WEST HARTFORD – The University of Hartford men's basketball team gathered on campus Friday afternoon and boarded a bus for New York. From there, the team flew to Los Angeles and on to Sydney for two weeks of games against Australian professional teams, sightseeing and general team-building in advance of one of the most anticipated seasons in program history.
Shortly after their departure, probably during the 20-plus hours the Hawks spent flying, sledgehammers were to smash concrete at Chase Family Arena. When Hartford arrives back on campus Aug. 28, a $600,000 locker room renovation will be well underway.
For many reasons, this is an exciting time for John Gallagher's program. The Hawks are coming off consecutive winning seasons, last year finishing 17-16. Gallagher heads into his fifth year with a senior core that started 0-13 as freshmen in 2011-12 and now has a realistic chance to compete for the America East title and make a run toward a first NCAA Tournament appearance.
"All I want — I care so much about these players who have changed the program — is what's best for them," Gallagher said after a practice this past week. "They have taken such ownership of the program. Coaches usually have to implore a sense of urgency. They brought it. It's a different feel because they know this is their last time around."
The new locker room, the construction of which was funded on the strength of two major donations, is scheduled to be ready Nov. 1. It will double in size the existing, outdated locker room. Hartford opens the season Nov. 14 against Sacred Heart in the Connecticut 6 Classic at Quinnipiac.
The work has already begun. The NCAA allows teams to make offseason foreign tours once every four years. Hartford practiced 10 times in advance of the Australia trip, which features five games against teams from the National Basketball League.
"We have an opportunity this season, but we can't put too much pressure on ourselves," senior forward Mark Nwakamma said. "Because it's our last [season], it's more about taking advantage of every last day we have together. It's not, 'Oh, we have to win, have to win.' But the message is clear: Come in and work hard. ... I'm excited for the trip, the experience, the chance to play against pros and the opportunity to see a place I've never seen before."
The Hawks begin play Monday at the North Sydney Indoor Sports Centre against the Norths Bears. The trip includes five games, one of which will be coached by associate head coach Chris Gerlufsen as Gallagher sits with athletic director Anton Goff. Play concludes Aug. 26 in the Cairns Basketball Centre against the Cairns Taipans.
"It's good to have an early jump-off," senior guard Yolonzo Moore said. "This season, it's about consistency and maturity. In years past, we've said we're ready to do this, ready to do that. But it's about that 30th game, if you're still ready to do what you thought you could do at the beginning of the season."
Gallagher and his staff regularly recruit in Australia. Three Hartford players are from the country — senior guard Corban Wroe of Brisbane, junior forward Taylor Dyson of Sassafras and sophomore center Dougal Weir of Sydney. The trip will include visits to each player's hometown and time with their families. Also on the docket: visits to zoos, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, sailing on Sydney Harbor and attending an Australian rules football game.
"You're trying every day to get better and better," Gallagher said. "This just starts it earlier. It gives our freshmen a chance to get acclimated and it gives our players a chance, three guys, to go home. Physically, I'm worried about getting burned out, but I'm trying to counter that by not going more than 90 minutes [in practice]. This is about camaraderie, unity."
Hartford finished third in the America East last season and lost a conference semifinal to Stony Brook. The Hawks return every key player except junior guard Evan Cooper, who will sit out the season for what Gallagher called personal reasons. If Cooper, who has averaged 7.5 points over two seasons, resolves some of his issues, he will be allowed to rejoin Hartford in 2015-16 with two years of eligibility remaining.
Nwakamma, a two-time first-team all-conference player, averaged 15.3 points and 5.8 rebounds last season. Moore averaged 9.8 points and led the team in assists and steals.
Two true freshmen will join the team. Forward John Carroll of Dublin, Ireland, spent two years at the IMG Academy in Florida and a postgraduate year at the Hill School in Pennsylvania. He is likely to log significant minutes right away. Jack Hobbs, a forward from Anchorage, Alaska, is also eligible immediately.
Three more players are on board. Sitting out 2014-15 due to NCAA transfer rules are Cleveland "Pancake" Thomas, a guard fromBaton Rouge, La., via New Mexico; Jalen Ross, a guard from Greensboro, N.C., via Eastern Michigan; and Jake Fay, a guard from Lynn, Mass., via Fordham.
"I don't want to dip when I lose these seniors," Gallagher said. "And these guys will give us a chance to be in contention for a league championship again."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun