Coming off an unexpected and rather brutal 15-game losing streak that sunk their 2014-15 campaign, Fairleigh Dickinson was an afterthought in the NEC this offseason. Sure, a vast majority still believed Greg Herenda was steering the ship in the right direction, but perhaps this massive rebuilding project in Hackensack would take longer than expected?
After all, recovering from the dark days of the previous coaching regime surely was going to take time. It would make sense if Herenda and company needed several seasons to bring FDU, who was picked ninth in the NEC Preseason Coach’s Poll, back to their glory days of Tom Green?
Through just ten games this season, however, the Knights look like a NEC contender after an impressive, resilient and thrilling one-point victory over the Towson Tigers. The Tigers came into last night’s contest as a team with a chance to finish in the top half of the CAA, a conference that’s rated 10th among all Division I leagues according to KenPom. In other words, last night’s come from behind victory could qualify as one of the most impressive notches on the NEC’s belt thus far.
The thing is the Knights didn’t need to win to show the progress already made in Herenda’s third season. It has been the small yet noteworthy improvements that provide the evidence of FDU legitimately competing in what appears to be a wide open NEC. This thought may not have seemed possible after the Knights 9-25 conference record the previous two seasons, yet I’ll present my thoughts as to why it should be different this time around.
1. The Knights Are No Longer Going to Get Pushed Around on the Glass
Fairleigh Dickinson, to put it kindly, was really bad at two things last season – playing defense and protecting the glass, especially the defensive backboards. Last season, Knight opponents grabbed a staggering 40.5% of their own misses, placing FDU dead last in the nation. While the statistics only show an incremental improvement thus far, the underlying statistics paint a picture that has Herenda and his staff optimistic for the next 20 games.
“The numbers don’t show it, but Mike Holloway is going to be a beast in this league,” Herenda said after the Towson victory. “Tyrone O’Garro on the glass is very good. Earl (Potts) is a very good rebounder. We have good rebounding guards. We play fast and we spread it and try to steal it, so we’re not made to be a great rebounding team, but now we have some horses down low.”
Perhaps most impressive tonight was the contribution on the glass of the Knights’ first year bigs, freshmen Mike Holloway and Malik Miller and junior transfer Tyrone O’Garro. All three combined to grab 19 rebounds against a stout Towson interior. The Tigers, in fact, came in with a tremendous reputation on the backboards (14th nationally in offensive rebounding rate at 39.4%), yet despite this, the undersized and less experienced FDU players held their ground down low. FDU was outrebounded last night by just two rebounds for the contest.
The Knights don’t have to become the next St. Francis Brooklyn rebounding the basketball, but their current progression to the middle of college basketball would certainly be enough to help their progression back to relavancy.
2. The Defense Continues to Improve, Too
Holding the Tigers to 1.07 points per possession doesn’t sound terribly impressive, but it was the Knights tenacity and resiliency on the defensive end late that won them this game. After a William Adala Moto free throw extended the Tigers lead to eight, 65-57, with 3:54 remaining, it may have been curtains for most NEC programs. Not the Knights though, as their speed and athleticism seemed to wear down their opponents as the game got longer.
Two steals in Towson’s final three possessions gave FDU a chance to allow Marques Townes, who was essentially ineffective in his first 20 minutes played, an opportunity to make this beautiful, knifing-through-the-lane layup to give FDU the mild upset at the Rothman Center:
With one third of their season completed, the Knights are now allowing opponents to score 107.3 points per 100 possessions, good for 297th nationally. That isn’t impressive on the surface, yet it’s a stark improvement from where FDU was a season ago (326th nationally at 111.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). Plus with plenty of athleticism and depth at Herenda’s disposal (more on that in a moment), the Knights have the ability to switch it up defensively to keep their opponents off guard.
“We have to mix it up because we get in foul trouble a lot,” Herenda said regarding his defensive schemes. “It keeps (opponents) off balance and we play so hard, and I know everyone plays hard, but I think we play really hard. So in the zone we get a chance to breathe a bit.”
Personally, I like the prospects of the 2-3 zone against future NEC competition, especially when the Knights have a combination of the 6’9 Miller, 6’7 Holloway, 6’6 Potts and/or 6’7 O’Garro on the back line with the shiftiness of Darian Anderson up top going for steals. It proved to be the better defense yesterday evening and I’d expect NEC opponents will see plenty of that zone come January.
In addition, FDU continues to extract turnovers, as they’re in the top 20 of all of Division I in steals. That provides another weapon at Herenda’s disposal.
3. The Depth and Star Power Is There To Prevent a Collapse
Last year, the core of the team was comprised of underclassmen. Believe it or not, the Knights have gotten even younger this season, ranking in the bottom five of the country in total experience, according to KenPom. While they may be younger and without a senior presence, several of these players, namely Anderson, Townes, Stephan Jiggetts (now the primary point guard) and Potts have a year of invaluable experience under the belts.
“This is my third year here and every guy here on the team is a guy that me and my staff recruited – this is my team,” Herenda said. “We’re younger, we’re deeper and we’re better. I just can’t wait for the league (play).”
It’s my guess that NEC opponents won’t be as enthusiastic about league play when they have to come into Hackensack for a conference showdown with the Knights. That’s because with eight to nine players in his rotation, FDU appears poised to crack the 0.500 mark in league play for the first time in several seasons.
The dark days, it seems, are coming to a close much to the delight of FDU fans.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride