The Catholic University men's basketball team brought a lofty national ranking and hopes for a third NCAA tournament appearance in four years into the 2015-16 season. After suffering three early-season defeats by a total of 10 points, the Cardinals have regained the momentum for another postseason run.
After splitting its first six games, Catholic has won eight of its last nine contests. Head coach Steve Howes' team enters the Jan. 16 meeting at Landmark Conference rival Scranton with an 11-4 overall record and a 4-2 league mark. The Cardinals are tied with Juniata for third place in a league that Howes believes is stronger than at any time during his 12 years on the Catholic sideline.
"This is the best that the league has been," said Howes, whose Cardinals trail league leader Susquehanna by two games. "We have one of the best records against nonconference teams in the nation. It's been exciting to watch our league do well."
Catholic entered the season with high expectations. The Cardinals were coming off of a 23-6 campaign that included the Landmark Conference regular-season title and a first-round victory against Alvernia in the NCAA Division III tournament. Prior to the 2015-16 campaign, D3hoops.com ranked the Cardinals sixth nationally and named senior guard Bryson Fonville a preseason first-team All-American.
But the Cardinals started the campaign with a 3-3 record. Two of those losses came to Marietta and Susquehanna, who are ranked No. 10 and No. 11, respectively, in the D3hoops.com Jan. 12 national poll.
"We were ranked for a reason, and the talent was still there," Howes said. "It came down to a shot here and a shot there. But no one panicked. They just kept grinding. I'm most proud of their mental stamina."
Howes was pleased with his team's offensive output but knew Catholic had to get better at the defensive end. Since then, the Cardinal defense has tightened. After surrendering an average of 79.0 points during its first six games, Catholic has limited opponents to 64.8 points per game during the last nine outings.
"Without a doubt, this is the best offensive team that I've coached," said Howes, who has guided the Cardinal program to a 223-101 record since taking over prior to the 2004-05 campaign. "We had so much continuity coming back. We just weren't able to get stops against the good teams. But now, we're playing better defense -- that's the key."
While the defense has improved, the Cardinals have remained consistent at the offensive end. Fueled by three returning starters, Catholic has averaged 82.9 points per game. Fonville, who ranks fifth among NCAA Division III assist leaders, has lived up to his All-American billing. The 6-foot senior guard is averaging 17.8 points, 6.6 assists and 3.7 rebounds while converting 51.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. The native of Greensboro, N.C., played one of the most complete games of his college career during the 92-90 loss to Marietta Nov. 21, totaling a season-high 36 points, seven assists and three steals.
"Bryson is an amazing talent who is playing at a phenomenal level," Howes said of the reigning Landmark Conference Player of the Year. "I can't believe that so many Division I schools overlooked him."
The Cardinals wouldn't be in this position without sophomore forward Jay Howard. The 6-foot-3 Howard leads the team in scoring (20.8 points per game) and field-goal percentage (62.2). Howard, who was chosen the Landmark Conference's Rookie of the Year last season, has also contributed 6.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per outing.
"He's the most humble star that I've ever coached," Howes said. "Jay is a tremendous competitor, and he's just never satisfied. He's so unselfish and very effective in passing the ball out of the post."
Corey Stanford has been a steadying influence for the Cardinals, averaging 13.5 points, a team-leading 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. The 6-foot-4 junior forward has made 88.9 percent of his attempts from the foul line. Senior guard Kyle Phanord, who averages 10.0 points per game, is Catholic's fourth double-figure scorer.
"Corey's ability to stretch the floor in the half-court offense opens it up for Jay Howard inside," Howes said. "And he can go to the foul line and clinch the game for us."
With 10 games remaining in the regular season, there is plenty of time for the Cardinals to improve their seeding for the conference tournament, beginning with the Jan. 16 battle with No. 24 Scranton. The longtime rivals have been the Landmark Conference's representative in the NCAA tournament for each of the last five years.
Scranton, which holds fifth place in the conference with a 4-3 record, has won four of the last five league titles. Catholic, which captured the crown during the 2012-13 campaign, and Scranton will meet again in the regular-season finale Feb. 20 at Catholic's DuFour Center.
"Most programs would be happy at 11-4, but these guys aren't satisfied," Howes said. "They want a lot more, and so do I."