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!!

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