FAIRFIELD, Conn. – Greg Herenda swears the only numbers he notices on the scoreboard is the time. But even he had to be amazed to look up and see his Fairleigh Dickinson team – picked ninth by the coaches in the preseason NEC poll – leading 47-19 with two minutes left in the first half Thursday night at the Pitt Center.
“I don’t really look at the scoreboard, I look at the clock and the clock never ticks quick enough, even when you have a big lead,” Herenda said. “We have in on the board, ‘Every second of every possession for 40 minutes if not more’. We practice hard every day. Most programs keep score of everything and do competitive drills with scores in practice, but we don’t. We just play hard, and if we play hard and well, we’ll do well.”
Sacred Heart actually made some inroads into that massive mountain of an advantage in the second half, but the rest of the game was mostly a formality as the Knights – who have missed the NEC Tournament in four of the last five seasons and are just 16-72 in that span – are now 2-1 with Central Connecticut coming to town on Saturday.
The mini-resurgence in Hackensack is being led by youth, the top four Knights (6-8 overall) scorers (Earl Potts, Darian Anderson, Stephan Jiggetts, and Marques Townes) are all sophomores, with the fifth starter being freshman Mike Holloway. Their non-conference schedule was not amazing, but did include wins over Saint Peter’s and Towson and a near miss at Rutgers, which, yes, Rutgers, but they are still in the Big Ten.
Herenda and his team are well aware that any success FDU will have this season will be predicated on defense. The Knights have not ranked above 280th nationally in defensive efficiency since 2005-06, which also happens to be the last season they were an NEC contender, losing to Monmouth in the NEC final (they last went to the NCAAs in 2005). In Herenda’s first two seasons, they were 310th and 328th, and even after holding Sacred Heart to 0.94 points per possession (a number that would have been lower had the game been competitive) are 309th this season.
“The last practice we just concentrated on defense a whole lot, at least an hour and a half of the two-hour practice,” Potts – who led the way with 20 points and 11 rebounds – said. “And it helped today. We had a crazy first half on defense, probably the best defense we’ve played all season.”
Indeed, rebounding is a major concern, with FDU ranking 349th and 351st (dead last in Division I) in defensive rebounding rate in Herenda’s first two seasons. Last January, they were outrebounded 49-32 in an overtime loss at the Pitt Center, and in the rematch a month later lost the battle of the boards 48-22. But Thursday, it was FDU holding a 41-28 edge, conceding only eight offensive rebounds (21.6%, 15% below their season average).
“Last year we lost a lot of games, and we paid those dues over the summer,” Herenda said. “Every night I went to bed I thought it was my responsibility. Now we’re getting the fruits of our labors. The sophomores are like juniors and seniors. I think we’re ready.”
What else did we learn Thursday in Fairfield?:
- Just a miserable effort from Sacred Heart
The Pioneers had a pretty good western Pennsylvania road trip, beating Robert Morris and hanging tough against St. Francis University, but they trailed from the opening tip. Sacred Heart (2-12, 1-2) missed seven of its first eight free throws, and is not a good shooting team right now, just 320th in three-point shooting (29.7%). Cane Broome is trying to carry the load, but he’s not a natural shooter and at just 32% from behind the arc this season. Quincy McKnight is not a real outside threat, either, and Anthony Latina was probably hoping for more from Matej Buovac, who was scoreless in 11 minutes on Thursday.
Combine that with FDU’s ability to get to the rim at will (Jiggetts and Anderson are both good drivers) and that shocking advantage on the glass, and it was a long, long night for Sacred Heart.
“That number may be the most disappointing number of all that we got outrebounded by 13,” Latina said. “That can’t happen. They’re a better rebounding team than they were last year, but that’s bad. We did not play well. There wasn’t one phase of the game that I felt we played well, and you can’t win that way. We’ve got some fixing to do with a very good Wagner team coming in here. Every game is a new game. FDU just got beat at home and then they came in here and did this. But we have to play a lot better Saturday if we want to have a chance. It’s a long year.”
2) Earl Potts might be a first team All-NEC player
The sophomore finished with 21 points and tied a career high with 11 rebounds, but he also had three assists against zero turnovers. In fact, Potts has just 13 turnovers all season, and had just 13 all of last season (he was second in lowest turnover rate in conference play last year and leads the NEC in the earlygoing this season). At 6’5”, he can shoot from the outside and is athletic enough to finish at the rim. He is fourth in the NEC in scoring (behind Broome, Rodney Pryor, and Jerome Frink) and doesn’t show many signs of slowing down anytime soon.
3) It’s still early
Strangely, FDU has had a lot of early season NEC success in the past few seasons that has translated to nothing. Last season, the Knights were 2-0 after winning at CCSU and LIU Brooklyn, then lost 15 straight games. In Herenda’s first season, 2013-14, FDU started 4-2 in the NEC, but finished just 6-10 and lost in the NEC quarterfinals. Even in 2012-13 under Greg Vetrone, FDU was 2-2 before losing its last 14 games of the season. So it’s a great start, but there is a long way to go. After Saturday’s home game against CCSU, FDU goes on the western Pennsylvania road trip next week and that may tell us about how far they’ve come.
“We were ultra ready to play,” Herenda said. “I think we stubbed our toe against Bryant and that kind of woke us up. We played about as well as we could play. We guarded really well. It seemed like we made every shot in the first half. This is a young team that needs to play hard. When they play hard and make shots, they’re good. When they don’t make shots and then don’t pay attention to detail, they get beat.”
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— FDU Knights (@FDUKnights) January 7, 2016