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!