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

Predictions:

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