College basketball preview: New coach welcomes pressure to keep Saint Vincent on top
The changes are many, but the expectations for the Saint Vincent College men’s basketball program remain the same.
A perennial title contender, Saint Vincent is the narrow choice in a preseason poll of conference coaches to win the NCAA Division III Presidents’ Athletic Conference regular season title.
Gone are longtime coach D.P. Harris, who left for NAIA St. Thomas (Fla.), and leading scorer and rebounder Tom Kromka, the former Gateway star.
Harris’ replacement at the head of the bench, Terrance Smith, is no stranger to the Bearcats.
A former Saint Vincent All-America guard, Smith has spent the past five seasons as an assistant to Harris, helping the team to three PAC regular-season championships and two conference tournament titles with a pair of trips to the Division III playoffs.
“It’s been a successful program, so there’s always going to be a level of pressure here,” said Smith, the school’s second all-time leading scorer with 1,819 points from 1997-2001. “But I’ve been in pressure situations, so I look at it as I’m going to come in and be myself. We’re going to do whatever we need to do to keep it going.”
Saint Vincent won the regular season championship in 2018-19 with a 14-2 record (22-5 overall) but was beaten in the PAC Tournament semifinals by eventual champion Chatham, a team the Bearcats defeated twice during the regular season.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Kromka was an important part of Saint Vincent’s success the past three years after transferring from Carnegie Mellon. He led the team as a senior in scoring (17.1 ppg), rebounding (8.0 rpg) and blocked shots (50) and shot 57%.
“That’s a big loss for us,” Smith said. “Losing a shooter like Mike Simmons is a big loss, too.”
Simmons averaged 10.1 ppg and shot 42.1% (53 for 126) from 3-point range, second on the team behind Andrew Reed (24 for 53, 45.3%), who returns as a 5-11 sophomore guard.
Saint Vincent also will be without junior forward Ryan Dutton (8.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg), who decided to step away from the program for a year.
Smith will look to junior guard David Stephen for leadership as the team’s leading returning scorer (15.4 ppg.). He also led the team in assists (84) and steals (47) while starting all 27 games and averaging team-high 29.5 minutes per game.
“Some guys here — me included — don’t believe they are Division III players,” Stephen said. “I believe I can play at a higher level. But we all come here with the same mentality and say, ‘All right, look, let’s bring that talent and motivation and just go and dominate.’”
Other key returnees are senior guard Josh Duda (Bethel Park, 7.7 ppg), junior guard Cletus Helton (Seton LaSalle, 3.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 47 assists), junior guard Kyle Pope (2.1 ppg, 31 assists) and junior forward Drew Normandin (2.5 rpg, 40% shooting).
“We lost some recruits coming in when the coaching change happened, and that was tough on us,” Smith said. “But we’ve got a good group coming back. The expectation is the same: win the conference.”
Saint Vincent received 65 total points in preseason voting by PAC coaches but managed just three of nine first-place nods. The Bearcats edged Westminster (Pa.) and Grove City in voting for the top spot. The Titans and Wolverines tied for second, directly behind St, Vincent with 64 points each.
Westminster garnered four first-place votes and Grove City received the remaining two.
Harris spent the past 16 years as coach at Saint Vincent after being elevated from an assistant’s position, compiling a record of 318-126 while guiding the program’s transition to NCAA from NAIA.
Under Harris, the Bearcats won four PAC championships from 2013-16, twice while Smith was on staff.
“When things change, you have to change with them,” Smith said. “You try to take from it what you can. I’ve watched D.P. for the last five years and I’ve known him for 20. So, as with anything else, there’s some things I’ll keep and some things I’ll change, and we’ll put it together and continue a successful program.”
Saint Vincent reached the NAIA Division II Tournament twice during Smith’s playing days, when he was named a third-team NAIA All-American as a junior and an honorable mention as a senior.
Smith has served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan during a 12-year military career.
He currently is an assistant professor at Saint Vincent’s McKenna School of Business, primarily teaching in the Masters of Science in Management and Operations Excellence program, and also serves as director of the Kennametal Center for Operations Excellence program on campus.
Dave Mackall is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.