At 1-8, Tom Pecora hopes to right ship Saturday, when his Fordham team takes on Princeton to open Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival tripleheader at the Barclays Center. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)
Through the first nine games, it's safe to say that Tom Pecora hasn't enjoyed the unexpected start that the third-year coach has had this season at Fordham. Through close games, heartbreaking losses, and the injury to senior forward Chris Gaston just three games into the year, Pecora has already dealt with more adversity this season than any coach should be subjected to, but it hasn't stopped his magnetic personality and eternal optimism from shining through.
Pecora and the Rams open this Saturday's tripleheader at the Barclays Center against Princeton in the Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival, and before the pride of the Bronx comes over the Whitestone Bridge and across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I had the privilege of speaking with Pecora earlier this afternoon, having this to say:
Jaden Daly: I know it's not really the best start you could have hoped for, but there are a lot of positives early on this season. Talk about how far this team has come so far this year, and what you're looking forward to the rest of the way.
Tom Pecora: Obviously, a 1-8 start is not what any of us wanted. It's the first time in my career I've ever dealt with this kind of a start. I think it's really a reflection of our schedule, having to play away and having to play some real good opponents, one of our first eleven games at home. Another thing is the injury to Chris Gaston. Having one senior who's an all-conference player and having him out for a month obviously doesn't help the process. We'll get ourselves back on track hopefully this weekend and once we get Chris back, and he should start playing again on Saturday, then we get ourselves back home a week from Sunday. That'll be good. This team is obviously loaded with freshmen and sophomores, and we need to just keep them up and try to keep their confidence level where they can go win basketball games. I don't want them to have their hearts torn out by this tough start, so every day we're really trying to be positive with them and continue to let them know that we're better than a 1-8 team. If we had played a softer schedule and played more home games, our record would be better, but we're getting better every day. They continue to work really hard in practice and get better each day, and I think we've been in a lot of close games. We've competed, and that's a bright spot. I think the future is bright, I think our frontcourt, especially with our three big young guys, (Ryan Canty, Travion Leonard and Ryan Rhoomes) is in good shape. We're happy with the recruits we have coming in, so there's definitely more talent here. Whether it's reflected in our win total this year, we'll see in time. We could end up similar to where we were last year unless we really get it going in conference, but I think without a doubt that the program continues to move forward.
JD: Is Chris 100%? What's the update on him?
TP: I wouldn't say he's 100%, but he's probably going to be able to play 20-25 minutes. His conditioning isn't where it needs to be, and he's still going to be getting some swelling, so what I'll probably do is play him Saturday and take Sunday off. We're just going to have to pamper him a little bit as he gets going, and then the following weekend we play Friday/Sunday, (at UConn and home vs. Siena) so we'll see how the knee responds to that. The operation was a success, so we're hoping for the best.
JD: Talk about Ryan Canty and how he has come around. What can you say about him and where he projects the rest of the way, not just starting, but also staying in the rotation and seeing considerable minutes?
TP: I think his development has been tremendous. He's a hard-working kid who plays with reckless abandon. He's got a little bit of a back issue, so he's another guy we have to take off the floor in practice on occasion. We'll address that in the spring and see how severe that is. He comes from a great family of basketball players, his dad and his mom both played at Providence, his grandfather played at Harvard. He continues to work on his game and his competitive nature, he's really fun to coach. Those are the kind of kids I love coaching.
JD: And Travion and Ryan also for that matter?
TP: The commitment that Travion has made to his body, for a young guy to lose 60 pounds in five months has affected his conditioning. He's a four, five minute at a time guy, but as we move forward and he gets more accustomed to playing at 270 instead of being at 340, he's going to continue to get better. For him and Ryan, everything's happening a little bit too quick, they're half a step behind some plays, but that's the case for most freshmen. The minutes that they're getting now and the minutes they all logged when Chris was out is going to make us a better team as the year goes on, and it will make them mature quicker and have better careers in my opinion.
JD: You said before the season that Branden Frazier was expected to become more of a leader. With Chris on the shelf, that process has obviously been accelerated a little more. Comment on how he's carrying the team through this stretch.
TP: Well, he has, and at times he tries to do too much, and I think that's why his field goal percentage numbers are so poor; he forces shots feeling like he has to make every play for us, and that's something he's working on. Getting Chris back will make that an easier process for him, but he's done everything we've ever asked him since he came here. He was going to come with us to Hofstra, and when I took this job, he didn't hesitate at all. He's just a quality kid. He plays great with the ball in his hands as well as without, his assist to turnover ratio is excellent, he's gotten bigger and stronger. As we get settled in with our starting lineup with Chris back, you'll see his numbers increase as time goes on, especially with his field goal percentage.
