|Ian Helps was a well-kept secret until Fredonia State coach Philip Seymore found him.
Photo by Ron Szot
Philip Seymore thought the video he was watching must have been a mistake.
Surely the skilled 6-foot-6 forward with guard-like speed and natural feel for the game of basketball wasn't still available. Certainly not for Seymore, then entering his first year at Fredonia State, a SUNYAC program coming off a 6-19 season. There had to be an issue, maybe with his height, or his grades. Something.
"I'm like, holy smokes, man," Seymore said. "I said, 'Nah, something's wrong here.'"
And yet, absolutely nothing was wrong with Ian Helps. He had simply existed far below the radar of virtually every college basketball program in the country.
Helps, a Bronx, N.Y., native, was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist from his youth. The opportunities for organized basketball were limited. His high school funded basketball during his freshman and sophomore seasons, but the games were scarce and the competition was underwhelming.
As a sophomore, junior and senior, Helps played in a league through his church that featured games on Saturday nights from September through December. The competition was better, but still not to the level that drew major recognition. Helps, despite having the physical traits and skill set to play at the college level, was planning to attend a Seven-day Adventist college and perhaps play basketball at the intramural level.
That was until Seymore got his hands on game film from one of Helps' church league games through a connection that knew one of the league's opposing coaches. Seymore has 25 years of coaching experience, most of it at the Division I level. He spent 12 years at Providence College, first as an assistant with the men's team, and then later as the head coach of the women's team. He's coached and recruited countless players, including former NBA players Ryan Gomes and MarShon Brooks, so the raw talent was immediately evident to him.
Within days, Seymore reached out directly to Helps to pitch him on Fredonia State, a four-year liberal arts school with just over 5,000 undergraduates seven hours from New York City in the westernmost county of New York State. The chance to play basketball at the Division III level was nice, but so to was the completely renovated Fredonia Science Complex for Helps, an aspiring physical therapist.
Helps eventually told Seymore he was going to attend Fredonia, a verbal commitment that came without Helps ever stepping foot on the campus for a visit. Naturally, Seymore worried about another school jumping in late, but come August, 2014, Helps had enrolled as an exercise science major. And he had an immediate impact on a Fredonia team looking for difference makers.
Helps was the only player to play in each of the Blue Devils' 24 games. He led the team in scoring (14.0 ppg), rebounding (8.7 rpg), field-goal percentage (53.8 percent) and minutes (29.8 mpg). He was named the SUNYAC Rookie of the Year and Fredonia Male Rookie of the Year.
"I got a feel for the college game quickly, and everything went well last season," Helps said. "Well ... individually."
Helps was a bright spot for a team in major transition. The Blue Devils won just two games in Seymore's first season and finished on a eight-game losing skid. The roster has largely been in flux since Seymore took over, with 13 new players joining the program in 2014, and another eight this season.
If Seymore hadn't already been impressed with Helps' integrity after he stuck to his verbal commitment, he certainly was after Helps opted to stay at Fredonia despite the losing.
"Ian stayed. He could have left," Seymore said. "He was Rookie of the Year, he was good enough to leave."
Through 14 games this season, Fredonia (4-10, 3-5 SUNYAC) has already doubled its win total from last season. Helps is averaging 17.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, all team bests.
"For most bigs, I pose a matchup problem because if they're big enough to guard me, they're not fast enough to guard me," Helps said. "And if they're fast enough to guard me, they're not big enough to guard me."
Seymore said Helps has strong natural footwork and superior ball-handling ability for a forward, and has an unrelenting motor on the offensive and defensive glass. Helps is far from a finished product, but Seymore said he constantly challenges himself and his teammates to get better.
"Ian reminds me of Ryan Gomes in the sense of his intelligence, his IQ," Seymore said. "He picks up things really quick. He studies, he watches a lot of tape."
Helps' leadership ability, Seymore said, has set him apart. Despite being a sophomore with minimal major competitive basketball history prior to college, Seymore relies on Helps to keep the team organized and direct traffic during games.
Helps still likes to squeeze in a pickup game in the basement of his church when he's home in the Bronx -- he and his friends set up a hoop for such occasions. And he always makes sure to thank the opposing coach for sending the game tape to Seymore.
"I always think about it, every time I talk to the guy who sent the tape," Helps said. "I always thank him because if it wasn't for him, I definitely would have been at another college, probably never playing college basketball."
Seymore is certainly thankful, too. In fact, he's been so impressed with Helps, from a combined basketball, academic and personal standpoint, that he's even given him the tried-and-true father's stamp of approval.
"She's older than him, but if I had another daughter and she was his age, I wouldn't mind them going out," Seymore said. "And fathers are protective."
Rochester tops NYU in anticipated matchup
Sunday's matchup between UAA stalwarts Rochester and NYU had everything you could possibly want in a big game.
Both teams entered on long winning streaks -- NYU was a perfect 13-0, while Rochester was 12-1 but riding an eight-game winning streak. NYU was fourth in the D3hoops.com poll, followed closely by Rochester at No. 10. And, just to add some extra flavor to the narrative, the game marked NYU's final contest at Coles Sports Center in Manhattan before it closed for lengthy renovations.
So it was perhaps a bit surprising to see the YellowJackets walk away with a 73-54 win over the Violets. Rochester held a slim two-point lead at halftime before outscoring NYU 39-22 over the second half. Sophomore forward Alexandra Leslie exploded for a career-high 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting, to go along with a game-high nine rebounds. Senior forward Megan Dawe led the Violets with 16 points, but the team struggled from the field, shooting just 20 of 65 (30.8 percent).
The two teams split their two meetings last season, but the win is Rochester's first at NYU in three seasons. The teams will meet again on Sunday, Feb. 14 in Rochester.
Thoughts on Geneseo's tragedy
I typically don't offer my own opinions or feelings on situations in this column space. It is, after all, about the 90 men's and women's teams in the East, and I love being able to tell their stories. I've written for the D3sports family for more than seven years, and it never ceases to amaze me how many incredible stories are out there.
Sadly, this is not one of those times. Life is sometimes inexplicably cruel. I was shocked to learn Monday of the death of Geneseo State senior Kelsey Annese. Two other young lives were lost in a senseless, horrifying tragedy. Just two weeks ago, for a story in this very same column space, I spoke to Geneseo forward Lea Sobieraski about her uplifting battle back from a liver transplant. I dealt directly with coach Scott Hemer and assistant director of athletic communications Mina Johnson. You could not ask for a more accommodating, pleasant trio of people.
I will be reaching out to them after finishing this column. Not as Andrew Lovell, the D3hoops.com columnist, but as Andrew Lovell, the human being. I would implore you to do the same. The D-III community is family, and the support will be substantial. The Geneseo athletics department has planned a remembrance event for Wednesday night.
Top 25 roundup: Rochester women, Lancaster Bible men move up
Rochester's convincing win against UAA foe NYU helped the YellowJackets leapfrog the Violets in this week's D3hoops.com women's Top 25 poll.
Rochester moved up three spots to No. 7, while NYU slipped from No. 4 down to No. 9. Empire 8 teams St. John Fisher and Stevens also received votes this week.
The NYU men also suffered their first loss of the season, dropping a 71-64 decision to Emory last Friday. The loss dropped NYU two spots to No. 17 in the men's poll. Lancaster Bible moved up to No. 20, while Plattsburgh State, Oneonta State and St. John Fisher drew votes.
Have a story idea? A fun stat? Just want to talk some hoops? I'm always happy to hear from a fellow D-III fan. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @Andrew_Lovell.