We're not talking a rip-a-group-apart hate, but a brotherly hate. The kind of hate that just sits and stews, one that eventually subsides, but not before words need to be had.
As healthy a hate as hate can be. That was St. Peter's in 2009 and 2010: a group determined to one-up each other in practice and try to beat each other before it worried about beating other teams. This behavior went beyond a healthy, competitive spirit. It was stagnating the growth of its team, but in particular, the 2011 class, made partly up of Ryan Bacon, Nick Leon, Wesley Jenkins and Jeron Belin.
Then they became seniors. Then they realized they'd get nowhere in the MAAC if they didn't listen and trust their coach.
Those four men were the ones sitting with head coach John Dunne at the postgame press conference after fourth-ranked St. Peter's upset No. 2 Iona to win the MAAC championship Monday night, 62-57.
"Every day we had an argument," Leon said. "We had to fight with each other, we hated each other, but at the end of the day, it grew a big bond within the whole team."
Belin described the situation as "horrible" for long stretches of time. They simply fought over everything, basketball-related or not. You could say it's a wonder the team wasn't a victim of more transfers, especially in this jettison-frenzied era of college basketball.
"Little stuff," said Leon of the inspiration for a lot of the arguments. "Everyone was trying to be a coach. Instead of letting [Dunne] coach, we tried to coach ourselves."
The players took the packed media room through their rise of the past few years. It was a stretch that included many multiple-game losing streaks. Even before the MAAC tournament began this year, few considered the Peacocks' slog-you-down style to last three rounds.
"It was tough for us," Leon said. "We was a program that was rebuilding. We just kept faith. After losing 18 games in a row, we kept faith. The master [Dunne], you know, he put the pieces together and we just put it together as a family, as a team."
Dunne had to convince the team they weren't as fast as they thought they were. He had to make them believe that winning games in the 50s was the best way to succeed. Eventually, they bought in, and the coach praised his group for doing that, when it would have been just as easy not to.
"Togetherness, that's what it was," Belin said. "Everybody playing their part. Whether you played 20 minutes, one minute, you came in and did what you had do to."
St. Peter's is making its third appearance in the NCAAs, and it has never won a game. But that doesn't much matter right now. This was the first 20-win season for the group since 20 years. It's most definitely house money. It's very possible nobody in that program believed an NCAA berth was coming back in November. Dunne admitted as much, postgame.
Despite beating Alabama on a neutral floor, the team wasn't coming together as one normally does with so many seniors seeing so many minutes. Jenkins was thought to be lost for the season twice with hyper-extended knee injuries, and after an "embarrassing" loss to Iona (Dunne's words), the team was 8-7. St. Peter's coach admitted he wasn't sure this team had the capability to win this conference. After beating Rider on Jan. 29 to improve to 13-9, that's when he started to beileve.
"Attitude won us this championship," Dunne said.
This is a team that's one of the staunchest defensive groups in the country. You can't get that without attitude.
Attitude is what made the Peacocks hold a team that averages 80 points a game to 57 in a conference title game, where its fans were outnumbered by Iona's to the tune of a four-to-one ratio. But attitude helped pushed the Peacocks past that. It's now a positive one. Now, when a player hits the deck — something that happens, oh, 20 times per game — for the Peacocks, everyone's in a rush to help their fallen teammate up.
No more arguments, no more fighting, no more hate.
"We're the new Butler," Belin said afterward, a huge grin on his face.
Player to Watch: Wesley Jenkins. It's tough to pick a player out of this group, but Jenkins is definitely exciting. He's a spark for this team, no doubt. Jenkins has a slight frame but is just as tough-minded as the rest of his teammates. Whoever gets the Peacocks in the first round is going to feel like it's playing through mud.
Record: (20-13, 14-7)
Team Colors: Blue and White
We’re Thinking: 15 seed
Kenpom Ranking: 123
Best win: Neutral vs. 20-10 Alabama (50-49)
Worst loss: Home vs. 15-15 Loyola (65-63)
Most recent tournament history: 1995 (15 seed, lost to UMass, 68-51, in first round)Finally, some one-on-one video from tonight. The first is my interview with Dunne, the second with Jenkins. The dance-off in the hotel hallway with Iona is brought up. With Jenkins, that is.
Posted by Matt Norlander
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