Friday, December 30, 2016

Kenny Brooks-led teams won big in 2016

It's been a great year to have been coached by Kenny Brooks.

If No. 19 Virginia Tech can get past Delaware State Friday at 7 p.m. at Cassell Coliseum, the Brooks-led Hokies will finish 2016 - and their non-conference schedule, with a 13-0 record. And in the 2016-only portion of last season, Brooks guided JMU to a 20-2 mark - after losing on Jan. 3 at William and Mary, the Dukes won 20 straight through the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament before falling to DePaul in the first round of the NCAAs.

So, with a win over Delaware State, the two Brooks-led teams will have combined to go 33-2 in the calendar year 2016.

Maybe Geno Auriemma wouldn't be overly impressed. But in the non-UConn universe, it doesn't get much better than that.

Now, the degree of difficulty will spike considerably beginning Monday when the Hokies start Atlantic Coast Conference play by hosting North Carolina.

But we'll worry about that next year.

ODU's Simms looks to heat up (finally) at Rice

For the past three years, Old Dominion fans have been able to count on Jennie Simms getting hers just about everywhere.

That is, except at Rice's Tudor Fieldhouse, where Simms and the Lady Monarchs will open Conference USA play Friday at 6 p.m.

Last year at Rice, Simms finished with just seven points on 3-of-17 shooting in 39 minutes as the Owls rolled to a 68-46 victory. Two years ago, the Lady Monarchs prevailed in Houston 62-55. But the Fieldhouse foiled Simms again, as she made only one of five shots and finished with nine points in 32 minutes.

In 76 career games at Old Dominion, Simms has failed to score in double figures just five times. Tudor Fieldhouse is the only place where that's happened twice. Or to put it another way, in two career games at Rice, Simms is averaging 8.0 points. In 74 career games everywhere else, she's averaging 21.3 points.

If Rice simply had Simms' number, this would make more sense. But Simms is averaging 20.0 ppg against the Owls in three meetings at other venues (twice at the Constant Center, once at UAB in the 2015 Conference USA Tournament).

She's just yet to flourish at Rice's Fieldhouse.

So far.

But even if the nation's second-leading scorer (25.0 ppg) breaks out of her Fieldhouse funk, the Lady Monarchs should expect a spirited team response from the improved Owls. After finishing 9-22 a year ago, Rice has already matched last year's win total (9-2) and is off to the program's best start since the 1988-89 team went 10-1. The Owls are also 5-0 at home and are riding a six-game winning streak.

Now, the schedule hasn't exactly been brutal - the victims in Rice's six-game winning streak include one NAIA school and five teams that have gone a combined 7-39 against Division I foes. Still, given how much the Owls have struggled in recent years, this year's start seems like a significant step forward.

The Lady Monarchs (5-6), meanwhile, have dropped three straight and have gone 0-5 in road/neutral site games. To be fair, three of those losses were to teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

Still, with Simms in top form and several other veterans on hand, these 2016-17 Lady Monarchs seemed to have the program's best shot in years at picking off a team or two at that level. They couldn't pull one off, though, and remain without a victory over a ranked team since 2008, when the Lady Monarchs topped No. 16 Virginia 78-70 at the Constant Center.

Conference USA teams in general struggled to post marquee results, as the league's teams went just 1-11 against AP Top 25 opponents in November and December. The lone victory came on Nov. 19 when Western Kentucky downed then-No. 23 Indiana 85-74. The Hooisers have since slipped out of the rankings.

C-USA teams went 5-31 against Power 5 conference opponents.

The conference team that put together the strongest non-conference resume is probably Charlotte (8-3), which has wins over Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, Duquesne and East Carolina and has an RPI of 48, by far the best among league teams. The 49ers will take a five-game winning streak into its C-USA opener Friday at North Texas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Jennie Simms 3.0 - the best version yet

In October, we asked Old Dominion star Jennie Simms  what she spent the offseason trying to improve.

"Everything." Simms replied.

We're thinking, OK, that sounds good, but...

Well, 10 games into the season, it clearly wasn't just talk. Think the two-time first-team All-Conference USA pick had big numbers last season? Check out the stats on Jennie 3.0:

Scoring average
2015-16: 21.4
2016-17: 25.8 (2nd in Division I)

Field goal percentage
2015-16: 43.0
2016-17: 48.3

Free throw percentage
2015-16: 71.5
2016-17: 82.3

3-point percentage
2015-16: 27.7
2016-17: 34.6

2015-16: 6.7
2016-17: 9.3

2015-16:  2
2016-17:  5

Must have been some offseason workout.

