Now entering fifth season at Fordham, Tom Pecora is in make-or-break year with Rams in a constantly improving Atlantic 10. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
Four years ago, Fordham hired Tom Pecora to attempt what many around college basketball perceived to be the impossible: Turn perennial Atlantic 10 doormat Fordham into a contender in a league that simultaneously improved along with its programs. With a 34-85 record through his first four seasons, Pecora has not exactly become Mike Krzyzewski at Rose Hill, but the Rams are a considerably better outfit than they were the day he arrived from Hofstra intent on erasing the negativity of a two-win season that saw Dereck Whittenburg give way midway through December to a then-29-year-old Jared Grasso, now the associate head coach to Tim Cluess at Iona.
Shortly after Fordham's nonconference schedule, a very favorable ledger conducive to turning the Rams into winners going into their Atlantic 10 slate, was released, I had the chance to catch up with Pecora in what has become an annual season preview of sorts, covering a multitude of topics ranging from how he will seek to replace Branden Frazier to the arrival of highly touted freshman Eric Paschall, and even the Rams' upcoming trip to Canada, with the transcript of our 18-minute conversation below:
Jaden Daly: Overall, the nonconference schedule is very favorable, a lot like last year. What was the goal and some of the other expectations when you finally put it all together?
Tom Pecora: Well, I mean as always, the nonconference schedule is one of the things you have to do when you turn this thing around, and what we need to do; obviously, is have a winning season. That hasn't been a common practice at Fordham, so the first thing you need to do is go into conference play in early January with a winning record. Having a winning record at home is very important because you have to hold serve at home, doing it in nonconference play is just as important as when you get into conference play because you want to have that winning record in January. So, getting more home games is key. If you recall, two years ago we played 20 of 31 on the road, and I thought that that was a disaster and it really set us back, so you know, this is important for us to be able to play this many home games, and it's important for our fan base too, you know?
JD: Has anyone realized just how tough of a situation this can be, and maybe the sense of urgency is greater and the hot seat might be getting warmer?
TP: I have. (laughs) There's no greater sense of urgency in year five than there was in year one, two or three in the sense of you know where you are, you know what you're trying to do. Once again, I think we've built this the right way, we have a solid foundation. The last thing in this process is winning basketball games. We've changed the culture, we've gotten the student body involved, we've made home games events, upgraded the process. The home game experience is better than it's ever been. Academically, the team has done very well, everyone's graduated, our overall team GPA is a 3.0, and that's all great, but we all know the bottom line is you've got to win some games, so now it's time to do that, and you know, hopefully as we move forward in the year, we stay healthy enough, and our veterans continue to get better, and that's the key. We're really looking now to our juniors and seniors that we recruited. You know, last year, Branden (Frazier) was our first recruiting class, but he was a lone senior. This year, we'll have Ryan Canty and Bryan Smith, and I think the freshmen coming in are impact guys, and I think that that's important. They're guys that are going to get a lot of minutes, and I think we have more talent now than we've ever had.
JD: Is there a real price tag you can put on Branden and how much you're going to miss him? Last year with Chris, (Gaston) it seemed like he could have been used and needed a lot more than we may have thought.
TP: Well, yeah. I think they're two very different players. I think Branden was a team-first guy, you know, his ability to distribute the ball and score the ball when we needed him to really made him a good player for us. The difference this year would be that Branden would be playing with more weapons around him, and that would have made his job a lot easier. He had a tough job with Jon (Severe) being a freshman next to him and, you know, not having frontcourt players that have developed to the level I think they have by now, so he had a tougher job. For his own sake, I wanted Branden to be part of this. He was one of the first guys to say "Coach, I'm coming," and I wanted him to be a part of the winning season, but he's doing really well. He's getting all set to go play in Europe, and he's excited about that.
JD: With him out of the picture, who do you look for to be team leaders? How much more will Jon be expected to carry the team?
TP: I think what's interesting, obviously, we need the veterans to step up a little bit. Jon needs to be able to have success through the entire season, because he won't feel the pressure he did last year to be one of our few scoring options. I think Antwoine Anderson, who redshirted last year, is an explosive backcourt player, good player with the ball in his hands. Nemanja Zarkovic, who's a freshman from Montreal, originally from Serbia, is a point guard who's tough and physical and frustrating to break down, so he'll be a good addition. I think the big surprise in the offseason is we all knew how good Eric Paschall was, and he's been great; he's a little banged up, but nothing major, and he's got an opportunity to be a real special player for us, but Christian Sengfelder, the big Euro, German frontcourt player, has been very, very good; and at 6-8, 240, he's going to be on the floor a lot for us, and we're going to need him to do a lot for us. Once again, you win games with talent, and they'll be well prepared for games. I just think we have more talent on the floor now, and that should be a big difference when you look at some of those games we got real close to winning last year, both in conference late in the year; games like La Salle and GW, and then a couple of the nonconference games where we were up late in the game and weren't able to hold leads. I think when you have talented players that play late in games, that's when you can put those games away and I'm hoping that's the case this year.
JD: With the extra personnel, how much more will depth be a concern with this team, and do you see yourself going to a 10, 11-man rotation early in the season?
TP: Definitely early in the year, we're going to play with a deeper rotation. You've got to stay healthy, that's the key, and depth comes into play when you don't. God forbid there's always going to be nicks and bumps and bruises, but that's how you can steal basketball games, because you have depth, you have players that are a little experienced and talented enough to step in and get the job done, and I think we're deeper than we've ever been.
JD: Tell us a little more about the freshmen. Is there a specific contribution you're expecting from each one?
