Friday, December 14, 2012

Quinnipiac and Monmouth leave NEC for MAAC, What it Means for Sacred Heart

This Friday, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Council of Presidents met and unanimously voted to add Quinnipiac and Monmouth to the MAAC. Wagner, who was also rumored to be an expansion candidate for the MAAC, will reportedly remain in the NEC.

(I will now call Wagner the UConn of the NEC, because they were probably giddy to leave, much like UConn was for the ACC weeks ago, only to be rejected in the end. “No really, we here at Wagner love being in the NEC! No really, we do! You guys are like the BEST CONFERENCE EVER!!”)

Quinnipiac and Monmouth’s transition to the MAAC will be effective on July 1, 2013, meaning this current basketball season will be last season in the NEC for both programs. Looking ahead, the NEC will have ten basketball teams for the 2013-14 season. If there’s a silver lining to this news, it’s that the ten team conference should eliminate the unbalanced schedule now in place. Under the new format, each team would have nine opponents and play each school twice in a home-and-home series every conference year.

So what does this mean for Sacred Heart? For one, Sacred Heart will no longer play Quinnipiac twice a year. With the Connecticut Six basketball event planned for the next few seasons, however, it’s reasonable to assume the Pioneers and Bobcats will continue their in-state rivalry by facing off once during the non-conference portion of their schedules. Hopefully that dream comes to fruition, but of course, nothing is set in stone. After all, Sacred Heart and Fairfield inexplicably couldn't work out a deal that would feature an annual matchup between two universities that reside in the same city.

As a Pioneer fan and alum, I’m a little saddened by Quinnipiac’s departure, even though the writing was on the wall. In recent years, Quinnipiac has been pouring a ton of capital into their basketball program, greatly outspending their NEC rivals almost two to one. Upward conference mobility had to be the goal of the gold and blue, so they evidently got their wish. Monmouth’s departure, on the other hand, is more of a surprise, especially since they were one of the original members – along with Robert Morris, Fairleigh Dickenson, St. Francis Brooklyn, St. Francis University, LIU Brooklyn, and Wagner – of the NEC. It’s expected Monmouth will remain in the NEC for a couple of sports, most notably football, that the MAAC doesn’t sponsor.

(Could you imagine that awkward conversation between Monmouth and the NEC: “Thanks for the last 32 years, but we have some more cold hard cash to make in the MAAC. See ya!! Oh but … umm ... is it OK if we still play football and field hockey in your conference? Pretty please?”)

Most importantly, how can I and my fellow Pioneer brethren now focus our Big Red Pioneer Pride hatred toward? Central Connecticut? Robert Morris? In reality, nothing will come close to the back and forth rivalry that Quinnipiac (Sacred Heart is 12-13 vs Quinnipiac since 2001) provides at the basketball level.

Oh well. The games will continue to be played and they’ll continue to be watched (well at least by me and some other diehards). Selfishly, the conference will become a little easier next season with the aforementioned departures, but with Shane Gibson soon gone, the Pioneers realistically won’t be any closer to a NEC championship.

But the NEC will be alive and well, and that’s the most important news I will take away from all of this. I’ve really enjoyed working with some of the people over at the NEC, especially Associate Commissioner Ron Ratner, so I’m happy that the conference will continue to chug forward.

Hopefully, the NEC can send over a repo men to confiscate the digital scorer’s tables and Front Row equipment provided by the NEC at Quinnipiac and Monmouth. Those schools won't need the conference's state-of-the-art equipment, since they'll be rolling in the dough after they decided to leave the NEC for supposedly greener pastures.

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sacred Heart Falls to Lafayette in the Final Seconds

If it ain't one thing, well it's another.

The Sacred Heart Pioneers lost on Sunday afternoon in excruciating fashion, when Lafayette freshman guard Bryce Scott drained an OPEN three-pointer with two ticks remaining on the clock. It was the Pioneers' fourth straight defeat and leaves them with a 0-3 record against Patriot League opponents this season.

The defense was, as usual, lacking in the first half as Lafayette raced out to a 20-4 advantage. Only eight minutes had elapsed and already Dave Bike had burned through two timeouts and enough violent head-bobs to make a figure skater dizzy. As I was listening to this wretched mess on my car ride home from Costco, I shuttered to think that I'd be writing yet another depressing blog post. Luckily, I had just purchased a pair of sleek Calvin Klein jeans for $19.99, so I was in a decent mode. But I digress.

After falling behind by 16 points, Bike emptied out his bench probably sick to his stomach. The underachieving Pioneers were now seven for eight in finding themselves down double digits at some point in the first half. Let that resonate with you for a second. They had found a way to be trailing by ten or more points in the first half of 87.5% of their games.

This time around, however, Bike's message got through to the players. Steve Glowiak and Nick Greenbacker combined for 20 first half points, Mostafa Abdel-Latif grabbed four boards in three productive minutes, and the high motored De'Aires Tate provided some much needed energy of the bench. As hideous as the opening minutes had been, SHU was actually heading into the locker room down three points, despite receiving absolutely zero contributions from Shane Gibson and Louis Montes. All things considered, it was a moral victory worth celebrating.  And these days, I guess that's something us Pioneer fans will have to settle on.

The second half was an exciting back and forth affair, but when a Phil Gaetano three-pointer gave the Pioneers' their first lead in nearly five halves (more than two games) of basketball, it felt like Bike's bunch would persevere with a badly needed road victory. Gibson was back to his usual self in the second half, as he impressively poured in 25 points on 13 shots. Gaetano had another double digit assist effort. The only problem was I forgot about the dreadful Pioneers' defense.

If you read my previous post, you already knew that the Pioneers' defense was never to be trusted. And of course with today's game in the balance, Lafayette scored 17 points in their final 12 possessions, good for a dismal 1.42 points per possession (the average is roughly 1.00 points per possession). Perhaps if SHU hadn't missed eight of their ten free throw attempts, they wouldn't have been in this predicament. Either way, a stunned group of Pioneer players had to endure a long bus ride home to Fairfield after falling to Lafayette 72-70.

In the grand scheme of things, the loss means very little. SHU wasn't getting an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament anyway (wouldn't that have been hilarious), but a record of 3-5 sure as hell would have looked a lot better than a record of 2-6.  In fact, SHU is off to their worst start since ... well two years ago when the Pioneers only won one of their first eight contests. After that 1-7 start, SHU righted the ship by embarking on a three game winning streak. A possible winning streak, this time around, is unlikely to come with Stony Brook and road games against A10 foes La Salle and George Washington to finish out the non-conference slate.

Instead, keeping the remaining players healthy will be paramount. There's now 24 days before SHU opens their NEC conference season at home against the shorthanded LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds. Hopefully, the remaining ten players on scholarship can begin playing together as a cohesive unit, while putting together a consistent effort for 40 minutes. It may not sound like much, but the Pioneers are running out of non-conference games to figure their issues out.

Until next time...

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Sacred Heart's Early Season Slide

First of all, I’d like to apologize. I haven’t been the greatest at updating the blog with recent game recaps. The truth is, I have a lot on my plate. A marriage. A full time job which requires me to commute nearly two hours a day. Another blog to write for. An insatiable need to watch as many episodes of The League as I possibly can (I didn’t start watching until season 3 launched). A 15 year old frisky feline that demands my attention when I’m home. But really, all of this is no excuse, as it shouldn’t take much to update my Pioneer Pride site with timely game recaps smeared with self loathing and bitter disgust. After all, transcribing my anguished fan-hood should come naturally!

It’s just difficult to write about your alma mater, the team you passionately root for, when they’ve sorely underachieved in the early going. It’s difficult when another blogger, or someone on Twitter, dismisses your Pioneers by calling them soft or bad, yet you can’t respond because you have no legitimate comeback. Some of issues are the team’s fault, and some of blame falls on the unfortunate circumstance of poor health. Losing Evan Kelley and Chris Evans to season-ending injuries is a substantial blow, especially when they’re basically the third and fifth best players on the Pioneers’ roster. Take the third and fifth best players off any NEC roster and see how they’ll do. Would LIU be as dominant without Jason Brickman and Brandon Thompson? How would our hated in-state rivals from Quinnipiac perform without say Jamee Jackson and Zaid Hearst? Do you think Central Connecticut would survive if they lost their point guard Malcolm McMillan along with long-range bomber Adonis Burbage?

The answer, of course, is those teams would struggle to maintain their current level. But rather than sulk and whine about what could have been, I’ll be a man and suck it up. Even though SHU has dropped five of their first seven contests and has yet to play a complete game from start to finish, I still remain a (fairly) confident fan.

The NEC is an one bid league, and for most teams in this low mid-major conference, November and December games really don’t mean all that much, other than making sure your team begins to cohesively gel as one before conference play kicks off. If Dave Bike can somehow piece it together this month, then I believe this team can have success. But they must do the following in order to have any kind of a chance in hell to finish in the top six of the NEC.

1) Paging Shane Gibson as a Junior - We’ve seen a different Shane Gibson this season, and I frankly don’t like. I can’t really pinpoint why he has struggled in the early going. Maybe he has more of a target on his back. Maybe school is adding unwanted stress to the fifth year senior. Maybe he's having girl trouble. Whatever the reason, I want the old Shane Gibson back. Sure, we’ve seen pockets of his greatness (the Yale, Stony Brook comebacks, his latest effort versus Holy Cross certainly comes to mind), but SHU desperately needs the 2011-12 version to grace the Pitt Center floor. Dave Bike needs the super-efficient, hit 43% of his threes, grab a steal and a half a game version of Gibson back. Hopefully, the nagging injuries won’t be an issue moving forward and Gibson can recreate the magic that made him such a special player last season. With the semester soon ending and a lighter schedule the remainder of December, I’m still making the bet that the Shane Gibson of old will terrorize NEC opponents come January.

2) For the Love of God, Play Some Freaking Defense - Defense has never been the strength of a Dave Bike led team, but even this seven game stretch has seen some rather atrocious defending. In the young season, the Pioneers are giving up 1.14 points per possession, good for second worst in the NEC. SHU isn’t turning the opponent over at all (only 16.1% of their opponent's possessions result in a turnover, good for bottom 20 in the nation), they aren't defending in the paint (49.8% field goal percentage defensed), nor are they defending the perimeter (37.4% three-point percentage defensed). For SHU to experience even a modicum of success, they have to win a couple of games on defense, which at this point seems to be a long shot. They can't keep going into halftime trailing - in the first seven games, SHU has been forced to begin the second half down every single game!

3) The Young Bucks Need to Step Up. Shane Gibson said it best when I asked him after the Lehigh game about the Pioneers’ rash of injuries. His response: “I feel like we're a young team, but we're not. Evan Kelley's hurt now so at the guards it's me, Phil (Gaetano) - Phil's a sophomore - Steve Glowiak's second year, so now we're young again.” Not only does sophomore Glowiak have to step up – and he has so far shooting a sensational 52.0% from behind the arc – but the freshmen frontcourt duo of Tevin Falzon and De’Aires Tate need to play well also. SHU has a somewhat deep frontcourt, but with the backcourt now seriously compromised, expect Louis Montes to play predominately at the small forward position. Much of time last season, Montes was part of Bike’s “small-ball” lineup instilled as the slashing power forward who could also stretch the defense with his perimeter skills. Now, with Gaetano, Gibson, and Glowiak (the 3G’s) as natural guards, Montes must play more as a “3” on the floor. This means Tate and Falzon need to fill the power forward role Montes will be vacating. Last Wednesday versus Holy Cross, Tate had his breakout game, scoring ten points with six rebounds in only 15 minutes of action. Earlier in the season, Falzon enjoyed some success as well, so hopefully as the season progresses, both of these freshmen can get further acclimated to the rigors of DI basketball and produce at a more productive and consistent level.

Sure, there are others things needed to spark an improbable Pioneers run (I’m looking at you, Justin Swidowski), but I wanted to hammer down those three main points. If SHU can improve in those facets mentioned above, I may not have to scale back my original conference projection of ten wins and eight losses for the red and white.

Although at this juncture in the season, I'm pretty damn close to doing so. Hopefully they can begin to turn things around at Lafayette this Sunday at 2 PM. Listen in, why don't you?

Until next time...

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Chris Evans and Evan Kelley Likely Done for the Season

Other than the two miraculous, wildly improbable comebacks, the Sacred Heart basketball season couldn’t have started off any worse. Really, had Yale or Stony Brook made another play or two down the stretch of their respective games, the Pioneers could find themselves winless through six games. That’s right, 0-6, as in their worst start since the 2002-03 season, when they finished their fourth year as a Division I program with a robust 8-21 record. Oh how I don’t miss those days...

But they’re not and at two wins and four losses, SHU shouldn’t be in full blown panic mode yet. Of course, if the health of the team continues to deteriorate, then all bets are off. We are beginning to inch closer to that realm.

For starters, junior guard Evan Kelley will not return this season. Kelley, who spent the majority of the preseason rehabbing his dislocated kneecap, had a major setback in practice after the Stony Brook game two weeks ago. Because of the setback, Kelley will most likely undergo surgery before Christmas to repair the knee. The surgery would, of course, sideline Kelley for the remainder of the season.

"No. I would say 99% no," said assistant coach Anthony Latina when asked if Kelley could return this season. "Playing him again puts (Kelley) at greater risk to tearing an ACL on top of his dislocated kneecap."

Chris Evans, arguably the team's second or third best player behind Gibson, also is highly unlikely to return to the team this season. Evans underwent meniscus surgery in the offseason, yet the knee hasn't responded well when subjected to practice on back-to-back days. Evans has recently begun practicing, but it may simply be too late to get the team leader back into the lineup come January.

"He's trying to get back," said Latina. "But the problem with Chris (Evans), by the time he's really healthy and in shape, we're going to be two to three weeks into the (NEC season). And then, do you bring a guy back for 12 games? It's a tough call."

The silver lining in all this is the Pioneers will get to redshirt both players and gain an extra year of eligibility on the duo. Of course, they were supposed to add value and depth to a roster ready to win now, especially with Shane Gibson and Justin Swidowski as seniors.

But the team, Latina says must move forward. "It's very tough, but (the team) is staying focused, they're trying to work and we can't worry about the guys that aren't playing. We have to make sure the guys that are playing are improving and that we're improving as a team."

Shane Gibson injured his ankle in the Lehigh game, but should be ready to play tonight in the Pioneers' second home game versus Holy Cross. Gibson is at little risk to worsen the injury, therefore it's more of a question of how effective he'll be moving forward. Steve Glowiak, on the other hand, is questionable for the Holy Cross game with an ankle sprain.

Add it all up, and you have a backcourt that's been decimated by injuries in the early going. It's not the start this Pioneer fan envisioned, but they must move forward with the current roster. Whether that gets them into the upper echelon of the NEC, is completely unknown at the moment.

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Pioneer Pride Halftime Interview on the Sacred Heart Radio Broadcast

Approximately ten days ago, I was lucky enough to be asked by Sacred Heart SID Bill Peterson to be the halftime guest on the Pioneer radio broadcast. It was when the Pioneers played at Stony Brook, and yes, I was crazy enough to drive to Long Island in order to catch the game live. Big Red Pioneer Pride, baby!

Anyway, I wanted to share the audio link from my halftime interview. In it, I talk about the blog, Shane Gibson (who was benched in the first half of that game) and SHU basketball as a whole. It was a lot of fun and hopefully I'll have another opportunity or two to be on the halftime broadcast down the road.

Here are the instructions for accessing the link:

1) Click here for the link.
2) Click on the Audio tab, which is located directly above the headline of the game recap.
3) Once you are in, skip ahead to the 51:45 minute mark. My interview begins shortly thereafter.

Until next time...

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets.You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Don Cook to Retire as Sacred Heart's Long Time Athletic Director

It's not often when I blog about something that isn't tied directly to Pioneer basketball, yet today's news regarding Sacred Heart certainly warrants some kind of mention here.

Today, Bill Paxton of the Connecticut Post broke the news on Twitter that Don Cook, the long time SHU athletic director, will retire on July 1, 2013 after serving in that role for 20 years. Cook was instrumental in advancing the scope of SHU athletics, mainly by leading the Pioneers' transition into Division I sports in 1999. Before that, he helped expand SHU's athletic program from 12 to 31 varsity sports and also initiated the construction of the William H. Pitt Center, which in the present day still holds up 15 years later as a very good athletic facility. Also under his guidance, SHU captured five consecutive NEC Commissioner Cups, a fantastic accomplishment that illustrates SHU's excellence in athletics.

In addition to all of his accolades, Cook was widely respected throughout the SHU community. Ron Ratner, the Associate Commissioner of the NEC, said it best when he wrote the following today on Twitter, "They don't come any better than SHU AD Don Cook. A gentle, humble man and tireless worker. I'm privileged to have worked with him for so many years."

I didn't personally know Cook, but as a student-athlete, he was always a prominent and active figure within SHU athletics. To me, he never displayed favoritism toward the "marquee" sports and always showed a genuine willingness to be involved with every sports program under his watch. He consistently made appearances over the years to several fundraising banquets for our tennis team, even though our sport wasn't a revenue generator for the athletics department.

Tying this big news to the basketball program, Cook was always a staunch supporter of Dave Bike. Even in the rough seasons after the Division I transition, Cook never wavered in his support of Bike. The two men have always been tied to the hip, so at the very least, Cook's retirement does raise some serious questions regarding the direction of the men's basketball program. In particular, I found the final sentence of the SHU's announcement post very interesting. It read: "There will be a national search conducted for his replacement."

Cook's retirement aside, Bike may decide to call it quits after this season anyway. He told me in our end-of-season interview last March that he was taking his job on a year to year basis. With Cook's departure, however, the end may be near for the 35-year head coach, especially if the new athletic director is indeed hired on the outside.

This really isn't breaking news nor would it be surprising if Bike hangs up the clipboard in March. But the more interesting angle is what the future events mean to SHU assistant coach Anthony Latina. It's widely assumed that Latina is the probable heir apparent once Bike steps down, but if a new athletic director with no previous ties to the program is hired, then Latina's future with the Pioneers certainly becomes more murky. Personally, I'd love to see the energetic and hard working Latina given a chance to guide this program, but that decision may be in an outsider's hands next year.

In the short term, Cook's retirement means nothing regarding the current basketball season, but it surely requires monitoring in the near future. It could mean we're watching the swan song of Dave Bike's lengthy career. It will make next offseason fascinating to watch.

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Monday, November 26, 2012

C.J. McCollum and Lehigh Smoke Sacred Heart, Running Diary Style

For SHU's home season opener, I figured it was a great time to document the event with a running diary, Bill Simmons style. I originally wanted to break out the diary for the SHU/Stony Brook game, but then all hell (aka Shane Gibson's late game heroics) broke loose. So instead, I'll dedicate the running diary to future NBA lottery pick C.J. McCollum and his Lehigh Mountain Hawks. Lehigh comes into the Pitt Center as the defending Patriot League champions, fresh off a stunning upset over the Duke Blue Devils in last season's NCAA tournament. I'm not expecting much from my Pioneers today, but at the very least, I'm hoping Shane Gibson will put on a show in front of his home crowd. Here. We. Go!

Pre-Game: Here on press row, there are three seats reserved for NBA scouts. They're obviously here for McCollum, whose a future NBA lottery pick. Maybe they're also here to catch a glimpse of Gibson as well?

15 minutes before tip-off, I'm almost able to count the number of fans in the stands. I'm guessing there are 300 fans here at the moment. Yikes. Hopefully, there's crazy traffic heading into Fairfield right now! Public Safety probably needs more manpower to control the sudden rush of traffic.

19:46: And we are under way with Lehigh winning the opening tip. On the first play of the game, McCollum backs Gibson down in the post for a quick bucket. That took all of 14 seconds.

19:04: And McCollum hits a long three in Lehigh's second possession. Containing him might be a problem. 5-2 out of the gate for Lehigh.

17:09: Holden Greiner (no really that's a real name) hits a three pointer to give Lehigh a 10-2 lead.

16:41: Femi Akinpetide with the strong move and the foul! Femi has all five points in the early going for SHU. Don't get me wrong - I love Femi and the energy he provides SHU on the boards, but SHU will not have long term success if Femi is the go-to-guy on the offensive end.

15:09: Phil Gaetano hits a three to pull the Pioneers to within four, 12-8. I don't like the flow of this game early on. I have a feeling SHU will need to hit a lot of threes just to keep up with this Mountain Hawks offense.

13:51: McCollum drains another long three. And on SHU's ensuing offensive possession, McCollum forces Gibson into a quick turnover. Gibson is now 0-2 from the floor with two turnovers. Seems like he's trying to do too much.

11:18: Pioneers having a hell of a time trying to keep up with Lehigh. The Pioneers are running back very disorganized on defense, leaving open looks in transition for the Mountain Hawks.

9:57: And just as I finish writing that, Lehigh drains another transition three pointer in front of SHU's bench. Dave Bike with the timeout. It's already 28-16 Lehigh.

9:15: Gibson hits his second three-pointer of the game, but then McCollum immediately answers with a three of his own. Is he even breaking a sweat? Right now, he is by far and away the best player on the floor, and it pains me to say that with Gibson out there. But that's what I am ... brutally honest.

7:57: I think I saw a couple of the NBA scouts drooling at their station. McCollum now has 16 points.

6:07: Lehigh hitting an incredible clip of their long range buckets. I mean incredible! Now 8 for 12 by my count. It's a little of hot shooting but also a lot from the Pioneers' porous defense. It's been atrocious early on.

4:51: Breaking News!! SHU prevents Lehigh from scoring in their last 3 possessions. Prior to those 3 possessions, the Pioneers probably have given up close to 1.75 points per possession. I'd look this up to confirm, but I have the motivation of SHU's defense right now.

3:13: Knutson and McCollum are killing SHU right now. They've scored 27 of the Mountain Hawks 47 points. Knutson, a preseason All-Patriot League selection, has carved up the Pioneer frontcourt in this half. Nick Greenbacker nor Justin Swidowski can keep up with the savvy 6'9" big man.

0:34: De'Aires Tate with a defensive rebound and then a bucket on the other end. This game appears to be a blowout, so at the very least, I'll get to see SHU's future on the court. It'll give the fans (albeit very few of them) something to actually cheer for.

0:00: Lehigh hits a breakaway layup at the buzzer to give team a 16 point advantage at the half. A fitting end to the worst half of the season. And that's saying quite a lot.

Halftime: The stats are frankly ugly from SHU's perspective: 57.6% from the floor and 53.3% from three for Lehigh. I'll stop before I start crying in public though...

2nd Half, 19:00: Swidowski commits an offensive foul and then gives a look of bewilderment to the referee. It seems like Swidowski has had that face for the majority of the young season, as have I! I've seen lots of inconsistency out of the big man. On a related note, my depression is starting to sink in.

16:36: The Pioneer defense has been so bad today. And no adjustment out of the coaching staff at the half. No matchup zone, no box and one, nothing. Just more terrible man-to-man. This is just awful to watch. Oh yeah, Lehigh leads 59-37.

15:45: Wouldn't you know it, Dave Bike has a pulse. He implements a 2-3 zone out of the timeout, but then McCollum hits another open three. You're halfway there Mr. Bike, now how about a matchup zone? Please?

15:00: Gibson picks up a quiet technical foul. It's his second one in as many games. This is really depressing. He just seems to have a different attitude this season. Maybe his girlfriend dumped him? I'm legitimately bummed out. SHU beat reporter Bill Paxton is trying to lift my spirits here on press row. We're talking about the 2007 SHU team. Oh Drew Shubik, how I miss you...

12:44: At least I've been treated to my first live look of CJ McCollum. He just crossed over Gibson and hit a three. Coming back down the floor, McCollum flashes a smile toward the NBA scouts. Now, there's no way I'm missing an opportunity to see Lehigh when they visit Navy and American. He's some talent.

11:56: Gibson drains a three to cap off a12-4 run for SHU. To cut the Mountain Hawks lead to 23 points. We're back baby! Timeout Lehigh.

10:02: I'm struggling to pull out highlights now, so maybe this is a good time to recommend a movie to you. I begrudgely had to see Life of Pi on Friday, after Lincoln was sold out. Turns out my wife was right, Life of Pi was a very good movie. And there may or may not have been moisture near my eyes at the end. Thankfully the theater was dark and I had 3D glasses on. (Hopefully most of you already left the running diary, because the game has been over since halftime)

8:34: Montes with a strong move using the left hand to draw the foul. The reason I mention this? Well 1) this game sucks and 2) Montes has had an off game, for perhaps the first time all season. He hits both free throws, but who really cares at the moment.

6:12: Nice to see after a Swidowski three (he's alive after all), Dave Bike decides to ditch the full court press. In fairness, you'll never mistaken SHU's press for the Mount Mayhem or Monmouth's full court pressure. I'm not sure if I've seen a turnover yet this season from the Pioneers' lazy press.

5:26: I just caught myself muttering "only the NEC conference play matters." Ahh yes, we're five games into the season and I'm already looking ahead to January. Pioneer basketball everybody!

4:59: Pioneers commit their 20th turnover. Even Coach Latina looks dejected and he usually has the energy of someone who just drank four cups of coffee.

2:53: Justin Swidowski fouls out after a decent performance offensively. The final numbers from the senior: 10 points, 10 rebounds. Honestly, I never would have guessed he had a double double, mainly because him and the rest of the frontcourt could not contain Knutson and company. But at least Swidoswki is perhaps close to being fully healthy.

1:23: Louis Cramer with the tip in. The walk-on! Lead back to under 20 points! WHY AM I SHOUTING!

0:00: The game has mercifully ended with the final score: Lehigh 91, Sacred Heart 77. It's only a 14 point loss, but make no mistake, this game was NEVER in question in the second half. It's the Pioneers third such game this season, with their blowout losses to Rutgers and Hartford serving as the other lopsided defeats.

Postgame: I overheard assistant coach Johnny Kidd's post game interview on the SHU radio broadcast. His quote: "I thought we would come out and make a statement." Umm, well that didn't happen, now did it?

A couple of hours after the game, I received a call from an unknown number on my cell phone. It was Sacred Heart asking for a donation. The quick conversation went something like this:

SHU: So Mr. Peters, have you been back to Sacred Heart since you graduated?
Me (clearly caught off guard): Umm, yeah. I was there today.
SHU: Oh really?! That's great! Did you enjoy your time on campus today?
Me: (What I said) Suuuuure ... I guess.
       (What I should have said) Are you f***ing kidding me? Did I enjoy watching SHU get absolutely destroyed by Lehigh?!?! Did I enjoy watching this defense?! And their stagnant offense?! What kind of question is that? HOW DARE YOU ASK ME FOR ANOTHER DONATION! (emphatically hang up)

On second though, maybe it was good I was polite and reserved. Maybe I don't need therapy after all.

Until next time ...

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Monday, November 19, 2012

Shane Gibson Leads Sacred Heart to Another Comeback Victory Over Stony Brook

I had it all planned out. I was going to present a running diary (Bill Simmons style) of Sacred Heart's latest loss to Stony Brook. There would have been tons of self-depreciating jokes, lots of whining about Pioneer basketball, and just some solid game observations. Basically a win win for everyone involved.

Well, that plan was scrapped when the Shane Gibson show took hold late in the game.

There I sat on press row, using every ounce of my being from not cheering in wild excitement as Shane Gibson drove to the lane, drew contact, and hit the go-ahead layup. I'm fairly certain I had a smile and a look of complete bewilderment at the same time, but to be honest those final minutes were a complete blur. Turns out the Pioneers' hero doesn't remember those critical moments either.

"I really don't even remember that much of those last minutes," said a smiling Gibson after the game. "I was just playing to get the job done."

The day started off poorly for SHU's star player. Gibson wasn't in the starting lineup since he was late for the team bus, so he calmly sat on the bench during the first seven minutes of the game. After falling behind 10-5, Gibson entered the game and promptly turned it over on his first possession. One minute later, there was Gibson back on the bench again. Now, Dave Bike was OFFICIALLY sending a message to the NEC's leading scorer from a season ago.

All told, Gibson played only one minute in the first half, but the Pioneers did their best to keep it close. They battled back from a quick 9-0 deficit to tie the game at 23 all, before succumbing to a 6-0 Stony Brook run to close out the half. Steve Glowiak hit a couple of big three-pointers. Evan Kelley was looking much better in his second game back from injury. And Louis Montes and Femi Akinpetide were corralling a majority of the loose balls off the glass, especially on the offensive end.

Dare I say the Pioneer's effort in the first half yesterday was ... well the opposite of listless!

The second half provided much of the same result for the first 15 minutes. Stony Brook took a 12 point lead on an Eric McAllister putback with only five minutes remaining. It appeared the Pioneers would fall short, despite a terrific effort.

But then it was time for the Shane Gibson show. The 6'2" senior scored SHU's final 11 points of the game - including two loooong three-pointers - on 4 shots to spur an improbable 18-4 Pioneer run. The Stony Brook crowd went from saying "Woah" on Gibson's first three to "Oh no" on Gibson's second three to "Oh God no!" on Gibson's penetrating runner toward the lane to complete silence on Gibson's game winning bucket and the foul. Un-freaking-believable.

It was a remarkable ending to what essentially was the worst three game stretch of Gibson's career. Prior to those final three minutes, Gibson had only scored 20 points on 7 of 35 shooting to go along with ten turnovers. Yikes.

I give all the credit in the world to Dave Bike. The 35-year head coach got the message across to Gibson loud and clear: I will not put you ahead of the team, and if you break the rules and not give a complete effort on the floor, I will bench you no matter how valuable you may be to the team.

When asked about Gibson's situation, Bike conveyed his pleasure with his star guard's final effort. "What he did when he had that last chance to get back in there, and then he played well and played hard, I mean that's what we're looking for him to do."

Added Bike, "I think he's in charge of his playing time. I'm just going to interpret the actions."

Gibson admitted he has felt some pressure recently, which has contributed toward his struggles. "A little bit of off-the-court, on-the-court," said Gibson. "I mean there's more pressure from the other team giving me more respect, I guess, so it's hard to score for myself and my shots just haven't fallen. I feel like I've been rushing everything."

Gibson then admitted that the school workload has probably added to his on-the-court issues as well. "To be honest, school has been stressing me out a little bit. Once I get past this semester, I think that'll be a weight lifted off my shoulders and I'll be able to concentrate more on basketball."

Obviously, I'd be completely out of line if I didn't praise the rest of the team for their performance yesterday. Without them, the game never would have stayed within the jaws of victory. Femi Akinpetide continued his surprising run with eight rebounds (four on the offensive end). Louis Montes had another big game, registering a season high 20 points to go along with nine rebounds. Phil Gaetano had one of those quietly productive efforts - much like LIU point guard and All-NEC second teamer Jason Brickman - by dishing out ten assists, grabbing five rebounds, and hitting two critical free throws right before Gibson began his 11 point miracle run.

This was the Pioneer team we’ve been waiting for since the start of the season. Hopefully, one of these games they can put together all of the pieces for 40 minutes. To be 2-2 at this juncture of the season, after only leading for approximately 8% of the total game minutes is quite fortunate.

Coming up next is the Pioneer's first home game on Sunday afternoon. They take on Lehigh, the defending Patriot League champions, who you might remember as the #15 seed that shocked the country by upsetting Duke in the NCAA tournament. In the game, Lehigh's star guard, C.J. McCollum, scored 30 points and has since been in the national spotlight. He's a probable first round selection in the NBA draft next June, so Gibson is eager to square off against the All-American guard.

"I've been thinking about it, obviously," said Gibson. "I know he's a very good player and I'll see what I can do against (college basketball's) best."

Hopefully Sunday night was the spark Gibson needed to lead his Pioneers down the road.

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sacred Heart Blown Out by Hartford, in my First Live Look

Shane Gibson's number 25 jersey wasn't the only thing the Sacred Heart Pioneers left in Fairfield before boarding the bus to Hartford (he had to wear #1 for his jersey tonight). They also forgot their game.

In what transpired as a putrid performance at the Chase Family Arena, the listless Pioneers lost to Hartford, 62-47, and it wasn't even that close. The Pioneers shot 33% from the floor, which included ten out of 11 missed attempts from behind the arc. They committed as many turnovers (16) as made baskets (16). Their bench was outscored by Hartford's bench, 29-7.

The Hawks used an 18-2 run in the middle of the first half to pull away, and in reality, it could have been much worse. Hartford missed several make-able buckets around the rim. It pains me to say that the Pioneers were "fortunate" to be only down 16 points at the half.

It was games like tonight that made me wonder why I bothered making the trip up to Connecticut. There I was, a 33-year married man as the only "media" member sitting on press row, watching a team that really hasn't put together a stretch of good basketball for more than ten minutes at one time. Without the furious and improbable comeback versus Yale, the Pioneers would be sitting there winless at 0-3 with two very difficult games in Stony Brook and Lehigh coming up.

When asked about his team's performance this season, head coach Dave Bike seemed equally perplexed. "We had three opportunities to play basketball and we haven't played well. And that's just the concern. I think we have a chance to play OK, I do."

Added Bike, "I thought we got beat twice (tonight). I think (Hartford) outplayed us at times, they shot better than us, but they also game beat us. I'm not convinced it was Hartford's defense that caused us to have listless turnovers, as the reporter says."

