There are so many hurdles, both large and small, to climb to build a Division I college basketball program basically from scratch and another was on display at Rose Hill on Wednesday night for Fordham and Jeff Neubauer.
The Rams entered on one of their best Atlantic 10 stretches in a decade, having won four of seven, the last coming in double overtime at defending champion St. Joseph’s and Hawk Hill on Saturday. Dreams of finishing in the middle of the Atlantic 10 pack were dancing in their heads as they took the floor against wounded and struggling La Salle, who after a hot start to conference play had lost four of five and were without arguably its most influential player in point guard Pookie Powell.
Powell’s absence (he was 61st in turnover rate nationally before missing the last four games due to injury) seemed to play directly into the hands of a confident Fordham defense that is still second in the country in forcing turnovers.
Instead, it was the Explorers (13-9, 7-4), a dreadful 306th in defensive efficiency (and 13th in the A-10) before Wednesday, who put on a zone clinic, frustrating Fordham at every turn en route to a 67-52 victory that wasn’t even as close as the final indicated.
“The whole basketball season is a series of ripples, from one game to one week and it keeps going,” Fordham coach Jeff Neubauer said. “And so if you talk to coaches in other sports, they’re coaching in one semester, whereas in basketball, we coach in the fall all the way through the spring, and it’s a long, long season. Part of the challenge in college basketball is going from one ripple to the next, and we have to do better at that.”
Programs that are used to winning find a way to fight through adversity when they are having a rough night, and from early on, it was clear the Rams’ shooting was not going to be what it was against VCU or St. Joseph’s. For a while, they hung around, briefly taking the lead late in the first half before La Salle grabbed a 32-26 edge at the break.
But the frustration continued to grow just after halftime with every missed shot. Fordham tried to force the ball inside, but ended up with a lot of difficult two-pointers and turnovers, while an occasional three did little to help the body language. Soon, the trouble at the offensive end became contagious and spread to the defensive end, and for a defense predicated on energy and disrupting opponents at every turn, that’s not going to end well, and it most surely didn’t Wednesday night.
“We have dealt with struggling on offense all year (Fordham is only 286th in offensive efficiency, 12th in the A-10, after an 0.84 ppp performance that was helped by points after the game was decided),” Neubauer said. “Offensively, we have been challenged, but I think I could see some of that tonight, where offensively we were struggling and it affects trying to guard the ball, too, meaning mentally.”
While the Rams (10-14, 4-7) don’t have the easiest schedule coming down the stretch, they don’t face Dayton or VCU in their final seven contests, and will get another shot at La Salle in Philadelphia for the season finale. It will be a short turnaround leading into a game at George Mason (who won at Davidson Wednesday) made even shorter by the weather likely disrupting travel plans, but for Fordham to be successful both this season and in the future, it must do what successful teams have long done before them, use all the educational buzzwords like perseverance, resilience, and grit to not let a tough short-term turn into a tough long-term.
What else did we learn before a fairly sparse crowd in the Bronx Wednesday night?:
1) The baffling zone
La Salle is really not much of a zone team, but the word is out that Fordham has had a difficult time solving them, and when you’ve played as poorly on the defensive end as the Explorers have for much of this season, it’s not like John Giannini was beholden to something strongly.
The Explorers did mix it up a little, but for most of the night, it was Fordham just struggling to get the ball inside the paint through the dribble or the pass. That led to a lot of long or contested three-pointers for Fordham, which led to misses, which led to frustration. Neubauer tried to adjust by getting the ball in the paint in the second half, but finishing at the rim is definitely an area where the Rams could use improvement. By the end, Fordham was just completely flustered and turning it over regularly. Finally, in the closing minutes, Joseph Chartouny, who was just 4-11, but did record 4 steals to become Fordham’s all-time single-season steal leader, banked in a three and just shook his head, which pretty much summed up the Fordham evening.
“Offensively, their zone really puzzled us,” Neubauer said. “We’ve had trouble against zones, every coach in the Atlantic 10 knows that and tonight we had more trouble than usual.”
2) Not terrible on defense
La Salle, even without Pookie Powell, is one of the most talented offensive teams in the nation (26th, 2nd in the A-10), but that end of the floor was not Fordham’s biggest problem of the first half, as they were able to force a few turnovers and rebound three-point misses. Eventually, as was previously mentioned, the frustration on the offensive end bled to the other end of the floor, allowing Syracuse transfer B.J. Johnson (who missed La Salle’s loss at George Mason over the weekend) to score 28 points (adding 8 rebounds) and dominate the game.
Eventually, the Explorers led by as many as 27 before Fordham managed a few points late to make the final look a little more competitive. La Salle won as easily as it did despite Johnson and Tony Washington (10 pts.) being the only two Explorers in double figures. Cleon Roberts had 9, Amar Stukes 8, and Jordan Price 6, although Neubauer credited Stukes with a remarkable defensive effort.
“What we’ve been able to do is keep games close, just hang around,” Neubauer said. “And it’s happened multiple times where we just hang around long enough where we can win a game. Tonight we just had trouble. On the defensive end, Stukes was absolutely terrific. I don’t know how many points he scored, but he got the ball in the lane whenever he wanted. Our guards have done a great job of defending high-level guards and tonight, Stukes was as good as anyone we played.”
Fordham finished with zero bench points in the contest as well.
3) Getting a fan base
The announced crowd was 2,156, but it wasn’t an intimidating atmosphere to start the game. Even when the student section filled in as the first half progressed and the outcome was still in doubt, the crowd never really got completely into it.
Obviously, when La Salle pulled away, you don’t expect as much noise, but a full Rose Hill can be very intimidating and loud as VCU (and to some extent, Dayton) found out when they visited this season. Rose Hill officially seats 3,200, and imagine what it would be like if they could fill it with students and fans for every Atlantic 10 contest.
It may sound a little far-fetched, but when Fordham is rolling, it is pretty exciting to watch and it does become a bit of a chicken and egg thing: fans don’t want to come out to support a losing team, but to build a winning program, they could use the loud crowds first.
This season has just three home games against Saint Louis, Richmond, and George Washington, but it will be interesting to see how Fordham progresses in this area in the next couple of years, with a potential Atlantic 10 first-teamer in Chartouny and a pretty entertaining team (most nights, not Wednesday unfortunately). Only time will tell, however.