After a Long Season, Marist Hopes to Finally Find Success in Atlantic City

It was a cool evening in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The tourists roamed Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk and waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashed onto the beach. 

Inside Boardwalk Hall, Marist’s Jordan Jones grabbed a defensive rebound, passed to Marist guard, Raheim Sullivan, who went in for a layup. Blocked. 

Jones grabbed the loose ball, attempted to pass, but finding no open teammate, attempted a tough fallaway layup that fell short. Niagara grabbed the rebound. Marist’s 2021 men’s basketball season, the best the program had seen in 15 years, had come to a tragic ending. 

Time of death, 9:30 p.m., March 11, 2021.

On April 3, 2018, John Dunne was named head coach of Marist basketball. The challenge: fix a broken program. Dunne’s three previous predecessors, Chuck Martin, Jeff Bower, and Mike Mayer, from 2008-2018, combined for a 112-234 record, winning just 32 percent of games played with zero winning seasons. 

The results were not instant. Dunne’s first two seasons were in line with his predecessors, posting 12-19 and 7-23 records. Last year, however, the program took off, posting a 12-9 season, despite rigid COVID-19 protocols and canceled games, the Red Foxes had their first winning campaign since 2007.

“We did not have a lot of experience together,” said Marist senior forward Braden Bell, referring to the first two seasons of Dunne. “We lost a lot of close games, and that kind of taught us how to win the close games (that they won last year).”

The next step in the arc of the program is going back to Atlantic City and winning. It has been a 365-day grind for Marist men’s basketball to get back to this position, and get the chance for a better outcome. It has finally arrived.

Rebuilding was essential. In the offseason, Marist lost Hakim Byrd and Michael Cubbage to the transfer portal. Freshman Jao Ituka, a latecomer to the team who Marist did not even recruit until Byrd’s departure, as Center Field previously reported, has helped to fill the void.

Marist’s 2022 season got off to a solid start. On January 16, the Red Foxes found themselves sitting at 8-8 overall and 3-4 in conference play, after crushing their MAAC rival, Monmouth, by 37 points, 84-48.

But Marist then hit a massive swoon, losing five straight games, the first four all by less than 10 points, before getting blitzed by the Saint Peter’s Peacocks, formerly led by Marist head coach John Dunne, 66-50 to fall to 8-13, 3-9 in conference play.

“We did not have a championship attitude,” said Dunne of the losing streak.

Marist players decided that enough was enough.

“We had a team meeting,” said Marist senior center Jordan Jones. “We aired all our grievances.”  

What happened after that meeting, was an unexpected turnaround. 

Marist came back to annihilate Monmouth for a second time, this time by 25 points and followed up with victories over Canisius by one, Niagara by seven, Quinnipiac by one, and Manhattan by 18. 

“In our losing streak, we lost a lot of close games,” Dunne said. “In our six-game win streak, we hit the timely big shots, maintained focus, and got to the point where we were valuing every possession.”

Ituka really took off in this stretch, winning multiple MAAC conference weekly player awards and leading the Red Foxes in scoring in four of the six games.

Marist continued for nearly a month without losing a game and set off on their Western New York road trip this past week, needing just a single win in their final two regular-season games to clinch the number five seed in the MAAC tournament and a first-round bye for the second straight year. The Red Foxes failed to do that, losing by nine to last place Canisius on Thursday and by 31 to Niagara on Saturday. 

The Red Foxes will now have a much quicker turnaround than they hoped, taking the stage two days earlier than expected, as the sixth seed, on Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. against Quinnipiac, the 11-seed, who they split the season series with, losing 94-87 on January 28 on the road, then won at home 67-66 on February 20.

Playing two days earlier than expected creates some challenges for Marist who took a six-hour bus trip back home on Saturday night only to hop back on the bus on Monday afternoon for Atlantic City. 

“There is no whining from us,” Dunne said.  “You have to play the cards that you were dealt.” 

Marist may have played a bad hand by failing to take advantage of this past weekend.

When Marist takes the court, they will have to win four games in five days to grab the MAAC conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament and appear in March Madness, something the Red Foxes have not done since 1986 in the days of former NBA star Rik Smits. 

Marist does not have a lot of MAAC Tournament success to fall back on as they have not won a game in the tournament in seven years, and have not made the semifinals in 14 years. 

Optimism is buzzing in Poughkeepsie going into the MAAC Tournament. Under Dunne, Marist men’s basketball is headed in an upward trajectory for the first time since 2007. With just three wins in the MAAC tournament, Dunne could have a second straight winning season, and that would be the first time for the program 2006-2008.

While Dunne is 0-3 at Marist in the tournament, he does know what it takes to win games in the MAAC tournament. Dunne has the second most wins of all active MAAC coaches in the tournament, with nine wins, dating back to his days at Saint Peter’s. Three of those wins came in 2011, when Saint Peter’s had their most successful season in program history, winning the MAAC tournament, and advancing to the NCAA Tournament.

“There is no teacher-like experience,” said Dunne. “You have to stay in the moment, be poised and in the moment, and strive for late-game execution.”

Marist has lost heartbreakers on the final possession of games in the last two seasons, but the Red Foxes have nine returning players from last year who are looking to relieve that heartbreak this season.

“We are just really eager to show this league what we are capable,” said Bell. “This league is all about the tournament (MAAC tournament), and we have been preparing for this all season.”

The Red Foxes have been preparing for this moment since their season came to an end last March and, with their experience and the addition of Ituka, they are well equipped for success this time around.

“It’s a business trip, but you got to get the first one and then anything can happen,” said Dunne.

Edited by Bridget Reilly and Jonathan Kinane

Photo from Marist Athletics

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