Thursday, November 11, 2010

News and Notes: Thursday Edition

Below, some news and notes for Thursday...
  • The Cornell Daily Sun notes, "The Sweet 16 banner will be raised to the Newman Arena rafters at the men’s basketball home-opener on Nov. 17 against Delaware at 7 p.m. It was originally reported that the banner-raising would take place Friday (Nov. 19) against St. Bonaventure. The first 1,500 fans in attendance at Wednesday’s game will also receive a free Newman Nation jersey."
  • The A.P. writes, Fran Dunphy, Temple's coach, "needed longer than usual to recover from a season-ending tournament loss after the Owls fell as the fifth seed to 12th-seeded Cornell last year, ending a 29-6 (14-2) season with a thud. Temple looks to build toward another tournament run when it opens the season Friday against Seton Hall." The Dusquesne Duke also notes, "Temple exited the NCAA tournament early last year losing in the first to Ivy League champion Cornell, but expect the Owls, who won 14 conference games last year, to stay near the top of the A-10."
  • The Peoria Journal Star writes, "the mids [mid majors] delivered in a big way last season in the NCAA Tournament]. Butler reached the championship game. UNI, Cornell, St. Mary's and Xavier all made the Sweet 16. UNI knocked off No. 1 seed Kansas in the second round."
  • A press release from claims, "The unprecedented number of upsets in last season's NCAA tournament was no coincidence. SportsMetriX software was the one common link that helped Butler, Northern Iowa, Murray State, Baylor, and Cornell for preparing pregame reports for their opponents"
  • notes that the Cornell at Seton Hall game on Sunday is just one of three games broadcast on ESPN's Fullcourt.
  • writes, "Last year ended in humiliating fashion for the [Wisconsin] Badgers in the Big Dance with that second round loss to Cornell. Cornell had a solid squad but the loss was still humiliating and we can't wait for the sting to be erased by the UW Badger basketball season getting underway.
  • Columbia Athletics notes, "Ivy League play begins at home on January 15 when Cornell, the three-time defending Ivy League champion, visits Levien Gym."
  • Princeton Town Topics writes, "The combination of Princeton’s strong finish last winter together with graduation losses and the coaching change at three-time defending Ivy champion Cornell has left the Tigers tabbed by the media poll as the preseason pick to win the league crown."
  • The Bleacher Report's Luke Dykes likes Princeton to win the Ivy and writes, "The Tigers return all five starters from a 22-9 team last season; with Cornell rebuilding this season, the Ivy League is Princeton's for the taking."
  • On the topic of Boston College and Steve Donahue, the Bleacher Report writes, "Donahue might have had more depth on some of his [Cornell] Ivy teams."
  • Below, a B.C. season preview from The Heights, the B.C. student newspaper:

Basketball Preview: Taking His Time. After 26 years, Steve Donahue isn't going to waste his shot in the ACC

Steve Donahue is running late. A group of reporters sits in a lush conference room, armed with inquiries about how Boston College's first new basketball coach since 1997 will revamp a program that slumped to a losing record in 2009. Assistant coaches pleasantly stop in to introduce themselves, offering strong handshakes and a sincere welcome. But the man with the answers is nowhere to be found.

With a gust of wind behind him, Donahue turns the corner and veers into the conference room. Dressed comfortably in a BC basketball sweatpants and sweatshirt ensemble, Donahue plops down at the head of the table before offering an unexpected apology.

"Sorry guys, time got away from me a bit," he said with a lighthearted, but weary smile.

There's an understanding that Donahue has been uttering those words a lot lately. The former Cornell coach has raced around Chestnut Hill and blazed a new recruiting trail since being hired to replace Al Skinner on April 6. He had to stock a cupboard left nearly bare due to zero recruits in 2008 or 2009, and he had to uproot a family after a 10-year stay in Ithaca, N.Y.

For Donahue, time has been of the essence. At the expense of a few more gray hairs in his bespeckled brown crew cut, though, the invitation to an ACC program was everything the Philadelphia native had been waiting for.

"When you get into any kind of business, you want to achieve at the highest level," Donahue said. "To have the opportunity to win a national championship, that's the motivation professionally. I was very concerned I wouldn't have that opportunity."

Now that he's here, Donahue isn't going to waste any time.

Cornell still needed Donahue last season, and he still needed his program. After pouring nine years into the Big Red, Donahue finally had the right mix to not only grab a third straight Ivy League title but also make a run into the NCAA tournament. Teams had come calling, but none of the caliber of BC, so Donahue wasn't listening.

"Nothing like this came up that year," he said. "There were some opportunities I quickly squashed, and I would never do that to Cornell."

Even if a big-name program made an offer?

"Wow, that's a heck of a hypothetical," Donahue said with a relieved smile. "I was really hoping that it wouldn't, so I didn't pursue anything at all. I'll leave it at that – I'm so glad it didn't. In a lot of ways, it was an unbelievable experience that I would have really regretted missing. What we went through to get there and not to see it through would have been extremely disappointing."

