Defending Champs Set to Reload for 2015-16
EASTON, Pa. - The defending Patriot League champions and class of the conference a year ago, the 2015-16 edition of Lafayette men’s basketball has a completely different feel after the loss of three starters to graduation, all 1,000-point scorers. Seth Hinrichs, Joey Ptasinski and Dan Trist were the first trio of 1,000-point scorers to play on the same team in program history and will not be easily replaced.
“We’re the defending champs, but we’ve lost a lot,” head coach Fran O’Hanlon said, entering his 21st year on the sideline for the Maroon and White. “Last year’s team set the bar high and we’re looking to build on that championship culture. Hopefully, we can use the past to help us with our attitude and approach to the game this season.”
That attitude is no better personified than in junior co-captain Nick Lindner, fresh off a Patriot League Tournament MVP performance last March. In three postseason games, Lindner averaged 23.5 points, including 25 with four assists in the championship game. The Doylestown, Pa. native has been lauded for his work ethic since the moment he set on campus and it’s rare to not see him in the gym on off-days.
“Nick is obviously a product of talent, but also hard work,” O’Hanlon added. “He’s committed to being the best he can be. The proof is in how he continued to develop through our playoff run last year. We’re expecting our backcourt to lead us, having been through it before and as our only two returning starters.”
Joining Lindner as that second returner is fellow co-captain and senior Bryce Scott. Seen as a complimentary scorer in years past and a deadly shooter in open space, Scott will have to take that next step and provide a large portion of the offense this year for the Leopards to be successful. He’s shown doses of ability to take over the game on both ends of the floor and without Hinrichs, Ptasinski or Trist to play off of, there may be games when he’ll have to do just that this season.
Down low is where the Leopards really need to progress quickly. Following the loss of a unanimous All-Patriot League First-Team selection Trist, it will be up to sophomore Matt Klinewski and seniors Nathaniel Musters and Ben Freeland to pick up the slack.
Klinewski saw improvement as the year progressed last season and his ability to rebound and find ways to score on the offensive end will be invaluable to the success of Lafayette this season. As a freshman, he averaged 3.1 points and 1.8 rebounds per contest, seeing action in all 33 games.
Senior guard Zach Rufer and junior position-mate Monty Boykins will also have expanded roles this season as the pair look to potentially break into the starting lineup or play significant minutes off the bench. Rufer showed a propensity to make big plays when it mattered most last season, hitting a buzzer-beater to knock off Boston U. on March 5 and making several big plays late in the Patriot League championship game to help the Leopards secure the conference crown.
Boykins has been hit by the injury bug throughout his first two seasons on College Hill, so as a junior, it’ll be important for him to stay healthy and contribute on both ends of the floor.
Each of these players brings something different, with Rufer presenting better defensive qualities and Boykins showing the ability to be more effective on the offensive end.
Five newcomers enter the program as Tyler Barlow, Sam Dunkum, Auston Evans, Jacob Orender and Paulius Zalys are fresh faces to Kirby Sports Center. Despite their first-year status, some will likely be called upon to play significant minutes early in their Lafayette careers.
As for the chances at a repeat, the Leopards will have to go through a league that’s extremely strong at the top with Lehigh, Bucknell, Boston U. and Army returning essentially everyone from a year ago.
“The league’s extremely strong,” O’Hanlon said. “At the top, it’s as talented and tough a four teams as you’re going to see.”
For O’Hanlon, though, the success of the Leopards this season will all depend on guys coming out of their proverbial shells and stepping up when needed most.
“There are a lot of holes we have to fill. Our guys are going to be called upon to step up and do some things they haven’t been asked to do in the past. Additionally, there’s going to be an opportunity for some of our freshmen to be impact players if they can catch up and continue to develop as the season goes on.”
If things come together, Lindner has high hopes.
“Our goal is always to win a Patriot League championship,” the junior said. “We’ll work as hard as we can and put forth our best effort to achieve that feeling again.”
Despite losing sharpshooter Joey Ptasinski to graduation, the backcourt for the 2015-16 Leopards is the clear strength of this team with the only two returning starters occupying the point guard and shooting guard roles.
Lindner’s outstanding play throughout the Patriot League Tournament in March announced his presence among the best point guards in the conference. Throughout last season, Lindner averaged 12.5 points and 5.2 assists per contest. Additionally, he only turned over the ball 62 times for a league-leading 2.9 assist/turnover ratio, putting him 21st in the national rankings. As a sophomore, he developed a highly-effective pick-and-roll offense with Trist, and will look to find that player, perhaps in Klinewski, to make those plays effective again this season. Lindner will be asked to do just about everything on the court for the Maroon and White this winter, but he insists the leadership role he’s taken on doesn’t come with added pressure.
“I don’t think there’s pressure on any of us. Coach preaches that anyone from a freshman to a senior can be a leader. It’s just about how you act on and off the court. I’ve tried to set a good example the past two years and plan on continuing that this season.”
Scott will be Lindner’s comforting counterpart above the arc as a pure shooter who ranks 12th in Lafayette history in career three-point percentage (39.5%) and 13th in career threes made (139). The senior has also proven to be a capable defender and an excellent rebounder for a guard, snaring nine boards in Lafayette’s tightly-contested 59-54 victory at Colgate a year ago.
“Bryce has been a great complimentary player throughout his time with us, so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles things without certain established pieces around him,” O’Hanlon said. “He brings a grittiness and toughness as a three-year starter. He understands the system and has done a good job throughout his career in what we’ve asked of him."
The other experience in the backcourt belongs to Rufer and Boykins. Each has shown, at times, to be starter-quality players, but both seemed inconsistent, leading to the majority of their minutes coming off the pine. Rufer’s big-play ability was an important reason the Leopards were so successful last year and both shoot a good percentage from beyond the arc at 46.7 and 41.0 percent, respectively, so they’re valuable weapons to have in certain situations. It will be up to both of them to complete their game throughout the preseason and continue to develop into consistent performers.
Other options for O’Hanlon at the guard spot include sophomore Eric Stafford, who saw limited time during his rookie campaign, appearing in 16 games at 3.8 minutes per contest. Newcomers Auston Evans and Jacob Orender will also compete for minutes as they develop a knowledge of the Lafayette system.
Lafayette’s frontcourt is its biggest question mark heading into the 2015-16 campaign as it hinges on the continued development of Matt Klinewski. As South Jersey’s leading scorer with 24.5 points per game at East Regional High School his senior season in 2013-14, Klinewski did not find points as easily during his rookie year on College Hill, putting up 3.1 points in an average of nine minutes per contest. A full offseason of work with the Lafayette coaching staff should see those numbers increase, but it remains to be seen how big of a step he can take to make an impact on this year’s squad.
“Matt has to step up and his development is a huge key for us this season,” O’Hanlon said. “He’s shown spurts in the past of being able to be a contributor. He’s going to be asked to do a lot more this year for us to be successful. Hopefully he can use his experience with Dan and Seth last season to help him along.”
Along with Klinewski are returning seniors Ben Freeland, Nathaniel Musters and Billy Murphy. Freeland and Musters gave the Leopards solid minutes at times last season, but will be called upon to provide effective play on both ends of the floor for longer periods of time this season and not just as two or three-minute holdovers when Trist needed a breather. Each of the 6-10 forwards had his share of solid performances last season, with Musters earning seven season-highs including four boards in Lafayette’s matchup at Bucknell on Jan. 7.
Incoming freshmen Tyler Barlow, Sam Dunkum and Paulius Zalys will likely see chances for time early in the season as the depth at the position allows O’Hanlon the chance to try to find a hot hand. Zalys, a Lithuanian product who played his final two high school seasons at The Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, Pa., has impressed the Leopards’ coaching staff since arriving on campus and could earn a chance to be a major contributor.
Entering his 21st 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 289-308 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 can help develop Lafayette’s student-athletes.
At the top of his coaching staff is Pat Doherty who begins his seventh season on College Hill and first as the program’s Associate Head Coach. Doherty is one of several former O’Hanlon players to join him on the sidelines. The 2004 Lafayette graduate was an assistant coach at Williams in 2008-09 and The College of New Jersey in 2007-08.
Matt Blue returns to Lafayette after five seasons as an assistant at Hartford. Blue worked on O’Hanlon’s staff during the 2009-10 season, a year in which the Leopards went 19-13 overall and advanced to the Patriot League championship game. While at Hartford, Blue specialized in shooting technique, resulting in the Hawks leading the America East conference in threes made four of the last five years.
Finally, Jimmy Fenerty joins the Leopards after serving as a graduate assistant manager at Temple during the past two seasons. While in Philadelphia, he helped to design offseason individual workouts and assisted with recruiting endeavors.
O’Hanlon begins the 2015-16 season as the defending champion for the first time since the 2000-01 campaign.
In an effort to keep that momentum rolling, the Leopards are starting strong, opening the year against a postseason contender in George Washington on Nov. 13. The Colonials went 22-13 overall and 10-8 in the Atlantic 10 conference, finishing their season in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament after knocking off Pittsburgh in the opening stage.
“GW is definitely a tough start for us, but having a guy like Nick can help us against quality opponents,” O’Hanlon said. “Nick and Bryce can hopefully help the younger guys come along, whoever those new starters and key players happen to be.”
The Maroon and White open up Kirby Sports Center on Nov. 15, taking on St. Peter’s (16-18, 8-12 MAAC) in one of just two home games during the month of November and just four home contests throughout the non-conference season.
Following the Peacocks, the Leopards travel to NJIT, beginning its first season in the Atlantic Sun. The Highlanders went 21-12 last season as an independent program and fell to the Leopards in Easton on Dec. 28, 2014, 76-71. In that game, Lindner went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final minute to seal the Leopards’ victory.
