Sunday, January 30, 2011

For Fordham, A New Beginning Means Growing Pains

For nine years, Tom Pecora strolled the court at the Mack Center for Hofstra as head coach.  He led the Pride to three NIT appearances (one of which should have been a NCAA Tournament appearance) and four twenty win seasons.  Hofstra fans knew though that Pecora had a disdain for the CAA and longed for the Pride being in the A14, er, A10.   So when a very good source told me the week of the CAA Tournament that Pecora was going to become the Fordham head coach, it all made perfect sense. Sure enough, a few weeks later Pecora was named the head coach of the Rams.

Fordham hiring Pecora started a chain of events that no one could envision.  One week after Pecora was hired at Fordham, Tim Welsh was hired as head coach at Hofstra. What everyone thought was a dream hiring for the Pride turned into a nightmare after Welsh was arrested for a DUI.  A few days later Welsh resigned.  With the Pride coaching situation in sudden turmoil, Hofstra Athletic Director Jack Hayes wisely recommended a Welsh assistant, Mo Cassara as the new head coach.  Cassara was hired and has put the Pride program back on track.  Welsh has returned to an analyst job with SNY and ESPN and was the analyst for last night's St Mary's - Portland game on ESPNU.

As for Pecora, he was going to a program that hadn't made a NCAA appearance since 1992 and hadn't won a game in conference since two years ago to nearly the very day against the team they were facing yesterday, St Bonaventure.  On January 28, 2009, the Rams defeated the Bonnies 67-65 on their home court.  It was Fordham's only win of that A10 season.   So, including the Rams 0-6 start, Fordham is 1-37 in the Atlantic 10 since the start of the 2008-09 conference season.

When Tieff and I got to the Rose Hill Gym, the entrance was packed with fans waiting to enter the gym.  We got online for our Will Call tickets, which I had ordered weeks in advance.  Immediately, I saw the sign at the regular ticket counter stating the game was "Sold Out".   I was glad that I planned ahead.  We got our tickets, walked up the stairs past a Fordham Basketball Poster that said "A New Beginning" and made our way into the over one hundred year old, 3200 seat gymnasium.

At Hofstra, my season ticket seats are Section 111 Row D.  At the Mack, you go up a slight row of stairs to your seat, and that's the case for all the rows in Section 111. Thus you are slightly elevated from the court in Row D.  Yesterday, our seats at the Rose Hill Gym were Section 113, Row B.  But I forgot that at Rose Hill, there is no elevation really for the first few rows of seats.  So basically we were at court level.   And as you could see, we were very near the Fordham bench.  Thus we had a very good view of Pecora watching over his young team.

This was Fordham's second sellout of the season.  The first was their stirring comeback win over St John's in December 84-81.  Pecora and Fordham received significant press as a result of the win from ESPN, the New York Post, and Bleacher Report, among other publications.  The Rams started out the season 6-4.  Six wins was one more than the previous two seasons combined.  Hopes were high on the Bronx campus.

Then came two losses in the Cable Car Classic, followed by six straight losses in conference.   What was once a 6-4 team on the rise that had fans hopeful, was now a struggling 6-12 last place A10 team that had fans in back of us making snide comments about Pecora's salary and lack of emotion on the sideline (boy do they not know Pecora yet).

As I previously stated, Pecora's team is quite young, with only one senior that plays, Brenton Butler.  His team is also not deep as Pecora basically plays a seven man rotation.   Fordham's best players are Butler and Chris Gaston, a double double machine.  Gaston averages 15 points and 11 rebounds per game while Butler averages nearly 15 points per game.  Pecora's top recruited freshman, Branden Frazier averages 12 points per game.

The game started out with St Bonaventure's best player, forward Andrew Nicholson taking charge.  Nicholson scored six of the Bonnies' first nine points as the team from Olean, NY went out to a 9-3 lead. But two three pointers by Butler quickly tied it at nine.

Matthew Wright gave the lead back to the Bonnies with his first of three 3 pointers at the half.   St Bonaventure started stretching out their lead as the young Fordham struggled to get good shots off from the field.  Over the span of eight and a half minutes, the Rams only hit three of fourteen shots.  In fact, Gaston did not hit his first basket until 2:43 left in the first half.  By that time the score was 28-19 St Bonaventure.

The Bonnies had a large contingent of fans at the game.  Turns out St Bonaventure had an alumni function in the city that day and many of them came to the game.   And their team gave them a lot more to cheer about as the Bonnies ended the half on an 8-1 spurt as Nicholson hit a monster dunk, then Wright buried two more threes to put St Bonaventure up 36-20 at the half.  Nicholson had thirteen of those points for the Bonnies.  He would end the day with 25 points and 11 rebounds, his eighth double double of the season.

We left at halftime since we needed to get to Hofstra for the Jenkins scoring record game.  However, Tieff and I kept track of the game.  And whatever Pecora said at halftime worked.   The Rams showed a lot of heart and came back with an 22-6 run to start the second half.  It was a total team effort as five Fordham players contributed on the run.  Gaston led the charge with eight points during the span, the last two points came on a layup to tie the game at 42 with 10:50 left.

St Bonaventure quickly regained the lead and extended it to 54-46 as who else, Nicholson scored the last four points of the 12-4 Bonnies spurt.   The Rams would cut the lead back down to four 55-51 as we listened to the game on WFUV in the Hofstra parking lot.  But St Bonaventure would score the next six points as the radio announcers play by play basically gave the impression that the Rams were worn out.

The Bonnies would eventually win the game 69-60.   For Fordham, it would be their seventh loss in a row in conference. Gaston got another double double with eleven points and eleven rebounds.  Butler led the Rams with 15 points.  Frazier added eleven points for Fordham.

Despite the Rams struggles, there is one thing a Pecora coached team can always do.  Rebound.  The Rams are 58th in the country in rebounding.   The next three games will be very difficult for Fordham -at Rhode Island, home to Richmond, then at Temple.  The best chance for Fordham to get a win is at home against St Joe's on February 13.  The equally as young Hawks are also 0-7 in conference.

At Hofstra, it was in Pecora's fourth season as coach before the Pride had significant success.  Prior to that, his record in his first three seasons was 33-55.   So the Fordham faithful will have to be patient with Pecora as he tries to build a successful program.  But the win over St John's was a good start, and the second sellout of the season yesterday certainly shows that there is hope with the fan base.  

And if there is one last thing that the Fordham faithful could be hopeful about, Pecora knows how to get talent. All Rams' fans have to do is look out east to Hempstead, where one of Hofstra's players is the two time Haggerty Award winner and a likely NBA draft pick.  Charles Jenkins was recruited by Pecora, as were two former NBA players, Speedy Claxton and Norman Richardson.  The next Pecora recruited gem will be wearing Fordham maroon and white.

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