A cup of Joe (or three)

Good morning and ain't it nice to be at home on a Sunday morning. Spread out the paper, brew up some coffee, make the wife breakfast as a way of saying thanks for being understanding when I take off on a two-day sports roadtrip, only half of which is for profit.

Then fire up the computer and get caught up on what happened while you were watching a football game with an almost basketball-like score (except Army is the only team in the league that only scores 33 points and nobody only scores 51 against them).

That tournament at William & Mary was smart scheduling by Ralph Willard. The Crusaders, who the Daily Press astutely referred to as "a very talented Holy Cross team" swept the two-game set, beating Juco Joe Knight's alma mater in the opener, then smoking the host Tribe for the tourney title.

In that final last night, HC built a quick 11-1 and extended it to as many as 23 points in the first half. Talk about your kiss of death. There are teams you can come back on. Their are games were falling behind early, at least the 11-1 opening spurt, can easily be overcome, at least enough to get back in the game, especially at home.

Those game, though, are not games against teams that play defense like Holy Cross. Take a look at the box score and you will see what we mean. William and Mary shot 30 percent for the game. In the first half, when this one was decided, they shot 23 percent from the field.

There are not many teams that can shoot under 40 percent from the field and still blow an opponent out. Holy Cross shot 38 percent and won, on the road, by 12.

That explains why, despite some concerns about the Crusaders frontcourt, most folks pick them to challenge Bucknell for the Patriot League title.

Hamilton (18) and Simmons (16) are averaging a combined 38 points a game in two games. Torey Thomas has stepped up his scoring. He had 20 against High Point, 15 against W&M.

Even if Thomas' average drops by half as the season goes on, you are still looking at just under 50 points per game of offense from that trio. The way Holy Cross plays defense, it does not take a whole lot more offense for them to win.

Granted, the two opponents to date were hardly the most challenging the Crusaders will face. William and Mary does have 10 guys back from last season, including four starters, last season's top two scorers, 76 percent of its scoring and 83 percent of its rebounding.

But William and Mary is not the cream of the Colonial Athletic Association. Matter of fact, they are picked to finish last.

Cupcakes? Yeah, probably. Certainly not Providence or Kansas, teams Willard has opened against in three of his six seasons at HC. But it makes a lot of sense to start this year's Crusaders on some soft food.

With only six players back who contributed last season, Willard knew when he was scheduling that for HC to live up to the potential that comes with a backcourt like the Crusaders have, they are going to need a couple freshmen in the rotation.

Makes perfect sense to start the season with some games that might allow those young players to see some minutes and gain some confidence. Seems doubly wise now with one of those freshmen, Alex Vander Baan, having claimed what everybody expected to be Tim Clifford's spot in the starting lineup.

Vander Baan had mixed results in his first two collegiate games. His debut was sparkling: 11 points, 6 rebounds in 34 minutes. His second game was less impressive. Vander Baan fouled out against W&M, playing only 14 minutes (4 pts, 2 reb.).

The second freshman in what has been essentially an eight-man rotation for Willard is Lawrence Dixon. Dixon played eight minutes Friday, scoring 4 points. Interestingly, when Vander Baan was sitting with foul trouble Saturday, it appears to have been Dixon who picked up the extra minutes, not Clifford.

Dixon's time increased to 19 minutes Saturday (6 pt., 4 reb., 4 fouls), while Clifford actually played 3 minutes less. That despite what, at least on paper, looked to be a Big Purple Dog kind of night Friday, when Clifford made the most of his 19 minutes, grabbing 9 rebounds and blocking 3 shots.

Against W&M, Clifford played only 16 minutes, finishing with 4 rebounds. It would be silly to read too much into two boxscores, especially without having seen him play, but you have to wonder if those lines are evident of Clifford's lack of consistency Willard talked about in the preseason.

It would appear that Willard has settled on an eight-man rotation. Clifford, Dixon and Pat Doherty claimed virtually all the time off the bench in both games. It appears that freshmen Greg McCarthy and Colin Cunningham are not yet ready for prime time. Cunningham never left the bench. McCarthy played less than a minute against W&M after sitting the opener completely. Sophomore guard Kyle Cruze played a minutes against High Point.

Given the wide margin the Crusaders held much of the game against William & Mary, you'd figure if Ralph was planning on using any of those three much down the road, they'd have at least broke a sweat.

Two other things we like about Willard's scheduling the W&M tournament to open the season. It gives HC a chance to play on back-to-back days, something they will have to do in a few weeks in San Juan and something they hope to do at the end of the regular season.

The two-game tournament also makes for a 33 percent longer getaway as a team at the start of the season. Coaches will tell you that a lot of team-building and bonding happens on the road. The extra day away from Worcester can't hurt, especially when you are trying to groom newcomers to play important roles.

Seem's like everyone I ran into at the Holy Cross-Bucknell football game Saturday wanted to know the same thing: what did Bucknell's 56-54 escape at Rider on Friday night mean.

Is Rider that good? Is Bucknell overrated? What happened? How could it be so?

Here are some of the answers (as best we can speculate from one game in what is expected to be at least a 30-game season):

Is Rider that good? Too soon to tell, but probably not. They have two outstanding players in Muniz and Thompson, but they are playing a lot of youngsters. Away from Alumni Gym, that will probably take a toll.

So if your question is how much will this win help Bucknell, say at seeding time, it probably will be about neutral. Odds are Rider will be respectable, with double digit wins, maybe even a few games over .500 if they stay healthy and get some breaks. Expect Rider, at the end of the year, to be middle of the RPI pack, not high enough to give you a boost, not low enough to hurt you the way Army does.

Next season, or the season after that? Our guess would be the Broncs' break through and get that NCAA bid that has eluded them twice in the past four seasons when they won the regular season but lost in the league tournament.

While Rider's youth might make it tough to win enough on the rode to contend for the MAAC title this season, the Bronc's Zoo will not be a friendly place for MAAC foes to visit. It would be no surprise if a loss at Rider costs somebody the regular season title.

Rider always wins at home. Or almost. The loss to Bucknell was its first home opener loss in eight games at Alumni Gym (they did lose a "home" opener a couple years back that was played in nearby Trenton at Sovereign Bank Arena -- where a smart scheduler with a little promotional savvy would have put Friday night's sellout). Over the years they have won almost 74 percent of their games at home.

It is a tough place to play, small, loud, the crowd right on the floor. It is sort of like Bucknell's old Davis Gym, minus any sort of architectural charm. Alumni is like one of those metal warehouse buildings you see along the interstate, only smaller and with cement block walls to add a little ambiance. It makes Colgate's Cotterell Court seem luxurious.

Which sort of leads us into the other questions.

Is Bucknell overrated. We don't think so. A close call at a tough place to play like Rider against a very quick, long and athletic team like the Broncs is a negative is like the cup is half-empty version. Except it really does not hold water.

More telling, we think, is how Bucknell won, holding Rider to one field goal in the final six minutes. Knocking down not one, but two three-point range jumpers (Yes, Bettencourt's foot was on the line ... that is why we said "range"), in the final 18 seconds, by two different shooters, too.

Good teams seem to find ways to win, even when they don't play their A game, which Pat Flannery would be quick to tell the Bison did not bring. This team has shown that before, at Yale and Pittsburgh, in home games against Lehigh and Colgate, and, of course, against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.

Particularly impressive about Bucknell's end game was how they responded when Rider retook the lead on Thompson's free throws with less than 8 seconds to go.

Remember, this came after Bucknell had finally reclaimed the lead on a John Griffin try with 17 seconds left. That seemed to cap a half that started with Bucknell down 5, a lead that seemed elastic. Every time Bucknell pulled close and had a chance to take the lead, Rider seemed to be able to stretch it back out. Up until Griffin's shot, Bucknell had been within 2 points five times in the half and tied three times. On none of those eight opportunities had they managed to go back on top.

