Q raises bar with big money
Quinnipiac's bold 2007 definitely has people around the Northeast Conference taking notice. In a conference well known for its on-court parity, institutional commitment -- and the money that goes with it -- could be the lever that tilts competitive balance in favor of the bold. At least that's what new Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore hopes.
"[School president John Lahey] made a huge financial commitment salary-wise to me, and that spoke volumes about how badly he wanted this program to be good," said Moore, a former associate head coach at UConn. "Then I went down there and saw a beautiful campus and a strong academic school with a great reputation and a beautiful new arena that houses basketball and hockey, and for that level [of the NEC], I started adding things up. I felt Quinnipiac had every component to be the best program in the NEC. We're not right now, but I think we can get there and it's my job to get us there as quick as we can."
As pretty as the campus is, it's safe to say Moore would not have moved about 60 miles south to Hamden, Conn., if not for the new TD Banknorth Sports Center, which houses separate basketball and hockey arenas as parts of a 180,000-square foot facility. Fellow league member LIU Brooklyn opened a nice new facility in early 2006, and Blackbirds head coach Jim Ferry acknowledged that their building has helped "attract a different type of player than we have in the past." Moore realizes that Quinnipiac's cash has taken things to an even higher level.
"I think what president Lahey and the administration has done is raise the bar for other presidents and ADs in the league," Moore said. "I think that's what conferences are all about, from the Big East and ACC all the way down to the NEC. You try to position yourself to be a significant factor. It's an arms race in every league. We saw it in the Big East, and we used to talk about [the evolution of facilities] all the time. I think the same thing applies in the NEC."
At league schools where a new arena is not yet in the works, Quinnipiac's ambition is a definite source of discussion.
"They are making a huge commitment to better their program and win basketball games and make their situation as competitive as possible, almost to the point that they are not doing it [just] to be competitive in the league," Mount St. Mary's head coach Milan Brown said. "They are going beyond being competitive in the league. They are trying to be competitive with whoever they walk in the door with. I think it's great that they're doing that. As a coach, you want to have every possible chance, every resource to do the job you think you can do. The more resources you have, the fewer excuses you have. I think it's great. I'm pretty sure Tom has to be fired up, not only about the opportunity, but what he has to work with."
That said, understandably, there will be skeptics. Numerous coaches pointed out that Quinnipiac has yet to accomplish much since its move to Division I in 1999. And while a shiny new building and increased budgets help, there's still no real replacement for tradition and success.
"The fact that one program that hasn't really had a heck of a lot of success has made a huge commitment, it will be a wait-and-see," said Monmouth head coach Dave Calloway, whose Hawks have won three NEC tournament titles and two regular-season crowns in the last seven seasons.
"If there's a school that had unlimited resources or X amount of time and resources better than the other, they have an advantage, but is it automatic?" added Sacred Heart coach Dave Bike, an in-state rival whose program might be this year's preseason favorite. "I don't think so. You still have to do it on the court. As far as an overall product of the league, I think if people can make progress, it's better for the league. Now if you're talking to me in 10 years and they've rattled off nine straight [titles], then it might make you think that they have an advantage."
Still, Calloway whose school is constructing a new facility of its own, acknowledges that Quinnipiac's ambition might be good for the league.
"We would all like to see that -- especially those involved in basketball in the NEC -- we'd like to see a total commitment from all 11 schools," he said. "In our league meetings, there's an emphasis from the commissioner's office, which is directly supposed to come from the ADs and presidents that basketball is the [conference's] premier sport. But other than Quinnipiac, I don't know if you see that 100 percent across the board. I've heard it all, 'We're now all going to be fighting for second,' and I've heard that Quinnipiac is a waste of money. Right now, you have to applaud them for making the effort. I hope it works out for them, but I hope it works out for second place."
Moore expects to finish one spot better than that.
"I just think we should threaten for the conference championship and corresponding NCAA bid every year," he said. "With our university and this arena, I don't think we should have a two-to-three year period where we're not a threat to win the league. Obviously, in a conference championship game, a million things can happen. But as many years as possible and as quick as possible, we should be competing for a conference championship on a regular basis."
If the Bobcats do, other NEC schools might be forced to re-examine their own priorities.
It took Sacred Heart eight seasons before notching its first winning campaign in Division I in 2006-07. That season resulted in a second-place finish and a four-point loss in the NEC title game to traditional league heavyweight Central Connecticut State.
Now, the Pioneers bring almost everyone back for another run. With CCSU and regular contenders Fairleigh Dickinson and Monmouth all in various stages of rebuilding, is this the season the former Division II national champions make their first-ever appearance in the D-I dance?
"It wouldn't shock me if we were picked one, two or three, and I think that's a fair assessment going on what we have coming back and what we did last year," said head coach Dave Bike.
Sacred Heart most likely will be picked first in the preseason poll -- heady stuff for a program that went 4-23 in as recently as 2004-05. The Pioneers return forward Joey Henley (11.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Drew Shubik (9.8 pph, 3.9 rpg, 4.0 apg) and four other players who averaged at least 8.4 points per game. That doesn't even count Ryon Howard, who scored 14 against Fordham in last season's opener before injuring his knee in the second game of the season. Bike knows that his team, as a presumed favorite, will be in a different position than usual.
"It's been a long time since we've been picked at the top of the league," Bike said. "I think you'd rather be there [than be picked at the bottom]. It's not going to be easy. There's no doubt about it. It's a challenge, it's not automatic, and our guys are going to be playing from a different perspective than they have the last few years."
Still, Sacred Heart is far from a runaway favorite. Coaches from around the league mentioned Robert Morris, Mount St. Mary's and even Wagner as other possible title contenders, and Bike expects the league will be its typically balanced, competitive self.
"If you want to separate [the NEC] into three tiers, there isn't that much between the top tier to the middle tier and the middle tier to the bottom," he said. "I think we're all the same. I've said that before. Last year, when we were picked low or when people saw me at this time of the year, I could legitimately say, 'We have a chance.' I'm not changing that. I feel the same way I did last year. We have a chance."
In 2005-06, Monmouth won an opening-round NCAA Tournament game in Dayton and scared the heck out of No. 1 seed Villanova in a first-round game in Philadelphia. The next season, the tournament champs backed up their crown by not even qualifying for the league tournament, which only invites the top eight teams.
That didn't sit well with head coach Dave Calloway, whose program had made three NCAA Tournament trips in the previous six seasons.
"I think it's a little bit of a wakeup call," he said. " The year before, I don't know that we were the most talented team, but we found a way to win it. The fact that we won it three times in the last eight years and six straight winning seasons is something that we hang our hat on. Last year, probably, was a little aberration."
Calloway admitted that the roster imbalance last season, with four seniors who had never been lead players and no juniors, left his team with a harmful leadership void.
"We're going to be totally different than last year," Calloway said. "We had four seniors who [had been] great role players and they kind of played behind a group of kids who were terrific leaders. They never had to lead, they were perfect in those roles. Last year, they had to lead and they weren't used to that role, and we had no juniors. I made some mistakes early in the year allowing the program to run like it had, since we had so much success, and didn't realize how much that gap was going to hurt us."
With no seniors on this year's roster, Calloway has designs on starting fresh -- literally. He said that up to six incoming freshmen could see playing time, and that as many as three of them might start. Will handing the team over immediately to the underclassmen cause roster strife? Calloway's not too concerned.
"I took over a situation like that seven, eight, nine years ago, so I'm familiar with it and can handle it," he said. " The kids end up figuring out in the long run who the better players are."
|Team||Overall record||League record|
|Central Conn. State*||22-12||16-2|
|Mount St. Mary's||11-20||9-9|
|St. Francis (NY)||9-22||7-11|
|St. Francis (Pa.)||8-21||5-13|
|Top returning scorers|
|Tristan Blackwood, Sr., Central Conn. St.||17.1|
|A.J. Jackson, Sr., Robert Morris||16.9|
|Robert Hines, Sr., St. Francis (N.Y.)||16.5|
|Tony Lee, Sr., Robert Morris||15.9|
|DeMario Anderson, Sr., Quinnipiac||15.7|
|Top returning rebounders|
|A.J. Jackson, Sr., Robert Morris||7.8|
|Devin Sweetney, Soph., St. Francis (Pa.)||7.7|
|James Ulrich, Sr., Wagner||6.7|
|Eugene Kotorobai, Sr., Long Island||6.5|
|Tony Lee, Sr., Robert Morris||6.0|
Howie Dickenman kept an extremely tight bench last season. Two starters -- Tristan Blackwood and league Player of the Year Javier Mojica -- played more than 90 percent of the team's minutes, which ranked both in the nation's top 35. Two other starters -- Obie Nwadike and Jemino Sobers -- were at almost 80 percent. Now that Mojica, Nwadike and Sobers are gone, that means two things: 1) Blackwood (17.1 ppg, 4.1 apg), who scored 40 against Robert Morris last season, will have to carry a huge load for a very young CCSU team, and 2) Dickenman likely will be forced to go deeper into the roster, at least early in the season, to try to find the right combination of replacements. Sophomore guard Joe Seymore, who connected on four 3s in CCSU's NCAA Tournament loss to national finalist Ohio State, could emerge as a viable second option.
FDU defended the 3-point line very well last season, allowing only 33.8 percent from the arc. That led to the Knights having the nation's 16th-lowest rate of 3s attempted against them. A large part of that, though, was that opponents were too busy scoring inside to be bothered with jump shots. FDU allowed 52.9 percent shooting from inside the arc; only four teams in D-I allowed a higher percentage of their total points from 2-point range. That could make 6-foot, 8-inch incoming freshman John Galvin an important piece in the Knights' rebuilding effort. He led the state of Connecticut in blocks last season and should provide a dose of deterrence for a team that saw its three tallest players, including leading scorer and rebounder Andre Harris (18.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg), exhaust their eligibility.
Fans of old-school NYC basketball will have an extra reason to follow the Blackbirds this season, as one of their three newcomers is junior Ronald Manigault. The transfer from City College of San Francisco is a cousin of legendary streetballer/dunker Earl "The Goat" Manigault, who many consider to be the best player never to play in the NBA. LIU won't need Manigault to grab quarters off the top of backboards like his cousin could, but with leading scorers James Williams and Aubin Scott gone, they'll need Manigualt and David Hicks to help the team to shoot better. LIU ranked in the nation's bottom 50 from both inside and outside the arc last season. The scary part? LIU's defense was worse than its offense, finishing 318th in D-I in adjusted defensive efficiency. That said, with three starters returning, including sophomore point guard Jaytorn Wisseh and center Aurimas Adomaitis, the cupboard is far from bare.
As if enough didn't go wrong for the Hawks during last season's disappointing 12-18 campaign, they also were one of the unluckier teams in Division I. According to kenpom.com, Monmouth finished 0.7 games worse than the Hawks' point differential suggested they should. And the Hawks will field a very young squad this season. Of the newcomers, Calloway suggested that both redshirt freshmen, 6-10 Adam Dobriansky and 6-9 Dutch Gaitley, could start and that incoming freshman George Barbour, whose injuries in high school kept him under the radar, could be an impact player as well.
Mount St. Mary's
Talk to coaches around the league, and the first thing they mention about the Mountaineers is how hard they play. This season, they could also be talking about how good they are. The Mount returns leading scorer Chris Vann (13.6 ppg) and leading assist man Jeremy Goode (10.1 ppg, 5.0 apg) from a club that finished 9-9 in NEC play last season and gave league champ CCSU all it could handle in the NEC semifinals. MSM should be careful not to play too hard, though. Last season, the Mountaineers were at a huge free throw disadvantage, finishing in the nation's bottom 50 in both the frequency in which they got to the line and in which they kept opponents away from it.
