On Saturday, Sacred Heart played its ONLY non-conference home game of the 2015-16 season versus the struggling Lafayette Leopards. The defending Patriot League champions had lost six of seven, with two of those defeats coming at the hands of the NEC.
And yet they were able to reverse a three game losing streak with an exquisite shooting effort at the Pitt Center, much to the dismay of a visibly frustrated Anthony Latina.
The Pioneers’ season opening win versus Quininipiac – a victory acquired despite the team being severely short-handed at the time – seems like a long time ago given their recent troubles. What exactly has gone wrong, forcing Sacred Heart’s KenPom ranking to plummet from 198 to 265?
Where’s the Defense?
One of the challenges for Latina coming into the season was finding a way to integrate his inexperienced roster into a cohesive defensive unit. Eight games in, the challenge still remains coming off an effort where the Pioneers allowed Lafayette to shoot a staggering 60.0% from the field. The Leopards’ Bryce Scott and Monty Boykins, in particular, torched Sacred Heart’s porous defense, combining for 47 points on 14 of 21 shooting from behind the arc. (No, that’s not a typo). For the season, Pioneer opponents are now hitting 39.8% from downtown.
In all, Fran O’Hanlon’s unit poured in 1.20 points per possession (ppp), making them the seventh opponent (out of eight) to register at least 1.02 ppp versus Sacred Heart this season. The Pioneers did force 20 turnovers and kept Lafayette off the offensive glass, but it wasn’t enough after a hideous defensive effort from the perimeter.
“Every time we needed a big stop, we couldn’t get one,” Latina said after witnessing his team nearly fight back from a 13-point deficit, only to be scored upon during every critical possession late. “I think our effort is good, but our communication and concentration has to get better.”
This is fairly obvious, but the Pioneers defense must improve for this team to have a chance come NEC play. At this point, Latina believes “everything is on the table” – man-to-man, 2-3 zone, half court trapping – as he tries to figure out the optimal defensive attack for a team that’s failing to defend on the perimeter and sending their opponents to line rather frequently. So far, Quincy McKnight and Jordan Allen have been fouling way too much, with each committing 4.7 and 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes, respectively.
It Can’t Just Be the Cane Broome and Quincy McKnight Show
While there were a few positives on the offensive end for Latina to hang his hat on after the team’s seventh straight setback, the players, including their star Broome, have been inconsistent through the early part of their schedule. With one of the younger rosters in the country, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise, yet it’s likely played a role in Sacred Heart’s 0-3 record in games decided by four points or less.
First the positives: Matej Buovac responded with his best (by far) performance in a Sacred Heart uniform by registering a career high 18 points on 4 of 8 shooting from 3. This team desperately needs Buovac to make perimeter shots and he certainly did that on Saturday afternoon. Sophomore guard Chris Robinson had 15 points and seven rebounds off the bench, bouncing back after combining for just four points in his previous three contests. And therein lies the Pioneers inconsistency problem.
Someone besides Broome and Quincy McKnight needs to step up and provide Sacred Heart will some consistent play. And thus far, it’s been a guessing game to determine who’ll emerge as Broome and McKnight’s sidekick.
Broome is now averaging 19.1 points per game, but he hasn’t been the most efficient getting his points, with the team’s loss to Lafayette as the latest example. He needed 20 shots to score 20 points and struggled to find a rhythm in the first half as Lafayette extended their lead to double-digits. He’s clearly pressing, perhaps feeling the pressure of carrying a roster that doesn’t know where it’s scoring will come from on a daily basis.
Nagging Injuries and Free Throw Woes Still Persist
With Tevin Falzon still battling through a nagging ankle injury and Filip Nowicki recovering from a concussion, the Pioneers have very little margin for error at the moment, especially with De’von Barnett sidelined for the entire season.
In addition, the Pioneers’ issues at the free throw line continue, where they’ve made just 62.0% of their freebies thus far. “We have to make free throws,” Latina said. “We can’t continue to make free throws at this pace and expect to win.”
With Hofstra and Northwestern closing out the non-conference schedule, Sacred Heart’s in-state showdown on Monday with the hapless Hartford Hawks is likely their last chance to acquire a victory before January arrives. One to two non-conference wins heading into league play wasn’t what Latina envisioned, but that’s the stark reality for a club still trying to find its way.
A Pennsylvanian trip to Robert Morris and St. Francis University to open the conference season won’t make things any easier as well. Without any kind of improvement, the Pioneers could very well be staring at a 1-12 record (0-2 NEC) heading into a January 7 home game against a feisty and improving Fairleigh Dickinson club.
The team, quite simply, is at a crossroads.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride.