Clayton Black has graduated, but his spirit remains with the Wittenberg men’s basketball team. About three or four players on this year’s team have long manes that might approach the length of Black’s memorable hair by the end of the season.
Replacing Black himself, the star player a year ago when the Tigers went 24-7 and ended Wooster’s stranglehold on the North Coast Athletic Conference regular-season championship on their way to the NCAA Division III quarterfinals, will be a bigger challenge.
The Tigers lost seven seniors in all. Five of them played a key role in each of the past four seasons: Black, his fellow big man Alex Brandt, Jacob Weide and the two football/basketball players Michael Cooper and Josh McKee.
This year’s team has only two seniors. Only four players with significant experience — Zack Leahy, Steven Newell, Cam Walton and Scott Masin — return for today’s 6 p.m. season opener against Johns Hopkins at the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Memorial Tournament at Case Western in Cleveland.
“I think they’re hungry for the opportunity to show what they can do individually, particularly the ones who really haven’t had much playing time,” said coach Bill Brown, now in his 20th season. “In a humble way, they’re hungry to show there can be life after some great teammates they had. They respect those teammates greatly, and they understand what we lost in terms of statistical production and leadership.”
The Tigers were picked to finish fourth in the NCAC this season despite the fact that they have finished below third just once since joining the conference in 1989.
“It’s on the board in the locker room right now,” Newell said. “It kind of lit a fire under us. We’re out there to prove people wrong.”
Leahy, a 6-foot-0 junior guard who played his freshman season at Toledo, is the top returning scorer (9.0 points per game).
Newell, a 6-0 junior guard, started five games, averaging 4.5 points. He was the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter (31-of-61, 51 percent) and has gotten extensive experience since his freshman season.
Masin, a 6-5 junior post, averaged 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds, but his minutes were limited because the Tigers were so strong in the post with Black (14.0) and Brandt (8.2).
“I think we’ll be pretty solid,” Masin said. “I don’t think we have a whole lot of expectations coming out of last year. You can kind of tell by the preseason polls and stuff like that. We lost a lot of seniors, but I feel they’re underestimating us because we have a lot of talent that’s been developing and hasn’t had a lot of time to be shown. This is going to be a good year.
Leahy, Newell and Masin will be joined in the starting lineup by two players who have never lettered: 6-6 junior forward Cole Bond and 6-4 sophomore wing Sam Collins.
“Cole’s a different kind of big man, so our style has changed,” Brown said. “Unless he is playing for Scott when Scott’s out, he will be along the 3-point line. He’s a very good 3-point shooter. In fact, we’re looking for him to make one or two 3s per game and really believe he can do it. He’s very physical and not as athletic as Clayton, but he’s a far better shooter than Clayton and a very good defensive player.”
Other players who will be in the rotation include sophomore guard Ben Syroka, who hit four 3-pointers in the team’s preseason scrimmage.
“Ben would be a backup probably at the point,” Brown said, “but there is a scenario where we could play Zack, Steven and Ben all the minutes at both the point guard and two-guard spot, instead of having a specific backup at both positions.”
Walton, a senior who averaged 2.4 points per game last season after missing half of his sophomore season with a torn ACL, will be another backup at the two-guard spot.
Backing up Collins is freshman Teddy Kremchek, a 6-3 freshman from Indian Hill. If his last name sounds familiar, that’s because his dad Tim is a 1981 Wittenberg grad who has been the team orthopaedist for 20 years and the Reds medical director for more than 15 years.
Southeastern grad Eli Pavlatos will also get time as a backup on the perimeter. Backing up Bond is Alex Fultz, a 6-5 freshman from Glen Este High School east of Cincinnati, and the other backup in the post is 6-7 sophomore John Albertson of Little Miami High School.