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