There is one MAAC team that is just a few bounces of the ball away from being 5-2, or even 6-1—Saint Peter’s.
This season was supposed to be a retooling of the roster around an emerging junior class and a freshman class with high expectations, while three impact transfers sat out. However, John Dunne’s Peacocks won their first two MAAC games—against Rider and Siena—who were both picked ahead of them in the preseason.
If not for late lapses, a nine-point overtime lead that they left evaporate at Lafayette, or Justin Graham’s three-pointer that lifted Hartford to a one-point win, the Peacocks could be sitting at 6-2.
“We’re a work in progress for sure and like I told them when we were 1-4, I said ‘Hey man we’re a couple of bounces of the ball away from being 4-1, 3-2,’ you have to remember that,” Dunne said. “We just got to work hard every day to get better and that’s just got to be our m.o., win or lose.”
One of the reasons the Peacocks are better than expected is thanks to their younger players. Freshman Cameron Jones scored a season-high 21 points in their loss to Princeton, while classmate Antwon Portley has emerged as the team’s leading scorer. Dunne said he knew Portley would be a quality talent for the Peacocks, and the 6’3″ shooting guard from Texas has displayed that ability early in the season.
“He’s very poised, he’s very knowledgable,” Dunne said of Portley who leads the team with 16.7 ppg. “He’s got one of the best basketball IQ’s on the team.”
“His IQ and his poise are beyond his years for sure and he’s probably one of the most poised and best IQ guys I’ve coached here, and that’s saying a lot for a freshman. He hasn’t been overly consistent, and that’s where I just think physically is where he reminds you that he’s a freshman, but he’ll continue to get used to the college game.”
Portley will need to add some weight to his 165-pound frame to compete across the long season, but Dunne is confident he will be a fixture in St. Peter’s future plans.
“His best basketball is ahead of him as long as he continues to work and keep the right attitude, which I know he will,” Dunne said. “It’s hard to need to count on a freshman to score for you, game in and game out, but I do believe that if anybody can do it, I do believe he can.”
While the freshman will be relied on to score, the experienced veterans the Peacocks return have made their own contributions. Junior Quadir Welton (12.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg) has taken a leap to become a more dominant rebounder. Junior Chazz Patterson (11.6 ppg) has provided a three-point shooting threat and Trevis Wyche (10.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) has provided a playmaking ability. Surrounded by younger players and senior Elias Desport, Dunne believes they have built a solid team chemistry quickly because of the character of the group.
“We’re not perfect night in and night out, but we do have a good foundation, a good character and a team first attitude,” Dunne said. “As long as we continue to hold onto that, I think we’re going to give ourselves a good chance to win most nights.”
“I think the ball moves better than it did last year. We don’t have the experience in some instances, but the ball certainly moves better, so more assists, more baskets are assisted this year than in the past and it shows in our offense. As long as we continue to keep that same mentality, I think we’ll be okay, it starts with the upperclassmen – Trevis Wyche, Chazz Patterson, Quadir Welton and Elias Desport – all those guys, they’re okay with getting the assist versus getting the basket.”
The Peacocks are averaging 72.6 ppg in their first seven games and are a few stops away from turning that into a 5-2 record instead of a 3-4. Still, Dunne has yet to see the defense put together a dominant game the way it did last season, when the Peacocks ranked 28th in the country in effective field goal percentage defense (45.2%).
“We have to continue to grow defensively,” Dunne said. “Our rebounding has been good on both ends, we have to continue to do that, I’m happy with the unselfishness.”
“The other thing is we the Lafayette game and then again [Sunday against Siena] where we had leads, we didn’t close out the game with our pressure offense and probably too much uncertainness with the lead. Hopefully, on the one hand I hope we can continue to be in those positions, but if we are we just have to get better. A young team just has to learn how to get better at play to win, not play not to lose.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.