PLYMOUTH, N.H. - Plymouth State College opens up the 2001-02 men's basketball season this weekend in Babson Park, Mass., participating in the Babson Invitational Tournament.
The Panthers will face Worcester State College at 6:00 p.m. in the first round on Friday, with Babson and Johnson & Wales University hooking up in the other first-rounder. The consolation game is Saturday at 2:00 p.m., followed by the championship at 4:00 p.m.
Plymouth State plays a non-conference game next Tuesday, Nov. 20th, at Johnson State College (7:00 p.m.). The Panthers then have a nine-day break before the first two home games at Foley Gymnasium. Those two encounters are against the top two teams in New England last year - Salem State on Thursday, Nov. 29th, and UMass Dartmouth in the Little East Conference opener on Saturday, Dec. 1st.
PSC will again this year take part in the Division III Granite State Challenge, sponsored by Jacob's Bridge Through Autism, on Tuesday, Dec. 4th at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord. Plymouth State faces New England College in the opening game, and Colby-Sawyer meets Keene State in the nightcap.
The Panthers will play 11 games at Foley Gymnasium, including matchups against all seven LEC opponents. The conference tournament, which includes the top six teams, begins Feb. 19th, with a champion being crowned on Feb. 23rd and receiving an automatic bid into the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Guided by third-year coach John Scheinman, the Panthers are hoping to challenge for the Little East championship this season. PSC finished 14-12 overall last year, and placed fourth in the LEC with an 8-6 mark.
2001-02 P.S.C. Men's Basketball Outlook
The Panthers return four starters and nine veterans from last year's squad, and Scheinman hopes this year's squad will be more sound in the basics, like defense, rebounding, and free throw shooting.
"I think we'll be an improved rebounding team," said Scheinman, "and a good shooting team. We've emphasized defense, and hopefully that will be better. Offensively, we should have a well-balanced attack, not looking to one particular guy like last year."
PSC will have to overcome the loss of two-time All-Conference forward Tony Martinez, and Scheinman says this "will force everyone else to step it up."
Leading the cast of returnees is senior center Jason Blackburn (Hudson, Mass.), an All-LEC Second Team pick last season after averaging 16.8 points and a team-high 8.4 rebounds. He shot 56.2 percent from the floor and blocked 40 shots and should be one of the dominant players in the conference this season.
"I've been very impressed by Jason's continued improvement and maturity as a player," said Scheinman. "He's a guy that played only 61 minutes his freshman season, and now he's truly one of the best players in the league. He's done a great job as captain. I'm very proud of his improvement."
Joining Blackburn as captains this season are junior guards Kenny Stewart (Londonderry, N.H.) and Dan Craig (Chelmsford, Mass.). Stewart plays the 2-guard spot, and provides an excellent all-around game and intensity along with 10.9 points per game. Craig has started every game at point guard his first two seasons, but has been slow recovering from off-season knee surgery and is questionable coming into this season.
The other returning starter is sophomore Frankie Finklea (Dorchester, Mass.), the 2000-01 LEC Rookie of the Year. The athletic small forward averaged 9.1 points and 5.1 rebounds last season, including 15.8 points in the final six games down the stretch. He was also PSC's leading three-point shooter, connecting on 41 percent (34-83) from beyond the arc.
Sophomore Ryan Chicoine (Gorham, Maine) will likely step into a starting role. The 6'7" big man can play both center and forward, and has improved with a season of college basketball behind him. A strong defender and rebounder, Chicoine has improved his offense and should be a key for the Panthers this season.
With Craig's status questionable at point guard, the Panthers may look to sophomore Mike Loughlin (Manchester, NH/West) or freshman Nick Pelotte (Bingham, Maine/Valley HS). Loughlin gained valuable experience last year, averaging eight minutes a game, and Pelotte anchored a high school team that hasn't lost a game since seventh grade.
Scheinman expects junior transfer Donnelle Combs (Mitchellville, Md.) to be the first man off the bench in the frontcourt. He's a power post player who could be a strong sixth man. Sophomores Mike Reynolds (Hampton, N.H.) and Rob Nugent (Pleasantville, N.Y.) are also available as back-up post players.
Sophomores Harold Roy (East Boston, Mass.) and Mike Kalbfell (Somers, N.Y.) give PSC depth at the small forward spot, and freshman forward Matt Budrow (Round Pond, Maine) and freshman guard Jason Pride (Epsom, N.H.) could also contribute off the bench. Sophomore guard Travis Farley (Brewster, Mass.) and junior forward Bob Knipstein (Melrose, Mass.) round out the roster.
"Our goal is always to win the Little East Conference," said Scheinman. "Our starting five is as good as anyone in our league, but we'll need a few of the other players to emerge as factors."