JD: Last year, Bryan Smith had more big games than he has so far this season, and it's had a noticeable effect on the team. How much has his inconsistency concerned you and the staff?
TP: It concerns us greatly. That's really the only thing I've talked to Bryan about all year, is that "you have to be more consistent and you have to be more confident. You're a scorer. If you get a good look, you take it. I have confidence in you that you'll knock it down, and if you don't make it, you're going to make the next one." That's the key with Bryan Smith. Consistency has to be the difference, and that's the difference between young players and veteran players. Veteran players are consistent, you know what you're going to get each night, and that's something that Bryan really has to work on.
JD: Has anything changed in the backcourt with Fatty (Devon McMillan) having left?
TP: We might get a few more minutes from Mandell Thomas. Branden Frazier will be our point guard, and I'm really confident with the ball in his hands, so we're really looking now at Frazier, (Jeff) Short and Jermaine Myers, then Smitty (Bryan Smith) and Mandell, so we have five guys playing three spots.
JD: Take a look at Saturday's Princeton matchup and some of the challenges it presents, as well as some of the opportunities you may have.
TP: Mitch (Henderson) is doing a good job coaching them, they have a very high basketball IQ, they move the ball well, they understand their roles. It's going to be a good challenge for us with a young team to go figure out how to impose their will on them. We haven't played at the Barclays yet, so how we respond to playing in a new arena the first time is always a concern for a young team, and it's a good basketball game for Fordham. We like to be mentioned with schools like Harvard and Princeton, so I think it's going to be a good game. It's as much about us as it is any opponent we play right now, and we have to go out and play with a swagger.
JD: You're very adamant about using the Barclays Center to sell to recruits and establish Fordham's presence in the city. What do you see this weekend doing to help you later down the line?
TP: Having that venue in town along with the Garden elevates basketball collegiately and professionally. Having the opportunity to play in the Garden last week and now the Barclays is great for Fordham. I'd like to play a couple of games each year in Barclays, and by doing that, make it feel like a home court for us when we do get an opportunity to play in the conference tournament at the end of the year.
JD: Fordham has done that (second home court) before, most notably at the Meadowlands. How much more of a difference would having a second home court make compared to always playing at Rose Hill?
TP: It's huge, because as you know, in recruiting, what we get killed for is our home court and our facilities. It offsets the negative that's thrown at recruits when people say "it's a great school, it's a great place, but that old gym." I love the old gym, I think certain games playing here are a huge advantage for us, but to be able to play games at Barclays will help our recruiting tremendously.
JD: You've mentioned on multiple occasions that the local schools should play each other more often. Do you feel that the impending Big East separation puts you in more of a favorable position to schedule those schools more often?
TP: I don't know if it will affect scheduling as much. A lot will be "where do they go to fill out their league?" if indeed they do separate. It will be those seven schools, but do they go to the Midwest and try to raid the A-10 and go pursue Saint Louis, Butler, Xavier and Dayton, schools like that; or do they want to expand here in the East, and if so, is Fordham with home games at the Barclays Center in the Big East an option for them? Is St. Joe's with home games at the Palestra an option for them? What direction do they go if they expand? The crazy thing with this conference affiliation is that common sense goes out the window. You just never know. There's no rhyme or reason to what's taking place right now.
JD: Going into Atlantic 10 play, with a couple of winnable games, do you still think making the tournament is a realistic option even though this conference has become significantly better?
TP: Oh yeah, without a doubt, We're going to get better as the year goes on, there's no doubt about that, and we're playing games at Rose Hill. Every game at Rose Hill is a winnable game, I don't care who we're playing. You look at the Xavier game that went down to the wire, the Dayton game went to overtime here, Charlotte went to overtime, and we were able to beat Rhody and GW here, and La Salle. Once we get into conference play, hopefully we're healthy. We're a more talented team this year than we were last, so with that said, the league has gotten better and so have we. Now it's time to put your money where your mouth is when you get into conference play and find a way to win basketball games.
Fordham's contest with Princeton this Saturday is one that will be televised beginning at 2:30 on YES. If you can't get to the game either live, or on TV/radio, follow us on Twitter for updates throughout the afternoon.