NEC Team Primer: #8 Sacred Heart Pioneers

Head Coach: Anthony Latina, 1st year
Last Season: 9-20, 7-11 (NEC), Failed to Qualify for the NEC tournament
RPI/KenPom: 242/268
NEC Preseason Poll: 8th out of 10 teams
State of Programs: Reloading
Starters Returning: 3
Key Loss(es): Shane Gibson (21.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.2 spg, 41.6% 3PT%), Justin Swidowski (7.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg), Nick Greenbacker (4.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.0 bpg)
Incoming Players: De’von Barnett (F), Leo Vincent (PG/G), Cole Walton (C), Tavon Bookman (G)

Sacred-Heart-1_220_220_sProjected Starting Lineup:
PG: Phil Gaetano (4.8 ppg, 7.9 apg, 2.3 A/TO)
G: Steve Glowiak (10.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.5 spg)
G: Chris Evans (DNP due to injury)
F: Louis Montes (14.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
C: Cole Walton (Fr.)

Key Reserves: Evan Kelley (G), De’von Barnett (F), Tevin Falzon (PF), Leo Vincent (PG/G), Mostafa Abdel-Latif (PF/C)

Major Storylines:

  • Staying Out of the Trainer’s Room – Good health wasn’t on the Pioneers’ side last season, as Chris Evans, Evan Kelley, and Justin Swidowski – arguably three of the team’s six best players – played a combined 17 games because of injury. The misfortunate was enough to completely strip Sacred Heart’s depth, resulting in an ugly end of year slide that pushed the Pioneers out of the NEC postseason. Now in Anthony Latina’s inaugural season, SHU desperately needs better fortune health wise, if they want to possess any chance to compete in the deep NEC.
  • Replacing an All-Time Great – For the past two seasons, Shane Gibson posted an offensive rating north of 106, despite handling more than 30% of Sacred Heart’s possessions. How exactly does a team replace that production? With a bevy of athletic guards and forwards at Latina’s disposal, the solution to Gibson’s graduation will be through a balanced approach. Five, six, maybe even seven players can lead the team in scoring any given night, so this newfound balance should make it more difficult to scout/defend the Pioneers. At least that is Latina’s hope.
  • A Bland Look No Longer – As good as Dave Bike was coaching offense, he was equally as bad getting his team to defend. The last five seasons under Bike produced the following defensive efficiency ranks: 305, 276, 271, 310, and 295. Oh dear. To improve on this facet, Latina has focused more of his coaching efforts on the defensive end this preseason. The team plans to change up their defensive looks throughout the game, as well as apply full and half-court pressure (think Mount St. Mary’s Mayhem style) when warranted. It will be an entirely different look for the Big Red, and one that could pay dividends during league play.

The Skinny:
After patrolling the sideline for 35 seasons, Dave Bike has retired, paving the way for long time assistant Anthony Latina. To be frank, the coaching change was likely overdue, as the defenseless Pioneers had missed the NEC playoffs three of the past four seasons. Enter the enthusiastic Latina, who must navigate without one of the greatest Pioneers ever to wear the red and white, Shane Gibson.

Gibson was a magnificent scoring machine, averaging 22.0 and 21.6 ppg in his final two seasons, respectively. He was a joy to watch, yet his graduation may serve as a blessing in disguise for a hungry head coach eager to install an up-tempo, balanced system. Despite Gibson’s greatness, the Pioneers morphed into a one-dimensional squad on both sides of the ball. It made the team somewhat easy to scout and defend against, especially late in the game.

In the present, this may be the deepest, most athletic team Sacred Heart has ever trotted out in its 16 year Division I history, and Latina plans to fully utilize these assets. The rotation will feature nine to ten players, highlighted by a bevy of versatile veteran guards. Phil Gaetano leads the charge as the heady facilitator, as evident with his marvelous 38.6% assist rate last season. The selfless floor general simply excels at making his teammates better, but in order to emerge into the all-conference discussion, he’ll need to cut down on his turnovers and improve his shooting percentages.

The rest of the guard rotation will feature three juniors, two of whom are coming off red-shirt seasons in Evan Kelley and Chris Evans. Now healthy (although both players were a little banged up last week in practice), both guards not only improve the Pioneers’ backcourt depth, but they also add versatility, ball handling, and perimeter defense, all of which were sorely lacking last season. Evans and Kelley, along with sharpshooter Steve Glowiak, who should lead the team in made threes, will play most of the minutes at the “2” and “3”.

