Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland’s James Morales (30) is expected to be in the starting lineup when the season opens Friday.
After last season’s remarkable run that carried the SUNY Cortland men’s basketball team two rounds deep into the NCAA Division III tournament, high expectations remain heading into the upcoming 2016-17 campaign.
As head coach Tom Spanbauer begins his 22nd season coaching at his alma mater, a dozen Red Dragons on his current 18-player roster have been previously involved with the program.
That has helped the pre-season run rather briskly heading into this weekend’s Cortaca Classic, with four teams competing Friday night at Light Gymnasium at Ithaca College before arriving to Corey Gymnasium on the Cortland campus for Saturday afternoon outings.
“With the 12 returning players, things have gone very, very smoothly and very quickly this fall,” notes Spanbauer prior to facing SUNY Purchase at 6 p.m. on Friday in Ithaca.
“It’s been a pleasure right now,” he added. “The guys have maintained a high level of focus and a high level of energy since they’ve arrived back on campus, and I think it’s probably a by-product of the success we had last year. The guys obviously have their goals set on trying to return to being that level of team again.”
Cortland closed out last season winning nine of its last 11 games, including a dramatic 77-74 victory over Oswego in the SUNY Athletic Conference championship game when James Morales connected on a 3-point shot in the final second of play.
The Red Dragons went on to knock off WPI 69-50 in the NCAA Division III opening round before being nipped 69-68 by an Amherst team that went on to play in the ‘Final Four.” That concluded Cortland’s 21-8 campaign, which featured a 12-6 second place regular season showing in the SUNYAC standings.
Cortland’s two top starters have graduated off that squad, sharp-shooting guard Blair Estarfaa (15.4 points per game) and versatile forward JP Reagan (11.5). Both are now involved in coaching, Estarfaa an assistant on Coach Russ Phillips’ staff at Alfred while Cortland High graduate Reagan will be on the Red Dragons sideline this season.
“We’ve definitely lost some scoring, but the other component that we don’t know about is that we lost an intangible at the end of the year the way we were playing. There was something there that just made us go,” says Spanbauer.
“We’ve talked about our chemistry and about making sure we are playing as well as we can as a team. But we still have to go out and do that, which requires a lot of guys to sacrifice and a lot of guys to be aware of what role we need them to play,” he adds. “And then a lot of guys have to excel in those particular roles. At the end of last season, everyone was at the point where everyone was excelling in their roles.”
Mike Kelly is the lone senior on the squad, and will be starting guard against Purchase. “He’s a very aggressive, tough defender and someone who has shown he can really make his stand-still 3-pointer looks. He understands our system of play so he knows where our shots come from,” said Spanbauer, Kelly averaging 5.6 points per game a year ago.
Sophomore point guard Justin Cooper and junior Morales will be alongside Kelly in the backcourt. Morales is also an active defender who can shoot from long-range, making 24 3-pointers last season.
Cooper played in only 15 games, battling through a wrist injury before an appendicitis finished his rookie campaign. “He was a player who, when he did play, was very effective for us. He’s more of a system-type point guard and he’s really improved his ability in the open court,” said Coach Spanbauer of Cooper, who averaged eight points per contest.
Juniors Carrel Joseph and Andre Hampton will be Cortland’s starting big men this weekend, both with the ability to play inside and launch shots from beyond the 3-point arc. “They’re multi-dimensional post players and they’re both very aggressive and active rebounders,” said Spanbauer of the 6-foot-6 Joseph (9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 2015-16) and the 6-foot-4 Hampton.
When Coach Spanbauer goes to his bench it will be in a big way with a pair of sophomores, as 6-foot-9 Zach Lydon and 6-foot-7 Justin Prendergast will be available.
Lydon injured his knee in the fourth game of last season at Ithaca. The brother of highly-touted Syracuse standout Tyler Lydon averaged 10 points per game before the knee gave way, and received a medical-redshirt from the NCAA to earn an extra season of college eligibility.
Prendergast averaged just over six points per game as a rookie at Cortland two seasons ago, knee woes keeping him off the court a year ago. Now stronger physically, he is an active scorer on the inside who can get off shots with either hand.
Spanbauer also had several options backing up Cooper at point guard, which the coach calls his “three-headed monster.” Sophomores Paul Burke, Isaiah Cotton and Jeff Lobello will all be called upon, Burke also missing last season after having come to Cortland along with former Monroe-Woodbury High School teammate Prendergast. Cotton and former Westhill High School guard Lobello both saw court time last year as Cortland freshmen.
“They all bring a little bit different skill-set to the team,” says Spanbauer. “They’re all essentially dead even as far as who we put in the game. I think it’s going to be predicated on what skill-set we need at that particular time.”
Three other sophomores — Nicky Bonura (who played a New Paltz two seasons ago), returning guard Andrew McGuire (who has displayed a nice shooting touch) and aggressive forward Justin Rivera (a 6-3 hustler who started at times last season) — will also be viable options off the bench for Spanbauer.
Junior Davaughn Johnson is a 6-foot-6 inside presence from New York City who is back playing basketball after a two-year absence, having been at Cayuga Community College in Auburn previously.
Four freshmen are also looking to find a place in the Cortland rotation, guards Brenden Fitzpatrick (Plainview) and Mike Haughton (Mamaroneck) along with forwards Patrick Moore (Fredonia) and Ryan Schmadel (Oriskany). Haughton is a lanky 6-foot-1 scorer who has displayed his offensive abilities in the pre-season, while the 6-foot-3 Moore is the son of former Fredonia State coach Kevin Moore.
“They all have the potential to be contributing players in our program at some point,” said Spanbauer of his rookie class of recruits.
Having a roster of 18 is plus, too, in Spanbauer’s eyes.
“Our practices have been very competitive and very good,” he says. “The one thing you get when you have numbers is people see that there’s competition. Guys have to come in and compete. If not, they know there’s another guy who’s trying to out-work them and get their minutes.”
Spanbauer has the second longest tenure at one school among Division III coaches in New York State, behind RIT’s Bob McVean (34 seasons) and just ahead of Ithaca’s Jimmy Mullins (20 seasons).
The Cortaca Classic opens with the Cortland-Purchase game at 6 p.m, with host Ithaca facing St. Joseph’s out of Long Island at 8 p.m. The match-ups get switched for Saturday in Cortland, Ithaca and Purchase playing at 2 p.m. with Cortland facing St. Joseph’s at 4 p.m.