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!

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