By NoontimeSports.com (@NoontimeSports)
New England College men’s basketball has enjoyed an impressive start to their 2016-17 campaign, winning seven of nine games, including three-straight contests heading into the holiday break.
One of the Pilgrims’ three consecutive wins came against Husson, which captured the North Atlantic Conference (NAC) last season. First-year Izaiah Winston-Brooks highlighted the outing against the Eagles, tallying 24 points, while classmate Alonzo Cooper netted 17 points.
Winston-Brooks, who has been tabbed the NAC Rookie of the Week four times this season, leads the Pilgrims with 18.3 points per game, while Cooper is sixth in points (72) and fifth in total rebounds (25).
New England College returns to the hardwood on Tuesday, January 3, 2017 when they visit Johnson State with tip-off scheduled for 5:30 p.m. And despite not playing a game since Saturday, December 10th, Charlie Mason, the team’s head coach, believes the lengthy break will bode well for his squad heading into the second semester.
“With such a young team, I think the break was really needed for all of us,” said Mason, who is in his 15th year with the men’s basketball program.
“We have nine first-year players, so having a chance to go home and recharge (is essential). And to finish the semester on such a positive note will hopefully get the guys excited to get after it when we get back to campus.”
Noontime Sports caught up with Coach Mason to discuss his team’s exciting start, his various first-year players that have stepped-up thus far, as well as what his squad learned from a late November setback to Castleton.
From your perspective, how has the season gone thus far?
“We have gotten off to a good start and a big part of it is the buy-in from our guys. And what we have been trying to preach to them is the next game is the only game that counts, but we don’t have a single upperclassman on our roster, so I didn’t know what to expect (heading into the season). We worked really hard last year with our recruiting class and I thought we identified some really good players, but how they were going to respond and pick things up as quick as we needed them to buy-in has been a very positive experience.”
Izaiah Winston-Brooks has been really impressive this season. He has earned four NAC Rookie of the Week honors thus far, so how has he helped the team enjoy an impressive start?
“I think what stands out about Izaiah is not just his production, but his efficiency every night – he is playing less than 30 minutes per game. He is leading the country in free throws made (75 of 97), while defending the best players on opposing teams. He is rebounding the ball really well – he has done a lot of different things very well, and that is definitely a big part of our early season success.”
Who are some of the other first-year players that have stepped up this season?
“Alonzo Cooper, who played at New Mission, has started every game for us. He is averaging I believe 24 minutes a game and he had 17 points against Husson. We knew he could play, but he has exceeded our expectations. Brenndan Rogers, who played for Whitman-Hanson High School last year, is another first-year player that has stepped up. He is averaging 10.1 points per game.
“If you were to look at our overall statistics, we have Izaiah and sophomore Ricky Leonard both scoring a lot of points, but we also have four guys averaging roughly nine points per game, so we have a lot more balance than what our team has typically had in the past. And if you look closely, three of the five leading point scorers are first-year players, so that is something we are really excited about.”
Your team’s last win was against the NAC defending champions. How does a win over Husson help this young squad moving forward?
“The opportunity to compete against a team like Husson and be successful is great, it gives everyone confidence. We started the game off on an 11-2 run and they made a run of their own, but we were able to stay with them and not let them take over or impact the game. I don’t think they sustained a lead throughout the 40 minutes, but they did tie the game at 26-26. For us to come back and answer the challenges (was very important) because Husson is a great team, they have consistently been one of the best teams in our conference, so to be able to meet those challenges says an awful lot about our guys, especially their confidence and mindset moving forward.”
One of your two setbacks this season came against Castleton. Would you consider that a good learning lesson, especially for a young squad?
“Absolutely. I think the NAC is a very good conference – much better than people might assume, and Castleton is another squad that has consistently always been in it. We had our opportunities up there, but to their credit they out executed and out performed us in that second half, so I think that was a very positive eye opener for everyone.”
Finally, what makes the NAC so competitive?
“The league has a very good competitive balance, particularly this year. I think we have a very competitive group of coaches and programs that take a lot of pride in competing, so I think that bodes well for everyone.”