Garden State of mind
The magic number for the men’s basketball team may be six.
A year after being forced to play several conference games last season with only seven scholar- ship players injuries, the Pirates enter 2013-14 with a healthy roster of 13 scholarship players.
Six of those players call New Jersey home, three of whom enter their first season eligible to play.
Redshirt sophomore guard Sterling Gibbs, junior guard Hakeem Harris and freshman guard Jaren Sina join senior Fuquan Edwin and redshirt seniors Brian Oliver and Eugene Teague in hopes of improving on last year’s 15-18 overall record and a 3-15 mark in conference play.
Head coach Kevin Willard, entering his fourth season at the helm, said that having players from New Jersey is exciting because there is already a “built-in fan base” for the Pirates.
“What I think is most import- ant is that you get the families around,” Willard said. “I think it’s a benefit because it creates a great support system.”
The support system is internal as well, as many of the players have either played with or against their current teammates in high school or in AAU leagues, which newcomer Harris said is a positive.
“It’s great for our chemistry because we knew each other beforehand,” the junior college transfer said. “It’s great for the acclimation process. The chemistry on and off the court has been great.”
Teague echoed Harris’ statement, saying that these “familiar faces” add to the camaraderie among the team members.
“It makes the team aspect better because a lot of people know each other already,” he said.
The team chemistry has shown so far in practice, according to Sina, who is making the transition from high school to Big East basketball.
“Playing more and more together, each and every day in practice, it’s easier to get a flow,” he said. Earlier in the year, Sina said that Edwin pushed him to per- form better in practice each day.
“I’m very close with (Edwin),” Sina said. “He takes care of me. He’s always pushing me in practice. I have a close relationship with him. We’re always playing together in practice, and I already like the tandem. We just continue to work together.”
Sina’s roommate Gibbs, who was with the Pirates last season, was ineligible to play because of NCAA transfer regulations. The former Texas Longhorn returns to the Garden State after attending Seton Hall Prep in West Orange.
Gibbs said that having guys from the same area brings only positives to the team.
“The good thing about having so many Jersey guys is that we’ve played against each other,” he said. “We all know what type of players each other are. We all know that we’re competitors and we all want to win.”
Gibbs said he didn’t decide to transfer for more playing time or for the coaching staff.
His reason to transfer was to come home.
“I wanted to represent New Jersey,” he said.
New Jersey pride courses through this team, which is a big deal, according to Oliver.
“It’s nice for everyone to be around each other,” he said. “We have that collective New Jersey spirit. It’s nice to have that extra vibe.”
Several players are excited about how the New Jersey players will mesh on the court, none more so than Edwin, the team’s four-year starter and leader.
I think it’s going to be key,” he said. “Teams won’t know how to play us. (Gibbs) is a scoring point guard who has a high basketball IQ and (Sina) is a deep shooter. Teams are going to have to extend on us and that leaves for me to drive and easy buckets for (Teague).”
Willard said that although it can be a positive to have in-state players, it does add a pressure to perform well.
“They have a lot of family and friends there (at games),” he said. “So they have to learn to handle it, which a lot of these guys haven’t gone through yet.”
The Pirates will open their sea- son at 6 p.m. on Saturday as they take on Niagara at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
T.J. Brennan can be reached at email@example.com.