Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Northeast Conference 1st Round Playoff Preview!

On Thursday evening, the Sacred Heart Pioneers return to the Northeast Conference postseason for the first time since losing to Mount St. Mary’s in the semifinals of the 2009 NEC tournament.  Their qualification into the postseason isn’t due to a major improvement from last year, in fact this season marks the third straight year of Sacred Heart having a losing conference record.  As a result, the Pioneers will find themselves in Brooklyn on Thursday night, taking on the defending NEC champions, the Long Island Blackbirds.  The same Long Island Blackbirds that have won 24 home games in a row at the WRAC.  Yay…

Before the playoff match-up, I decided to preview the elimination game, since Thursday may be the last time we get to witness Sacred Heart basketball before November (sorry but I don't think the NIT is calling Dave Bike).  I also briefly previewed and predicted the outcome of the other three NEC first round games.

NEC 1st Round – #8 seeded Sacred Heart Pioneers (14-17, 8-10 NEC) at #1 seeded Long Island Blackbirds (22-8, 16-2 NEC)

Background:  The Blackbirds swept the season series, but had to earn each victory, with the latter game going to overtime after Shane Gibson hit back-to-back three-pointers late in regulation.  The NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd and his front-court mate Jamal Olasewere have been dominant against the thin Pioneer front-court, combining for an average of 44 points and 22 rebounds per game.  The Sacred Heart duo of Shane Gibson and Justin Swidowski has been nearly as impressive in defeat, tallying an average of 49 points per game.  Swidowski has easily enjoyed his two best games of the season against LIU.

Keys to the Game:
1) Frontcourt Players Must Stay Out of Foul Trouble
Boyd, Olasewere, and Swidowski have all occasionally had issues staying on the court, due to foul trouble.  It would certainly behoove Sacred Heart to attack Boyd and Olasewere on the defensive end early, in the hope of putting either guy in foul trouble and forcing Jim Ferry to give valuable minutes to LIU back-up forward Kenny Onyechi.  Swidowski, on the other hand, has to log more than 28 minutes for the Pioneers to have a shot at pulling off the upset.  A couple of early fouls from Swidowski could place the Pioneers in a first half hole they’d have no chance to get out of, especially against a LIU team that scores an extraordinary 1.10 points per possession.

2) Get Significant Contributions from Secondary Players
Gibson, Olasewere, and Boyd should undoubtedly get their points.  How much production comes from each team’s supporting cast however, may very well swing the outcome of the game.  For Sacred Heart this season, a well-balanced scoring attack has been practically nonexistent, with no one from the Swidowski, Louis Montes, Evan Kelley, and Chris Evans group providing a consistent effort from game to game.  Someone from that group needs to produce to give Sacred Heart a fighting chance.  On the defensive end, the Pioneers need to contain the guards of LIU, specifically Michael Culpo and CJ Garner.  This season, the slashing Garner has torched the Pioneers for 38 points, to go along with 8 assists in both games. 

3) Defend the Perimeter
When Michael Culpo and Jason Brickman are hitting their three-point shots, LIU is damn near impossible to beat.  The statistics frankly don’t lie – LIU is 16-1 on the season when they shoot 36% or better from beyond the arc.  The guard heavy Pioneers also enjoy success when they’re efficient from long range, as they’re 12-6 when hitting more than 35% of their threes (and 2-11 when they don’t).  Perimeter defense should play a major role, but quite simply, the Pioneers probably need to make a bunch of long range bombs to stay competitive.

4) Protect the Basketball
Against NEC competition, the Blackbirds have done a much better job protecting the basketball.  Early in the season, they were plagued by turnovers.  Since then, Jason Brickman and company have taken care of the ball and it’s no coincidence that LIU is 15-1 when their turnover rate is less than 22% (the national average is approximately 20%).  Why do you think Monmouth was so successful in the season finale against LIU?  King Rice’s feisty bunch took the ball away from the Blackbirds 23 times in the game.  As for the Pioneers, it will be difficult to keep up with the highly efficient LIU attack if they turn over the ball more than 12 times on Thursday.

Prediction:  The loss to Monmouth in the season finale was just what the doctor ordered for Jim Ferry, as it gives his team a wake up call before they embark on their quest for a second straight NEC championship.  I think Sacred Heart hangs with LIU early, but by the middle of the second half, the Blackbirds will have a comfortable lead.  Gibson will leave Brooklyn firing, but it won’t be nearly enough.  Long Island 90, Sacred Heart 75.

NEC 1st Round - #6 seeded Monmouth Hawks (12-19, 10-8 NEC) at #3 seeded Robert Morris Colonials (22-9, 13-5 NEC)

King Rice’s Monmouth Hawks were considered by some as the team no one wants to play in the tournament, but my guess is that Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole breathed a sign of relief when he learned his team would avoid Quinnipiac in the first round.  It was recently noted in John Templon’s NEC Tempo Free Primer that Monmouth has been a tad fortunate with their record, but I think their luck stops in Moon Township, PA.  Velton Jones and company grind out a hard fought victory in round one to give Andy Toole his 6th career NEC playoff victory in 7 tries.  Robert Morris 64, Monmouth 58.

NEC 1st Round - #7 seeded Central Connecticut Blue Devils (13-15, 10-8 NEC) at #2 seeded Wagner Seahawks (24-5, 15-3 NEC)

Now that Ken Horton is back to playing like, well Ken Horton, the Blue Devils are a dangerous first round opponent.  Horton was held to a season low 7 points against Wagner in their first meeting, but he exploded for 22 points, 5 blocks, and 4 steals in their second contest.  The question is, how much was Wagner really trying in the meaningless season finale?  Whatever the answer, if Dan Hurley’s Seahawks play their patented pressure defensive, the offensively challenged Blue Devils will struggle mightily.  In fact, CCSU is 1-8 against NEC competition when scoring less than 1 point per possession.  My guess is NEC Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Ortiz and company will give the Blue Devils fits.  Horton will get his points, but Vinales and Ptacek will each have bad shooting nights.  Wagner 71, Central Connecticut 62.

NEC 1st Round - #5 seeded Quinnipiac Bobcats (17-12, 10-8 NEC) at #4 seeded St. Francis Terriers (15-14, 12-6 NEC)

These are two teams heading in different directions come tourney time.  Unfortunately for Glenn Braica’s Terriers, Stefan Perunicic and Travis Nichols are banged up and will be game-time decisions.  Even if they play, how much can they produce against a physical Quinnipiac team that has won 7 of their last 10 games?  The two things to focus on for the game is how well can St. Francis shoot it from behind the arc and will the Bobcats have their way on the boards.  My guess is that Tom Moore will have his guys focused solely on keeping rookie sensation Jalen Cannon away from the offensive glass.  Expect big games from NEC 2nd Teamers Ike Azotam and James Johnson in this down to the wire battle.  Quinnipiac 67, St. Francis 64.

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Torture of Being a Sacred Heart Pioneer Fan

As a diehard Sacred Heart Pioneer basketball fan since enrolling at the school as a shy pimpled-face teen in 1997, I have felt a special connection with the team that calls the Pitt Center home.  I can’t explain it nor quantify it, yet as a former student athlete myself (well kind of, I played tennis but had a career losing record in singles), I just feel closer to players and the action.  It’s a ridiculous feeling, I know, but maybe the feeling exists because Sacred Heart plays in a conference that isn’t the Big East, where 6-foot-8 athletic freaks are jumping 11-12 feet for rebounds or lightening quick guards are finishing layups despite absorbing 2-3 body blows on the way to the hole.  Sacred Heart is the small school, the underdog, the team comprised of undersized, slower, lesser talented players, all with a singular dream of playing with the big boys in the NCAA tournament.  My Pioneer fandom revolves around that dream, that maybe someday we could play a Duke or Kansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

With that dream in mind, you can imagine my disappointment when Sacred Heart lost in consecutive Northeast Conference finals in 2007 and 2008.  That feeling was worse than the lowest points of my professional sports fandom.  It was worse than witnessing Aaron Heilman give up a 9th inning bomb in Game 7 to Yadier Molina.  It was more painful than watching Michael Vick and the hated Eagles mount a 21-point comeback in the 4th quarter, which essentially bumped the Giants from playoff contention in 2010.  Those moments sucked, don’t get me wrong, but I was able to move on after a few hours or a day or two.

But when I watched Mount St. Mary’s defeat Sacred Heart on their home court in the 2008 NEC Championship game, I was legitimately depressed for a solid week.  I’m sure my depressed reaction seems pathetic from afar, to the casual fan.  Hell, my friends still give me a hard time about following Sacred Heart and a one-bid conference so closely, when I don’t even live within the vicinity of Fairfield, CT.  But that’s just the way I am.

In comparison, this Sacred Heart season has almost been as difficult to watch as the 2008 championship loss.  I was hopeful the Pioneers could make that next step back into NEC relevance again, after getting pushed to the back of the pack the past 2 years.  Well that next step hasn’t quite happened yet.  Sure, they are back in the NEC playoffs, but excuse me if I don’t declare it a success when Sacred Heart loses more conference games than they won.  And the way they’ve lost has been absolutely brutal.

Just how brutal, you ask?  In close games where either team was within 2 possessions with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game, Sacred Heart is 4-8 against NEC competition.  More specifically, Sacred Heart is 0-6 in those close games when facing the NEC’s top 4 teams (LIU, Wagner, Robert Morris, and St. Francis, NY).  0-6!!  Whether it’s losing on a Velton Jones buzzer beater or a Travis Nichols tip-in off a missed shot, the Pioneers have simply failed to execute when it’s mattered most.

Looking deep into the numbers, I think the problem has been a little bit of everything.  For example, when they lost to Central Connecticut in overtime, it was probably a combination of nerves (Swidowski missing two free throws down one with 13 seconds left in overtime) and poor coaching (not drawing up anything creative for SHU’s two final possessions in regulation).  In their stunning loss against Monmouth, defense was a huge problem, as the Pioneers gave up an unacceptable 15 points on Monmouth’s final 7 possessions of the game.

I could go on and on, but I realize expressing my torture further won’t keep you reading, nor give me any extra sympathy.  So I’ll stop.  And hope that Sacred Heart can somehow pull off the unthinkable and eliminate LIU -- the defending NEC champions -- on Thursday.  Based on the records and trends, there’s no indication that will happen, but that’s the beauty of a one-and-done tournament format.  A die-hard fan can hope, because even the underdog has a chance.

My prolonged season of pain in rooting for the Pioneers can certainly be quelled temporarily with a crisp, well-executed effort at LIU.  All I ask is for the Pioneers to play good basketball for all 40 minutes.  Not 38 minutes.  Not 39 minutes and 56 seconds.  40 minutes.  Is that really too much to ask?

We will find out on Thursday.  If the Pioneers do predictably fail, please don’t let it be on a buzzer-beating bucket from someone like Julian Boyd or Michael Culpo.  I’m not sure how many more of these gut-wrenching defeats I can take.

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Four Excellent Candidates Fight for the Northeast Conference Coach of the Year

For the final installment of my Northeast Conference regular season awards, I delve into the Coach of the Year debate.  Like the Player and Rookie of the Year races, this vote is completely unpredictable.  In any given year, my top 4 coaches could all be the favorite to win the award, but this season has been unusual to say the least.  Below, I examine each candidate and attempt to make sense of which man deserves the 2011-2012 Northeast Conference Coach of the Year.

3b. Jim Ferry, Long Island University
The Case:  All Jim Ferry has done is lead the Blackbirds to back-to-back regular season NEC championships.  This feat was accomplished in dominant fashion, with the Blackbirds winning 16 of their 18 NEC games this season.  Under Ferry's watch, the LIU Blackbirds have become one of the most efficient offenses in the history of the NEC.

The Argument:  John Templon, in one of his latest posts, stated it perfectly when he wrote that Ferry was “a victim of expectations.”  Ferry’s squad was picked in the preseason to win it all, so their place at the top of the standings comes as no surprise.  Anything less than first place with LIU’s talent, may be categorized as an abject failure.

The Verdict:  Perhaps unfairly so, this season’s lofty expectations will prevent Ferry from earning another Jim Phelan Coach of the Year award, especially in a season where there are multiple candidates worthy of the distinction.

3a. King Rice, Monmouth University
The Case:  The rookie head coach has improbably led his Hawks to a 10-8 NEC record in his first season, despite inheriting a team that hasn't finished with a winning conference record since the 2005-2006 season.  Picked 10th in the Coaches Preseason Poll, Monmouth has greatly exceeded expectations by defeating NEC playoff teams LIU, Sacred Heart, St. Francis (NY) and CCSU, while battling Wagner and Robert Morris in closely contested battles at home.

The Argument:  I’m really digging here, but Monmouth has been a tad fortunate in several of their wins.  After stunning Sacred Heart in a terrific come-from-behind victory, King Rice admitted his team got a little lucky.  And Monmouth’s last two regular season victories came when one team was banged up considerably (St. Francis, NY) and another was just playing out the regular season after locking up a #1 seed (LIU).

The Verdict:  Rice has done a phenomenal job in his first season and has the Hawks moving in the right direction.  But given the seasonal accomplishments of the two coaches I’m about to discuss, I feel Rice falls just short of serious consideration for the Coach of the Year honors.

2. Dan Hurley, Wagner College
The Case:  Where do I start?  Dan Hurley led Wagner to 24 wins, a single season school record.  Wagner’s 12 road victories are tied for first in the country (with mid-major power Murray State) this season.  His Seahawks impressed in the non-conference portion of their schedule, with victories over Pittsburgh, Air Force, and Santa Clara to get them the national recognition that no NEC team has ever experienced.  Even if Wagner falls short of winning the postseason championship, Hurley’s Seahawks are still a virtual lock to qualify for the NIT tournament.  What a season it has been for the Green and White in Staten Island.

The Argument:  Like Jim Ferry, Hurley may be a victim of expectations.  Picked 4th in the preseason poll, Wagner was expected to compete for a NEC title given the talent on the roster.  It seems a bit unfair since Hurley did in fact recruit guys like Kenneth Ortiz, Latif Rivers, and Mario Moody, but their conference success comes with little surprise.

The Verdict:  It’s an agonizing decision, but the final coach I will discuss moves just ahead of Hurley, despite Wagner's terrific achievements.  I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if the NEC made Hurley a Co-Coach of the Year, because Hurley and this next coach would each have a legitimate gripe should they finish 2nd in the ballot.

1. Glenn Braica, St. Francis College
The Case:  Second year head coach Glenn Braica led St. Francis to a surprising 5th place finish last season, however the expectations were significantly lower heading into the 2011-2012 campaign.  The Terriers lost their two leading scorers to graduation and then point-guard and team leader Dre Calloway to a shoulder injury.  That situation seems dire, right?  Well all Braica did was better his conference record from last season, by getting his team to buy into a team first mentality while competing hard defensively and on the glass.  In spite of not having a player finish in the NEC top 20 in scoring, Braica willed his team to a 12-6 conference record and a first round home game in the conference tournament.

The Argument:  There really isn’t an argument against Braica, other than stating that Hurley’s record and accomplishments were simply better.  In fact, it’s difficult to come up with a solid argument for any of these coaches.  That's what makes this vote so difficult.

The Verdict:  Given the low expectations, and Braica’s ability to coach his team to victory in several close games, I would vote for Glenn Braica as my 2011-2012 Coach of the Year.

Do you agree or disagree?  And in case you missed it, go here for my NEC Player of the Year and here for my NEC Rookie of the Year selections.

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Friday, February 24, 2012

Who Will Win Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year?

The Northeast Conference Player of the Year race isn’t the only difficult decision for voters this season.  The Rookie of the Year race has turned into a two player battle.  At the midway point of the season, most pundits would have said that Kyle Vinales, the rookie guard for Central Connecticut, would be the hands down winner of the award.  That is no longer the case.  I explain my rationale below, and list the five rookies I feel deserve inclusion into the NEC All-Rookie Team.

Honorable Mention:

5) Kelvin Parker, F, Mount St. Mary’s
Parker has been a revelation in what was otherwise a lost season for the Mountaineers.  The undersized yet athletic forward has started 22 of 25 games for Mount St. Mary’s, while averaging 8.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.  Not bad for a walk-on freshman.

4) Lucky Jones, F, Robert Morris University
The 6-foot-5 guard hasn’t shot the ball very well in his rookie campaign, but he’s steady improved his game during the season.  In particular, the guard has competed on the glass, grabbing 6.2 rebounds per game, good enough for 11th best in the NEC.  Under Andy Toole’s guidance, Jones will certainly become a key contributor for the Colonials and a tall nuisance for opposing guards for seasons to come.

3) Ousmane Drame, F/C, Quinnipiac University
Drame is just another one of those players Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore covets – a raw physical specimen who rebounds and defends the paint with dedicated persistence.  Offensively, Drame has shown flashes of a post-up game -- with a lefty jump hook -- that will only improve as he matures.  With Drame and teammate Ike Azotam locked up for another two years after this season, the Bobcats front-court will serve as a brutal match-up for opposing forwards in the NEC.

And now onto the two most deserving candidates for NEC Rookie of the Year…

2) Jalen Cannon, F, St. Francis (NY)
The Case:  Since taking over as the starting forward for the Terriers, Cannon has emerged as the only worthy adversary to Kyle Vinales for Rookie of the Year.  The freshman has done the main thing head coach Glenn Braica has asked him to do from day one – rebound the basketball.  And he’s rebounding with ferocity, at a clip of 8.6 boards per game.  Cannon has been one of the stabilizing forces that has pushed St. Francis into the NEC elite this season.

The Argument:  Other than cleaning up the glass, Cannon hasn’t excelled in any other facet of the game (not that he’s been asked to).  His offensive game currently lacks polish; therefore he isn’t expected to score a great deal.  And for a big man patrolling the paint, he has a surprisingly low number of blocks per game (0.6 bpg).

The Verdict:  Cannon has certainly stabilized the paint for the Terriers by becoming one of the more dominant rebounders in the NEC.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Cannon win the Rookie of the Year award, however in my opinion, he falls just short.

1) Kyle Vinales, G, Central Connecticut
The Case:  Most freshman would be happy to average double digits in their first season, but then there’s Kyle Vinales, who’s averaging an unheard of 17.9 points per game.  Only NEC Player of the Year candidates Shane Gibson and Ken Horton have more points per game than Vinales.  In addition, Vinales has dished the rock (3.7 apg), made his free throws (82%), and played nice defense (1.2 spg) for Howie Dickerman’s club.

The Argument:  To get his points, Vinales sure had to hoist up a lot of shots.  Overall, he’s shooting a tad under 40% for the season.  As expected for a young player, turnovers have been a problem, even though he has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.2.  Considering the amount of assists he generates, the assist-to-turnover ratio should in fact be somewhat higher.

The Verdict:  Without the emergence of Vinales, CCSU would have difficultly just making the playoffs this season in the competitive NEC.  All he’s done is lock up 7 NEC Rookie of the Week awards, the second most in the conference's history.  So despite the turnovers and high volume of shots, I feel Vinales gets the nod over Jalen Cannon for NEC Rookie of the Year.

Do you agree or disagree with any of the selections in this post?  I can't wait until next Tuesday for the announcement! 

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who Will Win the Northeast Conference Player of the Year Award?

This was supposed to be an exciting final week in the Northeast Conference.  Playoff berths would be up for grabs, the regular season title would dramatically come down to the final two games, and small packed gyms all over the upper east coast would capture the excitement of teams attempting to improve their seeding before they begin their quest to qualify for the Big Dance.

Instead, LIU has practically locked up number #1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.  The top 4 seeds have all clinched that coveted first round home playoff game.  And seven teams have clinched a playoff spot, with the 8th (Sacred Heart) in very good shape to play on.  So, what exactly is there to talk about in the week before the NEC playoffs? 

Perhaps I can complain about Sacred Heart’s poor execution in late game situations? 

(Ehh, I've been there, done that.  You can go to this post, this post, this post, this post, this post, or this post to hear me whine about the Pioneers)

Or maybe I can drum up excitement on whether Mount St. Mary’s interim coach Matt Henry can motivate the Mountaineers to finish their season strong?

(Crickets chirping….)

No!  Rather, let’s have a debate over who should be the 2011-2012 Northeast Conference Player of the Year, shall we?

This season, 4 or 5 players have emerged as worthy candidates of the award.  In fact, when I spoke with a few NEC fans this past weekend, it was clear there wasn’t a unanimous choice among the group.  Just as amazing, 4 of my 5 finalists will be back for their senior season!  So for this post, I’ll present the case for each player and rank them as if I had a ballot.  Let’s begin!

5) Velton Jones, G, Robert Morris University
The Case:  The heart and soul of the Colonials, Jones leads the NEC in FTs made (166) and steals per game (1.9).  As the go-to-guy of the offense, Jones’ physical slash-to-the-hole style has been instrumental in helping out Robert Morris pull out several close victories.

The Argument:  Jones has struggled the past three weeks, averaging a pedestrian 11.1 points per game on 26.7% shooting.  For the year, Jones hasn't shot the ball particularly well, relying mainly on free throws and a high volume of shots for his points. 

The Verdict:  Even though Jones has had a fine season, his low shooting percentages prevent him from serious consideration for POY.  In fact, an argument can be made for Jason Brickman (7.0 apg, 44.1% 3PT%) or Ike Izotam (although there’s already 3 forwards) over Jones as a member of the NEC First Team. 

4) Ken Horton, F, Central Connecticut State
The Case:  The reigning NEC Player of the Year is having another fantastic season in New Britain, as he finds himself in the top 5 in points/game (17.8), rebounds/game (8.8), steals/game (1.9), and blocks/game (1.3).  His numbers are even more impressive when you consider the attention Horton receives from opposing front-courts, every single game.  And to add the cherry on top, he’s an excellent defender who doesn't take a play off when guarding the other team.

The Argument:  Most of his numbers are mildly down across the board from last season, and with the exception of a home win against Robert Morris earlier in the year, Horton doesn’t have a signature performance against an elite NEC team.  Lately, Horton's play has tailed off with a stat line of 7/6/1 in his past 4 contests.

The Verdict:  The stats suggest Horton may deserve his second straight POY crown, however his inconsistency and so-so performance versus the NEC elite likely cripple his chances to defend.  Given the performance of my top 3 players, it was a rather easy decision to exclude Horton from POY consideration.

(And now onto the real candidates...)

3) Jamal Olasewere, F, Long Island University
The Case:  Olasewere raised eyebrows recently with his dominant performance in the Battle of Brooklyn and against Sacred Heart, as he scored 80 points on 30 of 41 shooting with 29 rebounds in 3 games.  For the year, Olasewere sits in the top 5 in points per game (17.2), rebounds per game (7.6), field goal percentage (57.2%), steals per game (1.4), and blocks per game (1.1).  This despite playing a mere 26 minutes per contest!

The Argument:  He provides value defensively without a doubt, but he’s found himself in foul trouble a little too much.  His normalized statistics per 40 minutes are fantastic, but just imagine the damage he could do if he hacked opponents just a little less.  Because of being in foul trouble, there have been some games where Olasewere’s production was decent at best.

 The Verdict:  Boyd and Olasewere may be the best front-court duo on any mid-major roster this season, although their co-existence may in fact hinder Olasewere’s chance to win the POY award.  Well that and Olasewere’s inability to consistently stay on the floor for his team.

2) Julian Boyd, F, Long Island University
The Case:  More often than not, Boyd is simply unguardable in the NEC.  Like his teammate, Boyd can score in a variety of ways and hasn’t shied away from a big moment (see, St. Francis, NY at LIU).  As the focal point of LIU’s high octane offense, Boyd has averaged 17.2 points per game to go along with more than 9 boards per game.  He’s improved his scoring efficiency from last season, shooting an impressive 54% from the floor and 35% from beyond the arc.  He has range and an inside-the-paint presence, which makes him all the more valuable.

The Argument:  Although a beast on the low block, Boyd does have a couple of sub-par performances sprinkled into what was otherwise a spectacular season.  Boyd doesn’t do much on the defensive end of the floor and has been plagued occasionally with foul trouble, which certainly restricts his defensive value.  Most voters prefer to see their Player of the Year candidates excel on both ends of the floor, yet Boyd’s defensive impact probably doesn’t match the other candidates on this exclusive list.

The Verdict:  I feel Boyd falls just short, in large part due to his marginal contribution on defense.  Nonetheless, if someone debates hard for Boyd (or Olasewere for that matter) over my soon-to-be mentioned Player of the Year, I really can’t disagree.  Both forwards have had a fantastic year for an exciting Long Island University team.

1) Shane Gibson, G, Sacred Heart University
The Case:  The most prolific scorer in Pioneer history has been remarkable in his junior season.  He’s scored a NEC-leading 22.4 ppg and has produced double digit points every game this season, but those stats aren’t even the most impressive.  It’s his efficiency of scoring.  His effective field goal percentage (FG%), which combines all field goals from the floor with more weight applied to 3-point shots, is in the top 5 of the league.  Given the volume of shots Gibson attempts per night (with most of them from the perimeter), his effective FG% of 59.6% is unheard of for most players in the back-court.  In addition, Gibson is an above average defender with 1.6 steals per game, good enough for 4th best in the conference, and he rebounds the ball very well for a 6-foot-2 shooting guard.

The Argument:  As Sacred Heart's only reliable scoring option, Gibson has in some instances come up big (see games vs. LIU, CCSU, RMU) and sometimes failed to hit the game tying or winning shot (see games vs. Mount St. Mary’s, Yale).  In addition, some voters would prefer their Player of the Year coming from a more successful team that Sacred Heart.  Barring an incredible tournament run, the Pioneers aren’t expected to compete for the NEC title, whereas Boyd and Olasewere have a real opportunity to compete in the NCAAs in back-to-back years, no small feat for a small D1 school.

The Verdict:  Without Gibson, the Pioneers wouldn’t be in the playoffs, nor would they have more than 4 conference wins.  His efficiency has been remarkable given the defensive attention he faces every game, yet his offensive effort hasn’t prevented him from contributing big time on the defensive end as well.  He’s been consistent and has produced against most teams in the NEC, elite or not.  And with that, I would give the 2011-2012 Northeast Conference Player of the Year Award to Shane Gibson.

Do you agree or disagree?  In reality, it should come down to Gibson, Boyd, or Olasewere, in my opinion.  It will be fascinating when the award is announced next Tuesday on Twitter (by @NECSports).  Who will be the next Northeast Conference Player of the Year? 

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pioneer Pride's Debut Behind the Mic - A Halftime Show Interview

I attended a Northeast Conference doubleheader this past Saturday, with both games taking place in Brooklyn.  The second game of the doubleheader, Sacred Heart vs. St. Francis, was the game I was most anxious about, for two reasons.  Reason number one was obviously because Sacred Heart needed a win to possibly clinch that ever-elusive (well at least for the last 2 years) NEC tournament berth.  The second reason, however, was a unique and unexpected opportunity - I was invited to be the guest on the halftime show for the St. Francis broadcast.  Jaden Daly, one of the excellent play-by-play announcers for St. Francis, graciously extended the invitation to me a few weeks ago, and I excitedly accepted.  I was somewhat nervous beforehand, but Jaden did a fantastic job making the interview very comfortable.  By the way, Jaden also runs an terrific college basketball blog, Daly Dose of Hoops, which I recommend.

You can find the broadcast of the game and my interview right here.  Here are the instructions to access it once you get to the page:
1) On the right side of the page, click on the red tab "On Demand"
2) Once you do that, a number of games will pop up.  The top game of the list should be labeled "St. Francis Men's Basketball vs. Sacred Heart, Sat, Feb 18th".  Click on the "Watch" button in that box.
3) Now the game should load on the left side of the page.  Skip ahead to the 1 hour, 2 minute, 20 second mark.  The interview will begin shortly after that.

NOTE: On my computer, the broadcast was interrupted by "buffering" at the 1:05:54 mark, so if it freezes at that point, you may have to skip slightly ahead (like at 1:06:22) to hear the remainder of the interview.

I'm curious to hear everyone's opinion on my performance.  Overall, I'd give myself a "C+".  I stumbled out of the gate, said "um" and "so" a little too much, and was a little vague on certain points.  But I was much smoother on my last 2 answers of the interview (my nervousness was gone by that point) and I had an absolute blast doing it!  I certainly wouldn't hesitate to do another interview next season.

Oh, and if you're a Sacred Heart fan who's a glutton for torture, skip ahead to the 1 hour, 56 minute mark.  There you'll capture the final 48 seconds of the game and get to see Sacred Heart lose another heartbreaker in the process.  I will now bang my head continuously against the coffee table...

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Historical Comparison for the Cinderella Story of the NEC - The St. Francis Terriers

I needed to pull myself away from Twitter after reading about 1,567 tweets on Jeremy Lin and Linsanity (I'm guilty of tweeting about it as well).  So let's talk about the Cinderella story of the Northeast Conference, shall we?

Until January, most fans would have handed the Northeast Coach of the Year award to Dan Hurley, a coach who has shocked everyone by leading Wagner to a 21-4 record.  Although most people may still agree with that assessment, St. Francis Terrier coach Glenn Braica certainly deserves to be part of the Coach of the Year discussion.  His Terriers have been the surprise of the NEC, and the only team in the top 4 that no one had suspected would be there.  As the year has progressed and the more I watch this team, it reminds me of a squad that catalyzed my passion as an over-the-top small D1 college basketball fan.  That team was the 2006-2007 Sacred Heart Pioneers.

Below, I compare the two squads and explain why I feel they have a lot in common.  I realize this exercise is somewhat silly, however this allows me to discuss the "glory days" of Sacred Heart basketball, instead of recapping their latest excruciating loss to LIU.

1. Greatly Exceeding Preseason Expectations

Picked 11th in the NEC Coaches Preseason Poll, it was obvious to most coaches that the Terriers wouldn’t recover from the graduation of their two leading scorers, Akeem Bennett and Ricky Cadell.  After all, who would pick up the slack when there wasn’t another scorer from the incumbent roster averaging more than 9 points per game?  Five years early, NEC coaches asked themselves the same question about Dave Bike's Pioneers, who had lost All-NEC 1st Teamer Kibwe Trim to graduation.  Sacred Heart got a little more respect in their preseason poll (selected 8th), however the motive was clear – they would not be considered among the NEC elite at season’s end.  The Pioneers finished the NEC regular season with an unexpected 12-6 mark, while the Terriers this season are well on their way toward 12-14 conference wins and a home playoff game in the first round of the NEC tournament.  Not bad for originally being selected to finish behind St. Francis (PA) and Bryant.

(Let that last sentence sit with you for a second….)

2. A Well-Balanced Scoring Attack

You know, Sacred Heart wasn't always a mediocre team who had one elite scorer like Corey Hassan or Shane Gibson (I wish I could put you on my lap right now for added effect).  In fact, the 2006-07 Pioneers were a well-balance scoring machine consisting of seven regulars who averaged between 8.4 – 13.3 points per game.  St. Francis doesn’t go as deep this year, but they still have six players scoring between 7.3 and 12.1 points per game.  Stefon Purunicic, Ben Mockford, Akeem Johnson, Travis Nicholas, and Brett Jones have all led the Terriers in points in different games.  It certainly makes the Terriers difficult to defend late in games, because opposing defenses just can't focus on one guy.

3. The One Senior Leader

Although he’s struggled as of late, Stefan Perunicic was instrumental in getting St. Francis off to a fast start in the NEC.  In his first eight NEC contests, six of them Terrier victories, Perunicic shot a ridiculous 28 for 51 (55%) from behind the arc.  The lone senior is playing a pivotal role in St. Francis’ resurgence much like All-NEC 1st Teamer Jerrid Frye did for the Pioneers five years earlier.  Frye, the grizzled veteran of Bike’s squad, led Sacred Heart with 13.3 points per game to go along with 5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.7 steals per game.  Both Perunicic and Frye have played an important role in the maturation of a team making the next step toward the NEC elite.

4. Living and Dying by the Outside Shot

Here a stat for you – when St. Francis makes less than 33% of their 3-pointers, they have a record of 2-9.  When they shoot better than 33%? 12-3. Talk about a one-dimensional offense!  Sacred Heart wasn’t as dependent on the perimeter jumper in 2006-07, yet they still relied on sharpshooters Drew Shubik, Luke Granato, Ryan Litke, and Chaucey Hardy for instant offense a good amount of the time. 

(Side note: upon seeing this stat, it's clear that St. Francis should prefer the #4 seed at season's end, as opposed to the #3 seed.  That way, they would avoid Wagner, the likely #2 seed, in the semifinals and take on LIU instead.  Wagner is a lousy matchup for the Terriers, because the Seahawks can neutralize St. Francis' lethal 3-point shooting with their pressure defense.)

In the 2007 NEC Tournament, Sacred Heart was literally 3 minutes away from their first ever NCAA Tournament berth.  Up 10 with 3 minutes left in the championship game, the Central Connecticut Blue Devils found a way to pull off the unlikely victory (and start a series of brutal losses I had trouble getting over as a fan).  Will St. Francis go as far as the Pioneers had in 2007?  Even if the Terriers fail to make the championship game this season, one thing is clear.  The future is bright for the underdogs from Brooklyn.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The State of the Northeast Conference With Two Weeks Left

With only four regular season games remaining for each Northeast Conference team, it’s an excellent time to break down the standings and look ahead to the final matchups.  Below I laid out the current NEC standings in tiers, went over the tiebreakers, and outlined the likelihood of each team’s potential playoff seed.  For simplicity, I removed both Bryant and Fairleigh Dickinson from the bottom of the standings, since neither will be playing postseason basketball in two weeks.

RANK/TEAM                         CONF W-L                     KEY GAMES LEFT
1) LIU                                           13-1                            vs. QU, SHU, at MU
2) Wagner                                     12-2                             vs. MU
- LIU owns tiebreaker based on head-to-head record (2-0)

With their sweep over Brooklyn rival St. Francis, LIU is in good shape to capture the regular season title and that coveted home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.  Only two more challenging games remain, both of which are at the WRAC.  Even if LIU splits that set, Wagner still needs to win out and hope for LIU to get upset by Monmouth or FDU.  That scenario seems unlikely.

3) St. Francis (NY)                      10-4                              at QU, MU, vs. SHU
4) Robert Morris                          10-4                              vs. CCSU, at SHU, QU
- St. Francis owns tiebreaker based on head-to-head record (1-0)

A month ago, Glenn Braica’s Terriers validated their legitimacy with a convincing upset win against an inconsistent Robert Morris squad.  Now, barring a collapse from either team and an improbable end-of-season sweep from Quinnipiac, both teams will host a playoff game in the first round.  Should either advance, they’ll certainly serve as a dangerous opponent for LIU or Wagner in the semifinals.

5) Quinnipiac                                8-6                              at LIU, vs. SFNY, SFPA, RMU
6) Monmouth                                7-7                              at Wag, MSM, vs. LIU, SFNY
7) Central Connecticut                  7-7                              at RMU, SFPA, vs. Wag, MSM
8) Sacred Heart                             7-7                              at LIU, SFNY, vs. RMU, SFPA
- Monmouth owns tiebreaker based on head-to-head-to-head records (MU 2-0, CCSU 1-2, SHU 1-2)
- CCSU own tiebreaker on SHU based on better common record vs. Robert Morris (CCSU 1-0, SHU 0-1)

Quinnipiac is quickly turning into the lower seeded opponent no one wants to play in the NEC tournament.  As noted in Big Apple Buckets, Quinnipiac’s improved defense has sparked a 6-1 record in their past seven games.  Monmouth will have difficultly holding the #6 seed, thanks to their difficult end of season schedule.  Their only saving grace may be that the schedules of CCSU and Sacred Heart are equally as difficult.  CCSU is fortunate there’s significant space between the 8th and 9th teams in the standings, because Howie Dickerman’s Blue Devils are heading the wrong direction, mainly due to their offensive inefficiency.  Once considered to be a NEC title contender, CCSU is presently looking at a difficult first round road showdown against LIU or Wagner.  That’s not what Dickerman envisioned for this roster in the preseason.

9) Mount St. Mary’s                       4-10                              at CCSU, vs. MU  
10) St. Francis (PA)                        4-10                              vs. CCSU, at QU, SHU
- Mount St. Mary’s owns tiebreaker based on head-to-head record (1-0)

If you believe in miracles, then perhaps you think these teams have a fighting chance to sneak into the top 8 at season’s end.  St. Francis’s playoff starts on Thursday night, with a date at home against the aforementioned Blue Devils.  A win and their faint hopes are still alive, yet a loss extinguishes that dream.  Mount St. Mary’s is equally as desperate, and it’s very unlikely the Mountaineers will experience an offensive resurgence to catapult them into the NEC tournament.  They do conclude the season with an easy stretch of games, but significant help is still needed from above to grab that #8 seed.  I wouldn't bet on that.

All in all, the playoff qualifiers and regular season champion is close to being decided, but these final two weeks will certainly create some excellent first round match-ups in the NEC tournament.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Night Out With the Hurleys - Wagner/Mount St. Mary's Game Recap

Mount St. Mary's University is located a healthy 70 miles away from my workplace, and another 50 miles in a different direction from my home. It certainly makes for a challenging commute on a snowy weekday game night, and one that I shouldn't normally attempt (if only my wife really knew where Emmitsburg, Maryland was).

However, with the Wagner Seahawks in town, I couldn't pass up this opportunity. The Hurley brothers, Dan and Bobby, were now coaching one of the more hyped mid-major programs in the country. They were so hyped that features about Dan Hurley now existed in the USA Today, New York Times, and Andy Katz's ESPN college basketball blog. The national attention was so hot that people had recently begun asking silly questions on Twitter like, "could Wagner receive an at-large bid if they don't win the NEC tournament?"

(The answer: absolutely not, but they look good qualifying for the NIT at their current pace)

I needed to witness the Hurley Hype in-person, mainly because I was interested in Wagner's suffocating pressure defense, the same defense that held Northeast Conference opponents to a league-best 0.86 points per possession and 26.7 percent from behind the arc.

I arrived at Knott Arena a few minutes late, but just in time to witness an early 12-2 run by Hurley's Seahawks. As I had expected, the Mount players had great difficultly running their offense in the half-court set, thanks in large part to Wagner's pesky guard play of Kenneth Oritz and Latif Rivers. On the offensive end, a couple of Tyler Murray three-pointers gave Wagner a nice cushion merely five minutes into the contest.

If you didn't know the score, however, you would have thought Wagner was losing, due to the sideline antics of one Dan Hurley. The screaming of instructions, the foot stomping, and the constant pleading with the referees made Hurley appear as an angry and cantankerous man (and certainly not a favorite among the Mount faithful I sat near). His antics, I must admit, were tired and even at times, comical. It got to a point in the first half where I seemed more interested in watching Dan Hurley's reactions than I was in watching the game. Perhaps I should have instead sat behind the Mount's bench, led by their subdued and tranquil coach Robert Burke?

Nevertheless, I settled down, and so did the Mount St. Mary players -- well, to a degree. A few buckets in the paint from sophomore center Kristijan Krajina reduced Wagner's lead to six points, but a late rally pushed their advantage to 11 points, 30-19, going into the half. All in all, it was a game plan that couldn't have been drawn up better by Wagner's coaching staff. Force 12 Mount turnovers, hold them to 1-for-6 shooting at the three-point line, commit only three personal fouls, and make some timely outside shots. Even Dan Hurley must have cracked a smile in the locker room looking at the first-half box score.

In the second half, to Burke's credit, the Mount came out more aggressive and fought hard. Freshman Kelvin Parker was particularly impressive on both ends of the floor, contributing four points, two rebounds, an assist and some inspired defense, all in a span of five minutes. In spite of Parker's performance, the Mount never got any closer than seven points in the second half.

Wagner was simply a well-coached machine, excelling in ball movement, controlling the game's tempo, and of course, forcing turnovers with their in-your-face defense. After a 16-3 run extended Wagner's lead to 18 points with six minutes remaining, the game was essentially over. And I was afforded more time to study the Hurley brothers on the sideline.

Sure, Dan Hurley may be a little too animated out there, but one thing was for certain. This was a Wagner team that was dialed in, who fully respected and bought into Hurley's coaching philosophy. It was evident how much the team trusted and was inspired by their coaches, and it was a cool thing to see from afar. No matter how annoying Dan Hurley's antics were.

When the final horn sounded, the Wagner Seahawks earned their 20th victory of the season, an achievement that not even Dan Hurley could have imagined 24 games into the 2011-12 season. The win guaranteed playoff basketball for Wagner, but their goal of making the Big Dance still remains. And they have a fighting chance to do just that.

I certainly wouldn't bet against the Hurley Hype.

 This article can also be viewed on the Mid-Majority Website, here.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Following Two Close Losses, Sacred Heart Can't Afford to Make Any More Mistakes

If you just happened to glance at the final score from last night – Monmouth 63, Sacred Heart 56 – your initial thought was probably that the Sacred Heart Pioneers (10-14, 4-7 NEC) just lost a tough road game to a Monmouth (7-17, 5-6 NEC) team playing better than their record indicates.  You may have rationalized that Northeast Conference road games are difficult to win, no matter the opponent, and that Sacred Heart probably fought hard but fell just short.  And you would be wrong.

SHU assistant coach Johnny Kidd explained how stunned he was in the postgame interview of yesterday's game, “I’m stunned.  I’m stunned.  We gotta make free throws.  Bottom line, the game was under our control.  This one we gave away.”

Leading 54-46 with 2:31 remaining on the clock, SHU looked to be in firm control of picking up their fifth conference win, despite missing three of four free throws in the previous minute.  But then it quickly unraveled.  A Jesse Steele three-pointer narrowed the margin to five points. Then the Pioneers coughed up the ball on two consecutive possessions, leading to two quick Monmouth buckets, all in the span of 40 seconds.

Now up 54-53 with 1:10 left, Louis Montes was fouled and given an opportunity to extend the Pioneer’s slim advantage to a critical three points.  As you probably already guessed, the normally cool, calm and composed Montes missed both attempts from the charity stripe.  Monmouth capitalized by taking their first lead in 15 minutes after an Ed Waite layup.  It was a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.  What a turn of events.

I’ll spare you the rest of the gory details from Monmouth’s starling 17-2 late game run, except these beauties – SHU missed 6 of 8 free throws in the final 4:16 of the game, in spite of being in the top three of the NEC in free throw percentage.  Even worse, SHU allowed Monmouth to score 15 points on their final 7 possessions of the game, after only scoring 48 points in the first 38 minutes of the game.  The 21 Pioneer turnovers for the game certainly didn’t help either, and I’m still trying to understand why Dave Bike failed to use a timeout (or two) during Monmouth’s run to halt their momentum.

So looking ahead, where does this put Sacred Heart?  Quite simply, they have to win their next three games.  I hate when the “must win” designation is assigned halfway through a regular season, but the Pioneers have to win these three games coming up against FDU and Bryant.  Both opponents have a COMBINED two conference wins on the season, so anything short of 3-0 is unacceptable.  If they fail at this goal, SHU is looking at a 6-8 NEC record with Robert Morris, LIU, and St. Francis (NY) in three of their final four regular season games.  And that my friends could lead to Sacred Heart inexplicably missing the NEC postseason tournament for the third straight season, despite having a NEC top 3 scorer (Corey Hassan ’10, Shane Gibson, ’11 and ’12) on the roster every year.

I feel sick just thinking about it, but before we all depress ourselves once more, I implore you to look ahead to Fairleigh Dickinson on Saturday.  Dave Bike and his team MUST WIN that game.  No more defensive lapses.  No more bad stretches at the free throw line.  No more critical turnovers.  No.  More.  Excuses.