Vermont looking to regain A-East crown
He didn't know what it was until he went to Kuwait.
Part of Operation Hardwood, the Vermont coach visited the troops whose number would next be called for Iraq. He met men and women he knew wouldn't return home. He spent time with Skip Prosser, whose regular Joe touch would once more bring home that thing Lonergan was searching for a few months later when Prosser died suddenly of a heart attack.
What Lonergan needed -- and found -- was perspective.
Still stinging from the double whammy of a disappointing loss to Albany in the America East Conference tournament championship and the surprise defection of super frosh Joe Trapani to Boston College, Lonergan was feeling a good case of the coaching blues.
"I was pretty down," Lonergan said. "I needed something like that, a little dose of reality. I'm so glad I did it. At the time it made me really appreciative, and then later to lose Skip. I didn't know him well before, but everything that people said about him, what a real, genuine guy he was, that's all true."
The trip lifted Lonergan out of his doldrums, but there's certainly still a scar left by Trapani. The 6-foot-7 forward had surprised more than a few when he chose to follow in the footsteps of his father, Charlie, a former UVM basketball player, even though the likes of West Virginia, Providence and Boston College were courting him. In his rookie season, Trapani, who can score from the perimeter as well as play underneath, averaged 11.4 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Trapani surprised even more folks when he left Vermont.
His coach and teammates knew he wasn't necessarily in love with the campus life he had chosen but believed his feelings for the basketball program were strong enough to overcome the rest.
"I had heard some stuff, but nothing certain," said senior forward Colin McIntosh. "I had a sense he wasn't enjoying the school in general, but I thought he was pretty happy with the basketball program."
So when Trapani returned from a brief vacation home in April and announced he wanted out, players and coaches alike were stunned.
"Most shocking thing of my coaching career," said Lonergan, who admits Trapani's decision made him look differently at the decision made by Maurice Joseph, who announced he will transfer from Michigan State to Vermont. "I still don't really understand it, but that's life. You take the high road and move on."
Moving on in basketball terms becomes almost as tricky as moving on from the disappointment. Package Trapani's departure with the graduation of Chris Holm, the nation's No. 2 rebounder a year ago with 12.2 boards a game, and you've got a team with a lot of stats to account for.
"One of those coaching magazines wanted me to write an article about rebounding," Lonergan said. "I pride myself on field goal defense, but rebounding? I don't think I ever led a conference in rebounding. That's basically personality, you have it or you don't."
"You don't win as individuals, you win as a team," Trimboli said. "No question we have a lot of holes to fill but if everybody does their part in the game, that's all it takes."
It's not like the Catamounts lack for motivation.
Twice now they've been within 40 minutes of the NCAA Tournament and twice Albany has denied them. Two seasons ago, Vermont really had no business being in the conference title game, taking its sub .500 record to the title game and promptly "got smoked," as McIntosh put it.
Last year? Different story. Heavily favored with just one conference loss during the regular season and playing in their own gym, the Catamounts were stunned when Albany strode onto its turf and sidled out with the win, the trophy and the ticket to March Madness.
"Every day, at least 20 times it came up in conversation this summer, no exaggeration," Trimboli said. "It was such a hard loss, but at the same time we were this close to going to the tournament. Everyone, we all say the same thing. We are not going to let that happen again."
Kevin Broadus, the new head coach at Binghamton, was talking about building a program, about teaching guys how to be winners and restoring a once proud tradition.
He was talking about his old job.
"At Georgetown, we had to crawl before we could walk," said Broadus, the former Georgetown assistant who took over at Binghamton in April. "And we really crawled."
It's easy now to forget where the Hoyas, four months removed from a Final Four run, were when Broadus first came on board with coach John Thompson III. Once proud and historic, Georgetown was irrelevant, a basketball dinosaur content to talk about its ex greats and ignore the fact it had no future.
Broadus remembers it vividly and is calling on those memories to find the energy needed to build up the Bearcats. Binghamton, only six years into its Division I infancy, doesn't have a past to call on a la Georgetown, but Broadus believes that the same rules apply.
A master recruiter for JT3, Broadus spent the month of July not just beating the pavement for recruits but trying to figure out exactly what kind of recruits he should be targeting. With patience, he believes he can lure kids outside of the typical America East pool.
"Maybe it's a pipe dream, but why can't we get some kids who maybe shouldn't be in the America East?" Broadus said. "Every kid wants to play in the Big East or the ACC, but they all can't. At some point, kids are going to be told to go in another direction and hopefully when that happens, we can be there."
While he waits, Broadus has work to do. The Bearcats allowed a near-the-league-basement 66.1 points per game, a stat that is so anti-Georgetown it practically jumped off the paper at Broadus. The coach called the defense and rebounding (Binghamton was beaten on the boards by nearly two a game) "atrocious."
"It doesn't happen overnight," Broadus said. "We have to manage expectations. This is the same team that finished in sixth place last year. This is a process, but it's not an overnight process."
Help is on the way
At a random moment during a random game, coach Randy Monroe realized last season his team this year would be OK.
He looked down the University of Maryland Baltimore County bench, all the way down to the very end where the three transfer players who weren't eligible yet to play for him, were sitting.
Monroe gets the frustration that Vermont's Mike Lonergan is feeling having lost his best player, Joe Trapani, to Boston College in the offseason.
He also knows for every yin there is a yang, for every reward a risk. Johnson and Barbosa, formerly of James Madison, and Proctor, the one-time MEAC rookie of the year out of Coppin State, will no doubt up the talent quotient for the Retrievers.
But by accepting the trio into his program, Monroe knows he also risked upsetting the delicate balance he sought to create.
"Players can be very selfish and forget about the team," Monroe said. "Teams that are successful have players who understand they have to give of themselves."
Which is why he was so happy to see his three cheerleaders in street clothes. Naturally he'll be even happier to see them in uniform.
UMBC finished 7-9 last year, a school record for wins in the conference. The Retrievers' losses all included the same refrain, desperate troubles on the boards where the three- and sometimes four-guard lineup failed to compete.
Enter Johnson, a 6-8 forward who averaged 13.4 points and 7.9 rebounds in his sophomore season at James Madison, and Proctor, a 6-4 force who put up nearly identical numbers (13.5, 7.8) in his second season at Coppin State.
Throw in Barbosa, a 1,000-point scorer in three years at JMU who is lethal from the arc, and suddenly you can see why Monroe is cheering alongside his players.
"The three who sat out have talent, yes they do, but they're also very serious about being a good team," Monroe said. " ... Now the guys we're adding, they're only going to make us better."
|Team||Overall record||League record|
# NIT participant
|Top returning scorers|
|Mike Trimboli, Sr., Vermont||15.8|
|Brian Hodges, Sr., UMBC||14.7|
|Corey Lowe, Soph., Boston University||14.1|
|Tyler Morris, Soph., BU||13.4|
|Joe Zeglinski, Soph., Hartford||12.7|
|Top returning rebounders|
|Lazar Trifunovic, Soph., Binghamton||6.5|
|Scott Brittain, Soph., Boston University||6.0|
|Michael Turner, Jr., Hartford||5.2|
|Tyrece Gibbs, Jr., New Hampshire||5.1|
|Brent Wilson, Sr., Albany||5.0|
In the past two seasons, the Great Danes have managed to scare the pants off Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament and silence the masses in Vermont at the conference tournament final. To write its next act, Albany will have to find a new star. Two-time America East Player of the Year Jamar Wilson has graduated, taking his school record 2,164 points with him. The good news for coach Will Brown is that this team somehow has depth despite seven new faces. Senior Brent Wilson averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds a year ago and Brian Lillis, the conference's defensive player of the year, is a capable scorer from the wing. He should get more shots now that Wilson isn't around. The biggest question is the obvious one, who will replace Wilson in the backcourt? No one person is the simple answer. Instead, Albany will need senior point guard Jon Iati to shepherd newcomer Robert Moores, a juco transfer, along. Then they can hope to start filling Wilson's big shoes.
Point guard Mike Gordon kept the Bearcats afloat for the year and fortunately for rookie head coach Kevin Broadus, he's back. That's the good news. The bad news is Binghamton gave up 66.1 points per game last season, second worst in the America East and in a conference that doesn't exactly pride itself on defense, finishing near the bottom isn't a good thing. Expect Broadus, with his Georgetown influences, to change that tune in a hurry. Aside from Gordon, Binghamton needs more firepower. Lazar Trifunovic, a 6-9 forward from Belgrade, has the potential. He showed flashes as a rookie, averaging 10.9 points and 6.5 boards per game, but needs to become more consistent if the Bearcats are going to become better.
Dennis Wolff didn't have a choice. Rocked by suspensions and transfers last year, Wolff rolled four freshmen on the floor. Far from a raging disaster, the Terriers finished a respectable 8-8 in the conference (good enough for third place), a less than awful 12-18 overall and led the conference in defense, giving up just 60 points per game. If Wolff has kids playing defense, the rest ought to be easy. Tyler Morris, the league's rookie of the year, and Corey Lowe, an all-rookie selection, formed a high-scoring backcourt. They averaged 27 points combined, while Scott Brittain and Carlos Strong were a solid, if not electrifying frontcourt. The best news for Wolff? They're all about to become sophomores.
There's still a lot of work to be done for second-year coach Dan Leibovitz. His Hawks team struggled desperately from the floor, shooting only 40.9 percent. At least he's got some bodies to choose from to turn around those numbers. Seven letterwinners will join five newcomers on the roster this year. Joe Zeglinski and Jaret Von Rosenberg, 12.7 and 10.5 points apiece, respectively, are proven commodities for the Hawks. But each will have to assume more active roles now that leading scorer Bo Taylor has graduated. Citadel transfer Warren McLendon will add a jolt of energy. The forward and one-time Southern Conference all-rookie selection averaged 10.9 points and 4.5 boards in his last year in Charleston.
Figuring out how to play without Kevin Reed might be harder than actually playing without Kevin Reed. The guard's name dots the Black Bears' record books -- the school's third all-time leading scorer, the ninth-best rebounder, the third all-time leader in steals. But more challenging, coach Ted Woodward smartly schemed his game plan to Reed's talents. Without him the word overhaul doesn't do Woodward's task justice. He's got just one starter returning -- point guard Junior Bernal -- and a lot of questions. Woodward's charge looms large.
Randy Monroe took a risk and it worked more than it didn't. With two talented point guards, Brian Hodges and Jay Greene, on his roster, Monroe decided to play them together rather than apart. Thanks to their complementary styles, the two melded well. Hodges, more of a slasher, was happy to play off the ball and led the Retrievers with 14.7 points per game while Green, a natural point, led the conference with 5.3 assists per game. Where the tiny roster -- Monroe often went with three and sometimes four guards at a time -- hurt was on the boards, where UMBC was outrebounded virtually every night. That should change this season when Monroe welcomes 6-8 forward Cavell Johnson, a transfer from James Madison and Darryl Proctor , a one-time MEAC Rookie of the Year from Coppin State to the court. Monroe will welcome the help. Second-leading scorer Thomas Young was recently dismissed from school for academic reasons.
Bill Herrion had two go-to guys last season. Jermaine Anderson and Blagoj Janev combined to average 28 points for a Wildcat team that together averaged just 58.7 points per game. Big problem there. Anderson and Janev have both graduated, leaving a team that struggled to score looking even more empty handed as this season dawns. UNH not only was dead last in scoring, it shot just 40.7 percent from the floor. Tyrece Gibbs, who trailed Anderson and Janev as the team's third best scorer with just 9.5 points per game, needs to get a lot of help. Forward Radar Onguetou, who showed some promise late in the season, could help. Mike Christensen, who missed the Wildcats' final 15 games with a broken foot, could help more. He averaged 13.7 points prior to the injury.
Coach Steve Pikiell prefers calling his task way out on Long Island, "flat-out building," instead of the "rebuilding" term most coaches use. If that's the case, he's at least laid the first corner of the foundation. Growing pains are coming in baby steps at Stony Brook, but they are coming. The Seawolves more than doubled their win total last year, from four to nine games, and while that isn't enough to merit a headline, it's a start. The Seawolves' biggest challenge? Learning how to score, one of those persnickety tasks in hoops. Stony Brook averaged just 58.7 points per game last year. For evidence of the team's woes, look no further than the final game. In a 49-47 loss to Hartford in the first round of the conference tourney, Stony Brook went 16:40 without a field goal, blowing a 20-point first-half lead.
The big news, naturally, is that Joe Trapani is gone. Lost in the shuffle of the super frosh's exodus from Burlington is the graduation of Chris Holm. The senior averaged 12.4 rebounds in America East games, the significant reason that the Catamounts ranked second in the nation in rebounding advantage. Just how valuable was Holm? When he twisted his ankle early in the America East tournament championship game against Albany, Vermont simply couldn't recover. The Great Danes actually outrebounded the Catamounts and went on to the win & on Vermont's home court. Throw in the fact that Martin Klimes (4.6 boards a game) is gone and that Trapani accounted for 4.4 rebounds from his guard position, and you'll get a handle on the work Mike Lonergan has to do to keep the Catamounts rolling.
In the Pac-10, perhaps the best conference in the country, much of the focus will be on the bevy of talented big men.
In the Patriot League, Holy Cross and Bucknell have dominated recent history. Both teams won't be as good this season and previous years, but that doesn't necessarily mean other Patriot League teams can catch them.
Montana's Jordan Hasquet's ties to the Grizzlies run deep. His great-great-grandfather competed against the school, and his father, mother and aunt all played there. And with ties like that, Hasquet just couldn't go tear himself away from the Big Sky power.
Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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