Had they been wearing different uniforms, New Hampshire might have been taken a little more seriously this season. The America East coaches knew better, of course, picking the Wildcats second behind Vermont, with three of the eight who were not Bill Herrion putting New Hampshire first.
That, of course, is a long, long way from most of the history of the program, which can’t really be called checkered because there aren’t enough successful data points to offset the 19 (?!?) straight losing seasons from 1995-2014. The Wildcats only had one winning campaign in the previous decade to that as well, so it probably goes without saying they’ve never been to the NCAA Tournament (becoming Division I in 1977).
Herrion was below .500 in his first nine seasons in Durham, the last two of those finishing a combined 15-44, and no matter where you are, you don’t get more than that. He saw the success John Gallagher and Hartford (as well as LIU Brooklyn) had recruiting in Texas with four-year star Mark Nwakamma and said what did he have to lose?
Four years later, four of five New Hampshire starters are from Texas (with the other from Senegal), and the Wildcats are working on their third straight winning season. Despite some inconsistency, including a home loss to Abilene Christian and a defeat to Dartmouth, New Hampshire is as good as anyone in America East, as it proved Sunday afternoon with an 81-56 thrashing of, ironically, Hartford (which has players from Egypt, Australia, Ireland, Spain, Serbia, and Alaska on its current roster, but not Texas) at Chase Family Arena.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Herrion told the Portsmouth Herald last season. “It’s kind of saved our program.”
Rice transfer Jordan Reed, freshman Kijana Love, and senior Jacoby Armstrong (who is redshirting this season, which should make New Hampshire a preseason America East favorite in 2017-18) are also Texas natives. Putting aside the Texas angle, you can make a case that the Wildcats have actually underachieved a bit this season, losing at home to Stony Brook to put them two games back of the conference leaders.
“We’re playing really good basketball on the road,” Herrion said. “We played great at Maine, then at Albany, and obviously today. When you make shots, it makes your offense look really good. We’ve got an older, veteran basketball team with a lot of juniors and seniors that have kind of have been through it. We need to get wins to stay up in the standings.”
But, if you don’t follow America East regularly, do not be surprised if New Hampshire is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in March. Most of the players, including probable first-team all-conference picks Jaleen Smith (27 points on 9-11 shooting and 7 rebounds Sunday) and Tanner Leissner to go with point guard Daniel Dion and Senegalese rim protector Iba Camara, appear to be ready.
If it happens, maybe it will be somewhere warm.
“We all feel like this is the year for us to get past semifinals and win the whole thing,” Smith said. “The last two years we started a winning culture, and hopefully it will continue.”
— UNH Men's Basketball (@UNHMBB) January 22, 2017
What else did we learn on Sunday afternoon in West Hartford?:
- Cleaning up the boards
Bill Herrion has never played particularly fast and has always emphasized not giving opposing teams second chances, but New Hampshire has been spectacular on the defensive boards in the last three seasons, finishing second and first (by a pretty wide margin) in the last two seasons nationally. This season, they are second (77.8%), just behind Saint Mary’s, who is having a spectacular campaign and should be in the NCAA Tournament.
Camara has been perhaps the biggest reason, with seasons of 27.6%, 29.2% (11th nationally and tops in America East), and 27.7% this year (20th nationally). But Tanner Leissner (17.6%) and Jaleen Smith (17.2%) are also excellent defensive rebounders and even 6’ Daniel Dion (9.7%) comes down to chip in. Hartford did get nine offensive rebounds Sunday (23.1%), but after getting one in the first minute of the game, didn’t get another until the waning seconds of the first half, and by then New Hampshire had a 20-point lead (it led 43-20 at the break) and the game was decided.
“We really emphasize defense,” Herrion said. “We really emphasize getting stops, but at the end of that, you have to rebound the basketball or it doesn’t matter. We’ve always put a major emphasis on rebounding. I think that’s something that wins games and championships. We work on that on a daily basis.”
The Wildcats (13-7, 4-2) are dead last (351st) in steal percentage and 334th in forcing turnovers, but they do what they do very, very well.
“At any level of sports, you win championships with veteran teams,” Herrion said. “Our older guys have been through a lot of games, and we’ve been winning the last couple of years. Every game we play and win we’re learning how to win more and play the right way. We’ve had some tough years and fortunately we’ve been able to turn the corner, I guess, and it comes down to having good players. They’re coachable, but we’re not where we need to be yet to win a championship.”
2) The auto-bench
Hassan Attia has been perhaps the most important player Hartford has had defensively this season, which makes sense for a guy who is 6’10” and 270 pounds in America East. But he’s also prone to foul trouble (8.4 per 40 minutes), so when Attia picked up his second foul with 9:15 left in the first half with the Hawks (6-15, 1-5) trailing 23-16, John Gallagher decided it was best to “auto-bench” him for the rest of the half.
Well, by the time Hartford could get in the locker room, New Hampshire led 43-20 (and it was almost 46-20, Kijana Love’s 60-footer at the buzzer was a fraction late on review) and the game was over no matter when Attia could do in the second half.
Here's Hassan's one-hand flush from earlier. Media TO, UNH leads 71-46. pic.twitter.com/QoJVTipVLu
— Hartford Basketball (@HartfordMBB) January 22, 2017
Ken Pomeroy did a recent study on the “auto-bench” and the data were fairly inconclusive due to many possible confounding variables based on individual players and situations. But John Gallagher, who was almost dead in the middle of coaches that put players with two fouls in the first half on the floor (142nd), will likely be less cautious with Attia going forward. Of course, the optimum strategy is not to get those two fouls in the first place. Fundamentals, people.
“First of all, he can’t finish with three fouls on the stat sheet,” Gallagher said. “We have to play him extended minutes with two and three fouls. When teams are going on their runs, he’s not in the game. We just have to go play him. If he gets his third, he gets his third. We don’t have the luxury to not do that. We have to give him the freedom to make mistakes.”
Here's the big-time FLUSH by Hassan. UNH leads 45-24 at 18:52 mark. pic.twitter.com/KZrL3BFRW7
— Hartford Basketball (@HartfordMBB) January 22, 2017
3) Looking for some diversity
Hartford had many problems offensively in the first half, but Jalen Ross (who would finish with 17) had nine points and no other Hawk had more than three. Ross is still over 20 ppg, but Jason Dunne (just 6 Sunday) is down to 13.2 ppg, and JR Lynch (scoreless Sunday) is third at 6.8 ppg, and that’s just not going to get it done, a fact Gallagher is well aware of as he looks for some answers in the second half of the America East schedule. The Hawks are currently 327th in offensive efficiency, dead last in the conference, with a woeful 0.865 ppp.
“I think from where we are, a team that’s beaten Boston College, should have beat Rutgers, to right now, it comes down to certain players not playing to the level they know they can,” Gallagher said. “Then frustration lingers and then you miss six consecutive foul shots (Hartford was a ridiculous 5-16 on free throws), and it snowballs. What you can’t do is hit the panic button, we have to just stay with it. We definitely have pieces here. We have to keep Hassan on the floor. We will get there.”