Independently thriving

More news about: SUNY-Canton
This is the season fourth-year head coach Bechtel expected from his veteran squad.
Photo courtesy SUNY-Canton Athletics

Jim Bechtel knew what he was getting into. So did his players and staff members, for that matter.

No conference tournament, no conference rivals -- no conference at all, actually -- and minimal chance at any kind of postseason. Such is the way of life for an independent school, which is where SUNY Canton finds itself.

It's not a permanent status, of course. The school's administration is actively looking for a conference to join, though Bechtel said he didn't believe a move was imminent.

"I try not to get frustrated with that because it's a situation, like I tell the guys all the time, it's out of our control right now," said Bechtel, now in his fourth year as the Kangaroos' head coach. "There's not much we can do about it. The only thing I know is that our administration and our athletic director and athletics staff are working very hard to get us into a conference."

SUNY Canton was previously an NAIA school that belonged to the now-dissolved Sunrise Conference. The school was approved for full Division III membership back in June 2015.

"To be the first coach to be able to lead a program into Division III was exciting," Bechtel said. "It was an opportunity for me to take over a program and really put a stamp on it that nobody else has ever done in the past."

Under Bechtel's guidance, the Kangaroos have improved from 9-13 seasons in each of his first two years to 16-6 last season, the program's highest win total since 1997-98. This season, SUNY Canton sits at 16-3 with four games still remaining.

"We've been fortunate enough that we've been able to see that improvement," Bechtel said. "The guys that we've brought in have bought into what we're trying to do and to our goal and our mission and our process, and it's allowed us to be competitive and see some success on the court."

Bechtel wasn't hired until September 2012, shortly before the season began, so he couldn't bring in his first recruiting class until the following season. It's proven to be worth the wait.

Junior guard Sam Annorh and junior forward Romario Fletcher, high school teammates at New York's Pathways College Prep School, opted to continue playing together at SUNY Canton. Annorh leads the team in scoring (17.9 ppg), assists (4.6 apg), 3-pointers (30) and steals (32). Fletcher ranks second in scoring (14.9 ppg) and first in rebounding (8.3 rpg). The duo's impact on the court and in the program has left a sizable impression, Bechtel said.

Senior center Matt Spencer, an intimidating inside presence at 6-8, and junior guard Rashad Richardson also arrived in the same group with Annorh and Fletcher. Spencer, who spent two years at Clinton Community College, redshirted in 2013-14 after suffering a torn meniscus and is in his final year of eligibility. Senior guards Vonallen Pickett and Khalil Bratton have provided leadership and stability.

"I knew coming in that it would be a process for this school to become a Division III school, so my focus was basically just playing with the group of guys that I was with and trying to win as many games as possible," Spencer said.

The wins have certainly been there this season. SUNY Canton has defeated teams from the Liberty League (Clarkson twice), Empire 8 (Utica, Houghton), SUNYAC (SUNY Potsdam) and NESCAC (Connecticut College). Of its three losses, only one came by more than four points (90-66 at Staten Island). SUNY Canton has won six of its last seven, including two against Alfred State, one of the other 10 independents across Division III.

Bechtel, a former assistant coach at St. Lawrence, said his connections in the Division III world, particularly in New York State, have helped SUNY Canton find opponents. But scheduling, especially in the second half of the season when most schools are deep into conference play, remains the biggest challenge.

Drawing fans to home games at the recently-constructed "Roos House," however, has come easily. Bechtel said the team regularly draws between 750 and 1,000 people to home games, among them school president Zvi Szafran. That's impressive for a school with an undergraduate enrollment of just over 3,500.

"It's a small school and a small town but they love basketball," Bechtel said. "It's a really unique place."

Spencer, a sports management major and aspiring basketball coach, said he hopes to continue working with the team in some capacity after graduating this spring.

"I'd love to be with the program next year, whether that's as an intern, whether it's coaching, or however it is," Spencer said. "I really love the group of guys that I've been with for three years now."

Barring an unforeseen four-game losing skid to end the season, the Kangaroos will improve on last season's win total. An ECAC bid isn't out of the question, particularly if the team finishes 20-3. But Bechtel isn't allowing himself or his players to focus on anything besides seeking to improve on a daily basis. It's that kind of approach that's gotten the Kangaroos to this point in the first place.

"I had this year circled on my own personal calendar and our program's calendar as the year where I felt like our young guys are going to not be young anymore," Bechtel said.

NYU, Rochester set for Valentine's Day showdowns

Well, this seems fitting, doesn't it? On a day that celebrates love and happiness, UAA rivals NYU and Rochester will meet in the Flower City.

The men will play first at noon, followed by the women at 2 p.m. The Rochester men lost a 77-67 decision back on Jan. 17 in New York. The Yellow Jackets have certainly righted the ship since then, winning their last six, including a home sweep of Washington U. and previously No. 21-ranked Chicago this past weekend. The 77-76 win over Chicago featured a stunning end that landed on the Top 10 Plays on ESPN's SportsCenter. If you haven't seen it, it involves an intentional missed free throw and rebound by the same player (junior guard Sam Borst-Smith) and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer (junior guard Mack Montague). Here's the video, if you haven't seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7H3hh2yqdak.

NYU lost two of its next three after the win over Rochester, but has also gotten hot, winning its last four overall. Senior forward Evan Kupferberg scored a game-high 20 points as the Violets held on for an 80-79 win over Case Western Reserve on Super Bowl Sunday.

The two women's teams have consistently ranked among the top 15 teams in D3hoops.com's weekly top 25 poll this season, and the two are likely the top two teams in the East region. But both have had uneven moments this season. Rochester has rebounded from a two-game skid to win its last two, while NYU has lost straight and three of its last seven, including a 73-54 decision to Rochester back in mid-January.

Stevens quietly controls own destiny in Empire 8

Let's be clear -- the fact that the Stevens women sit atop the Empire 8 standings in February isn't at all surprising. After all, this team won 22 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament last season.

What is surprising, however, is how the Ducks have completely dominated the rest of the conference. Stevens sits at 16-5 overall, but a perfect 12-0 in conference play after Tuesday night's home win against Ithaca. Of those 12 victories, 11 of them have come by a margin of at least 11 points, including a handful of lopsided wins by 21, 28, 33 and 45 points. Stevens is winning against Empire 8 opponents by an average margin of 19.41 points per game. That's fairly staggering.

Senior guard Kaitlyn Astel, the reigning Empire 8 Player of the Year, is in the midst of another fine season. But the Ducks are balanced -- Astel, senior guard Miranda Ripken, sophomore guard Megan Brown, junior guard Erica Guketlov, senior forward Dylan Krause and sophomore forward Anna Toke all average at least five points per game.

The Ducks still have games left against Nazareth (Feb. 19) and second-place St. John Fisher (Feb. 20), which sits just one game back in the conference standings. But they've certainly opened some eyes to this point.

Top 25 roundup: Rochester rejoins top 10

The Rochester women's team avenged back-to-back road losses to Washington U. and Chicago with a home sweep of the two teams this past weekend. The YellowJackets moved up from No. 13 to No. 9 in this week's D3hoops.com Top 25 poll.

UAA rival NYU dropped from No. 7 to No. 14 after suffering consecutive losses to Carnegie Mellon and Case Western Reserve. St. John Fisher continues to garner votes.

In the men's poll, undefeated Lancaster Bible held steady at No. 15. SUNYAC leader Plattsburgh State moved up two spots to No. 22. NYU and Rochester both received votes.

Contact me

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 andrew.lovell@d3sports.com, or on Twitter at @Andrew_Lovell.