John Dunne enters his tenth season at Saint Peter's needing to replace Desi Washington and Marvin Dominique, but Peacocks coach remains both optimistic and excited about process of building back up. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
The elder statesman of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, now about to begin his tenth season at the helm of Saint Peter's University, John Dunne has been through rebuilding years before.
Now tasked with the responsibility of doing it again after the Peacocks graduated two stalwarts of their program in Desi Washington and Marvin Dominique last May after coming one win shy of playing for a league championship, the affable and patient architect admits the road has been bumpy at times with the four freshmen he welcomes into Jersey City, but is still an optimist with regard to the future.
"It's probably been, I would say, really good on one hand, because the spirit has been very good," Dunne remarked after a Sunday morning practice at the Yanitelli Center that emphasized skill development at its forefront. "The energy has been very good. They're taking the coaching very, very well. We're nowhere near where we want to be, but the light at the end of the tunnel is fun to look at when we know we're going to continue to just get better and better."
"On the other hand," he cautioned, "the frustrating part is when you are so young, you have so many new faces, but the energy has been great. Overall, it's been a really fun process up to this point."
Picked ninth in the MAAC's preseason coaches' poll, Saint Peter's faces what looks on paper to be a transitional campaign similar to 2011-12, when the Peacocks replaced a senior-laden roster that fought their way through the conference tournament to clinch just the third NCAA Tournament berth in program history. Yet Dunne, who saw that team battle growing pains while gaining valuable experience, is confident that this year's roster has a much higher ceiling.
"We're much better than that," he proclaimed reassuredly. "We have much better talent in the program now. Some of our freshmen are more advanced than other guys, but I think all four of them are pretty talented and have a chance at really bright futures. I'm really looking forward to watching their growth through this year, and our upperclassmen are much better than what we had that year."
As the quartet of newcomers, headlined by shooting guard Antwon Portley, continues to find its way, the incumbents on the roster continue to improve as well, junior point guard Trevis Wyche chief among them.
"He's really improved his work ethic," Dunne proudly stated. "He's taking it much more seriously in all areas, in the training room, in the weight room, and his conditioning is very good right now. He's really trying to pressure the ball now, and he's really active off the ball. He's always been a good assist-to-turnover guy, and we want him to continue to bring that to the table for us. We've been pleased with him."
In the frontcourt, the Peacocks have a decided experience edge over some of their conference brethren, with Elias Desport; the lone eligible senior on the roster, now assuming a starting role alongside junior Quadir Welton, who is 100 percent after battling a knee injury through most of his sophomore season.
"I think it helps because we have so many new guys," said Dunne of his interior experience, "and when those guys are out there together, we're just better defensively, we've got pretty good size. Quadir Welton played on a partially torn meniscus the whole year, and I thought he was still one of the more improved guys in the league. He's gained 20 pounds of muscle, he's healthy right now and he's done a great job just getting the paint catches for us. He's really improved his skill level around the rim, and we need him to put the ball in the basket for us again." Of Desport, the coach praised him as an "unselfish ball mover" who "really knows the game, has a good IQ, and is pretty good on the defensive end, inside and on the perimeter."
"That experience definitely helps the younger guys," said Dunne, "because we have younger forwards. They really look at those guys and they're learning from them as well."
Moreover, where some programs are strapped for experience with a young roster, Saint Peter's is anything but that. The Peacocks may only have just one senior in Desport, (Cavon Baker, who transferred from Houston, is a senior but will redshirt this season) but the fact that the rest of the team is back for a second season barring any additional departures is a prospect that gives Dunne even greater reason to be bullish on the chances of his program.
"We bring everybody back with the exception of Elias, and then we have a few guys that are sitting out," he reiterated. "We're not giving in on this year at all. We want to win as many games as we can and be playing our best basketball come tournament time. We understand that it will be a process, it could be a slow start. We understand that, and we're going to continue to learn and grow from that, and I think there's a big light at the end of the tunnel moving into next year, so we're certainly excited about the future."