This is the first part in a regular series profiling the Division 1 basketball teams in New England leading up to the NCAA Tournament. Our first stop is at the University of New Hampshire
The University of New Hampshire has been playing basketball since 1907. In the last 100 years the Wildcats have had 15 coaches, and just two of them have had winning records. A school rich in hockey tradition has only a trip to last years Collegeinsider.com Tournament to show for its troubles on the hardwood.
But all that is slowly changing.
This year’s Wildcats sit 11-8, through Jan 26., and tied for second in the America East conference. Last year’s 19 wins was a 13-win improvement over a 6-24 season in 2013-2014.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I thought we’d win 19 games last year, but once we got into January and February was when we caught fire a little bit,” UNH coach Bill Herrion said after the Wildcats beat Hartford 84-71 on Sunday. “Our young guys are good players. The theme coming off of last year with the 19 wins and going to the CIT was how do we take the next step? We want to compete for a championship.”
The biggest problem for UNH basketball is getting a foothold at a school that’s bread-and-butter sport is hockey. UNH hockey has, traditionally, been one of the nation’s best. In the last 23 years UNH hockey has made the NCAA tournament 18 times and the Frozen Four four times.
Herrion acknowledged the difficulty of breaking through, but after nearly a century of losing it’s hard to change the culture overnight.
“It’s hard because the history and tradition we just haven’t had it here forever,” Herrion said. “The crowds last year when we came back from semester break, I think we had won nine out of 10 at one point, the students started to catch on. I’m hoping we can get that back because these kids deserve to be seen. It’s hard sometimes when these kids come out and there’s 400 people.”
Despite the small crowds through the winter the Wildcats have found ways to win. New Hampshire has won its last three games and have do so differently each night. Against Maine they put up 99 in a track meet. Against UMass-Lowell it took a three at the horn to win, and the Hartford game was a complete 40-minute performance.
The Wildcats are second in the conference with a +7 rebound margin and are deep offensively. UNH has six players averaging eight or more points a game.
The Wildcats have made strides towards being a competitive on the backs of Texans. That’s not a joke. The school that is 1,800 miles from Dallas has seven Texans on the roster. That’s more than on the rosters of Texas Tech, Baylor, Houston, or Oklahoma.
New Hampshire’s four leading scorers are all from Texas and are led by sophomore forward Tanner Leissner. Leissner leads the team with 15.3 points a game and is also averaging 6.6 rebounds and two assists a game.
““I know for me when I got recruited I was a little iffy about New Hampshire,” senior Ronnel Jordan said. “It’s definitely a different culture, and the weather’s totally different. But when I looked at the roster and saw so many people from Texas I figured if they could do it I could do it. I just felt like when we came here we’re all on the same page.”
Other major contributors are Jaleen Smith with 12.5 points a game and Jacoby Armstrong, who averages 12 points and five boards off the bench. Jordan is the team’s lone senior and hails from San Antonio.
“So [a handful] of years ago we decided to go outside the box for recruiting because it’s so competitive up here in the New England area,” Herrion said. “We went down to Texas. We got one then we got Jacoby and Jaleen. We got a transfer from Rice that could start for us next year. I know it’s unorthodox, but they can play. They’re some of our best players.”
With only one senior on the roster, and depth all around the court, look for New Hampshire to finally break through to the promised land soon and make the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.