Men’s Basketball Preview

Tristan Gavin

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Last spring, the Whitman men’s basketball team graduated one of the school’s highest all-time scorers in Brandon Shaw, a pair of layers who would go on to sign professional contracts in JP Alvarez and David Michaels, and versatile wing D.J. Wright. In spite of its losses, this year’s team expects to improve upon its 2011-2012 season and second-place Northwest Conference finish.

Whitman took on St. Thomas on Nov. 16. Photos by Tanner Bowersox.

Senior forward Ryan Gilkey and his teammates acknowledge the losses as part of the game, but see great prospects in this year’s team.

“Every year the dynamics of the team change; that is the nature of sports and of life. We have some amazing talent and dedicated players this year and are looking forward to seeing everyone fulfill their potential,” said Gilkey.

“We’ve got a great group of guys, and each individual brings their unique personality and perspective to the table,” said junior Ben Eisenhardt.

While players come and go, as one would expect from collegiate sports, one thing has remained a constant in Whitman’s basketball program for four years: Head Coach Eric Bridgeland. After taking the helm in 2008, Bridgeland has transformed the team from the bottom of the conference to a perennial serious contender for an NWC championship.

“[Coach] Bridgeland makes sure we push ourselves every day and are consistently improving. What he has done with the culture of this program speaks for itself in the relationships and success our team has experienced thus far,” said Gilkey.

Perhaps the most telling impact Bridgeland has had is the team-first mentality he has instilled in his players. When asked about individual and team goals, Gilkey was short and to the point.

“No personal goals. Team goal is the NWC championship,” he said.

Another aspect of Bridgeland’s culture is the fact that the team has no official captains.

“We don’t have captains because everyone on the team should be a leader and be willing to step up when necessary. When everyone has the mentality that they have ownership of the team’s success … That being said, natural leadership always rises to the top,” said Gilkey.

Bridgeland’s system has allowed upperclassmen and underclassmen alike to assume large roles on the team moving forward. In addition to off-the-court leadership being more balanced and fair, the structure of the program has allowed different heroes to rise to the occasion in each of its five games so far this season.

With a dynamic offense Whitman has averaged over 97 points per game since the start of the 2012-13 season and has consistently had multiple players scoring in double-figures. Eisenhardt leads the team in scoring with nearly 20 points per game, while others have put up great individual performances including junior Ignas Pavilonis’s 23 points and five three-pointers against Mary Hardin Baylor University and first-year Jackson Clough’s 13-point effort in the season opener, his first collegiate game.

The team has already faced a series of tests coming from a nationally ranked University of St. Thomas team from Minnesota and a three-game trip to California, followed by a game against Mary Hardin Baylor at home last Sunday.

“We purposefully put a challenging schedule together to challenge our returners and get a good feel for what we had to work on to compete with the best,” said Coach Bridgeland. So far Whitman has handled its tough opponents and come away with three wins in a row after starting the season with a pair of competitive losses.

“We didn’t feel like we played very well in our opener against St. Thomas, but in each game since then we’ve played progressively better and better. Our goal is to get a little better as a team and a little closer as a group each day, and we feel as though we’ve been doing that,” said Eisenhardt.

As for the rest of the season, the team looks to take it one game at a time, but always with the goal of a conference championship.

“We were voted to finish second in the conference in the preseason poll, and we took that as a challenge,” said Eisenhardt.

Whitman’s high-octane offense takes to the court at home against UC Santa Cruz this Thursday before taking on their alumni this weekend.

“We will continue to look to improve both offensively and defensively in these two contests in preparation for next weekend’s NWC openers,” said Coach Bridgeland.

The regular season begins next week with a pair of league opponents in the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University Dec. 7 and 8.

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