2014 NCAA Div. III tournament qualifier
2013-14 overall record: 21-8
Conference record/finish: 11-3 (first place)
Letterwinners lost: 6
Letterwinners returning: 8
Starters lost: 3 (Matt Greenfield, Kevin Kaerwer, Spencer Bakerink)
Starters returning: 2 (Nile Eckermann, Colby Taylor)
All-Iowa Conference players returning: 0 (Nile Eckermann, Colby Taylor, honorable mention)
Top returning scorer: Nile Eckermann, 10.0 ppg
Top returning rebounder: Colby Taylor, 5.2 rpg
After being blindsided by a startling championship run last season, Iowa Conference foes are not likely to be surprised by the Central College men’s basketball team in 2014-15.
The respect level has risen for the Dutch, who, despite a powerful men’s basketball tradition, were a bit of an unknown when coach Craig Douma took over the program in 2013. After enduring a 10-14 campaign and a spot in the cellar of the league standings in Douma’s first season, the Dutch were picked to finish last in 2014-15. But the tireless head coach quickly established that Central is again a championship contender, as the Dutch pulled off a stunning title run, then knocked off No. 25-ranked St. Olaf (Minn.) in the NCAA Division III tournament before suffering a five-point loss at No. 1 Wis.-Stevens Point. Central closed at 21-8, securing its 17th league championship and making its 10th NCAA tourney appearance, the most of any conference school.
The road will be tougher this year.
“We definitely have the league’s attention,” Douma said. “We gained a lot of respect last year. But we will find some difficult challenges.”
Those challenges start with replacing three key starters, including 6-8 forward Matt Greenfield, the league MVP now playing professionally in Spain, and all-conference point guard Kevin Kaerwer. But the Dutch will also need to regenerate the chemistry that helped them thrive so often in the tense moments that preceded each game’s final buzzer.
And while it could be argued that last year’s Central squad made preseason polls seem like a meaningless exercise, for the record, the Dutch are tabbed for fifth place this year. The league’s coaches expect Central can’t immediately replace all that talent or the team’s intangibles.
Douma quickly acknowledges there’s work to do.
“We’re a young team,” he said. “It’s going to take us a while to get us where we want to get to. But this team is definitely capable.”
Perhaps no question loomed larger in the preseason than the identity of Kaerwer’s replacement as team floor leader.
Getting an early look is 6-1 junior Austin Hauser, who saw only brief action last year.
“Austin is doing a nice job,” Douma said. “He’s doing what we need. He’s a good leader. Defense is definitely his strength. He does a great job of on-the-ball defense. He really gets after you and uses size to his advantage.”
Drew Moore, a 5-8 senior, played in just five games last year but should be in the mix.
“He’s had ups and downs but has continued to stay the course,” Douma said. “He’s done everything he’s asked. He’s a very good floor general with a real high basketball IQ. He knows how to get kids in the right position. He lacks size, but his IQ makes up for that.”
Another undersized player, 5-8 freshman Trashawn Boyd of Normal, Ill., has caught Douma’s eye.
“He’s done a great job in practice,” Douma said. “He’s got a lot of athleticism and a really good motor. We’re excited about his future. He’s been a pleasant surprise. He’s going to give us some valuable minutes.”
The Dutch will consider other candidates as well and Douma said it’s unlikely they’ll rely on one player at the point.
“We think we have at least three guys who can do this by committee,” he said. “They all bring something different and have different strengths but they can get the job accomplished.”
There’s far more certainty at the shooting guard spot with the return of 6-0 senior starter Nile Eckermann, who had a breakout season last year. He averaged 10.0 points a game and knocked down 56 3-pointers, which ranked second on the team. The Dutch want him to take on an even bigger role.
“We’re looking for leadership out of him,” Douma said. “He did a lot of solid things for us last year and he’s got to continue to do that, to be that knockdown guy from 3 (-point range), while also taking on the other team’s top scorer on defense.”
Aaron Rosenstiel, a 6-3 senior, appeared in 15 games last year and likely will see an increased role as well.
“Aaron had a really good preseason for us,” Douma said. “He played at the three (small forward) for us last year. With his size and athleticism, he can give other twos (off guards) a lot of problems. He’s a slasher and the best cutter on the team. He’s a hard-nosed, tough kid.”
Providing some spark in Central’s stretch run last year was 6-6 sophomore forward Colby Taylor, who emerged as a starter in the final 19 games of his freshman season. He received all-conference honorable mention and was the D3hoops.com West Region Rookie of the Year after averaging 9.8 points and 5.2 rebounds. Open looks won’t come as easily this year without Greenfield and Kaerwer commanding opponents’ attention, but Douma sees big things ahead for Taylor.
“He’s only a sophomore but he still brings a lot of leadership to the team,” Douma said. “He’s a great shooter but he’s also a hard-nosed player who outworks his opponent.”
Nate Munn, a 6-4 sophomore, played in 16 games last year, averaging 4.9 points.
“Nate can play some at the two (off-guard) as well,” Douma said. “He’s an instant offense-type player. He’s not so much one who will try to create but he can really shoot it. He’s gotten stronger and more physical and is continuing to work on his defense.”
Michael Iseman, a 6-4 senior, will play an important role.
“He’s the vocal leader of this ballteam,” Douma said. “He leads in so many ways. He shoots the ball really well and he outworks people. Having Mike around makes us better.”
After transferring to Central a year ago, 6-6 senior Kyle Newendorp became an important cog in the front line. He appeared in all 29 games off the bench.
“We’ll use him some at the four (power forward) but also at (center),” Douma said. “He gives us a bigger lineup. He’s coming off a really nice junior year for us. His athleticism makes him hard to match. He’s got a great work ethic and plays so hard. He gives us some low-post opportunities.”
Meanwhile, 6-4 freshman Kyle Smith, a highly regarded recruit from New Hampton, could make an immediate impact.
“Kyle has been everything we’d hoped for so far,” Douma said. “He gives us a lot of offensive options with his versatility as a player. His outside game, guard skills and passing skills make him valuable. He’s a gamer.”
Another young player, 6-4 sophomore Tate Handsaker, is forcing his way into the picture after a season with the junior varsity.
“Tate’s been a nice surprise,” Douma said. “He’s a hard-nosed, tough kid. He rebounds very well for his size and his offensive game can really help us.”
Central has another hole to fill at center, where Spencer Bakerink graduated.
Ryan Kunkel, a 6-8 sophomore, only played in five games last year but provided some crucial minutes as a defensive stopper late in the season.
“He’ll be a fun guy to watch as the season progresses,” Dunham said. “He will continue to get better. His size and his wingspan make the biggest impact for us. He gives us good rebounding and shot blocking and his scoring will come.”
A gifted musician, Kunkel is occasionally absent from practice so that he can also be a member of Central’s A Cappella Choir. In those instances, the Dutch will likely turn to 6-8 freshman Luke Posivio of Iowa City.
“He’s a big body and when he’s fresh, he can come in and make it tough for our opponents,” Douma said. “He uses his size well, he rebounds well and offensively, he’s a tough guy to move. He puts pressure on other teams’ interior defense.”
Douma is also rooting for hard-working 6-6 senior Jayson Shepherd, who brings some important intangibles to the lineup.
“This is a guy who has never given up,” Douma said. “He’s always working at his game. I looked out here the other day and he’s doing wind sprints by himself. He wants to be on this team so badly. I think he can give us some minutes. He’s very physical and strong. He works hard in the weight room and he’s in great shape. He’s got to be an inspiration to any other guy out there.”
Central’s non-conference slate will expose the Dutch to wide-ranging styles of play, as well as some daunting assignments, none bigger than a Dec. 3 home contest with Division III title contender Augustana (Ill.). But the non-conference schedule should serve its purpose, Douma said.
“The biggest thing for us is to develop our identity and team chemistry,” he said. “The schedule will expose our weaknesses and help us identify strengths heading into the conference season.
“The non-conference season is important. We want to win every game, but more importantly, we want to become the team we want to be going into the conference season.”
Buena Vista is the preseason pick to win the league, but the race will be wide open once again, Douma said.
“There’s a lot of parity in the league,” he said. “Several teams have a lot of people back, but as we saw last year, any team can win on any given night. You have to come out prepared.”
Central’s championship experience will be helpful, but Douma wants his players to remember the kind of effort it took to succeed last year.
“We have to build off of last year’s confidence,” he said. “But we can’t forget our big focus is on the process. To be a champion, you have to prepare yourself like a champion. We can’t forget what got you there.”
Douma takes pride in that preparation.
“A big staple of the program is a strong work ethic,” he said.
That’s a necessity, because success won’t come easily, particularly given the team’s youth.
“We’ve got to stay the course in pressure situations,” Douma said. “We will definitely have some ups and downs. We’ve got to stay positive.”
But that youth also gives Douma reason to believe the Dutch are on the road to becoming a perennial contender.
“I’m really excited about the future of the program and where we are right now,” Douma said. “I feel great about the recruiting class we’ve assembled and I hope that success will allow us to continue to recruit well.”
Douma is equally enthused about Central’s prospects in 2014-15.
“I’m excited about what this team can do, to see how they develop and what the seniors can do to guide us in this campaign,” he said.