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Men’s team looks to flourish under new coach

by Evan Sporer / Beacon Staff • November 10, 2011

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An up-and-down campaign saw the men’s basketball team pocket some impressive victories — beating Albertus Magnus at home 79-69) — but also dropping some easier games (losing to Lasell at home 78-76). When all was said and done, the Lions finished out the campaign 11-16 overall, with a 7-11 record in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC).

With last semester’s midseason departure of 16-year tenured head coach Hank Smith, followed by the services of Associate Athletic Director Stanford Nance and interim head coach Lynn Ramage, seniors Drew Venter and Dan Bisaccio said the team had trouble focusing through stretches of the season. The Lions lost in the first round of the GNAC playoffs to Norwich University, and new head coach Jim O’Brien described the 2010-2011 campaign as a “complete and utter disappointment,” but added that it is a new year, and is looking for his players to bounce back.

Emerson men’s basketball will be without some of last season’s stalwart players. Tom Messinger, the most prolific shooter in the history of the GNAC, graduated last May. So did Kabir Moss, the team’s major low-post presence, and a matchup problem for opposing big-men with his athleticism and ball handling skills. Senior Alex Dempsey will not be playing this year, and the Lions will miss his experience and versatility. Chris Taylor, a vocal leader on the team, also graduated. Dan Boylan, who did not play least season, but was expected to come back, withdrew from Emerson College. Messinger and Moss’ skill sets will be difficult to replace on the floor, according to O’Brien.

“It’s a lot to make up for,” said the first-year coach.

On the flipside, the Lions get freshman point guard Eli Kell-Abrams, a 20 year-old out of the Westtown School in Pennsylvania. The team also returns senior Brett Smyth, who missed the majority of last season due to injury. Kell-Abrams will provide the team with another pure ball handler, and he should see a good amount of minutes according to O’Brien. And Venter said, more than anything, this team has worked hard in the offseason, which he described as the best way to compensate for the losses.

“I think a lot of people are going to be surprised because more than ever this season, a lot of people put in hard work and worked on their games,” Venter said.

In his first season leading the Lions, O’Brien has switched some things around. To compensate for the team’s lack of height, O’Brien said the team will play a zone. The former Boston College coach said his team will slow the ball on offense, and look to make the most of every possession. And while neither O’Brien nor the players would go into specifics on how this team will operate on both ends of the floor, Venter said, “It’s a totally different system, so for the fans, it will be something new and exciting to look at.”

O’Brien also said senior Nate Firn needs to be more involved offensively.

“He’s our best player,” O’Brien said.

Without Messinger, O’Brien said he does not see this team as a good three point shooting squad, and said last year’s team was “a little three-point crazy” at times. This year, O’Brien said he has stressed to his players the importance of every possession, and getting good looks every trip down the floor. Under O’Brien, the Lions should be more disciplined on offense, turning the ball over less, and taking smarter shots.

In O’Brien’s first year he said he is still learning some things about his team. He has already figured out Firn is his best player. While O’Brien said Firn is undersized for his game, the coach said he needs a humble Firn to take more shots and be a leader.

“We need to get Firn a lot more shots than he got last year because he has the potential to score a lot of points for us,” O’Brien said.

The 6-foot-3-inch forward from North Carolina will look for opportunities from guards Venter and Kell-Abrams, who O’Brien said will share the ball-handling duties. Venter played major minutes last year, and said at times he was, “tired as hell.” O’Brien said he has already been tinkering with sets with both guards on the floor. If Venter and Kell-Abrams can find a way to get Firn involved offensively, it could prove to be a formula for success.

With a shorter roster, Emerson will look to use its speed and versatility to coast past taller players. While O’Brien said he is working on slowing down the offense at times, he said he wanted his players to know that didn’t mean not getting out on the fastbreak, where they can use their pace to their advantage.

“We’re not slowing this down, but we’re not just going to take a crazy indiscriminate show either,” O’Brien said. “If the break presents itself, and we have numbers, we want to go.”

Venter agreed that the overall athleticism of the team will play to its advantage.

“It’s going to be fun and exciting. We’re one of the more athletic teams in the GNAC,” Venter said.

Bisaccio added that Kell-Abrams is great at pushing the ball up court quickly, and will get better with time.

“If we get a couple of athletic guys out on the fast break it’s going to be tough to stop,” Bisaccio said.

When the team does operate in a half-court offense though, it is clear that Firn will be the primary target. O’Brien said he has emphasized ball security to his players, who he felt turned the ball over too much last year.

On the other end of the floor, the Lions will move into a zone defense, which Bisaccio said helps compensate for the lack of height.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but with our defensive setup, height isn’t as big a factor as it could be,” said the team’s center.

With a difficult out-of-conference schedule to open the season, O’Brien said it will be important for the team to not get discouraged by early results, especially while it adjusts to a new system.

“It’s tough not to get frustrated sometimes when you’re playing good teams,” Bisaccio said.

The team will open up its GNAC schedule Dec. 3 at Suffolk as the Lions and Rams resume their rivalry. From there, Emerson returns home for a game against Bates College, and then play 17 straight conference games, before the team finishes its season at Wheelock College.

A week after the game against Suffolk, Emerson will travel to Rhode Island to take on Johnson and Wales and the reigning leading scorer in the country for all divisions of basketball, Lamonte Thomas. Thomas averaged over 30 points a game last season for the Wildcats, and is always important to limit when Emerson faces its conference rival.

In the span of a week in January, the Lions will host Johnson and Wales, then play a home-and-home against Albertus Magnus, and end with a game at home against Lasell. While four games probably won’t decide Emerson’s season, this stretch of four will certainly be as crucial as any.

A Jan. 24 matchup with Norwich will give the Lions their first shot at the Cadets since Norwich eliminated the Lions in the GNAC playoffs last season.

Without having seen his GNAC competition, O’Brien said it’s difficult to gauge where his team stands, but did say he thinks it can be very competitive in the league. With the coaching staff and players still get familiar with one another, O’Brien said the product will get better with time.

“We are going to be so much better as we go along,” he said. “It’s going to be a process to get there — that’s why we have to be very understanding and very patient with the first semester.”

Still, with a group of determined seniors and talented players, the team has its sights set on the top.

“We’d like to get [to the NCAA tournament]; and is that out of the question? I don’t think so,” O’Brien said.

Venter agreed, and said despite the fact that Emerson is the shortest squad in the conference, it could make a huge impact.

“Now with a new system we have even higher expectations than last year,” Venter said. “We are the smallest team in the league, however, with everything that’s going on with us, I think we can win the GNAC championship.”

emSporer can be reached at evan_sporer@emerson.edu. Follow him on Twitter @ ev_sporer/em