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Depth a key for St. Francis men's basketball

By John Grochowski | For the Sun-Times

The men’s basketball team at St. Francis of Joliet hasn’t always been overpowering this season. Blowouts have been rare, and going into Wednesday’s 57-52 victory at Robert Morris, the Saints were averaging 74 points a game to 70 for their opponents.

Nonetheless, victories have been plentiful for the Saints (18-5, 12-0), who have soared into the CCAC lead and into the NAIA Division II rankings. In the latest poll released Tuesday, St. Francis is No. 16, up eight spots from a week ago when they broke into the top 25.

“I really think a lot of it has to do with our chemistry,” said second-year coach Ryan Marks of his team’s ability to win close games. “There’s a good belief among the guys that we’re going to find a way to win. They’re comfortable in close games, and we have a very intelligent group of guys.”

It’s been a big step forward for the Saints, who were 15-15, 12-7 last season. One reason is point guard Jake Raspopovich, a sophomore point guard transfer from NCAA Division I Texas Pan-American, who is averaging 5.8 assists per game to go with 5.4 points.

“He’s given us some things we didn’t have last year,” Marks said of Raspopovich, who is averaging 5.7 assists per game. “He’s a really solid ball-pressure defender. I think he’s changed the whole tone of our team defensively. He’s a very unselfish distributor and I think that has become contagious for us offensively.”

The bulk of the scoring comes from 6-5 junior forward Ilya Ilyayev (17.0 points per game), 6-3 junior guard Edvinas Presniakovas (14.2) and 6-8 junior forward-center Jens Kennedy (13.2). Kennedy does most of his scoring in the post, while Ilyayev creates matchup problems because he can play on the block and shoot the three-pointer.

Presniakovas, Marks said, “has had a nice progression through his career. His reputation is as a shooter, and he is a good shooter, but he’s become a more well-rounded offensive player. He’s getting to the basket more, and we post him up a little bit.”

But Marks said what’s most important is the Saints’ depth.

“We’re not a team that necessarily you’d say there’s one guy who’s the player of the year in the league or anything of that nature,” he said. “We play 10, sometimes 11 guys a night. We have a unique group of guys who buy into that.”

Cardinals No. 1

North Central climbed four spots to No. 1 in the latest NCAA Division III men’s indoor track rankings by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. The Cardinals have 185.46 points in the performance-based rankings, followed by Wisconsin-Eau Claire (158.71) and defending indoor national champion Wisconsin-LaCrosse (158.45).

North Central’s Aron Sebhat has the nation’s best times so far in the mile (4:11.89) and 3,000-meter run (8:28.54). Travis Morrison is the leader at 5,000 (14:26.70), where the Cardinals have the nation’s top five times, and Luke Winder is No. 1 in the pole vault (17-1).