February 9, 2012

Panthers no longer waiting

Caleb Lee is the top man off the bench on a particularly balanced Birmingham-Southern men's basketball squad.
Birmingham-Southern athletics photo

Even without the possibility of national postseason play before this breakthrough season, Chris Graves never needed to hard-sell recruits on why they should slide a Birmingham-Southern College jersey over their shoulders.

“We recruited high-quality guys,” the head coach said. “They focused on making the program more important than themselves. They committed to just getting better.

“Our hope was that when we got to this point, we could compete on a national level.”

After coming out of the purgatory of provisional Division III membership following their transition from Division I, the Panthers have proven they belong among the nation's best and brightest. They are ranked No. 10 in the latest D3hoops.com poll – their highest ranking in their newest classification in the first season they could see their name penciled into a March Madness bracket.

And this leaves open a whole new world of possibilities after playing in (and winning) the Division III provisional tournament last March following a Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season championship. However, because of being of the last season of their transition into Division III, Birmingham-Southern could not compete for the SCAC tournament title and automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

That all changes this year as the Panthers are poised to begin a new chapter in their proud history.

“It's been awesome. We're really excited,” senior guard Jasen Jonus said. “We've been waiting for this since all of us came here, to be eligible to play (in the NCAA Tournament). We're chomping at the bit, ready to prove ourselves.”

Although Graves, in his first year as head coach following three seasons as an assistant, recruited student-athletes as much for character as skill, the waiting was always the hardest part. For Jonus and the Panthers' upperclassmen, it was the equivalent of sweating out 2-3 years of Selection Sundays.

“It was tough,” junior forward Zac Richards said.

Tough, however, was the 2006-07 season during which the program disbanded because its entire roster transferred when Birmingham-Southern lost athletic scholarships – this after the men's basketball team challenged for a Big South Conference championship in Division I.

However, this is the Panthers' third reclassification since Y2K, moving from the NAIA in 2000-01 to six years of Division I membership before the Board of Trustees voted to drop them to Division III. If nothing else, they have always found a way to acclimate themselves to new surroundings.

This is why Richards never wavered when Graves recruited him, opting for the potential of playing time and program growth over going somewhere established. The same holds true for most of the Panthers.

And this is why the Panthers made due with playing for regular-season titles and provisional championships, all the while waiting for the opportunity that could be awaiting them next month.

“These kids have accomplished the goals we set out for them,” Graves said. “It speaks volumes to the character and unselfishness of these guys.”

Birmingham-Southern has a history at two other levels as well, with an NAIA Division I national title to its credit.
Birmingham-Southern athletics photo

After four seasons in the Division III shadows, the No. 10 Panthers are seizing the spotlight with a run-and-gun attack that scores 81.5 points per game despite their top 10 players – all of whom average 14 to 24 minutes per contest – producing between 12.2 (Jonus) and 2.8 (Jason Holland) points an outing. They have won 11 straight games, with only three decided by less than 10 points, while extending their victory run at Bill Battle Coliseum to 39 games entering Friday's home date with Centre – the team that handed them their lone loss, 72-65, back on Dec. 16.

With three of their final four contests in their home confines, the Panthers could not only repeat as SCAC regular-season champions. They should set themselves up for their first-ever NCAA Division III Championship appearance, regardless of how they fare in their first postseason conference tournament.

“We always talk about that,” Richards said. “That's motivating us to work hard because that's been our goal from the beginning of the season.”

“It's exciting,” Jonus said. “Everywhere we go, people are talking to us about (the posteseason). We can't let it affect us, but it's exciting.”

Is this year Mount Union's charm?

Coming off consecutive Ohio Athletic Conference championships and trips to the NCAA tournament, the No. 7-ranked Mount Union women could conceivably make a run toward their first Final Four appearance since 1998 – or two years after head coach Suzy Venet helped the Purple Raiders play for a national title. She was a D3hoops.com All-American for the 1998 Final Four team.

“This team would love to hit a Final Four,” said Venet, in her seventh season as head coach at her alma mater. “Every team would love to do that. (And) we could shoot for a school-record number of wins (29 in 1995-96).”

Over the past two years, Venet has produced a revival in Alliance, Ohio. From a 16-9 record in 2008-09 after five straight seasons of hovering near or below .500, Mount Union went 26-5, won the OAC and advanced to the Sweet 16 the following season. A year later, the Purple Raiders finished 26-4 and lost in the NCAA second round.

Those runs have sparked grander expectations this winter in Northeast Ohio – Venet referred to her team as having a “bull’s-eye” on its back. However, the Purple Raiders have four seniors and seven juniors who are willing to dream big.

“We have more experience,” said junior guard Rosa LaMattina, who leads the way with 14.7 points and 4.1 assists per game. “We've been play with each other now going on 2-3 years, so we have more chemistry between us.”

LaMattina is one half of one of the country's top backcourts alongside senior Kori Wiedt (14.1 ppg), but the Purple Raiders get it done with remarkable depth. Junior Tierney Allen (6.4 ppg) and senior Erin Schmidt (6.2 ppg) fortify the backcourt, while senior forward Amanda Rose (11.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg) powers a frontcourt with no players taller than 5-11 that includes promising freshman center Aly Daniel (4.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg) coming off the bench.

Mount Union could clinch the OAC regular-season crown and extend its school-record, 16-game winning streak by winning Saturday at Ohio Northern, which is receiving a vote in the D3hoops.com. Top 25. With a victory, the OAC road to the NCAA's goes through Alliance – which could set the Purple Raiders up for at least a couple of home playoff games.

“The sky's the limit,” LaMattina said. “But one game at a time. We're just looking for a win each and every game.”

Said Venet: “I think we can get better. I still think we can get better. I hope we have a long time to keep playing so we can continue to get better.”

Happy Homecoming at Oswego State

Jason Leone grew up in Syracuse, nearly a half-hour from Oswego State, where his brother, Joe, and sister, Lindsay, played basketball for the Lakers. Leaving Keystone to take the head coaching job along the Finger Lakes put him closer to his roots, but also enabled him to inherit a program primed for a March run.

“They've made my job enjoyable and easy,” said Leone, who coached Keystone for four years. “Everything I've asked them to do, their best quality is they've been great listeners.

“The best intangible quality of these guys is how intelligent they are as people. They have a high basketball IQ, but when you sit down with these seniors, you can tell they come from good families.”

Of those seniors, Leone tried to mine his contacts back home to land 6-7 forward Chad Burridge, a D3hoops.com All-East Region selection last season. However, Burridge grew up 15 minutes from Oswego State in Hannibal, N.Y., and preferred the comforts of home.

Three years later, Leone finally gets to coach arguably the State University of New York Athletic Conference's top player.

“I feel like we bonded with what he wants to do and what we want to do,” said Burridge, who is averaging a team-best 17.3 points, along with 7.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. “We've been on the same page since Day One.

“We've all really committed,” Burridge said. “People know where they fit. Everybody's made sacrifices. We're a good team when everybody plays as a team and not as individuals.”

Before thinking about the Big Dance, however, the Lakers are focused on the here and now – especially after going 17-1 last season in the SUNYAC before bowing out in the semifinals of their conference tournament. This why Leone stressed the importance of “staying locked in” down the stretch.

Oswego's top six players all convert at least 74 percent of their free-throw tries, including big men Burridge (74.8%) and Hayden Ward (14.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 76.5 FT%). Backcourt mates Sean Michele (10.5 ppg, 5.0 apg, 86.8 FT%) and Chris Gilkes (10.4 ppg, 82.7 FT%) also are adept at the charity stripe, as is Ryan Sheridan (6.5 ppg, 82.1%), a three-year starter who has embraced his role coming off the bench in 2011-12.

“We're built for close games because we can throw the ball into the block,” Leone said. “And if the other team is in the penalty, we make our foul shots.”

comments powered by Disqus


Rob Knox

A former Division III Sports Information Director at Lincoln University, Rob Knox also worked at ESPN, Kutztown and at the Delaware County Daily Times. He was named the CoSIDA Rising Star Award College Division winner and won three writing awards for various game stories including the 2007 D-III sectional triple-OT game between Guilford and Lincoln. In the past, he has also written articles for SLAM magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan, a graduate of Lincoln and is from Chester, Pa.
Previous columnists:
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon