Strides in recruiting a plus for Raiders

NASHUA – The practices are intense. The only problem for the Rivier University men’s basketball team is the games haven’t been this season – because they don’t exist.

Just as was the case with Raider teams in the fall, Rivier men’s and women’s basketball this winter never got a season, thanks to the pandemic.

But, as they may discover, it might not be a step backward, but rather a step forward, as there have been gains in recruiting, etc.

Yet students live in the present, and Raiders men’s basketball coach Lance Bisson, his program having gone through a lean few seasons, has balanced this winter by keeping his players engaged while building for what he has convinced them is a promising future.

“I sat them down, and I said, ‘Guys, this is the reality,'” Bisson said. “I asked them point blank if they were surprised, and nobody said they were. This is the struggle, I told them, of your lifetime.”

And Bisson said that 50 years ago, the struggle of men their age was going to fight in the Vietnam war. And before that, World War II.

“I was trying to build a little bit of context. And our guys took it pretty, pretty well, we were surprised. But there was obvious frustration.”

That comparison came to Bisson, as the former Nashua North and Rivier standout was trying to put himself in his players shoes.

Riv wouldn’t have been able to play any games until mid-February, as students arrived on campus for second semester in late January there had to be a two-week quarantine. By comparison, other Division III schools Keene State and Plymouth, tried to play. PSC had to shut down but Keene has played a few games, most recently in an abbreviated Little East tournament.

“For me, I think there was a level of frustration, but immediately I go to the players,” Bisson said.

“Not everybody is afforded the opportunity to play college athletics.

“They say it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, but within that opportunity is a certain lifetime. And part of that lifetime is taken away from them. My head goes to the student athletes and all the frustration they have.”

There was some optimism in late fall that perhaps there could be an exhibition game or two for the season. But around Christmas the school was learning the financial implications of having to play the game with COVID testing costs, and NCAA guidelines.

The NCAA was requiring three tests a week, and for 20 people just involved in the men’s program alone, let alone the women. The costs would have been in the thousands.

“It’s obviously pretty astonishing, but you know it’s college athletics, and it’s usually going to have something to do with finances,” Bisson said. “That’s the nature of the beast.”

The silver lining for Bisson: more practice. The Raiders have practiced on average three times a week; and they also had a Blue-White exhibition game and also a 3 on 3 tournament within their own roster, with trophies awarded, etc.

“It helped their competitive edge,” Bisson said. “Again, I want to improve every day; they want to compete and have the fun games.”

Bisson also noted that as frustrating as it has been for the players and coaches, the student-atheltes are at least getting “the student part” for the year with being on campus with in-person classes.

“I can only imagine it’s frustrating,” Bisson said, “putting myself in the shoes of an 18, 19 or 20-year-old. But again, perspective is everything, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Bisson has had some transfers come in, competition for spots, etc. looking ahead to next season. So they practice with a purpose.

“It’s a proving ground every day, he said. “And honestly, from my standpoint, we’re more competitive in our own gym than we’ve been in my five years here.

“We knew we were building and building.”

And that’s why Bisson feels that not playing games and having a year’s pause will actually help a program that has struggled mightily within the Great Northeast Athletic Conference.

“More players are transferring than ever before,” Bisson said. “When the NCAA came out and said nobody is losing a year of eligibility, and you’re a Williams or an Amherst, and you just plug and play and have good seniors and good freshmen coming in, a year like this doesn’t really help that model.

“But when you’re afforded to bring in transfers, and everybody gets another year of eligibility, it sort of bolsters the teams in the middle or at the bottom, their talent level. If you have four studs, you might have six or seven.”

Why? Simple. Freshmen who would have been headed to more successful schools will instead head elsewhere because they want playing time that is being chewed up by seniors on more successful schools.

So Bisson has his arms wide open.

“Those incoming freshmen are now looking for different opportunities,” he said. “The water is now rising. … We’re now talking at a different caliber kid.”

In fact, Bisson is expecting his biggest recruiting class ever, perhaps even more than 10 players.

“Before, we might not have been on their radar,” he said. “The middle to bottom tier teams, they’re the ones who are truly benefitting from this if anybody is benefitting.”

Also, not having games has given Bisson more time to recruit. In fact, since he took the position over five years ago, this has been his best recruiting year.

“By far,” he said. “This is by far the best class we’re bringing in in terms of talent and by far the biggest class we’re bringing in. Like I said, if there’s one positive, in creating (a team), this is what it looks like.”

Bisson will be at home or in his office at night watching as many as three games at once.

“The process is different,” Bisson said. “It looks different. I might not normally be able to spit at three games at once. There’s more content.”

And with the technology, Bisson is able to widen the scope of his recruiting, as he’s bringing in out of region players.

“The pool is larger,” he said. “We’re bringing in two kids from Maryland, and one kid from Florida. Before, we were not doing that. For me, recruiting is the biggest benefit. We’re bringing in a bigger class and more quality recruits because of COVID.”

In fact, Bisson said, at one point he was talking to 45 players.

