November 15, 2013

Men’s basketball preview: Sullivan grows as USM grows

Conor Sullivan looks to improve off a breakout year.

By Steve Craig scraig@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

GORHAM — Seven years ago, Conor Sullivan was a skinny 5-foot-8 point guard on the Scarborough High junior varsity who was wondering two things: Would he really grow taller as his dad Tom kept telling him and, more importantly, was it reasonable to keep thinking of playing college basketball?

click image to enlarge

Conor Sullivan, who once wondered if he would play college basketball, is entering his senior season at USM off an all-league year.

John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer

LOCAL MEN'S BASKETBALL TEAMS

BOWDOIN

COACH: Tim Gilbride, 29th season (395-290)

LAST SEASON: 14-10, 5-5 in NESCAC

STRENGTHS: The return of four good-shooting starters, headlined by all-Maine 6-6 junior forward Keegan Pieri of Camden (13.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg). Senior guard and three-year starter Andrew Madlinger adds scoring (14.3 ppg) from downtown (41.6 percent on 3s), while senior guard Matt Mathias has an all-around game. Seven-footer John Swords showed improvement across the board as a sophomore in 16 minutes per game. One issue is that the fourth returning starter, senior playmaker Bryan Hurley (8.3 apg), will miss at least half the year after ACL surgery.

QUESTION: Can the Polar Bears adapt to the loss of Hurley, the primary ballhandler a year ago? Having senior Grant White (injured most of his junior year) return will help.

OUTLOOK: Gilbride believes increased experience, maturation of Swords and sophomore Lucas Hausman (6.5 ppg), and Hurley’s return could make Bowdoin a NESCAC championship-caliber team. The problem is that defending Division III national champ Amherst and Elite Eight squads Middlebury and Williams feel the same way.

UNIVERSITY OF NEW ENGLAND

COACH: Ed Silva, second year (5-20)

LAST SEASON: 5-20, 4-14 in CCC

STRENGTHS: Increased stability compared to a year ago when 12 players made at least one start. Sophomore guard Devin Thompson established himself as a good scorer (13.7 ppg) and shooter. Athletic senior 6-6 forward Joshua Butler (10.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg in eight games) is back from a torn Achilles. First-year players like former all-SMAA player Justin Pollard (Thornton Academy), 6-8 Sam Thomas and 6-5 Brayden Morse increase the team’s overall talent level.

QUESTION: Will Silva’s first recruiting class (nine first-years are on a large roster) provide evidence of improvement?

OUTLOOK: Still deep in the building process, the Nor’easters should be more competitive, especially if Butler and Thomas can provide an interior game, but a marked improvement in the win-loss record is unlikely.

ST. JOSEPH’S COLLEGE

COACH: Rob Sanicola, 11th year (174-99)

LAST SEASON: 17-10, 11-7 in GNAC

STRENGTHS: Very young a year ago, the Monks have eight returners with ample experience, including double-figure scorers in senior 6-6 forward Nicholas Jobin of Westbrook (13.8 ppg), first-team all-GNAC senior guard Matthew Medeiros (15.3 ppg, 70 3-pointers) and junior guard Steve Simonds of Bonny Eagle (12.5 ppg, 89 percent FT).

QUESTION: Will an extra year’s experience help St. Joseph’s avoid conference losses to lower-ranked teams, a 2012-13 problem?

OUTLOOK: The Monks have the talent and depth to challenge two-time champ Albertus Magnus for the top spot in the GNAC.

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MAINE

COACH: Karl Henrikson, 11th year, 91-169

LAST SEASON: 15-13, 8-6 in LEC

STRENGTHS: Long, athletic scorers in senior Conor Sullivan of Scarborough (14.8 ppg) and 6-6 senior James Odneal (9.4 ppg, 5.2 rebounds) can run and get to the rim. Sophomore Cole Libby out of Bonny Eagle should be even better after making an impact as a second-semester addition last season. Improved confidence after posting its first winning season since 2007-08.

QUESTION: After finishing in the top 10 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio last year, can the Huskies be as careful after graduating heady guards Alex Kee and Mike Poulin?

OUTLOOK: If first-years Fred Knight (6-7, 290) of Hampden and athletic swing player Zach Leal of York can add quality depth, look for the Huskies to post their first back-to-back winning years since 1993.

SOUTHERN MAINE COMMUNITY COLLEGE

COACH: Matt Richards, 11th year (182-118)

LAST SEASON: 20-11, 12-5 in YSCC

STRENGTHS: Return of Portland area products junior Jose Nouchanthavang (Westbrook) and sophomore Jon Amabile (Portland/Deering) give the Seawolves successful ballhandlers and scorers who are familiar with the Yankee Small College Conference foes. Freshman Atencio Martin of Kittery Point (Traip) is pouring in 11.5 ppg off the bench, while sophomore Scott Proudman (Bonny Eagle) adds more punch in a deep reserve unit.

QUESTION: After a bounce-back year, can the Seawolves continue to improve and get over the New Hampshire Technical Institute hurdle?

OUTLOOK: A return to the YSCC Elite Eight is likely and getting to the league final a strong possibility, in part because the team has already shown it can win close games while getting off to a 6-0 start.

– Steve Craig, staff writer

Turns out both answers were yes.

Sullivan is now a sturdy but still lithe 6-foot-4, a senior tri-captain at the University of Southern Maine and returning first-team All-Little East performer.

In his breakout junior season, Sullivan averaged 14.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.6 steals, shot over 49 percent and helped lead the Huskies to their first winning season since 2007-08 and best win total since 1992-93. They had a 15-13 overall record that included an 8-6 conference record, a home conference quarterfinal win and a berth in the ECAC tournament.

“Getting to host a playoff game, that was one of our big goals,” Sullivan said. “And we won. That was a cool atmosphere.”

You know what else Sullivan did? He threw down more than a half-dozen dunks last season.

Sullivan tells you this when asked and says they were not “anything too crazy.”

But seven years is not too long to remember what it was like to stare up at the 10-foot rim and think it was always going to be out of reach.

“When I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, I had people telling me I’d grow to be 6-3. I wanted to believe it but I never saw myself dunking a basketball,” Sullivan said.

USM Coach Karl Henrikson said it was a dunk that Sullivan didn’t put down that first raised his eyebrows.

Sullivan had grown nearly to his current height while still in high school and was starting on the Scarborough varsity as a senior. But he was still an unknown blip on the recruiting radar. Henrikson was at a holiday tournament when Sullivan elevated and missed a dunk.

“I noticed that he got up pretty high. I was glad he missed it,” Henrikson said.

Division III coaches have to look for what could be, not what is. In Sullivan, Henrikson saw potential with room to grow, physically as well as in his game.

“He was still so skinny as a freshman here. I think he weighed 165 pounds. There were times I was almost worried about putting him out there,” Henrikson said Thursday on the eve of the opener at Westfield State.

Sullivan saw increasing time his freshman season, then averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds as a sophomore starter but shot an underwhelming 39 percent.

“I think I was a little more timid to take big shots and be aggressive,” Sullivan said.

Last year he earned a reputation as a finisher.

“I think it was just having that year under my belt. I knew I belonged and I knew what I was capable of,” Sullivan said.

This year he’s looking to prove he can bury the jumper, shooting more than ever over the summer while rehabbing from arthroscopic knee surgery to repair meniscus damage.

Last season was also a step up for the men’s program at USM, which has long been in the shadow of the highly successful women’s team. Sullivan said Southern Maine might be the only place where part of the crowd leaves between the women’s and men’s games. He said he understands the phenomenon but believes this year’s team can keep the fans in the seats.

Senior captain James Odneal is another dynamic player who can shoot outside or take his 6-foot-6 frame to the hole.

Sophomore guard Connor Libby is expected to excel in his first full season, and there are recruits who may help.

Most of all the team kept believing. Kind of like Sullivan.

“That’s why I came here, to play basketball. If I had been done with the sport I probably would have gone to Orono, but I felt like coming out of high school there was so much left that I hadn’t done, that I was still going to grow a lot and improve a lot,” Sullivan said.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or at:

scraig@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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