5 Ways the Fordham Rams Can Salvage the 2013-14 Season
Nothing about Fordham's transition from the Patriot League to the Atlantic 10 has been easy.
Nearing the 20-year anniversary of the Rams' move to big-time basketball, those who follow the team are reminded of the program's struggles on a fairly routine basis.
That's certainly been the case this season, one that actually got off to a good start with the Rams finishing their out-of-conference schedule with a 7-6 record.
But as the Atlantic 10 schedule has heated up, the Rams have cooled off. They've lost three in a row and find themselves in familiar territory—six games under .500 (9-15) and at the bottom of the A-10.
Still, this is a young team with more talent on the way.
Before putting a wrap on this year, however, there are five things the Rams can do to salvage the season.
Shore Up the Defense
Defense has been a problem for Fordham all year. Believe it or not, the Rams let up 82 points to Richmond the other night, yet it was actually a better defensive performance than the one they turned in three nights earlier against St. Bonaventure.
The 82 points they gave up against Richmond marked the 10th time this season that Fordham has allowed 80 or more points in a game.
The coaching staff is well aware of the problem. It's become a staple of just about every press conference and interview that head coach Tom Pecora gives, including this past Saturday's interview on WFUV Radio.
"That's something we're working on on a daily basis," he said about his team's defense. "We're going to continue to do that because that's got to be the basis of everything we do moving forward. If you don't defend, you don't win."
In fact, Pecora insisted that the Rams' inability to stop opposing teams from scoring is also hurting them on the offensive end of the floor.
"The most important stat at the end of a basketball game is offensive field-goal percentage," he said. "That's dictated by a lot. In our case, our defensive field-goal percentage is having a huge effect on our offensive field goal percentage.
We're not getting stops. When you're trying to score in the A-10 or any good college basketball conference after your opponent scores it's very difficult because you're dealing with an organized defense that's back and ready to defend you. By getting stops it allows us to get out and run. It's something we were doing earlier in the year.
It's something they're not doing now.
Get a Strong Finish from Jon Severe
He was the star player out of Christ the King High School in Queens, named 2013 Mr. New York State Basketball.
For the most part, Jon Severe has lived up to the hype during his freshman season. Severe is averaging 19.1 points per game, tops in the Atlantic 10.
But his field-goal percentage is low (.348) and as skilled as he is and as good as he's looked at times, there are plenty of moments when you're reminded that he's only a freshman.
"He came out of the gate on fire," Pecora said when asked about Severe's development. "When you're a young player, one of the most difficult things is learning how to play with a yellow light and not a green light, understanding that every possession is more important in college so shot selection is more important.
"Early on, Jon was making great plays, and then as the year progressed he became a focal point of other teams' scouting reports. The next step in the process is learning how to get shots, how to get good shots, how to work for those shots and to continue to play with that intensity."
That's something Severe was able to do last Saturday against Richmond when he scored 28 points and was 8-of-15 from the floor. It was the 11th time this season that's he's scored 21 or more points in a game, but only the fifth time that his shooting percentage has been more than 50 percent from the floor.
The good news is, prior to the Richmond game, Severe had been struggling for about three weeks, so maybe he's snapped out of the funk he was in.
Or, we could just be witnessing the natural growing pains that all freshmen experience.
"They talk about the freshman wall," Pecora said. "At this stage of the game, the high school season would be over. The intensity of our practices and games obviously is much greater. That's the next thing he needs to fight through."
Against the Spiders, at least, it looked like he was doing just that.
Send Branden Frazier out on a Good Note
Branden Frazier's numbers this year put him right up there with the best guards in the conference: 18.2 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game and 37.3 minutes per game.
You might expect that, I guess, from a four-year starter.
From a statistical standpoint, it's easy to measure Frazier's value. In terms of what he provides as the only senior on the floor, that's more difficult to gauge.
"I think he's done an admirable job," Pecora said on the topic of Frazier's leadership. "It's a great challenge for him. It's something I talk to Branden about every day. It's not easy being a senior. As a senior there's a great deal of responsibility. Branden's shouldered that well. But it's been a challenge for him doing it alone."
Frazier has been through the growing pains. Now, he's playing with teammates who are adjusting to the college game.
"Veteran presence comes in many forms," Pecora said. "I think [having more veterans] would not only have an effect on Branden but also an effect on Jon Severe's development. If we had multiple veteran seniors who were high-level players then your young players mature at a much quicker level. That's something we haven't had since we've been here."
That's what Fordham is hoping to build. This year it was Severe. Next year it will be Eric Paschall out of Connecticut's St. Thomas More Prep. Four years ago, it was Frazier.
Maybe the last few games can be about him, too.
Find a Way to Win Two Games
While my initial thought was to say that one win would suffice, why not shoot a little higher and say the Rams need to win two of their remaining five games.
Some might question the low expectations. But anyone who follows this team knows that getting two wins will not be easy.
The way I see it, Fordham's best chances will come at home against La Salle on March 1 and at Rhode Island on March 5. Fordham beat Rhode Island back on Feb. 1 at Rose Hill, and La Salle's record is below .500 in conference play.
The way they're playing right now, it's hard to see the Rams beating St. Joseph's, Virginia Commonwealth or George Washington, three of the top teams in the A-10.
The games against Rhode Island and La Salle are a different story, though Pecora mentioned one thing he didn't like about his team that will need to change.
"One of the things we talk to our guys about all the time is body language," he said. "The other night there were times [St. Bonaventure] scored and five guys' heads went down. That's just unacceptable. We're men. I expect them to compete. I expect them to get [upset] when someone scores against them and go down and play that much harder."
The last thing the Rams need is to close out the regular season with eight straight losses. That would leave them with a 9-20 overall record and a 2-14 finish in the A-10.
No one would be feeling good if that were the case.
Win a Game in the Atlantic 10 Tournament
In a fordhamsports.com feature called "Ask The AD," David Roach, Fordham's athletic director, called the Atlantic 10 "the best basketball-centric conference in the country."
When you look at the number of quality teams at the top, it's hard to argue.
What you have right now are six teams (St. Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, St. Joseph's, George Washington, Massachusetts and Richmond) that could all make a case for the NCAA tournament; one team (Dayton) that could enter that conversation as well; two teams (St. Bonaventure and La Salle) that are your prototypical middle-of-the-pack teams; and four cellar dwellers (Duquesne, Rhode Island, Fordham and George Mason).
Thanks to a change in format that the Atlantic 10 announced last spring, all 13 teams will qualify for the conference tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The top four teams will get a bye in the first round, and No. 12 will play No. 13 on the first night of the tournament.
Despite all its issues, Fordham will be there, if only for one game.
And while nobody expects much from them, you can imagine how big it would be for the Rams to get a win, even if it comes in a matchup of the bottom two teams. A tournament win would have a huge carry-over effect heading into the offseason and the 2014-15 campaign.
It's a tall order, asking something of these Rams that they haven't been able to do much of since conference play started in early January.
But a win in the tournament would be their one shining moment.