Thursday, December 29, 2011

Was Wagner's Victory Over Pitt the Greatest in NEC History?

I began my holiday vacation last Friday evening by witnessing Dan Hurley’s Wagner Seahawks surprisingly defeat the Pittsburgh Panthers, 59-54.  Wagner’s tenacious defense and composed guard play from Kenneth Ortiz, Tyler Murray, and Latif Rivers proved to be the difference and set Twitter a buzz later that night.  Compliments and praise galore was showered Wagner’s way, and rightfully so.  There was one statement on the Twitter machine however, that had me scratching my head – “Wagner’s win tonight is the greatest win in the history of the NEC.”

Was this true?  Sure, beating a Big East team on the road is a lofty achievement for almost any school, but I wanted to do some research to determine if the above statement was in fact valid.  So thanks to, I was able to sift through the Northeast Conference’s 30 years of games to find you the greatest wins in the conference’s history.   I know what you’re thinking, “But Ryan, how much time did you invest on this one blog post?  It must have taken forever!”

Not really.  In fact before I proceed with the brief history lesson (don’t worry this isn’t a history lesson on the Renaissance or the Roman Empire you dreaded in 8th grade), here are some sobering statistics to illustrate how easy it was for me to pick out the notable wins:

-       The NEC is the only existing conference to have never won a first round match in the NCAA tourney (The NEC has 3 NCAA tourney wins to their credit, however all 3 were in the play-in rounds, with the last one coming from Mount St. Mary’s in 2008)
-       The following NEC schools have never defeated a team ranked in the RPI Top 50 in its history – Sacred Heart (sigh), Fairleigh Dickinson, Quinnipiac, Bryant, Central Connecticut, Wagner, Long Island, St. Francis (NY), and Robert Morris (this surprised me a little)

Without further ado, here are the top 5 biggest wins in the Northeast Conference history:

5) Monmouth defeated St. Joseph’s (RPI 41), 71-62 on Dec 1994
I wish I could say this is the year that St. Joes made their remarkable run with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, but I’m about 9 years off.  And Monmouth was still a year away before securing a 13 seed in the NCAA tourney by winning their first ever NEC crown.  So why is this fairly pedestrian win on the list?  Because it’s the NEC, that’s why!

4) Monmouth defeated Southern Illinois (RPI 29), 80-68 on Nov 2005
Where were you when you heard Monmouth had upset mid-major power Southern Illinois in the first round of the famous Great Alaskan Shootout?  (Silence….) Yeah, I don’t remember either...

3) Robert Morris (15 seed) lost to Villanova (2 seed), 73-70 in OT in first round of 2009-2010 NCAA Tournament on March 2010
Ok, I just broke the rule of my sacred list by selecting a losing game, but in terms of giving the NEC much needed notoriety, this game could be at the top.  Robert Morris, fresh off a hard fought NEC finals victory over Quinnipiac, nearly pulled off the unthinkable by losing to Big East power Villanova in OT by 3 points (and giving everyone who picked Nova as a Final Four team in their NCAA bracket a near heart attack in the process).  Despite the heartbreaking loss, I’m sure people were at least Googling questions like, “where the hell is Robert Morris?” and “who the hell is Robert Morris?” and “is Mike Rice a good coaching candidate to fix my mediocre D1 basketball team?” during the game.

(Side Note – Rutgers won the Mike Rice sweepstakes after the 2009-2010 season ended.  They are still mediocre, yet the jury is still out on whether Rice can turn the club around)

2) Wagner defeated Pittsburg (RPI 70), 59-54 on Dec 2011
Who cares if Pitt: A) lost to another mid major school in Long Beach State this season and B) is currently a NCAA Tourney bubble team at best.  It was an impressive win nonetheless, as Wagner managed to hold Pitt to season lows in points per possession (0.89) and effective field goal percentage (41.7%).  And after watching Dan Hurley’s masterpiece on ESPNU, one thing is for certain - Sacred Heart doesn’t have a freaking chance to win the NEC.

1) Mount St. Mary’s defeated Georgia Tech (RPI 9) on the road, 71-69 on Dec 1995
Number 1 on my list is the only time a NEC squad has upended a team ranked in the RPI Top 10.  The Mountaineers, who won a school record 16 regular season conference games that season en route to a NIT bid, took down Georgia Tech, led by legendary coach Bobby Cremins and guard Stephon Marbury (sorry, but I refuse to call Marbury a POINT guard).  Georgia Tech would later fall to Cincinnati in the Sweet 16, thus validating Mount St. Mary’s monumental non-conference achievement.

Did I miss a noteworthy moment for the NEC?  Please let me know in the comments!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

SHU Squanders Opportunities to Make a Statement

It was 4 pm on Sunday afternoon, and I was already finishing up my second beer.  Doesn’t sound like much to a college kid or alcoholic, but for me, this was unusual.  I was coping with a pathetic performance from my New York Giants, as I had just witnessed Rex Grossman knock off Eli and the Giants for the second time this season and bump them out of the NFC East division lead.

So after asking God why I had better hands than Hakeem Nicks for a solid hour, I began to eagerly look ahead to Sacred Heart’s big week on the hard court.  They had a real opportunity to make some noise, squaring off against two major programs (well at least in theory), Notre Dame and Boston College, who were each struggling through down seasons.  I felt SHU could genuinely battle each team and maybe, just maybe, pull off a big upset in one of the two games. 

