Monday, November 26, 2012

John Dunne Continues To Do More With Less At Saint Peter's

Now in his seventh year at Saint Peter's, John Dunne's tenure has seen highs such as 2011 NCAA Tournament, lows such as last year's 10th-place MAAC finish, and positive signs this year such as season-opening win over Rutgers.  (Photo courtesy of The Jersey Journal)

For some reason, New Jersey tends to be disregarded at times by society, primarily given its close proximity to New York and the state seemingly living in the perennial shadow of the Big Apple.  In a state with several other college basketball programs with more widespread success, it stands to reason that Saint Peter's University; just a PATH train away from lower Manhattan in Jersey City, receives the same unfair treatment.  However, those who have seen the Peacocks can vehemently disagree, and their seventh-year coach who extracts the most out of next to nothing on an annual basis is a big reason why.

Saint Peter's may be 3-2 after coming off two losses to Binghamton and Seton Hall, but John Dunne's star continues to shine in the coaching ranks based of his sheer ability to contend in the face of long odds.  Once an assistant to Louis Orr at Seton Hall, Dunne was on the staff that brought the Pirates to the NCAA Tournament in 2006, an achievement that brought him to the small MAAC institution he currently presides over.  Since replacing former coach Bob Leckie, Dunne has kept the Peacocks relevant alongside the Manhattans, Sienas and Ionas of the world; using his suffocating defense to defeat the Gaels in 2011 for his first conference championship and the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1995, and rebounding off a disappointing 2011-12 campaign by shocking Rutgers in Saint Peter's season opener two weeks ago in Piscataway.

When I first met Dunne and had the opportunity to speak with him, it was under some of the least desirable circumstances for a coach, as he and his Peacocks team had just been soundly defeated by Iona in a 98-61 runaway at the Hynes Center that saw the Gaels go on a 31-0 run midway through the second half to transform what had been a seven-point game and a defensive battle into an exhibition.  Needless to say, Dunne remained positive and upbeat in his postgame press conference, attributing the Peacocks' struggles to growing pains and assuring the media gathered in New Rochelle that his team would remain competitive despite their record and lack of talent compared to teams within the area and conference.

True to his word, Dunne's latest group to take the court was as relentless as ever, battling Seton Hall tooth and nail yesterday through a rock fight of a first half before ultimately being done in by the Pirates' athleticism in a 76-61 loss at the Prudential Center.  Saint Peter's got great efforts from seniors Darius Conley and Blaise Ffrench, both of whom will be greatly missed, and remained within reach for most of the second half until Fuquan Edwin helped put away Seton Hall's Garden State rivals to extend the Pirates' winning streak over Saint Peter's to seventeen.  "They were just too much for us to handle in the second half," a visibly dejected Dunne said after the game.  "Once they started feeling good, the game got away from us."

Twenty minutes do not detract from how good a coach Dunne is, however, be it on his best night or one of his lesser ones.  You simply do not get into an NCAA Tournament on luck alone, nor do you defeat a Big East team on the road for the same reason.  It takes a great talent to make those around him better, and an even greater one to breed winning and make a positive attitude contagious to those around him, and John Dunne is one of those rare individuals blessed with that unique skill set.

Saint Peter's is still searching for their identity going into the start of conference play, with nonconference home games against Fairleigh Dickinson and Boston University serving as the final precursors to the Peacocks' December 5th MAAC opener at home against Iona, and the mindset around the team remains as clear as ever: Saint Peter's may be left for dead by critics, but the product on the court remains very much alive in a wide-open MAAC where any team can literally win the conference.

"We're head and shoulders better than last year," Dunne emphatically stated yesterday in Newark.  "It's still not clear to me where our ceiling is, but I know we're going to compete every night, and we're going to be in some close ones in our league."

Very rarely do nice guys finish first, and after John Dunne did exactly that just 21 months ago when he guided Saint Peter's into the field of 68, he proved to the nation that he deserves a shot at a high major.  Whether or not that opportunity will come for the 42-year-old remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, and that is the fact that Saint Peter's will still be a tough draw for any opponent on any given night.  For a fighter of a coach who has instilled the same spirit in his players, nothing less should be expected.

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