It was a storybook start to the season for the Keene State men’s basketball team.
The Owls started 4-0, utilizing a newfound level of efficiency from sophomore Jeff Hunter. Freshmen Mason Jean Baptiste and Nate Siow, both coming from winning high school programs, seemingly didn’t miss a beat.
And, all of a sudden, Keene State found itself in the Little East Conference championship.
Then it all came crashing down in a 108-68 loss to UMass-Dartmouth.
But, now, a week removed from the title game loss, head coach Ryan Cain said it’s not worth dwelling over.
“I think whether we had won or lost that championship game … given our circumstance, our age, it’s all going to be how we respond to that,” Cain said Tuesday. “I think, obviously, winning it would’ve provided a foundation for the future that may be different than losing in that game. One way or another, you’re going to have to use that outcome and build on that outcome.”
Despite the disappointing end to the season, Cain said there were many positives to take away from the COVID-adjusted year. The Owls return four starters next year, three of the team’s leading scorers, now with an added year of experience.
“I think this has been a strange year for all of us,” Cain said, adding that the team feels fortunate that they even had the chance to play. “It is an opportunity for us to take advantage of being able to practice and compete when maybe some other teams don’t have that opportunity.
“In terms of building a foundation for what we want to do on the offensive and defensive end of the floor, I thought we more than accomplished what we intended to do there,” Cain continued. “What it really comes down to now is player development. I think we have some really good pieces that now have an understanding of what we’re trying to do on offense and defense.”
If the team plays its cards right, Cain said he thinks the championship game appearance could be used as motivation for the team next year. But he doesn’t want a conference championship to be the team’s end goal.
“Playing in a championship game, there’s a lot to learn from,” Cain said. “But if you feel satisfied once you’ve gotten past the point that you’ve been at before … then you almost feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
And Cain doesn’t want to feel satisfied with a conference title when also chasing a national championship.
It’s a problem that has plagued Keene State in the past, Cain said.
In the 2014-15 season, a year before Cain started as head coach, the Owls won the LEC championship, but lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to John’s Hopkins.
The following year, the team made it to the Sweet 16 before falling to Christopher Newport University.
“The team wanted to get over that hump in the NCAA tournament after losing pretty big,” Cain said about that 2015-16 season.
In 2017, the Owls got past the Sweet 16, but fell in the Elite 8 to Babson College.
Cain said he felt that the team subconsciously took its foot off the gas after it got past the obstacle of the year before, whether it be the NCAA first round, Sweet 16 or Elite 8.
It’s something Cain wants this crew to avoid next year.
“What we’d like to do with this is use that opportunity to play in the [conference] championship game to set the bar as a program, and not necessarily set the bar when it comes to achieving a goal,” Cain said.
Now the focus shifts to continuing to develop the Owls’ young core, Cain said, to make sure the progam continues to take steps forward next year and beyond.