Well….that dream went about as well as the Baltimore Orioles search for a general manager did.

Rewind to Monday afternoon, hours before tip-off with Notre Dame.  I had refreshed my Facebook app to find a Youtube video of Evan Kelley leading the Pioneers out of the tunnel at the ND football stadium.  A couple of hours later, two SHU players on Twitter expressed how anxious they were before the game.  Hmm, were the Pioneer players in completely over their heads?  Would the moment get too big for them to handle in South Bend?

It didn’t seem that way early on.  A Steve Glowiak three gave the Pioneers a 30-23 edge with 7:48 remaining in the first half.  And then the Fighting Irish turned up the heat and never looked back.  After taking that 7 point lead, the Pioneers were outscored 25-7 to conclude the half, thanks to a porous 2-3 zone that Dave Bike doesn’t typically employ.

Notre Dame carried the momentum right into the second half, by going on a quick 11-0 run, essentially turning the game into a laugher.  Midway through the second half, I turned off my grainy internet TV feed after a dejected Dave Bike called timeout.  The Fighting Irish were up 30 and already in the double bonus.  Game over.

(To save Sacred Heart some of the embarrassment, I will spare you the statistics from the game except this one - Notre Dame scored 1.58 points per possession.  The NCAA basketball average is about 1 point per possession.  Yikes…)

Depressed, I turned my attention over to Wednesday night, where they faced off against a bad Boston College team.  Bad as in, picked to finish dead last in the ACC Preseason Poll bad.  As Charles Barkley would say, “this team is turrable.”

Despite this wonderful opportunity to upset an ACC foe, SHU lost a sloppy, yet hard fought battle, 83-73.  In truth, the undersized Pioneers actually put forth an effort I was rather proud of, even though their defense allowed Boston College score 1.17 points per possession and shoot an effective field goal percentage of 67% (the average is 49%).

It was the coaching staff that disappointed me Wednesday night.  First of all, I understand that BC has a 7’0’’ freshman center and a 6’8’’ power forward that will create mismatches for undersized forwards like Femi Akinpetide, Justin Swidowski, Stan Dulaire and Nick Greenbacker.  These mismatches, more often than not, will result in more fouls from the smaller defenders, which in turn places stress on a roster without front court depth.  I get that.  But why did Femi Akinpetide foul out with 16 minutes remaining in the second half?  Why was he in there?  There certainly were other options on the bench.

Second and more importantly, I didn't understand why Shane Gibson sat out nearly 8 minutes of the second half.  He wasn’t in foul trouble.  He didn't appear to be injured, since he did play most of the final 6 minutes.  Then why did Bike sit his leading scorer when Gibson was red hot in the first half?  Did he violate team rules at halftime?  Did he party too hard in celebration of his 1,000 career point?  Was Bike saving his 21 year old body for crunch time?  I’m out of questions.  And my head hurts.

So as you can see, when it comes facing big time programs, it doesn’t matter who is at fault.  It's the same old Pioneers.  In the past 10 seasons, Sacred Heart is 0-40 against teams from the A10, Big East, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac 12 (SHU has never played a team from the SEC in its history).  I'll leave everyone with that stat over the holiday break

Until then, have a wonderful holiday and I promise to spend the break (and the much needed time off from work) researching and writing informative posts for you the reader.  I should have some great material in the coming weeks.  NEC season is almost here!  Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

As a Mets Fan, It's Time to Embrace the Unthinkable

This is an unprecedented moment for the Pioneer Pride blog – for the first time ever I’m bringing you 2 entries in 2 days!  If Yankees radio announcer John Sterling was in my living room now, he would most certainly bellow (while experiencing a near orgasm), “Ooooooohhhhh Ryan has just posted two blog entries in two days!!  He went back-to-back, BELLY-TO-BELLY!!!!”

This entry was somewhat difficult to write, because as a Mets fan I never want to give up hope before a season, no matter how dire the circumstances.  But for the first time in my life as a Mets fan, I’m ready to fully embrace the “R” word that no New York sports fan EVER wants to utter – rebuilding.  To be clear, I’m not talking about a half ass “we traded two elite pitching prospects for a good, but not great pitcher in Ubaldo Jimenez because we fooled ourselves into thinking we had a shot at the AL Central division title” kind of rebuilding.  I’m talking about an all-out “let’s beef up the farm system that Omar Minaya raped and clean house if we have to” type of rebuilding.

Please allow me to explain myself.  I’m just…I’m just tired of finishing behind the Phillies, every single freaking year.  It’s worn me down.  For the past three seasons, the Mets have been marinating in this mediocre stew that has inevitably led to final win totals of 70, 79, and 77 wins, respectively.  It’s been the same ‘ol story every year – the Mets will overachieve until the All-Star break and therefore suck us into unrealistically believing they have a shot making the playoffs.  Then by late July, the team starts to predictability fade, only to finish well out of contention for the wildcard.

I’m sick of this cruel false sense of hope, every single year, which is why I’m embracing the “R" word.

So what kind of rebuilding scale am I talking about?  Let’s put it this way – I will support GM Sandy Alderson if he trades any starter for a good return of prospects.  Keith Law, the former Toronto Blue Jays assistant GM who now writes for ESPN Insider, doesn’t have one single Met ranked in his top 50 players age 25 and under.  With the exception of some high risk, high ceiling pitching prospects like Zach Wheeler, Matt Harvey, and Jeurys Familia, it’s a weak farm system, especially for position players. 