Wednesday's games

George Mason (7-5) at Florida International (2-8) in FIU Classic, 2 p.m.

How 'bout that Casey Davis? The redshirt sophomore forward, who missed most of last season with an injury, worked her way into the starting lineup five games ago and has been flat-out ballin' of late. Davis followed her 16-point, 16-rebound effort against Navy with a 20-point, 7-rebound performance in Tuesday's 81-72 loss to Drexel in the opening game of this event. Davis' previous career highs were 11 points and 7 rebounds.

Liberty (1-8) vs. Dayton (5-6) in Cavalier Classic, 4:30 p.m.

A tall task for the youthful Lady Flames against a talented Flyers team that stumbled out of the blocks but appeared to right itself last week with back-to-back victories over Texas A&M and Old Dominion during the Florida Sunshine Classic. A bright spot for the Lady Flames has been the play of freshman forward Keyen Green, who leads the Big South and ranks sixth among all Division I freshmen in rebounding (7.9 rpg). Green is one of seven freshmen to have seen action for Liberty this season. In fact, the team's top five scorers are freshmen - Green (9.8 ppg); Ola Makurat (6.4); Kierra Johnson-Graham (6.1); Kaitlyn Stovall (6.0) and Iva Ilic (5.9).

UMBC (3-7) at Virginia (9-2) in Cavalier Classic, 7 p.m.

Virginia coach Joanne Boyle wasn't pleased with her team's performance in last week's 60-50 victory over Maryland-Eastern Shore, so we're expecting the Cavaliers to really get after the Retrievers the entire way in this one.

Old Dominion (5-5) at East Tennessee State (7-7), 7 p.m.

Last year, ETSU surprised the Lady Monarchs 56-52 at the Constant Center, a game in which ODU made just 5 of 17 free throws. The Buccaneers prevailed despite the absence of leading scorer Tianna Tarter, who didn't make the trip after sustaining a concussion Tarter is averaging 20.2 points this season.

Delaware State (1-9) at Longwood (1-8), 7 p.m.

Just the third home game of the season for the Lancers, who will shoot for their first win in Willett Hall. On Monday, Longwood freshman Dayna Rouse was named Big South Freshman of the Week after her 23-point, 8-rebound effort last week at Marshall.

East Carolina (9-3) at William and Mary (9-1), 7 p.m.

The 9-1 start is the best in program history. And this team isn't just good, it's also fun to watch. The rapid ball movement in particular is a thing to behold - zip, zip, zip, open shot; zip, zip, zip, layup.... Ah, the excellence of execution (apologies to Bret Hart). Anyway, if you're anywhere near Williamsburg and have some time on your hands, check these guys out...and thank us later.

JMU (5-4) at St. Joseph's (3-9), 7 p.m.

Last Wednesday, the Dukes led St. John's by seven after three quarters before being outscored 27-9 in the fourth. And this wasn't the first time the fourth quarter has blown up on JMU. In the Dukes' season opener, they trailed Tennessee by two after three quarters and lost by 12. JMU trailed Iowa by five through three quarters and lost by 15. And they took a four-point lead into the final frame at Rutgers but needed double-overtime (and 46 points from Precious Hall) to close things out.

George Mason faces tough test vs. Drexel

In 2004-05, Denise Dillon's second as Drexel's head coach, the Dragons won 19 games and came within a point of toppling then-perennial Colonial Athletic Association champion Old Dominion in the conference tournament semifinals. Four years after that, Drexel won 24 games and snapped ODU's NCAA-record 17-year reign as CAA champs. Four years after that, Drexel won the WNIT.

It's four years since then, and the Dragons are 7-2 with an RPI of 38 and wins over Penn State and nationally ranked Syracuse. Right on schedule, huh?.

Buckle up, George Mason.

Tuesday, December 27

George Mason vs. Drexel in FIU Tournament, 2 p.m.

As our intro suggests, we'd consider a George Mason victory here a major accomplishment. The Pats (7-5) are surging a bit having won two straight and four of their last five. Three of those victories came on the road. In last week's overtime victory over Navy, redshirt sophomore forward Casey Davis shattered her career highs with a 16-point, 16-rebound effort. It's been that kind of year for the deep Patriots - from game-to-game the firepower can come from just about anyone. But a constant has been the work of senior guard Kara Wright, who is averaging a team-best 15.0 points on 51.7 percent shooting - 81.8 from the free throw line - and 2.17 steals per contest. The Patriots will play host FIU in their tournament finale Wednesday.

Morgan State at Richmond, 6 p.m.

A 54-48 victory over Furman last week sent the Spiders (5-7) home for the holiday on an uptick. But that win snapped a four-game losing streak, which followed a four-game winning streak, which came after a three-game losing streak. Richmond has little margin for error offensively and could clearly use a return to form by senior guard Janelle Hubbard. One of the greatest scorers in school history, Hubbard is just 12 of 61 from the field over her last five games (2 of 15 from 3). Hubbard was 30-62  (9-21 from 3) during Spiders' four-game winning streak. Morgan State (2-9) comes in on a three-game losing streak.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sunday Showdown, Part III - Hampton at Old Dominion

It's a common practice for women's basketball teams with the resources to shape their non-conference schedule - when concerned about your players being rusty after an exam break, schedule their first game back against a MEAC school.

But not necessarily THIS MEAC school. At least not since David Six took charge of the Hampton Lady Pirates.

During his eight-year tenure, in addition to winning five MEAC titles, the Lady Pirates own victories over Florida, LSU, Wake Forest, Auburn, Kansas State, Virginia Tech, Mississippi State, Boston College (twice) and Pittsburgh, among others. When Six took the Hampton job he said his goal was to make the Lady Pirates not just a conference power, but also nationally relevant. Clearly, he's accomplished both.

So it says a lot about what Old Dominion coach Karen Barefoot thinks of her 2016-17 team that she would line up these Lady Pirates, winners of five of their last six games, for her team's post-exam debut Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Constant Center.

It's the first of three challenging games in a four-day span; ODU will face No. 21 Syracuse Tuesday and Dayton Wednesday during the Florida Sunshine Classic in Winter Park, Fla.

The Lady Monarchs (4-3) have won three of their last four games and performed solidly in all four; the loss was a spirited duel at nationally ranked Miami. And in their last game, a 10-point victory over VCU, ODU actually took control of the game during a four-minute chunk of the third quarter with star Jennie Simms on the bench.

In previous seasons, it has taken the Lady Monarchs until deep into February to consistently play at a winning level. The recent four-game stretch suggests that this team may have found that level already.

The Lady Pirates can relate. After struggling through a four-game gauntlet of road games against Power 5 conference schools - Northwestern, N.C. State, Iowa and No. 6 South Carolina - the Lady Pirates have righted themselves with their trademark defensive tenacity and posted quality wins over Maine and Temple. On Thursday, they rocked Richmond 72-45.

Because of this schedule and Hampton's recent success, the Lady Pirates actually come into the game with a much higher RPI (77) than the Lady Monarchs (137). And playing on the road doesn't figure to bother Hampton - the Lady Pirates have played only two of their 10 games so far in their own building.

 In other words, forget pedigree or conference affiliation. This should be one heck of a battle.

NOTE: Old Dominion redshirt sophomore forward Carley Brew, a transfer from JMU, is now eligible to play and could see her first action as a Lady Monarch Sunday against Hampton.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sunday Showdown: Part II - Virginia Tech at Auburn

With all due respect to Tennessee, 24th-ranked Virginia Tech (10-0) will face its toughest non-conference test of the 2016-17 season on Sunday at Auburn (5 p.m. tip).
The Tigers are 8-2 and 3-0 at home. They have an RPI of 24 (Virginia Tech's is 32, Tennessee's is 52). And they rank among the nation's best in relieving opponents of the ball - 14.0 steals per game, third in Division I - and just forcing turnovers in general - 25.5 per game, second in D-I.

Turnover-inducing styles have bedeviled Tech teams of recent vintage. So far, this has been one of the key differences between this year's Hokies and their predecessors - Tech currently ranks third among D-I teams in taking care of the ball with just 11.2 turnovers a game.

Something's gotta give, right?

That this game is on the road only enhances the degree of difficulty. In late November, the Hokies (10-0) created the media awareness that fueled their eventual national ranking by downing the then-17-ranked Lady Vols. But putting aside the fact that Tennessee has underachieved mightily thus far - by its own admission - that game, along with seven others on Tech's schedule, was played at Cassell Coliseum. This will be the Hokies' first road contest since a Nov. 22 trip to Charleston.

Credit the Hokies for even putting themselves in this spot. Teams in Tech's position/conference can afford to line up much less challenging foes - at home - for their first game after an exam break. That Tech is willing to forego a tuneup and test itself on the road against a mid- to upper-tier ACC-caliber foe that plays a style that has given previous Hokies teams fits is admirable.

Getting out of Auburn with a victory, especially under these circumstances, would be a significant achievement.

