At 4-10, Greg Herenda still has work to do at Fairleigh Dickinson, but Knights' future looks promising for first time in nearly a decade. (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Buckets)
Greg Herenda essentially had nothing to lose when he left UMass-Lowell, a school skippering its maiden voyage in the Division I seas, to take over at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he arrived with no coaching staff in place amid a roster of six incumbents from a 7-24 team.
"All these guys, we got after May," he said about his roster. "They had no scholarships. Now they have an opportunity to win."
At 4-10, the 52-year-old native New Jerseyan still has a long way to go to match the 26 victories his predecessor Greg Vetrone took four years to accumulate, but after the Knights' fourth and most recent win; an 86-67 decision over Hofstra yesterday that avenged an 80-58 defeat to Joe Mihalich and the Pride in the first half of an unconventional home-and-home series before Northeast Conference play begins Wednesday night, Herenda admits he has already come a long way in the eight weeks between the two meetings with the Long Island program that is also seeking redemption after the off-court issues involving four of its former student-athletes helped cost former coach Mo Cassara his job.
"We grew as a team," Herenda said when describing the course that the Knights have taken between November and today. "That was my second game coaching, and we go into Hofstra and they were on, they just came off a tough loss, and we got jumped by a really good team. Even though our record isn't great, we've gotten better. Good things are happening here."
The good things that Fairleigh Dickinson's first-year coach mentions include two successive big wins over Rutgers and Seton Hall, long considered to be the reigning kings of New Jersey basketball, significant highlights in a schedule that has also seen the Knights play national powerhouses such as Iowa and the current No. 1 team in the nation in Sean Miller's Arizona Wildcats. With five freshmen on the roster, expectations are not necessarily high for a team that lost each of its three leading scorers a year ago, but the emergence of point guard Sidney Sanders Jr.; whose 31 points yesterday were a career high for the senior, has brought renewed confidence to Hackensack for a team that was essentially forgotten in some circles after longtime head coach Tom Green was unceremoniously dismissed in 2009.
"I think he believes in what I'm saying," Herenda said of Sanders, who is averaging just under 20 points per game after managing less than five per contest last year, placing him on the inside track to first team all-Northeast Conference honors and perhaps the conference's Most Improved Player award. "We've got a good connection. I was a point guard too, and I just give him a lot of freedom. I think a lot of people in this world, if given an opportunity, it would be a surprise what they can do, you know?"
"Last year, I wasn't here, his role was different," Herenda continued. "Now his role, I gave him the ball when I got here and said 'Sid, you're going to be my point guard, and I'm going to let you do what you can do well.'"
Sanders, who is quickly closing the gap between he and LIU Brooklyn's Jason Brickman, regarded by almost everyone to be the premier point guard in the NEC, will be the focal point of the Knights' league opener Thursday night against reigning conference runner-up Mount St. Mary's, a team that enters their next contest on the heels of a performance against Norfolk State in which the Mountaineers shot a blistering 72 percent (18-for-25) from three-point range, executing head coach Jamion Christian's "Mayhem" system to perfection.
"I haven't really seen it," Herenda candidly admitted in regard to Christian's offensive scheme, which predicates itself on as many three-point shots as possible while utilizing the aggressive press defense that he learned as an assistant to Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth University. "My philosophy has always been to attack pressure. We always tell our players that pressure is an opportunity."
Along with the pressure his Knights will face, Herenda also has the opportunity of proving critics wrong after his team was picked last of ten in the Northeast Conference, a league that is as parity-laden as it has ever been in recent years.
"I think the league is up for grabs," he said with regard to how conference play would ultimately fare. "St. Francis (College) has had a great run, and Robert Morris' schedule is ridiculous with who they're playing, and Wagner and Central, (Connecticut State) but we're picked tenth, so no one's really expecting a lot from us."
"Hopefully we can give them something."