So if Alderson has an opportunity to flip Daniel Murphy for a couple of decent prospects, I support that.  What about Jon Niese or Pelfrey for a positional prospect or two?  Sure, why not.  Maybe the Player Formerly Known as Jason Bay will experience a resurgence with the new Citi Field dimensions, and subsequently get unloaded to dump that ridiculous contract.  Go for it, Sandy.  Hell at this point, I would support the Mets if they acquired a very good haul of prospects by trading …. (gulp) …. David Wright.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I would support the Mets if they trade … (sorry, this is difficult to even type) … David Wright for the right package of prospects, even though Wright is a fan favorite and on the short list of my man-crushes (although Eli is a close second).  I’ve reached that level as a suffering Met fan.

Besides, I’m thinking long term.  If they suck the next couple of seasons, I’m fine with that.  As long as Sandy is building a contender.  In a couple of years, when my wife (a Yankee fan) and I start a family, I need a Mets team that can match the sustained success of the Yankees.  If the Mets are still stuck in this mediocre stew, come 2016, then it will be an easy decision for our children.  A 90-95 win Yankee team that makes the playoffs most years? Or a mediocre, strapped for cash Mets squad that can barely win half their games?  That’s a pretty easy decision for a child.  And I need a fighting chance to brainwash my child into loving the Amazins some day.

Let the rebuilding begin.  Lets.  Go.  METS!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pioneer Pride Quick Hits I

It is time for the first installment of the Pioneer Pride’s Quick Picks!  Let’s begin…

• I’m excited to announce my inclusion into Big Apple Buckets Power Poll!  John Templon, the creator of, does a terrific job covering college basketball programs in the New York City area.  Every month on his website, he releases a Power Poll, which ranks all the teams in the tri-state area.  The NEC teams included in this poll are St. Francis (NY), Monmouth, Fairleigh Dickinson, Wagner, Long Island University and, of course, Sacred Heart.  I’ve been recently added as a voter of the poll, along with 13 other beat reporters and bloggers of different teams.  Time to study up before I cast my vote this Sunday night!

• It’s been a light week in college basketball – thanks to finals week – therefore I’ve caught up on some reading material.  In the past 2 weeks, there have been 3 features on individual Pioneer players.  William Paxton, of the Connecticut Post, wrote an excellent piece on SHU forward Femi Akinpetide, detailing his charitable work off the court.  Chris Elsberry, also of the Connecticut Post, featured junior forward Justin Swidowski, by illustrating the toxic losing atmosphere Swidowski was subjected at his prior school, Holy Family.  Reading this article is a must, because if you stick with it until the end, you’ll be rewarded with a Dave Bike fat joke!  And finally, a small piece on Phil Gaetano was penned yesterday by Record Journal writer John Petit.  It was evident in the article that Bike is expecting big things from his freshman guard.  Look for Gaetano's playing time to increase during the conference season if Evan Kelley continues to provide erratic minutes at the point.

• Tim Tebow is clearly God's quarterback.  But who is God's team in college basketball?  We are about to find out!  On Monday night, SHU will travel to South Bend to take on their second and final Big East opponent of the year, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  Notre Dame (7-4, RPI 228) has struggled out of the gate, thanks to senior Tim Abromaitis shredding his knee ligament, thus requiring season-ending surgery.  Without Abromatitis, Notre Dame has failed to defeat anyone in the RPI top 175 and now finds themselves only a couple RPI points ahead of SHU (6-6, RPI: 231).  So does SHU have a chance to end Notre Dame’s 26 game non-conference home winning streak?  Quite simply, no.

• David Wright apparently has it all.  A very good baseball player entering his prime, check.  Good looks and a boyish innocence, check.  A multi-million dollar contract, check.  But is he a dominant player in fantasy football??  David is currently part of a MLB players 12 team fantasy football league hosted by CBS Sports, and from the looks of it, he has one hell of a team.  Now if only David can hit the goddamn ball out of Citi Field every once in a while…
(Side note:  Ben Sheets evidently sucks at staying healthy and fantasy football)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

SHU Showing an Improvement, but Inexperience Still Holds Their Potential Back

It’s been a while since I provided you the people a blog post on the Pioneers, so now is just as good a time as any.  I’m finally recovered from a festive holiday party over the weekend that included great friends, turducken (it was delicious, thanks for asking), and unfortunately, cocktails with a high concentration of sweet tea vodka (my stomach is still churning).  But now I’m cleansed and refreshed, so it’s time for a Sacred Heart update!

12 games are now complete.  6 wins, 6 losses.  1-1 in the Northeast conference.  Borrowing the poignant words of former NFL head coach Dennis Green, the Sacred Heart Pioneers are who I thought they were!  They are an improving roster of talent that is currently limited due to their inexperience and inconsistency.

After an encouraging 5-3 start to the season, Sacred Heart (6-6, 1-1 NEC) dropped 3 straight games - 2 of which lost at the final buzzer - before defeating Lafayette 84-79 last Sunday.  Most glaring, Sacred Heart is now 1-3 in games where either team is within 4 points or less in the final 2 minutes.  Inexperience is raring its ugly head, late in these pivotal games.

