A Knight’s Tale: Reflecting On The Golden Era of FDU Women’s Hoops 

By Craig D’Amico

Back in 1988-89, Dr. Sharon Beverly took over as the head coach for the Fairleigh Dickinson women’s basketball program. Little did she know what would follow soon thereafter.

Following a first year in Hackensack that featured a one-point upset win over Marist in the NEC Tournament, Beverly brought in her first recruiting class that offseason.

Her “Fab Five” class of Rita Bernert, Meaghan Culkin, Felicia Griffin, Trina Ricketts and Donna Schules would go on to be the core of one of the first dynasties in the Northeast Conference.

In 1989-90, the young Knights would go 9-7 in conference play during the regular season, before stunning the league by upsetting Marist and Mount St. Mary’s to win the program’s first ever NEC Tournament title.  

Sue Steele

“That 1990 year, we came from a three-seed, and we were playing Marist, the two seed,” recalled Dr. Beverly. “We were supposed to be there, get our butts kicked and go back home. I remember we were down at half, and I will never forget. We came out of halftime and Felicia (Griffin) stole the ball three times right out of the half, and we never looked back.”

Fresh off capturing the crown, and with the core of their championship team returning as sophomores in 1990-91, there was much optimism in Hackensack about a repeat. However, it was not to be.

“They were all young and thinking, ‘We’re all back, this will be a piece of cake.’ It was not a piece of cake,” Dr. Beverly remembered.

The Knights went 11-16 (8-8) and finished in seventh place, one game out of a playoff spot.

“We realized that we had the same team, but everyone else was getting better, so we just couldn’t relax and it’s just not going to automatically happen,” said Griffin. “We had to go back and put in that extra hard work and rely on each other as teammates.”

So the Knights went into the offseason prior to the 1991-92 campaign motivated to put their underperforming title defense year behind them and reclaim their spot at the top of the NEC.

“Oh yeah, we were motivated. We were motivated from the last game of that 1991 season until we got back on the court in October,” said Culkin. “I felt like we came back in 1991-92 ready to play from day one.”

The Knights burst out to a 6-0 start in non-conference play, highlighted by a landmark victory against Seton Hall.

“A key moment in our season was our win in non-conference over Seton Hall,” said Dr. Beverly. “We went to the free throw line and had to sink two free throws to win that game. We had never beaten Seton Hall. We hadn’t even come close. But there was never a doubt we were going to make those free throws, and when we made them, I just stood there and looked around and said to myself. ‘I’m going to take this all in for a minute.’ It was an amazing game for us, and a key moment for our team and our season. I was so proud of them.” 

Dr. Sharon Beverly

“We had confidence going into conference play,” said Culkin, “and that Seton Hall game definitely gave us that confidence.”

In conference play, the Knights started 7-0, including wins against rivals Marist, Mount St. Mary’s and Monmouth. However, FDU would stumble in midseason, dropping two out of three, with a five-point loss at Robert Morris followed by a heartbreaking three-point setback at Mount.

Going into the final game of the regular season, the league’s regular season title was still up for grabs. Mount stood at 14-1, and FDU was a game back at 13-2. But a slim 60-59 setback to Saint Francis U, denied the Knights a shot at a regular season crown, and sealed their fate as the tournament’s No. 2 seed. For the Knights, the road to the 1992 title would have to go through Emmitsburg, MD.

The Knights would get past LIU in the semifinals, 69-57, to set up a championship rematch with the Mount. However, their run to the final did not come without adversity.

“In the last game before Mount, Trina (Ricketts), who was one of the leaders in the conference in blocked shots, rebounds, you name it, she breaks her ankle. So we had to go into a championship game with no center. We typically started three guards, but in that championship game we started four guards,” said Beverly.

In 1992, Mount St. Mary’s was in just its third year in the NEC. The Mount had won three straight regular season titles but had fallen short of a championship in each of their prior two tournament appearances. Bill Sheehan’s roster was loaded with talent, including future NEC Hall of Fame inductees Vanessa Blair and Suzie Rowlyk. Entering the tournament’s culminating clash, the Mount were sitting at 23-4 (15-1), with the Knights having handed the Mount their lone NEC defeat.

With both programs looking to establish themselves during the league’s infancy, and now meeting in the championship game for the second time in three years, the Mount/FDU rivalry quickly became the biggest rivalry in the NEC.

Donna Schules

“The Mount/FDU rivalry had such competitive games,” mentioned Blair. “When we were about to play FDU, it was one of those games we couldn’t sleep the night before because we were looking so forward to playing them. It was one of those games we always had circled on our calendar.”

“Mount had such a confidence about them, and they had such an outstanding team,” said Beverly. “What helped us actually was our win in that first championship (in 1990). So in the next championship (in 1992), we had that confidence, and our kids knew they could beat them.”

Without Rickets in the lineup, the Knights started sophomore Christine Bachmann in the post, matched up against Blair, the two-time NEC Player of the Year.

“I think of Christine who had to play center and she looked at me like, ‘I’m going to play Vanessa Blair, at 5’11?’” said Beverly. “But in my mind, I’m saying, ‘I have to figure out a strategy for how to beat them because we came too far. We can’t have this team not win this championship. They are too talented not to do this.’”

