You would think Howie Dickenman has seen it all in the Northeast Conference, yet last Tuesday’s appearance at the Barclays Center for the league’s social media day marked a rare occasion for the 68-year old head coach.
His Blue Devils were selected to finish tenth in the NEC Preseason Coach’s Poll. As in tenth out of ten teams.
For some head coaches, a last place selection could conger up strong feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, and perhaps regret, but not for Dickenman. The legendary coach, now entering his 20th year, will simply use this piece of information as a motivational tool for the remainder of the preseason.
“I was pleased that we were 10th (in the poll),” the raspy voiced Dickenman said. “I’m going to use that as motivation. I’m just going to tell them ‘this is the respect that we now have.’”
In fairness to the voting electorate, penciling in Central Connecticut as the conference cellar dweller was an easy decision. This is a team that loses Matt Mobley and his 17.2 ppg and returns just three players – Brandon Peel, Khalen Cumberlander and Kevin Seymour – who played at least half of the Blue Devils’ total minutes a season ago.
Furthermore, 58.8% of the scoring and 48.4% of the rebounding from last season’s roster are gone, leaving Central Connecticut with a young and rather inexperienced group of players. This will be the first time a Dickenman coached roster has seven newcomers on scholarship in one season.
After Peel and Cumberlander, the two longest tenured players of the team, figuring out the remainder of Central Connecticut’s rotation – let alone the size of it – is something the program’s coaching staff is still trying to figure out.
“We had five guys play over 31 minutes (per game) last year,” Dickenman said on his team’s lack of depth for the 2014-15 season. “I don’t know who’s going to play over 31 minutes this year. It won’t be five guys because we have some depth which is also a luxury.”
Of the newcomers who could see significant minutes, junior college transfer J.J. Cratit has impressed in the early going. “He’s a three-point shooter, has a good feel for the game, knows how to play and he’s a good defender,” Dickenman said of the 6’3 Miami, FL native.
Freshman Austin Nehls, another 6’3 guard who last played a prep season at Cheshire Academy, has been shooting lights out from behind the arc this preseason. “I’ve also been pleased with Austin,” Dickenman said. “He makes threes – in our scrimmage against Stony Brook, he was 4 out of 6. He has the green light.”
Eric Bowles, the reigning Virginia 6A state high school player of the year, will challenge for playing time with Seymour at the point. His winning pedigree and selfless pass-first skills will be welcomed to a program that was second to last in the NEC in assists per game (10.9 apg) and assist-to-turnover ratio (0.81) last season.
Two more Division I rookies, 6’9 freshman Evan Phoenix and 6’7 junior Tidell Pierre, will add “some beef in the frontcourt,” according to the head coach. Phoenix, in particular, is a polished big who can score with either hand in the post. He reportedly received three other scholarship offers before deciding to play at CCSU.
Any kind of help alongside Peel in the front court is a necessity these days, especially after last season’s roster allowed opponents to make 51.2% of their twos and finished last in the NEC in defensive efficiency at 109.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. That number, in fact, was the worst defensive rating for a Central Connecticut team in this century.
With virtually no expectations in New Britain, Dickenman finds himself in an ominous position regarding his future. He’s reportedly on the last year of his contract and there’s been no indication that he plans to retire anytime soon. Whether it’s he or Central Connecticut athletic director Paul Schlickmann determining Dickenman’s fate is anyone’s guess.
But regardless of how Dickenman’s coaching career concludes at his alma mater, the respect and admiration he has developed among his peers, even after coming off a 5-26 season, is overwhelming. He undoubtedly deserves that having been to the NCAA tournament three times over an eight year span.
“Howie is one of the best people in the business, he’s a tremendous coach,” St. Francis Brooklyn coach Glenn Braica said of Dickenman, a man he has the utmost respect for. “To me, he should be there [at Central Connecticut] as long as he wants to be.”
Other head coach adversaries such as Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian completely agree. Christian was a player in the league when Dickenman was elevating his Blue Devils to an elite level from within the conference. “As an NEC guy, I just feel like he deserves so much respect because of what he was able to do in the league,” Christian said. “A lot of things that we’re trying to do here [at Mount St. Mary’s] in terms of being consistent are some of the things that I learned from watching his teams.”
As brutal as last season was for the long time coach, Dickenman still made it a point to call and congratulate Robert Morris coach Andy Toole after his team defeated St. Francis Brooklyn to earn the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“It shows the kind of class that he has and the way he respects the game, his job and all of those things,” Toole, who was an assistant coach when Dickenman brought Central Connecticut back to the Big Dance in 2007, said.
Win or lose, Dickenman will enter this season as the elder statesman of the league, possibly on the last legs of his career. If this is it, though, he isn’t showing it. He’s just looking forward to the challenge ahead with a roster that’s as green as can be.
“It’s going to be fun.”
Ryan Peters is a NEC contributor for Big Apple Buckets and wrote the NEC previews for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can follow Ryan on Twitter here.