IUP coach Joe Lombardi wouldn’t mind finding a couple more Mathis Keitas and another Marcel Souberielle or two.
Of course, what NCAA Division II basketball coach wouldn’t want players of that caliber?
IUP began hitting the recruiting trail hard this week after its season ended in the Atlantic Region semifinals in an 86-85 loss in triple overtime to West Liberty (W.Va.) on Sunday evening. The Crimson Hawks finished 24-5.
“We have a lot of needs to fill,” Lombardi said. “We need to bring in a couple forwards to replace some minutes we lose with Mathis and Marcel, and we need to get a couple more guards. We just need to get better and improve in a lot of areas.”
Keita and Souberbielle are scheduled to graduate in a couple months. The pair of forwards rank among the top players in school history after helping lead IUP to 50 wins and a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship over the course of the last two seasons. Keita came to IUP last year as a transfer from Division I Gonzaga, and Souberbielle arrived four years ago as a freshman and became a 1,000-point scorer.
IUP has used that mix of transfers and four-year players as a recipe for success under Lombardi, who rebuilt the program in his first two seasons and has since led the Crimson Hawks to three PSAC championships, five straight division championships, six straight seasons with more than 20 wins and six consecutive NCAA tournament berths. That run of success is unparalleled in IUP history.
“We always look for that,” Lombardi said. “We’ve had some success with guys that have come in that have some experience playing and being able to contribute at a high level their first year. We’ll look to have a balance of that with a couple high school kids and four-year players and junior-college transfers. We’ll leave the recruiting pool open and see what best fits our needs.”
IUP needs a couple impact players to join the mix to replace Keita and Souberbielle. Returning next year for their senior seasons are point guard Devante Chance and forward Jeremy Jeffers. Chance came to IUP as a freshman, and Jeffers transferred from Division I Drake prior to this past season.
Also returning are Brandon Norfleet, who will be a junior after transferring from Cheyney prior to this past season; Devon Cottrell, who will be a redshirt junior center; and Manny Yarde, who will be a redshirt sophomore guard.
Reserve guard Jesse Bosnik also exhausted his one year of eligibility.
IUP has one player all but locked up. Travis Tomer, a 6-foot-5 wing, gave IUP a verbal commitment in the fall. Tomer averaged 17.6 points per game as a senior and 14.5 in two seasons at University High School in Morgantown, W.Va. He played the past season at St. Thomas More, a prep school in Connecticut.
Lombardi can’t comment on a player until he has signed a national letter of intent — verbal commitments are non-binding — and the signing period does not begin until 10 days after completion of the Division I Final Four.
Two players expected to join the mix are Australian natives Stef Osborne and Nathan Lemke. Both spent this past season in the program, Osborne sitting out one season per NCAA regulations after playing in a league that included a handful of pro players in this native country, and Lemke as a redshirt freshman. Osborne, a 5-10 guard with tremendous shooting range, has three years of eligibility, and Lemke, a 6-9 center, has four.
“Stef is certainly a guy that played a lot of basketball in Australia and someone who probably could have helped us this year,” Lombardi said. “He’s somewhat undersized for an off guard, but he has a specific set of skills as a very good shooter with unlimited range. Hopefully we can incorporate that in a way that he’ll become a good piece of the puzzle and complement Devante and Brandon.
“And Nate has a lot of skills for a guy his size, but how strong he can get will probably determine if he’s able to contribute next year. I think he can from a skill set, but sometimes a skill set is negated if you’re not strong enough to play around the basket.”
Lombardi hopes to find a couple starters and some players to strengthen depth. IUP used an eight-player rotation this past season, but the bench averaged only 11.9 points per game.
“Ideally I always like to have eight and might even go nine deep,” Lombardi said.
One of IUP’s weaknesses this past season was a significant drop-off from its starters to most of its bench.
“It’s a good problem when your seventh and eighth guys are ready to start for you,” Lombardi said. “It’s always good to have three guys coming off the bench who feel like they should be starting. It means those guys are going to have a big impact on given nights. We have to work to continue to develop the guys we have and look to find other guys that can have that type of impact.”
One thing Lombardi said he won’t do is compromise the integrity of the program just to bring in a good player.
“As we move forward we’re going to continue to try to recruit quality basketball players and quality people and ones we think best fit into the IUP basketball culture of success we have established,” he said. “Sometimes you can win conference championships and get to the NCAA tournament when you mix a lot of positive intangibles with talent, and that’s kind of been our recipe, and this past year we were very successful considering the turnover in players and coaches. But we set a high standard of success for ourselves, and we’re always looking to win regular-season championships and tournament championships and games in the NCAA tournament. It’s always a high chore for a team the following year, but it starts with good people and people that understand that work needs to be put into the process and the commitment that it takes to the process and the commitment it takes to each other, and that selflessness and character are things we look to evaluate as we evaluate basketball skills.”
One area in which IUP made a big leap this season was attendance. The Crimson Hawks attracted an average of 2,090 fans for 15 home dates in their third season at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. That was an average increase of 503 fans over 2012-13 and 656 over 2011-12. IUP averaged 1,035 fans in 2010-11, its last season playing at Memorial Field House. A KCAC-record crowd of 3,621 watched the Feb. 15 game against Gannon.
“It was exciting to see the attendance continue to increase at the KCAC,” Lombardi said, “and there were very few that thought we’d be able to attract some of the crowds we’ve brought in. We’ve been able to win over fans one at a time, and that type of interest in the program is as important to me as it is going to the NCAA tournament or winning the western championship.
“And as a program, it always goes back to the fact that we’re not fully institutionally funded as some programs in the conference and the region are, so we’re very dependent on the community to support us financially, and I’m grateful to the countless number of people who contribute financially, small or large, so we can be competitive with some schools in the conference, particularly the private schools. With that said, it’s not an IUP basketball program but an IUP community program, and I just happen to be the caretaker of it at this point in time.”