Editor’s Note: With Wagner playing so well, and getting ready to embark once again into NEC play after winning the Cable Car Classic we have our first ever guest post on Big Apple Buckets!
That’s the question I was often asked last summer when I became the play-by-play voice of the Wagner basketball team. Calling games last year for Long Island University and St. Peter’s College, I watched both make the NCAA Tournament in the same season. Switching to Wagner meant giving up those other two gigs, including for an LIU team that won 27 games and was picked to win the Northeast Conference title again this season.
So when I decided to join Wagner that question lingered.
In short, I expected second-year head coach Dan Hurley and his staff to continue turning Wagner around. With a 10-3 record so far, I hardly anticipated this much so soon, but then Hurley says he didn’t either. So what has fueled the Seahawks’ fast start so far?
1. Great recruiting. Sophomore transfer Kenny Ortiz (Southern Miss) chose to return close to home (Newark) and has fit perfectly at point guard. His toughness and defensive mindedness (1.8 steals / game) have rubbed off on the entire team. Ortiz’ 5-for-5 first half shooting helped lay the groundwork for Wagner’s upset at then No. 15 Pittsburgh. His over-the-backboard buzzer beater at Santa Clara won last week’s Cable Car Classic. In 31 of the previous 44 Classics, at least one team in the field has gone on to that year’s NCAA Tournament.
Junior JUCO transfer Jon Williams has been as advertised starting at forward, an all-around player (12.8 points / game, 50.4% shooting, team-leading 5.4 rebounds / game) that adds experience up front. Williams can shoot, post up, drive, rebound and defend. What else is there?
2. Player Development. After earning NEC All-Rookie Team honors last year, sophomore Latif Rivers (team-leading 14.2 points / game) is again finding his stride at shooting guard after off-season knee surgery. All of his 18 points came in the second half at Pitt. Rivers was Cable Car Classic MVP after averaging 19 points in the two games.
Senior swingman Tyler Murray raised his scoring about nine points per game last year. While his scoring (12.7 / game) is down, his three-point percentage (51.7%) is up, and among the nation’s best. Murray reached 1,000 career points at Santa Clara, and his steady leadership and underrated ball handling and rebounding are key.
6’11” sophomore Naofall Folahan continues to emerge as a solid center, especially on defense, where he leads the NEC in blocks (2.0 / game).
3. Improved defense. This was Job One this season, and Wagner is holding opponents to an NEC-best 40.7% shooting. After committing tons of fouls earlier this year, the Seahawks cut those way down in the Cable Car Classic against two very tough teams to defend, Air Force with their complex multiple sets, and Santa Clara, which boasts Kevin Foster, who led the nation in three-point shots made last year.
4. Playing to win. Hurley coached future NBA and elite Division I players at St. Benedict’s High School in Newark, creating a Top 5 program nationally. When he tells his players they can compete at UConn (12-point loss) and at Pitt, and vie for a conference championship this season, they believe him. Late in games, the Seahawks have surrendered big leads but have managed to step on the gas again when needed to finish strong and win. Shooting an NEC-best 75% from the foul line also helps.
Already this season, Wagner has become the first NEC team ever to beat Pitt (the Panthers were 70-0 against the league), won ten games before the end of the calendar year for the first time ever, set a school record for non-conference wins (nine), and have won their first in-season tournament since 1997.
So to those who once asked, why? I now counter, why not?
Aside from being the voice of Wagner basketball, Joey Wahler is a sports anchor/reporter at News 12 New Jersey and an update anchor at WFAN.