Last Monday I hopped in my beat-up Grand Prix, and hit the America East back roads for the first time this season, bombing down I-84 to catch up with Hartford head coach John Gallagher and take in a Hawks practice.
To use a tired cliche and say that the Hawks enjoyed a roller-coaster season last year would be a huge understatement: The incredibly young and inexperienced Hawks began the season 0-13. Instead of packing it in and giving up – as most teams would have done – Hartford came together their fiery and energetic head coach, going 7-9 in conference while finishing in sixth place. The Hawks peaked at the right time, knocking off Boston University in the quarterfinals of the America East Tournament before falling to eventual champion Vermont in the semis, capitulating only after a double-overtime thriller that will go down as one of the greatest America East Tournament games ever.
The Hawks can no longer catch AE foes by surprise, and are looking to make the leap from loveable upstart to conference contender. They have the talent, and more importantly the tenacity and work ethic: the America East is a good-enough-on-guts league, and in a year seemingly devoid of star talent and a head-and-shoulders-above-the-competition favorite, on most nights, the team that plays the hardest will likely walk away the winner.
Not to give away our preseason picks before they are unveiled, but we think the Hawks will take a step up this season.
I brought along a new camera, and in addition to jotting down my thoughts on the night, I snapped a lot of photographs – which will hopefully become a regular occurrence throughout the season. A link to the complete album can be found at the end of this post.
Thoughts, sights and sounds:
— With practice starting at 7:45 at night and a heavy schedule of nothing occupying my day, instead of hopping on the Pike, I decided to head out early and take the back roads from my home in Burlington, Massachusetts, heading through my dad’s hometown of Bedford, before stopping for a bite to eat in Concord, a town steeped in American history. Concord is the home of the Old North Bridge, the Battle of Concord and the first shots of the American Revolutionary War, and a host of historical landmarks. Concord was also the home of influential American writers and philosophers such as Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, just to name a few; their houses remain preserved to this day. Current Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett makes his home in Concord. I grabbed lunch on Thoreau Street in the town’s center — a great place for a leisurely walk, or site-seeing — at a tiny brick-oven pizza shop called Sorrento’s. I got two slices of sausage and onion pizza that were each about as big as my head, which were the some best slices of pie I’ve had in Massachusetts this side of Santarpio’s… Seriously, if you are in the area, check it out.
— After lunch, I took Route 2 (a favorite road of mine, which begins in my hometown of Cambridge and heads out west through the suburbs — it was the route for most of my summer league games during my youth, and many a great fishing trip with my dad began heading out on it), to I-495, to the Mass Pike, to I-84. Fittingly, I ran right into a pretty substantial thunderstorm once I hit Connecticut… let me just say, it got a little dicey.
— I made it safely to the Arena around 6:30 PM and headed inside. An hour before practice, assistant coach Chris Gerlufsen was getting a pretty good workout shooting in the empty arena.
— The saying that a coach “built the program from the ground up, the right way,” is often hollow and cliched, but at Hartford, it rings true. Gallagher has always said that he recruits players as much on their character off the court as their abilities on it. Before practice, the entire Hawks roster went out of it’s way to introduce themselves to each individual spectator at practice, shaking hands, making good eye-contact, and engaging in conversations. Seeing the Hawks go out of their way to shake hands and personally introduce themselves was a reminder of what makes the America East so special as a conference: really good kids of really high character.
— As always, Gallagher set the tone of the Hawks’ practice. Vocal, visible, in the thick of things, he only knows one speed: all out. To say Gallagher is hands on is an understatement – for two hours and 45 minutes, he was a tornado of energy. By the end of practice, he seemed as wiped out as his players. Whether you’re a star power forward, a first-year walk-on, or a fan in the stands, it’s hard not to get pumped up after five minutes around the Hawks’ coach.
— Gallagher expects everything his players have, but he gives them everything he has in return – and then some. And it’s why no coach in the conference enjoys more respect and loyalty among his players than Gal. Developing college athletes on and off the court usually requires breaking them down to remove their bad habits, before building them back up. Many coaches seem to forget one part of the equation or the other, Gallagher has it down pat: No one expects more of his guys on and off the court than Gallagher, who is tough on his kids and holds them to a very high standard on and off the court. But no one is a bigger champion of his guys than Gallagher, a vocal supporter and constant presence in their lives – on and off the court. There’s a reason that last season’s squad didn’t pack it in after starting off 0-13.
— For the Hawks to take the next step as a program, they are going to have to fully transition away from being a volume shooting team from downtown. To do that, they are going to have to generate much more offense around the hoop – attacking the basket and pounding the ball into the post, which will then open the perimeter and create smart shots.Last season, Hartford attempted an insane 736 3-pointers, with bombs from long-range accounting for 46.5 percent of their total field goal attempts. In the past 12 America East seasons, only two America East Champions have taken more than 40 percent of their total field goals from behind the arc. No America East team has ever made the NCAA tournament when taking more than 45 percent of its shots from behind the three-point line. It’s possible to win any individual game by bombing away from downtown – and in the case of a bad team or a team with limited interior options, going for broke on the perimeter may be the only viable option against strong opposition – but decades of AE play have shown time and again that at least some degree of inside/outside balance is required to win three tournament games in March. To make the leap from scrappy upstart to true conference contender, the Hawks are going to need to generate offense around the hoop, which will open up the perimeter, leading to fewer overall 3’s but far more quality shots. Which is why Monday’s practice was so encouraging: The Hawks spent a good deal of time working on transition offense and defense. In the half-court, they worked a lot on back-cuts, low-post play, and generating offense going towards the bucket, with most of the shots from behind the arc coming as a result of drives to the hoop before dishes, or ball movement through the paint.
— It was really weird to be in Chase Arena and not see Andres Torres. Torres came into West Hartford in the fall of 2007 as a freshman who had never spent more than a week away from his home in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and had never seen snow. My first year as a credentialed member of the media was Torres’ first in Hartford, and over the last five years I got to know him very well. While he never got Hartford into the NCAA’s, he played a vital role in changing the culture last season while leading the Hawks to the threshold of March Madness. He joins Jerell Parker, Ryan Stys, Aaron Cook, Kenny Adeleke, Mike Turner and Joe Zeglinski in an exclusive group of players who I think of whenever I think of the Chase Arena floorboards.
— Every few years, it seems that Boston University die-hards begin to murmur about the second coming of Rashad Bell. A bouncy, active, athletic and rangy power forward who dominated both ends of the floor from 2001 through 2005, Bell was arguably the greatest Terriers front court player not named Tunji Awojobi, and certainly the best to come through BU in more than a decade. From Ibrahim Konate to Malik Thomas, fans have tried to draw parallels. There may finally be an incarnate of Bell wearing red and white this season, but if Terriers fans want to see him play regularly, they are going to have to take the Pike to I-84 to see Hartford sophomore Mark Nwakamma. Yeah, the kid may be that good. Nwakamma is a bouncy and athletic 6’6”, and looks to have added about 10 pounds of muscle over the off-season to what was an already rock-solid 215-pound frame. Down the stretch last season, he showed a deft array of low-post moves and a very soft touch. More importantly, he has a motor that is constantly revving and plays all-out for 40 minutes. Over the summer, I thought he would be one of the top-10 players in the league this season – a solid Second Team All-Conference selection. After hearing Gallagher rave about him all summer long (he will be Hartford’s go-to player), and seeing what I saw on Monday night, I think he could be a First Teamer this year, and a potential POY before all is said and done. In addition to his boundless energy and assortment of low-post moves and aerial-acrobatics, Nwakamma also displayed a nice touch from behind the arc on Monday. Word is the staff wants him to shoot the 3 if he is open, and in addition to the 5 and 4, Gallagher is also going to play him some on the wing.
— The newest and smallest player on Hartford’s roster may also be the best story. Jeremiah Aska, a guard from the Bronx, New York, stands around 5’8” in platform shoes, and has never before appeared on a varsity roster or set foot in a college game. After spending his first three seasons in Hartford as a practice player for the women’s team, he successfully walked-on to the men’s squad as a senior. He’s built like a fire-hydrant, and at Monday’s practice, hung on every word uttered by every coach, played every minute like it was his last and every play like his life depended upon it. “He might not know our plays, but he’s going to run through ha wall every practice – he plays harder than just about every other kid on the team,” said one coach.“He dedicated more time in the gym and in the weight room all summer than anyone else in the program, and no one practices harder than him,” added another coach.
— Gallagher and the staff are very high on Evan Cooper, a six-foot, 175 pound point guard from Houston, Texas. Cooper had much higher level interest before injuries interrupted his high school career. Although not overly athletic, He’s a point guard who can create off the dribble and get to the hoop, and has a reputation as a tough-nosed kid.
— Parker U’u is an interesting frosh. Half-Samoan, he’s built like a middle linebacker at 6’5” and a listed 215 pounds (more like 225), and has a reputation as a tenacious and physical defender. U’u’s older brother Drake played his freshman season at Hartford in 2008-2009, before transferring to Cal-Poly due to homesickness. The staff feels strongly that Parker is the better player of the two.
— John Peterson is a long and lanky (at 6’7” 195, he’s downright skinny) post-grad transfer from Samford who is eligible to play immediately. Peterson has decent athleticism and the reputation as a shooter. In the vertically-challenged America East, he will likely see some time as a step-out four, but the staff says he is naturally a wing.
— If you were to walk into a Hawks practice or an open run at Chase Arena, without knowing anything about the team, you would likely come away with the impression that junior forward Oren Faulk is the team’s best player. Listed at 6’7” and 250 pounds (in actuality likely a bit shorter and several pounds heavier), Faulk is built like a nose-tackle and is arguably the teams most explosive athlete. He dunks EVERYTHING with authority, is a load in the post, and seems to have a very soft touch out to the perimeter. Yet during his first two seasons, Faulk appeared in a total of only 29 games, averaging just 1.7 points and 1.2 rebounds last years a sophomore. Faulk arrived on campus two years ago out of shape and reportedly gave lackluster effort in practice. However, over the summer between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he lost roughly 30 pounds and appeared to be newly motivated on campus. There were rumblings that he was going to explode as a sophomore (one coach remarked that he was the team’s most talented player), only to once again fizzle when the lights went up. The word was that he still had not found a way to compete for more than short
stretches in practices and in games. Heading into his third season, Faulk is the team’s X-Factor: It’s hard to expect much of him given his track record, but he has all the talent and ability to make a big impact, and a breakout season after two seasons anchoring the bench would hardly be unprecedented: Former AE forwards Mark Flavin and Chris Bruff did just that as upperclassmen after barely setting foot on the floor earlier in their careers.
— The contract of assistant coach Drew Dawson was not renewed after last season. Dawson had spent four years in Hartford, serving as the top assistant coach on the staff’s of both Gallagher and former head coach Dan Leibovitz. Hartford has been pretty tight-lipped as to the decision, and no one has had anything negative to say about Dawson on the way out (not throwing him under the proverbial bus so to speak). Personally, I’m disappointed that Dawson is no longer in Hartford, and it has nothing to do with Basketball. Dawson is a different breed than most that I’ve crossed paths with, and I mean that in a very good way: He was deep, philosophical, and a phenomenal conversation. Every time I made the trek down I-84, we had great talks about life and the world around us. I consider him a friend much more than simply a professional associate and I will miss him. From a basketball perspective, Dawson seemed to be one of the few members of the staff that had a different perspective and philosophy – specifically on offense, where he was not a proponent of the Hawks’ reliance on a deluge of 3-pointers. Obviously, a staff needs to all be on the same page and have all its members pulling in the same direction to succeed, but it also needs some diversity when it comes to philosophy… mostly, I just hope they don’t go back to jacking 3’s.
— Dawson was replaced by Bill Dooley, a basketball lifer who has spent the past 27 years coaching, and served as a head coach at every level, spanning from high school, to Division I college ball, as well as internationally. From 1993 through 1998, Dooley served as the head coach at the University of Richmond. In his first year at the helm of the Spiders, he was named the CAA Coach of the Year. Whenever a career head coach joins a new staff as an assistant – especially given the gap in age and career length between Dooley and the much younger Gallagher – there is the chance of friction. But Gallagher has raved about Dooley since the hire, and if Monday night is any indication, it’s easy to see why: Dooley was a visible and hands on presence in practice, but never overstepped his bounds or stepped on Gallagher’s toes. He was particularly active with the big-men, a very encouraging sign for a team where post play has often been akin to Bigfoot: only seen in grainy glimpses, more a mythical legend than reality.
— Zach Zeglinski, the older brother of former Hawks star Joe Zeglinski, and spent the past two seasons as a Graduate Assistant, has returned to Philadelphi to work for his father’s business. One of the best overall athletes to ever come through West Hartford, Zeglinski completed a roller-coaster career that saw him begin as a Division I football player at Penn State, play D1 baseball at Temple, and then spend two years as a walk-on guard for the Hawks. Former Hawk Clayton Brothers has stepped into Zeglinski’s role as a graduate assistant. Brothers spent the previous four years as a tough-as-nails defensive specialist and emotional team leader. His energy and intensity would seem to be a perfect fit for Gallagher’s staff. After practice, he showed he’s still got a little game, throwing down a few alley-oop dunks.
— Director of Basketball Ops. Brian Glowiak is going to make a great coach someday. Glowiak, a tough-as-nails sharpshooter for the Hawks from 2004 through 2008, has a passion and knowledge for the game, as well as great coaching bloodlines. He’s a tireless worker who deserves a chance to move up from the ops position soon.