.

Schools who don't offer it say they have priorities, and that is understandable given a college's mission. But understanding athletes have priorities, too, that often boil down to money has the potential to be a game-changer that will make the great divide even greater.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on cost-of-attendance. Share with us on Twitter @LadySwish.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Why the news about Tyler Summitt is so profoundly disappointing

A few days after the national championship during a time when the WBB world should still be celebrating the accomplishments of UConn and the grit of Syracuse, we are reading about a coach resigning for having an inappropriate relationship with one of his players.

Nothing's worse than that in this sport, but here's why many in the WBB community are having a hard time coming to grips with the news. The coach is Tyler Summitt, boy wonder, son of Pat Summitt, who needs no description before her name.

More than a decade ago, I talked with Pat Summitt in her home and she opened up a pair of French doors that revealed to me her son's bedroom -- mural on the wall, king-sized bed, window overlooking a lake. Lucky kid, I thought. Both of us LadySwishers chatted with him when Tennessee was sent to Norfolk for NCAA first and second rounds, and he was a delight, answering questions repeatedly that he had probably been asked before.

The last time we saw him was after the Lady Techsters came to the Constant Center on Jan 7 and downed Old Dominion in a regular-season game. He didn't give an ordinary press conference afterward. The aplomb he showed as a 25-year-old coach was striking, made even more so by his addressing Louisiana Tech's role in the sport, noting the pioneer effort of the program, one he made a point of ensuring his own players recognized. When asked about his mom, he was glad to answer. It would be hard to make a better impression.

In fact, for most of Tyler's 25 years, he's done nothing outwardly wrong, being by his mother's side during the early days, graduating from Tennessee and earning the praise from his mother's peers who, no doubt, saw his potential. As an assistant at Marquette,  he was lauded for a work ethic that earned him a head coaching job at 23. You figure he knew the scrutiny he'd be under, having to prove to others there was more to him than pedigree, but remember, this wasn't a kid who ran away from being Pat Summitt's son. He embraced the role and the spotlight that came with it, seemingly wise beyond his years. If you watched the interviews of Pat and Tyler about the dementia that changed her life, you walked away again impressed by his maturity.

As part of the WBB community, we've watched Tyler become a man and rooted for him just a little bit more because we are losing Pat. That's among the reasons this hurts so much. We had him slated as head coach at the University of Tennessee one day, but given the news of Thursday, that will never happen.

If you are a mother yourself, you want to shake him and shout, "What were you thinking?" While we might not like it, many men commit adultery. But he's a coach -- a mentor put in charge of young women, a role model, an ambassador of the sport who given his lineage, is unlike any other. Some have speculated that his youth was a red flag for his hiring, but we dispute that and any attempts at explaining this away. This isn't something young coaches do; this isn't something male coaches do; this is something he did. This is on him solely and while many might say he should have known better, we say he did know better. And it happened anyway.

Our feeling is profound disappointment, an emotion we imagine is magnified 100 times more in places like Knoxville and Ruston. The kid all of us watched grow turned into the man who screwed up. We live in a society where people mess up all the time and turn their lives around. We wish that for him, and especially his wife and the player involved.

We don't pretend to know how aware Pat Summitt is of the events of the last 24 hours. But for the first time since she was diagnosed, we hope this disease can be a shield, because as hard as we find this to stomach, we can't imagine what his mother would say.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

#onlyinWBB do we give head jobs to men with no experience coaching women

We're at the point in the season where coaches come and coaches go. And we remain amazed at the lengths some folks will go to put a men's basketball assistant in charge of their women's basketball program.

The latest example of the ol' inside-the-athletic-department shuffle came, unfortunately, within our stomping grounds over at Norfolk State. A few weeks ago, the Spartans named men's basketball assistant Larry Vickers head coach of the women's team after a bizarre 11-game stretch in which he ran the women's team while still assisting the men's.

It didn't go unnoticed in the WBB community.

Norfolk: Now its official. Larry Vickers, Norfolk mens asst (w/no experience coaching women, except as interim HC) is new HC.

Give NSU credit for expedience. Vickers got the job officially just 24 hours after the Spartans lost by 24 points in the first round of the MEAC tournament. In fact athletic director Marty Miller acted so quickly, we wonder if the job wasn't Vickers' from the moment he took over the 0-16 Spartans from Debra Clark in mid-January.

Still, the speed at which the Spartans moved to lock in Vickers, who had never been a head coach before, begs several questions. Among them:
  •    How much due diligence was performed before NSU made this hire?
  •    Did Vickers really show so much during a stint in which the Spartans went 3-8 that no other    candidates earn serious consideration?
  •    Is this really the way to fill a head-coaching vacancy in a Division I program?
None of this is meant as a knock on Vickers, who has bled Green and Gold as player and men's coach at NSU. Maybe he'll get up to speed quickly in the women's game. We certainly hope he does.

Our issues are with the process that led to Vickers getting the gig, and the misguided idea that experience in the men's game makes one fully qualified to lead a D-I women's team.

According to the NCAA's own research on gender diversity, 66 percent of Division I teams were coached by women in 2009-10. That number has declined every season since and was at 58 percent in 2014-15, the last year of the study.

We asked Hall-of-Fame coach Marianne Stanley about the trend. "It's disturbing," she said. "There certainly are a number of qualified women who should be coaching at all division levels. I think it's incumbent upon athletic directors to do their due diligence and identify them."

We don't have a problem with a lot of the reasons men get women's head-coaching jobs. And when one considers that all four teams in this year's Final Four were led by men, clearly such a move often pays off big. But it's one thing when women don't get jobs they interview for. It's another when women don't even get the chance to apply. And frankly, it's even another when you call upon an assistant down the hall from another program to take over your women's team while staying in his current position, as happened with Vickers for most of the conference season.

And while this clearly impacts women, it's an issue for men working in the women's game as well. We know of one male assistant on a Division I women's team who was very intrigued by the NSU opening. His hiring would have addressed one of the Spartans' biggest issues over the past decade or so - the inability to attract in-state recruits.

We'll never know how he would have worked out. More importantly, Norfolk State will never know, either.

Former Olympic coach Anne Donovan said she's not in favor of any kind of gimmick that would require ADs to include a woman in a pool of hiring candidates, but like her former coach Stanley, she doesn't like the direction WBB coaching is headed.

"A lot of it comes down to who do we want coaching our young women? what kind of mentors are they?" she said. "If I'm hiring, whether it be for a head job or an assistant position, .I"m going to look at every quality candidate. If the best candidate is a guy he should get the job I would hope."

As for the "basketball is basketball" arguments we commonly hear when a women's basketball outsider moves down the hall to take over, consider the case of former Virginia Tech coach Dennis Wolff. Wolff came with ample men's basketball coaching experience. Still, he struggled initially in his debut  coaching women, particularly in recruiting. Without a network in the women's game, Wolff relied heavily on international players to fill out his roster for two or three recruiting cycles before Tech could make inroads in the state and region.

Furthermore, over the years we've had several men who have coached both men and women tell us that while plays are similar, the best ways to motivate and get the best out of one group may not necessarily be ideal for the other. 

Vickers has 11 games of experience coaching women. Is that enough? Norfolk State is betting that it is. 

It's a gamble we wish Norfolk State, and others schools considering a men's assistant to lead their women's team, would think long and hard about. Our sport -- and the women coaching and playing in it -- deserve that.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A chat with Va. Tech's Kenny Brooks on his new start, his old roots, cost-of-attendance allowances and a whole new world

We talked with new Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks (it's going to take some time to get used to writing that) about his Hokie future and Dukes past.

Here's what the Dukes alum had to say about his new gig in Blacksburg that has us wishing the 2016-17 season would hurry up and get here!

A disdain for the word "mid-major," Brooks never used that term to describe his Dukes. But he admitted challenges are mounting for non-Power 5 programs: "I was blessed, keeping assistant coaches who were making probably half of what their counterparts are making in the BCS. My coaches are every bit as good as the Power 5."

On the cost-of-attendance allowances that allow athletes to receive the full cost of attendance when attending college. Cost of attendance is determined by financial aid officers at each school. For the 2015-16 school year at Virginia Tech, athletes received $3,280 in-state and $3,680 out-of-state paid twice a semester for on-campus students and three times a semester for off-campus students. JMU does not offer cost-of-attendance allowances.

"Madison not offering cost of attendance. That was a tremendous red flag for me. Without cost of attendance in the next few years, there's no way  you're going to get the Jazmon Gwathmeys or the Precious Halls or the Angela Mickens' of the world to be able to come to a place like that because it's such an enticing factor. One of the first things recruits are asking is, 'Do you offer that cost-of-attendance thing?' Here in the next few years, there's going to be a divide between the haves and have nots."

On the pressures of being in a one-bid conference: "Last summer I sat in the coaches meetings in the CAA and I got a shock. Anucha Browne came to speak about scheduling and how to schedule up and things of that nature and she pulled up our resume and said, 'I was hoping and praying you guys were going to win because you probably would not have gotten to the NCAA tournament with a record of 29-3.' She said, 'You guys didn't beat any Top 25 teams.' We did. We beat UCLA, but when we beat them, we knocked them out of the Top 25. When she said that, I lost a lot of hope in what the NCAA considers mid majors. To go 29-4, some people think that's an easy year, that you don't have any stress. But it's more stress because every game matters. If you go to William and Mary and you lose there, if you play Hofstra and Hofstra is playing extremely well, that one game can erase so much good you've done. Then you have to win the tournament and we all know what can happen in the tournament."

While at JMU, Brooks often lamented the difficulty of attracting Power 5 schools to Harrisonburg. As Hokies coach now, he will be the one receiving calls from the non-Power 5 seeking a home-and-home with Virginia Tech: "My sense of responsibility is to my program. We won't dodge. We're going to try to put together a schedule that's conducive to us getting where we want to get to. We already have a daunting schedule. We want to challenge ourselves and get some good RPI games. There will be a little sentiment toward the mid major, but not at the expense of our program."

But don't rule out . . . "Maybe I'll go to JMU and open up that new building when it comes!"

Rooting interest in Final Four: "I want Syracuse to win because of my friendship with (coach) Q (Quentin Hillsman) and they're fellow ACC."

On his new beginning: "The welcome mat was unbelievable. The infusion of energy with my coming here was tremendous. I was with (my daughter) Gabby last night and she said, 'So Daddy,  you've got Duke?' And I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'And North Carolina?' And I said 'Yes.' And she says, 'Who else? Notre Dame?'

"That's what I've been looking for. When you've gone 60-3 the last three years in the CAA, you're always looking at it as a competitor and you want to challenge yourself. What better way to challenge yourself than to go to the best league in the country. I'm sure I'm going to learn a lot and be a different coach five years from now going against the Muffet McGraws. I'm looking forward to it, and I hope we can make some noise on the national scene."

Meant to be a Hokie: "The very first game I ever coached was here at Cassell. The very first practice I ever conducted was on the floor at Cassell. I remember those fans. I told them today I remember they were yelling at me. I watched what Bonnie Henrickson had here and I talked with Bonnie a few days ago. She was very excited about my coming here and the possibilities. This place, it's wonderful. Everyone says, 'You're going to love it here,' and I can see why. When I'm in town in Harrisonburg, there's JMU gear, UVA gear and Virginia Tech gear. In Blacksburg the only thing you see is Virginia Tech gear. It's a very loyal following and very supportive and the only team they support is Virginia Tech."

On his first meeting with the Hokies: "I'm going to go in with a clean slate. The ones who work hard, I'll welcome. The ones who don't want to work hard, it's probably not the place for them. I met with them today. I told them when a new coach comes in, there's this misnomer that there's a difference between his kids and the previous staff's kids. I told them they're all my kids."

On telling his JMU team he was leaving: "It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life. From the outside looking in, yes, we lost Jazmon Gwathmey, Muff Mickens, Ashley Perez, so they might think this was a really good time. But what people don't realize was this was the most cohesive group I've ever had. This group overachieved because they believed in each other.

"When I went in to tell them, I'm looking into eyes of kids who did everything I asked them to do. They were stunned. They shed a tear. And they all got up, one by one, and walked out. None of them said anything to me. I was taken aback because I didn't know what they were thinking. It really hurt because these are my girls. One by one, they all texted me and said, 'Coach, we love you. We understand. You deserve this opportunity.' Each and every one of them told me I deserved this opportunity. When they told me that, it broke me down. They assured me they were hurt, but they understood."

