Enter the point guard. In Baker Dunleavy’s first year at the helm in Hamden, Quinnipiac will turn to another fresh face to facilitate its offense.
Incoming freshman Rich Kelly projects to play the lion’s share of minutes at the point in 2017-18. As the only true point guard on a roster thinned by transfers, the Connecticut native will be tossed into the front lines of action out of necessity for the Bobcats.
“It’s set up for him right now to kind of get thrown into the fire,” Dunleavy said of Kelly. “But he’s a very intelligent person and player, and he’s tough.”
Although Kelly’s hometown of Shelton is less than a half hour’s drive from Hamden, Quinnipiac was never more than a blip on his radar. The extent of Kelly’s experience with the school came years ago when he visited campus to attend a youth basketball camp run by Joe DeSantis, who as head coach of the Braves-turned-Bobcats helped guide the program through its rise from Division II to Division I.
As Kelly developed into a high school player, his path took him to powerhouse Montverde Prep in Florida. There he played on the same squad as current NBA players Ben Simmons and D’Angelo Russell. The Eagles posted a perfect 28-0 record in that 2013-14 season and claimed the boys’ high school national title.
Following that successful stint with the Eagles, Kelly returned to Connecticut for two years at Fairfield Prep. As a member of the Jesuits, Kelly helped take home the Connecticut Class LL Championship in 2015, then led the team to a state semifinal appearance the following year.
Kelly then ended up one town north of Hamden for a postgraduate year at Cheshire Academy. As he became accustomed to his new surroundings and continued to seek Division I offers, nearby Quinnipiac began to stick out more and more.
“I went to Cheshire Academy last year like fifteen minutes away and started hearing more about Quinnipiac,” Kelly said. “Coach [Tom] Moore started coming to some games and then I started to look into it and realized how nice it is. I had no idea how nice the campus was, the beautiful gym and great people on the team. It’s kind of a hidden gem right under my nose.”
It was Moore who initially offered Kelly a scholarship to play with the Bobcats, but all that was left in the air when the coach was let go in early March, just days before Kelly’s planned visit to the University.
When it was announced Dunleavy would be taking over the team and Tom Pecora would join him as an assistant, Kelly’s father reached out to Pecora, with whom he had an established relationship. After the new staff reviewed Kelly’s credentials, they decided to honor the previous administration’s scholarship offer.
“Just getting to know coach Baker was great,” Kelly recalled. “I really wanted to come here already, but I sat down with him and I committed after like 30 minutes. I was sold already.”
It was at Cheshire Academy where Kelly met current Hofstra sophomore Eli Pemberton. A Connecticut native himself, Pemberton put together a stellar freshman season for the Pride, averaging 12.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game. In the offseason, Pemberton was able to return to Cheshire Academy for workouts, and it was there he and Kelly developed a strong friendship.
“He’s going to shock the MAAC,” Pemberton said of Kelly. “He’s smart IQ-wise as a point guard; he can pass first, but still get to the cup and create for everybody. He just seems so calm. I like that, so poised every time he plays basketball.”
The plan was not always for Kelly to shoulder such a burden in his freshman campaign. Michigan graduate Andrew Dakich was initially slated to join the Bobcats and split time at the point, but a late opening on Ohio State’s roster presented an opportunity to remain in the Midwest, and Dakich seized it.
In his stead, Penn State transfer Isaiah Washington will likely take on some of the load at point and spell Kelly when necessary.
“He’ll play some point for us this year as well, but he does a little bit of everything,” Dunleavy said of Washington. “Coming from a high-major level where he was a reserve, he’s really hungry to establish himself and have a big role on the team.”
Dunleavy himself remains grounded in his expectations, but optimistic about Kelly’s ability to handle such a critical duty and ultimately grow from the experience.
“For me to not expect some mistakes would be unrealistic,” Dunleavy said. “He’s going to make some mistakes and it’s more a matter of how we get better and grow from them. He’s shown me a lot; I’m excited about him. I think whatever he gets this year he’s going to earn, and he’s got no false pretenses about that.”
As for Kelly? He’s more than happy to rise to the challenge.
“He’s told me a lot is going to be depending on me and I’m going to need to step up,” Kelly said of Dunleavy’s expectations. “It’s a lot of pressure, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.