The Mid-Season Roundtable: Men’s Basketball

A little more than halfway through the Marist Men’s Basketball season, some of our writers got together to talk about the Red Foxes’ surprising season, review their thoughts from the entrance roundtable, and discuss what lies ahead for John Dunne’s team.

What are your thoughts on the Marist Men’s Basketball season so far?

Dave Connelly: The men have undoubtedly overachieved and are finally turning around a program that has been one of the worst in the country for over a decade. John Dunne has come into the school and implemented a defensive philosophy that works and the players seem to buy into. His recruiting has brought in some incredible talent that has been on display so far this season and has put the team right in the thick of the MAAC.

The team has already matched their win total from a year ago with six games to play in the season and with far less games on the schedule. There is clear growth within the program since Dunne has taken over and the new recruits continue to get better with each game. With the program’s recent history of early exits in the MAAC Tournament, time will tell as to whether this team is capable of getting out of the first round this season, either through a win or a first-round bye.

Brian Ramos: One thought I have on the season so far is the building blocks are there. What I mean is, the three freshmen in Ricardo Wright, Hakim Byrd, and Javon Cooley have developed nicely and have played a crucial part in Marist’s success so far. I will get into Ricardo Wright later, but Hakim Byrd has won MAAC Rookie of the Week once this season. Byrd is also tied for most steals on the team and second most assists on the team. Ever since the January 2nd game against Niagara, Cooley has been playing a lot more and playing well when he is in the game. Coach John Dunne definitely has three freshmen he can build the team around in the future.

Another thought I have on this Marist team is how they have been better than most people have expected. Marist was projected to finish 9th in the conference but is currently 5th in the conference with a 9-7 record. Also, Marist has played a lot better in transition as they run the fast break after a block, turnover, or missed shot which leads to quick and easy buckets which we did not see much last season. Lastly, Victor Enoh has underperformed at times. I expected him to dominate in the MAAC since he came from an illustrious basketball program at Memphis. However, Enoh has turned the ball over from time to time whether it is by a bad pass or an illegal screen. Causing him to get in foul trouble. Enoh has not been the type of player that I thought and hoped he could be. However, he still has the second half of the season to improve.

Isabella Cicinelli: Two words: pleasantly surprised. Marist has far exceeded any expectations many had, including me, about how the season would play out. John Dunne has finally been able to show that his recruits are the type of players Marist has needed to produce success. The freshman duo of Ricardo Wright and Hakin Byrd has been nothing short of dominant as well as Junior guard Raheim Sullivan. Currently, Marist stands at 5th place in MAAC play with a conference record of 7-7 and an overall record of 9-7. In preseason rankings Marist was placed at ninth. Clearly the Foxes have proven thus far that they are real competitors in the conference. When we met to write our first roundtable of the season, I feared Marist would struggle offensively. Last year the Red Foxes shot 39 percent from the field. Currently, at the midpoint of the season, they have increased their field goal percentage to 44 percent.

The Red Foxes have also been successful in transition, forcing an average of 12.3 turnovers per game accumulating to 14.3 points off turnovers. Part of this defensive success can be accredited to Jordan Jones who has been dominant in the paint totaling 37 blocks and 11 steals. Rahiem Sullivan and Hakim Byrd have also been producing on the defensive side of the ball totaling 14 and 13 steals respectively. Coming into the season, I knew defense would be a strong suit for Marist, but I questioned their offensive production. The combination of the Red Foxes increase in FG Percentage and their strong defensive unit, holding opponents to just 40.9% from the field, has proven to be a productive combo for the Red Foxes. 

Jonathan Kinane: Last year, the matriarchs and patriarchs of Centerfield taught me to approach the men’s basketball team with an air of cynicism. After a 7-23 campaign last season, I expected little to change going into 2020-21. I haven’t quite let go of that feeling, but how could you not feel optimistic after Marist got off to a 6-1 start? The Red Foxes have leveled out a bit, losing 7 of their last 10 games. Despite the swoon, Marist managed to score the biggest win of the John Dunne era last weekend against Siena, the best team in the MAAC, and played the Saints much tighter than the score indicated in the next game. The newcomers have been terrific and veterans like Jordan Jones and Matt Herasme anchor the team in crucial situations. I feel like I need to apologize to John Dunne for some thought crime I committed against him. I didn’t think he could lead a turnaround like this. I only concentrated on the results when I should’ve seen the bigger picture. He’s been laying the groundwork, getting tough-minded kids who buy into the system. I suspect things will only get better in the years to come.  

Who is the team’s most valuable player at this point in the season?

Dave: The impact of Jordan Jones when he is in the game is the biggest on this team and it’s noticeable when he is in the game versus when he is on the bench in foul trouble. The senior center is averaging 16.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per 40 minutes. His per-game numbers don’t seem to mimic these totals because Jones often finds himself in foul trouble, leaving Dunne with no choice but to cut into his valuable minutes. The former Charleston Southern big man shows his value and importance to the system when he is on the court and if he can avoid the foul trouble for the rest of the season, he can reach his true potential for the Red Foxes.

Brian: The team’s most valuable player at this point in the season is Ricardo Wright. Wright leads the team in scoring, three-point scoring, and free throws. Wright is averaging 11.6 PPG and 2.0 APG. He has also won MAAC Rookie of The Week twice this season. Wright stepped up after Michael Cubbage went down with a season ending injury against Canisius back in December.

Isabella: It has to be Ricardo Wright. Frankly, Wright was not even on my radar when evaluating Marist at the beginning of the season. However, he has proven to be the most effective Red Fox on the court. Wright has won MAAC Rookie of the Week three times this season, which is the most since Khallid Holt in 2013-14. Wright averages 11.3 points per game, the highest among any other player. Also, he is shooting 40.4 percent from the field and 78 percent from the line. Without Cubbage, he has proven to be a true leader for the Red Foxes this year. 

Besides Wright, who is the obvious answer to many, Jordan Jones deserves some recognition. Jones has been an absolute unit in the paint on both offense and defense. He is averaging 8.9 points per game, and 5.3 per rebounds per game with 85 rebounds in total. Jones has been a core piece to Marist’s early success in the first half of the season.

Jonathan: Dave’s right on this one. It’s Jordan Jones. I appreciate Isabella mentioning him albeit as an afterthought to Ricardo Wright, who has been spectacular in his freshman year. Jones is third on the team in scoring, shoots 60 percent from the field, and leads the team in rebounding and blocked shots. He does these things despite only playing a shade over 20 minutes a game. He’s in a platoon role with Victor Enoh, the Memphis transfer. It’s a good strategy when dealing with the back-to-backs in MAAC play. But it’s no secret that Jones has been the more impressive of the two, and if he played around 30 minutes a game like Wright and Raheim Sullivan, he’d be a surefire All-MAAC player. I’m glad Dunne doesn’t over-exert his talented center, but I think he could play a few more minutes per game down the stretch. Good things happen when Jordan Jones has the ball.

Who or what about the team has surprised you the most this season?

Dave: It’s been the immediate impact of the newcomers. Ricardo Wright, Hakim Byrd, and Raheim Sullivan have entered a team that lacked a point guard for most of last season and was forced to run Michael Cubbage as the point guard, a position that didn’t seem to maximize his production when on the floor. They have come into the player rotation and given Dunne a plethora of backcourt options that can facilitate, shoot, and attack the rim.

As for freshman Javon Cooley and Memphis transfer Victor Enoh, both have provided productive minutes off the bench when their names have been called. Jones’ aforementioned foul trouble has been aided by Enoh’s defensive ability in the paint as well as his rebounding prowess. Cooley has been a strong deep threat and has provided a sharpshooting threat from the pine. The newcomers have certainly made their impact on the roster and have filled gaps that were apparent from a season ago.

Brian: One aspect about the Red Foxes that has surprised me the most this season has been the ability to have balanced scoring from different players. We had no idea what this team would like with new coming freshman and JUCO transfer Raheim Sullivan as well as the losses of Tyler Sagl and Jack Cavanaugh who both transferred. However, Raheim Sullivan has been a crucial part of the Red Fox offense, averaging 10.3 PPG which is second on the team behind Ricardo Wright averaging 11.4 PPG. Due to contributions from the new Red Foxes, this team has a much more balanced offense and is less predictable than last year. Jordan Jones has also been more involved in the offense as he now averages 9.4 PPG as opposed to 8.5 PPG last season.

Isabella: The most surprising moment of the season for me has to be Marist beating Siena this past weekend. Marist was the underdog going into that series but shined above the doubters and proved they can be legitimate competitors in the MAAC. This game was not Marist’s shining moment offensively, but their defensive presence, led by Matt Hersame, locking down Siena’s star, Jalen Pickett, proved to be enough to hold out the Saints. 

Games like this prove just how sneaky the Red Foxes are, and that is what is most surprising to me. Last season, it would have been easy to write off Marist for any game, but that is certainly not the case this season. Marist can win every game they play, if they execute properly. If the offense gets cooking early and the defense remains dominant, the Red Foxes have proven to be true competitors in any series they are in. Offensively they have improved from last season. Not one player last season averaged above 9.3 points per game. This season, at the midway point, Rahiem Sullivan and Ricardo Wright both average well above that mark at 10.2 and 11.3 points per game respectively. The Red Foxes have been successfully flying under the radar.

Jonathan: I guess the thing that surprises me the most is how well the backcourt is playing. I thought this team was in trouble after Michael Cubbage sustained a season-ending injury. He was the only proven player in that position group after being thrust into ball-handling duties last season. Wright and Sullivan have both stepped into starting roles and are the two leading scorers and assist men on the team. Their turnovers numbers are a little high, especially if you’ve been watching Allie Best all season long. Hakim Byrd has also been solid off the bench as third newcomer in the backcourt. The guards do need to take better care of the ball, but I don’t think very many people expected them to play this well.

What is one area where this team needs to improve before March?

Dave: The improvement needs to come on the offensive side. Offensive efficiency has never quite been John Dunne’s forte, but it’s droughts of scoring can often be a downfall of this Marist team when they can’t quite string together the stops they need to see out victories in some games. When the defense isn’t operating at full capacity, it’s tough to rely on Marist to hang around if a game becomes a shootout. The series against Monmouth is a good vantage point for a situation like this where transition defense and ability to string together multiple stops seemed a difficult task for Marist and they were never able to keep up with Monmouth’s offensive efficiency. Improving on the offensive end may help the Red Foxes hang around in games where the defense can’t quite get the right footing.

Brian: One area this team needs to improve before March is the amount of times it gives the ball away. Marist averages 14.3 turnovers per game which is more than most of the teams in the MAAC. If Marist wants to consent and make a run in Atlantic City, they need to limit the turnovers.

Isabella: Now, I know I am hyping up Marist a lot, but of course, like Brian said, they need to improve on various aspects; one being turnovers. The Red Foxes have committed 231 total turnovers thus far, which is an average of 14.4 per game. Opponents have been able to score 10.9 points per game off said turnovers. Sloppiness late in some games has proven to be difficult for the Red Foxes to handle. Do not forget, this team is young. Wright and Byrd, who have been two of the most dominant players for the Red Foxes, are in their first year playing. It is an adjustment for all, especially with the uncertainty of the season and rescheduling of games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their offensive production has improved, but of course, if they improved it more it would allow the Red Foxes to grow their game that much further. Simple offensive things such as FT percentage need to be improved. Not one player’s free throw percentage is in the 80-90 percent range. Points from the line are some of the most important points. The Red Foxes need to improve in that category. Three-point shooting can also be a place Marist can look to improve. So far, the Red Foxes have only one game where they shot at or above 50 percent from the arc; against Manhattan on December 19th where they went 12-24. During their loss against Fairfield on January 10, they shot 11 percent from the arc going just 3-27. Marist needs to improve on their consistency in the second half of the season, fix their simple shooting mechanics, and cause fewer turnovers. 

Jonathan: They need to find their offensive identity, which is to say that they need to get the ball inside more often. Marist takes 21 three-pointers per game and they make less than seven, putting them all the way down at 256th in the country in three-point field goal percentage. The way you improve this number is by playing inside-out, either getting the ball to the big guys or spacing the floor and letting the guards drive. Jones and Enoh are reliable in the paint and the guards should be able to create for themselves or others off the bounce. I think Marist is an example of a team that is over-reliant on the three ball. They are still prone to those long droughts on offense mainly because they settle for contested long-range shots. The Red Foxes only need to take 10 or 15 threes per game. I miss the old days. 

What has been the biggest difference between this season and last?

Dave: It’s certainly come from the ability to close out games better than last season. The Foxes seemed to always find themselves right there in the final stretch of games, but would often fall short as the clock expired. Two examples most fans will remember is the game at home against Siena when Jalen Pickett got a game-winning shot to fall at the buzzer and bring home a win for the Saints in a game Marist was competitive in for its entirety. The crushing first round exit of the MAAC Tournament also came from a last second basket that would hand the Red Foxes yet another late defeat to end their season. This season, close games against the likes of Binghamton, Niagara, and Siena in a similar situation have had different outcomes. It shows in the win column and it will certainly show in the seeding for the conference tournament when March arrives.

Brian: The biggest difference between this season and last is our ball handling. Last year, majority of the ball handling came from Michael Cubbage and Jack Cavanaugh when he came off the bench. Someone or multiple people had to step up as ball handlers since Michael Cubbage is out for the remainder of the season and Jack Cavanaugh transferred. Sullivan and Wright have stepped up as great ball handlers as they can run Dunne’s offense and create and make plays resulting in points. Byrd has also done a good job running the offense when he comes off the bench. Having more than one ball handler makes an offense less predictable and takes some responsibility off of the primary ball handler. 

Isabella: The confidence this team has is a major difference for the Red Foxes this year. When you win more games, players get more comfortable. That has been an apparent difference-maker for the Red Foxes thus far. Players have stepped up in big ways and are playing much more as a team than they did before. Michael Cubbage was one of the few players who received recognition last year. However, this year we see different guys stepping up in different ways to add to the success of the team. Wright and Sullivan have been great in the frontcourt handling the ball. Byrd and Javon Cooley have been effective coming off the bench, and Jordan Jones has been dominant in the paint. Don’t forget about the impact players like Matt Hersame who has been quietly locking down some of the MAAC’s best players on defense. The Red Foxes have found ways to build off of one another’s strengths which have accumulated to wins on the court. This team has a lot of work to do to continue their strides, but they are meshing much better with one another. They are on the right path to long-term success.

Jonathan: Full disclosure: Dave stole my answer. It’s their performance in close games that stands out to me. I can’t tell you how many times I left McCann last year saying, “Marist blew that one.” Last season, the Red Foxes were 2-9 in games decided by five points or less. This year, Marist is 6-1 in such contests. They’re doing this with a pretty young team, especially in the backcourt, which is most surprising. Last year’s team would have lost that game against Siena, and the ones against Binghamton to start the season. Who knows? They might have even completely blown that 34-point lead they had against Rider. Playing this well in close games is a very encouraging sign as we head toward Atlantic City in March.

What are your predictions for the second half of the season? Where do they finish in the conference standings? Do they win the MAAC Tournament?

Dave: The Foxes sit at 7-7 in the MAAC at the moment and have put themselves in a position to certainly overachieve from my 9-11 conference record prediction. With the games that remain, I see the Foxes finishing right at 10-9 and will snag the fifth seed in the MAAC Tournament, giving themselves a first-round bye. I’m not sure I’m ready to say they’ll win the tournament, but they showed they can compete with anybody within the conference after their hard-fought victory over Siena, so a run could be in the making.

Brian: Looking at Marist’s schedule they recently just split with Siena. In the final month, they have a series with Quinnipiac and one with Saint Peter’s as well as a single game against Iona. I expect Marist to go 3-2 in their last 5 games. Marist would then finish with a 10-8 record which I have at fifth in the conference. Marist should win a game in the MAAC Tournament but I also would not be shocked if they win another. However, I ultimately do not think Marist will win the whole tournament.

Isabella: Marist has two more series in the season, one against Quinnipiac on February 13 and 14, the other against Saint Peters this weekend, February 6 and 7. They also recently updated their schedule, adding one additional game against Iona on February 24. I have high expectations for Marist going into the second half of the season. I think their win against Sienna will build upon the already strong confidence the Red Foxes have, which will allow them to finish out the season with a loss against Iona, a clean sweep against Quinnipiac, and breaking an even split with Saint Peters allowing them to finish out 3-2, marking their MAAC record at 10-9 and their overall record at 12-9. This would allow Marist to finish at most likely fifth, perhaps fourth, in the MAAC depending on how the rest of Saint Peter’s schedule plays out. I think Marist will go into Atlantic City with a first-round bye in tournament play and perhaps a second-round win if they continue to play up to a high level. Realistically, it will be hard for Marist to win the MAAC tournament. I do not see them winning it all, but I will not count them out. If one thing is for sure this season, the Red Foxes have been surprising, and there would be no better way to silence the doubters and prove that they are true competitions in the conference than winning the MAAC Tournament. 

Jonathan: I concocted most of these questions for the women’s roundtable, and I have to say this one by far is the stupidest. Who am I to speculate on what happens for the rest of this crazy season? As I wrote this, we found out that Marist is headed to Saint Peter’s this weekend. Those aren’t games you want on short notice. The schedule coming in is no joke. The Peacocks and Iona (if they can get enough games in) are legit contenders to earn the MAAC’s automatic bid. Despite the improvement we’ve seen, Marist is not. If they get all their games in, I see Marist finishing 9-10 in the MAAC, which could be good enough to earn them a bye in Atlantic City since seeding looks like it will be according to who has the most wins, assuming at least one team falls short of 20 conference games. I think it will be an early exit for the Red Foxes on the Boardwalk, but they will have plenty to build on.

Edited by Dave Connelly and Jonathan Kinane

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