After an admittedly difficult nonconference schedule last season, Tom Pecora has much more manageable 13-game slate as he prepares for fourth season at Fordham. (Photo courtesy of Newsday)
On several occasions, Fordham head coach Tom Pecora did not shy away from the difficulty of the Rams' nonconference schedule; which featured just three home games amid high-major opponents such as Pittsburgh, Connecticut and St. John's, as well as road trips to Texas State and Lehigh among others, calling the 15-game precursor to Atlantic 10 play "rough" or "brutal" on more than one occasion throughout the season, one that saw his Fordham team go 7-24 while fighting the injury bug, particularly with senior forward Chris Gaston, who graduated as one of the top ten scorers and rebounders in program history.
This season, however, Pecora has several more reasons to smile. For one, he will have the benefit of an exhibition game to see how well his highly touted recruiting class meshes with the returning players, as Fordham will host the Northwood University coached by Rollie Massimino; who gave Pecora his start in the college coaching ranks, on November 1st. In addition, his goal of scheduling more home games has come to fruition, with the Rams playing seven of their thirteen non-league contests at Rose Hill Gym, and a Holiday Festival meeting with St. John's inside Madison Square Garden that has become a new tradition of sorts for the Bronx institution. In fact, Fordham's longest road trip before league play comes up relatively early on the schedule, when Pecora guides his squad into the Carrier Dome to face Jim Boeheim and Syracuse on November 12th in their second game of the year. Here's an in-depth breakdown of everyone the Rams will face in the first two months of the season, starting with their opener on November 8th, with quotes and insights from the fourth-year head man in what will be the first half of a two-part Fordham season preview:
Pecora's thoughts on the schedule overall:
"Well, I think we're moving in the right direction. This is where we need to be. Last year's schedule, we played the most road games of anyone in the country, we played 20 of 31 games on the road last season. That's crazy to do with a veteran team, much less a young team like we had last year. So as we move forward and change the culture here at Fordham, part of it is our recruiting philosophy and doing the things we need to do to get games, and making sure we have an opportunity to play a good number of home games in the nonconference so we can move into the A-10; we all know how tough a conference that is, with a winning record and with some confidence, and teach these young guys how to win basketball games. I wanted to not be on the road and not get beat up on the road physically from all the travel as well. Syracuse is our longest trip, we don't need to fly in our nonconference schedule."
On playing seven home games before Atlantic 10 play:
"We feel very confident playing at Rose Hill, we've had great success there in nonconference games especially, so as we move forward, I think you'll see us play; our goal is to get eight or nine nonconference home games each season out of the thirteen, or it could be eleven if the league moves to eighteen conference games."
On Fordham's exhibition game against Northwood University:
"With a grain of salt, I think there's certain things you'll look at in those games that you want to work on, there's certain combinations, but I don't know at this point where we'll be at with our health, who we'll put on the floor, who may need to get more minutes. I think it'll be a good challenge, they're going to probably be ranked in the top five in the country in the NAIA, and he (head coach Rollie Massimino) is going to coach them up."
Friday, November 8th vs. Saint Francis University: The Rams christen their 111th season against the Red Flash of Pennsylvania, who come to Rose Hill for the first time since 2006 in what will be the fourth meeting between the two schools. Second-year head coach Rob Krimmel will be looking to rebound from a 5-24 season in his maiden voyage at the helm, and will do so without a senior on his squad after Umar Shannon transferred to Quinnipiac. In his absence, junior forward Earl Brown, who averaged ten points and eight rebounds per game on the way to earning Most Improved Player honors in the Northeast Conference, will carry the load inside while Canadian sharpshooter Ben Millaud-Meunier hopes to build on a successful freshman season that saw him shoot a staggering 48 percent from three-point range. "Every game is going to be a test for us," Pecora intimated, "because we have to start playing like a more mature basketball team and take care of business night in and night out no matter who we're squaring off against. I'm excited about playing at home for our opener."
Tuesday, November 12th at Syracuse: The Orange have a new home in the ACC, and will have a new backcourt following the graduation of Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams' selection by the Philadelphia 76ers in June's NBA Draft. Look for Trevor Cooney to have a breakout season alongside Duke expatriate Michael Gbinije and freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, who played at St. Benedict's Prep prior to committing to Syracuse. Up front, Boeheim remains loaded with Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita anchoring the world-famous 2-3 zone defense in the middle while DaJuan Coleman serves as their understudy, and with Jerami Grant giving the Orange a second burst of freakish athleticism on the wing alongside one of the most underrated players in the nation in C.J. Fair, it is not out of the question to suggest Syracuse will contend for a conference championship in their new home. "The good thing about going up there is you're not going to see a better zone all year," Pecora said, "so you get to do a lot of prep for their zone and teaching our offense the zone concept, and I think that can be a huge advantage."
