BELLY OF THE BE-AST: DOMINIC JAMES EDITION
by Ray Mernagh
Syracuse beat St. John's 87-58 at the Garden Tuesday night. It was a much-needed win for an Orange team that had hit a rough patch, losing seven of their last ten games. The win gave coach Jim Boeheim a record 31st 20-win season. Then last night in Milwaukee, UConn's Jim Calhoun became just one of seven coaches in the history of college basketball to win 800 games when his Huskies beat Marquette 93-82.
So this week's entry could be about the two Jim's -- how they've outlasted so many peers and continue to thrive, and prosper, in college basketball's most ferocious conference. After all, coaches are the real stars in college basketball, the only one's getting rich for the success they've attained through the combined efforts of a group that's now too large to estimate a proper count -- 1,000? 500? How many players, assistants, trainers and tutors actually play or work for a coach over a 30-40 year span?
So this week isn't going to be about a coach. It's going to be about a player who's college career ended on Wednesday night. A kid I tried to write about earlier this year after he hit a game-winning shot right before Christmas. I tried a couple of different times to get a phone call set up but after three or four days I gave up. I really regret that, especially now, because Dominic James deserved that column... for a whole bunch of reasons.
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I had about four friends whose responsibilities included recruiting the state of Indiana while James was still in high school in Richmond. They were all mid-major assistants at the time. Of the four, one is at an elite program now, a second has been to an elite program and is back at a mid-major, a third is on one of the premier staff's in the Midwest and the fourth is out of coaching. All of them raved about Dominic James.
After watching James play against Pitt as a freshman, I was raving right along with them. In a game featuring high-level Big East veterans, James was the best player on the floor...by far. He continually beat people off the dribble, absorbed contact and finished. Even at 5-10, James dunked the ball easily. He was a dynamic player and made such an impression that first year that a lot of folks wondered if he would play a second college season. He was named the Big East Rookie of the Year after averaging 15.3 points a game and breaking the Marquette freshmen scoring record of Doc Rivers. James also found time to rebound, 4.5 a game, and was third in the conference in assists.
James came back for his sophomore year as arguably the #1 point guard prospect in the country. He finished it with major questions about his perimeter shot. One thing that needs to be noted is that James never had a quality big man to play with at Marquette. It also seemed like he put too much pressure on himself to carry the load at times. On top of all that it seemed like the more James regressed, the more his teammates, particularly Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews, improved. James' numbers never matched his first-year output and a trip to the pre-draft camp seemed to crush his confidence even more.
Then the coach that recruited him, Tom Crean, left for Indiana following James' junior season. James seemed happy when assistant Buzz Williams was named the new head coach. Marquette was a team with extreme talent on the perimeter but not any size to speak of -- they were generally thought of as the #5 team in the conference. Going into Wednesday night's game with UConn the Golden Eagles were the #8 ranked team in the country, having battled UConn, Pitt and Louisville all year for the top spot in the Big East.
James has played with a joyful passion this season, accepting his role as the consummate point guard. Every time I watched Marquette I'd see him pushing the ball in Williams' free-wheeling offense, beating defenders off the bounce and finding open shooters. He'd also throw down lobs from Matthews and McNeal. I kept waiting for the interior to kill Marquette's season but it never happened. That's a credit to all four seniors and the heart they play with -- but I can't help but think James had the more major role in it. He adjusted some. He moved over a bit. He played basketball the way he was meant to play it -- with freedom and as if the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.
He played the way players do for coaches that are fortunate enough to win 20 games 31 different times or 800 total games over the course of their career. Fittingly, he was a Warrior for Marquette. Even after he knew his college career was over, James came back out to the bench on crutches, trying to will his team to a victory that ultimately eluded them.
Whenever someone asks Bob Knight about the 902 wins in his career, he always says the same thing: That every one of those wins says more about the players and coaches he's been lucky enough to surround himself with over the years than it does about him. Sometimes we forget about the players.
Any coach would be lucky to have Dominic James on his team...nobody should forget him.
Ray Mernagh is the Basketball Editor for the Pittsburgh Sports Report and writes for Basketball Times as well as his own blog, Hoop Wise. Ray's first book, 1 Chance 2 Dance: A Season Inside Mid-Major Hoops in Mid-America, focuses on 18 months of MAC basketball.
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