Tech notes

- Kenny Brooks-coached teams have won 27 straight regular-season games in the calendar year 2016. JMU won 17 straight to close the 2015-16 season in addition to the Hokies winning their first 10 this season. Include the postseason and Brooks-led teams are 30-2 this year. The losses are to William and Mary on Jan. 3 and to DePaul in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

 - Virginia Tech has gone 22-1 in non-conference play the past two years and has won 20 straight since a loss at Georgetown on Nov. 18, 2015. Eighteen of the 23 non-conference games have been played at Cassell.

 - Then and now: comparing the Hokies on Dec. 17 the past two years:

 - 9-1 record
  - 30th in AP poll (5th among others receiving votes)
  -  7-0 at home
  - Signature win - at Tennessee

 - 10-0 record
  - 24th in AP poll
  - 8-0 at home
  - Signature win: vs. Tennessee

  - Auburn has forced at least 25 turnovers in six of its eight games. Troy coughed it up 38 times against the opportunistic Tigers.

 - Auburn is coached by Terri Williams-Flournoy, who in addition to being a Grade-A coach is also Boo Williams' sister. Now in her fifth year at Auburn, Williams-Flournoy led the Tigers to at least 19 victories in three of her first four seasons. Last season, the Tigers advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

Virginia Tech game notes

Sunday Showdown (Part 1): Radford at Kentucky

In most years - and particularly in recent years - Radford might have a chance to sneak up on a national power like Kentucky.

This ain't one of those years. After Radford made it seven straight wins by comprehensively dispatching Wake Forest last Saturday in Winston-Salem, N.C., the word is out on the quality of the 2016-17 Highlanders.

"We have a very difficult game coming up against Radford," said Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell, whose No. 19 Wildcats will host the Highlanders Sunday at 2 p.m. "They are on a real tear right now and have won seven in a row and are a very good team. We have struggled guarding people and Radford can really give us a lot of trouble. They have great post play and are really big and powerful. So we have tried to work hard in practice this week and we will continue to do that over the next couple of days to try to get ready for a team that is playing really well right now. It will be a difficult game on Sunday."

Now, coaches have been known to lay it on extra-thick when describing upcoming opponents. Mitchell in particular may be guilty of this in characterizing Radford as "big and powerful."

That said, we suspect Mitchell understands that Kentucky fans, and perhaps even some of his players, may be expecting a less-than-challenging opponent in the first game out of an exam break. Having seen the Wake Forest tape, Mitchell wants to make sure everyone in Big Blue Nation understands these Highlanders are to be taken seriously.

Last Saturday's 68-60 win at Wake Forest wasn't just a milestone for the Highlanders (7-1), who hadn't beaten a Power 5 conference team since 2007. It was also a high-water mark for the Big South Conference, which is now 1-13 against Power 5 opponents in 2016-17.

With all due respect to Wake, though, Kentucky (7-3) poses an even greater challenge, particularly in the on-campus Memorial Coliseum where they've won 63 straight non-conference regular season games. The Wildcats have occasionally gotten picked off in a home game at downtown Lexington's Rupp Arena, like last Sunday when they fell to Arizona State in overtime. But they haven't lost a non-conference game at Memorial since 2008.

This level of opponent is actually uncharted territory for Radford, which hadn't played a Top 25 team in McGuire's four-year tenure but now have two scheduled in a four-day span - the Highlanders visit No. 24 Virginia Tech on Wednesday.

The Highlanders last game against a nationally ranked foe came on Dec. 5, 2012 when Radford fell 66-44 at No. 21 North Carolina.

A victory would be McGuire's 50th at Radford and as a college head coach. McGuire is 49-51 lifetime.

Radford game notes

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Signature wins - who has the best so far?

The Top 5 wins by Virginia's Division I schools (exam break edition):

5. Virginia Tech 67, UCF 64, Nov. 19 at UCF

Full credit to the Hokies (10-0) for being one of 11 Division I teams still undefeated (through Dec. 14), but it certainly hasn't hurt that eight of the 10 games have been held within the friendly confines of Cassell Coliseum. That's why this result stands out - the Hokies took their act on the road, splashed 10 3-pointers and held off the pesky Knights to secure a Top-100 RPI win over a squad that currently has an 8-2 record.
   Stat stuffers: Sidney Cook - 17 points, 9 rebounds; Chanette Hicks - 15 points, 5 assists; Kendyl Brooks, 11 points (3-6 3FG).

4. Hampton 71, Temple 65, Dec. 7 at Hampton

You just read about how Virginia Tech likes to hang out at home. Now, meet the anti-Hokies - Hampton played eight games hither and yon before making their Convocation Center debut last week against these Owls. The contest had storylines all over the place - Hampton head coach David Six matching wits with one of his former stars at Hampton High, Temple associate head coach Way Veney; Hampton's Monnazjea Finney-Smith vs. Temple's Feyonda Fitzgerald in a battle of ex-Boo Williams AAU teammates; and area homecomings for Owls freshman center Shannen Atkinson (Smithfield) and junior guard Khadijah Berger (Hampton). As for the game, Hampton laid a defensive smackdown on Temple for three quarters, then survived a 35-point Owls blitz over the final 10 minutes to hang on. Temple advanced to the WNIT quarterfinals last season and was picked to finish second to UConn in the American Athletic Conference in 2016-17.
   Stat stuffers: Kaylah Lupoe - 21 points, 12 rebounds (third double-double in four games); Malia Tate-DeFreitas - 12 points, 5 assists; Finney-Smith - 12 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists.

3. Virginia Tech 73, Georgetown 63, Nov. 13 at Virginia Tech

Three days into the season and we already had our first sign that these might not be the same ol' Hokies - Tech fell by 17 to the Hoyas a year ago in D.C. It looked as those things might go G-town's way in the rematch as well as the Hoyas were up seven early in the third quarter and by two after 30 minutes. But the Hokies owned the fourth quarter and finished with a flourish, scoring 12 of the game's final 14 points.
   Stat stuffers: Regan Magarity - 23 points, 8 rebounds; Chanette Hicks - 16 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals; Samantha Hill 14 points, 5 rebounds; Sidney Cook - 11 points, 5 rebounds.

2. Radford 68, Wake Forest 60, Dec. 10 at Wake Forest

This result highlighted a pretty sweet nine-day stretch in Highlander Country:

    - Dec. 4 - Radford rallies from two points down inside the final minute to win at Appalachian State
    - Dec. 5 - Radford sophomore Destinee Walker (three straight double-doubles) named Big South Player of the Week;
    - Dec. 8 - Highlanders roll over Western Carolina before more than 2,000 New River Valley students during the second annual Education Day;
    - Dec. 10 - Radford secures first win over Wake Forest - or any Power 5 conference school for that matter - since 2007;
    - Dec. 12 - Highlanders forward Janayla White named Big South Player of the Week while former Western Branch High star Khiana Johnson nabs the conference's weekly top freshman award.

Yep, pretty sweet, indeed.
    Stat stuffers (vs. Wake): White - 18 points, 11 rebounds; Walker - 14 points, 9 rebounds; Johnson - 13 points.
1. Virginia Tech 67, No. 16 Tennessee 63, Nov. 27 at Virginia Tech

Yeah, Tennessee isn't quite what it used to be. Yeah, even Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick agrees her team doesn't deserve to be ranked. And yeah, the Hokies beat Tennessee even more decisively last year, in the Lady Vols' own gym. But even granting all that, it still takes a heck of an effort to bring these guys down. JMU came close in their season opener. Tech got the job done.
   Stat stuffers: Chanette Hicks 24 points, 8 steals; Sidney Cook - 15 points 12 rebounds; Regan Magarity - 16 points.

Honorable mention

JMU 82, Rutgers 76 (2OT), Dec. 5 at Rutgers

We (reluctantly) left this one outside of the Top 5 because this year's Rutgers team simply hasn't been very good (3-9 record, RPI 213). After graduating two WNBA draft picks and seeing their best returning player go down with a season-ending knee injury, this Scarlet Knights edition bears little resemblance to its glorious predecessors, at least so far. That said, no game on this list - or most other lists - can match this contest for excitement. From Rutgers draining buzzer-beaters to force both overtimes to Precious Hall's school-record 46 points, this one had a little bit - no, make that a lot - of everything.

Friday, December 9, 2016

VCU visits Old Dominion Friday

Emptying the notebook on Friday's night's VCU (5-4) at Old Dominion (3-3) showdown (7 p.m., Constant Center):

Series history

Old Dominion once owned this rivalry (57-16 versus VCU lifetime) but the Rams pretty much have had the lease recently with wins in eight of the last 11. The Lady Monarchs have won the last two at the Constant Center (2012, 2014).


Both teams are coming off encouraging road performances. On Wednesday, GG Goodhope, Mooriah Rowser, Katherine Strong and Isis Thorpe all scored in double figures as VCU rolled at Furman 75-61. Furman had won four straight at home going in.

