Head Coach: Anthony Latina, 2nd Season (5-26)
Last Season: 5-26, 2-14 (NEC), Did Not Qualify for NEC Playoffs
NEC Preseason Poll: 10th out of 10 teams
State of Program: Rebuilding
Starters Returning: 3
Key Loss(es): Louis Montes (12.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Mostafa Abdel-Latif (5.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 51.6% 2PT)
Incoming Players: Cane Broome (G), Jordan Alen (F), Filip Nowicki (C), Vince Fritz (G), Chris Robinson (G)
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Phil Gaetano (6.5 ppg, 6.3 apg)
G: Cane Broome (freshman)
G: Evan Kelley (12.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 49.8% 2PT)
F: De’Von Barnett (11.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 52.8% 2PT)
C: Filip Nowicki (freshman)
Key Reserves: Steve Glowiak (SG), Jordan Allen (F), Tevin Falzon (PF), Cole Walton (C)
Storyline: Northeast Conference (NEC) coaches are lousy at predicting the conference’s standings for the following season. After winning just 11 games and losing all-conference power forward Kibwe Trim in 2006, Sacred Heart was predicted to finish ninth by the NEC coaches for the upcoming season. Despite the low expectations, the Pioneers surged thanks to Drew Shubik, Jarrid Frye and Joey Henley and advanced to the league championship game after winning 14 contests versus NEC foes.
Anthony Latina is certainly hoping for a similar outcome in his second season as head coach. His Pioneers were voted as the league’s last place team in the coach’s preseason poll, and rightfully so, after the team dropped 26 of 31 games last season.
“I’ve been doing this long enough as a coach that especially in our league, you can’t put too much stock into it,” Latina said at NEC Social Media Day, when asked for his reaction of the poll. “Would you rather be picked first than last? Yeah, but I think at the end of the day, if you really talk to any of the coaches they wouldn’t be shocked if the last place team finished first and the first place team finished last…”
Latina is optimistic his team will exceed expectations for several reasons. For starters, the defense, in his eyes, will be much improved. Despite finishing 297th nationally in defensive efficiency (1.11 points allowed per possession), the Pioneers were better in their final eight games of the 2013-14 season. Sacred Heart may have dropped seven of those eight, yet it wasn’t the defense’s fault, giving up just 1.02 ppp and forcing opponents to shoot 45.3% from two and 33.5% from three. That end-of-season improvement represents the defense this coaching staff hopes to fully implement moving forward. Stay in front of your defender, don’t take too many chances and force opponents to attempt contested shots.
Now, with more athleticism, depth and versatility at his disposal, Latina expects his team to continue the positive momentum from last season.
“I’m expecting us to be a very good defensive team and I would be very disappointed if we’re not,” Latina said with confidence. “You’re good at what you emphasize and I’ve always been an offensive coach and I still think that way, but we’ve made a conscious effort that we’re going to be a defensive team with our personnel.”
Three newcomers, freshmen Cane Broome and Filip Nowicki and Hofstra transfer Jordan Allen, significantly upgrade the Pioneers’ athleticism and depth. All three are expected to play meaningful minutes, with Broome potentially emerging as a Rookie of the Year candidate. In Sacred Heart’s exhibition versus Division-II Bridgeport this past Saturday, Broome led the team in points (23), rebounds (8), free throw attempts (8) and minutes played (36).
“He has the potential to be one of our better freshmen in a while,” Latina said regarding Broome. “The luxury that Cane has is he has three seniors that can protect him a bit… I think the veteran leadership is going to help Cane have a better year than if we said ‘here you have to do everything.’”
The coaching staff certainly expects a lot out of their veteran guards in Phil Gaetano, Steve Glowiak and Evan Kelley. Glowiak and Kelley have an opportunity to score 1,000 career points while Gaetano could conceivably finish his career in the NCAA top 30 in career assists. Obviously, the senior tri-captains have each enjoyed individual success, but now is the time to lead Sacred Heart back to respectability.
“They’ve had good individual careers and now it’s time to be remembered for a winning career,” Latina said. “And you’re always remembered for your senior year, hopefully they’ll be remembered for the team that turned it back around.”
Lastly to compete, the Pioneers desperately need to stay healthy. After missing the first eight games and playing a majority of his rookie season banged up, the high-flying De’Von Barnett has looked great this preseason. The slashing forward has added more shooting range to his arsenal, which should help keep defenders honest. He led all NEC freshmen in scoring (11.0 ppg), efficiency rating (9.6) and field goal percentage (52.8%) last season.
Kelley, after electing to strengthen and rehab his troublesome right shoulder rather than surgically repair it, has played well and is expected to emerge as one of Sacred Heart’s leading scorers. He’ll need to improve upon a mediocre offensive rating of 92.2 and a 19.3% turnover rate, yet that is possible with better health and more maturity.
Throw in big men unknowns Tevin Falzon and Cole Walton — projected as the eighth and ninth players of Latina’s rotation, a designation the coaching staff is comfortable with — and there is plenty of competition for minutes in Fairfield. And that’s exactly what the head coach wants.
“We have different options and playing time is always the great motivator,” Latina said. “Guys know if they don’t produce at the level we are hoping for, then we have other guys. Competition is something that we lacked last year and we don’t this year. I think that’s going to help.”
Ryan – While I may be slightly guilty of Pioneer bias, I do see the potential of this team. I doubt they’ll finish last, but for Sacred Heart to have any kind of success Barnett and Broome need to be big time playmakers as underclassmen. If that happens and the team remains healthy, the Pioneers could creep into the top half of the league. I’m not that optimistic, however, but I would be surprised if they fail to make the NEC postseason. (13 wins, 8-10 NEC)
John – There’s a logical reason why the Pioneers were picked last. They’re relying on a number of unknowns and don’t have a lot of depth. The loss of Louis Montes is a tough one to take and it’s just hard to see how this team will significantly improve defensively. I think they’ll be competitive against the bottom half of the league, but it’s possible that SHU misses the NEC tournament for the third straight season. (10 wins, 6-12 NEC)