Monday, June 13, 2011

Off-Season Report: Looking at St. Peter's

Here's another in the series looking at conference programs.

Up now ...


2010-11 RESULTS: 11-7 in MAAC play, 20-14 overall.

2010-11 RECAP: After a fourth-place conference finish in the regular-season, the Peacocks were the surprise team of the post season sweeping the MAAC tournament with wins over three very good teams: Loyola, regular-season champion Fairfield and, then, Iona. Saint Peter's mostly did it with defense as its field-goal percentage defense of .376 was second-best nationally and its points allowed total was 12th best nationally. That was never on display more than in the conference tournament where the Peacocks' dedication to a hard-nosed defensive style paid dividends and made offensive life miserable for three straight opponents. On the season the 20 overall victories was the first time that happened for the program since the 1994-95 season, which was the last time it went to the NCAA tournament. This time it went as the 14th-seeded team in a 16-team region and drew a difficult opponent in Purdue. The Boilermakers, who played a similarly strong defensive style as the Peacocks, earned a 65-43 win in the NCAA event.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: The 20-win season was the culmination, a natural progression if you will, for three veteran seniors who grew up together. When guards Wesley Jenkins and Nick Leon and forward Ryan Bacon were freshmen the team finished 6-24 overall. That was followed by an 11-19 record and, then, a 16-14 mark when the trio were juniors. This past season was further evidence of the importance of veteran, intelligent players. The trio was joined by a another senior, Jeron Belin, who came aboard as a junior college transfer, and was the MAAC tournament's MVP. Jenkins finished his career with more than 1,500 points and Jenkins with more than 1,400. Bacon finished as the program's all-time leading shot-blocker and third on the all-time rebounding list. Jenkins' health, after suffering a preseason knee injury, was crucial. The injury was only a slight (and, not full) tear of a knee ACL which allowed him to rehab and return rather than sit out the season, and his 12.6 points per game led the team. Beilin, Leon and Bacon all contributed double-digit scoring. Steve Samuels, a 6-4 sophomore guard, also made significant contributions as did 6-7 sophomore forward Darius Conley. Without Jenkins early the Peacocks started off 0-3 against non-league opponents, but a 50-49 upset victory over Alabama followed and set the tone for what was to come. After the season more went right. Head coach John Dunne, whose work with the program got significant recognition, was a candidate for positions elsewhere but ultimately remained at Saint Peter's.

WHAT WENT WRONG: The Jenkins injury. He was not 100 percent at any time during the season. Had he not missed nine games the Peacocks surely would have had a few more regular-season victories. Still, it's hard to find much fault with how things turned out, a heartwarming story of how under recruited players struggled early and stuck together through difficult early times to earn an NCAA berth. The Peacocks' run through the MAAC tournament and into the NCAA's became a feel-good happening for a community and a program that benefited greatly from it.

WHAT'S AHEAD: The initial thought is that the loss of three starters and a 6th man who was the MAAC tournament's MVP will leave the program devastated and signal a return to something like the 6-24 record of 2007-08. But, that might not happen. Not long after the season ended Dunne spoke about how if he could get some front-court help his team might just be OK for the coming season. He got some help with the signing of 6-foot-8 Karee Ferguson from Lincoln Trail Junior College in Illinois. And, Dunne is still working the recruiting trails to find another inside player. The perimeter should be well-served even with the loss of Jenkins and Leon. Samuels certainly looked capable of stepping into a bigger role. Then, there's 6-2 junior guard Chris Prescott, a transfer from Saint Joseph's where he started 12 games as a sophomore two years ago. He practiced with the Peacocks last season and is eligible to play this coming year. Also in the program are Yvon Raymond (3.8 points, 2.8 rebounds), a key reserve this past season, junior-to-be guard Blaise Ffrench, a transfer from UTEP, and 6-4 sophomore-to-be Chris Burke. Ffrench and Burke both suffered early season injuries and neither one made significant contributions this past year, but both are highly regarded within the program. Ad then, there's 5-9 incoming point guard Lamin Fulton who could be a factor.

PREDICTION FOR 2011-12: The Peacocks probably won't contend for the regular-season title. With so many new faces getting into the playing group the coming year will be all about developing chemistry and improving as the season progresses. But, finishing in the top five isn't out of the realm of possibility. After that ... who knows? Saint Peter's finished fourth this past season, improving as the season went on, and was at its best at the end earning its NCAA berth.

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