Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Siena focused despite early MAAC tourney exit, uncertainty of Sean Durugordon’s waiver

Amid uncertainty in MAAC, Carmen Maciariello is high on his Siena team, praising Saints as most athletic squad of his five-year tenure. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

In four years under Carmen Maciariello, Siena has been fortunate to not finish worse than third in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play, with a tie for third last season following a solo third the year before and regular season championships in both of the coach’s first two years at the helm of his alma mater.

But despite the sustained success, the Saints have never been able to break through in March, with various obstacles rearing their heads over the years from COVID to an unprecedented tournament format change, to late-season injuries and inability to execute. Still, Maciariello is optimistic about what he returns to the Capital Region, reflecting on what went wrong last year for the Saints but also heralding a new roster he considers to be the most athletic of his tenure.

“I went through probably the last six minutes of all those losses at the end of the season,” he said of Siena's second-half swoon. “To be honest
, I look at every season as a new season. I don’t really get caught up on the year before. I do think we peaked too early last year. I thought it was a really emotional year for the program from Evan Franz and Mr. Baer (passing away), and just everything from different injuries. We had 12 different starting lineups, and we haven’t been able to kind of just play and grow so the offense could take off.” 

“For me, it’s about let’s keep it simple, let’s continue to work on what we need to work on and then grow so that we’re not worried about adjustments. We want our pace to be a little faster. We want the ball to move a little bit, but also, we want to try to score the ball earlier if we can score in the 70s and we can add a couple more possessions. Since I’ve been the head coach here, I think this is the most athletic team that I’ll have had from top to bottom. Defensively, we weren’t to our standards last year to where we needed to be, so I think all that put into one will have that formula to get us back to the top. Since I’ve been here, we haven’t finished lower than third in four years. That’s fine, but the goal is to win a championship every year. I hope it’s appreciated, but we want to contend not just in the MAAC tournament. We want to get in the NCAA Tournament and win games.”

Siena returns four players from last season’s rotation, with point guard Zek Tekin and reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Michael Eley perhaps the most recognizable. Tekin enters his sophomore year as the man entrusted to lead the Saints’ offense after Javian McCollum transferred to Oklahoma in the offseason, and the belief within the program is he will overcome the learning curve he faced as a freshman and evolve further into a floor general.

Zek Tekin (0) takes over for Javian McCollum at point guard this season for Siena. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

“He likes to play fast, and I’ve told him: We’re going to limit this playbook,” Maciariello said of Tekin. “We’re not going to have 20 different families of plays. We want guys to play off their instincts, and Zek is a very instinctual player, so hopefully we’re going to make it easier for him to just go out and play. People don’t realize that was his first time in America last year, playing Americanized basketball, English as a second language, far away from home. I thought he did a good job and I thought he understood the importance of school, did a great job in the weight room with his body and his conditioning.”

“Obviously with Javian moving on to Oklahoma, I thought Zek Tekin showed great glimpses of what he can be for us, especially beating Iona and Rider here at our place. I’m hoping you’ll see a guy that’s going to be able to push it, play with great tempo and pace, and just do a little bit of everything. We want him setting the table for everybody, and I think he can do that. I know he can do that.”

As for Eley, he may not follow up his top rookie honors with Player of the Year recognition the way Jalen Pickett did as a sophomore in 2019-20, but Maciariello is quite bullish on his second-year forward. Eley, well as the help he will receive up front from Sveinn Birgisson and Killian Gribben, will be instrumental in helping fill the void left by the graduation of Jackson Stormo and Michael Baer, as well as the transfer of Jared Billups, the Saints’ main defensive stopper last year.

MAAC rookie of the year last season, Michael Eley now enters sophomore campaign as Siena's top scorer and offensive leader. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

“Michael had a great summer,” the coach said of Eley. “He’s such a tremendous athlete that sometimes I think he takes that for granted because there’s just so many things he does effortlessly. I think the pieces for him are those details defensively, knowing where he has to be and what he has to be. I don’t think offense is ever going to be a problem for him, but I think you will see an uptick in his usage with different things we do for him, and I think that’s a good thing. We want him to have the ball, we want him to make plays with it, and we want him to be able to guard a first or second scorer and be able to give them fits with his length and his athleticism.”

“Svenny is in a great spot. He was here four weeks, then he went home to Iceland and when he came back, he was winning all our conditioning workouts. He was a leader in terms of his fitness, and he’s a guy that — if he’s a catch-and-shoot guy and he plays off two feet — he’s going to help us, and we told him that coming into the summer. He’s going to challenge to play minutes. And then Killian, I’m just so happy with the steps that he took. He played for that Irish national team, and he played more of a five. Now with Giovanni Emejuru here, Killian’s going to have a chance to play the four or the five, and he can start at either depending on what happens. He’s just so instinctual. He’s really good in the pocket, he can make a shot, and he can finish above the rim and run the floor.”

Siena has six newcomers on the roster this season, less than some other MAAC programs ravaged by the transfer portal, but also enough to cause a large amount of intrigue as to what the Saints may look like come November 6, when Holy Cross comes to MVP Arena to open the season. The largest source of that intrigue comes from Sean Durugordon, now a two-time transfer upon his arrival from Austin Peay. It remains to be seen whether or not Durugordon will receive a waiver to play this year, but regardless of his status, Maciariello is pleased with what he has brought to the program already, as he is with the remainder of his incoming talent.

“He’s a physical guard wing,” Maciariello said of Durugordon. “He can kind of play the two or the three, he could probably even play the four depending on what we’re doing out there. He can make a shot, he’s got a great body. Think power guard, think physical wing. Those are probably a couple of synonyms for Sean Durugordon. Either way, waiver or no waiver, he’s adding value with what he does and what be brings to practice. That’s how you get a group to grow.”

The five other pieces to the Saints’ recruiting class, four freshmen and sophomore Giovanni Emejuru, will be available right away. The goal for them, says Maciariello, is to simply acclimate them to college basketball and give them enough room to grow while also affording each the opportunity to make an impact.

“Bralyn (Smith), 6-foot-4 guard, shoots it at a high level,” Maciariello prefaced. “(He’s a) tremendous worker, he’ll be in the mix to be able to play as many minutes as he can handle. Michael Ojo could be a small-ball five but we recruited him more as a three-four, and he’s a tremendous athlete. He’s 6-foot-6 with maybe a 7-foot wingspan, physically ready to compete, looks like he could play in the NFL on Sundays. His best attribute will be him crashing the glass early. Max Frazier is a five man, but could transition to four depending on if him and Killian are on the floor together. He’s super long, he has a jump shot almost like Tayshaun Prince, if you remember the way his jumper looked. Max is ambidextrous, and we’ve worked hard this summer on really getting him to be a true lefty.”

“Michael Evbagharu from Toronto, a guy that could play one through three, Canadian national team player. We’re just getting him acclimated to different terminologies and things, but he’s got a super high IQ and he’s just really businesslike, which we love. And then we have Giovanni Emejuru, who’s got three years left coming from Sam Houston. He’s a blank slate, another guy that’s just super into learning and understanding, so we’re really taking the time to build his foundation. Giving him the why is the most important thing. We’ve got two really good walk-ones that are incoming freshmen as well in Kyle Withers and Carson White, and then Brendan Coyle — who basically sat out last year — who will provide depth in the frontcourt too.”

