OBW America East preseason predictions: #4 Hartford

Projected starting lineup:

Hartford forward Mark Nwakamma. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Hartford forward Mark Nwakamma. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

G – Yolonzo Moore II, Jr., 6’2” 175
G – Evan Cooper, Soph, 6’ 180
G – Corban Wroe, Jr., 6’2” 195
F – Nate Sikma, Jr., 6’7” 235
F – Mark Nwakamma, Jr. 6’6” 235

Overview:
Head coach John Gallagher’s brash and exuberant demeanor on the sidelines and in press conferences might not make him friends among basketball traditionalists or rival coaches. But it has motivated his players to give more of themselves – in effort, energy and intensity – in practices and in games, and fostered more camaraderie and loyalty than perhaps any other team in the league.

Two years ago, in Gallagher’s second season at Hartford’s helm, the incredibly young and inexperienced Hawks opened the season losing their first 13 games. Most teams would have checked out and quit, but Gallagher kept fighting for his team and in return they kept fighting for him. It paid off, as the Hawks caught fire down the stretch, advancing all the way to the America East semifinals – a double-overtime thriller in which they came up just short against eventual tournament champion Vermont.

That 2011-2012 season was a trial by fire for the freshman class, which included Mark Nwakamma, Nate Sikma, Yolonzo Moore II, Corban Wroe and Jamie Schneck. The trio suffered losses and faced adversity in a way they never had before. But they grew from it, forming the foundation to build a program on.

Last year, the Hawks made the jump from upset-minded underdog towards the top of the conference. They still played incredibly hard, but now they had a burgeoning star and the ability to ignite from behind the arc.

Now, they’re looking to make the leap to the top of the conference.

In theory, Gallagher’s scheme of relying on ball movement and pounding the ball in to Mark Nwakamma on the blocks to open up “naked three’s” on the perimeter to account for the team’s offensive output is sound. The Hawks sacrifice offensive rebounds and second chance points to be able to get back on defense and not get beat in transition.

But, in reality, the Hawks roster has yet to prove it has the shooters needed to sustain an offense that revolves almost solely around volume shooting from behind the arc. Furthermore, they have yet to show any “break glass in case of emergency” plan for when the three’s aren’t falling and/or Nwakamma isn’t on the floor due to fouls. Both of these issues proved to be their undoing in the post season last season, with heavy underdog UMBC taking it to the Hawks around the hoop while Hartford was unable to find water despite falling out of a boat from behind the arc.

Hartford is either going to need their shooters to take the leap from catching lightening in a bottle to consistent (Gallagher’s hope), or adjust to a system that uses their tremendous ball movement to generate offense going towards the basket instead of on the perimeter.

Either way, they need Nwakamma to stay on the floor.

Roster:

No single player in the league is more critical to their team’s success than Nwakamma – and that says something considering the impact and importance of players like Jameel Warney (Stony Brook) and Brian Voelkel (Vermont).

A 6’6” 220 pounds Nwakamma is the textbook America East power forward: undersized with explosive hops, strength, tenacity and a heart as big as a basketball. Physically, can he do it all on the court: Shoot from behind the arc; put the ball on the floor to take his man off the dribble; post up; drop dimes with a deft touch and tremendous court vision; elevate over the fray for ferocious dunks; finish with either hands; and face up or work with his back to the basket.

Nwakamma took a massive leap from his freshman year to his sophomore year, finishing fifth in the league in scoring and rebounding. The native Texan routinely took games over and commanded nightly double teams. Nwakamma’s combination of speed, skill and athleticism makes him nearly impossible to defend one-on-one, forcing teams to collapse on him, leading to open looks for the Hawks.

Nwakamma’s problem is that he struggled to simply stay on the floor last season, fouling out of six games while racking up four fouls in eight more contests. It’s not that Nwakamma can’t defend — quite the contrary; with his physical skill set, he has all the tools to be a good, if not great, man-to-man defender. It’s that Nwakamma commits, well, flat out dumb fouls – reach-ins at half-court, hand checks at quarter court, or fourth and fifth fouls contesting shots he has no chance at blocking – at an alarming rate.

Nwakamma’s importance to Hartford is so extreme that, more often than not, he would literally be better off simply giving up two points than committing a foul – a point that Gallagher has made to him repeatedly. If Nwakamma takes another leap his junior year equal to that he took last year, he could be the Player of the Year. If he can stay on the court, Hartford could make a run at the NCAA’s.

If his fouls continue to relegate him to the bench, the Hawks’ offense will collapse on itself like a house of cards.

While Nwakamma will demand swarms of defenders around the hoop, he will need his teammates to capitalize on open looks when opponents double-down.

Fellow junior Yolonzo Moore II joined Nwakamma in enjoying a breakout sophomore campaign last year. An athletic and active 6’2” 180 pound guard, Moore can play either the point or off-guard positions. A very good and physical man-to-man defender, offensively he can get to the hoop off the dribble and excels in transition. He is a solid shooter from behind the arc (35.7 percent from three) whose numbers tend to go down as his shots go up. An emotional player, Moore is the engine that powers the Hawks.

Sophomore point guard Evan Cooper battled injuries but showed flashes during his freshman season. Cooper won’t wow you with his athleticism or speed, but he rarely makes a mental mistake and has a knack for always being in the right place at the right time to make the big play (the America East player he most resembles may be Vermont point guard Sandro Carissimo). Despite playing most of the season with a wrist injury, Cooper shot 37.2 percent from behind the arc and could be the shooter the Hawks desperately need.

Junior forward Nate Sikma, son of former NBA great Jack Sikma, showed tremendous flashes as a freshman but seemed to regress greatly as a sophomore. Before an illness halfway through his freshman year, the 6’7” forward showed the ability to attack the hoop off the dribble and finish acrobatically in traffic, while also stepping out to knock down shots from behind the arc.

Upon his return, Sikma became a stationary shooter from behind the arc — and not a particularly good one, hitting just 29.5 percent of his three’s last year. There is a difference between being a good enough shooter as a forward to occasionally stretch the offense from behind the arc and being good enough to live out there: Sikma is definitely the former. If he makes a return to attacking the post, Sikma is a valuable piece to a good team. If all he does is bomb away from downtown – where the Hawks trade rebounding in the frontcourt for adequate-at-best three point shooting, he actually hurts his team.

The real issue, however, may be that Sikma is doing exactly what the coaching staff wants.

Corban Wroe is the one starter seemingly not allowed to shoot by the coaching staff – which is interesting considering that the 6’2” junior guard shot a staggering 54.2 percent from the floor last season and was one of the few players who could get to the rack. Wroe has a knack for getting to the hoop and finishing and is one of the best defenders in the league. A former rugby star in his native Australia, he is equal parts tough-as-nails ball hawk and under-your-skin instigator.

Gallagher went offense-defense for entire games last year with Wroe and junior guard Wes Cole. Cole is a gunner in the truest sense: Shooting the three is his first, second and third option. He’s also another guy who toes the line between “shooter” and “chucker.” Cole’s three point percentages took a jump from 32.3 percent as a freshman to 35.2 percent last year, but he remains streaky and at 5’11” 160 pounds, can struggle to get his shot off.

Sophomore Taylor Dyson is an interesting player as a 6’4” wing. Originally intended to red-shirt last year to get stronger physically, the Aussie forced his way into the lineup by lighting up teammates in practice, only to miss the final 14 games of the season due to ongoing issues with circulation in his shooting shoulder, requiring surgery. Dyson has keen scorers instincts and the ability to slash to the hoop and hit the mid-range jumper.

Junior Jamie Schneck is a 6’8” 240 pound forward who can run the floor and has the tools to make an impact rebounding the ball and chipping in some buckets in the paint, but, as of last year, had yet to learn how to assert himself.

If you were to walk in to an open gym, you might think Oren Faulk was the best player on the team. A big, strong, explosive athlete at 6’7” 250 pounds, the loan senior has never seen consistent minutes. A lack of consistency and a lack of energy have been cited at different points by the coaching staff, but the fact remains that he can give the Hawks something they don’t have: both physicality, athleticism and skill alongside Nwakamma.

Freshman swingman Preston Anderson may be the team’s most athletic player. An outstanding leaper, the 6’6” guard/forward from Cayuga, Texas, could see minutes as instant offense off the bench. Incoming freshman Justin Graham can do a bit of everything as a 6’1” point guard. 6’9” 240 pound center Dougal Weir is a mountain of a man who comes from a rugby background in Australia. Weir is physical and strong, but still extremely raw.

The Hawks’ X-Factor is 6’10” transfer Yasin Kolo. Kolo red-shirted his freshman season at Eastern Carolina. Kolo played minutes last season as a redshirt freshman at ECU for a Pirates team that went on to win the CIT tournament. The tallest player on the Hawks roster, Kolo has the reputation of a skilled, step-out four and the word is he has been lighting it up shooting the ball from behind the arc so far in practice. The word also is that the NCAA will declare Kolo eligible immediately, allowing him to play right away for the Hawks. Kolo will give the Hawks the ability to go big and play Nwakamma at stretches at the three, or prevent teams from helping off as much on the Hawks star.

However, the facts are that Kolo averaged just 1.8 points and 1.8 rebounds last season despite standing 6’10”. While Gallagher has long been in love with size, big-men of Kolo’s height who fall to the AE seldom pan out.

Senior walk-ons Jeremiah Aska, a 5’8” guard and Adam Orensky, a 6’8” forward, round out the roster.

Bottom line:

You’re going to win more games than you lose in the in the America East by simply playing harder than your opponent. Under Gallagher, the Hawks go balls-out every night. Add on the fact that Hartford has gone from a porous defense to a very solid one that does not get beat back in transition (albeit at the expense of offensive rebounding) and the Hawks will finish in the top half of the league.

Add on to that a top-five talent who commands constant double teams and can completely take over games in Nwakamma, paired with several very good role players who can catch on fire from downtown, and Hartford has a real chance to go to the NCAA’s.

The deciding factors for Hartford are going to be whether they can find ways to score when the shots aren’t falling – almost a guarantee even for the sweetest shooting teams from behind the arc – and Nwakamma isn’t on the floor, or do they continue to bomb away from behind the arc?

We predict the Hawks are going to remain full speed ahead in their same  rut: They’ll blow some teams completely out of the gym from behind the arc, but when their shots stop falling, their lack of second chance opportunities and lack of offense that doesn’t revolve around the three will once again prove to be their undoing.

Projected Division I win total: 16 games
Projected finish: Loss in America East quarterfinals. CBI/CIT invite.