by Dan Gardella
What a difference a year makes.
Entering the 2018-19 season, Anthony Latina had brought in nine newcomers to his Sacred Heart program in hopes of them making an immediate impact. His team was picked to finish ninth out of ten teams in the conference.
What they did instead was finish 11-7 in Northeast Conference (NEC) play and were just a basket away from claiming the regular season title. Along the way, the Pioneers had a player land on the All-NEC First Team, the conference’s Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the year, and two players on the All-Rookie Team.
There’s no more sneaking up on teams now.
At the 2019 Northeast Conference Basketball Social Media Day in Brooklyn, Sacred Heart was picked to finish second in the conference, along with grabbing three first place votes among the coaches in the conference.
“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a sense of pride. We took some steps back and lost some guys prematurely, but we recovered,” said head coach Anthony Latina. “I take great pride not from me, but for our players and for our school. I’ve said this a lot, but they deserve a winner. That requires us to manage expectations. We will not know if we are NEC Champions until after the NEC Championship game. We need to make sure we are enjoying the journey.”
The journey, the seventh one under Latina, will begin with two true tests. The Pioneers open their season on Nov. 5 against Big East foe Providence, a team that Sacred Heart played closely just two seasons ago. Following that, they renew their in-state rival with Connecticut, a team that is slowly building itself back up.
The biggest thing that Latina stressed about the outlook of the upcoming season is more success in non-conference play. The two matchups against Providence and UConn will show where the team is in terms of competition and effort early on. From there, Latina believes the schedule ahead is one that can be filled with great success, which includes in-state games against Hartford and Quinnipiac, and familiar foes in Binghamton, Lafayette, and Holy Cross.
Dishing and Swishing: Sacred Heart led the Northeast Conference in assists per game last season (14.7) and were second in the conference in field goal (46%) and three-point field goal percentage (36%). Much of that is credited to sophomore Cameron Parker. In his first season with the Pioneers, Parker shattered both program and conference records in assists by a freshman. Parker dished out seven assists per game, which was best in the conference and eighth best in the country. He did however, turn the ball over nearly four times a game.
While his assist to turnover rate was less than two per game, Latina explained that with someone like Parker, who had a talent of finding open players, he did not want to restrict him during the year by being too cautious. With a year under his belt, Latina believes that Parker’s basketball IQ is better and his turnovers have been down in the preseason. With plenty of shot makers around Parker in E.J. Anosike, Koreem Ozier, Kinnon LaRose, and others, it will be interesting to see if Parker can make the leap sophomore year to remain as one of the top passers in college basketball.
E.J. Anosike Is Not at His Full Potential: After being stuck behind a slew of forwards and only seeing around 14 minutes a game in his freshman season, Anosike made a staggering leap on his way to being the conference’s Most Improved Player, averaging just over 14 points and eight rebounds while shooting almost 52% from the field. From the minute Anosike got to campus in 2017, Latina has called him “the hardest working kid I have ever coached.”. Fans have seen his progression first hand. Most recently, Anosike began to step out behind the arc on a more consistent basis. In conference play, Anosike made 16 of his 40 three-point attempts (40%) which helped an already dominate offensive attack become even more dangerous.
What’s Anosike’s next improvement? In practices and intra-squad scrimmages, he has begun to show more confidence in putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim from the perimeter. Not only has he become a matchup nightmare, but it is awfully tough to stop a 6’6”, 250 pound man from getting to the basket. Many people are picking Anosike to win the conference’s Player of the Year and I can’t blame them. Even with his skill in the paint and beyond the arc, improving ball handling, and strong rebounding ability, Anosike believes he can still get better. Good luck Northeast Conference opponents.
Depth Perception: The biggest reason that Sacred Heart exceeded expectations last season was their bench. While the starting five of Parker, Ozier, Sean Hoehn, Anosike, and Jare’l Spellman was one of the best across the conference, it was their bench that came into games and provided stability and kept the Pioneers in games or held onto a lead as the starters got crucial rest. Last season, nine different players had at least one game in which they scored 10+ points. Even with the loss of Sean Hoehn, every other player who played meaningful minutes comes back.
Along with the returning core, Anthony Latina brings in Tyler Thomas, a 6’4 freshman whose athleticism allows him to play larger than his size. In practices and scrimmages, Thomas has shown that he is ready to compete at the college level. While Thomas is still improving his jump shot, he has shown signs of progression on both sides of the court and will fight for minutes from the beginning.
Another player to highlight is Aaron Clarke. Early last season, Clarke was inserted into the starting lineup in the absence of Koreem Ozier for most of non-conference play. Once Ozier returned, Clarke came off the bench and finished the season by averaging eight points per game to go along with stable guard play. One thing that has clearly improved is his ability to read the floor and finish around the rim. According to Latina at media day, Clarke took over with a 26-point output in the team’s second intra-squad scrimmage. While Clarke will be used as the first guard off the bench, he has shown flashes of great improvement and will once again be one of the more important players in the Pioneers’ rotation.