Depth, size, consistency give Men’s Basketball high expectations for 2011-12 season
MEQUON, Wis. - When looking
back on last year's season and what the men's basketball team at
Concordia University Wisconsin accomplished, it would seem
satisfying for many. But for head coach Shawn Cassidy and his
program it wasn't enough.
CUW cruised through the Northern Athletics Conference with an unblemished 16-0 record - the first time in conference history that had been done - and earned an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. Despite jumping into the top-25 national rankings, and the successes from a season ago, the coaching staff and players view this year as if they have more to prove.
"Our goals are to play at a high level every game and get better as the season goes on," Cassidy said. "We want to advance farther than we have before and other than that, we haven't set individual or season goals. We just want to get better at what we are doing."
The outlook for this year's team is high with seven seniors and three juniors leading the way. The Falcons, however, will have to fill the void of All-NAC First Team and 1,000 point scorer Edward Newton-Kemp and starting center Cory Stark, who helped CUW finish 23-5 last season - the best record since the 1976-77 team that finished 27-6.
Cassidy views this year's team having greater depth since he took over prior to the 2007-08 season.
"Experience is a key for us in being successful this season," he said. "We have been through a lot of things together; as a staff and team. We have shown we can sustain whatever comes our way and we know what we are going to get every night out of the guys, especially the top 10, whoever that may be."
There is one thing that changes year-in and year-out with every collegiate basketball team across the country, and that is team chemistry. While the Falcons are loaded with returning talent, every team goes through the difficulties of incorporating the freshmen and transfers into their family and rotation.
This year's freshmen class includes 11 newcomers and is highlighted by Ben Brooke (Viroqua, Wis.), Josh Horness (Sheboygan, Wis.) and Garrett Wenzelburger (Hartland, Wis.) who all competed in the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association All-Star Game, which is comprised of the top high school talent in the state.
"This could be the top recruiting class we have ever had," Cassidy said. "They are an outstanding group of young men, on and off the court. In fact there are a number of big freshmen that we have that could play a number of positions, and they could be the core for us for a long time."
Matt Paluchniak (Oostburg, Wis.) and Mitchell Schneider (New Holstein, Wis.) return to lead a senior class that has earned over 50 wins during their careers. All-NAC performer Luke Doedens (Cedarburg, Wis.), along with Schneider, are ready to lead a team that ranked 24th in the nation in scoring offense (80.9 points per game) and seventh in turnover margin (5.8).
"I think you have to include Matt, Mitch, and Luke all in the same sentence," Cassidy said. "They are very solid basketball players and solid young men. You always know what you are going to get out of them. With those three returning to the starting lineup, it makes me very confident going into any game and I trust what they do completely."
Nick Doedens (Germantown, Wis.) and David Lopez (Chicago, Ill.) have increased their defensive presence three weeks into training camp and have been shooting at a high level, according to Cassidy. Zach Neumann (Colgate, Wis.) brings an aggressive mindset to both ends of the court and his shooting touch has improved since last season. Erik Condia (Orange, Calif.) returns for his senior year after spending the past two years away from the program. Condia will provide the team with a big body who doesn't shy away from contact and will always rebound.
If rebounding becomes a key component down the stretch of the season, the Falcons will appear to have no problem hauling in opponent's missed shots. CUW's power forwards and centers are at least 6-foot-5 in height and weigh at least 215 pounds. The component that Cassidy loves with his big men is their versatility and willingness to fight for loose balls.
Junior Steve Zielinski (Brown Deer, Wis.) along with Condia give Cassidy two true centers, which he has never had during his time as head coach. When push comes to shove the two can deliver a shot blocking presence when needed. Junior Brian Jackson (Carol Stream, Ill.) will also provide depth and a defensive presence inside.
The Falcons also have several forwards that are competing for playing time. Having potentially six forwards in the rotation for one or two spots on the floor could be difficult for Cassidy, but he likes the possibilities and combinations.
"I feel comfortable playing any one of our forwards," he said. "It has been interesting to see them pushing each other at practice. The difficult part right now is I don't know who is going to be on the floor."
The front court is deep, but the back court is even deeper with five seniors that could all play a guard position. Counting junior guard Bryan Donaldson (Greenfield, Wis.) and the future emergence of several sophomores and freshmen the back court could be the deepest of any in the region.
Paluchniak ranked fourth among NAC guards last season with a 3.8 assists per game average, but more importantly it was his 2-to-1 turnover to assist ratio that will be relied on again. Last year his court awareness directed an offense that ranked 79th out of 402 teams with a 1.04 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Last season the Falcons recorded 290 steals (10.4 per game) - which ranked 20th nationally - and the majority of those thefts came from the back court. While defense is a substantial characteristic during a championship run, CUW looks to its offense more times than not.
The outside shot can cause headaches for some head coaches, but Cassidy loves to see his guards drive and kick to an open man for a knockdown triple. A year ago the Falcons sank more long balls (219) than any team in the conference at a 35.3 percent rate.
"Our guards will cause a lot of problems for our opponents," Cassidy said. "They can all shoot from long distance and will rotate defensively for each other. Looking at our roster we have so many guys that are interchangeable between the three guard spots. The more options we have in each game the better we are going to be."
The 2011-12 non-conference portion of the schedule is difficult to say the least, with four games against Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schools - all on the road. The Falcons open the year with a road matchup at UW-La Crosse on Tuesday, Nov. 15 before traveling to UW-Platteville for a two-game tournament on Nov. 18 and 19. The Falcons will compete against UW-Platteville and UW-Eau Claire in the tournament.
To end the calendar year, CUW travels to Wisconsin Dells for a non-league contest against UW-Oshkosh. Cassidy feels that with 10 returning players who were a part of last season's tournament run, it gave him the flexibility to put together a tougher schedule than normal to prepare his team for NAC play.
"We were pretty intentional with our scheduling this year," Cassidy said. "We wanted to know right off the bat what we have. Playing four tough UW schools on the road is going to put us in a challenging situation early in the year. Hopefully it will help see where our strengths and weaknesses are and what kind of team we are going to be this year."
The NAC portion of the schedule doesn't get any easier for the Falcons as they play just two of the first six league games at home. CUW opens conference play on Saturday, Nov. 26 against Concordia University Chicago at 4:30 p.m.
"We did some things last year that had not been done before," Cassidy said. "We want to make sure our regional power ranking is high enough and that it can sustain us through a tough, tough season. We intentionally put ourselves in some difficult situations that will prepare us for a challenging conference season. There are no easy games out there."
"We don't talk too much about winning, at all." Cassidy said. "We talk about doing things right. If we do things right, the winning will take care of itself. I think that alleviates some of the pressure and anxiety, but we just need to take care of what we are doing and be the best basketball team we can."