Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Melancholy Running Diary Recap of Sacred Heart's Loss to Mount St. Mary's

I returned to the Sacred Heart campus this past Saturday, in order to watch a mediocre match-up between the Sacred Heart Pioneers (10-12, 4-5 NEC) and the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers (4-16, 2-7 NEC).  To document my 20th blog post and this special occasion, I decided to write a running diary, Bill Simmons style.  Let's get right to it, shall we?

3:15 - I arrive on campus with my good buddy and fellow SHU alum, Bricker.  I love talking sports with him, but he can get a tad negative at times about Sacred Heart's play.  In fact, his bickering can get quite annoying, but I can't hold it against him - after all, Bricker is a lifelong Cleveland sports fan.

3:20 - We make our way into the Pitt Center.  And what's this, Justin Swidowski is warming up with the team!  You can understand my surprise since Swidowski's status from a shoulder injury was classified just days ago as "no timetable for his return."  That is the problem with following NEC basketball really vague injury reports.

3:24 - There's longtime SHU head coach Dave Bike standing on the sideline, sporting the predictable black turtleneck with a gray jacket.  Seriously, would it kill the man to put on a shirt and tie for the game?

19:35 - After securing the opening tip, NEC Player of the Year candidate Shane Gibson hits the side of the rim on an uncontested three.  Hmm, that's not the start we were looking for.

18:37 - Mount St. Mary's leading scorer, Julian Norfleet, hits two outside shots within a minute to give the Mount an early 5-0 lead.  It's so nice to see SHU's pathetic perimeter defense live in person.

15:47 - We are four minutes into the game, so it’s safe to say that the “Heart Attack” student section is disappointingly empty.  I guess the students had much better things to do on a cold Saturday afternoon in January.

12:45 - OK, Gibson is just fine.  He has scored 10 of the Pioneer's first 12 points.  Mount St. Mary's 13, Shane Gibson 10.

9:45 - While both teams make my head hurt with their sloppy play, now is an excellent time to bring up my disappointment in Louis Montes.  As in, I wish he didn’t shave his neck beard so soon.  That thing was legendary!  We were witnessing perhaps the greatest neck beard of any 20 year old, and he shaves the damn thing before I get to see it live.  Oh well, at least transfer Mostafa Abdel Latif still has his afro.  Keep it up big man!

7:24 - Media timeout with the score, Mount St. Mary's 21, SHU 17.  Looking through the box score, I suddenly realize that Chris Evans, SHU's third leading scoring, is in street clothes on the bench.  What happened with him?

3:59 - Because of Chris Evan's absence, the fans get to see more of red-shirt freshman guard Steve Glowiak and his botched three-point attempts!  I hate to be hard on the kid, but he is shooting a miserable 20% from behind the arc this season.  Please.  Stop.  Shooting.

1:26 - After trailing for the first time in the game, the Mount's Raven Barber and Norfleet combine to score the next eight points, giving Mount St. Mary's a 34-29 lead.

1:05 - Stan Dulaire was ready to end the Mount’s run, but he fails to execute an easy layup.  I can’t get mad at him though, since he seems like a good teammate who studies hard in class.  How do I know this?  Because I follow Stan on Twitter, along with four other Pioneer players.  Is it creepy that I follow these players, ages 18-22, on Twitter?  Wait, don’t answer that…

0:00 - I decided it’s only partially creepy and since I’m doing it for the blog, I can continue following my favorite Pioneers!  I hope Chris Evans continues to tweet about the lousy cafeteria food and needing a little love in his life.

0:00 - Oh yeah, Mount St. Mary's ends the half on a 10-2 run to pull out to a 36-29 halftime lead.  SHU seems like they aren't playing with any urgency whatsoever.

Warmups – OK, I’m pretty sure our starting center Nick Greenbacker just tripped over the ball rack when he led the Pioneers out to the court for the second half.  I wish this was a joke.

(Special announcement: Former Editor-in-Chief of the Spectrum and SHU alum, Newsie is in the house!  Great, another pessimistic personality to watch the game with.)

20:00 – Before play resumes, let’s review the ugly stats of the first half; SHU was outrebounded 20-11, committed eight turnovers, attempted four free throws, and is now trailing by seven points to a 4-16 team at home.  I hope Bike had some motivating words for his players in the locker room.

17:47 - Apparently he didn’t, because the Mount just drained their fifth three-pointer of the game to extend their lead to the largest of the day, 47-36.  An apathetic Bike calls a timeout to stop the bleeding.  Bike has the look I have when I find out my wife made plans for us to go pumpkin picking on Football Sunday.

15:33 - Montes drills a three and then completes a layup off a nice Evan Kelley pass.  Pioneers back to within double digits.  Sadly, Montes still doesn’t have his neck beard.

13:21 – The Shane Gibson show has returned to the Pitt!  A 7-0 run, orchestrated all by Gibson, gets the Pioneers back to within two points, 49-47.  The Pitt Center has come alive!  Well, about as alive as it could, with a half filled Pitt Center awkwardly occupying half of a giant field-house.

9:46 - And Dave Bike has awoken from his slumber!  He shot up off the bench after a questionable offensive foul was called on Stan Dulaire.  Bricker notes that Bike now looks like a clucking chicken, with his head furiously bobbing up and down as he argues with the ref.  I have no comment – look I just report the events.  After all, I would like to interview the man in the offseason.

6:16 - Gibson is doing his best to keep SHU in the gameWith his 17-footer, Gibson moves the Pioneers back to within two points.  Gibson now has 30 of the Pioneer's 54 points.  The next closest Pioneer?  Louis Montes with eight points.  Great balanced scoring attack, guys.

3:53 – With SHU trailing by three and needing a pick-me-up, Stan Dulaire finishes off a layup and is fouled!  He completes the three-point play, which deadlocks SHU and Mount St. Mary's at 60-60.  This is turning into quite a game, although I’m starting to get really nervous.  Newsie, on the other hand, coolly tells me that he doesn’t really care.  That's not how I remember it after the 2008 NEC Finals loss to the Mount.

2:56 – Pioneer Pride NEC All-Rookie Team snub Kelvin Parker knocks down a contested three, and then feeds point-guard Josh Castellenos for an easy layup, all in a 25 second span.  The Mount now leads by five, with less than three minutes remaining.  I can’t believe this is happening.

2:07 – After a Gibson turnover, Parker drains yet another pressurized three to extend the lead to eight.  Ok, Kelvin I get it.  You feel slighted that I left you off my Midseason All-Rookie Team and now you’re sticking it to me.  I’m sorry, OK!  Please stop and I’ll promise to lobby @NECSports and @NECRalph on your behalf at the end of the season.

