Youth Injection Key to Men's Hoops Bounceback
Entering the year with high expectations after winning a Patriot League championship in the 2014-15 campaign, Lafayette struggled a year ago to replace three 1,000-point scorers lost to graduation in Seth Hinrichs '15, Joey Ptasinski '15 and Dan Trist '15. The Leopards finished at 6-24, going 3-15 in Patriot League action and falling to Navy in the opening round of the Patriot League Tournament.
This time around, the Leopards bring an even younger group to the court, with four players boasting upperclassman status and seven freshmen joining the squad for 2016-17. Lafayette will be forced to replace five seniors, including 1,000-point scorer and four-year impact performer Bryce Scott '16, who leaves Lafayette holding top-10 spots in the record books for career three-point field goals (213), career three-point field-goal percentage (40.7%), single-season three-point field goals (73, 2015-16) and career free-throw percentage (81.8%). Scott was the 17th-best three-point shooter in the nation a year ago, converting on 43.7 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.
"Upperclassman leadership will be very important for us this year from Nick [Lindner], Monty [Boykins], Matt [Klinewski] and Eric [Stafford]," head coach Fran O'Hanlon said, entering his 22nd year on the sidelines for the Maroon and White. "We lost a lot of minutes this past year in the backcourt with Bryce and Zach."
Zach Rufer, a glue guy for the Leopards over his four years on College Hill, didn't always fill out the box score, but the team definitely played better when he was on the floor. Throughout the 2015-16 season, Lafayette was plus-17 in successful possessions out of 100 when the five on the floor were Lindner, Scott, Rufer, Klinewski and Paulius Zalys. When anyone else joined that group, the Leopards fell to minus-32. That speaks to the need for Lafayette's young players to continue to develop and take the next step this winter. The bench group of Stafford, Auston Evans and the plethora of freshmen will be keys to whether Lafayette will rebound with success this season.
Lindner leads a backcourt filled with experience as Boykins and likely a combination of Evans and Stafford will see the majority of the time early as the freshmen get acclimated to Fran O'Hanlon's complex offensive system.
Lindner has started in 60 games for the Leopards over the past two seasons, becoming the program's 43rd 1,000-point scorer this past season with 15 points at Navy on Jan. 16. The clear leader of the team as his play often determines the level of play of those around him, it was no surprise to anyone when he was selected as the lone captain of this year's squad.
"Nick leads by example. He's as hard a worker as anyone I've ever had and he's in tremendous shape," head coach Fran O'Hanlon said. "He's very competitive, really wants to win and brings it every day in practice. He does it on and off the floor, has really picked it up in the classroom and is a great leader for our team."
Lindner will lean on his senior counterpart for a large chunk of the scoring for the Maroon and White as Boykins has gradually grown into a more consistent offensive scorer. Boykins averaged double-figure scoring for the first time in his career during his junior year, putting up 10.7 points per game to go along with 2.5 rebounds per night. Boykins will look to continue to improve on the defensive end as O'Hanlon is trying to find more two-way consistency from his team.
"We can definitely put some guys on the floor that can shoot and score, but that might not equate to our best defensive unit," O'Hanlon added. "Our problems have come in defense and rebounding, and it will only get better if our big guards can take advantage of matchups on the wings. We're not big inside, so that puts pressure on our guards to rebound."
The best rebounding guards for Lafayette last season have graduated as Rufer was third on the team with 3.6 boards per night and Scott was fifth at 3.1. This is where players like Evans and 6-6 freshman guard Kyle Stout come in.
Evans was one of Lafayette's best defenders last year, often put into situations when the Leopards needed a stop. His offensive game has continued to grow as his skillset lies in driving to the basket and finishing at the rim.
"Auston is a very good on-the-ball defender, but has to get better off the ball," O'Hanlon said. "He brings a lot of energy and excels when slashing to the basket. He's good out in transition and a guy that can play a couple of positions for us, so he'll get his opportunities."
Stout, a local product from Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa. was a pure shooter for in high school, helping to lead his team to four league and district championships while winning East Penn Conference MVP his senior season. He averaged 17.7 points per game and shot 51 percent from beyond the arc last winter, leading his team to a 29-4 record.
Stafford will serve as Lindner's primary backup at the point guard spot, but also saw some time at the two-guard position last year. As one of just four upperclassmen for Lafayette, his experience alone will require minutes this season.
"We beat Colgate with Eric and Auston on the floor and others hurt, so those guys are definitely capable of getting it done," O'Hanlon stated. "Eric has good size, passes the ball well and hustles on every possession. His shot has gotten better and has to continue to get better."
Sophomore Jacob Orender and freshmen Hunter Janacek, Jimmy Panzini and Cal Reichwein provide depth to the more experienced of the two positional groups for O'Hanlon's squad. If Lindner and Boykins can use their senior leadership to carry this group on both ends of the floor, Lafayette could have one of the more dynamic backcourts in the Patriot League this season.
Following a freshman season in which he averaged just 3.3 points per game sitting behind unanimous First-Team All-League selection Dan Trist '15, Klinewski took a much-needed step forward in his sophomore year, developing into Lafayette's leading scorer and rebounder at 13.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game a year ago. Klinewski, undersized for a five-man at 6-8, uses his tenacity and ability to hit jumpers with range to about 18 feet as his avenues for success. For the 2016-17 season, Klinewski will be looked at as the primary option on the inside and the Leopards will need him on the floor as much as possible. The Voorhees, N.J. native fouled out three times last season and discipline defensively will be the focus of this winter's campaign.
"As a smaller guy on the block, Matt plays aggressively and we need him out there. That's going to be critical for us." O'Hanlon said. "He can't play 35 minutes per game, but we'd love to get 30 out of him. Foul discipline will be a huge key."
The only other returning big man for the Maroon and White is Zalys, who used the 2015-16 season as one of development and really looked to be hitting his stride toward the end of the season. Zalys, a wing-four with both an outside and inside game, is the type of player that makes O'Hanlon's system work when he's on. His ability to score not only from the block, but from beyond the arc, makes him a difficult matchup for Patriot League opponents and a player primed for a breakout season this year. As a freshman, Zalys put up 7.6 points per game, making three starts and seeing action in all 30 games. He was also second on the team in rebounding at 3.8 boards per night.
"Paulius will need to take another step this year as, more often than not, good things happen when he's on the floor," O'Hanlon added. "He'll be one of the keys if we're going to have any type of success. Any downfall won't be from lack of effort as he's a guy constantly working on his game."
The depth on the low block will have to be filled by freshmen as Myles Cherry and Lukas Jarrett are the players most likely to fill those roles. Following four years at St. Francis Xavier's College, Hamilton in Australia, Cherry spent a prep season at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn. under the direction of Lafayette alum and former assistant coach Drew Dawson '03. That gives him and advantage, O'Hanlon says, in knowing the system and a little about how the Leopards operate. While at Choate, Cherry averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per contest on his way to First-Team All-New England accolades.
Jarrett comes to College Hill after being a three-year starter at Northport High School in Northport, N.Y. The 6-7, 195-pound forward averaged 15 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and four blocks per contest during his senior season. Look for the Leopards to try a few different matchups with their four big men throughout the early parts of the season as O'Hanlon looks for the best way to utilize all four players and not always have to rely on Klinewski and Zalys on the floor at the same time for successful possessions.
Rounding out the front court depth is sophomore Sam Dunkum, who missed all of his freshman season due to a knee injury, and freshman Dom Cristiano.
The low-block crew for Lafayette this season has the ability to make plays, but its success will be judged on how they compete on the defensive side of the ball and how they rebound. Lafayette gave up an average of more than 80 points per game last season with 70.3 percent of opponents' scoring coming from inside the three-point line. With Klinewski and Zalys solidified in their abilities to produce offensively and Cherry and Jarrett showing potential in the preseason, this group seems to be set up for success in scoring terms. Defense and rebounding will be the key for overall team success from this group, though, in 2016-17.
A matchup with defending NCAA national champion Villanova kicks off the 2016-17 Lafayette schedule on Nov. 11.
This year's slate features 15 games inside Kirby Sports Center, two more than the 2015-16 slate. Home non-conference contests include NJIT, Cornell, Princeton, Drexel, Sacred Heart and Moravian, while the home matchup with Lehigh is set for Saturday, Feb. 18 at 2 p.m.
The Leopards open this year's schedule with a pair of road games at Villanova (35-5, 16-2 Big East) and St. Peter's (14-16, 12-8 MAAC) on Nov. 11 and Nov. 14. Villanova is an uncharacteristically familiar opponent for the Maroon and White, having matched up with the Leopards in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament on March 19, 2015. The school is also the alma mater of Lafayette's head man as O'Hanlon still holds a tie for the single-game assists record at Villanova with 16 in a game against Toledo on Feb. 24, 1970.
"Villanova will be a great experience for our guys," O'Hanlon said. "Obviously, it's a formidable opponent. It's like playing Alabama in football. Playing in an environment like that will be a hot ticket. Everybody wants to see the banners raised. It will be a great night."
Lafayette opens Kirby Sports Center for action on Thursday, Nov. 17 in a 7 p.m. tilt with NJIT (20-15, 8-6 ASUN), the first of four straight on the home floor for the Maroon and White. Matchups with Ivy League foes Cornell (10-18, 3-11 Ivy) and Princeton (22-7, 12-2 Ivy) follow on Nov. 20 and Nov. 23, while Drexel (6-25, 3-15 CAA) finishes up the homestand on Nov. 30. in a doubleheader with the Lafayette women. The ladies host Penn at 6 p.m. with the men to follow at 8 p.m.
The Leopards head back to the road to kick off December, with a two-game stint at St. Francis Brooklyn (15-17, 11-7 NEC) and Penn (11-17, 5-9 Ivy). Two of the three remaining games on the non-conference slate will take place at home as Lafayette hosts Sacred Heart (12-18, 11-7 NEC) on Dec. 11 and Moravian (11-14, 5-11 Landmark) on Dec. 19 before a road game at Saint Joseph's (28-8, 13-5 A-10) serves as the final non-conference tune-up on Dec. 22. The Hawks were the champions of the Atlantic 10 a year ago and were one of the darlings of the NCAA Tournament with a buzzer-beating win over Cincinnati in the Second Round before eventually falling to top-seed Oregon in the Round of 32.
The Patriot League slate opens on Dec. 30 at home as Colgate (13-17, 9-9 PL) comes to town for a 7 p.m. contest. The Leopards hit the road on Jan. 2 with a trip to Baltimore, Md. to battle with Loyola (9-21, 8-10 PL) at 7:30 p.m., a team the Leopards lost a pair to in 2015-16. A return home on Jan. 5 follows with Army West Point (19-14, 9-9 PL) coming to Kirby for a 7 p.m. tip. The Leopards and Black Knights split their meetings last season, with each team earning a win on the other's home floor.
Home games with Boston U. (19-15, 11-7 PL) on Jan. 8 and Navy (19-14, 9-9 PL) on Jan. 14 are sandwiched around a road contest with defending league champion Holy Cross (15-20, 5-13 PL) as the schedule moves through January. A pair of trips to American (12-19, 9-9 PL) and Lehigh (17-15, 13-5 PL) on Jan. 18 and 21, respectively, preface two home games to close out the month as the schedule turns around with Bucknell (17-14, 14-4 PL) on Jan. 25 and Loyola again on Jan. 28.
Five of the eight games to finish the league's regular season are on the road as February begins with away battles at Army and Boston U. The Leopards return home on Feb. 8 for a meeting with Holy Cross, but head right back out on the road that Saturday at Navy on Feb. 11.
The Maroon and White will spend the week of Feb. 12 in Easton, hosting American on Feb. 15 and Lehigh on Feb. 18. Lafayette will look for some revenge against its crosstown rival, dropping both meetings to the Hawks a year ago.
Trips to Bucknell on Feb. 22 and Colgate on Feb. 25 close out the regular season with the first round of the Patriot League Tournament set to begin on Feb. 28. The remainder of the postseason tournament will take place on March 2-8, with each game set to be played at the site of the higher seed.