When the winningest program in Division III history returns eight of nine letter winners and six starters from a “rebuilding” team that went 17-11 and finished third in the conference, you know it is going to be a good year to be a Wittenberg basketball fan.
The Wittenberg Tigers men’s basketball team went (17-11) overall last season and (9-7) in conference play, good for a third place finish in the North Coast Athletic Conference. But, what for most programs would be considered a wildly successful season, was seen as a rebuilding season because the team, which only returned three of its top seven scorers, failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. The 2012-2013 Tigers fell to arch-rival Wooster 78-66 in the NCAC Tournament semi-finals to end their season prematurely.
However, this season’s version of the Tigers will have much higher expectations, as the team returns eight letter winners, along with an extremely strong recruiting class. Wittenberg returns senior starters Steven Newell, Zack Leahy and Scott Masin, along with junior Sam Collins. The Tigers technically return six starters because senior Cole Bond and sophomore Alex Fultz shared the power forward spot last season. Juniors Ben Syroka and John Albertson are also returning letter winners at the point guard and post spots, respectively. Senior point guard Justin McDowell is manning the second unit after taking a season away from the team, and is joined by juniors Ben Bowen and Jack Mapes as contributors off of the bench. A talented freshmen class includes guards Cody Phillippi, Shane Edwards, and forwards Jaelin Williams, Brock Kiesler and Landon Hormann, all who saw solid minutes in the team’s two exhibition games.
The goals for the Tigers are pretty ambitious, but with such a talented team there’s no reason not to expect big things from the team.
“Win all of our home games, compete for the regular season title in the NCAC, win the NCAC tournament and automatic berth into the NCAA tournament,” Coach Bill Brown said when asked of his team’s goals for the season. Also, “compete for a home court berth in the NCAA tournament,” Brown added, which would mean the Tigers were one of the top 16 teams in the country entering the tournament. Wittenberg started the season ranked 27th in the country by D3hoops.com, with rival Wooster ranked 8th nationally and Ohio Wesleyan in the others receiving votes category.
The NCAC is certainly stacking up to be one of the best conferences in the country this season.
“Wooster always will be listed at the top of challengers,” Brown stated when asked about the NCAC. “Although the NCAC has never been better top to bottom with the likes of Ohio Wesleyan, Wabash, Depauw all the way through Kenyon, Denison, Hiram, Allegheny, etc.”
The Wittenberg seniors also have the chance to hit some impressive personal career milestones this season. Zack Leahy, who played for Division I Toledo his freshman year, only needs to score 10 points a game to reach 1,000 points for his career. Leahy also was named honorable mention all-conference last season and averaged 12 points per game. Scott Masin, a first team All-NCAC and third team All-Great Lakes Region honoree, is the favorite to win NCAC Player of the Year honors and has the chance to be named an All-American. Masin averaged 15.9 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game last season, and can reach 1,000 points for his Wittenberg career in the regular season if he averages 16 points per game. Steven Newell, Wittenberg’s starting point guard for his entire career, needs to average five assists a game to reach the top ten in program history, and has the ability to shoot 60 percent from behind the arc.
Wittenberg started the season with a trip to North Carolina for an exhibition game against Division I opponent Western Carolina. The Tigers lost 77-55, but the players matched up with the Catamounts pretty well, and the game would have been closer had the Tigers played a normal rotation. But, since it was an exhibition game, Wittenberg played 14 players so no Wittenberg player reached double digit points. Western Carolina is coached by former Wittenberg coach Larry Hunter, and are picked to finish third in their conference.
This season’s version of the Wittenberg men’s basketball team has the talent to reach the Final Four, and it will be their unselfishness that allows the team to succeed.