Case in point….I witnessed the gut-wrenching loss to the Central Connecticut Blue Devils two Saturdays ago in dangerous New Britain, CT, thanks to me brokering a deal where I agreed to go Christmas shopping with my wife immediately after the game (I know, I know, but I REALLY wanted to see this game).  We entered the crowded gymnasium (no seriously it was crowded and kind of hostile too, and you thought no one cared about NEC basketball) with about 15 minutes left in the 2nd half, and Central firmly in control with a 12 point lead.  But then the Shane Gibson show began.  Before we could get comfortable in our seats, Gibson and company had gone on a scintillating 30-10 run to take 8 point advantage with 6 minutes remaining in the game.  Even my wife began openly cheering for SHU, especially when I told her that Justin Swidowski was probably Polish.

Then SHU’s inexperience began to set in.  Central’s elite senior duo of Robby Ptacek and Ken Horton began hitting shots.  Central’s defense picked up its intensity.  Swidowski, after effortlessly scoring 19 points in the first 34 minutes of the game, stopped getting open in the low block.  The offense, sans Gibson, became too tentative and as a result, Gibson began talking ill-advised shots.  The crowd got louder and louder.  Positioned in my seat behind the SHU bench, I could now see the spit flying out of Dave Bike and Anthony Latina’s mouth, as they angrily pleaded with their players to finish off the Blue Devils (Johnny Kidd, to no ones surprise, said very little).  Next thing I knew, Central had tied the game with 1:10 remaining on a three by the tattooed up white boy Ptacek.

This mini-collapse, mind you, shouldn't have been a disappointment.  This was a Central team that is built to win now.  When you have two seniors averaging nearly 20 points per game, a trip to the NCAA tournament IS the goal.  What disappointed me, however, was the inability of SHU to close out the game, mainly due to a stagnant offense in the final minute.  Inexperience…

The first possession with a minute left led to Evan Kelley - the quintessential talented, yet at times erratic player on SHU's roster - dribbling around like he was Allen Iverson (the one who played briefly in Turkey, not the 76ers MVP one) and finally hoisting up a 25 footer late in the shot clock.  Suffice it to say, the shot didn't go in, and Central grabbed the rebound.  I seriously doubt that was the play Bike called in the huddle.  Luckily for SHU, Ptacek committed an offensive foul on the other end, giving the Pioneers a chance to win the game on their final possession.  What innovative play would Bike and his staff draw up?

It ended up being the same old isolation shit.  Central wisely doubled Gibson at the top of the key, who then was forced to pass it.  Finally, after a game of hot potato around the perimeter, a surprised Steve Glowiak attempted a contested, last second 3-pointer in the corner that probably had a 4.5671% chance of going in.  Sadly, I was not able rush the court, rip off my shirt, and flip off the creepy Blue Devil mascot in celebration, as the shot missed badly.

Despite their lack of execution late and Central’s momentum, there was SHU with another chance in overtime to take the lead down one with 13 seconds remaining.  Swidowski, after being hacked on the put-back to an offensive rebound, proceeded to brick two pressurized free throws and thereby hand Central firm control of the game.  In the end, a running three by Evan Kelley for the win was too strong and Central escaped with a riveting 82-80 victory.

It was a brutal loss, because they had a quality team on the ropes and twice fell short.  Two evenings later, SHU validated their lack of experience by losing another nail-biter to the Yale Bulldogs.  This affair proved just as sickening for Pioneer fans with Gibson missing an open three at the buzzer that would have won the game. 

Truth be told, it’s better to lose these games now than late in the season.  But before we get all excited about the improved talent on Bike’s roster, we must see maturation from these Pioneers.  We must see certain players step up, so Bike doesn’t change his late game lineup from game to game.  These are the games SHU needs to pull out to take that next step.  So far the next step feels like mountain, as they struggle to gain the necessary experience to become an elite NEC squad.

With any luck, that next step will come.  Maybe Kelley will swing the ball around before panicking late in the shot clock.  Maybe Swidowski will calm down under the pressure and sink those free throws.  And maybe, just maybe, Bike and his staff will stay away from those stupid isolation sets, and call a real play, centered around his star, Shane Gibson.  It is this fan’s hope that these bitter losses will harden the resolve of the Pioneers before the 2011-2012 season is over.

And for those of you wondering, shopping at the mall after the Central loss was as horrendous as it sounded.  I spent the majority of my time at Macys wondering if Swidowski was thinking about those missed free throws as much as I was.  There’s a decent chance that he wasn’t...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Terrible Contracts to Cheer Up Met Fans

It's not easy being a Mets fan.  In fact, it's downright depressing, especially now that Jose Reyes has left Queens for sunnier pastures in Miami.  With Reyes gone, Johan pitching with diminished velocity, and The Player Formerly Known As Jason Bay starting in LF, there ain't no mistaking it - it's full blown rebuilding time for GM Sandy Aldersen, which means….drum roll please….at least another 2-3 years of mediocrity.  Yay!!  At this point, I'd rather take a dump in a New Jersey turnpike restroom than watch a July baseball game at Citi Field.

So in an attempt to cheer myself up (besides taking anti-depressants and viewing Twitter photos of Wayne Gretzky's daughter), I compiled a list of the most outrageous contracts on the books for the Yankees and National League East teams, courtesy of  With the Mets destined for 72-75 wins next year, I will now focus my pleasure in seeing rivals paying substantial sums of money to underachieving and/or oft-injured bums.  I do realize teams like the Yankees and Phillies can simply buy their way out of these albatross contracts, yet I still get the warm and fuzzies when the Steinbrenners are forced to pay $20 million to a player like Kei Igawa.

(By the way, breaking news I guarantee you didn't hear at the Winter Meetings in Dallas - Kei Igawa is now a free agent!)

So without further ado, my list:

1) Alex Rodriguez - 6 years / $143 million left
ARod earns the number 1 spot just because he has a centaur of himself hanging above his bed.  I still don't understand why the Yankees handed a then 32 year old ARod a 10 year/$275 million extension - exactly who else were they bidding against?  With another 6 years and $143 million remaining (and potentially another $30 million more in home run bonuses), that degenerative hip may push ARod to full time DH duty within 3 years.  And you Yankee fans thought Jorge Posada was an overpaid DH, just wait until 2017!

2) Ryan Howard - 5 years / $125 million left
I literally cheered upon hearing the news that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro handed Howard a $125 million extension.  Reason #1 - because Ike Davis will probably have the same WAR (Wins Above Replacement) as Howard over the next 5 years, at a fraction of the cost.  And reason #2 - Howard's on-base % and slugging % have steadily declined over the past 3 seasons, while averaging 172 strikeouts per season in the same time span.  A blown Achilles tendon aside, I think it's safe to say the 31 year old Howard won't improve on that baseline from here on out.  If it wasn't for hitter friendly Citizen's Bank park to call home, Howard would be nothing more than a $25 million Mark Reynolds in 3 years.

3) Jason Werth - 6 years / $112 million left
Just another case of a 5-star guy (think Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, Carlos Beltran) getting overpaid because of his "tools".  This deal always felt like a sick reaction to letting a lazy Adam Dunn walk (ok, maybe waddle) to Chicago.  Otherwise, I can't explain why Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, who's done a nice job rebuilding the Nationals, would offer this obscene contact.  Truth be told, I would take a chance on Werth in the middle rounds of a fantasy draft next season, since I do believe last year was an outlier.  But there's no way this contract will be favorable when Werth plays out the final 3 years from age 36-38.

4) AJ Burnett - 2 years / $33 million left
As I'm writing this, it's been reported that the Yankees are attempting to trade Burnett.  Good luck with that.  You know it's a bad sign when terrified Yankee fans were absolutely thrilled with AJ's pitching line against the Tigers in last season's ALCS:

5.2 innings, 1 earned run, 4 hits, 4 walks, 3 Ks, 1 wild pitch

It's a respectable line - don't get me wrong - but when 8 baserunners allowed in less than 6 innings is more than acceptable for a guy making $16.5 million per year, then maybe it's time to stop paying pitchers based on just stuff and potential.

5) Jose Reyes - 6 years / $106 million left
I hate the man's guts, but Fred Wilpon was correct on one prediction - Jose Reyes did not get Carl Crawford money.  This doesn't hide the fact, however, that Jose's contract is incredibly risky once he enters his 30s.  Right now at age 28, Jose has to stretch 5 TIMES PER DAY and he still injures his hamstrings occasionally.  How exactly will his body hold up if he continues to play this reckless style on the basepaths 3-4 years from now?  But even if he's only averaging 120 games per season by 2015, at least the Miami Marlins will have the coveted rights to the "Jose Jose Jose" song and the mid-inning staple "Speaking Spanish with Professor Reyes."  You can't put a price on that.

6) Rafael Soriano - 2 years / $25 million left
Only the Yankees would have a 7th inning specialist making $12.5 million dollars per year.  Based on his WAR the past 3 seasons, he's not even an elite reliever, but cheer up Yankee fans, at least Soriano is a slightly better contract than Big Fat Bobby Jenks 2 year, $12 million deal with the Red Sox.

So are there any albotross contracts of Mets rivals I missed?  Please let me know!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to look over the medical records of Frank "2 DL stints per year" Francisco and get myself pumped up for Andres Torres, and his career 0.318 on-base %, leading off for the Amazins.  Please shoot me now… 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

SHU Holds Off Quinnipiac in an Ugly NEC Battle

On Thursday night, Sacred Heart (5-3, 1-0 NEC) opened up their Northeast Conference season with a valuable road win over in-state foe Quinnipiac (2-4, 0-1 NEC).  The Pioneers were led once again by Shane Gibson with 21 points, 5 boards, and 3 assists, and they also received significant contributions from Chris Evans and Femi Akinpetide.  But before I analyze this game further, I need to get something off my chest…


Ok.  My apologies, but my hate for the Quinnipiac University Bobcats runs deep.  You see I’ve experienced the SHU/Quinnipiac rivalry as a former college “athlete” of the tennis team.  My first ever college match was against Quinnipiac, and I remember it like it was yesterday.  There I was, a freshman, pumped up beyond belief before the match, only to get thoroughly beaten by my opponent, 6-2, 6-1.  In the second set, my arrogant adversary began hitting drop shot after drop shot, and doing it well I might add.  He was absolutely having some fun at my expense.  Once the match mercifully ended, as we were shaking hands at the net, he smugly proclaimed that he had never hit drop shots like that before our encounter.  It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but trust me, it was the way he said it and that shit-eating grin on his face.  It also didn’t help that he high fived his equally arrogant coach right in front of me. 

Since that day as a 19 year old, I’ve openly rooted against Quinnipiac.  These days, despite being far removed from campus life, it still isn’t difficult to hate Quinnipiac.  Their head coach Tom Moore, the former UConn assistant coach to Jim Calhoun, just has a slimy feel about him.  Moore was the center of attention in the Nate Miles recruiting scandal, a scandal that nearly derailed Calhoun’s legacy.  Moore allegedly tried to pry SHU assistant coach Anthony Latina from Bike’s staff a couple years ago.  Recently, he merely suspended one player for one game, even though 5 of his players – 4 of them starters - were arrested after a campus fight in September!  Let’s see, three students get their face smashed in, one player is arrested for assault, 2 others for misdemeanor assault, and very little discipline is handed out?  What was Moore’s final punishment to the players, extra suicides at the end of practice?

And to add the cherry of top of the Tom Moore hate sundae, he even enjoys killing bunnies for fun!  Ok, I made that last sentence up.  Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.  But you get the point, therefore you can imagine my excitement when SHU broke their 5 game losing streak to the Bobcats yesterday in Hamden.

So how did SHU do it?  With some defense, quality bench play and, quite frankly, luck.  Quinnipiac, the nation’s leader in rebounds, grossly outrebounded SHU 45-29 (the SHU website wrongly reported the Pioneers having 39 rebounds).  SHU turned the ball over 16 times, yet only compiled 12 assists.  They shot a pedestrian 42% from the floor and 69% from the charity stripe.  Justin Swidowski, their best low block presence who’s quickly establishing himself as a human foul machine, played only 16 minutes in the game before fouling out for the second time in the past 3 games.  Senior Stan Dulaire played 11 of the most unproductive minutes you’ll ever see on a box score.  Based on those stats alone, you’d think it was an easy home victory for Quinnipiac.

Enter the Pioneer defense.  They held Qunnipiac to a 31% field goal percentage and were somehow able to clamp down whenever the Bobcats made a run.  My man Chris “The Future” Evans, after a couple of lackluster games, scored 11 points on only 3 shot attempts.  He also added 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block.  Even more unexpected was the performance of Femi Akinpetide.  After I called him “offensively inept” in my previous post, Akinpetide responded – I’m sure to my criticism - by filling in admirably for a foul-troubled Swidowski and an ineffective Dulaire.  11 points and 6 rebounders for the 6’6’’ Akinpetide is a solid performance, especially when he had to bang bodies down low with the leading rebounder of the NEC, and alleged assaulter, Ike Azotam.  And finally, Shane Gibson was just being, well Shane Gibson. 

Later this afternoon, the Pioneers head to lovely New Britain, Connecticut to face another NEC in-state rival, Central Connecticut.  Central has been red-hot lately, having recently routed Hartford and Bryant University.  The Blue Devils are spearheaded by a 3-headed scoring monster, led by the 2010-2011 NEC Player of the Year, Ken Horton.  This will serve as a terrific litmus test for the Pioneer defense, although we must be cautious before thinking SHU has the team to compete at the top of the NEC.  Another victory today however and I move that much closer to delusional dreams of a future NCAA tourney birth.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

SHU Defeats Brown in my Highly Anticipated (OK Maybe Not) Return to Campus

For the first time this season, I was on campus to witness a Sunday afternoon basketball showdown between the Sacred Heart Pioneers and the Brown Bears.  Before the game, I decided to visit the recently built Chapel of the Holy Spirit, which now occupies a portion of the campus quad where the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) 1998 J-Hill Football Battle took place.  I knelt down and prayed for a SHU win, and for my friend Dave’s future mental health, since my bony knee collided with Dave’s temple during a tackle to leave him mildly concussed in the aforementioned football game (sorry Dave, but if someone gets concussed while I compete for a win, so be it).  After this brief one-way conversation with God, I found myself in the Pitt Center amongst a raucous crowd of…..434 people.  Not even the mascot, Big Red, made a pity appearance.  It was just the type of atmosphere I would expect for a NEC/Ivy League basketball game over Thanksgiving break.

Nonetheless, there I was enjoying the game.  I was hopeful SHU could bounce back after a brutal loss against Lipscomb, where they were literally 10 seconds away from winning the "prestigious" Cancun Classic, Riviera Division Tournament at a Mexican resort in a giant ballroom. No really, they played the Cancun tourney in a freaking ballroom!  In the game, Evan Kelley competed masterfully down the stretch, but came up un-clutch by missing the tying free throws with 3 seconds remaining.  How would SHU respond to that?

Well, SHU played a frustratingly inconsistent game – especially on the defensive side of the ball - against Brown, but luckily for them, 80% of Brown’s starting lineup consisted of slowish white guys who had trouble creating their own shot.  Oh the joys of Ivy League basketball!  In the end, SHU avenged last year’s loss to Brown with a 77-64 victory, to improve their record to 4-3.  My notes from the game are below:

•  My first look at freshman guards Steve Glowiak and Phil Gaetano was positive.  Yes, Gaetano made a couple of costly turnovers in the 2nd half and Glowiak has never met a shot he didn’t like, but we must not forget that these kids need time to mature.  Gaetano is the only actual point guard on the roster with talent (sorry Steve Zazuri, but you’re only on the team because daddy played for Bike years ago), and Glowiak displayed his range in the 1st half by draining 3 quick buckets to spark an 18-2 SHU run.  There will be ups and there will be downs, but patience must be practiced with these freshmen.

• When Brown had erased a 15 point deficit midway through the 2nd half, it was Shane Gibson and the bearded Louis Montes who stepped up their play late in the game.  Gibson really played the part of team leader, by willing SHU through some brutal offensive stretches by sinking some critical shots when it looked like Brown could extend their lead.  Once Gibson and company took back the lead, Montes drained a couple of wide open three pointers to effectively ice the game.

•  For the most part, Bike did a good job rotating his players, although I’m still scratching my head over the offensively inept Femi Akinpetide getting 17 minutes on the floor.  Luckily, Bike came to his senses by removing Akinpetide for good with 12 minutes remaining in the 2nd half.  On a related note, SHU outscored Brown 26-10 to close out the game!

•  The afro on inactive junior forward Mostafa Abdel Latif is growing in nicely.  To the 5 SHU students who read this blog – please, please, please keep Abdel Latif away from the Haircutters Salon at the Trumbull Mall.  His hair has great potential if it avoids clippers for the next few months.  Thank you.

Later this week, the Pioneers begin conference play with a couple of difficult road games, at Quinnipiac on Thursday and at Central Connecticut on Saturday.  I would easily sign up for a split, which is realistic if we get the Sacred Heart team that defeated Hartford, Stony Brook and Hampton.  If we get the team that coughed up a 15 point lead to Brown however, then it could be a messy start for Bike’s squad in the NEC.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

After a Promising Start, SHU Gets a Dose of Reality

I was going to wait of couple of weeks before my next blog, but that was before I realized my first post would be viewed an astounding 15 times!  The masses have clearly spoken…

This past Saturday, Sacred Heart was in Virginia to take on the University of Richmond, the second game of a 2-game East Coast trip. I would have liked to make the 130 mile trek south to support my alma mater, but I decided against convincing my wife our Saturday night would be best spent watching the Pioneers and Spiders do battle, with a 4 hour round trip to boot.  That would have been a tough sell.  Instead, we spent our Saturday night racing to the mall before close in order to take advantage of Gap’s 60% one-day only sale.  If that’s our idea of weekend excitement now, just wait until we have children.

Anyway, enough about my exciting life.  SHU, after dominating wins over American East opponents Hartford and Stony Brook, had an opportunity to show college basketball they were for real, by facing Big East doormat Rutgers and NCAA tournament mainstay University of Richmond in a 2 game series.  This was their chance to prove themselves, hang in there against quality D1 schools, and better prepare themselves for the NEC grind.  They did after all, run that extra mile, lift that extra weight, and forgo their summer vacation (not even a trip to the beach?) to improve their defense, as portrayed in this mini puff piece, written by Connecticut Post writer William Paxton.   

Well last week, the extra work didn’t pay off.  Against Rutgers, despite leading 35-32 at the end of a sluggish first half, SHU was steamrolled in the 2nd half with Rutgers full court pressure and hot outside shooting.  The second tilt versus Richmond was even more of a disaster, as the Richmond Spiders raced out to a 24-3 lead, en route to a 25 point victory.  SHU's poor start versus Richmond was so bad that it conjured up memories of SHU getting drubbed at UNLV in 1997 to begin their final season as a Division 2 program.  Does anyone remember that infamous game, when a UNLV player told the media that their practices were more challenging than their lopsided contest against the Pioneers?

When it was all said and done, SHU was outscored 174-133 in the 2 games.  40 total turnovers to go with 23 assists.  Opponents shot a combined 54.5% from the field.  Not exactly a stark improvement in defense, if you ask me.  To make matters worse, Chris “The Future” Evans only played 7 minutes in the Richmond game.  Is he in Bike’s doghouse, or worse, injured?  Hopefully, SHU can right the ship against lesser opponents Hampton and Brown, before beginning their NEC campaign at Quinnipiac on Dec 1st.  Those are the games that will matter most, although it would be nice if SHU could not get blowout against a real team one of these days.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The 2011-2012 Sacred Heart University Men's Basketball Preview...Well Sort of

After three years of flirting with a NEC championship and the school’s first ever NCAA birth, Sacred Heart University (SHU) has toiled in mediocrity for the past 2 seasons.  The team, rife with inconsistency, poor front court play, and lousy defense, has failed to even qualify for its league’s tournament, even though the NEC is arguably the worst league in Division 1 basketball.  No wonder no one cares to write a team preview!

So here I am, as one of the three-dozen diehard Sacred Heart men’s basketball fans left, providing you with a blinded, unqualified, and late in-depth look at the 2011-2012 team.  Trust me, I’m the right man for the job.  I may reside in Maryland these days, but last year I received several incredulous glances from my wife for interrupting dinner because I was listening to the radio feed of a SHU/St. Francis (NY) game in the middle of January.  You may call it a sickness, I call it Big Red Pioneer passion baby!!  Anyway, you’re all welcome for the preview.  Feel free to high-five me next time we cross paths at the Pitt Center to show your gratitude.  Just please don’t interrupt me while I’m guiltily checking out the dance team.

