COLCHESTER, Vt. - As the final weeks of the 2011-12 season wound down, the Saint Michael's College men's basketball team put together wins in four of their last five games, positive steps that third-year head coach Michael Harding hopes carry over into this season as the Purple Knights continue making progress toward future success.
The Purple Knights flashed their potential last month during a preseason exhibition at the University of Vermont, a 2012 NCAA Division I Tournament second round qualifier. Down just three points with fewer than two minutes left, the Purple Knights ultimately fell by a 68-58 count. Saint Michael's had its fair share of close affairs last year, as well, with 11 of the final 13 contests decided by 10 points or fewer. Seven wins came by five or less, but eight setbacks were by six or fewer.
To kick off the winter of 2012-13, the Northeast-10 Conference coaches slotted Saint Michael's for a seventh-place finish in the preseason poll. Among the six teams that placed higher, the Purple and Gold defeated five last year, including downing 23rd-ranked University of Massachusetts at Lowell; defeating first-place Adelphi University by 14 points in Garden City, N.Y.; outlasting Southern Connecticut State University in four overtimes; and handing Stonehill College a loss on Feb. 11, the Skyhawks' final setback before losing in the national semifinals in late March. Saint Michael's also swept a home-and-home regular-season series from Bentley University for the first time since 2000-01.
Joining Harding on the coaching staff are second-year assistants Josh Meyer and Jon Rock, and newcomer Michael Larkin. Last season, the staff utilized four first-years among the regular rotation for a squad that went 11-15 overall and 10-12 in the NE-10, with six ultimately seeing the floor at some point. The Purple and Gold tied for 10th in the league but missed out on the 10-team NE-10 Tournament. However, parity reigned in the NE-10 in 2011-12: For only the second time in the 16-team league's 32-year history, each program had at least six league losses. Four teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament last winter; the Purple Knights defeated three of those squads.
In 2012-13, the program carries half a dozen first-years for the second straight year, as the Purple Knights' 11 underclassmen are their most since the 1976-77 season. For the Purple and Gold to build upon last year's success against top teams and its late-season charge, Harding and the coaching staff look for senior captains Derek Knutty (Rocklin, Calif./Whitney) and John Reiser (Manchester, Conn./Manchester) to provide a vast amount of leadership.
A 6-foot-7 forward, Knutty came off the bench 25 times to average 3.4 points and 3.4 rebounds last year. He shot 60.3 percent and blocked 16 shots. Conversely, the 6-foot-1 Reiser did not appear in any contests, though the third-year walk-on guard remains in contention to serve a reserve role.
Among the eight returning players this winter is junior Mike Holton Jr. (Portland, Ore./The Winchendon School), who has piled up 884 career points; the remaining seven returners of a relatively green corps have combined for 1,014 points. Harding said the team will expect Holton to continue playing an integral role, as the 6-foot-1 guard is poised to become the 14th Purple Knight junior to reach the 1,000-point plateau. Last winter, he became the program's first underclassman since 1985-86 to land on an all-conference first team after taking second in the NE-10 in scoring (17.0), free throws (120) and free throw shooting (84.5). Holton earned spots on the Daktronics All-East Region second team and the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) All-Star second team.
Harding noted that the continued development of the sophomore class, which collectively gained a tremendous amount of experience last year, will need to occur in order for the team as a whole to maintain its growth. Four sophomores played central roles last season and will continue to be relied upon.
The 2010 Delaware Gatorade Player of the Year, 6-foot guard Corey Crawford II (Dover, Del./The Phelps School) was the squad's second-leading scorer as a first-year, with 9.4 points, including averaging 11.7 on 46.2-percent three-point shooting over his final 15 games. He paced the Purple Knights in assists (71) and was third in three-pointers (29) and rebounding (4.3) despite his small frame.
Sophomore James Cambronne (De Bary, Fla./The Winchendon School), a 6-foot-7 forward, blocked 42 shots last year, a total surpassed by only three other players in program history. Despite appearing in 16.0 minutes per game as a first-year, Cambronne averaged 7.2 points on 47.4-percent shooting to go along with 3.1 boards.
Harding considers sophomores Dom Ditlefsen (Portland, Ore./Sunset) and Mike Thompson (Rosedale, N.Y./Christ The King Regional) to be two of the Purple Knights' best defenders. A 6-foot-4 guard/forward, Ditlefsen shot 41.8 percent from three-point range as a part-time starter, averaging 5.3 points and turning in 34 assists compared to only 22 turnovers. Thompson's statistically strongest asset was on the glass, where his 28 offensive rebounds were good for second on the team. The 6-foot-6 forward chipped in 3.2 points and 2.7 boards per contest, shot 42.3 percent, and rejected 12 shots in limited minutes over 26 games.
Guard Mauri Boschetti (Miami, Fla./Gulliver Prep) rounds out the sophomore class, as the 6-foot walk-on appeared in only one contest last year but could play an expanded role this season. The sharpshooter averaged 21 points per game as a high school senior and holds three-point shooting records at his school.
Among the six first-years, 6-foot-3 guards Will Davis (Valley Stream, N.Y./Holy Cross) and Greg Grippo (Edison, N.J./Rutgers Prep) figure to see the majority of the action. Davis provides an outside scoring touch and can also handle the ball, while Harding considers Grippo's current strength to be his defensive prowess. Zaire Williams (Paterson, N.J./Newark Academy), a 5-foot-11 point guard, is redshirting this season.
Three additional first-years walked on. Harry Eromosele (Queens, N.Y./CTEA), a 6-foot-4 guard/forward, joins 6-foot-6 forward Morrell Gaskins (Cambria Heights, N.Y./Archbishop Molloy) in hailing from the Borough of Queens in New York City, and 6-foot guard Tom Logue (Braintree, Mass./Thayer Academy) is from the Boston area.
The young team immediately heads into NE-10 play, as it competes in a power conference that has sent at least one team to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 each of the past 13 years. The Purple and Gold kicks off the season by hosting Southern New Hampshire University for an NE-10 affair on Wednesday, one of only four home games during its opening 12-contest stretch. Three conference counterparts received preseason recognition from the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), and Saint Michael's plays a home-and-home set with each. Franklin Pierce University is ranked 10th by the NABC, Stonehill is 22nd, and UMass Lowell is receiving votes.
In one of the team's four non-conference contests, the Purple Knights head to defending East Coast Conference (ECC) Tournament champion Long Island University Post Campus on Jan. 2. LIU Post is receiving national votes after qualifying for last year's NCAA Tournament. Following the completion of a grueling 22-game league slate, the top 10 squads take part in the NE-10 Tournament, which begins on March 1.