One win versus a Division I opponent in 10 tries. Six of those losses ending in lopsided fashion. A once vaunted defense that finds itself near the bottom of college basketball having allowed 106.9 points per 100 possessions. An offense that has struggled to find its way with a team loaded with underclassmen expected to absorb a sizable chunk of possessions.
Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan for the Wagner Seahawks, but third-year head coach Bashir Mason wasn’t expecting a ton out of a team that returned just 23% of their returning possession minutes. Mason has admittedly found navigating through this rebuilding effort difficult, yet he continues to remind himself the 60th most difficult non-conference schedule in college basketball will likely reap benefits come NEC play.
“If I would have gotten four wins out of this non-conference [schedule] it would have been a home run,” Mason said after Wagner’s 76-71 loss to Rider on Monday night. “We were putting the schedule together and knowing the roster we had, we realistically thought we could get three [wins]. We lost the one game we’d thought we’d win [at Maine] at the buzzer.”
The fact that Wagner posted its worst non-conference record since the lowly 2009-10 campaign when the Seahawks won just five games for the season doesn’t necessarily mean they are doomed heading into league play on Saturday. In fact, Mason has been encouraged by the progress of his young group.
“To be honest, I felt like we found something two or three games ago where we were playing four guards and one of our bigs [together on the court],” Mason said. “We were just playing against teams you couldn’t do that against, but we’ve been doing it in practice. And I think going into conference play we’re going to be able to do that a lot more potentially and I think we’ll be able to create some turnovers off of it and execute a little more offensively with our drive-and-kick stuff.”
With a team rife with inexperience, the undersized Seahawks have struggled to defend their non-conference opponents near the paint. Opponents are shooting a scorching 56.8% from inside the arc, while the perimeter defense has also suffered.
Furthermore, while Mike Aaman, Gregory Senat and to a lesser degree Nolan Long and Stedman Allen have done a respectable job protecting the glass, they’ve been overmatched at times on the defensive end. The four aforementioned power forwards have all committed at least 4.8 fouls per 40 minutes, with Senat and Long committing an unsustainable 7.5 and 8.9 fouls per 40 minutes, respectively. The reduced size and athleticism of the NEC will most likely lower the big mens’ crazy foul rate, yet they must improve their defensive discipline to stay on the floor . It’s essential, because Mason will need a formidable frontline versus NEC contenders such as Saint Francis University, Mount St. Mary’s, and St. Francis Brooklyn.
In the backcourt, the youth centered around senior Marcus Burton — predictably the leading scorer for Wagner at 14.4 ppg — has displayed tremendous upside. Despite struggles with his outside shot, freshman JoJo Cooper has posted a nationally ranked assist rate and free throw rate, two positives you wouldn’t normally see out of a rookie point guard at the Division I level. Romone Saunders has the size and athleticism to create offensive opportunities, which was evident when he produced two separate four point plays against Rider. His offensive rating of 111.5 currently leads all freshman inside the conference. And finally, guard Corey Henson has shown the ability to score in spurts for a Seahawk team that has lacked offensive firepower.
These freshmen have experienced a lot of defeats in the early going, yet Mason genuinely believes his backcourt group of rookies have the confidence to succeed in the unpredictable NEC. “These guys are excited. These guys are all delusional in a good way. Our freshman, all of them think they’re going to be [NEC] Rookies of the Year. They think they are the best players in the league [and] even with the record and the way we’re losing, they haven’t wavered.”
Together with the sophomores, Marcus Burton, and the likely return of forward Dwaun Anderson — he’s has been cleared to full practice and could return for Wagner’s third conference game — Mason is beyond excited to start with a clean slate.
“I think I definitely saw progress and in this non-conference, I think these guys have learned what it takes to compete at this level. Now they have to learn how to win at this level. And what I’m seeing and the feel that I have is these guys need to get just one win
under their belt and that excitement, that energy, that spark, that hunger is going to be there to get more [wins].”
The road to achieve that first conference victory begins with a difficult road contest in Loretto, PA versus Saint Francis University, followed by a three-game homestand against Mount St. Mary’s, Robert Morris, and LIU Brooklyn. While four games doesn’t make a season, it’ll certainly serve as a barometer for a program hopeful to accelerate the rebuilding process.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride