Monday, July 30, 2018

Win at all costs: How Rider's latest agony has motivated Broncs for greater desires

Kevin Baggett has still yet to advance past MAAC Tournament quarterfinals, but has prohibitive conference favorite this season in Rider, who returns almost 95 percent of last year's scoring. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Last season yielded exceptional results for Rider, but met the same disappointing end that Broncs fans have long since become accustomed to.

Rider did win 22 games, its 15-3 record in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play good enough for a share of the regular season conference championship, a promising sign for a team perceived to be one year ahead of schedule last season. However, the good fortune for the Broncs ended once postseason play arrived, a MAAC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Saint Peter's -- the program's sixth straight early exit under head coach Kevin Baggett and third as a number-one or two seed -- serving as the means for relegation into the National Invitation Tournament, where Rider was defeated by Oregon.

For a team such as Rider, who returns nearly 95 percent of its scoring from last season -- of the three players who logged minutes for the Broncs, only one; backup point guard Kealen Washington-Ives, saw significant playing time -- yet another cruel dose of March heartbreak should act as a primary motivating fuel for a stronger ending. And so it has in Lawrenceville, where the reigning regular season titleholders and likely preseason favorite to do the same in 2018-19 are determined to put the one-and-done narrative to rest come March.

"We had a great year -- it was fun -- but at the end of the day, it was disappointing," Baggett said as he recollected the culmination of a dream season that ended in a familiar nightmare. "The way we ended up losing in the conference tournament in the first round, and in general, just losing in the conference tournament after having played so well throughout the entire conference play, that was a gut-check. But the exciting part of it is we arrived early. We accomplished all that we did with a young group."

"It's hard," he admitted. "I know a lot of people want to pin a lot on the conference tournament and how many times I've gone to the tournament or won in the tournament. But when I go and I look back at guys like Kevin Willard -- I looked at his numbers and he ended up going on and doing some really good things at Seton Hall -- it's really hard in our league. The reality is that everything has to go right. It's just one of those unfortunate things that we haven't been able to do."

Rider's youth came to life in a big way down the stretch last season, when redshirt freshman Dimencio Vaughn grew into a stronger force for the Broncs as the pressure intensified. Recovering from a torn ACL suffered early in the 2016-17 season, and also from an incident off the court last summer, the Lower East Side native quickly put any doubters to rest, leading the team in both points and rebounds per game while also shooting nearly 51 percent from the floor and acting as a bright spot on an otherwise dim free throw-shooting team en route to first team all-conference honors.

"He certainly arrived sooner than we thought he would," said Baggett. "We knew he was talented, especially coming off the ACL tear and getting back healthy. With the year that he had and watching him get better throughout the year, it was exciting. That goes for a lot of our guys, but it was exciting to see him -- and all that he'd been through -- to be able to achieve a lot of the things that he achieved. It was good for him, and I'm excited for him. He knows the next step for him is to continue to get better. People are going to be gunning for him day in and day out, and that's the part that he's got to come to grips with. He's one of the better players in the league, and I hope he's ready for it."

Rider would not be Rider without Stevie Jordan, its point guard now entering his junior season as the man who makes the Broncs' motor run. As one of five players who averaged ten or more points per game, not to mention leading the MAAC in assists, Jordan has already demonstrated what it takes to be a team leader over two years, and appears to have learned even more as he begins the second half of his collegiate career.

"Stevie is the heartbeat of this team," Baggett said. "We're only going to go as far as he takes us, as far as he leads us. He's really grown into being a leader, and that's something we really needed him to be, to do. The next step for him is not only just embracing the fact that he can do all of those things, but just leading -- being a great leader -- and especially when things aren't going well for us, we need him to take that next step and make sure that he's an extension of me."

"Those guys are going to listen to him," Baggett added. "They respect him a great deal, they respect everything he gets done, just for him to be able to lead the guys better as a player all the way around. I think the next step for him is just to be a more consistent jump shooter."

While Vaughn and Jordan are the grizzled veterans in the backcourt, a pair of sophomores and a hungry junior make up the front line for the Broncs. Redshirt sophomore Frederick Scott, a third team all-MAAC selection last year, is a power forward who runs the floor like a point guard, reminiscent of former Iona big man David Laury. Jordan Allen is a true sophomore wing whose volume scoring was a significant boon to Rider's bottom line a year ago. However, the most intriguing piece of the interior trio is Tyere Marshall, an oft-forgotten piece of the arsenal who was a double-figure scorer last season and double-double threat on any given night with his nose for the basketball and relentless hustle.

"I think the one thing that I see is I think Tyere's hungry," said Baggett. "Tyere's hungry for the fact that he's felt like he hasn't gotten the respect he thinks he should get in terms of being one of the better post players in the league. That's really motivating him this offseason. He's really done a great job with his body, really developing his strength, getting in the gym and not only being a post player, but really enhancing his offensive firepower. so to speak. He's playing out on the perimeter, shooting threes, handling the ball now that the modern-day post players aren't back-to-the-basket guys. He understands that, and so I see him getting better on those things. I really think that Tyere's driven to prove his worth."

"Jordan Allen isn't becoming only a one-dimensional jump shooter," Baggett continued. "He's understanding that guys aren't going to give him much space. He's got to be able to drive it in order to create shot opportunities. He's really been working on that this summer. And then Fred is one of those guys that's just working hard on his body, really developing. He needs to get better at the free throw line, and we're focusing on that. He can score the ball, but we've got to be able to trust him more on the defensive end, especially late in the game and when the game's in the balance, where we need to get a stop here or there."

The Broncs' bench is stabilized with the return of Anthony Durham to the backcourt for his senior season, as well as reserve forwards Devine Eke and Karamoko Cisse. Tyrei Randall is likely to redshirt because Baggett feels it would be unfair to not be able to play him the amount of minutes he feels Randall should receive, but Rider's guard depth has grown even stronger as seniors Ahmad Gilbert and Kimar Williams -- Philadelphia natives who played together at Constitution High School -- are eligible after sitting out last year following their transfers from Minnesota and Florida International, respectively.

"Kimar is another ball handler, a pass-first guy capable of scoring," Baggett said as he described Williams. "The difference between him and Stevie is he's just more of an athletic defender, physical at the basket, can take a hit. He's another guy on the court that can take pressure off of Stevie, get the ball up, can play the point. In our non-conference schedule (which includes trips to West Virginia, VCU, and Washington State), we'll lean on him a lot, because he's another guy who can make decisions for us. I think at the end of the day, he's a quiet leader who needs to be more vocal."

"Ahmad Gilbert is another dimension for us. He'll really get after it on both ends of the court. He's a smart player, kind of like one of those throwback players who really understands how to get to the basket and finish like the old-time players. He's another experienced player who brings a lot to the table for us."

In short, Rider's pieces are in place for a campaign in line with the expectations laid before it. Whether or not the Broncs will finally get over the hump remains to be seen, but early returns out of New Jersey are indicative that the collective frustration of never advancing past Saturday at the conference tournament has taken its toll, its demons hoping to finally be exorcised.

"It's certainly a goal of mine," said Baggett. "I'm just tired of hearing it more than anything else, and at the end of the day, it's not even about that. It's about trying to win that conference tournament and trying to get our university to the NCAA Tournament, which hasn't been done since 1994. That's the bigger goal for me, for our basketball team, and our eyes are on the prize."

"There's a lot of expectation. We're excited, and now, the reality is that now we've got to go out and get it done. Our guys believe in winning at all costs. We want to win the championship. We thought that we let one get away, and that's kind of our motto this year: Win at all costs, no excuses, and get it done and find a way. We're going to try to meet those expectations, and not shy away from them."

Friday, July 27, 2018

Quinnipiac releases non-conference schedule

Baker Dunleavy and Quinnipiac open season against reigning national champion Villanova in a year where Bobcats project among MAAC's top tier. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

When handed the keys to Quinnipiac's program sixteen months ago, Baker Dunleavy stressed one aspect critically as he laid out his vision for the Bobcats' future.

It was not about an instant splash in winning percentage for the Jay Wright disciple, but rather, one of growth and gradually making his team better as the year went on. Dunleavy's approach was rewarded with a semifinal appearance in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, and a positive outlook on year two with a number of transfers and incoming freshmen joining the up-and-coming outfit in Hamden.


Dunleavy scheduled accordingly this season, the finished product of an eleven-game non-conference slate having been revealed Thursday morning, one that opens on November 10 against reigning national champion Villanova -- where Dunleavy played and served as associate head coach -- in a matchup that has just as much its share of emotion as its test for how much Quinnipiac has truly matured.

"Personally for me, I think leading up to the game and after the game, it'll be a cool experience for me just to be back around a lot of people that I know and love," he said of the trip to The Pavilion. "For recruiting, it's good. We certainly want to recruit down there in Philly and the mid-Atlantic, and for the offseason, it's a good story. But once you play the game, you'd rather almost not play games where there's an emotional attachment, but I think that's a good thing for us."

"It'll be our first game, so I think it's a great opportunity for us to really get battle-tested and play in one of the most difficult atmospheres and situations against a great team. If that's the way we start, and if we can come out of that game feeling good and if we've played well, I think it can give us a good experience."

Three consecutive games against America East Conference opposition follow the Wildcats, beginning with the Bobcats' home opener against Hartford on November 15, and continuing with a trip to New Hampshire five days later before Maine visits the newly-christened People's United Center on the 25th of November. Three road games ensue from there, the first being a return game with Massachusetts on November 28, then the front end of an in-season home-and-home series with Stony Brook December 1, and a second journey to New Hampshire four days after that, this time to take on Dartmouth.

Quinnipiac will not leave the Nutmeg State again until MAAC play opens, as its final four non-league games are within the state of Connecticut. On December 8, Lafayette comes to Hamden to kick off a stretch of three home games in 15 days, a span interrupted by a neutral-site contest with Drexel at Mohegan Sun Arena on December 16. Bethune-Cookman will be welcomed by the Bobcats on the 19th, with the final tuneup before league play coming against Stony Brook on December 22.

Quinnipiac Non-Conference Schedule (all times TBD)
Saturday, November 10: at Villanova

Thursday, November 15: vs. Hartford

Tuesday, November 20: at New Hampshire

Sunday, November 25: vs. Maine

Wednesday, November 28: at Massachusetts

Saturday, December 1: at Stony Brook

Wednesday, December 5: at Dartmouth

Saturday, December 8: vs. Lafayette

Sunday, December 16: vs. Drexel (Mohegan Sun Arena)

Wednesday, December 19: vs. Bethune-Cookman

Saturday, December 22: vs. Stony Brook

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Neftali Alvarez ready to usher in new era of Fairfield basketball

Incoming freshman Neftali Alvarez has been lauded as best recruit Sydney Johnson has landed at Fairfield, and Miami native is poised to make immediate impact for Stags. (Photo by HoopMIA.com)

Fairfield University underwent a changing of the guard this offseason, graduating its all-time leading scorer, Tyler Nelson, and leaving a significant void in its returning offensive production for the coming season. Fortunately for the Stags, an experienced supporting cast returns to ease the blow of Nelson's departure, along with a four-pronged freshman class headlined by perhaps the most highly-touted recruit the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference program has seen this decade.

In Miami's Neftali Alvarez, the Stags inherit a guard who can make an impact right away -- similar to how Nelson did his freshman year alongside an established go-to scorer in Marcus Gilbert -- and forwardly position himself as a force to be reckoned with early and often in his young collegiate career. But how, exactly, did the Floridian settle on Fairfield when he could have, in theory, gone anywhere else? The answer stems from a strong relationship between one of head coach Sydney Johnson's assistants and Alvarez's mentor, who made the first contact in what could be a program-changing commitment.

***

The former head coach at Miami Christian High School, Art Alvarez -- no relation to Neftali -- has built quite a reputation for himself as a developer of young basketball players in South Florida, winning a pair of state championships within a three-year period before establishing the Miami Tropics, an Amateur Athletic Union team for whom he currently serves as chief executive officer.

"Neftali came to us two years ago in the summer, and the first time that he played basketball here in the USA was with the Miami Tropics," Art Alvarez recalled when spelling out exactly how Neftali, originally from Puerto Rico, came into the basketball world. "As he played with us in the summer, he decided to stay here and he went over to Miami Christian High School. One of the guys that he admires is J.J. Barea, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps."

Art Alvarez actually coached Barea -- who, of course, later went on to a record-breaking collegiate career at Northeastern before embarking on a successful professional career headlined by an NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 -- at Miami Christian, where the comparisons between he and Neftali merely begin. 

"This situation reminds me so much of J.J. Barea when J.J. had NC State, Oregon, all these big schools that wanted him," Art added. "And we sent him off to a small school in Northeastern, where he broke all of Reggie Lewis' records, and he went straight from there to the pros. This kid reminds me of him a lot."

Following a productive turn at the Peach Jam and across Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League circuit, the nascent star soon grew into one on the rise.

***

"That's where his recruiting started," said Art of Neftali's exposure. "It took off to the point where he basically had -- the number was 22 official offers -- and I don't mean where a guy is calling to say he's looking at you or he's interested in you. It was kind of humbling for him, because they would come at 6:00 in the morning, and you could see these coaches flying in just to see him for a 6 a.m. workout."

"We had an opportunity to sign early in November, and he had taken visits to Arkansas State, Akron, and then he took a visit to Wichita State, who really wanted him bad. Gregg Marshall was down in our gym two or three times. He took those three visits and he could have signed there, but he decided to play out his senior season. And in his senior season, he put on a show."

Neftali averaged 27.3 points and 11.2 assists per game in his senior year at Miami Christian, as well as over six rebounds per contest, cementing his credentials for his prospective suitors against highly-regarded national competition, including the powerhouse Montverde Academy program. As all this was going on, Art's longtime relationship with Tom Parrotta -- the former head coach at Canisius now on Johnson's staff at Fairfield -- began to play a factor.

"Tommy Parrotta is a dear friend of mine," said Art. "When he coached at Canisius, he had six of our players, so we had a good relationship. I reached out to Tommy, and I said, 'Tommy, you gotta come down and check out this kid.' I thought that could be a good situation, at the time not knowing how good of a chance he was going to have to land Neftali."

"So he comes down and sees him, and the first time he sees him, the kid had 37 points and 14 assists, and he said, 'God damn, Art, this kid's pretty damn good.' I think at the time, he had 15 offers, but I said, 'go for it, recruit him hard.' And he did. We knew we had two visits left for the late signing period in April, and Tommy recruited him, then Sydney came down for the first time and loved him, offered him right away."

Thus began Fairfield's courting of Neftali, which featured multiple visits from both Johnson and Parrotta, establishing the Stags as a major player in the sweepstakes for his services. Neftali's first of his two remaining visits was to Florida Gulf Coast, a perennial contender in the Atlantic Sun Conference, its Fort Myers campus close enough to his home base. The other, was used on Fairfield.

"Tommy and Dina Parrotta (his wife) played a major role," Art said when detailing Neftali's visit. "They just love to take care of kids, and when kids stay there with them, they treat them like they're their sons. That's something that he really liked. His mom went on the visit as well -- she liked it as well -- and then, they had a tremendous amount of respect for Sydney. It was a situation where the visit was so fantastic -- and we had planned that he was going to come back and we were going to think about it and then go from there -- that he called me up and said, 'Coach, this is where I want to come. I want to commit to Fairfield today.' So the next day, I called Tommy and I called Syd, and when I told them, they were speechless. That's how excited they were."

***

At 6-foot-1, Neftali slides right into a spot at Fairfield where he can play both on and off the ball, and with a track record of playing two point guards simultaneously, Johnson has the flexibility to use his new recruit alongside incumbent Aidas Kavaliauskas when running the Stags' offense, an uptempo attack that should highlight the existing facets of Neftali's game.

"He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and it's hard to knock it off," said Art of Neftali. "Nef plays the entire game, doesn't get tired, and he plays the last two minutes of a game like it's the first two minutes. He has big cojones. He just doesn't back down, and he does it against the best of the best. That's what he's done, and that's what he's proven the last two years. If he loses, he'll be the first guy challenging his teammates, and that's where he's special. I call him the Energizer bunny. He just goes on and on and on."

***

The feeling is mutual with his new head coach, whose perpetual excitement and optimism was so prevalent over the phone to where it was as though he had just won a national championship.

"I know that what we've done with the program -- and this is something that Art and Juan (Cardona, Neftali's high school coach) expressed to us -- what we've done with the program to get it to a certain point, I think that that was recognized by them, and I think a lot of other recruits we were involved with," Johnson said. "We've got national prominence, and now, we want to take a jump."

"What we can expect from Neftali -- and this is what we want from our whole team -- he's going to give you every single ounce of himself in terms of effort, intensity, and focus. He's going to play extremely hard, and that's one of the most valued things in our program. He's a very, very humble and likable kid, and as intense as he is on the court, he's a really good teammate. I think we can look for someone who will change the pace of the game, bring defensive intensity, and really want to compete in big moments."

All in all, Fairfield has themselves an instant spark plug, one that his mentor feels will make a profound difference sooner rather than later.

"We knew he could have gone to Wichita State or one of these other big schools that recruited him," Art Alvarez said. "But he wanted to go somewhere that he could play right away, and he wanted to go somewhere where he could lead -- put a team on his back and lead them -- and Fairfield has been very close. I think there's no doubt with Nef, as a freshman, I really feel that knowing him, don't be surprised if he's the freshman of the year, the player of the year in that conference. That's how good he really is."

Monday, July 23, 2018

D'Angelo Harrison on TBT, exposure, professional basketball, and St. John's

D'Angelo Harrison has continued tradition of professional success among St. John's alumni, and has learned to expand his game since graduating in 2015. (Photo by the New York Daily News)

BROOKLYN -- The colors on the jersey are different and the beard has come with age. The swagger, however, remains timeless and ever-present.

Then again, nothing less could be expected of D'Angelo Harrison, the charismatic St. John's legend who always wore his heart and his emotions firmly on his sleeve for all the world to see. The third-leading scorer in Red Storm history -- and the program's most prolific three-point shooter -- is as much a part of the tapestry on the corner of Union and Utopia as the current head coach of his alma mater, and upon his introduction in the starting lineup at The Basketball Tournament this past weekend, appreciation accompanied his arrival.

Suiting up in TBT -- which has seen fellow St. John's alums D.J. Kennedy and Paris Horne claim three consecutive tournament championships as part of powerhouse Overseas Elite, an outfit their college teammate, Justin Burrell, joined last year -- has afforded Harrison the same taste of post-collegiate success in an arena where his earliest, and most ardent, supporters are able to give back as he continues the latest success story forged in Queens.

"It just shows the kind of program we are," Harrison said of the professional careers that he and several other St. John's players have continued to enjoy over the past decade, both before and during TBT. "St. John's is a tough place to play, whether you know it or not, and it produces guys. I think all of them -- since D.J.'s class to my class -- I think everybody's still playing, except one (Amir Garrett, who has gone on to an equally fruitful baseball career as a member of the Cincinnati Reds). When it comes to the program, our guys make players, and we continue to just be great."

And so it goes for Harrison, whose basketball journey has taken him to Turkey and Israel since graduating in 2015, and will next bring him to Russia, where he has signed a two-year contract (the team and league cannot be announced at this time due to contractual obligations and legal reasons). In that time, the sharpshooting Texan -- known first and foremost as a marksman from three-point range -- has learned to not only bury teams from long distance, but also to do the little things to augment his game as he makes a living on the hardwood.

"You've got to learn your niche on the team," he said of his biggest takeaway as a professional. "In my four years here at St. John's, I was just a scorer. I didn't necessarily do what I needed to do to win the game until I became a senior. I've learned that over the years, to do whatever the team asks me to do."

"I don't need to be a 2,000-point scorer. I need to get rebounds, make shots, play defense, be the best player, dive on the floor, call timeouts. Basically, what Dom (Sir'Dominic Pointer) did for us, I'm doing for these guys. You just learn how to do anything you've got to do to win the game."

Survival has always been a primal instinct for Harrison, who overcame a childhood marked by his mother's drug abuse and the imprisonment of his brother, DeAndre, for armed robbery (D'Angelo revealed that Dre will be eligible for parole soon, hopefully as early as December). Therefore, it comes as no surprise to see his will to further develop become as strong as it currently stands, a vibrant basketball career that is still in its formative years.

In much the same vein as Harrison, his alma mater is in a similar position to where it was in 2014-15, his senior year. During that season, St. John's returned to the NCAA Tournament for the second time under then-head coach Steve Lavin, with Harrison and Pointer becoming first team All-Big East Conference selections, the latter cementing that honor with the conference's Most Improved Player award and the Haggerty Award as the best player in the metropolitan area before being drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. When asked about the Red Storm's prospects this season, the ebullient smile Harrison displayed for four years grew even wider when discussing how far St. John's can go behind junior guard Shamorie Ponds, the favorite for Preseason Player of the Year honors in the Big East.

"I was back there Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (last week), and I got to play with the guys," he proclaimed. "They're going to be special this year, I have a feeling. If Mustapha (Heron) gets cleared and they can figure it out, I think they have a dangerous group with Shamorie coming back, and Justin (Simon) and Marv (Marvin Clark II)."

Fairfield releases non-conference schedule

Sydney Johnson and Fairfield released 12-game non-conference schedule Monday, which features Stags returning to Purdue in season opener. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Sydney Johnson exuded confidence when assessing the prospects of his Fairfield team going into the coming season, even as the Stags move on without all-time leading scorer Tyler Nelson, who graduated in May and has now taken his talents to the professional ranks.

Monday evening, the beginning of Fairfield's journey was revealed, in the form of a 12-game non-conference schedule that includes opponents from ten different conferences, including NCAA Tournament participants in each of the Stags' first three contests.

RELATED: Fairfield moves on without Nelson, yet still encouraged by potential and returning pieces

The action begins on November 6, when Fairfield makes the trip to Mackey Arena for the second straight season, tipping off the year against a Purdue team that was the runner-up in the Big Ten Conference tournament and reached the East Regional semifinals in the NCAA Tournament. From there, the Stags continue on the road, invading the Sojka Pavilion four days later to return a game with reigning Patriot League champion Bucknell. The home opener, at an arena to be determined, will take place on November 13 when Northeast Conference champion LIU Brooklyn makes its way into the Nutmeg State to return a game that Fairfield won last season at Barclays Center. Four days after that, Wagner -- the team LIU defeated to win its first NEC championship since 2013 -- will be next to take on the Stags, either on campus at Alumni Hall or at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport.

The Thanksgiving weekend will see Fairfield fly out to the Pacific Northwest, taking part in a tournament hosted by Seattle University, who the Stags will face in the final game of a three-game event on Sunday, November 25. Longwood and Denver will be Fairfield's first two opponents in the Evergreen State, on November 23 and 24, respectively.

Following the excursion westward, the Stags will return to their familiar eastern confines, first at West Point against Army on December 1 before hosting perennial Horizon League contender Oakland on December 6. Three days later, Old Dominion will welcome Fairfield to the Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, the second in a two-year home-and-home series the Monarchs started last season on Fairfield's campus. The marquee game on the non-league ledger takes place on December 16, when the Stags visit Boston College in the first of a three-year agreement where the Eagles will return the favor and take the trip down to Bridgeport in the 2019-20 season. Fairfield's final tuneup before Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play comes against New Hampshire, who welcomes the Stags to Lundholm Gymnasium on December 22.

Fairfield Non-Conference Schedule (all times and home venues TBD)
Tuesday, November 6: at Purdue

Saturday, November 10: at Bucknell

Tuesday, November 13: vs. LIU Brooklyn

Saturday, November 17: vs. Wagner

Friday, November 23: vs. Longwood (Seattle University Tournament)

Saturday, November 24: vs. Denver (Seattle University Tournament)

Sunday, November 25: at Seattle (Seattle University Tournament)

Saturday, December 1: at Army West Point

Thursday, December 6: vs. Oakland

Sunday, December 9: at Old Dominion

Sunday, December 16: at Boston College

Saturday, December 22: at New Hampshire

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Gael Nation loses 15-point lead, eliminated from TBT

BROOKLYN -- Every so often in life, history repeats itself.

So it was Sunday afternoon, as Gael Nation -- the team of Iona basketball alumni banded together for a shot at the $2-million grand prize that comes with winning The Basketball Tournament -- saw their second bid come crashing down in a similar vein to their maiden voyage last year.

In the 2017 regionals in Philadelphia, Gael Nation used their high-powered offense to dethrone City of Gods before narrowly falling short in overtime against Boeheim's Army, who; coincidentally, followed them on the court Sunday at the conclusion of their game. This time around, Gael Nation experienced more of the same, powering past Sideline Cancer on Saturday with an explosive second half before a 75-73 loss to Armored Athlete in the second round of action at the Steinberg Wellness Center.

In many ways, the loss to Armored Athlete harkens back to the ill-fated 2012 NCAA Tournament team, on which Sean Armand and Scott Machado played as a sophomore and senior, respectively. Six years ago, the Gaels stunned the college basketball world by receiving an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, where they proceeded to take a 25-point lead on Brigham Young in the first half before the Cougars came back to defeat them with a second half of zone defense and timely three-point shots.

On Sunday, Gael Nation displayed a strong defensive mindset in the opening of four quarters, allowing just nine points to Armored Athlete and conceding a mere four field goals of the 16 that were attempted. The Iona alums followed their opening salvo with one more in line with their trademark, knocking down six of eight three-point shots in the second quarter to take a 40-25 lead into the locker room. It would only spiral out of control from there, however.

Armored Athlete turned the tables after the intermission, missing only three of their 18 third-quarter attempts en route to a 34-16 margin on the scoreboard to forge a 59-56 lead going into the final period. Gael Nation remained close, though, only trailing by six points when the Elam ending was enacted at a juncture where Armored Athlete led 68-62, creating a target score of 75.

Armand, who once again led Gael Nation with a second 20-point game in as many days, struck first to narrow the gap to eleven points for the win, but was then whistled for a technical foul and personal foul on the ensuing two possessions. He would later redeem himself on a three-pointer after Armored Athlete split the two foul shots that stemmed from Armand's fifth foul.

