November 15, 2011
Red Dragons picking up where they left off
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Junior guard Jeremy Smith, going to the rim against Plattsburgh last season, is one of 10 returning players on a SUNY Cortland basketball team that opens the season tonight hosting Elmira College.
The annual Senior Night celebration was a breeze for the SUNY Cortland men’s basketball program last February, simply because the Red Dragons did not have a single upperclassmen on that squad.
Coach Tom Spanbauer relied on mostly sophomores and freshmen a year ago, and will only have two seniors on his current roster when the 2011-12 campaign gets underway this evening with an 8 p.m. hosting of Elmira College at Corey Gymnasium.
“We’ve taken a mentality coming into the season where we are picking up right where we left off last season,” said Coach Spanbauer, whose team snatched the eighth and final SUNY Athletic Conference playoff spot last year before being bounced out in the opening round by eventual champion Buffalo State. “Now the challenge is to get everyone to the level where the returning guys are playing at.”
Junior point guard and team captain Jesse Winter leads this group, having scored 15.7 points per game while dishing out a team high 109 assists when the Red Dragons finished 7-11 in conference play and 10-16 overall.
Explosive junior guard Jeremy Smith (14.8 points per game), steady sophomore forward Kevin McMahon (10.4) and scrappy sophomore forward John Connolly (8.8) are other top returning scorers who will be in the starting line-up against Elmira. And junior Harrison Hefele is a versatile 6-foot-3 guard who averages eight points per game and can play a variety of backcourt positions off Coach Spanbauer’s bench.
The one area Spanbauer wanted to improve heading into his 17th season at his alma mater was inside. Or as he put it: “Getting bigger in the post has been a priority.”
That mission seems to have been accomplished.
Center Dan Sternkopf, a 6-foot-9 returning junior, has made great strides and will be starting against Elmira. “He continues to improve. He’s come back and he’s shown us he’s been able to do some things he couldn’t do in the fall last year,” Coach Spanbauer noted, Sternkopf starting 17 times a year ago when he averaged three points per game.
TWO FRESHMEN WILL also help right away — formidable 6-foot-8, 285-pound Max Brown out of Fairport and 6-foot-7 pivotman Matt McGowan from Lake George.
“We feel we have two freshmen who are going to allow us to keep someone 6-7 or better on the floor at all times,” said Spanbauer. “Max Brown is a hulk inside who has shown he can be a viable low post scorer when he receives the basketball. McGowan if a left-hander who has shown us he could be a very, very good defensive player in the post at this stage of his career.”
All that size will help out a player like the McMahon, who had to play a lot of center last season when strong forward was his more natural position.
“The guy who has benefited the most from these bigger guys coming in has been Kevin, because he’s been able to slide to a position that we feel is more natural for him, more suited to him size-wise,’ said Spanbauer of the 6-foot-6 McMahon. “We’re really excited about Kevin being able to play out of the four spot. He’s an outstanding catch and shoot guy from 15 feet, and he’s proven from last year he’s capable of being a significant low post threat offensively. So his match-ups should be better for him this year.”
Like McMahon, starting forward Connolly is also coming off an impressive rookie season. “His motor just never stops,” said Spanbauer of the Maine-Endwell grad. “He’s a guy who brings a ton of intangibles to our team. You walk away from games and look at the box score and the next thing you know he’s got 10 points and seven rebounds. He scores and does things in a variety of ways.”
Getting Brian Manning back for his senior year, after not playing a year ago, will also bring depth to the forward spot. The Elmira Southside alum is a proven scorer and 3-point shot threat. Also helping out at forward will be 6-foot-4 junior Legree Kirkland, who was the top Region III rebounder at Broome Community College in Binghamton a year ago.
Returning forwards like sophomore captain Maurice Kearney, classmate Garen Spendjian and 6-3 freshman Kathreign Joseph bring additional depth to the position.
THE BACKCOURT IS filled with experience with Winter, Smith, Harrison Hefele, senior captain Nick Sutedjo and sophomore Ryan Kenny all returning. Sutedjo and freshman T.J. Hefele — Harrison’s younger brother out of Friends Academy — are battling for back-up point guard duties at the moment.
Winter is a proven commodity at guard, having been a second-team SUNYAC all-star last year. “He has basically demonstrated he can run a team. He can score and get other people involved,” said Spanbauer.
While feeling this team has improved, Spanbauer notes people like regular season champion Oswego, playoff champion Buffalo State and Brockport have returning fives pretty much intact in what will be a very competitive conference.
“We’re a little bigger across the board, which we hope will help us become a better defensive team,” said Spanbauer. “But nothing changes. We know we have to go out and play well together as a team and we think ultimately we have six or seven different guys who can go out and get us 20 points on any given night. We hope our balance and our depth will make us a very difficult team to play against.”
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