Category Archives: College basketball

Schifino tells his side of the story

Getting the whole story is a vital component of journalism, and when it comes to the tale of Steel Valley High School boys basketball and its coach, Drew Schifino, many of us, including this blogger, are getting it wrong.

That’s the message Schifino conveyed when speaking to him. He initiated contact with me via Twitter in regards to this piece, which I wrote shortly after developing an opinion on Schifino’s decision to not coach the Ironmen in their WPIAL Class AAA playoff game against South Fayette. Schifino’s decision was in response to having Steel Valley’s leading scorer – Dom Keyes – ruled academically ineligible before the postseason.

The timing made it easy to jump on the decision, but Schifino, who remains Steel Valley’s coach, said he’s had little trouble maintaining the trust of his players and the majority of their parents. The fact he remains at Steel Valley backs up that statement, and he’s already anxious for the 2015-16 season to start,

“There was a player and parent meeting before that (playoff) game, and I told them what was happening and what I was going to do,” Schifino said. “Ninety percent were on board. A large majority have been backing me.”

Schifino, a former standout at Penn Hills who went on to play – and play well – at West Virginia and California University of Pennsylvania, knew his decision would be controversial.

“It was one of the toughest things I ever had to do,” he said. “I wanted to be there. The situation was tough for me, and I pretty much knew my name was on the line. I’ve had different adversities in my life, and the main thing is I’ve learned a lot of stuff. It’s easy to say I should have coached that game, and this is something I can say that I’d probably never do that again.”

What Schifino wants to do is to keep coaching at Steel Valley, and he wants basketball fans of Western Pennsylvania to look past the things they’ve read.

For him, coaching high school basketball is a passion. It’s a big reason why he gave up a professional playing career in Europe to return to Western Pennsylvania and take a gig coaching boys basketball at Waynesburg, which entailed a 75-minute commute to a school where many top athletes opt to wrestle during the winter sports season.

He counts West Virginia men’s coach Bob Huggins and Pitt men’s assistant Brandin Knight among his friends, but the college game is not for Schifino.

Schifino follows Steel Valley in offseason leagues. He offers one-on-one training with players from places as varied as Norwin, Fox Chapel, West Mifflin and Pine-Richland. Schifino said he trains an averages five to six players a day, six days per week. He’s in the first year of leading an AAU program, Oh Boy Sports.

And, during those hard winter months of the 2014-15 school year, Schifino drove Steel Valley players to school, as the school district does not bus students.

“I just wanted to give back. I’m a guy who worked hard and I wanted to show others where hard work can take you,” Schifino said. “During the winter, I drove players to school, and I’d go pick them up. People don’t know those things about me, but when I get mentioned, people just see negativity. It’s the only perception of me for whatever reason. I want people to see the good that is going on.”

Blogger’s note: No anonymous comments or comments under pseudonyms will be accepted.

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Kentucky’s historic run brings back the Willard years

Five-star recruiting classes are the norm for blue-blood programs like Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Louisville, where tradition, big-name coaches and NBA-caliber talent converge on a yearly basis.

A belief exists that programs like Pitt, which flirted with college basketball elite on multiple occasions in recent years, needs to seek out star-studded players – the ones who stay at school a year or two before seeking the riches of the NBA lottery.

There’s no doubting talent makes winning easier. Just look at Kentucky.

Filled with a roster of future NBA players, the Wildcats are 38-0 after Saturday night’s last-second victory over a game Notre Dame. Kentucky, led by former Pitt assistant John Calipari, can become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to win a national championship with no losses. If Kentucky accomplishes the task with two more victories, it becomes a team for the ages.

Meanwhile, at Pitt, the Panthers land the occasional four-star guy and, on rarer occasions, five-star recruit. On the surface, Pitt shouldn’t be a tough sell. It competes in a Power 5 conference. the Panthers are regularly on national television and the urban setting – complete with an occasionally packed, state-of-the-art facility – is something a lot of inner-city high schoolers can relate with. Yet, most years, Pitt finds itself down the list on recruiting rankings.

It wasn’t always that way.

Pitt once brought in a recruiting class that had Panthers fans thinking big, and it wasn’t as long ago as one might think.

