The Saint Martin’s University men’s basketball program is no longer the Little Engine That Could. It’s a runaway locomotive demolishing just about everything in its tracks.
Coach Alex Pribble has transformed the Saints from perennial underdogs to overwhelming their opponents in just a few short years.
If last year’s historic run to the second round of the NCAA Division II tournament was the overture, the show has certainly begun this season.
Currently ranked as the top seed in the NCAA West Regional polls and 11th national in the D2SIDA, Saint Martin’s has positioned itself to claim its first ever Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship this year.
Last year, in Pribble’s third season, the Saints won a school record NCAA-era 25 games, played for the GNAC championship for the first time in school history and secured their inaugural berth in the NCAA Tournament.
High expectations were placed on the squad based on last year’s success and the team has more than lived up to the lofty hype.
When it once was a rarity to post a 20-win season, Saint Martin’s made it back-to-back years with the win total following a 73-41 drubbing of Concordia University on February 14 at Marcus Pavilion – a place that has evolved into a true home court advantage for the Saints.
“My freshman year we’d walk into the gym and the crowd would never be into it,” said guard Kazuma Lane, one of eight seniors on Pribble’s roster this year. “We never felt that vibe where (the crowd) would start to get going. When we would win they would be happy, but when we lost it didn’t matter. Now when we lose, they wonder what’s going on.”
Fortunately for SMU, losses have been few and far between this season.
Prior to Pribble’s arrival, the Saints struggled to even make the GNAC tournament. This year the team wrapped up a post-season trip before February was even half over.
“To be able clinch a playoff berth and have five games left that’s something special,” Pribble said. “It comes back to the effort that guys like Rhett (Baerlocher), Kaz and Jordan (Kitchen) and Rob (Little) have done for four years. When we brought in a couple guys last year, it kind of added to the firepower and they gained some confidence, but these guys really work hard day in and day out to prepare themselves.”
And it shows. This is a different Saints program, the end result of the players’ hard work and Pribble and his staff’s dedication to building something highly successful in Lacey.
“From my freshman year to now the culture and everything has changed,” said Kitchen, who averages 7 points and 5 rebounds a game this year. “Guys are staying in after practice, getting shots up. Everyone wants to get better to make the team better. It’s completely different and I’m excited about that.”
When Lane and Kitchen were freshmen during Pribble’s first season, the team experienced a seven-game losing streak. The losses hurt, but they, along with their coach, credit the experience for helping set the standard for what the program is now.
“We went through a really tough stretch that first year and those are the growing pains,” Pribble said. “The guys worked hard to learn from their mistakes and they take great pride in the process of getting better every time they step on the floor.”
The Saints will close out the regular season on the road. They will play Northwest Nazarene University on February 28 in a game that will go a long way in deciding the GNAC regular season champion before closing out their slate in Ellensburg against Central Washington University on March 2.
“We all have a common goal here,” Kitchen said. “That’s to win the conference championship and get as far as we can in the tournament.”
The GNAC Championships will be March 7-9 in Bellingham. Regardless of how they fare in the conference tournament, SMU, based on its regional ranking, should follow that up by advancing to its second consecutive NCAA Division II Tournament – a foreign concept even a few short years ago.
“Things have changed a lot here,” said Lane, a three-time GNAC All-Academic recipient. “To be a part of that has been amazing.”
Saints 2019 Basketball Camp
The Saint Martin’s men’s basketball program will be offering a 2019 youth camp, which is open for boys and ages, ages 8-17, in July.
Camps, which will be at Marcus Pavilion, will be held July 8-11, July 15-18 and July 22-25, and will be directed by Saints’ head coach Alex Pribble, his current assistant coaches and SMU men’s basketball players.
Camp highlights include team games, 3-on-3 tournaments, fundamental skill stations, defensive clinics, shooting competitions, and 1-on-1 instruction.
Campers will receive a camp t-shirt, a certificate of participation, a skill evaluation, and have the chance to compete for various other camp prizes. Cost is $195 per camper. Register online.