Despite 14th-place preseason poll prediction, Tom Pecora is still in good spirits about Fordham's chances this season. (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)
Regardless of when it is, or how far along we are in the season, any chance you can get to talk to Tom Pecora is always a positive one.
The Fordham coach, now about to enter his third season with the Rams after building Hofstra into one of the better teams in the metropolitan area, has by far his best and most talented squad coming into Rose Hill this season. However, the emergence of everyone else in the Atlantic 10, coupled with the arrival of Butler and VCU, has the Rams picked fourteenth in the sixteen-member league, just ahead of Rhode Island and Duquesne; who reached into the Northeast Conference while changing coaches, hiring Dan Hurley and Jim Ferry away from Wagner and LIU Brooklyn, respectively.
As always, Pecora did not disappoint when I made my way over to his table this past Thursday at the Barclays Center, where he and the other fifteen A-10 coaches convened for the conference's annual media day. The coach, known for his magnetic and engaging personality that I as a fellow Italian-American can relate to, offered his impressions on the upcoming season; and even on restaurants close to the Fordham campus on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx's Little Italy, intimating that several eateries in the area would "take good care" of us. Aside from dining preferences, here is the rest of our 13-minute conversation, transcribed only because there would be a lot of information left out if I just did a regular feature piece.
Jaden Daly: Tom, it's been two years already, and I can't help but notice that you're building this team similar to how you did it at Hofstra. What sets these guys apart from your first couple of years out in Hempstead?
Tom Pecora: Well, it's similar in the sense that, you know, we've always recruited New York-area guards for the most part. We'll travel anywhere for big bodies, there's just fewer of them around, but I think they're similar because our style of play is the same. We always play with three guards, we've had great success doing that because the guards we've gotten are skilled enough and tough enough to where you can play small and not get banged up by not being big at that "small forward" position, so I think that's it; and we've gone back to the well, you know, we went back to the New York Catholic league, the PSAL, for the recruits that we've brought in, and Chris Gaston was in the program already. He's an exceptional player, and as a senior, we need him to now be an exceptional leader.
JD: Are you guys maybe going to be more undersized now that Kervin Bristol is gone, Marvin Dominique transferred to Saint Peter's, that the depth that you enjoyed over the last couple of years may not be around as much?
TP: I think we're deeper, to be quite honest, you know, with Travion Leonard, who's 6-9; and the first time we saw him play in a basketball game, he was 341 pounds, he's 280 today, so he's right where we need him to be for the season, and then we're waiting to get a final decision on Ryan Rhoomes, who's with us, who's a legit 6-9, 6-10, 240 pounds out of Cardozo High School. So, I think it gives us greater depth on the baseline if we have those two bodies, and Chris (Gaston) has got a great motor, so he doesn't come off the floor a whole lot. At that spot, you're really looking for somebody to play 8-12 minutes a game, but I think our overall depth is what's going to separate us from last year's team. I think we're going to be able to get deeper into the lineup. I think the X-factor is Jeff Short, he was with us as a freshman last year, had two knee operations and was redshirting for medical reasons. Two years ago, he led the city in scoring, so he's a guy who comes in now as a 6-3 kind of a hybrid guard you could put at multiple positions on the floor and can really score the basketball. You add him to a freshman class that, with the two bigs we mentioned and Jermaine Myers; who's a freshman guard who's going to come in after a year in prep school originally from Toronto, Canada, who's a solid point guard, gets people shots, I think there's some talented wings there, so I think we could be okay. The schedule is over the top, the schedule's brutal. I think it'll be a Top 100 schedule and our nonconference schedule, with everyone we have in our league now, you don't need to be playing a brutal nonconference schedule, but we are.
JD: Now with Butler and VCU coming on board, aside from the schedule, what are your other big concerns?
TP: Our youth. I mean, we have one senior, (Chris Gaston) one junior, (Branden Frazier) and then five sophomores and four freshmen, so our inexperience, but the expression I continue to use with my assistants is just "get them old." I feel very good about Chris and what to get out of Chris as a senior, and then Branden Frazier, you know what you're going to get every night. Branden continues to get better and better, but then the question is, how quickly can these younger guys mature? The quicker the maturation process is for them, the quicker we're going to be relevant in this league.
JD: Where does Chris rank among some of the best players you've coached?
TP: Chris is interesting because he's a frontcourt player, and all those other guys we've had that have gone on to be pros have been guards, and Chris is unique because he's got a tremendous motor, he's got an uncanny ability to rebound the basketball. The key now is his game expanding out to the perimeter a little bit more and more, and he's probably had the best offseason of his career this summer, and I think that's going to be the key for him.
JD: Last year, we saw a different side of Branden than we saw as a freshman, he ran the point mainly in his rookie year and was playing a little more off the ball last year. Is he going to be more of a combo guard now with Fatty (Devon McMillan) and Bryan (Smith) in the backcourt with him, or is he going to run the point more often?
TP: Well, we've always kind of played with three guards and two forwards. People talk about numbers, I don't really even number them. Once the ball is in play, the way we play offensively; and we tell the guys this when we recruit them, everyone's a point guard. Everyone's using ball screens, and everyone has to make good decisions with the basketball, you know, ball security and not turning the ball over. Due to their physical size and maybe their skill set, they could be perceived as being the "1," but I think Branden is just like those other guards because he could play multiple positions. Chris could play a little bit of "3" for you, and as the range on his jumper expands, that will enable him to be more of a hybrid player for us, and I believe that'll take place as the year goes on. That's kind of the formula, that's the only way I know how to coach, so that's how we're going to do it.
JD: Fatty McMillan and Bryan Smith are going into their second seasons. How much more important is each one of them?
TP: Fatty's important. Jermaine Myers is a good point guard and he's going to challenge Fatty every day in practice. He's coming off his second shoulder operation, (McMillan) so we don't even know if we'll have him as we start practice in the next couple of weeks, but the experience of them, Jeff Short coming back, Bryan Smith as a sophomore. When Bryan had big games, we had big games. He played great against Georgia Tech, he played very well against Harvard; and those were two of our biggest upsets, a Top 25 and an ACC team. In conference when we won some of our games last year, Bryan Smith has played well, so he's a catalyst for our success.
JD: You had the big win over St. John's two years ago, you had Georgia Tech and Harvard this past season. Going into this year, is it more paramount to your success to establish a presence on your home court?
TP: Yeah, well that's step one. When I came, I said the first thing we need to do is be a winning team at home. Then you build off that and you learn how to win on the road, you need to have a winning nonconference record. These are all little goals that we accomplished over the years. I didn't want to win ten games last year, I thought we could have gotten to around fifteen and got to .500 possibly. We lost five games by nine points or less, those are the kind of games at Hofstra that we never lost. We had great guards (at Hofstra) that were mature guards, and I think we're moving in that direction now as this backcourt matures; that you can control and win those close games, so that's why we play with three guards all the time.
JD: Speaking of great guards that are also mature, how much are you going to miss Alberto Estwick?
TP: Alberto's leadership was good, you know, he had a rough time shooting the basketball consistently, but he was a good leader. When we came in, the guys that were in the program, we embraced and treated as our own. Hell, I recruited Alberto's father, so I mean that's how far back I go with that family, but his leadership every day is something that Branden Frazier's going to have to step up and replace.
JD: How much have some of your other bench players improved, and what else do they bring to the table?
TP: Well, Ryan Canty's big, strong, and now he's a sophomore. We look at it as we have rookies and we have veterans. If you're a sophomore, you're a veteran. You have to know what we're doing, doing things right the first time, and Ryan Canty has great physical traits. He has to understand how he can have a huge impact on the game, and thus far, himself and Travion Leonard have been great when we look at our baseline and the things that our frontcourt is doing.
JD: You mentioned your nonconference schedule was brutal right out of the gate, up at Gampel Pavilion for UConn, at the Petersen Center for Pitt, in the Preseason NIT, you're at Texas State returning the favor from last year, at Harvard, etc.
TP: We're at Georgia Tech, we have St. John's at the Garden, and then when we look at teams out of the power conferences, we're playing Harvard and Princeton, who are projected to battle for the Ivy League championship, we're playing Lehigh, who's projected to win the Patriot League. There are no nights off. We're playing Manhattan, they're a top MAAC team, and that obviously is a bloodbath each year, it's a game that has been played for over 100 years. It's a very challenging schedule, but it's year three; we had to clean up some contracts, and I think as we move forward and this league continues to get better and better, you can look at structuring your nonconference schedule a little bit differently.
JD: Talk about Manhattan, the Battle of the Bronx, and how much Steve Masiello turned that program around last year. Now he has the MAAC favorites and arguably the conference Preseason Player of the Year in George Beamon. How do you go about defending them?
TP: I think those games are going to be knock-down, drag-outs. Last year, they jumped us good at their place, my first year, we beat them at our place. I just think Steve's done a wonderful job. Obviously, he came in with great energy and he played with Rick Pitino's style, he was with Rick for a while, and I think that rattled people as the season went on. He did a wonderful job, and it was well deserved for him to be the Metro Coach of the Year.
JD: A couple of other local teams on your schedule, Siena at home, Monmouth at home. You only have three nonconference home games this year.
TP: Well, that's what happens when you win some, it's tough to get people to come into your building. Siena, Mitch (Buonaguro) was banged up last year with the two big kids sitting, they're both going to be back this year. He's an outstanding coach, and that's a four-year commitment that we have with each other, so this will be year two of a four-year contract. It's the same down at Monmouth, you know, King Rice did a great job and he's got my former assistant Derrick Phelps down there with him. They're going to be one of the best teams in the Northeast Conference year in and year out, so that's another great challenge. I think it's important for us all to play each other around here. I think everyone asks how we're going to get college basketball back in New York, and it has to become relevant, and we have to play a lot of games against each other. This (the Barclays Center) is a building where we can do some of that.
JD: How much is this arena going to help your recruiting specifically, getting these kids you've been able to get so well for so many years?
TP: That's why when I was here Saturday night, I got here early and walked around for two hours and looked the place over, because I'll be giving tours when we bring kids in on official visits the weekend of the 12th. It's going to be big for everyone in the conference because now you're playing your conference tournament on the biggest stage in the greatest city in the world. I think it helps everyone, but it definitely helps Fordham.
JD: Between the A-10 and the Big East at Madison Square Garden, what's it going to be like for the New York basketball fan going back and forth to the two tournaments?
TP: Hey, if I'm 14, I got a $20 MetroCard, and I gotta work some scalpers? Think about some of the games you could see over a few days like that! I think it's tremendous.
JD: You're playing St. John's at the Garden again, two years ago you beat them; last year, you lost by six against a six-man rotation. Steve (Lavin) is back, he reloaded his team, he's got a good recruiting class coming in. Do you see a little bit of yourselves in them, or maybe the other way around?
TP: I think it's apples and oranges to a certain degree. Our recruiting has really been much more local, Steve has made it a national program, and he's gone out and recruited players from all over the country, so I think in that sense it's different. I don't know, I have a hard time, I mean I watch the local programs, I try to keep an eye on them; but there's an old expression "you can only coach one team," and I've got a lot of work to do at Fordham.
JD: From an outsider's standpoint, how much has the revitalization of that St. John's program galvanized New York basketball in your opinion?
TP: Well, I think it was year one for Steve, so I think it brought great excitement there. I think Iona being in the NCAA Tournament last year was good too. I think we need to get to a position where we have multiple teams in the area playing in it, (the NCAA Tournament) like it was years ago. It's become more difficult to do that, conferences have expanded. Obviously the level of competition in recruiting is different, but I think that's what we're striving for here in New York, to have multiple teams playing in the NCAA Tournament, multiple teams playing in the NIT. I think there have been runs here where everybody's been good in different stretches, but we all haven't been good together in quite a while.
Fordham opens their season on the road against Texas State on November 9th, with their home opener coming twenty days later against Manhattan College in the annual "Battle of the Bronx." Stay with A Daly Dose Of Hoops throughout the season for updates from Rose Hill.