‘We have our part to play’: How men’s basketball’s historic regular season start looks to fuel more championship expectations

Ethan Hurwitz, Sports Editor

When Quinnipiac men’s basketball head coach Baker Dunleavy walked down the hallway tunnel into the press conference room after an 81-72 win over Dartmouth on Nov. 15, he subtly made a note to himself of how close it came towards the end of the game.

Despite the nine-point win, the man at the helm has kept a calm sense about his team’s success. He has not been overconfident, yet he is aware of the significant improvements made by this Bobcats team in the offseason. The depth, something mentioned in almost every Dunleavy press conference, is miles ahead of what it was the year prior.

“We have had our ups-and-downs, but when it comes to closing time, we bring out some of our best,” said Dunleavy, who is in his sixth year as head coach. “The identity of our team is our depth and our multiple options … I could go down the roster and talk about everybody.”

This season has a feeling of being a “win-now” season and while every season is one that teams hope is win-filled, this 2022-23 squad has the makings of something drastically different.

“We can be our own worst enemy … we are seeing what it should look like,” Dunleavy said. “I think we’re able to keep fresh bodies on the floor because we have depth.”

Quinnipiac started off on a tear, ripping off seven straight wins for its best start to a season since 1969-70. Sure, Dunleavy can get some credit for the terrific beginning of the year, but more praise should be brought to the transfers he recruited to Hamden.

Graduate students Ike Nweke and junior Paul Otieno have been an almost-unstoppable duo when the two share the court. One of the two forwards has led Quinnipiac in rebounds in eight of nine games, including a career-high 15 by Otieno against Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 25.

“Knowing that Paul will get the rebound … that’s really special to me because we work a lot,” Nweke said. “We grind a lot together to be able to have that chemistry.”

The front court is solidified with both newcomers in the paint. With junior wing Tymu Chenery, redshirt senior guard Matt Balanc and junior guard Dezi Jones to round out the starting rotation, the starters have meshed very well nine games in.

“We (have) been working all summer for this,” Jones said on Nov. 15. “It’s my job to keep everyone under control, making sure everyone is comfortable (and) calm.”

However, the highlight of the out-of-conference slate has been the explosive one-two punch of Luis Kortright and Tyrese Williams off the bench. The former, a junior guard from Manhattan, is a player Dunleavy says “has a great sense for the game.”

“Luis is a pure basketball player,” Dunleavy said. “He reads the game well … we trust him to make plays at the end of the game. He’s a guy that’s a big guard, playmaker … proud of his effort.”

The latter, a graduate student forward, came on strong in the team’s last two games, both losses to Hofstra on Nov. 27, and Niagara on Dec. 4. Williams has been the team’s leading scorer in both those performances and has perfected his long-range shot, something that the team needed late in the second halves.

“(He’s a) really good shooter, a guy who wants to play the right way,” Dunleavy said on Dec. 4. “Helps us play well when he’s in there.”

Now the Bobcats, who have dropped two in a row, are looking to improve in some aspects of their style of play. First and foremost is the absolute need to get right at the free throw line.

There are 363 teams that compete at the Division I level and Quinnipiac currently sits 356th in overall free-throw percentage. Shooting the ball from the stripe at a 59% clip is something that needs to be addressed.

The Bobcats are ranked in the bottom 10 in NCAA Division I in free-throw percentage. (Peyton McKenzie)

“We will continue to work hard,” Dunleavy said. “Every day is free-throw focused … guys work at it hard.”

That sentiment has been translated from the coaching staff to the players and they know it is crucial come stretch time.

“I obviously need to work on my free throws,” Nweke said after the Dartmouth win, in which he had missed 12 free throws in four games up to that point. “That’s a big weakness of mine.”

This season, the Bobcats have missed an average of 8.1 free throws per game. In an early-season slate where the margin of the two losses have been a total of six points, free throws are the difference between the team being 7-2 and 9-0.

Dunleavy has been adamant about focusing on the performance on both offense and defense before criticizing the free throws, but is still confident that the team will pick it up eventually.

The charity stripe is not the only point of weakness evident in the team’s losses. On Dec. 4, against the Niagara Purple Eagles in the MAAC opener, the Bobcats’ perimeter defense allowed the visitors, specifically sophomore forward Aaron Gray and senior guard Noah Thomasson, to drain virtually any outside shot. The same was seen from Hofstra’s redshirt senior guard Aaron Estrada just seven days prior.

As the team now prepares for battles with Holy Cross (Dec. 7) and Lafayette (Dec. 10), the focus is not on the upcoming matchups on the floor, but on what they have brewing in the locker room and correcting their mistakes.

“Regardless of the opponent … we got to get better offensively in transitions,” Dunleavy said. “We got to get a little more pace in our offense.”

Quinnipiac Athletics has gone through winning ways as of late, as four fall sports teams this year captured MAAC titles for their efforts and the coaching staff is well aware of that.

“There’s a winning culture here, obviously our women’s basketball program, our hockey programs, both soccer programs,” Dunleavy said. “I mean our cross country team is elite and we don’t have a track. I think that says everything about Quinnipiac.”

So how will the men’s basketball program be the next team to take that hurdle and claim their own trophy?

“We have our part to play in that,” Dunleavy said. “Not just in winning championships … but how we represent the school, on and off the court.”