Monday, March 7, 2011

Defense Carries Peacocks to Men's Title

Any basketball player will confirm that the fun part of the game involves putting points on the board.

The other end? It's that dirty word.

That seven-letter word, d-e-f-e-n-s-e, falls more into the four-letter category for most players.

But, not at Saint Peter's, which rode defense to three straight men's MAAC tournament victories, the last two of the upset variety, to capture the event's championship and its automatic trip to the NCAA tournament.

The Peacocks head for the NCAA's after a 62-57 victory over Iona Monday night at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Ct.

The winners held the Gaels to 32.2 percent shooting from the floor. That followed holding both first-round opponent and semifinal-round foes Loyola and top-seeded Fairfield, respectively, to 33.3 percent shooting from the field.

"You talk to the high school coaches of my players and they'd tell you these guys are not defensive players," said fifth-year Saint Peter's coach John Dunne. "But, they bought in."

The buying produced the school's first conference tournament championship since 1995 and is the culmination, for now, of a program that built itself back after more than a few lean years.

The Peacocks won just five games in Dunne's first season and, then, six the following year when the current seniors were freshmen. It improved to 11 victories in the 2008-09 season and, then, to 16 last year. The current team is now 20-13, getting to 20 victories for the first time since the 1990=-91 team finished 21-6.

Coming into Monday's game as No. 101 on the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index, the Peacocks know they aren't likely to get a favorable seeding position in the national-championship tournament, or be anything but a huge underdog in in their opening-round contest.

"We believe we can win in the NCAA tournament," said senior forward Ryan Bacon. "We're the new Butler."

New Butler, or not, the Peacocks feel they deserve a new level of respect.

"No one respects us as a team or as a school," said Saint Peter's senior guard Wes Jenkins. "Now they've got to respect us. We beat both the No. 1 (Fairfield) and No. 2 (Iona) teams coming into the tournament. Now, we're No. 1."

It's because they're very nearly No. 1 in defense in the national statistics. Prior to Monday's games the Peacocks had limited opponents to just .376 shooting from the field, the second-best percentage of 340 Division I teams nationally.

"I didn't play much defense in high school," admitted senior guard Nick Leon (15 points, 3 assists in the championship game). "But we were willing to do that here. We've got the philosophy that offense wins games, but defense wins championships."

Iona came into Monday's game with more of an offensive reputation, but the Gaels struggled to produce points all nights against the stingy, aggressive Peacocks.

"We struggled offensively to make shots and they played good defense, so it was a little bit of both," said Iona coach Tim Cluess. "They're definitely a really good defensive team. We know we go as we shoot, and we didn't shoot well in this game."

Still, Iona rallied from a 13-point deficit with seven minutes left to get to get close down the stretch, but the winners made nine straight free throws in the final two minutes to secure the victory.

"This is so special ... it's awesome," said Peacocks' coach Dunne. "My first year here we won five games and, then, six the second year. We were getting beat up on a daily basis. There are times when you go through that when you question yourself.

"But these guys (the four seniors that joined Dunne at the post-game press conference) stayed by me and by the school, and we grew together.

They growth resulted in a defensive style of play not often seen in college basket and something else not often seen at Saint Peter's in recent years: a MAAC tournament championship and an upcoming trip to the NCAA tournament.


Saint Peter's senior forward Jeron Belin, who had a team-high 17 points in Monday's championship game, was named the tournament MVP. Teammates Wes Jenkins, Nick Leon and Ryan Bacon were also tournament all-star selections, as were Iona's Mike Glover and Scott Machado.


Erica Allenspach of Marist was named the Most Valuable Player of the women's event after averaging 23.7 points in three tournament games.

She was joined on the women's all-tournament team by teammate Elise Caron, Loyola's Miriam McKenzie and Katie Sheahin and Abby Wentworth of Manhattan.


Crowd counts for the tournament at the Arena at Harbor Yard barely reached half of what turned out for the event at Albany's Times Union Center in recent years.

Even "home team" Fairfield failed to bring out a sizeable fan turnout. The Stags' quarterfinla-round game Saturday drew 5,235 while their Sunday appearance in the semifinal round drew only 3,956.

That two-session total for Fairfield games of 9,191 was less than half of what one Siena session usually drew when the tournament was in Albany.

Over the tournament's five days here the total crowd count was 24,307. The last time it was in Bridgeport in 2007 23,561 fans turned out.

When the tournament was in Albany last year total attendance was 53,319.


miam823 said...

GREAT move getting the tournment out of Albany. The players find it much easier to concentrate without those pesky fans making noise during the game. Less than half of the usual crowd. Now all we need is to see if we can find even worse referees and the MAAC can take 2 steps backwards and move closer to irrelevance.

Vee said...

Glad that the MAAC wants to continue to be a viable conference. It must be hard with the 55,000 fans that come to the TUC to make any money.

The 24,000 at Harbor Yard really got their money's worth, Sub-par facilities, exceedingly high priced concessions, and scoreboards with a 15 degree viewing angle. Not to mention ticket prices were double what they were at the TUC.

Gotta make that money somehow...

Springfield will be better than this debacle, but just because Siena was good for three years and Rich Ensor hates Siena fan, they had to take our already struggling conference and send it back 6 years?

Steve Amedio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Amedio said...

Dear Miam823 and Vee ...
I definitely see your side of the debate. Crowds of over 53,000 are certainly better than a turnout of half that in Bridgeport.
Although this is a MAAC blog, the league allows me to be an independent voice. And, it does not make me privvy to all the behind-the-scenes manuevering.
That said, here are some semi-educated thoughts:
- I don't think we'll see the event back in Bridgeport any time soon. It drew more fans in 2007, when Fairfield was not a viable candidate to win. This year, even as the No. 1 seed, Fairfield crowds were only 5,200 for the first round and 3,900 for the semifinal-round. Both relatively poor turnouts. To me it shows that any venue to close to bigger events (Bridgeport is an hour's drive to NYC, plus proximitous to UConn men and women, both of which are followed a lot closer than Fairfield hoops) isn't going to draw fans for the conference tournament.
- Let's keep an open mind about Springfield. For one, it has traditionally drawn well for the annual Division II tournament that has been there in recent years, which bodes well for the MAAC's future there. Also, the local organizing committee has been preparing for the MAAC tournament already, starting at least six months ago. By all accounts local organizers in Springfield are better equipped to run and promote a tournament than even Albany. The down side is that it's a neutral site, no home fans. Siena, Fairfield and Marist are all farther than 90 miles away (and we already know Fairfield won't draw). It's too far for a day trip for any other of the league's programs. It means a lot of people from the Springfield area who don't traditionally follow the MAAC will need to turn out.
- The league has a financial deal, a guarantee I'm told, that ensures more money goes to the league than even when 50K turn out in Albany. So, don't expect the league to abandon Springfield if the first year isn't a big draw.
- Mr. Ensor, who I have spoken to about league issues fairly regularly for 22 years, absolutely is NOT anti-Siena. In fact, I have been told that Ensor wanted Albany to remain in an bi-annual rotation for the tournament, but was overruled by the league's panel of school presidents, the group that makes the decision on tournament sites.
The feeling, by them, is that the home court was too favorable to Siena in recent years (the view by this blogger is that the best team, by far, won and the home-court advantage was not a big factor).
(Continued in next post) ...

Steve Amedio said...

(Continued from post above) ...
The presidents are well aware of the prestige, the financial benefits, the larger admission pools, etc., that are a direct result of their respective school being featured as part of the NCAA pool. They all want an "equal" chance at that.
(I say: Do what it takes to make your respective team better).
Anyway, this year showed just how insignificant the home court really is. Fairfield not only had the home court, but was the top-seeded team. But, it was no where near as dominant a team as Siena had been over the past three years. This year truly was a year in which any of the top teams could win a game on a given night. The team that played the best in the tournament, Saint Peter's, won. Over the past three years even when Siena had a semi-off night, it was so dominant a team that it would have won no matter where the tournament was played.
- I did not perceive Harbor Yard's facilities to be sub-par. High concession prices? Did you ever buy food at the Times Union Center? $4 for a small cup of coffee, for cryin' out loud!!! I'm pretty sure ticket prices were not double what they were at the TUC. I will say that the scoreboards were an issue, made so by the lack of a scoreboard that comes down from the ceiling at center court. Because Bridgeport's is a smaller arena, the roof isn't as high as the two-tiered arena and there is no room for the drop-down scoreboard.
For the most part, other than the relatively small attendance, I did not perceive there to be any significant issues in Bridgeport. I have been covering college basketball at various levels since 1975 and have not seen many other tournaments, if any, that operate better than the MAAC. In fact, some of the NYC writers I know who also cover the Big East tournament, expressed the belief that the MAAC event is the equal, in terms of administration/operation, as the Big East event.