Thursday, March 29, 2012

The 2011-12 Northeast Conference End of Season Recap - Part 1

For decades now, the Northeast Conference (NEC) has served as the doormat of men’s college basketball.  Never in the NEC’s 30 year history has there been one NCAA at-large bid, nor has there been a single NCAA victory for a NEC team in the round of 64.  Not one.  This season wasn’t any different and to the casual fan, a glance at the conference RPI ratings showed a mild at best improvement for the NEC when compared to the other conferences (NEC was rated 24th out of 31 conferences in RPI).

Long Island University qualified for the NCAA tournament as a #16 seed, yet proved to be no match against the bigger and more athletic Michigan State Spartans.  The NIT committee felt no other NEC team deserved inclusion into their tournament, and notably shut out the Wagner Seahawks, despite winning a school record 25 games.  And only two other teams, Quinnipiac and Robert Morris, played in the lesser known and least cared about CTI and CBI postseason tournaments.  It appeared to be just another ho-hum year for the NEC.

But take a closer look.  For the first time since the 1995-96 season, three NEC teams finished their season with more than 20 wins.  Robert Morris and Wagner each had impressively (at least at the time) defeated some quality non-conference opponents, with the most notable being NCAA Sweet 16 participant Ohio University and traditional Big East power (although not this year) Pittsburgh.  In addition, the NEC’s top three programs, LIU, Robert Morris, and Wagner, will graduate only one starter from each of their rosters. Other teams, such as Quinnipiac, Monmouth, and St. Francis (NY), took a sizable step forward and should reek of optimism heading into next season.

All in all, the 2011-12 season may serve as the year it started to turn around for the NEC.  Next season may be the first time in 16 years that the NEC gets three teams into the NCAA and NIT.  And make no mistake, the NEC will someday get that elusive NCAA round of 64 win, and I would say it’s coming sooner than later.

With that, I give you my two part Northeast Conference men's basketball season recap.  Rather than bombard you with 2,200+ words in one monster post, I decided to break it up.  I'll first go over the bottom half of the league and then recap the upper half in a couple of days.

12. Bryant Bulldogs, 2-28 (1-17 NEC)
We begin with the last place Bryant Bulldogs, who at least have the excuse of transitioning their program into Division 1.  Next season, the Bulldogs will be eligible to play in the NEC postseason tournament, although getting there will certainly be a long shot.  Bryant wasn’t supposed to end their 2011-12 season with one conference win however, especially after winning 7 NEC games in the season prior.  But despite returning Alex Francis and Frankie Dobbs, the Bulldogs finished dead last in both offense efficiency (0.90 points per possession) and defensive efficiency (1.10 points allowed per possession).  The nadir has been reached, and at least Bryant will have the optimism of participating as a fully integrated Division 1 school for the 2012-13 season.  Hopefully that will produce some decent recruits and a couple of more wins in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

11. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, 3-26 (2-16 NEC)
Barely higher on the totem pole were the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, who have officially hit rock bottom this season.  That’s saying a lot, since the Knights have averaged a measly 7 wins per season since their 20 win campaign in 2006.  The team, mostly comprised of upperclassmen, at the very least will usher in five freshmen onto next season’s roster.  Melquin Boldin will return next season as the Knight's leading scorer, but his 15.1 points per game was clearly compiled through heavy shot volume, as evident by his 35% effective field goal percentage.  It’s tough to see this team winning more than 4 or 5 games in conference next season, but stranger things have certainly happened.

10. St. Francis (PA) Red Flash, 6-23 (5-13 NEC)
Don Friday’s fourth season as the Red Flash’s coach didn’t bring the marked improvement the St. Francis (PA) faithful could have expected.  To be fair, the season got off to a dreadful start when junior Umar Shannon injured his ACL in the second game of the season, only to be lost for the year.  Then to make matters worse, junior Chris Johnson was dismissed by Coach Friday for violating team rules.  Well so much for that. What ensued was another hapless season for the Red Flash, who found themselves giving up an average of 1.06 points per possession on defense.  The lone bright spot was the NEC Most Improved Player, Scott Eatherton, who averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds per game, despite only logging 10 minutes per game as a freshman the previous season.  Pair him with Shannon and a trio of sophomores who played significant minutes this season, and St. Francis has a respectable chance to qualify for next season's NEC tournament.

9. Mount St. Mary’s, 8-21 (6-12 NEC)
It was an apathetic season at the Knott Arena, which surely captured the now departed head coach Robert Burke’s temperament.  Of course, there was never anything to get excited about, since the Mountaineers failed to defeat a team all season with a winning record.  Of the four freshmen inserted into this season’s roster, only Kelvin Parker made a real contribution and he was a walk-on from the football team.  With Burke’s failure however, comes reason for optimism. Former Mount St. Mary’s player and captain Jamion Christian has been brought in to right the ship, fresh off assisting one of the best young coaches in the league in Shaka Smart.  Christian certainly has a lot of work ahead of him - especially with the departure of Danny Thompson and Lamar Trice - but there is now hope that the program can someday be restored back to the productive days under Milan Brown.

8. Sacred Heart Pioneers, 14-18 (8-10 NEC)
If you read my blog regularly this season, you surely understood the heartbreak my beloved Sacred Heart Pioneers endured for the 2011-12 season.  8 games in the conference were lost in the final 3 minutes of the game, with 5 of those coming against Robert Morris, LIU, and St. Francis.  A remarkable season from Shane Gibson ended up being wasted on late game disappointments and chronic inconsistency from everyone playing behind Gibson.  Add to that an evident lack of depth in the front-court, and you have the recipe of a team that underachieved to 8 conference wins.  Despite this, the Pioneers go into the 2012-13 season with more front-court help and a final season from Shane Gibson and 6-foot-9 big man Justin Swidowski, who now has a Division 1 season under his belt.  It’s certainly reasonable to expect a progression, if and only if the roster matures and learns from their late game failure.

