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Friday, February 4, 2011

Rivier still searching for identity

NASHUA – Jake Nelson had a decision to make, and it wasn’t an easy one.

The former Nashua High School South standout was dabbling in the world of engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and also the world of a top regional Division III basketball program.

But the lure of home and plans of changing his career to education were a combination too great to keep him in Worcester, and he’s glad he made the decision to transfer to Rivier College.

So are the Raiders, who head coach Dave Morissette says are still searching for their true identity in the midst of a 10-8 season, 5-6 in the highly competitive Great Northeast Athletic Conference. It’s not the same as WPI’s program, once ranked 18th nationally, but Nelson likes it just fine.

“I decided (engineering) wasn’t for me,” he said. “Both my parents are teachers, I want to be an education major. I love the guys, they’ve really made the transition easier for me. I thought it was going to be tough.

“I’ve been going to camp with coach Morissette since I was in the fourth grade. … It was tough (to leave WPI), but at the same time, you can play for a nationally-ranked team but you have to get your education too. I think we could beat them if we played them.”

Meanwhile, across town, the Daniel Webster College men’s team is much improved from last year’s 9-16 season. The Eagles currently sit at 9-8 overall and 3-4 in the New England Collegiate Conference. Head coach Dave Faucher is trying to get the program back to where it was in his first year at the helm two years ago when it won 18 games and made an ECAC appearance.

“I think we’re close,” he said. “We have a team right now that can compete with anybody. Conversely, we can get beat by anyone.”

Here’s a look at how both local men’s teams shape up as the season has about a month to go:

Rivier College

The Raiders would love to finish in the top four of the GNAC and get their first home playoff game since advancing to the NCAAs in 2007. Morissette says it’s certainly an attainable goal. After first place Albertus Magnus, there’s a lot of parity, but Riv in his mind needs to take that next step.

“We’re still finding ourselves, I hate to say that,” Morissette said. “We still have not found a flow yet. To be honest, we might have too many guys who scored a lot points in high school, and we’ve got to figure out who we are.

“We’ve got to figure out who we are and go to our strengths.”

The strength of the Raiders is obviously in 6-foot-8 center D.J. Poitras, who is averaging 14.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. His point average is down nearly a point in the last two weeks. But sometimes the problem is getting him the ball as Morissette admits – “we have a turnover problem (22 in an 84-73 win over Lasell on Saturday) on this team. If we can stop turning the ball over, we’ll be in great shape.”

Morissette says the Raiders turn the ball over too often trying to get the ball in to Poitras, who at times is limited to as few as 10 shots.

“We have to understand where our strengths are inside out,” Morissette said. “And a lot of games we go outside-in, no matter how much we talk.”

Their outside game usually comes from 5-11 guard Nick Bean, averaging 14.1 points per game. But the Raiders are shooting just 46.4 percent from the floor and 32.9 percent from 3-point range.

Guard Cliff Celestin, a sophomore, is getting healthier after injury woes limited him in the first half and he may be able to stabilize one of the ball-handling spots, helping out point guard Will Snider.

And Nelson?

“He’s a good energy guy,” Morissette said. “He’s got a lot to learn, and he’s missed a lot. He’s going to be a great player here, no question about it. … It’s been a tough adjustment for him and the guys. But I’m hoping we evolve into something in the next week or so.”

“I think we have a lot of learning to do,” Nelson said. “But we’re a tough team.”

Daniel Webster College

Senior Chris Hanson, of Salem, Mass., leads the Eagles with a 13.9 points per game average, but that’s not where this team’s bread is buttered. That is on defense – one that is limiting opponents to a conference-best .404 shooting percentage and .288 from 3-point range.

“That’s a huge jump from a year ago,” Faucher said.

The Eagles need help inside, where 6-5 senior Eric Suarez leads them with 7.4 rebounds a game and gets help from 6-3 freshman Daris Crosby and Hanson.

“We’re getting 20 points from the 5-spot but we’re doing it a different way, with about five players,” Faucher said.

“With rebounding, we’re in the middle of the pack in the league. But sometimes we’re a little too dependent on the 3-point shot.”

From 3-point land, the Eagles are shooting 33 percent, and Hanson, who actually is shying away from downtown of late with more two’s, is at 36 percent to lead the team. Faucher says the team needs that second shooter as they had a couple of years ago to go with Hanson, who emerged as a sophomore. Sophomore Keith Speed, out of Columbus, Ohio, is next in scoring with 10.6 points.

“The bottom line is we’re a lot different when the ball goes in the basket,” Faucher said. “But so are a lot of other programs. We’re not as athletic as some programs in our league.”

But can they contend?

“There’s no doubt we’re at that level,” Faucher said. “Our conference is very good. We’re pretty competitive within it, we’d like to get a top four and get a home seed.”

That’s what the next month will determine.