The Bobcats might not yet quite be where Tom Moore envisions them, but he does inherit potent scorer DeMario Anderson, a CCSU transfer who averaged a team-best 15.7 points per game for the Q last season. Anderson and fellow senior Karl Anderson (no relation) are the only two returnees from the top six in last season's rotation, so Moore expects the ball to be in DeMario's hands -- a lot. "I think DeMario Anderson has an opportunity to be one of the best players and scorers in the league," Moore said. " … We have high, high expectations of him, as he does for himself. Anderson's passing ability will be real important in the frontcourt and we will rely on him a lot this year. I think he'll respond positively." The Bobcats might lack experience on the court, but they just added a wealth of it on the sideline when former NBA champion Scott Burrell, a Hamden native, officially joined the staff.
The Colonials made some early waves last season, first with the debut of their Samuel Adams lager-style new logo and then with their effort at then-No. 2 Pitt, where RMU led with 13 minutes left. The 8-1 nonconference run, though, was overshadowed by a disappointing 9-9 NEC campaign and a first-round tournament exit. Head coach Mark Schmidt then left to take over at St. Bonaventure, but new head man Mark Rice, a former Pitt assistant, gets some nice welcoming gifts. The Colonials return the NEC's highest-scoring trio in standout forward A.J. Jackson (16.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg), do-it-all guard Tony Lee (15.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 4.4 apg, 2.8 spg) and former league rookie of the year Jeremy Chappell (14.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg). Weird stat: The Colonials had one of the largest free throw percentage disparities in the nation last season, making foul shots at a 75.4 percent rate while their opponents only converted 65 percent of the time. The impact was reduced, though, as the Colonials actually shot 87 fewer free throws than their opponents.
If Sacred Heart doesn't win the NEC this season, it probably will be because of subpar defense. In each of the Pioneers' six NEC regular-season losses last season, they allowed at least 1.08 points per possession, a rate that would put a team in the nation's bottom 50 if maintained all season. Of particular concern is the defensive rebounding. The Pioneers allowed opponents to corral 38 percent of all missed shots last season, which was the 13th-worst rate in all of Division I. SHU's uptempo style and relatively efficient offense makes up for some of its defensive shortcomings, but Joey Henley, Brice Brooks and Co. need to do a better job of limiting second-shot opportunities if the Pioneers are to fulfill their lofty expectations.
St. Francis (NY)
Defensively, the Terriers were adequate last season. Offensively, they were offensive. They finished in the nation's bottom 40 in turnover percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. The lone bright spot was they were one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, which is good when you miss as many shots as they did. The good news? Six of the eight main rotation guys come back to provide continuity, but unless someone can help Robert Hines (16.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) put the ball in the basket, the Terriers will continue to lack sufficient bite.
St. Francis (Pa.)
This was the team that seemingly no one wanted to face at the end of last season when the Red Flash won four of its last five games, culminating with a KO of Monmouth that kept the defending tourney champs out of the league tournament. Now almost everyone returns, led by sophomore wing Devin Sweetney, who averaged 13.0 points and 7.7 rebounds per game last season. If the Red Flash are going to take the next step up from 5-13 in league play, though, they will have to do a much better job with their turnover differential. A lack of ball security is understandable for a young team, but St. Francis (Pa.) ranked in the nation's bottom 30 in both offensive and defensive turnover rate. When you are wasting about 4.5 more possessions a game than your opponents, that's hard to overcome for any team.
Like St. Francis, Wagner will have almost everyone back and seems to be a team ready to make a move up the NEC standings. The uptempo Seahawks return four double-digit scorers, but given the profound lack of size on the roster, it's good that the incoming freshman class includes 6-11, 250-pound center Brian Szczepanski, who might be able to provide some interior help. That would be a good thing, since Wagner allowed almost 53 percent shooting inside the arc last season (299th in D-I).
-- Joe Lunardi
The national statistics are from kenpom.com.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.
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