7. Central Connecticut Blue Devils, 13-16 (10-8 NEC)
Howie Dickerman had the talent to compete for a NEC Championship this season, however a complete lack of depth apparently doomed the team.  After the big three of Ken Horton, Robby Ptacek, and Kyle Vinales, the next highest scorer on the roster was junior Joe Efase, who (get this) averaged 3.9 points per game!  The result was star studded team up front that failed to score the basketball with any type of consistency.  Therefore, when the defense gave up more than 0.97 points per possession in a game, Central Connecticut went 0-13.  Now with Horton and Ptacek gone, Dickerman will probably need a year to fully rebuild with Vinales and Malcolm McMillan serving as the foundation.

For Part 2 of the NEC End of Season Recap, go here.

The 2011-2012 Northeast Conference End of Season Recap - Part 2

For Part 1 of the NEC Season Recap, go here.

6.  Monmouth Hawks, 12-20 (10-8 NEC) 
For more than half of the season, the Monmouth Hawks looked like the same old mediocre team, as they stumbled out to a 3-16 and 1-5 conference record.  At that point however, first year head coach King Rice's effect on the roster began to take hold, as the Hawks finished the season improbably winning 9 of their final 13 contests.  The late season surge was thanks to playing inspired defense and using a well balanced scoring attack, led by diminutive junior guard Jesse Steele.  Now, the future looks brighter for the Rice's kids, especially with the impressive recruiting haul coming in for the 2012-13 season.  With that said, I would be cautious to project an improvement from 10 conference victories, but make no mistake, NEC teams can no longer expect an easy victory when they play the Monmouth Hawks.

5.  Quinnipiac Bobcats, 18-14 (10-8 NEC)
It was another season of controlling the boards for Quinnipiac, as they finished 2nd in the nation in rebounding percentage.  Ousmane Drame showed glimpses of how dominating he and front-court mate Ike Azotam could be when each is playing at a high level.  When the defensive intensity was there for Tom Moore’s squad, the Bobcats could certainly get by most nights with a victory.  But when they squared off against the offensively powered NEC elite, specifically Wagner and LIU, the Bobcats simply couldn’t match their opponent's offensive output.  Losing All-NEC 2nd Teamer James Johnson won’t help, so the big question heading into next season is how much will the rest of the team, mainly Zaid Hearst, Nate Gause, and Jamee Jackson pick up the scoring slack?  Quinnipiac has been close the last couple of years, but offensive efficiency still impedes their ability to secure their first ever NCAA tournament bid.

4.  St. Francis (NY) Terriers 16-15 (12-6 NEC)
If you take out the first 5 games and the last 3 games of the Terrier’s season, it was a fantastic run for the team that called Pope Education Center home.  Unfortunately, the entire season counts and injuries depleted Glenn Braica’s roster just enough to be ousted in the first round of the NEC tourney by Quinnipiac.  Even with the early round exit, Braica rightfully earned NEC Coach of the Year honors, as he did a masterful job squeezing 12 conference wins out of a no-name roster that lost starting guard Dre Calloway to a shoulder injury.  Looking ahead, the nucleus of Ben Mockford, Travis Nichols, Brent Jones and Jalen Cannon should give NEC teams a battle every single night.  Given how competitive the conference has become however, projecting St. Francis to match their 12 conference wins next season may be a tad bullish.

3.  Robert Morris Colonials, 26-11 (13-5 NEC)
With much of the hype on Wagner and Long Island throughout the season, all the Colonials did was quietly compile a 13-5 conference record en route to a #3 seed in the NEC tourney.  From there, Velton Jones and company essentially ended Dan Hurley's career at Wagner with a grinding, defensively inspired semifinal victory.  In the end, Andy Toole's team fell just short in the finals, but it was another impressive effort nonetheless.  Robert Morris has now averaged more than 14 NEC victories in each of the past 5 seasons, and with a roster that only graduates Lawrence Bridges, the Colonials will once again be part of the NEC elite moving forward.

2.  Wagner Seahawks, 25-6 (15-3 NEC)
The media darlings of the Northeast Conference did everything this season except win the NEC regular season and postseason championship, and it dearly cost them.  25 wins, 12 of which were on the road, and a non-conference record of 9-2, just wasn’t enough to warrant a NIT invite.  Perhaps as a result (although I’m guessing $4 million dollars played a slightly larger role), the Hurley brothers left to coach the University of Rhode Island.  Hurley’s departure however, didn’t scare off the top notch recruits coming to Wagner next season, as both Eric Fanning and Dwuan Anderson have allegedly remain committed to Seahawk basketball.  Pair them with NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Ortiz, All-NEC 2nd Teamer Latif Rivers and young big men Mario Moody and Naofall Folahan and you have a scary good lineup.  The transaction next season won’t be seamless, especially with the departure of the underrated Tyler Murray, but Wagner should again compete for the NEC title, as long as the youngest coach in college basketball Bashir Mason can pick up where Dan Hurley left off.

1.  Long Island University Blackbirds, 25-9 (16-2 NEC)
It was another remarkable season for Jim Ferry’s Blackbirds, as LIU dominated their NEC opponents by averaging 1.10 points per offensive possession.  As great as NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd and All-NEC 1st Teamer Jamal Olasewere were in the front-court, it was super sophomore Jason Brickman that catalyzed the mastery of LIU’s offense.  Brickman was fifth in the nation with 7.3 assists per game and he -- along with back-court mate Michael Culpo -- shot 38.4% from behind the arc.  Throw in slasher C.J. Garner, and you have an offensive juggernaut that ultimately pushed LIU to their second straight NCAA tournament.  There’s little chance of regression since the Blackbirds only lose Culpo to graduation with the core of Boyd, Olasewere, and Brickman still in tact.  Sure, the Blackbird’s 26 game home winning streak will probably be snapped at some point next season, but the back-to-back NEC champions still have one last run in them before the roster is turned over.

You can follow Pioneer Pride for Sacred Heart and Northeast Conference men's basketball updates on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sacred Heart End of Season Interview with Head Coach Dave Bike

Nearly two weeks ago, long time Sacred Heart head coach Dave Bike granted me an interview to discuss the Pioneer’s past season.  I was very appreciative for the opportunity, considering I basically arrived at Coach Bike’s office unannounced.  Despite never having met me, he was very friendly and engaging, answering all my questions.  Below is my interview transcript with the Sacred Heart coach:

Pioneer Pride: To start, Sacred Heart was picked 8th in the NEC preseason poll, you finished right around there, but you certainly had your ups and downs during the season.  The ups were you swept the America East teams in non-conference, you beat Quinnipiac twice, and you had a riveting buzzer beater against Central.  The downs were you lost a lot of close games, especially in conference.  What were your general thoughts on how the season went for your club?
Coach Bike: Well, I was actually disappointed in the close ones.  You don’t count the close ones we won; you’re only disappointed in the close ones we lost.  I’m having trouble trying to figure it out, finding another year where we lost so many games that we were right there, where we had a legitimate chance to win… We finished where we were picked, and I think we had a legitimate chance to move up and we didn’t.

Pioneer Pride: Why did your team struggle in the close games?
Coach Bike: When we lost the Yale game…we allowed their player to take the ball strong to the basket and we didn’t stop him.  The second to last game against Robert Morris, again we didn’t stop Velton Jones on the last play.  So, it was a combination of different things.  We showed some improvement in some categories, our defense at times played decently, but when we needed to win a game with a defensive stop, we didn’t.

Pioneer Pride: Do you think defense was the biggest problem in late game situations then?
Coach Bike: There were times we missed a couple of shots to win a game and sometimes we didn’t get the key rebound or make the stops defensively.  And I think one thing is when the other team tests us; we have to learn to test them by going to the basket.  I think that’s what hurt us.  I don’t think we’re worse than other teams on defense, but I think our problem is we don’t test them as much as they test us.

Pioneer Pride: So your team wasn’t as aggressive as they could have been?
Coach Bike: We have to get the foul line more, and we have to be convinced of that.  We have to learn to take it to the other teams as much as they take it to us.

Pioneer Pride: Building off that, how can your team progress next season to reach the NEC Elite -- the upper quadrant of the league -- where SHU is challenging teams like Wagner, Robert Morris, and LIU?
Coach Bike: We have to get stronger physically, and if we get stronger physically then we’ll get stronger mentally, and then we’ll get tougher too, I think.  Now Gibson has worked on his body, is a strong guard and he showed more endurance this year.  But I think the other guys have to get stronger and play stronger.

Pioneer Pride : Your team didn’t have that reliable second or third guy behind Shane Gibson.  Sacred Heart didn’t get consistent play from Louis Montes, Evan Kelley, Justin Swidowski, and Chris Evans.  Were you disappointed with their inconsistent play throughout the season?
Coach Bike: We had an exercise before the year started where each player had to write down their expectations.  Gibson came the closest to his expectations -- he was right on the mark -- but some guys didn’t meet their own expectations and that’s disappointing.  The difference between being a very good player and a so-so player is consistency, there’s no doubt about it.  So we’ll do the same exercise again, and I’ll be interested if people lower their expectations, which is OK because you don’t want to have an expectation you can’t meet.  That’s unfair for a coach to expect guys to do something that they’ll have trouble (accomplishing).  You want to be in the ballpark, but then we have to figure out how to get there.

Pioneer Pride: Did injuries play a role toward the inconsistency?
Coach Bike: Yeah, for some teams a guy gets hurt and the team picks it up for a game or two.  How guys come back from an injury makes a difference.  Evans never really came back and played as tough as he could of from his injury.  Every team has them and you have to play over them or play with them.  I’m not sure if we handled injuries as well as other teams would have handled the same injuries.

Pioneer Pride: Let’s talk about some positives for the season. Shane Gibson had an incredible year as he led the NEC in points per game by scoring at a very efficient rate.  Even though Julian Boyd was obviously deserving of winning NEC Player of the Year, I was surprised the voting was unanimous, because I felt Gibson warranted at least some consideration for the award.  Did Gibson have the best season you’ve ever coached for a Division 1 player?
Coach Bike: Well, scoring wise it is, so yeah it is the best season as far as points and percentage.  Can he get better? Well, I think he shortchanged himself.  It was remarkable that he shot 51% from the floor when he could have gotten fouled more.  I think he can improve in that area.  I think he can improve on his assist/turnover ratio.  But in terms of pure scoring, he was very good.  You were talking about how surprised you were that Boyd was unanimous (winning NEC Player of the Year), but if we were in first place and LIU was in 8th place, well guess what, then Shane would have been unanimous (in winning NEC Player of the Year)... Now Shane had a remarkable year as you said, but it's not over and let’s see what he does next year.

Pioneer Pride: Another positive was the play of freshman Phil Gaetano.  I was particularly impressed with Gaetano’s poise as a freshman, since he made some key plays in the clutch on occasion.  Comment on Gaetano’s progress and where you see him next season.
Coach Bike: The coaches had high expectations for Phil, and he met most of those expectations. A lot of kid’s goals are to play Division 1, but Phil’s goal is to be good in Division 1.  And I think he has a chance.  Now his size hurts him, so he has to compensate for that a little by getting stronger.  He has a good head for the game, he’s firm with the ball, and we expect him to be a good player.

Pioneer Pride: Stan Dulaire is the only major contributor you’re losing next season, so I’d like your thoughts on the Sacred Heart career of Stan, who by all accounts was a great teammate and a hard worker.
Coach Bike: Stan is a super kid.  I think he started to make moves that he could have made a few years ago.  He started to take the ball stronger to the basket.  We talked to him about red-shirting when he was freshman, and he didn’t want any part of it.  The way we tried to do things around here, it would have really benefited him.  He was a real good teammate, and a real respectful person, and he was an easy guy to root for.  He improved in all aspects of the game, but it’s too bad his college career has to end now.

Pioneer Pride: You have two incoming players, 6-foot-7 recruit Tevin Falzon, who supposedly possesses a nice inside-out game for a big man, and 6-foot-8 transfer Mostafa Abdel Latif.  How much contribution do you think you’ll get from both players in the front-court next season?
Coach Bike: The thing that was disappointing this year is (we didn’t have anyone to pass the ball inside to).  I really believe that’s an important factor, but we didn’t say that this year.  It’s not that I don’t believe we should get the ball inside more, but if I said “pass it inside”, my question this year was to whom?  Who really wanted it inside?  So one area that’s available -- to get back to my philosophy -- is if somebody shows they (can play the post).  Somebody has to step up in that area.  Could it be the returning guys?  Yeah.  Could it be the new guys?  Yeah.  I would say they have a better chance at participating (in playing the post) if they’re the guy we say, “get the ball inside to.”  I think Swidowski would have a good chance to be the post guy – I think he has real good moves – but he doesn’t want to use them around the basket the way he should…

Pioneer Pride: Coach, you’ve been coaching for a long time.  You’re coming up on your 35th year, which is remarkable.  You’re the face of Sacred Heart basketball.  How much longer do you want to do this, and are you going on a year-to-year basis now?
Coach Bike: Yeah, year to year.  At this age, I’m not planning for the next 35 years (laughs).  So we’re taking it a year at a time, a day at a time, and we’ll play it by ear.

A special thanks again to Coach Bike for the interview and hopefully I'll have the opportunity to talk with him at the Northeast Conference media day in the preseason and during next season.

You can follow Pioneer Pride for Sacred Heart and Northeast Conference men's basketball updates on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Monday, March 19, 2012

Was Shane Gibson's Season the Greatest in Sacred Heart History?

Shane Gibson’s all-NEC type performance this season has motivated me to look back in Sacred Heart’s division 1 history.  It isn’t a deep history – this season was SHU’s 13th in division 1 college basketball – but I wanted to compare Gibson’s magical season with other great individual seasons from former Sacred Heart players.  As a result, I’m giving you the five greatest individual performances in a season in Sacred Heart division 1 history!

A couple of things to keep in mind – I strictly looked at an individual’s season performance and did not take their entire college career into account.  Also, I ranked these seasons like I would be ranking a Player of the Year candidate.  Therefore, I focused solely on individual statistics, rather than how much value the player brought to his particular team.  Most of the time, Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player designations correlate well, but other times they don’t.

5. Corey Hassan, senior season (2009-2010)
Hassan the Assassin, a nickname I found on his Facebook page years ago, scored the ball with deadly consistency in his final season.  His 19.2 points per game led the Northeast Conference (NEC), but perhaps more impressive was his 7.5 rebounds he grabbed per game, good enough for 5th overall in the NEC.  Not bad for a 6-foot-4 shooting guard!  Currently, Hassan is carving out a productive career in Europe, which isn’t surprising given his ability to score the basketball.

4. Drew Shubik, senior season (2007-2008)
In my opinion, Drew Shubik had one of the more underrated careers in Sacred Heart history.  For his senior campaign, all he did was average 11 points, 6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.3 steals per game.  He’s the type of player every veteran college roster needs, an all around selfless leader who can play multiple roles for his team.  Shubik did just that in his last season of eligibility, by serving as the Pioneer's point guard despite being built as a wing player.  He still to this day was my favorite Pioneer to watch, although Joey Henley and Gibson are a close second.

3. Joey Henley, senior season (2008-2009)
Speaking of one of my favorite Pioneers, Joey Henley, an undersized 6-foot-5 power forward, had an excellent senior season which was good enough to earn him All-NEC First Team honors.  Despite consistently facing bigger forwards and centers, Henley managed to average 15.7 points and 6.7 boards per game while shooting a league best 62.6% from the field.  In addition, the uber-athlete excelled as a post defender, blocking 1.3 shots per game.

2. Kibwe Trim, senior season (2005-2006)
Admittedly, I jumped on the Sacred Heart bandwagon (who knew there was one!) when the team first challenged for the NEC Championship in 2006-2007.  Kibwe Trim had unfortunately graduated by then, so I didn’t see SHU’s greatest post presence play all that much.  A quick look at his 2005-06 stats however, paints a wonderful picture – Trim led the NEC in points per game (19.2) and effective field goal percentage (61.8%), while finishing 5th in rebounds per game (8.6).  He was an efficient beast in the paint and has gone on to have a respectable professional career playing overseas.  It’s really a shame he wasn’t born a year or two later.  He could have been the final piece of the puzzle that pushed the Pioneers to that ever-elusive NCAA tournament berth.

1. Shane Gibson, junior season (2011-2012)
We are all so lucky that Gibson has one more year of eligibility remaining, because this season was just fantastic.  His 22.0 points per game is most ever by a Pioneer and ranked 5th nationally, but it was his efficiency shooting the basketball that made his season so sensational.  For a shooting guard to average an effective field goal percentage of 59.8% is incredible, especially when you consider the high quantity of shots he must put up game after game and the defensive attention he received as SHU's only reliable scorer.  In our recent interview, Dave Bike clearly implied that Gibson has yet to hit his ceiling as a player and could stand to improve in a couple more facets of his game.  So you're saying Gibson can get better? That's a scary thought for NEC competition.

Sacred Heart fans and alums, did I overlook a player's performance?

You can follow Pioneer Pride for Sacred Heart and Northeast Conference men's basketball updates on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Michigan State Overwhelms Long Island University with Interior Play

The Big Ten Champions were just too big, too strong, too skilled, and practically impossible for the Blackbirds to defend in the paint.  Tom Izzo’s Michigan State (MSU) Spartans took full advantage of it.

Despite a hard fought effort, the undersized Long Island University (LIU) Blackbirds simply couldn’t overcome a monster effort from MSU’s interior trio of Adrelan Payne, Derrick Nix, and, of course, Big Ten Player of the Year and potential National Player of the Year, Draymond Green.  All three big men scored a combined 58 points on 26-for-41 shooting to go along with 27 rebounds and 12 assists.  Green led the charge with a triple double (24/12/10), which was the third of his career.

The gross interior mismatch resulted in an 89-67 defeat for LIU, which knocks them out of the NCAA tournament in the round of 64 game for the second straight year.

“I thought we did a good job using speed and quickness to negate their size in the first half.  We were a little overwhelmed in the 2nd,” said LIU head coach Jim Ferry in the post-game press conference.

After 20 minutes of play, LIU found themselves only down 5 points, 42-37.  LIU was staying competitive by out-producing MSU from behind the arc (5 made 3s versus 0 for MSU) and at the foul line (8 FTs versus 4).  CJ Garner led the charge with 8 points on only 4 shots, as his team was making an concerted effort to be aggressive on the offensive end.

For the second half however, Tom Izzo showed why he’s one of the best NCAA tournament coaches in the business.  The Spartans hardly went a possession without passing the ball into the interior, forcing the undersized forwards of LIU to defend players like Green, Payne, and the massive Nix.  The halftime adjustment quickly paid off, as MSU scored 10 points on their first 6 possessions of the second half, building a commanding double-digit lead.

MSU outscored LIU in the paint, 62-26.  They out-rebounded the Blackbirds, 42-19.  And that was obviously the difference, no matter how well the Blackbirds shot from the outside or how aggressive they were on offense.

Jamal Olasewere led LIU in the game with 17 points. Julian Boyd and C.J. Garner each had 15 points, while Michael Culpo ends his career on a soar note, scoring only 3 points on a 1 for 7 shooting performance.

After the game, you can’t help but wonder how much LIU’s 0-3 start to the season affected their chance at a #15 seed.  Given the vulnerably of the #2 seeds this season with Duke and Missouri losing, one could certainly make the argument that LIU had a chance to pull off an upset if they were put in the same position as Lehigh and Norfolk State. 

In spite of their second round of 64 loss in as many years and the early season disappointment though, the LIU Blackbirds had another excellent season under Ferry.  Michael Culpo is the only major contributor leaving due to graduation, so once again, LIU will enter next season as the undisputed NEC favorite.

Together with Wagner, Quinnipiac, Robert Morris, and St. Francis, LIU will help lead the NEC into perhaps their most successful season for the 2012-2013 campaign.  It's an exciting prospect for the future of the conference and hopefully, the NEC will finally be able to pull off a NCAA Tournament upset.  It will happen one of these years.

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Can #16 seeded Long Island University Knock Off #1 Seeded Michigan State?

As you know by now, the Long Island University (LIU) Blackbirds won their second consecutive Northeast Conference (NEC) title and qualified once again for the NCAA tournament by defeating Robert Morris in Brooklyn last Wednesday night.  Their reward for ripping through the NEC with a superb 19-2 record, however, leads to a first round showdown with Tom Izzo’s Michigan State (MSU) Spartans, winners of the Big Ten regular season and tournament championship.  Not only will the #16 seeded LIU Blackbirds battle MSU this Friday night, but they’ll also face off against history, and some pretty serious history at that.

To date, a #16 seeded team has failed to record one victory in 108 tries when challenging a #1 seeded team in the NCAA tournament.  LIU, despite four previous Big Dance appearances, has never won a NCAA game, with their closest moment resulting in a three-point loss to Jim Calhoun’s Northeastern team in 1984 (yes, THAT Jim Calhoun).  LIU has never defeated a team in the RPI top 50 (I know, Ken Pomeroy hates RPI, but just follow along until I sign up for KenPom before next season).  From the other side, MSU is 10-4 in the first round of the NCAA tournament under Tom Izzo and 8-0 when seeded fifth or higher.  Michigan State has never lost to a NEC school, nor has LIU ever beaten a Big Ten team in its history.

There are some serious historic hurdles to clear for Jim Ferry’s Blackbirds, aren’t there?

Well, I’m here to tell you LIU has a chance.  Sure, it’s a slim chance, but if LIU plays their best and gets a few lucky bounces and calls, I do honestly believe they have a shot to make history.  Just please don’t expect me to have the balls to write LIU into the second round of my office tournament bracket.

In the past two seasons, LIU has lost both of their games to Big Ten schools.  Neither team, Penn State nor Northwestern, came close to the quality of MSU, and with the absence of a ranked power conference opponent in their schedule this season, it’s difficult to forecast how the Blackbirds will respond to a national juggernaut on the big stage of the NCAA tournament.  The only real comparison is LIU's NCAA opponent from a year ago, North Carolina, but the Tar Heels don't resemble your typical Big Ten team. 

I can, however, tell you what the Blackbirds must do in order to have a chance to play in the second round on Sunday.  These four things listed below are essential for LIU to execute in order to have a fighting chance.

1) Play Up-tempo LIU Basketball
Within the vacuum of mid-major basketball, LIU can score at an efficient level in the half-court set or when pushing the pace.  With the defensive minded Spartans however, the Blackbirds must do their best to set the tempo to a 75-possession game.  Izzo’s Spartans thrive in the half-court set and lead the Big Ten in points allowed per possession at 0.91, therefore it would benefit Jason Brickman and company to run like they’ve never run before to help stay away from the Big Ten brand of physical basketball.  More possessions won’t necessarily increase LIU’s chances for an upset, but efficient possessions coupled with a low turnover ratio certainly will.

2) Shoot Lights Out Behind the Arc
Three-point shooting almost always shows up as a key to the game when I’m writing a game preview involving LIU.  This is because when LIU hits their long-range buckets, they’re almost impossible to beat…well at least at the NEC level.  This David and Goliath match-up shouldn’t be an exception to the rule, since most Cinderella schools need the three-point shot to help pull off the monster upset.  It wasn’t a coincidence that Richmond, VCU, and Morehead State each shot better than 47% from behind the arc in their respective first round upset victories last year.  Thus, Blackbird fans better hope Michael Culpo, CJ Garner, and Brickman are feeling it on Friday night.

3) Be Aggressive by Getting to the Free Throw Line
A major strength of LIU, as depicted nicely by John Templon, is their production at the free throw line.  Currently, the Blackbirds are ranked second in the nation (yes, second) in free throw production, so fouling has to be a concern for Tom Izzo.  The Spartans are only 2-4 on the year when they foul their opponent more than 20 times.  Sure, those 4 losses are to Wisconsin, Duke, Northwestern, and North Carolina, but one of those two wins could serve as an excellent blueprint for LIU.  Patriot Leaguer Lehigh lost a close December showdown with MSU, as they were competitively in the game for the first 30 minutes, in spite of playing at the unfriendly confines of East Lansing.  In the game, Lehigh forced 22 MSU personal fouls, which led to 30 free throw attempts and a rather respectable nine point defeat.

4) Elicit the Tom Izzo Face As Much As Possible
This statistic hasn't been confirmed by Basketball Prospectus, but I'm pretty sure MSU loses most of the time when the Tom Izzo face comes out at least 10 times in the second half of a game (for proof, watch MSU's loss at Illinois).  You know, it's the face Coach Izzo makes when a player commits a bonehead foul, shoots a contested jumper early in the shot clock, or fails to properly defend a high pick-and-roll.  If you didn't know any better, you'd think Izzo found out his student athlete was just arrested for dealing drugs.  If LIU can elicit the Izzo face throughout most of the game, then LIU has a shot.  I'm setting the Izzo Face magic number to 13.5 for the game.  Anything under that, and it's probably curtains for the Blackbirds.

Seem easy enough, right?  If LIU can execute their game plan, they could surprise with a competitive game in the first round.  Only five #16 seeded teams have ever lost to a #1 seed by five points or less, but it’s a fairly reasonable possibility that Jim Ferry’s club can keep the game close.  After all, the NEC (aka, LIU and Robert Morris) has competed admirably in the most recent NCAA tournaments, so it isn't a stretch to think that Draymond Green, Keith Appling and company may sweat it out in the second half of Friday's contest.

All I know, is it will be a fun game to watch on TBS this Friday night.  Especially with my wife, who is a Spartan alum and a big Tom Izzo fan.

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Long Island University dominates Robert Morris to Earn Back-to-Back NEC Championships

Long Island University star forward Jamal Olasewere entered the press conference room, with an understandably wide grin, telling the members of the media to ask his point guard Jason Brickman a question. “You need to make him talk,” Olasewere joked.

The shy point guard may be a reserved person off the court (a la Ryan Peters circa 1994), but on the court, Brickman’s assertive, fantastic play was a major reason why his teammates were sitting at the press conference table tonight with the Northeast Conference trophy by their side.

Olasewere certainly agreed.  “He’s the captain behind this ship.  He’s a coach on the floor.  And he controls the game, night in and night out.  He does his thing on the court, and without him we couldn’t have done this. He’s a great point guard.”

NEC Player of the Year and NEC Tournament MVP Julian Boyd was even more complimentary.  “I definitely wouldn’t have gotten Player of the Year without him (Brickman).  The way he distributes the ball on the court and still scores, it’s amazing.”  At the end, Boyd jokingly added, “I love the guy, but just for now.”

There’s certainly plenty to love if you’re a Blackbird’s player or fan.  Brickman’s 11 assists last night were a NEC finals record and his 29 assists were a NEC Tournament record.  The sophomore All-NEC Second Team selection was consistently driving by the Joneses of Robert Morris, Lucky and Velton, to create plays both on the fast break and in the half-court set.

In the first minute of the game, All-NEC First Team Selection Velton Jones hit the deck hard, after scoring the first points of the game on a contested layup defended by Boyd.  Jones stayed on the floor for 5 minutes before getting up gingerly under his own power.  It was a sign of the rough night ahead for Robert Morris.

Early on however, the Colonials got off to a fast start, thanks mainly to Coron Williams and Mike McFaddan, but a Blackbirds 13-0 and 20-5 run midway through the first half, led by Brickman’s playmaking of course, gave them a lead they would never relinquish.

In the second half, despite some attempts by Robert Morris to chip away at the deficit, LIU kept making big time plays to keep the lead at double digits.  One play in particular, nearly brought down the Wellness Recreation Athletic Center.

On another fast break, CJ Garner decided it was a good idea to hoist a more than half-court pass near the rim toward a driving Julian Boyd.  The perfectly placed pass was received by Boyd in mid-air, who then emphatically slammed it home, sending the sellout crowd into a frenzy.  Immediately after the dunk, Boyd pointed toward the front row, directing his attention to the most famous celebrity at this game, Spike Lee.

It was a fitting way to end a spectular night, and season, for Boyd.  The NEC Regular Season and Tournament MVP finished the game with his patented double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds.  

So how did this dominant performance by LIU happen?  Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole explains. “We tried to play LIU basketball better than LIU.  We have to play the game in the 60s, that’s where we live.  We didn’t do a very good job in the start of the game, the game was played in their speed and style, and we weren’t very successful.”

The tempo, coupled with other factors, certainly led to the Colonial demise.  They were as follows:

1) The aforementioned inability of Robert Morris to contain Jason Brickman.  Brickman set the tempo early, with 6 points and 7 assists in the first half, despite having a defensive stud in Velton Jones guarding him much of the time. Brickman impressively finished with 18 points (8 for 8 at the free throw line), 11 assists, and 3 rebounds.

2) The inability of Robert Morris to hit open outside shots.  The Colonials had plenty of opportunities to get back into the game with the trifecta, but it wasn’t meant to be.  Robert Morris missed 21 of their 26 three-point attempts, led by a 0 for 6 three-point shooting performance by Jones.

3) LIU outscored Robert Morris at the free throw line, 31-14.  In the end, a bloated Robert Morris foul total was exasperated by an ill-fated comeback attempt, but make no mistake, 32 personal fouls against the NEC leader in free throw production, usually won’t lead to success.  The 32 fouls was a season high for Robert Morris.

In the end, the LIU students for a second straight year rushed the court, in celebration of another NEC Tournament Championship and a repeat appearance in the NCAA Tournament.  With any luck, the Blackbirds might be placed on the 15-line (c’mon tournament committee, have some love for the Blackbirds!), and draw a #2 seeded opponent like Michigan State, Duke or Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

For Robert Morris, an NIT bid is possible, but most likely not probable.  Instead, they may have to post $30K to play in the CIT or CBI, which should give Andy Toole’s players valuable experience heading into the 2012-2013 season.

And finally for this blogger, it was one remarkable experience for me, since I got to pretend that I was an important member of the media for a night.  Sure, my laptop was almost trampled when a LIU student jumped the press pass table to rush the court, but otherwise it was a night I would never forgot.  Hopefully, there are many more in my future.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The In-Depth Northeast Conference Semifinal Game Previews!

On Thursday night, with all due respect to St. Francis, there weren’t any upsets in the first round of the Northeast Conference tournament.  In fact, it’s now clear that the 4 best teams in the conference are left in the semifinals, which should make for some terrific competitive basketball.  Below, I offer game previews for each of the semifinal match-ups.  I wish I wasn’t stuck here in Maryland for the weekend, but I will be present at the NEC finals on Wednesday night, which I absolutely can’t wait for!

NEC Semifinals - #5 seeded Quinnipiac Bobcats (18-12, 11-8 NEC) at #1 seeded Long Island Blackbirds (23-8, 17-2 NEC)

Background:  LIU swept the season series, despite getting badly out-rebounded in both contests, 98-62.  In their first meeting, Quinnipiac grabbed a staggering 60 rebounds, which was their season high.  Nevertheless, the Blackbirds overcame the wide rebounding margin with more efficient shooting and by sinking an average of 6 more free throws per game than the Bobcats.  As is usually the case against NEC competition, Jamal Olasewere and Julian Boyd averaged a combined 36 points and 18 rebounds in both contests. 

Keys to the Game:

1) Control the Pace of the Game
For LIU, the pace of the game doesn’t matter much.  Their offense will succeed either way, as they possess players like Jason Brickman, Olasewere, and Boyd that can either push the tempo or run an efficient half-court set.  In Quinnipiac’s case however, playing a game at a faster tempo doesn’t usually translate into success.  When Quinnipiac averages less than 68 possessions per game, they are 10-1 this season and 7-1 versus the NEC.  These numbers certainly make sense, since Quinnipiac’s big forwards prefer a more physical brand of basketball in the half court set.

2) Defend the Perimeter
This was a key of the game from LIU’s first round match-up against Sacred Heart, and for good reason.  With their first round victory, LIU now has a 17-1 record when shooting better than 36% from behind the three-point line.  James Johnson, Dave Johnson, and Zaid Hearst need to focus their attention on guarding Michael Culpo and Brickman, or they’ll be victimized by the three-point shot much like they were in the previous two meetings.  On the flip side, it would be prudent for Jim Ferry to find a way to stop Quinnipiac’s team leader and leading scorer James Johnson.  A quick start from Johnson could go a long way to helping the Bobcats believe they can pull off the upset.  So, how big of a key is Johnson’s performance this Sunday?  Well in 8 conference losses this season, Johnson is averaging 12.5 points (4.1 ppg under his season average) on an unproductive 39 for 121 (32%) shooting.

3) Get to the Free Throw Line
Quinnipiac needs to match LIU’s production at the free throw line.  They can do so by simply being more aggressive, slashing to the hole and doing their best not to settle for contested jump shots.  A more aggressive style could put LIU’s big men in foul trouble as well, which would obviously benefit the Bobcats.  If you’re the Blackbirds, getting to the line 25 times should be the goal.

Prediction:  Quinnipiac will come ready to play in Brooklyn, however LIU has been on this stage before, and I believe their previous experiences will guide them to a close victory and a return trip to the NEC finals.  Jim Ferry sweats this one out, but in the end, LIU’s success at the free throw line late gets them the win.  Long Island 82, Quinnipiac 78.

NEC Semifinals - #3 Robert Morris Colonials (23-9, 14-5 NEC) at #2 Wagner Seahawks (25-5, 16-3 NEC)

Background:  In their lone meeting this past February, the hosting Seahawks used a quick start in the first half to coast to a 80-69 victory over the Colonials.  In the game, Wagner made an incredible 34 free throws on only 40 attempts and held Robert Morris to 43% shooting and 0.93 points per possession.

Keys to the Game:

1) Defend, Defend, and Defend for All 40 Minutes
This key of the game is mainly directed to Andy Toole’s team, since the Colonials sometimes fell into the ugly habit of suffering from defensive lapses in certain games.  In their last meeting with Wagner, Robert Morris failed to defend early on, which inevitably cost them the game.  It’s a tall order, but if the Colonials can hold Wagner to less than 0.94 points per possession, then their chances of success exponentially go up.  How much so?  Robert Morris is 16-0 this season when they defend to that level.  Conversely, the magic number for Wagner’s defense should be 69 points.  When they hold opponents to that number, they have yet to lose this season (19-0).

2) Take Away the Long Range Jumper
What do you know, another key to the game is centered around defense!  This isn’t a mistake – defensive pressure and creating turnovers is what makes each of these teams tick.  Specifically, when opponents have limited Wagner’s production from behind the arc, they’ve had a fighting chance for victory.  Sure, five losses is a small sample size, but in those games, Wagner hasn’t shot better than 32% from three-point range.  With those stats, you can bet that Velton Jones, Lucky Jones and company will do their best to make life difficult for sharpshooters Tyler Murray and Latif Rivers.  For Wagner, you can expect NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Ortiz to pester Velton Jones all afternoon.

3) Get to the Free Throw Line As Much As Possible
One of the better ways to attack the Wagner defense is to make them foul you at a high rate.  One of the Seahawk’s few weaknesses this season, is avoiding the foul.  With the NEC leading free-throw producer on the other team in Velton Jones, it would certainly behoove Jones, and others, to drive to the bucket more often than not.  That way, free points at the line could help spell those offensive droughts Robert Morris has a tendency to fall into.  For Wagner, they stand in the top 3 of the NEC in free throw production, mainly because guards like Rivers and Tyler Murray, and Chris Martin are virtually automatic at the charity stripe.  Winning the free throw battle can go a long way toward playing for the championship next Wednesday night.

Prediction:  This game could go either way, but I’m sticking to my prediction at the beginning of the season of Wagner making the NEC finals  In an ugly, defensive-minded battle at the Spiro Center, I believe the Seahwak's pressure defense and home crowd will be the difference.  Just please be prepared for the media coverage of the Hurley brothers leading up to the NEC Championship game.  The coverage may get nauseating for you Wagner haters.  Wagner 64, Robert Morris 61.

It should be a fantastic duo of games.  Enjoy NEC Semifinal Sunday!

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sacred Heart Ends Season As Expected, Just Short Against the NEC Elite

For the Sacred Heart Pioneers, Thursday night was a microcosm of the season.  This year, Sacred Heart (14-18, 8-11 NEC) always found a way to fall just short, when facing the elite teams of the Northeast Conference.  On Thursday, the elite team was the Blackbirds of Long Island (23-8, 17-2 NEC), who came into the game with a 24 consecutive home wins, a 4 game win streak over the Pioneers, and a 32-4 NEC record the past two seasons.  Sounds like a daunting, if not near impossible task for Dave Bike’s Pioneers to overcome, right?

It was. In a game such as this, Sacred Heart needed to play near perfect basketball by limiting their turnovers, scoring through a balanced attack, and defending on the perimeter.  The Pioneers did none of the above.

Despite trailing for most of the game and by 15 late in the first half, Sacred Heart to their credit cut LIU’s deficit to one point, on a Nick Greenbacker tip-in with 14 minutes remaining in the second half.  Up until that point however, the Pioneers were dodging bullet after bullet, in the form of LIU missing wide open looks from three-point land.

But after a while, those shots started falling for LIU, as the sharp shooting Michael Culpo and Jason Brickman each drained 3 long-range jumpers for the game.  And once those shots went in and the Boyd/Olasewere duo continued to dominate the paint, a vicious domino effect was in place that the less talented Pioneers couldn’t overcome.

All in all, it wasn’t a terrible Pioneer performance.  They out-rebounded LIU, 34-24.  LIU only made 2 more free throws than Sacred Heart, even though LIU is one of the nation leaders in free throw attempts per game.  Sacred Heart shot a respectable 48% from the floor and 38% from three.

But like I said before, Sacred Heart had to play a flawless game to advance into the semifinals of the NEC tourney.  And they didn’t.  The Pioneers had a rather high turnover percentage of 24.2%.  Their poor perimeter defense, when employing a 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone defense, allowed the Blackbirds to make 11 three-pointers.  In actuality, LIU missed a healthy amount of open threes, so the game could have been a lot worse.  And Justin Swidowski was unable to play a majority of the game, because he found himself in deep foul trouble early in the second half.  Sacred Heart simply doesn’t have the talent to overcome those mistakes.

So, what’s ahead for the Pioneers?  Well they only lose Stan Dulaire to graduation, and he was an inconsistent performer to say the least (sorry Steve Zazuri, but you don’t count as a contributor).  Dulaire will be replaced with two fresh bodies, one being 6-foot-7 recruit Tevin Falzon, who supposedly possesses a solid inside-out game for a big man.  Also, 6-foot-8 Egyptian transfer Mostafa Abdel Latif and his awesome afro will join the team, although it remains to be seen how much he can contribute to the Pioneers on the low block.  If either guy can play reasonably well, Sacred Heart would have a very respectable set of power forwards to pair with Justin Swidowski.

In spite of the Pioneer’s expected improvement though, the NEC will only get better for next season, as most of the upper echelon teams will either stay the same or improve.  LIU graduates Michael Culpo, but their core of Boyd, Olasewere, and Brickman remains in tact.  Wagner loses All-NEC 2nd Teamer Tyler Murray and Chris Martin, but Dan Hurley landed prized recruit Dwaun Anderson, who was Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan once upon a time.  Robert Morris and St. Francis will have most of their core in place, and Quinnipiac has a bright future ahead with Ike Azotam, Ousmane Drame, Garvey Young, and Zaid Hearst.

In other words, the Pioneers better mature real fast (I’m looking at you Chris Evans, Evan Kelley, and Justin Swidowski) or a #8 seed and a first round exit may happen again next season.  And us fans know how miserable a season like that can be, especially when the most prolific scorer in Sacred Heart history, Shane Gibson, only has one more crack at this thing before he graduates.

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride