Saturday, May 4, 2013

Team Report: Marist Men Have Reason For Optimism

Here's another in the "Team Report" series, taking a look back and ahead at conference teams.

Up now ...


2012-13 RECORD: 6-12 in the MAAC (9th), 10-21 overall. Lost to Siena, 70-64, in the play-in round of the MAAC tournament.

2012-13 RECAP: Just like the previous season, a slow start followed by a nice finish. The difference, though, was 2011-12 season's blueprint was a little better: a 7-2 regular-season finish pushed the overall record that ear to 14-18. It seemed like it would be a springboard, particularly with almost all of a young team returning, to even better things this past season. Instead, the start was even slower. Marist was 5-18 at one point before a 5-2 regular-season finish enabled the team to just reach double-digits in victories. And, the relative late-season success came to an abrupt end in the play-in round loss to Siena in the conference tournament.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Despite a relatively dismal season, there were more than a few bright spots. Start with arguably the most-surprising upset of the MAAC season, a 105-104 double-overtime victory at Iona, the conference's eventual NCAA tournament representative. In that one, four Marist players scored at least 18 points, with senior-to-be 6-foot-10 center Adam Kemp turning in monster numbers of 29 points and 16 rebounds. Point guard Isaiah Morton and swingman Chavaughn Lewis both played all 50 minutes, and Lewis not only scored the winning points with two free throws with five seconds remaining, but blocked a last-second Iona shot that might have given the Gaels a victory. Marist followed that with another eye-opener, a 69-64 victory over Loyola, with Kemp going for 23 and 13. Later, Marist finished up the regular season with victories over Siena and Fairfield. It looked like a lot of momentum going into the MAAC tournament. The 6-6 Lewis (16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds) has positioned himself to be one of the league's best players entering his junior year in 2013-14. Kemp, a rising senior, showed flashes (10.4, 8.6) of being the MAAC's top post player. Senior-to-be Jay Bowie missed half the season with an injury, but sparked the late-season run with his return. And, Morton (120 assists against 80 turnovers), a rising junior, showed himself to be a capable and clever point guard. Devin Price finished off his Marist career with a nice season (13.7 ppg.).

WHAT WENT WRONG: Start with Bowie's early season injury. He missed 13 games, and his loss was often lamented by former coach Chuck Martin as the prime reason for early season losses, and for good reason. Bowie was the team's philosophical leader, its fourth-leading scorer, its best shooter (52.7 percent field goal percentage),and  its third-leading rebounder. The team clearly played better when he was healthy. Plus, on a team with limited depth, the loss of one key player hurts. And, actually, Marist lost a key player before the season even started. Highly touted freshman guard Khalil Hart suffered a preseason knee injury that forced him to redshirt. Martin is a good guy, and had exemplary basketball expertise. But, there was a telling recent comment from a Marist player that his team didn't "buy into" everything Martin was trying to do, and that didn't help. From the outside, it seemed like more could have been gotten from players. Lewis probably could have been featured even more. Kemp had three terrific games (ones that produced these numbers: 29 points, 16 rebounds vs. Iona, 23-13 vs. Loyola, 24-14 vs. Siena). Otherwise, he averaged just 8.8 points and 7.9 rebounds. Some of that wasn't his fault. Marist didn't do enough from the perimeter to prohibit opponents from packing it in to slow Kemp's offense. Morton was almost a non-factor as a shooter, and needs to score more or opponents can continue to slack off him. The season actually started respectively, a 4-6 start that included wins over Vanderbilt and Manhattan (which played in the conference tournament's championship game), but that was followed by a 1-12 stretch.The 5-2 late-season surge renewed a little optimism, but the play-in round loss to Siena ... a game that featured two coaches fired within the following week ... certainly didn't leave the Red Foxes with much to feel good about this past season, one in which much more was expected. It just seemed that there was more talent in place than the final record indicated.

WHAT'S AHEAD: Certainly, the new-found sense of optimism that comes with a coaching change. And, this looks like a good one. Marist finally broke the mold of giving a rising assistant a first opportunity to be a head coach by bringing in Jeff Bower, who had been in the NBA for the past 18 years, including a stint as the interim head coach of the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets. Plus, Bower already knows his way around Marist, having been there as Dave Magarity's top assistant for nine season. He'll provide the type of basketball knowledge (and player respect, from his time in the NBA) that doesn't always land on a MAAC sideline. Still, his background brings some questions, most related to being away from college basketball for 18 years and dealing with entirely different levels of scouting and players in the NBA as compared to what he'll deal with at Marist. And, as of early May, he doesn't have an assistant in place yet. And, it looks like the program has two available scholarships which it might not be able to fill at such a late date. Martin's lone early signee, 6-8 forward Kentrell Brooks (from the legendary St. Anthony's of N.J. high school program) has indicated he'll honor that commitment and, possibly, be the lone newcomer for now. But, the team doesn't need much. If Lewis becomes just a little more assertive, he's a potential first-team all-MAAC level player. Kemp, Bowie, Morton, Hart (if he's 100 percent) provide the team with some above-average talent. There's decent depth in returnees. The team's likely top four players are veterans (Kemp and Bowie will be seniors, Lewis and Morton juniors). Bower is big on player development, and claims his players really want to improve and are listening to what he's saying ... and that's important.

PREDICTION FOR 2013-14: Certainly better days. There's enough talent in place to ensure a better result than last year's 10 overall victories and, probably, more wins than the 14 from the year before that. A lot will be predicated on how much players improve, particularly Morton and Lewis. But, it's not hard to envision Marist to be in the hunt to finally avoid a play-in round berth (remember, only the top five teams will get a first-round bye in the coming season). And, a new coach not only brings new optimism from program supporters, but from players, too. An early look has Manhattan and Iona as the two favorites for the coming year. Fairfield and, potentially, Canisius might be in the next group and Marist isn't far from that. It might be too much of an expectation for the Red Foxes to get up to third place, but fourth or fifth might not be out of the realm of possibility.

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