Donahue took Cornell for the ride of its life, guiding them to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. But now, that's all it is – history. Two decades in the Ivy League (he also spent 10 years at the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant coach) and a close-knit college community that worshiped him beckoned Donahue back to Ithaca for a chance at another phenomenal run. When Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo called, however, Donahue had a chance at the best of both worlds: an Ivy League-quality institution with an ACC-caliber basketball program.

"I would have stayed at Cornell," Donahue admitted. "They did everything they could to make me feel wanted, and I can't say enough about that. But when it came down to it, I consider this an Ivy school in the ACC.

"I watch students, I see how important education is here, I see how challenging it is and the amount of applicants we get, and the cross-reference of students thinking about this school and the Ivies. It doesn't feel any different. It feels like I'm coaching the same type of kid."

It may be the same type of kid, but the transition into his new position was not a smooth one. Rakim Sanders and Evan Ravenel opted to transfer, and recruits Brady Heslip, Kevin Noreen, and Papa Samba Ndao all chose to decommit after Skinner was fired. That left Donahue with no freshmen or sophomores, a thin frontcourt, and a lingering expectation to improve upon last year's 15-16 finish.

What could have been, however, isn't on Donahue's mind.

"A couple guys left the program, and they probably didn't want to buy into my program," Donahue said, leaving it at that.

What Donahue is concerned about is remodeling the personality of the team, a task that starts off the court. He brought in vocal seniors Chris Kowalski, a former baseball player, and John Cahill, as walk-ons. He is leaning on veteran returners Josh Southern, Reggie Jackson, and Biko Paris to lead by example, embodying the new coach's commitment to involvement in the student body and community service.

"The personality of the team is much different," Donahue said. "We helped out this season for ticket sales, and enjoyed that experience. Ice Jam was fun. But I also try to do little things. I tell them, ‘Don't sit in the back row like the typical athlete with your hoodie on and hang out.' Be personable and reach out to everybody."

He is bent on changing the culture that existed under the old regime, but that doesn't mean Donahue believes he knows his Eagles as well as he knew his kids at Cornell. Realistically, he recognizes, that will come with time, and he appreciates the work it takes to truly get to know one of his players. And it is work he believes must be done in order for him to succeed as a coach.

"You hear coaches say things that they're really close to their guys, but that takes time," Donahue said. "It would be kind of foolish for me to say, ‘Yeah, I'm really tight with these guys.' We are trying to, and we want them to know we are there for them. We are here any time they want to come. If they want to work on their game, we're here.

"Caring more about other things besides basketball – like getting them involved and sitting and talking with them about their families and what they're going through – for me, that's how I feel closer to a team. It makes me a better coach. I'm not one who can coach because a guy can make shots. I need to know him. I need to know what he's going through. I need to feel an emotional bond. That's what I had at Cornell. I did. But now I have to start from scratch, and I can't expect it to feel that way now."

ut he is absolutely going to put the time in to get there.

The move to BC was a dream come true, but the toll it is taking on his family is not nearly as sunny. A father of four kids, all between the ages of 8 and 14, Donahue asked his family to leave the home and Cornell community it had come to cherish and start over in Chestnut Hill.

"You read about coaches who change jobs, as I did, but I never knew how difficult it was," Donahue said. "It's really hard. It's hard to uproot four kids from three different schools, to leave their friends, it's hard. That part, the personal side, has been way more difficult than the basketball side."

Donahue faces the added difficulty of raising an autistic son who, though considered highly functioning, struggles socially, making the move to an entirely new environment that much more frightening. While at Cornell, Donahue heard about the story of Jason McElwain – J-Mac to his friends – a highly autistic high school student from Rochester, N.Y., who lived his dream and played during his high school's division title game. J-Mac didn't just play, he dropped 20 points, including six 3-pointers, before being carried off the court by an ecstatic student body.

"When we came across J-Mac, we were struggling with our son, especially socially," Donahue reflected. "That's the hardest part with any disorder like that. He's going to read and learn and be able to be functional, but to be accepted with others is the difficult part. What struck me with that story was how he was loved by all his classmates and how they ran on the floor – it was unbelievable to me. It was hard for me not to get emotional, because that's my biggest fear with my son."

Between Donahue's son and J-Mac, the Cornell basketball team learned about and helped raise awareness for autism, which Donahue hopes he can bring to BC. That's the thing with the Eagles' new head coach: he wants to intertwine family and basketball. He can help his family acclimate to life in Boston by including them in BC basketball, and he can help his basketball team by incorporating the idea of family into every aspect of the game.

There are already plans to meet with Autism Speaks, an organization based in New England that is devoted to increasing awareness and raising research funds to learn about the disorder, and the basketball team will have a chance to volunteer its time there.

"We're fortunate to be in this situation where we can make an impact on different people, and our team is privileged enough to have that opportunity that they should take advantage of it," Donahue said.

While many head coaches are active in community service, few are willing to devote the time to creating a familial atmosphere, especially at the expense of talent. Donahue is one of those coaches, though, convinced that team chemistry trumps individual athleticism.

"We passed on kids that people probably think are more talented and took kids we think are the right fit for Boston College and our basketball program," he admitted with no hint of shyness. "I want these guys to feel like this is a family. Not only that, I want them to be a good father and be a husband and show them how all of us interact with our wives. This isn't life or death, this is supposed to be fun."

