Rizzo: Rowan Men’s Basketball are hungry for redemption in NJAC playoffs

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Marcellus Ross goes up for a layup. Ross has been one of the top contributors both last season and this year. Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. - Multimedia Editor / Lee Kotzen

When you think of teams that have dominated the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) in recent seasons, the 2022-23 Rowan men’s basketball team has vaulted their way to the top of that list with their virtually unstoppable level of play this season.

This Profs team has been one of, if not the best, team in the NJAC in the past decade. Head Coach Joe Crispin’s squad is the first team in the conference to win 16 games and lose two or fewer games in a full season since the 2016-17 Ramapo Roadrunners, and the second team overall to accomplish the feat in that ten-year span. That’s elite company considering that the Roadrunner team took home the NJAC championship that year.

“We like to say that we have a lot of X-factors,” Coach Crispin said. “Marcellus [Ross] could have 30, [Andrew] Seager could score 30, Connor [Dickerson] can get going. We’ve had a lot of guys lead us in scoring… That’s the way we look at ourselves, so we have everyone being aggressive. Hafeez [Melvin] has had a couple of good games since he’s come back, so we feel confident that we have some guys coming off the bench that can really hurt you.”

The Profs have come back with a vengeance following last season’s heartbreak. After going 14-4 in conference play last year and ultimately falling short in the NJAC Championship to the Stockton University Ospreys, 95-91, Rowan have upped that record to 16-2 in 2022-23.

Marcellus Ross, who led the Profs in scoring last season with 18.2 points per game, believes the season-ending loss has resulted in a different attitude around the team this year.

“We knew last year that we should’ve won it, we’re disappointed we didn’t,” Ross said. “Like Coach always says, we had a team last year that could’ve won it and this year we added Ja’Zere [Noel]. Now it’s on us, everyday we come to practice we gotta focus on us.”

In addition to the Profs’ feelings of drive and fuel to win, Ross believes another key factor in the team’s improvement is a superior roster.

“I think this year’s team is a lot better,” Ross said. “I think we’re a lot deeper and a lot better at every position. We have more size, more experience, I feel like we’re just better in every way this year, honestly. This is the year.”

When Coach Crispin compared this year’s squad to last year’s, he pinned better health as the key to his group’s success in the upcoming playoffs.

“We’re better, but last year’s team had a good chance,” Coach Crispin said. “We had some injuries in the NJAC playoffs that I thought hurt us. Connor [Dickerson] got hurt, Stretch [Hawkins] got hurt, we really didn’t have them in the NJAC finals. Hopefully we can stay healthy and play well. I think we’re in a good place, naturally we wanted to be at home. But it’s the playoffs, so you’re gonna have to play well to beat people.”

Ja’Zere Noel is a newcomer to the Profs this season after playing at Lincoln University in 2021-22. From the very first moment he stepped on the court at Rowan, he felt the hunger flowing throughout the team.

“That energy has been there since day one,” Noel said. “A lot of these guys are my friends outside of basketball, and we’ve talked about that moment last year, we’ve been talking about it since the very first day we started. That energy’s been there, and it’s what’s been feeding us to go on this run and do so well this season.”

Noel’s immediate impact for the Profs this season has been impeccable. The junior forward from Woodbury, New Jersey hasn’t just been the best player for Rowan, but a top player in the NJAC.

As of Feb. 15, Noel ranks first in the conference in points per game (20.0), fourth in rebounds per game (7.4), second in blocks per game (1.2), fourth in field goal percentage (50%) and fourth in free throw percentage (81.6%), all while not even cracking the top 25 in minutes per game. Yes, you read that correctly.

The efficiency Noel has displayed this season has been other-worldly, and second to none among his peers within the NJAC. The superstar described his mindset as the conference playoffs inch closer.

“Be free, and have fun,” Noel said. “At the end of the day, basketball is a fun game. Everybody’s here to enjoy it.”

Last year’s conference championship game between the Profs and the Ospreys was a blockbuster, as the two teams that sat atop the NJAC all year ultimately met up and dueled for the title. The matchup lived up to the hype, as the Profs rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit to put the cap on an all-time classic game. Unfortunately, they fell just short of finishing the job, resulting in Stockton hoisting the trophy.

For Ross, the keys to coming out on top this time around in a potential rematch with the Ospreys are clear.

“It comes down to stops, consistency, confidence and trust in each other,” Ross said. “If we do those four things, nobody can beat us. It’s Rowan vs. Rowan, and that’s all we gotta do.”

Although the Profs have improved in comparison to last season, that does not make Stockton any easier of a matchup. They have seen similar success as last season, hovering right below the Profs in the NJAC standings with a 15-3 conference record. Right below them is Montclair State University who also has a 15-3 conference record and Kean University with an 11-7 conference record.

Even with those other great teams hanging around, Coach Crispin and Noel are confident that the Profs will showcase their abilities and stake their claim as the best team in the conference.

“Anybody can play well and beat us, but really, our focus is just on us,” Coach Crispin said. “I think if we defend the way we’re capable if we play good offense and don’t turn the ball over, we’re tough to beat. We’ve shown throughout the year that when we’re focused on those couple things and do them well, we win games.”

“My expectation is definitely to win the whole thing,” Noel added. “I expect the same dominance we had throughout the regular season… Not to be cocky or anything, but I don’t think any team can beat us. Our greatest enemy is ourselves.”

The Profs are well aware of their on-court capabilities, however, they are remaining humble. According to Ross, the Profs have yet to prove anything until they capture that illustrious NJAC title.

“We still have the underdog mentality every game,” Ross said. “Stockton still has the belt, we haven’t won a championship yet. All we did was win a regular-season conference championship, which is cool, but it’s not nearly what we’re trying to finish with. We still have a long way to go, every game we just come in with an underdog mentality, go out there and compete and play hard.”

The journey for the Profs to capture their first NJAC championship since 2018-19 begins on Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Esbjornson Gymnasium, where they will welcome either The College of New Jersey or Kean University.

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