DURHAM, N.H. - Entering his fifth season as head coach, expectations are running high for Bill Herrion and the University of New Hampshire men's basketball team as they prepare for the upcoming 2009-10 season. A year ago, Herrion and the Wildcats knocked on the proverbial door; this year they want nothing less than to walk through it - or bust it down. With nine letterwinners - including four starters - returning, combined with four newcomers who should have an immediate impact, the Wildcats are in good position to make it happen.
Despite graduating captain and 1,000-point scorer Tyrece Gibbs and fellow guard Eric Gilchrese, who helped lead the Wildcats to their most successful season in 15 years, which included just their sixth America East semifinal in school history that saw them fall seconds short of hosting their first ever title game, the ‘Cats come back with a loaded junior class and a pair of experienced, veteran players in Radar Onguetou (Yaounde, Cameroon) and Colbey Santos (Onset, Mass.).
Onguetou, whose toughness and rebounding ability will be a staple under the basket for the Wildcats, will come back a full year removed from a knee injury that robbed him of all but four games of the 2007-08 season. A junior forward, Onguetou played in 28 games last season, including 23 starts, and averaged 5.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 0.8 assists in 24.3 minutes per game, while also being named to the five-member America East All-Academic Team.
Santos, a senior guard who sat out the 2007-08 season after transferring from James Madison, played in 29 games last season while averaging 3.1 points during 13.7 minutes of action per game. His best game, however, came in the most important contest of the year when he displayed the deadly shooting ability and athleticism that will make him a major perimeter threat. With two of UNH's top 3-point shooters out of its semifinal matchup with Binghamton, Santos came off the bench and in 22 minutes poured in a career-high 17 points on 5 of 7 shooting, including 4 of 5 from behind the arc, to go along with seven rebounds and two steal.
Juniors and 2008 America East All-Rookie Team members Alvin Abreu (Lynn, Mass.) and Tyrone Conley (Burlington, Vt.), who will be counted on to pick up some of the scoring load from the departed Gibbs, join Santos in the backcourt. Abreu played in 27 games last season, including 20 starts, but missed the final three contests due to injury. Abreu, who moved between the point guard and two-guard spots, averaged 12.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists, while playing 29.6 minutes per game. With added depth at the point this season, Abreu should be able to play his more natural two-guard position and carry the majority of the scoring load.
Conley, meanwhile, was one of three Wildcats to play in all 30 games while starting 24 contests. Despite battling an injury all season that was corrected in the spring, Conley averaged 8.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 27.8 minutes per game.
Sophomore Russell Graham (Norristown, Pa.) will return as the team's most experienced point guard. A combination of his ferocious defense as one of the Wildcats' top on-the-ball defenders and the seven-week absence of Gilchrese put Graham into 24 games, including five starts, where he averaged 2.7 points, 1.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists and a 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio that was third best on the team in 15.2 minutes per contest.
Classmate Ryan Herrion (Dover, N.H.) rounds out the returning backcourt for the Wildcats. Herrion appeared in eight games off the bench last season, while averaging 2.5 minutes per contest. Herrion showed he was a true deep threat when he scored a career-high six points on 2 of 3 shooting from behind the arc in the season opener against Suffolk on Nov. 16.
The Wildcats will welcome in freshman Chandler Rhoads (Berryville, Va.), who will compete with Graham for the starting point guard slot. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Rhoads attended Air Force last season and averaged 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals per game. Rhoads, who has great size, speed and strength and will increase the Wildcats' already solid depth on the perimeter, graduated as the all-time leading scorer at Clarke County High School with 1,638 points. Rhoads, who was named Virginia State A Basketball Player of the Year after averaging 25.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game during his senior campaign, lead Clarke County to a pair of state championships during his four years at the school. Rhoads was also a First Team All-State member his junior and senior seasons, as well as being a McDonald's All-American nominee his final year at Clarke County.
Freshman Ferg Myrick (Philadelphia, Pa.), a 6-6, 180-pound wing will also wear the blue and white this season. Myrick, a very good athlete who has size and is long, averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game last season at Prep Charter High School. Myrick, a McDonald's All-American nominee, led Prep Charter to a 21-7 record.
For a third straight season, junior Dane DiLiegro (Lexington, Mass.) will again anchor the middle of the UNH frontcourt. DiLiegro took a giant step forward last season, playing in all 30 games, including 28 starts, which was second most on the team, while averaging 5.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. The center was second in the conference in offensive rebounding (2.9 orpg) and sixth in rebounding overall, while he led the team in rebounding and field goal percentage (.529), and was second in steals (0.8 spg). DiLiegro recorded six double-digit scoring games and six double-digit rebounding games, including four double-doubles. He poured in a career-high 21 points on 10 of 14 shooting to go along with 12 rebounds against Maine on Feb. 19 and pulled down a career-high 17 boards in the conference opener against Hartford on Jan. 7.
Classmate James Valladares (Kaufman, Texas), who will continue to spell DiLiegro and the rest of the UNH frontcourt, provided solid minutes off the bench last season, appearing in 12 games while averaging 1.7 points and 1.0 rebound in 6.3 minutes per game. With their roster riddled with injuries in the tournament, Valladares came off the bench cold and matched a career high with six points in the quarterfinal versus Stony Brook and posted four points and three boards in the semifinal against Binghamton.
Sophomore Brian Benson (Rochester, N.Y.) should see increased playing time after a successful freshman year. Benson played in 23 games, averaging 2.3 points and 2.8 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per contest. Benson was also second on the team in blocks (0.5 bpg) and owned the third highest field goal percentage (.415) on the team of anyone with at least 40 attempts.
Freshmen Chris Matagrano (Sayreville, N.J.) and Allie Fullah (Hackney, England) will both compete for playing time in the frontcourt with the three returners. The 6-9, 250-pound Matagrano, who plays hard and will bring a great work ethic to the squad, averaged 12 points and eight rebounds per game last season for Blair Academy, where he led the school to a 19-4 record, as well as the program's first New Jersey Prep A state championship in school history. Matagrano, who has great size, physical presence and very good skill for a big man, graduated from Sayreville High School, where he led the program to the NJSIAA tournament in 2007-08 for the first time in five years after averaging 12 points and 12 boards per game en route to being voted the squad's MVP.
Unlike a typical freshman, the 6-8, 220-pound Fullah will bring a wealth of experience to Durham after playing internationally for two years as a member of the U-20 British National Team. Fullah, who has a long, athletic body and will help the ‘Cats on the defensive end and on the glass because of his quickness around the basket, averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game en route to being named co-MVP during his senior season at Homerton College of Technology.
With a rock solid nucleus, increased depth and another talented recruiting class, the Wildcats have a group of athletes and an experienced coaching staff that have positioned themselves for a successful run at an America East title in 2009-10.