I needed to pull myself away from Twitter after reading about 1,567 tweets on Jeremy Lin and Linsanity (I'm guilty of tweeting about it as well). So let's talk about the Cinderella story of the Northeast Conference, shall we?
Until January, most fans would have handed the Northeast Coach of the Year award to Dan Hurley, a coach who has shocked everyone by leading Wagner to a 21-4 record. Although most people may still agree with that assessment, St. Francis Terrier coach Glenn Braica certainly deserves to be part of the Coach of the Year discussion. His Terriers have been the surprise of the NEC, and the only team in the top 4 that no one had suspected would be there. As the year has progressed and the more I watch this team, it reminds me of a squad that catalyzed my passion as an over-the-top small D1 college basketball fan. That team was the 2006-2007 Sacred Heart Pioneers.
Below, I compare the two squads and explain why I feel they have a lot in common. I realize this exercise is somewhat silly, however this allows me to discuss the "glory days" of Sacred Heart basketball, instead of recapping their latest excruciating loss to LIU.
1. Greatly Exceeding Preseason Expectations
Picked 11th in the NEC Coaches Preseason Poll, it was obvious to most coaches that the Terriers wouldn’t recover from the graduation of their two leading scorers, Akeem Bennett and Ricky Cadell. After all, who would pick up the slack when there wasn’t another scorer from the incumbent roster averaging more than 9 points per game? Five years early, NEC coaches asked themselves the same question about Dave Bike's Pioneers, who had lost All-NEC 1st Teamer Kibwe Trim to graduation. Sacred Heart got a little more respect in their preseason poll (selected 8th), however the motive was clear – they would not be considered among the NEC elite at season’s end. The Pioneers finished the NEC regular season with an unexpected 12-6 mark, while the Terriers this season are well on their way toward 12-14 conference wins and a home playoff game in the first round of the NEC tournament. Not bad for originally being selected to finish behind St. Francis (PA) and Bryant.
(Let that last sentence sit with you for a second….)
2. A Well-Balanced Scoring Attack
You know, Sacred Heart wasn't always a mediocre team who had one elite scorer like Corey Hassan or Shane Gibson (I wish I could put you on my lap right now for added effect). In fact, the 2006-07 Pioneers were a well-balance scoring machine consisting of seven regulars who averaged between 8.4 – 13.3 points per game. St. Francis doesn’t go as deep this year, but they still have six players scoring between 7.3 and 12.1 points per game. Stefon Purunicic, Ben Mockford, Akeem Johnson, Travis Nicholas, and Brett Jones have all led the Terriers in points in different games. It certainly makes the Terriers difficult to defend late in games, because opposing defenses just can't focus on one guy.
3. The One Senior Leader
Although he’s struggled as of late, Stefan Perunicic was instrumental in getting St. Francis off to a fast start in the NEC. In his first eight NEC contests, six of them Terrier victories, Perunicic shot a ridiculous 28 for 51 (55%) from behind the arc. The lone senior is playing a pivotal role in St. Francis’ resurgence much like All-NEC 1st Teamer Jerrid Frye did for the Pioneers five years earlier. Frye, the grizzled veteran of Bike’s squad, led Sacred Heart with 13.3 points per game to go along with 5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. Both Perunicic and Frye have played an important role in the maturation of a team making the next step toward the NEC elite.
4. Living and Dying by the Outside Shot
Here a stat for you – when St. Francis makes less than 33% of their 3-pointers, they have a record of 2-9. When they shoot better than 33%? 12-3. Talk about a one-dimensional offense! Sacred Heart wasn’t as dependent on the perimeter jumper in 2006-07, yet they still relied on sharpshooters Drew Shubik, Luke Granato, Ryan Litke, and Chaucey Hardy for instant offense a good amount of the time.
(Side note: upon seeing this stat, it's clear that St. Francis should prefer the #4 seed at season's end, as opposed to the #3 seed. That way, they would avoid Wagner, the likely #2 seed, in the semifinals and take on LIU instead. Wagner is a lousy matchup for the Terriers, because the Seahawks can neutralize St. Francis' lethal 3-point shooting with their pressure defense.)
In the 2007 NEC Tournament, Sacred Heart was literally 3 minutes away from their first ever NCAA Tournament berth. Up 10 with 3 minutes left in the championship game, the Central Connecticut Blue Devils found a way to pull off the unlikely victory (and start a series of brutal losses I had trouble getting over as a fan). Will St. Francis go as far as the Pioneers had in 2007? Even if the Terriers fail to make the championship game this season, one thing is clear. The future is bright for the underdogs from Brooklyn.