Friday, December 14, 2012

Quinnipiac and Monmouth leave NEC for MAAC, What it Means for Sacred Heart

This Friday, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Council of Presidents met and unanimously voted to add Quinnipiac and Monmouth to the MAAC. Wagner, who was also rumored to be an expansion candidate for the MAAC, will reportedly remain in the NEC.

(I will now call Wagner the UConn of the NEC, because they were probably giddy to leave, much like UConn was for the ACC weeks ago, only to be rejected in the end. “No really, we here at Wagner love being in the NEC! No really, we do! You guys are like the BEST CONFERENCE EVER!!”)

Quinnipiac and Monmouth’s transition to the MAAC will be effective on July 1, 2013, meaning this current basketball season will be last season in the NEC for both programs. Looking ahead, the NEC will have ten basketball teams for the 2013-14 season. If there’s a silver lining to this news, it’s that the ten team conference should eliminate the unbalanced schedule now in place. Under the new format, each team would have nine opponents and play each school twice in a home-and-home series every conference year.

So what does this mean for Sacred Heart? For one, Sacred Heart will no longer play Quinnipiac twice a year. With the Connecticut Six basketball event planned for the next few seasons, however, it’s reasonable to assume the Pioneers and Bobcats will continue their in-state rivalry by facing off once during the non-conference portion of their schedules. Hopefully that dream comes to fruition, but of course, nothing is set in stone. After all, Sacred Heart and Fairfield inexplicably couldn't work out a deal that would feature an annual matchup between two universities that reside in the same city.

As a Pioneer fan and alum, I’m a little saddened by Quinnipiac’s departure, even though the writing was on the wall. In recent years, Quinnipiac has been pouring a ton of capital into their basketball program, greatly outspending their NEC rivals almost two to one. Upward conference mobility had to be the goal of the gold and blue, so they evidently got their wish. Monmouth’s departure, on the other hand, is more of a surprise, especially since they were one of the original members – along with Robert Morris, Fairleigh Dickenson, St. Francis Brooklyn, St. Francis University, LIU Brooklyn, and Wagner – of the NEC. It’s expected Monmouth will remain in the NEC for a couple of sports, most notably football, that the MAAC doesn’t sponsor.

(Could you imagine that awkward conversation between Monmouth and the NEC: “Thanks for the last 32 years, but we have some more cold hard cash to make in the MAAC. See ya!! Oh but … umm ... is it OK if we still play football and field hockey in your conference? Pretty please?”)

Most importantly, how can I and my fellow Pioneer brethren now focus our Big Red Pioneer Pride hatred toward? Central Connecticut? Robert Morris? In reality, nothing will come close to the back and forth rivalry that Quinnipiac (Sacred Heart is 12-13 vs Quinnipiac since 2001) provides at the basketball level.

Oh well. The games will continue to be played and they’ll continue to be watched (well at least by me and some other diehards). Selfishly, the conference will become a little easier next season with the aforementioned departures, but with Shane Gibson soon gone, the Pioneers realistically won’t be any closer to a NEC championship.

But the NEC will be alive and well, and that’s the most important news I will take away from all of this. I’ve really enjoyed working with some of the people over at the NEC, especially Associate Commissioner Ron Ratner, so I’m happy that the conference will continue to chug forward.

Hopefully, the NEC can send over a repo men to confiscate the digital scorer’s tables and Front Row equipment provided by the NEC at Quinnipiac and Monmouth. Those schools won't need the conference's state-of-the-art equipment, since they'll be rolling in the dough after they decided to leave the NEC for supposedly greener pastures.

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sacred Heart Falls to Lafayette in the Final Seconds

If it ain't one thing, well it's another.

The Sacred Heart Pioneers lost on Sunday afternoon in excruciating fashion, when Lafayette freshman guard Bryce Scott drained an OPEN three-pointer with two ticks remaining on the clock. It was the Pioneers' fourth straight defeat and leaves them with a 0-3 record against Patriot League opponents this season.

The defense was, as usual, lacking in the first half as Lafayette raced out to a 20-4 advantage. Only eight minutes had elapsed and already Dave Bike had burned through two timeouts and enough violent head-bobs to make a figure skater dizzy. As I was listening to this wretched mess on my car ride home from Costco, I shuttered to think that I'd be writing yet another depressing blog post. Luckily, I had just purchased a pair of sleek Calvin Klein jeans for $19.99, so I was in a decent mode. But I digress.

After falling behind by 16 points, Bike emptied out his bench probably sick to his stomach. The underachieving Pioneers were now seven for eight in finding themselves down double digits at some point in the first half. Let that resonate with you for a second. They had found a way to be trailing by ten or more points in the first half of 87.5% of their games.

This time around, however, Bike's message got through to the players. Steve Glowiak and Nick Greenbacker combined for 20 first half points, Mostafa Abdel-Latif grabbed four boards in three productive minutes, and the high motored De'Aires Tate provided some much needed energy of the bench. As hideous as the opening minutes had been, SHU was actually heading into the locker room down three points, despite receiving absolutely zero contributions from Shane Gibson and Louis Montes. All things considered, it was a moral victory worth celebrating.  And these days, I guess that's something us Pioneer fans will have to settle on.

The second half was an exciting back and forth affair, but when a Phil Gaetano three-pointer gave the Pioneers' their first lead in nearly five halves (more than two games) of basketball, it felt like Bike's bunch would persevere with a badly needed road victory. Gibson was back to his usual self in the second half, as he impressively poured in 25 points on 13 shots. Gaetano had another double digit assist effort. The only problem was I forgot about the dreadful Pioneers' defense.

If you read my previous post, you already knew that the Pioneers' defense was never to be trusted. And of course with today's game in the balance, Lafayette scored 17 points in their final 12 possessions, good for a dismal 1.42 points per possession (the average is roughly 1.00 points per possession). Perhaps if SHU hadn't missed eight of their ten free throw attempts, they wouldn't have been in this predicament. Either way, a stunned group of Pioneer players had to endure a long bus ride home to Fairfield after falling to Lafayette 72-70.

In the grand scheme of things, the loss means very little. SHU wasn't getting an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament anyway (wouldn't that have been hilarious), but a record of 3-5 sure as hell would have looked a lot better than a record of 2-6.  In fact, SHU is off to their worst start since ... well two years ago when the Pioneers only won one of their first eight contests. After that 1-7 start, SHU righted the ship by embarking on a three game winning streak. A possible winning streak, this time around, is unlikely to come with Stony Brook and road games against A10 foes La Salle and George Washington to finish out the non-conference slate.

Instead, keeping the remaining players healthy will be paramount. There's now 24 days before SHU opens their NEC conference season at home against the shorthanded LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds. Hopefully, the remaining ten players on scholarship can begin playing together as a cohesive unit, while putting together a consistent effort for 40 minutes. It may not sound like much, but the Pioneers are running out of non-conference games to figure their issues out.

Until next time...

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Sacred Heart's Early Season Slide

First of all, I’d like to apologize. I haven’t been the greatest at updating the blog with recent game recaps. The truth is, I have a lot on my plate. A marriage. A full time job which requires me to commute nearly two hours a day. Another blog to write for. An insatiable need to watch as many episodes of The League as I possibly can (I didn’t start watching until season 3 launched). A 15 year old frisky feline that demands my attention when I’m home. But really, all of this is no excuse, as it shouldn’t take much to update my Pioneer Pride site with timely game recaps smeared with self loathing and bitter disgust. After all, transcribing my anguished fan-hood should come naturally!

It’s just difficult to write about your alma mater, the team you passionately root for, when they’ve sorely underachieved in the early going. It’s difficult when another blogger, or someone on Twitter, dismisses your Pioneers by calling them soft or bad, yet you can’t respond because you have no legitimate comeback. Some of issues are the team’s fault, and some of blame falls on the unfortunate circumstance of poor health. Losing Evan Kelley and Chris Evans to season-ending injuries is a substantial blow, especially when they’re basically the third and fifth best players on the Pioneers’ roster. Take the third and fifth best players off any NEC roster and see how they’ll do. Would LIU be as dominant without Jason Brickman and Brandon Thompson? How would our hated in-state rivals from Quinnipiac perform without say Jamee Jackson and Zaid Hearst? Do you think Central Connecticut would survive if they lost their point guard Malcolm McMillan along with long-range bomber Adonis Burbage?

The answer, of course, is those teams would struggle to maintain their current level. But rather than sulk and whine about what could have been, I’ll be a man and suck it up. Even though SHU has dropped five of their first seven contests and has yet to play a complete game from start to finish, I still remain a (fairly) confident fan.

The NEC is an one bid league, and for most teams in this low mid-major conference, November and December games really don’t mean all that much, other than making sure your team begins to cohesively gel as one before conference play kicks off. If Dave Bike can somehow piece it together this month, then I believe this team can have success. But they must do the following in order to have any kind of a chance in hell to finish in the top six of the NEC.

1) Paging Shane Gibson as a Junior - We’ve seen a different Shane Gibson this season, and I frankly don’t like. I can’t really pinpoint why he has struggled in the early going. Maybe he has more of a target on his back. Maybe school is adding unwanted stress to the fifth year senior. Maybe he's having girl trouble. Whatever the reason, I want the old Shane Gibson back. Sure, we’ve seen pockets of his greatness (the Yale, Stony Brook comebacks, his latest effort versus Holy Cross certainly comes to mind), but SHU desperately needs the 2011-12 version to grace the Pitt Center floor. Dave Bike needs the super-efficient, hit 43% of his threes, grab a steal and a half a game version of Gibson back. Hopefully, the nagging injuries won’t be an issue moving forward and Gibson can recreate the magic that made him such a special player last season. With the semester soon ending and a lighter schedule the remainder of December, I’m still making the bet that the Shane Gibson of old will terrorize NEC opponents come January.

2) For the Love of God, Play Some Freaking Defense - Defense has never been the strength of a Dave Bike led team, but even this seven game stretch has seen some rather atrocious defending. In the young season, the Pioneers are giving up 1.14 points per possession, good for second worst in the NEC. SHU isn’t turning the opponent over at all (only 16.1% of their opponent's possessions result in a turnover, good for bottom 20 in the nation), they aren't defending in the paint (49.8% field goal percentage defensed), nor are they defending the perimeter (37.4% three-point percentage defensed). For SHU to experience even a modicum of success, they have to win a couple of games on defense, which at this point seems to be a long shot. They can't keep going into halftime trailing - in the first seven games, SHU has been forced to begin the second half down every single game!

3) The Young Bucks Need to Step Up. Shane Gibson said it best when I asked him after the Lehigh game about the Pioneers’ rash of injuries. His response: “I feel like we're a young team, but we're not. Evan Kelley's hurt now so at the guards it's me, Phil (Gaetano) - Phil's a sophomore - Steve Glowiak's second year, so now we're young again.” Not only does sophomore Glowiak have to step up – and he has so far shooting a sensational 52.0% from behind the arc – but the freshmen frontcourt duo of Tevin Falzon and De’Aires Tate need to play well also. SHU has a somewhat deep frontcourt, but with the backcourt now seriously compromised, expect Louis Montes to play predominately at the small forward position. Much of time last season, Montes was part of Bike’s “small-ball” lineup instilled as the slashing power forward who could also stretch the defense with his perimeter skills. Now, with Gaetano, Gibson, and Glowiak (the 3G’s) as natural guards, Montes must play more as a “3” on the floor. This means Tate and Falzon need to fill the power forward role Montes will be vacating. Last Wednesday versus Holy Cross, Tate had his breakout game, scoring ten points with six rebounds in only 15 minutes of action. Earlier in the season, Falzon enjoyed some success as well, so hopefully as the season progresses, both of these freshmen can get further acclimated to the rigors of DI basketball and produce at a more productive and consistent level.

Sure, there are others things needed to spark an improbable Pioneers run (I’m looking at you, Justin Swidowski), but I wanted to hammer down those three main points. If SHU can improve in those facets mentioned above, I may not have to scale back my original conference projection of ten wins and eight losses for the red and white.

Although at this juncture in the season, I'm pretty damn close to doing so. Hopefully they can begin to turn things around at Lafayette this Sunday at 2 PM. Listen in, why don't you?

Until next time...

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Chris Evans and Evan Kelley Likely Done for the Season

Other than the two miraculous, wildly improbable comebacks, the Sacred Heart basketball season couldn’t have started off any worse. Really, had Yale or Stony Brook made another play or two down the stretch of their respective games, the Pioneers could find themselves winless through six games. That’s right, 0-6, as in their worst start since the 2002-03 season, when they finished their fourth year as a Division I program with a robust 8-21 record. Oh how I don’t miss those days...

But they’re not and at two wins and four losses, SHU shouldn’t be in full blown panic mode yet. Of course, if the health of the team continues to deteriorate, then all bets are off. We are beginning to inch closer to that realm.

For starters, junior guard Evan Kelley will not return this season. Kelley, who spent the majority of the preseason rehabbing his dislocated kneecap, had a major setback in practice after the Stony Brook game two weeks ago. Because of the setback, Kelley will most likely undergo surgery before Christmas to repair the knee. The surgery would, of course, sideline Kelley for the remainder of the season.

"No. I would say 99% no," said assistant coach Anthony Latina when asked if Kelley could return this season. "Playing him again puts (Kelley) at greater risk to tearing an ACL on top of his dislocated kneecap."

Chris Evans, arguably the team's second or third best player behind Gibson, also is highly unlikely to return to the team this season. Evans underwent meniscus surgery in the offseason, yet the knee hasn't responded well when subjected to practice on back-to-back days. Evans has recently begun practicing, but it may simply be too late to get the team leader back into the lineup come January.

"He's trying to get back," said Latina. "But the problem with Chris (Evans), by the time he's really healthy and in shape, we're going to be two to three weeks into the (NEC season). And then, do you bring a guy back for 12 games? It's a tough call."

The silver lining in all this is the Pioneers will get to redshirt both players and gain an extra year of eligibility on the duo. Of course, they were supposed to add value and depth to a roster ready to win now, especially with Shane Gibson and Justin Swidowski as seniors.

But the team, Latina says must move forward. "It's very tough, but (the team) is staying focused, they're trying to work and we can't worry about the guys that aren't playing. We have to make sure the guys that are playing are improving and that we're improving as a team."

Shane Gibson injured his ankle in the Lehigh game, but should be ready to play tonight in the Pioneers' second home game versus Holy Cross. Gibson is at little risk to worsen the injury, therefore it's more of a question of how effective he'll be moving forward. Steve Glowiak, on the other hand, is questionable for the Holy Cross game with an ankle sprain.

Add it all up, and you have a backcourt that's been decimated by injuries in the early going. It's not the start this Pioneer fan envisioned, but they must move forward with the current roster. Whether that gets them into the upper echelon of the NEC, is completely unknown at the moment.

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride