East Xtra: Defending PAC title problematic for Saint Vincent

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The Saint Vincent College men's basketball team entered the 2013-14 season with a slightly different perspective than last season.

Of course, that happens when you are the defending Presidents' Athletic Conference champions.

The Bearcats had one of its most successful campaigns in recent history last season -- they finished 23-6 overall and 15-1 in the conference -- winning the regular-season and conference tournament championships and advanced to the Division III NCAA tournament for the first time since moving into the NCAA. Previously, the Bearcats competed in the NAIA.

They were ineligible in 2008-2009 when they finished 22-3 because they were deemed ineligible due to the transition rule put forth by the NCAA.

This season, the Bearcats are off to a 4-1 start.

"I think every year is different," said coach D.P. Harris, in his 10th season with the Bearcats. "We always want to win a championship. We have had some setbacks. We have to move some guys around."

Most of those setbacks are due to graduation attrition. They lost the talents of Ed Wright, Armani Fountain, Chris Klimchock, Tony Washam, Kenny Roberts and Jeff Mallory.

The big blow in that group is Klimchock. In his two years as the starting point guard, Klimchock averaged 13.6 points and four assists per game.

Taking over the point guard duties this year is 6-foot-2, 190-pound sophomore J.C. Howard. Howard, a North Allegheny graduate, started 19 games last season and every game so far this season, including pouring in a career-high 22 points on Nov. 18 at the Carey Center against Penn State Fayette.

Other key returners from last year's squad are Dillon Stith, a 6-5, 215-pound senior forward, Isaac Turner, a 6-2, 185-pound guard, and Sean Kett, a 6-5, 205 junior forward. Harris is already forced to make a change to his lineup three games in after starting center Grant Latus, a 6-8, 215-pound junior from t. Lebanon, sustained a season-ending injury.

"Grant is out," Harris said. "He is an impact player. He hurt his knee in the La Roche game. We are going to have to put Dillon [Stith] back inside."

Stith, a second-team All-PAC performer last year, is off to a hot start, recording 24, 24 and 12 points in the Bearcats first three games.

Turner, an honorable mention All-PAC guard who average 16.7 points per game last season, will ease some of the pressure off Howard running the point.

"Dillon and Isaac will be the go-to guys and Sean Kett," Harris said. "Dillon can go inside and outside. He is hard to defend. Isaac is the best shooter in the conference in my opinion. We need to put our guys in position to exploit the matchups. We are already making adjustments."

Kett, finished at the top of the list with the best free throw percentage in the conference last year as a sophomore.

"Sean is a clutch player," Harris said. "He is playing well this year. He has a huge upside. He really came out of his shell at the end of the year."

Harris expects this group to come together and make a run at another conference title this year, and plans on having some fun in the process.

The Bearcats usually find a part of the country to play an early-season tournament to give the players the full experience of traveling like a major-college athlete as well as facing the best competition possible.

Saint Vincent traveled to Miami two years ago and visited Virginia Beach last year where they started their campaign against the No. 1-ranked team in the country. This year the Bearcats decided to make a trip west to San Francisco where they competed in the UC Santa Cruz Classic this past weekend.

"We want to play a national schedule," Harris said. "We want to challenge our guys. We play all over the country. For us, it is about getting exposure and giving our players the D-I experience.

"Kids want to be treated like they are Division I players. We work very hard to be able to take our players [on trips such as that] and it gives us a recruiting advantage."

The Bearcats won the championship at the Santa Cruz tournament, defeating Cal Tech, 77-67, Friday, then defeating the host team, 61-52, Saturday.

"I have seen a lot of ups and downs," Harris said. "We shoot the ball very well. We can come back in a hurry. We have the ability to run and jump and press. It is going to take us a bit to jell and understand the system."

The Bearcats and Harris have a chance to make history this year with a couple of milestones in reach.

Coming into the season, Harris was seven wins shy of the 200-win plateau, something he hasn't put too much thought into.

"People make a big deal of it," Harris said. "There are a lot of guys in this business who have coached a lot of years and won a lot of games. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It's about the players who I have. Players win games and win championships and I come along for the ride."

In order for the Bearcats to win another championship, they will have to check off another historic win on the way. The Bearcats are 21 wins shy of 1,000 in school history.

"We take tradition seriously here," Harris said. "That is a big deal knowing that I am only the fifth head coach in the 85-year history of this program."

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