Al Skinner Soothes KSU Coaching Woes

The long awaited decision on who will be Kennesaw State’s new basketball coach was finally set in stone this Sunday. Vaughn Williams and company pulled a rabbit out of their collective hats with the hiring of Al Skinner. The 62-year-old Skinner is the perfect hire on paper for a program that has been one of the worst in the nation since 2010. The Owls needed a proven winner with experience leading young adults. For once in my life I can finally say, I think Kennesaw State got this one right.

Skinner is definitely no spring chicken, but what he does bring to the program is credibility. You can tell it by his look: A toothy smile, nearly bald, Skinner has been through some battles as both a player and coach and expects nothing but excellence. He was a standout at UMass as a player in the early 70s and was subsequently drafted by the Boston Celtics of the NBA, but instead decided to play in the ABA with the New York Nets and Hall of Famer Julius Erving. No knock on Jimmy Lallathin, but he wasn’t able to tell his players he went shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best players the game has ever seen. Skinner even has a shiny championship ring he won during his second professional season to get players’ attentions.

As a coach, Skinner started out as an assistant at Marist and Rhode Island before eventually taking over the head coaching job with the Rams in 1988. There he enjoyed a successful run in the A-10, amassing a respectable record of 138-126 in nine seasons. Skinner landed the Boston College job for the 1997-98 season and began a wildly successful run considering the juggernauts which resided in the Big East and eventually the ACC. In 13 seasons he ran up a record of 247-165 while collecting three Big East regular season championships and one tournament championship.

Kennesaw State, lowly little Kennesaw State, who has suffered through a 30-125 record over the past five seasons really just landed a one-time A-10 Coach of the Year, two-time Big East Coach of the Year and the 2001 National Coach of the Year?! Yes, you aren’t dreaming, that just happened. The Owls have won just 85 games during their 10 years as a Division One program; take a four-year stretch from 2003-04 to 2006-07 and Skinner won 98 games alone.

If players won’t buy in now that Skinner is at the helm, they will never buy in. He has sent the likes of Craig Smith, Sean Williams and Jared Dudley to the pros from Boston College. Not all-stars, but all serviceable NBA players that have played a handful of seasons in the association.

A Second Chance

Skinner was fired from Boston College on March 30, 2010. He has been working as an associate head coach at Bryant University, who much like Kennesaw State was years ago, is in its infancy as a Division One program transitioning full-time in 2012.

So what’s the knock on Skinner? I’m sure you could take a few guesses, but one major one is that he is old and won’t recruit the area like he should. It’s a decent argument, but I doubt that the former National Coach of the Year is leaving from the comforts of the Rhode Island area to come to Kennesaw just to collect a check and cash it in. Sometimes there is a thing called pride that can push old veterans to the peak of their game. Surely Skinner won’t want to end his career with a flop.

The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan highlighted a lazy Al Skinner back when he was fired from Boston College, stating he was too casual. However, in a Boston Globe article early last year, Providence Head Coach Ed Cooley said the fire is back.  “You could tell he missed it,” Cooley said. “He’s dying to coach again.” Cooley also added, “For Al Skinner not to be a head coach is a travesty to college basketball. It is crazy how he’s not a head coach somewhere.”

Time will tell if this hire was correct or not. If it is a homerun, Kennesaw can finally host a basketball program they are proud of; if not, the program will continue to remain in shambles.

Why The Hawks Will Soar Into The Finals

April. October. November. All painful months for Atlanta fans. The playoffs are here yet again but this time there is a different aura surrounding the Atlanta Hawks. There is a different vibe; a different feel that has surrounded this team all season. The Hawks have home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference; a rarity for a team that has been stuck in mediocrity. It’s time for Atlanta to make a statement. It’s time for them to take the next step. It’s normal to be panicky about the Hawks, but I’m here to tell you to take a deep breath and relax. I am going off on a limb and saying the most disregarded number one seed in NBA playoff history will do the “unthinkable” and win the Eastern Conference Finals.

The trendy and sexy pick all season long has been the Cavaliers. Sure, they have the star power but sometimes in the playoffs it’s the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Cleveland handed Atlanta a beat down in game nine of the season, 127-94. That loss along with an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lowly Lakers ignited something within Atlanta. The Hawks started their rampage through the Eastern Conference and left in its warpath three convincing wins over the Cavs, so why can’t this Hawks team do the same thing in the playoffs?

