Freshman guard Jon Severe is already biggest recruit in Tom Pecora era at Fordham, and now Brooklyn native hopes to usher return of prosperity to Rose Hill. (Photo courtesy of Adam Zagoria via ZagsBlog.com)
***This is part two of our two-part preview of Fordham's 2013-14 season. For part one, which broke down the Rams' nonconference schedule this past Thursday, click here.
Now in his fourth year at Rose Hill, Fordham head coach Tom Pecora seems to have a fairly confident sense of direction in which his program is headed. Coming off a 7-24 season that saw senior forward Chris Gaston sidelined for several games in Atlantic 10 play due to injury, the Rams managed to survive what had been one of their more difficult schedules in recent memory thanks to stable and largely productive minutes from a backcourt that produced a junior season from Branden Frazier in which the Brooklyn native narrowly missed receiving all-Atlantic 10 honors, and also gave rise to the emergence of Mandell Thomas, who enters his sophomore campaign in the Bronx with mounds of promise to go with his already vast talent.
This season, Gaston has graduated, and the Rams welcome a quintet of five newcomers to Fordham, most notably Jon Severe, who will be mentioned in the following quotes and insights from Tom Pecora as he prepares to lead the residents of the oldest venue in the nation into battle for what will be the 111th season of Fordham University men's basketball:
Jaden Daly: In the backcourt, Branden and Mandell are back among others. How much have they improved in the offseason, and how impressed were you with Mandell's freshman season?
Tom Pecora: Yeah, I thought Mandell was exceptional, especially as the season went on. You know, he was playing his best ball in February, (and) Branden was playing his best in January, he had a rough February. I think we could have found a few more wins had they both been playing, if Branden had continued to play at the pace he was playing at through February. Now, as a senior, he needs to have that complete season. I'm very happy about (the fact) that I think we have great depth in the backcourt, obviously (when) you talk about Jon Severe, and then Chris Whitehead coming in from junior college, he'll be an experienced point guard; and then Bryan Smith now is an upperclassman, so it's time, you know? It's time for these veterans, (and) we'll have three juniors and a senior this year. I think they'll be great leaders and good teammates, and that will make a big difference.
JD: For those that haven't seen Jon, what exactly can he do, and how much will he help this team right away?
TP: Well, that's yet to be seen, but we anticipate him playing a lot of minutes. He can really score the basketball. Obviously, anyone who can score 70 points in two games like he did upstate last year, but he's explosive offensively, he's great in the open court, his shooting range continues to get better and better, (and) he gets into the lane, and he's a better passer than people give him credit for. He has an ability to really distribute the ball, draw defenses, (and) make good decisions with the ball. That will be key, and you know; with every freshman, he's going to have to learn how to guard on this level and he's going to have to learn how to play for contact, and everyone will be bigger and stronger than he's accustomed to, but that's what every freshman in the country goes through. His talent level is exceptional, and he knows (how) to play, so I feel confident about that too. The guys will push him, the veterans are going to push him in the backcourt. He's going to have to come to compete every day, and that's why he'll be, I feel, a really good player.
JD: How about the bigs inside? How much will you lean more on them in this season as opposed to last year, and did losing Chris as long as you did end up being somewhat of a blessing in disguise?
TP: It definitely was, because they got minutes. I think that was obvious at the end of the year, their performance up at Bonnie's (St. Bonaventure) was a good one. They were battling, those three, I mean, (Ryan) Canty had some exceptional games, down at Ole Miss, he had fifteen rebounds. He's got the ability, Ryan, it's a fine line with his aggressiveness. I just want him to be smarter about where and when he gives up his fouls. We need him on the floor. I think Ryan Rhoomes has had a tremendous offseason, he's really worked hard in the weight room, he's worked hard in the gym, (and) we can really see the game developing, and Travion (Leonard) has kept the weight off. He continues to work to get himself in great shape, (and) you know, with Manny Suarez, you have a 6-9 stretch four that can really shoot the basketball and pass the basketball, and that's a key for us the way we play with our four-out offense. Jake Fay will also play a bit of that four spot for us when we want to stretch things out, he's got great shooting range and he's got a good feel for the game as well, so I'm excited about that. I think there's going to be great competition in our frontcourt, and they're all going to have different roles; but if they do what needs to be done, especially defend the post, rebound the basketball, and become tremendous screeners, they have the ability to score the basketball as well, so it will be interesting to see the battle and how this whole thing plays out.
JD: Back to Canty for a second, how is his back doing?
TP: He's doing well. (At) one point, we thought he might need to get an operation, but he's rehabbing it and he's doing well. We thought we might not get him back until mid-November if they had to cut him, (but) they didn't have to do that. He's a big, strong, physical frontcourt guy; as a junior, that people fear because of his physicality and his ability to make plays (and) put a body on every play, but you know he's flying around the rim, especially on the offensive end, you know?
JD: How much more will we see three forwards as opposed to the three-guard set?
TP: Well, I think it depends on the opponent, it depends on the development of Suarez and Fay, they've really been two more conventional threes if you wanted to get out small forwards, and if they develop to the point where they're out playing and we're better served with them on the floor, then you'll see more of them. Once again, we're competing at every position, this year and every year; but when you come back and you have an all-conference level player, then you've got to anticipate him being one of your starters. Right now, I'm going into this with an open training camp. Should Branden Frazier be a starter as a senior? Yeah, he should, but he's not coming off the greatest February in the world. He's got to put that behind him and have a great senior year to solidify that spot, but this is definitely the most depth and the most talent we've ever had, which is the way it should be as you go into year four with a rebuilding program. So, by having this depth, it will be by far the most competitive training camp and preseason we've ever had.
JD: Going into the Atlantic 10 with George Mason coming in, what is your expectation in the conference, particularly on the road, where this program has admittedly struggled?
TP: You've got to walk before you can run, and the thing we've always talked about is having a winning nonconference home record, then having an overall winning record at home, a winning record in conference, and then the next step is to be able to go on the road and win on the road consistently, and that's a challenge, obviously, in this league. I think Mason's a great addition, (and) Davidson the following year will be an exceptional addition, hopefully we don't have anyone else leaving; and if we don't and we're fourteen strong in two years, I still think it's a real good league, but if you're not prepared at the highest level mentally as well as physically, you're not going to win games on the road in this league. I think we can build off last year's win at Bonnie's. I think that's important for them to know that they can go and do that, I mean, our first year, we won at Lehigh, and after the game, (Fordham sports information director) Joe DiBari said something to me about 'this is the first time we've won a road game of any sort in, like, two and a half years.' and that just blew me away. I didn't even look at those kind of numbers, because at Hofstra, we were accustomed to some pretty good success over the last five to seven years, but those are all part of the process that you move forward and as you build something, there's a lot of firsts, and then the thing is, 'can you build off that win at Bonnie's?' and use it as a point of reference. Bonnie's is a tough place to play, and it was a game that mattered a lot to them. If they win that game, they go to the A-10 Tournament, so by us winning, we knocked them out. A lot of people would say that was one of the toughest games to play because they were very highly motivated and we were able to motivate ourselves to go in and be a spoiler, so I think all of that's very, very important. I know that this will be a good team in November, (and) it will be an even better team in February and March, because our youth and the number of talented players we have, I think there's no doubt that they'll continue to get better and better.