Mike Cardillo: St. Joseph hasn't missed a beat under first-year coach Watts
Updated 12:38 am, Sunday, January 27, 2013
TRUMBULL -- There's an oft-uttered phrase when it comes to coaching: "You don't want to be the guy that follows the guy."
Roughly translated, it's never an enviable task stepping into the shoes of a giant.
In Connecticut high school hoops, nobody has bigger shoes -- or casts a bigger shadow -- than Vito Montelli. The former St. Joseph coach retired last August after 50 seasons, 11 state titles and a state-record 878 victories, handing the keys to the Cadets' program over to longtime assistant Chris Watts.
So far for St. Joseph, so good in this transitional season -- its first without Montelli on the sideline.
The Cadets, the two-time defending Class LL champions, haven't missed a beat despite losing nearly 55 points from their starting lineup, including go-to guy Timajh Parker, now a freshman at Towson State.
"We knew the kids coming back were competitive," Watts said last week. "We didn't know how competitive we'd be. ¦ The kids, they realize once they put on the uniform, I'm not saying they're Clark Kent, but once they put on the uniform they understand the tradition that's occurred here."
St. Joseph is 12-1, including an impressive 87-85 win over Trinity Catholic in double overtime, along with an 85-51 demolition of two-time FCIAC champion Bassick Friday night at the Webster Bank Arena. It leaves the Cadets in line for high seeds in both the FCIAC and Class LL tournaments.
Outside the St. Joseph community, it's a safe bet few basketball fans felt bad for the Cadets coming into the season, considering the school's ability to draw on players from around the region. That said, all St. Joseph had returning from last season's 26-1 squad was Quincy McKnight -- talented as anyone, but still a sophomore third-option a year ago -- along with part-time starter Johnny Dzurenda and bit players Raekwon Reid, Jake Pelletier, Steve Hashemi and Erick Langston.
Add it up and it falls somewhere between the "rebuilding/reloading" spectrum.
Let's not forget, either, until winning the 2011 Class LL title St. Joseph had gone a decade without cutting down the nets, so there was always a chance the program could backslide considering the massive turnover.
"There was talk in the summer, a lot of talk about us not being good this year," said McKnight, a 6-foot-2 small forward averaging 15 points.
Whether St. Joseph will add to its championship resume remains to be seen. The FCIAC is evenly balanced with a pack of five or six teams yet to produce a clear frontrunner, while the Class LL is stacked with the usual heavyweights, like Hillhouse, Fairfield Prep, Windsor and Crosby, each preparing a resume worthy of a trip to the Mohegan Sun.
What's clear is that this is a different-look Cadets squad, mostly due to the lack of height from a year ago when the 6-foot-7 pairing of Parker and Patrick Hopkins made the court look small.
Instead the Cadets play a swarming, non-stop defense which has forced opponents into over 15 turnovers a game. The commitment to defense, still using many of Montelli's concepts, is a point of pride for Watts.
"A lot of teams coming in, maybe even some folks here at St. Joe's, thought it was just going to be an offensive-oriented thing," he said. "Folks were like, `Watts is an offensive guy. He had to do the offense for (Montelli) for years. Now he has to do the offense and defense, can he do it?' The question was could he teach both. That's where most of the surprise is coming from, `they're playing defense and he's not even a defensive guy.' For the fact we're playing both is a testament to the foundation that's been laid here."
It helps, too, that a player like Pelletier -- an all-FCIAC and Hearst Connecticut Newspapers all-star wide receiver in football -- looks like a different player than a year ago, using his athleticism to swoop in and steal passes at half-court or streak down the court for an easy layup on a long pass from Langston.
"Jake is the kind of kid who gets better as the game goes along," Watts said. "He just grinds out there. He starts off slow and people are like, `Who's this kid out there?' And as the game rolls on he becomes stronger."
Langston and Reid have both shown marked improvement moving into the starting lineup, while Dzurenda has proven to be a reliable second scoring option.
McKnight is clearly the Cadets' star player, but even he knows this season he won't be able to do it all alone and it's going to take contributions from everyone to keep the team's postseason success going.
"I'm not saying I have to be the guy to put the team on his back, but I have to be a leader," he said.
Much like the transition at UConn, with former player Kevin Ollie stepping in to take over for Jim Calhoun, the move from Montelli to Watts has gone off mostly without a hiccup. Like Calhoun, Montelli still has his fingerprints all over the program and can still be seen in the front row during games or watching practice from the sidelines.
Montelli had simple advice for Watts.
"I told him, there's a million ways to coach and they're all right," he said, citing recent NCAA champions like Syracuse winning with a zone defense or Rick Pitino's Kentucky team's nonstop pressing. "There isn't a wrong way."
Watts, who played at St. Joseph and later Providence, has cribbed extensively from his former coaches, who include Pitino, Jeff Van Gundy, Herb Sendak, Stu Jackson and his ex-roommate, Billy Donovan, now head coach at Florida with a pair of NCAA titles.
"These were all guys I've been able to steal from because coaching is nothing but stealing," Watts said.
The big question for St. Joseph and Watts going forward is how they're able to keep the tradition at the school going once the players from the back-to-back state titles move on and every incoming class becomes further and further removed from the Montelli legacy.
McKnight, for one, says it's pretty simple to get the message across to new players.
"We tell them to look around the gym -- there's nothing but banners," he said.
It's a new era, but the same results. So far.