Eight games into the season, Head Coach Jeff Neubauer‘s Rams are 6-2, a couple of points and a double-overtime from being unbeaten heading into their biggest challenge of the season to date, in front of what should be a raucous Rose Hill Gym crowd against Big Ten opponent Rutgers on Saturday (the first visit to the Fordham campus by a Big Ten school in men’s basketball since Purdue rolled up in 1935!). But with his new-look team (three freshman and a transfer comprise the top four scorers) looking good early, Neubauer is hopeful that the contest becomes another in a series of markers for his young squad.
“It’s great to get confidence going early in the year,” he told us this week. “The freshmen are still learning but it’s best to learn while winning. I think every game is a marker of where the program is, but this is the best Rutgers team in years, they are among the best defensive teams in the nation and the challenge will definitely be there. It will be the most like the defenses we’ll see in our A-10 games.”
This year, Neubauer has a few more weapons, especially offensively, and perhaps the deepest squad in his four years at the helm. With 10 players averaging nine or more minutes a game, and a couple of more contributors returning soon, Neubauer thinks that depth will make the difference as the league schedule gets underway against the “other” Rams from VCU on January 5 at Rose Hill.
One of those is Nick Honor, the prized recruit from Orlando, Fla., who has been everything the coaching staff has expected and more in his first eight games as a frosh, leading the team in scoring (17.5 ppg) and hitting the game-winning leaner with seconds left to beat Manhattan last Saturday.
“We did have high expectations when we recruited Nick,” said Neubauer. “He’s playing like one of the best freshmen in the country, and we’re proud and happy. He’s only going to get better.”
Honor is joined by classmates Jalen Cobb (11.3 ppg), whose buzzer-beater capped a rally against Columbia on Nov. 11, and Ty Perry (7.5) among the Rams scoring leaders, sandwiched around St. Peter’s transfer Antwon Portley, the Texan whose pedigree as a former All-MAAC rookie has translated well to the jump to Fordham after sitting out last year per transfer rules.
The Rams may be averaging 10 three pointers made per game, and their open offensive style may grab the headlines, but it’s been the steady play down low of senior Jesse Bunting that fans are starting to notice, a fact not lost on Neubauer.
“Jesse only played a few minutes in the first game [a win over CCNY], but he was the best player on the floor,” noted Neubauer of his 6’8″ Plymouth, Mass., native, who looked to be heading towards a strong 2017-18 before an injury ended his year after just five games. “He gives us a physical presences, rebounding, blocking shots, and has been very efficient offensively. His defense is key, and whatever we get on offense is a bonus, and so far he’s done that too.”
As a four-year player, Bunting also fits the profile of the kind of student-athlete that Neubauer wants to fill the program with: guys who work their way from freshman through senior year, growing and experiencing all that is Fordham.
“We made an effort to sign and bring in six high school guys this year, from good programs in big cities,” explained Neubauer of his freshman class, which including walk-ons totals seven, also features big man Onyi Eyisi, swing Luka Radovich and guards Mason Williams and Lazar Skoric. “It’s the way we want to build.”
Eyisi, in particular, is someone Neubauer thinks supporters will be hearing a lot about, and soon. The Lagos, Nigeria, native, who arrived at Fordham by way of Napa Valley, Calif., can be a disruptive force inside, especially teaming with Bunting, and contribute even more offensively.
Neubauer also said that Erten Gazi, an import from North Cyprus who has represented Turkey at several junior international championships, who also sat out last year after transferring from DePaul, where he was an Academic All-BIG EAST pick, will add another backcourt option, further deepening what has already been a long bench.
Gazi is another fun-to-watch player, and personality is another trait that Neubauer looks for in recruiting.
“We spend a lot of time together the coaches and players,” he explains, “on planes and buses, film, practice, we’re with them than with our families. You don’t want to spend all that time with someone you don’t like. So the fun factor is important. And our team, I think, is fun, because we put it in the basket.”