The Knights’ strategy in the 1992 final was to use their four-guard lineup to their advantage, to run the Mount out of the gym.

And it worked.

“They weren’t prepared for it. We were never going to stop running,” said Beverly. “We pressed them baseline to baseline, crashed the boards, and we just played with a lot of heart.”

“We were so well conditioned,” recalled Culkin. “We ran everyone into the ground. We played full court defense, non-stop. We were just so focused and determined to win. We were winning in our head before we even stepped on the court. We had the confidence. I remember Coach’s line…’If they can’t score 60, they can’t win.’”  

In the 1992 final, Mount wouldn’t reach 60 points, and they wouldn’t win. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, FDU had reclaimed its throne, upsetting the mighty Mount, 78-55. Juniors Griffin and Bernert were named to the All-Tournament team, and freshman Barbara DeShields was honored as the 1992 NEC Tournament MVP.

Rita Bernert

“Barbara DeShields wasn’t having it. She was not going to be denied in that championship game,” said Blair.

The 1992 FDU squad finished with a program record 23 wins and its second tournament title in three seasons. Following the championship game, while the Knights celebration was underway on their team bus as they awaited their return trip to the Garden State, an unexpected visitor interrupted the party.

“The game is over and we’re partying on the bus,” said Beverly. “All of a sudden we look up and Vanessa Blair is standing there. I look up and she says, ‘Coach Beverly, I just wanted to congratulate you all. You have such a phenomenal team.’”

“I have great respect for Coach Beverly,” said Blair. “At the end of the day, the best team won.”  

The core group of Knights did return in 1992-93 for their senior season to try and defend their title. FDU went 14-4 to earn a share of their program’s first ever regular season championship, and clinched the tournament’s #1 seed. However, the Knights were upset on their home court by Marist in the semis, prematurely ending their season.

“We thought we should have won that one too in 1993. That was pretty rough. As a senior, you want to go out on a high note, and we didn’t. That would’ve been the cherry on top,” said Griffin.

In 2008, 16 years after cutting down the nets, the entire 1992 NEC championship team was honored with induction into the Fairleigh Dickinson Hall of Fame.

“There were five of us that came in together as freshman. Us five, all the way until graduation, we gelled together well because we were Coach Beverly’s first recruits,” said Griffin. “We learned how to play together as a team.”

On February 5, 2022, the Knights celebrated the 30th anniversary of their 1992 title team at the Rothman Center prior to their game against CCSU.

Presently under the direction of head coach Angelika Szumilo, the Knights are enjoying their winningest three year stretch in conference play since those teams of the early ‘90’s. The 2022 Knights can only hope that their current run includes the taste of a championship and the memories of a lifetime that their predecessors collected from 30 years prior.

 “They were a special group,” said Dr. Beverly. “As a coach, you go out and recruit, and you have a vision for what it is going to take to win. When you have an opportunity to coach a group like I had the opportunity to coach, that doesn’t come often.”

Devil in the Details: Two Decades Later, CCSU Legends Recall The Making Of A Champion

By Ryan Peters

The 2000-01 season wasn’t supposed to end like this for Howie Dickenman’s Central Connecticut program. Coming off a three-game losing streak to conclude the regular season, the Blue Devil players were now slogging their way through an arduous NEC tournament quarterfinal matchup versus UMBC, and things continued to worsen.

Without senior point guard Dean Walker, freshman upstart Ricardo Scott and guard Lee Guinn – arguably three of the team’s top six players – for the playoff contest, the Blue Devils failed to generate anything offensively without a viable ball handler on the active roster. Reserve guard Harvey Van Stein admirably tried to fill in as the floor general for the injured Walker, but a bevy of turnovers made it practically impossible to get into a rhythm offensively.

It didn’t matter that UMBC was shooting just 25 percent for the contest, which was well below a Dickenman goal of holding teams under 36 percent shooting. Nor was it a factor that Corsley Edwards, the team’s star center, was putting together another quality performance against a program that was right down the road from his hometown in Baltimore. Central Connecticut simply struggled to keep it competitive that day at Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, New Jersey.

Battered, mentally fraught and exhausted – much of the team stayed up the night before playing video games in the hotel – the Blue Devils committed 25 turnovers against a paltry three assists, shot 36 percent from the floor and made just one triple out of eight attempts.

UMBC defeated the floundering Blue Devils, 59-44, in the first round of the NEC tournament, sending home a squad that had taken Iowa State, the number 2-seed in the Midwest bracket, to the brink of defeat in the 2000 NCAA tournament just 12 months earlier. An event that once seemed improbable for an emerging program, was suddenly a reality.

It was a brutal way for senior forward John Tice to end his collegiate career after dealing with a debilitating case of plantar fasciitis for much of the season, but perhaps it was a necessary step in retrospect.

“The loss was sad for the seniors of the program, but great for the returning guys,” then assistant coach Anthony Latina, now the Sacred Heart head coach, said of the humbling moment. “It was a good reminder that nothing’s guaranteed. You have to come ready to play.”

Edwards was sick to his stomach. The then-junior had dealt with various ailments himself throughout the disjointed campaign, and without consistent practices had let his weight balloon. He knew something had to change, especially after the team was embarrassed by a UMBC program that the Blue Devils had taken for granted.

“It was definitely deflating and that’s what motivated us for the next year, because I got on a lot of guys,” Corsley recalled. “I said ‘(all of you) returning, this is where we need to be at, I need you guys to step up.’”

After declaring for the NBA draft that summer to solicit the opinions of professional scouts, Edwards returned to CCSU humbled by the feedback. He needed to enhance his fitness, and Dickenman challenged his leadership skills upon his return to campus. As someone who experienced the ultimate high of winning a NEC championship in 2000, he was cognizant of what needed to be done.

“My conditioning definitely improved,” Edwards said of that critical offseason, which consisted of daily workouts that incorporated running, lifting and the stairmaster at 30-minute intervals, starting at 5 AM every morning.

“I think he matured,” Dickenman said of that offseason with respect to Edwards. “Frontcourt players I think take a little more time to mature as players and people, for whatever the reason, than perimeter players.”

In a way, it was an about face for the 6-foot-8 Baltimore native who came to Central Connecticut as an out-of-shape, yet highly talented recruit. Then a 325-pound senior in high school, Dickenman came down to the Edwards household to make a recruiting pitch to the athletic post presence who would eventually become a pivotal figure in the program’s revival.

“He came and sat in my mother and father’s house and said ‘Oh yeah, word on the street is you’re soft.’” Edwards recollected with a chuckle. “I think the challenge is what got me, no other coach (was) telling me what I needed to hear.”

In the midst of Dickenman’s brutally candid criticism, he asked Edwards to stand up in the middle of the room. Dickenman walked over to him, standing toe-to-toe with the recruit. “So I walked up to his chest and I hit him with an elbow real hard, and I said ‘that’s what you have to do when someone cuts across the lane, you need to say hello. And the reason you need to say hello is to make sure they don’t cut through the lane anymore.’”

The bold presentation paid off, as Edwards and his father loved Dickenman’s sincerity. Soon thereafter, despite receiving interest from several other Division I institutions, Edwards signed his letter of intent to play at Central Connecticut. Now more than four years after that moment, Edwards was maturing into the senior leader Dickenman needed him to be.

Others needed to step up as well, especially with the graduations of Tice, Walker and Guinn. Soon-to-be sophomores Ricardo Scott, Damian Battles and Ron Robinson were the next men up, so to speak. Robinson wasn’t ever one to back down from a challenge, as his personality mirrored that of Dickenman’s. It’s what drew the Bronx native to the Nutmeg State school in the first place.

“It’s crazy, because we had totally different upbringings at two totally different places in our lives and we definitely had the same personality when it came to basketball,” Robinson said of his similarities with his college coach. “It was like, ‘I’m going to go through you to get this rebound’ or ‘I’m going to do what I need to do.’ It was a no friends type of deal on the court, just a real toughness mentality.”

As someone who initially made his impact felt as a hard-nosed rebounder, Robinson rose to the challenge that summer to expand his game. Others followed suit as well, including Battles who had averaged just 5.7 points per game as a rookie.

“We had a really good offseason,” Latina said. “Damian really got a lot better. Ron Robinson: I know he didn’t make a first or second team all-league (in 2002), but I’m telling you right now there’s no way there were 10 players better than Ron Robinson.”

Then assistant coach Pat Sellers, now running his own program at CCSU as the 11th head coach in its storied history, believed the frontcourt partnership between Robinson and Edwards is what made the Blue Devils so good that season.

“Ron Robinson gave us a different look because he was such a tough guy,” Sellers, himself a former player and graduate of CCSU, said. “Corsley Edwards was an NBA level guy and Ron was key because he took Coach D’s personality.”

With an imposing frontline of Edwards and Robinson in place, perimeter players such as the silky-smooth Scott and the tough-as-nails Battles had more freedom to be aggressive and physical on the perimeter defensively. The only thing missing was an accomplished point guard. Enter junior college transfer John Alexander.

“He was a vital addition to a team that really lacked (a true point guard) the year before,” Latina said of the fearless 5-foot-10 guard from Quantico, Virginia. “John took a lot of the ball handling pressure off all the other perimeter players. Damian and Ricardo could really focus on finishing plays and scoring.”

With the starting roster in place, the Blue Devils got off to a fast start after a lopsided defeat in the season opener at Oklahoma. The team then rattled off four straight non-conference wins – all won by at least two possessions – heading into their Northeast Conference opener versus St. Francis Brooklyn. That’s when the first bit, and perhaps only bit, of adversity hit the Blue Devils during the regular season.

The memory is vivid in Dickenman’s mind even 20 years later. “St. Francis Brooklyn had a player named Bronski Dockery who was 7 of 7 from three, and as I remember correctly, he was well guarded and he was two steps behind the arc,” he said of that humbling home defeat in front of 2,120 fans.

The lights-out shooting performance by the Terriers at Detrick Gymnasium – they shot a remarkable 14 of 25 from deep and scored 1.21 points per possession – opened the floodgates for pessimistic feelings after the final buzzer sounded with the Terriers victorious, 82-69.

