2017-18 Men's Basketball Season Preview
EASTON, Pa. - What will life be like without Nick Lindner? The Lafayette men's basketball program and head coach Fran O'Hanlon will find that out as the Leopards enter the 2017-18 season with largely the same team as a year ago with one glaring difference. Lindner, Lafayette's first-ever player to record over 1,500 points and 500 assists in a career, was the engine for the Leopards over his four seasons on College Hill and his graduation in the spring marks a shift in power at the top of this year's squad.
"Matt [Klinewski] and Eric [Stafford] will have to take over that leadership role," O'Hanlon said, entering his 23rd season on the sidelines for the Maroon and White. "If you're asking, `who's going to replace Nick?' then I don't think I can answer that. Matt is going to bring that toughness and the ability to rally people with his heart and desire to win. Eric will take over as our primary ball-handler and will eat up a lot of Nick's minutes."
Aside from trying to find a replacement for everything Lindner brought to the court throughout his time in Easton, O'Hanlon's sights are high for a group that looks to improve on a 9-21 season a year ago that saw his Leopards go 5-13 in Patriot League action. That record put them in the 10th position in the Patriot League Tournament with a trip to seventh-seeded Loyola the reward.
The finale was as hard-fought a game as Lafayette played all season, leading for 35:56 of game action in Baltimore. The Greyhounds' Andrew Kostecka hit a corner triple with 4:04 on the clock to give the home side its first lead of the game and Paulius Zalys' three to tie was off the mark, ending the 2016-17 Lafayette season.
The pieces of the puzzle seem to be sliding into place with the continued development of players like sophomores Lukas Jarrett, Kyle Stout, Hunter Janacek and Myles Cherry hugely important in the potential success of the upcoming season. Klinewski will need to be dominant, Stafford will take over court management, and juniors Auston Evans and Paulius Zalys will need to produce on a more consistent basis.
The Leopards' newcomers are poised and ready to contribute. Alex Petrie, Justin Jaworski and E.J. Stephens will see time at guard, while Dylan Hastings can be a rim protector and a stretch offensive weapon at forward.
Without the four-year court general, it will almost certainly take some time for the 2017-18 team to figure it all out, but the pieces are there for an exciting winter in Easton.
A senior co-captain and a player that O'Hanlon has grown to trust over three years as a role player for the Maroon and White, Stafford is the incumbent leader of a young backcourt this season. The loss of Monty Boykins '17 to injury in the season opener a year ago propelled Stafford into a starting role and, as he gained confidence in those expanded responsibilities, turned into someone that the Leopards sorely missed when he wasn't on the floor. Stafford missed four games due to injury in the middle of the Patriot League season a year ago, and the Leopards lost all four.
"When we didn't have him, it showed how much we missed him. He was our secondary ball-handler last year," O'Hanlon said. "He's had some very good games and we're looking for more consistency from him. He's a streaky shooter, has the ability and will take a lot of Nick's minutes."
Stafford will be the elder statesmen in a 1-2 guard spot that includes sophomores Cal Reichwein and Janacek, and freshmen Petrie, Jaworski and Stephens. Reichwein is battling through injury for the second time in his young career, but could see time toward the second half of the campaign.
Janacek started his collegiate career strong, finishing the non-conference season in 2016-17 with a four-game stretch that saw him go 15-for-33 from beyond the arc, a 45.5 percent clip. That consistency wavered through the end of his rookie campaign, though, knocking down 17-of-64 from the three-point line in Patriot League action, a 26.6 percent execution rate.
"Hunter is a sharpshooter that made shots at 33.9 percent clip last year. That's not going to cut it and we'll need him to be better on both ends of the floor."
Janacek certainly has shown flashes of a player who can be a difference-maker for the Maroon and White with his outside-shooting prowess. If he can knock down shots at a more consistent rate, he could be a much-needed weapon for a Lafayette offense that struggled for scoring outside of Lindner and Klinewski a year ago.
Given that Evans, Zalys and Stout will be looked more as `3' options in O'Hanlon's offense this season, that opens the door for early opportunities for Petrie, Jaworski and Stephens at either Stafford's back-up spot or alongside him at the `2'.
Jaworski has been the most impressive of the three early in camp, catching the eye of the coaching staff with his toughness and competitive nature. The Schwenksville, Pa. native was a two-sport athlete at Perkiomen Valley High School, coupling his four years of basketball with three years of football. Jaworski averaged 22.2 points per game during his senior year, leading his team to a league championship.
"`Jaws' moves extremely well without the ball and may be the best three-point shooter on our team," O'Hanlon said. "We're going to need to groom one of the freshmen to help us with handling the ball at times, and all three of them will likely get their chance early in the season."
Petrie was the most highly-touted of the group, averaging 20 points, four rebounds and three assists per game at St. Christopher's in Midlothian, Va. The point guard led his team to a school-record 24 wins in his junior campaign.
"Alex can score at all three levels. He has good size for a guard and will likely factor strongly in our success as the season goes along," O'Hanlon added.
Finally, Stephens is a combo guard that can be used in a variety of different ways and at multiple positions. At 6-3, he was a big point guard that led his team in scoring with 20.0 points per game in his senior season.
"E.J. has a good mid-range game and good length on both ends of the floor," O'Hanlon said. "He's a good driver of the ball and can finish around the basket."
The wing `3' in the O'Hanlon offense will likely be the biggest determining factor to the success of the Leopards on the offensive side of the floor this season. With Zalys, Evans and Stout, O'Hanlon has three players with a ton of potential, but records of inconsistency.
Evans is the defensive answer for Lafayette when O'Hanlon needs a stop. He was able to post just one double-digit scoring game a year ago as his offensive game continues to develop, but he still averaged 16.7 minutes per game due to his ability as an on-ball defender. With the quickness of a player much smaller than that of the 6-6 Evans, he's able to stay in front of smaller guards, but still pose problems when they try to score over his length.
Stout's growth was gradual through his transition from high school to the college game in his rookie year, showing flashes at times of what his potential could be in the O'Hanlon system.
Coming out of high school as a player that could hit shots from anywhere on the floor, he struggled at times getting his three-point game going and finished the year as a 32.5 percent shooter from beyond the arc (41-for-126). That may have been a blessing in disguise, though, as his best scoring games came when he was confident with the ball and took it to the basket, drawing comparisons to the inside-outside scoring of Seth Hinrichs '15, who won a Patriot League championship with the Leopards in 2015. Stout's offensive game grew simultaneously with the confidence he was showing in his knowledge of the O'Hanlon system, and with a full year and offseason under his belt, he could be poised for a breakout year on College Hill this winter.
"Kyle epitomizes the Leopards. He had some good games last year and just needs to put it together," O'Hanlon said. "We've been so inconsistent the last couple years that we're never sure what versions of the guys we're going to get each night. I'm hoping he takes a step as a sophomore and he's a key part of what we accomplish."
Finally, the ultimate wildcard in Zalys. Since the moment he stepped on campus, it was clear that the 6-7 Lithuanian had talent and moves that many of his teammates or opponents could not mimic. The potential to be a First-Team All-League player has been there for Zalys from day one and 2017-18 might be the year that it all comes together.
Last winter, Zalys finished as the team's third-leading scoring, averaging 9.1 points per game. He started slow with just 25 points in his first five games, but hit his stride when Patriot League season came around, upping his average to 9.3 in league contests from 8.8 in non-league games and finishing the year with four of his last five games in double-figures, including 13 in the quarterfinal game at Loyola.
Playing at the `4' for much of his career, O'Hanlon's plan is to play him more at the `3' this year, allowing for him to expand his offensive game out of the low block. If he and possibly one other scorer to be named later can complement Klinewski's ability down low, Lafayette's offense will go back to its rightful place atop many of the league's scoring rankings.
There was plenty of pressure placed on Klinewski's shoulders heading into the 2016-17 season and the rising senior answered the call in just about every situation for the Maroon and White during his junior campaign. Asked to be the work horse in terms of offensive performance, he led the team in scoring at 16.0 points per game, posting three performances of 30 or more points, the first Lafayette player in the Patriot League era to accomplish that feat.
That pressure returns in his final lap on College Hill as the focal point of a Lafayette team that looks to return to prominence in a balanced Patriot League. Losing Lindner to graduation, the only other consistent double-figure scorer for the Maroon and White a year ago, it will be up to Klinewski to find new ways to put the ball in the basket as teams gameplan the majority of their defense around halting his production. The Klinewski-Lindner duo accounted for 44.3 percent of Lafayette's points in 2016-17.
"Matt is a very good mid-range scorer and is talented around the basket. He's probably undersized for his position, but he brings a toughness and competitive nature that's as great as anyone in our league," O'Hanlon said. "That translates to why he's continued to significant steps each year."
The mid-range game that O'Hanlon mentions is really what sets Klinewski apart from most `4' or `5' players around the league. He hits elbows jumpers better than anyone on the team and has expanded his range for his senior season with the potential to see a three or two from the Voorhees, N.J. native. Everything in this positional group starts and ends with this senior co-captain. Lafayette will likely only go as far as Klinewski can take them.
That's not to say this group is not talented behind their star as Cherry, Jarrett and Hastings are each valuable in their own skillsets. O'Hanlon calls Cherry his most-improved player heading into his sophomore season. A prototypical on-the-block forward, he creates a sense of calm when he has the ball as O'Hanlon states he can "take a breath" when Cherry has the ball because he's "going to make the right decision and the right play." Known for his rebounding in the early part of the season, the speed of Patriot League games took some getting used to for the Newcastle, Australia native, but he should be more prepared for those challenges after a full year of American collegiate basketball under his belt.
"Myles has come back in very good condition. He knows how to play the game and we need him to be more assertive offensively," O'Hanlon added.
Jarrett was the pleasant surprise of the 2016-17 campaign for the Maroon and White, personifying the phrase, "earning your minutes," throughout the season. During the non-conference schedule, he played about 14.6 minutes per game, scoring 2.9 points and corralling 2.1 boards per contest.
