Azusa Pacific men’s basketball is looking to continue a high level of play despite graduating all five starters on last year’s Elite Eight team.
“I’m excited,” head coach Justin Leslie said. “The start of a new year is always an exciting time and the fact that we have some new players, but also returners in new roles, gives opportunities for them to grow and stretch themselves a little bit.”
The Cougars lost All-PacWest guard Robert Sandoval and All-American guard Troy Leaf to graduation.
“We lost five seniors; however, I think that offensively, we’re much more talented,” sophomore forward Corey Langerveld said. “We’re a taller team and more athletic team, so I’m excited.”
While Coach Leslie agrees that Leaf and Sandoval were great point contributors for the team, he believes that this year’s players are just as capable of achieving what they did last year.
“We do have guys who are just as talented—they’re just not there yet,” Leslie said. “It’s our job as a coaching staff to give them confidence and work with them day in and day out to where they can establish themselves as the next leaders and names of the program. Someone’s going to step up. It’s just grooming the next guys for their opportunity. We have the talent.”
The team focused their summer practices on improving offensive tactics, both individually and as a team. The five graduating seniors from last season scored 61.4 percent of the Cougars’ points.
“This team is more versatile than a lot of the teams that we’ve had in the past,” Leslie said. “We’re taller [this year]; we have more guys who can play near the basket and farther away.”
However, Coach Leslie is also looking to take advantage of the team’s intellectual capabilities. Focusing in on the players’ natural awareness on the court, Leslie emphasized polishing their skill at making adjustments on the fly and attacking their opponent’s weakness quickly.
“[Rather than] me having to call a timeout or a play, I think we can put things in place where they can see it in the floor and in the flow of the game, then take advantage [of it],” Leslie said.
In regards to new players, transfers and incoming freshmen, coach Leslie and sophomore forward Petar Kutlesic feel optimistic.
“I feel confident in our new guys,” Kutlesic said. “We have a bunch of transfers, freshmen and people who played last year that are going to take over the leadership, [like] upperclassmen and sophomores.”
Kutlesic also mentioned the advantage the team has with their “bigs”—the team’s tallest players. “We have some new plays; we’re going to expose that, and [the bigs help] work the points per game,” Kutlesic said.
Junior guard Justin Byrd and junior forward Joey Schreiber, the transfers, were key contributors in quality Division II programs before coming to APU. Coach Leslie has been working to get the players comfortable with the team’s system and style.
“They’re very good players, and they have a lot to offer,” Leslie said. “It’s just a matter of them getting comfortable with how we do things. That just takes a little bit of time, but they’re working hard; they have great attitudes.”
At the beginning of every new season, new leadership is bound to appear. As team chemistry continues to grow and strengthen, leadership is slowly defined.
“I like to use the term ‘role leadership’ or ‘situational leadership,’” Leslie said. “We have different guys who have different strengths at different times. Sometimes it’s in the locker room when there are no coaches around; they’re more of a spiritual mentor and leader on the team. We have other guys who are more energetic, who drive it at practice and at games. And then there are others who are just leaders by example.”
Leslie added, “That’s one of the big question marks that we have going into this year—how leadership will form.”
Leslie has set up a tough schedule in the western region to help the team’s chances of qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
“Ultimately our goal is to make the NCAA tournament each year,” Leslie said. “Sure, we want to compete for a conference championship, but I think if we’re working toward that goal of playing a tough schedule and putting us in the top three, we’re going to be in the mix.”
Since the PacWest does not have a balanced schedule, and some teams may play difficult opponents multiple times while others face that difficult team only once, it is important that the Cougars make sure they lockdown a position in the top three of the PacWest to continue to the NCAA tournament.
The team’s main focus for making it into that mix is protecting its home court.
“You have to protect your home floor,” Leslie said. “We have to win at home. Last year, we were able to do that, and then there are teams that we have to win on the road against, teams that we’re better than. Then there are teams, the top suspects, the usual suspects: your Dixie States, your Cal Baptists, Point Loma, Concordia—we need to win our games at home against them, and then we need to steal a few on the road. Then we all hope that they split and lose elsewhere.”
The entire team shares the same winning mentality and the same goals.
“First—no questions asked—we really want to make it to the [West Region tournament] one more time,” Kutlesic said. “It was so much fun last year, and I really want to do that. I think we can do that.”
The Cougars’ season begins with a nonconference schedule that includes Cal Poly Pomona and Seattle Pacific, both of which reached the NCAA Division II West Region semifinals a year ago.