After seeing the team's overall record climb by four wins from the previous season in 2017-18, the Case Western Reserve University men's basketball team will be looking to take another large step forward entering the 2018-19 season.
The Spartans finished last season with a 12-13 ledger, including a program-best five game conference winning streak. In addition, CWRU's six conference wins matched the program record for the most in a single 14-game University Athletic Association season, as the squad finished fifth in the league standings, its highest finish since the 2014-15 season. Case Western Reserve's high-paced offense averaged 75.0 points per game and ranked second in the conference with 9.5 made three pointers per contest.
"We have a lot of players who played a lot of minutes over the last two years, even though we don't have a senior," said Head Coach Todd McGuinness, now in his third year at the team's helm. "We have a team that has played in the same system, has a little more accountability, and knows what to do. We also have the young players who can fill in where needed."
This year's team will be bringing back nine players from last year's squad, including All-UAA Honorable Mention and rising sophomore guard Ignas Masiulionis. In addition to the veterans, a talented and large freshman class, consisting of 10 newcomers, will add depth and a new dimension to the group.
"Our season is going to be determined on rebounding and defense. The offense is going to be there, and we have enough options that can shoot the ball," said McGuinness. "We need to stop the opponent, get rebounds when it matters, and set the pace of our games. That is what this season will come down to."
The most important departure from last year's squad will be T.J. Duckett, a two-time All-UAA First Team selection, who will be remaining with the team as an assistant coach. Duckett was the team's leading scorer and rebounder last year, averaging a double-double with 13.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. With his absence from the lineup, the Spartans will be making some adjustments to their style of play.
"Our strength is in the skill players, rather than size, so we will need to play the game a little bit more up-tempo and more aggressively on defense than we have in the past," said McGuinness.
However, the Spartans are not without experienced options at the forward position. Junior Michael Hollis emerged as one of the team's top players last season, playing in 24 games and averaging 6.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest, while leading the team with 3.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. Junior Connor Nally has the ability to spread the floor from the forward position, shooting 41.8% from three-point range and averaging 6.8 points per game during his freshman and sophomore seasons, including a program-record matching seven three-pointers against Emory last season. Also returning is sophomore Austin Lavitt, who was off to a promising start to his career before suffering a season-ending injury early in his freshman campaign.
"We have a lot of minutes coming back for the frontcourt between Hollis and Nally," said McGuinness. "The biggest key for those two is getting rebounds, and they have to stay healthy and be leaders. We get Lavitt back from an injury, and he can rebound the ball and play defense. Brady Flynn and Ryan Newton could be key additions to the team, and are going to be counted to play a lot of minutes as freshmen."
Other freshmen options at forward include Max Day, Solomon Wells and Zach Johnson.
Case Western Reserve will have the most returning experience at the shooting guard position. Headlining the group will be Masiulionis, who was second among all Spartan players last year with 11.6 points per game, en route to becoming the first CWRU freshman to earn all-conference honors since 2011-12, and just the fourth overall since the 2000-01 season. Juniors Sam Hansen (6.0 ppg) and Monty Khela (7.9 ppg), and sophomore Antonio Ionadi (7.9 ppg) were all major factors for the team last year, and junior Regan Mohler will be back on the team after missing all of last season with an injury, following a successful freshman campaign.
Freshmen Robert Faller, Holden Lipke and Conor Pederson will also look to make an impact on the roster during their first collegiate season.
"We have a lot of experience on the wing. Ignas will be counted on to be one of our best players, and Sam Hansen is a three-year starter and is always doing the right thing. We're counting on Ionadi and Khela to be valuable pieces. All four of those players have played valuable minutes and we need them to be really good for us. We also get Mohler back, and have some freshmen who have a chance to be special players."
At point guard, sophomore Michael Volkening will look to guide the offense for the second-straight year, after quickly adjusting to the college level by making 19 starts and playing in 24 games during his freshman season. He finished the year averaging 6.0 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, while shooting 42.5% from the floor. A pair of freshmen in James Bittner and Jack Vaselaney will provide other options at point guard as well.
"Our point guard play is important for the style of offense we want to run. Volkening is strong, physical, and tough to turn over, and has made a leap after working very hard this summer. We have two freshmen behind him who are battling. All three of our point guards are different players, all three bring something good that can help us this season."
McGuinness will be starting his third season with the team, after going 20-30 during his first two seasons on the squad. Now in his 10th season overall as a head coach, McGuinness owns a career record of 134-102 (good for a .568 winning percentage), and made four NCAA Tournament appearances in his seven seasons at Hartwick College.
McGuinness will open his 2018-19 season with a new staff around him. Mike Fitzpatrick will be starting his first season as the team's assistant coach, coming to CWRU after a year at Susquehanna University, and a two-year stint at Salisbury University. In addition, Duckett will be returning to the squad as an assistant coach for the campaign.
The Spartans will take advantage of the earlier start to the NCAA Division III basketball season this year, opening their 2018-19 campaign at home on Friday, November 9th against Albion College, beginning a stretch of three-straight home games to start the year. Five of the team's first six games, and seven of their 11 non-conference games overall, will be at Horsburgh Gymnasium.
Fans can follow Friday night's season opener against Albion (which finished the 2017-18 campaign with a 9-16 overall record) with live video coverage at https://athletics.case.edu/sports/mbkb/live and live stats at https://athletics.case.edu/sports/mbkb/2018-19/boxscores/20181109_t0dw.xml.
The Spartans will follow their season-opener with the annual Bill Sudeck Tournament on Friday, November 16th and Saturday, November 17th, welcoming Franciscan, Keystone and Washington College to Horsburgh Gymnasium. Other highlights to the non-conference schedule include home games against Thiel (November 28), Thomas More (December 1), Kalamazoo (December 8) and Oberlin (January 3), in addition to a trip to the 2008 Hoop MIA Holiday Slam in Miami Shores, Florida.
"We have to be ready to play every game," said McGuinness. "All of the non-conference teams we are facing are quality teams. And, once we get into the conference season, we know what we're getting into. We have a lot of guys back and were picked sixth in the conference, which tells you the league is going to be pretty good."
Conference play will start for the Spartans on the road at Carnegie Mellon on January 5th, before the team returns to Cleveland for its first home UAA weekend of the year with games against New York University and Brandeis on January 11th and 13th. Case Western Reserve's annual Throwback Weekend will be played against Chicago and Washington (Mo.) on February 1st and 3rd at Historic Adelbert Gymnasium on the CWRU campus. The Spartans will also have a pair of conference games against 18th-ranked Emory, while also facing Rochester and Washington twice, which each received votes in the D3hoops.com Preseason Poll.
"Overall depth and experience with our team will be key," said McGuinness. "When you go through a UAA season, you quickly learn what you need to do to get better. We've had enough experience losing close games and games we should have won, and now, this team is ready to prove the point that we've turned a corner."