Even from his first day on the job, Baker Dunleavy set conservative goals for his Quinnipiac Bobcats. The former Villanova Associate Head Coach smartly declined to set a strict win-loss goal for his first year at the helm of his own program, instead opting for a more abstract yet attainable goal.
Throughout the season, Dunleavy’s main expectation for his club was that it would consistently improve through each game and ultimately play its best basketball at the close of the year and into the postseason.
That expectation came to fruition in the first week of March when – despite losing seven of their last eight games to close the regular season – the #7 seed Bobcats made an improbable run to MAAC tournament semifinals, taking down host school Siena and #2 seed Canisius along the way.
“The things that we established in the beginning that were constants, that were core pieces for us, were that we wanted to be a hard-playing team, play together, and we wanted to grow where we could be the best team by the end of the year,” Dunleavy said after the Bobcats’ MAAC semifinal loss to Fairfield. “In that way we did, so I’m proud of what our guys became especially from where we started.”
Quinnipiac’s 12-21 record may seem bleak from afar, but considering where the program stood only a year ago, the progress already shown gives great hope for the seasons to come.
Over the two seasons prior to Dunleavy’s arrival, the Bobcats went a combined 19-42 with a 13-27 regular season conference record. The 2018 squad matched or surpassed each of those years’ records in MAAC play despite the league dropping from a 20-game slate to an 18 game schedule.
Dunleavy inherited a team which lost five of its top six leading scorers to transfer or graduation, and somehow managed to improve it. The coach’s development of quality personnel from unexpected sources not only gave Quinnipiac the firepower to compete on a nightly basis, but has also laid the groundwork for his new administration.
Freshmen Rich Kelly and Jacob Rigoni proved themselves more than capable at the MAAC level. Although a recruit of the previous regime headed by Tom Moore, Kelly’s scholarship offer was honored by Dunleavy. It was a move which paid immediate dividends, as Kelly averaged 11.1 ppg with a team-high 4.7 assists per game and was named a unanimous choice to the All-MAAC Rookie Team.
Despite only just joining the team late in the summer, Rigoni soon separated himself as one of the best perimeter shooters not just in the MAAC, but in all of Division I. The Australian native carried a 50% three-point average much of the season, eventually finishing among the top 40 in the nation with a 45.5% mark from distance. Rigoni added 9.8 ppg while scoring double digits in his final five games of the year.
Alongside Rigoni, Penn State graduate transfer Isaiah Washington was Dunleavy’s lone other recruit to see major minutes and provided much-needed depth and stability to an inexperienced backcourt. Washington provided 8.3 ppg and backed up Kelly at the point with 2.0 apg. Although he is a graduate transfer, Washington came to the Bobcats with two years of eligibility and can return next season.
Perhaps Dunleavy’s strongest bit of magic was transforming senior guard Cameron Young from the last man on the bench into one of the best players in the MAAC. Young played just eight total minutes and failed to score a point during the 2016-17 campaign, but burst onto the scene to lead the Bobcats with 18.8 ppg and 6.8 rebounds per game while adding 2.8 apg in 2018.
“He’s really pushed me,” Young said of Dunleavy. “Of course people know I can score, but he’s tried to challenge me in other ways and tried to get me going defensively. He brought the best player out in me and the stuff that I showed this season is a tribute to him.”
On the interior, both Chaise Daniels and Abdulai Bundu stretched their comfort zones adapting from Moore’s two-big system to Dunleavy’s single forward sets. The lone one of last season’s top scorers to return, Daniels often became frustrated in the new system and even left the team for the final three weeks December, but soldiered on to average 10.8 ppg with 4.0 rpg for the season.
“I love Quinnipiac, I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Daniels said at the close of his career. “It was a great experience my four years, it just hurts to leave and know that I’m not going to be able to do this anymore.”
On February 10th at Canisius, Daniels scored 12 points to become the 13th Quinnipiac player at the Division I level to score 1,000 career points. After sticking through one of the program’s lowest periods record-wise, the senior enjoyed his first MAAC tournament win this year during the Bobcats’ improbable run.
“It feels good to leave my mark on Quinnipiac,” Daniels added. “I just wish I could have finished it out with a MAAC championship and leave my legacy like that, but I’m proud of myself, I’m proud of my guys, and I’m proud of the way we fought.”
Bundu had often earned starts through his first two seasons, but suddenly found himself alone in the frontcourt following Daniels’ leave of absence. The Maryland product averaged just 5.2 ppg, but came down with 5.8 rpg while starting 22 of the team’s final 23 games to end the year.
With George Washington transfer Kevin Marfo set to share minutes in the paint next season, Bundu’s time as the primary post player this year should be valuable toward his development and Quinnipiac’s overall depth during his senior season.
Other new additions to next year’s squad include Tulsa transfer Travis Atson and a slew of freshman guards. Nathan Davis, a 6-foot-7 native of Colorado, sat out this season while rehabilitating a knee injury suffered in high school, but is on schedule to be a part of next season’s backcourt.
True freshmen additions include 6-foot 3 Matthew Balanc (Springbrook HS), 6-foot-1 Savion Lewis (Half Hollow Hills East), 6-foot-3 Tyree Pickron (Archbishop Wood), and 6-foot-1 Tyrese Williams (Cardinal Hayes).
This young group will help form the cornerstone of the Bobcats program moving forward. As Dunleavy continues to make his mark at Quinnipiac, hope is high that they will help add to his early success.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.