Trips to a pair of winning programs from a year ago follow before a return home to round out the month. Lafayette travels to La Salle (17-16, 8-10 Atlantic 10) on Nov. 23 and Princeton (16-14, 9-5 Ivy) on Nov. 25. The Leopards used a balanced attack last season to knock off the Tigers on Nov. 19, 83-66, with five guys boasting double-figure scoring in the game. Penn (9-19, 4-10 Ivy) comes to town to finish up November, a team the Leopards took down, 83-77, behind 22 points from Trist on Nov. 22, 2014.
Two of the first three contests in December take place inside the friendly confines of Kirby Sports Center. Coming off a Northeast Conference championship game appearance last season, St. Francis Brooklyn (23-12, 15-3 NEC) is the opponent on Dec. 2, followed by a trip to Cornell (13-17, 5-9 Ivy) on Dec. 5. The Leopards then welcome Fairleigh Dickinson (8-21, 3-15 NEC) to College Hill on Dec. 9, a team on the wrong side of an 82-61 contest against Lafayette on Nov. 30, 2014 in Teaneck, N.J.
Two more games on the road will set the stage for Patriot League play as a rematch of one of the more entertaining games last season takes place on Dec. 12 at Sacred Heart (15-17, 9-9 NEC). On Dec. 8, 2014, Trist knocked down 1-of-2 from the foul line with 0.4 seconds left to help the Leopards escape with an 82-81 victory.
Following the finals break, the Maroon and White travel across the country right before Christmas to battle with USC on Dec. 23. The Trojans are looking to improve upon a 12-20 overall mark a year ago in which they went 3-15 in Pac-12 action.
“I wanted to get Bryce and Ben a chance to play closer to home,” O’Hanlon added. “This is a year when USC is expected to take a big step. There’s a lot of hype around that program.”
Patriot League play begins on the road this year for Lafayette as a trip to Colgate (16-17, 12-6 PL) ends the month on Dec. 30. The Raiders were Patriot League Tournament semifinalists last season and Lafayette split its two regular-season meetings, winning by a 59-54 tally in Hamilton and falling 95-83 in Easton.
The league home opener will also be the Leopards’ first game in 2016 as they host Loyola (11-19, 7-11 PL) on Jan. 2. Lafayette took care of the Greyhounds by four on their home floor last season, but did not play well in a 19-point loss in Baltimore on Feb. 11.
A trip to Army West Point (15-15, 6-12 PL) is next on Jan. 6, the only team the Leopards swept during their 2014-15 campaign. A 92-78 victory in West Point opened conference action for the Maroon and White a year ago, while Lafayette took care of business at the end of league play with a 74-64 win at home on Feb. 28.
The Leopards remain up north for their longest trip of league play on Jan. 9, traveling to Boston U. (13-17, 9-9 PL). Lafayette played a trio of exciting games with the Terriers last season, including a 63-62 buzzer-beating victory in Massachusetts on Jan. 10. Boston U. escaped from Kirby Sports Center once with a 74-60 victory on Feb. 9, but could not do it twice as the Maroon and White shot the lights out in an 89-64 win in the Patriot League Quarterfinals on March 5. In that game, the Leopards drained a Patriot League Tournament-record 16 shots from beyond the arc.
Three of the next four will take place in Easton with all four opponents winning at least a game from the other last season. Holy Cross (14-16, 8-10 PL) comes to Kirby Sports Center on Jan. 13 and Lafayette travels to Navy (13-19, 8-10 PL) on Jan 16. Back-to-back home games follow with the rematch of the Patriot League championship game taking place on Jan. 20 against American (17-16, 8-10 PL). The annual crosstown rivalry with Lehigh (16-14, 10-8 PL) begins in Easton on Jan. 23.
The Leopards split with Holy Cross, Navy and Lehigh last season, and went 1-2 against the Eagles with the one coming at the most important time. After dropping a 78-76 contest at home on Jan. 17 and an 88-77 defeat in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 14, the Maroon and White exacted their revenge in the Patriot League championship game, walking away with a 65-63 victory for the conference crown.
A trip to the always-challenging Sojka Pavilion to take on Bucknell (19-15, 13-5 PL) on Jan. 27 rounds out the first half of league play. Lafayette went 2-1 against the Bison during the 2014-15 season, including the Leopards’ first-ever win in Sojka in a Patriot League Tournament game in five tries. The Patriot League semifinal win also made Bucknell the first top-seeded team in league history to get knocked out of the tournament field before the championship game.
The schedule flips over to finish up January as the second-half of league action begins with a trip to Loyola on Jan. 30. Home contests with Army West Point and Boston U. open February, followed by a road contest at Holy Cross on Feb. 10. Navy comes to College Hill on Feb. 13 before the final two road games at American and Lehigh on Feb. 17 and Feb. 21, respectively. The Leopards finish the year with a pair in Easton, hosting Bucknell and Colgate on Feb. 24 and Feb. 27, before the Patriot League Tournament gets underway on March 1.
The tournament will feature all 10 Patriot League members and will be played entirely at home sites. First-round contests will feature the 10th-seed at the seventh-seed, and the ninth-seed at the eighth-seed. The tournament will then move to the quarterfinals held at the top four seeds, followed by the semifinals and championship at the site of the higher seeds.