by Sean Begin
If you asked head basketball coach Howie Dickenman how he felt at the end of last season, disappointment might be the word that comes to mind.
But headed into the 2014-15 season, the Central Connecticut basketball team has the highest expectations: Northeast Conference championship or bust.
“This is the most experienced team I’ve had since we went to the tournament in ’07,” said Dickenman from his office before leading his team onto the court for it’s 15th practice of the season. “It’s a veteran team.”
And while Dickenman says he doesn’t put much stock into polls, he does acknowledge that the experience his players possess was enough to be named second in the NEC coaches preseason poll.
“I would say it’s a show of respect,” he said. “When they look at our team and they see all of the veterans I think it’s almost natural that we’re going to be somewhere near the top.”
Yet before they’ve even had a chance to tipoff, the team is facing the prospect of being without their best player.
Early last week, senior guard and one of CCSU’s offensive threats, Kyle Vinales, was suspended indefinitely from the team following his arrest for an altercation with his girlfriend. She later retracted her statements when speaking to both the New Britain Herald and NBC Connecticut about the incident.
While her statements may see any charges against Vinales drop, he remains away from the team for the time being. And if the CCSU athletics department follows the same path other NCAA schools have taken, they might not make a decision until after Vinales’ Dec. 5 court date.
Dickenman called Vinales “the hardest working player that I’ve ever been around on offense,” and is one of the primary scorers for the team, capable of draining the three as well as driving to the basket and drawing fouls.
Vinales’ absence will be noticeable, but the team has dealt with it before. Last season he missed the first ten games of conference play with a broken finger. Senior guard Malcolm McMillan filled in well for Vinales and should be able to do so again.
McMillan will, for now, lead a starting lineup that includes sophomore guards Matt Mobley and Khalen Cumberlander – who both saw significant playing time in their freshman seasons last year – as well as senior forward Faronte Drakeford and junior forward Brandon Peel.
According to Dickenman, the focus for the starting five and the rest of the team in practice so far this season has been defense, spending about 70 percent of the time in the gym on it, as well as rebounding, something the team struggled with last year.
“We’ve been out-rebounded by an average of three a game. That’s probably three more scoring opportunities for the opponents,” said Dickenman. “We can’t afford to give them extra field goal attempts.”
To that end, Dickenman has new transfer student who may help secure rebounds for the team.
Junior forward Corey Barrett comes in from Coppin State stands at 6-feet-9-inches tall but with a lot left to learn about the game.
“Corey hasn’t played a lot of basketball but he’s learning. There’s a lot of things he’s being taught and he’s been very receptive to the instruction that we’re putting forth to him,” said Dickenman.
That doesn’t mean Barrett won’t see the hardwood, though.
“He will get some playing time because he has a chance to be a pretty good rebounder. And he’s decent offensively,” Dickenman added.
Three freshmen joined the team over the summer as well. Forward Mustafa Jones and guards Kevin Seymour and Shakaris Laney all have a chance to see playing time this season provided they show the intensity that Dickenman has been preaching all offseason.
“If we’re not intense and we’re not going to play defense as hard as we can than we will be mediocre,” said Dickenman. “If we come with a bit of a defensive attitude than I think we have have a chance to be a very good team.”
Of the three freshmen, Seymour may now be most likely to see the court. As the primary backup to McMillan at the point guard position, a potential injury to McMillan could see Seymour entering the game.
Laney offers the team a potentially lethal three-pointer, although Dickenman wants to see Laney work harder in practice, something he thinks will happen with time. Jones is a left-hander who needs to put some weight on, which, according to Dickenman, “we’re trying like the dickens to [do].”
In addition to the new players, Dickenman brought in an entirely new coaching staff who’s brains he picked before the offseason began to build new drills and offensive plays for the team.
“Very pleased with the energy and the enthusiasm and the effort that they brought here,” said Dickenman. “We have some new defensive drills I might add. We’ve introduced some new [offensive] ones [too] this year that I think will be successful.”
Greg Collucci comes to Central from American, where he led the team to a Patriot League championship last year in his only season with the team. Tobe Carberry led the University of New Haven to two straight 20-win campaigns the past two seasons before arriving in New Britain.
Dickenman also brought back Obie Nwadike, who was a member of the 2007 team that was the last to win an NEC championship and go to the NCAA tournament. Nwadike had previously spent last season on the coaching staff of NEC opponent Wagner.
“He is as much energized as any assistant I’ve had and I’ve had a number of them,” said Dickenman of Nwadike’s return to New Britain.
Dickenman believes his team has a chance to succeed in a conference that has a lot of parity, thanks in part to the improvement from the players in the starting lineup. Both Mobley and Cumberlander have been spending more time working on driving to the basket and drawing fouls. Drakeford and Peel have seen an improvement to their jump shooting, so much so that Dickenman might let them loose from three this season.
But in order for their to be any success, it comes down to playing with intensity and a good defense.
“If we can do that then I anticipate a very good year. But that’s the key,” said Dickenman. “We play with intensity in practice. Now the question is can we bring those habits into a game.”
The team opens up their season Nov. 14 at the Connecticut 6 Classic at Quinnipiac University, when they take on Fairfield.