Men’s basketball presses for another strong year

Julian Reed

For a Whitman men’s basketball team that boasts a thrilling run-and-gun offense, a frantic, trapping defense and a promising group of talents, the show at Sherwood will certainly be an exciting one this winter.

Expectations are high. The team, which went 16-10 (11-5 in conference) last year, won their first DIII matchup last Sunday over D’Youville College and hosts the University of St. Thomas tonight at 7 p.m.

The Missionaries feature a strong returning class, including seniors Matt Mounier (last year’s second-leading scorer), Dominic Lippi and Clay Callahan, and juniors Tochi Oti and Evan Martin. The continuity is especially helpful in Head Men’s Basketball Coach Eric Bridgeland’s aggressive, transition-heavy system. While returning a strong number of players, the team also has some solid building blocks for the future after bringing in a strong recruiting class. This year’s newcomers include first-years Rolaun Dunham, Jovahn Wiggins and Tim Howell, as well as two transfers, junior Ege Mala and sophomore Christian McDonald. Bridgeland says incorporating five new players has not been an issue at all.

“The new guys look great,” he said in an email. “All five have shown flashes of being able to help us immediately. With our returners and relationship-based culture, it’s been relatively easy to integrate them.”

Oti, a junior guard, agrees, praising the first-years’ work ethics.

Tochi Oti '16 (left) prepares for a free throw while teammate Evan Martin '16 gets ready on defense. Photo by Halley McCormick.
Tochi Oti ’16 (left) prepares for a free throw while teammate Evan Martin ’16 gets ready on defense. Photo by Halley McCormick.

“They all look very good. They’re working hard in practice, they’re very committed, always in the gym on their own time,” he said.

They are supported by the team’s family atmosphere, which Bridgeland and the coaching staff work hard to create.

“All the experienced guys are trying to help the young guys with the system. We did a lot of bonding activities that helped each other grow and come closer together. Our coaches emphasize trying to build a culture here that is close-knit like a family,” said Dunham, a first-year guard.

The team will have to manage the loss of several players from last year’s team, including 2013 NW Conference player of the year Ben Eisenhardt and all-conference guard Josh Duckworth. There were also four seniors this year that did not make the team. Oti downplayed the impact of this roster turnover.

“I think everyone is on the same page. We all want the same thing. I think it’s good for the returners because now we have to be more engaged, helping out the new guys,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s a detriment to our team that we’ve lost a lot of guys. I think it’s just going to force some other guys to step up and be a big part of the success this year.”

The team’s first exhibition game was an 89-70 loss to Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. The Missionaries played a listless first half, getting outscored 59-36. They came to life in the second half, outscoring the Warriors by four, but they came up short in the end.

“We came out really flat and that’s not us, because usually we have a lot of energy … But that’s all it was,” said Dunham.

Bridgeland was unhappy with the team’s effort in Lewiston, putting his players through a brutal practice upon their return. Junior forward Martin described the scene.

Evan Martin '16 shoots over his opponent. Photo by Halley McCormick.
Evan Martin ’16 shoots over his opponent. Photo by Halley McCormick.

“It was probably one of the worst running days I’ve ever had playing basketball. It was cool because at the end we were all dog tired, most of us weren’t making the time you had to make it in,” he said. “And then we all just huddled up and had this chant, and we were all juiced and fired up and it brought us closer together when we finally got done. It turned out really well for us.

A week later the team smothered the D’Youville College Spartans 129-88, led by junior Jackson Clough’s 25 points and Dunham’s impressive collegiate debut (20 points, four assists and six rebounds). The Missionaries’ full-court press and run-and-gun offense were in full effect, forcing 30 turnovers and shooting 18-40 (45 percent) from behind the three-point arc.

Rolaun Dunham '18 shoots. Dunham accumulated 20 points in his first collegiate game. Photo by Halley McCormick.
Rolaun Dunham ’18 shoots. Dunham accumulated 20 points in his first collegiate game. Photo by Halley McCormick.

“I think we looked good. Our defense was definitely on point, definitely better than our game [against Lewis-Clark],” said Martin.

The team will need to make progress if they want to compete for the NWC crown. Whitworth University was picked in the preseason coaches poll to win its sixth straight conference championship. Whitman was picked second with 61 points to the Pirates’ 68.

The Missionaries lost to the University of Puget Sound in the conference semifinals last year. Oti is optimistic that they can top themselves this season.

“Anything is possible, honestly. I don’t see why we can’t go to the National Tournament and win the whole thing,” he said. “We have the talent, we have the ability. I want to end the season on a win this year.”+

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