As Joe Lombardi sees it, every year is a rebuilding year.
Some projects are just bigger than others.
In the case of the 2019-20 IUP basketball team, it’s a pretty big job.
IUP is incorporating eight new players into the program to join the three regulars from last year’s rotation on a 30-3 team that won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship.
“Every year you’re rebuilding the team,” IUP’s 14th-year coach said. “You may have the same guys with the same names as the year before, but they’re different players, and hopefully most of them are better the next year, but some, not always. They have different mindsets, and by that I mean different expectations on themselves, or a bigger role or more self-centered or more other-centered. All those things, you’ve got to build that into a team. Every year is a rebuilding year of the team. The parts are always different, and no one is ever the same. Sometimes it’s a lot different than other years, but it all goes into building a team and putting together a puzzle.”
This puzzle just happens to feature a lot of unfamiliar pieces for a team that is picked to win the PSAC West and is ranked 11th in the NCAA Division II preseason poll.
The returning regulars are Malik Miller, a senior guard who averaged 16.4 points per game last season; Armoni Foster, a 6-4 redshirt sophomore guard who averaged 7.6 points; and Chucky Humphries, a 6-6 senior forward who averaged 3.2 points. Miller is the lone returning starter, and Foster and Humphries have earned starting spots after coming off the bench last year in their first season in an IUP uniform.
A trio of Division I transfers are expected to make an immediate impact: Dave Morris, a 6-1 redshirt sophomore guard and Tennessee State transfer who is from Erie; Tommy Demogerontas, a 6-8 senior transfer from Northern Illinois; and Shawndale Jones, a 6-3 junior guard and NJIT transfer. Morris is the starting point guard, Demogerontas is the starting power forward, and Jones comes off the bench, although Lombardi called him “a sixth starter.”
Also new to the mix is Ethan Porterfield, a 6-8 forward from Sharon, and Shawn Ulrich, a 6-8 junior who sat out last season. Dylan Benton, a 6-5 junior who was called on at times as a freshman, is expected to provide valuable minutes in spurts.
Gone are Cobo Diaz and Dante Lombardi, a pair of four-year players who rank among the best in school history.
“The new guys are trying to pick up habits,” Lombardi said. “You never get to be on a good team until you pick up good habits. So we’re not as advanced at his point as we have been in the past … because of the inexperience in the process. We’ve got good leadership from Malik and Chucky and Armoni, and they’re really good players in our conference. The other guys have shown a lot, but they haven’t done it in an IUP uniform under IUP lights … so we’ll see what happens. They have a good work ethic and they care, so I see them making big strides between now and February.
“David needs to become good leader and strong point guard, or lead guard, for us; Shawndale needs to be able to blend in with David and the two returning guards and be efficient and produce at both ends; and Tommy doesn’t need to be Cobo, but we are going to count on him to score and he has the ability to make plays for others at his size.”
The trio made their debut last week in an exhibition game at Elon (N.C), a 79-71 loss in overtime. Demogerontas finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Morris had four points, four assists and four turnovers. Jones finished with eight points and seven rebounds.
“Those three are capable of playing better, and they’ve got to get there,” Lombardi said after the game.
THE GUARDS: The guards appear to be the strength of this team.
“We’ve got a lot of guards,” Foster said “Sometimes I think we can play smaller and teams won’t know what to do. We have a lot of firepower at the guard position. We’ve got big guards, skill. We’ve got everything.”
Miller ranked third on the team in scoring last year, behind Diaz and Dante Lombardi.
“I’m just really happy with Malik,” Lombardi said. “He’s improved physically, and I’m really happy with his mental growth and development. I’m just proud that he has matured in a short period the way he has. His heart has opened up to be more focused on others.”
Foster scored a game-high 28 points at Elon. Foster played throughout last season with painful shin splints, but he’s healthy entering this season.
“I feel good right now,” he said. “I did a lot of recovery in the summer, and I was in the weight room this summer, too.”
Morris is a former Erie County career scoring leader who played high school basketball at Strong Vincent, redshirted his first season at Tennessee State and played in 28 games last year. He averaged 4.5 points and 1.6 rebounds in 15 minutes of playing time per game.
“He’s a combo guard that is a capable scorer,” Lombardi said. “He is a exceptional on-the-ball defender and will be used in different ways on the offensive end.”
“He’s a good facilitator,” Foster said. “He makes people around him better. When he plays at his pace, he can do everything well. He’s just an all-around player.”
Jones gives IUP solid depth at the guard spot, and he checks in at 6-3, 210. He played in all 65 games during his career at NJIT and averaged 5.2 points and 2.5 rebounds. The native of Pittsburgh played at North Hills High School before moving on to the Kiski School.
“He had a very productive two years at NJIT and he’s also a guy who’s game-ready to make an immediate impact,” Lombardi said. “He is a somewhat of a power wing — call him a power guard — who is a very good finisher at the rim, has an excellent midrange game and is a consistent 3-point shooter who can rebound the ball well.”
THE FORWARDS: Humphries came off the bench last year and provided energy, defense and rebounding and averaged 3.2 points in 12 minutes of playing time.
Now he has to do it from the opening tip.
“Coach told me what I need to do for the team, and I started finding ways to do that,” Humphries said. “Running, that’s one of my biggest things out there, just sprinting the floor, and being active, being athletic, boxing out and always begin on the glass, just little things. Coach wants me to be a junkyard dog — that’s what he calls me — and that’s my role for the team. I’m learning to be that and be the best at it.”
“Chucky spent a lot of time in the gym,” Lombardi said, “and this year I told him he’s a really good shooter and when he gets catches outside the arc I want him shooting the ball. So he’s a junkyard dog/shooter.”
Demogerontas, who has one year of eligibility, played in 30 games as a junior at Northern Illinois and then was sidelined by an injury seven games into his senior season. He averaged 3.9 points and 2.1 rebounds in his career. The former junior college transfer averaged double figures over two seasons at Moraine Valley Community College.
“We have a lot of high expectations for him as a graduate transfer,” Lombardi said. “Having played four years … the expectations on him are to contribute at a little higher level than the rest of the class. He’s a very versatile player for his size. He’s been very proficient at scoring the ball from behind the arc and in the lane and also has a knack for making plays for others with his passing. We certainly need him to make an impact and feel that he is quite capable at either of the forward positions.”
Demogerontas has to be a scorer in the 6-9 Diaz’s old spot.
“He has a few more guard skills than Cobo, but he doesn’t play as big as Cobo did,” Lombardi said. “So with him out there, it certainly feels like we have four mobile guards with the ability to produce on the offensive end.”
Porterfield played 21 minutes at Elon and finished with four points and three rebounds. Lombardi expects the freshman to improve as the season progresses.
Benton and Ulrich provide more depth at the position.
“Point to one guy who’s great at his role, which make him an invaluable piece, that’s Dylan,” Lombardi said. “As they say, he stays in his lane, doesn’t try to do things he’s not real good at and does a lot of little things that help you win games. He played a little as a freshman and did some good things, and he improved a lot.”
THE OTHER NEWCOMERS: Ousmane Diop, a 6-10 forward, transferred from Division I Niagara.
There are two other freshmen in the ranks: KJ Rhodes, a 6-4 guard from Pittsburgh who played at the IMG Academy in Florida; and Bryce Radford, a 6-0 point guard from Beckley, W.Va., who has nursed an injury throughout the preseason.
All three are redshirt candidates.
THE COACH: Lombardi turned 60 today.
In 13 seasons, Lombardi has a 305-100 (.753) record with nine NCAA tournament appearances, four PSAC tournament titles (2010, ’11, ’13 and ’19), two Atlantic Region championships (’10 and ’15) and two appearances in the NCAA Division II championship game.
He has a 184-52 (.780) record in conference games, and his teams have won nine PSAC West regular-season titles, including five straight from 2010-14. Lombardi has also been the top postseason coach in IUP history with a record of 37-17 (.685) in PSAC and NCAA tournament games.
Lombardi became the all-time winningest coach in program history with a 72-64 victory over the University of the Sciences on Nov. 27, 2015. The win was his 207th, which broke a tie with Gary Edwards for most all-time. Edwards went 206-88 (.701) in 10 seasons.
With IUP’s division-title clinching win at Edinboro last season, Lombardi secured his 300th career victory, becoming the fastest coach in conference history to reach that milestone.
Ron Fudala enters his second year on the staff, and his first as the lead assistant, and Shammgod Wells, a former standout player at Fairmont State (W.Va.), is in his first season as the second assistant.
THE SCHEDULE: IUP opens the season Friday at the KCAC against West Virginia Wesleyan, which was 11-18 last season.
IUP plays Concord (W.Va.) the following day. Concord was 20-10 last season.
The Thanksgiving weekend tournament features Bridgeport (Conn.), which was 18-13), and Felician (N.J.), which was 14-13.
In other non-conference games, IUP visits Le Moyne (N.Y.) and plays host to Division III Bethany (W.Va.).
The PSAC crossover schedule consists of Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg and Lock Haven at home and Mansfield, Shepherd and Shippensburg on the road.
“We’re not worried about anybody, we’re just worried about ourselves and how we handle things,” Humphries said.
“We’re the highlighted game on everyone’s schedule,” Foster said, “so we get everybody’s best game. We lost a lot people and they don’t know what we have or what we do, so they probably think they can get us this year.”