Sacred Heart was 5-26 last season, and quite frankly had very little going for them in Anthony Latina’s first campaign, finishing 273rd in the nation in adjusted offense and even worse (297th) on defense. What does a young coach do after a season like that? Think a lot, first of all. And second, go to work.
“We have been a really bad defensive team for a long time here,” Latina said. “One way to improve is to improve your talent, which we think we’ve done, adding some good players. The other thing is that we have to play defense. We looked at a team like Virginia, who wins without the best talent in their league, they just defend really well, so we tried to model what we’re trying to do after what they did.”
They have a long way to go to get to be Virginia, obviously, who has been in the top 20 nationally the last four season and is fourth currently. In fact, the Pioneers are only up to 212th nationally at the moment. But they’re getting better. Significantly better, as another improving team – New Hampshire – found out the hard way at the Pitt Center, as Sacred Heart grabbed the lead midway through the first half and cruised to a 73-60, their sixth already this season (6-4), eclipsing last year’s total:
Here are my thoughts from Sacred Heart, where only 186 fans attended the action Saturday, a number which should grow if they keep winning:
1. Cane Broome and Phil Gaetano are worth your time – First, they combined for zero turnovers in 64 minutes of play Saturday. You probably know Gaetano, now a senior, but Broome has caught the NEC by surprise this season as a freshman, becoming the first rookie since 1998 (and only third ever) to win Player and Rookie of the Week at the same time last month. Saturday, Broome went for 25 points on 10-of-11 shooting. He’s listed at 6’ and 150 pounds, but those (as is usually the case) may be generous. Yet it hasn’t slowed him down yet this season at all.
“I just have to keep finding a way to get the ball, but I can’t force it if I’m covered too tight,” Broome said. “I can try to get out in transition and get some easy buckets like I did tonight.” (Gaetano – who had seven assists – hit Broome in the first half with an 80-foot bounce pass that Broome just had to catch and lay in. It deserved video of some kind.)
“He’s (Broome) a little like (Red Sox second baseman) Dustin Pedroia because you look at him and say, ‘How the heck is he doing these things?’ He looks like a 5-year-old kid,” Latina said. “He is a freak of nature because he’s so quick and fast. Some guys are quick and some guys are fast, but he’s both. Some of his finishes, he just has a knack for knifing through and contorting his body and getting the ball to go in.”
2. Despite this, New Hampshire is better – One of Sacred Heart’s five wins last season came in New Hampshire over the Wildcats, who were just 6-24 and losers of 24 of their last 28 a year ago. In fact, they haven’t posted a winning conference record since 1994-95 in the old North Atlantic Conference under Gib Chapman, but they might have a chance this season. It’s a young, balanced, geographically diverse group. Freshman Tanner Leissner from Converse, Texas is the leading scorer and Bill Herrion has them at 6-4 through 10 games. They had a tough time tonight, and may struggle for leadership (and consistent offense), but should be competitive in America East. While LIU Brooklyn made news for branching out and recruiting, and the two teams play each other regularly (including Tuesday), Herrion said he got the idea closer to home.
“Back when Danny Leibovitz was at Hartford, he had a couple of really good kids from Texas, and I asked, ‘How did you get these guys?’ He said, ‘Well, nobody goes down there.’ Then obviously LIU had the run with (Jason) Brickman and (Julian) Boyd, so we started going out there a few years ago and it’s been really good to us. We didn’t play well tonight, but you have to give Sacred Heart credit.”
3. Sacred Heart’s success will probably depend on defense – As I said, it’s improved, but they’re still small, especially with Gaetano, Broome, and Evan Kelley all in the lineup. The best rim protector might have been freshman Filip Nowicki from Poland, but he played only eight minutes and still has some work to do to get up to complete speed at this level. So for now it will be junior Tevin Falzon, who did have four blocks Saturday. Latina is well aware that his team will go as far as the defense carries it.
“One of the reasons we never had any sustained runs last season is because we never stopped anybody,” Latina said. “To go on an 8-0 run, there has to be an “oh” on the end, We had plenty of 8-8 runs. That’s the issue. The defensive element was missing. And sometimes the offense was, too. A lot of things go wrong when you struggle like we did. Even the coaching staff last year had to look at ourselves in the mirror and say it wasn’t good enough. We’re doing well, but it’s early. There are a lot of teams that are good in December that aren’t good in March.”