Runnin’ the Point: MAAC Tournament shouldn’t define the season

Logan Reardon

[media-credit id=2200 align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]Quinnipiac head coach Baker Dunleavy has had an up-and-down debut season in Hamden.

The story of the season, however, has been execution. If the Bobcats execute and defend at a high-level, they are a tough team to beat. When they don’t, that’s another story.

Losers of seven of the last eight games, the Bobcats certainly don’t have much momentum heading into their first round matchup with tournament-host Siena on Thursday night.

“We won’t think twice about momentum,” Dunleavy said. “We just have to get our heads right and prepare the right way and I know we can.”

The MAAC Tournament is the culmination of a season-long grind. The ups-and-downs of a season start the second the previous one ends. After Quinnipiac was eliminated last March, former head coach Tom Moore was fired, which subsequently led to Dunleavy’s arrival.

Since he relocated to Hamden, Dunleavy has been about one thing — improving at his own pace. Half of the 14 players on this team are at Quinnipiac for their first year. They were picked to finish last (11th) in the MAAC.

“At this point in our program, we can’t always let the record decide whether or not we’re improving,” Dunleavy said. “Our guys have bought in, they’ve allowed us to coach them. I couldn’t be happier with their effort and attitude.”

The first part of that quote is the key. This team wasn’t expected to win seven conference games this year and be in contention for a bye until the final weekend. Dunleavy’s Quinnipiac program is still in its infant stages.

Last year, the Bobcats finished the regular season 10-20, 7-13 in the MAAC, lost their last seven games of the season and fell in the first round of the tournament to a team they beat twice in the regular season (Niagara).

This year, Quinnipiac is 10-20, 7-11 in the MAAC (two less MAAC games this season due to conference changes), lost seven of its last eight and will face a Siena team it beat twice already this year.

Two teams with identical records headed in more opposite directions. Last season was the end. This season is the beginning.

The way the regular season ended makes 2017-18 feel like a disappointment. It shouldn’t be seen as one no matter the results in Albany.

“Our team, I believe has gotten better, consistently, to this point,” Dunleavy said. “Sometimes the schedule is laid out in a way where you run into some tough matchups right in a row. We played the top four teams (Rider, Canisius, Niagara, Iona) in our league (in a row) and three were on the road. I told our guys throughout that stretch that I felt us getting better.”

With that being said, the season isn’t over. Quinnipiac has a date on Thursday night with Siena on the Saints’ home floor. It won’t be easy.

On New Year’s Day, the Bobcats topped the Saints in Albany, 71-70, on a last-second, game-saving block by junior forward Abdulai Bundu. A lot has changed since that day.

That game was senior forward Chaise Daniels’ first game back after he took a personal leave of absence from the team. Graduate student forward Alain Chigha was still in the starting lineup over freshman forward Jacob Rigoni, who started 11 of the final 12 games (didn’t start on Senior Day).

Siena has also lost seven of its final eight games, so neither team is rolling into this one.

[media-credit id=2200 align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]The key for Quinnipiac in this game will be the play of freshman point guard Rich Kelly. Kelly, like the entire team, has been through the highs (40 points at Fairfield, game-winner at Columbia) and the lows (six games with five or more turnovers) this season.

“I think communication is about being comfortable with everyone,” Kelly said. “It takes time to build that trust. [Dunleavy] says I’m not a freshman anymore because I’ve played in a lot of games and a lot of minutes. He says I have to act like a veteran out there.”

Quinnipiac is winless in the six games where Kelly has five or more turnovers. On the other side, the Bobcats are 3-0 when Kelly has nine or more assists. Kelly’s ball control is paramount for success.

“He’s been in a tough position as a freshman point guard, and I think he’s grown throughout the year,” Dunleavy said. “He’s done a great job for us, I think these experiences will carry forward for him in the MAAC Tournament and the rest of his career.”

The production of Quinnipiac’s bench will also be an indicator of success in Albany.

Junior guard Andrew Robinson has been sidelined for the last eight games with a left foot injury. Coincidental or not, the Bobcats began struggling once he went down. In the five games that Robinson has scored in double figures, the Bobcats are 4-1.

Robinson returned to practice last week, but was still held out of the final two games of the season. Dunleavy said he’s working back at his own pace, and was still wearing his walking boot at the game at Manhattan on Sunday.

If Robinson is able to return and give a scoring punch off the bench along with Daniels, the Bobcats will have a much greater chance against the MAAC’s best.

“I think our morale is really good,” Dunleavy said regarding the state of the team. “Everybody comes to work every day with a positive mentality looking to get better. That’s really all you can ask for as a coach. Win or lose, our guys don’t come in with their heads down. Everybody has the mentality of getting better.”

A loss on Thursday would be a tough pill to swallow, but it wouldn’t make this season a bust. The players shouldn’t be satisfied with a first-round loss. They’ll tell us that. Dunleavy won’t be happy with a loss on Thursday either, but there is always a bigger picture — attitude.

“I hope we embody our mantra, which is ‘attitude,’” Dunleavy said. “You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. If nothing else, even if you do lose a game, people will respect you if you battle.”

Win or lose, the Bobcats will battle come Thursday night. That’s all they know.