It’s Year 2 of the Jeff Neubauer Era at Fordham, and it seems to feature a lot of the same things that made the inaugural season successful: a hyper-aggressive defense that loves to create havoc in the half-court and wear teams down mentally to go with an offense that is much more patient, but likes to work inside out and shoot three-pointers when available.
The Rams rode those things to a 17-14 record, their first winning mark since 2006-07 and only the second in a quarter-century, dating back to when they were playing in the Patriot League (Fordham also made a postseason appearance since 1992, albeit in the CBI). They finished 8-10 in the Atlantic-10 after winning no more than four games in any of the previous five seasons.
These are accomplishments and shouldn’t be completely diminished. Neubauer was given the task of winning in one of the most difficult spots in all of college basketball (given the conference, amenities relative to the level, and overall history) and made a positive first step.
However, growth in the second year under their new coach may be difficult, especially with the bar set relatively high after the first. Again, Fordham’s non-conference schedule – which was 351st and last nationally in schedule strength last season – features very few big tests, but it should be helped by teams like Rutgers and St. John’s being improved from a year ago.
Still, things started inauspiciously to say the least when Fordham was blasted 96-59 at East Tennessee St. out of the Southern Conference in their opener last week. Its second game was better, but the Rams still struggled a bit with Division II NYIT before pulling away late. Friday night, Fordham began the Eddie Bach Classic, three games in three days at Rose Hill against teams that, honestly, an Atlantic-10 squad should be able to handle, and the Rams were able to shake off defending NEC champ Fairleigh Dickinson, 68-55.
You saw some the problems that Fordham may encounter going forward. Neubauer inherited a relatively veteran squad that graduated Ryan Rhoomes, Mandell Thomas, and Jon Severe (now at Iona), and did not have a freshman see the floor Friday. Neubauer did, however, add a couple of transfers, including Javontae Hawkins, who graduated from Eastern Kentucky last spring and was recruited by Neubauer (after transferring from South Florida) to go to EKU, but never actually got to play for him.
Hawkins was a second team All-OVC selection a year ago and probably holds the biggest key for the Rams, having averaged 17.0 points per game last season and a very tough player to guard at 6’5″. Hawkins is great at drawing fouls, going to the free throw line 11 times in the first half Friday alone, and can step out and shoot as well.
“It’s nice to finally get to play for Coach Neubauer,” Hawkins said. “That was a long year of red-shirting (sitting out after transferring), and I’m glad to be back on the floor. I’m pretty comfortable out there even though it’s only been a couple of games.”
Last go around. Always looked myself in the mirror and never had any excuse on why I can’t be the best. Never count yourself OUT 🙏🏾💯 pic.twitter.com/OTmIeSRLyp
— Javontae Hawkins (@TeamTae23) October 4, 2016
Canadian Joseph Chartouny – coming off an impressive freshman year – and Antwoine Anderson are secure in their starting guard spots and should be joined by Christian Sengfelder and Jesse Bunting for at least the near future, as the Rams do not appear to be particularly deep. Bunting might have the biggest role defensively, filling in for Rhoomes in the post, which will be especially difficult as the level of competition grows later in the season.
“Jesse (3 points, 11 rebounds, 4 steals) has the athleticism and the physicality where he can be a good rebounder and we need him to be,” Neubauer said. “I was really pleased with his effort tonight.”
One player that was impressive off the bench was JUCO transfer Will Tavares, who slashed his way to seven points in 16 minutes. Nemanja Zarkovic and David Pekarek will also see a decent amount of action, and they did last year as well and will depended on to stretch defenses (as well as give starters a rest in a demanding system).
You probably know that Fordham was ninth nationally in defensive turnover rate (22.4%, ahead of teams like Louisville and VCU), but they were also a very respectable 126th in defensive efficiency, despite giving up 52.3% (305th) on two-point shots. It was the opposite of how Neubauer’s teams at Eastern Kentucky succeeded, with an extremely efficient offense and a defense that gave up points when it did not turn the ball over.
Friday, Neubauer was most impressed – not surprisingly – with his defense, which (after giving up 1.36 ppp to ETSU) held FDU to just 0.81 ppp, although that probably deserves an asterisk because the Knights are still without arguably their best player in Earl Potts and also did not have Tyrone O’Garro. Still, they harassed Stephan Jiggetts into nine turnovers and committed “just” 21 fouls with the early season “freedom of movement” rules in effect (the nightcap between Saint Peter’s and Lipscomb featured 61 fouls, 37 on Lipscomb).
“I really felt good about our mentality about or defense. I think our guys really got the message from these last few days, and this was certainly our best defensive effort of the year,” Neubauer said. “We didn’t have a great shooting night, but when we guard like that, we can still win and that’s the whole message to our team. It’s about defense. It’s about being committed to guarding your man. If you so that, you’ll still have the wins when you shoot it well, but then you’ll get some wins when you’re not shooting it as well. We didn’t have to shoot the ball well tonight, but we still won by double figures.”
Although the result won’t exactly send Atlantic-10 teams cowering, nor will the stretch in the second half, where FDU – in what has become typical FDU fashion – gutted their way back in the game and got as close as four – Fordham did win somewhat easily on a poor shooting night, and should be a relatively diverse offensive team when hitting. Four of the five starters can legitimately shoot from deep and Jesse Bunting looks like he may even try some on occasion. They shot a mediocre 34.6% from three-point range last season, and if they can improve on that and keep the defense (which will be tough without Thomas or Rhoomes) at the same level, they have some potential to surprise again.
The Rams finished the non-conference slate 9-2 a year ago and Neubauer knows getting there this season could be a little tougher, but not impossible. Winning today over a solid Saint Peter’s squad would be a good step toward that goal.
In the end, two years will not make or break what Neubauer and Fordham are trying to build at Fordham. It remains to be seen what kind of player he can bring in to a place that has struggled for so long in the Atlantic-10. But it will certainly help him to get those players if they are exhibiting a bit of success as they did last season.
“There is so much to learn from a college basketball team at this time of year,” Neubauer said. “We’ve been learning about each other for the last six or seven weeks. And we’re making adjustments. We’ve adjusted our defense several times. We have a lot to learn about this group and how we can be effective and efficient. These games are the most telling, and we’ll keep getting better.”