Four months into head coaching career, Baker Dunleavy is excited by room for Quinnipiac program to grow even before his first official game. (Photo by Quinnipiac University Athletics)
When Quinnipiac hired Baker Dunleavy as its new head coach in March, one thing was certain, even if his NBA lineage had not yet translated to the collegiate game: The Bobcats were getting a proven winner.
Dunleavy attained success both as a player and assistant coach at Villanova, his work with the Wildcats punctuated by an unforgettable run to a national championship in 2016 before receiving the call to replace Tom Moore in Hamden.
Four months into his maiden voyage at the helm, the 34-year-old is serving as equal parts teacher and student as he begins the process of rebuilding Quinnipiac into the rising mid-major it had been in the early part of the decade, charged with the task of restoring the winning ways he became reputed for as a lieutenant to Jay Wright at a program that posted just 19 victories over the past two seasons.
"I think, all things considered, it's been really, really positive," Dunleavy said of his transition from the second chair on the bench into the proverbial catbird seat as he instills a new philosophy into the Quinnipiac brand, one he is optimistic about again carrying the tag of a winner sooner rather than later. "There's just so many aspects to running a program that you have to evaluate that it's almost to where your first time going through it can be really overwhelming. That's where I've been lucky to have a great staff, and we have a nice group of kids here, we really do. They've been fun to work with."
Dunleavy's first recruit came in the form of a fellow branch on the Wright coaching tree, albeit one more weathered than that of his own, when he hired Tom Pecora; formerly the head coach at Hofstra and Fordham and a longtime deputy to Wright on Long Island before assuming the reins of the Pride in 2001, to be his associate head coach. And as far as the group of players he can now call his own, senior forward Chaise Daniels leads a pack that is hungry to not only reclaim their standing among the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's elite, but also to prove they belong in the conversation.
"I would say the two main things I've seen from Chaise are, number one, there's a lot of talent there; and number two, he's been really responsive and receptive to coaching," said Dunleavy of his main post presence. "When you put those two things together, I've been very happy. He's a guy that's got a lot of gifts, and he's got one year left. We've talked a lot on and off the court about just making this the best senior year he could possibly have. That's going to be important between him and I."
Initially, Daniels had been rumored to transfer following Moore's departure, just as freshman guards Mikey Dixon and Peter Kiss did before signing with St. John's and Rutgers, respectively. However, Daniels had a change of heart shortly after meeting with Dunleavy and his staff, and the decision to soldier on in his native Connecticut was ultimately not as agonizing as it had appeared on the surface.
"My initial action when I got here was to try and build a relationship with each of our players," Dunleavy reflected. "I'll be honest with you: With him, I think it was something where he wanted to stay from the very beginning. If we had had a disastrous meeting, maybe he would have changed his mind, but he's proud to be a part of Quinnipiac. This is where he wants to be, and it didn't take a ton of convincing. He felt, and I felt the best thing for him, was to finish his career strong here. We're excited about being partners on that journey for his last year."
Junior forward Abdulai Bundu and twins Aaron and Andrew Robinson join Daniels as incumbents from the Moore era, but the bulk of the Bobcats will be playing together for the first time. Graduate transfer Isaiah Washington is a guard that can play both spots in the backcourt, and 6-foot-7 Australian wing Jacob Rigoni gives Quinnipiac a Swiss Army knife of sorts, as does 6-foot-7 forward Nathan Davis, who continues to recover from a torn ACL. At the point guard spot, freshman Rich Kelly will be thrown into the fire early and often; but having experience in working with freshman floor generals the likes of Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson during his time of Villanova, Dunleavy possesses the patient hand and steady mentorship needed to develop him into more than just a serviceable offensive facilitator.
"I think it helps in that it's something I've been through before, and my experience with those guys probably helps me help him," Dunleavy said of Kelly and being entrusted with a huge share of the responsibilities early in his career. "I'm going to have to really be patient, because no matter how well he plays, there's just going to be so much stuff that's new to him in terms of the type of guys we're going against, the type of coaching we're going against. Patience will be the key with him, and I'll certainly understand that given the experience I've had with Ryan and Jalen."
"A guy like Ryan Arch, who started every game of his career at Villanova -- his freshman year, we played at La Salle and he had ten turnovers in that game," Dunleavy recounted, citing Arcidiacono's trials and tribulations as a rookie. "He'd never had a game like that in his life, and having the patience and the belief in a guy that when he knows you believe in him, he'll be able to respond. Rich will have that this year."
It is easy to assume that, given his rich Villanova ties, that Dunleavy will turn Quinnipiac into a mid-major version of the Wildcats. But while the similarities outweigh the differences, the first-year coach is cognizant of the fact that there are certain things that will not fully translate from the Main Line to York Hill.
"It's important that I do a good job in terms of understanding what we can translate here and what we can't, and what we need to work in over time," he admitted. "In terms of style of play, I'm most comfortable with a spread style the same way we did at Villanova. Can we run the exact same plays? Can we do the exact same thing? No. We don't have the same personnel, but how we recruit and how we see the game in general will very much line up. I think that will be one of my biggest jobs, not just to blindly say 'this is what Villanova did, this is what we have to do.' That's a meshing that I have to work at there."
"I know what we'll emphasize," a confident Dunleavy proclaimed. "How quickly it will take form to where it's visible, I can't say that. But I hope it's a team that people view as one that plays hard and is very connected. That's not easy to do offensively right away in terms of the execution and playing together, but on both ends; regardless of the result, a connected group. That's what we're hoping to have here by the end of the year."