TERRE HAUTE —
On the night of Oct. 14, Rose-Hulman basketball fans were treated to something described by a couple of men’s players as “spectacular” and “epic” when they all jammed into Hulbert Arena for the insititute’s first “Midnight Madness” to tip off a season.
The memorable site wasn’t a 360-degree dunk or a no-look, behind-the-back pass.
It was Rose men’s coach Jim Shaw performing the “Bernie Dance,” based on the deceased character from the 1989 movie “Weekend At Bernie’s.”
“For a second, I thought he was having a seizure,” senior starting guard Austin Weatherford said with a straight face later.
Rest assured, there was a reason for Shaw’s outgoing behavior and it wasn’t to celebrate Halloween 21⁄2 weeks early.
“We kicked our season off with a really great event in Midnight Madness,” he told the Tribune-Star after a recent practice. “We had 500 to 600 students here. There were a lot of giveaways and a lot of student involvement. The [men’s and women’s] teams had a great time and all the kids who came out that night had a great time.”
Shaw made it clear that he and his players know how to have fun when the time is right for fun, but they also know how to get serious when it’s time to win games.
The Engineers proved that last season. In late February, they won the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference postseason tournament at Transylvania to qualify for the NCAA Division III tournament for the first time since 1999, eventually finishing with a 20-9 overall record.
The success of 2011-12 certainly made life more pleasant for Shaw, who is beginning his 19th season at the helm.
“Winning always makes things easier,” he emphasized. “It makes it easier to recruit. It makes it easier to go to the grocery store. It makes it easier to go get a movie. … It makes life easier for any coach.”
Although last season was enjoyable, Shaw wants to make sure the returning players aren’t satisfied with only those accomplishments.
“We did have some success late in the year and it created a lot of positive energy with our guys,” he admitted. “But we’re over what we did last year. It could go either way this year. You could be content with what you’ve done or you could kinda have the approach of ‘this was a taste and we want to have a taste of bigger things.’ That’s the approach our guys have had. They’ve worked really hard to get better.
“I can’t be more pleased with guys’ progress individually. They took that positive energy and momentum that we had at the end of the year and used it wisely, properly and constructively. They worked to get better so we can accomplish even more this year.”
Two of Rose-Hulman’s key returnees are 6-foot-3 junior Julian Strickland, who averaged 13.3 points per game in 2011-12, and the 6-2 Weatherford, who tallied 12.8 ppg.
“We are blessed to return a couple all-conference guys,” Shaw noted. “Austin Weatherford is a two-time all-conference player and I think he’s one of the best players in the conference. And there’s Julian Strickland, who was the MVP [Most Valuable Player] of the conference tourney last season. He had 31 [points] in each of his last two games. He’s an impact player and absolutely one of the best players in the league as well.”
The Engineers also return 6-6 seniors Brenton Balsbaugh and Jon Gerken and 6-4 senior Nate Gissentanner, all probable starters. Plus, they got back previously injured junior James Pillischafske (ankle), who connected on 29 of 56 attempts (51.8 percent) from 3-point range when he was healthy last season.
“Getting a shooter like that back can really help us,” Shaw pointed out. “In addition to him and the seniors who have played a lot and Julian, we have a bunch of other guys who have played a lot of basketball for us, including [juniors] Jake Dodd and Jordy Martin. And we’ve got some young guys who I think can really make an impact, people who are experienced in our program but haven’t played a lot of varsity minutes, but I think are ready to contribute.”
Of the seven newcomers to the program, Shaw named 6-5 freshman Jimmy Miller from Indianapolis North Central High School as the most likely to contribute immediately.
Rose has conducted a hand full of practices since they were allowed to start Oct. 15.
“It’s a work in progress,” Shaw assessed. “The effort has been great. No complaints. We actually showed progress with our motion stuff [on offense] on the third day… Having as many returning guys as we have has helped the learning process for everybody. I’ve been very pleased with the tone and pace of our practices. We’re on schedule.”
The HCAC preseason men’s coaches poll is expected to come out in the next few days and Rose-Hulman should be in the top three.
“I anticipate us and Transylvania will probably be voted at the top of the league,” Shaw said. “Transy has everybody back and they were really good last year [having captured the HCAC regular-season championship]. And we have almost everybody back from a really good team.”
Perhaps motivated by seeing Shaw dance in front of a live crowd — or in spite of that memory being embedded in their brains — Weatherford and Strickland said they can’t wait for the season to get started Nov. 17-18 in the Milwaukee School of Engineering Tip-Off Tournament.
“I’m excited to get a shot to defend the [conference] title, just ready to go,” Weatherford said. “We ended last season on a good note and we all have high expectations for this season.”
“I just think we have a lot of energy, a lot of big expectations and confidence going into the season, just because we had so much success last season,” Strickland added. “We’re just hungry after that loss [74-71 to North Central on March 2] in the first round of the NCAA [Division III] tournament. That really opened our eyes to see what we could accomplish, so we’re excited to try to accomplish it this year.
“We’re all in the weightroom, working real hard. We’re all in the gym, competing real hard in practice. So it should be interesting this year.”
Strickland mentioned team chemistry as one factor in the Engineers’ favor this season.
“We’re family,” he explained. “We hang out with each other all the time away from the court and away from school. I think we’re one of the closest teams in the country, if not the closest. We all get along. We all can joke with each other.
“And when we bring it to the court, we all come together pretty well.”