TERRE HAUTE —
With some teams, having almost every player back from the previous season is not necessarily a good thing, depending on the talent level of those players.
But in the case of the Rose-Hulman men’s basketball squad, it definitely is good news.
“We were better last year than we were before and we had a decent season as a starting point to success,” explained Rose coach Jim Shaw, whose team finished 16-10 overall and 10-8 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) in 2010-11.
“Now we have everybody back and I think we’ve got several guys who seem to be much improved over last year — physically, athletically and skill-wise. We’ve also got a couple additions that could impact us this year.”
The Engineers have been practicing since Oct. 15 and so far Shaw has liked what he’s seen.
“The first week of practice went really well,” he told the Tribune-Star. “I thought guys picked things up really quickly. Returning guys picked up where they left off last year. I think we’re way ahead of where we’ve been last year and the year before, due in large part to experience.”
Rose-Hulman’s key returnees include 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Julian Strickland (who averaged 11.7 points per game to earn HCAC Freshman of the Year honors last season), 6-2 junior guard Austin Weatherford (11.3 ppg), 6-4 junior forward Nate Gissentanner (10.4 ppg) and 5-10 senior guard Blake Knotts (7.3 ppg).
“Austin Weatherford was our all-conference player last year,” Shaw pointed out. “I think Austin’s better than he was last year and he was a good player last year. He’s shooting it better and he’s a little bit more athletic.
“Brenton Balsbaugh inside and Jon Gerken, I think, have made significant strides. Jason Haslag played really well in the spring and has continued that. Julian Strickland looks bigger and stronger than last year. Just about all of our returning players have played really well in practice.”
Rose players echoed their coach’s sentiments.
“Everything looks pretty good so far,” noted Knotts, one of two seniors (along with Spencer Harlan of Terre Haute) on the team. “We’ve got a lot of good, young players and some strong returning players. So it’s going to be a pretty exciting year as long as we do what we’re supposed to and get the job done.”
“We have a lot of talent — a lot of new talent, a lot of returning talent,” Weatherford emphasized. “Everybody’s competing in practice and that’s going to make us better as a team. We’ve done a pretty good job as upperclassmen, I think, of mixing the younger guys in so far.”
Shaw also expects immediate contributions from freshman Jake Dodd, a transfer from Missouri-St. Louis. “He’s going to be a really good player … and he’s really versatile.”
Shaw, Weatherford and Knotts agree that the Engineers should contend for the HCAC title this season. Results of the conference’s annual preseason poll have not been announced yet.
“We have pretty high expectations,” Knotts said. “We’ll be up at the top of the conference this year. Hopefully, we’ll win it.”
“I think we can go as far as we want to go,” Weatherford insisted. “We’ve just got to stick together as a team and play hard. I’d like to get into the NCAA Division III tournament. [The Engineers] haven’t been there for a while, so that’s a definite goal for our team.”
“I plan on winning it,” Shaw stated, referring to the HCAC championship. “If we don’t, well, I’ve been wrong before. But I’m going into the season planning on winning it.
“I think we are definitely capable of contending. There are a lot of good teams in the league. I don’t know how things are going for everybody else… But I think we are one of the teams that can contend.”
Shaw mentioned perimeter shooting as his biggest concern going into the season, which starts Nov. 18 vs. Millsaps in the Oglethorpe Classic at Atlanta.
“We’ve had trouble the last few years shooting it from the perimeter,” he acknowledged. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys who can shoot it from 3[-point range].
“We have to make perimeter shots. If we can do that, there are a lot of other parts of our offensive game that could be very effective.”