Ravens have come a long way in 2 years

  • FPU men basketball v merrimack

    FPU men basketball v merrimack

  • FPU men basketball v merrimack

    FPU men basketball v merrimack

  • rindge, FPU mens basketball v Assumption. Northeast 10 quarterfinals

    rindge, FPU mens basketball v Assumption. Northeast 10 quarterfinals

  • FPU men basketball v merrimack
  • FPU men basketball v merrimack
  • rindge, FPU mens basketball v Assumption. Northeast 10 quarterfinals

Two years ago, the Franklin Pierce University men’s basketball team didn’t even earn a spot in its own conference tournament.

Now the Ravens are set to play in the NCAA Division II Elite 8 — the first appearance in program history — with a chance to advance to the Final Four hanging in the balance.

I have had a few conversations with coach David Chadbourne about that 6-21 season two years ago and there is a deeper story than just a team that had a bad year. They were young and injury riddled. And anything that could go wrong, did.

It did not start out too badly with three wins in the first five games, but six straight losses put them at 3-8 entering the holiday break. A 2-2 mark through the first four games of January kept them in the hunt for a conference tournament game. That is, if they played better down the stretch.

But that did not happen. FPU won just one more game the rest of the way, while losing 11 more times. Record wise, it was Chadbourne’s worst since taking over the men’s program in 1999-2000. It was a season from which everyone wanted to move on.

During an interview earlier this year, senior Eric Jean-Guillaume told me about a conversation he had with Chadbourne following that season. Chadbourne challenged his second year guard to be better. Jean-Guillaume took it to heart and worked hard to improve in the offseason. And it has shown, considering he has won the last two NE-10 Player of the Year awards.

But Jean-Guillaume, who leads the Ravens in scoring at 16.3 points per game, is not the sole reason that the program has done a complete 180 in the last 24 months. It takes a lot more than one player to see this kind of turnaround.

Junior Ellis Cooper, who missed half of that dreadful season two years ago, not only ranks second in scoring (14.2), but first in rebounds (7.1). It is now clear that his absence, even though he was only a freshman, made a big difference. He was a second-team NE-10 selection and earned the Most Outstanding Player award for the Ravens’ run to the East Region crown.

And sophomore Ryen Vilmont has made a huge impact since arriving in Rindge, ranking third in scoring with 12.1.

But it doesn’t stop there. This team is balanced and plays well together. Junior Curtis Christian has started the last six games in the backcourt and is averaging 3.7 assists. Junior Adrianos Vourliotakis Perdikaris came up huge in the regionals and Andre Blackwood’s 13 points off the bench in the East finals helped the Ravens advance to Louisville.

Prior to last season, FPU was an after-thought. After finishing last in 2010-11 and being picked to finish 15th out of 16 teams in the preseason NE-10 coaches poll, the Ravens went on to earn a share of the regular season title and home court advantage throughout the NE-10 tournament to become the first team to go worst-to-first since the conference expanded from 10 teams. FPU went on to win 22 games and advance to the East Region semifinals.

So there was little chance the Ravens would sneak up on anyone this season. But the team embraced not only the pressure, but the view of being relevant once again. They were picked as the preseason No. 2 team in all of Division II by one publication and 10th by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. There were plenty of expectations for this group.

And the season started of well. Having only lost two seniors, there was not a big learning curve and it showed with eight wins in the first nine games. Sure, like any team, there was a rough patch where the Ravens lost three of five and struggled to find consistency. But now, that can only be looked at as a blip on the radar. Another eight wins in the next nine games put them back in the hunt for the top spot in the conference.

When all was said and done, the Ravens settled for the fourth seed in the NE-10 tournament, but it didn’t matter. They knocked off top-ranked Saint Anselm in the semis and even hosted the conference championships game — the first appearance in program history. Despite the loss to Southern New Hampshire, FPU still earned the top seed in the regional for a second straight year. While no FPU team had ever advanced past the second round, this team was ready for the jump. Not only did they make it to the East finals, but they won it, too.

And that is where we are today. At noon, the Ravens will take on Metro State in the first of four national quarterfinal games at Freedom Hall. It is uncharted territory, but this group seems to thrive in those situations.

Really it should not matter what this team does from here on out. They have 24 wins — the most in Chadbourne’s tenure — the only conference championship game appearance and the lone East Region title.

Not a bad season if you ask me.

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