AMHERST, Mass. – In an instant gratification society, baby steps are not much noticed and even less appreciated, even if they take place on national television.
Beating a UMass team that has had trouble getting out of its own way of late 78-72 in overtime before a small, mostly grumbling crowd at the Mullins Center will not send shockwaves through the land or turn Fordham into instant NCAA Tournament or even Atlantic 10 contenders.
But one stat stood out among the others pregame: Fordham was 3-59 since 2008 in Atlantic 10 road games coming in. And as I probably don’t have to tell you, many of them have been of the extremely lopsided variety. The unabridged list of triumphs: 2015 at George Mason, 2013 at St. Bonaventure (in the final game of a season in which the Rams didn’t qualify for the A-10 Tournament), and 2009 also in Olean (Fordham’s only A-10 win of the season).
So, yes, it was a small step in a long, difficult journey to respectability in the Atlantic 10 for first-year head coach Jeff Neubauer and the Fordham program, but make no mistake, this was a big win.
It wasn’t a game which Fordham (12-8, 3-6) stole, either, UMass’ biggest lead of the day was three, and if either a 70-foot shot at the first-half buzzer by Antwan Space and a late game-tying three-pointer Donte Clark didn’t fall, the Rams could have avoided overtime. To their credit, though, Fordham dominated the extra session on the offensive end the same way it had in the final minutes of the second half, with its guards getting into the paint at will and either drawing fouls or finishing. Christian Sangfelder’s corner three with a minute left put the Rams up seven and finally sealed the road win.
UMass (8-12, 1-7) has posted a winning record in the last four Atlantic 10 campaigns and made the NCAA Tournament in 2014. The Minutemen, despite low expectations, knocked off Clemson in Las Vegas earlier this season en route to a 5-1 start.
And there haven’t been many high points since. Now losers of seven straight and without many answers, they are surely destined for the opening day of the Atlantic 10 Tournament and may face some questions about the future of the program in the off-season (although their incoming recruiting class is reportedly very good).
You are looking live at the Mullins Center, where UMass has yet to win an Atlantic 10 game this season: pic.twitter.com/2eGsx13SjP
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 30, 2016
For Fordham, there were many positives even beyond the final score. The biggest transformation this season has been on the defensive end. Even if you take just league play, Fordham is 8th in the A-10 in defensive efficiency, and it hasn’t been higher than 11th (usually at the very bottom) since 2008, despite being dead last in eFG% because of its pressuring style. In that way, Saturday was a bit of an outlier. Fordham did force 15 turnovers (19.0% was below its average, though) on its way to a 0.91 points per possession outing, but UMass really struggled from three, going just 5-27.
Also positive for Fordham’s future is that seniors Mandell Thomas and Ryan Rhoomes did not have strong offensive games, the star being Canadian freshman point guard Joseph Chartouny, who had shot only 6-25 from the field since missing five games with an injury, but had 19 points (on 6-9 FG), 10 rebounds, and seven assists, making many big plays down the stretch, and making a case for his fourth A-10 Rookie of the Week honor of the season (which may eventually lead to the A-10 Rookie of the Year).
Fellow freshman David Pekarek hit three shots from behind the arc in the first half and Antwoine Anderson was 7-8 at the free throw line for the Rams in the win.
Much has been made of Fordham’s soft non-conference schedule (351th and dead last in strength per KenPom), but the Rams have played the third-hardest slate in conference play thus far, and do not see VCU, Dayton, or George Washington the rest of the way, and their hardest remaining game may be its next one, Saturday at Rose Hill against streaking St. Joseph’s, giving the Rams a good chance to build toward possibly avoiding the first day of play in Brooklyn for the first time.
From there, it will be a huge recruiting year for Neubauer to try to replace Rhoomes (Chartouny is currently second on Fordham in rebounds). For now, though, Fordham is climbing that ladder one baby step at a time, and Saturday makes one more rung.