NAIA Men's Update - For 3 Teams, The End Becomes The Start
The end of the college basketball season is, for many teams, disappointing and stirring. Sometimes, it can be heartbreaking and abrupt, with one loss extinguishing the dream of playing one more game together. Other times, the end can be a closure, a concrete point in time that signifies the end of one thing and the start of another. And other times still, the end can be a teacher, leaving a team with lessons to learn and errors to revise the next time they play a game.
At the end of the season, only one team is wholly satisfied with its performance–the team that lifts up their championship trophy and whose players scoop up confetti to store as a keepsake. For all of the other teams, the season ends in defeat; a cold, miserable, matter-of-fact loss. But more often than not, when that final second hits zero, that defeat becomes a catalyst for what is to come when the season starts anew.
And that’s where we find ourselves today: merely a few fortnights from the tipoff of the 2022-23 NAIA men’s basketball season. A season that for a trio of teams hopes to show improvement of varying degrees to their game of team basketball. A season that provides the opportunity to build upon the success of last year or, conversely, wipe the slate clean and work with a blank canvas.
Culver-Stockton Wildcats – A Lesson Learned the Hard Way
Before last year, the previous two seasons left much to be desired for the men from Culver-Stockton. The Wildcats went 5-23 in 2019-20 and stumbled through 2020-21 to the tune of 5-14.
Last season, the Wildcats got out of the gate white hot, opening up with ten consecutive wins, the program’s longest winning streak in 75 years and its best undefeated start in program history. The win streak positioned Culver for its best campaign in years, but a one-two punch in the month of December would derail the Wildcats’ season.
On December 4th, Culver had a date with No. 3-ranked William Penn. The date hardly went well as the Statesmen handed Culver its first loss of the season; a 119-76 trouncing what was only the start of a difficult December. In the middle of a four-game losing streak, the locker room was ambushed by a series of non-Covid illnesses that included the flu and pneumonia; resulting in piecemeal lineups and inconsistent performances.
Reflecting on that time, Head Coach Aaron Hill acknowledges that the season wasn’t the same following that dispiriting December. “We didn’t quite bounce back from that great,” said Hill, “and probably never got back to focusing in as well as we could have on what was next in line for us.”
What was next in line were separate losing streaks of four and five games, the latter of which terminated their season. “We maybe just thought a little more of ourselves than we should have. Probably should have had a little more humility about ourselves,” said Hill, who has coached in his hometown of Canton, Mo. for the last four seasons. Culver finished an even 14-14 last season.
As they begin this new season, the Wildcats know what they need to improve and they have a strong foundation to do it. At least eleven players return from last season, including three of their top four scorers. Leading the bunch will be senior Jalen Blaize, who earned an honorable mention for the Heart of America all-conference team after averaging 17.2 points per game and shooting 44.5% from three point range.
Blaize’s supporting cast includes senior guard Javon Modester, who was third on the team in scoring and led the group with 4.0 assists per game. Fourth-year Wildcat Jim King averaged 8.3 points per game just behind Modester.
Culver-Stockton lost leading scorer and rebounder Alonzo Ortiz-Traylor to the pros this summer. However, they are bringing back 2020-21 Heart of America Athletic Conference freshman of the year Robert Fry II, who had transferred away from Culver-Stockton after his fantastic freshman season, in which he averaged 20.1 points per game. Fry II was with the NCAA Division II Saint Leo Lions for one year before returning to Culver this season.
But it isn’t the offense that Coach Hill has identified as the team’s paramount focus for this season. It was the late defensive possessions that cost Culver many close games last year; half of its losses were by six points or fewer. “The value of holding everybody to one shot now, especially in winning time…all those possessions are at a premium,” Hill explained.
Culver hasn’t played in the conference tournament since 2015 and hasn’t made the NAIA Tournament since 2014. After the historic start last year, Coach Hill’s team goal is to take the next step forward and play in the postseason this year. When asked if his team is prepared for what that will take, Coach Hill says, “I think those guys have had some good individual success and they’re very good players and I think they’re hungry to experience a different level of team success right now.”
At the end of the day, Coach Hill knows that everything that happened last year will make his team better this year, and he embraces the journey. “There’s just steps in the process of winning and becoming the program that you want to become that sometimes you can’t skip. That’s what last year felt like at times. Lesson maybe learned the hard way for all of us and can learn from it and get better.”
Culver-Stockton learned not to count chickens before they hatch and that championships aren’t won in December. If this team gets off to another strong start this year they could ride that wave into the Heart of America conference tournament.
Indiana East Red Wolves – A Return to the Culture
Head Coach Mark Hester and his Indiana East teams are synonymous with winning basketball. The Red Wolves compiled 20+ win seasons in ten of the last 12 years prior to 2020 and have won four of six conference tournaments in that same span.
Fans saw a different breed of Red Wolves the last two seasons. The Covid-19 pandemic presented supplemental challenges for Indiana East. The university placed restrictions on recruitment that limited Hester and his staff from thoroughly evaluating talent in ways they normally would. Because of this, the coaching staff brought in players who, while talented, didn’t have the type of character that fit the culture at IU East, according to Coach Hester. Unsurprisingly, the team’s lack of character led to a lack of wins.
By the end of December last season, following a 7-9 start,Coach Hester says it was apparent that his team lacked the appropriate mental approach to the game. The Red Wolves finished 16-15 and Hester knew there needed to be drastic changes.
And so enters the 2022-23 season. Only four players from last year’s squad remain on the current team, a group that brings in nine freshmen and twelve new players overall. But Coach Hester isn’t lamenting over the struggles of the previous two seasons. In fact, he’s rejuvenated by the opportunities this season provides.
To summarize what this year’s team brings to the floor, Coach Hester offers one word, “moldability.”
“These kids are coachable,” says Hester, “They’re good kids that genuinely want to get better and they want to be there for each other, which is very refreshing because that’s the mentality we’re used to and it’s great to have that back again.”
Hester stresses the importance of culture in his program and insists it’s woven into every fiber of their team. At the forefront of that culture is exceptional communication and accountability, two principles that Coach Hester, armed with a new, motivated roster, is eager to reignite. “I’m excited about the way these guys pay attention and ask questions and talk…and we’re getting more comfortable with each other and the more they’re holding each other accountable.”
Coach Hester knows what it takes for a good team to become great. “A coach-led team is only gonna go so far. A player-led team is going to have the chance to be great”, says the 2017-18 River States Conference coach of the year. Two of those players who can lead this team are pictured front and center in the team photo on the IU East website: Jamisen Smith and Bryce Long.
Smith started 29 games last year and contributed on both ends of the floor. A well-rounded player entering his third year with the Red Wolves, he’s ready to be a more vocal leader for this new group of players.
Long, a four-year player at IU East, is by all accounts a winner, according to his head coach. “He just does the little things that it takes to win,” praised Hester. Long was third on the team in rebounds and Coach Hester hopes Long’s approach will help teach the accountability that will help define their season.
This team will have to traverse this season exactly as that: a team. They’ll need to rely on each other and work together in order to achieve success. But if you ask Coach Hester, that’s exactly how he prefers it. “We’ve never been a program that’s been built around one person or has one person stand out. When we’ve been good it’s because we have a lot of guys that are capable and that’s the model that we’re going to continue to follow.”
While the goal of winning a national championship remains unchanged, Coach Hester understands that it will be tough sledding at first. But by the start of the second semester, all excuses go out the window and the expectations will begin to rise.
Peru State College Bobcats – Kicking Down the Door
Peru State College is the oldest college in the state of Nebraska and older than basketball itself. Located a few miles west of the Mississippi River, Peru is home to 845 people and one very talented basketball team. The Bobcats believe that they can make some noise this season. They feel that a couple close losses likely kept them out of the NAIA Tournament and they’re determined to not let that happen again. Following a 16-15 season last year, they’re back with a handful of returning players and are going back to the basics so they can stake their claim in the Heart of America Athletic Conference.
Peru has a talented core led by a trio of returning seniors. Jibril Harris is poised to have what sixth-year Coach Bob Ludwig calls a “monster year.” The team’s leading scorer and rebounder racked up 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game last season; and he’s only gotten better. “He’s lost about 30 to 35 pounds and stayed here all summer and put in a ton of work,” says Ludwig.
Another key player returning this year is Troy Houghton, who added 11.2 points per game and shot 62.6% from the floor last year. To do all that scoring you need someone to distribute the ball, and Man Man Baker did just that; leading the team with 4.6 assists per game to go along with 8.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
And because you can never have too much scoring, Peru is bringing in senior guard Lorenzo Anderson, who averaged 23.3 points per game for Judson University last year. Anderson earned National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) second team all-american honors with the Eagles last year and looks to provide a jolt of scoring to a potent offense.
With all this offensive firepower and familiarity amongst players, Coach Ludwig is taking inspiration from a Hall of Fame coach; Villanova’s Jay Wright. “He allows his guys to play with a lot of freedom because he trusts they’re gonna stay spaced,” said Ludwig of Coach Wright. And for the first time in a few years, Ludwig believes he has a team that can implement a similar style of play. “We can really trust our guys to roll it out and kind of just play our ball screen motion philosophy.”
Of course, there are areas of improvement for Peru. Coach Ludwig says as good as they were offensively, it was team defense and turnovers that led to Peru losing seven games by six points or fewer, including the one that ended its season. “Offensively, we were great, but we turned it over a lot. And so we’ve just kind of tried to get back to basics a little bit.” The Bobcats averaged 13.4 turnovers per game last season, two more than what their opponents averaged against them.
Ludwig likes how his team has progressed through the summer as they build up to their season opener against Morningside on Oct. 29. “We had a great spring with the guys as far as some fundamental stuff and really a higher concentration on playing off two feet.”
And it isn’t lost on Coach Ludwig how rare it is to have a team that’s played together for as long as this one has. “It’s just meant a lot to me as a coach to have all these guys,” Ludwig said. “It just motivates me to work hard for ‘em.”
The expectations that Coach Ludwig is setting for his team are unmistakable. “We really feel that this is a national tournament roster and we would be very disappointed, if we were healthy, if we weren’t able to give ourselves a chance to play in that field of 64 and finish in the top part of our league.”
It’s all out there for the Bobcats. They have the talent and the leadership to win a lot of games this season. If they do what they need to do, this is a team that could roll into the NAIA Tournament and win games.
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