Griffin's shot had the makings of a game-winner. But when Thompson managed to gain position down low on McNaughton, and Rider got him the ball, all McNaughton could do was hack Thompson and hope he misses at least one of the two shots. To describe the mood, at least of the Bucknell fans who made up at least a third of the crowd, as anything but deflated would be a lie. Not exactly a boisterous bunch to begin with, the BU fans were stunned and silent.

Would have been easy for a basketball team to respond the same way. Bucknell did not. Need two miracles to win? No problem.

And how clutch was Bettencourt, who redeemed a subpar night with one smooth jumper?

Here is a question to ponder: You are an opposing coach in Tommy Dempsey's situation at the end of the game Friday night. Except now you know one thing Rider's interim head coach did not know at the time. You now know that Bucknell won't hesitate to give the ball to somebody with the game on the line just because they struggled a little in the game.

Who do you design your defense to stop? Lee -- who can knock down the three or beat you off the dribble? McNaughton -- who, forget this three Friday night, has shown the ability to knock down the 10-12 foot jumper and is unstoppable one-on-one down on the blocks? Griffin? Bettencourt?

There are two other factors worth considering when you look at that close BU-Rider score.

Bucknell's last game was in what is now an NBA arena, on national television in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It's next game will be against a nationally ranked, legendary hoops power, Syracuse, in the cavernous Carrier Dome. And this game is against a MAAC team with a bunch of freshmen. A team, by the way, that you handled pretty easily last season.

Pat Flannery has been around a long time. He knew better than to take Rider lightly, especially at Rider. Extra especially when you are carrying a huge bullseye like Bucknell.

But these are teenagers and 20-somethings. No matter how much Flannery told them. No matter how often they repeated the mantra. It would be ridiculous to pretend that at least some of the Bison at least subconsciously took the Broncs at least a little lightly.

Add to the equation the fatal traffic crash that closed the route Bucknell's bus was taking from its hotel in Princeton to the gym in Lawrence. The Bison arrived at Alumni shortly before the scheduled 8 p.m. tip off.

As they walked through an already crowded gym to reach their locker rooms, the Bison players looked as casual as any team walking into the gym. They were a loose, smiling, headphone wearing bunch. Which is the mood you want the team in getting off the bus an hour or two before the game, but hardly the game face you want a half-hour before the tip.

Did that hurt Bucknell's focus in the first half? Nobody would admit it after the game, but hear on Earth, stuff like that usually is a distraction. And it didn't help the Bison's mindset any when early foul trouble forced them out of their rotation.

Whatever the reason, Bucknell was never in synch the first half. That allowed Rider to stay with them early, and when the Broncs closed the half with a 5-0 spurt to take the lead, they went to the locker room brimming with confidence.

Come out fast and take the crowd out of it early, you put a young team like Rider away. Let them, and the crowd, stay in the game, and Riders energy level goes way up.

That last question: How could it be so? That question shows a lack of knowledge of the history here. Someone who knows Bucknell only by the wins over St. Joe's, Pitt and Kansas might not realize that ugly, low-scoring wins are not at all out of character for Pat Flannery teams.

Bucknell wins games with defense and hard work. This one was no exception. By the end of the game, the Bison had worn Rider down. That is Flannery's style to a large extent.

Despite his preseason rhetoric about full four pressure and running the break more, there was none of either in the Rider game. The Bison showed some token man-to-man pressure late, and did pick it up pretty aggressively near midcourt late in the game, but there was no fullcourt trapping stuff like Flannery had spoke of. Neither team scored a fastbreak point.

Sure, Bucknell will have some games this season where they blow somebody out. But the real quality wins will more likely come in typical Flannery style. It might be ugly on the court, but it tends to look pretty fashionable in the wins column.

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