The foundation for Daemen’s successful season was laid four miles away from campus at Canisius College in late October.
The Wildcats lost an exhibition game with the Golden Griffins by 18 points, a sizable margin for sure, but one that boosted the team’s confidence. Daemen, playing in its second season on the NCAA Division II level, took the moral victory and ran with it.
“We felt pretty good about ourselves coming out that game,” said Mike Miranto, the program’s associate head coach. “We were pretty happy with the way we played and that set the stage for us to have a good year.”
Indeed, take a veteran coach with a lengthy track record of winning, a group of seniors with a chip on their shoulders and a late-blooming star with Division I ability, and you have the makings of something special.
• Daemen (18-6, 15-3) has the longest active streak in the Division II East Region with 11 in a row and has won 14 straight East Coast Conference games.
• The Wildcats play to SRO crowds in Lumsden Gymnasium where they’ve won 33 consecutive games, the second longest streak in the NCAA. They play Dowling at 8 tonight.
• Since 2010, they hold a winning percentage of .675, so we aren’t talking about a group of Johnny-come-latelies.
Daemen, nevertheless, is a newcomer to Division II and on provisional status, so it won’t be eligible for NCAA postseason play until 2015-16, although the Wildcats are eligible for the ECC title. Instead, they will compete in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament. Daemen is currently No. 1 in the USCAA’s Division I rankings and was runner-up in the 2013 Tournament.
“They took it as an insult for us to be picked eighth in the conference,” Daemen coach Don Silveri said. “Here we are, fighting for first place. We haven’t done it yet, but we’re close.”
Silveri has been around the block a few times. He turns 66 in April and started as a head coach in 1976 at Villa Maria. After stops at Buffalo State and Erie Community College, he was head coach of the Mayaguiz Tianos of the Puerto Rico Superior League, where he coached each summer from 1987 to 1995. In Puerto Rico, Silveri faced the likes of Phil Jackson, Henry Bibby, P.J. Carlesimo and Gene Bartow. He’s been at Daemen since 1989, where he’s had only three losing seasons since 2000.
Silveri preaches pressure defense and starts each game with full-court press. Recently, Silveri dusted off his 1-3-1 zone trap which he says he hasn’t used in 15 years.
“Our defense creates a lot of easy shots and a lot of fast break opportunities,” senior guard Mark Coppola said. “The strength of our team is running on the break and scoring easy buckets.”
Five players average in double figures and the Wildcats score at a clip of 83.7 points a game. It helps having a solid group of seniors led by Coppola, Casey Sheehan and Kadeem Johnson, leaders who Silveri says hold everyone accountable, including the coaching staff.
The backcourt of the 5-7 Coppola and 5-10 Casey Sheehan complement each other well. Coppola runs the team, a pass-first point guard who averages a league-high 6.2 assists a game and limits turnovers.
“I don’t have to talk to Mark Coppola,” Silveri said. “He knows what he’s doing out there.”
Sheehan scored over 1,000 points late in his junior year and is closing in on 500 career assists.
“As freshmen everyone told me, ‘You can’t play those two guys together, they’re too small,’ ” Silveri said. “Well guess what? Don’t tell those two guys that.”
But the centerpiece is 6-7 junior Gerald Beverly. He was 6-3 as a junior at Gates-Chili High School in suburban Rochester but grew to 6-6 before the start of his senior season. One of Silveri’s former players who lived in Rochester told him he needed to take a look at the boney, raw Beverly.
He’s averaging 18.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.8 blocks a game and continues to evolve as a player.
“I personally think Gerald is the best player in the conference,” Coppola said. “What Gerald does, especially on the defensive end, he can control the game for us. We take him for granted because when we get beat, he’s there to block everybody’s shot.”
Beverly played perhaps his best game on Valentine’s Day at District of Columbia, when he went off for 34 points. Eight of his 12 field goals were dunks.
“He’s improved so much since his freshman year,” junior forward Jordan Greene said. “He was really good, but it was just raw talent and now his game is expanding. He can shoot now, and his post moves are more unique.”
Like Beverly, Daemen has come out of nowhere when the program elevated from NAIA to Division II.
Silveri was the athletic director when NAIA was no longer an option because Daemen’s league, the American Mideast Conference, folded. Most of the departing schools went the Division II route scattering between three different leagues and independence. But Daemen and Robert Wesleyan in Rochester weren’t invited to join a conference, leaving both schools at a crossroads.
“We had nowhere to go,” Silveri said. “We could have gone NAIA independent, but we would have to travel all over the country and to be honest with you, it wasn’t a good fit.”
The Wildcats had two choices: Division II or Division III. They made a pitch to the East Coast Conference, which has member institutions in New York and Connecticut and seemed like a safe landing place. Initially, the administration at Daemen had some misgivings.
“There was some arm twisting to say the least, and the administration wanted to make sure it was the right way to go,” Silveri said.
But the reservations quickly subsided once the games started and the wins piled up.
“I think right now there’s a real buzz on campus and everybody’s excited about that, and I think our success has fueled that.”