Heading into the 2013-2014 season, Azusa Pacific’s men’s basketball team has taken huge strides since last year. When the team finished the previous season with a 13-14 record, the players knew the 2012-2013 season was going to be a year of figuring things out and getting used to the Division II level of play.
With senior forward Tyler Monroe and junior guard Robert Sandoval, both starters, returning to the hardwood after redshirting last year, they join junior guard Troy Leaf as the captains of the team. According to head coach Justin Leslie, each player has grown considerably since last year.
“This year, obviously having Robert and Tyler back is huge, but also the guys that return in the program playing from last year, they have a completely different understanding, the work ethic, and the attention to detail has been at a whole different level,” Leslie said. “We’re a team that’s ready to make a statement this year and to go out and not adapt to what our opponents are doing as much as we can make them adapt to what we’re doing and impose our will on them.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Monroe returns as the 2011-12 team’s leading scorer. He will be a threat from anywhere around the key in addition to bringing the mid-range jumper he has honed. Leaf returns as the leading scorer with 18.7 points per game last season and the ability to score from anywhere on the floor. Sandoval will be the facilitator and can create scoring opportunities for himself and the role players on the team.
Leslie said the team has more players who can score this year, nodding to the collective ability of the team’s captains. He said the offensive attack this year will be “much more balanced,” but it will start with the captains.
“[Tyler] is a guy we can throw the ball to in the halfcourt and he runs in transition, so he brings a dimension that we didn’t have last year. Having Robert back is going to significantly ease [Troy's] load,” Leslie said. “Troy is going to be able to pick his spots more this year and not have to try to do so much on every possession, and that is going to help his overall efficiency. Robert makes [the role players] more dangerous because he’s a true point guard. He sets them up and allows them to go out there and have a little more success.”
Leaf hopes being a more balanced team results in more success down the road, regardless of who leads the team in scoring or finds the most success on offense.
“If we’re winning games, that’s the most important stat,” Leaf said. “We have a team this year where we can put five guys on the floor and we can all score and we can all make plays. We’re going to be much more difficult to defend this year.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the goal for the Cougars is to be an active and aggressive squad, throwing several different defenses at the other team and pressuring them closely.
“We’re going to be very aggressive in how we play. We’re going to keep the other team uncomfortable, and we want to make sure that we’re the ones dictating how the game is played,” Leslie said. “We’re not going to sit back and let another team dictate that for us. Defensively, that’s where it’s going to start.”
As team captains, Leaf, Monroe and Sandoval are learning more every day about what it takes to be leaders. Outside of the three leaders, each member of the team will look to lead in his own way through the course of the season.
“[The captains] certainly got a lot to learn in terms of how to lead,” Leslie said. “I’m meeting with them regularly to help walk them through that process. We have a lot of other guys that are going to lead in their own way. This is a team that I think has an opportunity to collectively be mature, have more guys take ownership with our culture and how we do things.”
Monroe cited team chemistry as “probably one of the most important things” for success.
“I’ve been on teams that were really close and I’ve been on teams that weren’t close at all. The common thing that I found is closer teams always win more games. They go hand in hand,” Monroe said. “This team, especially this year, we’re really close. We spend a lot of time together. I see it as a huge piece in building the team camaraderie and doing what we’re here to do, which is win games.”
Freshman Corey Langerveld is a newcomer who led Pullman High School to a state championship in May. Stepping into a new team, he said his teammates have made the transition easier, smoother and more enjoyable. Langerveld said he has noticed several key things about his new team in the past few weeks.
“First, it’s the sense of humor. There’s not a single guy in the locker room that takes himself too seriously,” Langerveld said. “Everyone is ready to have fun. Second, I’ve never been in a program where encouragement and positivity have been the biggest factors. Programs I come from, there’s a lot of criticism and stuff like that. Here, every day, your teammates and coaches are telling you, ‘Great job. Keep working hard.’ The guys have made it so easy to transition by being positive and being patient.”
Currently, the forward position is in great contention. Sophomore Jared Zoller, junior Andy Jones, sophomore Sharif Watson, senior Bert Hall, senior Christian Katuala and sophomore Will Ward are all working hard in practice in order to earn opportunities to contribute to their team come game time.
“[Coach Leslie] does a really good job of rewarding everybody who deserves to be rewarded,” Monroe said. “The guys that are working hard in practice are the guys that are going to see time on the floor. … it’s not always about how much playing time you’re getting, but it’s more about what you’re doing, why are you on the floor and if you’re producing. If you’re producing, how are you producing?”
The Cougars will tip off the regular season by hosting the 25th Cougar Classic, a four-team tournament including Azusa Pacific, Western Oregon, Cal State Dominguez Hills, and Cal Poly Pomona on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 15 and 16. Leslie seeks to keep the theme from Galatians 6:4 with the team this season.
“I want each man at the end of every day to be able to look themselves in the eye and know that they did their best with the talents and abilities that God has given to them,” Leslie said. “They’re not out there just trying to play comparisons against a teammate, they’re trying to establish that habit of doing their absolute best every single day when they go out there. If we can establish that mindset, that’s going to further our chance to have success.”