As for Old Dominion, Lady Monarchs teams of recent vintage have often struggled to stay competitive against quality teams, particularly early in the season. But on Sunday the Lady Monarchs led then-No. 18 Miami at halftime and kept contact with the Hurricanes until deep in the fourth quarter before falling by 10 in Coral Gables, Fla. Jennie Simms finished with 24 points and Destinee Young posted her fifth double-double of the year with 12 points and 13 rebounds.

Who's hot

Old Dominion: Simms ranks second in Division I in scoring (26.0 ppg) and has won the last two Conference USA Player of the Week awards.

VCU: Goodhope didn't score more than six points in any of her first six games but has scored at least 13 in each of her last four and is averaging 15.0 ppg over that span.

Last year

Curteeona Brelove had 14 points and 11 rebounds while three of her teammates scored in double figures as VCU pounded the Lady Monarchs 74-54 in Richmond. It was a comprehensive beatdown - the Rams led by five after one quarter, by 11 at halftime, by 20 after three quarters and by 25 midway through the fourth before cruising through the tape.

The Rams scored 28 points off 19 Old Dominion turnovers. They also outrebounded ODU 43-25. Last year ODU was 2-12 when they lost the battle of the boards, with the wins coming over Howard and Maryland-Eastern Shore.

The game also marked the return of Simms, who sat out the previous three games because of a disciplinary suspension. Simms played 21 minutes off the bench and finished with an ODU-career low two points (1-7 FG). It's one of only five games in Simms' 71-game Lady Monarchs career in which she hasn't scored at least 10 points.

Finally, in a Richmond Times-Dispatch story, VCU coach Beth O'Boyle credited assistant Richard Fortune, who joined the Rams after three seasons at ODU, and ex-Lady Monarchs point guard Goodhope for providing the inside info that helped shape the Rams' game plan. Goodhope appeared in 63 games (with 39 starts) as a freshman and sophomore at ODU before leaving the program.

Last season, Goodhope made her first appearance as a Ram against High Point on Dec. 16 - three days before the ODU game - but did not play against the Lady Monarchs. So Friday will mark her first game against her former team, in a building in which she has played more games than many of the current Lady Monarchs themselves.


An Old Dominion victory would mark head coach Karen Barefoot's 300th as a head coach and 90th in charge of the Lady Monarchs. Barefoot is currently 299-222 overall and 89-82 at ODU. Meanwhile, VCU's O'Boyle is 137-111 overall and 44-28 as the third-year Rams head coach...An ODU spokesman said Lady Monarchs forward Ije Ajemba will sit out the season for health reasons. The 6-3 senior averaged 7.5 points and 8.9 rebounds in 2015-16. Her absence has been mitigated by the emergence of freshman post Manaya Jones, who is averaging 10.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in her last four games...VCU forward Camille Calhoun suffered an injury on Nov. 15 in the Rams' second game of the season and has not played since. No word yet on the nature of the injury or the status going forward for the hard-luck Calhoun, who sustained a season-ending ACL injury just seven games into the 2015-16 season.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Radford's Destinee Walker enjoying breakout season

We talked to Radford coach Mike McGuire.

We wished we had talked to Radford star Destinee Walker.

That's no knock on McGuire. As expected, the coach did an excellent job detailing the on-court exploits of Walker, the sensational sophomore wing whose early season performance has been nothing short of a revelation.

But when asked to describe Walker's personality, McGuire said "she's a fun girl, with a very engaging personality. Really outgoing. The kind of kid who's never met a stranger. A real people person. On the bus she's the life of the team. She just has this tremendous energy, and I think our team feeds off that."

Wouldn't YOU rather talk to someone like this?

Of course, we suspect Appalachian State wants nothing more to do with Walker, not after she put the Highlanders on her back down the stretch Sunday to mute the Mountaineers 57-54. With less than a minute remaining and the Highlanders down two, the 5-11 Walker scored six straight points and grabbed two rebounds in a 25-second span to pull Radford through.

"I saw a side of her that was like, 'we're not losing this game if I have anything to do with it,' " McGuire said.

Walker finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds for her third straight double-double. For the season she's averaging 16.2 points on 59 percent shooting (56.3 percent from 3) and 8.3 rebounds - numbers that not only lead Radford but also the entire Big South. On Monday, she earned her first Big South Player of the Week nod.

This from a player who averaged 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in 19 games last season.

How did that Destinee "Crawler" become today's full-fledged, butt-kicking Destinee Walker? Being healthy is a big key - last year, injuries robbed Walker of part of the preseason and the first 10 games of her college career. When she did play, McGuire estimated she was at about 80 percent.

Added maturity helped, as did adjusting to the speed of the college game and a strong offseason, which led to a renewed confidence. The result? Well, you know that scene in the movies where a superhero just discovers they can fly, lift boulders and stuff like that? That's our metaphor for what's happening with Walker now.

Can't wait to see where this story goes next.

Walker's emergence is just one of the positives at Radford, which has raced out to a 5-1 start despite limited contributions from All-Big South forward Janayla White. A finicky sprained ankle has left White on the sideline for three games and in limited duty for the three others. But save for in the season-opening loss to George Mason, there has always been another Highlander or two ready to elevate into a key role.

"There's just something about this team," McGuire said.

On Thursday, the Highlanders will try for their sixth straight victory when they host Western Carolina (3-7) at 11 a.m. in the second annual Education Day game. More than 2,000 local elementary school students are expected to be on hand to cheer on the home team.

If Radford is successful, perhaps we'll place another call and have McGuire fill us in again.

Or better yet, maybe Walker can supply the details.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Chit-chat with Kenny Brooks, coach of the 25th ranked team in the nation

With Virginia Tech back in the Top 25, we figured it was time to check in with Kenny Brooks, whose winning percentage in Blacksburg is hard to argue with. Central Connecticut State, since you asked, is on tap for Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Cassell Coliseum for the 8-0 Hokies.

An early aside, we like Brooks' candor, a rarity in an era of coach-speak (Jeff Walz not among that crowd). It's nice to ask a coach about being ranked in the AP poll and not have him dismiss it with an "only-poll-that-matters-is-the-final-poll" answer.

"It validates the hard work these kids have put in," Brooks said. "It's an honor. It's a surprise to be there this quickly; I never thought it would happen this quickly."

Regarding personnel, we know about Chanette Hicks, espnW national player of the week last week and third in the NCAA in steals, but as for the others --

"Any given night we have four kids, probably five kids who can score 20 points," Brooks said. "A lot of it is go with the flow of the game and see who has the hot hand." That marks a change in style for a coach who is used to running sets for specific players, a la Jazmon Gwathmey last year.

A few Brooks thumbnails on the mainstays behind Tech's terrific start:

Regan Magarity: "As advertised and then some. " For those JMU readers out there, here's high praise from Brooks about Regan: "Meredith Alexis with a jump shot with the basketball IQ of a Nikki Newman."

Samantha Hill: "She does so many things for us that are so important." Not shooting a great percentage, but making the plays that don't show up on a stat sheet.

Sidney Cook: "Almost a walking double-double," says Brooks, who told the 6-2 senior he needed consistency, and she's delivered.

Now as for Chanette: "When I first got  here, it was not smooth sailing. She had some things she needed to clear up," Brooks said. That said, "I was frank with her and I wasn't being overconfident when I told her, 'I could be the best thing to happen to you because the one position I do know is point guard."

Brooks asked for buy-in from Hicks, and it took time, but she's all in, not just on the floor but off it in terms of being a role model and leader for the rest of the team. "I had to gain her trust by being mean, not coming in and letting her do what she wanted to do."

The results speak for themselves; Hicks has doubled her point total from a year ago while refining her game-changing ability to create turnovers.

"Some of the things she's done -- I've never seen in my life, male or female," the coach said. The break on the ball, the way she steals it, I've had to change my philosophy."

Brooks' JMU teams were in the cellar of the Colonial Athletic Association regularly in the steals category as his approach was to protect the lane. "With her I had to ask myself, 'Do I want to continue doing what I've been doing or let her play?' We've let her play. Sometimes you have to step out of a kid's way and let them play."

Diandra DaRosa: In a boot -- again. An ankle sprain in Nebraska will keep her out Wednesday, but she could return Sunday for Bowling Green.

Kendyl Brooks: He said she'd redshirt, but her results in the weight room -- 10 pounds of muscle -- allowed her to belong among this group of Hokies from the go. "We took the redshirt off because she was getting acclimated to the system better than the other freshmen. She added an element we needed. I knew she belonged when we put her out there against UCF and she had 11 points in a three-point win in a very physical game. She stepped up without an conscience."

The Hokies have also benefited from the recent breakout by senior sharpshooter Vanessa Panousis, who followed up a season-high 17-point effort against Nebraska with a 14-point performance versus Gardner-Webb. Panousis made just eight 3-pointers in Tech's first six games but has six in her last two.

Much-needed depth is on the way as 6-4 senior center Tara Nahodil, who left the team during the offseason, will rejoin the Hokies at the conclusion of the first semester. And Tech is still awaiting word from the NCAA on the status of transfer forward Erin Garner; Tech applied for a waiver that, if granted, would allow Garner to join Nahodil in the Tech lineup at the end of the current semester.

