2014 Drew Championship Preview: C.O.A. vs. Hank’s Houdini’s All-Stars

By: Law Murray

After 11 weeks of the regular season and two weekends of the playoffs, the 28-team Drew League will finally crown a champion. It will be decided Sunday, August 10 at 2 p.m. between 2nd-seed C.O.A. (11-3, Mike Brown Division Champion) and 6th-seed Hank’s Houdini’s All-Stars (10-4, Kenny Brunner Division Champion). It’s a matchup between C.O.A.’s celebrated frontcourt and Houdini’s All-Stars exemplary preparation and precision.

C.O.A. defeated 5th-seed Hank’s Cheaters 2 83-72 to capture the Mike Brown Division Championship, as the frontline of Craig Smith (game-high 21 points), Jerome Jordan, and Julian Wright all had at least ten rebounds. The Kenny Brunner Division Championship was an instant classic – at the end of FOUR overtimes, Houdini’s All-Stars outlasted top-seed Cheaters 86-85 behind Corey Allen’s transcendent 40-point performance (15/22 field goals, 9/10 free throws). C.O.A.’s three losses have come by a combined 12 points, while Houdini’s All-Stars’ four losses have come by a combined 17 points. C.O.A. avenged their regular season loss to C.A.B.C. with a 79-49 beatdown in round one, followed by a 70-64 round two win over Citi Team Blazers, the defending champs. Houdini’s All-Stars avenged a regular season loss to M.H.P. with an 86-80 round one win in the rematch, followed by a 98-57 “ambush” of the 2nd-seed Jaguars in round two, setting up the opportunity to avenge a July loss to Cheaters.

Let’s quickly break down the elements:

HHA PERIMETER OFFENSE vs. COA PERIMETER DEFENSE

The fact that Allen dropped 40 points vs. Cheaters was impressive, but the means to the ends were incredible. Allen drew comparisons to The Answer with his ability to swiftly turn defenders into sand figures before diving in the paint for buckets. For a player not known for his pure shooting, he showed poise and confidence down the stretch from the field and at the line at the end of the fourth and final overtime. Allen will be hard-pressed to provide a similar output less than 24 hours later, especially against a C.O.A. backcourt that held Cheaters 2 guard Casper Ware, Jr. to a 4/23 performance. C.O.A. also defended the three-point line well, holding Cheaters 2 to a paltry 6/30 showing (20%). Houdini’s All-Stars smartly don’t over-rely on threes, but they’ll need more from stalwarts Antonio “Swag Champ” Biglow and Garrett “G-Money” Nevels (10/29 FGs vs. Cheaters). C.O.A.’s Brandon Heath and Billy Knight have the size to make things uncomfortable. ADVANTAGE: COA

HHA INTERIOR OFFENSE vs. COA INTERIOR DEFENSE

There are a lot of mouths to feed in Houdini’s offense, and the team is decidedly perimeter-based. The acquisition of Kwame Alexander at least gives Houdini’s All-Stars a big man who has respectable range, a quick first step, and devastating power above the rim. Alexander and Josh White aren’t exactly featured options with Biglow, Nevels and Allen on the floor, and COA’s wall defensively likely discourages that idea even more. Jordan is a legit rim protector, while Rhino and Wright complement each other defensively, both being relatively strong and quick. Alexander is one of the more efficient bigs in the league; he’ll need to be at least that against COA. ADVANTAGE: COA

HHA CONTROL vs. COA PRESSURE

Somehow, Houdini’s All-Stars had only seven turnovers after halftime in a four-overtime game. Few reasons for that: a) Biglow is an MVP-caliber ballhandler who has been an extension of his coach, b) Allen had the rock down the stretch in iso situations that also represented low-ball movement possessions, and c) the entire philosophy of Coach Allen Caveness’ system is rooted in protecting the basketball. Simply put, Houdini’s All-Stars has to win the turnover battle against a bigger team. It starts on defense, but they’ll have to take care of the ball themselves, especially against a COA team that doesn’t go out of their way to force turnovers. ADVANTAGE: HHA

HHA PRESSURE vs. COA CONTROL

Just as COA doesn’t force many turnovers, COA also isn’t especially strong at handling the ball. When Cheaters 2 had flashes of life in the Mike Brown game, it was because of the 94-feet pressure of the Ware Brothers (notably Ervin). Houdini’s All-Stars is all about blitzing the backcourt, and though it may be playing with fire to press all game after an extended game on Saturday, expect Houdini’s All-Stars to aggressively challenge Heath and Knight in the backcourt. Knight and Wright combined for 11 of COA’s 15 turnovers against Hank’s Cheaters 2, and Biglow in particular is an opportunist around careless handles. ADVANTAGE: HHA

HHA INTERIOR DEFENSE vs. COA INTERIOR OFFENSE

Hank’s Houdini’s All-Stars got to face a Cheaters team that saw perimeter players Mike Efevberha, Justin Johnson, and Baron Davis take 63 shots, leaving only 14 combined for big men Alan Williams, Davie Champagnie, and Kevin Lewis. Rhino should get about that many shots up just on his own. It will be interesting just to see how Houdini’s All-Stars even defend Rhino, Jordan, and Wright. Jordan hangs around the rim and doesn’t get a ton of touches, but he looks to dunk at every opportunity, so keeping a body on him is a must. Alexander would seem to be a natural matchup for Wright’s house of knives approach, but he’ll need to check either Jordan or Smith when COA has the starters on the floor together. And Smith isn’t all post and power. He has been a calming influence as a ballhandler, and he isn’t afraid to knock down shots from at least 20 feet. Another challenge in defending COA inside? They make their free throws. Alexander helps, and Houdini’s All-Stars have some guys who will battle. But it’s going to be a very tough battle. ADVANTAGE: COA

HHA PERIMETER DEFENSE vs. COA PERIMETER OFFENSE

It was mentioned above that Houdini’s All-Stars had to combat 63 shots from Money Mike, Baron, and JJ. Those players combined for only 57 points, shooting only 37% for the game. Even when they’re not pressing, Houdini’s All-Stars don’t leave much in the way of breathing room, attaching themselves to shooters like a leech to a host. Their focus and intensity on that end of the floor is near uncanny, with their only issue being Biglow, Allen, and Nevels’ relative lack of size. Knight doesn’t mess around, using his size against smaller guards in the post while effectively spacing the floor with his three-point range. While guys like JR Lewis and Amani Dannish can come off the COA bench and get on a hot streak, Knight has been a key addition to COA’s offense. At their best, Knight and Heath form an effective offensive backcourt, with Heath serving as a slasher. At their worst, Heath gets caught up in looking for his own shot while Knight’s heat is left in a corner somewhere. COA has some scoring options on the perimeter, but consistency is a question mark, especially against Houdini’s All-Stars. ADVANTAGE: HHA

HHA SPECIAL TEAMS vs. COA SPECIAL TEAMS

I define these units based on the open court game, depth, and the ability to make free throws. We’re talking about two very different teams in terms of style of play. COA wants to slow games down and grind them out, while Houdini’s All-Stars thrives in the fast paced setting. However, players like Wright and Smith are proficient at grabbing rebounds and going on their own secondary breaks, and they have the physical tools to complete those breaks with authority. Meanwhile, the athleticism and speed of the entire Houdini’s All-Stars rotation is what has led to the numerous blowouts of teams. No sub for Houdini’s All-Stars played more than 10 minutes vs. Cheaters in the four-OT game, but that’s probably not an option this time around; guys like Kenny “Action” Jackson and Jourdan Sweeney should get opportunities to show their value on Sunday. Those guys are respected players, and they may be the difference between Houdini’s All-Stars being able to play their usual style of basketball after such a long game Saturday. ADVANTAGE: Draw/HHA

COACHING

Big Rob and the rest of the COA staff are big on getting their team ready to play, and while they had some games where they let inferior teams hang around (RE: Hank’s Spiders), their attitude has always been that they will stick to their unique personnel and philosophy. They grind teams out. Period. Allen “Houdini’” Caveness, of course, is a Drew League legend, having found acclaim as a player, coach, and longtime contributor. The experience he has in the Drew League, the rapport he has with his players, and the attention to detail he implements into every facet of the game has been a coaching highlight. Caveness’ halftime adjustments and poise vs. Cheaters saved his young team’s season Saturday. ADVANTAGE: HHA

INTANGIBLES

The glaring one is the fact that COA ended their game first, with Julian Wright being the only player to log more than 30 minutes. The HHA starting lineup of Biglow, Allen, Nevels, Alexander, and White all played more than 40 minutes. Fatigue will be an obvious factor, especially for a team going up against the legit size of COA. But there are a few things working in Houdini’s All-Stars favor. For one, their “game within a game” vs. Cheaters came only two weeks after #Juglife failed to meet them for the Week 11 season finale – their unwanted break may pay off. Second of all, these guys are young – some teams would be in a much worse situation in terms of recovering to play. Third of all, Caveness has these guys conditioned. The attitude of both teams should come through in the title game. There is mutual respect, but one of COA’s mottos is, “COA vs. Everybody”, while Houdini has stated that his team is always the underdog. Corey Allen understood he has to play even better coming off of a 40-point game. It’s going to be a treat. ADVANTAGE: Draw/COA

BOTTOM LINE

I thought Cheaters would find a way to knock off Hank’s Houdini’s All-Stars to end a close game. It didn’t turn out that way, and Houdini’s All-Stars will get a shot to beat C.O.A. tomorrow in the championship game. It will be a tall task, literally. C.O.A. doesn’t have size without skill. Their bigs are all viable players, and they’re going to challenge Houdini’s All-Stars in the paint, on the glass, and at the rim. COA has been the boa constrictors of the Drew League, especially in the playoffs. Houdini’s All-Stars can’t count on Allen to drop 40 again. But they should be able to rely more on Biglow and Nevels, as well as 40th Anniversary Team member Action Jackson. Protecting the ball, racking up points in transition, and playing tight defense will be the key to a championship for Houdini’s All-Stars. C.O.A. will look to grind them into submission. With a championship on the line, Houdini’s All-Stars lays it all out there, gets an early lead, and limits C.O.A.’s possessions before they can complete a comeback against what will be an exhausted Houdini’s All-Stars team. PREDICTION: Hank’s Houdini’s All-Stars 68, C.O.A. 65.

Law Murray is in his fourth year in Los Angeles via Philadelphia. He has been at grad school at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism since 2012, and graduated from California University of PA in 2009 with a degree in communication studies. Law has also served two years in City Year and covered the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Russia. He specializes in breaking down teams and players on a variety of media platforms.

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