But now that Smith has taken over as Loyola’s men’s basketball coach, and Patsos has settled in at Siena, some things will inevitably change this year at Reitz Arena.
For starters, Smith had to hire three new assistant coaches after Greg Manning and Luke D’Alessio followed Patsos to upstate New York. Then there was the matter of recruiting an entirely new 2013 class after forward Lavon Long (Oakland Mills) and point guard Marquis Wright (North Point) were released from their letters of intent and later signed with the Saints. Shooting guard Maurice White (St. Frances) and power forward Michael Wolfe (Georgetown Prep) also withdrew their commitments to the Greyhounds. White, who never signed an LOI to Loyola, also pledged to Siena (but hasn't yet signed), while Wolfe considered prep school before committing to Patsos again.
There is, however, plenty of continuity on Cold Spring Lane. Senior shooting guard Dylon Cormier (Cardinal Gibbons), senior center Jordan Latham (City) and junior point guard R.J. Williams (St. Frances) will take on leadership roles, while sophomores Tyler Hubbard, Jarred Jones (John Carroll), Eric Laster and Franz Rassman return as well.
Smith will welcome six newcomers to his roster: true freshmen Jevon Patton (a point guard) and Nick Gorski (a power forward); redshirt freshmen Damion Rashford (a shooting guard), Josh Forney (center from St. Frances) and Sean Tuohy Jr. (a point guard); and redshirt junior transfer Denzel Brito (a guard).
Smith spoke with The Baltimore Sun this week about taking over as coach, what he expects from his newcomers and veterans, expectations of the team and more.
What have you been up to since landing the head coaching job? I imagine it’s been pretty hectic since you took over.
Yeah, it’s been pretty hectic. When you get these jobs, you’re trying to do 100 things all at once. My biggest thing has been trying to delegate stuff to my assistants. I hired a great staff. I obviously hired Keith Booth, a guy who was at Maryland, he’s a Baltimore guy. He was over on the women’s side. So I thought it was great to have someone who knew Loyola, knew the Baltimore area very well. So I stole Booth from Coach [Joe] Logan there, the women’s coach. He was OK with it (laughs).
I thought it was very important to hire a Patriot League guy. I hired Josh Loeffler, the [director of basketball operations] at Rutgers this past season. He was at Lafayette with Coach [Fran] O’Hanlon for four years. He knows the Patriot League, he knows the academic index. Gives us a little bit of a different voice. He’s been a head coach before in Division III. So he’s here on our staff.
Hired Dan Ficke, one of our former players. He’s from Colorado, played here four years. I thought it was important to hire a former player. And Kevin Farrell stayed here. He’s the [director of basketball operations], was a former team manager. He pretty much does everything for us. That’s our staff. Other than that, just being in this position now, having worked for Jimmy for six years, the things that you deal with on and off the court are a big change. You become a decision maker, good or bad. Everything falls with me, ends with me. That’s the biggest adjustment.
The recruiting class seemingly fell apart after the coaching change. Was that a contentious or worrisome time for you and the staff, or was it expected?
Well I knew when Jimmy first took the job at Siena, I knew some of the recruits that loved him, there was always thought that those guys would go with Jimmy. We knew that was an option. They were open about that, I was open about that. When they decided to go – Lavon Long and Marquis Wright decided to take their commitments to Siena – we had to recruit a couple guys. We had to get a guard and we had to get a big man.
The guard we signed out of Charlotte, Jevon Patton, his team went 30-0, won a state championship in North Carolina. He’s going to be a great backup point guard to R.J. to start the season. He’s very tough, a leader. One thing I liked about him is he transferred into Olympic High School in North Carolina from a team before where he was a man. Then he became a leader, a distributor because his team has like five Division I guys on the team. He became the leader and delegated authority to other guys on his team. I saw him play a couple times, saw him play in the state championship against [N.C. State coach] Mark Gottfried’s son – Cam Gottfried at Broughton High School. He played extremely well and I was really impressed. So we got him.
Then we signed Nick Gorski from out of Richmond, Va. Nick Gorski played at Benedictine High School. Obviously we like his size. He has a skill set – he can handle the ball, he can shoot, he can pass and shoot the ball well for a guy his size. He has a brother that played at UIC up in Chicago. So he has a great pedigree. And he’s not far from here – he’s from Richmond. I think he’ll be a good fit. Both guys fit that Patriot League [profile]. They fit that academic index, the type of guys we’re looking for. Stuff is going to change with our recruiting philosophy now that we’re going to the Patriot League instead of the MAAC.
Recruiting Baltimore was a very big priority when Loyola played in the MAAC. I imagine that would continue to some extent with Booth on staff. But do you expect priorities to change with the Patriot League? Will recruiting territories change given the academic standards of the Patriot League?
Well first of all, even in the MAAC, we always recruited the best student-athletes, no matter where they were. Obviously with us switching to the Patriot League – the MAAC is more of like a northeastern basketball league; the Patriot League is a nationally known conference, kind of like the Ivy League. When I took the job, I did some research. Most of the players come from California, Texas, Minnesota, Florida. So we’re going to have to recruit nationally.
The biggest difference for us is that locally, we’re still going to recruit hard because the Baltimore Catholic League and the [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference], we have great students coming from those schools and they have great basketball. So we’re still going to recruit the DMV really, really hard. For us, we’re going to have to hit the West Coast, spend more money travelling on recruiting, because it is a national league.
Just to be associated with teams like Bucknell, Lehigh and Holy Cross, just to be associated with those guys is really, really important for us, athletically and academically. With us and [Boston University] coming into the conference, with our history athletic-wise and our history academic-wise, hopefully it's just going to build and make our league a lot better. The Patriot League has been very successful. They’re going to have two guys get drafted, probably in the first round, in [Bucknell’s] Mike Muscala and [Lehigh’s] C.J. McCollum. The MAAC hasn’t had that happen in a long time. They never had two guys in the first round. Patriot League is about to do it this year.
We’ve established relationships with Bucknell. We played them the last four years. Won at their place twice, they won here twice. So we know their league. We played BU the last couple years, so we’re familiar with them. We know [former Mount St. Mary’s] coach [Milan] Brown at Holy Cross. We’ve played American in the past. The thing we want to do is establish a rivalry with Navy and with American. Now we get to go to D.C. every year and we get to go to Annapolis every year. That’s going to be a big recruiting tool, and I think that’s going to be big for us as a school, having those teams locally and establishing some great rivalries that way.
In addition to Patton and Gorski, you’ll have four other newcomers in redshirt freshmen Josh Forney, Damion Rashford and S.J. Tuohy, and redshirt junior Loyola (Ill.) transfer Denzel Brito. What have you seen from them?
It’s going to be a teaching moment for all of them. Obviously Denzel, he played a couple years at Loyola; he’s a transfer. S.J., Josh and Damion have not played any Division I basketball, so it’s going to be an experience for them. I’ll start with Damion. Obviously Damion had some NCAA issues, so he couldn’t participate in practice or play in games last year. So working with him this summer has been very, very important for us because we haven’t been able to teach him much because he hasn’t practiced, he hasn’t played in games, he hasn’t done individual workouts. He’s kind of behind the curve right now, but he has such great natural talent. He’s a big, big guard. He can play the 2, 3 and the 4. He kind of reminds of us of Justin Drummond from a couple years ago. He’s a scorer, but he’s also big enough and physical enough to play in the post. So he’s going to play a little 2, 3 and 4 for us.
Josh Forney, he’s been by far the biggest surprise for us this summer. He came from St. Frances. He really wasn’t an offensive threat. Great size, great body, great defender. He lost a lot of weight this summer [and is] moving a lot better now that he’s not hurt. He’s having a great diet. Our strength coach, Brian McGivern, has been working with him with his weight issues and his conditioning. So he’s gotten a lot better, and we expect that he’s going to play a little bit of backup 5.
S.J. Tuohy, he’s improved a lot. He’s always been a good shooter, but he obviously needs to get stronger, obviously needs to get better with the ball-handling. But he’s come a long way, too. He’s taking basketball seriously, and I think he really wants to play this year. He might play a little bit of backup point also.
Denzel brings a lot of experience. He’ll definitely play a little bit of combo guard, 1/2, maybe some 3. He can really score; he can shoot the ball really well. He had an injury during the year. He was sitting out, midway through the season he hurt his knee a little bit, so he’s bouncing back, taking it slow. But he’s definitely going to give us that experience that we need in the backcourt, along with R.J. and Dylon.
You’re bringing back all four sophomores. All of them had some moments last year, but is there one in particular that you think can make a big jump?
I really think Eric Laster has got the potential to be an all-league player in the Patriot League. I think he really does. He’s long and athletic, and he can really shoot. He has a chance to be a great defender, because he is long, he is athletic. He’s a very good rebounder. I think he’ll probably be the biggest surprise this year. He’ll probably make the biggest jump. He’s improved so much. I don’t think he realized how good he can be. It’s up to us to give him that confidence to let him know how good he can be.
Tyler Hubbard, he obviously needs to shoot the ball well from 3-point range. He’s by far the purest shooter on the team. He’s got range, gets it off quick. He’s going to be very good in transition.
Jarred Jones is probably our most experienced guy coming back from that group. He’s been a great defender. We’re probably going to need him to score a little bit more this year. He’s probably going to have to take over a little bit of Erik Etherly’s scoring in the post. He’s also one of the better defenders on our team. He can defend a guard; he can also defend a post player. Defensively, he kind of reminds us of Anthony Winbush. He does have an all-around game. Doesn’t do anything great, but he does a lot of stuff really, really well.
Franz Rassman, I expect him to give us another scoring post, along with Jordan Latham. He’s probably our second option in the post to score. The thing about him is he’s such a good pick-and-pop guy. He can step out and shoot from the perimeter, shoot the 3. So far, he’s been shooting great this summer. Coming from Gonzaga, coming from a guy like Coach Steve Turner, he’s been a presence so far.
Finally, you have three veterans in Williams, Cormier and Latham coming back. What are you looking for out of them?
Those three guys, Dylon, R.J. and Jordan, are by far the heart of our team. All three are Baltimore guys, all three represent our school extremely well, all three are going to graduate on time, which is the most important thing. Transitioning to the Patriot League, Dylon and Jordan being seniors and R.J. being a junior, I think we have some of the most experience – along with BU – coming back into the league.
Dylon is by far a leader. He continues to be a leader in the summer. There are some things he needs to improve on. He needs to improve on his shot; he needs to improve on his off-the-ball defense. All three guys are tough. All three guys have exemplified our philosophy. Our philosophy is to make sure you go out there and play hard, play together and do things the right way.
R.J., even though he sat out a few games last year, we expect him to play the full season. He’s basically going to run the show for our team. Dylon will be, by far, our best player. I know he averaged 17, 18 points last season. He’s definitely going to have to continue to do that. Latham’s going to have to be more of a scorer. We want him to play with more confidence, be a defensive threat inside and be the man in the post. He has a chance to be the best post player in our league.
How will Loyola’s style of play differ under your direction compared to Jimmy?
My style of play is going to be similar. We’re going to be up-tempo, a pressing team. Half-court-wise, we’ll do some things differently in the half-court and defense. We’ll play a ball-line defense. Offensively, we’re going to do a lot of the same things – try to get the ball inside to Jordan in the post, and get Dylon shots on the perimeter. We want to be able to drive the ball, let the defense collapse and kick it out for 3s, like most teams do. We’re definitely going to press some; we’re definitely going to push the tempo. We just want to get a lot of opportunities for Dylon and R.J. They’re playmakers. They want to get other guys involved. That’s what we’re going to continue to do.
What’s a realistic expectation for the upcoming season? How plausible is a third postseason trip in a row?
Our expectation is to be the best we can be. Obviously our No. 1 goal is to win the Patriot League regular season. That’s our goal, year in and year out. Patriot League is a little bit different from the MAAC. It’s not a neutral site. Whoever wins the league hosts games until the championship. So if you finish first, you get to host until the championship game. My vision and my goal is to always host a game here to go to the NCAA tournament. Watching Bucknell last year win a championship on their home court and go to the NCAA, that’s every Patriot League team’s wish – to get to that point. So that’s going to be a goal of mine and that’s the vision that we have here at Loyola.