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Ushering in a new era
Photos by Megan Lowe
The Quinnipiac men’s basketball team is full of fresh faces both on the court and on the sidelines, as its offseason was filled with roster and staff turnover.
It all started in late March when Baker Dunleavy was hired to take over as the seventh head coach in Quinnipiac men’s basketball history, replacing Tom Moore, who led the Bobcats to a 10-21 record last season.
Dunleavy had been the associate head coach at Villanova since 2013, including when they won the 2016 NCAA Division I National Championship.
After Dunleavy’s hiring, the roster shakeup began.
MAAC Rookie of the Year and leading scorer (16.5 points per game [PPG]) Mikey Dixon and MAAC All-Rookie Team selection Peter Kiss (13.3 PPG) left for St. John’s and Rutgers, respectively. Former junior college transfers Phil Winston, Reggie Oliver and Ja’Kwan Jones also elected to leave Quinnipiac after one season. The team lost two other key players, Donovan Smith (7.0 PPG) and Daniel Harris (6.4 PPG), due to graduation.
Graduate student guard Isaiah Washington, a transfer from Penn State with two years of eligibility remaining, headlines the newcomers looking to contribute. Sam Donahue, another graduate guard, played two years as a walk-on at Boston College before coming to Quinnipiac. Both Washington and Donahue are eligible to play this season.
Sophomore transfers Kevin Marfo, a forward, and Travis Atson, a guard, are ineligible to play this year due to NCAA transfer rules. They will sit out this season, then play for the next three. Marfo comes from George Washington while Atson transferred from Tulsa. Atson tore his ACL in practice just a few weeks ago, and will spend the next six to eight months rehabbing his right knee.
With all this roster and coaching movement, Quinnipiac was picked 11th of 11 teams in the MAAC Preseason Coaches’ Poll.
“We don’t really talk about it,” junior guard Andrew Robinson said. “We’ve seen it, it was noted and we’ll just kind of use it as motivation. We know we’re not the worst team in the MAAC, so, at least for me, it was laughable like, ‘Alright, they think we’re the worst team, that’s crazy.’”
The lone bright spot in the preseason poll came with senior center Chaise Daniels, who was named to the Preseason All-MAAC Third Team.
Quinnipiac’s top returning scorer (13 PPG), Daniels is focused on making the most of his final year in Hamden.
For the Bobcats to make the most of Daniels’ last year, they must improve on defense. Quinnipiac struggled mightily on defense last season, giving up 83.3 PPG over its 31 games, the worst in the MAAC by over four points.
“Last year, we scored the ball a lot, but we just couldn’t get stops,” Chigha said. “It became a game of scoring, like who could outscore who. (This year) we will be more focused on how to defend without fouling and how to be solid on defense. That’s a great component because the more you can stop somebody, like they say, defense wins championships.”
That is especially true in the MAAC, in which the top two regular season teams, Monmouth and Saint Peter’s, finished third (73.6 PPG) and first (60.8 PPG), respectively, in PPG allowed.
Getting an almost completely new group of players to defend well, as a team, can be a difficult task, so Dunleavy clearly feels as though it is important to emphasize it in practice.
“We’ve got a new group and new coach,” Dunleavy said. “So just the cohesiveness, the communication, the connectedness, naturally just aren’t going to be there right away.”
An essential aspect of a successful defense is communication. Upperclassmen will be relied upon for those duties, but it is not limited to them.
“I’ve been (a leader on this team) since my freshman year,” junior forward Abdulai Bundu said. “This year is about being a little bit more vocal. As an older returning guy, we know what to expect in this conference. We want to give (the younger guys) the experience so that when we leave, they know what to do for the next group.”
One young player that is expected to be heavily relied upon is freshman point guard Rich Kelly, a product of nearby Cheshire Academy. Dunleavy says Kelly has been impressive as a leader on the floor early in practice.
With his calm demeanor, Kelly knows exactly what his coaches and teammates expect out of him at the point guard position.
“The point guard generally has to be an extension of the coach on the floor,” Kelly said. “I’m trying to embody that and get on the same page as Coach Dunleavy and just relay what he wants to the other guys.”
Dixon last year and Kelly this year makes this the second consecutive season in which the Bobcats will be led by a freshman at the point.
“Rich (Kelly) has been amazing,” Daniels said. “For him to just come out of high school and be thrown in the fire, similar to Pete (Kiss) and Mikey (Dixon)’s situation (last year), is impressive. He’s been balling, responding well on both ends (of the floor).”
Another freshman that has been impressive in practice is Australian guard Jacob Rigoni. He has played in multiple tournaments for the U20 Australian national team and was named MVP at the Australian U20 National Championships in 2017.
“Jacob is a great player. He challenges me a lot in practice,” Robinson said. “He’s a great shooter, a guy that’s going to have a really bright future here.”
Another area that the Bobcats must work at is focus and practice habits. A new group of players coming from a variety of different situations can yield mixed results in those areas.
“(Practice is) about attention to detail and finishing strong,” Bundu said. “We’ll go through a two and a half hour practice and we’ll have a solid two hours. Then, like 30 minutes within that two and a half, we start to fumble a little bit and lose our concentration. Overall, I think we’re getting used to just going hard and keeping our focus for a long period of time.”
The learning curve for Quinnipiac has been steep, but Dunleavy and his new staff know the circumstances that they are facing.
“The group I came from (at Villanova) was really veteran experienced,” Dunleavy said. “It’s a cool challenge (having a new group). My challenge will be to keep their minds (invested in the system) the whole year, through ups and downs.”
Dunleavy and his staff have been taking things slower with the team because they understand it’s going to take some time for the guys to mesh. Many of his new players are aware and appreciative of what their coach is doing.
“I think (the coaches have) been very patient with us,” Kelly said. “They’re putting in a lot of new stuff and it’s sometimes tough to pick up, but they don’t lose their cool. They stay (encouraging) when we’re not coming along like we should be.”
Despite the patience being shown in practice, the players are still setting their sights high.
“As a point guard, my main goal is to win games,” Kelly said. “I’d say if we won the MAAC Championship, it would be a successful year.”
“(I want) to do better than we did last year,” Bundu said. “If we play one or two more games into the MAAC Tournament (that will be a success). Everyone’s goal is to win a MAAC Championship one time, but as of right now we’ll take it step by step and just try to be better than last year.”
The Bobcats open their season at home on Saturday, Nov. 11 against Dartmouth. Quinnipiac and Dartmouth have not played since Nov. 23, 2010, when the Bobcats traveled to Hanover, New Hampshire and picked up a 69-52 win.
Rather than focusing solely on Dartmouth, Dunleavy is taking a longer-term approach with this team.
“I want to create an identity,” Dunleavy said. “So that each game, we can judge ourselves based on ‘What are we now, who do we want to be, and where are we in that journey.’ I think you limit yourself (just looking at wins and loses). If we have a growth mindset this whole year, and we’re our best we can possibly be in February, then I did my job.”