Quinnipiac Bobcats head coach Rand Pecknold pulled the goalie with a little...
Tougher than the rest? Tom Moore’s squad is in prime position for first NCAA Tournament berth
What a difference a year makes.
This time last season the Bobcats were 10-13 and struggling in their 14th and final season in the Northeast Conference. They struggled to score the basketball, averaging less than 72 points per game and were 6-5 in conference play.
Flash forward to the 2013-14 season.
In their first season as members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Bobcats are 17-8, averaging 79 points per game and have four players averaging 12 points or more. This season, after being picked in the preseason to finish seventh by MAAC coaches, the Bobcats are tied for second in the conference with a 12-4 conference record.
A 90-86 overtime victory of the Manhattan Jaspers only exemplifies the drastic shift from season to season. Even guard Zaid Hearst noted a difference.
“We’ve matured a lot from last year to this year,” Hearst said. “Last season, we struggled to win close basketball games. The win against Manhattan is a game we probably lose last season.”
That mental toughness has permeated into all facets of the basketball team. Last season the Bobcats were 8-11 in games decided by seven points or less. This season the Bobcats are 5-3 thus far. They’ve also been able to hold big leads – like a 40 point victory over Maine and 20 point win over Rider – something they struggled with last season.
Head coach Tom Moore echoed Hearst’s sentiments about the team’s ability to finish.
“I’m not quite sure when the ‘light switch’ went on, but this team is more mature this season. They’re more comfortable playing with each other this season. We’re a mentally tougher team this season.”
The success the Bobcats have had this season goes much deeper than at first glance. The Bobcats are 3-1 this season versus Manhattan and Iona, the two teams that played for the MAAC title last March in Springfield, Mass.
The Bobcats dominated the game against Iona on Jan. 6, as they opened the game on a 27-8 run and never looked back. Quinnipiac controlled the pace of the second half two nights later, defeating Manhattan 81-76 behind 17 points and 18 rebounds from Ike Azotam.
“It starts with Ike and Ous. When we get them going and we get good guard play, we can beat anybody.” – Zaid Hearst
After being blown out by Iona without Ousmane Drame in the second meeting, the Bobcats battled back from a nine point deficit with just over four minutes to play to defeat the Jaspers for a second time 90-86 in overtime.
Umar Shannon played against Quinnipiac with St. Francis University last season and saw from the opposing side the transformation from then to now.
“I don’t think last year’s team had a scoring balance,” Shannon said. “This year the scoring is pretty spread out among the starting five and I think that’s the biggest difference.”
That offensive attack may be the biggest reason. Since the 2009-10 season, the Bobcats have never averaged more than 72 points per game. This season the Bobcats rank in the top 35 in the country in points per game. The team has been able to control tempo and pace with the efficient scoring of its two main post players, Azotam and Drame, both of whom are shooting better than 48 percent from the field this season. They’ve also gotten consistent scoring from their backcourt.
Hearst is shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range, an incredible percentage for a guard.
“It starts with Ike and Ous,” Hearst said. “When we get them going and we get good guard play, we can beat anybody.”
The Bobcats have shown their abilities as a team, even after the move to a more competitive conference. Once again the Bobcats have taken their physicality on defense and on the glass, leading the country in rebounds per game, rebounding margin and offensive rebounds per game. They’ve used it to their advantage in what is an up-tempo, offensively talented conference.
The MAAC boasts two of the top five scorers in the country in Antoine Mason of Niagara and Billy Baron of Canisus, yet the Bobcats ability to control games on the glass – out-rebounding opponents in all but one game – has them in a position to grab a top four seed in the MAAC Championships come March.
“The team I played [against] last year is very similar to the team we have this year,” Shannon said. “They were incredibly physical last year, and we are physical this year.”
This physical style of play is something that Moore has instilled in his Quinnipiac teams from year to year and learned from being an assistant coach to Jim Calhoun at the University of Connecticut.
“His mentality at UConn was always ‘We’re tougher than you, and we know it,’ and I’ve tried to install that into the mindset of each of my players. I think the rebounding numbers show that.”
*Stats updated as of 2/17/14
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Former teammates behind opposing benches at the Frozen Four