J.R. Lynch is ready to fight alongside Hartford coach John Gallagher.
He’s ready to fight for him, too. And he’s not alone.
Gallagher is entering his eighth year at the West Hartford school after compiling a 87-134 record the previous seven seasons and 49-63 in the America East Conference with no NCAA Tournament appearances. It’s a critical year for the coach, Gallagher and the players say.
“To be honest it’s something we think about every day, he’s to me, like my father,” said Lynch, a junior guard and second-leading scorer returning at eight points a game. “I look at him like whatever he says is gold so it definitely motivates me every day because at the end of the day I don’t want him to go. I know what he’s capable of doing. He’s the one who recruited me. He’s the one who brought me here. It means a lot to me so I make sure I come out here and give it 110 percent every day and make sure my teammates are on the same page.
“We know what’s on the line. The most important thing is we stay together during this tough time, because it is a tough time. It’s something you don’t want to hear. It’s adversity and it’s something we have to deal with. We’re going to have to lock in and prove he is one of the greatest coaches to coach at Hartford.”
With just two seasons barely over .500 (17-14 in 2012-13 and 17-16 in 2013-14), it is indeed a big year for Gallagher. Like most coaches he’s typically excited about the season — but he’s optimistic entering 2017-18. This team has depth. It has size. It’s talented. It has some youth, too, but it is also one of Gallagher’s most experienced squads and appears to be a close-knit group.
“I’ve never been this excited not only to prove myself but to prove that the players I recruited are as good as I think,” Gallagher said minutes before a recent Hawks practice was to begin at Chase Arena. “We all have a chip on our shoulder about this year. There’s a great edge to us.”
An edge was clearly on display during an intense, fast paced-practice workout led by Lynch, fellow junior guard Jason Dunne (13.7 points) and newcomer Travis Weatherington, a beefy 6-foot-2, 215-pound transfer from Palm Beach State who averaged 16.2 points a last season.
Hassan Attia, the 6-10 senior center from Egypt, along with redshirt junior forward John Carroll, man the defense and had more pep in their steps, as well.
“It’s time to harvest the hard work we’ve put in for the last two years,” Gallagher said. “How the script usually plays out is you win with juniors and seniors. We have seven juniors. I’m expecting the next 600 days to produce the fruit of our labor; to be rewarded. We’ve had a lot of curveballs thrown our way but the players in this program are exactly who I want to go to battle with. I think since March 26 we’ve come together and really focused on [the season opener at home against Central Connecticut] Nov.10. This is a unified group with some great characteristics.”
And it’s an energized group, too. Gallagher wants to translate it all into wins after last season didn’t end so well at 9-23, 4-12. Pancake Thomas, the Hawks’ leading scorer heading into last season, transferred before the season started, throwing a wrench in the 2016-17 plan.
There was no athletic director in place during most of the Hawks’ run with Anton Goff moving on to St. John’s. Then-president Walt Harrison was keeping an eye on Gallagher and the men’s basketball situation, but retiring himself in June, he seemed hesitant to make a drastic move before he left. Harrison often talked about and considered the Hawks’ standing in the community as well as the fact it scored above a 3.0 grade-point average as factors in evaluating the coach.
Wins and losses mean a lot, too and for the Hartford men’s team it’s time for more wins. There is no football at Hartford so the success of the basketball programs is crucial for the athletic department. Kim McNeill brought an exciting brand of basketball in her first season on the women’s side and has brought in some solid players this year to help the Hawks reach their first NCAA Tournament time since the 2010-11 season.
New athletic director Mary Ellen Gillespie was introduced a in May. She said it was important to have the resources in place for the coaches to be successful. But she didn’t return a call for comment Monday.
Gallagher believes the team has what it needs to be successful within the makeup of the squad.
“Versatility, shooting ability, we can play inside out but most of all the players care for another,” Gallagher said. “I think that’s going to prove, in my opinion, to be the key factor in this development of this project we sort of started when Year Five ended for me. I think in college basketball nowadays with all the things going on, old school values still win and if you look at how our team has been built the nucleus of the team is juniors and they complement each other like we envisioned. John Carroll had a summer if he can continue to play is a first-team All-League type of guy. Jason Dunne, if he continues, is an all-league candidate and J.R. Lynch is our glue, most valuable type of person because of his character, his approach and his leadership. I’ll never coach a leader like him again. So I’m going to enjoy the next 60 games with him.”