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.”