By Justin Zackal
Saint Vincent won the PAC men’s basketball title the last four years, so when it came time for the league’s coaches to pick a favorite in the 2016-17 preseason poll, it was last year’s runner up, Thomas More, that was anointed. Even though the Saints return a girth a talent, they are still a young team with just one senior.
Is it a bad thing to have such lofty expectations so soon for a young team?
“It’s a good thing in terms of a cumulative effect,” said Drew Cooper, Thomas More’s fourth-year head coach. “If it were a more immature, naive group, I would be more concerned about it than I am.”
Cooper said his team is approaching the season the same way as every other team in the league. Well, that is, except one.
“Saint Vincent is the defending champion, the four-time defending champion,” Cooper said. “To look at it any other way would be a mistake because champions need to be dethroned. Our goal for the season is the same goal as the other nine teams, that is try to dethrone a four-time champion.”
Still, each team has its own set of circumstances. So here’s a look at the cards dealt for the 10 PAC teams in order of predicted finish in the coaches’ poll, followed by a parting shot from Cooper about why the PAC will be a much better conference this year.
THOMAS MORE (17-11, 12-6 PAC in 2015-16)
Injuries last year allowed several returning players to gain valuable experience. Thomas More returns nine of its top 10 scorers and seven players who started at least 13 games, led by junior forward/center Simon Clifford (14.2 ppg) and junior guard Daniel Williams (13.7), a pair of all-PAC selections. Cooper will likely rotate starting lineups, but look for Clifford at post, sophomore Damion King (8.3) at point guard and junior Austin Young (6.2) at forward, Williams or sophomore Ryne Callahan (8.4) at guard and senior Sawyer Pauly (6.5) or Brandon Horne (9.5) at shooting forward.
“I feel more prepared coming into this year because I have young men coming in with experience that they wouldn’t have otherwise had,” Cooper added.
SAINT VINCENT (22-7, 15-3)
The Bearcats lost their top five scorers from last year but they return a pair of starters, both named Austin and both forwards, senior Austin Ford (5.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and junior Austin Dedert (5.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg).
“Austin Ford from Saint Vincent is a man-child and someone that each opponents’ interior defense is going to have to really battle to contain,” Cooper said.
BETHANY (17-10, 12-6)
Bethany advanced to the PAC semifinals last year, despite first-year head coach Nick Hager not inheriting many scorers from the previous season. There will be greater expectations this year as all five starters are back, led by senior guard Antonio Rudolph (12.1 ppg, PAC-best 82. rpg), a first-team all-PAC selection, junior guard Calique Jones (13.3 ppg) and junior forward Andrew Williams (11.3 ppg).
Noting how Bethany developed into a team that can score in many different ways, Cooper said that Bethany “can turn a 10-point deficit into a four-point lead in a click of a button.”
WESTMINSTER (10-18, 8-10)
Last year, the Titans improved by five PAC wins, including a win over Thomas More, and they upset second-seeded Grove City to advance to the PAC semifinals. They return four starters including their top two scorers, junior guard Brandon Domenick (11.3 ppg) and junior forward Jarret Vrabel (10.0).
“Our three main focuses this year is defense, not turning the ball over, and free throws,” said Westminster head coach Kevin Siroki.
THIEL (12-14, 10-8)
Thiel graduated two of the PAC’s top six scorers (and 45 percent of its team’s points) in Luke Kochka and Khari Bess. The Tomcats return two starters, led by junior forward Clandell Cetoute (8.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg), as they look to improve on a 10-win PAC season, the most since going 13-3 in 2011-12.
GROVE CITY (18-9, 13-5)
Head coach Steve Lamie turned a 13-loss PAC team in 2014-15 into a school-record 13 conference wins last year. The Wolverines, who also won 18 games overall for the most regular season wins since 1988-89, return two starters this year, junior forwards Cory Huff and Andrew Beckman, who both averaged 10.3 points per game last year.
WAYNESBURG (10-16, 10-8)
Two years removed from a runner-up finish in the PAC, the Yellow Jackets placed fifth and lost to last year’s finalist, Thomas More, in the quarterfinals. Waynesburg returns just one starter this year, junior forward Jon Knab (8.7 ppg).
GENEVA (5-21, 5-13)
Geneva had two of the league’s top three scorers last year in Ethan Adamczyk (18.3 ppg) and Chaese Vaudrin (17.3), but the Golden Tornadoes were just eighth in the PAC in team scoring (66.8). Adamczyk graduated but Vaudrin is back for his senior year along with junior Jimmy Leichliter (13.0).
“This season was a season that had games of runs,” said Geneva head coach Jeff Santarsiero after the GTs lost to Chatham in the PAC tournament. “All teams in America go through these kinds of years.”
CHATHAM (5-22, 4-14)
After beating Geneva in the first round, the Cougars lost to Saint Vincent in the quarterfinals to end Chatham’s inaugural season of men’s basketball. All five starters are back, led by sophomore Alex Schoppen (11.3). The other four had scoring averages between 9.0 and 9.9.
WASHINGTON & JEFFERSON (1-25, 1-17)
W&J’s leading scorer, junior guard Brian Graytok (15.7 ppg), is back as the Presidents’ rebuild continues under second-year head coach Ethan Stewart-Smith.
All the programs in the PAC should see improvement this year, making the league more competitive.
“It helps our conference that there was no coaching turnover,” Cooper added. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see four or five losses win the thing. It’s going to be an evenly played conference season.”