The starting power forward is the consistent Louis Montes, who’s coming off one of the more underrated seasons in recent memory. Playing in the shadow of Gibson, Montes averaged 14.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. As an undersized “4”, Montes is a difficult cover who adeptly uses his body and sneaky athleticism to create opportunities near the rim. Improving his free throw percentage would be more than welcome, since the senior is fantastic at drawing contact and getting to the line.

After those five aforementioned upperclassmen lies uncertainty, albeit intriguing uncertainty, with the remainder of Latina’s roster. Freshman swingman De’von Barnett possesses jaw-dropping athleticism that may find him in the running for NEC Rookie of the Year. Latina expects Barnett could play 20 minutes per game backing up Evans and Montes at the “3” and “4”. Next is the enigma of Tevin Falzon, a tantalizingly talented stretch four who has a promising future in this league if he can just gain some confidence. Red-shirt freshman center Cole Walton, who’s added several pounds of muscle to his skinny frame last season, could provide an impact in the low block on occasion. Finally, there’s combo guard Leo Vincent, who should back up Gaetano at the point, but likely will be featured off-the-ball more next season.

Add it all up and you have a solid collection of players, making Sacred Heart one of the most balanced squads of the NEC. It remains to be seen if the apparent lack of a go-to-scorer will haunt this team during conference play.

Coach’s Quotes:

“I want to press, but I will only press a lot if we are at full strength. If we lose a perimeter guy, we’ll go more for half-court type of pressure a lot like (Mount St. Mary’s).”
– Latina, when talking about his new look defense

“He’s going to force me to start him (eventually). I want him to play about 20 minutes per game this season.”
– Latina, when asked about the potential of freshman forward De’von Barnett


Ryan – As optimistic as I try to be when assessing my alma mater’s chances, I simply can’t ignore how deep the NEC is this season. There will be no cupcakes on the schedule, so it’s going to be a battle every night. Sure, the Pioneers can sneak into the league’s top five with good health and terrific production from their underclassmen, but the safe bet is guessing they’ll settle into the 7th or 8th slot at season’s end. (12 total wins, 7-9 NEC)

John – Well, I bet that Sacred Heart is going to be a lot more fun to watch this season, but will they be better on the court? That’s tough to say. Getting key pieces back from injury definitely helps, but Shane Gibson was a humongous part of what this team has done the past few seasons. Now that he’s gone there are a lot of extra possessions to pick up. It just feels like a lot of work. Sure, SHU could surprise in Anthony Latina’s first season, but this is probably a step back in order to move forward. (11 total wins, 6-10 NEC)

Other NEC Team Primers:
#10 Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
#9 St. Francis (PA) Red Flash

Shane Gibson Makes Sacramento’s NBA Summer League Roster

Shane Gibson is attempting to do something only seven other NEC basketball players have ever done – play professionally in the NBA. Gibson told Big Apple Buckets at the conclusion of last season that anything short of the NBA wasn’t acceptable, and it appears the Sacred Heart standout is now one step closer to that goal. Continue reading “Shane Gibson Makes Sacramento’s NBA Summer League Roster”

Season In Review: Sacred Heart Pioneers

In what was expected to be the year Sacred Heart would compete for a NEC home playoff game, the Pioneers fell flat on their face. Injuries to Chris Evans and Evan Kelley in the preseason took away the team’s depth – not to mention two of their best players at creating off the dribble – and forced sophomore guards Phil Gaetano and Steve Glowiak to step up. Both guards did exceed expectations on the offensive end, but the backcourt was extremely thin and allowed virtually no room for error. Throw in Justin Swidowski’s season long issue with his shoulders, and you had a severely undermanned team for most of the season. Continue reading “Season In Review: Sacred Heart Pioneers”

Our All-NEC Conference Teams: A Difficult Exercise Indeed

It was the year of parity and unpredictably in the NEC, and that notion certainly extends out to our all-conference awards. There are several worthy candidates, so it was a challenging exercise for John and I to sort out our All-NEC first, second, and third teams. For our individual awards, including Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, etc., go here. So without further ado, let’s begin! Continue reading “Our All-NEC Conference Teams: A Difficult Exercise Indeed”

Shane Gibson: A Fabulous Career at Sacred Heart Leaves Fans Wondering What Could Have Been

A college basketball player doesn’t usually go out on his own terms. More often than not, a senior will end his career with a loss. Such was the case for the most prolific Division I scorer Sacred Heart has ever uniformed in Shane Gibson. But this ending was particularly cruel. The Pioneers dropped their season finale on Saturday to St. Francis Brooklyn, and in the process saw their NEC playoff hopes evaporate away.

If that wasn’t enough, it marked the end of a hideous slide that saw Sacred Heart drop nine of their final ten games and plummet down to ninth place in the NEC. For Gibson, he’d trade all of his individual accolades just for an opportunity to play for a league championship.

“I’d rather win then be good individually,” said a somber Gibson after his final game. “As a man, I’d rather have (team) hardware to bring home and it just didn’t happen for me in my career. Everybody played hard, I can’t really fault them for their effort. We just didn’t have enough firepower, I guess.”

The humble Gibson is only the fifth player in NEC history to register over 2,000 career points. His 2,079 points, to be exact, was the culmination of a wonderful career that was developed through a strong work ethic, an unrelenting desire to prove his naysayers wrong, and his tireless dedication to his craft.

“I coached a lot of guys and it’s a compliment to him to say he’s the second best scorer we ever had,” said Dave Bike, who just completed his 35th year of coaching. “He made shots throughout his whole career. That’s what he does best and he’s very good at it.”

When asked what the 2,000 point milestone meant to him, Gibson added, “It means a lot, because in high school I worked so hard to reach the 2,000 point plateau and I came up short. And I told myself that I would definitely work hard enough to get it in college and it’s a lot for me.”

The 6’2″ sharpshooter ends his senior season with numerous top five finishes within the conference in several statistical categories, including points per game (21.6, tied for first), free throw percentage (87.1%, first), three-point percentage (41.6%, fifth), three pointers made (87, second), and efficiency rating (15.1, tied for fifth).

Those highlights should earn Gibson another all-conference first team selection on Tuesday, which would be his second All-NEC first team honor in as many seasons. In fact, Gibson is a virtual lock to become one of the few players in conference history to be part of an all-conference team in every season of his eligibility.

Despite all of the accomplishments though, Pioneer fans can’t help but wonder why the Shane Gibson era only produced one NEC playoff win. That lone March victory occurred when Gibson was a freshman coming off the bench for a team that featured standouts like Joey Henley, Ryan Litke, Corey Hassan, and Chauncey Hardy. In that first round home victory over Central Connecticut, Gibson scored eight points in only 11 minutes.

When all of those aforementioned players graduated after the 2009-10 season there was a more muscular Gibson coming off a red-shirt season for an inexperienced roster, desperate for any scoring production. Gibson took full advantage of the opportunity, going from averaging 8.1 points per game in his rookie campaign to 17.2 points per game as a mere sophomore. Reflecting back, Gibson circles back to his decision to sit out the 2009-2010 season as a pivotal and ultimately necessary moment of his career.

“I’d recommend [red-shirting a season] for pretty much everybody who’s not a starter or a star in their league,” said Gibson. “You should redshirt, take the year to get what you want. Pack on some muscle and learn from watching. You can learn a lot from watching for a year, and that’s what I did.”

Gibson will now shift his focus to earning his degree in May. After that, he’ll set his sights on playing professionally. When asked if playing in Europe was an option, the senior was quick to suggest that competing in the NBA still remains a goal of his.

“I’m trying to stay here,” answered Gibson. “I’m trying to stay here definitely. I’m going to do everything I can to. I know and believe you get shots, that’s what they need you to do. It’s more spread out, and that’s what I do. I’m not going to miss.”

Sacred Heart and NEC fans who’ve watched Gibson blossom into a perennial all-conference player would be smart not to bet against the incredibly driven guard. It may be a long shot for Gibson to find his way onto an NBA roster, but who knows. Maybe someday you’ll find his smooth as silk, line drive three-pointers swishing through a net in an NBA arena near you.

If that’s the case, Pioneer fans like yours truly can crack a smile when reminiscing about the days of the great Shane Gibson. Those terrific memories, although special, will leave us wondering what could have been had Gibson teamed up with an accomplished supporting cast. What if another prolific scorer had emerged to take some of the defensive focus off of Gibson? What if the Pioneers possessed a couple of defensive stoppers, putting less pressure on Sacred Heart’s offense? What if Chris Evans, Evan Kelley, and Justin Swidowski had been healthy this season?

These are the questions Pioneer fans will continue to ask themselves when reliving Gibson’s storied career. And even though it seems silly to say this, Shane Gibson surely deserved better. Such a wonderful career shouldn’t have to languish on a non-title contender.

Regardless, the senior should always hold his head up high for what he was able to accomplish. It was a wonderful and truly memorable career, and for that Shane, we thank you.

NEC Makeup Monday: CCSU Clinches NEC Playoff Berth

The snowstorm that nearly destroyed the state of Connecticut a few weeks ago forced two postponements, therefore fans were treated to a rare doubleheader on Monday night. All four teams were seriously jockeying for playoff position, so let’s recap the action and summarize the NEC Standings.

