Ask any player on the Lawrence University men’s basketball team, and this season did not pan out as expected. The Vikings finished 10-13 overall and 8-10 in the MWC, good for sixth in the conference.
However, this season has made the Vikings’ points of weakness more salient. The players now have a clear vision heading into the offseason, and that is to make the weight room their second home.
“The entire team from top to bottom needs to get stronger in the offseason and come back next fall as a collectively bigger and stronger group, which will help us be a tougher team,” says head coach Joel DePagter, who just completed his eighth season at the helm (107-81 overall).
DePagter would like to see his team battle with opposing big men on both ends of the court and strive for every 50/50 ball. Adding physicality to the Vikings’ up-tempo, guard oriented style would be a welcomed asset and could make Lawrence a dangerous team heading into the 2015-16 season.
Most notably, the Vikings had trouble working the inside-out game this season. This led to decreased success from behind the arc—36 percent in 2014-15 compared to 41 percent in 2013-14—along with a five percent drop in total field goal percentage.
With only two true big men (junior Trace Sonnleitner and sophomore Mitch Willer), the Vikings lacked the physicality to scare opponents and create mismatches in the half court. Defenses often crowded the middle against the Vikings, forcing them to take three-pointers and contested shots inside the arc.
Freshman guard Jeremy Stephani (8.5 PPG, 2.7 REB) knows that while his team needs to get stronger, this won’t come at the expense of their identity. “We are a little bit smaller and more guard heavy than other teams but we use that to our advantage to speed the game up and create mismatches on offense through our motion,” comments Stephani.
Lawrence will continue to play to their strengths whenever possible, but added toughness will be the X-factor heading into next year.
“We need to have a better focus as a team on defense and rebounding so we don’t rely on shooting the ball well every night,” adds DePagter.
Improved defense and rebounding starts in the weight room, and that is exactly where the Vikings will begin their offseason.
Additionally, Lawrence must overcome the departure of Ryan DePouw and Andrew Borresen. The two thrived as leaders in all areas, which sophomore guard Peter Winslow sees as a challenge to replace.
“We need to step up in terms of leadership and court presence. DePouw and Borresen are two individuals that everyone looks to on the floor when things get rough,” says Winslow. “Supplementing other individuals for their roles will be no easy task, on and off the court.”
“Both of them did a lot for us on both sides of the floor in terms of their play, but I think their leadership and experience will be missed the most,” adds Stephani.
Borresen brought a ton of energy to the court, and DePouw had the most playing experience on the team. The Vikings will now need to rely on Troy Miller, Jamie Nikitas and Trace Sonnleitner to be their unquestioned leaders.
Miller boosted team energy and morale with his aggressive, hardnosed play this season, Nikitas led the team in rebounding at 7.7 per game, and Sonnleitner shot 47 percent from the field, to go along with 40 percent from beyond the arc.
There is certainly enough experience in place for the Vikings to be competitive in the conference, but it will take effort from Stephani, Winslow, Mitch Willer and Connor Weas to round out the depth.
As for recruiting, DePagter is optimistic that Lawrence will bring in another strong class. “We are looking to bring in three to four recruits next year. [We are] always looking for size but are trying to get one player in each position (PG, wing and post),” DePagter states.
“The next few weeks we will be traveling a lot, watching guys play in their final high school games and hopefully we will finish up with next year’s class by end of March or early April.”
Lawrence will look to maintain the balance in their next recruiting class. The recruits will be welcomed into the LU Basketball Family, and have a chance to play in what DePagter calls an “enjoyable system.”
I would like to thank everyone who read my column throughout the term, along with all players and coaches interviewed. Here’s to another season of Lawrence basketball!