Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
If there’s a college basketball coach anywhere in the country with more talent to replace, Nate Stewart would like to meet him.
Eastern University’s second-year head coach is tasked with finding adequate replacements for 88 percent of the scoring and 67 percent of the rebounding from last season’s squad, which finished 15-11 and dropped an overtime heartbreaker to Wilkes University in the Freedom Conference semifinals.
“We’ve got,” Stewart said, “some holes to fill.”
Gone are the six seniors who combined to make all but one start for the Eagles a year ago, including forward Alex Nelson, who led the Middle American Conference in scoring (18.8 points per game) and grabbed almost eight rebounds per game. Nelson and the guard trio of Michael Donatoni, Collin Whipple, and Martin Soaries combined for almost 59 of Eastern’s league-leading 75 points per contest.
In their place are a bevy of new faces and several familiar ones, few of which have had more than a cup of coffee at the collegiate level. The Eagles’ situation has the “R word” written all over it, but don’t expect Stewart to read it.
“We may take our lumps with so many new faces,” he admitted. “Even some of our returning guys are being placed into different roles than they’re used to. It may take us a month or two, but I fully believe that come January we’ll be a factor in the league race.”
The Eagles’ returning players accounted for just over nine points per game a year ago, and none of them cracked the starting lineup or averaged more than a few minutes of court time. So, it’s no secret that Eastern’s second-year head coach is desperate for production from his newcomers. Stewart believes he found it on the recruiting trail, and from outside the program.
The Eagles picked up a pair of transfers in Jimmy Willis, who joins Eastern after leaving a junior college in New Jersey, and Kevin Clark, who left Southern Connecticut State after spending more time than he wanted to on the bench a year ago.
At six-foot-five, Stewart says Willis will have an immediate impact on the boards, where the Eagles had their struggles last year. A versatile offensive arsenal should also help Eastern replace some of the scoring it lost.
“He has the ability to face the basket and knock down shots,” Stewart said. “He also has the ability to play with his back to the basket and play in the low post. He’ll be able to step in and help us rebound the ball.”
In Clark, the Eagles were able to snatch a player they wanted coming out of high school, and Stewart is confident he’ll reap the rewards of this rare second chance. Clark, he says, has the potential to be a Collin Whipple-type on both ends of the floor.
“He didn’t play a lot as a freshman there, and he was interested in Eastern coming out of high school, so we were able to get him when we transferred,” Stewart said. “He’ll be able to guard the other team’s best player, and he also has a very high basketball IQ. He knows how to move the ball.”
Stewart is also excited about the addition of Tyler McGrath, a 6-6 freshman from Owen J. Roberts. He sees the big man filling one of the Eagles’ most noticeable voids from a year ago, when they averaged barely two blocked shots per game.
“Tyler’s a very athletic player and a very good shot-blocker,” Stewart said. “He can score with his back to the basket, and he’s not a bad shooter from 15 feet. We’re really looking for him to come in and help us.”
When asked to name his starting lineup for the 2012-13 season, Stewart was candid.
“I have no idea,” he said, “who’s going to be our starters.”
And who could blame him? With his entire starting lineup from a year ago having graduated, Stewart is now tasked with finding the most effective combinations from a group of 18 players with little to no starting experience. Still, that makes for good competition, and Stewart has been pleased thus far with the Eagles’ offseason work.
“We have a lot of returning guys who didn’t play a lot last year, but that’s because they were behind six seniors,” he said. “I like what our guys have done over the summertime. I love their attitudes.”
That’s not to say, however, that Stewart doesn’t have an idea of who might comprise his starting backcourt.
“One guy that comes off the top of my head is Ben Connor,” Stewart said. “He played in 11 games last year, and I probably should have played him more. He can knock down shots. He’s probably the best set shooter on our team… He’ll play on the wing for us.”
The Eagles’ leading returning scorer and rebounder, Dan Werth has scripted a strong summer. Werth averaged 5.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last year playing mostly out of position at power forward. With a deeper frontcourt at his disposal, Stewart says Werth should be able to play on the wing where he’s most comfortable.
“He played out of position a little bit last year,” Stewart said. “We had him play the 4 a lot last year just out of necessity, but we’ll probably look to put him on the wing a little bit more this year. He’s really worked to improve his shooting this summer. Dan can play all three guard positions and he can play the 4, too. He’s very good in pick-and-roll situations. We’re looking for Dan to have a good year this year.”
Stewart is also looking for marked improvement from Tyler Stowers, who gave the Eagles a spark off the bench last year and should give them a dose of the dangerous three-point marksmanship they were missing.
Stewart is quick to credit two things for Eastern’s success last season, one of which is borne out by the numbers, and the other is unquantifiable.
“I think two things really carried us last year,” Stewart said. “One was our team chemistry, first and foremost. Our guys got along really well on the court and they got along off the court. You could see that carried over to the way we played. We were pretty unselfish last year.
“The other thing that really helped us was our ability to score in transition. We led the league in scoring. We were able to use our defense to jump-start our offense and get out in transition and fill the lanes. We were able to get easy baskets from our defensive pressure, and I’m hoping that’s one thing that’s going to really help us this year.”
With so many new players, Stewart can’t say whether or not the Eagles’ chemistry will be as strong this season. Nor is he certain they’ll play at the same pace. Conventional wisdom would suggest that with the addition of some frontcourt talent, the Eagles will play a more interior-oriented game. Only time, and plenty of trials, will tell whether or not Eastern will lead the league in scoring again, or play at a breakneck transition pace. One thing Stewart is confident in, however, is that the Eagles will be a dangerous team late in the season.
“I want us to come out and compete every single night, first and foremost,” Stewart said. “If we can come out and compete every single night, I think the wins and losses will take care of themselves. Every coach’s goal is to win the league and go to the NCAA Tournament. That’s a goal I’ll have for this team and for every team that I coach. If you don’t have that goal as a coach, you’re setting your team up for failure.
“It may take us a little while to come together, because we have so many new faces, it may take us some time to gel, but I think the talent level is there. Nobody is going to give it to us. We have to go out there and compete hard every single night.”