“We haven’t been picked very high in the conference the past few years,” said Brian Nash, the Terriers Men’s Basketball coach. “I think that might change this year.”
One might expect Nash to be speaking the usual inspirational coach-speak, however a closer look at St. Francis’ 2008-09 season reveals the cause of his optimism.
The Terriers, coming off a 7-22 season in 2007-08, appeared dead in the water in December when forward Kayode Ayeni went down with a torn ACL. St Francis was 3-7 at the time, Ayeni had been averaging 13.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game when he was injured, and even Nash, now in his fourth season, admitted the times were trying.
“You’re on the job for three years, you think you’ve got everything going in the right direction,” said Nash, “and your best player blows his knee out.”
And indeed, the Terriers floundered through the first half of the month of January, posting a 1-4 record, punctuated by 70-44 loss to Quinnipiac.
But them, St. Francis began to turn things around. Led by guard Ricky Cadell, who averaged 21 points during the month of February, the Terriers picked up 3 wins to close the month.
The Terriers rode what little momentum they had to a 10-20 overall record, but more importantly, a 7-11 conference mark and the final spot in the Northeast Conference Tournament.
This season, with a healthy roster, Nash believes the adversity his team faced will be an asset.
“I think it’s going to help this year’s team because we got to throw some guys into the fire, it helped their growth and development.”
The “guys” the Nash speaks of include sophomore Stefan Perunicic, a member of the 2008 NEC All Rookie Squad, and seniors Nigel Byam and Herman Brice. Byam and Brice, both junior college transfers, are both expected to contribute more with a full season of division I basketball under their belts.
However, Ayeni’s return will be the key for St. Francis.
“Physically he’s almost 100 percent,” said Nash. “But mentally is the gauge that we’re going to watch.”
Terriers fans should also expect to see an improvement because of the scheduling. In the past, where St. Francis scheduled tougher opponents, Nash said this season his team will play more “50-50” games, games where the teams are more evenly matched.
Said Nash: “We’re not playing games where we’re expected to lose.”
St. Francis is also helped by the relative parity of the Northeast Conference. Unlike the Big East, which is top loaded with teams like Syracuse and Connecticut, the NEC is more evenly matched. The Terriers showed this in December when they defeated eventual conference champion Robert Morris 87-79 on the road. They can only hope to take the next step this season.
“We have a focused group,” Nash said. “Guys with a bit of bad taste in their mouths.”