Thursday, November 5, 2009

Nine Teams, Nine Days: Hartford

Last season: 7-26 (2-14 America East), lost in America East Quarterfinals to Binghamton.

Head coach: Dan Leibovitz, 3 seasons, 38-60 record (18-30 AE).

Departing players: Malcolm Campbell, Clint Kuban, Jaret von Rosenberg, Michael Turner, Drake U'u.

Incoming players: Ryan Baker, Joel Barkers, Milton Burton, Ross Erickson, Zack Zeglinski.

Expected starting lineup (position, name, year, 2008-2009 stats):
G Andres Torres, junior, 5.3 PPG, 2.9 APG, 1.6 SPG
G Joe Zeglinski, redshirt junior, 15.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.4 APG
G/F Milton Burton, junior, 11.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.0 APG (Panola College)
F Morgan Sabia, junior, 10.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.6 BPG
F Genesis Maciel, sophomore, 5.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 0.8 APG

Player to watch: Joe Zeglinski. The junior guard broke out during the 2007-2008 campaign and was off to a good start last season before an ankle injury ended his season after just ten games. Zeglinski ranks among the deadliest perimeter shooters in the conference and is capable of carrying his team offensively for extended stretches. But he isn't just a shooter -- despite being a guard, Zeglinski leads all returning Hawks in rebounds per game.

Biggest strength: Pressure defense. Hidden among the numerous flaws of last year's Hawks was a single strength -- forcing turnovers on defense. Hartford's opponents surrendered the ball on 21 percent of their possessions, both overall and in conference play. That figure ranks second among America East teams. Granted, turnovers are only one of the four defensive factors, and the Hawks ranged from mediocre to miserable in each of the other three (field goal percentage defense, rebounding, and allowing free throw opportunities), but one proficiency is better than none. Jaret von Rosenberg's departure means Hartford will have one less player with a nose for the ball, but Andres Torres and Joe Zeglinski are both skilled pickpockets themselves, so expect this strength to remain intact.

Biggest weakness: Offensive rebounding. There were -- and still are -- a couple of teams in the conference that struggle to generate second-chance opportunities on offense, none more so than the Hawks. Hartford recovered just 24.4 percent of its own misses last season; UMBC was nearest at 28.3 percent, and every other team in the conference managed a rate of 31.8 percent or better. Michael Turner's rebounding skills were mostly seen on the defensive end, but losing a team's best rebounder is never a good thing. The Hawks need Genesis Maciel to become a more assertive interior presence and probably also require significant improvement from at least one other player; barring that, Hartford is likely doomed to a repeat performance on the glass.

Offseason: One year ago, Dan Leibovitz was the belle of the ball, the Hawks were considered title contenders in the AE, and everything was looking up. How a bright outlook evolves into a last-place conference finish is a complex story; more interesting is how the Hawks hope to recover.

Losing Jaret von Rosenberg and Michael Turner will undoubtedly hurt, as should be expected for any team when two of its three best players depart. However, Joe Zeglinski was far and away the best player on Hartford's team while healthy last fall -- his presence alone may be enough to keep the Hawks within striking distance in many of their games.

Guards: As detailed previously, Joe Zeglinski is the straw that stirs the drink. Need a big three to get the offense going? Joe Z can deliver. How about a few extra rebounds to supplement what your board-averse bigs can provide? Zeglinski was averaging a cool 5.5 per game before his ankle gave way. And you need him to create some opportunities for others without getting sloppy with the ball? Number 24 -- no, not Tyler Morris -- posted a sterling 2.7 A/TO. Not too shabby.

Zeglinski's injury thrust then-sophomore guard Andres Torres into a starting role. Torres made his first career start on December 14 against Brown and would be on the court for tipoff for 19 of the remaining 22 games. Torres returns for his junior season, and while he would have been expected to start this season even without last season's experience, those starts should be reflected in his performance this season. Torres has yet to display the ability to consistently knock down the 3, and he turns the ball more than would be desired, but the Puerto Rico native is disruptive on the defensive end and displayed improved skills as a distributor last season. Hartford doesn't need Torres to carry a large portion of the scoring burden. Cutting down on the turnover rate and slightly better shooting -- just enough to keep teams honest -- would go a long way toward helping Hartford climb up the conference standings.

Hartford has several guards on its bench and will most likely spend the first several games settling on a sensible rotation. Clayton Brothers is the player most likely to see significant playing time, as he averaged nearly 18 minutes per game during conference play last season and started five games. Brothers' value primarily lies as an experienced, serviceable guard coming off the bench. As an offensive player Brothers' use is rather limited -- an eFG% under 40 with poor free throw shooting, mediocre rebounding and an 0.6 A/TO ratio is the definition of marginal value at the guard position. The Hawks recruited Brothers in large part because of his defensive skills; while he isn't an elite player on that end of the floor, defense is certainly his strong suit. As long as Brothers does a decent job of slowing down the opponent's primary scoring guard, the Hawks can live with his offensive limitations.

Freshman Charles White should also see some time on the floor after redshirting last season. White will likely see most of his minutes come at the point, given Hartford's need to get as much out of Joe Zeglinski as possible. Although White has some scoring ability, his skills as a distributor are more noteworthy. White will have the opportunity to be the fourth guard in Hartford's rotation and possibly earn additional minutes if effective, most likely at the expense of Brothers.

The Hawks also bring in three new guards, one of whom has a familiar last name. Zack Zeglinski is a senior, Joe's older brother and arrives in Connecticut by way of Penn State and Temple. The older brother played football at Penn State and baseball at Temple; Zeglinski is certainly a Division-I caliber athlete and fielded scholarship offers while in high school, but it's difficult to forecast what impact he could have after so much time spent away from competitive, organized basketball.

Ryan Baker and Ross Erickson are both tall for the position at 6-foot-5. With Joe Zeglinski at the two-guard position, Baker and Erickson will most likely see their best chances for minutes coming at the three rather than the two. Neither player is billed as an excellent passer (something Hartford doesn't particularly need) or rebounder (something Hartford desperately needs), but both are reputed to be talented shooters.

The last guard on the roster, Anthony Panebianco, was a walk-on last year and does not figure to play significant minutes.

Forwards: Morgan Sabia had a wonderful freshman year two seasons ago. As a legitimate candidate for Rookie of the Year prior to John Holland's late-season surge, Sabia was a major factor in Hartford's second-place finish and conference finals appearance; his subsequent regression in nearly every important statistical category was and is a major concern. Don't let the 10 points per game and slight uptick in rebounds per game fool you -- after adjusting for minutes played, Sabia's productivity took a noticeable hit last season. Joe Zeglinski's return will help, but Sabia has yet to prove himself as a reliable second option. The Hawks need Sabia to become an impact player this season, either by significantly increasing his scoring output while becoming more efficient or adding another dimension to his game, either as a rebounder or a defender. Doing so would go a long way toward easing the burden placed on Hartford's star in the backcourt.

Genesis Maciel was a serviceable forward for Hartford as a freshman. Like Sabia, Maciel has a relatively atypical skillset for someone standing 6-foot-8 or taller, shooting nearly as well from outside the arc as he does from inside. For a team lacking an interior presence, Maciel offers more of the same -- a proclivity for the outside shot when his body would be best put to use in the paint. It doesn't help matters that Maciel's eFG% was less than 45 percent last season. Sophomores frequently experience an efficiency boost; that, coupled with more aggressive play near the rim, would make Maciel a valuable asset.

Hartford could benefit greatly from the addition of another offensive weapon. The most likely candidate is Milton Burton, a junior transfer from Panola College. The ex-Pony has a versatile game, including range that extends beyond the arc as well as effective shooting from closer to the basket. Burton didn't excel in any individual area at Panola and isn't likely to offer much help in the rebounding department, but he did put up solid totals throughout the stat sheet. If Burton can fill it up for the Hawks and take some offensive pressure off Joe Zeglinski and Sabia, a lack of rebounding from the wing may be forgivable.

Anthony Minor started 33 games as a freshman in 2007-08 but averaged less than 15 minutes per game. Last year Minor started only occasionally and saw a small drop in his numbers but was essentially the same player. The 6-foot-6 junior shoots well over 50 percent from the field and can get to the free throw line, although he doesn't shoot particularly well from the charity stripe. Like the rest of the Hawks, Minor's glaring flaw is his defensive rebounding ability, or lack thereof -- a defensive rebounding percentage (DR%) below 10 is unacceptable for a player who spends so much of his time near the basket. Minor has value due to his ability to provide offense at the forward position, but his lack of secondary skills and tendency to get into foul trouble (he had an FC/40 of 7.7 last year) make him a rotation player at best.

Kevin Estes, also a junior, has 24 career starts to his name and has overall value similar in magnitude to Minor's. Estes' extra inch of height and additional 30 pounds of mass are better put to use on the defensive end, where he posted a DR% of 11.5 last season -- not particularly impressive, but acceptable. However, Estes has a minimal impact on the offensive glass (4.8 OR%) and, like Minor, offers relatively little in the way of secondary skills. Estes and Minor will likely see minutes based on matchups and have more value against teams ill-equipped to take advantage of poor rebounding, but both players are poorly suited to playing significant minutes on a regular basis.

David Bookman, a senior, is the final returning Hawk forward. In three seasons of play, Bookman has one noteworthy performance to his name, a 17-point effort in a 80-63 loss at UMBC last February. There isn't a whole lot to say about Bookman, who has rarely seen opportunities for extended play -- the UMBC game also marked the only time Bookman has played more than 20 minutes -- and hasn't done much in limited playing time to warrant more opportunities other than that one scoring outburst. With two new forwards on the roster, don't expect Bookman's playing time to increase significantly.

If the Hawks are going to improve on the boards this year, the most likely bet is Joel Barkers. Barkers averaged a double-double in junior college before arriving in Hartford and is likely to be the team's best rebounder from the moment he steps on the court. While it's often difficult to project how much forwards junior college forwards will be able to provide, Barkers' rebounding ability should be enough to get him playing time even if the scoring ability never translates to the Division-I level. If Barkers can score he should challenge Maciel for a starting role.

Centers: Center? What's a center?

Hartford doesn't have anyone on its roster who could legitimately be termed a center, at least not in the Shaquille O'Neal sense of the word. Maciel, at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, is the closest match in terms of body type, but his skillset does not match that of a prototypical center and Hartford utilizes him appropriately.

Don't worry, Hartford. You can compete at the Division-I level without a true center. Just look at, oh, about half of your conference-mates.

Outlook: As it stands, Hartford's roster appears to be a couple of pieces short. After Joe Zeglinski, every player is miscast. Sabia looks good as a third or fourth option, but as a second option he's a notch or two below most other AE teams. As a result, Hartford will have to find significant offense from players who aren't quite prepared to provide it (Torres and Maciel) or hope White and the other incoming players can make an immediate impact. Even then, a best-case scenario for Hartford is finishing sixth or seventh.

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