1:56 – It’s officially desperation time for the Pioneers, down eight.  Gibson drives into a crowded lane and is hacked by Norfleet.  Free throws coming up....but wait, Louis Montes and the Mount's Big Croatian Center get into a scrum.  There’s some pushing and shoving when SHU point guard Phil Gaetano is pushed!  Where’s the technical??  All of a sudden, it’s getting a little chippy out there.

1:56 – After a 30 second discussion, the refs decide to charge a double technical on Montes and the Croatian Center.  I’m not so sure about that.  SHU assistant coach Anthony Latina is livid, as he slams his fist into his chair in frustration.  It literally looks like his red face may explode at any moment.  In spite of Latina’s possible combustion, Gibson calmly sinks both free throws.  SHU now trails by six, 68-62.

1:35 – The Croatian Center is fouled on the other end, and does what any tall awkward white guy would do, make one of two free throws.  Then coming back down, Swidowski one ups him in whiteness by drilling an open three!  Bike immediately calls for a timeout with SHU now down four, 69-65.  Big time bucket by the Polish Post-up!

1:11 – The crowd has come to life late in the game, and it inspired SHU to force another Norfleet turnover.  It’s the Mount's 16th of the day.  You gotta love an offense ranked in the bottom 15% of the nation.  Pioneer ball!

0:50 – The Mount wisely doubles Gibson on the perimeter, which forces Gaetano to drive to the hole and draw a foul.  He swishes both free throws to get SHU to within two points.  I love the poise from this freshman – he carries himself like a grizzled veteran, which is like the exact opposite of Evan Kelley.

0:25 – After the Mount makes a free throw to extend their lead to three, Gaetano races down the court, hands off to Gibson, who dribbles around before nailing a three-pointer to tie the game!  Big Shot Shane Gibson, now with 35 points!  I don’t care if SHU finishes with a 7-11 NEC record, give this guy the NEC Player of the Year right now!

0:00 – Rather than calling timeout to set up a play, Norfleet races down the court, drives the lane, and misses a makeable layup.  Danny Thompson then grabs the offensive rebound (nice box-out Swidowski) but bricks the put-back as the buzzer sounds.  We are going to OVERTIME!!  Wow, the Pioneers dodged a bullet there.

3:00 – This is the first time I ever live tweeted a game in person.  It’s exhausting.  Between watching the game, tweeting the latest news, and playing the optimistic fan to Bricker and Newsie's negativity and apathy, I’m tired!  I didn’t even have a chance to check out the SHU Dance Team’s performance.  It’s probably better that way.  Remember, I’m trying to be less creepy.

1:59 – Only eight total points have been scored in the overtime, as Swidowski ties the game at 74 all with a layup.  It was Gaetano’s 7th assist of the game.  Have I mentioned how much I like his poise?

 0:36 – We are back to a tie game, after Montes swishes two free throws.  He’s another Pioneer that I trust late in the game.  Nothing seems to bother the sophomore.  Timeout Mount St. Mary’s.  They’ll probably hold for the last shot.

0:00 – It's time for overtime #2!  Norfleet, after dribbling around the perimeter for 30 seconds, had no choice but to hoist up a contested three-pointer at the top of the key.  Luckily, he back-rimmed it.  I doubt that was the play called in the huddle.

4:53 – Someone please help me, I can’t take this anymore.  Luckily, Shane Gibson isn’t phased by the moment.  He scores his 38th and 39th points seven seconds into overtime #2.  SHU 78, Mount St. Mary’s 76.

1:46 – After some excellent defensive sequences (or lousy offense, I’ll let you decide), Gibson manages to slide underneath the Mount’s zone defense.  Gaetano finds him with a long pass for the easy layup.  With the bucket, Gibson has officially broken SHU's Division one record for most points in a game with 41 points!  I'm not sure if Mehmet “the Turkish Nightmare” Sahan scored 41 points for his entire senior season.

1:25 – Castellanos attempts a 25 footer at the top of the key.  Terrible shot.  Fortunately for SHU, the rebound lands in Gibson’s hands.  SHU now has the ball up four, 80-76.  Things are looking good!

0:50 – OK, time for me to shut up.  Gibson, whose usage rate for the game has to be 99.4%, gets stripped by Castellanos, leading to a fast break dunk by Danny Thompson.  And to pour salt on the wound, Montes commits the silly foul and has now fouled out.  Ugh…

0:16 - After holding the ball for most of the shot clock, Gibson actually gets a good look.  The shot goes up and ..... rims out.  Rebound to the Mount.  They are down one, 80-79.

0:06 - With no hesitation, Castellanos beats Gaetano off the dribble and is fouled attempting a shot in the lane.  Two free throws coming up, and SHU's lead is a measly one point.  I'm about to throw up on my cell phone during this live tweet.   

0:06 - Castellanos, of course, hits both free throws, leading to a timeout.  Six seconds remain and the Pioneers must bring the ball the length of the floor, down one.
0:00 - Gaetano pushes the ball up the floor, passes to Gibson in the corner who quickly squares up to attempt a three.  His three however, is partially blocked by Thompson, but lands in the hands of Swidowski.  Swidowski has one last chance in traffic.....and it rims out.  There was a whole lot of contact there, but no call.  Bike is now verbally assaulting the officials as they run off the floor.  The game is over - Mount St. Marys 81, SHU 80.

After squeezing in my last live tweets and leaving the Pitt Center with Bricker and Newsie, I had few words.  I sat in my parked car for ten minutes trying to figure out what went wrong.  A four point lead with the ball and less than one minute left and we lost the game?  This despite Shane Gibson scoring 41 points on 16 of 28 shooting?  This is a tough one to swallow.  I haven’t been this depressed since I witnessed Dick Clark slurring his way through ABC’s New Year’s Rocking Eve. 

Maybe it’s a good thing I live in Maryland and don’t have season tickets, both for my marriage and my sanity.  Until next time...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Big Bad Seahawks Are Coming to Town - Sacred Heart vs. Wagner Game Preview

Now that Wagner College, the Staten Island community, and Dan Hurley’s players have finally exhaled after their ridiculously hyped up battle – and loss - to the Long Island Blackbirds last Saturday, everyone can now focus on the remainder of the NEC season.  After all, the Wagner Seahawks (15-4, 6-2 NEC) still have ten regular season games remaining in the conference! 

Their next contest finds themselves in Fairfield, Connecticut this Thursday night against the Sacred Heart Pioneers (10-11, 4-4 NEC).  In case you haven't heard from following me on Twitter (hint hint), Sacred Heart is fresh off two scintillating in-state home wins over Quinnipiac and Central Connecticut.  The next game versus Wagner, however, provides the Pioneers with their toughest challenge since NEC champ Long Island came into the Pitt Center earlier this month.

For this Sacred Heart/Wagner preview, I initiated a Q & A session with John Templon, creator and writer of Big Apple Buckets.  You probably heard me touting John before, but it’s worth repeating again – he does an excellent job covering college basketball, and specifically covering ten college basketball teams within the New York City area.  For this preview, John answered three questions I had about Wagner, and I returned the favor by answering questions about Sacred Heart for his site.

1) What has surprised you the most regarding Wagner’s improvement this season?

There's a lot that's surprised me, but I think the play of Jonathan Williams has been the most impressive. He came in pretty highly touted from California, but he's been great. He's given Dan Hurley another big body to play, which Wagner desperately needs, and has provided a solid scoring punch and an aggressive offensive attitude. Williams is averaging 13.4 points per game in just 25.2 minutes per game. I guess I'm also impressed by how the Seahawks have bought into Hurley's system in year two. The team in general has improved significantly and I think is running how Hurley envisioned it when he arrived.

2) Wagner has a balanced offensive attack with five guards averaging at least 7 points per game.  In your opinion, who is the most important player in their offense?  Are there one or two keys to slowing down their offensive attack?

I think that sophomore Latif Rivers is the guy you can take away if you try. So that's who I'd go after. Senior Tyler Murray has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. You can slow him down a bit, but he doesn't need to score. Also, frustrating Kenneth Ortiz is always a good strategy, because as the point guard he runs the show offensively. In Wagner's four losses the key has been that they failed to get it done on the offensive end. Teams have done it in different ways. LIU did it both times by forcing hard shots, but Lehigh rebounded extremely well. Everyone has kept Wagner off the free throw line. That's a great way to slow down this offense.

3) Since losing big man Justin Swidowski to injury, Sacred Heart has recently employed a more aggressive strategy that involves driving to the hole and getting to the free throw line as much as possible.  Given Wagner’s propensity to fouling, would this offensive strategy seem prudent for Sacred Heart to utilize?  Or will playing with a small lineup end up being a disadvantage against this stout Wagner defense?

No, that's exactly how you should attack this team. Unless you've got forwards that can aggressively go to the basket, which LIU and Connecticut happened to have, the right way to beat this defense is to get to the free throw line. The only decent team that fouls as much as Wagner does is Cleveland State. It's a big problem. You can get a lot of free points that way and help spell the droughts. I'd be worried that Wagner is going to wear down a key player like Shane Gibson with their relentless pressure. Finding ways to get him easy baskets off the ball is going to help SHU a lot. If I was a Pioneers fan I'd also be worried that SHU has turnover problems and Wagner feasts on those. If the Pioneers commit fewer than 12 turnovers they'll have a great shot at winning this game.

Thanks John for your input!  From his answers, it seems the Pioneer's best game plan on Thursday night could come down to this:

-       Continue their aggressive play and get to the free throw line as much as possible.  The goal should be to attempt and make more free throws than Wagner.
-       Limit their turnovers.  This goes without saying, but with Wagner’s efficient offense, turnover prevention becomes that much more important.
-       Pressure and frustrate leading scorer Latif Rivers and point-guard Kenneth Ortiz.  Shutting down two key contributors to the Wagner offense may slow them down a bit.

The Pioneers will need a big time effort on Thursday to pull off the upset, but that’s why they play the games!  A win in this spot would put SHU in excellent shape for the remainder of the NEC season.  Enjoy the game and fans, let's Pack the Pitt!!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pioneer Pride Mid-Season Northeast Conference Awards

The college basketball season is about two thirds complete, but I felt like generating the first ever Pioneer Pride mid-season men’s basketball awards for the Northeast Conference.  Besides, the conference season isn’t even halfway through.  In this post, I selected my NEC First, Second, and All-Rookie Teams along with Player of the Year and Coach of the Year awards, up to this point in the season.  Keep in mind that I placed a little more weight on a player’s performance in NEC games for these selections.  Enjoy…

Pioneer Pride NEC Midseason 1st Team

G- Shane Gibson, Sacred Heart
G- Velton Jones, Robert Morris
F- Jamal Olasewere, Long Island
F- Julian Boyd, Long Island
F- Ken Horton, Central Connecticut

Gibson, Olasewere, Boyd, and Horton are no-brainers, as all could be considered for NEC Player of the Year honors at season’s end.  The only difficult decision was between Velton Jones and Quinnipiac's James Johnson.  Jones, who is second in the conference in usage rate, means slightly more to his team offensively than Johnson, thus I gave him the nod.  Of all guards, Gibson leads the NEC in both points per game (20.7 ppg) and efficiency rating, according to BBState.com.  As a result, Gibson’s insertion bumped Wagner’s Tyler Murray to the Second Team.

Pioneer Pride NEC Midseason 2nd Team

G- James Johnson, Quinnipiac
G- Tyler Murray, Wagner
G- Jason Brickman, Long Island
F- Ike Azotam, Quinnipiac
F- Scott Eatherton, St. Francis (PA)

Despite leading the NEC in rebounding as a sophomore, Azotam falls to the Second Team due to the dominance of Boyd, Olasewere, and Horton.  I have nothing against Azotam; there were just too many elite players in the front-court to squeeze onto the First Team.  Point-guard Brickman gets a slight nod over Central’s Robby Ptacek and Wagner’s Latif Rivers, thanks to leading the league in assists, while shooting an incredibly efficient 48% from behind the arch (and an obscene 67% in eight NEC games).  Scott Eatherton was the biggest surprise of the list and should earn NEC Most Improved Player of the Year honors.  Averaging 15.2 ppg/7.3 rpg/1.2 bpg is an excellent improvement coming off a 2010-11 campaign in which he only played ten minutes per game as a freshman.

Pioneer Pride NEC Midseason All Rookie Team

G- Kyle Vinales, Central Connecticut
G- Phil Gaetano, Sacred Heart
F- Jalen Cannon, St. Francis (NY)
F- Ousmane Drame, Quinnipiac
F- Lucky Jones, Robert Morris

Vinales will be a mainstay on the NEC First or Second Team for his remaining three years.  In his rookie campaign, Vinales makes up part of CCSU’s three headed scoring monster – along with Horton and Ptacek – by scoring 18.6 points per game.  Cannon and Jones have been dominant on the glass for their respective clubs, while Drame has shown glimpses of defensive dominance in the paint.  The 5-foot-10 Gaetano edges out Mount St. Mary's forward Kelvin Parker, probably because I haven’t seen Parker play, while I’ve been impressed with Gaetano’s poise since taking over the starting point guard role from Evan Kelley.

Pioneer Pride NEC Midseason Coach of the Year

Dave Bike, Sacred Heart

This has to be the cherry on top of a wonderful 34 year coaching car………alright, sorry that was a joke.  I just wanted to rile up the Quinnipiac fans.  OK, my REAL Coach of the Year is…

Jim Ferry, Long Island

The hype machine promoting Dan Hurley wasn’t enough for me to select him as my Midseason Coach of the Year.  Not when Jim Ferry is coaching an undefeated 8-0 squad that convincingly defeated Hurley’s Seahawks twice.  Sure, Wagner has improved beyond our expectations this season, but Ferry’s LIU club hasn’t lost a conference game since January of last year.  While I expect a slip up or two before NEC tournament play begins, Long Island clearly has the best chance to represent the NEC in the big dance.  The eventual NEC champion must go through Brooklyn.

Pioneer Pride NEC Midseason Player of the Year

Ken Horton, Central Connecticut

I really wanted to give Shane Gibson the honor, but Horton has just been too dominant.  The 6-foot-6 reigning NEC Player of the Year – and future NBA player – does it all.  He scores (2nd in NEC with 20.4 ppg), rebounds (2nd with 9.5 rpg), shoots the three (31%) and defends (1st in NEC with 2.0 spg, 2nd in NEC with 1.5 bpg).  If this was NEC Most Valuable Player award, an argument could be made for Gibson, because without him the Pioneers would have a 2-6 conference record AT BEST (compared to 4-4 now).  But I’ll be objective and unbiased here – Ken Horton is the unquestionable winner and has a very good chance to repeat as NEC Player of the Year.

Do you disagree with anyone?  Did I omit someone worthy of consideration?  Please let me know!  And stay tuned for my Wagner/Sacred Heart preview tomorrow night.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Down Goes Quinnipiac!! Sacred Heart Pulls Off the Season Sweep

Merely six games into the Northeast Conference season, it had already felt like a long year for this Sacred Heart fan.  Of those six games, three of them were lost in excruciating fashion to NEC title contenders Central Connecticut, Long Island, and Robert Morris.  In each game, the Sacred Heart Pioneers (9-11, 3-4 NEC) were always a play or two away, two free throws swished, or a couple of defensive stops from bettering their conference record.  Instead, the Pioneers lost all three and found themselves mired in the bottom half of the NEC standings at 2-4.

Against an equally desperate Quinnipiac Bobcats (9-9, 2-5 NEC) team on Thursday night, in front of 1,100 energized fans at the Pitt center, Sacred Heart finally won a close game by succeeding in several clutch moments.  And they won in spite of missing their 6-foot-9 center Justin Swidowski with a shoulder injury.

To do it, they followed a recipe cooked up by the coaching staff.  SHU assistant coach Anthony Latina explained after the game, “We had four goals coming into this game – get to the free throw line, compete on the glass, get to the loose balls, and limit our turnovers.  We did three of those four things tonight.”

Ironically, despite getting manhandled on the boards by the bigger, more athletic Quinnipiac front-court, it was SHU coming up with two monster offensive rebounds in the final minute.  Up a meager point with a minute remaining, Stan Dulaire picked up an offensive rebound in traffic off a wild miss from Phil Gaetano.  And then Nick Greenbacker, who had earlier drilled two unlikely three-pointers to spur a 14-4 SHU run, grabbed another offensive rebound off a Chris Evans miss.

Those rebounds allowed the offensive hero of the game, Louis Montes, to sink two free throws and put SHU up three with 35 ticks left on the clock.  Shortly after, a James Johnson miss – one of his 15 missed shot attempts of the night – and an Evan Kelley rebound (again very timely) sealed the game for the Pioneers.  It was a must win, especially with CCSU, Wagner, and Mount St. Mary’s next up on the difficult schedule.

Here are some statistical highlights that allowed SHU to sweep the season series against Quinnipiac for the first time since the 2007-08 season:

- SHU was more aggressive, slashing to the hole instead of settling for jump shots.  The aggressive strategy paid off, with the Pioneers getting 22 points and shooting a respectable 73% from the free throw line.  They outscored Quinnipiac from the charity stripe, 22-13.

- Louis Montes scored a career high 28 points on 13 shot attempts, serving as a terrific compliment to Shane Gibson and his 23 points.  Overall, it was a fantastic effort for Montes, who provided SHU with some clutch play as well.  Last in the game, he forced a Quinnipiac turnover in the backcourt thanks to his hustle and he calmly sunk those aforementioned free throws with thirty seconds remaining in the contest.

- Nick Greenbacker, who I’ve been critical of in this blog, came up big in the second half by scoring eight straight points when it looked like Quinnipiac was ready to pull away in the middle of the second half.  The Jeff Franceour of SHU basketball had 10 points and 4 rebounds – along with 0 turnovers – in 33 minutes.  It doesn’t sound like much of a stat line, but he had to absorb a lot of contact down low between the more athletic Jamee Jackson, Ike Azotam, and Ousmane Drame.  He did an admirable job.

And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least bring up the low-lights from the game:

- SHU allowed a staggering 23 offensive rebounds to Quinnipiac.  Yes, they were undersized considerably, but this must be addressed by the staff (assuming Swidowski stays off the floor), especially with reigning NEC player of the year Ken Horton of CCSU and 6-foot-11 Naofall Folahan of Wagner coming to the Pitt within the next week.

- I brought this up on Twitter already, but it warrants mentioning again – whoever was responsible for handling the camera for SHU’s internet video feed did a terrible job!  That person had to be drunk, because seriously how difficult is it to follow a game with the camera?  If I had a podcast or radio show, I’d go Chris Russo on his/her ass, but this blog post will have to suffice.

- The SHU play-by-play radio guy had Connecticut Post and SHU beat writer William Paxton on for the halftime show.  I was looking forward to an insightful interview…you know because Paxton probably knows some things about Sacred Heart and NEC basketball that we aren’t privy too.  Well, I was wrong.  About 75% of the interview was spent on the NFL and Yankees offseason moves!  Why?  If I’m enough of a diehard fan to listen to the SHU halftime show through my spotty internet feed, I’m not really interested in hearing Paxton ramble on about Michael Pineda and the New York Giants.  Talk about the game, Sacred Heart basketball, and the Northeast Conference, please!

(Sorry for the rant, but I needed to get that off my chest.  Now I feel better.)

Moving forward, SHU quietly (thanks to LIU at Wagner playing tonight at 7 pm on ESPNU and seriously check out this Youtube promo) takes on CCSU on Saturday afternoon at 3:30 PM in a Pack the Pitt event that should give the Pioneers another respectable home crowd.  With any luck, SHU will no longer be last in NEC home attendance games after this homestand!

SHU will certainly have their hands full – since Swidowski is doubtful for the game - containing Central’s scoring trio of Ken Horton, Robby Ptacek, and Kyle Vinales.  All three players are averaging nearly 60 points per game for the Blue Devils.  Once again, Gibson will need help, either from Montes or Evans to offset Central's scoring attack.  The Pioneers will also need to bring the same passion and intensity they found against Quinnipiac.

Their meeting early this year led to thrilling CCSU overtime win 82-80, but SHU had a couple of opportunities, as I chronicled here, to put the game away.  Today, it should be a competitive game nonetheless, and hopefully Sacred Heart can get back to even in the NEC!  You know I’ll be watching...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sacred Heart vs. Quinnipiac - Game Preview!

It’s time for my first ever game preview.  Now is as good a time as any, since I need to cease spending my free time reading about the Mets medical staff’s mismanagement of injuries or how Mark Wahlberg could have prevented 9/11.  Instead, how about I preview tomorrow night’s Northeast Conference battle at the Pitt, Quinnipiac (9-8, 2-4 NEC) versus Sacred Heart (8-11, 2-4 NEC)?  Let’s proceed!

The Last Meeting:
Tom Moore and his Quinnipiac Bobcats had their five game winning streak over Sacred Heart (SHU) snapped, after the Pioneers surprisingly disposed of the Bobcats last month in Hamden, 68-55.  SHU held Quinnipiac to a season low 31% shooting from the field, which helped offset Quinnipiac’s dominance on the boards (what else is new) and Justin Swidowski being in foul trouble.  The biggest difference in the game was Quinnipiac’s atrocious free-throw shooting – the Bobcats missed 11 of 20 free throws and were outscored 20-9 by SHU at the charity stripe.

Why Do We Care About the Game:
Because every NEC conference game matters!  Both squads have struggled of late and now find themselves in the bottom half of the NEC standings at 2-4.  The loser of this game will essentially be five games back to the soon-to-be 7-0 LIU Blackbirds (assuming they defeat Mount St. Mary’s at home), therefore keeping pace with the upper echelon of the NEC is paramount.  For SHU, this game is the first game of a critical four game homestand that concludes with CCSU, Wagner, and Mount St. Mary’s.  For Quinnipiac, they can finally put the unfortunate campus fight incident behind them, and start building toward joining the NEC elite with a respectable road win.

What Does Sacred Heart Need to Do to Win:
1) Defend, defend, defend!  Offensively, Sacred Heart is third in the conference in points scored and tied for first in assists.  The problem?  They are allowing 1.04 points per possession defensively, which places them in the bottom third of the NEC. 

2) Do their best to contain Ike Azotam, Ousmane Drame, and the rest of Quinnipiac's front-court on the offensive glass, which means Swidowski must stay out of foul trouble.  When Quinnipiac has 10 offensive rebounds or less in a game, they are 1-4.  That lone win came against Robert Morris, when they shot an uncharacteristic 59% from the floor.  Their average shooting percentage for the year is 45%, so I don’t think you can count on a shooting performance like that again.

What Does Quinnipiac Need to Do to Win:
1) Have a decent shooting performance from all points on the court.  Specifically, Quinnipiac must get to the line and convert those free throws.  Seems simple enough but when the Bobcats shoot 65% or less from the line, they are 2-7 on the season.  With Quinnipiac dominating the glass as often as they do, they will find themselves at the line quite a bit.  They must take advantage of those freebies.   

2) Cut off the SHU’s secondary players.  Shane Gibson, who leads the NEC in scoring, will get his points.  The key to limiting the Pioneer’s offense is to focus on the second, third, and fourth scoring options behind Gibson and to defend the three-point shot.  Freshman Steve Glowiak has drained 6 three-pointers in the past two games, so Quinnipiac must not allow players like Glowiak to get into any kind of rhythm.

What to Watch For:
The Pioneers have been banged up of late with the statuses of Evan Kelley (ankle) and Justin Swidowski (shoulder) unknown prior to the game.  Will they be ready to play?  If not, the Pioneer’s depth will be severely limited and Nick Greenbacker or Femi Akinpetide, both of whom have been quite unproductive according to BBState.com efficiency ratings, will be forced to play big minutes.

Final Prediction:
I believe this is a coin-flip game, but I’ll naturally go with the home team.  The Pioneers will get a home boost from the crowd (I sure hope there’s more than 1,000 fans there) leading to a spirited defense effort that hinders the outside shooting of Quinnipiac.  In the end, the Pioneers seal off a tight game down the stretch with their superior free throw shooting.  Sacred Heart 66, Quinnipiac 64

Monday, January 16, 2012

Pioneer Pride Quick Hits 2 - Fun Conference Stats

I'm fresh off my Hawaiian vacation and ready to go all-in on college basketball for the next two and a half months.  I'm not sure if my wife is ready, but I'll worry about that later.  I spent last Saturday sick in my Maui condo from a stomach bug, listening to St. Francis light up Sacred Heart for 99 points.  That didn't make me feel much better!  But it gave me an opportunity to study the NEC over the break and provide you with my second edition of the Pioneer Pride Quick Hits.  In here, I posted some interesting facts regarding the NEC.

- As a frustrated Sacred Heart fan, the national coverage over the Hurley brothers is starting to get a little nauseating.  First an Andy Katz article and now Jim Halley of USA Today.  Well I'm here to throw a little cold water on the fire, so take a look at these numbers.  Since infamously losing to Wagner in late December, Pittsburgh and Santa Clara have combined to lose nine straight games!  Both teams remain winless in their respective conference divisions and have seen their RPI drop substantially as a result.  Because of their opponent’s nosedive, Wagner’s RPI (now at 78) has continued to dip - despite their current seven game winning streak - so much so that a NIT bid isn’t a guarantee should the Seahawks fail to win the NEC regular season or postseason championship.  Yes, road victories over Big East and West Coast Conference squads are certainly worthy of praise, but perhaps these teams weren’t as good as we originally thought.  I may need to revise my NEC greatest victories list in the future.

- The surprise of the NEC thus far has been the performance of the Terriers of St. Francis New York, who were picked 11th in the NEC Preseason Coaches Poll.  Stefan Perunicic and Ben Mockford have been hot in conference play, totaling more than 6 three-pointers per game.  Freshman Jalen Cannon has been productive in his new starting role, averaging 11 points and 9 boards in his past five contests.  So do the Terriers belong in the top tier of the NEC elite?  Not so fast.  If you toss their blowout loss to Wagner aside, St. Francis has five victories over opponents with a combined NEC record of 7-23.  Sure, St. Francis has taken care of business, but they have yet to square off against CCSU, LIU, or Robert Morris.  The remaining schedule still isn’t too challenging, but I view them as no better than a five seed come NEC tournament time.  Even John Templon of www.nycbuckets.com recently highlighted how lucky St. Francis has been.  Let’s see how they respond against Wagner on Thursday.

- Last month, the Northeast Conference announced the creation of a marketing grant intended to improve game attendance for its institutions.  An eligible grant of $4,000 will be awarded to each of the twelve schools, and in return the school will set up a program designed to draw more fans to their home games.  So far, the NEC’s investment in Sacred Heart has proven to be as prudent as purchasing Italian government bonds.  With more than half of the season complete, Sacred Heart is averaging a pathetic 550 fans per home game, good for dead last in the NEC.  In contrast, the Quinnipiac Bobcats have drawn a NEC leading 1,863 fans per game – I’m sure in large part thanks to their state-of-the-art TD Banknorth Sports Arena.  The attendance numbers should improve for SHU in the coming weeks with school back in session, but I’m guessing that this whole “Heart Attack” student spirit club promotion will be an epic fail.  Much like the Green Bay Packers.  But look at the bright side, if you are one of the few to attend a game at the Pitt, your odds of winning a giveaway are excellent!

- The NEC season is only a third of the way through, but I'm starting to get excited about Fairleigh Dickenson's quest to infamy!  No conference team has ever finished with zero or one conference win at season's end in nearly twenty years, unless you count Bryant's 2009-10 season (which I don't since they're not even tournament eligible until next season).  There's still a long way to go and lots of inferior basketball to be played, but for the moment FDU is 0-6 and has the second worst scoring offense in NEC history (57.8 ppg).  On the flip side, LIU has a chance to become the first NEC team to average at least 86 points per game in NEC play, since the 1997-98 LIU Blackbirds scored an amazing 94.7 points per game.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Another Weekend of Failure Could Mean Trouble for Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac

It's been a quiet week for me, but I wanted to write a couple of words about two Northeast Conference teams before conference play starts up again tonight. Here I'll briefly talk about a team that couldn't contain a "juggernaut" St. Francis offense or a team that can't shoot the basketball with any sustained consistency.

This week, the Sacred Heart Pioneers and Quinnipiac Bobcats find themselves in a potentially precarious position heading into their arduous western Pennsylvania road trip - get swept by Robert Morris and St. Francis (PA) and be four or five games out of first place in the NEC, after only six conference games. It's a position that Dave Bike or Tom Moore couldn't have ever anticipated before the season began.

Usually, I'm never one to panic. I didn't panic when the 2007 New York Giants were a bad half of football away from dropping to 0-3 on the young season (they went on to improbably capture the Super Bowl later that year, I guess Tom Coughlin didn't lose his team after all). Nor did I panic when I was a hopelessly single 27 year old by signing up for every online dating site out there. Ok maybe I was a little panicked then.

This time around however, the fans of the Sacred Heart Pioneers (7-10, 1-3 NEC) and Quinnipiac Bobcats (8-7, 1-3 NEC) may have reason to panic should either team conclude their road trip with a 1-5 record in the NEC. Yes, less than one quarter of the season will have been played up to that point, but it may be time to worry for a couple of reasons:

- The schedule doesn't get much easier for both teams. Sure, SHU and Quinnipiac have yet to play Bryant, Monmouth, FDU, and Mount St. Mary's, however due to the unbalanced schedule, both teams only receive a total of five matchups with the four cellar dwellers. And given their inconsistency, no one can assume that means a 5-0 record. 4-1 or 3-2 is more like it, especially when a team like Monmouth gave mid-major powers Wagner and Harvard a run for their money recently.

- Even if they rebound from a 1-5 mark, the most realistic of comebacks would probably result in a six through eight seed at season's end. A first round NEC tournament date at Robert Morris, Wagner, or LIU? I doubt that's a blueprint for automatic bid success.

- This blog needs a semi-successful SHU season to carry it! As a non-sports writer who started a blog and Twitter page from scratch two months ago, I need my readers to be interested. Who will care if the Pioneers are 4-8 midway through the conference season? How can I continue to build my Twitter follower base of 28 people - and I'm not including the 2 followers that want me to have sex with them or rent a limo - if SHU can't even qualify for the NEC Tourney?

In closing, I'm not asking SHU and Quinnipiac to sweep Robert Morris or St. Francis. Just split the series and manage not to blow another lead late in a game. Show the ability to compete late. Because if neither team accomplishes this goal, it will be an interesting January 19th battle at the Pitt between these two struggling squads. There, one team will fall to 1-6 and have their season essentially end before I have a chance to watch the Super Bowl.

And that's no way to keep your small fanbase engaged in NEC basketball.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

First Annual Pioneer Pride Northeast Conference Predictions

With the non-conference schedule complete for all Northeast Conference teams, now is a perfect opportunity to post my NEC Season Predictions.  I bet you won’t find these anywhere else!  I rank all of the teams in tiers, provide a brief summary, and attempt to predict each team’s final record and playoff destination.  This is my first year in covering the NEC, so I’d love to read your comments if you agree or disagree with my predictions in any way.  And now, without further ado…

Get Your Shoes Ready, Because You May Be Going to the Big Dance!

1) Robert Morris (16-2 regular season, NEC Semifinalist, NIT bound)

Andy Toole’s Colonials, fresh off an unusual upset over Ohio University in which they committed 31 turnovers and 24 personal fouls, head back into conference play in very good shape.  The unbalanced schedule is kind to them, as they only play Wagner, LIU, and Central Connecticut once this season.  They can defend, rebound, and go nine deep, especially with the recent addition of 6-foot-8 forward Mike McFadden.  I think they’ll quietly snap up the number one seed, only to be upset in the conference semis.

2) Wagner (15-3 regular season, NEC Tournament Champion, NCAA 14 seed)

I’m not sure who has been more loved in the New York area lately – Dan Hurley or Victor Cruz.  Hurley and his Wagner Seahawks have been the talk of the town since their upset victories over Pitt and Santa Clara, even though their early loss to LIU may eventually prevent them from earning the NEC regular season title.  Nonetheless, Wagner’s guards Kenneth Ortiz, Latif Rivers, and Tyler Murray are very efficient and are complimented with a strong low-block presence in 6-foot-11 Neofall Folahan, who leads the NEC with 2 rejections per game.  I think they’ll represent the NEC in the NCAA tourney (as do most people), but at the very worst, they’ll be NIT bound should they fall to LIU or Robert Morris along the way.

Don’t Count Them Out, They Could Be Dangerous

3) Long Island University (13-5 regular season, NEC Semifinalist, CBI/CIT bound)

The high-flying Blackbirds are the most proficient offense in the NEC, averaging a staggering 77 points per game.  They have efficient players that can excel both in the half court and in transition, especially when point guard Jason Brickman dishes the rock without turning it over.  LIU’s big man, Julian Boyd, has been a beast of late, averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds in the past 6 games.  So what is preventing them from going all the way?  They allow as many points as they score per game (77 ppg) and they turn the ball over way too much, with a turnover margin of minus-4.  If they can defend and protect the ball just a little, then perhaps they’ll successfully defend their NEC title and return to the dance.

4) Quinnipiac University (11-7 regular season, NEC First Round)

In their current 5 game winning streak, Tom Moore’s Bobcats have been playing inspired ball on the glass (what else is new) and on the defensive end.  Their young front court depth has been impressive and if Ousmane Drame continues to progress, he’ll be a force to reckon with in the paint.  Throw in leading NEC rebounder Ike Azotam, Jamee Jackson, and freshman Marquis Barnett, and the Bobcats have possibly the deepest front-court around.  For now though, Quinnipiac simply needs to shoot the ball better.  Senior James Johnson can’t do all of the scoring by himself.

5) Central Connecticut State (11-7 regular season, NEC Finalist)

The Blue Devils have slumped of late by losing five straight, but I’m not counting out their scoring trio of Ken Horton, Kyle Vinales, and Robby Ptacek.  Sure, Howie Dickerman’s club has absolutely no depth to speak of, but together the three stars are averaging a mind numbing 59.7 points per game and make up 77.2% of the team’s scoring.  If all three are healthy and firing on all cylinders come playoff time, the Miami Heat of the NEC (ok, maybe that’s a little stretch) will be a very tough out.

6) Sacred Heart University (10-8 regular season, NEC First Round)

I reluctantly placed my Pioneers at the bottom of this tier, even though I’m skeptical that Dave Bike’s roster can make a run at the conference.  They’ve got the star guard (Shane Gibson) and low-block scorer (Justin Swidowski), but as I explained before, they need contributions elsewhere to have a chance.  I can certainly see an upset win or two over a top tier team, but I’m not sure if they can sustain a high level over several games, due to the inconsistency of Evan Kelley, Chris Evans, and Louis Montes and the mostly nonathletic front-court.

Could Make a Little Noise, But Won’t Factor In the Postseason

7) St. Francis, NY (9-9 regular season, NEC First Round)

The Terriers, after a difficult start, have righted the ship to go 4-5 in their last 9 games.  You'll find them in the middle of the NEC statistically in most categories, as they have a balanced attacked with nine players registering double digits in points per 40 minutes.  They don't seem to have that one go-to-guy however, so it remains to be seen how they will succeed in close games.  One key to their success is freshman forward Jalen Cannon (averaging an impressive 7.2 rebounds per game), as his continued improvement should help determine the Terriers fate.

8) St. Francis, PA (7-11 regular season, NEC First Round)

The Red Flash back-court suffered two critical blows to their season within a month.  First of all, leading scorer Umar Shannon was lost for the year due to a ACL injury.  Then a month later, leading assist man Chris Johnson was kicked off the team for violating team rules.  That is worse luck than this poor sap! (FYI - skip ahead to the 0:40 second mark)  Don’t be fooled by the Red Flash’s 2-0 NEC record, since they beat Monmouth and FDU at home.  The schedule gets more difficult in a hurry with matchups against CCSU, Sacred Heart, and Quinnipiac in 3 of the next 4 games.

It’s Gonna Be a Really Long Season

9) Mount St. Marys (6-12 regular season, fails to qualify for NEC tournament)

Mount St. Mary’s has defended well the past 5 games, yet only have one win to show for it, thanks to a woeful effort on the offensive side of the ball.  Currently, there are in the bottom 15% of the nation in scoring, rebounds and shooting percentage.  Despite these hideous stats, one fourth of the league is even more hideous, so the Mount’s respectable defense should give them a few conference wins to build on for next season.

10) Monmouth University (4-12 regular season, fails to qualify for NEC tournament)

Since getting bashed by St. Francis (PA) and Robert Morris, Monmouth has played better basketball of late, which certainly isn’t saying much.  When your team is dead last in the NEC in scoring margin (minus-20), effective field goal percentage, and effective field goal percentage defense, bad things are going to happen.  5-foot-8 junior guard Jesse Steele and 6-foot-6 freshman guard Andrew Nicholas have been the lone bright spots for the Hawks.  (And now I’m done saying nice things about the bottom feeders of the NEC.  Moving along…)

11) Fairleigh Dickenson (3-15 regular season, fails to qualify for NEC tournament)

What is there really to say?  Picked last in the NEC Preseason Coaches Poll, the Knights of Fairleigh Dickinson have played two games so far – yes two games – where they didn’t lose by double digits.  The roster, filled with mostly juniors and seniors, has quite frankly no future, both a year from now and three years from now.

12) Bryant University (3-15 regular season, ineligible for NEC tournament)

After flirting with conference respectability last season, Bryant University is back to their familiar  position as a cellar dweller.  They’ve been punished in their past 11 games, falling by an average of 17 points per game.  At this point, call it a moral victory if the Bulldogs can half their win total from last year.  Or win a game on the road.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Four Thoughts on What Sacred Heart Needs to Improve Heading Into Conference Play

Now that Sacred Heart’s (7-8, 1-1 NEC) non-conference schedule has ended – with a decisive win at New Hampshire last Thursday evening – it’s time to deliver a Pioneer update.  The first 15 games came with mixed results.  There was the good: 3-0 versus America East opponents, a key NEC road victory over Quinnipiac, and of course the bad: blow out losses to Rutgers, Richmond, and Notre Dame,  and a 1-3 record in close games when either team was within 4 points in the final 2 minutes.

All in all, chalk it up to an inexperienced team still trying to find their way.  However, with SHU’s two leading scorers as juniors (Shane Gibson and Justin Swidowski), the Pioneers have a limited amount of time to become a factor in the NEC.  Without sustained consistency, Dave Bike has juggled his lineups throughout the season, as he struggles to find that go-to-group to employ in critical moments.

As I said in the team’s season preview, I’m expecting a return to the NEC tournament, after falling short the previous two seasons.  10 wins and 8 losses in the conference is the goal, with an opportunity to find their way into the NEC playoff semifinals.  Based from what I’ve seen, Sacred Heart does have the ability to achieve these goals.  But in order to compete with the upper echelon of the NEC, the Pioneers need to improve in these 4 areas I’ve outlined below.

1) Shane Gibson Can’t Do It All Himself

Among NEC players, Gibson is currently second in scoring (19.2 ppg), fifth in three-point percentage (41.2%), and third in true shooting percentage (62.0%).  He undoubtedly has shouldered the load and made a strong case for an All-NEC First Team selection at season’s end.  But he needs help.  As was the case last season, SHU lacks a balanced attack; therefore teams are more likely to double Gibson in the crucial moments of a game.  SHU desperately needs another guard to step up his production and I’m looking no further than sophomore Chris Evans.  I didn’t call him “The Future” last year for nothing.  So far this season, SHU is 5-1 in games when Evans scores in double digits.  Evans is perhaps the most well-rounded player on the team, as he’s in SHU’s top three in scoring (8.7 ppg), rebounding (4.0 rpg), assists (2.5 apg), assist/turnover ratio (1.5), and effective field goal percentage (50.0%).  Other candidates to become Gibson’s sidekick are Evan Kelley and Louis Montes, although the former still suffers from bouts of inconsistency while the latter may not have a good enough outside shot to become Gibson’s Robin.  If Evans can become a reliable back-court mate for Gibson, the Pioneers could surprise some teams.

2. Justin Swidowski Has to Stay on the Floor

As Swidowski adjusts to life in Division 1 basketball, there is one glaring weakness that has limited his potential – defensive fouls.  Averaging 3.3 fouls per game (and fouling out already in 3 contests this season), Swidowski’s premature absences force Bike to tap into his already thin front-court.  Without him, SHU’s lack of big man depth will be exposed more often than not, given the limited offensive arsenal and athleticism of Nick Greenbacker and Femi Akinpetide.  Femi did fill in admirably for Swidowski at Quinnipiac, however performances like that should not be the norm, especially against bigger competitors like Wagner and Robert Morris.  The 6-foot-9 Swidowski absolutely has an opportunity to average 14 points, 7 boards and 1 block per game in conference play, but he must provide the Pioneers with 28-30 minutes a game in order to do so.  If he can, then the Pioneers will be better defenders in the paint and have more opportunities for slashers like Evans, Gibson, and Kelley to drive to the bucket with Swidowski’s outside range in play.

3. Sacred Heart Has to Shoot the Ball Well

When a team makes a higher percentage of their shots, their chances for victory greatly increase.  I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, thanks Captain Obvious!”  But with Sacred Heart, this point is really stressed.  Historically, Bike has fielded guard heavy teams that rely immensely on their outside shooting.  Past Pioneer squads have never been exceptional defenders or dominant rebounders, and as a result, they’ve had a very difficult time overcoming poor shooting performances against quality competition. The SHU roster this season is no exception.  They can’t win by merely out-muscling a team on the glass like Quinnipiac.  Nor could they pull out a victory by just shutting down a good offense like Wagner or Robert Morris could.  Therefore it’s quite simple - shoot well or lose more often than not.  In fact, when Sacred Heart’s effective field goal percentage is less than 50%, which is close to the NCAA average, they are an atrocious 2-9 versus NEC teams since last season.

4. The Freshmen Must Continue to Develop

Another bright spot for the Pioneers has been the emergence of Phil Gaetano.  The freshman has done a nice job running the point, filling in for the graduated Jerrell Thompson.  Already, Gaetano has posted a solid assist/turnover ratio of 1.43 and is averaging 3.3 assists per game, good for 11th in the NEC.  The other newcomer is Steve Glowiak, who was recruited onto Bike’s team as the newest sharpshooter.  So far, he has struggled from behind the arch, with a three-point shooting percentage of 24.5%.  Each player's development is important - Gaetano must keep the turnovers down for SHU to compete and Glowiak has to take better shots.  If both players can improve throughout the conference season, the Pioneers will have some excellent depth in the back-court.

If Sacred Heart can progress in these 4 areas, then maybe we’ll see the Pioneers at Robert Morris or Wagner battling for a spot in the conference tournament finals.  This alum will continue to dream for that moment.  Until then, enjoy the NEC action coming up!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Quinnipiac vs. BU Recap - I Do It For the Love of the Game

On the afternoon of New Years Eve, a much anticipated college basketball game was taking place in the state of Connecticut.  The St. John's Red Storm were entering a sold out XL Center to take on the #9 ranked UConn Huskies.  It was a Big East battle that shouldn't be missed.

Meanwhile, some 30 miles south down Interstate 91, I purchased a $5 ticket to enter the TD Banknorth Sports Center on the campus of Quinnipiac University.  There, I would be satisfying my Northeast Conference fix to watch a fairly insignificant non-conference matchup between the Boston University (BU) Terriers and the Quinnipiac Bobcats.  And I couldn’t be happier.  Here I could finally catch up on some live mid-major college basketball and study Quinnipiac’s ferocious rebounding attack, which was second in the nation in both total rebounds per game (44.8) and rebounding margin (12.3).  I wanted to get a glimpse of 6-foot-7 super sophomore Ike Izotam, who despite his smallish stature for a power forward, impressively led the NEC with 11.2 rebounds per game.

Both teams were heading in opposite directions leading up to the contest.  Quinnipiac, after falling to my Sacred Heart Pioneers on December 1st, had won 5 of their last 6.  On the other hand, BU were losers of 5 straight, albeit against some very respectable competition in Harvard, La Salle, Villanova, and St. Joseph’s.  Nevertheless, I was expecting a one-sided affair.

The story certainly didn’t play out that way early on. Anchored by seniors Darryl Partin (2nd in America East scoring with 20.2 points per game) and Matt Griffin, BU came out firing to open up an early lead.  Quinnipiac tried to answer, but as been the case most of the season, there appeared to be a lid on the Bobcat’s basket.  Quinnipiac struggled mightily in the half court set, shooting 31% from the field.  What was most surprising though was Quinnipiac’s failure to dominate the glass, which was amplified when 6’9’’ freshman Ousmane Drame picked up his second foul with 10 minutes remaining in the first half.  With Drame’s departure and Izotam’s ineffectiveness, the energized Terriers slowly drained the life out the TD Banknorth crowd.  When the sharp-shooting Griffin drew an offensive foul and then quickly drained a 3 pointer late in the first half, the shocked crowd saw their Bobcats trail at the half, 32-19.

I’m not sure what Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore said to his team at halftime, but whatever was shouted, it worked.  Within the first 4 minutes of the second half, Quinnipiac cut their double digit deficit to 4 by hitting three straight from beyond the arch.  Suddenly, the crowd woke up.  The Bobcats began their patented “crash the glass” attack.  Drame did his best Emeka Okafor impersonation by taking control of the paint and rejecting or altering every BU shot attempt within his vicinity.  James Johnson, who scored 16 points while playing all 40 minutes, made life very difficult for Partin in the 2nd half.  Now it was BU's turn to struggle offensively, no matter how hard first-year BU coach Joe Jones emphatically tried to rally the troops.  The Quinnipiac rebounding and defensive tenacity was back.  And Tom Moore was impressed.

“I was really proud of our guys resolve in the second half, and our ability to shake off a really bad offensive night from pretty much our team and every player and commit totally to defending and to going to the offensive boards in the second half.  BU has played an incredibly challenging schedule, but I don’t think there were many halves were they’ve shot 26% from the floor.”

Once Quinnipiac’s brand of hard-nosed basketball took shape, it was only a matter of time before they finished off the Terriers.  Everyone in the arena knew it.  And finally, a Nate Graus three from the corner and two free throws from Johnson gave Quinnipiac their first lead of the game, 43-42, with 5:59 remaining.  It was a lead they would not relinquish, despite the overall ugly offensive performance (effective field goal percentage of 37%, 0.88 points per possession).  In the end, through the offensive muck, it was Tom Moore praising his team for the hard-fought victory.

“I thought our will on the offensive glass in particular, Ousmane Drame, Zaid Hearst, Garvey Young even, at keeping balls alive and continuing to go when nothing was really happening for us offensively was really good for our team’s confidence going forward.”

It was a Northeast Conference/America East matchup that could never have matched the talent level of the Big East battle in Hartford.  But you know what?  I’ll watch the BU/Quinnipiac game over St. John’s/UConn game any day of the week.

After all - I do it, for the love of the (mid-major) game.