Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Year In Review: Fordham

While Fordham bid adieu to Branden Frazier in 2013-14, Tom Pecora's Rams ushered in what program hopes will be era of prosperity led by freshman Jon Severe. (Photo courtesy of Donnie Dwyer via The Sports Cycle)

We've returned from a post-NCAA Tournament vacation to begin our offseason with the first of what will be several year in review pieces of the programs we are privileged to cover as the slow build to the 2014-15 campaign has started. Up first in this series of retrospectives is, of no surprise to our most ardent supporters, the school in the Bronx that was among the first to open its doors to us once we started branching out in the tri-state area.

In late August, once Fordham University announced its nonconference schedule, a much more favorable slate than the difficult ledger the Rams played in 2012-13 on their way to a 7-24 finish, Tom Pecora had this to say when we asked him of the competition his team would face as he entered his fourth season at the helm at Rose Hill:

"I think we're moving in the right direction," the coach stated with regard to a 13-game nonconference schedule in which the Rams hosted several early-season games at Rose Hill Gym. "This is where we need to be."

A 98-80 exhibition victory over Northwood University showcased Fordham's potential early in the season, and Jon Severe's freshman debut record 28 points started the year off on a winning note when the Rams steamrolled Saint Francis University by the final of 87-67. Yet for all the positive signs Fordham showed, their record was still 2-2 after the first four games, alternating wins and losses with victories against Saint Francis and Lehigh followed by losses to Syracuse and Sacred Heart, the latter of which was a confounding 85-73 defeat at home to a team that had not won a game at that point in the season, and only ended up winning four contests overall for first-year head coach Anthony Latina.

After the Sacred Heart loss, criticism of Pecora emerged, something that would later become an ongoing issue as Fordham struggled when Atlantic 10 play began. In their next contest, the Rams needed a strong effort against crosstown rival Manhattan in the 106th Battle of the Bronx, and after a combined 69 points from the trio of Severe, Branden Frazier and Mandell Thomas, Fordham got exactly that, using a seven-man rotation to post what turned out to be their biggest win of the season, a 79-75 victory over Steve Masiello's eventual MAAC champion Jaspers at Draddy Gymnasium, where the Rams had lost 81-47 two years prior. Fordham won its second straight with a 31-point thrashing of Furman that was the largest margin of victory in Pecora's tenure, and only the third of 30 or more points in the coach's career, which included nine years at Hofstra.

And then, debacle No. 1 happened.

Coming into Madison Square Garden with momentum on their side, the Rams turned in a 19-for-80 performance from the field as Severe went 1-for-21 in a 104-58 loss to St. John's that was essentially over after the 16-minute media timeout in the first half.

"We're young," Pecora started his press conference by saying after the Red Storm turned the Holiday Festival matchup between the two schools into a glorified exhibition. "We didn't execute a game plan."

That was putting it mildly, as Fordham essentially mailed it in during the second half, giving Ram fans flashbacks to Dereck Whittenburg's reign of error in a game everyone would love to forget. Wins over Colgate and Howard upped the Rams' record to 6-3, but losses in three of four games to Monmouth, Harvard and Siena, coupled with a hamstring injury to Mandell Thomas in the Monmouth game dropped Fordham to 7-6 with Atlantic 10 play starting on the road against a Duquesne team that the Rams beat one year prior at Rose Hill behind a career game from Frazier.

The conference schedule did not help matters much to start the year, with Fordham losing each of their first six league games before their 76-70 win over George Mason, one of just two A-10 victories during the 16-game league season. However, the success was short-lived thanks to a 90-52 massacre on the road at UMass that prompted friend of the site Gary Moore to put the thoughts of the Ram fan base on paper with this scathing critique of Pecora's stubborn nature and reluctance to change his coaching style.

Fordham's 85-79 home win over Rhode Island the night before the Super Bowl was the Rams' last of a disappointing regular season, which concluded with; among other things, a loss to VCU that left Pecora perhaps realizing he may have bitten off more than he could chew despite insisting the Rams played well, and a heartbreaking defeat to La Salle in which Tyreek Duren was left under the basket to lay an inbounds pass in as time expired. Pecora did bring Fordham its first postseason win since 2007 with a second victory over George Mason in the Atlantic 10 tournament play-in game, but a loss to Dayton concluded the coach's fourth year at 10-21, just a three-game improvement in a season where a finish near or slightly above .500 was an expectation with the addition of Severe, the 2013 Mr. Basketball in the state of New York, and a campaign that marked the end of one of the most underrated careers at Rose Hill, that of Branden Frazier.

As Josh Adams mentioned after Fordham's regular season ended with a three-point loss to George Washington, Frazier was more than just a point guard over the last four years; rather, the Brooklyn product was a beacon of support, and in a lot of ways, a better game coach than Pecora, who sometimes placed undue criticism on his senior leader after losses where some things would have been better left unsaid.

The Rams will introduce Eric Paschall into the lineup next season to join their already existing core of Severe, soon-to-be juniors Mandell Thomas and Ryan Rhoomes, and senior forward Ryan Canty, and lose brothers Jared and Jake Fay after they, along with Jermaine Myers, decided to transfer during the offseason, but before any expectations can be placed in front of Fordham, it is time for the man charged with leading the program out of the abyss to really evaluate both himself and his roster.

With all due respect to Tom Pecora, who has always been a brutally honest coach to a fault and a very easy man to cover for this site given his tendency to shoot from the hip and tell it like it is, the coach needs to rethink more than a few things going into the 2014-15 season, one that could be a make-or-break year for the affable New York native. For all the praise he has received in luring Severe, and now Paschall, to Rose Hill, what good is a star player when his team does not have solid chemistry too many times than fans care to count and hesitates in the moment of truth? Steve Lavin proved at St. John's that all the talent in the world is irrelevant when five players cannot share a common goal for 40 minutes every night, as his Red Storm team turned a season in which they were expected to return to the NCAA Tournament into an NIT flameout that most would consider embarrassing in the wake of the glory days of Lou Carnesecca. The same can be said for Pecora, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. Playing four guards was a necessity for most of this past season with Travion Leonard battling back problems and Canty taking several weeks off to tend to personal issues, not to mention Manny Suarez being ruled a partial qualifier, but the combination of Bryan Smith landing in foul trouble after a handful of minutes and positive results on the rare occasions that two forwards were on the floor at the same time rendered that strategy ineffective more often than not.

Going into 2014-15, hope still springs eternal for Fordham, but the pressure is on Pecora to make sure that the faucet turns on every night. Giving Jon Severe a green light to chuck up 20 shots a game when nothing is falling does not make it any easier. If Pecora, whose player development at Hofstra was one of the many skills that landed him his current line of work at Fordham, can tap into his old bag of tricks and manage his roster, the Rams can finally be on their way to the light at the end of the tunnel that fans have been assured was coming for the last two seasons. It is just going to take a modification of tactics on the bench, and if the more things stay the same, the sooner things may have to change.

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