Wittenberg men’s basketball team starts season Friday with veteran roster

Wittenberg University’s James Johnson drives past Wooster’s Peyton Bennington during the North Coast Athletic Conference Tournament championship game on Saturday afternoon at Pam Evans Smith Arena. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY MICHAEL COOPER
Caption
Wittenberg University’s James Johnson drives past Wooster’s Peyton Bennington during the North Coast Athletic Conference Tournament championship game on Saturday afternoon at Pam Evans Smith Arena. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY MICHAEL COOPER

James Johnson, program’s 25th all-time leading scorers, leads experienced group of seniors

The first thing to know about coach Matt Croci’s sixth Wittenberg men’s basketball team: It’s old.

“We’ve got six seniors, and four of them are fifth-year guys,” Croci said Wednesday. “They’ve been through a lot a lot of battles. They have a lot of experience. They’ve been in some big games, played in three NCAA tournaments. We’re excited to have those guys back to finish their careers. They’ve been great in terms of leadership and setting an example for our younger guys. It’s been really fun to see them take hold of things this year. That’s been great.”

Wittenberg, which ranks 22nd in the D3Hoops.com preseason poll, opens the 2021-22 season at 3 p.m. Friday against Hendrix College (Ark.) at the Great Lakes Invitational at Marietta College. The Tigers play La Roche University (Pa.) in the same event at 3 p.m. Saturday.

This will be Wittenberg’s first true season in two years. It finished 28-2 in the 2019-20 season, reaching the Sweet 16 before the NCAA tournament was cancelled because of the pandemic. It then played an abbreviated spring schedule earlier this year against a select group of fellow North Coast Athletic Conference teams and finished 1-7.

ExploreARCHDEACON: In Tamika Williams-Jeter, Wittenberg has ‘a true gem’

Two of Wittenberg’s seniors — Landon Martin and Rashaad Ali-Shakir — withdrew from school after the first semester and didn’t play in the spring so they could return this season. Another player, Brice Hill, who’s a junior this season, also did not play in the spring but took virtual classes from home.

“The NCAA made the rule that everybody can have that year back,” Croci said, “but at our level, you’ve got to pay for it. It’s not as simple as just saying you can have a fifth year. Those guys stepped away to save some money.”

Wittenberg’s top returning senior is James Johnson, a 6-foot-6 forward from Cincinnati Roger Bacon High School, who averaged 14.8 points as a junior in 2019-20 and 9.8 points in the eight-game spring season. He has 1,121 points in his career. That total ranks 25th in Wittenberg history. If he matches his points total from two years ago, he’ll climb into the top 10.

“James is clearly our go-to guy,” Croci said. “We run a lot of stuff through him. It was a tough, tough go last year with everything that we had to go through, but he’s back in great shape and ready to finish things off the right way. I definitely think he’s one of the best players in our conference for sure.”

Caption
Wittenberg’s Landon Martin is introduced before a game against Ohio Wesleyan in the semifinals of the NCAC tournament on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at Pam Evans Smith Arena in Springfield. Wittenberg photo

Wittenberg’s Landon Martin is introduced before a game against Ohio Wesleyan in the semifinals of the NCAC tournament on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at Pam Evans Smith Arena in Springfield. Wittenberg photo
Caption
Wittenberg’s Landon Martin is introduced before a game against Ohio Wesleyan in the semifinals of the NCAC tournament on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at Pam Evans Smith Arena in Springfield. Wittenberg photo

Johnson has started 72 games in his career. Martin, a 6-3 guard from Columbus Africentric, has played a key role in each of his three seasons and has 678 career points. He moved into the starting lineup as a junior and averaged 9.7 points.

“Landon is a do-it-all, very versatile scorer,” Croci said. “He has become a pretty good defender and has just been a terrific leader for our younger guys. He’s going to play a major part in things.”

Ali-Shakir, a 6-2 guard from Cincinnati Purcell Marian, averaged double-figure minutes off the bench in his first three seasons and 7.9 points as a junior.

“I think he’s one of the best defensive players in our conference,” Croci said. “He’s a tremendous vocal leader.”

Wittenberg’s starting point guard will be the 6-1 Ridge Young, a graduate student from Laurel Elm High School near Circleville. He came off the bench two years ago as senior Jake Bertemes led the offense.

“He has really been good at steadying the ship and getting our offense and defense started,” Croci said. “You can tell he’s a fifth-year guy who has played a lot of games. He’s going to quarterback our offense and defense.”

Hill, a 6-5 forward from Cincinnati Seven Hills, also will have a bigger role this season after averaging 10.8 minutes as a freshman during the Sweet 16 season.

“Brice will be a major part of of what we do this year,” Croci said. “He’s been really one of our best guys so far in the preseason.”

Explore» EARLIER COVERAGE: Wittenberg announces 2021 recruiting class

Two other key returners are Levi Boettcher, a 6-5 guard from Urbana, and Harrison Gough, a 6-8 forward from Lima Bath.

“This is their normal senior year,” Croci said. “Both had really good spring, summers and falls. Levi’s really really shooting the ball well. You can tell he’s a senior now. Things are starting to click. He’s stepping up from a leadership standpoint. Harrison does it all. He’s a rebounder, defender and screener and can score a little bit for us inside. He really has come a long way in his four years. He did not get to play a ton his first couple years. He played a little bit junior year. We’re looking forward for for big things from him this last time around.”

Two other players who should see playing time are Justin Shipman-Curtis, a 6-4 sophomore guard from Columbus East High School, and Daniel Asher, a 6-7 sophomore forward from Indianapolis Roncalli.

After playing two games this weekend, Wittenberg stays on the road for its third game, at Hanover on Tuesday. It plays its home opener at 8 p.m. Nov. 30, against Wilmington at Pam Evans Smith Arena. It will be the first home game without any restrictions on attendance since Wittenberg beat Susquehanna in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 7, 2020.

“We’re very excited to just have some normalcy with the guys,” Croci said, “and for them to be able to be in the locker room together and to go through practices and to travel in a normal way. That’s what a lot of teams didn’t get a chance to do last year. To have them have that normal experience is amazing.”

About the Author

ajc.com