It's all added up to Tech's best start in 11 years. But strong non-conference records are nothing new in Blacksburg. Just last year, the Hokies went 12-1 in November and December with a win at Tennessee.

The question now is, is this the year Virginia Tech also becomes a factor in the ACC?

Not surprisingly, Brooks likes this team's chances.

"This is the kind of year when I put up my Netflix account and watch only basketball," he said. "I've watched a lot of basketball and think there's a lot of teams we can compete with. Why not us? These kids have a different philosophy, a different mindset. Why not us? What happened in the past happened in the past."

Finally, while the coach is clearly laser-focused on his Hokies, he did happen to notice the 46 points Precious Hall dropped on Rutgers Monday night in a double-overtime JMU victory.

"They way she went down (with an ACL injury prior to the 2015-16 season) I never knew how she was going to be able to bounce back," Brooks said. "I'm very happy for her and she deserves it."

Monday, December 5, 2016

Welcome back to the Top 25, Virginia Tech

For the first time in nearly 11 years, Virginia Tech is an Associated Press Top-25 team.

The undefeated Hokies (7-0), who will host Gardner-Webb Monday, are at No. 25 in AP’s latest weekly rankings after a turbulent week involving several of the nation’s top teams. Tech was fifth among “others receiving votes” last week.

The last time Virginia Tech was in the AP Top 25 was Jan. 23, 2006 - 205 polls ago - when the Hokies checked in at No. 25. That 2005-06 season, Tech’s second under then-head coach Beth Dunkenberger, saw the Hokies start out 12-0 and rise as high No. 18 in the poll before a four-game losing streak in ACC play sent them spiraling out of the rankings. Tech went on to finish 6-8 in the ACC and fell to Duke in their conference tournament opener. This was also the last season Tech advanced to the NCAA Tournament, where they beat Missouri before losing to UConn. The Hokies finished the season with a 21-10 record.

The Hokies’ highest-ever ranking is No. 9, which they achieved the week of March 9, 1999. Tech finished that season ranked 13th.

Miami: ODU toughest team we've played all year

Old Dominion may not have beaten No. 18 Miami Sunday, but it sounds as though the Lady Monarchs made believers out of Hurricanes coach Katie Meier.

"I will write the Old Dominion coach (Karen Barefoot)," Meier said in a Miami Herald story. "She is very good. I let her and her team know in the handshake line. They were the toughest team we've played all year...they were the caliber of an ACC team. And Jennie Simms is one of the best players in the country. They're a tough package."

Miami's schedule thus far has included nationally ranked Kentucky and Ohio State along with St. John's and Texas Tech.

The Lady Monarchs (3-3) led by two at halftime Sunday and were down just three through three quarters before the Hurricanes (7-1) surged to their seventh straight win. Simms finished with a game-high 24 points and Destinee Young added 13 points and 12 rebounds. In addition, freshman forward Manaya Jones made her first start and contributed nine points and nine rebounds.

Old Dominion will look to sustain this level - or better yet, to build on it - when the Lady Monarchs host VCU Friday.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Ready or not, here comes Atlantic 10 play

Ready or not, here comes Atlantic 10 conference play.

Changing the league's tournament format necessitated each A-10 team to play one conference game in December, so instead of its typical early-January start, A-10 play for 2016-17 began Thursday (Dec. 1) when host Fordham knocked off Duquesne.

The Atlantic 10 and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference are the only two Division I leagues to have already kicked off conference play; the MAAC debuted with two games Thursday.

Conference openers for the various A-10 teams are scattered throughout December, so as they say in the broadcast business, check your local listings for the team in your area. As for the squads within the LadySwish coverage map, VCU begins its Atlantic 10 slate Friday at 7 p.m. at George Washington. On Sunday, George Mason plays its A-10 opener at UMass. And Richmond won't start league play until Dec. 31 when the Spiders host St. Joseph's.

Several Atlantic 10 teams have gotten off to solid starts - 10 of the 14 were at .500 or better through November. Yet with the possible exception of George Washington, league teams have struggled to post signature wins. A-10 teams were 0-5 against the Associated Press Top 25 and just 1-13 versus Power 5 conference schools in the opening month.

The Colonials (5-2) just missed against then-No. 11 Syracuse, falling 74-71. But the Colonials do have wins over Princeton and Florida Gulf Coast - both NCAA Tournament teams a year ago - and Conference USA power Western Kentucky.