TERRE HAUTE —
It’s pretty safe to say that expectations for the Rose-Hulman men’s basketball team have not been this high since the late 1990s when the Engineers reached the NCAA Division III tournament three times within a four-year period.
Rose finished 20-9 in 2011-12 after winning the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament at Transylvania as the No. 3 seed and losing a 74-71 heartbreaker to North Central in St. Louis in the first round of the Division III tourney.
Coach Jim Shaw, entering his 19th season at the helm with 257 victories (second most in school history), has almost everyone back from that squad — including standouts Julian Strickland and Austin Weatherford — and they’d like to make a return trip to the DIII tourney.
Strickland, a 6-foot-3 junior guard, averaged 13.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists. Weatherford, a 6-2 senior guard, posted averages of 12.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg and 2.7 apg last season.
“They’re really good players,” Shaw emphasized after a recent practice. “They can both score. They’re both good defensively. They’re great guys to coach. They want to win first. They have a versatile skill set. I’m glad they’re on my team.”
Two other probable starters are 6-6 seniors Jon Gerken and Brenton Balsbaugh at forwards.
“They’re both very experienced and I think they’re going to be a really good one-two combination inside,” Shaw said. “Jon’s a really good player on the perimeter as well. He gives us a lot of versatility and I think people are going to see a newfound scoring ability from Brenton inside. I think their maturity level and experience are really going to show.”
Shaw said the fifth starter will be either 6-4 senior Nate Gissentanner, 6-2 junior James Pillischafske, 6-4 junior Jake Dodd or 5-11 junior Jordy Martin. The three who don’t end up starting are likely to see plenty of playing time off the bench.
“They’ve all played really well at times,” Shaw said, noting that Martin would be a point guard if he starts (with Weatherford moving to a wing), and any of the other three would be a wing if starting.
“I would say James is coming on a little bit. He had a slow start [in practices], but he’s started shooting it in the way he’s capable of and he’s moving better. He’s shakin’ off some rust, but he’s getting better every day and he gives us something that most teams can use. He is a lights-out shooter that will really stretch the defense.
“They all give us something different. Nate makes plays offensively and defensively. He’s got a lot of energy. … Jordy makes everything we do run better, plus he makes shots. Our offense runs the best when he’s in there because he really knows how to manipulate the offense. … Jake is very talented and he’s starting to get some things done. He’s a really good passer. He’s really long and can get in the passing lanes. He’s great in transition, plus he can really shoot.”
Other post players who could be a factor come game time are 6-5 freshman Jimmy Miller, 6-5 junior Alec Haupt (a Rose-Hulman soccer player in the fall) and 6-6 sophomore Michael Hallstein.
Asked what kind of Rose team fans will see over the next few months, Shaw replied that it will be “fun to watch.”
“I think we’re going to have a multitude of offensive weapons,” he continued. “I hope we can stop people and be tough defensively. I hope that we’re going to get the ball up and down the floor a little bit more often and better than we have in the past. But what’s going to win or lose for us is how well we stop people. I think, down the road, we’re going to be OK offensively.”
Despite the Engineers’ high expectations, they were picked to finish second behind defending HCAC regular-season champion Transylvania in the conference’s annual preseason coaches poll. Hanover was tabbed for third.
“Transylvania is going to be really good,” Shaw admitted. “They had a great year last year and they’ve got pretty much everybody back.”
“Our conference is always tough,” Gerken added from a player’s perspective. “It makes it a lot of fun to go out there every night and compete.”
Gerken thinks the Engineers are ready to open the 2012-13 season Saturday against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the first round of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) Tip-Off Tournament.
“I think we’re looking pretty good,” he said. “We’re off to a good start [in practice]. I think we’re ahead of where we had been in the past. And I think we’re looking forward to getting off to a good start this year.”
“It’s an all-engineering-school tournament that MSOE puts on every few years,” Shaw explained about this weekend’s action. “We were in it four years ago and they do a great job with it. We’re looking forward to it, although we don’t know a lot about the other teams yet.”
Shaw is another who almost can’t wait for a real game to test his players.
“We’ve had a little downturn in our progress [in recent practices],” he pointed out. “I think we need to play. We’re at that point where we’ve been practicing against each other for a few weeks and it gets a little boring and a little repetitive.”
Rose-Hulman’s first home game will be Nov. 28 against Fontbonne.