Friday, November 15th at Lehigh: Fordham renews its budding rivalry with the Mountain Hawks for the fourth consecutive season, with Dr. Brett Reed leading his Patriot League darlings into Rose Hill once again. This year will be somewhat of a rebuilding season for Lehigh now that all-time program great C.J. McCollum is now a Portland Trail Blazer, while forwards Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner have also graduated following careers that will be forever headlined by the Mountain Hawks' historic upset of Duke as a No. 15 seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Senior point guard Mackey McKnight, who averaged nearly five assists per game last season, remains in the backcourt to shoulder most of the offensive responsibilities, with senior shooting specialist B.J. Bailey expected to improve on an average of eight points per game and 47 percent from three-point range. "We'll get them back at our place, and I think Friday nights at Rose Hill will be rocking," an optimistic Pecora said about his team's third contest of the season.
Saturday, November 23rd vs. Sacred Heart: The Rams welcome a new coach into Rose Hill for this contest, as longtime Pioneer head man Dave Bike has retired, leaving the program in the hands of his longtime deputy Anthony Latina. In addition, Sacred Heart now begins life without one of the top scorers in the nation in Shane Gibson, but point guard Phil Gaetano will find a way to make those around him better as he enters his junior season on the heels of a sophomore campaign that saw the Connecticut native rank among the top five in the nation with an average of nearly eight assists per game. While Louis Montes and rising star Tevin Falzon will account for most of the Pioneer offense, Sacred Heart's biggest key this season will be getting Chris Evans and Evan Kelley, both of whom were injured all of last year, back to 100 percent.
Tuesday, November 26th at Manhattan: The 105th Battle of the Bronx makes its return to Draddy Gym for the first time since the Jaspers routed Fordham by an 81-47 count on December 7, 2011. This year, third-year head coach Steve Masiello has Manhattan in position to be among the top two teams in the MAAC, with George Beamon back for his senior season after a medical redshirt sacrificed what would have been his final campaign last year, as well as Maryland castoff Ashton Pankey, who is now eligible and will team with Rhamel Brown to form one of the most imposing frontcourts in the MAAC. Alongside Beamon, Michael Alvarado is on the precipice of a breakout senior campaign, and his performance during the Jaspers' trip to the Bahamas earned rave reviews from Masiello. With sharpshooter Shane Richards and versatile big man Emmy Andujar back for their sophomore and junior seasons on a team that intends to play much faster than they did last season, not to mention a deep bench, Fordham could be seeing an NCAA Tournament team when they arrive in Riverdale. "I thought our performance against them last year without Chris (Gaston) was a good one," Pecora said. "I think (in) the last minute and a half, Mike Alvarado took the game over, he made a couple of plays off high ball screens, and we had two freshmen involved in that ball screen, and we didn't defend it the way we had hoped to. It's a tremendous game, it's the 105th year the game is being played, it's a great New York rivalry, and records are thrown out the window on that night."
Wednesday, December 4th vs. Furman: The matchup with the Paladins will be just the second between the two programs, with the Rams taking the lone previous meeting in the 1971 NCAA Tournament. Furman comes in with a solid backcourt led by sophomore point guard Stephen Croone and senior shooter Charlie Reddick, who averaged 37 percent from beyond the arc. Sophomore Larry Wideman will also be looking to improve on a rookie season that saw him average nearly eight points in 25 minutes per game. Baseball fans may recognize walk-on Aaron O'Neill on Furman's bench, as he is the oldest son of New York Yankee legend Paul O'Neill.
Saturday, December 7th at St. John's: The Rams and Red Storm meet one another for the fifth consecutive season, and third straight in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. Pecora is no stranger to defeating the Johnnies, having done so at Hofstra before recapturing the magic in his first season at Fordham, when the Rams erased a 21-point second-half deficit with two 16-0 runs to upset St. John's 84-81 as a sellout Rose Hill crowd stormed the court following the final buzzer. This year, however, the Red Storm come in as a team expected to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament given that head coach Steve Lavin has everyone coming back with the exception of seldom-used swingman Amir Garrett. The Johnnies' inside-outside scoring duo of reigning Big East Rookie of the Year JaKarr Sampson and D'Angelo Harrison will give each of their opponents fits during games, not to mention the shot blocking prowess of Chris Obekpa, who set a school record with eleven rejections against the Rams a year ago. Moreover, St. John's welcomes freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan and Dominican big man Orlando Sanchez to a rotation that will also return God'sgift Achiuwa after the Nigerian forward redshirted last season. "Any time you get an opportunity to play at the Garden, it's special, we all know that," Pecora proclaimed. "Obviously the Garden is an advantage for them, it's their home court, but we'll prepare for them the same way we have in the past."
