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!