|Bobby Brackett, who missed last season due to injury, is averaging a double-double for the Lions in his senior season.
TCNJ athletics photo
TCNJ is not a great team, according to senior forward Bobby Brackett.
“We’re right on the brink” of greatness, Brackett said in a telephone interview on Monday. “We’re a couple games away from really being there.”
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For now, TCNJ is the NJAC’s hottest team. The Lions have won their last seven games. Most recently, on Saturday, they earned their biggest victory of the season: an upset of then-No. 20 New Jersey City, 75-69.
“Until Saturday, we hadn’t really had that signature win,” head coach Matt Goldsmith said in a telephone interview on Monday.
TCNJ (15-5, 11-2 NJAC) now holds sole possession of second place in the NJAC behind No. 7 Ramapo (19-1, 12-1). The Lions received four votes in this week’s Top 25 poll. New Jersey City (16-4, 10-3) dropped to third place in the conference and No. 24 in the country.
TCNJ has not lost since Jan. 7, when the Lions fell at then-No. 19 Ramapo, 98-90. Their only other conference loss came at New Jersey City on Dec. 10, 54-52.
Earlier in the season, Goldsmith said, the Lions sometimes lacked focus.
“Day to day, you weren’t quite sure [of] the energy in the gym or how much effort was going to go into practice,” he said. “Since Ramapo, I think we’ve had really good practices, and it’s led to success in games.”
Increased accountability, Goldsmith said, changed the team for the better.
“It was always the staff getting on people about a consistency of effort and focus” before the Ramapo game, Goldsmith said. “Ever since then, the leadership within, [players] holding each other accountable instead of just the coaching staff doing it, has picked up. And I think when that started, that’s when we knew that we were going to be moving in the right direction, hopefully.”
Team chemistry has improved over time, Brackett said. “Just playing together more and more in practice and games, you just naturally gel a little better.”
TCNJ is winning with balanced scoring. Brackett averages a team-high 16.3 points per game, but three other starters are close behind him: senior forward Corey Stanford (14.2 points per game), junior point guard Eric Murdock, Jr. (12.5), and senior guard Eric Klacik (11.4).
“You don’t know who’s going to lead us in scoring every night,” Goldsmith said.
Some nights it is Stanford, who has scored 20 or more points in five games. Against New Jersey City on Saturday, it was Brackett with a game-high 22 points. Klacik scored a game- and career-high 31 points against Stockton on Jan. 25, making eight three-pointers.
The offense is more balanced than it was last year, when Murdock averaged a team-high 19.1 points per contest, thanks to a revamped starting lineup. Brackett missed all of the 2015-16 season with a torn Achilles, while Stanford transferred to TCNJ this year from Catholic.
Last season, TCNJ made a remarkable run as the fifth seed in the NJAC tournament. The Lions upset fourth-seeded Ramapo, 105-95, in the first round and then beat the top seed, New Jersey City, 92-82. In the NJAC title game, TCNJ fell 60-53 to Stockton, which won its third straight conference championship.
If the Lions keep winning, they will have a higher tournament seed this year. They have already won more conference games than they did last season, when they went 9-9 in NJAC play.
TCNJ travels to Rowan (12-8, 7-6) on Wednesday and hosts Ramapo on Saturday. If TCNJ and Ramapo win their respective Wednesday games, then TCNJ would climb into a first-place tie with Ramapo by beating the Roadrunners on Saturday. If TCNJ wins and Ramapo loses on Wednesday, then both teams will be 12-2 in the NJAC when they face each other, and a win would give TCNJ sole possession of first place.
The worst-case scenario for the Lions—that they lose and the Roadrunners win on Wednesday—prevents TCNJ from having a shot at first place this weekend. Simply put, winning on Wednesday is important for the Lions. But it is not guaranteed.
“Wednesday’s an easy game to lose,” Brackett said. “After a big win against Jersey City and there’s another big game coming up against Ramapo, a good team would lose on Wednesday at Rowan.”
A great team, Brackett said, would focus on the task at hand.
“A great team would go to Rowan and beat them,” he said. “After this week, we’ll know if we’re a great team or not.”