34 Previews in 34 Days: Sacred Heart

Outlook: As the best frontcourt in the league, the pieces are there, but Sacred Heart needs good health and solid backcourt play to emerge as a legitimate NEC contender. 

Last year: 13-19 (8-10 NEC)

Who’s in: Alex Watson (G); E.J. Anosike (PF); Kinnin LaRose (G); Jaecee Martin (PG); Anthony Boeteng (PG)

Who’s out: Quincy McKnight (G); Matej Buovac (F); Shawn Montague (F)

Key non-conference games: at St. John’s (12/2/17); at Hartford (12/11/17)

Sacred Heart hasn’t played the type of basketball Anthony Latina prefers over the past two seasons. Latina’s preferred offensive system focuses on high tempo, sharing the basketball and scoring balance, but instead it morphed into a star-centric scheme that gave complete freedom to one player. While this philosophy shift may have been prudent when Cane Broome was running the offense, the offensive attack slumped last year after Quincy McKnight controlled more than 33% of the team’s possessions. In fact, only three NEC players since 2002 have posted a larger possession rate than McKnight did.

The offense’s reliance on the mostly inefficient McKnight (92.5 offensive rating) wasn’t a good recipe, as the Pioneers finished seventh in offensive efficiency (1.01 points per possession) and last in turnover rate (22.1%) while slumping to an eighth seed in the NEC tournament. They gave Mount St. Mary’s, the eventual league champions, all they could handle in the NEC tournament quarterfinals, yet the mediocre campaign was a disappointment.

Of course, much of the blame shouldn’t be levied on McKnight, as a perfect storm was brewing in the preseason to lead up to that point where the guard had fully autonomy of the offense. Mario Matasovic was out most of the preseason with a lower leg injury. Joe Lopez and Cha Cha Tucker needed time to adjust to the Pioneers’ scheme as junior college transfers. De’von Barnett and Sean Hoehn aren’t the type of alpha-male players who’ll take over an offense when needed; rather, they serve best as complimentary pieces. All of this led to star-ball by McKnight and for better or worse, Latina and his staff rode the wave throughout the season.

With McKnight now off to the Big East, the offensive chemistry may be improved. Sure, McKnight was the most talented and athletic player in the program, yet he’s likely better cast as a jack-of-all-trades type of guard, the kind of player he was as a freshman when Broome had the keys to the offense. Filling McKnight’s possessions will be of the utmost concern and will be the focal point as the Pioneers begin Latina’s fifth year as the head coach.

First, let’s look at the depth chart:

  • PG: Tucker, Martin
  • G: Hoehn, Watson
  • G: LaRose, Robinson
  • PF: Lopez, Barnett
  • PF: Matasovic, Anosike
    Others: Zach Radz

The Pioneers enter this season with the undisputed, best frontcourt in the league, assuming their bigs can stay healthy. Joe Lopez has an outside chance at averaging a double double for the season, given his presence in the post (57.7% 2PT), his ability to run the floor and his offensive rebounding (12.9% offensive rebound rate) skills. Sacred Heart must keep the opportunistic scorer involved, which means funneling the offense through him in the post at times.

Lopez’s battery mates down low, Mario Matasovic and De’von Barnett, were infected by the injury bug last season. Matasovic has the potential to serve as a useful stretch five, the kind of winning player who does a number of things well on the court. Barnett has been an enigma, who needs to get over the mental hurdle as someone who’s suffered from a lot of injuries. The plan of having Barnett come off the bench, much like Jordan Allen did as a junior, could ease the burden and allow for his athleticism and efficiency – he did make 55% of his 2s before last season – to shine through. At least that is the Sacred Heart coaching staff’s hope.

As if that wasn’t enough, Latina was able to lure E.J. Anosike to the Fairfield campus after receiving a slew of mid-major offers. The 6-7 power forward, whose brother was a rebounding beast at Siena once upon a time, will be relegated to a backup role if the regulars are healthy, yet the polished post player is a nice insurance policy to have if Matasovic and Barnett start visiting the trainer’s tables again.

With an impressive array of bigs, Sacred Heart will need its overall guard play to step up in the absence of McKnight and sharpshooter Matej Buovac. Incombants Tucker, Hoehn and Robinson have their niche, but none profile as an all-conference player types.

Specifically, Tucker needs to channel his inner Phil Gaetano and become a floor general that is more aggressive off the bounce and averages 5 apg and a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. Last season the point guard struggled with turnovers and wasn’t the defensive presence Latina had originally expected. Described as having the best work ethic this side of Drew Shubik, Hoehn could see a jump in production after an inconsistent sophomore year where there were far too many games of 4 points or less. Robinson will remain as a streaky, energetic guard off the bench, who when hot, can add 6 to 9 points on the board in a hurry.

The three aforementioned guards could be viewed as high floor players, whereas the two newcomers, Kinnon LaRose (formerly at Siena) and freshman Alex Watson, have a real opportunity to make their mark. LaRose profiles as an excellent 3-point specialist, where Watson has drawn comparisons to Bryant’s Adam Grant in his versatility and ability to generate offense on his own. Additionally, freshman point guard Jaecee Martin led the state of Connecticut in assists as a high school senior – he’ll be around to challenge Tucker if the senior isn’t playing up to expectations.

In all, it’s a deep group that may or may not have a player capable of taking games over in the narrow NEC. There are plenty of scoring options, yet will someone step up and become that player who’ll serve as a safety net? It’ll be interesting to see how it all develops.

One thing is fairly certain: the likelihood of another player commanding more than 30% of the team’s possessions is remote. Latina’s preferred offensive scheme should be alive and well now that Broome and McKnight are no longer on campus.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride. Ryan wrote all ten NEC previews as well as the Iona, Manhattan and St. Peter’s preview for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. Reserve your copy of the college basketball “bible” here.