“I’m not breaking down film to play Emmanuel or Suffolk,” he said. “Now I use that time to watch two random high schools in Maryland play. I can reach out to 10 high school coaches in that conference in Maryland.”

Good players are good players, but what Bisson is finding is that these out-of-region players have no preconceived notion of the school, whereas a player he’s recruiting in the area or, say, the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts may have had a relative who went to the school years ago, etc.

“I can get on the phone and sell Rivier in a different light to somebody who has a blank canvas,” Bisson said. “The perception they have may be a little more prestigious when I talk about a private school, high academic standards, which might have more (to offer) than a small college in their area would have.

“It’s just a different sell. It’s fun, it looks more like the Division I model.”

Bisson was glad to see the local high schools be able to play, as he knows all the players and coaches, more so on a personal level than professional.

And surprisingly, he did have success in being able to get permission from some schools in Massachusetts to go into gyms to see a couple of games, even when no fans were let in. In fact, at one game in Upton, Mass., Bisson was the only spectator. “I felt everyone was looking at me; it was very, very odd,” Bisson said.

But it all adds up to more players. Bisson got off the phone with his uniform supplier last week having put an order in for 27 uniforms. And his program isn’t the only one reaping the benefits of increased recruiting, as, for example, men’s soccer coach Hayden Barbosa is said to be bringing in as many as 20 new recruits.

“What Rivier athletics is looking like is about to change pretty drastically,” Bisson said, referring to the efforts of new VP of Enrollment Management Paul Brower’s efforts to bolster the student population partly through athletics.

“He has an eye for athletics and history in athletics,” Bisson said. “So they want to bolster athletics and the university as whole through the front porch.”

Bisson loves the approach, even though it may mean more recruiting pressure.

“It’s a different feel,” he said. “It’s a private education, and the price tag is certainly different than the state schools, but it put sort of a state school feel (in terms of numbers.)

“We’d go to play Plymouth (State) every year, and the gym will be packed, but when the two teams come out of the locker room for starting lineups, they’d have 25 kids on their roster and we’d have 16 deep. Just the optics of that to outsiders looks a different way.”

And things from the school’s hierarchy were handled differently.

“Our school has never put pressure on us before to say, ‘Hey we want big rosters, we want to have those giant rosters,'” Bisson said. “But now, they’re giving us all the tools to have success in recruiting, working hand-in-hand much better than we ever did with admissions. Facilites are upgraded – you’ve been up to the Pavillion. They’re giving us all these tools, and it’s pressure, but it’s a good type of pressure. We can recruit a little bit more competitively with the state schools.”

And the key is, can they do it more competitively in the GNAC? Has the playing field been leveled a bit?

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve had conversations with other coaches in the league, and they know, too that (parity) is coming. It’s fun. It’s a good spot to be in.”

Bisson’s few seniors won’t be returning for that extra year, he said, but his core of sophomores and juniors have all expressed they’ll utililize that extra year. So the basketball program has been in touch with the academic advisory department so their course load can be set up a little different to utilize that fifth year.

“And that’s some of our better players as well,” Bisson said, citing players like junior point guard Pharaoh Davis, junior forward Will Parsons and sophomore 6-7 center Nesta Roberts. Two more years of the former, and now three more of Roberts, gives the Raiders a solid nucleus for the more than just immediate future.

Davis, Bisson says, has taken his game “to a whole new level; he was already a top three point guard in the league. He feels more empowered it’s more of his program now.”

Bisson also mentions sophomore Nik Pignone (Bishop Fenwick) has used the time to become a great shooter. “He’s going to be one of the top players in the league,” he said, “and we have him for three more years now.”

Bisson, who still loves practice, says when he sits to watch the high school games, he gets the itch to coach a game.

“I’m a lunatic, I’ll watch two games, taking notes,” he said, adding that in his spare time he’ll send local high school coaches scouting reports in his spare time.

“If I can’t do it for myself, I may as well help them out,” he said. “The itch? That’s putting it lightly.”

What will Bisson remember when he looks back on this unique year?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “From the seat I’m sitting in currently, it’s going to be a cornerstone year recruiting, building a roster the way I want. So it’s going to be one of those turning points, I think.

“But honestly, I think of this year’s group, and how much I appreciate their work, and I’ll always remember that when we turn the corner it’s going to be because of the kids who couldn’t play games but yet they still showed up and worked their butt off every single day. And there’s a lot to admire about that, when they don’t necessarily see the reward at the end of the road. Yet they’re still willing to come and grind it out every day.

“The special group that we have will most likely be top of the line when I’m looking back at it.”

Bisson said in about a month the team will gather for the final time this year, have a practice with music and a dinner after. He said that the basketball players will fully support the spring athletes who are likely going to be able to play a limited schedule this spring per the GNAC announcement earlier this past week. That after losing their own season a year ago.

“There will be nothing but support,” Bisson said. “It’s been a strange year in many ways.”

No games, but, in Rivier men’s hoop coach Lance Bisson’s mind, plenty of wins.