|Luke Johnson, along with four other starters averaging double digits in scoring, have the Benedictine Eagles flying high.
Photo courtesy Benedictine athletics
By Josh Smith
Luke Johnson is at home on the Benedictine men’s basketball team. He is certain, in fact, because he played elsewhere before transferring back to the program last winter.
Now reunited with the Eagles, Johnson and his teammates have posted 14 straight wins to begin the season and have big hopes for the remainder of the year.
“He’s been a big reason why we’ve had a lot of success. He’s had some phenomenal games,” Benedictine head coach Keith Bunkenburg said in regard to Johnson rejoining the team. “He’s a game-changer at our level. He’s a scholarship kid playing at our level, and that really can kind of propel you into the team that we are right now. And we have other guys that are pretty good, but he’s been a big impact to our team.”
Johnson began his collegiate career at Carthage. But during his sophomore year, a tuition increase prompted him to look elsewhere. He transferred to Benedictine, in his home state of Illinois, during the 2012-13 school year to qualify for an extra in-state loan.
Although he averaged nearly 10 points and nine rebounds per game that year for the Eagles, an opportunity to secure a scholarship led him to Florida to play basketball for St. Leo, a Division II school. Because of how his credits transferred, Johnson later learned he would have to stay an extra semester after his scholarship expired to complete his degree.
“So I wasn’t actually saving any money by taking a scholarship,” Johnson explained. “Which is why I decided to come back to Benedictine to finish it out.”
His decision to join a familiar team was unlike other moves he had made.
“It was definitely different because I had known people already,” Johnson said. “A big part of that is, before I even left, me and Coach Bunks had talked about me getting a scholarship and the financial issue and stuff like that. I told him if I ever decided to leave that school, that I would come back here.
“That was the biggest part it, that I wanted to play for Coach Bunks. The rest kind of just followed,” he added. “I happened to have a few really good friends on the team as well, which of course is always a driving factor.”
Bunkenburg said he was upfront with Johnson about returning. The coach didn’t know how much playing time Johnson would be afforded or what his role with the team would be.
“I said, ‘Hey, we’re playing really well. I don’t really want to upset the apple cart.’ Coming in at semester is always tough and I didn’t want to break any of our chemistry,” Bunkenburg said. “But Luke is obviously a very good player, and you’re going to try to get him in the lineup – you’re going to try to get him to play as much as you possibly can without ruining the group that you already have.
“And he was phenomenal. He was on board from the get-go.”
Johnson said it was a simple choice to return because Benedictine had a great team comprised of friends, and he was familiar with the system.
But before rejoining the Eagles late last season, Johnson wanted to make sure his return was welcomed by the existing players.
“Before I even came, there were a few specific guys on the team that I actually reached out to and gave a phone call to. I wanted to double-check and make sure that they would be OK with me coming back,” Johnson said. “One of those names is Tim McGinty, who was the co-player of the year last year. He was one of the first people I called.”
Johnson asked McGinty if it would be alright to return – and even offered to sit out the final semester of the 2014-15 season if McGinty thought it would be best.
“I said, ‘My biggest thing is getting the team’s respect before I do come back and play,’ ” Johnson recalled.
The 6-9 forward built chemistry with his teammates through the end of the season and during summer workouts. He earned his teammates’ trust and reclaimed a place within the team.
“I think that’s the only thing that a couple guys may have been worried about – that I would just try to be a ball-hog or something like that,” he said. “As soon as they found out I just wanted to win and wanted to be a part of the team, I felt like everyone was gung-ho, 100 percent for it.”
The result has been positive. Benedictine has won its first 14 games this season, including all nine of its NACC contests. In the process, the Eagles have risen to No. 5 in the Top 25 poll – the highest mark in school history.
Johnson is averaging 12.8 points per game and leads the team with an average of 9.7 rebounds per night.
Benedictine’s balanced attack also includes Tahron Harvey (14.9 points per game), Michael Blaszczyk (13.8), John Dodson (11.5) and Adam Reynolds (10.9).
“They’re unselfish. To be honest with you, I really think our starting five can all be all-conference players – they’re all that good,” Bunkenburg said. “But they don’t care about that. They care about winning. So that’s why every game, there’s a different leading scorer (or) there’s a different guy with six or seven assists.
“We have talent, and then you throw on a group that doesn’t care about stats and who’s getting shots, and they only care about winning, that’s really rare,” the coach added. “That’s been the main reason why we’ve had a lot of success.”
In addition to his ability to score and rebound, Johnson thinks his interior defense has been a boost to the team.
“I try to focus in games on not letting guys have easy layups on the help side and things like that,” Johnson said. “I really feel like when guys are driving and they see a 6-9 guy that’s at least half-decent at blocking shots, they kind of think twice a little bit. I think that’s key for us – that hesitation that some guys have to the rim.”
Johnson said the players began to believe they could have a special season after starting the year 3-0 against three non-conference opponents from the CCIW – including then No. 24 Illinois Wesleyan and then eighth-ranked Elmhurst.