Pecora on playing St. John's:
"It's an important game...we're New York's Atlantic 10 team, and they're New York's Big East team. I think it's a game that needs to be played all the time. Obviously, I'd prefer for it to be a home-and-home series, but it hasn't gotten to that point yet. Maybe somewhere down the line, that'll be something that's doable."
Tuesday, November 10th at Colgate: Two former Patriot League rivals collide for the first time since the Raiders defeated Fordham in that conference's championship game eighteen years ago to advance to the 1995 NCAA Tournament. Led by Canadian senior forward Murphy Burnatowski, Colgate's backcourt will once again include junior point guard Luke Roh; who was also the team's leading rebounder last season, and senior three-point specialist Pat Moore. Pay close attention to Monmouth transfer Austin Tillotson, a junior who will make an immediate impact.
Saturday, December 14th vs. Howard: The Bison come to Rose Hill for the first time ever, and head coach Kevin Nickelberry will have the task of replacing each of his three leading scorers from last season. The departures will force junior wing Prince Okoroh to pick up the slack on offense while also serving as a team leader to a young roster that features nine freshmen and just one senior in seldom-used forward Theodore Boyomo.
Saturday, December 21st at Monmouth: The Hawks welcome Fordham to New Jersey as the two teams play the third game in a four-year series, and Monmouth will seek to avenge an 82-71 Ram win at Rose Hill on New Year's Eve last season. Now a member of the MAAC, King Rice's squad has gotten younger; but bigger as well, as junior swingman Andrew Nicholas leads a team that welcomes Towson transfer Deon Jones into the fold. The Hawks' backcourt loses Dion Nesmith and Jesse Steele from last season, but still retains the services of sharpshooter Christian White, who can have a breakout season if he stays healthy.
Monday, December 23rd vs. Loyola (Illinois): For the second straight game, Fordham will lock horns with a program that changed conference affiliations in the offseason, as Loyola left the Horizon League for the Missouri Valley following Creighton's departure to the Big East. Leading scorer and rebounder Christian Thomas, not to be confused with the former New York Rangers prospect of the same name, returns for his junior season on the wing to lead the Ramblers, while sophomore Jeff White will take over the point guard duties after averaging nearly three assists per game off the bench. Fellow sophomore guard Devon Turk will shoot to make an impact from beyond the arc, where he connected on 43 percent of his shots last season.
Saturday, December 28th vs. Harvard: The last time Tommy Amaker and the Crimson came to Rose Hill, they were a Top 25 program that was upset by the Rams. Two years later, Harvard is beyond loaded as they return nearly everyone from last season's squad that picked up the first NCAA Tournament win in Ivy League history when the Crimson shocked New Mexico. Sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers could very well be the best player at his position that most people have never heard of, while swingmen Wesley Saunders and Laurent Rivard are double-figure scorers waiting to explode while Steve Moundou-Missi serves as a quintessential "glue guy." Harvard also welcomes back Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry for their final seasons after the two withdrew following an academic incident to preserve their eligibility.
Monday, December 30th at Siena: The Rams wrap up their nonconference slate with a trip to the Times Union Center to renew the third game in a four-year series with the Saints, who welcome a new head coach in Jimmy Patsos to Loudonville. Despite losing O.D. Anosike to graduation, Siena still has a core of veteran leadership returning, headlined by guards Evan Hymes and Rob Poole, who will mentor freshman Marquis Wright as he starts the season at point guard. In the frontcourt, Brett Bisping will likely start early for the Saints, while incoming freshman Lavon Long has been praised by Patsos throughout the offseason as someone who can "flat out play."
Pecora on playing two games in three days at end of nonconference season:
"I think it's good, it's not bad to actually play back-to-back one night to prepare for a tournament scenario like we'll expect at Barclays in March, but I think having that one-day turnaround and one day to prepare is a good thing. I think the advantage of that is after that, we do have a pretty good break prior to going into A-10 play."
***The second half of our Fordham season preview, featuring quotes from Tom Pecora about his returning players and incoming recruiting class, will be published on Monday.