2019-20 Record: 24-10 overall, 12-8 GPAC (T-4th); GPAC Tournament Champions
Head Coach: Ben Limback (at Concordia: 119-97, seven years; career: 234-255, 16 years)
Returning Starters: G Carter Kent (Jr.); G Justin Wiersema (Jr.).
Other Key Returners: F Ryan Holt (Sr.); G Sam Scarpelli (Sr.); F Gage Smith (Jr.); G AJ Watson (So.); F Klay Uher; G Grant Wragge (Sr.).
Key Newcomers: F Cory Davila; F Noah Schutte; G Drew Wheeler; G Braeden Wiltse.
Key Losses: F Chuol Biel; G/F Tanner Shuck; G Brevin Sloup.
2019-20 GPAC All-Conference: Brevin Sloup (First Team); Carter Kent (Second Team); Tanner Shuck (Honorable Mention); Justin Wiersema (Honorable Mention).
2019-20 NAIA All-American: Brevin Sloup (Honorable Mention).
Just before the harsh reality of the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the Concordia University Men’s Basketball program enjoyed its most successful run in 15 years. Lasting memories were formed through the GPAC tournament championship celebration at the Corn Palace and the eerie feeling that settled in after the final game of the 2020 national tournament. Regardless of how things ended, the late season run signified an important step forward for the program.
Head Coach Ben Limback relished the opportunity to lead his alma mater back to the national tournament (as he did as a player). Now the Bulldogs want to prove they were not just some one-season wonder. There’s a hunger for more.
Says Limback, “There is a different sense of confidence and expectations within our team. Just to have a large group back from last year, to get there and go on the road and win the conference tournament (was huge). To see the national stage is important, especially for the group of guys we have returning. There has been a difference confidence level and I have been impressed with the hunger too. It’s not one of those mindsets where we are saying, ‘Oh, we have already done that.’ It’s about how we can take it to the next level.”
Concordia has reason to be excited about a backcourt anchored by juniors Carter Kent and Justin Wiersema. It won’t be hard for Kent, Wiersema and company to carry a chip on their shoulders considering their GPAC preseason ranking of sixth. To be frank, the GPAC is a challenging league with no off nights and opposing conference coaches are probably wondering how the Bulldogs will replace the three starters they have lost: Chuol Biel, Tanner Shuck and Brevin Sloup.
Even with the losses of Shuck and Sloup (more than 2,800 career points between them), the backcourt has the potential to rank among the best units in the GPAC. The group includes not just Kent and Wiersema, but also sparkplug Sam Scarpelli (5.3 ppg in 2019-20), a senior who transferred into the program prior to last season. Collectively, they want to play fast and they want to let it fly from the perimeter.
“We’re really athletic,” Kent said. “There are times when we have a lineup and our smallest guy is 6-2. It’s good because we can have more of a defensive lineup, but we can also have a lineup if we want to score and stay small if there’s a mismatch we like. Every guy can bring up the ball and push it in transition. We have the ability to spread out and go. We do seem a lot quicker this year and we have a lot of guys knowing that they have to fill roles. You can see them molding into those roles and filling those spaces we need to fill.”
From a talent and maturity perspective, Kent is beyond ready to take the lead. The Crete High School product is right on the cusp of becoming a major star. He’s already been quite good considering he was named the GPAC Freshman of the Year in 2018-19 and has averaged 11.6 points per game over his first 65 collegiate contests. Meanwhile, Wiersema (10.8 ppg in 2019-20) is about as steady and consistent as they come.
Says Limback, “I think we’ll have one of the better guard play tandems in the conference and we certainly have guys off the bench who will contribute and make it even better. Those three (Kent, Scarpelli and Wiersema) will help continue that fast play and that offensive firepower that we want to see on the perimeter.”
Scarpelli (seven starts last season) spearheaded a 2019-20 bench that included three others who saw more than 10 minutes of playing time per game: Ryan Holt, Gage Smith and AJ Watson. In addition, Klay Uher and Grant Wragge possess significant experience. That means that Limback returns eight players who have been heavily involved in the rotation in previous seasons (Tanner Wubbels also could play a larger role). Each of the aforementioned names supplies unique skillsets that figure to come in handy. Holt, Smith and Uher will attempt to fortify the frontcourt.
Limback also really likes what 6-foot-7 freshman Cory Davila (Basehor, Kan.) brings to the table. Davila has a chance to be “special,” as Limback put it. A select few additional newcomers could play a role on this year’s varsity squad. Limback isn’t expecting to have a frontcourt player with the shot-blocking and rim protection capabilities like Biel displayed, but that’s not necessarily essential in today’s college basketball – although it’s a nice luxury to have.
It seems likely that this edition of Bulldog Basketball will be just as unafraid of shooting it from deep. Even frontcourt players like Holt and Smith are more than capable of stepping out and knocking down jumpers. Said Kent, “We are going to stick to a lot of our values from last year. We are really athletic and have a lot of people that can play multiple positions, which opens up a lot of opportunities for us to get out in transition. We are still going to be able to shoot a lot, but it will be cool to see how versatile we will be in different situations.”
It’s difficult to mention everyone, but returners who logged heavy junior varsity minutes last season could also be a factor. Former Centennial High School standout Jackson Hirschfeld was named the JV Team MVP last season and is in line for a larger varsity role. However, backcourt minutes could be limited at times for the reserves. Kent and Wiersema both played more than 29 minutes per game last season.
Morningside is again the GPAC favorite to open up this season. The Bulldogs showed last season they could go toe-to-toe with the Mustangs in their own gym – and it doesn’t get much more big time than winning at the Corn Palace with a GPAC championship on the line. It’s time to show that was no fluke.
“With COVID-19 and not knowing what this year would look like, we weren’t sure whether we’d have a season,” Limback said. “Now that it’s becoming real, I feel like the sense of urgency, especially with our seniors, is a lot different. There are certain guys who did not play a large role last year – and now with the parting seniors – we have some guys that have an opportunity. I am looking forward to seeing how this new team shapes up.”
As for those preseason rankings, Kent is not focused on them. Within the locker room, coaches and players are talking about winning the day, each day. Says Kent, “There is a lot of motivation. We always look forward to playing and with this season there are a lot of unknowns. Our motto is ‘win the day.’ We can’t look at the rankings. We must focus on ourselves and winning every aspect of our day. Over time hopefully we will win the week, the month and then we will be where we want at the end of the year.”
The 2020-21 campaign is set to officially open up at the Hastings College Classic the weekend of Oct. 30-31. Concordia will make its first home appearance at the annual Cattle Classic (Nov. 6-7).