But after those key wins, Bunkenburg was concerned that opening NACC play on the road at Rockford could be a trap game. But the team wasn’t overconfident and got the W. Two weeks later, the team played extremely well against its rival Aurora – the team Benedictine shared the NACC regular season title with last year. And the following week, the Eagles claimed a two-point non-conference win over North Central (Ill.) despite not playing its best.
Those wins made Bunkenburg optimistic about the team’s potential.
“It’s probably the first time in my career I’ve had to come to the fact – even in our office – and tell people in our office that we’re pretty good. You can’t sugar-coat it,” Bunkenburg said.
However, the coach said his team is employing a mindset of not looking too far forward.
“Our expectation is to win our league,” Bunkenburg said, noting his team plays consistently and without fear regardless of its opponent. “We hope to get into the conference tournament. And in our conference tournament our goal is to win. If we’re lucky enough to do both of those, we’ll obviously make the NCAA tournament.
“If we’re playing good basketball, and unselfish and our effort is there and defensively we’re consistent, I really do feel this team can compete with anyone in the country on any given night,” the coach added. “Our hope is to continue to get better, and if we’re playing our best basketball at the end of the year, then who knows what might happen.”
Despite the hot start, Johnson said he and his teammates have remained focused and have not become cocky. That attitude, coupled with the team’s hot start and its potential moving forward, makes Johnson thrilled with his decision to return to Benedictine.
“I’m a firm believer that there are no wrong choices. There are just choices that you live by and figure out what the consequences of your actions are,” Johnson said. “I am 100-percent happy. I’m glad I get to go to school with friends that I like close to home – be a part of my family and be a part of a great team. I don’t think there could be a better college situation for me at this time in my life.”
Central Region clippings
Deavis Johnson scored his 1,000th career point by posting 18 points to go with 10 rebounds in MacMurray’s matchup with Webster Jan. 9. The game prior, Johnson scored 34 points and secured 21 rebounds in the Highlanders’ 118-113 win over Greenville. … More than 1,900 people packed R.A. Faganel Hall to watch then fifth-ranked Elmhurst defeat previously No. 1 ranked Augustana, 77-75, in overtime, Jan. 6. Kyle Wuest led the Bluejays with 26 points in a game that featured 19 lead changes and 13 ties. … Jordan Smith buried a game-winning 3-pointer to lift Chicago to a 70-69 win over Wash. U. He finished with a game-high 23 points as the Maroons won their ninth game in a row. … The UW-Stevens Point women’s basketball team outscored visiting UW-Whitewater, 22-11, in the fourth quarter to rally for a 63-56 victory. Allie Miceli scored 13 points to pace the Pointers, who now have four wins over ranked opponents this season. … After beginning the season 0-4, the MSOE women’s basketball team has won a school-record nine straight games. The Raiders extended its record streak with a 65-52 win at Aurora Jan. 9 behind an 18-point effort from Holly Denfeld. … Michael Murray recorded a pair of double-doubles for the Rockford men’s basketball team during victories over Concordia-Chicago and Edgewood. Murray registered 31 points and 13 rebounds against the Cougars and 25 points and 19 rebounds against the Eagles. … North Park’s Liz Rehberger had back-to-back 31-point performances, leading North Park to wins over Carthage and Augustana on Jan. 6 and 9, respectively. … Trinson White recorded his third consecutive double-double for UW-Whitewater, helping the Warhawks defeat rival UW-Stevens Point, 69-63, Jan. 9. White had a game-high 21 points and 13 rebounds.
Where they rank
Seven men’s basketball teams were ranked in this week’s Top 25 poll, including three in the top five.
Following its win over CCIW rival Augustana, Elmhurst vaulted three places to No. 2 in the latest men’s poll, receiving a pair of first place votes. Augustana still received five first place votes after suffering its first loss of the year, but fell two spots to No.3 Benedictine garnered one first place vote and rose one place to No. 5.
UW-Whitewater climbed one spot to No. 14 while Chicago held steady at No. 16.
St. Norbert and North Central (Ill.) both entered the Top 25 at Nos. 23 and 25, respectively while UW-Stevens Point fell out of the Top 25.
Carroll (17), Washington U. (6) and UW-Stevens Point (2) received votes in this week’s poll.
After suffering its first loss of the year UW-Whitewater slipped two places in the women’s Top 25 poll to No. 8.
Washington U. remained ranked No. 11. UW-Stevens Point shot up 10 spots to No. 14 after topping UW-Whitewater, and Wheaton (Ill.) climbed two places to No. 15. UW-Oshkosh fell seven places to No. 20.
UW-River Falls (19) received votes in this week’s women’s poll.
Do you have a story idea for the Around the Central column? Contact me about broken records, approaching milestones, breakout players or any other storylines from the Region. Or just drop me a note to let me know what you think of the column. All ideas and feedback are welcome. Email me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @By_Josh_Smith.
Around the Central Region was written by Josh Smith during the 2015-16 season. Josh covers high school and Division III athletics for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wis. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and contributes to multiple publications in addition to his duties at the Daily Union, including D3sports.com beginning in 2012. He graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in print journalism.