Playoffs and the city of Atlanta have not gone well together, but just saying “We live in Atlanta” is not a good enough excuse to why the Hawks won’t make it to the NBA Finals. Injuries have been a concern and are a potential speedbump on the Hawks’ bandwagon to the championship game, but time and time again, these Hawks have proven they are for real. Coach Budenholzer’s team system is deadly. An unselfish team that can lock you down in the postseason is a team no one would want to face.

Atlanta is the most complete team in the East. Void of “stars”, the Hawks let you choose your poison. Don’t want Millsap, Horford or Teague? Fine. Here is Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll driving you crazy with their shooting. Don’t like those options? How about Dennis Schroder, who is quietly turning the Jeff Teague/Schroder backcourt into a poor man’s Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe situation.

Cleveland will not win the NBA Finals. They will have to scrap their way to even get there. The Hawks have had their number. DeMarre Carroll befuddled LeBron James in their last matchup, harassing him into nine turnovers. Cleveland is not the elite defensive team Atlanta is and they don’t have the coaching to match up with Mike Budenholzer. LeBron and Kyrie Irving might get there’s but two men will not beat a Budenholzer coached team. Two long suffering cities might clash for a chance to lift their respective “curses”.

Chicago might be the only other team that could challenge the Hawks. Atlanta beat the Bulls twice before losing in the final game of the season while calling the dogs off. Chicago is a tough-nosed defensive team but has struggled with injuries all season long. Derrick Rose looked good in game one against the Bucks, but it remains to be seen if he can grind out a long series against an equally tough defensive team. Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder could give Rose headaches trying to chase them around the perimeter.

Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol will be the cornerstones for Chicago. They will need to perform up to their season numbers to take down either the Hawks or Cavs. Atlanta will likely get an exhausted team in the Eastern Conference Finals. Chicago and Cleveland seem destined for a physical long series. It will be imperative for the Hawks to wipe the floor with the Nets in four and to take care of either Washington or Toronto in short manner also.

Whatever happens, be proud of the Hawks. It has been a great season but there is much to come on the horizon. As long as they make the ECF, they will have had a successful season. Atlanta is playing with house money, and I think they are going to cash it in into a NBA Finals appearance.

RESULT: Hawks were swept in 4 games by the Cavs

Western Conference Playoff Preview

#1 Golden State Warriors (67-15) vs. #8 New Orleans Pelicans (45-37)

The Warriors waltz in with the best record in the NBA and lead the league in both Offensive (109.7) and Defensive (98.2) Ratings. Golden State leads the league in scoring unsurprisingly at 110 points per game and own the high point differential this season at +10.1. Stephen Curry is the odds on favorite to win Most Valuable Player. He has averaged 23.8 points, 7.7 assists, 2.04 steals and broke his own NBA record with 286 made threes. Klay Thompson is the second part of the “Splash Brothers” and averaged 21.7 points while hitting .439 percent of his threes. The Warriors are unselfish and lead the league in assists per game. Draymond Green does everything on the floor and is a candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year.

The Pelicans clinched a playoff appearance on the final day of the season, defeating the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. New Orleans is an extremely talented team loaded with steady players. Superstar Anthony Davis will need to carry the Pellies if they want to put a dent in the Warriors. The former Kentucky Wildcat averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in the regular season. Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and a healthy Jrue Holiday will be key to supporting Davis. The Warriors took the season series 3-1, but only Evans and role player Dante Cunningham appeared in all four games for New Orleans.

#4 Portland Trail Blazers (51-31) vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies (55-27)

Due to the Blazers winning their division, they will receive crucial home court advantage over the better Grizzlies. Memphis swept away the Blazers in four games this season. Portland is banged up after losing Wes Matthews (15.9 ppg) to a ruptured Achilles tendon in early March. Arron Afflalo was a mid-season pickup, but he has also dealt with injuries and has only averaged 10.6 points in 25 games with the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge has played with a finger and most recently foot injury but has still managed to lead the team in scoring (23.4) and rebounding (10.2). Damian Lillard showed how clutch he was last season in the playoffs and will need to dazzle again as he enters the playoffs after scoring 21 points on average in the regular season. Nicolas Batum will be the X-factor. He has struggled all season long but if healthy, the versatile wing can stuff the stat sheet.

As usual, Memphis wins with its defense. The Grizz allowed just 95.1 points per game, good for second in the league. Jeff Green has been a welcomed addition and gives Memphis a scoring small forward they haven’t seen since Rudy Gay. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph anchor the paint combining for 33.5 points and 18.3 rebounds. The steady improvement of Mike Conley has helped lift this team to the next level. The only thing holding Memphis back is their lack of outside shooting. They connected on just 423 threes this season, 29th in the NBA.

#3 Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. #6 San Antonio Spurs (55-27)

The jumbled up two thru six seeds were sorted out on the final day as the Rockets and Grizzlies won and the Spurs lost, dropping the defending NBA Champions from the two-seed to the six-seed. The Clippers split the season series 2-2 against the vaunted Spurs. Chris Paul has managed to stay healthy the entire season and put together MVP-type numbers. Blake Griffin missed a month with a staph infection in his right elbow. DeAndre Jordan is a leading candidate for DPOY after leading the league with 15 rebounds per night. The Clips have won a league best seven straight heading into the playoffs. An inconsistent bench is what scares people the most from picking the Clippers to go deep.

San Antonio won 11-straight before falling to New Orleans to end the season. That loss proved costly, dropping them four spots. The usual suspects do the damage for Coach Popovich’s team. A deep, unselfish bench that whips the ball around gives opposing teams headaches as they have to run their starters back out on the floor before the game gets out of hand. Kawhi Leonard has taken the mantle as the future of the franchise. He leads the team in points (16.5) and steals (2.31). The big three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have started to show cracks in their armor, combining to average only 38.8 points per game.

#2 Houston Rockets (56-26) vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks (50-32)

Despite Dwight Howard missing exactly half the season with injuries and losing Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley before the playoffs, James Harden has propelled the Rockets into the two-seed and will enjoy home court advantage. Harden had a monster year averaging 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists. He will need help in the playoffs however. Howard is not yet 100 percent. Since his return he has averaged 13.8 points and 8.9 rebounds, down from his 16.3 and 11 before injury. The Rockets won three games by double digits as they beat the Mavericks three out of the four times the two teams met.

Dallas’ experiment adding Rajon Rondo has not yielded the results Mark Cuban wanted, but he along with Coach Rick Carlisle will hope Rondo shines yet again on the big stage in the playoffs. During the regular season, Rondo has averaged just 9.3 points and 6.5 assists with Dallas along with a terrifying 45 percent from the line. Monta Ellis (18.9), Dirk Nowitzki (17.3) and former Rocket Chandler Parsons (15.7) are the big three scorers. Parsons has battled a knee injury and has missed six straight games. The Mavs are loaded with veterans, but their age might hurt them against an explosive Rockets team.

Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

#4 Toronto Raptors (49-33) vs. #5 Washington Wizards (46-36)

The Raptors swept the series 3-0, but both teams are evenly matched. DeMar DeRozan (20.1) and Kyle Lowry (17.8) team up in the backcourt along with sixth man Lou Williams (15.5) to provide the scoring punch. 22-year-old Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas has continued to show signs of having a breakout season, but Dwane Casey refuses to play the big man 30 minutes a night. He still managed to average a career-high 12 points along with 8.7 rebounds in 26.2 minutes this season. Toronto quietly has averaged 104 points; fourth-best in the NBA.

Washington has some bruisers inside with Marcin Gortat, Nene Hilario and Kris Humphries, but its exciting guards John Wall and Bradley Beal who run the show. Wall averaged 17.6 points and a career-high 10 assists during the regular season while Beal, who was hampered with an injury early on, finished with 15.3 points. Paul Pierce recently called out Beal and Wall on whether they want to be great or not. It might have been a shot at them or a veteran’s tactic of lighting a fire underneath them before the postseason.

#3 Chicago Bulls (50-32) vs. #6 Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)

Injuries have been the prevalent theme this year for the resilient Bulls. New addition and oldest starter Pau Gasol has played the most out of all the starters, appearing in 78 games. The Spaniard has been sensational averaging 18.5 points and 11.8 rebounds. The regular starting lineup has hardly been together. Jimmy Butler (17), Derrick Rose (31), Taj Gibson (20), Mike Dunleavy (19) and Joakim Noah (15) have all suffered lengthy injuries causing them to miss a handful of games. The emergence of Jimmy Butler has paid dividends as he has risen his scoring by nearly seven points from a season ago and now leads the team in scoring with 20 a night.

Jason Kidd needs to get more credit as a coach. After a strenuous relationship with the Nets, Kidd bounced over to Milwaukee and has another team in the playoffs. Top scorer Brandon Knight was having a breakthrough season but was dealt at the deadline in a trade that in return brought back Michael Carter-Williams. MCW still can’t shoot well, but his ability to fill a stat sheet with his length is helpful. Top pick Jabari Parker went down for the season after 25 games but that allowed Khris Middleton and Giannis Antentokounmpo to shine. Middleton has averaged a career-high 13.4 points while the Greek Freak has blossomed into a do-everything type of player. The experience will be invaluable for the 20-year-old as he looks primed for a monster season next year.

#2 Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29) vs. #7 Boston Celtics (40-42)

The last vision of LeBron James in Cavaliers jersey in the playoffs was him ripping off his jersey after losing to the Celtics in the second round. King James will try to forget that and lead the Cavs to the city of Cleveland’s first title in decades.  The Cavs split the series 2-2 this season. A slow start to the season doomed Cleveland from claiming the top seed, but they have played the part ever since LBJ returned from injury. The additions of J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert have been huge boons. Questions still remain on whether they can be an elite defensive team to win a title. Kevin Love has been a liability and has sat out down the stretch in close games.

Isaiah Thomas has made the name proud. The free scoring guard has sparked the Celtics as they enter the playoffs winners of six straight including two wins over the Cavaliers. Thomas has averaged 19 points and 5.4 assists in 21 games with the Celtics; Boston has gone 14-7 with Thomas in the lineup. Brad Stevens warrants votes for Coach of the Year after making the playoffs without Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. The Celtics are loaded with strong role players who have bought into Stevens’ system and will give them a chance to challenge to superior Cavaliers.

Hawks-Nets Playoff Preview

Atlanta (60-22) vs. Nets (38-44)

Atlanta enters the playoffs as the number one seed in the East for the time since the 1993-94 season. The Hawks have lost three-straight games heading into the postseason. The team is finally healthy, but the late season loss of Thabo Sefolosha (5.3 ppg 4.3 rpg) after suffering a broken tibia in a scuffle with the police hurts Atlanta’s experience on the wings. Forwards Mike Scott and Kent Bazemore will likely find some more minutes.

Jeff Teague, one of four Atlanta all-stars, will need to pick up his play. His production since the all-star break has tapered off dropping from 17 points and 7.5 assists per game to 13.5 and six. Leading scorer and rebounder Paul Millsap (16.7 & 7.8) has returned after missing five games with a shoulder strain. Seldom used big man Mike Muscala stepped up in Millsap’s five game absence and averaged 9.8 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 70% from the field.

Nearly six players averaged double figures on the season. Al Horford managed to stay healthy and anchored the paint averaging 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and a team-leading 1.3 blocks. Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll have both excelled in their roles. Korver led the league in three-point percentage (.492) among players with over 150 attempts. Carroll averaged a career-high 12.6 points and shot 48 percent.

Defense and ball-movement has been the key to Atlanta’s success. The Hawks allowed 97.1 points per game in the regular season, fifth best in the league. The offense ranked second in assists at 25.7 a night. The emergence of a deep bench has helped keep the team afloat during recent stretches of injuries. Second-year point guard Dennis Schroder has improved exponentially raising his play across the board. In 19.7 minutes per game, Schroder has averaged 10 points and 4.1 assists. His Per 36 numbers closely mimic those of starter Jeff Teague.

The Nets somehow find their way into the playoffs after a disappointing season. Brooklyn dropped four of their last six games before a season ending comeback win over the Magic and a Pacers loss to Memphis. The Hawks swept the season series by an average of 17 points per game. In an April 4th, 131-99 thrashing of Brooklyn, Paul Millsap injured his shoulder going after a loose ball. Millsap has since returned but said his shoulder still bothers him. Most recently, eight days ago, Atlanta defeated the Nets 114-111.

Atlanta will need to stop Brook Lopez inside. The oft-injured big man has put together one of his finest seasons after a second half surge. Lopez has averaged 19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds since the all-star break and has helped carry the Nets into the playoffs. In four games against Atlanta (three in which he started), the Stanford product averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 rebounds. Point guard Deron Williams has done the complete opposite, averaging 9.3 points and 6.7 assists.

Brooklyn has a lot of Georgia ties on its roster. Former Hawks Joe Johnson is the Nets’ second leading scorer at 14.4 points per game. Thaddeus Young, a former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket, was acquired at the trade deadline for Kevin Garnett and has averaged 13.8 points and 5.9 rebounds in 28 games with Brooklyn. Another veteran Yellow Jacket has had a good year in Jarrett Jack. The 31-year-old picked up the slack for Deron Williams and averaged 12 points and 4.7 assists during the regular season.

The Hawks dodged a bullet with the Pacers getting iced out of the playoffs. A meeting with a bumbling Nets team should allow Atlanta a quick series. With 12/1 odds, the Hawks are given the fourth-best chance to win the NBA championship according to Bovada.