The ups and the downs. The good, the bad and the ugly. All of the above are what the men’s basketball team has experienced in the off season.
The seventeen-season head coach Ron Hunter, who led the team to its first and so far only NCAA tournament in 2003, took his coaching skills to Georgia State. The team also lost two key starters in Leroy Nobles and John Ashworth.
Nobles and Ashworth played a lot of games, started a lot of games, and won a lot of games--- together. They cannot necessarily be replaced with just two guys taking their spots.
Instead, it will take three senior returning starters, key players from last season and long-time assistant coach under Hunter, Todd Howard, as the new head coach to get this team going past the off season turbulence.
Alex Young, Stephen Thomas and Christian Siakam return as who assistant Coach Matt Crenshaw says are “kind of the heart and soul—the pulse of the team.” Young has already been voted the Summit League Preseason Player of the Year by coaches from the league and various people from media and sports information. Siakam led the team in rebounding last year and Thomas averaged 11 points per game and made his way to the All-Newcomer Team.
The three returning starters aren’t the only fuel to the fire. Junior guard Sean Esposito returns with an imperative role as a knockdown shooter.
“He had some success last year and started some games, but we need him to step up and play more of a role than he did last year,” said Crenshaw.
Esposito isn’t the only player who will need to step up either as new pieces have been added to the puzzle. Some players are just going to have to step up to the plate and fill positions when necessary. Junior guard Greg Rice will be returning from an injury and coaches are anticipating the return of his abilities that will help define his role for the team.
Defining roles will be vital this season for the Jags, especially if they want to earn some respect. After the preseason, IUPUI was ranked to finish fourth in the conference behind new addition South Dakota, Oakland and Oral Roberts. ORU has their entire starting five from a season ago returning, and South Dakota plays a similar style of basketball to the Jags.
“The guys took the ranking as a slap in the face, but they know they have to earn respect on the court,” said Crenshaw.
The team isn’t about to blow every single competitor out of the water because there are still challenges they face on the way to the top. Challenge number one: tough schedule. Both Georgetown and Louisville, who are arguably two of the best teams in one of the nation’s top conferences, are opponents who apply full court pressure and cause turnovers. Survival technique: don’t succumb to the pressure and remain poised.
Challenge number two: coaching change. Coach Ron Hunter’s departure was shocking, but very manageable. Assistant coach Todd Howard stepped up to the plate keeping many of the offensive ideas the same. However, Hunter consistently played a matchup zone defense, and Howard is switching to an aggressive man-to-man defense.
“We may use some zone, but will focus on playing the best man-to-man,” said Crenshaw. “Howard has done a great job of getting across a clear understanding of how he wants them to play. The guys are getting better and better.”
Survival technique: take advantage of practice, pre-season and exhibition games. Wednesday was a scrimmage open to the public, and environment for the scrimmage and the exhibition games will be more relaxed than regular season games. It gives the guys a chance to get in front of a crowd and most importantly play with referees. New additions like true freshman Lyonell Gaines and sophomore transfer Ian Chiles will get a chance to settle in an unfamiliar environment and add games to their belts while coaches get to make some adjustments. The games should help the coaches adapt and arrange lineups that are suited best for general and particular games.
Overall, the biggest plus of the season for the team is the home games. Last season the Jags had no non-conference home games compared this seasons six straight, which is the longest home game streak since the 1997-1998 season. The Jags have 16 total home games and that proves to be nothing but an advantage as the guys have consistently finished the seasons showing they defend their home court well. Last season the guys won nine of their eleven home games, including the games hosted at Conseco Fieldhouse.
More home games, better record, right? Well, it may not be as easy as that, but it definitely could be. The IUPUI men’s basketball team is looking to gain much respect this season and that’s a great advantage to start with.
Follow Candis' stories this year as she covers men's basketball program for Campus Citizen right here at IUPUICampusCitizen.com!