TERRE HAUTE —
Nobody would argue that Rose-Hulman senior Julian Strickland has been a good basketball player, at the very least, since his high school days at Pike in Indianapolis.
Some might say “great,” although he seemed to shy away from the spotlight.
As a Rose sophomore in 2011-12, the 6-foot-3 guard was named Most Valuable Player of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament, which the Engineers won to claim an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament.
As a junior last season, Strickland earned the HCAC’s regular-season MVP award when he averaged 14.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. In the process, Rose-Hulman captured conference titles in the regular season and the tournament and advanced to the Division III tourney for the second straight year.
Well, Strickland has shoved his name into the conversation as one of the best Division III players in the country by averaging 24.7 ppg through the Engineers’ first seven games. The 25.7 average he had before Monday’s 64-55 road victory over Millikin was 10th highest in the most recently released DIII national statistics.
In consecutive games against Chicago, Carroll and Wabash, Strickland ripped the nets for 31, 30 and 31 points respectively for the 4-3 Engineers, who played Wednesday night at longtime rival DePauw.
Now seems like the perfect time for Strickland to step into the spotlight. And he’s doing just that, even if it doesn’t come naturally to him.
“Absolutely he’s one of the best players we’ve had since I’ve been here,” 20th-year Rose head coach Jim Shaw told the Tribune-Star.
Asked to compare Strickland to other Rose-Hulman standouts from the past, Shaw replied: “It’s difficult to name names because I’m afraid I’ll leave somebody out.”
“Obviously Bryan Egli [from the late 1990s], particularly from a scoring aspect, was very special,” he elaborated. “Kiley Gwaltney [also from the ’90s] was a great all-around player. Julian’s game reminds me a little bit of Kiley. But then this year, he’s transitioned a little bit [toward being more of a scorer]. Now I’d say he’s kind of a combination of those two guys, which is a really good combination.”
Strickland wasn’t always considered a basketball standout, although nobody ever doubted that he possessed talent and a positive, team-first attitude. At Pike, he played with several athletes who later took their skills to the NBA or college basketball, including current Indiana State swingman Khristian Smith.
“We had a lot of athletes and a lot of talent on our team,” Strickland reflected. “I was a little in the shadows in high school.”
Still, he never worried that he would get noticed by a college program.
“I always had confidence in myself,” Strickland stressed. “I knew I would end up somewhere where I’d be happy and be able to play.”
Enter Rose-Hulman, where Shaw and assistant coach Rusty Loyd aggressively recruited him.
“Growing up, I always wanted to be an architect and I thought civil engineering [which became his major] was pretty similar,” Strickland explained. “Coach Loyd and coach Shaw reached out to me. They told me I could play basketball and get a great education here. What better school to do that at than Rose-Hulman?”
Shaw realized he had a gem on his hands when Strickland agreed to attend Rose.
“We knew he was going to be pretty good,” the veteran coach recalled. “He took a very secondary role in high school because of the team around him. But we knew that his athleticism, skill level and character would make him a great player.”
Shaw nailed that 2010 assessment and now he’s reaping the benefits.
“He can really dominate a game by scoring points,” Shaw said, “but he’s also still a great defender and he’s very, very unselfish and team-oriented.”
Averaging roughly 10 points a game more than he did last season, Strickland worked hard during the off-season to make 2013-14 his best to date.
“The challenge for Julian is to fight his own unselfish and unassuming personality,” Shaw noted. “He knew that coming in to this year, he was going to have to be a little more assertive. And I think it is something he has grown and is still growing into.
“He had kind of a stretch early in [preseason] practice where he wasn’t as good as I thought he was capable of being and he was feeling a little frustrated. So I had a talk with him about just being himself. What I wanted to avoid was trying to make something out of him that he wasn’t and in the process losing a little bit of him. But I think we’ve worked through that and now he’s really comfortable and becoming more comfortable with that role.
“The other thing he’s doing is he’s scoring quite a few points, but at times he’s doing it very quietly by getting to the free-throw line an enormous amount of times by just making good plays and doing things within our offense.”
Before Wednesday’s matchup at DePauw, Strickland had converted 65 of 76 charity tosses, good for 85.5 percent. That’s an average of almost 11 free-throw attempts per outing.
Despite Strickland’s eye-popping statistics, the Rose-Hulman sharpshooter insists there is room for even more improvement in his game.
“You can always improve,” he pointed out. “I’m never satisfied and I never settle. I can’t settle. I have to make sure I’m always being aggressive. … On the court, I need to make sure I’m driving it hard to the basket and finishing.”
The team as a whole can improve as well, Strickland said, and Shaw agreed.
“This year, it’s changed a lot with our seniors who graduated [from last season],” Strickland mentioned. “I think defense is something we need to get better at. We’ve adjusted since the first few games of the season. We allowed a lot of points in the first few games. … Defense is key for us. We can always get better at that.”
“There’s absolutely no doubt we have to be better defensively and on the boards,” Shaw emphasized. “We cannot rely on Julian getting 30 [points] to propel us to winning games. I think we are getting better defensively and I think we are getting better on the boards, but it’s definitely a work in progress.”
Despite their search for all-around perfection, Shaw appreciates what he has in Strickland.
“He’s a joy to coach,” Shaw said. “Every coach who coaches any sport should at some point in his or her career be blessed with coaching a kid like Julian Strickland. And I mean that sincerely. Not only is he a great player, but he has all the right intentions. He’s a great, great teammate. A lot of times, big scorers create resentment and jealousy. But there’s not one guy on the team who resents anything that comes his way because of the kind of teammate he is.”
Rose senior guard Jordy Martin, a four-year teammate with Strickland, confirmed what Shaw stated.
“He’s an even better person than he is a player,” Martin noted. “We’ve been roommates the last three years. … “It’s great [being a teammate with Strickland]. We can always defer to him when we need a bucket. He is very unselfish, so sometimes we have to talk to him and tell him to be aggressive.”
Regarding Strickland, Shaw admitted that there’s a fine line between forcing shots in a crowd of defenders and being aggressive to create shot opportunities.
“It’s a very difficult fine line,” he maintained. “The expression you hear a lot of times is ‘allow the game to come to you.’ But then in the same breath, coaches will say, ‘You have to be assertive and don’t accept it.’ But then you have to play within yourself and you have to take what the defense is giving. All of those things sometimes are in conflict. So you have to get a real good balance.
“What I want him to do is be aggressive in the search of his shot and be assertive and think ‘score first,’ then adjust from there. Sometimes people are going to guard him differently. Sometimes people are going to guard him better. Sometimes different things are going to be available. But I think most nights, some things are going to be available for him because of his versatility and his overall skill level.”
Strickland acknowledged that the challenge to become more assertive isn’t always easy.
“Coach pretty much trusts me out there,” he said. “It’s tough to be that go-to guy because we don’t really have too many other people who can create the way that I can. But at the same time, my teammates step up when they need to. Coach, in the game when I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, he gets on me pretty well. … So far, it’s working and hopefully it keeps working throughout the rest of the season.”
Shaw said he trusts Strickland’s on-court judgment … for the most part.
“His intentions I never, ever, ever doubt,” he emphasized. “But sometimes, as a player, he sees things differently than I do as a coach in regard to his assertiveness level. The one thing I’m constantly reminding him of is finishing strong and not settling. … He’s done a much better job this year of not settling.”
As for his post-Rose future, Strickland said he is considering playing pro basketball overseas after he graduates, although nothing is set in stone. Becoming an architect remains his long-range goal.
Which ever path he decides to travel first, Strickland will always carry fond memories of his time at Rose-Hulman.
“My four years here, I’ve been able to do what I love and that’s play basketball,” he said with a smile. “I couldn’t ask for more.”
Engineers' guard ranks among top Division III scorers so far
TERRE HAUTE —
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