The Never Ending Story: Men’s Basketball Is in Danger of Being Permanently Stuck

Silence is deafening. And damning. John Dunne isn’t silent – he has half the battle won, I guess, just by speaking – but he’s quiet. Subdued isn’t the word. Resigned is a bit closer. He often looks reluctantly tolerant – there it is – while his Marist team takes drubbing upon drubbing. The emotion, or lack thereof, bleeds into his press conferences, too. “The positive is that we know we didn’t play well at all and we were still pretty close,” he’ll say. Well, at least they were close, right? It feels like analogous to a scout connecting a player’s love for the game to skill, as if it’s an indicator for success in the majors. Feelings don’t win games. Which is convenient. It often seems like Dunne doesn’t have any.

I watch John Dunne a lot. Sometimes more than I watch the games he’s coaching. It’s a bit like people watching, though there’s less variety. He whines, throws up his hands, when they’re not folded across his chest, and points at open players. That’s about it. I’ll give him a hand in one area: he’s consistent. It’s a shame that even consistency can be bad. In the two seasons he’s been at the helm here – both rather abysmal, though one 12-win season feels like a late-round March Madness victory for Marist Athletics – I’ve watched a trend form. It’s been disconcerting.

It really hit me during the Marist-Siena game on February 28. As every Siena player subbed out, they stopped to chat with their head coach, Carmen Maciariello, before plopping into their seat the bench. I don’t know what they talked about; it could’ve been a teaching moment. “Hey, you should’ve made that cut there,” or “you missed Jalen on that pick and pop.” Unlikely, but maybe Donald Carey was just asking his coach if they could hit McDonalds before driving back to Albany. The context of their conversation isn’t the point. It’s that they spoke at all. They had a moment, probably not too intimate, but a moment between coach and player. It’s Maciariello’s first year.

I’ve never seen John Dunne talk to a player individually, at least not during a game. It’s been two years now. I didn’t see it against Siena; I never saw it before, and I’ve never seen it since. Arms crossed; head drooped; players don’t even brush past him; they just go right for the bench. There’s distance. You don’t have to be Dalip Bhatia to notice it.

And you don’t have to be Joe Lunardi to have seen last week’s 56-54 loss in the first round of the MAAC tournament coming. You could be me, a dog, or a box of Kleenex; inevitability is inevitability. You’re also capable of looking up box scores or reading Dave Connelly’s recap of the game on this very site, via that very handy hyperlink. With that in mind, I’ll try to keep this as stat-free as possible (I’d hate to regurgitate the things you already know). I’ll go with an approach that is a bit more broad-reaching. I’ll do my best to sum up a season that might not deserve summing up. I’ll even do my best to remain objective; I’m no coach, nor am I a player.

I wouldn’t even call myself a fan of Marist basketball. If I’m a fan of any college basketball team, it’s Syracuse – I grew up in Rochester, a 90-minute drive from the Carrier Dome – and I root for Kansas, too, unless they’re playing Syracuse. I’m also no expert on Marist hoops. I’m a journalist that covers them; I’m an observer. I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. I won’t pretend that I do.

I’d like to think I know good basketball when I see it, though. Accountability, too. I’ve gone to this school – and watched its basketball team play – for four years. Not once has there been an evident combination of the two on display. Is that the fault of the coach? The players? An easy, singular answer comes to mind – yes – even though I asked two questions. The fault is collective; it’s contributed to by the unit.

But I’ve never seen a single coach (or player) in those four years take responsibility for their efforts, their mistakes, their mutual failure. Scratch that: it happened one time. In a press conference last year, Brian Parker mentioned that he needed to stop “turning the damn ball over.” I do have to mention a caveat to that one time, though. It followed a win. Now, a new question: have I ever seen anyone take individual responsibility after a win? No. Typical Dunne pressers often involve something to the effect of it being the other defense’s fault. I know that sounds ridiculous. But he actually told Dave Connelly that Siena wouldn’t “allow [them] to run [their] offense,” and that the Saints looked to “make [them] make plays.” As if that’s some sort of revelatory approach to a basketball game.

The “units” – meaning the regimes to pass through Marist in my time here – have produced all-but unwatchable and dejected basketball, accountability, and effort, at least from this observer’s perspective. I never went on record about Mike Maker’s individual schemes, but I’m on record about John Dunne and the game plan that has persisted on from Maker to Dunne. The team’s reliance on guard play never led to success in year’s past, and yet “point guard” Michael Cubbage repeatedly – and wrongfully – had the ball in his hands in the game’s closing minutes this season. Marist lost 10 games by five points or less this season, including the game last night. Who’s been the man to record the final shot attempt in many of those efforts? Don’t people know that insanity is just doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

Simply put: I don’t think John Dunne is a good basketball coach. I think a defense-first approach can work; his hasn’t. I don’t think he has a grasp on game trends or hot streaks; in a game against Canisius on February 2, Dunne played Jordan Jones for a mere seven minutes just one game after Jones recorded a then-career-high 18 points. He called it a “coach’s decision.” It was the wrong decision.

But how can I say that, right? I’m not in the room where it happens, nor am I a mere fly on the wall (I sure wish I was, if that’s any consolation). But I doubt that the decision was made for him, meaning I assume he made the decision, a la the mistake. We’ve watched him commandeer an offensive train wreck – second-last in the MAAC this season in offensive rating and scoring margin – for 61 games (19 of which have been wins) now. After the travesty that was Mike Maker’s tenure, you’d assume the people making these decisions would wake up. Maker got four years; does that really need to be the benchmark?

It’s weird. In spite of all of this raging and rambling, I don’t know that firing Dunne would be the best move with such a young team. I do wonder if their youth would be best served with a different approach, one that rewards their skillsets and puts an emphasis on well-rounded gameplay, not a system ultra-focused on only one end of the court. God, if only I could think of someone who recently left his head coaching gig in the MAAC who also happened to be the school’s first choice back in April of 2018. Allow me to rack my brain.

So I’m not calling for Dunne’s removal; not entirely. What I am calling for is a bit of a wakeup call. Maybe a meeting. The school’s been having plenty of those these past weeks; add this one to the dais. They can wash their hands of this, too (how’s that for killing two birds with one Purell machine?). There’s a culture brewing inside Marist’s athletic department, at least when it comes to men’s basketball, one that rewards complacency and repeatedly shows that it’s leaning into archaic views on an evolving game. It doesn’t have to be like that. It shouldn’t.

Edited by Lily Caffrey-Levine

2 thoughts

  1. Your observations are spot on. The conundrum surrounding the men’s basketball program can be traced to the inability of the administration’s willingness to go out and hire a proven coach. Instead the program has been a revolving door of 4 head coaches in 12 years. How does this equate to recruiting…it doesn’t. The administration simply does not want to bring on campus student athletes who may need mentoring in leadership and accountability. So you have an unproven coach and mediocre players…not a winning formula. Kudos to schools like Texas Tech who went out and got Bob Knight and if you can’t remember that… how about Iona getting Rick Pitino? Why can’t Marist do that?
    Good question for Tim Murray…don’t you think?

  2. I reread your commentary again and I want to congratulate you for squarely hitting the nail on the head. Once an opponent figures out the Marist defensive scheme…game over. Why??? Because Marist has no offense. The recent Niagara game was a prime example of no one on the Marist team wanting to step up and take over. Absent are the Hammons and the Washington’s of the other MACC teams. Is Dunne capable of recruiting? I noted that his wife is a corporate evaluator of talent. Maybe she could lend her husband a helping hand in that area. Honestly speaking, I fail to see any light at the end of the tunnel for the Marist men’s basketball team. Prove me wrong Tim Murray and John Dunne.
    Keep up the good work Will!

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