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.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Virginia at VCU headlines WNIT opening round slate

WNIT preview

Virginia (16-15) at VCU (23-9), 7 p.m.

Not sure if people realize how strong of a resume these Rams complied. In fact, in a lot of ways, it looks like an NCAA tournament resume.

Consider that VCU logged four RPI Top-50 victories, with the headliner coming at RPI No. 11 Arizona State. The Rams beat three conference tournament champions (George Washington, Iona, North Carolina A&T). They went 6-2 against teams in the NCAA tournament field. And remember, they did much of this damage without starting junior forward Camille Calhoun, who suffered a torn ACL during the third quarter of the win at Arizona State on Dec. 5. At the time, Calhoun was tied for the team lead in scoring and third in rebounding.

That VCU only finished fifth in the Atlantic 10 speaks to the quality depth of a league that sent three teams to the NCAAs. But it also means the Rams project as one of the most dangerous teams in the WNIT.

Like VCU, Virginia (16-15) also did a lot of the stuff that gets the NCAA selection committee's attention. The Cavaliers' 5-0 start included wins over eventual NCAA qualifiers Middle Tennessee State, Auburn and Green Bay. A fourth such win came on Jan. 3 when Virginia spectacularly dismantled Miami 76-56.

But everything changed four days later, when star guard Faith Randolph suffered a thumb injury late in a blowout loss to Notre Dame. The Cavaliers went 2-7 while Randolph healed and could not re-capture their mojo upon her return. Virginia closed its season by officially ceding ownership of its Virginia Tech rivalry to the Hokies - the Cavs had won 18 straight prior to this season but lost both meetings in 2016 - then succumbed to a very vulnerable Duke squad in its ACC tournament opener.

Then earlier this week, we learned that Cavaliers leading scorer Mikayla Venson has decided to transfer and is no longer on the team. The sophomore guard became this sixth player to leave the Cavaliers with eligibility remaining since the start of the 2013-14 season. Now, we don't know the underlying reasons behind each departure, and certainly each case can be different. Still, that's a lot of folks leaving in a three-year span, especially from a prestigious school like Virginia.

Also, according to a story in the Daily Progress, Venson informed head coach Joanne Boyle of her plans last week. Virginia made the announcement Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the WNIT teams were selected. Were the Cavaliers concerned that revealing the loss of its leading scorer sooner may have cost them a postseason bid?

What remains to be seen is what this means for the Cavaliers in tonight's game. As we stated earlier, Virginia isn't exactly coming into this thing with positive momentum and will need to make up the 15.1 points per game Venson is taking with her. The Cavaliers have for the most part been a disappointing postseason team (conference tournament and WNIT) under Boyle in previous seasons. Furthermore, road teams historically have had a tough go of things in WNIT openers. Home teams have won roughly 78 percent of first-round WNIT games over the past five years.

That said, how many times have we seen a team lose a key player but rally around each other and deliver an unexpectedly strong performance? Led by Randolph, Virginia still has several quality players. Even without Venson, a person would be foolish to take a Cavaliers win at VCU off the table.

But at least we feel we know what we're going to get from the Rams - stingy, pugnacious defense and opportunistic scoring that can come from a host of different sources.

What will Virginia bring? Under these circumstances, honestly, we have no idea.

Also tonight:

Elon (18-12) at Virginia Tech (17-13), 7 p.m.
   - Don't sleep on the Phoenix - Elon's resume includes a 69-66 victory at N.C. State, the same N.C. State that topped Tech by 11 points in Blacksburg. Elon has also shown a tendency to play good teams tough. They had reasonably close showings at South Carolina (15 points) and West Virginia (10 points). In addition, the two losses to three-time CAA champion James Madison were by a combined six points.

Liberty (20-12) at Villanova (19-11), 7 p.m.
   - The Wildcats were on an NCAA tournament trajectory until star guard Caroline Coyer went down with a torn ACL last month. Obviously Villanova sorely misses its two-time first-team All-Big East ace, but most of the elements that make this such a confounding team to play are still in place. Their unique, deliberate style is a bear to prepare for on short notice. They're often deadly from 3-point range (8.6 made 3s per game. And they don't beat themselves - the Wildcats lead Division I in fewest turnovers committed and rank 15th in free throw percentage.

Interesting tidbit - Liberty freshman guard Molly Reagan and Villanova freshman forward Bridget Herlihy were teammates at Braintree High School in the great state of Massachusetts.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Former VCU coach Cunningham pitted against former assistant, players in NCAA tourney

What could we possibly have to add about No. 1 Notre Dame meeting No. 16 North Carolina A&T? We offer this nugget in the small world category.

Current Irish associate coach Beth Cunningham is the former coach at VCU; her assistant there was Tarrell Robinson, named the coach of the Aggies in 2012 after Cunningham left to be an assistant to Muffet McGraw at her alma mater.

Aprill McRae
Among the players Robinson recruited at VCU: Aprill McRae, a 6-3 center, and Christina Carter, a 5-8 guard.

McRae and Carter were both part of the CAA's All-Rookie team as freshmen (McRae made 9 starts, averaging 4.9 ppg and 4.4 rpg, while Carter started 29 games, averaging 6.6 ppg and 2.3 rpg).

Christina Carter
McRae and Carter both became Aggies when Robinson was hired as coach. (Both, of course, sat out due to NCAA transfer rules, but McRae actually played a season of volleyball in 2012, starting 18 games).

By now you see where we're going (we hope). Cunningham under McGraw will be on the opposite bench of her former assistant and former players on Saturday night when the teams clash. Still, we're guessing that as competitive as the former two-time All-American guard is, Cunningham is also thrilled for the pair, both of whom were integral to the Aggies MEAC title. McRae, the MVP, scored 40 points and had 20 boards in three games; Carter led the Aggies with 14 points, four boards and four assists in the championship.

We're guessing the handshake line at the buzzer will be a special moment for all.

Sneak peek inside JMU's Jazmon Gwathmey

Here's what we know you know about CAA Player of the Year Jazmon Gwathmey:

MVP of the CAA tournament for the last three years (a feat only Old Dominion's Shareese Grant can match), the 6-2 redshirt senior from Bealton, Va., averages 20.7 ppg. (Remember this is a kid who scored 9.4 ppg a year ago when she could do everything consistently but score.)

Now here's what you don't know about Gwathmey:

*The spelling  isn't a typo. Her mom named her Jazmon to be different and it's pronounced Jaz-MONN.

*Muff Mickens calls her Bert. Former teammate Kanita Shepherd gave her the nickname stemming from "Bert and Ernie."

*She was a cheerleader, fact courtesy of her Liberty High School coach Lauren Milburn, an avid supporter of her former player. Mention the memory to Jazmon and while she remembers her pom-pom days, it is with a groan, "I was very, very young," she stresses.

*Her shoe boxes pile from floor to closet. "I'm a shoes guru," she says, noting she's partial to Jordans. 

*Tattoos painted up and down both arms commemorate her brother, Brandon, stabbed to death her freshman year of high school. He was 22.

*Loves Kobe. Liked Steph Curry during his Davidson days.

*Loves her Yorkie/Chihuahua, Nyla, even more

*"Criminal Minds" season 11 is her indulgence. "I have a three-story house and sometimes I get freaked sitting in the basement watching it."

* Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) is her favorite character.

*She could go a whole week eating nothing but pasta.

*She owns a purple elephant, but no Republican will receive her vote this fall. She's not into politics, but plans to read up on Hillary and Bernie before deciding.

*She's hopeful for the WNBA but exploring opportunities in Spain, Russia and Greece.

*"I never expected to be Player of the Year. I was more of do what I have to do to make the team win."

*Finance was her hardest class at JMU; a leadership grad class with professor Julie Wallace Carr. She's a sports and recreation management major, business minor

*Stay away from the theater class at JMU; it's the gen-ed to avoid.

*She's afraid of heights. "When we go on planes, I don't like it."

Stay away from the window seat en route to Louisville; Dukes are a No. 11 seed slated to meet No. 6 DePaul on Friday at noon!