Again, enough wholesale changes have been made to the roster to where Siena will be an entirely different incarnation of itself at times than it was a year ago. However, Maciariello is steadfast in his commitment to a tough, uptempo team that not only knows its identity on any given night, but does not deviate from it at any point during the season.

“We want to build and we want to continue to grow it to where it can morph on its own,” he proclaimed. “In my first year, we saw that. We won 10 straight games at the end of the regular season, we were peaking at the right time, and the guys had gelled. You are who you are when you get to Atlantic City, and we want to make sure that that Siena team that travels to Atlantic City has been built and grown through toughness, grown to be able to play how we want to play night in and night out. We don’t want to have to change or adapt and adjust our defensive philosophies ever.”

“Hopefully we’re able to score the ball early at times and be able to get more efficient in transition. Hopefully our defense is leading that transition and we’re able to get second chance opportunities on the glass. We want to compete and we want to just have everyone know we’re going to be the toughest out in conference play. We want to be able to attack that glass with reckless abandon, we want to be able to push the ball and share it, attack the paint, drive and kick. We want to be able to play inside out and establish our fours and fives in the paint, where teams have to be able to guard us in the post. I think you’ve always seen flashes of that, but you haven’t seen it on a constant, consistent basis, so the goal is to grow that and now it’s able to take off.”

Friday, August 25, 2023

Return of two of MAAC’s top talents has Rider in prime position to capitalize in largely unknown league

After disappointing MAAC tournament showing, Kevin Baggett has retooled and hopes Rider can once again contend for league crown. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Last season, Rider lived up to a large part of its preseason billing, finishing second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference behind eventual league champion Iona, whom the Broncs had stunningly upset in the quarterfinals of the MAAC tournament the year prior.

But despite the program’s first advance into the semifinals under Kevin Baggett, Rider was unable to duplicate the feat in its attempt at an encore last year, going one-and-done in Atlantic City after being knocked off by Saint Peter’s. The early exit begat a period of soul searching and diagnosis that prompted Baggett to reassess the program he now enters his 12th season at the helm of.

“Every year, we try to advance,” he said. “It’s disappointing, and it’s led to a long offseason of evaluating and just trying to figure out what wrong, and how we can correct the wrong. But we’ve got a new team and we’ve got to figure that out.”

Nine newcomers invade Lawrenceville this season as the Broncs acclimate themselves to life without Dwight Murray, Jr., the perennial first team all-league talent who graduated this past May. But while Baggett attempts to replace a point guard with one of the more unique skill sets in the MAAC, he enters the coming season with the peace of mind that comes with having the other two prongs of his veteran trio returning in Allen Powell and Mervin James, with the latter of whom potentially vying for preseason player of the year plaudits.

“You don’t,” Baggett said of replacing Murray. “You try and find another DJ, hopefully, and if you don’t, try to find a couple guys that can try and fill his shoes. We’ve got a couple options with Ruben Rodriguez and DJ Dudley, Corey McKeithan’s another young man who’s a veteran coming back, so hopefully the three of those guys can try and somewhat fill that void. When you have guys like Dwight Murray, two out of three first team all-conference players, those guys are hard to replace and hard to find. I hope we did a good job recruiting, but time will tell.”

Mervin James hopes to contend for MAAC player of the year honors this season. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

“To have (Powell) and Mervin both back is important. Anytime you can have experience back, there’s nothing greater than having experience. Last year’s team had a lot of experience and we’ve got to get the rest of the guys caught up, but there is a value to have guys returning. With the way of the world in the portal these days, it’s going to be hard for most of us, especially the mid-majors, to continue to coexist the way we’ve been doing.”

While Rodriguez and Dudley are two of the nine new arrivals in the Broncs’ locker room, McKeithan is the image and voice of experience as a fifth-year senior. The reserve has had the privilege of learning from two of Rider’s better floor generals of recent memory in both Murray and Stevie Jordan, an apprenticeship Baggett is hopeful will be vital to both McKeithan’s individual development and to the team as a whole.

“I hope it’ll be his time,” he said of McKeithan’s increased role this coming season. “I hope he can learn from that. He sat behind two really good point guards we’ve had in our program, so if he knows anything, he knows the value of a point guard, being a leader, being an extension on and off the court and a guy that I totally trust at that position. I always refer to that point guard position as a quarterback. If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to have a good quarterback, so I think he’s grown. He’s done some really good things, but time will tell as he gets more minutes here coming up this season.”

Rider’s front line, which undergoes a significant makeover this season following the graduation of Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson and transfers of Tyrel Bladen and Nehemiah Benson, is also a work in progress. Fortunately for the Broncs, Tariq Ingraham is back in the Garden State to take on a greater share of the load in the paint. The 6-foot-9 Philadelphia native blossomed as last season went on, and is being counted on to provide a greater impact after getting a full season under his belt for the first time following two years at Wake Forest where he did not see significant playing time.

“Tariq was another returning guy for us,” Baggett said of Ingraham. “He started actually most of the season, but last year was his first year — having missed both seasons at Wake Forest — last year was really his freshman year. I’m hoping that that experience will carry over for us and plateau even more, because we’re going to need him to really get a lot of minutes in the post. He really came on nicely toward the middle to the latter part of the season.”

Between Powell, James and Ingraham, Rider has an established core that can lead it back to the top half of the MAAC standings. However, it is the influx of arriving talent that has Baggett intrigued for what lies ahead. The Weeks brothers — 6-foot-4 graduate student T.J. and 6-foot-6 sophomore Tyriek — lead a group that includes Rodriguez and Dudley in the backcourt, with interior reinforcements in the form of 6-foot-11 Moustapha Sanoh, 6-foot-8 JT Langston, Jr., and 6-foot-6 Ife West-Ingram. Nic Anthony and Anthony McCall will also offer depth in the backcourt and on the wings, something Baggett cited as a need for this year’s iteration of the Broncs following a season where Rider’s shooting woes capsized its long-term chances more often than not.

“Until we can play, I believe we have a better shooting team,” Baggett surmised. “We went out and really focused on trying to find guys we thought could make shots. We couldn’t make 3-point shots because we weren’t very good this past year, so hopefully we got better there. I’m hoping we got better ball handlers as a whole, because we lacked enough ball handlers too. With the want to play, we need more ball handlers and floor shooters. My job is to put them in place to be successful and play to their strengths.”

One strength of the program has been its consistent and often underrated defense, which has ranked at or near the top of the league in points per possession against for the majority of Baggett’s tenure. The coach discussed his philosophy of embracing the defensive end of the basketball at length, and hopes it is a facet his roster’s collective game can grow through an ambitious non-conference slate that includes trips to Marquette, Nebraska, Maryland and Penn State.

“It’s just a staple,” Baggett said of the defensive mentality. “It’s something we preach every day, something that these guys have to buy into and understand because I allow them the freedom on the offensive end. Most of these kids are offensive-driven anyway, so for them to meet me halfway, that’s all I’m asking. Commit to the defensive end, buy into it. Defense is a will, not a skill. Obviously, if we can teach them the details of it, if they’re willing to do that and commit to it, I think we’ll be fine again.”

All in all, Rider’s identity is already established when the ball is not in its hands, but it is what the Broncs do on offense that needs fine tuning. In Baggett’s own words, his group needs to be more assertive in dictating tempo.

“I just think we need to run more,” he stated. “I don’t think we ran enough. I didn’t think we got enough transition baskets, I thought we spent way too much time in the half-court trying to execute offense. I want us to get up and down, I want us to push the ball. I want us to dictate what’s going on as opposed to our opponents.”

Sunday, August 20, 2023

John Gallagher’s second chance leads him to Manhattan program whose tradition he hopes to uphold

An NCAA Tournament coach two years ago at Hartford, John Gallagher returns to college basketball after a year away, as former Hawks coach now takes over at Manhattan. (Photo by Getty Images)

At this time a year ago, John Gallagher had the proverbial rug pulled out from under him.

Fresh off leading the University of Hartford to its first-ever NCAA Tournament at the Division I level the previous season, the man who built the Hawks into a blue-collar outfit that came to be known as the neighborhood team was caught between a rock and a hard place. University president Gregory Woodward blindsided the athletic department by announcing Hartford would de-emphasize its athletic programs for a move to Division III, which would take effect in 2023. After numerous other cuts in the department, including the removal of the Hawks’ athletic training staff, Gallagher announced his resignation last November, hours before Hartford tipped off its final campaign in Division I, competing as an independent.

It was widely assumed in most circles within the coaching industry that Gallagher would get back in the game in some capacity during the 2023-24 season. However, his destination came as somewhat of a surprise when Manhattan College tabbed him as the Jaspers’ new head coach five months ago, as interim head coach RaShawn Stores had proven himself worthy of being named the full-time leader after Steve Masiello was shockingly and unfairly dismissed in October. Nonetheless, Gallagher is eager to get back on the horse after a year of reflection.

“I interviewed for a couple jobs out there,” Gallagher admitted. “It wasn’t a secret (that) I was trying to find something. But the more I talked to Manhattan, the history, the location, the league really attracted me. Maybe I’d never thought about it until I started talking to everybody, but it became pretty obvious that this was just a fit for both sides. I think if everybody’s on the same page, you can have great success.”

“There’s great opportunity. Every day, I’m grateful for it. Every day, there’s an opportunity. I always say now, the storms are here to teach you something. Don’t complain about them, embrace them.”

The 46-year-old has lived up to his words thus far, jumping headfirst into reconstructing a roster that, like most at the mid-major level, was ravaged by the transfer portal. Only three players from last year’s Jasper team — Logan Padgett, Raziel Hayun and walk-on Daniel Hackett — remained in Riverdale, forcing Gallagher to work swiftly and furiously in filling the ranks of the locker room. Even with the large influx of talent, he is steadfast in his conviction that he and his staff have assembled a competitive unit, but concedes that there is still much more to discover with regard to the nuances of Manhattan’s composition.  

“If you look at it in our city alone, St. John’s had to do it, Iona had to do it and we had to do it,” Gallagher said of having to start almost from scratch. “It’s actually going to become the norm when coaching changes happen, so everyone’s going to have to get used to it. At the same time, we put a roster together that, for the first year, I’m very happy about. I think our assistants did a great job, there was a lot of hard work, but at the same time, there’s a lot to be seen.”

“We have to get through preseason and then the season, how we’re going to play and the adjustments mid-year. Are we playing more 1-3-1 or are we playing more man? Are we playing more fast-paced? That’s all stuff that has to be seen through the competition, but from the roster itself, I’m happy.”

Logan Padgett (34) is one of three returning players in Manhattan roster this season. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Padgett and Hayun, the two veterans on the roster, have been an integral part of the transition process, as has transfer Briggs McClain, a 6-foot-4 senior guard who played for Gallagher at Hartford and is thus familiar with the concepts and philosophy the coach is looking to instill. And of the seven newcomers that have officially been announced on the Manhattan roster, five of them are transfers with experience at the collegiate level that will prove to be invaluable in this season of retooling.

“I think any time you have guys that have worn the uniform, it helps,” Gallagher said. “I think Logan’s done a great job, Razi’s done a great job. (They’re) two very good leaders that really know that being a part of college basketball is about being a part of something bigger than yourself, and they’ve really embraced that. I always say, when you have an entitled team, you don’t win a lot of games. When you have a grateful team, you win games, and I think right now, we have a grateful group. And that’s because Logan and Razi have embodied that. (McClain) is indispensable. It’s one thing playing for me, it’s another thing learning our language. Briggs McClain speaks our language. When you’re in our spot, the quicker everybody learns our terminology, the easier offense becomes, the easier defense becomes. So he’s helped us immensely in the first seven, eight weeks.”

“Perry Cowan from Brown, he brings experience, a level of toughness. People that aren’t in college basketball every day don’t realize how good the Ivy League is. He’s played in big games, and that’s something we have to embrace. I look for him to play a big role this year. Seydou Traore is a freshman from the Bronx, local kid, 6-foot-8, shoots the three, rebounds at a high level. He could be one of the better four men I’ve ever recruited. He just has a level of versatility that I absolutely love. I have a transfer from Weber State, Daniel Rouzan, 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, big body. He’s skilled, uses both hands in the paint great, really is getting better every day. I love his size, and if I was guessing today, he’d probably be the starting five. My goal is for him to be a 10 and 8 guy, 12 and 8 guy. He brings us a physicality we’re going to need in MAAC play.”

The tight deadlines of the transfer portal in relation to the summer workout sessions teams are allowed makes time constraints perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome in recruiting. Nonetheless, Gallagher harped upon not taking any shortcuts in the selection of his players, highlighting the process he and his staff follow while also citing the versatility each newcomer brings to the table.

“We do a deep dive into everybody,” he revealed. “If you’re here and it’s a close call, I tell you it’s a close call. If you’re here and it’s not a close call, I feel really good about you. We’re a fully transparent program. You get your ass kicked if you live in the gray area, and as a young head coach, I probably did that a lot. We don’t live in the gray area. We’re fully up front and honest with everybody. There are no secrets, and the way you can really build culture is by being unapologetically honest.”

“If you’re looking at us, one of the big things on our roster is our depth. Brett Rumpel is one of those guys that could be my best cutter offensively that I’ve ever had. He’s really learned our offense and how important cutting is. If you can cut to score, you can get 10 points a game in our offense. He’s our best defender, he may be one of our most athletic guys, something that’s really needed in our system. Shaquil Bender is a junior college transfer from Fullerton College, he has two years of eligibility. He was a 47 percent 3-point shooter in junior college and he’s grown leaps and bounds in seven weeks. Great defender, great versatility, great size, great strength. Wes Robinson is a transfer from (Division II) Bloomfield, he has two years of eligibility and just keeps getting better and better. There’s certain things that if he does every time, he could be a really great shooter from three. Jaden Winston has been an unbelievable surprise. When we got him (from DeMatha Catholic), we had five or six coaches saying it was unbelievable. I didn’t know why we were getting those calls, but I do now. He’s a really talented player.”

Gallagher admitted his team’s style of play will be a work in progress this season, but highlighted some of the core tenets of his teams at Hartford that he will carry over to Manhattan as a framework for how he and his staff would prefer to operate. On offense, look for the Jaspers to take advantage of lapses in the opposition’s defense as early as possible, predicating itself on movement and paint touches. On defense, you can expect a commitment to not only guarding the 3-point line like a blanket, but also not surrendering open shots in the paint or committing fouls.

“Offensively, in the first seven seconds, we always say, ‘can we get any free money?’” Gallagher said, explaining his mindset with the ball in his team’s hands. “Is there free money out there? That means, has the defense slept on that possession? Every single time in the first seven seconds, we’re trying to see if there’s free money on the table. If there’s free money out there, we take it. A layup or an open three, we take it every time. If we don’t have anything in the first seven seconds, we want to make sure we’re getting ball reversal and paint touches. Ball reversal and paint touches lead to what we call the domino, bringing two (defenders) to the ball. We want to shoot standstill threes or layups, and we’ve added the 15-footer because I think the game’s changed to where you’ve got to make that to beat good defensive teams.”

“Defensively, we always talk about this: In my last two years, we had a team that was number one in the country in defending the three, and number eight in the country. That’s a stat a lot of people don’t talk about. How did we do it? Everything is about activity on the 3-point line. We’re not giving catch-and-shoot threes up, (it’s) not happening. We’re not giving layups up. The last thing is we don’t foul. Don’t foul, finish the play.”

A native of Broomall, Pennsylvania, just a half-hour outside Philadelphia’s Center City, Gallagher began his college basketball career playing for one of the city’s legendary coaches in Phil Martelli at Saint Joseph’s, and furthered his education in the game under one of Philly’s other native sons, former Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon. But while both men have had profound influences on Gallagher’s own career and ethos as a coach, he remains cognizant of the fact that in today’s game, and especially as he is a new coach replacing a homegrown leader, he needs to continue to be his own man.

What I learned from Phil is that this is a family,” Gallagher said of Martelli. “This is all about love. I love my players, they’re a part of my family. We always say, if you come and play for me, you’re going to have two tables at your wedding. I would not be a good basketball coach today if it wasn’t for Franny O and his philosophy of how to view the game. He always said, when you coach the game like you’re watching it from the mezzanine level, when you’re on the floor and you can watch it from upstairs, that’s when you know you can coach offense.”

As for me taking over, I reached out to the majority of coaches that have coached here in the past. I would like to say (Stores) did a phenomenal job. I watched all the tapes. He had great energy, he kept that group together. It’s a hard thing to do in the spot that he was in, and I have great respect for what he did. I’ve got great respect for Steve and the job he did. He won two championships, he did a phenomenal job. That group did a great job. I don’t care what happened in the past couple years, what he did was championship-level and he must be honored that way. But I am the caretaker of this program. I’m here to represent it in a first-class manner with great energy, and I have to be John Gallagher. I got in trouble early in my career when I tried to be other people. Some people might like it, some may hate it, but at the end of the day, I have to be me.”

As he has returned to the Division I landscape, Gallagher admitted it was harder to reinstall his team’s offense than he imagined upon taking the job. The difficulty has been a labor of love, though, and he and the Jaspers have silently begun to ignore the criticism and embark on their journey together.

“These first seven weeks, I didn’t realize how hard it was to put the offense back in,” he reiterated. “And Franny always used to say, if you’re not exhausted after coaching a practice in what we do, then you’re not running it right. I could tell you this: I’ve been exhausted after some of these practices, because every possession has to be evaluated if you’re teaching the game the right way. We had a track record the last five years of having good success through great adversity. I think we have sort of the playbook on it, so we don’t have a gray area. We do a great job of blocking out the noise. We’re doing it day-by-day, what we call stacking days together. And we have to stack great days every day.”

So how will Manhattan establish its identity in year one of its new regime? By not cutting corners, taking full accountability for whatever might go wrong, and only going upward from there.

“We’re just the team that loves to represent where we’re at,” Gallagher proclaimed, rehashing the neighborhood mentality of his past Hartford rosters. “It’s a great place to represent all the former players and coaches, and most importantly, the alums. We’re here to represent them in a first-class manner. We take no shortcuts building this program brick by brick. The foundation is so important, and you’ll always hear this from me: We never go back to the basics here. We talk about the basics every day. If we ever say we have to get back to the basics, we’ve lost our way.”

“Every day, we’re doing something fundamental in our program. I’ve really developed into that, I have the scars from Hartford to prove it, and I could tell you that this is a great mid-major job. The bones are here. I think what you’ll see from us is a high-energy program that plays for one another and makes sure it always plays for the front of the jersey, not the back.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Foundational first year has Mason thinking positive about Peacocks

Bashir Mason has Saint Peter’s pointed upward as he begins second year with Peacocks. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Bashir Mason arrived in Jersey City 16 months ago as the new face of a program that was still basking in the afterglow of its newfound status as America's sweetheart.

And while some may have looked at Saint Peter’s as an impossible situation in the wake of Shaheen Holloway taking the Peacocks to within one game of a Final Four two seasons ago, it was easier for Mason to put his own stamp on his hometown outfit, simply because of his status as an outsider to the delirium.

“I think it was pretty easy for me because I had no parts of it,” he admitted. “I wasn’t around, so I just came in with the same mindset that I normally have, trying to win every game, get better every day. I think Sha and I are pretty similar in that way, so how he coached and how I coach, I think for the players, it’s normal for them.”

“I will say this: There’s still the same excitement, same energy, same buzz around the program. I think people are still excited about Saint Peter’s basketball, and me going through a year of it, I got the same energy. The players are working hard, excited about what’s to come. We really enjoy the league, the conference, I think the level of basketball is really good. Overall, Jersey City’s been great.”

With five returning players from a transitional campaign last year after he arrived on the heels of a successful decade at Wagner, Mason has found peace of mind in the veteran presence within his locker room. The familiarity with what he demands and the schematics of the Peacocks on the floor were, he says, the most vital components of this offseason as Saint Peter’s ascends the proverbial ladder yet again.

“Super important,” he said of the continuity on his roster. “The biggest thing for me was the foundation, the culture of defense (and) toughness, just being connected together as a group. That was the goal and we fought hard to be that. I think late in the year, we kind of saw it coming together, but more important for me, this summer, especially all the guys that are returning. Like all my teams at Wagner, the guys who played for me are now running the program, and everything that I would have to focus on last year, I’m at ease about because I’ve got five guys that know it, know what we’re supposed to be doing. They make sure daily we look like we’re supposed to look, sound how we’re supposed to sound. It’s a lot different than a year ago.”

The quintet that leads the rebuild in Jersey City will be headed by fifth-year senior Latrell Reid, one of four holdovers from the NCAA Tournament team. With Isiah Dasher having graduated, Reid has now become Saint Peter’s de facto leader on the floor, even if he may not match Dasher’s scoring prowess from last year.

“Latrell is going to be our tough guy, man,” said Mason. “When we say the word leader, he just exhibits that, he exudes it every day. He’s an extension of me and what we’re all about, just a kid that’ll run through a wall for me. Guys certainly follow his lead in terms of who we are day to day and the toughness component of who we are as a program. In terms of taking on more of an offensive load, I don’t necessarily see that as his role, but if he takes that jump, I’ll be happy about it.”

The uptick in offense, however, could come from either of the three other players who saw action for the Peacocks, headlined by guards Corey Washington and Brent Bland, along with forward Mouhamed Sow. Oumar Diahame remains in the program after missing the entire season last year while rehabbing a surgically repaired knee on which he played injured through Saint Peter’s historic run. The center is not 100 percent, Mason said, but is participating in basketball activities at the moment as he gears up for his return to the floor for the first time since March 2022. 

“Corey Washington, man, he’s taken a major step in his game, especially from an offensive standpoint,” Mason added. “We’ve got him shooting out to three now, doing a lot more things on the perimeter. We’re trying to not to let him forget about what makes him special, which is his tenacity and how hard he plays. But I’m expecting great things from him, and Mo with a year under his belt, he put on some weight over the summer and is building his game from the inside out. I’m definitely excited about him, and Brent just has comfort now in the program and who we are, what we do every day. I’ve seen growth in every single one of those guys, and it’s really helped us in the program.”

Seven newcomers have arrived on Kennedy Boulevard, with a trio of mid-major transfers in Roy Clarke (St. Francis Brooklyn), Elijah Perkins (Austin Peay) and Marcus Randolph (Richmond) headlining the influx of talent. Junior college imports Michael Houge, Jaheim Tanksley and Elijah Wood join the Division I ranks as well, and so too does Armoni Zeigler. If the 6-foot-4 Long Islander is even a quarter of what his brother, Zakai, has been at Tennessee, Saint Peter’s could be on the fast track to the top of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in short order.

“We’ve definitely upgraded our talent,” Mason assessed. “Every guy that we’ve probably recruited, we really looked at offense and ability to be able to play and score at all three levels. I think all the guys we’ve brought in can do that. We’re bigger, we’re more athletic, and from an offensive standpoint, we’re certainly more talented. It’s just been my fight every day to get these guys to defend the way that I want them to and play as hard as I ask them to.”

Defense has been in Mason’s DNA since his playing days, honed to perfection under an equally hard-nosed coach in Bruiser Flint at Drexel and crafted further while an assistant to Dan Hurley at Wagner. Mason still jumps into defensive drills in practices, which begs the question: Is it easier for him to teach the high standard at which he expects his teams to defend than to instill even the most basic elements on the offensive side of the basketball?

“My philosophy on it, I think, is difficult for guys to understand,” he began. “I don’t talk about offense at all. I never tell a guy not to shoot, not to pass, not to drive, not to do anything. The tradeoff is playing defense the way that I’m asking you to. I think guys have to get used to that, and then they’ve got to get used to what they’ve cared about their whole basketball lives, I don’t actually care about, which is, ‘does my ball go in the basket or not?’ Guys get so emotional about that. It’s not a concern of mine, so once I get them bought into ‘Coach doesn’t care about me scoring or not scoring, he just wants me to play hard,’ I think their offensive games actually take off.”

With that said, Saint Peter’s has the tools to be somewhat of an X-factor in the MAAC if everything falls into place properly. Regardless of where the Peacocks ultimately finish, Mason is confident that his unit will take a significant jump, and do so quicker than it came together last season.

“This is a group that I recruited the majority of, and then you return five guys that have played for me,” he reiterated. “I think you’ll just see a team that’s a true reflection of me. I don’t think it’s going to take half of a season or three-fourths of a season for our fans to see that. The defense will be the same, but offensively, I think it’ll be reminiscent of some of my better teams at Wagner, with multiple guys that can score it. The main focus will be just not individual stats, but just having one more point than our opponent.”

Monday, August 14, 2023

Niagara welcomes large crop of newcomers, hopes to advance its climb in MAAC

Now in his fifth season at Niagara, Greg Paulus continues to build his vision amid roster turnover, welcoming eight new players to Purple Eagle program. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Greg Paulus’ first four years as a head coach have gone largely under the radar in most circles. And while most of his efforts have lied in anonymity through his time at Niagara, the numbers do not obscure facts.

Each year since assuming the reins on Monteagle Ridge, doing so just two weeks before the 2019-20 campaign began after Patrick Beilein resigned, Paulus' teams have finished in the top half of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, earning first-round byes in three straight MAAC tournaments. But while Paulus, the former Mike Krzyzewski point guard at Duke, has quietly molded his program into the most consistent Niagara outfit since Joe Mihalich left for Hofstra a decade ago, the work that has gone into creating a sleeping giant has not come without its share of adversity.

Last season’s largest obstacle came in the form of ten newcomers to the program, a variable Paulus was able to turn into an advantage by cycling fresh bodies in and out during games. This year, the Purple Eagles — who lose each of their top three scorers after Noah Thomasson and Aaron Gray transferred, as well as Sam Iorio, who graduated — have eight players going through the orientation process this offseason. And beyond the introductions and proverbial name tags in practice, the same ethos of Niagara’s commitment to fostering an atmosphere conducive to player development is forged through simply getting to know each one on and off the floor. It was this personal connection, among many things, that made Krzyzewski such a special coach, and one that has aided his former pupil immensely as he leads a flock of his own.

“You learn from experiences, maybe things that worked well or things you’d adjust as you go,” Paulus said of how he treats each year as its own blank canvas. “For us, with the foundational pieces of our program, relationships being number one, that’s something we’ve invested a lot of time in. Whether it’s the new guys or the returning guys, we’re just trying to develop those relationships, learn who they are and (let) them learn who we are. When you get to see these guys on a daily basis, you’re able to get some of things you’re not able to learn until you spend time with them and what makes them who they are.”

“We believe in a process here, and we try to work at it. When you look at this group and eight new guys, that’s different from ten new guys, which is different from when you have a core returning. What we try to do as coaches is learn what the guys can do on the floor, develop them on the floor, but also stay true to our values within our program. We haven’t changed the core values, but in terms of learning our new guys and trying to put them in positions for success, that happens over the course of time and we’re able to try to do that to the best that we can.”

With college basketball operating in its current landscape, such consistency at the mid-major level has become a greater challenge than ever before. So while Niagara’s trajectory has been sustained, the constant hurdle has been managing the roster turnover, similar to most other MAAC schools in the transfer portal. For Paulus and his staff, the highest wall to scale has simply been laying the foundation for getting to know what he and the Purple Eagles have.

“I think it’s just learning our guys again,” he opined. “We have eight new guys on the roster, and every year is different. Last year was ten new guys on the roster for us and this year, it’s eight, so I think it’s just growing the relationships that you have with the current players and developing them. Now it’s about learning those (new) guys, not just on the court (and) what they do well, what they don’t, but just getting to know them as people and spending that time together.”

“When you go through one year here in our program, the terminology isn’t new, the system isn’t new. You can see that these guys are a little bit more comfortable from their play and just being around them this summer. Having the new guys coming in, we want a combination of the returners who understand what we’re trying to do, we want them to demonstrate those skills, but we also want the newcomers to demonstrate those qualities too. There’s a lot of that coming in, so the combination of the two is something that we’re going to need as we try to bring this team together.”

Braxton Bayless (4) is one of six returning Niagara players, and should be among leading scorers for Purple Eagles. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

The combination of youth and experience manifests itself again this coming season, with a bevy of senior and graduate transfers arriving in western New York as Niagara looks to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. Paulus’ method of roster construction was not by design when navigating the portal, but rather a fortuitous stroke of finding the right fits for the advanced stages of his build, which just happened to come with veteran hands to join the likes of Braxton Bayless, David Mitchell, Lance Erving and Harlan Obioha.

“You’re trying to identify guys that can come in and want to be a part of something, love the game and want to work at it, are appreciative of an opportunity and bring a certain skill set,” he said. “We tried to identify some guys, and I think having some experience with this group is the way it worked out for us. Sometimes you just try to find a profile, and the way it worked out was with more experience this year. Trying to find some guys with versatility is certainly something we tried to look for with adding guys in the spring.”

“We did a lot of research across college basketball. Malik Edwards is from an NAIA school, Aime (Rutayisire) is from a junior college, we got some transfers with Dre Bullock from Louisiana Tech, some grad transfers. Luke (Bumbalough) has a great feel and an understanding for how to play the game, he’s an experienced guard that can create for himself and others. Kwane (Marble) is a guy that really knows how to play, is versatile with not only the positions he can play, but also in the way he can impact games. Dre is a dynamic player with his versatility and athleticism, Randy (Tucker) has been very dependable with his skill set and knowing how to play, being in the right place at the right time.”

“Yaw (Obeng-Mensah) is somebody who brings versatility to the frontcourt, someone that had a lot of production last year at UMBC. Malik is a guard that comes from a powerhouse and a program that has won a lot of basketball games, Ahmad (Henderson) is a dynamic guard that really had a terrific senior season at Brother Rice, and Aime has been very dependable and gives versatility in the frontcourt with playing inside and outside.”

A trademark of Niagara’s early-season preparation under Paulus has been a non-conference schedule that features big names and favorable opportunities spread out equally. This year’s slate is no exception, with trips to Notre Dame and Syracuse bookending home games against St. Bonaventure and Bucknell, plus a multi-team event at Youngstown State. The primary objective, Paulus says, is to not only acclimate himself to his players, but continue to develop and hone the connection and synergy he holds so dear within his program.

“You get a chance to learn your team a little bit in the summertime, but it goes to another level when you get a chance to start the season,” he revealed. “We’ve tried to be aggressive in playing some of those high-major teams, whether it’s Big Ten, ACC, Big East. We like to play a few of those each year, I think it gives you a chance to learn a lot about your team, play on the biggest stage. And so for us, it’s a very difficult schedule but a great opportunity.”

“I want to learn our group. I want to learn how we handle situations, and we want to continue to keep teaching and help our team grow. We have a saying, and it hasn’t changed: We want to be better today than we were yesterday, be better tomorrow than we were today. That’s something that our program has tried to do, be better and get better as the year goes on.”

Now a seasoned 37 years old, Paulus’ journey has taken him on one of the more unique paths in the game. From switching to football for his final year of collegiate eligibility as a player to getting into coaching, and becoming a father along the way — he and his wife Megan welcomed their third child this offseason — his perspective has matured in lockstep with his years. And as his Niagara team has grown in a similar vein, he is simply hoping to stay in the moment and experience it together with a new group of young students.

“There’s been different challenges along the way,” he reflected. “We’re grateful for the blessing. As you go through coaching here and being here for five years, you learn a lot about yourself. We’re excited to continue to hopefully work hard, learn this group, and help this team be a connected, unselfish, hard-playing group that tries to represent those that have come before us. There’s a lot of pride, and we’re just grateful to be a part of it.”

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Griffs must replace experience, but also return majority of last year’s group in preparation for upward climb in MAAC

Entering eighth season at helm, Reggie Witherspoon has a Canisius team poised to make a jump in MAAC this season. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

When COVID-19 shut down the sports world in 2020, Canisius was one of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schools hardest hit.

The Golden Griffins were displaced from their Koessler Athletic Center digs in the offseason that followed, and still did not have a normal summer in 2021. This past season, the blizzard that affected Western New York caused damage to the gym’s floor and forced the Griffs to play home games at local rival Niagara for a brief period after the new year. Therefore, this summer — with Canisius taking a trip to Canada — was the most positive the team has had in the offseason in several years.

The Griffs swept their four-game journey to the north, with Tahj Staveskie averaging over 20 points per game on a trip head coach Reggie Witherspoon lauded for its purpose of simply allowing his players an escape from the ordinary, but also for its success on the floor.

“I think first, it was very good for us from a standpoint of bonding and getting our guys away from the familiar,” Witherspoon reflected. “Getting them to be able to experience some things together that are different than basketball and different from studying, that was the first thing that we’re happy about. From a standpoint of basketball, we were able to get on the court and play against good competition, and get an increased understanding of each other.”

“That environment forces you to play a little quicker, a little faster. You’re playing (under) FIBA rules, so you’re playing with a 24-second (shot) clock. It was a very physical way of playing, it’s older, stronger guys. Those are the things that we have to just continue to get better at.”

And in Staveskie, a revelation as a redshirt freshman last season after a broken foot cost him all of his first year on campus, Witherspoon has a guard unfazed by the moment and unafraid to take charge in pressure situations. The Canada trip helped the Ohio native blossom even further as the primary option, something his coach has taken notice of as he prepares to be given the keys to the proverbial car.

Tahj Staveskie heads into sophomore season as Canisius’ top offensive option. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

“I think he has embraced that,” Witherspoon said of Staveskie and his leadership role. “He’s such a tremendously hard worker and he has embraced pretty much every aspect of it. Whether it’s scoring or passing, defending, even rebounding, he’s a very competitive person. I think he’s looking forward to all of that.”

Elsewhere in the backcourt, the Griffs are hopeful that Tre Dinkins and Devean Williams, along with TJ Gadsden and Xzavier Long on the wings, can continue the tradition of role players making a big jump. Witherspoon has always shepherded growth from his reserves when ushering them into more integral pieces of the puzzle, and that trio is next in line to undertake the challenge.

“Before there’s any jump in any statistics, they need to be more assertive,” Witherspoon said. “I think all of them have had games where they’ve performed well last year, and for X, even his freshman year. Now the key is for them to be able to perform consistently well and to be able to do things without thinking about them first.”

Up front, Frank Mitchell will make his long-awaited debut after redshirting last year. The Canadian will join Bryce Okpoh, Siem Uijtendaal and Youri Fritz — brother of former Griff Jacco — in a retooled frontcourt. Canisius has two incoming transfers joining the team, Joe Jones III of Georgia State and Cameron Palesse of Valparaiso, a guard Witherspoon is intrigued to see develop in what will be his first full season at the collegiate level.

“He’s a very interesting player,” he said of Palesse. “This is his third year in college, but it’s really his first full season. He’s only played a couple games, so that lifestyle adjustment, he understands it a little bit. He still has a way to go, but he’s talented, very versatile. On the court, he can do a lot of things well and I think he fits the way we play.”

“We’re very confident in the guys that we have, in large part because they’re confident in each other. They’ve gone through enough of college basketball now, at least they feel as though they have, to be able to understand what the challenges are. Now we still have to work on executing and things like that, but I think we’ve learned a lot.”

Witherspoon still has two open scholarships, and is actively trying to fill at least one before the season begins, with the hope that he and his staff are able to find two players who fit the program and vision. Still, the continuity gained from returning 58 percent of last season’s minutes and more than half the team’s scoring gives the Griffs a leg up entering an uncertain year where the majority of the MAAC was overhauled in the transfer portal, for better or worse.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Witherspoon assessed. “It’s what most coaches would want because it gives your program a chance to have some stability, and particularly at a school like this, it’s a very valuable thing to have. We’re familiar with them as players, they’re familiar with us as coaches, and they’re familiar with each other as teammates. I think we just have to get a little more consistent with the things we’re doing reasonably well, the rebounding and taking care of the basketball.”

“Those are areas where we just need to find a little bit more consistency. But those guys are excited about the challenge. They’re talented guys that we think can really perform at a high level. We’ve got to start at the defensive end in being consistent and being forceful in allowing us to get out in transition. Those are the areas I think we want to see ourselves improve at.”

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Tobin Anderson not missing a beat in first summer at Iona, insists new-look Gaels will score points and compete

Tobin Anderson and Iona have come together in short time, and appear to remain MAAC contenders despite losing all but one player in offseason in wake of Rick Pitino’s departure. (Photo by Brian Beyrer/Iona Athletics)

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — Tobin Anderson still hears about Fairleigh Dickinson five months later, and understandably so. When you lead a team to just the second victory by a 16-seed in NCAA Tournament history, the magnitude of the upset will resonate for years after it happens. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Anderson’s new endeavor at Iona is already being compared to his one season in Hackensack, where he took FDU from a four-win team before his arrival and turned it into one of the last 32 outfits standing last March.

But after taking over at Iona in the wake of Rick Pitino’s departure and having to replace all but one player after the majority of the program entered the transfer portal, the question needed to be asked. Which is the bigger challenge: Taking over at FDU late in the offseason and molding the Knights into a formidable Division I roster, or having to replace everyone except Osborn Shema from a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship team in practically 90 days?

“That’s an interesting question,” Anderson admitted. “I think they’re comparable. The advantage I had last year was I had three guys from St. Thomas Aquinas, the two guards (Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton) who played for 120 college games, and Sean Moore played for 80. Here, there’s not one guy who played for us before, been in our program or knows how we do things. But all these guys that are here now, we wanted. We recruited every guy here.”

“Os came back, we formed a great relationship with him, he came back. So we basically re-recruited him. The rest of these guys are all our guys. There’s not one guy in that gym who’s not our recruit, our guy. So that’s great. I’m not saying it’s an impossible situation. When I was at St. Thomas Aquinas, we had a batting cage above the gym, for God’s sake. Everybody has bad situations. It’s a challenge, but every year’s a challenge.”

The first part of the challenge was establishing the framework of Iona’s identity. Anderson’s teams, be it at the Division III, Division II, or Division I levels, have been noted for their uptempo style and press-and-run nature. Off the court, the coaches and players have also bonded strongly with one another, something Anderson deemed to be of even greater importance considering the massive unknown variables entering the program.

“The first thing you want to do is you want to get the guys to understand how hard we have to play, how we have to compete, how we’re going to have to work,” he said. “We’ve done a lot. We’ve had dinners at my house, we’ve been to the 9/11 museum, we’ve been on a dinner cruise, we’ve had trivia night, we have a book club where every Sunday, two guys take a chapter and they present it to the whole team. We laugh, we joke, so there’s a little bit of everything. You can’t just have the basketball and not have the off-the-court stuff. But it’s also not a sorority. We can’t just have fun things and not work on the basketball.”

Helping Anderson work on the basketball will be a staff who is familiar with both him and the situations he has come across. Tom Bonacum, Kam Murrell and Ray Savage all follow Anderson from FDU to Iona, with Murrell also having played for the head coach at St. Thomas Aquinas after transferring from George Mason.

“It’s great to have this staff,” Anderson gushed. “I’ve got three guys from FDU that came with me. Tom Bonacum’s been with me, this is going to be his fifth year, and he can finish my sentences, which is not an easy thing to do. Kam Murrell played for me for two years, coached with me, and this is our fifth year together. He’s the same way. We’re really together, really on the same page. That part’s great. Guys get more attention.”

This is my fifth head college coaching job, and three of them have been hard. I was at Clarkson, my first Division III job, and they hadn’t been over .500 in 25 years. STAC was coming off a 5-win season, and FDU. So I’ve had three hard jobs, and all those places teach you a few things. Let’s trust what works.”

What has worked for Anderson in the past is a sort of positionless basketball that is not necessarily predicated by size or build, but rather skill and versatility. At FDU, 6-foot-6 Ansley Almonor was the de facto center as the Knights battled larger teams, most notably Zach Edey and Purdue in the NCAA Tournament. None of that matters to Anderson, the son of a coach who has made a calling card out of using what he has to the best of his — and his players’ — ability.

“The more things we can do, the more versatile we can be, the better off we’ll be,” he said. “We like guys who can play multiple positions, do multiple things. We don’t have positions. Os isn’t a five man, he’s a basketball player. He can pass it, shoot it, dribble it. If we can put five guys out there who can pass it, shoot it, handle the ball and make plays, we’re a dangerous team to guard. And I think we can do that. If we’re not big enough, we’ll double the post. We played small last year at FDU if we had to. We’re going to play the best guys who can help us win. Interchangeable parts is a great thing.”

“We’re not necessarily big as far as big, bulky guys, but we have size on the wings. Terrell Williams, Greg Gordon and Wheza (Panzo), they play bigger than they are and they’re men. That helps. Cam Krystkowiak is hurt, but when he gets back, he’ll help us a lot, too. He’s smart, he knows how to play. We’re big across the board, we shoot the ball and we’re very unselfish, which is great.”

Iona is also very balanced in its roster makeup, with five freshmen complementing the upperclassmen and graduate transfers who, along with Shema, comprise the experienced end of the group. It would have been easy for Anderson to build the Gaels year to year and rely solely on graduate transfers for a quick fix, but for the long-term stability of the program, he opted for the diverse approach.

“I think for the program, it’s huge,” he said. “When you have nobody, how are you going to start? We didn’t start and say, ‘let’s get five freshmen, five older guys.’ It kind of depended upon how things were going, but I think the balance is great. There’s a good balance of older guys, more than last year, and I think the five freshmen are all going to help us. I think the program is in a good place right now for the continuity of the roster, the team. I feel good about that.”

Anderson has not shied away from facing premier competition in his first year in New Rochelle, scheduling a high-major opponent in Colorado and attracting some of the nation’s top mid-majors in Charleston, Colgate, Hofstra and Harvard, plus a multi-team event in the Gulf Coast Classic. The ledger draws comparisons to Tim Cluess’ teams, whose unique scheduling helped Iona get an NCAA Tournament at-large bid in 2012 and always helped the Gaels hit their best stride as MAAC play intensified. Anderson’s career arc also draws parallels to that of Cluess, who attended Iona's practice Friday and has remained one of the current coach’s role models.

“Whenever I was trying to get a job, I used to tell guys, ‘look at what Tim Cluess did,” Anderson recalled. “Here’s a guy who was in Division II, went to Division I and won like crazy. I’ve loved how his teams played, as a coach, he’s always been an open book. If you call him up and ask him about something, he’ll always talk to you about it. He’s always been an innovative guy, and he won big. If I could follow in his footsteps and do what he did, that’d be great. He’s definitely a guy that I look up to a lot.”

“I’m a big believer in playing the best teams you can play in the non-conference. We’re always going to play good teams. I’m not trying to protect a record. You have to get beat sometimes. We lost last year at FDU to Hartford, but that loss helped us. It made us better. People always say, ‘hey, you played well at the right time in March at FDU.’ I'm like, ‘we’re getting better.’ If we kept going until April or May, we’d have been a hell of a lot better team in May than we were in March. And this team is going to be the same way. We’re going to get better as the year goes along.”

Early returns seem to indicate Iona, with all its offseason turnover, will still be among the top tier of the MAAC when the season tips off in November. While the Pitino teams of the past three years were developed under the tutelage of a Hall of Fame coach and looked markedly better as the year went on, Anderson has overseen a community effort of sorts, where both he and his players have advanced a product that the coach hopes will endear itself to a strong Iona fan base with its attractive style and prolific offense.

“The character has been terrific,” Anderson gushed. “The way the guys have taken ownership, the leadership has been great. Idan (Tretout) has been great. He was the first older guy to sign and he was making recruiting calls, texting guys, he got guys to come. As much as they want to hear from a coach, to hear it from players has a stronger pull. Greg Gordon has been terrific as far as just how he plays and the energy he brings every day, Os has been terrific, he’s bought into what we’re doing. Wheza has been good, they’ve all been good.”

“I think we’re going to be an extremely fun team to watch. We’re going to play fast, we’ll play a lot of guys, we’re going to push the tempo at all times. I think people are going to love how hard we play, how tough we are. We’re going to score some points. We averaged 80 points a game last year at FDU with a team that was kind of offensively challenged at times. This team has more offensive weapons, so I think it’ll be a fun team to watch.”

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Iona players adjusting to new coach, new teammates with closer bond and more determined attitude

Osborn Shema is lone Iona player to return from last year’s MAAC championship team, and is excited for future of new-look Gaels roster under new coach Tobin Anderson. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — Iona has been in a fair share of college basketball headlines this offseason, namely for its activity in the coaching carousel and transfer portal.

Less than 72 hours after the Gaels’ season came to end in the NCAA Tournament at the hands of eventual national champion UConn, head coach Rick Pitino left New Rochelle in his rearview mirror, sprinting down the Hutchinson River Parkway back into New York City and into the vacancy at St. John’s, taking four players with him in the process (one, Quinn Slazinski, eventually transferred out when the Red Storm recruited over him). Shortly thereafter, athletic director Matt Glovaski tapped Tobin Anderson, fresh off becoming the second No. 16 seed to win an NCAA Tournament game, to replace the Hall of Famer.

Just as Anderson encountered 15 months ago at FDU when he inherited a four-win program, he arrived at Iona to an incomplete roster. Only one player, 7-foot Osborn Shema, stayed on from the Pitino outfit, leaving him to recruit 11 players in as many weeks.

But as the uncertainty raged in March and April, it soon gave way to a full house and a united contingent that has bought into the big dreams that Anderson hoped to shepherd into reality when he took the job at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference power.

“It was confusing,” Shema said of the transition process and it’s early stages. “I had a lot to think about. I had to decide whether I wanted to stay in college or look at some other options. (But) I loved Iona, and what Coach Anderson was pretty convincing, so I decided to stay. He pitched freedom, a lot of movement, which I like. That’s what his offense is about and that’s one of the main reasons I decided to stay.”

Shema’s decision to return attracted junior college swingman Greg Gordon, a 6-foot-5 wing whose slashing ability and two-way play will endear him to Iona fans for his rim-rocking dunks and rebounding prowess, the latter a skill in which he may lead the Gaels this season.

“I kind of just thought about (that) if Os stayed here, he stayed here for a reason,” Gordon opined. “The coaching change didn’t bother him, it was the community and the way this school showed love to him. So I just felt like, if I stay here and help him build that King Os reputation, we’ll win together. And that’s all I wanted. I just want teammates who would win, and Os is a winner. He knows how to win, and that’s what convinced me that this is where I want to be.”

Anderson’s quick work in reshaping the roster brought an amalgamation of different players of different classes to New Rochelle, from freshmen like Sultan Adewale, Jean Aranguren, Alex Bates, Jeremiah Quigley and Dylan Saunders, to graduate transfers such as Joel Brown, Cam Krystkowiak, Wheza Panzo, Idan Tretout and Terrell Williams. The relationships Anderson and his staff built in a short amount of time consummated the marriage for two of the elder statesmen, who praised the coaches for their interest and commitment to development.

“You hear a lot of people talk about staffs, but honestly, the staff really saw me,” Gordon recalled. “Tom (Bonacum) and Kam (Murrell) and (Ray) Savage, they really treated me like family. Not once did I ever come on this visit and they asked me, ‘are you gonna commit to us?’ It felt like a vacation.”

“It was the relationship I had built with the assistant coaches, specifically Patrick Wallace,” said Brown, a Canadian point guard from Cal who will likely be the Gaels’ starting floor general. “While he was at Loyola, he was trying to recruit me there, and when he got to Iona, he was still in contact with me. And as I got here, something inside me felt like this was the place for me. Speaking with Tobin throughout the whole process, he understood where I came from. He sees a lot in me, and he’s been pushing me to another level that people haven’t probably seen in the past four years, just because of the situation I was in.”

For Tretout, who played against Iona while he was at Harvard, the chance to play closer to his Brooklyn home, coupled with the tremendous fan support Iona is known for, made the decision easier.

“I played Iona my junior year, right before I got injured,” he said. “I came back home to New York, and the stands and the crowd at Iona was definitely one of my more memorable games in college. Packed gym, kind of reminded me of a high school-esque environment where the crowd was rowdy, and it was a tough place to play. And Tobin with his pedigree, what he was able to do last year in the tournament, that was attractive. It just made things more exciting.”

Shema’s first comments about the new direction of the program praised the family atmosphere that Anderson had instilled, something that was not as prevalent under Pitino. The Gaels have also carried that closeness onto the court in summer workouts, playing loose but relentless at the same time, embracing Anderson’s uptempo, hard-nosed attack.

“Honestly, it’s been exciting,” Tretout echoed. “It’s been quite different obviously, because there’s various age groups. But it’s been exciting. I think we’ve gained a lot of knowledge over the time that we’ve been (here) and we’re just coming together as a team, on and off the court. We’ve done a lot of great activities that have helped us bond and get to know each other, and I think everyone just continues to buy in.”

“People can look at it as a negative or something that’s hard to try to figure out,” Brown added with regard to the tumultuous offseason. “I think we’ve looked at it and used it as a positive. Iona as a program has a culture of winning, but us, as a team with a new coaching staff, it’s kind of up to us to make the culture that we want as a team. I think we’re a real competitive team, and I think I can say that’s our identity. We’re going to play hard and fast.”

Despite the immense turnover, Iona still projects to be among the top tier of the MAAC going into the season. And if team chemistry has anything to say about the initial prognostications, Iona could be a safe bet to validate the pundits’ beliefs yet again come March.

“I feel like the best teams I’ve been on are when everybody accepts their role and does the best at their role,” said Gordon. “Everyone can’t be the man and everyone won’t be the man, but on this team, everyone just accepts their role. They let Tobin place them in a position on the court where they can do best, and they go crazy. I feel like we’re going to do a lot.”

“It’s been very refreshing,” Brown gushed. “Everyone that I’ve spoken to is like, ‘how are you loving Iona?’ I’m like, ‘yo, this is something different.’ This is something I’ve been wanting since I’ve been in college, just in terms of how the coaches are invested in the players. It’s little things I’m getting used to that wasn’t (there) in the past. It’s the ending chapter of my college career, so I want to make it the best one.”