Thursday, February 17, 2011

St. Peter's Men Making Program History

Two conference games remain for the Saint Peter's men's basketball team, and a victory in one of those two (against either Iona or Rider), turns 2010-11 into even more of a historical season for the Peacocks.

Already the program is 11-5 in conference play, marking just the second time in program history that it has had back-to-back seasons of 11 league wins (it finished 11-7 last season). The last time that happened was a 3-year run of 11-victory seasons from 1986-87 through 1988-89.

Another victory this season matches the program's best of 12 conference wins in any season (it was 12-6 in 2003-04), and wins in both of its final two games produces its all-time best single-season victory total within the MAAC in its 30-year affiliation with the conference.

One more win, too, gives Saint Peter's 23 victories over this season and last, the program's all-time best two-year run in league play.

It won't win the MAAC's regular-season title this year ... that honor has already been clinched by 14-2 Fairfield, which holds a three-game lead over its nearest competitors in the conference standings with two remaining games.

But, you can't blame those around the program for feeling pretty good about their recent run of success.

Perspective? Until the past two seasons Saint Peter's had just two above-.500 conference records in the previous 10 years. And after the 2006 graduation of the program's all-time best player, guard Keydren Clark, Saint Peter's had been 14-40 in MAAC play in the subsequent three seasons (2006-07/2007-08/2008-09).

But, it was a program clearlhy building toward something under fifth-year coach John Dunne, who took over when former coach Bob Leckie followed Clark out the door of the Jersey City, N.J., school.

Dunne's initial recruiting effort brought in the foundation for what is in place now, a senior-laden group that combines athleticism, aggressive play, enough inside strength, and standout perimeter shooting.

Teams that grow up together traditionally find success as they mature, and the current roster has four senior starters in guards Wesley Jenkins and Nick Leon and forwards Ryan Bacon and John Belin. The first three are four-year starters. Belin joined the program last year as a junior college transfer.

And, the Peacocks seem to be reaching their peak at the right time ... as the season closes out.
It has won seven of its last nine MAAC contests and its last two outings included an impressive 67-57 victory at Siena on Wednesday and a one-point loss in overtime to regular-season champion Fairfield.

Dunne admits his team's play against the conference's two most recent champions (Fairfield this season, Siena last season) is a confidence boost.

"Fairfield is tough," said Dunne. "They have all the pieces. They're the team to beat (in the MAAC tournament. But we showed we can play with them (in the overtime loss on Feb. 16).

"To me, the tournament is going to be wide open, and the way we've been playing recently has helped us in a confidence sense."

The Peacocks are playing better of late, too, because of the return to near full health of preseason first-team all-MAAC pick Wesley Jenkins, who has missed seven games this year with a knee injury.

Jenkins wasn't at his best against Siena (2-of-8 shooting for nine points), but played the near mistake-free ball expected of seniors recording five assists against one turnover.

Leon, who averages 10.6 points and has a team-best 80 assists, is certainly a candidate for post-season all-star consideration, as is Bacon (10.1 points, 7.5 rebounds per game and 49 blocks).

Bacon's 13 rebounds against Siena gave him 769 for his career, third on his program's all-time list. He is also second on the school's all-time list for blocked shots with 193 and needs just five more to match Todd Sowell's school record of 198 rejections.

Against Siena, though, Belin led a late-game rally getting 17 of his team-high 19 points in the game's final 12 minutes after Siena held a 42-34 advantage. After that, though, Bacon had more points (17) than Siena (15).

"John Belin is a talent," said Dunne. "Some of the league's bigger forwards have trouble guarding someone off the bounce like that. When he attacks the basket (like he did against Siena, it also opens up lanes for someone else to make plays. He has been a big key to our success."

Belin is the team's fourth double-digit scorer (10.9 points per game). He has now come off the bench for more than half of Saint Peter's games (starting only 13 of the team's 27 contests), making him the front-runner for the conference's 6th Man of the Year award.

There are two other key pieces in sophomore post player rugged Darius Conley (6.3 points, 4.9 rebounds) and sophomore guard Steven Samuels (7.5 points per game).

Unlike the most-recent glory days of Keydren Clark, who was something just short of a one-man team, the current squad can point in several directions for keys to its strong two-year run. Four double-digit scoring averages and two other offensive contributors make it difficult for opponents to devise a defensive plan.

It's a run, though, that's still not finished. And, it's one that's on the verge of historical significance for the program.

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