David Tompkins. That was the name Fairleigh Dickinson head coach Greg Herenda gave when asked if he had seen anyone improve as much as Sidney Sanders, Jr. had from last season.
Herenda wasn’t kidding. After playing a grand total of six minutes as an underclassman, Tompkins burst onto the Ivy League scene, going from relative obscurity to averaging 9.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for the 1997-98 season. He would finish his career at Yale as the Ivy League’s all-time leader in field goal percentage (63.3%), a record he still holds to this day.
While the quick-witted, raspy voiced head coach acknowledged the remarkable turnaround of Tompkins, a player he obviously coached as an assistant at Yale many years back, Herenda then rightfully focused his attention on his all-conference caliber point guard. “This kid has meant everything to our program,” Herenda said.
On Thursday evening in front of a fairly hostile crowd at Mount St. Mary’s, Sanders continued to shine. After scoring four points due to foul trouble in the first half, the senior exploded with 16 points in the second stanza. It was truly a vintage performance, with a sore heal no less. Sanders was commanding the ball, driving to the lane, getting to the charity stripe, and even drilled a critical 25-footer near the top of the key. While his teammates shot a combined 28.6% from the floor in the same half, Sanders put the Knights on his back, trying to will his team to their improbable fifth NEC victory in seven games.
It wasn’t enough. The Knights held a seemingly cozy seven point lead with 2:10 remaining, but a relentless Mount St. Mary’s club kept chipping away. When Sam Prescott drained a corner three – his first basket of the evening – with 5.4 seconds left in regulation to tie the contest, it appeared the two teams were destined for overtime. In a crazy, back-and-forth game that featured 10 ties and 10 lead changes, it was only fitting.
But Sanders, a bulldog of a point guard averaging 19.2 points and 5.6 assists per game while sporting an incredible assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6, had one last shot to quiet the Mount faithful.
“Sid at the end of the game – I really thought it’s his kind of year,” said a disappointed Herenda afterwards. “He went up the floor like Danny Ainge did back in the day and the ball just didn’t drop. He wanted to win the game and I thought he was going to. He did everything but put the ball in the basket.”
After Sanders’ coast-to-coast potential game-winning layup rimmed out, the Mount carried the momentum into the extra frame. Two quick baskets by Prescott and a three by Rashad Whack – off a Prescott offensive rebound – guided the Mount to a much-needed victory over their conference rival. For the Knights, it was a brutal setback, but it wasn’t because of the effort of their senior captain.
This was Sanders’ twentieth time in 21 games where he finished scoring in double figures. Last season he achieved that feat a grand total of three times. In fact, if you delve into his advanced statistics even further, they paint a wonderful picture for the next NEC Most Improved Player of the Year, and perhaps, an all-conference first team recipient.
- 2012-13 season: 4.6 ppg, 86.0 ORtg, 28.1% assist rate, 26.9% turnover rate, 3.0 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
- 2013-14 season: 19.2 ppg, 110.8 ORtg, 43.4% assist rate, 11.6% turnover rate, 7.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
Talk about a stark difference. In particular, his assist rate of 43.4% is fourth nationally, while only 46 players in the country have drawn more fouls. His 110.8 offense rating, a tremendous number, looks even better when you consider how much Sanders is possessing the basketball. Only five players in the nation have a higher possession rate than Sanders’ 34.3%, and yet the point guard has been wonderfully efficient. The increases in production seem rather improbable, but from Herenda’s perspective, he’s not terribly surprised at the senior’s success.
“The point guard in our system is always the focal point,” Herenda explained. “So it was a perfect storm where Sid and his talent fit our system and now he’s just got tremendous confidence. He just wasn’t a focal point (of last year’s team). Didn’t get a lot of shots. Didn’t get the ball in a lot of spots.”
At Herenda’s last head coaching spot, UMass-Lowell, a point guard Herenda recruited and signed in Akeem Williams – now a senior – continues to inch closer toward scoring 2,000 career points, a fantastic milestone. Sanders is not only taking advantage of the his coach’s scheme, but applying himself in an environment conducive to winning.
“That really speaks to the spirit – (FDU has) improved, no question about it, but they play with such a better spirit now,” said Mount head coach Jamion Christian when asked about Sanders’ remarkable turnaround. “And they’re just so energetic and so fired up to play and they play for each other. How they’re playing is really special because you don’t see that all the time. And that’s how you’re able to take a season they had a year ago (7-24) and play really well now.”
“(Sanders) has just been able to have a tremendous year, and he’s playing with a big chip on his shoulder.”
Now mired in a four-way tie for third place in the NEC with almost half of the conference season behind them, Fairleigh Dickinson will no longer sneak up on anyone. They certainly were on Mount St. Mary’s radar coming into Thursday evening’s contest, having dispatched the Mountaineers in their NEC opener just three weeks prior.
Despite the extra attention, though, Sidney Sanders, Jr. will be ready for the challenge. Under his leadership, the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights won’t go down without a fight.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride