The resurgence of the St. Michael's men’s basketball program over the last two years has been fueled by a combination of factors. The Purple Knights have flourished under the leadership of head coach Josh Meyer, who moved up to become head coach at the start of the 2013-14 season after serving two years as SMC's top assistant.
Meyer has guided a veteran team that starts five seniors, led by the backcourt of Corey Crawford II and Mike Holton, Jr., the team’s two leading scorers. But perhaps the most central cog in this St. Michael's renaissance has been forward James Cambronne, arguably the most versatile player in SMC history.
Cambronne is averaging 11.8 points and 6.6 rebounds this year after leading the team in scoring last season with a 16-point average. He is four blocks shy of becoming the first Purple Knight in 95 years to amass 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 150 blocks in his career.
"That would be nice because it would bring a great feeling of accomplishment for doing something you love," Cambronne said. "But I'd rather win games."
That's something that proved elusive during this senior class' first two seasons when the Purple Knights won a total of 19 games. But with Cambronne leading the charge, SMC went 18-9 and advanced to the Northeast-10 Conference quarterfinals in 2013-14, winning the most league games (13) in 13 years.
St. Michael's will carry a 16-10 overall mark, a 12-0 conference record against St. Rose on Friday. It will be SMC's first home playoff game since 2007.
"I think we’re in really good shape," Meyer said. "The separation in the league this year is very small. Our guys are ready to go."
As singular as Cambronne’s career arc has been, it is matched by the path he took to land at St. Michael's. His parents are both natives of Haiti and he was the first member of the family born in the United States. After spending his early years in Connecticut, the family moved to Florida where Cambronne played tennis as a kid, not basketball.
"In eighth grade I was average height – maybe five (feet)-nine (inches)," he said. "But then I had a growth spurt and jumped up to about 6-3 and wanted to play basketball, like all my friends."
But Cambronne didn't have the basketball skills to go with his new height and did not make the team at Father Lopez High School. Another growth spurt before his sophomore year pushed Cambronne up to 6-6 and this time he made the varsity.
In the summer before his junior year, Cambronne's basketball abilities began to match his size and he was named the team's most valuable player in back-to-back seasons. He spent a year at The Winchendon School in Massachusetts before deciding on SMC.
"I don't remember exactly when I made my visit, but it wasn’t snowing," Cambronne said. "The environment was very welcoming and made me feel comfortable. The coaches were very straight with me and thought I could be one of the best big men in the league. I figured I'd get used to being cold."
Meyer felt they had uncovered a diamond in the rough.
"It was apparent that James had had a lot of potential – you don't see a lot of players with his combination of athleticism and versatility," he said. "But he has really applied himself in all areas to become a better player."
It wasn't all roses at first. He played in 25 games as a freshman but started only five, averaging 7.2 points and just less than two blocks. That increased to 26 games and 12 starts as a sophomore as the averages bumped up to 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds a game.
"The first two years were difficult for me," Cambronne said. "I was adapting to the whole feel of education and basketball and understanding the importance of time management. But I learned from it and stayed positive."
As it had been in high school, Cambronne's breakout season came in his junior year, his first with Meyer at the helm.
"Sometimes it takes a year or two to get familiar with everything," Meyer said. "We just tried to let him know we believed in his ability and then he really stepped it up from there. He has really honed his skills and thinks the game very well."
Cambronne plays primarily the power forward position. He has the size and bulk (6-7, 230 pounds) to play with his back to the basket but the long-range shooting touch (he is shooting 48 percent from 3-point distance) to score from the perimeter. This makes him a defensive nightmare for opposing teams.
"He's one of the most difficult match-ups in the league," Meyer said. "It's tough for the bigger guys because he can really shoot it. And he can take the smaller guys inside and score on them."
The drop-off in scoring this season is more a sign of SMC’s depth than anything else.
"We have a very balanced attack and the statistics reflect that (seven different players have led the team in scoring this season)," Meyer said. "Our philosophy is share the ball and let the shot find itself and James has done a great job with that."
Cambronne is on path to graduate in the spring. And then?
"I'm not certain but playing overseas is my No. 1 goal," he said. "That's something I've always wanted to do."