The Key to Fordham’s Resurgence? A Rebuilt Defense

Fordham’s Tom Pecora does not do tumultuous. His teams are never racked by transfers, or continually beset by suspensions. Since arriving at Fordham in 2010, Pecora always seems to have a tightest of handles on his Rams, so this offseason was an unusual one.

Branden Frazier, who was Pecora’s first high- profile recruit, exhausted his eligibility, but the squad also lost several players to transfer, including fan favorite and oft-hustling Travion Leonard (Barry University) and backup point guard Jermaine Myers (Northwood University). Only 63% of Fordham’s minutes returns for the 2014-15 season, the lowest ever for a Pecora-coached squad, and the departures weren’t just limited to players — after spending years with Pecora on both the Hofstra and Fordham bench, David Duke is now Adelphi’s head coach.

Despite those losses, the 2014-15 squad is stacked with arguably the most talent Pecora ever had at the Atlantic 10 school, and the team ended last season on a good note, winning their first A-10 tournament game since 2007. This year won’t be Pecora’s season on the brink, but Fordham should — and quite frankly, needs to — win more than ten overall games.

Jon Severe (right) drives the baseline.
Fordham sophomore Jon Severe (right) set the freshman scoring record last season with the Rams and hopes to continue that career trajectory.

Among the returning Rams Jon Severe is the most crucial to the team’s success. Severe was NYC’s top player when he committed to Fordham, and his freshman season, after which he was named to the conference’s all rookie team, was certainly prolific. Only five other freshmen had a higher percentage of shots attempted than Severe, and while Severe was the top option on every opponents’ defensive gameplan (he had to be after he scorched Syracuse and Manhattan for a combined 49 points), he was still relatively efficient from the perimeter (34.2% from three). When teams took away the three-point line, though, Severe severely regressed (32% from two), but it’s clear Severe spent this offseason scoring off the bounce — Severe made 43% of his shots within the arc during the Ram’s Canada trip this past August.

One pressing goal of the Canada trip was to figure out how to best use Severe in year two. Severe started roughly three-quarters of the Rams’ games in 2014, yet Pecora brought him off the bench for the first two Canadian tilts, preferring to use a backcourt of Mandell Thomas and newcomer Nemanja Zarkovic. While Severe did provide some offensive pop as the team’s sixth man, the offense was a bit more stilted when a conventional lineup (aka two guards, three bigs) was used; when Pecora shifted to a three-guard lineup, and used Severe as a distributor (who still managed to attempt eighteen shots), the team’s assist rate was the best it had been in Canada (57%) and Fordham’s offensive efficiency was just under one point per possession.

While Frazier wasn’t a model of efficiency either, the senior guard functioned as the Rams’ primary distributor, and Pecora will sorely miss Frazier’s 26% assist rate. And clearly Pecora has thought about how the Rams plan to replace those assists. Both Severe and Thomas are scoring threats first, so both will have to function as position-less guards. Bryan Smith is the team’s lone senior, and he’ll also provide some backcourt support (though, for a Ram that takes a decent amount of shots — 18% — he doesn’t make many of them: Smith’s three-point makes, and percentage, have steadily declined since his freshman year).

The key for any potential Fordham success is Ryan Rhoomes. Once an oft-traveled recruit, Rhoomes has transformed himself into one of the league’s most underappreciated big men. He doesn’t consistently look for his offense (and some of Smith’s attempts would be better off in Rhoomes’ hands), but he is extremely skilled scoring around the rim — per Hoop-Math.com, Rhoomes made 74% of his shots at the basket, a significant uptick from his freshman rate. He is also one of the few Rams to show any sort of defensive inclination, blocking nearly 10% of opposing teams’ shots when he is on the court.

It is also crucial for the Rams’ monster incoming class to mesh with the core returnees. Manny Suarez and Antwoine Anderson both sat out last season as partial qualifiers and should see significant minutes among Fordham’s seven newbies (Suarez didn’t play in Canada but during last year’s A-10 media day, Pecora thought Suarez “will probably play a lot at the ‘4’”). Eric Paschall, the 6’6″ freshman forward, has been hyped ever since he eschewed higher profile programs to commit to Fordham, and while he will be an immediate starter, the two frosh who could surprise are Zarkovic and Christian Sengfelder. Fordham’s greatest asset is their backcourt depth, and should Pecora go small (and use Paschall as a wing), the 6’3″ Zarkovic could see significant playing time. Sengfelder, who stands 6’7″, would be the ‘5’ in a small lineup and came close to averaging a double-double during the Canada trip.

The three transfers weren’t going to see many minutes in 2014-15, but the one loss that does weaken the frontcourt depth is Ryan Canty. The 6’9″ senior is a fascinating, and also confounding, player. There aren’t many bigs that outwork Canty on the glass, and when he is on the court, chances are that defensive board, or that missed three, will be hauled in by Canty. He never can play enough minutes because he always picks up small fouls — and often in succession. Before Fordham crossed the border, though, Pecora announced Canty had to undergo back surgery and didn’t set a timetable for recovery, which could mean the senior will medically redshirt this year.

Pecora certainly scheduled like his fairly young team is ready to escape the conference basement — before A-10 play begins, Fordham plays Penn State, Maryland, and Siena (the Rams also play Manhattan and St. John’s, but those series are historic). The most interesting non-conference match could be against the Terrapins; despite multiple transfers this offseason, Maryland returns a solid core of Dez Wells, Jake Layman, and Evan Smotrycz, and would be a season-defining victory.

What could hold Fordham from rising up the A10 rankings, though, is their defense. It was horrendous in 2014 — and that perhaps isn’t strong enough. Pecora doesn’t like to chase teams from the three-point line. He often cedes the long-range shot with the intention of locking down the paint through defensive boards and blocks, but everything was too easy last year. Opponents not only made nearly 40% of their threes, they also converted 53% of their twos, and since Pecora’s defensive strategy eschews pressuring the ball, A-10 teams didn’t have to try very hard to score. Canty’s consistent foul trouble meant Rhoomes was often the sole Ram attacking the defensive glass, and now that Canty is sidelined indefinitely, controlling the interior is even more essential.

The four games in Canada, though, provide some insight into how Fordham plans to rebuild their defense. Through the first two games, Pecora deployed a large lineup, using Sengfelder, Rhoomes, and Paschall in the frontcourt. Not only was the trio imposing, grabbing 72% of the available defensive rebounds, but Fordham allowed the two teams to score just .73 points per possession. While that OPPP must be weighted in light of the Rams’ 22-point blow-out, it is abundantly clear Pecora hopes his beefed-up interior can rejuvenate the squad’s defense. It is worth a contrast — in the third Canadian contest, Pecora went with a smaller lineup featuring Anderson, Severe, and Zarkovic as starters, and the opponent’s PPP rose to .95.

The pieces are there for Fordham to be a top ten A-10 squad this year. Saint Louis was gutted by exhausted eligibilities, as was newcomer Davidson. The team’s offense is dynamic enough that if Fordham can stay in front of their opponents, the Rams could surprise a few A-10 foes this season, and while Fordham certainly won’t contend for a conference title, they should win more than three A-10 games, a feat that hasn’t happened in six years.

Matt Giles covers the Big East conference, as well as other conferences, for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Matt on Twitter @hudsongiles.

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