TP: Anderson is a redshirt freshman, his greatest aspect of his game is his speed, his ability to blow the ball up the court, he's explosive attacking the basket, constantly puts pressure on defense and he's a great pressure defender, so that'll be good for him. Manny Suarez is a screen and pop guy, you know, a stretch four. At 6-9, he can create space offensively, knock down perimeter jumpers; and at the same time, help us in the paint when need be. Sengfelder, we spoke about, probably as hard-working a freshman as I've ever coached, a tremendous screener, substantial three-point shooter and a really tough competitor. Nemanja Zarkovic is like I said, fundamentally sound, a 20-year-old freshman who's been through the wars of European games and in Canada, playing at a very high level up there. I expect a lot out of him from being a very mature freshman. Dekeba Battee from Australia, very physical, we're working on getting him back in shape after his year off, a very bright kid. All of the freshmen are bright kids on and off the court, so they're picking things up quickly. Dekeba could be a really good fill-in guy for us on the baseline, and then Paschall, you know, the sky's the limit. Paschall is only 17, he won't be 18 until November, and as a 17-year-old true high school senior, a 12th-grader, he was prep school player of the year in a league that's been dominated by post-grad guys, so he's got a chance to be really, really good.
JD: With extra size this year, how much more will you rely on the three and four-guard sets you were forced to play mostly out of necessity last year?
TP: Yeah, we'll do that much less. I mean, you know, I would see. In a perfect world, we'd be playing Eric Paschall at the three and then when we want to play small, we'll move him to the four; and once again, at 6-6, 230, you're not really playing small when he's at the four, but he's so skilled. That's our small group. It's no longer Bryan Smith (at) 6-3 having to go in and battle with the horses down there.
JD: On the trip to Canada, what are your basic expectations with this team before practice starts, and how much of a shot in the arm is it going to be for this group?
TP: I think it's good. Any time, once again, it's about team bonding, us having the ability to be together and practice, that'll be great, especially for the freshmen because we'll be able to put in so many of the things we're usually putting in the first week of practice in late September, early October, so that will allow that. That should have a ripple effect and allow them to be better in the month of September, so I think it speeds up the process, and with a young team, that's important. We talked about team chemistry, we want these guys to spend time together, and it's going to be fun. It's going to be a good trip, we're going to play four games in six days, but we're going to do a lot of fun things together.
JD: Do you think there's going to be more patience involved with this group with some of the more experienced guys having transferred out?
TP: Well, not really. I don't know, I think I was pretty experienced with those guys too. One of the reasons, and we had great conversations with everyone who decided to move on, there was a common thread. Every one of them said "the hard thing is I know what a great education and what a great degree I'm going to get from Fordham, and that's what makes it hard to leave, I know I'm not going to play a lot." They knew who was coming in, they knew the freshmen that were coming in and the guys who were redshirts, they knew the talent level was getting higher, but early in the year, I think it's really going to be about competing. I think when you have a team that's not incredibly experienced, you lighten things up a little bit and you spoonfeed them, and you try be good at a few things instead of a lot of things.
JD: You're back at the Garden for St. John's for the Holiday Festival and the Battle of the Bronx this time at the Barclays Center, and honestly, I've had a lot of people ask me "why would he play the game there?"
TP: You know, one of the things that's important with regard to Barclays, when they call and ask you to play, it's tough for us in our situation to say "no, thank you." Playing Manhattan on our home court would be an advantage. We were able to beat them at their place last year, but playing them at home would be huge. As we build a brand and build a product, we want to get more exposure, and Barclays gives you that, a doubleheader along with Miami and Providence. I think that it gives our alumni an opportunity to prove how committed they are by coming out the Monday before Christmas to support it and get big numbers at Barclays. I also want to play a game each year in Barclays prior to our conference tournament there. You know, we're the New York team in the A-10 tournament in Barclays; and we were able to win a game in there last year, the first time in eight years that we won a game in the A-10 tournament, but I'd like to feel comfortable there and have the guys say "well, we've played here before and had success." Hopefully that will be the case. I want it to be a homecourt advantage for us, not the same as other teams in the A-10 that are playing in that building for the first time. The people at Barclays have been tremendous, they've been great, and it's a state-of-the-art building, and I'd like to play at least one game in that building. I think moving forward, we'll definitely be able to play the ACC/A-10 Challenge, and hopefully we get to play (in) that in 2015.
JD: Four years later, how much more of an uphill climb is it than some may realize in this conference?
TP: Well, look, Fordham is playing in the best conference it's ever played in. You know, last year, we played in a conference that got six teams in the NCAA Tournament, so I think that had the A-10 dipped in our first four years, we would have had greater success, but we got better each year in a lot of ways. The problem was, so did the A-10. The runway is a little bit longer than people would like it to be before we take off, but with that said, I still have great confidence that we can do that, but once again, how do you do it? Well, you get good players and you coach them up, get them to guard and rebound, and give them the freedom offensively to make plays. That's the formula we've always had success with.
JD: Finally, what would be your message to the Fordham fans that might be a little skeptical, and those that are being introduced to the program for the first time? What can we expect from Fordham this season?
TP: Well, look, those that are skeptical, I say keep the faith. You know, obviously, Fordham has had one winning season in 20 years, and I was brought in to change that, and I think we're on the precipice of doing that. So don't jump ship now, and while you're staying on board, pull a few other people on board with you. It's important when we have an opportunity to play at the Garden or we have an opportunity to play at Barclays that we have more fans there than our opponent. We're the New York team, so I think that's important. People that are just getting involved, I would say come experience what a home game is like at Rose Hill. Stop by a practice and meet myself, my staff and my team, and if you spend time with our team and you get comfortable with the guys in our program, you'll realize that Fordham's a special place; and if you're an alumnus, especially. You should be very proud of the university. You want to be on board when this thing does take off. You don't want to be somebody who's a "Johnny come lately." If you're somebody that's been hanging around for 20 years, you've been frustrated by it, I say keep the faith.