Armand would become even more critical to Gael Nation's success, as two missed layups sandwiched a pair of foul shots that served as the Brooklyn native's 18th and 19th points of the afternoon. A three-pointer by former Indiana guard Jordan Hulls pushed Armored Athlete to the precipice of a win, needing one more point for victory, but A.J. English kept Gael Nation alive with a triple of his own from just off the top of the key, making the score 74-72.

Needing a stop and three points to pull out a win, Gael Nation got the former when English secured the rebound of a missed three by Marcus Thornton, retaining possession on a held ball when the arrow was ruled to be in Gael Nation's favor. However, Armored Athlete employed the strategy game off the inbounds, electing to foul Armand to trigger the double bonus and avoid a game-winning three. Armand missed the first of two foul shots, but made the second to trim the deficit on the scoreboard to one point.

Gael Nation had one more chance to survive and advance, gaining possession after Armored Athlete turned the ball over out of bounds. However, Steve Burtt, Jr.'s three-point attempt was too strong and bounced off the rim. Armand would foul out shortly thereafter, committing his sixth and final infraction against Julian Gamble, who promptly sank the first shot at the stripe for the victory.

With the win, Armored Athlete advances to the round of 16 in Atlanta next weekend, where it will face either Boeheim's Army -- a team of Syracuse alumni -- or the New York-based Team Fancy.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Gael Nation leaves lasting impression in TBT opener

Gael Nation stands victorious after scoring 100-88 win over Sideline Cancer in opening round of The Basketball Tournament, where Iona alumni are attempting to win $2 million grand prize. (Photo by Basketball Society)

BROOKLYN -- To commemorate the Northeast Regional rounds of The Basketball Tournament, each of the participating teams was represented by a banner bearing their respective team logo on the wall of the Steinberg Wellness Center.

Each, that is, except one.

Gael Nation, a team of Iona alumni in a second go-round at TBT and its $2 million, winner-take-all grand prize, was not present among the banners Friday night, an innocuous slight that was noticeably rectified prior to Saturday's action. But while the Gael legends were invisible to the naked eye 24 hours prior to taking the floor, they left no doubt of their formidable presence in the field once present and accounted for, employing the high-octane style they learned under Tim Cluess and carrying it to a 100-88 victory over Sideline Cancer on the campus of Long Island University, setting up a second-round battle with Armored Athlete Sunday afternoon.

"We had the same philosophy every year at Iona," Sean Armand said of the familiarity with one another, a camaraderie that served as the driving force behind the Brooklyn native's team-leading 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting. "When we got the team together, it was easy to gel, so when we got back on the court, it was like we were back at Iona. Everyone's a little more experienced and a little bit better now, so it was kind of easy."

"We have a bunch of guys that, individually, are really good," head coach Colin Curtin added. "They're completely bought in, and I thought that was the reason why we scored so many points."

In standard Iona fashion, the first quarter yielded a slow start as Gael Nation struggled to find a second scorer early alongside former Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year David Laury, who set the tone in the opening minutes en route to an 18-point effort. Toward the end of the stanza, Armand galvanized his teammates, draining one of his four three-pointers and then coming back with a jumper off a turnover moments before the buzzer. The second quarter was equally as close as Sideline Cancer fought off a 10-2 Gael Nation run and regained the lead, but lost it for good on A.J. English's straightaway triple in the final seconds of the half, which sent Gael Nation to the locker room with a 49-47 cushion that was also forged by the stout defense of Aaron Rountree, the X-factor behind Iona's first of three consecutive MAAC championships in 2016.

"It's really important," said English of Rountree's understated impact. "Coach was saying that with these teams, the main scorers weren't the ones that went through in the tournament. But that's what Aaron does, and that's what I was telling Coach -- he wasn't at the first practice -- I told him he would love him because he does all the things that won't show up on the stat sheet -- keeping extra balls alive, running the floor, bringing energy -- whether he's shooting or not."

An explosion in the third quarter, keyed by Gael Nation's fast break and ball control in a period where the team committed only two turnovers, effectively decided the game as the Iona alumni turned a two-point advantage into one that ballooned to 13 points to put the game out of reach. The lead stood at 14 when the Elam ending -- which shuts off the game clock following the first dead ball with under four minutes to play, and then adds seven points to the leading team's score to create a game-deciding target -- was enacted. A baseline layup from English was the de facto game-clinching shot for Gael Nation, who placed five players in double figures amid a 55 percent shooting display.

"We've got guys that can do everything, and I think that's important in a tournament like this," Steve Burtt, Jr., the elder statesman on the roster, remarked after scoring 19 points. "We've got guys that can score, guys that can defend, guys that can do the little things -- the 50-50 balls, the hustle plays -- we can beat you in the post, we can beat you on the pick-and-roll. We've got a really special team, and as long as we lock in and work together, the sky's the limit for us."

Friday, July 20, 2018

Fairfield moves on without Nelson, yet still encouraged by potential and returning pieces

After graduating Tyler Nelson (left), Fairfield will have a new look to casual fans this season, but head coach Sydney Johnson is confident that Stags will not be worse off without all-time leading scorer. (Photo by the Connecticut Post)

When a school graduates its all-time leading scorer and arguably the most valuable player to a program in its conference the previous season, one question immediately comes to mind:

How do you replace him?

Fairfield is experiencing this dilemma presently, having to now navigate the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference without Tyler Nelson, the warrior guard whose four seasons in the Stags' red and white paved the way to a professional career that began in earnest this month with the Minnesota Timberwolves' Summer League team. But the runner-up in last year's MAAC Tournament has already gone past the first step on the journey to life without Nelson, a credit in large part to the unwavering faith and confidence of its head coach that both the players returning to the program and its newcomers would mesh strongly enough to maintain its status among the top half of the league.

"At this time last year, I was convinced that we had a supporting cast that was good enough," head coach Sydney Johnson recalled when assessing last season's conclusion and his team's prospects for the upcoming campaign. "I was very, very convinced that we had the supporting cast that was good enough. I don't think people believed me, and then I think with our slow start to the season, people doubted us. So what I can tell you is at the end of the season, and now going into 2018-19, I feel like we have good young players in the program now."

"I'm really excited that a number of them have had a year to get games under their belt. They continue to grow, but now they have a little bit of experience. We have good young players in the program, and now it's their turn to maybe grow and expand their roles and see how they can become the Tyler Nelsons, the Jerome Seguras, the Marcus Gilberts of the program moving forward."

With Nelson -- and second-leading scorer Ferron Flavors, Jr., who transferred -- having both departed, the bulk of the offense is up for grabs among the Stags' incumbents, but one player who could be one to watch this season is sophomore guard Jesus Cruz. A late signing by Johnson in the offseason last year, the Puerto Rico native made an impact for Fairfield on both ends of the floor, finishing third in points per game among his teammates but making a name for himself on the defensive side of the basketball by ranking among the top five in the MAAC in steals.

"I want him to just improve in those areas where we recruited him," said Johnson. "We told him we were going to give him an opportunity to play, and he can impact the game in many different ways. That's what he did defensively. He helped us rebound, he helped us defend, so I would say if he can keep doing that and establish some consistency from the three-point line, he's going to continue to blossom. It's time for him to turn it up a notch in all those categories."

Cruz will be one of the leaders in an up-and-coming backcourt, but perhaps the biggest strength for the Stags this season will be on the front line, where Johnson returns a pair of seniors in Jonathan Kasibabu and Matija Milin, both of whom will continue to mentor the next generation of Stag forwards, which includes sophomores Wassef Methnani, Kevin Senghore-Peterson and Omar El-Sheikh.

"They're both leading because they know the system," Johnson said of Kasibabu and Milin, each of whom having been starters and significant pieces in the rotation in all of their first three years in the program. "They know my expectations, they know how tough the league is, and I think they've been very good in trying to help their teammates. The second thing that they've embraced is competition in our own gym. They understand if they don't come to work -- they're the seniors, but we have good young players that are more than happy to earn minutes -- Jon and Matija have embraced competing and respecting the young players in our program, and allowing them to emerge as well. It's a nice balance there."

One of those young players that emerged during the second half of last season was point guard Aidas Kavaliauskas. Ineligible during the fall semester due to visa issues that also sacrificed his freshman season, the Lithuanian import burst on the scene at the end of December last year and instantly transformed the Stags' offense into a more cohesive, fundamentally sound unit, setting the foundation for his first full season as a junior.

"I think it's tough to become eligible mid-year and be handed the reins, but at any given time when Aidas was on the court, he could be leading the team," Johnson assessed. "Moving forward, it's great that he'll have a full 30 games. He's always been a really, really smart kid, he studies the game a lot. He and I have a lot of conversations throughout the year in terms of getting really good shots and getting guys on the same page. He's an incredibly selfless basketball player."

"When you have a whole lot of talent with guys who can do a lot of different things, it's really good to have a guy on the court that's just really like a conductor, who just wants to let that happen. That's one of the great strengths he brings us. He understands the big picture and is trying to keep guys connected, and be able to do things towards their strengths. What we're talking to him about, as much as anything, is to leave some room for you to do some stuff. If he can do that consistently, then that'll be a step forward for him."

Kavaliauskas will benefit from the arrival of Neftali Alvarez, a freshman guard from Miami heralded as perhaps Johnson's biggest recruit, one that Alvarez's mentor likens to NBA veteran J.J. Barea, as well as helping shepherd sophomore Taj Benning along to preserve Johnson's vision of raising Fairfield's profile with the infusion of youth.

"We've aggressively recruited a roster of guys who are going to share the basketball, are going to play really hard, and are going to embrace being really good teammates," Johnson said. "We have a lot of talent in our gym. The issue is just kind of getting them all enough reps to play together and grow throughout the season, get game experience, and then peak at the right time."

"The one thing I can tell you is this team is going to give everything they have. These guys are very competitive. People are going to enjoy seeing us compete, I can promise you that."

Friday, July 13, 2018

Fueled by growth and promise, Quinnipiac now builds upon strong foundation in year two

Baker Dunleavy came within two wins of MAAC championship in first year at Quinnipiac, where he has quickly positioned Bobcats for greater success in second season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Quinnipiac was not expected to be back in the conversation among Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contenders, at least not so soon after losing both of its top two scorers and making a coaching change following the 2016-17 season.

Picked last of eleven in the preseason coaches' poll -- and with a low bar set before them by several college basketball pundits -- the Bobcats were viewed as the token cellar-dweller in the MAAC, a program envisioned to merely tread water in what was initially thought of as a transition year behind head coach Baker Dunleavy, the successor to Tom Moore after the latter was fired following ten seasons at the helm in Hamden.

But Dunleavy -- a former Jay Wright assistant who helped his mentor build Villanova into one of the sport's elite, developing a core that went on to win a pair of national championships -- did not get that memo. Wins in six of his first ten conference games sent a resonant message to the rest of the league that his team was not to be taken lightly. Even after a late-season swoon in which Quinnipiac dropped seven of its last eight games, three of which coming in double overtime, the Bobcats recovered and went on a run to the semifinals of the MAAC Tournament, taking out Siena and Canisius before falling to Fairfield just two wins away from what would have been an improbable conference championship coronation, but not before exceeding even the highest expectations of program growth.

"That was what we were fixated on from the moment we took the job," Dunleavy said of raising Quinnipiac's profile both on and off the floor. "We certainly didn't have any expectations of having a 20-win team and winning the league in year one. I think we were very realistic that it was going to be a year where we needed to establish a foundation of what we wanted to be as a program and take that first step, so in terms of that, I was really pleased with our ability to play our best basketball at the end of the year."

"Anybody who followed our team and read our box scores knows we had a lot of heartbreak, we had a lot of close games, but we just really fought. We went through a grind and we came out on the other end better, and I wouldn't have faulted our guys if they had been worn out by it or weren't able to play at the end, but it actually made us better. That was actually what I was most proud of, our guys' ability to continue to get better when the results weren't going the way we wanted them."

An integral piece of both Quinnipiac's growth and ability to stay the course down the stretch was Cameron Young, a seldom-used wing under Moore who blossomed under the new regime last season to average nearly 19 points and seven rebounds per game on his way to all-MAAC recognition. Recently approved for an extra year of eligibility, Young will be the epitome of a program having received a taste of battle experience and now shooting to elevate its finished product.

Cameron Young, approved for additional year of eligibility by NCAA, will reprise his role as Quinnipiac's leading scorer and primary offensive option. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

"I'd be lying if I knew at this time last year -- going through the offseason -- that he would be our leading scorer," said Dunleavy of Young and his eventual production. "If I knew that he would have that role, I'd have done something differently in the summer. I could have done a better job with him."

"I think the extra year will help him a ton. He's a guy that will benefit greatly from just having one more year of continuity and understanding the system that he's playing in, and we've got a lot of new and young guys eligible this year, so having a guy back that played as many minutes and played in as many big moments as he did will certainly help."

Rich Kelly was equally as vital to Quinnipiac's success last year, thrown into the fire as a freshman point guard in much the same vein that Ryan Arcidiacono -- whom Dunleavy helped cultivate at Villanova -- was for the Wildcats in 2012-13. After having gone above and beyond in proving his worth in a strong rookie season, Kelly will no longer have the burden of having to carry the program thanks to the Bobcats' incoming freshman class, which will allow for him to add more facets to a burgeoning skill set.

"If you told me at the beginning of last season that he would be available to play in every game, I'd be impressed," Dunleavy reflected. "He had a shoulder injury in September and I knew he was going to take his lumps. To be playing his best basketball was really cool to see, and I think it allows him to play a more reasonable amount of minutes. He can play better when he's on the court."

"There were games last year -- I think at Iona, I played him 48 minutes. That's certainly not ideal for anybody, especially a freshman point guard. But he handled it valiantly, and I think this year, with how our roster is constructed, will allow him to play even better because he'll get a little bit more rest."

Now having spent a year expanding their game, Young and Kelly will serve as mentors of sorts to the newest crop of Bobcats, a perimeter-rich quartet of guards that includes a pair of New Yorkers in Bronx native Tyrese Williams (Cardinal Hayes) and highly-touted Long Island prospect Savion Lewis (Half Hollow Hills East) as well as Philadelphia's Tyree Pickron and Maryland product Matthew Balanc, all of whom serve as a testament to the recruiting prowess of associate head coach Tom Pecora, who consistently managed to land high-major talent during his head coaching stints at both Hofstra and Fordham. In addition, Travis Atson and Kevin Marfo -- both of whom sat out last season after transferring from Tulsa and George Washington, respectively -- are eligible this year, and have three seasons remaining to blossom into all-league players in their own right.

"They got the benefit of a year of being in practice and watching our team up close, so they have a bit of a head start," Dunleavy said of his two transfers. "Those guys will give us an older, more physical presence as they start, even though they're only sophomores. And as far as the freshmen are concerned, I think we addressed our greatest need in recruiting off the bat with four perimeter guys that can do multiple things. They can all dribble, pass and shoot, they're all good athletes, they all come from winning programs, so I think there will be a great opportunity for all of them to contribute right away."

Marfo, in particular, is a focal point on the front line, as the 6-foot-8 forward will fill the void left by the graduation of Chaise Daniels, giving the Bobcats a more physical post option that can both impose his will in the paint and stretch the floor for the likes of Jacob Rigoni, who shot over 45 percent from three-point range as a freshman last season.

"I really believe he can be as good of a frontcourt player as there is in the league," said Dunleavy. "I think he's a guy who brings physicality and toughness, and incredible mobility right away. We're really excited about having him on the floor for us. Another unsung hero for us, especially at the end of last year, was Abdulai Bundu. He started a lot of games for us, and is just a warrior. I love coaching him and I'm so glad he's back for us. He'll be a great senior leader."

"Those guys will play a lot of minutes for us at the five position, just like Abdulai did last year with Chaise, and I think they give us great mobility and great presence, and two tough rebounders. As far as Jacob's concerned, he had a really good freshman year. I think his confidence as a scorer, as an aggressive playmaker, really grew as the year went along. I really hope that he and Rich, as freshmen, gained the experience to make them like juniors now, because they played so many minutes. They're going to be very experienced sophomores in terms of all the situations they've been put through."

With all that being said, and with an emphatic first salvo having been fired last season, the outlook in Hamden is understandably positive and geared more toward a potential run into March, but Dunleavy is remaining grounded before the ball is tipped, projecting optimism but not running into the trap of exuding an excessive amount of confidence.

"It's almost like last year again, but with guys that are more familiar with what we want to do on the court," he said of the preparation for year two. "But when I say it's like last year, there are so many new parts to plug in, so for me to say, 'Hey, we want to be dominant from the get-go,' might be unrealistic. Again, I think our goal last year was, 'Hey, let's get better as the season progresses and let's play our best by the end of the year,' and I really felt like if we could do that last year, we would be a tough out in the conference tournament and that proved to be the case."

"I think if we do that this year and get better, and play our best at the end, we'll be on another level. We made it to the semis last year, and I think we can be a team that is a serious factor in our league, but the bottom line is we play in a really good basketball league with good teams and good coaches, so all we can really control is just being the best version of ourselves and keep getting better. With all these new parts coming in and new guys playing with each other, we've just got to keep that growth mindset."

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Monmouth becomes first MAAC school to release non-conference schedule

Sophomore Deion Hammond leads Monmouth into a season rife with upside and yet another strong non-conference schedule. (Photo by the Asbury Park Press)

Traditionally, Monmouth is usually among the first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference programs to release its non-conference schedule every season. Tuesday afternoon was no exception, as the Hawks became the first of eleven MAAC schools to reveal the first portion of its ledger for the 2018-19 season, a 13-game amalgamation of teams headlined by Kentucky, but also including several other marquee opponents.

Three games will be contested in the friendly confines of the OceanFirst Bank Center, but the lack of home dates did not stop King Rice from comprising a slate that will test the Hawks appropriately and immensely as he and his program continue the upward ascent from an 11-20 season in year one of the post-Justin Robinson era.

Monmouth's season opener will take place in West Long Branch for a third consecutive season, as the Hawks will welcomes Lehigh to the Jersey Shore on November 6. The Mountain Hawks are also the third straight Pennsylvania school that Monmouth will open its season against, having debuted against Bucknell last season and Drexel the year prior. The contest precedes a five-game swing to road or neutral sites, beginning with Colgate, a Patriot League school like Lehigh, on November 9; and continues with a trip to Philadelphia to face Saint Joseph's (November 12), followed by three games in the Myrtle Beach Invitational, an eight-team tournament headlined by West Virginia. The full bracket and field for the tournament will be released later this summer.

Monmouth returns home for the Thanksgiving holiday to continue its in-state series with Princeton, who visits West Long Branch on Saturday, November 24. From there, a four-game road trip awaits, starting with the long-awaited trek to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky on November 28, the second half of a two-year series with the Wildcats whose opening game was contested at Madison Square Garden last December. Upon returning from Lexington, the Hawks head to the Sojka Pavilion on December 1 to return last year's meeting with Bucknell, then take on a pair of New York opponents in the Empire State, squaring off against Hofstra (December 5) and Albany (December 8), the latter being the last game before final exams.

The penultimate game of Monmouth's non-conference journey is one in which Yale returns the favor from last season by visiting the Hawks on December 20. A ten-day hiatus for the Christmas holiday separates the Yale game from the final tuneup before league play, which comes on New Year's Eve at the Palestra against Penn, a team that defeated Monmouth in a quadruple-overtime thriller in West Long Branch last November.

Monmouth Non-Conference Schedule (all times TBD)
Tuesday, November 6:
 vs. Lehigh

Friday, November 9: at Colgate

Monday, November 12: at Saint Joseph's

Thursday, November 15 - Sunday, November 18: Myrtle Beach Invitational (opponents TBD)

Saturday, November 24: vs. Princeton

Wednesday, November 28: at Kentucky

Saturday, December 1: at Bucknell

Wednesday, December 5: at Hofstra

Saturday, December 8: at Albany

Thursday, December 20: vs. Yale

Monday, December 31: at Penn

Greg Herenda reflects on FDU's past, present and future

Greg Herenda (second from left) supervises morning workout at FDU. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

TEANECK, NJ -- A few players were being drilled through their paces. The screen and roll, with its options, was the topic of a Monday morning workout. The assistants -- Bruce Hamburger, Patrick Sellers and Peter Lappas -- led the session as the head coach observed everything. If need be, said head coach interjected to emphasize a point in the execution, an essential teaching moment that is so much a part of Greg Herenda. 

The FDU mentor, entering his sixth season, is first and foremost a teacher of the game. Without micromanaging, his stamp is on everything regarding the program. The results, for the most part, have been positive as the Knights have gone from pretender to perennial contender under his watch. Herenda took over the job of reversing the school's fortunes back in the summer of 2013. Rebuild was not the word. The prior three seasons saw FDU post 15 wins, total. The program was in complete disarray. 

“The task was daunting to say the least,” Herenda recalled in his office following the workout. “We had six scholarship players. Academics were in a mess and our APR was awful. We had to get this going from the ground up.” Hamburger came over from Saint Peter’s and proved to be invaluable as the Knights looked far and wide for players.

"It was an overhaul from A through Z," Herenda said. “Back then, we could offer kids a dream. Now we have a championship instead of selling a dream, we have reality, competing for championships. It is something Coach K went through at Duke. He arrived on the promise of a dream, now he sells kids on playing for championships.”  

The past season saw FDU go 13-18 and 9-9 in Northeast Conference play, the Knights' campaign ending in agony in the NEC Tournament semifinals, dropping a heartbreaking contest to eventual champion LIU Brooklyn by one point.

“Last year was a tale of three seasons,” Herenda reflected. “We had a senior (Darian Anderson), a future hall of famer, go down early, come back and go down late. In his absence, some young kids stepped up. Jahlil Jenkins really came on. Darnell Edge proved to be one of the best three-point and free throw shooters in the nation. Overall, I was very happy we could compete having most of the year without Darian.” 

As the spring moved into summer, with preparations in full, Herenda still could not get that LIU game -- decided on a late foul -- out of his mind. Although it is time to move on, the memory lingers. Preparing for next year, he has a number of veterans, including junior Kaleb Bishop, Jenkins -- now a sophomore -- and the senior Edge, returning. The marquee player may very well be Mike Holloway. Herenda feels the 6’8” senior could be the best post player in the NEC. There is an added feature in the New Jersey native's return. 

“We want a bookend for his career,” Herenda said. “Mike came in as a freshman and we won the NEC. We would like to see another championship in this, his senior year.” 

One of the difficult facts of NEC life is transfers. Too often, teams will see a player emerge only to transfer to a higher-profile school. Herenda is old school in his feelings, but does see where the players are coming from.

“A lot of them look at LeBron and see what he is doing changing teams," he surmised. "They naturally want to do the same to get themselves in the best position to win. It happens not just in college, but high school and AAU. Even at our summer camp, we have kids who want to play on someone’s team. It’s something we as coaches may not like, but have to deal with.”

A prime example is Marques Townes, who left FDU for Loyola-Chicago, where he ultimately played a significant role in the Ramblers' run to the Final Four.

“He was a player we identified and recruited,” Herenda said of Townes. “He decided to leave, we missed him, but we were happy to see him wind up on a team that went to the Final Four.” 

Herenda added that Townes’ presence and contributions during Loyola’s runs sent a message to his former FDU team. 

“It showed our guys there is a fine line between getting into the tournament and winning a game or two," said Herenda. "There is not a big difference.”

Still, there is another issue with players jumping from the NEC to a higher-profile school. 

“We have great coaches and assistants in this conference,” Herenda said. “What happens is we identify a kid the Power Fives pass on. We develop them, then the Power Fives see the finished product after we did the groundwork.”

Thoughts of the NEC Tournament moving were also brought up, as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and Colonial Athletic Association will be shifting its postseason tournament venues after the 2018-19 season. 

“There has been talk,” Herenda said, “but ultimately the coaches like the format (playing each game at the home of the higher seed).” He also noted a neutral facility like Barclays Center would be nice but attendance could be a factor. 

“Let’s say you are at Barclays and got a Mount St. Mary and Bryant final," Herenda proposed. "Those are two schools a distance away and final game attendance may not be that good. As it is now, the format insures a good home crowd and atmosphere. Coaches will take that atmosphere even if it means going on the road. And we have historically been a good road team.” 

The conference championship in 2016 at Wagner is the highlight. In addition, the Knights have recorded road wins over Rutgers, Saint Joseph’s and Seton Hall under Herenda’s watch. Next season the Knights will travel to Rutgers, UMass, Providence, Princeton, South Florida and Holy Cross. 

“It’s guarantee money,” Herenda admits. “The other thing is the competition is very good and we are away from home. Come conference play, a tough battle might not seem as difficult to our kids after what they have seen in non-conference.”

Herenda finds fan support good, but would naturally be welcome to more. 

“We have a really good product in our conference,” he said. “When I was an assistant at Seton Hall, Syracuse, Georgetown and UConn ruled, and after that, everyone else was in a group. Here in the NEC, it seems things are more wide open for teams to emerge.” 

Herenda feels fans venturing to NEC games can get close to the action and enjoy. 

“Imagine sitting a few rows from the bench and seeing the talents of a Joel Hernandez (LIU’s star of last season’s run)? That’s great for a fan,” he said. Herenda did point out an early February home win over Wagner on a Sunday afternoon saw a packed Rothman Center. 

“That was a great atmosphere that day,” he said. “That is what we are aiming for on a regular basis.” 

Times at the Northern New Jersey campus are exciting. 

“We have a new president, and we will have a new AD as David Langford retired," Herenda added. "There are changes going on and the university is moving forward.”

The Knights have won a combined 33 games the past three years in conference play. Another, and by no means trivial, source of pride for Herenda is the team leading the NEC academically two of the last five years. The talented group of returnees will join notable recruits including Brandon Powell a 6’2” guard out of Middletown, NY. Marc Dadika -- a 6’8” forward -- is local, having played at nearby St. Mary in Rutherford. In addition, Oscar Okeke -- who played at St. Anthony -- is a 6’10” player who has committed, but awaits acceptance.  

The prior season is in the rearview mirror, with the current one seeing the Knights thinking championship. As Herenda notes without hesitation, “we have definitely raised the bar here.”