It seems so long ago thinking back to the “glory years” of the Sacred Heart (SHU) Pioneers. It was only six years prior when players like Drew Shubik, Joey Henley, and Jarrid Frye were selflessly guiding the Pioneers into the upper echelon of the Northeast Conference (NEC). After watching awful Division I basketball for several seasons, Pioneer fans were suddenly spoiled with winning conference records, NEC playoff wins, and just a solid, fun display of good offensively efficient basketball.
That period, as it turned out, lasted for a grand three seasons. And it yielded two heartbreaking losses in the NEC title game, with the first defeat to Central Connecticut serving as one of the worst losses for me as a sports fan. It was the stomach punch game of all stomach punch games, when the Pioneers blew a 10-point lead with three minutes remaining and fell to the Javier Mojica led Blue Devils(1). In their second attempt to go dancing in the NCAA tournament, the Pioneers put forth a putrid home performance versus the Mount that allegedly led to an apologetic, rambling late night e-mail addressed to the entire campus by Mr. Dave Bike himself. In season three of the short-lived turnaround, the Joey Henley led Pioneers fell short in the semifinals to Milan Brown’s Mountaineers once again.
And that was it. Three years of above average basketball and nothing to show for it.
But rather than conger up awful feelings among the Pioneer faithful (oh wait, too late!), I’m laying out this cruel history to make a point. At least I think that’s what I’m doing.
The 2012-13 season in Fairfield (ok ok, the campus is really situated in Bridgeport) is supposed to be about hope. Can the Pioneers finally make a legitimate run at the NEC championship after toiling in mediocrity for the past three seasons? Can they once and for all capitalize on a signature Shane Gibson season by cutting down the nets in early March? Or will this be another merciless twist of agonizing losses that could slide the Pioneers back into perpetual mediocrity?
Lots of questions to answer, so let’s start with the season preview, shall we?
If you read my team preview last year (shameless plug alert), you knew I was bullish on SHU taking that next step from a lower tier team to a team with an outside chance at league contention. Bike’s Pioneers did in fact improve, but they only made it halfway based on my expectations. SHU finished 8-10 in the conference - their third consecutive losing season in the NEC – en route to a disappointing first round loss in the NEC tournament at the hands of eventual champion LIU Brooklyn.
The season left such a bitter taste in the Pioneer fan’s mouth, thanks to a record of 4-8 in NEC games decided in the final two minutes. The late game futility was not only responsible for a significant drop in the NEC standings, but it was simply brutal to watch. Justin Swidowski missed two free throws with SHU down one point with 13 seconds remaining against Central Connecticut. Velton Jones drained a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give Robert Morris a stunning comeback victory in SHU’s second to last home game of the season. SHU was leading Monmouth by eight points with three minutes left, only to inexplicably lose by seven. Watching this team when it mattered most felt like sitting through a Philosophy 101 class … at 8 AM … while hungover.
Despite the lack of execution during crunch time, it’s fair to deduce that bad luck was partially involved. Perhaps the Pioneers will not only be better late in the game, but also they’ll be more fortunate. After all, if just two of those games were converted into wins, then SHU’s 10-8 NEC mark – and number five seed in the conference tournament – would be viewed as a success. But enough with cherry picking data and theorizing about the “what-ifs.”
First let’s focus on the good. Shane Gibson is returning! The greatest player in SHU history (I’m sorry if I keep repeating that in other posts, but it’s 100% true) is coming off a junior season where he averaged an absurd 22.0 points per game, while posting fantastic shooting percentages of 51% FG/ 43% 3PT/ 86% FT(2). Quite simply, Gibson’s efficiency was off the charts, even though the Pioneers were devoid of a consistent scoring threat alongside Gibson, which consequently led to a stifling amount of defensive focus thrown at the 6’2” guard. This offseason, Gibson has built up his lower half so he can defend better late in the game and will focus on being more aggressive driving toward the rim. Really, to expect anything less from the borderline NBA prospect than an efficient 21 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.5 steals per game would probably be as foolish as expecting SHU’s tuition rate to trend downward next semester.
As awesome as Gibson is though, we all know you can’t win a college basketball conference championship with just one superstar. In past ten seasons, only one team has represented the NEC in the NCAA tournament with the conference's scoring champion on their team. Within the same period, Sacred Heart has had three NEC scoring champions (Kibwe Trim 2005-06, Corey Hassan 2009-10, Gibson 2011-12). The combined conference record of those three Pioneer teams? 23-31(3).
Therefore, it’s paramount for any team to have a strong supporting cast, in order to compete in an ultra-competitive conference such as the emerging NEC. Are there players who can step up to become the reliable second, third, and even fourth option behind Gibson?
It all begins with 6’9” senior power forward Justin Swidowski. Despite putting up good numbers (11.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG) in his first season at the Division I level, Swidowski was plagued with inconsistency. The versatile Swidowski had difficultly staying on the court, fouling out in six games and finding himself in foul trouble for many more. It’s his health, however, that is of more concern at the moment. After missing four games this past season, Swidowski had shoulder surgery in the offseason. Currently, he hasn’t been cleared to fully practice, although he's probable to begin the season in uniform.
If Swidowski misses time in the foreseeable future, the pressure lands partially on freshman Tevin Falzon’s shoulders. The 6’7” Falzon is a bit of a Swidowski clone - he has excellent range, is comfortable on the perimeter, and possesses several on-the-ball skills that should help him become an all-conference type of player down the road. To ask a freshman to fill in seamlessly for a veteran, however, may be asking a bit much(4).
Beside Falzon, the other freshman of note is 6'6" forward De'Aires Tate. Arguably the most athletic player on the team, Tate is the rare player who revels in doing the dirty work around the basket. In high school, Tate was a superb rebounder, shot-blocker, and running of the floor, therefore it’s safe to expect the same role for him moving forward. He's the kind of player Bike has been missing on his team for years. If utilized properly, Tate could have an immediate impact, much like Falzon.
Another important contributor bitten by the injury bug is junior guard Chris Evans. An All-NEC rookie team selection in 2010-11, Evans showed marginal improvement in an injury plagued sophomore season, yet still finished in the team’s top three in points, assists, and steals per game. He’s a stat-filler, for the lack of a better term, whose presence on the floor absolutely helps the Pioneers on both ends. Recently though, Evans has been shutout of practice, thanks to swelling in his surgically repaired knee. The timetable for his return, like Swidowski, is currently unknown and possibly even more dire(5).
If Evans misses a significant amount of time – and reports suggest that could be the case – then the onus falls on redshirt-sophomore Steve Glowiak. The 6’3 guard came to SHU from hard-hitting New Britain, Connecticut with the ability to drain the long-range jumper, but his first season in Fairfield disappointed in that regard. After a couple of solid performances early last season, including a 16 point effort versus Hampton in late November, Glowiak morphed into a ball-chucking guard who would heave the basketball toward the rim seemingly at first touch. By the middle of the conference season, Bike had no choice but to delegate garbage time minutes to Glowiak, not just because of the guard’s putrid 24.2% three-point percentage(6), but also because he was providing little else on the court.
In essence, that was a long-winded explanation just to say the following about Glowiak’s future prospects: He really needs to improve his shot selection and help the Pioneers in other ways off-the-ball. Can he do that? I have no freaking idea and neither do the coaches at this moment…
With Swidowski and Evans’ health issues hardly settled, the player most likely to become Gibson’s Robin is junior Louis Montes. Once the young man with the best neck beard on campus(7), Montes came to SHU this fall in … (wait for it) … the best shape of his life(8)! Yep, I just unloaded an tired sports cliché, but with Swidowski and Evans already less than 100% healthy, this is what we’re going with. Louis Montes is in the best shape of his life, so much so that Dave Bike proudly told me how much Montes has been sweating on the court these days. I’m not kidding.
In all seriousness, the 6’4” Montes is coming off a season where he finished in the top 15 of the NEC in rebound rate and showed flashes of becoming an excellent forward in this league. Once again, consistency has been the issue. This season, if Swidowski can ever get healthy and Falzon and Tate can play meaningful minutes at power forward, then Montes can slot back to his more natural position at small forward. He's been reportedly working hard on his ball-handling skills and outside shooting, thus to forecast a breakout season for Montes is far from a stretch.
At the point guard position, the minutes will go to junior Evan Kelley and Pioneer Pride favorite Phil Gaetano. The latter is the most natural floor general of the two, although Kelley is a better playmaker with the athleticism to slash to the hole and pop from the outside. Gaetano, however, is far more heady and composed, and was quite impressive running the point last season as a college basketball novice. If Gaetano can successfully look for his shot more and improve his turnover rate, then I'm expecting big things out of the diminutive point guard in his sophomore season.
In the frontcourt is team captain and noted Republican Nick Greenbacker(9), who surely provides value in the locker room, but on the court shouldn't play more than 15-20 minutes per game. Like Swidowski, Greenbacker has added range to his game, so at the very least, the senior could pull post defenders out of the paint if he sinks more than 35% of his three-point attempts.
Rounding out the bench are big men Femi Akinpetide and Mostafa Abdel-Latif, who by design should play no more than 10-12 minutes per game. Each player, though limited, has his strengths – Akinpetide can provide energy on the offensive glass and Abdel-Latif gives SHU one of their few … check that … their ONLY back-to-the basket post presence. Abdel-Latif, a transfer from Egypt with an awesome afro, may be a liability on the defensive end despite his burly 6’8 body.
Add it all up, and you have a SHU roster that can excel on the perimeter, but will probably struggle to defend and rebound the basketball. The Pioneers once again will rely heavily on their shooting – especially outside the paint – to win games. Hmm, doesn't that sound familiar?
Unfortunately, it may not be enough to crack the upper quarter of the NEC, which is depressing as hell with Gibson and Swidowski no longer eligible to play collegiate basketball after this season. Right now, I’m forecasting a 15-14 regular season mark, right in line with popular advance statistician Ken Pomeroy. A 15-win season would mark their first winning season in four years, which as I said earlier in this preview, seems so long ago. The Pioneers should win ten conference games, good enough to tie for fifth place in the NEC standings.
I’m hoping for more, but I’m an unapologetic realist who fully understands the limitations of his favorite team. To ask the Pioneers to lock down a LIU Brooklyn on offense, to match up with Wagner’s athleticism, or to grind out victories versus Robert Morris is a ton to ask, yet stranger things have certainly happened.
This is why they play the games. I know I’ll be watching this winter and you should too. At the very least, you’ll get witness the great Shane Gibson in his last season before he begins what should be a successful professional career. But maybe, just maybe, Pioneer fans can be treated to some meaningful basketball in early March.
(1) The fact that Mojica led the improbable comeback made for a great story, because Mojica's mother was close to committing suicide before being saved by her son 12 years prior. This story was rightfully pumped up by ESPN 2 during the televised broadcast, and surely helped the Worldwide Leader with a prominent storyline as CCSU was making their comeback.
(2) I did not need to look up Gibson’s shooting percentages, since I already knew them by heart. I wish I was joking.
(3) Again, I did not need to look that record up. I may have a problem…
(4) Personally, I like Falzon and his long-term potential A LOT, but it's never easy for any freshman big man to produce right away. Not every rookie will produce out of the gate like Jalen Cannon or Julian Boyd.
(6) Glowiak has the dubious distinction of having the worst single season three-point percentage (with more than 60 attempts, aka ~2 attempts per game) in Sacred Heart history since Tre Samuels made only 23.3% of his long-range bombs in the 2001-02 season.
(7) Because of the beard, I almost gave Montes the nickname, Baby Lebron. Almost…
(8) I always think back when baseball player Jeff Franceour, then of the Atlanta Braves, bragged to the media how he added lots of muscle in the offseason and was in the best shape of his life. I took the bait in my fantasy draft and six months later, Franceour had hit a pedestrian 0.239 with 11 HRs and 71 RBIs in 155 games. So much for being in the best shape of his life! And for those of you keeping score, that is two Franceour references in as many SHU blog previews.
(9) Greenbacker's tweets per minute during the Presidential debates was, and I'm totally estimating, about 23.4 tweets/minute. Quite entertaining.
Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball and the Northeast Conference at Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @pioneer_pride