Bryant 84, Sacred Heart 66
Given the recent play of both clubs, this final should surprise no one. The Pioneers hung around for a half thanks to Shane Gibson and Louis Montes’ combined 34 first half points, but the offensive firepower of Tim O’Shea’s Bulldogs was too much to handle as the game moved along. Sacred Heart cut Bryant’s lead to a paltry one point early in the second half, but then O’Shea pulled out the matchup zone. The different defensive look befuddled the Pioneers, and Bryant took full advantage going on a back-breaking 17-2 run. The big four of Bryant was once again unstoppable, as the Starks/Francis/Maynard/Dobbs group combined to log 70 points on a super efficient 44 shots. Starks led the group with 25 points on 10 of 14 shooting. In all, Bryant scored 1.20 points per possession (PPP). If the season ended today, Bryant’s 1.12 PPP average would be the best mark in the NEC since Javier Mojica’s Blue Devils scored 1.12 PPP in the 2006-07 season. With the loss, the Sacred Heart ship is capsizing fast. The Pioneers have lost seven of their last eight games and have pretty much guaranteed a St. Francis Brooklyn/Sacred Heart playoff play-in game on Saturday, March 2nd. There’s no way Dave Bike and company could have imagined that scenario after their hot 6-2 start. On the bright side, Shane Gibson became the fifth player in NEC history to crack the 2,000 point milestone. The senior scored 30 points on only 19 shots, which was 20 points more than the Pioneers front-court tonight.

Central Connecticut 67, Quinnipiac 65
Kyle Vinales long, contested (some would say ill-advised) three-pointer from the parking lot with five seconds remaining hit nothing but the bottom of the net, and pushed his Blue Devils to a thrilling two point victory over Quinnipiac. The Blue Devils were seemingly in control when Malcolm McMillan’s two free-throws gave Howie Dickenman’s group a six point lead with 5:35 left, but severe foul trouble helped the Bobcats go on a 12-3 run to push them ahead with a 65-62 lead. Despite the lapse, the Blue Devils scored the last five points and broke the Bobcats six game winning streak. The supremely confident Joe Efase scored 14 points in the victory and is averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in his last four contests. The win guarentees a playoff game for the Blue Devils, while Quinnipiac’s chances for their first regular season title since 2010 have all but vanished. It didn’t help that Quinnipiac missed nine of their 22 free throw attempts. Ousname Drame continued his dominant play with another double double of 11 points and 13 rebounds. In his last nine games – seven of them Quinnipiac victories – Drame has averaged 11.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. It looks like Drame is finally beginning to realize his full potential.

NEC Standings
1) Robert Morris, 12-4
2) Bryant, 11-5
3) Quinnipaic, 10-6
4) Wagner, 10-6
5) LIU Brooklyn, 10-6
6) Mount St. Mary’s, 9-7
7) Central Connecticut, 8-8
8) Sacred Heart, 7-9
9) St. Francis Brooklyn, 7-9
10) St. Francis (PA), 5-11
11) Monmouth, 5-11
12) Fairleigh Dickinson, 2-14
*Quinnipiac earns tiebreaker over Wagner/LIU based on head-to-head-to-head record (2-0)
*Wagner earns tiebreaker over LIU based on head-to-head record (2-0)
*Sacred Heart earns tiebreaker over St. Francis Brooklyn based on head-to-head record (1-0)
*Top seven teams in standings have clinched a NEC playoff berth

CCSU Takes Control of Their Playoff Destiny, Beats Sacred Heart

It was set up perfectly. Shane Gibson, the greatest player in Sacred Heart Division I history, was only 19 points shy of 2000 points coming into Senior Day. The fifth year senior was approaching the end of his sensational career, so of course he’d crack the 2000 point milestone, while also leading the Pioneers to a much-needed victory in his last ever home game. After all, these are what dreams are made of.

The only problem was Kyle Vinales had other ideas.

The Central Connecticut (CCSU) sophomore was excellent on both ends of the floor in the second half, as his Blue Devils used clutch play late to seal a critical victory and break their four game losing streak.

“We’ve been on the skids,” said CCSU head coach Howie Dickenman after the game. “We came out and played with more emotion this afternoon than any game this year. We played like it was a championship game.”

The championship effort was anchored with terrific performances by Vinales and senior big man Joe Efase. Both players combined for 49 points on only 31 shots. It was Vinales phenomenal play down the stretch that impressed his grizzled head coach the most.

“Today, I thought we concentrated on [Shane] Gibson and Kyle did a fantastic job on Gibson,” said Dickenman. “We know Gibson is going to get his 25-28 points, but you can’t let him go off. And Kyle keeps him under 19, which would have been 2000.”

When asked about Vinales performance, Sacred Heart head coach Dave Bike simply added, “He got the best of [Gibson].”

CCSU played stout interior defense that allowed the Pioneers to only convert 38.1% of their two pointers. Joe Efase, in particular, was a beast defensively blocking eight shots, tying a career high. His defensive prowess, along with Brandon Peel and Terrell Allen, discouraged Sacred Heart down low and forced Dave Bike’s squad to jack up 27 three-pointers. For the first time in five contests, CCSU held their opponent to 1.00 point per possession. In their previous four games, all defeats, CCSU had given up an unsavory 1.23 points per possession.

“[Efase] was so focused and he was really upset after the Bryant game with how he played, how we played,” said Dickenman when asked about Joe Efase’s terrific game. “You could tell, he came out of that game besides himself and yesterday’s practice was probably the most intense practice we had. We played as hard as we could in practice, and it carried over into the game.”

Despite the Blue Devils energy, Sacred Heart kept the game close enough late to have a chance. When Shane Gibson, who finished with 14 points leaving the senior five points shy of 2000 for his career, hit his first three-pointer of the second half with 2:47 remaining, the Pioneers were only trailing by one point, 66-65. But no Sacred Heart defender could stay in front of Vinales late, as the fifth leading scorer in the nation at 22.3 points per game logged eight points in the final 2:16 to snap the Blue Devils losing streak.

In addition, Sacred Heart was sloppy with the ball late, which led to 12 turnovers for the game. The Blue Devils took advantage of the Pioneers miscues, by outscoring Sacred Heart 19-4 on points off turnovers. CCSU was also money from the charity stripe down the stretch (17 of 19), which certainly helped ice the game late.

“I think they got too many layups,” said a dejected Dave Bike after the loss. “Important games like these you got to play tougher defense, and they shot too well and we didn’t shoot good enough.”

Steve Glowiak scored a team high 21 points on six of 14 shooting. Freshman Tevin Falzon added ten points – eight in the second half – to go along with six rebounds. Louis Montes also finished with a double double with 14 points and ten rebounds, but he needed 16 shots to register the 14 points.

The win moves CCSU into a seventh place tie in the NEC standings, which at the moment, puts them in very good shape to qualify for the NEC tournament. With head-to-head tiebreakers over seventh place Sacred Heart and ninth place St. Francis Brooklyn, the Blue Devils are likely to be playing a first round NEC tournament game on Wednesday, March 6th. Especially with three home games left on the regular season schedule.

Sacred Heart, on the other hand, concludes the season with a brutal three game road stretch, which includes Bryant, LIU Brooklyn, and St. Francis Brooklyn. If things break right, the Sacred Heart/St. Francis Brooklyn showdown could very well serve as an eight/nine seeded play-in game for the NEC tournament.

Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference men’s basketball for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

NEC Thursday: The Valentine’s Day Recap!

With my wife out of town, I was able to keep my eye on the NEC basketball scene for what turned out to be a special Valentine’s Day recap! Enjoy…

Mount St. Mary’s 84, Bryant 70
Sam Prescott had the performance of his life with 44 points on 16 of 24 shooting to help lead the Mount to an impressive drubbing of league leader Bryant. After the Bulldogs jumped out to an early lead thanks to Dyami Starks’ three points, two assists, and one rebound in four minutes, Bryant struggled offensively when Starks was saddled with two quick fouls. After that, a Prescott onslaught from behind the three-point line guided the Mount to a double-digit lead at the half. In all, Prescott tied a Mount record for the most threes scored in a game (10-14), while also breaking the school’s D-I record for most points in a game. Perhaps quietly, Shivaughn Wiggins and Julien Norfleet did a wonderful job fasciliating on offense. The duo dished out 16 assists versus only one turnover. Bryant shot the ball well, but couldn’t overcome 15 turnovers and a porous effort defensively on the perimeter that allowed the Mount to sink 50.9% of their shots. Alex Francis scored a team high 25 points to go along with ten rebounds, but it simply wasn’t enough to overcome Prescott’s special night.

St. Francis (PA) 64, Sacred Heart 60
In the upset of the night, St. Francis (PA) notched their third win of the season by knocking off a significantly banged up Sacred Heart team on the road. Phil Gaetano was out with the flu leaving the Pioneers devoid of a true point guard on the roster and limiting Dave Bike to seven healthy scholarship players and walk-on Louis Cramer. Shane Gibson did his part registering 26 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and five steals, but it wasn’t enough as no other Pioneer logged a game efficiency rating higher than a six (for non-stat heads, a six isn’t very good). Four players scored in double digits for Rob Krimmel’s club, led by double-double machine Earl Brown with 13 points and 11 boards. St. Francis lost the edge on the boards, but shot well enough from the perimeter (7-16 behind the arc) and at the charity stripe (19-26) to pull through. The win moves St. Francis (PA) out of the cellar with a 3-10 record, while Sacred Heart nows find themselves only up 1.5 games on the 9th place team in the conference. With no more “cupcakes” on the schedule, it’s now or never for the Pioneers coming up.

LIU Brooklyn 82, Monmouth 66
A nearly down-and-out Monmouth team hung tough and even led the back-to-back defending champs with 11 minutes left in the second half, 52-51. But then a 20-5 LIU run put the game out of reach and made certain the Hawks would lose for the fifth time in six games. The offensive numbers won’t make Jack Perri all too happy (1.02 PPP, 14 assists versus 24 turnovers), yet the defense stepped up to force 17 turnovers and a mediocre 40% shooting mark for Monmouth. In addition, the Blackbirds won the rebounding battle 35-27 and hit 14 more freebies from the line. Jamal Olasewere led the team with 23 points, but C.J. Garner was equally as excellent with 20 points, six rebounds, four assists, and four steals. Ed Waite led Monmouth with 24 points, but he needed 19 shots to get there. After him though, only two Hawk players – Jesse Steele and Stephen Spinella – scored more than five points.

Wagner 101, Central Connecticut 82
If Wagner scores the basketball like that the rest of the season, then I’m pretty confident they’ll join Robert Morris, Bryant, and LIU Brooklyn in the upper third of the league at season’s end. Wagner shattered their season high in points per possession with 1.32 PPP, while draining over 61% of their shots in a blowout home win over the suddenly defensively challenged Blue Devils. Seven Seahawks scored at least eight points with Marcus Burton claiming 23 points on only nine shots. The game moved at a feverish pace with 155 total possessions, but it was Wagner who benefitted the most from the tempo. Central Connecticut, led by Kyle Vinales’ 42 points on 24 shots, cut Wagner’s lead to seven points early in the second half, but a 15-0 run by the Seahawks essentially turned the game into a laugher. Odd enough, CCSU falls to 4-8 on the season when they average more than 73 possessions in a game. Is it safe to say the lack of depth hurts CCSU in these games that turn into track meets? Whatever the reason, Howie Dickenman shouldn’t be happy that Wagner outscored his club in the paint, 44-24, while also allowing the Seahawks to drill nine of their 15 long-range jumpers. It was a lousy defensive effort whichever way you slice it.

St. Francis Brooklyn 85, Fairleigh Dickinson 61
When it rains it pours, and right now it’s pouring losses for FDU. The Knights dropped their ninth straight to a struggling St. Francis team, as they were unable to overcome 21 point efforts from both Akeem Johnson and Travis Nichols. The Terriers were efficient on offense, and while that may be from FDU being in the bottom 10% of the nation defensively, Glenn Braica certainly has to be pleased with 16 assists versus a mere five turnovers, a 25-28 shooting performance from the free-throw line, and the fact that his team surged despite a zero point overcome from Jalen Cannon. Kinu Rochford had another monster game for FDU (what else is new) with 20 points and 16 rebounds, but it wasn’t nearly enough to prevent FDU’s slide into the NEC basement.

Quinnipiac 63, Robert Morris 61
In perhaps their last meeting before Quinnipiac departs for the MAAC, the Bobcats outlasted the banged-up Colonials in a ridiculously tight game throughout. Velton Jones supposedly did his best Willis Reed impersonation (OK, maybe not) by suiting up right before tipoff, yet he struggled with only six points on 13 shots. Evan Conti led Quinnipiac with 18 points, six rebounds, and two assists and has been the unsung hero in this recent run for Tom Moore. Conti has scored in double figures in four straight, while also averaging 5.5 rebounds per game. The big difference in the game was free throws, as Robert Morris uncharacteristically went to the charity stripe just 13 times (and missed eight of them). On the other hand, Quinnipiac had 17 points from the line and also doubled the Colonials output on the boards (44-22). The Bobcats are officially the hottest team in the NEC, winning five of their last six contests to move into a tie for fifth place. A home playoff game is now absolutely within reach.

NEC Standings
1) Bryant, 9-3
2) Robert Morris, 9-4
3) LIU Brooklyn, 9-4
4) Wagner, 8-5
5) Sacred Heart, 7-5
6) Quinnipiac, 7-5
7) Central Connecticut, 6-6
8) St. Francis Brooklyn, 6-7
9) Mount St. Mary’s, 6-7
10) Monmouth, 4-9
11) St. Francis (PA), 3-10
12) Fairleigh Dickinson, 2-11
*Robert Morris holds tiebreaker on LIU based on head-to-head record (1-0)
*Sacred Heart holds tiebreaker on Quinnipiac based on head-to-head record (1-0)
*St. Francis Brooklyn holds tiebreaker on Mount St. Mary’s based on head-to-head record (1-0)

Awards/Thoughts from a Whirlwind Day of NEC Hoops

It’s midnight, but I’m wide awake after attending three NEC games in nine hours time. I drank 6 bottles of water, ate a banana and clif bar, drove nearly 100 miles for approximately two hours, and finally gorged myself at the diner all while taking in some excellent basketball in between. Rather than offering up a recap for all three outcomes, I decided to hand out some awards. The six teams I saw today – Quinnipiac, FDU, St. Francis Brooklyn, Central Connecticut, Sacred Heart, and Monmouth – are all eligible for these distinguished honors, as are the players. Let’s begin…

Best Player Performance
Shane Gibson – (I can already feel you rolling your eyes.) In my defense, Gibson netted a game high 33 points on 17 shots to go along with 15 made free throws. As I’ll explain later, the referees called the Monmouth/Sacred Heart game way too tight, but Sacred Heart made their freebies while Monmouth didn’t. Gibson was a major part of that, plus his 24 second half points guided the Pioneers to their first place tying victory Saturday night. In fact, Gibson scored 19 straight points for his team in the second half. 19 straight! Can you say “NEC Player of the Year?” Time to start the campaign! (Ok, I’m kidding. Sort of.)

Best Player Performance in a Losing Effort
Jalen Cannon – The 6’6″ immovable object in the paint had himself a dominant first half against the Blue Devils, as he scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds. It was so dominant, however, that every time Cannon touched the ball in the second stanza down low, Howie Dickenman would scream out “Help, help, help!” (No really, he did that every single time.) But his pupils listened and made life quite uncomfortable for Cannon, even though he ended up with an excellent final line of 18 points, 14 rebounds, and two steals. Cannon’s Terriers may have lost the game in heartbreaking fashion, but it certainly wasn’t Cannon’s fault.

Best Player Performance in a Supporting Role
The Central Connecticut Supporting Cast – Allow me to partially cop out here, as I nominate the CCSU threesome of Malcolm McMillan, Adonis Burbage, and Terrell Allen. They combined for 39 of the Blue Devils’ 72 points while draining six of nine from long range. McMillan was impressive both from the perimeter (2-3 from 3PT range) and attacking off the dribble, Burbage was his usual sharpshooting self, and Allen scored a career high 15 points off the bench. Kyle Vinales and Matthew Hunter may be a terrific twosome, but Dickenman has to be pleased with the effort from the rest of his supporting cast.

Best Player Performance in a Defensive Role
Jamee Jackson – I’ll begin with this Tom Moore quote about Jackson after their win over FDU: “I’m going to push him for [NEC] Defensive Player of the Year. I’ll really push for him to get that, and I know people judge [the award] by steals, blocks, and that type of stuff. I just know he can guard in the post. He can guard on the perimeter. He can help defend and he just plays at an elite level defensively … He’s come up with huge blocks in big situations for us, because he plays with so much energy.”

In the victory, Jackson recorded two steals and two blocks, but it was his effort on Kinu Rochford that was the most impressive. After Rochford got going early in the second half, Jackson did an excellent job pushing him off the low block and making life extremely difficult at all times. His block on Sidney Sanders final shot attempt of the game sealed the Bobcat’s two point victory. Say what you want about Jackson’s free throw shooting, but the athletic power forward is a beast on the defensive end.

Best Team Performance
Central Connecticut – Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac may have won their respective games, but CCSU was easily the most impressive of the victorious teams Saturday. With the ankle injury of Brandon Peel, Dickenman practically had six players at his disposal with five of them logging a cramp inducing 38 minutes or more. Those five were responsible for all 72 points, while their up-tempo attack kept St. Francis on their heels for a majority of the contest. Really, it’s remarkable how fast this team continues to play – eighth fastest in the country at 72.8 possessions per game – even though they are two injuries away from asking fans to suit up.

Best Postgame Quotes
King Rice – Who else did you expect?! King Rice and Andy Toole have to be the best NEC quote machines after a losing effort because neither of them hold back. Here’s what Rice had to say when I asked him about the increased role of his freshmen, in particular Christian White and Tyrone O’Garro.

“Contrary to what everybody thought when we signed those guys, and everybody all across the country was like ‘oh man [Monmouth] can’t get the right dudes’ and all this stuff, but you know what? Those kids (White, O’Garro, Jalen Palm) probably could have started from day one. I’m the type of coach that gives older guys more of a chance and now it’s time for [my freshman] to get some playing time. They’ve earned it, they are the best guys at those positions – that’s why they’re playing – and now we’re going to have those guys for three to four years.”

Also I’d like to throw in a brief exchange I had with Dave Bike last night.
Me: Have you ever seen this much parity in the NEC before?
Bike: You guys are the experts, but right now you wouldn’t have picked in the beginning, after 8 games, Robert Morris, Bryant and us tied for first place.
Me: I wouldn’t have put Bryant and Sacred Heart in there, that’s for sure.
Bike: Well, thank you. (laughter)

Oh, things are so much more jovial postgame when the Pioneers are winning! Anyway, moving along…

Most Disappointing Performance
Fairleigh Dickinson – Yeah, I couldn’t keep this entire post positive, because I did after all see some negative things in my six hours of hoops. For example, FDU absolutely gave a game away yesterday to Quinnipiac by consistently shooting themselves in the foot late. There were bonehead turnovers, missed free throws on the front end of one and one opportunities, and bricked open looks. The Knights easily threw away about seven or eight possession in the final five minutes, and when you lose that game by two points (and shoot a paltry 8-18 from the free throw line), it will surely drive the head coach nutty. Without a doubt, Greg Vetrone has to be sick with this loss, especially when you throw in the late lead they blew to LIU Brooklyn over a week ago. Those two games are the difference between 4-4 and 2-6.

Best Crowd
Sacred Heart’s Pitt Center – The “upset” of the day belongs to the Sacred Heart fans – 1,614 of them to be exact – who came out and filled up the makeshift gym to give the Pioneers a nice home court advantage. Thanks to the students, the Pitt Center was loud and very much into the game. It was a pleasant surprise and frankly cool to see.

Most Shameful Performance
The Officials for the Monmouth/Sacred Heart game – Talk about a tightly officiated game; the evening showdown at the Pitt Center was ground to a halt in the second half thanks to a comically refereed contest. Both teams were in the bonus by the under 12 minute timeout and ended up accumulating a mind-blowing 32 personal fouls, in the second half alone! Everything was being called: hand checks, minimal arm taps, hell some were led to believe breathing on a player was an offense. It was truly shameful how the officials took the game over.

I’ve run out of awards, thus I’d like to conclude with some important random thoughts:

  • The aforementioned Monmouth freshman Christian White has a beautiful outside shot. It’s one of the prettiest rainbow arcs you’ll see in the NEC, and so far the freshman is making the most of his playing time. For the season, the diminutive White has drained exactly 50% (16 of 32) of his three-point attempts. Given Monmouth’s past outside shooting woes, White’s production is sorely needed.
  • Quinnipiac’s backcourt continues to serve as a revolving door of guards, whether it’s Shaq Shannon, Zaid Hearst, Evan Conti, Kendrick Ray, or James Ford. As Tom Moore explained in his press conference, not even he knows which player(s) will perform on a given night. Yesterday, Conti gave Moore a strong first half of eight points and four assists. On Thursday night, Shannon scored 18 points exclusively on three-pointers to give the Bobcats a much needed spark over CCSU. Zaid Hearst has been in-and-out with his production. Moore is still searching for the right guy(s) to mix and match, although he certainly would prefer leaning on one or two players for the NEC stretch. Will someone eventually elevate their play? No one really knows the answer.
  • The curious case of Travis Nichols continues. On Saturday, Nichols had another double digit point effort as he scored 10 points, which sounds awesome when you realize St. Francis was 5-1 in those games. But yesterday, St. Francis lost in part because Nichols found himself in foul trouble for much of the second half. The versatile forward missed critical stretches late and it inevitability cost his team as CCSU pulled away in Nichols’ absence. I’m certainly not placing all of the blame on Nichols, but it’s hard to dispute the effect he has on the team when he’s logging quality minutes on the floor for Glenn Braica’s group.
  • I know I brought this up in last week’s edition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but it bears repeating. Phil Gaetano, through eight NEC games, now has dished out 75 assists versus only 21 turnovers. He holds a league best A/TO ratio of 3.6. Not bad for a player who only attempts four shots per game.

It was a great day of college hoops, one I’m extremely thankful to be a part of. Perhaps there will be more Connecticut tripleheaders in my future. I just have to run it by the wife next time…

Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference men’s basketball for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride