EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 9, 2013

College Basketball: Three area greats ready to make names for themselves

Three area greats primed to capture nation's attention

College Basketball
Michael Muldoon

---- — College basketball fans, pinch yourself. These are the good old days.

We’ve never had an impact player in bigtime men’s basketball. Now after 70 years of roundball irrelevance, we’ve become New York City. It certainly feels like it, anyway.

This winter there are three local products expected to do big things in the bigtime.

How big? This Big 3 averages nearly 6-10, 245 pounds and their reputations are even bigger than that.

Indiana freshman Noah Vonleh of Haverhill (44th) and Iowa State sophomore Georges Niang of Methuen (95th) were ranked in the top 100 college players in the country by CBSSports.com. Vonleh was ranked No. 31 by USA Today while Niang was tabbed No. 73 was by the Bleacher Report.

Transfer Carson Desrosiers is a 7-0, 250-pound junior from Windham and Central Catholic now playing big minutes at Providence.

Get your clickers ready and keep the ESPN listings handy, it should be a winter to remember for college hoop fans.

Noah Vonleh, Indiana Freshman: Haverhill meets Hoosier Hysteria

The last time most area basketball fans saw Noah Vonleh play, he was a 15-year-old sophomore at Haverhill High displaying otherworldly skills the likes of which have never been seen in these parts.

He’s three inches taller (6-10), put on 25 pounds of muscle in the last year (up to 240), still has the freakish wingspan (7-feet-4) and still has the otherworldly skills.

Vonleh, who was ranked the No. 8 senior in the country by Rivals.com last winter, is coming off two big years at New Hampton Prep and now is ready to make an immediate impact at Indiana.

The freshman played forward and center in the season-opening 100-72 win over Chicago State on Friday. Vonleh had a whopping 11 boards in 12 first-half minutes and finished with 11 points (3-10 shooting, 5-5 free throws), 14 rebounds, 12 deflections and 3 blocks in 22 minutes.

After the game, coach Tom Crean said, “Noah has a triple double in the sense of the rebounds, points and 12 deflections. To me, that’s a big deal in his first game.”

Seventy seconds into the game, he grabbed a rebound, dribbled the length of the floor and scored on a left-handed driving lay-up.

Not a bad way to introduce yourself to the college basketball world.

Many experts believe it may be just one year in Bloomington then off to the NBA. But Noah doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.

“I’m not even sure,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I’ll just play this year out. If I have the option, I’ll talk to my family.”

Crean must be hoping Vonleh is a two-year Hoosier much like last year’s All-American Cody Zeller.

Crean told the Indianapolis Star in July, “He’s going to have an opportunity to leave (for the NBA) at a young age. He’s got a drive but there’s a humbleness to him. ... He knows what he doesn’t know.”

Vonleh’s greatest strengths are his rebounding, his ballhandling and his versatility much like longtime NBA standout Lamar Odom. He still has to develop a couple of go-to offensive moves.

“I’m playing the 5 (center) and 4 (power forward) and 3 (small forward), using my versatility,” he said.

Even for players at gifted as Vonleh, freshman year can be an eye-opener.

Have there been eye-opening moments?

“Every day,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes its Yogi Ferrell or Will Sheehey. Everybody is dunking on each other. It’s great.”

There were a couple blips in the preseason. He had a minor ankle injury and then he missed all eight of his free throws in two exhibition games. So it was a relief that he was 5 for 5 from the stripe vs. overmatched Chicago State.

Vonleh obviously has a lot of raw tools, but Crean keeps coming back to the intangibles.

Early in the season he told the IU media Noah has “a rare work ethic.” He also said, “When he figures out how fast he is, how long he is, how strong he is, look out. He still hasn’t figured it out. He’s just 18. We have a ways to go.”

Vonleh, who turned 18 in August, put on some pounds to better absorb and deliver the blows of Big 10 basketball. In Wisconsin’s case, it’s more like Big 10 football.

“The weightlifting has helped me a lot, especially down in the post against bigger, stronger guys,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to lift. It took me a while to get into it. I love it. People say, ‘I never thought you’d get that big. I thought you’d always be skinny.’”

His favorite player is wiry Kevin Durant of the Thunder. But now that he’s bulked up, Noah has traded in that No. 35 and is wearing No. 1.

“I always liked that number,” said Vonleh. “Thirty-five was available, but I just decided to have my own number.”

Vonleh wants to hit the ground running.

“I just want to get better and keep my teammates getting better and show I have the skill set and mindset to be one of the top players in the conference,” he said.

Carson Desrosiers, Providence Junior: No need to be a superhero

At “Late Night Madness” several weeks back, the Providence College players all assumed the identity of a superhero. Carson Desrosiers stole the show with his Incredible Hulk get-up.

The Friars are more interested in raising a banner than Bruce Banner. Desrosiers doesn’t have to be a superhero, just a solid all-around player, and PC could be on its way.

And FYI Friar fans, if you thought the Incredible Hulk was good, Carson’s Abe Lincoln costume in high school was much better!

But back to hoops. Desrosiers came off the bench and contributed 22 workmanlike minutes in an 82-78 nationally-televised, season-opening overtime win against visiting Boston College on Friday. The 7-foot junior from Windham and Central Catholic scored seven points (2-2 shooting, 3-4 on free throws), grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots had a steal and an assist and didn’t turn the ball over.

It was his first game action since leaving Wake Forest after the 2011-12 season.

“I did the math, it’s 20 months,” said Desrosiers last week. “It’s finally here.”

In that 20 months, the goal was to progress not regress. The lean big man needed to look a bit more like Lou Ferrigno.

“I was in the weight room four days a week,” he said. “It was very productive. Mentally it’s a lot different. I just turned 22 (Oct. 25). It’s coming easier for me.”

Entering college he said he could barely bench press 135 pounds. Now he’s doing 225 pounds.

He’s worked hard on his jump hook, which could pay big dividends.

His understated game is winning people over.

Friarbasketball.com wrote, “On defense he’s going to be a better rim protector than anyone PC has had in the past few years. Those fans who have had their doubts about Desrosiers are going to be pleasantly surprised.”

PC head coach Ed Cooley told Peter Gobis of the Sun Chronicle of Attleboro, “Sitting out last year helped him learn how to be a lot more physical, how to play against smaller players. ... I’m expecting Carson to have a good year. We’ll let him shoot it. I like versatile guys, that’s why he’s here.”

Desrosiers had some success at Wake Forest, where he was a part-time starter as a sophomore, averaging 4.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and most noteworthy an impressive 1.9 blocks (fourth best in the ACC) in 21.6 minutes a game. But embattled coach Jeff Bzdelik wasn’t too popular with his players and three transferred that spring.

A 7-footer with skills and a positive attitude is going to have plenty of options. Desrosiers decided PC was his best option over Oregon State, Vanderbilt, UMass, Seton Hall and Temple.

“I have nothing but positives to say about the school, the basketball program, the coaching staff, my teammates,” said the big man. “It will be a fun season.”

The head coach has to be the closer. PC’s Cooley did a Koji Uehara-esque job with the former Central Catholic Sultan of Swat.

“He’s a people person,” said Desrosiers. “He’ll tell you straight up what you have to work on. He plays to your strength. He’s very easy to talk to.”

The personable Cooley has been a monster recruiter but the rebuilding Friars still have a ways to go if they want to make the NCAAs for the first time since 2004. Sophomore point guard Kris Dunn, a former McDonald’s All-American, injured his shoulder again in the preseason. His status is up in the air. Also, a couple of freshmen already have been suspended.

Still, Desrosiers is all in.

“There is an excitement about where the program is going,” he said. “I can’t say enough about how excited I am.”

Georges Niang, Iowa State sophomore: Still fighting to earn respect

As a middle-of-the pack recruit, Georges Niang may have snuck up on some people last year as a freshman at Iowa State.

It seems unlikely that would happen again, but Niang has had a career’s worth of being overlooked and disrespected. While he’s won over a lot of critics, the Big 12 media day showed those closest to him still aren’t completely convinced.

After averaging 12.1 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting .515 from the floor (5th best in the conference) and .392 on 3-pointers, you’d think he’d be among the Big 12’s elite. Oh, and he scored 19 points in the first-round NCAA Tourney upset of Notre Dame.

But six players made the preseason Big 12 first-team and six more made honorable mention. The Methuen native was nowhere to be found.

“He plays with a chip on his shoulder,” said ISU coach Fred Hoiberg as quoted in a story by Rob Gray of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “I think he’s always been an under-ranked player. And again this year, you didn’t see him on any of the preseason all-conference teams. I know he took offense to that.”

He’ll try to show them beginning this afternoon when the Cyclones open their season hosting UNC-Wilmington.

As he’s done so many times, Niang vows to prove the doubters wrong.

“Making an All-Big 12 team is something I strive for,” said Niang.

But the wins are more important. He won a prep national title at Tilton (N.H.) School and starred for last year’s NCAA tourney team.

“I try not to look at what I’ve done and focus on the present,” said Niang. “What I did was great but it’s not where I want to be.”

With Melvin Ejim (knee) out a few more weeks, that means ISU is missing 63 points and 26 rebounds a game from last year.

That leaves Niang, the master of the inside-outside game, as the only one of the top six scorers back for the Cyclones.

“As a freshman, people don’t really know who you are,” said Niang, who earned a 3.09 GPA last year, earning the business and marketing major a spot on the Big 12 All-Academic rookie team. “This is totally different. Now they know every move I can do. It’s been an adjustment even in practice. Last year with six seniors, I wasn’t looked to lead. Now I have to do everything right and go above and beyond.”

Leadership has always been a forte. He was even class president at Tilton, making him “The President” while Hoiberg, since his playing days at ISU, has been called “The Mayor.”

A major focus of the offseason was improving his fitness.

“I got into better shape so I won’t get into foul trouble,” he said. “I lost 10 pounds (he’s now 6-7, 238) and two percent body fat. I’m better, for sure. That comes from being in better shape and working on my game.”

Hoiberg said at Big 12 Media Day, “Georges is a lot tighter. He came in with some baby fat and he wasn’t able to play prolonged stretches (he averaged 25.1 minutes) like we would have liked.”

Hoiberg loves the 1-2 punch with Niang and the 6-6, 220-pound rebounding machine Ejim, a preseason All-Big 12 pick.

“We have two great players coming back in the frontcourt,” he said. “Both have added elements to their game which will make them a difficult duo to guard especially when they can pull a big player away from the basket. Georges and Melvin can also get us into the offense, which is a great luxury to have.”

Big-time Basketball recruits

Only five area natives have ever signed big-time basketball scholarships out of high school.

Name Town School College

Jim Lewis Lawrence Central Catholic ‘51 Holy Cross

Ted Kelley Andover Andover High ‘82 Boston College

Carson Desrosiers Windham Central Catholic ‘10 Wake Forest/Providence

Georges Niang Methuen Tilton ‘12 Iowa State

Noah Vonleh Haverhill Haverhill/New Hampton ‘13 Indiana

Note: Central’s Scott Hazelton (Somerville/UConn), Methuen’s Gary McLain (New York City/Villanova), Brooks’ Harold Starks (New York City/Providence) and Phillips’ Titus Ivory (Charlotte, N.C./Penn State) signed with big-time schools but weren’t from the area.