That "reporter" Bike was referring to was, of course, me. Yes, I used the word listless to describe the Pioneers' effort in the first half and I'm not sure Bike was too thrilled with my adjective. But from my perspective, how could I not use the word listless? Other than the frontcourt play of Femi Akinpetide and Louis Montes (who by the way looks jacked this season), there wasn't one other player tonight that was encouraging to watch. Shane Gibson went 3 of 14 from the floor. Justin Swidoswki and Nick Greenbacker combined for one point, six rebounds, and six personal fouls in 28 minutes. Steve Glowiak bricked two more three-point attempts and committed two turnovers. The Pioneer with the most energy all game? That was SHU assistant coach Anthony Latina.

Shane Gibson has now had two awful games in a row, which hasn't happened since he was a sophomore. Corban Wroe, the defensive specialist for John Gallagher's Hartford squad, did a fantastic job keeping Gibson in front of him all night forcing a bevy of outside jumpers. Unfortunately for the Pioneers, most of his shots didn't go in.

Looking ahead, it doesn't get any easier for Gibson and his team. They travel to Long Island to take on Stony Brook, whose defense has already shutdown two MAAC schools in Rider and Marist. I'll be in attendance at that game, but I'm scared at what I'll possibly witness.

I'll also be on the Pioneers' radio halftime show for the game, so I encourage you to tune in, especially if Stony Brook is up big at the half. I'm one more 16 point halftime Pioneer deficit away from completely losing it on the air!

And who knows, maybe Coach Bike will banish me from asking him questions after the game about how listless his team was.

Until next time...

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart Pioneers basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sacred Heart Freshman Profile - Tevin Falzon's Uneven Path Leads Him to the Pioneers

This past weekend, Sacred Heart freshman Tevin Falzon stepped on the court for the first time as a collegiate athlete, when his Pioneers battled in-state rival Yale in their season opener. In what turned out to be a scintillating comeback victory for the Pioneers, Falzon chipped in with five points, five rebounds, and a blocked shot in 20 minutes. Two nights later, Falzon was Sacred Heart's lone bright spot, as he scored ten points in a blowout loss to Rutgers University. It has been a nice start to what many are hoping will be a very productive career.

Speak with the freshman and you’ll come away impressed. You’ll sense someone with a maturity beyond his young age, who speaks with humility and respect.  Falzon seems genuinely grateful for having the opportunity to play at Sacred Heart.

Combining Falzon’s maturity and undeniable talent, it probably came as no surprise that the baby faced 6’7” forward is playing at the Division I level. The path to Sacred Heart, however, was far from smooth journey for him.

Ever since he suited up for Newton North High, the buzz appeared to always surround Falzon. Here was a 6’3” freshman with size 16 shoes who was uniquely versatile, had a soft touch around the basket, and skills on the perimeter that seemed to come naturally on a basketball court.

Yet despite the talent, there were always bumps in the road that impeded his progress. After beginning his freshman season on the varsity team (a nice accomplishment for a high school rookie), Falzon was bumped down to junior varsity. Heading into his sophomore year, he suffered a concussion playing football in the fall, which forced him to miss the first couple of weeks of the basketball season. He would wisely never play football again.

Then, Falzon was primed for a breakout campaign his junior season. All the hype and excitement, however, failed to live up to his expectations. He didn't start much of the time, and consequently, struggled to make a consistent impact. In spite of the inconsistency, college coaches took notice and raved about the teenager's skill-set and potential.  But with the attention came unwanted criticism. Comments containing the phrases "inconsistent motor" and "suspect conditioning" were published in Falzon’s scouting reports. When asked about it, Falzon doesn’t shy away from the negative publicity he received as a high school teenager.

"They were definitely fair criticisms," said Falzon. "That was kind of my problem throughout my high school career, that I was inconsistent. Sometimes I'd look like a superstar, sometimes I'd be nonexistent. That was something I tried to work on and got better at throughout my high school career."

Part of the problem, as it turns out, was also between the ears. Reflecting back, Falzon fully acknowledges that his mental focus lacked a bit when the going got tough at the high school level.

"I wasn't in the best shape which held me back a little bit,” admitted Falzon. “And then, mentally I wasn't always the toughest kid. Little things bothered me sometimes and that kind of affected the way I played.”

Even after undergoing three mildly disappointing seasons at Newton North, Falzon still received plenty of interest from college programs in the New England area. Quinnipiac, Hartford, New Hampshire, and Central Connecticut were just some of the schools that kept an eye on the versatile forward. The Division I dream appeared live and well, and slowly but surely Falzon started to take control of his destiny. His conditioning and focus began to improve. Soon after, scouts became cognizant of Falzon’s newfound athleticism and explosion. Things were surely heading in the right direction. It was going to be a monster senior season, or so he thought.

But then, the biggest road block to his basketball career got in the way. During an AAU game in the summer before his senior season, he awkwardly landed on his wrist after being fouled on a layup. Originally diagnosed as a sprain, Falzon had a feeling his injury was far more serious.

“It was kind of ridiculous because I went to the emergency room that night, and they told me it was a sprain," explained Falzon.  After two weeks with virtually no improvement, he went to see a hand specialist who told him he would need surgery.  "I couldn't believe it."

All told, Falzon missed about three months of his senior season because of a dislocated wrist. It was obviously heart wrenching, and especially frustrating when Falzon was reduced to a spectator when Newton North hosted St. Anthony High, which at the time was the number one ranked high school basketball program in the country.

Falzon eventually came back in time to help North Newton reach the playoffs, and as an added bonus, got to play alongside his equally talented younger brother Aaron. But the Division I schools that had showed interest before the injury were now long gone. He had to start from scratch.

To Falzon’s credit, he continued to work hard on his game and his body. He enrolled at Winchendon School to play a prep season and refine his game, and earn that Division I scholarship he so greatly wanted.

Before anyone had a chance to see him at prep school though, Falzon caught the attention of Sacred Heart assistant coach Johnny Kidd at an AAU tournament in Springfield, MA. The veteran coach was impressed right from the start.

"I thought [Falzon] had tremendous upside - he was obviously plenty skilled,” said Kidd. “I think the problem people had with him was they thought he wasn't in game shape. I just saw through that and believed [we could get him in shape]. I just saw he had a feel for the game, he had a good left and right hand, he drives, he can score from either inside or outside. He just has a lot of tools."

Kidd’s glowing praise eventually made its way back to head coach Dave Bike, and shortly after Sacred Heart became the first Division I school to offer Falzon a scholarship. Rather than waiting it out, Falzon honored Coach Kidd’s trust and belief with a verbal commitment before he began his prep season at Winchendon. Falzon was very appreciative of the confidence the Sacred Heart coaching staff had in him.

"I know they really wanted me and believed in me,” said Falzon. “I'm a loyal person and when they believed in me, I'd rather go there, then somewhere else."

With the season now underway, Falzon continues to progress nicely in the eyes of the coaching staff. Sacred Heart’s power forward of the future has continued to put in the hard work necessary to become an impact freshman in the Northeast Conference.

Kidd gives Falzon a lot of credit. “He was up here for six weeks in the summer and it was obvious that his body was not in great condition, so I talked to him about nutrition and his conditioning, what he had to do between the end of the summer and the fall to get himself into good shape.”

Thus far the hard work has paid off. Falzon has improved his nutrition and is working hard in the weight room, so much so that he’s down to a playing weight of 215 pounds, which is about 15 pounds lighter from the summer. "I give the kid a lot of credit. It was so obvious when he came back,” said Kidd.

With his conditioning improving, the multi-skilled Falzon has his sights set on making the All-NEC rookie team at season's end. It won't be easy given the crop of talented freshmen coming into the conference, but there's no denying Falzon's potential and talent. As a stretch forward with legitimate three-point range, his skills fit in well with Sacred Heart’s perimeter oriented offense.

For Falzon, it's been an somewhat arduous path to the next level, but the freshman endured and he's thankful for the opportunity to play at Sacred Heart.

"It all worked out well in the end. I guess everything happens for a reason."

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sacred Heart Shocks Yale and I'm Nowhere Near the Event

Sometimes I feel like the worst fan in the world.

I vividly remember sitting in an airport this summer, awaiting our flight back to Baltimore, when I suddenly realized that a family Bar Mitzvah had been scheduled on the same day as this year's Connecticut 6 basketball event. Don't get me wrong, I was curious/excited to attend my first ever Bar Mitzvah, but at the expense of seeing the season openers of Quinnipiac, CCSU, and my Sacred Heart Pioneers? Damn...

Oh well, I thought. I probably won't miss much anyway. Quinnipiac should beat a young Hartford squad fairly easily. Fairfield - who had never lost in the CT6 event - should have no trouble with a young CCSU team that lost nearly 55% of their scoring from a season ago. And of course, Sacred Heart will have their way with a Yale team that was picked 6th in the Ivy League Preseason Coach's Poll.

I probably wouldn't miss much. Shalom!

So you could imagine my horror as I quickly checked my cell phone for the Yale/SHU score after the family event. I pulled up Twitter, quickly updated the timeline, and found this tweet at the top.

Oh no. I didn't investigate why my Pioneers were down 16 at the half, and I quickly put away my phone. About 20 minutes later, I checked one more time while my wife and I were walking to dinner in Philly with our friends. Yale had extended their lead to 24 points with about 15 minutes left. What a disaster.

Honestly, I figured that was it. Usually, I'm a half-glass full guy, but when my wife stated it would take a miracle for the Pioneers come back from that deficit, I pretty much agreed with her. Which is also weird because I sometimes enjoy pushing her buttons by foolishly disagreeing with her.

Fast forward to 30 minutes later. I'm in a restaurant bathroom and my friend and fellow SHU alum Newsie sends me a text, simply asking me what the hell is wrong with SHU. Truthfully, I don't even remember my response, because I had a blurred moment sparked with anger, disappointment, and sadness. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a pro-Dave Bike message though. Or something that surely summarized my disappointment.

But really, it's time for me to wrap up this trivial story. Long story short, I quickly check my phone after dinner only to discover ... that the ... Pioneers ... actually WON?!?! I figured something was up, since there were several text and Twitter messages awaiting me on my phone. Absolutely amazing.

Turns out the Pioneers - after trailing 24 points early in the second half - mounted separate 11-0 and 14-0 runs to get the game close enough for Shane Gibson to perform his magic. Gibson had 29 points (on 11-21 shooting), and sunk a clutch basket late in regulation to force the game into overtime. You still think Gibson isn't a top 50 player in the mid-major ranks now, Mid-Major Madness?! HUH?? I CAN'T HEAR YOU?!

Louis Montes had a double/double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, but more importantly corralled a number of critical offensive misses in overtime. Justin Swidowski, who appeared healthy just from the box score, scored 17 points on only five shots in 23 minutes. Nice! The frontcourt of the future also chipped in, led by Tevin Falzon adding five points, five rebounds, and one blocked shot in 20 minutes of action. Steve Glowiak, who's role is that much more important with Chris Evans and Evan Kelley out of the lineup, grabbed four rebounds, stole the ball twice, and hit two critical free-throws late in overtime to help seal the improbable victory.

It really was a miraculous win and nice to see the Pioneers win a tight game, after struggling so mightily in that category last season! As I was catching up on Twitter, it was pretty awesome to see some of the SHU player tweets like these after the game.

It's certainly moments like this that capture why I love the purity and competitive spirit of mid-major college basketball.

Looking ahead, the Pioneers head to New Jersey to take on Rutgers University this coming Monday night. A victory there would be one hell of an upset, not just because SHU is 0-16 career versus the Big East, but also because Mike Rice's Scarlet Knights will be angry too. This past Friday, St. Peter's shocked Rutgers by beating them 56-52 on their home floor. Perhaps it would be imperative for the SHU coaching staff to aim for next Friday as a possible return date for Kelley and Evans, although I'm currently in the dark regarding their injury status.

After the Rutgers game, I'll be attending the next three Pioneer games live - at Hartford (Friday, 11/16 at 7 pm), at Stony Brook (Sunday, 11/18 at 2 pm), and home versus Lehigh (Sunday, 11/25 at 2 pm). After a performance like last night, I absolutely can't wait to get my first look at the 2012-13 Pioneers.

The season is underway and I'm already giddy, even though I haven't seen or heard one minute of the SHU/Yale game yet.

Hopefully next season, it's CT6 or bust. Until next time...

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball and the Northeast Conference for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The 2012-13 Sacred Heart Men's Basketball Preview!!

It seems so long ago thinking back to the “glory years” of the Sacred Heart (SHU) Pioneers. It was only six years prior when players like Drew Shubik, Joey Henley, and Jarrid Frye were selflessly guiding the Pioneers into the upper echelon of the Northeast Conference (NEC). After watching awful Division I basketball for several seasons, Pioneer fans were suddenly spoiled with winning conference records, NEC playoff wins, and just a solid, fun display of good offensively efficient basketball.

That period, as it turned out, lasted for a grand three seasons. And it yielded two heartbreaking losses in the NEC title game, with the first defeat to Central Connecticut serving as one of the worst losses for me as a sports fan. It was the stomach punch game of all stomach punch games, when the Pioneers blew a 10-point lead with three minutes remaining and fell to the Javier Mojica led Blue Devils(1). In their second attempt to go dancing in the NCAA tournament, the Pioneers put forth a putrid home performance versus the Mount that allegedly led to an apologetic, rambling late night e-mail addressed to the entire campus by Mr. Dave Bike himself. In season three of the short-lived turnaround, the Joey Henley led Pioneers fell short in the semifinals to Milan Brown’s Mountaineers once again.

And that was it. Three years of above average basketball and nothing to show for it.

But rather than conger up awful feelings among the Pioneer faithful (oh wait, too late!), I’m laying out this cruel history to make a point. At least I think that’s what I’m doing.

The 2012-13 season in Fairfield (ok ok, the campus is really situated in Bridgeport) is supposed to be about hope. Can the Pioneers finally make a legitimate run at the NEC championship after toiling in mediocrity for the past three seasons? Can they once and for all capitalize on a signature Shane Gibson season by cutting down the nets in early March? Or will this be another merciless twist of agonizing losses that could slide the Pioneers back into perpetual mediocrity?

Lots of questions to answer, so let’s start with the season preview, shall we?

If you read my team preview last year (shameless plug alert), you knew I was bullish on SHU taking that next step from a lower tier team to a team with an outside chance at league contention. Bike’s Pioneers did in fact improve, but they only made it halfway based on my expectations. SHU finished 8-10 in the conference - their third consecutive losing season in the NEC – en route to a disappointing first round loss in the NEC tournament at the hands of eventual champion LIU Brooklyn.

The season left such a bitter taste in the Pioneer fan’s mouth, thanks to a record of 4-8 in NEC games decided in the final two minutes. The late game futility was not only responsible for a significant drop in the NEC standings, but it was simply brutal to watch. Justin Swidowski missed two free throws with SHU down one point with 13 seconds remaining against Central Connecticut. Velton Jones drained a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give Robert Morris a stunning comeback victory in SHU’s second to last home game of the season. SHU was leading Monmouth by eight points with three minutes left, only to inexplicably lose by seven. Watching this team when it mattered most felt like sitting through a Philosophy 101 class … at 8 AM … while hungover.

Despite the lack of execution during crunch time, it’s fair to deduce that bad luck was partially involved. Perhaps the Pioneers will not only be better late in the game, but also they’ll be more fortunate. After all, if just two of those games were converted into wins, then SHU’s 10-8 NEC mark – and number five seed in the conference tournament – would be viewed as a success. But enough with cherry picking data and theorizing about the “what-ifs.”

First let’s focus on the good. Shane Gibson is returning! The greatest player in SHU history (I’m sorry if I keep repeating that in other posts, but it’s 100% true) is coming off a junior season where he averaged an absurd 22.0 points per game, while posting fantastic shooting percentages of 51% FG/ 43% 3PT/ 86% FT(2). Quite simply, Gibson’s efficiency was off the charts, even though the Pioneers were devoid of a consistent scoring threat alongside Gibson, which consequently led to a stifling amount of defensive focus thrown at the 6’2” guard. This offseason, Gibson has built up his lower half so he can defend better late in the game and will focus on being more aggressive driving toward the rim. Really, to expect anything less from the borderline NBA prospect than an efficient 21 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.5 steals per game would probably be as foolish as expecting SHU’s tuition rate to trend downward next semester.

As awesome as Gibson is though, we all know you can’t win a college basketball conference championship with just one superstar. In past ten seasons, only one team has represented the NEC in the NCAA tournament with the conference's scoring champion on their team. Within the same period, Sacred Heart has had three NEC scoring champions (Kibwe Trim 2005-06, Corey Hassan 2009-10, Gibson 2011-12). The combined conference record of those three Pioneer teams? 23-31(3).

Therefore, it’s paramount for any team to have a strong supporting cast, in order to compete in an ultra-competitive conference such as the emerging NEC. Are there players who can step up to become the reliable second, third, and even fourth option behind Gibson?

