Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The NBLC and March Madness (Part 2)


READ: Part 1

So having looked at a couple of different players during already, the thing that caught me the most off guard was the programs these guys played for. Sure, there’s your Bradley’s and Alabama State’s, but then there’s big time programs like Texas, and coaches like Steve Alford who were a part of these NBLC players’ time in college. When I started writing, I was expecting to see most of the players coming from smaller programs, so this caught me off guard. Looking ahead, there are still the odd smaller schools here and there, but for the most part, the trend of NBLC players from big programs continues in Part 2, starting with the eight players who played in the 2008 NCAA tournament.


We’ll start with one of the more interesting stories from the tournament by talking about the Moncton Miracles’ Troy Brewer. Brewer’s Georgia Bulldogs were a surprise participant in the tourney, seeing as the regular season hadn’t gone so well, ending with a 13-16 record. But college basketball is a crazy sport; as Georgia went on to win the SEC conference tourney, earning them a #14 seed at the Big Dance. That was as far as they would go, ending their year in a 73-61 loss to #3 Xavier. Brewer, still a freshman, only played for a minute, but still can say he had the privilege of playing in the tournament.

Another player who didn’t see a ton of floor time, but went much further in the tournament, is Mississauga’s Malcolm Grant. Grant’s Villanova team played spoiler as the #12 seed, beating #5 Clemson and #13 Siena to make the sweet sixteen. Unfortunately they ran into the eventual champs, #1 Kansas, losing 72-57. Grant, also a freshman, only saw the floor for two minutes in the game against Siena.

The first player to see significant minutes was Louis Birdsong Jr. of the Island Storm. Birdsong played for #12 seeded George Mason, a school with a history of pulling off upsets, and it didn’t hurt that the Patriots were in the #5-#12 game, known for being prone to upsets. Sadly it didn’t work out, as the Patriots fell to #5 Notre Dame in the first round, 68-50. Birdsong played 14 mins, recording 2 points and 4 rebounds.

Moncton’s Stanley Robinson started alongside future #2 overall NBA draft pick Hasheem Thabeet to provide a young, strong front court for #4 seed UConn. The Huskies came in to the tourney looking to win it all, but #13 San Diego wasn’t going to quit, giving UConn the fight of their life in a game that needed overtime. Holding a one-point lead with 5.2 seconds left, San Diego pulled off a miracle.

With that shot, San Diego went on to win 70-69, breaking the hearts of the Huskies. Robinson had 6 points and 6 rebounds, and while the loss hurt, he would be back for the following tournament.

UMBC managed to make the tournament following a conference championship, but as a #15 seed, had the misfortune of playing #2 Georgetown. Brampton’s Cavell Johnson, who often found himself matched up against now-Pacers centre Roy Hibbert, scored 5 points and grabbed 3 boards in 23 minutes, as UMBC fell 66-47.

One of the more interesting teams from the Madness is that of the Indiana Hoosiers, who featured current Windsor Express teammates, Jamarcus Ellis and DeAndre Thomas. In one of the more talent-filled games that we’ve looked at, Indiana, an #8 seed, ended up losing to the #9 Arkansas Razorbacks. Future NBA player D.J White had 22 for Indiana, but star freshman Eric Gordon, now on the New Orleans Pelicans, was held to 8 points on 3-15 shooting by Patrick Beverley, who is starting for the Houston Rockets. Beverley, alongside former Raptor Sonny Weems’ 31 points, led Arkansas to the 86-72 win. Ellis scored 6 points and 3 rebounds, while Thomas had 4 points and grabbed 4 boards.

The most notable tournament belongs to Shawn Vanzant (get used to reading that name), now on the Moncton Miracles. As a member of the Butler Bulldogs, tournament success was a constant during Vanzant’s college career, and it all starts during his freshman year, as Butler went into the tournament as a #7 seed. During Butler’s first game, Vanzant came off the bench to provide 5 points and 5 rebounds in 21 minutes, as the Bulldogs beat #10 South Alabama. Butler’s run would end there, as #2 Tennessee would win 76-71, but that was only the beginning of Vanzant’s March Madness experience.


The newcomers to the Madness in 2009 were Brampton’s Zane Johnson and Mississauga’s Travis Releford (Yes, I know he’s no longer on the team but I’m including him anyway). The 2009 tourney also saw the return of Robinson and Vanzant.

We’ll start with Releford, who was a freshman on a loaded Kansas team. Being a freshman, he didn’t see much court time, only playing one minute in Kansas’ win against Dayton. As a #3 seed, Kansas managed to beat #North Dakota St. and #11 Dayton, but in the Sweet 16, Kansas ran into the steamroller that was the #2 Michigan St Spartans. Kansas would lose 67-62, while the Spartans wouldn’t lose until the finals. Like Vanzant and Robinson, this wasn’t the last time we’d see Releford.

Zane Johnson found some more individual success in his tournament debut. Johnson had actually been on the roster for Arizona during the 2008 tournament, but never saw the floor, but played in every game for Arizona as they advanced to the 2009 Sweet 16. Arizona, a #12 seed led by future NBA players Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger, managed to upset #5 Utah, and beat future New Orleans Pelican PG Norris Cole’s #13 Cleveland St. The run ended shortly after, as #1 Louisville (a team featuring former NBLC player George Goode) ended up beating the Wildcats 103-64.

The Butler Bulldogs didn’t have the same success, as Shawn Vanzant’s team failed to move past the first round, something that would only happen once in his college career. Vanzant came off the bench to play 11 minutes, as his #9 Bulldogs fell to the #8 LSU Tigers.

The best Tournament belongs to Stanley Robinson, as his UConn team managed to make it all the way to the Final Four. Robinson himself was fantastic, notching two double-doubles while averaging 14.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. UConn came into the tournament as a #1 seed, and lived up to it, crushing #16 Chattanooga and #9 Texas A&M by a combined 82 points, and following that up with a 72-60 win over #5 Purdue. Things got a little tougher when they met DeMarre Carroll (now on the Atlanta Hawks) and his #3 Missouri Tigers. The Huskies were up to the task, getting a lead early and never looking back, winning 82-75. You can watch that game here (Robinson is wearing #21).

It ended there for Robinson and Uconn, as the MSU team that knocked out Releford’s Kansas Jayhawks, did the same to the Huskies, winning 82-73.


The 2010 tournament featured three new NBLC players, Halifax’s Tyrone Watson, the Mill Rats’ Jeremy Williams, and London’s John Hart, as well as the return of Vanzant.

Williams and Vanzant, former Island Storm teammates, were opponents in the 1st round, with Williams and UTEP taking on Vanzant and Butler. UTEP, a #12 seed, actually managed to take 6 point lead at half time against the #5 Bulldogs, but the experience of Butler won out. Butler outscored UTEP 50-26 (!!!) in the second half, led by current Atlanta Hawk Shelvin Mack’s 25 points, as Butler moved on, winning 77-59.  Williams had 7 points and 4 rebounds, while Vanzant had 6 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 14 minutes. We’ll come back to Butler in just a bit.

Tyrone Watson came in to the tourney as a freshman, and as such, didn’t see a ton of floor time, receiving 4 minutes and contributing 2 rebounds for the New Mexico St Aggies. The #12 Aggies wouldn’t be long for the tourney, as Michigan St. (what’s with all these guys playing against MSU??) would go on to win the game 70-67. Watson would be heard from again in 2012.

Purdue managed to make it to the Sweet 16, a solid start to John Hart’s collegiate career. Hart, a freshman, only played 3 minutes in each of the first 2 games, including a very close, 63-61, game with #5 Texas A&M, before losing to #1 seed and eventual champs, the Duke Blue Devils.

Now back to Vanzant, who found the most collegiate success of any NBLC player. The Butler Bulldogs, led by the previously mentioned Shelvin Mack, 2009 Horizon League (Butler’s conference) MVP Matt Howard, and the 2010 Horizon League MVP, future NBA star Gordon Hayward (currently on the Utah Jazz). Vanzant played the 6th man role for Butler, a #5 seed, as the Bulldogs beat #12 UTEP, #13 Murray St. (A game they only won by 2), and followed that up with upsets over #1 Syracuse, #2 Kansas St. and # 5 Michigan St (AGAIN??). In an absolutely amazing final game, the Bulldogs were down 2, when Hayward threw up a prayer.

And with that, the Bulldogs were eliminated, and with Hayward moving on to the NBA, Vanzant and the Bulldogs would be in tough to make another run.

Butler’s run in 2010 has some of the best basketball the sport has ever seen, and all of the upsets are available, in full, for free on YouTube, so be sure to check them out. Here’s the last 5 minutes of the Final against Duke to get you started.

So with that, we have now seen 3 players make the Final Four, and one of them make it to the Finals. How many players have made it since? Did any of them manage to capture the championship? How many times will Michigan St show up!? Part 3 will be up on Friday. And while there’s a small break in the tourney, be sure to catch the NBL Canada Conference Finals, with Halifax taking on the Island Storm (the series was 3-0 for Halifax at the time of this writing), and Windsor taking on Brampton, which starts up on Thursday.