Once the in-league competition came around, though, O'Hanlon went with his trusted lineup and that's where Jarrett began to shine. In Patriot League action, the Northport, N.Y. native saw his minutes increase to more than 20 per contest and his production basically double to 4.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per night.
"Lukas brings an energy and a know-how to our team," O'Hanlon said. "He's a rim protector and we're hoping he can add a little more to his offensive repertoire."
Hastings, coming to Easton from Quarryville, Pa., is the prototype stretch `4' O'Hanlon loves in his offense. His game features a pick-and-pop skill that allowed him to average a double-double in his junior season at Solanco High School, scoring 17 points and ripping down 11 rebounds per game to go along with 4.5 assists per contest. On the other side of the floor, his shot-blocking prowess earned him multiple selections to the Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 2 All-Defensive Team.
The Lafayette frontcourt as a whole may have the most solid depth on the team with three guys Coach O can count on to produce when they need to and a fourth that will hopefully develop into a stretch weapon. Klinewski is certainly the headliner, but look for Jarrett and Cherry to surprise people this winter.
THE COACHING STAFF
Entering his 23rd season, O'Hanlon is the longest-tenured coach in the Patriot League and the winningest head man in Lafayette basketball history. His longevity and coaching acumen have been the key ingredients to building and maintaining a championship-caliber program. For his efforts, the Philadelphia native and Villanova alum has been named Patriot League Coach of the Year three times and was the first coach to be honored by his peers in consecutive seasons.
O'Hanlon lays claim to three Patriot League regular-season titles, seven conference title game berths and three NCAA Tournament appearances to go along with a 304-353 career record.
"Coach O" is widely regarded as an excellent tactician and because of that he has been able to surround himself with quality assistant coaches who help develop Lafayette's student-athletes.
At the top of his coaching staff is Jim Fenerty, who begins his third season with the Maroon and White and first as the program's top assistant. Fenerty came to Lafayette after serving as the graduate assistant manager at Temple for two seasons.
"Jimmy has been absolutely tremendous," O'Hanlon said. "Growing up in basketball and being around it his whole life, he's been invaluable. He's a tireless worker."
Lafayette's second assistant begins his first year with the program as Jarren Dyson joins the Leopard sidelines for 2017-18. Spending four years as an assistant at Christopher Newport, a D-III institution in Newport News, Va., under former Lafayette assistant John Krikorian, he helped lead the team to back-to-back conference championships in 2015 and 2016. In the latter, the program made its first-ever Final Four appearance.
During his tenure, the Captains held a 99-19 record, winning three conference championships. He oversaw the development of seven all-conference performers, two conference players of the year and two first-team all-americans.
"JD has good recruiting roots in Virginia, Maryland and down south," O'Hanlon added. "He brings a lot of energy and relates very well to the guys."
As a point guard at Holy Cross through 2015, Justin Burrell brings Patriot League experience to his first full year on the Lafayette sidelines. Burrell joined the Leopards midway through the 2016-17 campaign after Matt Blue took a job with NBA China after the non-conference season. As a four-year starter in Worcester, he scored 1,143 career points and left atop the Holy Cross record books in games started with 119.
The final newcomer is Andrew Radomicki, the program's Director of Basketball Operations. Radomicki is on the Fenerty career path, also spending the last two years as a graduate assistant at Temple. While in Philadelphia, he assisted with daily coaching and operations, played a pivotal role in scouting and on-court player development, while also chipping in on travel arrangements, equipment inventory, scheduling, facilities management and the organization of recruiting visits.
"Andrew has already implemented some new things with us. He brings such a great work ethic and positiveness to our program."
The Lafayette schedule features 13 regular-season games at Kirby Sports Center.
The marquee matchup yet again this season will be a battle with perennial powerhouse Villanova, O'Hanlon's alma mater, on Nov. 17. The game will be played at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pa., familiar home of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the AHL affiliate of the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers.
The Villanova game is the third of a four-game road stretch for the Leopards to open their season, beginning with a trip to George Mason to kick off the year on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. Treks to NJIT on Nov. 14 and Princeton on Nov. 22 finish off the time away from home.
"To be able to bring a team of Villanova's caliber to the Lehigh Valley is pretty cool. George Mason is also very good and then we go to NJIT and people are talking about Princeton as a top-25 caliber team. We've got quite a schedule to start the year," O'Hanlon said.
Lafayette returns to Kirby for its opener on Nov. 26 at 2 p.m. against Saint Peter's. Other home non-conference opponents include Quinnipiac (Dec. 2, 2 p.m.), Penn (Dec. 6, 8 p.m.) and Susquehanna (Dec. 18, 7 p.m.).
Patriot League play starts with a bang as the Maroon and White will open with the rivalry game at home against Lehigh on Dec. 29. Both games over the holiday break will take place in Easton as Holy Cross comes to town on Jan. 2 to begin 2018 action.
Lafayette's trip to Lehigh will wrap up regular-season play on Feb. 24, a 7:30 p.m. affair, before the Patriot League Tournament gets underway on Feb. 27.