Getting To Know Ed Davis

Back in the summer of 2007, I was getting ready to start my first post college job, a job at the University of Connecticut, where I’d just finished my undergraduate work a few months before. I worked in the athletic department, as an entry level guy in the ticket and marketing department.

When I started the job in late May, I quickly realized the whole situation was both a gift and a curse. On the one hand, having worked in the department as an undergrad, I knew many of my new co-workers, and had a pretty good understanding of what my responsibilities would be, even before my first day. How many people can say that as they get ready to start a new job? I didn’t even have to move apartments, at least not right away.

On the other hand, I was an adult now, living near a college campus, my old stomping ground. Just a few months before, my only care in the world was trying to figure out which bar had the best deal on Thursday night’s, and now I was a professional in the same place where many of my good friends were still students. Suffice to say, some were even on the Tommy Boy six-year plan.

I distinctly remember the conflict of interest coming to light one night in June, when my old neighbor invited me over to watch the first game of the NBA Finals. She was friendly with a few players on the basketball team- a group of guys I’d be working closely with once the season started- and I wasn’t entirely comfortable hanging out with them in a social setting. She wasn’t sure if they’d come over or not, so I decided to swing by.

Of course right on cue, within a minute or two of me getting there, a player showed up with someone- who was clearly a basketball player- that I wasn’t particularly familiar with. Turns out, it was one of the most sought after high school senior’s to be in the country, Ed Davis.

At 17, Davis didn’t carry himself like a McDonalds All-American, but more like a little brother tagging with his big bro to watch the game. He sat quietly in the corner, intently following the action on the screen, seeming to enjoy LeBron James’ first NBA Finals game. Then again, you didn’t really know if he was enjoying himself or not, since he didn’t say anything. Davis only spoke when spoken to, but when we did finally sneak a few words out of him, it turned out he was not only insightful, but you could tell how passionate about the game he was.

What I’ll always remember about that night though, is that after not saying a word to me the entire evening, when I got up to leave, Davis was quick to say goodbye, and tell me how nice it was to meet me. This to someone he’d met only hours before. I couldn’t help but appreciate the poise of a 17-year-old to say that to his senior. I don’t know if I’d have done the same at his age.

I hadn’t thought much about that day with Davis these past few years, as he went to North Carolina and won a National Championship as a key role player his freshman year. The only time he crossed my mind was when I wondered if maybe he was the missing piece that could have propelled UConn to the title in 2009, instead of playing the same role as a Tar Heel.

But for the first time in a long time on Thursday, I did think back to that night in June 2007, as I watched that quiet kid I met in June 2007, become a man on a June night in 2010. He walked to podium with poise to shake David Stern’s hand, and answered Mark Jones’ questions insightfully.

I don’t know what Davis’ NBA future holds for him, but I do know one thing: He was a good kid at 17, and it seems like only maturity has changed him now.

The Raptors got a good basketball player in the 2010 NBA Draft. They got a good person, too.

Reflecting On The 2010 College Basketball Season

Hey college hoops fans! It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been a week since Butler’s miraculous NCAA Tournament run ended one Gordon Hayward half-court three from upsetting the three-time National Champion Duke Blue Devils.

Having had seven days to swallow, digest and reflect, let’s go ahead and look back at the 2009-2010 season, while also looking ahead to what’s in store for 2011.

Best Games of 2010:

1. National Championship Game: Butler vs. Duke: Whether you believed the pregame hype that Butler was a major underdog heading in or not – you probably shouldn’t have, considering they’d already beaten Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State in the tournament – there’s no doubt that the Bulldogs left an indelible impression on the whole college basketball world.

Duke may have won the National Championship, but Butler is the team we’ll always remember from the 2010 season.

And believe me, it’s going to be sooner, rather than later that we see the Bulldogs back in a Final Four.

2. NCAA Tournament Second Round: Northern Iowa- Kansas: I was lucky enough to catch a replay of this game within the last week on CBS College Sports, and let me tell you, Kansas did not “lose,” this game, as much as Northern Iowa went ahead and took it from them.

The Panthers played incredible defense against one of the nation’s best teams, got to every loose ball, and Ali Farokmanesh’s corner three left us with the shot of the tournament.

This game was everything that makes a one-and-done tournament so great, a plucky underdog, playing out of their mind and beating a team that many thought to be unbeatable. And much like the National Championship, we’ll remember this one for a long time.

3. SEC Championship Game: Mississippi State-Kentucky: Who said the SEC is just a football conference?

Coming in, we knew what was on the line in Nashville when these two teams played: For Mississippi State it was “win or go home,” and for Kentucky, the Wildcats were trying to wrap up a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

And what we got was a thriller and instant classic. Mississippi State would take a lead. Then Kentucky would make a run. Then back would come Mississippi State, and it was actually they who held a three point lead with just five seconds to go.

At that point pandemonium struck, as the Bulldogs elected to gamble, and fouled Eric Bledsoe, who calmly sunk the first free throw to cut the lead to one. Then, like something out of a cheesy basketball movie, Bledsoe missed the second on purpose, leading to a mad scramble, and DeMarcus Cousins put back lay-up to tie the game with just one-tenth of a second left on the clock

The two teams went to overtime, and Kentucky barely survived.

This game was our truest indicator, that March had in fact arrived.

Five Players We’ll Never Forget:

1. John Wall, Kentucky: He may have been one-and-done, but there’s no doubt that Wall changed the culture, and the perception of Kentucky nationally.

We all know everything he did, so there’s no need to go into great detail here. Simply put he was mesmerizing and captivating on the court, while cordial and humble off of it. And for all the talk about Wall using Kentucky as a “pit stop,” on the way to the NBA, many forget that Wall had over a 3.0 GPA in his first semester at Lexington.

John Calipari is going to be at Kentucky for a very long time. But he may never have as complete a player and person, as he did in John Wall this year.

2. DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky: For all the talk about Wall, it was actually Cousins, who became the favorite son of the entire state of Kentucky this season.

Cousins also became everything that is so rewarding about watching, following and covering college basketball. He came to Kentucky as a kid who’d rarely had any discipline in his young life, and struggled through the first few months of the season on the court, as for the first time he simply wasn’t, the biggest, baddest player on the court.

But Cousins also matured and adjusted, while embracing both his teammates and coaches, in the process, making a strong case for himself as SEC Player of the Year.

Cousins of course will go on to be a top five pick in this upcoming NBA Draft. But ask any resident of Kentucky, and they’ll tell you all the same: Even after just one year, he’ll always be a Wildcat.

3. Wes Johnson, Syracuse: Forget the fact that Johnson was the Big East Player of the Year. That was almost secondary to everything he did off the court at Syracuse this season.

Because after years of having selfish stars fill this roster (Eric Devendorf, we’re talking to you), it was Johnson who simply embraced being a college basketball player, and cherished putting on a Syracuse uniform.

Not only did Syracuse exceed every realistic expectation as a team in 2010, but the culture around the program changed as well, from drab and “professional,” to energetic, exciting and most importantly fun. And it happened because of Johnson.

4. Omar Samhan, St. Mary’s: Most fans didn’t get to know Samhan until the NCAA Tournament, but once they did, he was pretty hard not to love. Not only did Samhan talk the talk in the opening two rounds of the tourney, but he walked the walk too, combining for 61 points and 19 rebounds in two wins over Richmond and Villanova.

Yes, the season ended with a loss to Baylor, but Samhan is a guy we won’t soon forget. He also caught the attention of many NBA scouts during St. Mary’s run in the tournament, meaning this likely won’t be the last we hear from him by any means.

5. Ali Farokmanesh, Northern Iowa: We’ll be seeing his shot in highlights as long as the NCAA Tournament is played. I promise you that.

Best Storylines:

1. Butler’s Run to the National Championship Game: The Bulldogs beat UCLA, Ohio State and Xavier in the regular season, and Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament. Please don’t call them a mid-major.

And mid-major or not, nothing can be taken away from Butler, which took us on one of the most exciting NCAA Tournament rides in recent memory.

With Brad Stevens signed to an extension, and most of the team returning, why can’t they go all the way in 2011?

2. Speaking of Butler, How About the Emergence of Other Non-Traditional Schools: With the “one-and-done,” rule limiting the ability to the traditional powers to build depth, and nurture experience, there were a number of non-traditional schools who stepped out of the woodwork and became national names, all as North Carolina, Arizona, UCLA, UConn and Indiana moved away from the spotlight.

Throughout the course of the year, Temple, Northern Iowa, Richmond and UTEP spent time in the top 25, joining mainstay’s like Gonzaga, Butler and Xavier. Not to mention St. Mary’s and Cornell made it to the Sweet 16 once tournament time rolled around.

With the country’s top teams continually stripped of their talent, expect this to be a trend that’ll only continue.

3. The Return to Prominence For Kentucky: College basketball’s best fan base has been waiting a long time for a season like this, and boy did they embrace it. From Midnight Madness, to filling Madison Square Garden against UConn in December, all the way through the SEC Tournament in Nashville and NCAA Tournament, Big Nation followed their Wildcats through the highs and lows of one of the most exciting season’s in program history.

The only question is, that with as many as five players leaving early, what does coach John Calipari have in store for an encore?

The Biggest Storylines Heading into 2011:

The NCAA Tournament’s Possible Expansion: No matter what your thoughts are, this thing is going to happen, if not next year, than no later than 2014 when the NCAA’s current television contract expires.

Love it or hate it, we might have no choice but to embrace a 96 team tournament.

Can Duke Repeat?: This one is a lot more likely than you think.

We know that Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas are graduating, but if Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith decide to return, there is no doubt this will be the team to beat heading into 2011.

Duke will remain big up front with the return of Miles and Mason Plumlee, and expect an increased role for former high school superstar Ryan Kelly down low. Add in McDonald’s All-American point guard Kyrie Irving, and sharp-shooting transfer Seth Curry, who averaged close to 20 points a game at Liberty University two years ago, and we might be looking at…gulp… a dynasty in the making.

3. What About North Carolina?: The Tar Heels will add the nation’s No. 1 ranked recruit- Harrison Barnes- to an already stacked front court, that will feature John Henson, Tyler Zeller and the Wear twins. Even without Ed Davis (Who declared for the draft Monday), this will be the deepest group of big guys in college basketball.

But with all that, the $64,000 question is whether or not someone will emerge at the point guard position. Larry Drew can’t be much worse than he was this past season, but Roy Williams brought in Kendall Marshall as an insurance plan anyway.

This team will be back in the NCAA Tournament in 2011 (Especially if the field is expanded), but how far they go, will be based largely on who is handling the ball, and how well they’re doing it.

4. Where Will Super-Recruit Brandon Knight End Up?: The two time National High School Player of the Year is set to make his announcement Wednesday, and all indications are that he’ll end up at Kentucky.

Could Knight be John Calipari’s fourth straight one-and-done point guard? While he doesn’t have the natural athleticism of John Wall or Derrick Rose or the physical strength of Tyreke Evans, he is smart, and steady, and as good of a player as we’ll see in next year’s freshman class.

And we might have no choice to enjoy him, if 2011 is indeed his only year on campus.

Teams To Look Out For in 2011:

Memphis: Everyone expected that Josh Pastner would need some time to get Memphis back on top after Calipari left Beale Street right around this time last year. But nobody expected him to do it this quick, except for maybe Pastner himself.

The second year coach will welcome the No. 1 ranked recruiting class to Memphis next year, headlined by three top 15 players: guard Joe Jackson, and forwards Jelan Kendrick and Will Barton.

Memphis will be back in 2011. Don’t be surprised if it’s all the way to the Final Four.

Florida: The Gators made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time this year since winning the title in 2007. Don’t expect their next trip to take so long.

Florida didn’t have a one senior on their roster this year, and don’t have a single player who is expected to seriously consider heading to the pros. And when you add in tough and rugged McDonald’s All-American Patric Young, the Gators will officially have their bite back in 2011.

Notre Dame: Remember how good Notre Dame looked when Luke Harangody went out with an injury toward the end of the season? Could they look even better in 2011 without him entirely?

Watch out for forward Tim Abromaitis. He might be a dark horse Big East Player of the Year candidate.

Players To Look Out For In 2011:

William Buford, Ohio State: Anyone who said that Evan Turner was single-handedly carrying Ohio State this year wasn’t watching the Buckeyes very closely.

Buford averaged over 14 points a game, and proved to be a much more natural scorer than Turner over the course of the season. He could have a monster year in 2011 as “the guy,” in Columbus.

Kris Joseph, Syracuse: The Canadian import was arguably college basketball’s top bench player in 2010, as he averaged just under 11 points a game, despite making just a handful of starts this season.

With Wes Johnson turning pro, expect an expanded role for Joseph. Ask any Syracuse fan and they’ll tell you that the 6’7 junior to be simply got better each and every time he stepped on the court in 2010. He should continue to do exactly that with increased minutes.

Perry Jones, Baylor: Jones will only be a freshman in the fall, so don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with his name yet. And no need to worry, you’re going to get to know him awfully quick.

Simply put, Jones is a 6’10 freak, a guy that can run the floor like a guard, and finish with the authority of a power forward. He also has a nice little jump shot in his arsenal as well.

Basically, he’ll be the best player Baylor’s ever had, the second he steps on the court. How long he stays at the school however, remains to be seen.

Luke Babbitt, Nevada: Babbitt is a former top 25 recruit and Ohio State commitment, who ultimately changed his mind and stay play at the University of Nevada close to home.  So far, it’s paid off big-time, as he averaged 21 points and nine rebounds a game in 2010, while winning the WAC Player of the Year award.

Babbitt is seriously considering entering the pros, but if he does decide to return to Nevada, this could be the mid-major team to watch next year.

New Coaches in New Places:

Steve Lavin, St. Johns: The Johnnies wanted a coach with some name recognition, and they certainly got one with the former UCLA head boss.

And for Lavin, this looks like a match made in heaven. St. Johns returns nine seniors to a team that got vastly better at the end of this past season, had some big wins late, and who had realistic NCAA Tournament expectations whether Lavin, Norm Roberts or I was coaching them.

This could be the start of something great for St. Johns in New York.

Oliver Purnell, DePaul: Purnell comes to DePaul from Clemson, where he led the Tigers to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. What a steal for DePaul right? I’m not so sure.

The truth is, that for all the NCAA Tournament appearances, Purnell has never actually coached a team who has won a game once they’ve gotten there, as this was the fourth straight year Clemson lost in the first round. The program also had a knack for flaming out down the stretch after hot starts.

To me, this whole situation reeks of Purnell wanting to get out of town, before Clemson might have forced him out of town in a year or two.

Steve Donahue, Boston College: While Boston College’s decision to fire Al Skinner was puzzling to say the least, they absolutely hit a grand slam by hiring Donahue away from Cornell.

For Donahue, the move made sense as well, as he lost the core of his team which had made three straight NCAA Tournaments, as Ryan Wittman, Louis Dale and Jeff Foote were all seniors.

An interesting side note to this hire, is that Donahue now goes to Boston College, which can offer him a lot of things that Cornell couldn’t, including inclusion into the ACC. Something else that Donahue will have access to for the first time: Athletic scholarships. He was only allowed to offer academic one’s in the Ivy League.

(For Aaron’s thoughts on all things college basketball, and sports in general, please follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres)

NCAA Tournament Recap

It seems like it was only yesterday that the NCAA Tournament was set to get underway, with 65 of college basketball’s best teams brimming with confidence, and hoping that they would be the last team standing in Indianapolis on April 4.

Well, after two weeks of some of the most exciting hoops action in recent memory, we’ve whittled those 65 teams down to just four, as we’re just a few days from tipping off the Final Four from Indianapolis on Saturday.

So how did we get here? Let’s take a look back at the best and brightest from this past weekend, while also looking ahead at the four teams that will be vying for this year’s National Championship.

Best Game: Xavier-Kansas State, Sweet 16, Thursday:

While the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament had more good games than you could count, the second weekend had one that stood taller than all others: Thursday night’s Sweet 16 West Regional game between Xavier and Kansas State.

For those who missed it, this game had everything this tournament is supposed to be about. Two teams doing whatever it took to win. Star players stepping up and making great plays. Buzzer beaters. Defensive stands. Great coaching. Oh, and by the way, the best announcer in the game – Gus Johnson – was courtside to call the action for us.

Most importantly, this game showed exactly what makes this tournament so great. The NCAA Tournament isn’t a best of seven, but a best of one, meaning if you lose today, you go home tomorrow. And you saw that from these two teams.

Best Team: Butler

I tweeted this on Saturday afternoon, but it’s worth repeating: If you’d given me 50-1 odds on Butler making the Final Four before this weekend started, I wouldn’t have taken it. Maybe not even 100-1, after the Bulldogs barely got by Murray State in the second round.

Well, this past weekend, Butler looked like a totally different group. They were the best team in Salt Lake City, and proved it, by beating the No. 1 seed Syracuse Orange, and followed it up with an even better win over Kansas State to gain their Final Four spot.

What was maybe most impressive was how Butler got it done. On Thursday, the Bulldogs couldn’t have thrown the ball into the ocean, as they shot just 6 for 24 from three, and didn’t look comfortable on offense all evening long. But they stepped up defensively, forced 18 turnovers, and gutted out a win.

On Saturday, it was the exact opposite. Sure their defense was good, but it was the offense that carried the team. They shot 46 percent from the field, and outrebounded the rugged K-State Wildcats 36 to 27.

Now they head back to their hometown of Indianapolis for the first Final Four in school history. We can only imagine what this team will be capable of with a home court advantage!

Best Player: Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia

Here’s the truth: If you don’t appreciate West Virginia superstar Da’Sean Butler, then you don’t appreciate the game of basketball.

The guy does everything. He scores (17.4 points a game). He rebounds (6.3 a game). He makes his foul shots (78 percent). He plays great defense. He dives on the floor for loose balls. He does everything for his team that a leader should do.

And in this NCAA Tournament he has saved his best for his biggest games, as it was his 18 points (including 4 of 8 from three) that led West Virginia to their shocking Elite Eight victory over Kentucky. Butler was the Mountaineers emotional leader, spiritual leader, and the leader in the box score, like any great player should be.

And now, West Virginia is going to their first Final Four since 1959. Who knows where they’d be without him.

Most Surprising Player: Lance Thomas, Duke

Look, it’s easy to rip the guys on Duke. Everybody does it. They’re America’s bad guys, a team that everyone seems to enjoy watching lose.

But to give the Blue Devils a little bit of credit, on Sunday, they did everything needed to win. They made open jumpers, played great defense, and made foul shots when they mattered.

Most of all though, they proved that yes, even they, the Duke Blue Devils, can get tough when needed. And against a rugged Baylor Bears front line, Lance Thomas stood out above all others.

Looking at the stat line, Thomas’ numbers might not jump right out at you. Seven points and nine rebounds is pretty ho-hum right?

But it was Thomas who made two of the biggest plays of the game, when on back-to-back possessions he got offensive rebounds, and kicked them out to Nolan Smith for two game-clinching 3-pointers. He also played a big chunk of his minutes in the middle alone, as center Brian Zoubek was out most of the game with foul trouble.

For all the talk about Duke’s “Big Three,” Smith, Jon Scheyer, and Singler, it was Thomas who was arguably the MVP of the game on Sunday. Duke survived a miserable night shooting from Singler (0-10 from the field). But they couldn’t have survived without Thomas.

The Storylines You’ll Be Hearing About All Final Four Week:

1. The Return of Coach K to the Final Four: Coach K is one of the best ever in his chosen profession. But he hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2004, an eternity in Duke basketball circles. Well, he’s back, with what he calls the “Closest team he’s ever had.” Can he get his first championship since 2001 as well?

2. Speaking of Coaches: Brad Stevens of Butler may have the best story of any coach this weekend. After graduating from DePauw University back in 1999, Stevens went into a corporate career in marketing, before deciding after just a few months that it wasn’t for him. He ultimately latched on at Butler, where he started as an unpaid volunteer assistant, sleeping on the floors of the office, before working his way up, and getting his break as a head coach just seven years later. Now he’s in his first Final Four.

Told you he had a good story!

3. Then There’s West Virginia’s Bob Huggins: While at Cincinnati Huggins was one of college basketball’s most controversial coaches, and left the Queen City after being forced out by school president Nancy Zimpher (Read the part about her and Huggins on Wikipedia. Fascinating stuff).

Of course for all the controversy, Huggins is also one of the sport’s biggest winners, and currently ranks fourth amongst all active coaches in wins, behind only Coach K, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun. And since returning to his home state, and alma mater, he has quietly turned them into a National Championship contender. Huggins has been one of the best coaches in the game for year’s, but never seems to get the credit he deserves. Well that time has finally come.

4. The Final, Final Four Coach: Is Tom Izzo the best coach in college basketball? It’s hard to argue as this will be his sixth trip to the Final Four since 1999. Six! For comparison’s sake, this will be Coach K’s fourth trip in the same amount of time, with Jim Calhoun going to three and John Calipari just one in the last 12 years.

Told you it was hard to argue.

5. Butler’s Return Home: Despite the site of this year’s Final Four being just minutes from the Butler campus, Coach Brad Stevens refused to let his players talk about the possibility of playing there all season long. Well Coach, now that your team made it all the way back to Indianapolis, is it safe to talk about yet?

6. Nolan Smith’s Emotional Road to the Final Four: ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil did an excellent job of telling Duke guard Nolan Smith’s story, in an article published on Sunday. Smith’s father- who passed away in 1996- was a key player as part of Louisville’s run to the National Championship in 1980, in a Final Four played in Indianapolis. Can Smith win a title in the same city as his father 30 years later?

To read all of Aaron’s writing, be sure to check him out at www.aarontorres-sports.com. Also for his up to the minute thoughts on the NCAA Tournament, follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres