Wittenberg motivated to return to top of NCAC men’s basketball for first time since 2020

Tigers return leading scorer Trey Killens from 13-12 team

Matt Croci used the phrase “cautiously optimistic” to describe his outlook on the Wittenberg Tigers men’s basketball team entering the 2023-24 season.

“We’re young again,” said Croci, who’s entering his eighth season, “but I like how they have approached the preseason. All of our returning guys that were contributing last year have gotten significantly better, which you’re always hoping for as a coach — that guys take their offseason serious. Some guys that weren’t in the rotation have gotten better to put themselves in the discussion to play some this year. That’s been a really good thing for us. And then we’ve got some newcomers that are pretty talented and getting acclimated but are definitely going to help us out. It’s been fun to be in practice every day, and they’re working hard and are ready to go get after it.”

Wittenberg plays Covenant College in its season opener at 6 p.m Friday at the Lou Varnell Classic in Sewanee, Tenn. It then plays Bob Jones University at 2 p.m. Saturday on the second day of the event.

Wittenberg has finished with the same record (13-12) the last two seasons. It tied for fifth in the NCAC last season with a 9-7 mark and was picked to finish sixth this season. Wabash, the defending NCAC tournament champion, received eight of nine first-place votes in the preseason poll. Wooster, the defending regular-season champion, was picked second. Denison was picked third and received the other first-place vote.

Wittenberg has not won the North Coast Athletic Conference championship since the 2019-20 season, which it finished 28-2 overall and 17-1 in the league before having its NCAA tournament run to the Sweet 16 stopped by the pandemic.

“Our seniors haven’t seen seen the type of success in the league that we had four years ago,” Croci said. “It seems like a long time ago, but it was just 2020 that we won the league and we were top 10 in the country. There’s always motivation to play at the highest level, and I think our seniors definitely want to get this program back to where we all feel like it belongs. There’s a little chip on the shoulder right now with all these guys, which is great. They know where they want to go.”

Croci sees defense as his team’s strength. The Tigers allowed 64.3 points per game, the best number in the NCAC, in 16 league games last season.

“That’s where we’ve been really good the last seven or eight years,” Croci said, “and this will be no different. At this point in the year, too, I think with a lot of teams the defense is a little bit ahead of the offense, and that’s certainly the case with us. We’re deeper than we’ve been the last couple of years. Our overall length and athleticism is improved as well.”

Wittenberg returns its leading scorer, 6-foot-1 junior guard Trey Killens, of Mason High School. He averaged 15.9 points per game last season.

“I think Trey had to take a lot of the responsibility for scoring last year just because we we didn’t have enough guys that could do it,” Croci said, “and he’s really upped his game from a facilitating standpoint as well. He’s doing a nice job of creating shots for other guys and making everybody around him better. It’s something we worked on him a lot with him. When teams try to shut him down or slow him down, he’s got to be ready and willing to give other guys the ball. I think he’s ready to have a really big year for sure.”

After Killens, Wittenberg lost its next four leading scorers, including guard Jerry Saunders Jr., who averaged 14.2 points as a freshman and transferred to Wheeling University.

One of the returning starters is Jeff Queen, a 6-1 senior forward from Cincinnati La Salle.

“We’ve had five guys in the last seven years be defensive player of the year in the league, which we’re really proud of here,” Croci said, “and I know Jeff is ready to take that role on this year and be the defensive stopper.”

Daniel Asher, a 6-7 senior forward from Indianapolis who averaged 5.8 points and started 17 games, also returns.

“He hasn’t really been healthy since his freshman year,” Croci said. “He’s had all kinds of injuries. He’s been able to get through a full preseason and is moving around great. As long as he can stay healthy, I think he’s due for for a big year.”

Cameron Harrison, a 6-0 junior guard from Eaton and National Trail High School, will play a bigger role after averaging 5.3 points off the bench. Eddie Brown, a 6-6 sophomore forward from Olentangy Orange High School in Lewis Center, saw his role increase late last season and will get more playing time this season.

A newcomer to watch is Tyler Galluch, a 6-6 forward from Catholic Central. He was Clark County’s Mr. Basketball last season and was one of eight members of the 2023 recruiting class.

“He’s got a chance to have a really big freshman year,” Croci said. “He has a college body. He’s physical tough and can score all over the court.”

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