The recruiting assets now at Donahue's disposal, most notably full athletic scholarships, have changed, but his mentality has not. He is in the business for piecing together a perfect puzzle, searching for the personalities and interests that mesh with his program, just as he did recruiting under the academic constraints of the Ivy League for 20 years.

"Recruiting in the Ivy League has made me a much better recruiter, in terms of evaluating players," Donahue said. "We have an enormous amount of connections that I wouldn't have had in 20 years. I had to meet thousands of coaches to get four players, and that's not the case here. The more challenging part is making decisions. I really have to pick, ‘Is Player A better than Player B?' because I can get them both."

It may sound unconventional, but Donahue has been in the business for a long time. He knows what he's doing.

A lot has changed in the last seven months. Fan pep rallies in the Dustbowl, supporting the first-ever Ice Jam, and a much more open atmosphere surrounding the men's basketball team have all arrived with Steve Donahue.

All of this progress has gone on behind the scenes. But when the new coach unveils his product tomorrow in the season opener, that, too, will look very different from the tight and fixed flex offense of the last decade.

"It's fast," Donahue said of his offense. "I want to make quick decisions. I want the ball to move. We try to read what the defense is doing, but in the same sense, do it quickly. I'm not caught up with shooting too many threes in that game or not enough. We utilize what the defense gives us and rely on the kids making quick decisions."

In essence, Donahue wants results. He doesn't care how many sharp passes or missed shots it takes to get there. It worked to perfection at Cornell, and he is confident it will here.

After two decades in the Ivy League, it's about time he got his chance.

Boston College basketball team to play uptempo
New basketball coach’s system what players want to play

Leaving Ithaca, N.Y., his home for 10 years, was about the last thing Steve Donahue thought he’d ever want to do.

“It was very hard,” said Donahue, who coached the Cornell men’s basketball team, going 72-21 with three NCAA appearances over the last there years, including an Ivy League record 29-5 last season. “I have four children, we all love Ithaca, New York, and I built a program that I think has a chance to continue to be really good. You have some success and get the snowball rolling a little bit and you want to keep it going, and I think you can do that.

“I always said there had to be some place that would just flat-out be a home run, and if this didn’t come about I still would be there.”

“This” is Boston College, which has taken on a new fan base since the move. “I told the folks at BC that they made a great hire,” Cornell athletic director Andy Noel said after Donahue made the decision. “Our university really wanted to keep Steve. I’m a little heartbroken, but we turn the page and become a BC fan forever. We’re appreciative that we had a decade with Steve Donahue.”

Donahue is just what BC AD Gene DeFelippo was looking for when the Al Skinner era ended after 13 years last April. Donahue, who guided Cornell to its first national ranking (No. 22 at one point last season) in 59 years, is going to fit right in. The only question is, will his players, who open the 2010-11 season Friday night against St. Francis, fit into his system?

“Absolutely,” Donahue said. “The kids that were here in the program I think first and foremost want this program to be successful, so I think they had a great belief in what my staff and I were trying to get across to them. I never sensed any resistance. For the most part its been a group that’s really embraced what we’re trying to do, and they’re excited about a future that could be bright for them.”

Donahue has installed an uptempo offense that features plenty of 3-point shooting, something he says that most young players cherish. “I think all kids want to play fast. I think that’s what drives them to basketball. With that being said, the first thing I said to them is, ‘You’re not different from most kids. Here’s the difference: are you willing to dedicate yourself physically and mentally to the conditioning that you need to do to play this style this fast?’”

Donahue tells his players, eight of whom are seniors, that they have to be selfless. “That’s the only way this works. Y’know, there’s habits that they have formed over their lives and it’s not their fault. It’s what they’ve been taught, that they still kind of resort back to that occasionally, but for the most part they bought in a hundred percent.”

Donahue has also bought into the major college level; the ACC is not the Ivy League.

“I may feel different in a few months after going through it. Right now I feel like I always have. I have an office right next to the gym, I’ve got kids who want to get better, teaching them how to play basketball, teaching them everything we can to try to represent the school the right way. It feels the same. That’s good because I was a little concerned because you hear of all the other responsibilities that you have and at this level the type of kids you’re gonna get, and all those things. I can tell you right now I feel very similar to what I’ve always felt when I’ve coached basketball.”

As for taking over another coach’s program – and his players, “I think it’s more difficult for the players. As I felt for the players I left at Cornell, it’s a tough thing you have to deal with in college basketball. You do recruit kids to fit your system. I think it’s their sacrifice that they’re making. They’re going through a whole new coaching staff and mindset, so for me I’m not worried about playing Steve Donahue’s system. I just want these guys, especially the seniors, to have a successful senior year and try to get them the best way they can to be successful.”

In their 85-58 exhibition win over Philadelphia University (where Donahue once coached) last week, the signs were already positive. “I think the best sign I could say is that they continued to do what they were doing in practice, which is play unselfish, play hard, space people out,” he said. “The best sign was that they really tried to play the way we want to play.”

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