Joe Lombardi considers every year a rebuilding year.
Every basketball season features a new team. Every player has new roles. Every team has new players that have to be incorporated into the program. And past success doesn’t guarantee success in the present.
Some years the project isn’t so big, with only minor remodeling necessary.
This year, though, IUP is undergoing more of a renovation project.
Only four players return from last year’s regular rotation, and there are seven new players in the program. Lombardi also has two new assistant coaches on his staff.
“This is the least experienced team we’ve had here in five years,” Lombardi said as he prepared for his eighth season at IUP. “We have four upperclassmen, and of those four, only two have been in our program three years or more. The reason that concerns me is because teams in the past have gotten to be good because game to game we’ve been consistent and fundamental on offense and defense, and it’s hard to be consistent if a lot of guys that you’re counting on to play haven’t been in the system a long time.
“Our development will be a little slower than it’s been in the past, but I also like the talent we have, and we have a high ceiling, it’s just of matter of, Can we get there, and how soon can we get there?”
IUP has been the class of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference the last four seasons. The Crimson Hawks have won three of the last four conference championships and four straight division titles. They have finished the season ranked in the top 10 nationally in each of the last four seasons, They have strung together five straight seasons with more than 20 wins, and they played in five straight NCAA tournaments, a feat unmatched in school history and rarely accomplished by any Division II program in the country.
The Crimson Hawks return two starters, senior forwards Marcel Souberbielle and Mathis Keita. Devante Chance, a junior, is taking over at point guard after playing a reserve role the last two seasons. Devon Cottrell, a redshirt freshman last year, is moving into the starting lineup at center. Jeremy Jeffers, a junior transfer from Division I Drake, is new to the program and the fifth starter at power forward. Brandon Norfleet, a transfer from Cheyney, is expected to take a starting spot once he is eligible at the end of the fall semester.
“It’s a completely new team,” Souberbielle said. “Me, being here as a freshman and now being a senior and seeing all the players that have passed through this institution, I’m just excited about having a new team and new responsibilities. But the expectations are the same for us always. I’m just excited to see what we can do.”
Keita, who transferred from Division I Gonzaga last year, led IUP in scoring at 13.5 points per game and rebounding at 6.2 and averaged 3.3 assists last season. He was a first-team all-conference selection, the most valuable player in the PSAC tournament and an Atlantic Region all-tournament selection.
Souberbielle, the lone fourth-year player in the program, averaged 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds. He scored 29 points and grabbed nine rebounds in IUP’s two exhibition games over the weekend.
Chance, in his third season at IUP, averaged 6.6 points and a team-high 3.3 assists last season. He scored 22 points and handed out eights assists in the exhibition games.
Cottrell averaged 2.1 points, 2.4 rebounds and 11 minutes of playing time as a redshirt freshman.
“I’m just excited for the year,” Chance said. “New team, same goal. We’re just getting ready to get together and play team defense. I’ve tried to pick up everything to another level, my spot-up shooting mostly, and being more vocal and more familiar with Coach and how he wants us to play throughout the game.”
Jeffers, a starter at Drake as a freshman, and Norfleet, the PSAC East freshman of the year last season, are expected to make an immediate impact.
“Jeremy brings a lot of versatility,” Souberbielle said. “He’s a really good shooter and can really stretch the floor. And Brandon has a lot of versatility, too, and he can play the point guard and two-guard position. He’s very athletic, and defensively he can definitely make a huge impact. They still have a lot of work to do in adapting to our system of what we require and how we play defensively, but they’ll be good contributors.”
“Jeremy probably shot the ball better than anybody in the preseason,” Lombardi said. “It didn’t show up in the exhibition games because of some of the length of the other teams, and he didn’t play a lot last year, so maybe it will take a while for him to get comfortable.”
At 6-foot-6, Jeffers has the ability to score around the basket and step outside to score from the perimeter. Norfleet, at 6-4, provides tremendous length on the perimeter. He averaged 13.4 points per game last season.
“Seeing how the guys fit in and what roles they play is still an ongoing process,” Lombardi said. “Jeremy’s going to play a prominent role. Brandon, when he becomes eligible after the first semester, is going to play a prominent role. Those guys have proven success at the college level.
“And I think our most improved guy over the summer might be Devon Cottrell. It’s exciting to see the steps he’s made and the incredible amount of time he put in, and it’s good to see, as we say, by cutting stone, the opportunity that has created for him.”
The newcomers in the lineup are Manny Yarde, who redshirted last season; Jesse Bosnik, a shooting guard who played baseball the last six years; Kalusha Ndoumbe Ngollo, a transfer from Division II Franklin Pierce (N.H.); and Nathan Lemke, a 6-10 freshman from Australia who might redshirt.
“Some other guys don’t necessarily have a proven record at the college level, and we need to see how their development comes along in the next month,” Lombardi said. “We have a lot of inexperience but good players behind the starting five. Cornell Yarde has a chance to be a really good player. Jesse Bosnik, after a six-year layoff, is staring to look like a basketball player. Kalusha and Nathan, as they become more familiar with the system and improve their fundamentals, they will make contributions on the inside.
“I like our depth. It’s young. I like older depth better than younger depth, but I’ve been kind of spoiled over the years. Hopefully these guys have a quick learning curve and continue the same off the bench as guys in the past.”
Bosnik, a shooting guard, was a late addition to the program. He led his high school team at Elk County Catholic to a Class A state championship as a junior and went on to play baseball for three years at St. Bonaventure. He was drafted in the 13th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers and played three years of pro baseball.
“Back in the day,” Lombardi said, “(IUP baseball coach Jeff Ditch) and I both recruited him to play both sports. I think basketball was his first love, but he played baseball because his best future was in baseball. If you haven’t played in a while, it eventually comes back to you. He does have good defensive fundamentals so he’s not that far behind. On offense, he was a very good shooter in high school, and he’s starting to get that back and is getting better all the time. He’s a great competitor so he brings that to the floor. If he can make a couple shots, we’ll be very happy with his contribution.”
With no true center and more versatile players in the lineup, Lombardi has tweaked the offense.
“It’s something that we’re exploring at this time of year, to play smaller and put five guys with the ability to shoot 3s and the ability to go off the dribble and pass,” he said. “That may change game to game depending on what the other team has and what trouble they cause us. I do like our flexibility. That can only be a positive to play different ways and make adjustments from game to game or within a game to make adjustments on the floor.
“As a coach, it’s a little bit different so it’s been a little bit of a learning process for me to see which way to use our personnel the very best. Sometimes you work at things and become better offensively and maybe sacrifice some things on the defensive end, and sometimes it’s worth it. We might go through the season and find out it’s not worth sacrificing on the defensive end. I don’t have the answers at this point.”
There might be a change on the defensive end, too, not only at IUP but across the nation. The NCAA has charged its officials with calling games more closely to eliminate hand-checks by defenders. That might lead many teams to play more zone defense.
“We played one or two possessions of zone all last year. This year we will play zone,” Lombardi said. “Over the summer I thought about playing some full court and running and considered it in the fall. I’m just not 100 percent sure that we have the depth or athleticism to do it well. If I ever change anything, I’ll make sure it fits the style of players we have.”
One thing is certain: Lombardi likes the leadership Souberbielle, Keita and Chance have displayed.
“I tell the young men, ‘Good teams are coach driven, and great teams are player driven,’” Lombardi said. “That means our staff has the ability to get these guys to perform enough to win our share of games, but when the game starts, there’s so much that goes on in making a great team, and lot of it starts in the locker room before you come out to practice, a lot of it’s on the practice floor, and a lot of it is during the game. And so often, many of those times the coach is not involved in the equation. That’s why great teams have great leaders, and those leaders make sure the coach’s themes are constantly enforced and that guys take a five-month journey where they’re working to be committed every day to the process and to one another. That’s our goal every day: to daily be committed to the process and daily be committed to one another. I think Marcel, Mathis and Devante learned from the leaders we had last year and are trying to put on the same face and take responsibilities seriously and not only want to be players but guys that coach this team.”
IUP played a pair of exhibition games, losing at La Salle, 87-57, on Saturday and then bussing to East Lansing, Mich., for an 83-45 loss to Michigan State on Monday night.
“They were the hardest two exhibition game we ever had,” Lombardi said. “We never played anybody that was the preseason No. 1 or No. 2, depending on the poll, like Michigan State is, and La Salle finished last season 24th in the country and has all but one starter back. Some of our exhibition games in the past, the other teams would have more talent and greater depth, but we’ve been the older team in most of them so that would often make us a little more fundamentally sound and competitive. But this year they were bigger, faster, stronger, and we were less experienced. They had an edge in ability and execution added onto the fact that we played those teams with only two weeks of practice and they had four or five weeks of practice.
“So it really made a great challenge even greater, but our guys embraced it and we as coaches embraced the failure because we compete to win, and when you don’t win and get beat by a large amount in both games, we take it personally and ask ourselves, How do we move forward from this and get better because of the experience? When you play those games you get exposure or you get exposed. That’s the beauty of it. We got exposed in both games. They exposed a fundamental weakness, a competitive weakness, and at times, from a conditioning standpoint. But it’s a great time of year to get exposed. I’d hate to learn all these lessons in January and February, as some teams do.”
IUP opens the season Wednesday at West Virginia Wesleyan. The home opener is next Saturday against Notre Dame (Ohio.)
“I like our team,” Lombardi said. “They work hard, they care about each other, and over time they’re going to have some very good chemistry because you need time and experiences to have that chemistry. Over time we’ll develop a better understanding of our strengths and weaknesses and be more functional. We’re looking forward to opening up Wednesday and having homes game on the 16th and 20th.”