Despite losing key players from Sweet 16 team, Warriors ranked No. 12
By Jonathan Mizger/Sports Information Staff
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. - A year ago, an Eastern Connecticut State University men's basketball team loaded with experience and talent managed to remain under the radar until the halfway point of the season.
At left: Senior Joe Ives and the Warriors hope to repeat a scene from a year ago which resulted from the Little East Conference tournament championship at Geissler Gym.
This year, there is nowhere to hide for a team which lost all but one of last year's top scorers and rebounders and has been rated 12th in the DIII News pre-season Top 25.
With less than a week away from opening season tip-off, the Eastern Connecticut State University's men's basketball team looks to train hard and return to the NCAA tournament.
Last year, Eastern won a program-record 24 games and went all the way to the NCAA Division III Sweet 16 after capturing its first Little East Conference tournament title in 12 years and the SUNY Oswego regional tournament. The Warriors ended last year's regular season ranked sixth in the NCAA Division III Northeast Regional ranking and 14th in the final D3Hoops.com national ranking, released at the end of the season.
The Warriors are returning eight players from last year's Sweet 16 team, but only two of the seven players who logged 20 or more minutes per game.
Returning letterwinners are seniors Joe Ives (Avon), Chris Robitaille (Canton) and Tyler Hundley (Cheshire), junior Justin Nunez (Hartford), Brian Salzillo (North Haven) and Tim Quinn (Vernon), and sophomore Brandon Yarborough (Stamford). Junior Mike Garrow (Terryville) also returns after missing all but five games last year with mono.
"I think this year's preparation started when all of the returners last year -- as soon as we got done losing to (eventual national runner-up) Cabrini in the Sweet 16 -- they quickly shifted gears and said okay let's get back in the weight room let's continue to work and get better," said Eastern head coach Bill Geitner, who has directed the program to an unprecedented three straight 20-win seasons. "I think that whole experience last year from winning the regular season conference, hosting the conference tournament, playing the semis and finals in front of a packed gym, advancing to the Sweet 16 and playing in those atmospheres really served as a motivating factor for the guys that are coming back."
Freshmen Darryl Best (Hamden), Kevin Leumene (Stamford), Trachone Preston (Enfield), Michael-Thomas Scrio (Westerly, RI), Matthew Sterner (Plymouth) and first-year sophomore Albert Gyimah (Bronx, NY) will hope to learn the offensive and defensive systems, learn from the leadership of the returning players, and gain opportunities to perform at a competitive level.
In the DIII News rating, Eastern is the second-ranked team from New England behind No. 8 Amherst College. No. 16-ranked MIT is the only other team ranked from the New England region.
The pre-season D3Hoops.com national pre-season Top 25 ranks three New England squads among its top five: top-ranked MIT, No. 4 Middlebury College, and No. 5 Amherst. The Warriors "also received votes" in that listing.
"I think any preseason poll - specifically at the Division III level - has more to do with what the team and the program did the previous year," said Geitner. "In that regard it's nice that we're out there. Our name, Eastern Connecticut, out at the national level means we made accomplishments last year, and in return we should feel good about that."
After failing to make the NCAA tournament in 2010/11, Eastern did not appear in the Top 25 a year ago until the mid-way point in the season when a 12-1 start landed it a No. 25 ranking. With talented and experienced seniors Nick Nedwick, Jamie Kohn, Hamilton Levy and Chae Phillips at the forefront, Eastern won the LEC regular-season tournament, and as the No. 1 seed, eliminated Keene State in overtime in the finals before blowing out Rhode Island College by 22 in the title game at Francis E. Geissler Gymnasium.
With this year's high, early-season ranking, Geitner and his squad still have the same goals that stay true to the program.
"Our goals haven't changed," said Geitner. "Our goals are to come every day to practice and get better individually and collectively as a team and if we do that we will feel we're going to be a good team at the end of the season."
Now in his 11th year as head coach at Eastern, Geitner continues to enjoy the atmosphere on campus.
"Eastern is a special place with many special people and there's a family atmosphere that is unique," said Geitner. "I enjoy coming to work every day, spending day with my colleagues. It's truly a family atmosphere that makes all employees feel welcome."
The Warriors open their season against Western New England University Friday at 5:30 p.m. in the opening round of the 32nd Annual Eastern Tip-Off Tournament. -30-