Anthony Latina (right) comes to Rose Hill in search of first career win since replacing his predecessor Dave Bike at Sacred Heart when Pioneers take on Fordham Saturday. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Post)
At 2-1 on the young season, Fordham has shown the signs of improvement that were expected as Tom Pecora entered his fourth season at the helm, but the Rams have not had it easy. From the preseason back injury to Travion Leonard to having to redshirt freshman forward Manny Suarez after he was declared a partial qualifier, to just recently dealing with Ryan Canty's sudden leave of absence from the program due to personal reasons, Fordham has overcome more than their usual share of adversity, particularly within the frontcourt. However, the Rams have another winnable game on the horizon, as 0-4 Sacred Heart arrives at Rose Hill Gym on Saturday in search of giving new head coach Anthony Latina his first win in charge of the Pioneers after several years as the top lieutenant to program legend Dave Bike, who announced his retirement this past May.
The knowledgeable college basketball fan will recognize point guard Phil Gaetano, who is arguably the best player in the nation at his position that most people have not heard of. In fact, Gaetano's passing skills are unparalleled at any level, but the shadow of LIU Brooklyn's Jason Brickman; located within Sacred Heart's own Northeast Conference, has prevented the Connecticut floor general from introducing his game to the masses. Besides Gaetano, the Pioneers are also searching for a proven scoring option to replace one of the greatest players in program history, that being the exceptionally efficient Shane Gibson, who graduated after last season. To help get to know the team coming down the New England Thruway just a little better, we welcome in our latest guest contributor to what has become a pregame tradition, as Sacred Heart alum Ryan Peters of Big Apple Buckets; a multiple-time guest on our own Jaden Daly's halftime shows on St. Francis College basketball broadcasts, was gracious enough to devote some of his time to educating us in Sacred Heart 101.
Jaden Daly: What are some of the biggest differences in philosophy and style between Dave Bike and Anthony Latina?
Ryan Peters: While Bike and Latina are similar in style offensively, they differ quite a bit on the other end of the floor. If anything, I doubt Bike put much focus on defense during practice - most games they'd come out playing man-to-man while occasionally throwing out a vanilla, and ultimately ineffective, 2-3 zone. Bike was frustratingly unable to make defensive adjustments over the course of a game. Latina, on the other hand, has been working hard this offseason to implement new defenses into the Pioneers' repertoire. It's still a work in progress, (clearly, since they have the 23rd worst defensive efficiency in the nation right now) but Latina's team will play more zone, and an attacking zone at that. You shouldn't be surprised to see an aggressive, trapping 2-3 zone on Saturday, nor would it shock me if the Pioneers played a little 1-3-1 as well. It's Latina's intention that the Pioneers will be more aggressive and less predictable on the defensive end.
JD: The 0-4 start may be a little unexpected, but in Sacred Heart's defense, each game has come against a quality opponent. Has there been a consistent upward trend since the season opener, or is this team still trying to find its way?
RP: I'm a little surprised that SHU is 0-4; I figured they'd be 2-2 at this point. They should have been 1-3 at the very least, but they blew a four-point lead with four seconds remaining versus Holy Cross last week. Overall, they're a team still trying to find its way, especially defensively. I mentioned in the previous answer how porous the Pioneers have been defensively; and that's come against two Ivy League teams, a Patriot League squad and Fairfield, who normally struggles to score. It could take a while for Latina to turn the ship in the right direction.
JD: Sacred Heart's average of 78 points per game is somewhat inflated by their double overtime game against Holy Cross, but have the Pioneers truly found a go-to guy to step up and fill the offensive void left by Shane Gibson?
RP: The Pioneers don't have one single player that can replace Shane Gibson's scoring, so they're getting it done with a balanced approach. With a collection of crafty, versatile players in Louis Montes, Chris Evans, Evan Kelley, and Steve Glowiak, the Pioneers will mainly rely on these four to produce a majority of the points. In particular, junior Evan Kelley has been excellent coming off a lost season due to a dislocated kneecap. He's the Pioneers' leading scorer at the moment, and he's doing it by putting the ball on the deck and getting to the rim with newfound confidence. He, along with Evans and Montes, make their living by slashing to the hole and drawing contact when necessary while Glowiak is dangerous from behind the arc when he has space to shoot.
JD: In your opinion, how well does Phil Gaetano match up with Branden Frazier at the point guard spot, and will he be able to effectively get his teammates involved against Fordham's smaller lineup?
RP: If I was Latina, I'd be really concerned about the Gaetano/Frazier matchup. Gaetano isn't a great defender, so he'll likely need help containing Fordham's senior point guard. The problem with that philosophy is then you're opening it up for Jon Severe, and we both know how dangerous that is. Really, I wouldn't be surprised if Latina either plays zone or defends Frazier and Severe with Evans and Kelley, arguably the Pioneers' two best perimeter defenders. Either way, it's going to be a dicey situation. Offensively, Gaetano thrives on getting his teammates involved, but so far, he's struggled this season. I'm not sure if he's fully healthy, (he pulled a groin muscle in the preseason and admittedly wasn't 100% for the season opener vs Fairfield) but he's been a turnover machine thus far. For the Pioneers to have any chance at a major upset on Saturday, Gaetano; and more specifically, the entire team, needs to limit their turnovers to 10 or less. They've only done that once so far this season.
JD: Expanding on the small lineup, Sacred Heart matches up more favorably with Fordham now after Ryan Canty's departure. Should we expect Latina to use his size a little more against the Rams' four guards?
RP: One of the most disappointing aspects of SHU so far has been their front court play. With Montes playing the "4" most of the time as an inside-out 6'4" forward, Latina has been using a trio of players to fill the center position, yet no one has played particularly well. 6'11" red-shirt freshman Cole Walton is a human foul machine who's still not adjusted to the speed and strength of Division I basketball. Sophomore Tevin Falzon would rather hang out on the perimeter a majority of the time, and is woefully inconsistent from game to game. Finally, senior Mostafa Abdel-Latif is hard-working and well liked 6'8" big man, yet he's plagued with slow feet and a limited offensive game. It's been a major weakness for the Pioneers, and I doubt you'd ever see two of those three players on the floor together. Hence, Latina will likely roll out a small lineup, (e.g. Gaetano-Kelley-Evans-Montes-Falzon) which I guess matches up better with a Ryan Canty-less Fordham. SHU has been getting killed on the glass, (-12 rebounding margin) so I'd expect Tom Pecora's squad will get their fair share of second chances off of misses even without Canty in the fold.