Always a Duke: "It wasn't just my job; it's my school. I'm going to root for JMU and all things JMU just like anyone else in the Duke club, anyone else who is singing the "Start Wearing Purple Song." That stuff is ingrained in me. You can't just wipe it away because you change your address. I never would want to. I'll always root for JMU. Ten years from now, I won't know the kids personally and I'll still root for JMU. Hopefully they won't get upset if they see me on campus at a football game. I hope they understand I am an alum, and I will continue to bleed purple because of all my experiences there."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Five memorable wins from Kenny Brooks at JMU

photo courtesy of The Breeze
By now you've probably read a bunch of places that Kenny Brooks, hired as Virginia Tech coach on Monday, won 337 games at James Madison, including five Colonial Athletic Association titles.

What's your most memorable Brooks victory? Here five that jump to mind:

James Madison 79, Old Dominon 50 (Feb. 7, 2007)
Brooks notched his first win over the CAA superpower in 2003 (98-95 in OT), but this one was a stunning statement in Harrisonburg behind 21 points from Meredith Alexis. It wasn't only the JMU band that had Wendy Larry on edge; the Dukes used a monster 20-3 second-half run to leave no doubt. It was ODU's worst conference loss since joining the CAA in 1992. Tamera Young and Shirley McCall each added 15.

We highlight this win because it speaks to what how the  rivalry between the two schools tilted. While ODU leads 52-25, JMU has won the last five over the Lady Monarchs, seven of the last eight and 10 of the last 12. Brooks finished 13-15 against ODU -- an extremely respectable stat given how the Lady Monarchs used to dominate their former conference.

James Madison 79, Georgetown 76 (Nov. 18, 2009)
The Dukes trailed by 16 before a rally sparked by Dawn Evans, who scored seven of her 29 points in the final minute. Sugar Rodgers, still an active WNBA player, hit a 3 with 1:03 remaining for a 74-72 Hoya lead. Evans nailed a 3 at the other end, and Kanita Shepherd blocked Rodgers' next attempt in the paint. A second possession gave Rodgers another shot, but after her miss, Evans tipped the ball to Kiara Francisco and closed out the game 4-of-4 from the free-throw line.

James Madison 75, Virginia 73 (Dec. 6, 2009)
You had to say "that'll do" to Dawn Evans, whose 38 points was a school record and kept JMU perfect with a 6-0 start to the season. After the Cavaliers led 56-50, Virginia went cold, scoring just one point in a span of 6:17. JMU converted 15 of 16 from the stripe. Sarah Williams was a starter back then, scoring seven in a win made even sweeter as it came in Charlottesville versus a team led by Monica Wright, who scored 31. While we picked this win over Virginia, the following season Evans amassed 42 with eight assists to defeat the Cavs in Harrisonburg 82-80 in another classic.

James Madison 74, Syracuse 71 (WNIT semifinals, March 29, 2012)
"Nobody backed down and that's the reason we won," Brooks said at the time. The Dukes won a school-record 29 games in front of 4,008 at the Convo, sending them into the WNIT championship game with Oklahoma State. Newman produced 10 points with 11 boards, Burkholder 18 points, 7 rebounds and Lauren Whitehurst, 12 points 7 boards. Harrisonburg fell in love with this resilient bunch, which got to the NCAA tournament two years later.

James Madison 72, Gonzaga 63 (NCAA tournament, March, March 23, 2014)
The Dukes earned their first NCAA tournament victory since 1991 behind 29 points and 18 rebounds from Kirby Burkholder. Nikki Newman was all over the floor and Toia Giggetts recorded her 25th straight double-double as JMU, an 11 seed, knocked out the sixth-seeded Zags. This was a good enough team to go deeper but the Dukes matched up against Texas A&M on its home floor in the second round.

Monday, March 28, 2016

We're going to miss you at JMU, Kenny Brooks. But can't wait to see what you'll do at Virginia Tech

For LadySwish purposes, Kenny Brooks is sticking around.

We're gonna love seeing what the state's best coach, hands down, one of the most underrated coaches in the nation, is going to do with a big-time budget at a big time school.

Get ready to get in line for tickets at Cassell Coliseum, Hokie fans. James Madison's Kenny Brooks is the new head coach at Virginia Tech announced Monday by athletic director Whit Babcock.

We thought Brooks might be a lifer at JMU, and if he had chosen that route, we wouldn't have blamed him. JMU is his school and one of the reasons we think he and his staff are so successful is that every one of them knows what it's like to walk to the Quad to class on a snowy day in Harrisonburg. Each of his assistants are JMU graduates -- one of two staffs in the nation along with Montana that can brag about that.

The winningest coach in JMU history has 337 wins  under his belt. Under Brooks' direction, the Dukes have been to six NCAA tournaments and five WNITs. The Dukes were 27-6 this season despite losing the CAA preseason player of the year, Precious Hall, to an ACL tear before the first ball was bounced.

But somewhere along the line, we've wondered if Brooks maxed out at JMU given the dismissive attitude non-Power 5 schools not named UConn are treated when it comes to schedules and seeding. It's been difficult to lure top opponents to Harrisonburg given how strong of a program JMU has been under Brooks. Like counterparts Jim Crowley (St. Bonaventure) and Jim Jabir (Dayton), lining up quality nonconference foes at home means dialing a lot of numbers, as the Power 5 do not want to risk a loss.

Even with marks of 29-6 two years ago and 29-4 last year, the Dukes were seeded 11 and 12, respectively. A hiccup in the ACC and the NCAA committee shrugs its shoulders. A hiccup in the CAA and your team doesn't get an invite to the national tournament without the automatic bid.

Here's what else distinguishes Brooks: The man is a master at player development. We're not sure that too many Division I coaches would have given a hard look to Kirby Burkholder and Nikki Newman. Under Brooks, they flourished into two of the best players in the history of the program, two of the best in the CAA. We remember others kids, too -- Meredith Alexis, Andrea Benvenuto, Dawn Evans -- players who Brooks turned into top-tier talent by the time they were done.

Remember Tamera Young? Drafted in 2008, Young continues to shine in the WNBA.

Brooks' system at JMU stemmed from finding players that fit into his program. Most waited their turn to be part of his starting lineup, so when their number was called, they were ready to play Division I basketball at a high level. His program has been the best in this state for years, so much so that it stunned us when he didn't get a look the last time the Tech job opened. No knock on Dennis Wolff personally, but he didn't know women's basketball enough to be handed a head coaching job, let alone one at an ACC school. Tech's results, and until just recently, recruiting reflected that.

The trimmings are now in place for Tech to be a factor in the ACC and beyond. They've got a new athletic director with a vision for this program. They've got a state-of-the-art facility and a hungry fan base ready to embrace winning as they did when Bonnie Henrickson took the program to the Sweet 16 in 1999. They've got moldable talent, too, particularly in Chanette Hicks, Kelly Koshuta and Rachel Camp.

Most of all, now they have Brooks. Sentimentalists that we are, in many ways, we hate to see him leave his school. We kind of liked seeing him in purple. But we're also excited to see what he will bring as architect to a Tech program with so much potential. We have a feeling he's going to do some great things in Blacksburg.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Tammi Reiss, Dawn Staley and one Halloween night at UVA

Two Virginia greats will be on the bench tonight when Syracuse meets South Carolina in a Sweet 16 game. Of course, you know Dawn Staley coaches the No. 1 seed Gamecocks and across the court, Tammi Reiss is in her first year assisting Quentin Hillsman at 'Cuse.

Quick aside about Reiss -- while most of us know the two-time All-American from her days playing alongside Staley, the Orange players are better acquainted with the actress. Reiss was in the film that's almost a cult classic among WBB players "Love and Basketball" and she was in "Juwanna Mann," among other television and movie credits.

Reiss shared this tidbit with us during the ACC tournament remembering her playing days in Charlottesville. Seems she and her UVA teammates were pranksters. She and Staley cooked up the idea of scaring teammate Audra Smith (the Clemson coach was inducted as an ACC Legend during the conference tournament) on Halloween night, sending her to McDonald's for food and drinks.

Hiding outside in a werewolf costume, Reiss got the best of Smith, who screamed. The food went airborne and splatted to the ground.

"She took off and the Cokes hit the ground so hard," Reiss recalled. "I never saw Audra run so fast in my life."

Here's hoping the Orange have some tricks up their sleeve for tonight's encounter vs. a Gamecock team looking to make a second consecutive run to the Final Four.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

NCAA WBB first- and second-round attendance should not be what the postseason is about

So, yes, we've heard the argument that first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament needed to go back to the top 16 teams hosting because of concerns about attendance. The move -- backward (this is what programs used to do before moving to schools bidding to host) -- came in 2015.

Let's accept that as a given, though we'll give our input below. Here's what not arguable: Last weekend's first and second rounds drew 142,860 fans to arenas.

In March 2011, when predetermined sites were used for the first and second rounds, 146,787 fans attended games.

So how is this working again? We actually had fewer fans this weekend than five years ago?

We have several problems with top seeds hosting again, a format that benefits the Power 5, especially when it's said on the heels of the rhetoric of growing the game. Allowing programs such as Delaware and Gonzaga to host grows the game taking it to place beyond the usual. Because here's what allowing the top 16 seeds to host does: those teams, the "mid-major" word we hate to use, the ones seeded 1-4, are going to be the usual suspects. By that we mean Stanford and Texas and Ohio State and Arizona State and other Power 5 schools get the nod for the best seeds.

We've seen programs such as James Madison, Duquesne, George Washington, St. Bonaventure, heck, even Delaware behind Elena Delle Donne, not get rewarded at seeding time for spectacular regular seasons because they are not one of the Power 5 schools. These programs don't waste time thinking about a 4 seed; they're praying they're not in that dreaded 8/9 game, which befell Duquesne and GWU this season.

Looking specifically at the numbers, Stanford drew 1,961 fans for its second-round game against South Dakota State (think Gonzaga was thinking, "Geez, why didn't you let us host?"). Other attendance from the second round: Texas (2,345), Ohio State (2,558) and Arizona State (2,957). Wait, didn't we return to this format because the NCAA cares about attendance? Because the players deserve a "championship experience." Are crowds of this size producing a championship experience?

Ask Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant how that worked out for her Spartans, who were unable to host despite their seeding because of a conflict with their building. Merchant's Spartans instead played at Mississippi State where they were beaten and had to deal with numerous logistical issues. Among her comments to the Lansing State Journal:

"At the end of the day, we shouldn't be playing on anybody's floor, even our own. If we want our game to grow, we need to get off of people's home courts It's stupid. It makes no sense."

Especially if you're trying to "grow the game," and more fans attended in 2011 when teams bid to host as opposed to 2016 when teams found out a few days prior they'd be setting up shop in their home arena for a subregional and subregional final.

Imagine you've got a big show coming to your arena, only you can only tell folks a few days in advance You can't plan or market. Now if your court happens to reside in Storrs or South Bend, no problem. But for many teams, it's not that clear cut. Syracuse, for example, didn't have a great chance of hosting until after the ACC tournament, when the Orange reached the championship game.

Ah, you say. Go back to the old format and many venues will still be empty. The problem of a higher seed playing on a lower seed's home floor will muck up the fairness of the tournament. Bingo! we say. It's crazy not to have the culmination of your season played out in the fairest way possible. College men's hockey debated this very topic and opted for fairness over attendance.

One caveat, the Final Four is at a neutral site. There is not an attendance issue. This is the direction we'd like to see the women's tournament take because ultimately, compromising your tournament for attendance sake, seems like a step back, not forward.

Quite honestly, the discussion needs to move forward in a new direction. We want more people to see this game and be introduced to a sport full of delicious storylines and terrific players, but regrettably, the game itself, no matter where it's played, struggles to attract fans that who aren't in the seats just to see their team play. In 2016, we have fans of teams, not women's basketball fans.

We'd rather see the discussion center on innovative ways to fill arenas with prospective fans of the sport. Have a concert after? Why not? Involve frats, sororities and student clubs? Let's try. Call up Old Dominion and ask how they manage to put on the best Kids Day in the sport? We'll give you the number. Make the players approachable? How about that? Right now the idea of a kid getting to shake the hand of her favorite player is impossible. Get an autograph or selfie? Forget it.

The basketball, as good as it is, as much as we're a fan of it, is not going to get new people in the door. That's what needs to be addressed along with making the playing field fair to all 64 teams involved, not just the teams that are seeded 1-4.

Until then, the NCAA is doing a disservice to the sport it claims it wants to grow.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Kenny Brooks at Virginia Tech? With Wolff gone, we speculate

We're not going to spend a lot of time analyzing the firing of Dennis Wolff. Simply put, Virginia Tech's former athletic director, the late Jim Weaver, gambled that a head coach with no experience in women's basketball could resurrect a dormant program. After five years, current Tech AD Whit Babcock decided that gamble wasn't paying off.

The question now is, who's next? Given Tech's resources and position in the glamorous ACC, there should be plenty of strong options.

Of course, this was also true the last time Tech had an opening. One of the things that annoyed many about the Hokies' last "coaching search" is there really wasn't much of a search at all. Weaver more or less went with Wolff, a former longtime Boston University men's basketball coach who at the time was Tech's men's basketball director of operations, on a gut instinct. In fact, Weaver actually talked Wolff into it. This is one of the reasons we were never too hard on Wolff as Tech struggled. The way we look at it, Wolff's boss insisted he take a promotion, so Wolff took it and did the best he could.

We trust Babcock will shop around much more extensively. Given his home run hire of men's basketball coach Buzz Williams and the smooth transition from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente in football, all indications are Babcock knows exactly how these things should be done.
Kenny Brooks

Much speculation is centering on James Madison coach Kenny Brooks, and it's easy to see why.

Brooks has done a masterful job of developing a perennial Top-40 RPI program and just led the Dukes to their third straight NCAA tournament appearance. Furthermore, this past season featured arguably Brooks' best coaching job. The 2015-16 season would have been a rebuilding year for most - the Dukes graduated a WNBA draft pick center (Lady Okafor) and a 1,000-point, four-year starting forward (Toia Giggetts), then lost conference player-of-the-year Precious Hall to a season-ending injury. Instead, Brooks guided the Dukes to a 27-6 mark and third straight CAA tournament title. Of the six losses, five were to NCAA tournament teams. Three of those squads (UCLA, Baylor, DePaul) are still alive.

Adding fuel to the Brooks-to-Tech talk is the fact that Babcock himself is a JMU grad. In fact, Tech's AD was playing baseball for the Dukes at the same time Brooks was performing for Lefty Driesell's JMU basketball squads in the early 1990s. This doesn't mean Brooks will get the job. But clearly, no one is going to have to clue Babcock in on what's been going on in Harrisonburg the past few years.

What remains to be seen is, if approached, will Brooks actually leave JMU? Not only has the 47-year-old Brooks spent his entire adult life in Harrisonburg, but he also grew up about 35 miles away in Waynesboro. Furthermore, the program reflects Brooks' deep identification with the community. All of his assistants are JMU grads, and local players (Kirby Burkholder, Nikki Newman, Muff Mickens) have played large roles in the recent successes. One of Brooks' daughters, Kendyl, is part of his incoming recruiting class.

But while it seems as though Brooks could be happy at JMU for the next 20 years, we wonder if the changing landscape of Division I women's basketball will force him to at least consider it. A lot of the legislation in the sport in particular and college athletics in general (cost-of-attendance stipends) has had the effect of widening the gap between the Power-5 conference schools and everyone else. Brooks' ability as a coach is unquestioned. But in the current women's basketball climate, how much further can he take a non-Power 5 conference school?

Again, we're not saying Brooks is Tech's man. There are many viable options, and we're confident a shrewd operator like Babcock has proven to be will consider all of them before making his move. But the state of Virginia definitely has one women's basketball head-coaching opening. A lot of thought, on both sides, will likely go into determining whether we have two.

Division II POY Kiana Johnson and her amazing second chance at Virginia Union

Kiana Johnson thought nothing could be better than the make-believe championships she won in grammar school in north Chicago.

The game dubbed "biddy ball" was played with rims standing 8 feet and her main opponent was a boy her size named Derrick Randolph.

"Winning was the best thing in the world," said Johnson, the Virginia Union guard named WBCA Division II national player of the year on Monday.

What could top that? How about a national championship?

Johnson and Virginia Union. coached by AnneMarie Gilbert; play Bentley (Mass) University (28-5) in Sioux Falls, S.D., in the Elite Eight on Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.. The Falcons won the national title in 2014; Virginia Union's only championship was in 1983. The winner advances to Wednesday's 7 p.m. national semifinals.

The national championship will be in Indianapolis on April 4.

It would be no stretch to argue the 5-6 point guard is the best player in any division in this state. She grew up begging her mom to allow her to go to the park with her brothers, and Mom said no until one day the answer changed.

"When she let me go, I picked up a ball and the rest is history," Johnson said.

AAU and high school ball were the natural course, but playing in college wasn't on Johnson's radar. Sure, she watched games on TV and talked about going to Tennessee to play for Pat Summitt "because that's where the winning is," she told her friends. Then her brother came in the house with a letter. From Princeton.

"You're lying," she insisted.

It was the first of many -- Memphis, Pitt, Missouri, James Madison sent mail, and her box overflowed the summer of her sophomore year.

She decided on Michigan State. Her family liked the fit for her and besides, she saw 6-7 Madison Williams dunk when she visited during Midnight Madness. "In my mind, I was thinking, 'Oh, we're going to win the national championship! I can actually throw oops to somebody."

What started out promising didn't have a happy ending. Johnson was named to the Big Ten's All-Freshman team and awarded the team's playmaker award as a sophomore. She didn't finish a promising junior year, suspended first for accepting extra benefits and then finally booted off the team by coach Suzy Merchant.

"It was me not knowing how to react to certain situations. I reacted poorly," Johnson says today. "I've become a lot more mature. I didn't appreciate what I had."

Johnson knew she'd play again but had trouble regrouping. She enrolled in summer classes at a Chicago community college but entered the period she calls the lowest in her life when her former boyfriend was murdered that summer, May 2014. She took a job as a cashier and gave her next direction some serious thought.

"I needed time to grow, time to get my mind right because I wasn't right for a while," she said. "I didn't think I would ever get over that. I would go to church and pray. I wanted answers."

Johnson considered finishing her final year of eligibility at NAIA schools Bethel University or Goshen College. She couldn't decide, so she said a prayer seeking a sign.

"Two minutes later, my high school coach called me and said Coach G got the job at Virginia Union," she said. "He asked me if I had committed anywhere because she wanted to know if I was interested in taking a visit."

Johnson put the phone down. "Mom! I'm going to Virginia Union!" she hollered.

She decided before setting foot on campus. "There was no way I would ask for a sign and then get a phone call from a coach wanting me to visit a team and then not go," she said.

Johnson knew Gilbert from the Spartans playing against Eastern Michigan when Gilbert coached there. She remembered her teammate Lykendra Johnson chatting with Gilbert after a game Johnson's freshman season. She recalled liking Gilbert then, and visiting the 100-acre HBCU that enrolls fewer than 1,500 students confirmed her decision.

"The environment was amazing," she said. "It had a home feeling. I fell in love with it. Everybody was so welcoming. In Chicago it's not really like that. You get a look of suspicion every time you go somewhere. Here everybody has smiles on their faces. I felt at home right away."

Another home, Mount Gilead, a dynamic church she found while attending with one of her professors.

And another: her team. Johnson swears when she met her teammates, she knew "we're going all the way. We had every position played. We have shooters, penetrators, posts."

The Panthers offense centers on the dynamic guard who led Division II in scoring (29.3 ppg) and ranked second nationally in assists (8.7 apg). In last week's Sweet 16, she recorded a school-record 49 points to go with eight assists and six steals.

The Panthers' last loss came on Jan. 25 at Lincoln University by five. They were also nipped by Johnson C. Smith on Dec. 19.

Johnson is determined to play her final college game in Indianapolis, a four-hour drive from Chicago. While pro ball is on her mind, she's passionate about her degree in psychology that she will complete in December.

She has vivid memories of walking around her Chicago neighborhood passing the homeless who were often talking to themselves. Her own sense of caution prompted her to have conversations out loud, too.

"I would walk down the street pretending I was crazy counting out loud, so nobody would bother me," she said.

In doing so, she realized people are often mistakenly classified as crazy. "There's always a reason a person acts the way they do. I'm big on helping people. For me, it's about making the world a better place. Life is a lot bigger than me. I want to be able to help somebody else, and with my psychology major, I think I can do that."

Her master's, she says, will be in mental health counseling and her doctorate in clinical psychology.

Unlike the years at Michigan State, Johnson takes nothing for granted anymore -- not her education, friends she's made or dream season in basketball. Life has strange twists (like her, her grammar school buddy Randolph attended Fresno State before spending this season at a California community college where his numbers were nearly identical to hers).

"After every game I got into my apartment, close my door and give God thanks," she said. "The things he's done for me, not just basketball, but the healing and deliverance I've been able to see through him -- man, it's amazing."

That's why her main goal isn't about hoop dreams. It's about giving back.

"I feel like I'm inspiring a lot of people from my old neighborhood, just youth mainly," she said. "That's who I really want to get to because they're our future. I want to tell them you can always accomplish your dreams. You just have to work. That's my goal -- to show them and be a living testimony to them. Have faith and whatever it is you desire, you'll be able to get.