“I said to my staff, ‘it’s going to be a challenge to finish in the upper half of the league to earn a home game in the NEC tournament,’” Dickeman said. “Then we went the rest of the (Northeast Conference) season and we didn’t lose a game!”

After a few more out-of-conference losses, mainly from guarantee games, the Blue Devils embarked on one of the most impressive stretches any Northeast Conference program has ever been a part of. They won 19 straight league games to earn the program its second regular season title in three seasons.

There may not have been much adversity between the lines on game day, yet according to then assistant coach Chris Casey, the unforgiving practices that Dickenman engineered did plenty to toughen up the talented roster.

“Coach D did a great job of making practice intense every day and getting after guys to be better every day,” Casey, once the Niagara head coach and now a Fairfield assistant coach, said. “He made sure you got after it every day, that in itself maybe creates a little adversity, because it challenges guys.”

The three to four-hour practices incorporated a lot of one-on-one defensive and shell drills and undoubtedly built character. The strenuous efforts served as a great motivator to uphold a passion of Dickenman’s from day one: play hard-nosed, suffocating defense without fouling.

“A lot of the (practice) stuff, I don’t think you could do now,” Sellers said with a laugh when recalling the impossibly long practice sessions. Some of those laborious challenges included getting into various defensive stances while holding bricks, an old tactic used by Dickenman’s coach back when he played at CCSU, Bill Detrick. The mere memory of those taped up bricks is something that makes former players wince to this day.

“The bricks you didn’t want to do; that usually came with bad defensive outings.” Robinson said. “It works, it’s very effective because you don’t forget that… you don’t want to do the bricks so you make sure you do what you need to do while you’re out there.”

Other tactics, which involved Dickenman keeping his players on their toes, were effective at getting the message across as well. One time, the surly coach wasn’t pleased with his center after a lackluster 20 minutes, and he needed to get his point across in the locker room at halftime.

“Howie was like ‘Big Dog, Big Dog’ when he’s walking back and forth in front of the (white) board,” Edwards, who was affectionately known as ‘Big Dog’ to his teammates, recalled of the moment that inevitably made him upset and inspired a better second half. “He wrote on the board ‘Little Puppy’ and then said, ‘That’s what you’re doing today.’”

No matter the tactics, the defensive improvement was substantial. CCSU gave up just 63.1 points per game for the 2001-02 season, a stark improvement after allowing 71.8 points per game the season prior. Even more impressive was the Blue Devils possessed the third best defensive foul rate in all of Division I basketball, leading to CCSU making more free throws (513) than their opponents even attempted (464) at the charity stripe for the entirety of the season.

Despite the defensive dominance and the shiny 19-1 mark in NEC play, there still was the pesky single-elimination tournament the Blue Devils had to get through if they wanted to participate in the Big Dance. It was always a challenge to come out on top in a one game format, especially with a target on your back.

“When Central Connecticut came to town, (the opponent) put their best foot forward, so we got everybody’s best look,” Robinson said.

Case in points: eighth-seeded Sacred Heart led Central Connecticut late in the first half of the NEC tournament quarterfinals before a Blue Devils mid-game spurt eventually put the upset minded Pioneers away. The five Blue Devil starters combined to score 61 of the team’s 65 points in a workmanlike 65-54 victory.

The following day, the perimeter savvy St. Francis Brooklyn team once again gave the Blue Devils all they could handle. This time around, the defense locked in on the Terriers’ shooters, holding Ron Ganulin’s club to 7 of 19 from deep while out-rebounding them by nine. Timely double-doubles from Robinson (10 points, 15 rebounds) and Scott (11 points, 12 rebounds) allowed CCSU to survive the nailbiter.

All that stood between the program’s next NCAA tournament appearance was Quinnipiac, a team the Blue Devils handled two times earlier in the regular season. Game number three was to be played at Detrick Gymnasium, giving CCSU a decided advantage against their in-state rival. The Blue Devils fans, who were in line as early as 4 AM the day of the game to get tickets, packed Detrick to a capacity not ever seen before. 

“We are downstairs in our offices while the teams are getting ready to play, and you could hear the bleachers getting beat up by everyone’s feet,” Dickenman said of the unforgettable environment that night. “I never heard that before – and you could feel a little bit of shake downstairs as to what was going on upstairs.”

To the visiting Bobcats credit, they hung around for the entire game despite the raucous atmosphere thanks to timely three-point shooting in the first half by guard Jared Grasso and reliable interior play from Jeremy Bishop (14 points, 12 rebounds) and Bill Romano (16 points, 8 of 12 shooting). Head coach Joe DeSantis even admits to this day that his first half technical was on purpose, to send a message that the Bobcats weren’t going to lie down to the regular season champions.

In the end, however, the steady guard play of Battles (27 points) and Alexander (14 points, 4 assists), along with Robinson’s tenaciousness around the rim (13 points, 10 rebounds) was too much for Quinnipiac to overcome. Edwards dunk in the closing seconds sealed a NEC Tournament championship that created a sudden rush of crazed Blue Devils students onto the floor.

“That was one of the beautiful feelings ever,” Edwards said of one of the most fond memories of his playing career. “I dunked the ball; I got all these chills just knowing these fans were going to rush the floor at the time.”

Later that weekend, Central Connecticut got the news – they would be traveling to Pittsburgh to take on the 2-seeded Pitt Panthers led by Jamie Dixon. The 15-seed seemed about right, but getting sent to essentially a road game in the first round of the NCAA tournament was a raw deal.

“I needed something to motivate the team, so I said ‘we’re going to take on the whole city of Pittsburgh,” Dickenman recalled when asked how he motivated his players for the moment.

In the early going, the Blue Devils hung around with Battles playing his best basketball. The guard, who finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists, teamed up with Edwards (16 points, 5 rebounds, 5 of 8 shooting) to keep Central Connecticut competitive at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. The Blue Devils trailed by only four points at the break.

In the end, though, the Panthers stout backcourt of Brandin Knight and Julius Page were too much to handle in the home environment. A Page dunk midway through the second half capped off a Pitt run that inevitably doomed Dickenman’s squad and sent them packing.

As the team licked their wounds heading back home at the airport, Dickenman was visited by a surprise guest, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. “He was in line getting an airline ticket and we were going through security,” Dickenman said. “He came over to me, went out of his way and said, ‘I just wanted to say I appreciated how hard your team played.’”

Cowher’s compliment capped off a magical run for Central Connecticut in a season that’ll forever be known as one of the best teams to ever lead the Northeast Conference. More importantly than that were the lives Dickenman impacted off the court, namely Robinson and Edwards. Those imprints last forever.

“To this day, Coach means a whole lot to me beyond basketball. He’s done so much for me,” Robinson said.

Edwards wholeheartedly agreed. “(Coach Dickenman) dedicated himself to me and I appreciate everything.”

Underrated Gems – Highlighting the NEC’s “All-Underrated” Team for this Season

With the Northeast Conference less than a week away from announcing the league’s best players at regular season’s close, I wanted to highlight some lesser known guys whose value has been undervalued by most. These players aren’t going to earn an all-conference distinction, nor will they typically find their way into the league’s weekly write-up as a Prime Performer. Despite this lack of recognition, it’s generally known among the coaches that these players have been invaluable toward their respective program’s successes. Allow me to highlight six such players to shine a spotlight on the NEC’s mostly quiet contributions.

Ja’Mier Fletcher, Wagner

Here’s a pop quiz, and don’t look head over to ESPN.com or KenPom to figure out the answer. From an offensive rating and effective field goal percentage standpoint, who’s been the most productive player in the Seahawks green and white this season? If I asked anyone this – the casual fan, the diehard blogger and everyone in between – I doubt they would peg third year power forward Fletcher, but here we are. As a reserve big on Bashir Mason’s important second unit, the bruising 6-foot-7 center has been a revelation, shooting 64.3 percent from 2 while grabbing 19.6 percent of the opponent’s misses on the floor. What’s more is Fletcher has used improved fitness and added dexterity to make him more nimble and rim-run on a Wagner squad that loves to get in transition off live-ball turnovers and defensive rebounds. It’s no wonder Fletcher has posted career highs in offensive rating (125.7), free throw rate (67.4% FTA/FGM) and turnover rate (10.8 percent) as a center best utlitized for 12-20 minutes off the bench. There are many stars and well-known role guys on this Seahawks group, but don’t let Fletcher be forgotten just because he backs up star big man Raekwon Rogers.

Tre Mitchell, Central Connecticut State

It’s been a tough go of it offensively for Mitchell this season, as the senior has struggled to make perimeter shots. While his inability to generate consistent offense has been a surprise, head coach Pat Sellers has encouraged the guard to make his impact felt on the other end of the floor. Mitchell has heeded his coach’s advice over the past month, consistently being tasked to defend the opponent’s best perimeter presence, while also serving as “the point guard of the defense.” Mitchell’s high basketball IQ, athleticism and astute positioning is a big reason why the Blue Devils are significantly better defensively when Mitchell is on the floor. Per Hoop Explorer, Central Connecticut gives up nearly 10 fewer points per 100 possessions (adjusted based on schedule) when the 6-foot-3 Arizona native is between the lines, a huge impact that quite frankly may not be met by any other player competing in the Northeast Conference. If the jump shot ever comes around – Mitchell has done better of late, making 10 of 30 from deep in his last 6 games – then Sellers is convinced the selfless guard would become a household name in NEC circles.

Luis Hurtado, Bryant

Here’s what one assistant coach in the NEC told me regarding Hurtado: “He’s only quiet from a number’s perspective… Super smart. Great passer. Gets them into the transition game. He’s awesome with the pieces around.” Well, there you go. WIth all of the defensive focus on the best scoring duo in the country in Peter Kiss and Charles Pride, the 6-foot-6 Hurtado is a forgotten man despite showcasing a multi-faceted skill set that’s pivotal in making Bryant’s offense tick. Just look at the analytical metrics – he’s third in offensive rating (118), first in effective field goal percentage (66.7 percent) and sixth in assist rate (24.7 percent) in league play while registering a pristine assist to turnover ratio of 3.0 (64 assists versus 21 turnovers). Not only is he a great teammate that helps contribute to Bryant’s league leading offensive efficiency, but on the other end his size, high IQ, and positioning – he’s very good at using his big frame to absorb contact and draw charges – is an underrated part of Bryant’s defense. Quite simply, he is the prototypical glue guy that keeps a shortened Bryant rotation together for Jared Grasso.

Jordan McKoy, Merrimack

In the absence of Devin Jensen for much of the season, Merrimack’s Jordan McKoy has stepped up to fill an invaluable need for the Warriors as a sharpshooting guard who’s been solid defensively in their hybrid 2-3 zone. His 21-point, 7-triple barrage several weeks ago in North Andover versus LIU single handedly carried his team to victory back then, and in other contests his complementary skill set to slashers like Malik Edmead and Mikey Watkins and post presence Jordan Minor has fit like a puzzle for Merrimack’s offensive attack. When McKoy posts a KenPom offensive rating in a contest north of 100, Merrimack is 10-5 in such games (and 3-10 in the other games). His strengths as one of the league’s most deadly catch-and-shoot weapons has been a pleasant surprise and shouldn’t go unnoticed despite being the 3rd and 4th option on the floor to score the basketball. The Warriors 3-point percentage dovetails from 34.9 percent to 26.7 percent when McKoy has a seat on the bench this season.

Kyndall Davis, LIU

While we’ve already seen plenty of Kyndall Davis’ athleticism showcased on scintillating dunks designed to end up in the NEC-9 and/or SportsCenter’s top 10, the sophomore guard is much more than just a highlight reel waiting to happen. His defensive impact is a significant reason why the Sharks are currently posting the third best defensive efficiency (97.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) and steal rate (11.4 percent) in league play. Per Hoop Explorer, the Sharks are 5.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 3.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively when the Chicago native is competing. For a 6-foot-5 guard, Davis offers that unique blend of finishing near the rim (57.1 percent 2PT) while registering nationally ranked block (3.4 percent) and steal (2.5 percent) rates. That combination serves Kellogg’s group very well when they are running down the floor; over the course of LIU’s current 4-game winning streak, the Sharks have outscored their opponents in fast break points 69 to 33. Davis is a big part of that.

Oscar Berry, Fairleigh Dickinson

Last, but not least, is the youngest member of my “all-underrated team” in freshman sharpshooter Oscar Berry. Despite missing the first four games of his collegiate career due to injury, the Melbourne, Austrailia native leads all NEC freshmen (yes, all freshmen) in Bart Torvik’s PORPAGATU! metric which measures a player’s value versus replacement value. He’s second in the metric on his team, only trailing the also underrated John “Mikey” Square, while leading his teammates in KenPom offensive rating (123.2), 3-point percentage (43.1 percent) and turnover rate (12.8 percent). Furthermore, Berry’s floor spacing ability gives Greg Herenda’s unit a boost offensively, making Fairleigh Dickinson 5 points per 100 possessions (adjusted based on schedule) better on the offensive end of the floor according to Hoop Explorer. There are plenty of exciting rookies on this Knights squad, and Berry is certainly among them.

Knight of the Road: NEC Roots Run Deep for CCSU Head Coach Pat Sellers

(Photo Credit: Steve McLaughlin)

If there was something needed to get the immensely athletic and talented 6-foot-8 Kaleb Bishop going, Patrick Sellers was the man for the job.

Back as a Fairleigh Dickinson assistant, Sellers was there at the Rothman Center to instill his years of wisdom and service for the betterment of the Knight players. He gladly embraced the role, even if it meant a grown man making a lawnmower sound before the typically difficult practice sessions engineered by the program’s leader, Greg Herenda.

“I’d walk up to (Kaleb) before practice or a game and I would act like I was starting a lawnmower, pulling the strings, telling him ‘we’re going to get this motor going, this motor going,’” Sellers recalled.

Bishop fondly remembers how the tradition, now a pre-practice, pre-game staple at Fairleigh Dickinson, Fairfield and Central Connecticut State, commenced. “He’d always say ‘KB, you have NBA ability, potential, just get the motor going’ because he coached so many guys at UConn and elsewhere,” the former Knight, now a professional player for Kagoshima Rebnise in Japan’s B3 league, said.

And so starting the lawnmower before every practice became a ritual the Knights openly embraced. It was especially embraced by Bishop, who not coincidentally enjoyed his two most efficient seasons when Sellers was on Fairleigh Dickinson’s bench. All of that extra time in the film room and after practice getting up shots with Sellers paid dividends, so to speak.

“I definitely do credit him as to why I had so much success,” Bishop, who averaged 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in his collegiate career, said. “He really helped me elevate my game. Even off the court we talked about different things, we talked about investing money right after college… he just made everybody around him better.”

After two years of coaching at DePaul, Sellers was close to accepting a scouting assignment before receiving Herenda’s call during the 2016 offseason. Herenda, in need of a qualified coach and bonafide motivator, convinced the well-traveled assistant to stay in coaching. All he had to do was traverse from Chicago to the Garden State for his next gig.

(Photo Credit: Larry Levanti)

“His love of the game is contagious, and that’s really Pat’s strength along with being knowledgeable and being brought up with (Jim) Calhoun, (Steve) Lappas, (Dave) Leitao and all the great coaches,” Herenda said when asked why Sellers received that call. “Experience at any level is important, so we had experienced players and experienced coaches and good ones at that. Pat fit like a glove.”

Mike Holloway, one critical part of the talented frontcourt trio that consisted of him, Bishop and Elyjah Williams, always enjoyed listening to Sellers’ “war stories” about his past basketball trials and tribulations. It was through these experiences of dealing with tough, hardened personalities that Sellers, a 1991 Central Connecticut State graduate, thrived in serving as the perfect antidote to a detailed and demanding coach like Herenda. 

“Coach Sellers was always good at getting me to calm down and get me back into the game mode and make me realize the bigger picture, what’s really at stake here,” Holloway, now a Knights graduate assistant coach, said.

(Photo Credit: Larry Levanti)

Perhaps more importantly, Sellers also effectively shielded Herenda’s ire at times when the big man made a mistake on the floor. That couldn’t have been more evident in the 2019 Northeast Conference tournament final at Saint Francis University, a team that Sellers was tasked with serving as a “scout” for throughout the 2018-19 season. 

Coming out of a timeout late in the first half, Sellers’ deep research on Rob Krimmel’s squad presented an opportunity.

“At the timeout, I said, ‘Hey look for this play, they are probably going to run this play,’” Sellers recalled of the moment. “They came out of the timeout and ran the exact play I was talking about and Mike Holloway doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do and they score it.”

Furious at Holloway missing a defensive rotation, Herenda frustratingly hurled his suit jacket in the direction of the Fairleigh Dickinson bench while simultaneously barking at his staff. The jacket unintentionally landed on Sellers’ head while sitting on the bench, all for every television viewer to witness. 

“He threw it in the area and it plopped right on my face on TV so all my boys saw it on TV and started laughing, cracking up,” Sellers said while laughing at the infamous moment.

To add insult to injury, the referee mistakenly thought Herenda’s outburst was directed toward the officiating crew. Not only did the Red Flash score the basket, but they were awarded two free throws after Herenda’s technical. 

Like Sellers, Holloway can do nothing but laugh about the moment, especially after the Knights pulled away in the second half to win the NEC tournament championship, 85-76, punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. “Coach (Sellers) knew exactly what was going on, I just didn’t execute the play and it all came down on me,” Holloway, who finished with 12 points and 6 rebounds in the win, said with a chuckle.

It was that attention to detail that made Sellers such an integral part of Fairleigh Dickinson. It led to the impression that the assistant made his home on the Hackensack campus.

(Photo Credit: Larry Levanti)

“I never knew where Pat lived for the entire time he (was at FDU),” Herenda joked. “He worked so hard … and he actually lived in Hoboken. I used to kid him all the time, I thought he slept at the bottom of the Rothman (Center).”

In a way you could forgive Herenda’s impression that the studious Sellers never left the campus. As a self described hoops lifer, the 53-year old has devoured basketball all his life, whether it was the NBA, college, and even the professional leagues overseas. 

Close friend and former colleague Anthony Latina, now the head coach at Sacred Heart, can attest to that. He and Sellers used to share a cramped office at Central Connecticut for four years when they served as assistants for Howie Dickenman.

“Pat is one of the biggest basketball junkies you’re ever going to meet,” Latina confirmed. “One of our biggest differences is Pat is a huge NBA guy, I’m more of a college guy. His favorite day of the year is opening day NBA.”

Bishop compares only his former high school coach at St. Anthony High, the great Bob Hurley, as someone who measures up to Sellers’ basketball knowledge and wisdom.

Back in the early 2000s, before NBA League Pass, the opening night of the NBA was like Christmas to Sellers. He’d hole up in his apartment that day with Dominos Pizza, Gatorade and watch the NBA triple header on TV. 

(Photo Credit: Larry Levanti)

“He actually made me like the NBA more because what he opened my eyes to was just how sophisticated their approach is,” Latina said. “People don’t realize the NBA is almost two or three years ahead of college in terms of schemes and things like that.”

Now three years removed from his memorable time at Fairleigh Dickinson and 20 years removed from Central Connecticut assistant coach days, Sellers will get a chance to square off against his former boss when his Blue Devils travel to the Rothman Center for a Northeast Conference battle with Fairleigh Dickinson on Saturday. There may be a gauntlet of emotions prior to the contest.

“I just loved seeing guys that I coach with become head coaches and I’m just really happy for Pat,” Herenda said. “It’s probably long overdue, but it’s fitting for him to go back there to start where he played.”

For a man who’s been a nomadic college basketball assistant for eight different schools prior to getting the head coaching job at Central Connecticut, the time is now to lead a once proud Blue Devil program back to relevance. And facing off against friends and former colleagues like Latina and Herenda will surely be fun as well.

LIU’s Defense and Transition Attack Are Keeping NEC Teams Off Balance

After highlighting the highly efficient Wagner offense yesterday, today I wanted to hone in on LIU’s excellent attack on the other side of the ball. Coupled with a high tempo that’s always been part of the Sharks’ mantra, at least under Kellogg, the combination of high tempo opportunities and stout defense has proven to give LIU opponents headaches in the month of January. Allow me to delve into their effectiveness.

LIU: Running and Defending Providing a Winning Formula

From the comfort of my basement at this season’s Northeast Conference Virtual Media Day in October, I told Derek Kellogg that LIU’s defense was “sneaky good” the prior season. Perhaps it was my bias that surprised me to see the Sharks finish 2020-21 with the fourth best defensive efficiency in league play, yet to me that was an impressive statistic. Especially after the hellacious, COVID ravaged LIU schedule that included eight games in 17 days and a complete cancellation of their non-conference tilt. So much for working out the kinks in November and December before league play commences.

COVID manufactured hardships aside, LIU came together to produce a fairly stringent defense – they finished fourth in scoring defense (72.9 ppg), third in rebounding margin (+1.7), second in steal rate (11.3 percent) and closed out the helter skelter campaign giving up less than 1.00 point per possession in five of their last six contests. It was LIU’s struggles to score, perhaps exacerbated by the tightened protocols and lack of gym time in New York City, that contributed to a back-breaking 2-4 finish that saw them fall short of the 4-team NEC tournament. 

To Kellogg and his staff’s credit, he kept the faith and pretty much got the band back together, with a few exceptions and one notable upgrade. Now, LIU arguably possesses the most stout defenders one through five in the NEC this season. Taken as a whole, some key defensive metrics illustrate a strong five-year progression that any head coach would be proud of.

Defensive Rating2PT DefenseDefensive FTA/FGATurnover RateSteal Rate
Statistics Courtesy of KenPom

That’s tremendous improvement across the board this season, as the Sharks are beating their NEC counterparts in every one of the aforementioned five categories in league play.  While it’s only a six game sample size in league play, there’s no disputing the strides the program has made since Kellogg was hired in 2017. In some cases the improvement is linear for the most part. 

So how are they doing it? For starters, the Sharks boast average to above average effective height at every position, essentially forcing opponents to shoot over that height, never an easy proposition. LIU sits at 125th nationally and second in the NEC in effective height – Mount St. Mary’s leads the league with their frontcourt trio of Nana Opoku, Malik Jefferson and Mezie Offurum – with significant size advantages at the 3 (+1.1, 49th nationally) and 4 (+0.9, 65th), positions frequently occupied by very good defenders in Eral Penn and Ty Flowers. While Kante is “undersized” in terms of height at the 5, his defensive rebounding acumen – he grabs more than 19 percent of the opponent’s misses off the glass – provides value to a LIU squad that loves to run, even off of defensive rebounds. 

“I think Isaac is such a good defensive rebounder and if we can get teams to take tougher shots or shoot a little bit quicker, he’s done a nice job of cleaning up the boards,” Kellogg said when asked about employing the trio of Kante, Penn and Flowers together on the court. “So instead of having to have five guys in there (offensive rebounding), one or two are able to clear the glass and the other guys can get out and run.”

We’ll get to the Sharks transition game in a second, but allow me to further explain this defensive attack. Due to Kante and Penn’s presence down low, the perimeter defenders have been allowed to be more opportunistic by staying out in space to hunt turnovers. No longer preoccupied with clogging the paint, Flowers, Kyndell Davis and Tre Wood have benefitted with career highs individually in steal rates. The three players, in fact, have combined to extract a staggering 37 steals in the six league games. It’s a big reason why the Sharks have forced 70 turnovers resulting in 85 points off those miscues over this current four-game winning streak. 

The 6-foot-5 uber-athletic Davis, in particular, has emerged as one of the premier perimeter defenders this league has seen in quite some time. “You know he’s tough, he’s really tough,” Kellogg said of his sophomore. “I think he’s a good athlete and he’s committed to it. His Chicago toughness I think allows him to get up in guys and be physical.”

Keep your body in between the ball and Davis, or else. 

Davis’ blend of physicality and athleticism matches up well with Flowers’ wingspan and anticipation, Penn’s motor and hoppiness, Kante’s strength, Wood’s quickness and … well you get the picture. This is a team that can defend!

Due to all the turnovers, many of those the live-ball variety, LIU has been able to get out in transition and produce more efficient scoring opportunities. Per Shot Quality, 23 percent of LIU’s possessions in league play are in transition, a mark that places them third in the league. More importantly, their shot selection in those open floor opportunities has improved during this time, to the point where Shot Quality has assigned LIU a SQ PPP of 1.02 on shots in transition. That is the 3rd best mark in the NEC and a significant improvement from a 0.92 SQ PPP in non-conference play. 

Fast tempo has been a calling card of Kellogg throughout his head coach career, and this season is no different, especially now with LIU out-scoring their last four opponents on astounding 106 to 25 in fast break opportunities!

“Philosophy wise we like to try to get out in transition, get it up somewhat quickly and I feel like we’re getting a little more patient and opportunistic than in year’s past,” Kellogg said of this team’s play. 

Overall, the defend and run model has worked to near perfection with the Sharks sitting at 4-2 in league play heading into their much anticipated showdown with Wagner. And honestly if they hadn’t run into a career shooting day up at Merrimack, LIU cound be a game better and just one back of the defending regular season champions. 

Nevertheless, Kellogg loves the direction his team is heading. “I do like the makeup of this team,” he said. “They come everyday to practice hard, we’ve got good, older leadership and my job is kind of captaining the ship right now and letting these guys take the team over and it’s becoming more of a player’s team over the past couple of years.”