Depth is Cougars’ key to success

The Azusa Pacific men’s basketball team has experienced a high level of success its first season as full NCAA members. The team has earned national recognition in Division II’s top 25, sitting at No. 17 as of Jan. 20.

The players put together a 14-game winning streak and dominated the PacWest, continuing to find success as the schedule got harder. Much of this success can be attributed to the familiarity the players have with the program, the coaches and one another.

With the exception of true freshman Petar Kutlesic and senior guard Kevin Stafford, each player on this season’s roster has redshirted. Academically, the Cougars house five seniors and two graduate students.

The team has maturity on its side, and with this maturity comes depth.

In head coach Justin Leslie’s eight-year career at APU, he has traditionally spread playing time between 10 to 11 players every game.

“I believe in playing a lot of guys,” Leslie said. “My rotations are longer than most teams in our league.”

Ten of this season’s players average 10 minutes or more per game, nine of which average 15 minutes or more. Only three players average more than 20 minutes per game, while six of the 12 other PacWest teams feature six players who average that long or longer.

“You see opposing players, the other team’s go-to guys, forcing shots because they have to. They have to get that many shots up to beat us,” said senior guard Kevin Stafford. “But we have 10 guys that we can switch out on them. We’re fresher, we have fresher legs.”

APU’s starting guard Troy Leaf leads the PacWest in scoring with 22.7 points per game, while only averaging the 19th most minutes with 22.9 per game. There’s a six-minute difference between Leaf and Fresno Pacific’s Trevon Clayton, who leads the conference with an average of 35.9 minutes per game.

Leslie has played 11 or more players in 17 of the team’s 19 season games. There have been four games where all 12 players have received playing time.

“It’s to keep the energy level high and fresh, but the other piece of it is, it’s a long season. You have injuries. You have adversity,” Leslie said. “You never know when you’re going to need someone to step up, and if that kid has been ice-cold on the bench and hasn’t had the opportunity to have any success – even if it’s just a little bit here and there – they’re probably not going to be ready when their opportunity comes.”

The Cougars’ bench consistently makes significant contributions scoring-wise, unlike the many conference opponents who rely heavily on their starting five.

APU’s bench has outscored opponent’s second string by more than 13 points per game, an average of 32.8 to 19.4 points per game.

“We have a lot of really good players who could be starters elsewhere who are coming off the bench here,” Leslie said. “They’re doing it to be a part of a team that is hopefully going to contend for a conference championship.”

Bruce English is one of those players. The junior guard is a Division I transfer from Loyola Marymount, where he started eight games as a sophomore in the 2012-13 season.

English made his debut with the Cougars this season after redshirting last year. He’s been a consistent contributor, averaging 6.2 points per game.

Another strength coming off the bench is Will Ward. The sophomore forward averages 8.6 points per game.

Both players go around 18 minutes per game and have occasionally broken their averages to be the second- or third-leading scorers in certain games.

“We’ll have one player go off for 20, and the next game we’ll have someone else. It’s always a different person,” Ward said. “It’s nice to have those consistent starters scoring 17 or 18 points, but it’s a totally different ball game when you have someone coming off the bench with a 20-point game and you don’t know who it’s going to be.”

The team has adopted a motto of sacrifice, which Ward describes as always giving full effort for his teammates.

“This is a team full of leadership, a team full of passion and a team that really just loves the game of basketball and loves each other,” English said.