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."