Washington D.C. – Fordham men’s basketball coach Kyle Neptune said numerous times this season he was proud of his team. The first-year coach has every reason to be proud despite his Rams losing to top seed Davidson, 74-56, Friday afternoon in a quarterfinal game of the Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament.
And the conference became aware about Fordham. Davidson coach Bob McKillop made reference to Neptune, a first-year coach and how the Rams evolved this season under his guidance.
Fordham was in uncharted territory considering that 2007 was the last time they reached the quarterfinals of the tournament. They got there Thursday afternoon with a second-round win over George Mason at the Capital One Arena.
All along the Rams latched on to the Neptune philosophy of defense. They showed no quit numerous times during conference play and believed they could compete with the Wildcats, ranked 16th in field goal percentage and eighth in 3-point field goals. They left the building Thursday with a mentality of pulling the upset.
The first half, Rostyslav Novitsky scored 15 points in 14 minutes. The sophomore, from war torn Ukraine, could have sat this one out with concerns of his relatives and friends. A basketball gym in the city of Kyiv was destroyed by a Russian missile attack.
Teammates consoled Novitsky. His coach did not force him to play in this significant game.
“We faced a lot of adversity,” Neptune said. “New coaches, new everything, I’m very proud of our bunch. To their credit there was no quit. Up, down. Every time someone praises our program, obviously that’s good.”
Neptune, though, always said it’s not about him. However, there was a distinct difference this season with a Fordham team that was not expected to be positioned as an eighth seed in the tournament. The Rams finished at .500 (16-16) and that was an accomplishment.
So any mediocrity of the Fordham Men’s basketball program is officially over, though three key components of this team will not return next year. Senior grad Chuba Ohams recorded doubles in 21 of 29 games and set a school record, He nearly had another one Friday afternoon. He finished with 14 points and nine rebounds.
“He is the Mayor of our campus,” Neptune said about how the Rose Hill community identified Ohams, who received honors as most improved player of the year in the conference.
“He pushed me, pushed me, even with games I felt like quitting,” Ohams said about his coach. “
Josh-Colon Navarro developed and praised his coach. Navarro did not have his best game of the season against the Wildcats, although, played a major role this season. He put up a career high 20 points against VCU two weeks ago, and after two seasons of struggles, Navarro said Neptune made him a better player.
Darius Quisenberry, who led the Rams in scoring until sustaining a knee injury three weeks ago, had a career high 36 points in the Rams 69-66 home loss to Davidson in mid January.
Three players will be difficult to replace but Neptune is bringing in recruits to go along with his coaching philosophy. Kyle Rose, Absiu Tsimbila, Antrel Charton, Patrick Kelly, Zach Riley are the names to watch next year who will adapt to Neptune.
So when the coach says the praise is not necessary, well all you have to do is ask his team. From the first game to the last, and without hesitation, they responded. It was all about Kyle Neptune who had a successful rookie season and handled the adversity of losing a starting five here and there with injuries, COVID protocols, and a freshman who suddenly left the program for personal reasons.
“We handled the adversity well,” Neptune said again. “I am so proud of them and what they accomplished.”
And if the success continues, and there is every reason to not think otherwise, Neptune will be a coach in demand to take over another Division 1 program. But there is a difference here because the mission of Kyle Neptune is to bring a championship to Rose Hill.
He constantly reiterates his plan to win. Fordham compiled as many wins as St. John’s University and Iona up the road in New Rochelle. The Rams were still playing in their conference tournament as the others went home.
So after their final game of the season, I asked Neptune about this not being the final game. With 16 wins, perhaps the NIT Tournament committee will make the call and offer an invite to be a part of their 32-team field.
Neptune was perplexed. He was not sure if 16 wins was good enough for an NIT invite, then again, you could sense Neptune would love to see his Rams continue playing in March.
Perhaps continuing to survive and advance in March next year is not out of the question. Neptune has a winning philosophy and it was more than expected. The Atlantic-10 Conference has a new coach.
He will no longer be a rookie coach next year. And the Fordham Rams are no longer that easy win for conference teams on the schedule.
Rich Mancuso: Twitter @Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso