Not since 2008, when two-time NAIA All-American Phil French graduated, has the Olivet Nazarene University men’s basketball team had to replace a player the caliber of point guard Antonio Marshall. An NAIA All-American himself, Marshall played the role of Tigers’ leader during the 2011-12 season and capped his career among the school’s best in several stat categories. Perhaps most telling is that he led the time in minutes per game in each of the last three seasons.
Replacing Marshall will be the Tigers’ biggest hurdle this season, but a small group of returning players have their sights set on leading Olivet back to the NAIA National Championship tournament, an event the team missed out on a year ago.
“That’s the most significant question facing our team,” head coach Ralph Hodge said of filling Marshall’s role. “It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m confident as the season progresses, it will be a solid position for us.”
Among those expected to pick up the slack in Marshall’s absence is senior perimeter player Ben Worner (Washington Ill.), an NAIA All-America Honorable Mention last season. A smart, crafty player, Worner is the Tigers’ lone returning all-conference player. He finished second on the team with 12.6 points per game and led the team with a .408 three-point percentage.
Tigers big men Brandon Streets and Jake Hasselbring also graduated, which leaves a hole underneath the basket. Expected to step in is senior center Jake Boyce (Lockport, Ill.), who started 30 of 31 games last season and averaged 9.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
Worner, Boyce and fellow senior Torey Laferney (Flint, Mich.) will be the ones expected to carry the leadership reins for a young team.
“Overall, we have the least amount of scoring, rebounding and minutes coming back we’ve ever had,” Hodge said. “But it’s not only a challenge for our guys, but an opportunity.”
Joining Boyce in the post will be two sophomores, Matt Ryan (San Diego, Calif.) and Seth Johnson (Bringhurst, Ind.). Ryan averaged just 4.8 points over 20 games last year, but he can shoot the ball from the perimeter and guard quicker post players. Johnson, meanwhile, stands 6-foot-9 and spent last season on the junior varsity team.
Two freshmen will also be expected to contribute in the post: Aaron Larson (Tolono, Ill.) and Zach Wagner (Roselle, Ill.). An all-stater in high school, the 6-foot-7 left-handed Larson can stretch defenses with his shot and he has a knack for the ball. Wagner is a physical player who rebounds well and isn’t afraid of contact. Meanwhile, sophomore Austin Halcomb (Bourbonnais, Ill.) will begin the year rehabbing his knee after battling injuries as a freshman.
On the perimeter, sophomores Tony Banks (Peoria, Ill.) and Austin Davis (North Augusta, S.C.) will fill the absence at Marshall’s point guard position. Banks played in 12 games last year and provided valuable minutes during the second half of the season. Davis played in 27 games and was lights out from beyond the arc. He led the team in both field-goal (.586) and three-point (.571) percentage. Both players will see time at the other guard position, too, and freshman J.D. Zamroz (Perkasie, Pa.) will have an opportunity to learn and develop on the varsity team.
Laferneyhas the most experience of the returning guard and wing players. Nineteen of his 31 games played were starts and he averaged 5.4 points, although he’ll be asked to contribute even more rebounding and on defense this season. Three freshmen could also work into the mix: Local standout Ben Wenzelman (Herscher, Ill.) adds toughness and can knock down a tough shot, Reid Farchmin(Mahomet, Ill.) is a smart player and competent passer and Jordan Clevenger (Avon, Ind.) brings quickness and athleticism. Meanwhile, sophomore Danny Olson (Cullom, Ill.) will be available during the second half of the season. He averaged 4.3 points in 18 games a season ago.
While the Tigers’ primary goal is to return to the NAIA National Championship tournament, they’d also like to return to the top of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference. Last year’s 19-12 team finished second in both the regular-season standings and in the CCAC Tournament, and the Tigers haven’t brought home either CCAC since 2006.
With a change in the CCAC alignment and the Tigers’ move to NAIA Division II, this year’s schedule will feature fewer nonconference games than normal. In fact, the Tigers will play just five nonconference contests, compared to 24 CCAC games before the conference tournament.
Among the nonconference games is the Nazarene Thanksgiving Classic, which will be held at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan. The Tigers will face MidAmerica, ranked 16th in the NAIA Division I Top 25 preseason poll, and either Southern Nazarene University (Okla.) and Trevecca Nazarene University (Tenn.). Both Southern and Trevecca are in the process of transitioning to NCAA Division II status.
No matter the opponent, however, the Tigers are being coached by one of the best in NAIA basketball. Hodge, entering his 34th season, is ranked third among active NAIA Division II coaches with 671 career wins.
Entering this season, the Tigers are among teams receiving votes in the NAIA Division II poll.
Other highlights of the schedule include:
• The Tigers’ Homecoming game against Clarke University (Iowa) on Friday, Nov. 2. The Crusaders finished 19-11 a year ago.
• A road game on Feb. 4 against Robert Morris University (Ill.), which is now a nonconference opponent for the Tigers. Robert Morris is ranked No. 4 in the NAIA Division I poll.
• An always-tough nonconference game against at Lewis University (Ill.) on Dec. 6.
• A home-away series against conference foe Cardinal Stritch University (Wis.), which won 30 games last year and is ranked No. 5 in the NAIA Division II poll.
• Two games against CCAC rival St. Xavier University (Ill.) on Nov. 10 on the road and Jan. 10 at home. The Cougars return NAIA All-American Brad Karp and are ranked No. 14 in the NAIA Division II poll.