This is not only unfamiliar, but completely uncharted territory for New Hampshire men’s basketball.
When the lights go on and the tip goes up tonight at Ludholm Gymnasium, and fourth-seed New Hampshire squares off against fifth-seed Hartford, the Wildcats will take the floor as the higher seed in the America East quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, and as the best Wildcats team in 20 years.
A year ago, they were one of the worst, finishing the season with a grand total of six wins before being promptly shown the one-and-done door from the America East Tournament for the fourth-straight season.
But according to head coach Bill Herrion, it was slogging through the sludge of the 2013-2014 season where the seeds of this year’s success — an 18-11 overall record and 11-5 in league play — were sewn.
“We had to play a lot of young guys last year,” Herrion said after his team closed out the regular season with a 65-56 win over Maine. “It’s paying dividends now.”
Last year, then-freshmen Jaleen Smith, Jacoby Armstrong and Daniel Dion played major minutes, suffering bumps, bruises and growing pains throughout the year. But according to Herrion, the hard knock education his young squad received on the court, spurred tremendous growth as sophomores. This season, Dion, Smith and Armstrong have accounted for 859 out of 1946 points the Wildcats have scored all season (44 percent).
After being picked to finish sixth in the America East pre-season poll, New Hampshire finished fourth, with Herrion crediting the teams toughness, selflessness and consistent effort as keys to the season.
“I don’t think we’ve played any bad games,” Herrion said. “To have any chance to win a tournament, we have to come in playing well.”
There’s also the play of fifth-year senior but first year Division I player Matt Miller, who drilled 50 percent of his 3-pointers to emerge as the league’s best shooter, and freshman wunderkind Tanner Leissner, the Wildcats’ leading scorer who was just voted the conference Rookie of the Year by rival coaches.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Herrion said after the final regular season game of the season. “A lot of people were unexpected about this season. Really happy we won the game. Coming off the Vermont loss we felt it was important to bounce back because that’s what good teams do, they bounce back.”
With 24 years of Division I head coaching under his belt – including three straight trips to the NCAAs in the 90s with then-America East member Drexel, along with the previous nine seasons of futility in Durham – Herrion knows that a great regular season can be quickly forgotten in the winner-takes-all conference tournament.
But according to Herrion, his Wildcats are ready.
“What is really hard about this level of basketball is that you have to win three games to get into the NCAA tournament,” Herrion said. “Now it’s one and done for us. We really have to be prepared offensively and defensively cause there is no tomorrow. These next couple of days in practice are going to be a test for us mentally.”
New Hampshire has seen Hartford twice this year, splitting the series 1-1 in a pair of very close, highly contested games – a one-point home loss, and a six-point overtime road win.
“We are playing a team that has a lot of veterans, seniors,” Herrion said of a Hartford squad with six seniors. “When you play a team with a lot of experience and players who could be playing in its last game, you have to expect them to play with urgency.”
All season long, the young Wildcats believed in each other when a lot of people didn’t. Now, they will take the floor with an entire Ludholm Gymnasium behind them. But now it’s up to the Wildcats to seize the moment, just as they have throughout the season.
“We are a capable team to make a run here if we play well,” Herrion said.