It all begins with 6’9” senior power forward Justin Swidowski. Despite putting up good numbers (11.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG) in his first season at the Division I level, Swidowski was plagued with inconsistency. The versatile Swidowski had difficultly staying on the court, fouling out in six games and finding himself in foul trouble for many more. It’s his health, however, that is of more concern at the moment. After missing four games this past season, Swidowski had shoulder surgery in the offseason. Currently, he hasn’t been cleared to fully practice, although he's probable to begin the season in uniform.

If Swidowski misses time in the foreseeable future, the pressure lands partially on freshman Tevin Falzon’s shoulders. The 6’7” Falzon is a bit of a Swidowski clone - he has excellent range, is comfortable on the perimeter, and possesses several on-the-ball skills that should help him become an all-conference type of player down the road. To ask a freshman to fill in seamlessly for a veteran, however, may be asking a bit much(4).

Beside Falzon, the other freshman of note is 6'6" forward De'Aires Tate. Arguably the most athletic player on the team, Tate is the rare player who revels in doing the dirty work around the basket. In high school, Tate was a superb rebounder, shot-blocker, and running of the floor, therefore it’s safe to expect the same role for him moving forward. He's the kind of player Bike has been missing on his team for years. If utilized properly, Tate could have an immediate impact, much like Falzon.

Another important contributor bitten by the injury bug is junior guard Chris Evans. An All-NEC rookie team selection in 2010-11, Evans showed marginal improvement in an injury plagued sophomore season, yet still finished in the team’s top three in points, assists, and steals per game. He’s a stat-filler, for the lack of a better term, whose presence on the floor absolutely helps the Pioneers on both ends. Recently though, Evans has been shutout of practice, thanks to swelling in his surgically repaired knee. The timetable for his return, like Swidowski, is currently unknown and possibly even more dire(5).

If Evans misses a significant amount of time – and reports suggest that could be the case – then the onus falls on redshirt-sophomore Steve Glowiak. The 6’3 guard came to SHU from hard-hitting New Britain, Connecticut with the ability to drain the long-range jumper, but his first season in Fairfield disappointed in that regard. After a couple of solid performances early last season, including a 16 point effort versus Hampton in late November, Glowiak morphed into a ball-chucking guard who would heave the basketball toward the rim seemingly at first touch. By the middle of the conference season, Bike had no choice but to delegate garbage time minutes to Glowiak, not just because of the guard’s putrid 24.2% three-point percentage(6), but also because he was providing little else on the court.

In essence, that was a long-winded explanation just to say the following about Glowiak’s future prospects: He really needs to improve his shot selection and help the Pioneers in other ways off-the-ball. Can he do that? I have no freaking idea and neither do the coaches at this moment…

With Swidowski and Evans’ health issues hardly settled, the player most likely to become Gibson’s Robin is junior Louis Montes. Once the young man with the best neck beard on campus(7), Montes came to SHU this fall in … (wait for it) … the best shape of his life(8)! Yep, I just unloaded an tired sports cliché, but with Swidowski and Evans already less than 100% healthy, this is what we’re going with. Louis Montes is in the best shape of his life, so much so that Dave Bike proudly told me how much Montes has been sweating on the court these days. I’m not kidding.

In all seriousness, the 6’4” Montes is coming off a season where he finished in the top 15 of the NEC in rebound rate and showed flashes of becoming an excellent forward in this league. Once again, consistency has been the issue. This season, if Swidowski can ever get healthy and Falzon and Tate can play meaningful minutes at power forward, then Montes can slot back to his more natural position at small forward. He's been reportedly working hard on his ball-handling skills and outside shooting, thus to forecast a breakout season for Montes is far from a stretch.

At the point guard position, the minutes will go to junior Evan Kelley and Pioneer Pride favorite Phil Gaetano. The latter is the most natural floor general of the two, although Kelley is a better playmaker with the athleticism to slash to the hole and pop from the outside. Gaetano, however, is far more heady and composed, and was quite impressive running the point last season as a college basketball novice. If Gaetano can successfully look for his shot more and improve his turnover rate, then I'm expecting big things out of the diminutive point guard in his sophomore season.

In the frontcourt is team captain and noted Republican Nick Greenbacker(9), who surely provides value in the locker room, but on the court shouldn't play more than 15-20 minutes per game. Like Swidowski, Greenbacker has added range to his game, so at the very least, the senior could pull post defenders out of the paint if he sinks more than 35% of his three-point attempts.

Rounding out the bench are big men Femi Akinpetide and Mostafa Abdel-Latif, who by design should play no more than 10-12 minutes per game. Each player, though limited, has his strengths – Akinpetide can provide energy on the offensive glass and Abdel-Latif gives SHU one of their few … check that … their ONLY back-to-the basket post presence. Abdel-Latif, a transfer from Egypt with an awesome afro, may be a liability on the defensive end despite his burly 6’8 body.

Add it all up, and you have a SHU roster that can excel on the perimeter, but will probably struggle to defend and rebound the basketball. The Pioneers once again will rely heavily on their shooting – especially outside the paint – to win games. Hmm, doesn't that sound familiar?

Unfortunately, it may not be enough to crack the upper quarter of the NEC, which is depressing as hell with Gibson and Swidowski no longer eligible to play collegiate basketball after this season. Right now, I’m forecasting a 15-14 regular season mark, right in line with popular advance statistician Ken Pomeroy. A 15-win season would mark their first winning season in four years, which as I said earlier in this preview, seems so long ago. The Pioneers should win ten conference games, good enough to tie for fifth place in the NEC standings.

I’m hoping for more, but I’m an unapologetic realist who fully understands the limitations of his favorite team. To ask the Pioneers to lock down a LIU Brooklyn on offense, to match up with Wagner’s athleticism, or to grind out victories versus Robert Morris is a ton to ask, yet stranger things have certainly happened.

This is why they play the games. I know I’ll be watching this winter and you should too. At the very least, you’ll get witness the great Shane Gibson in his last season before he begins what should be a successful professional career. But maybe, just maybe, Pioneer fans can be treated to some meaningful basketball in early March.

(1) The fact that Mojica led the improbable comeback made for a great story, because Mojica's mother was close to committing suicide before being saved by her son 12 years prior. This story was rightfully pumped up by ESPN 2 during the televised broadcast, and surely helped the Worldwide Leader with a prominent storyline as CCSU was making their comeback. 
(2) I did not need to look up Gibson’s shooting percentages, since I already knew them by heart. I wish I was joking. 
(3) Again, I did not need to look that record up. I may have a problem…
(4) Personally, I like Falzon and his long-term potential A LOT, but it's never easy for any freshman big man to produce right away. Not every rookie will produce out of the gate like Jalen Cannon or Julian Boyd.
(5) Gulp.
(6) Glowiak has the dubious distinction of having the worst single season three-point percentage (with more than 60 attempts, aka ~2 attempts per game) in Sacred Heart history since Tre Samuels made only 23.3% of his long-range bombs in the 2001-02 season.
(7) Because of the beard, I almost gave Montes the nickname, Baby Lebron. Almost…
(8) I always think back when baseball player Jeff Franceour, then of the Atlanta Braves, bragged to the media how he added lots of muscle in the offseason and was in the best shape of his life. I took the bait in my fantasy draft and six months later, Franceour had hit a pedestrian 0.239 with 11 HRs and 71 RBIs in 155 games. So much for being in the best shape of his life! And for those of you keeping score, that is two Franceour references in as many SHU blog previews.
(9) Greenbacker's tweets per minute during the Presidential debates was, and I'm totally estimating, about 23.4 tweets/minute. Quite entertaining.

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball and the Northeast Conference at Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Injuries Attempting to Derail Sacred Heart's Season Before It Even Begins

We're less than three weeks away from the first jump ball against Yale, yet injuries are already attempting to erode Sacred Heart's depth. Two players coming off surgery in the offseason, Chris Evans (meniscus) and Justin Swidowski (shoulder), haven't been cleared to fully practice as of today. As far as their prognosis is concerned, Dave Bike was unfortunately vague when asked about the status of his injured players at the Northeast Conference (NEC) Media Day in Brooklyn, NY.

"He hasn't been scrimmaging, so he hasn't had a full practice yet with full contact," said Bike when asked about Swidowski's health. "I guess there is a [timetable for his return], but I'll leave it up to the players and to the training staff. I don't really get involved with that."

In regards to Evans, Bike added, "He was rehabbing [his knee], and then he did participate for a practice or two, and then it swelled up. Hopefully, [Swidowski and Evans] will be back by [November 10 vs. Yale], but who knows."

Even if both players make an appearance early in the season, one has to wonder if they'll be anywhere close to 100%. Their complete health is highly unlikely, which unfortunately forces other players to step up in their place if necessary. Right now, Bike is expecting big things from junior Louis Montes, who's coming off a season where he averaged 7.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.

"He's a key. Not only is he in great shape, he stopped in practice a couple times to change his shirt to get a second set of practice gear," said Bike. "He's pushing himself so much, he's sweating. So he's playing harder and playing better."

Even with a sudden emergence from Montes, others would need to step up. Whether it's Phil Gaetano, Evan Kelley - who is currently saddled with a bruised kneecap - or freshmen De'Aires Tate and Tevin Falzon, the prospects for Sacred Heart's season go decidedly down if Swidowski and Evans can't compete at the highest level.

Of course, that remains to be seen, but it certainly isn't encouraging that Bike doesn't know if either guy will be ready on November 10th. If Sacred Heart fans are enthusiasic about a Pioneer run towards their first ever NEC title, they better hope to see a signficant contribution from Evans and Swidowski.

If not, it could be another tough year at the Pitt Center.

Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference and Sacred Heart men's basketball on Big Apple Buckets and Pioneer Pride. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Shane Gibson Finally Getting National Recognition

It's been another quiet offseason for the Sacred Heart men's basketball program in the mainstream media.  Other than the occasional piece on Dave Bike's lengthy coaching career and this Shane Gibson post by Angela Lento of, I can't recall any media outlets outside of Connecticut running a profile piece on a SHU player.

Today, however, Jeff Eisenberg of the Yahoo Sports college basketball blog The Dagger wrote a fantastic article about Shane Gibson.  It's the first time someone from a major media outlet is profiling one of the most overlooked, yet immensely talented guards in the country.  Jeff's piece is an absolute must read for any SHU fan.

Frankly, it was refreshing to read about Gibson's competitive drive and how the lack of national attention he receives has continued to motivate him on a daily basis.  It's no wonder the SHU coaches have marveled to me about how hard Gibson works on his game and how much time he spends in the weight room pushing to get better.  During my end-of-the-season interview with Coach Bike last March, Bike clearly implied that he wished other SHU players would work as hard as Gibson did on and off the court.

Even with Gibson blossoming into a NEC Player of the Year candidate early last season, I would have considered it a wild long-shot if Gibson found his way into the NBA. Now, nothing would surprise me.  Gibson's NBA jersey could become the first piece of NBA merchandise I purchase in many years, since I forked over $40 for a green Dominique Wilkins Boston Celtics jersey!

Before Gibson begins his endeavor into profession basketball though, it's my hope that his hard work will be rewarded with SHU making a run at the NEC title.  Yes, it's a minute possibility at this point, especially with LIU, Robert Morris, and Wagner returning most of their starters, but this is why they play the games.

And I can't think of a better way for Gibson to end his collegiate career, by cutting down the nets after leading the Pioneers to their first ever NCAA tournament.  It would be a storybook ending for the greatest basketball player ever to put on the red and white of Sacred Heart University.

Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference and Sacred Heart men's college basketball on Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets.  You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sacred Heart Freshman Profile - De'Aires Tate Looking to Contribute in Season One

With the National Signing Deadline a few weeks away, it would have been perfectly plausible if the Sacred Heart Pioneers decided to move forward with their 12 scholarship players for the 2012-13 season.  The 13th and final scholarship could have been used at a later date on another transfer, late signing freshman, or simply not used at all.  Any of these options would have been fine, yet there was one problem.  Sacred Heart still sorely needed an athletic frontcourt presence who could unselfishly do the dirty work inside – crash the glass, defend skilled opponents both in the paint and on the perimeter, and run the floor in transition.

Sacred Heart assistant coach Anthony Latina, and the rest of the coaching staff, continued to scan the recruiting landscape with little time remaining, in the hopes of finding a freshman to fill their need.  Latina was in Las Vegas on a recruiting trip, when he received an e-mail from an assistant high coach in Georgia.  The coach asked Latina (perhaps begged) to look at his talented 6-foot-6 power forward with a fierce rebounding prowess and high motor.  Sacred Heart will typically receive hundreds of these inquiries annually, but more often than not, the staff will follow up to see if there’s something to it.  This time around, Latina decided to download the e-mailed highlight clip for his flight home from Las Vegas.  He did not regret the move.

“I was very intrigued, very excited with what I saw on the highlight tapes,” said Latina. “Once I saw the tape, I tried to figure out what was wrong with him.  Why was he still around?  He must be a terrible student, there must be some baggage there?”


Meanwhile a few weeks prior, things were really starting to come together for De’Aires Tate.  Tate had played an integral role in leading the M.L. King High Lions to the Georgia Class AAAAA playoffs, and now in the playoffs, the athletic forward was having some of the best games of his high school career.  In one playoff victory versus Coffee County High, Tate scored 19 points and corralled an impressive 19 rebounds.  The rising senior was becoming an undeniable force down low.

In addition, Tate had more important reasons to smile.  In mid February, he had verbally committed with the Grambling State Tigers, along with his M.L. King teammate Tivius Guthrie.  Tate’s dream of playing college basketball under a Division I scholarship was about to come true.

The story for Tate could have simply ended there, but things were just too unstable at Grambling State.  After suffering through a brutal 4-24 season, Bobby Washington – the Grambling State coach who had recruited Tate – was fired along with his entire staff.  All of a sudden, Tate’s scholarship was in limbo.  Would the next coaching regime honor Tate’s scholarship?  Or would they cut ties with Tate, leaving him with little to no time to find another Division I team?

Rather than waiting it out and putting himself at risk, Tate did something a lot of players wouldn’t have had the courage to do – he de-committed to Grambling State and opened himself back up to the recruiting process.  And that’s precisely when Latina received an e-mail from Tate’s high school coach.

“The more work we did (in researching Tate), the more positive answers we got,” said Latina.  “Wonderful person, wonderful kid.  He’s a rebounder.  He had multiple 20-plus rebound games in his career.  That’s hard to do at any level.”

Rebounding, as Latina had quickly found out, was something Tate enjoyed and excelled in.  Tate finished in the top 10 of rebounding in the DeKalb County league for his junior and senior seasons.  Even more impressive though, was the fact that he averaged 12 points per game, despite never once being the focal point of M.L. King’s offense.  All his points were derived from offensive put-backs, loose balls, and running the floor in transition.

“I didn’t get to shoot as much, so I just crashed the glass and got rebounds,” said Tate. 

Despite opening himself back up to the recruiting process late, Tate was offered scholarships from Sacred Heart and fellow mid-major school Nicholls State.  Besides being impressed with Latina’s recruiting pitch, Tate chose Sacred Heart and the unknown state of Connecticut for an additional reason.  “I didn’t want to go to Louisanna,” said a candid Tate.

Now situated on Sacred Heart’s quaint Fairfield campus, Tate is looking to make the most of an opportunity to contribute for a Pioneer team ready to win now.  With the offensively skilled, perimeter-oriented Justin Swidowski locked in as the starting “5” for Sacred Heart, the team is in desperate need of finding a versatile “4” that can bang down low, grab rebounds, and play inspired defense.  Given his strengths, Tate should fit in well alongside a big man like Swidowski, and in future seasons, fellow freshman Tevin Falzon.

“I think (Tate’s) strengths, which are rebounding the basketball on both ends of the floor, blocking shots, and running the floor, are areas where we’ve lacked in recent years,” said Latina. “In that regard, there are opportunities for him.  Obviously, there are no guarantees.”

While his elite athleticism should find Tate some minutes off the Pioneer’s bench in his inaugural season, the driven freshman is cognizant of the challenges ahead.  He’s spent most of the offseason working hard to improve his game. “One of the best things I can work on is my ball-handling, so I can also be a “3” (on the floor),” said Tate. “I’m also working on my explosion and endurance.”  

Strength may also be an issue in his freshman season, especially when the physically ready, yet lean Tate is forced to guard crafty and more physical NEC power forwards like Jonathan Williams, Jamal Olasewere, and Ike Azotam.  It will take some time for Tate to add some muscle, which of course is a common concern for most freshmen transitioning to the college level. 

Despite the obstacles that lie ahead, however, Tate has put forth a strong work ethic and is setting his goals rather high.  “One of my goals is to get (NEC) Rookie of the Year,” said Tate.  He then added with a big smile, “I want to get the gym packed.”

Those are two goals every Sacred Heart Pioneer fan can certainly get behind.  We'll have to wait and see if De'Aires Tate will soon realize those goals. 

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart and Northeast Conference men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride