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In his two seasons at St. Catharine College, head coach J.T. Burton has seen the best of times and the worst of times. In the Tale of Two Seasons, Burton’s bunch struggled to a 5-24 mark his first year but improved to 21-11 last season including an 8-6 Mid-South Conference record.
By many accounts, the Patriots’ turnaround was the best in the nation at any level. And Burton knows exactly what the key is in continuing the Patriot progress. “We have to get production from our returning starters,” said Burton. “We have a solid nucleus back that contributed a lot last year. We need them to do even more this year, including providing the leadership for our new guys.”
Many obviously believe the Patriots can do more this season. They are ranked third in the tough Mid-South Conference and 27th nationally in pre-season polls.
Leading the way for the Patriots will be a quartet of returning starters that accounted for just over 40 points a game last season. Seniors Ervin Williams (15 ppg, 6 rpg) and Josh Edwards (11 ppg) will do much of the work inside at the five and three positions respectively. Brandon Johnson, a junior, returns after averaging 11 points and five boards a year ago at shooting guard and sophomore Adam Decker, who scored just three points a game but had less than two turnovers a contest, will run the offense at point guard.
Added to the mix will be newcomer Troy Lambert, a 6-7 power forward who sat out last year after averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game at Los Positas College (California) in 2008-2009. “Troy is a big body who will help us out inside,” added Burton. “He just needs to get back in basketball shape.” Joining Lambert in the paint is a talented transfer triumvirate. Ihsan Phillips (Union College), a 6-9 senior forward, Kashiff Carr (Angelina Community College), a 6-6 junior who can step out to play the two or three spots, and Xavier Keeling, (Detroit Mercy), a 6-7 senior who was 2nd team All-Horizon League last year, are all expected to make an immediate impact for Burton’s bunch.
Depth at the post position should be further shored up by senior Josh Peery (6-6, 200) who played in all 32 games last season. Other returnees to add both depth and experience are two guards who saw considerable playing time last season, junior Terrance Withers and sophomore Justin Morris. The solid group of veterans will be joined by junior college transfer guards Antoine Watson (Sheridan CC), Mike Johnson (Laramie County CC) and Marquis Lee (St. Clair Community College).
Only two players were lost from last year’s squad that made it to the semifinals of the Mid-South Conference tournament but they will be big shoes to fill. Arthur Latham, a 6-7 forward averaged 17 points and eight rebounds and Kevin Owens, a fierce defender scored eight a game and grabbed six rebounds, although undersized as a 6-3 forward.
“Those guys were tough and that is what the players need to bring this year,” said Burton. “This is a physical conference and I think the guys coming back understand what it takes to win. That is obvious by the off-season work they have done to get bigger and stronger.”
Also stronger this year will be the Patriots’ schedule, one that Burton says is possibly the toughest in the nation. “We play 10 games against teams ranked in the top 25. And we play exhibition games against three D-II team that are top 25.”
That rigorous journey starts Tuesday when the Patriots travel to Indiana Southeast, a NAIA D-II team ranked seventh in the pre-season poll. The Patriots do not play at home until December 2 when they open the conference schedule against Georgetown.