Friday, February 22, 2013

3 Reasons Why You Should Attend Sacred Heart's Last Home Game

This Friday, Sacred Heart received a headline from of all places, but it had nothing to do with the men’s basketball team that currently sits in seventh place in the Northeast Conference. Instead, it was focused on Don Cook’s replacement, who will undoubtedly become the most famous athletic director in the nation, not just in the cozy Northeast.

In case you have been living under a rock or simply can’t handle the internet after watching SHU suffer another painstaking loss to Quinnipiac last night, Bobby Valentine – yes that Bobby Valentine – will take over for Don Cook on July 1st as the next athletic director for Sacred Heart. July is more than five months away, so excuse me now as I defer my opinions of Bobby V for another time. And now with that out of the way, please allow me to implore you all as to why all Pioneer fans should attend tomorrow basketball doubleheader at the Pitt Center.

1) Come Support the Newtown Community

All you have to do is show up and buy a ticket to the enticing doubleheader between the Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac women and the Sacred Heart and CCSU men at 3:30 pm. A portion of the proceeds will generously go to The Newtown Scholarship Association’s Sandy Hook Elementary School Memorial Scholarship Fund. There will be several events on site for kids, including an autograph session with both the men’s and women’s teams. Even if you don’t care much for the product on the Pitt Center floor (trust me, I’m not a fan sometimes), Saturday is a wonderful opportunity to donate and support the children of Newtown, CT who’ve dealt with an unfathomable and absolute nightmare in their quaint town.

Besides, I can’t think of a better way to spend my Saturday this way: Have a greasy belt-busting lunch at the Merritt Canteen, get ushered around aimlessly by SHU’s Public Safety before parking, stop in Sacred Heart’s six million dollar chapel for a quick prayer, get Femi Akinpetide and Nick Greenbacker’s autograph, have my face painted, and then watch Sacred Heart battle a couple of in-state rivals inside the conference. Sounds like great fun to me! (No seriously, it does…expect for maybe the face painting part.)

2) Saying Goodbye to a Sacred Heart Legend

They grow up so fast, as it only seems like yesterday that a skinny Shane Gibson was coming off the Pioneer's bench to bomb threes in 2009. Today’s Shane Gibson is a little more (OK, a LOT more) jacked and has deservedly earned the title as Sacred Heart’s greatest Division I player of all time. I mean just look at his career numbers:

1,981 career points scored (first at SHU and fifth overall in NEC)
272 made three-pointers (first at SHU and eighth overall in NEC)
41.5% career three-point shooting percentage
85.1% career free throw shooting percentage

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just a wonderful display of scoring and efficiency and this Saturday is your last chance to catch Gibson in his home whites. The fifth year senior is likely to crack the 2000 point mark versus CCSU (19 points away), so you’ll also be treated to an opportunity to witness Gibson crack another historic NEC milestone. Seriously, if you consider yourself one of the true 517 Pioneer fans out there, you’d be a damn fool if you missed out on a chance to experience the sudden rush of calm when Gibson hoists up his patented line drive three-pointer. There are hardly any better drugs than that, although I bet you could find some good stuff if you meander down Park Avenue for a few miles. (And remember kids, don’t forget to say “brown bag” at the shady liquor store counter should you desire some fiery spirits and lukewarm Natty Lite after 9 PM.)

In addition, this may be the last time you’ll see Dave Bike patrolling the sidelines, barking at referees with the same ferocity as my wife directs toward the TV when she realizes Revenge or The Bachelor is a rerun. This is pure speculation – and no, I didn’t get this from the same source who told me the Bobby Valentine interview was a farce, damn you coveted Pioneer Pride source – but you just never know when the big guy will decide to hang up the outdated, bland grey sports coat for good. Given that Don Cook is leaving, it’s completely plausible that Bike would do the same when the Pioneers’ season concludes.

3) Because You Care About NEC Playoff Basketball, Stupid!

Saturday’s basketball doubleheader begins with the second place lady Pioneers hosting the big bad Quinnipiac Bobcats, who can clinch a #1 seed with a win. You may not enjoy women’s basketball as much, but do your school proud by showing up to support Ed Swanson’s club. I don’t care what the sport is, anytime Quinnipiac has a chance to secure a #1 seed in its sports playoffs on Sacred Heart’s soil, the fans/students need to prevent that from happening at all costs. (For those interested, here Craig D’Amico’s excellent game preview of Quinnipiac versus Sacred Heart.)

For the second half of the doubleheader, the seventh place Pioneers will meet the ninth place Blue Devils for a desperate game of the round ball. This isn’t far off from a play-in game for the NEC postseason tournament (only the top eight teams qualify), therefore with both team’s back to the wall, it’s safe to expect some inspired, high energy play. Both clubs are struggling badly and are a combined 1-7 in their last eight (thank you Fairleigh Dickinson!). Soooo, you’re saying someone has a chance to win?!?! Why, yes they do!

Moreover, this game promises to employ a quick up-tempo style with both teams gladly pushing the pace. Trust me, this matchup won't imitate your typical Big Ten battle where the first team to 55 wins the game. I’d expect to see some fireworks in this one between Gibson and the CCSU’s stars, Kyle Vinales and Matthew Hunter.

I hope to see everyone there. I’ll be at center court, a few rows back opposite the benches intently watching the SHU Dance Te….I mean basketball team. If you see me shedding a tear after Gibson calmly sinks his fourth three-pointer of the game, do me a solid and had me a tissue. And also do the same if Howie Dickenman’s ridiculously shorthanded Blue Devils find a way to pull out a tight one late.

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

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Rough Times Possibly Ahead for Sacred Heart

It's been a while since I've updated my Sacred Heart blog, because frankly I've been disappointed in their recent results. Phil Gaetano misses a game with the flu, and next thing you know the 2-21 St. Francis Red Flash come into the Pitt Center and defeat the Pioneers, 64-60. So much for cupcakes...

But now with the NEC is in its home stretch, I at least wanted to give Pioneer fans an update on SHU's current status within the standings. Here's how it looks, both for the standings and head-to-head tiebreakers:

4) Wagner, 9-5 (lost tiebreaker, 0-1)
5) Quinnipiac, 8-5 (leads tiebreaker, 1-0)
6) Sacred Heart, 7-6
7) Mount St. Mary's, 7-7 (lost tiebreaker, 0-1)
8) Central Connecticut, 6-7 (leads tiebreaker, 1-0)
9) St. Francis Brooklyn, 6-8 (leads tiebreaker, 1-0)
10) Monmouth, 5-9 (leads tiebreaker, 1-0)

As you all know, the top eight make the NEC postseason and SHU holds a precarious 1.5 game lead on the ninth place St. Francis Terriers. (Don't worry about Monmouth - they need to win out with games at Robert Morris and Wagner.) Yet, SHU controls their own destiny. A critical in-state set with Quinnipiac and CCSU awaits and with those head-to-head tiebreakers currently in Big Red's favor, it would certainly behoove SHU to take care of business this week. If they do, then they'll be in fantastic shape to make the postseason, and who knows, maybe have an outside shot at a home playoff game in the first round of the NEC tournament (top four seeds earn that).

Unfortunately, the remaining schedule is unkind. So unkind that our advanced statistician friend Ken Pomeroy has projected the Pioneers as significant underdogs (see the percent chance he gives SHU to win each game) in their last three contests, all away from the "friendly confines" of the Pitt Center.

KenPom Predictions:
2/21: Home vs. Quinnipiac, 74-73 (53%)
2/23: Home vs. Central Connecticut, 82-80 (55%)
2/25: Away at Bryant, 83-72 (20%)
2/28: Away at LIU Brooklyn, 85-75 (21%)
3/2: Away at St. Francis Brooklyn, 78-69 (23%)

Yikes. This won't be easy, but if SHU can someone win at least two more games, that should get him in. The first step is tonight against Quinnipiac in what could be the last conference battle between the two programs. Is it too much to ask for the fans to show up and support their Pioneers? Please?

Until next time...

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

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Pioneer Pride's All-Favorite Sacred Heart Team

As I sat in insufferable traffic heading to work last week, I thought of a good post. (Well, at least I think I did.) How about I publish my all-favorite Sacred Heart men’s basketball team? I’ll select eight or nine of my favorite Pioneers during the program’s 14-year D-I era. Keep in mind this lineup shouldn’t be confused with SHU’s all-time team. Sure, some of these players would easily find their way on that prestigious list, but others would most likely fall short. 

Let’s begin with my starting five…

PG: Phil Gaetano, 2010 - present, sophomore
As Bill Paxton eloquently stated in his latest profile piece, the diminutive Gaetano is a throwback player – a selfless floor general who possesses excellent floor vision, an above average handle, and the late game poise needed to calmly and efficiently run an offense. I’m a sucker for those types of point guards, but they’ve been few and far between during Dave Bike’s D-I tenure. After Tavio Hobson, there hasn’t been a true assist man on this roster until Gaetano arrived for the 2011-12 season. Now in his second year, Gaetano runs the show and almost always gets three to five assists every game that no one else this side of Jason Brickman could possibly get. Sacred Heart is in really good hands for the next two and a half seasons with Gaetano controlling and dishing out the rock.

SG: Shane Gibson, 2008 - present, senior
It’s not his career scoring average of 14.4 ppg - or the 17.7 ppg averaged his past three seasons - that makes Gibson one of my favorites, but rather the efficiency at which he scores the ball. Despite receiving scores of defensive attention anytime Sacred Heart steps on the court, Gibson has always found a way to get his points and keep his Pioneers relatively competitive. His smooth jumper is fun to watch, but sometimes I really enjoy watching the opponent’s reaction after he makes one of his patented “he had no business shooting that” jumpers. The greatest Pioneer ever doesn’t need much space to get off his shot, yet this year the guard seems to be driving to the hole more as defenders crowd him on the perimeter. Gibson only has eight guaranteed games left in his collegiate career, so I encourage you all to witness the 6’2” sharpshooter before it's too late. He will definitely be missed.

G: Drew Shubik, 2003 - 2007
You heard me wax poetic before about Shubik, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that he made the cut on my all-favorite team. Watching the 6'4" guard/wing made Pioneer fans appreciate his game so much more. In his breakout junior season, Shubik finished nationally ranked in effective field goal percentage, steal rate, and assist rate, while also grabbing nearly four rebounds per game. Shubik's versatility from that magical '06-07 season was amazing, but perhaps it was his transformation into a point guard the next season that was his most impressive feat. As a NEC guard, Shubik could simply do it all, even if he didn't appear to be the most physically gifted athlete on the court.

PF: Joey Henley, 2003 - 2009
Henley was your classic easy to root for, high character athlete that Bike covets. The bouncy, yet undersized Henley was often the best athlete on the floor and hardly let his bigger defenders get in the way of a career that included two All-NEC selections. To this day, he’s my favorite Pioneer not only from his on-the-court production, but also because of his teammate and leadership qualities that every star player should aspire to have. It also didn’t hurt that the Washington state native averaged 13.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game as a junior and senior. It’s such a shame Sacred Heart missed out on an NCAA tournament berth in the mid 2000s by a sliver, because Henley certainly deserved better. These days when Sacred Heart recruits and signs a big man, the dream scenario for that prospect is to turn into the next Joey Henley.

C: Tim Welch, 1999 - 2002
Finally, it’s a blast from the past! Welch is the only member of my all-favorite team who played while I attended Sacred Heart. It’s really too bad there isn’t another guy from that era here, but that’s what happens when Sacred Heart averaged only five victories per season in my last two years at the school. Nevertheless, the 6’10” Welch posted very respectable numbers of 9.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game, even though he wasn’t the most physically imposing big man patrolling the paint. Other than Kibwe Trim, you can certainly make the argument that Welch was the most consistent presence in the paint for Sacred Heart in its 14 seasons as a D-I program.

And now onto my sensational bench…

G/F: Jerrid Frye, 2003 - 2007
It was a treat to hear Frye on the Sacred Heart halftime show a few weeks ago, as it brought back fond memories of the short-lived glory days of Pioneer basketball. Frye possessed a silky smooth mid-range game, which these days is simply a lost art. The lengthy Frye was very good at creating off the dribble, attacking the rim, and reeking havoc on the defensive end, which are the main reasons why I enjoyed watching him immensely. Without him, Henley, and Shubik, there’s no NEC finals appearance at Central Connecticut in 2007.

G: Chris Evans, 2010 - present, junior redshirt
There’s a reason why I gave Evans the nickname of “The Future” during his freshman season. The do-it-all player from nearby Stamford filled up the stat sheet and wasn’t one of those one-trick pony guards who just camps out at the three-point line waiting for someone else to create his shot. After his standout All-NEC Rookie team freshman campaign though, Evans played his second season with a bad wheel, which unfortunately hasn’t improved since undergoing offseason meniscus surgery. I maintain Evans’ omission from the Pioneers' current roster is their biggest loss and I doubt I’m alone in that sentiment. Hopefully with fingers crossed, the playmaker can get healthy once again. At this point, I may spray deer antler extract into his mouth next time I see him at a game.

G: Chauncey Hardy, 2006 - 2010
There was just something about the barely 6’0” guard that was so endearing to watch. He didn’t seem to have a weakness or a wonderful strength – Hardy was the type of player who could do everything at an above average level. He could pull up and shoot the three (career 41.0% 3PT), create off the dribble, fasciliate when needed on offense (career 3.0 apg), and play steady defense. After being selected to the All-NEC Rookie Team in his freshman campaign, Hardy oddly never matured into an all-conference selection, but nonetheless averaged at least 10.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.3 steals in his final three seasons. It was one of those quietly productive NEC careers. May Chauncey rest in peace.

G: Corey Hassan, 2008 - 2011
The New Hampshire kid with the moniker "Hassan the assassin" cements my bench as the lethal three point specialist. Truth be told, Hassan did so much more than that for Bike, earning him an eventual NEC scoring title and an All-NEC Second Team selection. His quirky shooting stroke may not have produced the prettiest mechanics, but Pioneer fans always felt good when Hassan’s rainbow arc shot was heading toward the basket.

Sure, it’s a small team overall, but Dave Bike loves guards so I felt this was only fitting. Do you have a favorite Pioneer I left 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

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sacred Heart Drops Second Straight to Mount St. Mary's, Now 6-4 in NEC

You know the old basketball coach saying: "When you allow your opponents to shoot 63% from the floor, commit nine turnovers, lose the battle on the boards by eight, and permit the opposing team's top scorer to net 23 points in the first half, then you probably gosh darnit dug yourself an insurmountable hole to climb out of."

OK, no one probably ever said that, but that quote was running through my mind as I witnessed the best half of Jamion Christian's tenure as the Mount St. Mary's coach, and perhaps the worst half of Sacred Heart's conference season. It just was one of those halves. Mount St. Mary's Rashad Whack was unconscious in the first stanza, draining all five of his three-point attempts en route to 23 first half points. If you just include Whack, SHU possessed a tidy 27-23 lead at the half!

Unfortunately for the Pioneers, eight other Mountaineers scored the basketball in the first half, which ballooned the Mount's advantage to 23 points. That, my friends, is a really difficult hole to climb out off.

"They took it to us and didn't miss. We didn't guard them and they had - I would venture to say it - one of their better halves," said a disappointed Dave Bike after the game. "I told the guys, for us to be any good, we have to be on all cylinders or close to it."

For Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian, the first half was the type of basketball the 30 year old coach had dreamed of since taking the job this past offseason. Drain threes, force turnovers, and have their opponent back on their heels with a frenetic tempo. It was Mount Mayhem personified.

"Every now and again, you get a chance to see a glimpse of how good we can be offensively, because we have a lot of different guys that can play a lot of positions and score the ball," said Christian. "I thought the key of the game today in the first half is we played very unselfishly. Really shared the ball well and that's what I'm most proud of my team in sharing the ball. That's big." 

Sacred Heart, as awful as that perimeter defense was in the first half, came out with their usual fight in the second half. After blowing several opportunities to cut the Mount's deficit to single digits, SHU finally broke through after two made free throws by Shane Gibson. The problem was there was less than two minutes left in the game, and by then KenPom's probability odds of coming back had essentially evaporated away.

It's been a storyline all too familiar for SHU; in fact, today was the ninth time in 21 games where Sacred Heart fell behind by at least double digits, only to furiously come back and cut the deficit to less than ten, and at least give themselves a chance at pulling out the upset. Remarkably, the cardiac Pioneers have won four of those games in which they dug themselves a brutal hole (Yale, Stony Brook, St. Francis Brooklyn, Monmouth), but that certainly isn't the way a supposed NEC contender should play throughout the season.

"I think we have the spunk," said SHU head coach Dave Bike. "We just have to play better."

Offensively, the Pioneers played pretty well, especially in the second half. Louis Montes has his seventh double digit effort of the NEC season with a team high 21 points. Freshman forward De'Aires Tate once again played 20+ minutes and made the most of it, having the best game of his young career with 14 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks (all are career highs). Steve Glowiak had another solid effort with 11 points (3 of 6 from behind the arc) and currently leads the team with 31 steals this season. The guard from hard hitting New Britain has helped the Pioneers off the ball in his sophomore campaign, which was something I complained about last season as he was morphing into an insufferable ball-chucker.

And finally, Shane Gibson may have had an off night shooting the basketball (6-15 from the floor), but one of the best players of the NEC had 18 points, a season high six assists, six rebounds, and three steals. Still, if the opposing team is able to lock down Gibson from behind the arc (only 1 of 5), it makes things much more difficult for Dave Bike's squad.

"Rashad [Whack] did a great job (guarding Gibson)," said Christian. "Any time you're playing against a great player, you know he's going to hit some tough shots, you know he's going to make some. We really put the emphasis on whoever was guarding Gibson tonight. Whack did an unbelievable job just taking away shots and making him shoot twos."

Whack did have himself an unbelievable game, scoring a career high 35 points on 16 shots, grabbing four rebounds, dishing out three assists, and fighting hard through the off-the-ball screens to remain in Gibson's face all night. It was pretty darn close to the NEC single game performance of the season, in my opinion.

Mount St. Mary's freshman point guard Shivaugn Wiggins had 13 points and six assists in a season high 32 minutes. It's unknown whether his excellent play of late has begun to phase out junior guard Josh Castenallos, who only played five minutes Saturday night. Castellanos has been dealing with injuries throughout the season. The win moves Mount St. Mary's into ninth place in the conference with a record of 4-6.

Despite the two game losing streak, SHU find themselves in decent position, now tied for third place with a record of 6-4 in the NEC. They have a very good top four of Gibson, Montes, Glowiak, and Phil Gaetano, but with all of the injuries and youth in the front court, the depth remains the biggest issue for this team. It was evident in the past two games. Without ball handlers and perimeter defenders Chris Evans and Evan Kelley, this team will struggle against pressure defenses like Wagner and Mount St. Mary's, hence the 43 turnovers committed in the past two games.

Whether or not the team can overcome their shortened bench remains the biggest question, but at the very least, the cardiac kids in the red and white have made this conference season interesting to watch. And after witnessing the past few mediocre seasons, it's fun to see SHU have a chance to make some noise.

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

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Louis Montes Emerging as a Reliable Second Option for Sacred Heart

After looking a bit tired and lethargic during their home game versus Monmouth, Sacred Heart began to make their comeback, thanks to Shane Gibson. The All-NEC performer scored 19 straight points – eleven of them from the charity stripe - in the second half to quickly erase a double digit Monmouth lead.

Soon thereafter, Monmouth head coach King Rice did everything he could to possibly end Gibson’s remarkable run. With his team leading 68-67 and about four minutes left on the clock, the Hawks wisely doubled Gibson near the top of the key. Gibson skipped a pass left to Phil Gaetano, who then quickly pushed the ball to a wide open Louis Montes sitting behind the three-point line. 

Said Rice after the game, “I kind of wanted Montes to take that shot.”

Montes, despite shooting an uncharacteristic 15.4% from three-point land (on only 26 attempts) for the season, did take the shot. And he swished it, much to the delight of the 1,614 fans present at the Pitt Center.

Then after getting a defensive stop, there was Gaetano again feeding an open Montes left of the rim. As the junior was hacked on his way up for the lay-up, he slightly adjusted midair and finished the play. He made the ensuing free throw to give the Pioneers a 73-68 advantage. It was a lead they would not relinquish.

“I like when [Montes] makes the threes the old fashion way,” said Sacred Heart head coach Dave Bike after the game. “I think that’s so important.”

Montes finished with 25 points – nine of them in the final 4:04 – to help lead Sacred Heart to an improbable 6-2 start in the conference, giving them a share of the first place lead along with Robert Morris and Bryant. 

Given the team’s 2-9 record after 11 non-conference games, the notion of Sacred Heart challenging for a NEC crown would have been construed as far-fetched. In the offseason, however, the Pioneers were a somewhat trendy pick to crack the NEC top five, especially when factoring in the return of Montes, power forward Justin Swidowski, and guards Evan Kelley and Chris Evans. A more consistent effort out of those four behind Gibson could elevate Sacred Heart from a middle of the pack NEC team to a legitimate league contender.

The problem is, as you all know by now, Montes is the only player of the aforementioned group who has avoided the trainer’s table this season. Kelley and Evans are out for the season with knee injuries, while Swidowski has missed the past four games with a dislocated shoulder.

“I knew Chris [Evans] maybe was still going to be out and we share the ‘3’ spot, so I was working out just to make sure if he doesn’t come back, then I was going to be ready,” said Montes. “Then when Evan [Kelley] went out, it made me work even harder.”

Montes spent the majority of his offseason working out at least two times per day with Gaetano, in order to hone his ball-handling and perimeter skills. As a 6’4” forward who can play the “3” or “4” on an injury depleted roster, Montes’ versatility is even more valuable these days.

"I'll do whichever one I can," said Montes when asked if he prefers the perimeter or post. "They'll put a big man on me at the '4,' and that's when I know I can take him out. Or if they put a small guy on me, that's when I know I can post them up. Obviously, I'm pretty versatile with that."

The extra work done this offseason has paid off. To date, Montes finds himself in the top 15 of the NEC in points (14.0) and rebounds (6.6) per game and has demonstrated more consistency on a game-to-game basis. Montes has broken the ten points, five rebounds threshold 11 times this season. Last year he only achieved the goal in nine games.

“I just didn’t want to have a bad year like last year,” said Montes. “I mean I had spurts of good games, but obviously I wasn’t in as good of shape as I am now.”

Dave Bike agrees. “[Louis] came in better physical condition and his motor’s better. He realized there's a direct correlation in the condition he’s in and his performance.”

In a way, the Pioneers will only go as far as Gibson and Montes (who are roommates by the way) will take them. Without significant production from either of them on a game by game basis, the Pioneers will likely struggle to add to their already surprising NEC win total. 

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

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bobby Valentine a Candidate For Sacred Heart AD?

I officially heard it all regarding Sacred Heart athletics. Today, Bill Paxton of the Connecticut Post reported that former New York Mets and Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine is a candidate to replace the retiring and beloved Don Cook as Sacred Heart athletic director.

There is no word if Art Howe or Dallas Green has any interest in the job.

In all seriousness, my initial emotion upon hearing the news was: “Wow, maybe I could meet him. Awesome!” (I’m a simple guy with a simple mind after all.) After further thought and filtering out my emotion as a lifelong and long suffering Mets and Bobby V fan, I began to wonder why exactly the best manager in recent Mets history would be qualified as an athletic director. I know he invented the sandwich wrap, but what exactly does he know about college athletics, budgets, and finding the right wrestling, fencing, or basketball coach?

I went back to relive the Bobby V history and thanks to Defiantly Dutch’s tweets, I fondly recall the Bobby V that tirelessly fundraised and volunteered to help those in need after 9/11. The hard work and exhaustive commitment he displayed as the manager of the Mets at the time to those families in need made me proud to be a Mets fan. Really, it’s so easy to forget those days after the recent one year debacle Bobby V went through up in Boston. If only he didn’t decide to pick on poor Mike Aviles after three days of training camp…

So, could Bobby V as an athletic director raise money for the university? Sure, why not. Could he given his determined work ethic and hands-on approach quickly adapt to the rigors of managing a Division I college athletic department? It seems likely. When you think about it, the Sacred Heart hierarchy certainly knows what they’re doing, thus I’m more likely to trust their original intuition that Bobby V is a worthy candidate for the job. Who am I to say he’d be an awful hire?

Before we get ahead of ourselves, however, please note that there are many more candidates for the athletic director position. Valentine is clearly the most notable of the group highlighted by Paxton, but that doesn’t make him the favorite to land the gig. Sacred Heart President John Petillo and his ties to Seton Hall University shouldn’t be ignored, as there appears to be plenty of candidates working in South Orange, NJ.

I’d like to see what you, the Sacred Heart and NEC fans think. Do you feel Bobby V would be a good hire? Please let me know in the poll above and if you’d like to elaborate further, feel free to do so in the comments section.

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

Four Thoughts on Why Sacred Heart is in First Place

I'm a guy of science that typically values statistics over emotion or gut feelings. I feel the need to mention this because of what I'm about to say. I don't believe in jinxes and karma on the basketball court. So here goes nothing...

I feel this year's Sacred Heart Pioneers could be a team of destiny. I feel utterly ridiculous saying that, but there's just something special about this team that defies logic sometimes. How else do you explain missing three of your seven best players to injury yet still finding a way to have a share of the first place lead in the NEC? Advanced statistics be damned, this team may have what it takes to go to the NCAA tournament come March.

It's been a while since I've updated this site (sorry I'm a busy man), but I wanted to list the four biggest reasons why the Pioneers are in the improbable position they currently find themselves in. Here we go...

1) Shane Gibson, stupid!
It was a rough non-conference season for Gibson, as last year's NEC Player of the Year runner-up (I'm simply making this up, but I do believe he was second to Julian Boyd last year) struggled in multiple games this season. Once conference play began however, Gibson has been absolutely brilliant. The senior leads the NEC in scoring (25.4 ppg), free throw percentage (91.1% in 56 attempts), and is second in three-pointers made per game (3.25/game). In SHU's impressive home stand, Gibson averaged an efficient 29.5 ppg in two tremendous victories over previously unbeaten Bryant and feisty Monmouth. Against Monmouth, Gibson at one point scored 19 straight points for SHU! The two game effort was good enough to earn Gibson NEC Player of the Week honors. The senior is rolling again.

2) Phil Gaetano is Turning Into One of the Best Pure Point Guards in the NEC, Check That, in the Country!
I've been touting the wonders of sophomore Phil Gaetano over at Big Apple Buckets, who in reality was supposed to share the point guard duties with junior Evan Kelley this season. But then Kelley's kneecap blew out, therefore Gaetano is averaging a team high 35 minutes per game. The 5'10" floor general has certainly taken advantage, as he now has 75 assists against 21 turnovers in eight NEC games. That's an amazing assist to turnover ratio of 3.57, easily tops in the conference. In addition, his 7.8 assists/game is good enough for fifth in the entire nation. I could continue to praise Gaetano, but allow me to quote Monmouth head coach King Rice after Saturday night's game. Here's what the former point guard had to say about Gaetano:

"The key to their [team] is Shane, obviously, but Gaetano gets 8 assists in the half. That's the biggest thing when you have someone as steady as Gaetano and he's getting guys baskets that no one else is getting guys baskets like that in our league. You watch him in warmups, he's talking to the guys on the team telling them what we're going to do today. Then he goes and sits with Shane. You're the point guard and you're sitting with the main guy and I know he's saying 'you know man, I'm coming to you, I'm coming to you.' Gaetano runs the show."

3) Secondary Players Are Stepping Up
This goes without saying, especially when SHU has Justin Swidowski, Chris Evans, and Evan Kelley in street clothes every game. Steve Glowiak, who was expected to play the role of sharpshooting guard off the bench, has stepped in and given SHU double digits points in five out of eight conference games. He's shooting a solid 39.4% from behind the arc, after stinking up the joint last season with a 24.0% mark.

Louis Montes, who will have a post purely dedicated to him shortly, has been excellent as well, averaging 15.5 ppg (7th in the NEC) and 6.5 rpg (13th in the NEC). I hate to go all advanced statistics on you, but it's a good thing that Montes is nationally ranked in offensive rebounding percentage and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. The undersized forward is a load down low, and opposing defenders are clearly having a difficult time defending the versatile, yet physically imposing Montes.

Finally in the frontcourt, newcomers Mostafa Abdel-Latif, De'Aires Tate, and Tevin Falzon have all given Dave Bike significant contributions when needed. On Saturday with an ineffective Abdel-Latif and Nick Greenbacker on the bench, Falzon came in and scored 7 points while grabbing 9 rebounds. |

(Note: At one point, Falzon did miss an easy layup, which prompted an angry old man next to me to scream that Bike should put "that bum" on the bench. Comically, Falzon's family was sitting right in front of the old geezer, although none of them turned around to glare at him.)

4) Playing a Little Defense
I'm kind when I say that Dave Bike teams are typically terrible defensive teams. He likes offense, he likes guards that score, and he likes high shooting percentages. Well, SHU is scoring, there's no denying that with an offense that rates in the upper third of the NEC, but it could be the decent defensive effort that's pulling some of these games out. The Pioneers are second in the conference in effective field goal percentage defense and near the middle of league in points allow per possession (1.02 PPP). It doesn't sound all that awesome, but when compared to previous seasons, this is a stark improvement.

SHU may be 6-2 in the league, but there's still plenty of season ahead to them. They have to travel to all three NYC schools, Bryant, and Mount St. Mary's before the season concludes, so it won't be easy to close out on a high note. At the very least, the Pioneers have put themselves in an excellent position nearly halfway through the season. They've taken care of business at home (4-0), while staying competitive in every single game so far this season. The upcoming road trip at Wagner and Mount St. Mary's will provide another test for Dave Bike's group.

By the way, if you'd like to hear me talk about SHU and the NEC on the Sacred Heart halftime show from Saturday night's game, go here. The interview begins at the 55:10 mark.

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

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Justin Swidowski Doubtful to Play This Week for Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart was without the services of senior Justin Swidowski for their long Pennsylvania road trip last week, and it appears he’ll be out for at least a little longer. According to SHU assistant coach Anthony Latina, Swidowski is unlikely to suit up for their two home games this week against Bryant and Monmouth.

“He's doubtful for Thursday and this weekend," said Latina on Tuesday morning.

Swidowski dislocated his right shoulder in practice approximately a week ago. The MRI came up negative, yet the Pioneers are exercising extreme caution before declaring Swidowski fit to play. 

The latest injury adds to the unfortunate rash of shoulder problems encountered by Swidowski in his collegiate career. The 6’9” power forward had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder this offseason. He barely made it back in time to begin the season and has seen a significant drop in his production as a result. Despite the bouts of inconsistency though, Latina felt Swidowski was beginning to find his rhythm on the court.

“It's disappointing, because [Swidowski] was really starting to turn the corner and play well,” said Latina. "He's a kid in this league that can really score, inside and out."

In addition, Chris Evans will redshirt this season, thanks to a nagging knee injury that hasn’t improved since he underwent meniscus surgery last offseason. Evans had been sporadically practicing in an attempt to return this season, but his long shot comeback attempt appears to be over.

Evans, along with redshirt guard Evan Kelley who had knee surgery in December, will have two years of eligibility left beginning next season. The injuries, although untimely, give Sacred Heart an impressive foursome of junior guards next season in Evans, Kelley, Steve Glowiak, and point guard Phil Gaetano.

Without the versatile Swidowski in the lineup, the Pioneers will rely on senior Nick Greenbacker, and newcomers De’Aires Tate, Mostafa Abdel-Latif, and Tevin Falzon in the frontcourt. Femi Akinpetide, who wasn’t with the team for the past seven games because of personal reasons, is back on campus and will be in uniform Thursday night. It’s unknown whether he’ll receive any playing time, however, after a long layoff.

One player who is expected to see a significant amount of playing time this coming week is Tate. The 6’6” freshman had 24 points, nine rebounds, four steals, and two blocks in his last two games combined. Tate's play has possibly elevated him as the first big man off the bench.

“De'Aires' play is very encouraging," said Latina. "We always knew he was extremely athletic and he could make plays that other guys in the league can't make. It was just a matter of being completely comfortable out there with what we're doing. Once he gets comfortable, and he's trending that way, he has a chance to be very good ... because of his length and athleticism.”

Thanks to the numerous injuries this roster has suffered, Sacred Heart will need players like Tate and Falzon to step up if they want to legitimately compete for a NEC title. Sacred Heart's showdown with the first place Bryant Bulldogs on Thursday will immediately test the Pioneer's depth. It remains to be seen how they'll respond.

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

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sacred Heart Finishes Off St. Francis to Win First Two NEC Games

I don't ever remember saying this about any of my favorite sports teams, but four wins and nine losses has never looked so damn good. Especially when you throw in that perfect 2-0 NEC record!

It seems ridiculous to celebrate after a team has won merely 31% of their games, but after one of the worst non-conference seasons I have ever witnessed as a Sacred Heart alum, I needed this. Any of the 500 fans who showed up at the Pitt Center yesterday needed this. The Pioneers have righted the ship by sweeping their two game home-stand against the Brooklyn schools to open the conference season. So everything is OK now, right?

Well, not exactly.

Sure, I'm a glass half-empty guy when talking about my Pioneers, yet these are two games that SHU desperately needed to win, which they did by the slimmest of margins. The two victories gave SHU a share of first place along with Wagner and Bryant (who could have guessed that?), but I'm far from celebrating this momentous occasion.

(Seriously Ryan, stop being a freaking baby. Just be happy they have a share of the first place lead. It could be worse. You could be a fan of Robert Morris, who's coach just called his team a bunch of wimpy, noncompetitive boys after two home losses to Bryant and CCSU.)

OK. OK. I'll humor you this time. After all, I should oblige. Especially after Mount St. Mary's head coach Jamion Christian congratulated me on SHU's win after HIS OWN press conference last night (he was in a good mood after their solid win over Monmouth).

Just let it be known that the Pioneers were fortunate to be only down five at halftime of their home showdown with St. Francis Brooklyn. The Terrier big men missed a number of easy putbacks and shots inside the paint (which included a comical two minute sequence from St. Francis center Matt Milk, poor guy), and luckily SHU took advantage by closing the first stanza on an 8-0 run. It should have been a much bigger deficit.

In second half, however, the Pioneers played like the title contending team I had originally envisioned. For the first time all season, Justin Swidowski played an absolutely dominating five minutes of basketball, registering 12 points on only five shots. He did his damage from both inside and out, and was the spark that kept in the Pioneers in the game throughout the second half. After his three-point play (the good old fashion way) capped off a 12-1 run to tie the game at 47, it was an entirely whole new game.

Despite the second half surge though, SHU still couldn't get over the hump. Anytime the Pioneers had an opportunity to seize control of the game, there was St. Francis power forward - and future All-NEC first teamer - Jalen Cannon doing damage in the paint. The shorthanded Pioneers frontcourt, sans Femi Akinpetide (personal issue) and Tevin Falzon (academic issue), were no match for the bulky sophomore, as he once again impressed with an array of smooth post moves and an uncanny ability to grab rebounds on both sides of the floor. Cannon finished with 20 points and 16 rebounds.

(Quick side note: The SHU radio announcer said this about Cannon during the game, "Jalen Cannon is becoming one of the better players in the NEC." That certainly is the understatement of the year!)

Luckily for the Pioneers, a player who has already earned All-NEC first team honors in Shane Gibson played like a star yesterday. It was vintage Gibson (28 points on 17 shots), as he scored the final four points of the contest to will his team to victory. Rather than hoisting up a contested 25 footer in SHU's final possession, Gibson wisely drove past his man and was fouled by Akeem Johnson as he attempted the game winning layup. Gibson then calmly swished both free throws with five seconds left to give the Pioneers their first lead since they were up 3-0.

SHU, of course, held on and will now embark on an arduous four game road trip. The first week keeps the Pioneers in Connecticut for critical in-state battles with CCSU and Quinnipiac. The second leg finds Dave Bike and company in Western PA to face St. Francis (PA) and an angry and winless (in the NEC anyway) Robert Morris club.

Anything less than a split of those four games will be disappointing, but given the wild wild NEC (sorry I had to steal that phrase from Colonial Corner writer Andrew Chiappazzi), you never know what is going to happen. Yet with the wide openness of the conference, SHU has a chance. If Shane Gibson can consistently return into that dynamic player from a season ago, if Justin Swidowski is finally back full healthy from his shoulder surgery, and if role players like point guard Phil Gaetano continue to produce (19 assists versus five turnovers, four of six from three-point range in both conference games so far), then who the hell knows what this team can do.

I'm not celebrating the 4-9 Pioneers yet, but I'd be lying to you if I said there wasn't a fist pump ... or twenty in the Peters' household last night.

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

Thursday, January 3, 2013

NEC Play Offers Sacred Heart a Fresh Start

January 3, 2013 offers a clean slate for the 12 Northeast Conference (NEC) teams, because at the low mid-major level winning the NEC title is practically the only avenue these teams have toward qualifying for the NCAA tournament. For the 2-9 Sacred Heart Pioneers, the fresh start offers a much needed reprieve from the evident struggles of the non-conference season. Sacred Heart assistant coach Anthony Latina clearly agrees.

"Obviously, our record is not where we want it to be," said Latina. "But I think [the players] understand it's about league play. I think for the most part, the guys have worked very hard and are positive and are trying to turn this thing around."

Latina then added, "The last time we played this poorly [in non-conference] was Drew Shubik's senior year (2007-08 season). We had an identical non-conference record, and we ended up going 13-5 [in the NEC]. We were one game out of first and ended up getting to the NEC title game. The point is after we were 2-9 [in the 2007-08 season], we were a possession away from going to the NCAA tournament and three years ago we were 7-4 [in non-conference] and didn't make the [NEC] playoffs. We've been on both ends of it. Obviously, you don't want to finish 2-9, but doing well or not well in non-conference really has had no bearing on predicting how we'd do in conference play."

The first conference game of the season offers SHU an opportunity with a shorthanded LIU Brooklyn club traveling to Fairfield. The Blackbirds will be without the services of starters Julian Boyd (injury/suspension), Jamal Olasewere (suspension), and C.J. Garner (suspension). It will make things very difficult for the defending NEC champions out of the gate, but SHU needs to take full advantage.

"You never want to say it's a must win with 18 games left to go, but I would say it's an important game," said Latina. "I would say it's an important game, especially because we haven't played well. So from a confidence standpoint, from a momentum standpoint I would say it's very important to get out of the gate and play well."

Latina did warn that an element of surprise could play a role in the outcome of tonight's game however. "Obviously if you ask LIU, they would rather have Olasewere and Garner playing, but from a preparation standpoint you are going to be seeing some guys who haven't been playing as much. You don't really know what they can do and can't do."

SHU will also be a little shorthanded in the frontcourt. Senior power forward Femi Akinpetide is unlikely to play as he's dealing with a personal issue. Tevin Falzon, although he's fully eligible and will dress with the team tonight, hasn't played recently because the team has disciplined him due to recent academic issues. Whether or not he sees some time in tonight's game will be a game-time decision.

Despite the injuries to Evan Kelley and Chris Evans and the thinned out frontcourt depth, the Pioneers are desperate to prove to their fans and the league that they are a better team then their 2-9 record indicates.

"I think you'll see a team that will play much better; I'm confident in that," said Latina the night before their first conference game. "And before the La Salle and GW games which were debacles, I thought we were certainly heading in the right direction. We lost to a very good Stony Brook team who I thought we outplayed for most of the game."

Added Latina, "I do think we have enough - even with the injuries [to Evans and Kelley] - to be a factor. We have enough weapons to be a factor. Now are we the most talented team? No, losing those two guys you can't expect to be."

It will certainly be interesting to see how the Pioneers respond. These days, the goals have been shortened to a day-by-day basis, because as Latina explains, you're only as good as your next practice or next game.

"I think the way you have to approach it, when your team has won a league championship like a LIU or Robert Morris, I think winning a league championship should be discussed. I think when you are a team like us, you have to think more on a short-term basis. We have to play better tomorrow. We have to focus on being better tomorrow."

Today will be an excellent test for the struggling Pioneers. Can they take advantage of a shorthanded LIU club, or will this brutal season continue to spiral out of the control?

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

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Sacred Heart's Ugly Mid-Season Report

This must be rock bottom, because I have a hard time envisioning the Sacred Heart Pioneers falling any lower.

After blowout losses (and I can’t highlight the word blowout enough) to Atlantic 10 clubs La Salle and George Washington over the holiday break, SHU is officially reeling. The losses were the sixth and seventh straight setbacks for the Pioneers, as their record has fallen to an unsightly, unfathomable 2-9 on the season. In fact, it's the worst start for SHU since the '04-05 season, when they lost 13 of their first 14 games. Somebody, please hold me.

Even though I'm in a fragile mental state and can't be trusted to provide an objective opinion regarding my beloved alma mater, I nevertheless felt this was a great opportunity to briefly evaluate the hapless Pioneers. So with NEC conference play on the horizon, I will provide an expectedly dire mid-season report, complete with grades!

This should be fun, just make sure you hide your children before continuing on. I may vent just a bit.

The offense hasn’t been as reliable as it was last year, which is mildly perplexing since only Stan Dulaire was lost from last year’s roster. Through 11 games, SHU offensive numbers are a little worse than average, which given the defense's performance, isn't good enough to win games. The injuries to Evan Kelley and Chris Evans have made life that much more difficult for Shane Gibson, who after a monster junior season, has been disappointingly average. Gibson is certainly attempting to shoulder the load offensively, as he's attempted nearly 36% of the Pioneers' total shots. Only one player on the Pioneer roster has a Ken Pomeroy positive offensive rating in Steve Glowiak, although that mark is regressing back to the average now that teams are beginning to realize the sharpshooter is a bit like a one-trick pony. Justin Swidowski hasn't looked dominant since returning from offseason shoulder surgery, and while Louis Montes has improved significantly, he hasn't been terribly efficient shooting the basketball (especially on the perimeter, where he's only sank one of 18 three-pointer attempts). 

Overall, you have an offense that is plagued with occasional shooting slumps. It surely makes life difficult with the Pioneers atrocious defense. More on that below...

A Dave Bike coached team will never be mistaken for Rick Pitino's suffocating Louisville defenses, that's for damn sure, but the defensive effort this season has been utterly atrocious. It was only fitting that the Pioneers gave up 66 (yes, 66) points in the first half of their loss to La Salle. SHU isn’t defending on the perimeter (opponents are shooting nearly 37% from behind the arc), forcing turnovers (bottom 15% nationally in defensive turnover rate), or protecting the defensive glass (bottom 12% nationally in defensive rebounding rate). Add it all up and you have a team giving up 109.2 points per 100 possessions. To put that number in perspective, only 25 teams in the country (there are 347 Division I teams) have given up more points per 100 possessions. Oy vey...

Everything is linked together and when a veteran team has only two victories after nearly two months of basketball, the coaching staff will almost never receive a positive grade. After all, this isn't a monster rebuilding project like Binghamton or Towson. This is a Pioneer team who's two best players are seniors. As a result, Dave Bike and his staff gets a thumbs down from this fan. They had some furious second half comebacks, which evidently illustrates that this team hasn't quit on their old coach. But when the Pioneers are consistently digging themselves out of early holes that are difficult to climb out of, some of blame must be directed at the coaching staff. There's no other way to explain it. 

Obviously, a record of two wins and nine defeats was not what I pictured for this veteran club. Sure, the Pioneers have suffered from a slew of injuries, both in the nagging and season-ending department, but I still can't use that as a full blown excuse nor should the coaches. They've lost several games in the final minutes (Holy Cross, Lafayette, Stony Brook) and have inexplicably dug themselves an early hole in most of their winnable games. How exactly do you fall behind 20-4 against Lafayette? Or find yourself down double digits in the first half to both Yale and Holy Cross?

I just spent about 30 minutes uncovering this overwhelmingly sobering gem of a stat. So far in all 11 games, the Pioneers have only held a lead 6.3% of the time. That’s right, in 445 possible game minutes, SHU has been ahead on the scoreboard for a paltry 28 minutes and 9 seconds.

This stat says it all. It says the Pioneers haven't been unlucky when evaluating their record, in fact they may be fortunate to have two wins! If it wasn't for those two miraculous comebacks versus Yale and Stony Brook (of which Ken Pomeroy claimed there were less than a 3% chance of happening), Sacred Heart would be in the same winless boat as the lowly St. Francis Red Flash. The stat says the Pioneers have been dominated on most nights. And it says the Pioneers are simply unable to put together a series of defensive stops long enough to allow their average offense to pull ahead. It's been a perfect storm of ineptness to put it kindly. 

Luckily, the NEC season begins with a two game homestand, starting this Thursday night when the Pioneers host a depleted LIU Brooklyn team. Sacred Heart MUST win this game, because if they can't defeat a team minus Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere, and C.J. Garner, then this could very well be a seven or eight win team that misses the NEC postseason for the third time in four seasons. Win on Thursday night and then show me something Saturday against an improving St Francis Terriers club.

Because these days, I need something - anything really - to tell me this Pioneer team is ready to play with the big boys. So far, they've been a sad, pathetic team that hardly warrants any kind of mention on this blog.

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