Kyle Neptune is smiling up at Rose Hill. So are the alumni and supporters of the Fordham Men’s basketball program. There should be all smiles because the Rams and their first year coach completed the regular season with a .500 or better record for the first time since 2015-16.
At this point, Neptune is a candidate for Atlantic 10 Conference coach of the year. The Rams completed a 15-15 season and finished 8-10 in the A-10 after a 70-66 win over George Washington Saturday afternoon up at Rose Hill.
For sure, a major accomplishment for the Rams. For the first time in a long time, and with exception of Rick Pitino and the Iona Gaels up the road that play in the lesser MAAC Conference, the Rams are again a talk of the town. Throw in St. John’s to that equation as always being a talk of the town.
Thursday at noon, down in Washington D.C. the talk will continue. Fordham will begin their quest in postseason play positioned as the 8th seed, opposing 9th seed George Mason in second round action of the A-10 Conference Tournament, and that’s an accomplishment.
A first round bye in the tournament has been a rarity for the Rams. They have always been positioned among the lower seeds in the 14-team tournament. But a new coach has changed a complexion of this program and this is a welcomed change up at Rose Hill.
Not many could see this new version of the Rams at the old Rose Hill Gym because of COVID protocols, though Saturday there were more fans with protocol restrictions easing in the New York area, and at Fordham. Neptune’s Rams finished 10-4 at home, best mark since 2015-16 when they compiled 14 wins.
They have battled some adversity with injuries and COVID protocols. But the Rams and their coach persevered. Grad student Chuba Ohams had his 20th double-double of the season and matched a career high 23 points with 16 rebounds, that broke a record set by Chris Gaston in 2009-10. Then, the Rams had another dismal season and finished last going winless in 16 conference games with a 2-26 overall mark.
Monday, Ohams was named A-10 Men’s Basketball Player of the Week. He averaged 20.6 ppg, 13.0 rpg, and added five blocks. He shot .511 (23-45) from the field and notched a double-double in each game. The week started with a career high 23 in a home win over UMass last Monday.
“Proud of Chuba,” Neptune said. “I don’t know anyone in our league putting up those numbers.” The coach also made reference to senior Josh Colon Navarro who finished with 13 points and has averaged 11.1 ppg in his last ten.
Yes, it’s a winning philosophy with the Rams. They have been scoring points, rebounding well, emphasizing defense, and this season, opposing conference schools saw the difference and realized playing Fordham was not an easy task. The Rams also have a fierce scorer with grad Darius Quisenberry who is slowly getting back to health after sustaining a nasty injury to his knee.
Regardless, the Rams finished teams off with a 10-3 record when leading at the half. They opened their conference season with a 2-0 start which had not been accomplished since 1993-94 when they were in the Patriot League with wins over Holy Cross and Bucknell.
This, though, is the A-10 Conference with top seed Davidson and VCU as legitimate threats to make a run in “March Madness” and the NCAA Men’s Tournament field of 68. Fordham may not get to that juncture this year, but Neptune has shown he has the ability to get them there soon.
The coach brings a winning philosophy, defense, and every game is a Super Bowl. Neptune brings that mentality after eight seasons as an assistant at Villanova University, a school that has a successful history of playing deep in March.
“The goal will always be to be playing our best basketball by the end of the year,” Neptune said after the season finale. “I think we’re doing that. I’m proud of the way our guys have competed, definitely in this game. In the tournament (A-10) it’s do or die now. So we just gotta keep it going.”
Neptune became the first Fordham men’s head basketball coach to win in his debut since 1986. It’s been a winning philosophy that has not been seen at Rose Hill from start to finish since the days of the NCAA coached teams of Digger Phelps, and Tom Penders, who always had his Rams in the NCAA hunt and led them to five NIT postseason tournaments in his eight years.
“We don’t legitimately don’t look at every game as different,” Neptune said. “This last game was our Super Bowl. We’re trying to play hard every game. This game was no different.”
It has also been the ability to use a versatile bench that has accounted for the winning philosophy. They will be tested Thursday against a Mason team they beat, 50-49 at home in a game that went down to the wire two weeks ago.
“One of our strengths, our guys are embracing that,” Neptune said about his team and utilizing what they have. “Our team really roots for each other. “
And their Super Bowl begins again Thursday. No telling how far the Rams will advance. They are in this uncharted territory of the tournament bracket, but the coach has every reason to be confident this could be a memorable trip for Fordham.
Rich Mancuso: Twitter@Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso