Earlier this month, Gotham Hoops hosted the inaugural Gotham Hoops Invitational at Farmingdale State College. The event was a showcase for over two dozen Men’s College Basketball seniors in the Tri-State area.
Participants included a diverse array of players from local Division I, II, and III schools. The players were separated into four teams and played two exhibition games to show off their skills. This was just one opportunity for these seniors to play in front of friends, media, and scouts as they pursue their dreams of playing professionally.
Big Apple Buckets was at the event, and we were able to catch up with some local players including Manhattan’s Rhamel Brown, Hofstra’s Stephen Nwaukoni, and Quinnipiac’s Ike Azotam.
Manhattan and Iona met in a thrilling rematch in the MAAC title game in early March. The Jaspers came out victorious and went on to bring Louisville down to the wire in the NCAA tournament while Iona fell to Louisiana Tech in the first round of the NIT on a last second put back. Here are thoughts from Manhattan’s Brown and Iona’s Mike Poole and DaShawn Gomez on their March experiences:
Rhamel Brown, Manhattan: Moving from the MAAC tournament to the NCAA tournament is a big transition. It’s a good experience. You’ve got to come out and be prepared to play, especially against a great team like Louisville. The atmosphere, there’s nothing like it. It’s just something you don’t always get to experience as a player, and I’m just lucky to be one of the few.
Playing Louisville [last year] definitely helped us out a lot that year. We went through a lot of struggles, injuries, off the court issues, and we played a very tough schedule. We didn’t have the best year; we finished with a losing record but we made it to the MAAC championship game. I think that experience definitely set us up for this year and our success this year.
Mike Poole, Iona: It’s basketball, you know. You’ve got to live with it. We’ve won on buzzer-beaters. We just wish we cut down on turnovers in the first half. It’s the little things that lead to a loss that you wish you could take back. They were really emotional losses. It’s heartbreaking – especially as a senior, you don’t want to go out like that. You’re one game away from the NCAA tournament, you make it to the NIT and then lose on a buzzer-beater, it’s heartbreaking. You know, in basketball you play another game. When you’re young you play another game, so you keep working. I hope the guys next year learn from our mistakes this year and do better.
DaShawn Gomez, Iona: It was a good experience. The second time we went to the championship, we lost to a good team, a team that was kind of just like us. Two years ago we lost as the top team the year, so we came in hungry last year and we knew we had something to prove, and we won the championship. Manhattan came in sort of the same way this year. We still had a great season (17-3 in MAAC play), and we still had an opportunity in the NIT. We lost a tough one, but we had a chance to win the game. We gave up a rebound at the end of the game but had a great season overall. Can’t be disappointed.
Two local programs, Marist and Hofstra, welcomed in new head coaches this season. Jeff Bower brought nearly two decades of NBA experience to the Red Foxes while Joe Mihalich joined the Pride after 15 successful years at Niagara. Marist’s Jay Bowie and Hofstra’s Stephen Nwaukoni gave a little insight into what it’s like to play for a new coach in your senior season:
Jay Bowie, Marist: Playing under coach Bower was a little different from coach [Chuck] Martin the last three years. He would do certain things like make practices before games kind of light, saying how he brought it from his NBA experience. They would be shorter, and you weren’t on your feet as much. Game day he didn’t do too much in terms of wearing you out. He really kept our bodies fresh throughout the year. He would tell me little things like how to read a screen, how to come off a screen; little things like that that. I learned a lot from him last year. He’s been helpful in getting my game to the next level and I feel a lot more comfortable moving forward.
We started 0-9, but the high level of competition really helped. I think three of the teams we played ended up making the tournament so I would say the high level of competition taught us how to trust each other and trust coach Bower’s system. Once we did that, we started taking off.
Stephen Nwaukoni, Hofstra: Playing under coach Mihalich was a great experience. He’s a great guy on and off the floor. He pushes every single one of his players. I can say for the most part this has been a coach who’s been on me about everything, but he’s doing it for the best interest of me. He cares about me, and he’s been there for me and he pushes all of us as a team, as individuals. He has definitely made me a better player in just one year of coaching.
With their college careers coming to an end, many of these players are pursuing their dream of playing basketball professionally. Most if not all will end up signing contracts to play overseas. This is a tremendous time of transition in these players’ lives, and support systems both domestically and internationally are vital to a successful move.
Rhamel Brown, Manhattan: It’s time to move on to the next step in my life: following my career to play professionally. I’m just looking forward to what my career has in store for me. I haven’t made any decisions yet but I plan to be sometime soon, maybe in the next few weeks. I definitely stay in touch with George [Beamon] and Mike [Alvarado]. Those are my brothers. Hopefully we’ll make all the right decisions.
Ike Azotam, Quinnipiac: I just signed my agent last week, with CAA Sports. It’s a guy from Boston, so I’m just waiting to send my tape out, and hopefully get some good news around June about where I’m probably going to be playing. James Johnson came up to Quinnipiac a couple of times and I text him often about the process.
Mike Poole, Iona: I went to high school with both Momo [Jones] and Scott [Machado], so I speak to them when they come around. I text Scott from time to time about just a bunch of things, the pro experience, stuff like that. You always learn from guys ahead of you. They went through what you went through, so I take what I can from those guys. They’re great basketball players and I just hope to be like them and get the opportunities they had one day.
Umar Shannon, Quinnpiac: I’m feeling good. I feel way better now that I’ve gotten up and played some defense, and got up and down the court. I didn’t finish as much as I wanted to, but I knew coming in that’s how it was going to be. I feel good going forward. That was my first time playing since the Siena game. I keep saying this, but we made it to the CIT and if we would have beaten Yale, I would have played the next game. It would have been a little bit of a rush job, but unfortunately we lost.
I didn’t sign with an agent yet, but right now I’m pretty solid on who I think I’m going to sign with, so that’s a good thing. Same with Ike, I’ve got to get film out and see who’s interested. I’m in touch with James Johnson as well, but not too much from the St. Francis front. I talk to some of the current players like Earl Brown and those guys. We keep in touch mostly every day.
DaShawn Gomez, Iona: We definitely have had some good players come out of Iona. Even this year we had Sean Armand who had a great season, and a great four years at Iona. We have some great players who come there. Coach Cluess’ system helps some people show their talents. It benefits a lot of players, especially your scorers. I talk with Sean, Scott [Machado] comes around and I talk to him still a little bit. Momo [Jones] I still talk to when he’s around or in the States. He’s away often so he kind of picks and chooses when he can talk, so I stay in touch with him on social media and stuff.
Stephen Nwaukoni, Hofstra: The coaching staff, from the head coach to the assistants to the grad assistants, has been 100% supportive. They’ve been around me telling me the good, the bad, the right, the wrong. For the most part, I feel like my mental toughness has improved as a result of them. During practices when I’m down or not playing hard, every single coach is supposed to push and motivate, but what they’ve done is to a whole different extent. I thank them and I appreciate them for doing so. Like I said, they all gave me tips throughout the year, even about playing at the pro level after school, so I can say that they’ve been there and they have my back.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac and the MAAC for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.