OK moving along…despite their poor 2010-11 campaign, there are a number of reasons to be optimistic about SHU basketball this season.  Naturally, I’ll start with the most insignificant reason.  One of my all-time favorite players, Drew Shubik, has been hired as an assistant coach!  This former scrappy, hard-nosed guard was the heart and soul of those successful SHU teams and now he’s coaching 4 years later.  I guess he wasn’t good enough to play in Europe, but that’s beside the point.  Hopefully now, his youthfulness and energy will inject life and defensive intensity into the team, because God knows Dave Bike and assistant coach Johnny Kidd aren’t getting any younger.  Sure, adding Shubik to the coaching staff will probably account for, let’s say 0 extra wins, but at least I can look over to the bench and see a coach under the age of 50…and not wearing the same old tired black turtleneck/gray jacket combo like Bike.

(And now please excuse me for a moment, as I relive the Shubik glory years of 2006-2008)…

Onto to the actual players - guard Shane Gibson stepped up to have an extraordinary campaign last season, averaging 17.2 pts/game while shooting a solid 39% from beyond the arch.  Despite finishing second in NEC scoring, Gibson was inexplicably left off of this year’s NEC Preseason 1st team.  I’m not sure why, other than that no one respects the Pioneers.  Nonetheless, Bike is drinking the Gibson Kool-Aid, so much so that Bike recently said in an interview that Gibson was among the best offfensive players in New England.  Wow, really?!  Among stars like Jeremy Lamb of UConn?!  Regardless, Gibson has a chance to be the most prolific scorer in SHU history, and he’s only a junior.  Starting alongside Gibson at the point will be lanky sophomore Evan Kelley, or as his friends awesomely call him, Young Money.  This freshly minted point guard has big shoes to fill with the departure of the Jerrell Thompson.  Kelley’s length should give him a size advantage over most NEC point guards, although it remains to be seen if Young Money can shoulder the ball handling duties.  Backing up Kelley will be Bike’s best recruit of the 2011 class, 5’10’’ freshman Phil Gaetano.  Gaetano, although short in stature, posted impressive stats in high school and should play meaningful minutes to showcase his superior ball control skills.  Gaetano’s poise could act as the perfect complement to Kelley’s apparent lack of maturity.  

Two other sophomore guards, Chris “The Future” Evans and Louis Montes will play significant minutes for the Pioneers.  A 2010-2011 all-NEC rookie team selection, Evans does something that many former SHU guards never did, drive aggressively to the hole.  For years, SHU fans have been subjected to watching ball-chuckers like Ryan Litke, Luke Granato, and Corey Hassen, who all wouldn’t have driven to the hole if there were a free pie from Sergio’s Pizza waiting for them under the basket.  Their heave-first mentality has made this guy appreciate Evans, since he can score in a variety of ways.  The final piece of the guard rotation will be manned by red-shirt freshman Steve Glowiak, who should provide SHU with a deep threat off the bench.

Since the departure of power forwards Brice Brooks and Joey Henley, Bike has failed to recruit a respectable front court presence that could score and defend the paint (and no, I’m not counting Liam “The Big Suck” Potter and Mehmet “The Turkish Nightmare” Sahan as capable replacements).  Until now.  Justin Swidowski, or as I deem him The Polish Post-up (I’ll accept nickname suggestions until Dec. 31st), may be the dominating low-block presence SHU has been waiting for.  Swidowski averaged an impressive 24 points and 9 boards per game two seasons ago, albeit at division 2 school Holy Family.  Whether his production translates to the NEC remains to be seen, although his performance against Harford and Stony Brook are certainly an encouraging start.  Starting alongside Swidowski is undersized senior co-captain Stan Dulaire, whose athleticism will provide the occasional highlight reel dunk, and more importantly, help him compete with most NEC power forwards.

Other than Swidowski and Dulaire, the only other front court player worth mentioning is junior co-captain Nick Greenbacker.  By all accounts, Greenbacker is a smart, hard-working, and well respected presence in the locker room, but is an ultimately flawed player who should provide no more than 10 minutes per game.  Basically, he’s the Jeff Francoeur of SHU basketball.  It is our hope that Greenbacker doesn’t attempt to cheer up his teammates by shooting around in only his underwear, like Mr. Franceour would do.

The rest of the roster is filled out with non-contributors like Femi Akinpetide and slow-footed Steve Zazuri, who shouldn’t see significant minutes this season.  If they do, well it will be a third straight pathetic season of SHU basketball.  At the very least, the Egyptian bench-ridden power forward, Mostafa Abdel Latif should provide fans with an entertaining afro.

All in all, the Pioneers are most likely a year away from having a respectable chance towards clinching that ever-elusive NCAA berth.  For this season, I expect a sizable improvement in the team’s performance.  Like Bike said in a preseason interview, there are no more excuses with this roster!  My prediction - the Sacred Heart Pioneers finish near 0.500 overall, and finally qualify for the NEC tournament with a respectable 10-8 conference record.  They’ll eventually fall in the NEC semis to a “powerhouse” team like Long Island or Robert Morris, but in the end, we’ll be encouraged with the direction of the program.  With any luck, I’ll be in the Pitt Center cheering on the Big Red at the NEC championship game in March of 2013.  How glorious it will be...until I'm forced to relive the nightmare of the 2008 championship fiasco.  But that’s for another bitter blog entry.  Until then, let’s go Pioneers!