|Austin Ford is one of two returning starters and has been instrumental in welcoming his new teammates into the fold.
St. Vincent Athletics photo
After graduating eight players, including three starters, many around the PAC weren't sure if St. Vincent could defend its regular season title and conference tournament crown.
Only two returning players – Austin Ford and Austin Dedert – were in the Bearcats' starting lineup for the team's 99-85 loss to John Carroll in last year's NCAA Tournament first round. The squad's top four reserves graduated, too.
Despite the turnover, the Bearcats remain in a familiar position – at the top of the PAC standings.
"It's a different team all around this year. We only had five people come back from last year," Ford said. "I remember at the beginning of the season, one of our coaches printed out some graphs showing the percentages of scoring, rebounding, assists and everything we lost. It really put it into perspective."
With plenty of new faces in the rotation, St. Vincent is aiming for its fourth straight PAC regular season title and fifth straight PAC tournament championship. Some in the PAC thought the Bearcats would take a step back and they were picked second in the preseason poll.
"That was definitely motivating to us, especially to the returning players," Ford said. "Everyone said we wouldn't be as good. We knew what we had coming in. The way we got up the standings, the chemistry happened a lot faster. I thought it'd take longer. We've been playing well together. When we play our game, I feel like we can play with anybody. In some ways, I feel we're better than last year. We're playing really good basketball right now."
Junior Matt D'Amico and sophomores Mike Simmons and Malique McLaren are the other three players back who appeared in the team's loss to John Caroll. D'Amico has joined junior Dedert and Ford, the squad's lone senior, in the starting lineup. Simmons and McLaren are top reserves.
"It was a good season last year, but we graduated eight people. It was kind of a different team,"
D'Amico said. "We had to come together early. I thought we jelled pretty quickly, considering we're all pretty new."
St. Vincent got a boost when juniors Coy Patterson, Jr., Tom Kromka and Jason Capco transferred in before the school year. Patterson, Jr., and Capco have been regulars in the starting lineup, while Kromka is the team's sixth man. In addition, the team welcomed five freshmen to the program.
"I think we all started to build some chemistry in the offseason," D'Amico said. "In the fall, we organized some pickup games and some other workouts; just getting in the gym working out was nice. I think that helped the younger players adjust to college life."
The chemistry wasn't evident on the court right away, though. The Bearcats dropped their first two games and were 3-3 heading into PAC play.
"Once the season started, things were pretty slow to come together. The chemistry wasn't there," Ford said. "Right before Christmas and the start of conference, we really started clicking. Off the court, we keep getting to know each other better and, on the court, things have improved."
St. Vincent went 11-2 overall and 14-2 in the PAC once conference play began.
"Winning is always fun. It doesn't matter who it's with, if you put in the work," Ford said. "We've been deserving of the wins we've had. We've played some good teams. It's been a fun ride, especially since it's my last year. I am excited for every practice."
In addition to the three transfers this year, D'Amico and McLaren transferred to the school last year and Ford arrived for the 2014-15 season. So, five of the team's top six leading scorers are transfers.
"We're always welcoming anybody. We have guys from all over," D'Amico said. "We love having them all here. We have all kinds of different styles, which is nice.
"We're having a lot of fun. At the beginning of the season when we started 0-2, it was not fun. As the season progressed and we got a lot closer, we've had success. We're definitely rolling right now. Hopefully, that carries over to the PAC tournament and NCAA tournament."