You never get a second chance to make a first impression (might as well get all the cliches out of the way on Opening Day), but in the mid-major basketball world, particularly for the six teams competing at the Connecticut 6 Friday night, first impressions will mean very little in the end.
Unless Yale has an outrageous non-conference slate and somehow gets edged out for the tournament-less Ivy League automatic bid, none of the teams playing at Detrick Gym are getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, so the focus is on getting better and rounding into form as the conference season commences.
For Fairfield and Quinnipiac, both of whom struggled mightily, that’s only a couple of weeks away. But for Yale and Hartford, it’s still many moons off (about two months to be precise). However, given the roster turnover of the teams playing in New Britain, it was nice to actually see them on the court and get a look at what might be coming for the rest of the campaign.
So here is, in order of how good I think they’ll be this season, a quick review of what my first impression was for each of the six Connecticut mid-majors:
Fairfield actually came out of the gates flying and led 18-14 at the second media time out, but would get just 19 points in the next 24 minutes as the Bulldogs cruised for most of the second half. That wasn’t terribly surprising, Yale’s calling card was its defense last season (and the last few), ranked 55th in last season, and Fairfield, well, I was going to try to be nice, but they were pretty close to inept (315th).
Although Nick Victor and Brandon Sherrod both basically missed a season, both are very good defensive players, and teamed with Sears should make things very difficult for opponents at that end. James Jones also got 20 solid minutes from Sam Downey, who had six rebounds as Yale dominated the glass, 47-24.
The other end may be the biggest question for Yale. Fairfield immediately set out to shut down Sears and did a pretty good job (6 points, 4 rebounds, 0 free throw attempts). But they had no answer for Makai Mason, who finished with 23 points and 4 assists, and Sherrod – in his first game back after a year off touring with the Whiffenpoofs, had three dunks and went 10-13 from the free throw line to finish with 20 points and seven rebounds. Mason looks like he could be an All-Ivy performer, and you may forget was tremendous at the end of last season, too.
“Javier (Duren) was a huge part of the team and made everything run, but I felt confident coming into the game because of the trust in my teammates. It hasn’t been too bad of a transition to fill that role,” Mason said.
Still, the question will be shooting options after Mason and Jack Montague for the Bulldogs (and Mason isn’t really a pure shooter). Khaliq Ghani struggled and Victor missed both his three-point attempts. For the record, Jones wasn’t buying that Sears struggled due to anything Fairfield’s scheme did.
“Justin took Justin away today,” Jones said. “They doubled him a couple times, but he just wasn’t himself today and I expect him to be better Monday (against Sacred Heart) and going forward. Certainly if you add Justin playing well to the guys we have and we have a chance to be pretty good.”
Regardless of the minor flaws, Yale still looked a lot like an Ivy League contender. Last season in this game, they gave up 88 points in a double-overtime loss to Quinnipiac, but they were clearly the best team playing Friday in New Britain by a fairly wide margin.
2) Sacred Heart
Somehow the Pioneers were picked fifth among these teams in an impromptu poll, but maybe they were thinking of the 5-26 team in Anthony Latina’s first year. That squad, of course, did not include Cane Broome, whose 6-foot frame (maybe), picked up where it left off last season, with 27 points and six rebounds in Sacred Heart’s 76-64 win over Quinnipiac.
The Pioneers controlled the game in the second half, but led only 59-58 when Jermaine Ukaegbu and Filip Nowicki had both fouled out, with Tevin Falzon and Matej Buovac not playing due to injury (all four front-court players). Somehow the Pioneers survived, and that’s a great sign going forward for a team that looks like an NEC contender. Broome will clearly be must-see TV for any NEC fans this season.
“They for a while were imposing their will on us and they do that to people, but to quote an old football term, we bent but we didn’t break,” Latina said. “I think Cane can play much, much better than that. I know it’s hard to say when a guy scores 27, but I think he can.”
Freshman Quincy McKnight struggled, but you could see some of the potential, while Jordan Allen is a veteran presence Sacred Heart has lacked in the past. One area the Pioneers should improve is in forcing turnovers (215th last season). They overcame the size disadvantage by forcing 21 of them (with 15 steals). But, again, how much of that was them and how much was Quinnipiac? The good news is Falzon (who ranked in the top 100 in rebounding rate last season nationally) should return from his ankle injury soon.
The Bobcats may be the hardest team to get a read on, because Gio McLean is essential to what they’ll be this season and – after an entire year out – was suspended for this game due to playing in a non-sanctioned summer league game.
As it was, it looked a lot like Quinnipiac’s teams the last couple of seasons: getting plenty of rebounds, but unable to hit any shots. The Bobcats finished with a 39.1 eFG% Friday and were 335th nationally in that category last season (44.0%), which begs the question: who will step up offensively? The answer Friday was an unexpected source, JUCO transfer Daniel Harris, who hit four three-pointers in just 19 minutes. But for Quinnipiac to be in the top-tier of the MAAC, someone among Dmitri Floras, Ayron Hutton, and James Ford is going to have to step up (it was also disappointing that the Bobcats had only eight assists Friday).
Again, this should be a different team with McLean, so the judgment is a little skewed. Donovan Smith (another JUCO transfer) was impressive partnering with Chaise Daniels inside, and while they probably won’t match the efficiency of Ike Azotam and Ousmane Drame, should give them their usual presence in the paint. But there was nothing present Friday that looked much different than the areas Quinnipiac struggled last season.
Like Quinnipiac, the Stags’ opener looked too much like last season, not a promising sign for a team that went 7-24 a year ago. Like the Bobcats, you just don’t feel too confident when their shooters have the ball. Tyler Nelson did not have a field goal in 35 minutes, and when Marcus Gilbert is keyed on like he was last season, you get a team who was 315th nationally in offensive efficiency and just can’t score consistently enough to win games.
It’s a shame in the way, because the Stags were solid defensively for much of last season, and weren’t terrible Friday, especially until their lack of offense just wore them down. The lack of rebounding will be concerning. New additions Scott King (a graduate transfer from Stony Brook) and Curtis Cobb (who was limited to 21 minutes for some reason even though he looked like an actual offensive threat) look like they’ll help, and when they got Amadou Sidibe back (injury), they could be a top-half MAAC team by March. But they have to score, and they didn’t really look like it Friday.
Perhaps no one personifies that more than point guard Jerome Segura, who is an excellent on-ball defender and ball handler, but shot just 39.7% from the field last season and couldn’t finish in traffic against Yale.
“Your shooters are going to be off every now and then,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “I think Tyler and Marcus being off at the same time really hurt us.”
You definitely needed a roster in the final game as the Hawks and Central Connecticut engineered almost complete overhauls in personnel this summer. And neither was terribly successful last season, so at least there won’t be expectations to worry about early.
Despite the changes, Hartford looked like Hartford, throwing multiple defenses at opponents (including my personal favorite, the 1-3-1) and launching threes at every opportunity. What brought the Hawks’ promising season down a year ago was not making many of those threes, finishing just 247th nationally (32.5%) from behind the arc. After making just 2-of-7 in the first half, the Hawks were 8-of-16 the rest of the way, with six different players (and eight attempting) longballs. Looking especially impressive was Australian import (you expected something else) George Blagojevic, who – at 6’8” – stepped out and hit a couple of threes, finishing with 15 points.
There is some veteran leadership in Taylor Dyson and Justin Graham, and Irish big man John Carroll added 15 (although it took him 16 shots to do it). Although it should be a little better, the bottom of America East was dreadful last season, and Hartford may not drop off as far as people think this season.
“I think as we move forward, we’re going to be a team that gets better and better,” Hartford coach John Gallagher said. “I think Blagojevic will be a handful, and I think John Carroll will as well. We have nine guys that can really, really play, it’s just getting comfortable with each other.”
6) Central Connecticut
Look, no one expects anything out of the Blue Devils this season and sometimes that’s not a bad place to be, as they almost stole a win on Opening Night. Alas, one of their five wins last season was at Hartford, so they’re already behind last year’s pace I guess.
Like last season, there is plenty of energy, but it remains to be seen if the talent level is enough. The return of Khalen Cumberlander certainly helps, as he nearly had a triple double in the double-overtime loss (19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists). We also know Brandon Peel is a double-double machine (15 points, 10 rebounds). But the rest of the CCSU starting lineup was unknowns J.J. Cratit, Austin Nehls, and Tidell Pierre. Nehls can shoot the ball, but struggled getting to the basket (it was his first collegiate game, so I’m sure he’ll improve). Mustafa Jones provided a spark off the bench, while another freshman, Jahlil Nails, hit a massive shot in regulation to put the game into overtime.
Friday was Howie Dickenman’s first game back with the team after missing two weeks with an illness. Still, 2007 CCSU graduate Obie Nwadike was the one who made most of the calls against Hartford. Dickenman will not make the trip to Penn on Sunday, but should slowly make his way back to the head role. However, you wonder – as it was with Dave Bike and Anthony Latina at Sacred Heart – whether Dickenman is grooming Nwadike, who had plenty of energy on the sidelines Friday, to take over the reigns soon.
“Honestly, this is new to me,” Nwadike said. “Coach showed confidence in me, and I want to compliment all of our players the way they responded to me. They’re very enthusiastic, they work hard, they compete, our scrimmages and live drills, they’ve been challenging each other. It’s a little bit of a learning curve, but we’re getting better.”
Coming off a 5-26 season and picked at the bottom of the NEC with a brand new roster, they’ll need that energy, but things look a little better than they did last year at this time.