The chaos of conference realignment seems so far away, but it was just over nine months ago when 45 Division I programs played a massive game of musical chairs. Quinnipiac was one of those programs, making the jump from the NEC to the MAAC last July.
The Bobcats set out on the 2013-14 campaign with the challenge of becoming immediately competitive in their new conference. The team underperformed in their last two years in the NEC, finishing fifth in 2012 and sixth in 2013. The Bobcats were joined in their move from the NEC to the MAAC by a familiar foe: Umar Shannon, a graduate transfer from Saint Francis University.
In the preseason coaches poll, Quinnipiac was picked to finish seventh in the league, a placement which became a source of motivation for the team throughout the year.
“We always have a chip on our shoulder when we play,” junior guard Zaid Hearst said following a January 26 victory over Manhattan, who was picked first in the poll. “We were picked seventh in the MAAC and we’re going to carry that for the rest of the season. We’re going to take every game as a statement game.”
The end of 2013 saw a number of firsts for the program. On November 12, they traveled to Philadelphia to take on La Salle in a 9 a.m. matchup as part of ESPN’s Tip-off Marathon. On December 6 the Bobcats earned their first ever MAAC victory against Fairfield. Finally, they ended the calendar year with a cross-country trip to take on Oregon St. in their first ever matchup against a PAC-12 opponent.
The squad started the new year on a roll, winning five of their next six games to improve to 6-2 in MAAC play. The run of success included a sweep over Monmouth, who also made the jump from the NEC to the MAAC. It was the eighth win in a row for the Bobcats over the Hawks. The second game of the matchup saw a dominating performance from Ousmane Drame, who recorded 20+ rebounds for the second time in his career and set a new Division I program record with seven blocked shots.
In early January, Quinnipiac earned a critical pair of home wins over Iona and Manhattan which helped cement the Bobcats as serious contenders in their new league. In their game against Iona on January 6, Quinnipiac knocked down four straight 3-pointers to start the game and never looked back as they handed Iona their worst loss of conference play in an 86-74 victory. Three days later, Quinnipiac finished their home stand with an 81-76 victory over Manhattan. Though the Bobcats earned the victory, the Jaspers lost the services of star guard George Beamon to a shoulder injury just five minutes into the game.
The Bobcats ended the month with a daunting three-game stretch which included rematches against Iona and Manhattan as well as a showdown against Canisius in Hamden. Prior to the January 24 meeting at Iona, it was announced that Drame would miss the game with a minor knee injury. Without his presence down low, the Bobcats lost the rebounding battle for the first time in 50 games and were blown out 95-73.
Things looked grim heading to Riverdale for a rematch with the Jaspers. Drame missed his second game in a row, but thanks to 25-point efforts from both Shannon and Hearst, the Bobcats were able to prevail in overtime 90-86. Coming off that thrilling win, the Bobcats played host to Canisius. Despite the return of Drame and a career-high 33 points from Hearst, Quinnipiac started the game slow and never recovered, falling to the Golden Griffins 86-74. Adding literal injury to insult, freshman Kasim Chandler left the game with a toe injury which would sideline him for the remainder of the regular season.
During Tom Moore’s tenure at Quinnipiac, February has traditionally been an excellent time of the year. Over the previous five years, the Bobcats held a 32-8 record in February. The month started with a comeback overtime win over Siena which was followed up with six additional victories in a row. Despite losing the services of Shannon and James Ford for two games apiece, Quinnipiac finished the month with a 7-1 record including a sweep of the Buffalo trip thanks to some last-second heroics from Shannon.
In the February finale against Siena, the Bobcats were dealt their biggest blow when Shannon left the game with a knee injury that ended his career as a Bobcat. Quinnipiac went on to lose the game and fell into a tailspin from which they never recovered. A win over Marist in the season finale would have kept the Bobcats in second place in the conference, but the Red Foxes’ best offensive performance of the year led to a 103-72 blowout, dropping Quinnipiac to third in the standings. Although it was a bleak afternoon for the Bobcats, Hearst provided a silver lining by passing the 1,000 career point plateau early in the first half.
Despite finishing the season with two consecutive losses, the end achievement of finishing third in the conference in spite of preseason doubts solidified Quinnipiac as a worthy addition to the league. Making the jump from the NEC to the MAAC presents a number of challenges, whether they be from the talent on the court or the minds on the sidelines.
“The jump in athleticism and size across the board at all five positions was significant,” Moore said. “I think we played against slightly bigger and better athletes at all five positions, in particular the back court, than we did in the NEC. Also, the games against the middle and bottom of the league were more difficult than they had been in the past.”
The Bobcats seemed destined for a rematch with Marist in the MAAC tournament, but a Niagara upset of the Red Foxes in the first round gave the Purple Eagles a chance for revenge instead. A Quinnipiac squad reeling from injuries was greeted by the return of Kasim Chandler, who provided vital depth for their first MAAC playoff game. A balanced attack which saw all five starters score in double figures led to an 89-80 Quinnipiac victory and a date with Manhattan in the semifinals.
Though the Bobcats swept the Jaspers in the regular season, it was an entirely different story for the playoffs. Quinnipiac struggled early, but Chandler provided a major spark off the bench. After suffering through turnover trouble in the opening minutes, the freshman entered the game and neutralized Manhattan’s press. He finished with 14 points and seven assists against just one turnover, but Manhattan came away with the 87-68 victory.
“Kasim came up here last night and was a stabilizing force for us when we got behind, and the kid was fearless against their pressure tonight,” Moore said. “I throw him in there for 31 minutes and he has one turnover against that team as a freshman. I’m pretty proud of him.”
Despite falling short in their quest for the MAAC title, Quinnipiac enjoyed another successful year under Moore. They recorded their third 20-win season in the last five years and were invited to play in the CIT, where they were matched up against local rival Yale in the first round. Winless in three prior attempts in postseason play, the Bobcats looked to have the game in hand late, but a 3-pointer from Yale’s Justin Sears in the final seconds lifted the Bulldogs to the tournament’s second round and brought Quinnipiac’s season to an end.
“It’s very frustrating,” Moore said of coming up short in the postseason once again. “We didn’t know how to handle it the first year. It was too much coming off the high of the NEC title game and then the low of having to come back to practice for the NIT two games later. 2010 clearly set the tone for 2011, and that carried over a little to 2012, but I thought we shook some of the rust off. I liked our attitude in practice this year, but it’s a fine line to balance between rest and practice.”
Quinnipiac once again did what they do best all year long – rebound the basketball. For the fourth year in a row the Bobcats finished in the top two in the nation in rebounds per game and led the nation in offensive rebounds per game. They finished 26th in the nation in points per game (79.1), by far their highest ranking in the Tom Moore era, and had two players end the season averaging a double-double. Senior Ike Azotam averaged 16.2 ppg and 10.2 rpg, while Drame held an average of 13.7 ppg and 10.5 rpg. The only other team in the nation to accomplish this feat was UNLV.
Ike Azotam – Azotam leaves Quinnipiac as statistically the best front court player in the program’s Division I history. His 44 double-doubles are the most for any Bobcat in Division I play. He holds the Division I record for most rebounds in program history and stands third on the scoring list. Azotam’s production will be hard to replace, but Drame stands in line to be the heart and soul of the frontcourt next year. The question will be who will step up and fill Drame’s shoes. Over the past few years, Moore has been able to rotate 2-3 capable big men in the frontcourt, but injuries and lack of depth leave the frontcourt picture foggy moving forward.
Umar Shannon – The addition of Shannon provided Quinnipiac with a vital weapon during the past season. It was always known that Shannon’s time with the program would be limited, but no one anticipated his career coming to an abrupt end just before the conference tournament. Ranking third on the team with a scoring average of 14.3 ppg, Moore and his staff will have to find a way to replace Shannon’s offensive explosiveness. The most likely avenue would be an expanded role for Hearst, but the team clearly needs another capable scorer to solidify the starting lineup.
Shaq Shannon – The “other” Shannon may not have the gaudy numbers his non-relative posted, but was a vital member of the starting lineup for the last two years. One of the best ball-handlers on the squad, Shannon’s role as a facilitator should be of little issue with the emergence of Chandler. The question mark, much like Umar, remains the lost scoring ability. After Umar’s season-ending injury, it was Shaq who stepped up with a career scoring effort to lead the squad over Niagara in the MAAC playoffs. Hearst can’t do all the scoring in the backcourt, so someone will have to fill the role of a consistent scorer if the Bobcats are to have another successful season.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac and the MAAC for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.