Long drive this morning, but early enough to avoid rush hour, to the Bridgeport Holiday Inn, where representatives of Connecticut’s six mid-major men’s basketball teams gathered for the Connecticut 6 Classic Breakfast, drumming up interest for the upcoming Connecticut 6 Classic tripleheader (Nov. 9 at Webster Bank Arena).
The event debuted in 2009 and has also been held at Mohegan Sun Arena (2010, 2011) and the University of Hartford’s Chase Family Arena (2012). Next year, it will be held at Quinnipiac’s TD Bank Sports Center. This year’s matchups: Hartford vs. Quinnipiac, 3 p.m.; Central vs. Yale, 5:30; Sacred Heart vs. Fairfield, 8.
Each coach spoke for a few minutes. Some of what was said …
Tom Moore of Quinnipiac and James Jones of Yale had some fun with Central Connecticut’s Howie Dickenman.
“I want to one time come here and have my voice be more shot than Coach Dickenman's,” Moore said. “I've never come close. I don't scream at my kids enough, I guess.”
A few minutes later, Jones said, “You hear this guy yell from the sideline, his voice is just so disturbing. I'm not even sure that I'm showing up for the game. I might coach from the locker room, because I'm scared of him.”
Hartford’s John Gallagher was the first coaching to speak, saying, “Our team returns six guys who have played 60 games for us. We were the 11th youngest team in the country last year. We're not going to be able to use that as an excuse anywhere. I'm really excited about the group. They've worked tremendously hard. Our premier player, Mark Nwakamma, if you get a chance to come out and see him -- 3.6 GPA, wants to be an orthopedic surgeon. He's just the full package of a kid.”
Asked about recruiting in-state players Gallagher, in his fourth season, said, “We've recruited now seven kids really hard in the state and we haven't had luck. We think, at the University of Hartford, we're beautiful. There was an image issue when I first took over. So eventually we're going to get somebody who thinks we're as good looking as we think we are. In recruiting, we weren't beating people in our league like Boston U, Vermont. So you had to go elsewhere. That's not ideal. When you have a 4 year old, a 2 year old and a three month old, and you're going to Australia to find players, that's now what you want to do, it's what you have to do. We still have to beat Vermont, have to beat Stony Brook. To do that, we have to go places that nobody is. Eventually, when you start winning games, I'll be able to spend two hours in my car instead of flying to Australia.”
Fairfield has 10 freshmen and sophomores. “I might not love them that much this year,” coach Sydney Johnson said. “But they're great young men. We love that we're going to go through this together with this group. Then next year they'll be sophomores and juniors and then they'll be juniors and seniors. So I'll love my job for a few more years, and then we'll have to start over and we'll figure it out.”
Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina, in his first year after 14 as an assistant at SHU and Central, said, “This is probably the best group of teams Connecticut has had at this level since I've been coaching in CT. We have a legitimate chance to put three or four teams in the NCAA Tournament. There's always a little extra optimism this time of year. Everybody thinks they're going to be good, but it's not ridiculous to think that Connecticut could have [besides UConn] three other or four other NCAA Tournament teams. Hopefully this is a great opportunity for us and next year heading into the Connecticut 6 we have a buzz around Connecticut basketball.”
Hartford plays Quinnipiac in the CT6 for the second consecutive year and plays every team in the state this season besides UConn. “We play everybody up here, all the other five teams,” Gallagher said. “We're really excited about in-state rivalries. It's really important to our program that we play everybody every year. Going forward, the excitement around our program is that the young kids have grown and matured. But really, the local fans are going to be able to see us five times against opponents that everybody in the state knows.”
Anthony Latina is in his first year as head coach at Sacred Heart, taking over for Dave Bike, who retired after 35 years. But Latina has been an assistant the last 14 years at SHU and Central Connecticut. “This is probably the best group of teams Connecticut has had at this level since I've been coaching in Connecticut,” Latina said. “We have a legitimate chance to put three or four teams in the NCAA Tournament. There's always a little extra optimism this time of year. Everybody thinks they're going to be good, but it's not ridiculous to think that Connecticut could have [besides UConn] three other or four other NCAA Tournament teams. Hopefully this is a great opportunity for us and next year heading into the Connecticut 6 we have a buzz around Connecticut basketball.”
Moore’s thoughts on the CT6: “There are always so many reasons for something like this to go by the wayside. My feeling is that for it to become part of the basketball landscape in the state, it might take 10, 15 years of us doing this every year before it becomes part of something [well known] like, 'Yeah, that's what those six schools do.' It will gain more interest every year. ... I think it's a great thing for college basketball in the state.”
Jones’ thoughts on the CT6: “It might have to go 10, 15 years before it gains some real speed. Yale has a lot of history and traditions. My first thought, when I was asked about the Connecticut 6, was about Philadelphia and the Big 5 and it's like a code of honor that Philadelphia people have. We would love it if, down the road, people felt the same way about these six schools. Hopefully I'll be at Yale 10 or 15 years from now and I can look back on being someone who was part of starting it.”
Moore on Quinnipiac moving from the NEC to the MAAC: “This is a watershed year for Quinnipiac basketball. We are so excited about the opportunities in the MAAC. We can't wait to become part of the history and tradition, first thing. Long term, we're excited about our relationship with Fairfield University. It's going to be a great situation for us to play them twice a year.”
Howie Dickenman, in his 18th season on Central’s depth and his team: “We have three players returning who played 38 minutes a game last year. They wore down but they still played hard. We remedied the situation by bringing in seven new players -- two who red-shirted due to injury and five newcomers. This is the hardest working team I have ever been around. They don't leave after practice. We don't tell them to stay. They stay and work on their game. Often I will hear a ball bouncing in the gym and I'll know it's a couple of our players working on their game.”
Dickenman on the strength of CT6 teams: “If somebody were to ask me how I would rate these teams, I couldn't answer that question because I don't know if there's a strongest team or a weakest team. There are all quality teams here.”
Sydney Johnson on the CT6: “I love this tournament, I love this day. I think it's important of all of our programs. UConn has an incredible footprint not only in the state but nationally, with everything Jim Calhoun has done and Kevin [Ollie] continues to do, but there is great college basketball here and institutions that really care about playing each other.”