Monday, December 30, 2013

Slow Start Gives Way To 3-Game Marist Win Streak

Here was Marist men's coach Jeff Bower's "welcome" upon his return to college basketball: an 0-9 start to the 2013-14 season.

Bower, a former Marist assistant back in the days when Dave Magarity was the program's coach, had spent the previous 15 seasons in the NBA in various capacities.

He rejoined Marist as the program's head coach this past spring and the early season welcome mat was a non-league schedule that included high-major level opponents Maryland and Providence and some strong mid-major foes like Elon, St. Joseph's, Loyola Marymount, Stony Brook and Morgan State.

Bower's team went 0-7 against those teams and, then, drew the toughest possible daily double on the first week of conference play, games against Manhattan and Iona, the top two teams in the coaches' preseason poll.

So, welcome to 0-9.

"That was a big part of our challenge," admitted Bower, in a recent phone interview. "We faced a level that was extremely challenging. I thought we handled it well. We played hard enough to win, at times, but we just didn't play well enough. The schedule did a great job of exposing what we had to be better at."

And, Bower had to guard against a team-wide letdown that could have come with an 0-9 start.

"You're always concerned about the group's capacity to endure something like that," he added. "You have to keep an eye out for if they do they allow that to set in. Or, the guys can take the approach that they want to get better, and this is how they're going to get better with the end in mind.

"We continued to talk about not who we are today, but who we're going to be in March. We've tried to focus on each day, that `today' is extremely important, it's a day to get better and improve toward who we want to be."

The Red Foxes have shown definite signs of adhering to that, showing season-long improvement to date.

After some lopsided early losses came closer ones. The team's last four games in the 0-9 stretch were losses by margins of six, seven (in overtime), nine and 11 points.

And, then, better things started happening. A 76-62 victory against Penn on Dec. 22, the team's last game before the Christmas break, was the third in a three-game winning streak.

That stretch has also included victories over the College of Charleston (69-62) and Bucknell (69-51).

"We're still far from who we want to be, but it was good that the guys were able to go into the Christmas break on a positive note," said Bower. Marist tries to extend its recent run of success when it returns to league action Thursday, hosting Fairfield.

Was there ever a concern about the 0-9 beginning?

"Every game, whether it's a good result or a bad one, creates a reaction ... we're trying to be a tough-minded team that can take the punches, come back and deliver some punches," Bower said.

Marist endured more than its share of early punishment and, of late, has started to dish out some of its own.

The turnaround can be traced to a line-up change five games ago that got junior guard T.J. Curry into the starting five and giving Marist a small group with only one starter taller than 6-foot-5.

Curry, a lightly-used back-up to former Red Fox Isaiah Morton (who recently left the program) the last two seasons, has averaged 11 points over the past five games and has provided another perimeter weapon.

Curry has made 11 of his last 19 three-point attempts over that five-game span. Morton had been a non-factor shooting the ball, having made just 6-of-46 shots (13 percent) in his nine games before opting to seek a transfer.

Morton's departure has also meant more playing time for redshirt freshman guard Khalil Hart, a highly touted recruit two years ago who missed the 2012-13 season with a knee injury. Hart, a recent MAAC Rookie of the Week award winner, has averaged 14.4 points per game in the last five contests.

Those two, along with swingmen Chavaughn Lewis (16.8 points, 4.6 rebounds this season), Jay Bowie (11.4, 2.4) and 6-10 center Adam Kemp (8.2, 7.2, 2.1 blocks) provides Marist with a solid starting five.

"We went to the lineup change a few games before (Morton left the team), and since it has been together we've gotten more ball-handling," said Bower. "T.J. has been very efficient with his time and gives us a 3-point shooting element. That allows us to spread the floor more and move the ball quicker. He blends well with Khalil (a penetrator, who draws defenders and dishes to open teammates). Khalil has a good feel for how to play and is getting comfortable after missing all of last year.

"It has all been a part of our team improving. Our guys are starting to get comfortable playing the way we want."

There's still progress to be made, though. The team's depth has been lacking in the early going, for one thing.

"We're working on that," said Bower. "We're trying to give guys minutes to get some confidence and comfort. Manny Thomas (a junior forward) had a big game against Penn (12 points in 22 minutes), (sophomore forward) Phillip Lawrence has been getting some decent minutes. (Freshman forward) Kentrall Brooks is coming along and (senior forward) Pieter Prinsloo is playing a good amount of time as a front-line reserve."

Where Marist is now, though, indicates considerable progress has already been made.

"At the beginning our approach had to be to fundamental play," added Bower. "We just had to emphasize some very basic principals that we didn't have consistently in our play either individually or collectively. That has been the challenge of this whole process to this point ... to take our individual talent and blend that into something that creates team results."

After the 0-9 start, the results have all been positive.

"As a coach, I never looked at us as being 0-9," said Bower. "All we've done is to look at the next game and the next set of days to get ready for the next game. We just looked at what level we performed at against who we were playing that night, and where would that get us once we got into conference play.

"Our goal is to be competitive within the league. We want to have ourselves ready to take advantage of whatever the situation holds, to grow, build and achieve. We would love to be playing for something at the end of the season.

"We'd like for our guys to give something to our fan base to really enjoy this season. We've got great fans who are just waiting for us to give them something."

The three-game winning streak means the Red Foxes are starting to give their fans something to enjoy. The wait for more might not be much longer.

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