The Quinnipiac Bobcats won their first two contests of February to improve to 7-7 in league play and appeared poised to make a run for a first-round bye, but a six game slide from that point on to end the season has Tom Moore’s squad back in the first game of the conference tournament for the second year in a row.
Quinnipiac (7-13), the #8 seed in this year’s tournament, will take on #9 seed Niagara Thursday evening at 5:00 p.m. to open the weekend.
Player to watch: #3 Mikey Dixon, Fr. G
The Bobcats are led by a pair of freshmen: Mikey Dixon and Peter Kiss. Dixon paces the squad and ranks sixth in the league with an average of 16.8 points per game. Meanwhile, Kiss ranks second on the team in both points and rebounds, with 13.3 ppg alongside 5.6 boards per contest.
The duo had a profound impact on the league this year, capturing MAAC Rookie of the Week honors a total of ten times between them, including the final eight weeks of the regular season. Both were unanimous selections to the all-MAAC Rookie Team. Amongst all schools in the nation, only Kentucky, St. John’s, and UCLA received a higher combined scoring average from their top two freshmen this season.
Chaise Daniels is the Bobcats’ fixture in the frontcourt, and checks in with 13.1 ppg. The junior forward also leads the team with 6.3 rpg and has excelled in a league rife with senior post players like Jordan Washington, Quadir Welton, Brett Bisping, Javion Ogunyemi, and more.
“I’m really impressed with the growth and development of Chaise Daniels as he moves into becoming, as a junior, one of the best big guys in this league, in a league dominated by senior big guys,” Moore said during a conference call Monday. “Every real good big in this year’s MAAC was a senior it seemed, and I think Chaise really set himself up well and played well head to head against a lot of terrific big guys.”
The turning point of Quinnipiac’s season came in the final game of January, when senior forward Donovan Smith fractured his foot against Siena and was lost for the season. Lacking a replacement with the height and size to match the 6-9, 245 lb Smith, Moore was forced to experiment with four-guard sets for longer periods, leaving Daniels or another undersized forward alone in the post.
Through ten January league games leading up to Smith’s injury, the Bobcats allowed an average of 81.6 ppg. In eight February contests without him, Quinnipiac has seen that average rise to 88.7 ppg.
“I think the injury to Donovan Smith has had a much larger impact on us defensively, in particular in the lane and on the backboard at the rim, than I would have imagined when it happened,” Moore added.
Adding to the Bobcats’ woes is the likely absence of junior guard Reggie Oliver, who suffered a death in the family last week and will reportedly miss Thursday’s contest to attend the funeral in Florida. Oliver (7.6) and Smith (7.0) represent Quinnipiac’s fourth and fifth-leading scorers this season. In Oliver’s stead, fellow junior Phil Winston will likely see an increased role in the backcourt.
Winston is the Bobcats’ leading assist man this season with 3.2 per contest. After starting the first 11 games of the year, he was replaced by Dixon for a time, but has since come back to start the team’s last nine contests. Over the final four games of the regular season, Winston has averaged an impressive 11.0 ppg and 6.5 assists per game.
“He brings a toughness and a competitive fire to us that is very good, and it’s needed,” Moore said of Winston. “It’s hard to do what he’s done this year when you start and you don’t play particularly well, and all of a sudden you’ve got a freshman takes your starting spot. He stayed ready throughout that time and has really helped us in February.”
Quinnipiac’s lone season sweep this year came over Niagara. The Bobcats took the first contest 81-78 on the road January 2 thanks to five points in the final minute from Dixon. In the second meeting February 4 in Hamden, Quinnipiac built a sizable lead and held off the Purple Eagles 89-81.
“We are excited about the game against Niagara,” Moore said, looking ahead to the tournament. “Once you get to a conference tournament, the energy level and excitement sort of ratchets up a couple of notches. I’m just really excited to get in front of a great fanbase up in Albany and play as well as we can possibly play.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.