“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection.”
– Thomas Paine
When I last saw Greg Herenda, he was basking in the glow in yet another improbable NEC victory, this one at LIU Brooklyn. No one was quite calling Herenda’s Fairleigh Dickinson squad a contender, but the word sleeper was bandied about quite a bit. Herenda had a young, energetic team, it was now his second time around the league, and the Knights also had non-conference wins over St. Joseph’s, Princeton, and Towson on the resume. They were 7-6 overall and 2-0 in league play with both wins coming on the road.
It was Jan. 5.
Fairleigh Dickinson hasn’t won since.
Thursday night’s hard-fought 90-85 loss at the Rothman Center to Sacred Heart was FDU’s incomprehensible 15th straight, and I say incomprehensible with all respect to Herenda, who took the Knights from depths not seen in Division I basketball very often and led them to the NEC Tournament in his first season. Perhaps, like deep-sea divers, FDU rose to the surface a bit too fast, and have paid the price.
“It’s part of the process, unfortunately. I guess I thought I could skip it after last year,” Herenda said. “And we were 7-6 and 2-0 (in the NEC) this season. I just wanted to win. But we have to pay the price and continue to work and build, and we will. This is a very humbling experience, and I can’t thank my guys enough, they played really, really hard. Right now they’re just not experienced enough or mature enough to know how to win those games.”
Herenda used the word “humbling”, and he looked humbled Thursday. But one guy who could identify with him was his opposing number, Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina. In his first year in charge, Latina suffered through his initiation to the tune of a 6-25 mark, 2-14 in the NEC. But the Pioneers (14-16, 8-9) have a shot to finish .500 if it can win at LIU Brooklyn Saturday in the regular season finale.
“It’s like looking in the mirror, they’re like we were last year,” Latina said. “They play everyone tough. We just found ways to lose last year like it seems they are this season. But it’s kind of come around for us and he’s a great coach. They have some good young players, I’m sure they’ll be good soon.”
Indeed, comparisons will be made to the dumpster fire that was the FDU basketball program two seasons ago, as the Knights lost their final 15 games (including 14 in conference), the end of which saw Greg Vetrone basically relieved of his coaching duties before the season ended. But that team was not competitive for most of the final two months (even though it had Kinu Rochford putting up almost all-league offensive numbers), losing 10 of those 14 games by 13 or more points.
Thursday’s game was the sixth NEC loss for the Knights this season decided by five points or less, two of which were in overtime (including the first meeting against Sacred Heart). Freshman Darin Anderson had 27 points and 11 assists as FDU turned the ball over just three times and posted 1.20 points per possession in an extremely entertaining contest.
But you can probably tell where this is going. The Knights have been a dreadful defensive team this season (331st nationally), particularly in the paint, where they haven’t even been close to having an answer of late, allowing 63%, 57%, and 50% offensive rebounding in its last three games, checking in at 350th nationally in defensive rebounding rate (only Prairie View A&M is worse). While they are 18th nationally in forcing turnovers (23.0%), they are just 304th in defensive eFG%, 321st on two-pointers as teams, even in the NEC, were able to get to the rim whenever they pleased.
“We played hard all year,” Herenda said. “We had a four-point lead with around 10 to go, and we’re just not stopping people enough and rebounding enough, and when you don’t do those things, it’s hard to win. But you can see we have a lot of talented young kids that love to play, and they’re very disappointed in that locker room even though they’ve been there a lot this season.”
(Ironically, FDU’s best rebounder by a pretty wide margin, junior Xavier Harris, played only three minutes Thursday. He did have only three rebounds in his previous three games combined, obviously all losses.)
Latina had similar problems last year, so he brought in graduate transfer Jordan Allen from Hofstra and freshman Filip Nowicki, but the guy who has solved the dilemma is someone that was already in the program, junior Tevin Falzon, who finished with 17 points and 19 rebounds Thursday, his third straight game with double-digit rebounds (48 in his last three games).
“Tevin may be the most improved guy in the league,” Latina said. “When we brought him in at the end of last year, we told him he might not play here. We had Jordan Allen coming in and we knew we had Filip Nowicki coming in, we asked him if he was OK with not playing much and he said, ‘I’m going to prove to you that I should be out there.’ “
The Knights (7-21, 2-15) end their season Saturday against the other team that won’t be playing in the NEC Tournament, Central Connecticut. They will graduate Mustafaa Jones, who has continued to put up good numbers and play hard despite the losing streak, and lose graduate student Darius Stokes, who was honored before Thursday’s game because his sister Kiah has her Senior Night Saturday at UConn, defending national champion and the top ranked team currently. Anderson and fellow freshman Marques Townes (who has battled mono recently) will return, and Herenda will surely use this “humbling” experience on the recruiting trail.
“We’ve signed three kids that are 6’7” and above,” Herenda said. “They’re going to come in, and we’ll be young next year, but we’ll be bigger and stronger and hopefully tougher. It’s a process, but right now it’s a painful process.”
This isn’t two years ago in Hackensack. The Fairleigh Dickinson basketball program is still in good hands with Greg Herenda in charge, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see them closer to the top of the NEC than the bottom in the near future. But, as Latina and pretty much every other coach at this level has found out the hard way, nothing is given to you for free in the zero-sum game known as Division I college basketball.
“I told you guys all year, I’m proud of our effort, we battled all year, but trying hard is not enough in college basketball,” Herenda said. “You have to play well and be tough and play strong and those things, we eventually will.”