Thursday, 6 March 2008

St. FX X-Men in familiar territory

BY CHRIS KALLAN Consider me one of the naysayers, one of the skeptics, one of the disrespectul ones. Consider me all of the above and far, far worse. I can take it.
The crime in question?
Dissing the St. Francis Xavier X-Men hoop squad. That's what.
So lock me up and throw away the key. I can still look at myself in the mirror and hold my head up high. Myself and just about everyone else pegged the 2007-08 campaign as a time of transition and (ahem) rebuilding, as they say. Third overall in the men's Atlantic Universities Basketball Conference loop? Maybe fourth? Perhaps
fifth if the players don't gel or there isn't enough ball to go around? Isn't there something somewhere called a cycle where every team has its rightful shot at glory and the once-mighty fall from grace? I mean, you can't just go out and reload year after year after year and finish at or near the top, can you?
Well, yeah, you can.
Despite the loss of six veterans two seasons ago and former under-21 national team members Neil MacDonald and Garry Gallimore from last year's squad, Steve Konchalski's X-Men are in very familiar territory heading into this weekend's AUBC men's basketball championship at the Halifax Metro Centre. St. F.X. finished with a 15-5 league record, one more victory than they had with MacDonald and Gallimore on its roster in their final year, and good enough for second spot overall and a first round playoff bye for the 10th straight year. No joke. Ten years and running without having to suit up on opening night of the postseason. The X-Men have captured six of the past eight conference titles and amassed a staggering 161-39 won-loss regular season record over the past decade; a winning percentage of over 80 per cent. During that span, the club is 12-4 in the postseason, two losses were by a single point, and is six-for-six in the championship game.
This season, the X-Men are 24-9 overall despite the fact do-it-all guard Tyler Richards is the only fourth-year player on the team. "We're looking to win every year so it's a slap in the face when we hear how people weren't expecting much out of us this season," Richards said. "If people don't expect us to win, we think that's disrespect. We knew we didn't have the same experience as before, but we put in a lot of extra work and Coach K has been around for awhile so he knows what it takes to win and get the most out of his players. "Every year is a disappointing year if we don't win." St.F.X. knocked off Saint Mary's to win its own tourney in October, but suffered double digit losses to Cape Breton and Saint Mary's to end the first term on a sour note. Konchalski mixed things up and switched Richards over to the point and second year speedster Christian (T-Bear) Upshaw to shooting guard. The move gave the X-Men more consistency. "It wasn't quite that I didn't know what to expect from one minute to the next, but we were very unpredictable as a team early on," Konchalski said. "It was up and down with good streaks and bad streaks. But things smoothed out over time with the natural progression and maturity of the team." St. F.X. won the Rod Shoveller Memorial tourney in Halifax to kick off the new year and ended league play with victories in nine of its last 11 games to nab the second seed for playoffs. Overall, the X-Men were 8-2 on the road, including a pair of wins in Cape Breton, and won four of five versus Saint Mary's. But Konchalski cites a six-point road loss to Acadia on Feb. 12 as a key moment. The Axemen blew the X-Men out by 29 in Antigonish less than three weeks earlier. "We led them going into the last three minutes and as much as I don't believe in moral victories, I think that was a confidence-builder for us and got us over a hump," Konchalski said. "There's a different feel to even the way we're practicing now. It's amazing how much we've evolved." Richards averaged a league-high 19.7 points and connected on 35 three-point shots. Upshaw (13.9 ppg, 5.3 apg) and rookie of the year candidate Islam Luiz de Toledo (13.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg) also had solid seasons. Six-foot-three guard Dwayne Johnson, a quick, physical, third-year player, raised his game a few notches from last year and averaged 12.3 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting 55.9 per cent from the field. "Dwayne has been very versatile this year and did many different things like drawing charges and battling tough against bigger players," Konchalski said. "But the biggest addition to his game is scoring. He's a real threat now." Meanwhile, the defending conference champion Acadia Axemen did as expected and finished league play in top spot with an 18-2 mark. Les Berry's bunch eclipsed the 100-point plateau four times and averaged a win by 21.1 points, second in the nation only to five-time defending Canadian champ Carleton. The Axemen, the conference leaders in both scoring (86.8 ppg) and defence (65.8 ppg), enter the postseason on a seven-game win streak. Six-foot-five power forward Leonel Saintil (18.5 ppg, 13.9 rpg) led the country in rebounding and twice grabbed 20-plus boards; 13 double-doubles and a new conference rebounding standard make him a probable league MVP pick. Six-foot-five swingman Shawn Berry (no relation to Les) averaged 16.6 points, Peter Leighton was good on 39 three-balls and Achuil Lual was the club's top defensive stopper. Paulo Santana, the league MVP in 2006-07, sprained his ankle in practice the week of November's season opener and just hasn't been the same. The five-foot-11 guard averaged 21 minutes, 8.2 points, 3.7 assists, 2.1 rebounds and shot a meagre three-of-22 from three-point range. Acadia led the conference in field goal percentage (51.1 per cent) and three-point shooting percentage (40.7 per cent), but was dead last from the free throw line (60.6 per cent). Both Saintil and Lual shoot well under 60 per cent from the charity stripe so perhaps putting the big men on the line isn't such a bad idea. Acadia, which spent the entire season among the top ten ranked schools in the country, has the conference's best shot at a wildcard should the Axemen fall short of their goal. Alberta, UBC, Western and tourney host Carleton are all banking on success from March 14 to 16 at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, Ont. The Atlantic tournament could bring Konchalski another milestone to his illustrious 33-year coaching career. A win in Saturday's semifinal would bring the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame member his 700th career victory as a university head coach. It's believed only former Brandon coach Jerry Hemmings (734) has accumulated more W's. St. F.X., ranked sixth in the final CIS Media poll, never entered the top 10 in the CIS Coaches poll all season. Richards knows the jig is up if the X-Men lose any games this weekend. "We're not going anywhere unless we win outright," Richards said. "We're not banking on any wildcards."


canadel62 said...

Oh Well, need I say more,
My X-Ring burns no-more.
I can't wait to watch Carleton Play X in Ottawa First.

Anonymous said...

Great piece!