Hot-shot coaching prospect Ralph Willard arrived in Oakland after Paul Evans was fired following the 1993-4 season. Evans guided, arguably, the most talented team in Pitt history in 1987-88, but, like most Pitt teams, it underachieved in postseason play, losing to Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Willard’s hire was seen as a boon. He had been an assistant for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Rick Pitino in the NBA and at Kentucky. As a head coach, Willard guided Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16, a place Pitt hadn’t been since 1974, when the tournament field was smaller.

Ralp Willard had the second-worst winning percentage at Pitt during the 1900s.

Ralp Willard had the second-worst winning percentage at Pitt during the 1900s.

Willard was supposedly the answer to Pitt’s basketball problems, which were many after the program slumped mightily under Evans’ watch. It wasn’t long before Willard, whom Pitino once recommended for a NBA general manager job, was bringing in the type of players who would’ve had message boards and subscription web sites drooling, had those things existed in the mid-1990s.

Willard’s second recruiting class at Pitt was lauded. Some recruiting services – remember there weren’t as many at the time – ranked it second nationally. Second! Willard actually convinced some of the best high school players in the country to come to Pitt and play at the leaky, old Fitzgerald Field House.

There was Vonteego Cummings. The Georgia native could run the point, and was big for the position at 6-foot-3. Cummings was considered one of the top 20 high school players in the country.

Still say that Vonteego Cummings is one of the most unappreciated players in Pitt history.

Still say that Vonteego Cummings is one of the most unappreciated players in Pitt history.

There was Mark Blount. A Parade All-American, Blount was a 7-footer and pegged as a future NBA player.

There was Michael Gill, a 6-6 swing player who was tabbed as the most explosive scorer in the group. Like Cummings, Gill was considered a top 20-25 player.

There was Andre Howard, a 6-7 force from Philly; Isaac Hawkins, a big man from the South; and Kellii Taylor, a smooth-shooting defensive stopper.

It was an impressive group, a collection good enough to make many believe Pitt not only made the right hire in Willard, but that the Panthers were once again an up-and-coming program, much like it was during the early years under Evans.

As for Willard’s heralded recruiting class, well Pitt made one NIT appearance during his coaching tenure, which ended in 1999. Repeat: one NIT appearance.

No NCAA tournament appearances.

Bobby Jones and Tom Crean, two of Willard’s top assistants, quickly found work elsewhere. For Jones, who spent several years as athletic director at Trinity High School, the move was a lateral one to Minnesota.

Cummings proved to be the best player of the bunch. Hawkins stuck around and was a solid big man. Taylor stayed around long enough to be dismissed from the team in 2000, a result of drug problems. Howard transferred to St. Joseph’s. Gill transferred to George Washington. Blount stayed for two underwhelming seasons, but never returned to campus following a Big East tournament and declared for the NBA draft.

Blount  was drafted, in the second round, but it would be years before he ended up in the NBA, though, much to his credit, he stuck around for some time. Cummings ended up in the NBA, too, for three seasons.

Willard brought other big-named talent to Pitt in Attila Cosby, Chris Seabrooks, Fred Primus and Willie Cauley. None panned out, but the latter keeps popping into my mind as Kentucky keeps playing in this NCAA tournament.

Cauley’s son, Willie Cauley-Stein, is a marvel, a 7-foot combination of speed, skill and incredible defensive ability. He’s lived up to the hype he received heading into Kentucky. His dad sure didn’t.

Willie Cauley was considered a top junior college player, a can’t-miss NBA prospect when he came to Pitt. The problem was Cauley ended up in more fights and more trouble at Pitt than he did on the good end of the stat sheet.

I covered those Willard teams though the 1996-97 as sports editor at The Pitt News, the university’s student newspaper. And I can’t help but think of that heralded group every time someone mentions Pitt needs to recruit more talented players.

Pitt needs to recruit the right players.

‘Undefeated in Pennsylvania’

No NCAA men’s basketball coach won games at a more prolific clip in his first decade than West Liberty University’s Jim Crutchfield.

Last year, Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers reached the Division II championship game, and he entered his 11th season with a 272-49 record. That’s an astronomical .847 win percentage. This season, fourth-ranked West Liberty sports a 24-2 record, putting Cructhfield’s career record at 296-51.

Crazy stuff.

The only thing eluding West Liberty during this prolific run is a national championship, but, despite coming so close a year ago, it’s not a frequently discussed topic within the team.

“We never talk about a national championship or conference championship. Our goal is to win as many games as we can, try to win every game we play,” Crutchfield said. “We have two goals. One is to put a different product on the floor. We want to play a high-intensity game. Our other goal, as far as winning and losing goes, is we want to go into our conference tournament feeling like we’ve got a chance to win it.”

West Liberty will certainly be the favorite to win the Mountain East Conference championship when its tournament begins Wednesday. And its high-speed style of play gives the Division II program a level or national exposure rarely seen at that level.

As for that style, Crutchfield cut his coaching teeth at the small high school level. Before landing as an assistant basketball coach and men’s and women’s tennis coach at West Liberty, he was head coach at Cameron (W.Va.) High School through much of the 1980s.

If that school sounds familiar to readers of the Observer-Reporter sports section, it should. Cameron is a frequent opponent of West Greene and Jefferson-Morgan high schools.

Crutchfield hasn’t coached against those schools in some time, but he remembers the games well.

“I padded my record against those teams. I was undefeated versus Pennsylvania,” Crutchfield said with a laugh. “We always played West Greene, Jefferson-Morgan and Immaculate Conception, which I don’t think is there in Washington anymore.”

Cameron particularly enjoyed playing against Jefferson-Morgan.

“Our players always loved going into their gym” Crutchfield recalled. “Back then, they had a rim that was only 9 (feet), 10 (inches). Our guys thought they could dunk on it easier.”

Why Signing Day stinks

Sure, recruiting is a lifeline for any college sports program. No matter how good the coach or the coaching staff, winning regularly without talent and depth is a difficult task. Finding such talent during the recruiting process is essential, and it’s a skill that separates the Urban Meyers and Nick Sabans of the college football world from the Gerry Fousts and Johnny Majors (at least during his second stint at Pitt).

And, over the last 10 to 15 years, recruiting became big business. Guys live in luxurious homes just for following the travails of teenage athletes. Loyal fans pay subscriptions to sites, soaking up information about those who might decide some day to play for their team. Coaches even joined the recruiting hyperbole through social media, as recently witnessed by humorous Twitter posts from various members of the Penn State and Pitt football assistants. (News flash: Of course, Penn State would win this year’s recruiting between the two. Pitt’s had its head coach in place barely a month.)

We’re given national, regional, state and district rankings from every site from ESPN to fan blogs. Players aren’t known as much by name as the number of stars sites like Rivals, Scout or ESPN assigns. Follow those sites and find out when a player is visiting a school and attending a nationally televised basketball game or when that same player narrows 73 scholarship offers to five programs.

Coaches are criticized for not bringing in enough four- or five-star recruits. Recruits are analyzed like they’re entering the NFL Draft.

It’s nauseating, and it’s the most inexact science in sports.

And it all culminates every year with the worst day on the sports calendar – National Signing Day, which happens to be today.

Starting in the morning, fax machines (yes, National Signing Day ensures these devices are still created) light up in college football offices across the country. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and recruiting websites monitor every National Latter of Intent sent. It’s silly, yet essential. Without good recruits, there’s no chance of winning.

Yet, the analysis is overdone.

Look at Pitt for instance. Two of the Panthers’ best players in 2014 – James Connor and T.J. Clemmings – weren’t sifting through offers from national powers. Yet, Clemmings is a possible first-round pick in the upcoming draft and Connor enters next season as the ACC Player of the Year.

For days leading into Signing Day, we’re told how Antonio Brown – the best receiver in the NFL these days – was an afterthought in the recruiting process. Not many schools wanted offensive lineman Eric Fisher, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Finding players like Brown and Fisher are what separates a decent recruiting class from a good one.

As for those four-and five-star recruits, rankings are often bestowed upon them at camps, when looking good in the uniform matters more than how the player performs in it. There’s an overhyped offensive lineman from Western Pennsylvania who earned a bunch of stars but couldn’t make first- or second-team all-conference as a senior.

So many other factors aren’t weighed on Signing Day.

That five-star recruit may be a head case. He may miss mommy too much. He may have a pregnant girlfriend back home. Worse yet, all three.

Good luck keeping that guy from playing in the PSAC two years from now.

It’s inexact and over-the-top. And it’s affected everything from Division II swimming to Division track.

Because of the attention paid to Division I signings in football and basketball, high schools everywhere are holding “signing ceremonies” – a ridiculous display of lies.

For starters, athletes don’t sign to play for Division III athletics. The reason? There is no athletic scholarship money in Division III. Another common foible in recruiting are the service academies. If someone plays football for the U.S. Naval Academy, that athlete doesn’t sign a National Letter of Intent, he accepts an appointment. As for Division II sports, unless the athlete is playing football, basketball or wrestling, it’s highly unlikely much scholarship money is involved. Yet, high school hold these ridiculous events to appease parents and kids.

Do me a favor, next time you see a “signing ceremony” on your local newscast, look to see if the athlete is actually signing something or just doodling on a blank paper. I’ll take the latter and give you 100:1 odds.

Pitt’s inconsistency is part of the fun

Jamie Dixon guided Pitt basketball to the NCAA tournament in 10 of his first 11 seasons as a head coach. And the one year Pitt failed to qualify for the Big Dance, it won something called the CBI tournament.

Granted, the majority of Pitt’s appearances in the NCAA tournament ended early. There’s been one Elite 8 appearance, accompanied with a heartbreaking loss to Villanova. Take that run away, and it’s mostly losses to teams seeded lower than the Panthers, though it should be noted at least  six teams that knocked Pitt out advanced to the Final Four, including Florida last season.

What Pitt lacks in splashy tournament wins, it makes up for in consistency. Pitt’s string of tournament appearances puts it in elite company.

Maybe cranky Panthers fans will appreciate that consistency later this year, assuming Pitt fails to advance to the NCAA tournament.

At this point, two games into the ACC season, Pitt looks anything but a tournament team. At 11-4 overall and 1-1 in conference, Pitt’s best win probably came against Kansas State, which isn’t saying much. It’s next best win might be against Florida Gulf Coast. There was a bad loss to Hawaii, and blowout losses to Indiana, N.C. State and San Diego State. Against better competition, Pitt’s looked overmatched.

Heck, against Boston College Tuesday night, the Panthers looked like a bad basketball team. Yet, thanks to a three-minute flurry at the end of regulation and the play of Josh Newkirk in overtime, the Panthers escaped Chestnut Hill with a one-point victory.

That win triggers two thoughts: 1. Decent teams find ways to win when they play poorly, and, make no mistake, Pitt absolutely stunk for 37 minutes against Boston College; and, 2. Pitt could be in for a long season.

Leaning toward the latter of those two thoughts, but Pitt’s pulled surprises before.

Pitt could falter in conference play much like the Ashton Gibbs-led (and let’s not give Gibbs much credit for being a leader) squad in 2011-12 that won the CBI or continue to improve like the 2009-10 unit that lost in nonconference play to Texas and Indiana in addition to dropping four of five games during a brutal stretch of Big East play. That team ended up with a three seed in the NCAA tournament and ended its season with a tough loss to Xavier.

This Pitt team isn’t good enough to earn a three seed, but it could gradually improve, much like the 2009-10 team.

This Pitt team is undersized. Michael Young is playing out of position. So is Ryan Luther and Sheldon Jeter. The Panthers don’t own a true post presence. There’s no one inside to funnel the defense to when a player gets beaten off the dribble. Shot selection is poor, occasionally pathetic. Cameron Wright is far from last season’s form, the possible lingering effects of his foot injury. Newkirk occasionally plays out of control. Durand Johnson is suspended for the year. Derrick Randle has regressed, and the same could be said for James Robinson. Jamel Artis looks like Pitt’s second best player for a few games, then struggles to stay on the court in others.

It’s a wildly inconsistent group, but that is going to be part of the fun watching Pitt.

There’s nothing that can be taken for granted with these Panthers. For once, penciling them into the NCAA tournament isn’t a given, and this group is going to be challenged at every stop on the schedule. But, the guess here is Pitt, like most Dixon teams, will improve.

Will be be enough to get into the NCAA tournament during a season of transition? It’s going to take winning games like the next three at home and finding a way to beat a team or two it shouldn’t.

I wouldn’t bet against it, but it is tempting.