This postseason I sat down with Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore reflecting on his team’s first year as a member of the MAAC. The Bobcats vastly outperformed expectations, finishing third in league play after being picked to finish seventh in the preseason coaches poll. Despite recording their third 20-win season in the last five years and once again leading the nation in rebounding, a rash of injuries saw the Bobcats’ title hopes wither down the stretch. Questions and answers are compiled from a postseason interview with coach Moore as well as post-game press conferences from Quinnipiac’s semifinal loss to Manhattan and CIT loss to Yale.
Big Apple Buckets: What was the biggest adjustment in making the move from the NEC to the MAAC?
Tom Moore: Two things. Firstly the athleticism and the size. I’ve said pretty much all year the jump in athleticism and size across the board at all five positions was significant. We played against slightly better athletes at all five positions and we played against an inch or two more in terms of size, in particular in the backcourt, than we did in the NEC. Secondly, the games against the middle and bottom of the league were more difficult than they had been in the past.
Big Apple Buckets: Scheduling didn’t pose an issue? In the NEC you were used to playing games on Thursday and Saturday with the occasional Wednesday game, but in the MAAC you were much more spread out, playing games anywhere between Thursday and Sunday.
Tom Moore: Our guys handled it really well and our staff did a great job with the scouting reports. Our guys were very mature about one-day preps. That’s the biggest thing you get nervous about, only having one game to prepare for your next game. Maybe we were used to the Thursday/Saturday stuff of the NEC, but I thought we were very consistent in our practices and our approach throughout the year.
Big Apple Buckets: Transfers and Junior College players have been able to make a bigger impact on this level than you were used to seeing in the NEC. Is bringing in players through those avenues something you’re looking into more now that you’re in the MAAC?
Tom Moore: I think so. Iona has been a great example of that, especially kids from the tri-state area. Anyone from the northeast who maybe goes away to the high major level and doesn’t have a great experience, whether it’s basketball-wise or socially, a lot of times there’s a pull and kids have a tendency to want to come home. I do think the MAAC has become really attractive as a second-chance opportunity for a lot of kids and it’s something that has affected our recruiting policy. We’ve gotten much more open-minded about saving scholarships and waiting some guys out to see what comes about on that Junior College/Transfer and 5th year market.
Big Apple Buckets: You’ve seen teams from the MAAC obtain at-large bids to the NCAA tournament in the past, something that really wasn’t possible at the NEC level. Do you look to schedule tougher opponents knowing that obtaining an at-large bid is a possibility?
Tom Moore: I’m definitely more open-minded about doing it, but I don’t know if it would translate. I know we have next year La Salle is coming here and Oregon St. is coming here and our non-conference schedule will more home friendly next year, but I’m also a guy who believes that winning games is important too. It helps build confidence for the MAAC, so I think what happens sometimes is people apply scheduling philosophies to our league that shouldn’t really be applied to our league. They should be applied to the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, Ohio Valley, etc. Maybe those leagues that are ranked sixth, seventh, eighth, and not necessarily 14th, 15th, 16th. Everybody says to play a real tough schedule and maybe you’ll get the second bid, but for that to happen, everything has to go perfect. I think if you’re a league that has historically gotten two or three bids, then I think that philosophy is a little more acceptable, but I’m definitely much more open-minded to doing something like that now.
Big Apple Buckets: In the NEC, the most conference games you played was 18. What was it like adjusting to the 20-game MAAC slate?
Tom Moore: January and February, even though we were winning, seemed longer this year. I think it’s the accumulation of the night in and night out challenges that you have that you don’t really get a chance to catch your breath.
Big Apple Buckets: What loss aside from Umar Shannon hurt the most? I think everyone would say the loss of Umar at the end of February was the most devastating loss for your team, but was there any other one loss that hurt your team as much?
Tom Moore: Not any one in particular. It was two-fold: The number of injuries to the guys who the fans didn’t appreciate, which hurt the quality of our practices over the last month, and the loss of Umar in particular. In my opinion, you can live without Ousmane [Drame] missing two games in the regular season because he tweaked his knee. That happens, and we played through that. Getting a win at Manhattan was huge without him. You can have Ike [Azotam] go up to Springfield with a balky knee or even lose Ike in the Marist game or in spots in some other games. Then the loss of Umar, there couldn’t have been a worse team for us to lose Umar for. When they told me in there after the [Siena] game torn meniscus, out for a month, there was a pit in my stomach for ten days. I knew Kasim [Chandler] would be back, but I didn’t think he’d be that free and easy. I thought he would be more inhibited, so obviously it’s unfortunate we didn’t have enough quality depth, and I think the diminished practice quality in the last month really hurt us too.
Big Apple Buckets: How did the accumulation of injuries affect your team down the stretch?
Tom Moore: I can live with the stuff that happened, but the accumulation of them starting with Kendrick [Ray] leaving got to be too much. Starting there, Alain [Chigha] missed most of the season, James Ford was really only able to play in games, Shaq [Shannon] took a cortisone shot and missed about a week of practice, T’ziah [Wood-Smith], the 14th man, couldn’t practice, Justin Harris missed two weeks with a concussion, Marquis [Barnett] tore his Achilles. People show up to the arena for one night and we beat somebody, and they see the top six or seven players, but every day I’d leave practice thinking we’re not getting better. We’re a rebounding team, we do physical rebounding drills pretty much every day, but we didn’t do a single rebounding drill for the last month in practice because I was nervous I’m going to do a stupid rebounding drill and another guy gets hurt. There was that accumulation of them that brought the quality of our toughness down a little bit and you could just feel it.
