Siem Uijtendaal attempts to swing the ball from the left wing to the top of the key. Before it reaches Youri Fritz, Amarri Tice sticks his long arm into the passing lane and steals the ball.
Nobody was in his way as he threw down a one-handed slam on the other end to open the scoring for Quinnipiac against Canisius on Sunday. For the final 39 minutes and 24 seconds, Quinnipiac’s score was greater than Canisius’.
It was the ninth consecutive win for the Bobcats, who now hold an 18-4 record, the best in Division I program history.
Parity has been the defining factor of the post-Rick Pitino MAAC, with one key exception. Three games ahead of anybody else, sit the Quinnipiac Bobcats with a 10-1 league tally. They don’t have the best offense nor the best defense. They’re not the best shooting team and they don’t force the most turnovers. But Quinnipiac has enough in nearly every category to have a matchup for whatever you bring to the table.
Head coach Tom Pecora led Hofstra to an 18-4 start in 2005-06 but, 18 years later, he’s still searching for that elusive tournament bid.
“I don’t think about [that Hofstra team] very often because we got screwed,” Pecora told Mid-Major Madness. “We beat George Mason [who made the Final Four] twice that year, and we should’ve been in the NCAA Tournament.”
So, what makes this Bobcats team so great? Why has it been able to unlock that factoid? Here are a few reasons:
Gravity of the Pick and Roll
Earlier this year, I wrote about Savion Lewis’ pick-and-roll connection with Paul Otieno, which is one of the most prolific in the country. While that is the backbone of the Bobcat offense, it isn’t the only way that Quinnipiac can score.
Using the gravity of the pick and roll, Lewis often likes to have one or two feet in the paint while he finds shooters moving on the perimeter.
“It’s fun to play in our offense,” star shooting guard Matt Balanc told Mid-Major Madness. “In order for it to work, everybody has to work as a cohesive group, if one person is running around and they’re not doing the spacing properly, it’s going to mess up, so it helps that you have that attention to the paint because it’ll open up me and other shooters.”
In this play, the defense is packed because of Otieno’s threat, but Lewis and Balanc have the wherewithal to connect. Balanc makes a quick move towards the top of the key when his defender stunts towards the block, making him available for Lewis to hit with a kick out.
The Bobcats love flowing their offense into the corner. Whether it’s off-ball movement like above, or quick passing around the perimeter, Quinnipiac has an emphasis on hitting shooters in the corner.
“Whenever there’s an action, there’s a reaction,” Pecora said. “So if we’re running a two- or three-man action on one side of the floor, there’s got to be a reaction on the weak side of some type of activity.”
Over the last five games, corner 3s have been a larger share of Quinnipiac’s shot diet than all but one team in the country. And on those shots, the Bobcats shoot over 37% on the season.
“It doesn’t matter what sport it is,” Pecora said. “Offense is about creating space, and defense is about taking space away.”
He gives credit to associate head coach and offensive coordinator Shaun Morris for keeping guys moving and creating great spacing, making the Bobcats difficult to guard.
Playing Big and Small
One difference that Pecora pointed out between this team and the 18-4 Hofstra squad is depth. While QU ranks just 280th in bench minutes, it has been bolstered by recent emergence from Doug Young and the return of Rihards Vavers to the lineup. The Bobcats are versatile because of how much size, athleticism, and shooting is presented.
“Not many teams have players that just want to go out and do the dirty stuff,” Balanc said. “We have Amarri, we have Paul, we have Lex (Reyes). We have players that understand that they can score on offense, but that they can do so many little things on defense.”
No matter the size of the player, they can all contribute on the defensive end, and that’s the key to Quinnipiac’s versatility.
“We have multiple defenses that we can throw at people,” Pecora said. “We have assistants that do a wonderful job of earmarking what we might be able to do against certain lineups of our opponents that worked out very well.”
“The team allows Matt and I to lead them, and that helps us become better leaders,” Lewis, a sixth-year senior and team co-captain, said. “We try to lead by voice and by example, we understand that we have to be everyday players on and off the court. Us being here for so long, we understand the responsibilities that come with it.”
Lewis and Balanc have been with the program through thick and thin, and having seen failure after failure. They now have learned what it takes to compete in this conference. The Bobcats had double-digit deficits against both Rider and Iona, but thanks to the steady hand of veterans, Pecora wasn’t worried.
“We have veterans that don’t panic,” Pecora said. “They’ve been there in the past, and they know how to do it, and that helps tremendously.”
In the Rider game, Balanc finished with 29 points, draining key 3-pointers down the stretch, while Lewis registered 18 assists.
With backs against the wall against a surging Iona team, Quinnipiac didn’t have to throw ideas at the wall. Thanks to an excellent performance by Doug Young, the Bobcats pulled right back into it. When it came down to the end, it was Lewis who hit the game-winning layup.
And in important moments, the team has trust in Balanc to make big shots.
“I’ve seen him since I was a freshman,” Lewis said of his co-captain. “My trust for him is at the highest of the high, and for him to have the ball in the last 10 seconds of the game, we want him shooting that shot. I’m sure everybody on the team, fro the coaches down, at the same time wants him shooting that.”
The faith was rewarded, as Balanc, despite a tough day, took the ball and drove the lane, finishing an acrobatic layup with under 10 seconds to play to beat Fairfield on the road.
Amarri Tice, Paul Otieno, and the physicality.
Quinnipiac might have the two frontrunners for conference defensive player of the year in Tice and Otieno. Tice is a unique athlete for the conference with his length and strength, but it’s his drive that makes him a star.
“It’s his focus to the little things,” Balanc said of Tice. “He could score 20, but if he doesn’t get 10 rebounds, he’s upset. He literally just wants to do the little things and help win games, and it’s rare in this day and age of basketball to find a player like that.”
Tice is in the top 100 nationally in both steal rate and defensive rebound rate, keying the Bobcats’ ability to get stops. It’s that ability to get stops that allows Quinnipiac to run in transition and score as efficiently as it does.
“There’s always a good amount of guys like that in mid-major basketball that might have gotten overlooked, usually somebody has a weakness, it may not be a glaring weakness, but a weakness that tends to make the big boys stay away from them,” Pecora said. “But hard work is amazing, when you really work on a skill set, it does get better, and I think the work that he has put in, along with his teammates, has made him a much better 3-point shooter.”
Otieno’s physicality is also a hallmark of this team. He makes every shot a tough shot, and it’s why the Bobcats have the lowest field goal percentage allowed at the rim of any team in the conference.
On the offensive end, he’s one of the best offensive rebounders in the conference, and he keeps possessions alive. Quinnipiac leads the conference with 12.8 second chance points per game, due in large part to Otieno’s work on the glass.
Quinnipiac has never made the NCAA Tournament as a Division I program. Pecora has never made the NCAA Tournament as a Division I head coach. While there’s still a long way to go, this group has its eyes on the prize.
“Me and Savion talk about it all the time,” Balanc said. “We have a vision in our head, we want this more than most people would understand.”
Lewis remembers his teammates of past years and all of the disappointment.
“Even for the people that have come before us,” Lewis said. “We’ve cried the same tears that they’ve cried at the end of the year, so we understand that this is not just for us, it’s for our coaches, trainers, academic advisors, for the people that have come before us.”
While those two have been together for six years, Pecora has been at this a little bit longer. He says it’s “bittersweet” to think about the 2006 Hofstra team, as even with all of the success that it had, the tournament was always the goal.
Now, he’s ready to make it.
“It would be a dream come true for everyone involved in the program,” he said. “But we know how fragile of an equation that is, and there’s a lot of work between that point and this one.”