The Marist men’s basketball team just had its best season in over a decade, partly thanks to newcomers Ricardo Wright and Hakim Byrd. The freshman guards have the potential to make the program successful again.
After a combined record of 19-42 through his first two seasons, Marist men’s basketball head coach John Dunne sought to infuse the men’s basketball team with more dynamic players. “As a staff, it was a priority to recruit some playmakers going into this year,” he said.
In the 2020 off-season, Dunne and his staff did just that. The result? Snapping Marist’s 12-year streak of losing records by going 12-9 in the 2020-21 season.
Although the Red Foxes’ trip to the MAAC tournament was winless for the sixth consecutive season, they didn’t lose in the first round this time. Their 10-8 conference record — the best they’ve had in the past 13 years — earned them the fourth seed in the tournament and a first-round bye.
A pair of freshman guards, Ricardo Wright and Hakim Byrd, addressed the need for playmakers and helped Marist dig themselves out of the basement of the MAAC. The young duo has brought a long-absent feeling to the program: optimism. Their early success is a sign that the Red Foxes can be competitive, if not successful, for years to come.
With an average of 11.0 points per game, Wright led the team in scoring. Wright, a native of Eustis, FL standing 6-foot-4, was one of the most prolific shooters in the entire MAAC. His 34 total 3-pointers ranked 10th in the conference; his 1.6 made 3-pointers per game ranked 14th; and his 231 total points ranked 15th. He earned four MAAC Rookie of the Week Awards and was one of four players unanimously selected to the MAAC All-Rookie Team.
Wright’s smooth shooting mechanics, particularly off the dribble, gives him a promising foundation to build on. Although Marist made some progress on offense this season — they bumped up their 2019-20 offensive rating of 90.5 to 93.9 — they still have plenty of room to improve. In Wright, Dunne and his staff have someone they can mold into a dangerous scorer.
Byrd earned one Rookie of the Week award and a spot on the All-Rookie Team, marking the first time two Red Foxes have earned the honor in the same season in 24 years. The 5-foot-10 native of Philadelphia, PA averaged 8.4 points and 1.9 assists, which ranked fifth and second on the team respectively. He recorded 18 steals, the second-most on the team, and made 23 threes, the fourth most on the team. His 83.7% free-throw shooting was a team-best mark.
Armed with quick, shifty handles, Byrd strikes fear in his defender’s ankles. With his pull-up shooting and the ability to dart passes to teammates, he has the potential to develop into the type of scoring-playmaking combo guard that destroys defenses. “He’s a little undersized but he makes up for that with his heart and his toughness and his confidence,” Dunne said.
Part of the freshmen’s emergence was due to Michael Cubbage’s injury. In the fourth game of the season, the senior guard suffered a fracture in his right foot and was sidelined the rest of the way. He was Marist’s go-to player in the prior season, leading the team in points, rebounds, assists and shot attempts. His absence put pressure on the newcomers and forced Dunne’s hand to play them through their growing pains out of necessity.
“If they weren’t playing up to par, there was [sic] not a lot of options,” Dunne said. “So, they had to play while growing. That only bodes well for their future — having to play through that — so in that sense, it’s a little bit of a positive.” Both young guards struggled in plenty of games, but they also had numerous bright moments.
Wright hit a pair of triples to help Marist take down Siena, a MAAC powerhouse that they haven’t beaten since the 2017-18 season. He surpassed 15 points five times, leading the Red Foxes to a 4-1 record in those games. His 22-point outing against Rider, in which he shot 8-14 from the field and 4-7 from beyond the arc, was a team-high in points for a single game.
In just the fourth game of the season, Byrd converted an old-fashioned three-point play against Canisius to give Marist a crunch-time lead they retained until the final buzzer. He also tallied 20 points on 7-11 shooting to help propel Marist to its biggest win of the season – a victory over Manhattan by a score of 61-39.
Initially, the plan was for the newcomers to be brought along slower and have them come off the bench. “[Dunne] basically told me I wasn’t gonna start before the season,” Wright, who started in 17 games, said. “When the first game came around, he switched it up and told me I was starting. It actually caught me off guard.”
Neither freshman shied away from the responsibilities that came with being top options. “It kinda felt like we wasn’t [sic] really freshmen this year,” Byrd said. “Yeah,” Wright responded, “he wanted a lot out of us.” Their confidence helped them improve the team, which they both said was the ultimate goal for this season, more than anyone expected.
Even with both guards punching above their weight, there’s still plenty of room to improve. Byrd and Wright respectively ranked ninth and tenth in field goal percentage on the team. Maintaining their flashes of brilliance on a consistent basis is the next step in their development. “It’s always about consistency with freshmen,” Dunne said.
Both youngsters are also looking to improve in more specific areas. Byrd said he’s looking to become more of a floor general than simply a scorer. “In high school, I just scored a lot,” he said. “So now, in college, I got better players around me. I just feel like I gotta facilitate more on the court.”
Wright also pointed to facilitating as an area he feels he can improve at. He also wants to become more impactful on defense by being more vocal and engaged. “I feel like if I can increase my defensive intensity every possession consistently, then our defense level as a team will go up more, too,” he said.
The reasons that the Foxes could build on this past season’s success go beyond Wright and Byrd. Freshman forward Javon Cooley showed some shooting abilities and started six games. Out of Red Foxes whose total 3-point attempts surpassed double digits, Cooley ranked first in percentage with 36.2 percent. Junior transfer Raheim Sullivan, whose 9.9 points per game ranked third on the team, also showed plenty of promise.
The would-be-graduating seniors were granted an extra year of eligibility, so Marist could be running back the same squad next season (save for Cubbage and Zion Tordoff, who are currently in the transfer portal). Of course, the same holds true for all of Marist’s opponents, too, so off-season improvement is crucial. Marist, at the very least, proved to have a successful recipe that they can further develop. Hope like that has eluded the program for a while.
The last time the Red Foxes exceeded last season’s winning percentage of .571, they rostered a future NBA draftee, Jared Jordan; Frankie the Fox went by the name “Shooter”; and Tenney Stadium wasn’t yet opened. The stunning success from the 2020-21 season is a sign that the program is heading in a positive direction and is close to being a top-notch team. With Wright and Byrd leading the way, the Red Foxes have a real chance to become a contender for the MAAC crown.
Edited by Nicholas Stanziale and Bridget Reilly
Photo Credits: Marist College Athletics