Big Apple Buckets: The MAAC has traditionally been a league dominated by the play of its guards, but your team relies heavily on the frontcourt. Did you find that to be a successful formula?
Tom Moore: This year it was a successful formula. To have two kids that good in the frontcourt was a blessing, and we were humming right along and having a pretty successful season playing that way. For most of the year, teams had trouble with the rebounding and guarding us the way we play inside to out. It hurt us in the semis because Manhattan was great at making your guards play well and we had a key injury, so it sort of wore us out in that game in particular. We try to recruit as good of players as we can recruit.
There’s going to be some two-year stretches where we’ll be guard-heavy, there will be some two-year stretches where we’ll be front-court heavy. We try to get the best kids we can, but the way it’s worked out is we’ve been a little more front-court heavy in the last few years because we’ve had guys like Justin Rutty, Jamee Jackson, Ike, and Ousmane. It’s been a pretty good string of recruiting and big man development during that time, and we haven’t been as dominant in the backcourt. We’ve gotten good players but we haven’t gotten as good of players in the backcourt as we have in the frontcourt. We keep fighting to try to get as good of guards as we can. I think we’ve got two good ones coming in. I think Kasim is going to be good and we might be in a position where we add another one.
Big Apple Buckets: In the NEC tournament you normally had a couple of days to prepare in between games, but in the MAAC you need to win on three consecutive days. How did that change affect your team?
Tom Moore: We could have really used two days for Manhattan, because that’s how special they are and that’s how well they’re playing right now. It’s like in golf – you play it as it lies. We finished the game against Niagara at 11:00 or midnight, got back to the hotel and had to come back and play Manhattan at 7 tonight. It’s very difficult, their pressure. I think we would have handled the first five minutes better if we had two days of practice, but we didn’t and they were great, but ironically that wasn’t the difference in the game. They get out to a 10-point lead and we came back to outscore them over a 14-15 minute stretch going into halftime and it’s a tie game. Plus 10 over a 15-minute stretch and we felt pretty good about ourselves, but they were the more mentally tough team in the 2nd half than we were.
Big Apple Buckets: Your team has qualified for national postseason tournaments four of the last five years, but has yet to win a game. How does that weigh on you as the coach?
Tom Moore: It’s very frustrating. We didn’t know how to handle it the first year. The high of playing in that magical game against Robert Morris in 2010 and the low of coming back two days later to practice was too much for a couple of our seniors. For the next two years, I think that our seniors inadvertently set a very poor example as to how you embrace postseason play once you’ve been eliminated from the NCAA tournament. When you come in second, third, or fourth in these conferences and you’re gearing up for months, there’s no at-large bids where we’re from. We haven’t done a good job bouncing back. I think 2010 clearly set the tone for 2011 and that set the tone a little bit for 2012. I thought we shook a little bit of the rust off when we went and played in 2012 at Penn, but I thought they were just better than us. I liked our attitude in practice heading into the CIT this year, but I think if I had it all to do over again I probably would have brought them back even earlier, but then you’ve got a team where you’ve got six guys who can practice so it was a fine line balancing that. Obviously I don’t think I did a good job balancing that fine line, but you start to second guess yourself.
Big Apple Buckets: You’ve played a few teams who are having success in the postseason this year. Siena and Yale made deep runs into their respective tournaments and Manhattan played a thrilling game against Louisville in the NCAA tournament. What are your thoughts seeing the success they’re having, knowing you have been competitive with those teams?
Tom Moore: I think it’s awesome for Siena because they have a young team with their whole core coming back. They did a really good job of persevering through a long season. I thought they were better in February than they were in January, better in January than they were in December. That’s the sign of a team that’s bought in and well-coached and they did a great job with this CBI opportunity. It’s really going to add confidence for them as they head into next year because it’s the core group that’s coming back.
Yale has done a very good job too and they’ve gotten contributions from guys during the CIT run that didn’t help them a lot throughout the year. It devastates me knowing we lost to Yale and now they’ve gone on a run. It’s very frustrating. Not as much watching Siena. I’m proud of Siena and how they’re representing the MAAC, but it’s frustrating to see Yale go as far as they did because I thought we could have taken the same opportunity. That part of our program is something that I need to figure out. I guess it takes time, and we’ll get there and we’ll win some games in one of these tournaments and then it’ll be another step in the program’s development.
Manhattan was awesome. I was so proud of them. Steve [Masiello] did a great job, they represented the league so well, and they fought so hard in that game. It was awesome to see them kick back to the studio after the game and have Charles Barkley say “If that’s the second place team, then who’s the first place team?” I don’t know if Clark Kellogg knew or if the producer put it into his earpiece, but when he said Iona, and Charles says “Iona needs to be in this tournament, because if that’s the second best team in that league, they need to have two in,” that was great. I think at this point we’re just proud of the league we’re in, and proud of the job they’re doing.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac and the MAAC for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.