Any potential scientific experiment needs a problem statement and Tuesday night at Rose Hill, it was pretty simple to concoct one: Is Fordham good?
Of course, then you need a hypothesis, and I went with a yes, although a little hesitantly. Fordham was indeed 6-1 and went to 7-1 with a hard-fought 89-84 overtime victory over city rival LIU Brooklyn (4-3). That alone is cause for celebration on campus. After all, the Rams only won seven games total in 2010-11 and 2012-13. They won just 10 each in Tom Pecora’s other three seasons, and he was fired after posted a 44-106 mark.
It’s not only likely, but probable that Jeff Neubauer will start his Fordham career 9-1 after beating two of the worst teams in Division I, Coppin St. and Maine (Fordham’s next two games), and then could match Pecora’s high for a campaign at the Barclays Center on Dec. 22 against Boston College, some two weeks before the former Eastern Kentucky coach even makes his Atlantic-10 debut.
But there’s a catch, of course, or this wouldn’t be much of an experiment. Fordham’s non-conference schedule has not only been bad, it has bordered on comical early in the year, 351st toughest out of 351 according to KenPom. Some of that isn’t their fault, St. John’s and Manhattan have started off extremely poorly and Fordham handled them both at Rose Hill easily. And a season-opening loss at UT Arlington does not look terrible at all after the Mavericks have beaten Memphis and Ohio State (and nearly Texas to boot).
But an Atlantic-10 team should handle Division II Queens, Fairleigh Dickinson and Central Connecticut (the final two teams in the NEC preseason poll) easily and Colgate, although coming off a good year, is picked ninth of 10 teams in the Patriot League.
Which leaves the public at large in two camps: Those that think Fordham is for real and could make waves in the Atlantic-10 (like finish .500) and those who believe that this start is a mirage and more a making of their schedule than the Neubauer Revolution (Many of these folk are also Pecora Sympathizers, who though he had actually recruited a solid team that included now Villanova’s Eric Paschall as well before he transferred. These types are pretty much in a win-win, however, if Neubauer wins, they can say it was with Pecora’s players. If he doesn’t, they can blame him anyway. Welcome to New York, Jeff.)
“I’m definitely excited to win games,” senior Mandell Thomas, who finished with 28 points and five steals, said. “I’ve never won seven games in a row here, some years we just won seven total. This is a lot different. This is fun.”
There probably should be a third group, which most of the people who really count, those actually involved with the program subscribe to, the “Who gives a crap?” group. We’ve already gone over Fordham’s record the last few years, what did you want them to do, schedule a bunch of BCS conferences to possibly get beaten down under a new coach with a brand new system? That didn’t work for the last guy, unfortunately.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but we have Coppin State in here on Sunday and that’s going to be a great test for our young guys,” Neubauer said about the schedule (and to be fair to him he has to answer any questions about the schedule that way). “Hopefully we can find some winning magic that day. There’s absolutely after what these guys have been through, there’s no looking past any opponent. So we’ll have a hell of a battle Sunday against Coppin.”
Fordham’s start has served two purposes: Allow the Rams to get some much-needed confidence, and let Neubauer to try to put some semblance of his signature on the program. His teams like to force the action on defense, which leads to high turnover rates, but also often high shooting percentages for opponents. That part will be easiest to implement, the Rams forced 20 turnovers against LIU Brooklyn and made it difficult for them to have any type of organization on the offensive end.
The other part of Neubauer’s master (and successful) plan at Eastern Kentucky was shooting the ball really well. In the first half Tuesday, it was ugly. The Rams raced to a 10-0 lead in the first three minutes, but scored just 12 points the rest of the first half, finishing with a pathetic 0.62 points per possession and 33.9 eFG%.
But in the second half, Neubauer made adjustments and showed the game acumen that he will need in the brutal Atlantic-10, allowing Mandell Thomas and Jon Severe to clear out and drive. The Blackbirds had no answer, either Thomas and Severe scored or got fouled. When they finally collapsed near the rim late in regulation and overtime, Thomas and Christian Sengfelder drilled the open threes they left behind to make them pay.
Unfortunately for the Rams, at the other end, the turnovers stopped, and LIU Brooklyn was able to match them score for score down the stretch. Some of that was hitting shots with a high degree of difficulty, but some was also taking gambles and not creating the havoc (oooh, that’s trademarked in the Atlantic-10, isn’t it, sorry?) that happened before halftime.
We haven’t answered the question at hand, of course, and that’s because (as you might have already guessed), there’s no conclusive answer on Dec. 8. While it is not terribly encouraging for an A-10 team to have to go to overtime against an NEC squad at home, LIU Brooklyn did play well and looks like a conference contender. And to shoot as well as they did in the second half gives Rams’ fans hope they can do the same against conference opposition in the coming months.
“I told the team the last six games everything has pretty much gone according to our script,” Neubauer said. “But not every game is going to go by our script, it’s going to require some toughness and grit, and our guys did some winning things tonight. And as I told them in the locker room, the most important skill you can have in life is to know how to win.”
Because they struggled with the Blackbirds, Fordham’s KenPom ranking actually dropped six spots from 110 to 116, but that’s much higher than it ever was under Pecora, and the Rams are currently projected to go 8-10 in conference, which would delight most long-suffering Fordham fans (its last NCAA Tournament berth was in 1992 in the Patriot League after all). And with teams like Saint Louis and La Salle down, not to mention teams like UMass, Duquesne, and George Mason hovering near Fordham in the current rankings, it’s certainly possible, isn’t it? Especially with veteran guards like Thomas and Severe and a senior center like Ryan Rhoomes (who had a tough time Tuesday) leading the way.
But sorry Jeff, we’re not going to all that impressed by wins over Coppin St. and Maine.
What else (quickly) did we learn Tuesday at Rose Hill?
1) LIU Brooklyn in an NEC contender and Jerome Frink is legit
I’m not sure he’ll shoot like he did Tuesday, hitting three from outside the arc, including the game-tying shot at the end of regulation, but Frink’s 30 points against a team like Fordham was mighty impressive. The Florida International transfer and former St. Anthony product will be an absolute handful for NEC opponents at 6’7″, 230 pounds and combined with Nura Zanna give Jack Perri a presence he hasn’t had in the post since his NEC champions of 2012-13 and Jamal Olasewere. Aakim Saintil had trouble with the Fordham pressure, but finished in the lane to the tune of 23 points and eight assists (with five turnovers). Trevon Woods also had a trio of three-pointers for LIU Brooklyn, which put up 1.01 ppp despite the 20 turnovers.
“Going in I thought it was going to be a tough game the way they’ve been playing and the confidence they seemed to have,” Perri said. “The way they play is just so different. You can’t run anything you want to run. When we broke their pressure, we were OK in the second half.”
2) But the Blackbirds will have to defend
As I said, they were awesome in the first half, holding Fordham to 0.62 ppp, but the Rams still finished at 1.07 ppp and scored 67 points in the second half and overtime. When his guards couldn’t even come close to keeping Severe and Thomas in front of them, Perri tried zone, but that didn’t go much better. One thing the NEC does have is guards, and LIU Brooklyn (currently 307th in defensive efficiency) will have to keep them from lighting the Blackbirds up.
“I like our competitiveness and I like the fact that we were able to get up on a team like this and we did a lot of good things,” Perri said. “I don’t know if we’ll see a team this talented in our league that has that kind of athleticism and size. But it’s all about the defense with us. If we can get some consistency there. We’ve had halves of games like we did tonight, but we have to be consistent.”
3) Optimism at Rose Hill
Another reason why its hard to knock Fordham for playing the cupcake schedule it has is the atttiude of the crowd, who is just happy to be part of something positive after so many lean years. Afterward, very few of the 1,595 in attendance was talking about strength of schedule, but they were talking 7-1, with the possibility of more coming. Rose Hill was loud tonight and could be an extremely difficult place to win when full and engaged. Fordham’s first three Atlantic-10 home games are Richmond, La Salle, and George Mason and they may be crucial to see whether this season will truly be something at Fordham for their students and fans.