November 11, 2011

W&L Men's Basketball 2011-12 Season Preview

Robert Louis Stevenson would have marveled at the similarities between the 2010-11 version of the Washington and Lee men's basketball team and his iconic novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Last year's version of the Generals opened the season with 10 wins in their first 12 games, capped by a thrilling, one-point win over 10th-ranked Eastern Mennonite. That would be the Dr. Jekyll, or "good" part of the season. However, W&L closed the year with just four wins over its final 15 games, and finished with a 14-13 overall record and just a 5-11 mark in the rugged ODAC. Obviously, that would be the "Hyde", or bad part of the season. 

What will 2011-12 look like? Well, if Head Coach Adam Hutchinson is to be believed, the outlook is pretty rosy. The Generals return four of five starters from last season's 14-win team, and only two players who saw significant time in the rotation do not return. With an experienced and intact core of contributors returning, plus another talented first-year class, Hutchinson is eager to see what his team will be able to put together.

"We have a chance to be pretty good," he said. "We have good size, good athleticism, we can shoot and we have depth. On paper it looks as though it can all add up in turn into a fun season." 

While it may be easy to make snap judgments based on what one sees on paper, Hutchinson is further encouraged by what he sees "off-paper" as well.

"We can see improvement in guys in the areas where we asked them to improve," Hutchinson noted. "They have gotten better from last to this year, and that's evident in practice." 

After having just one senior on the roster a year ago, W&L now boasts three seniors, who will serve as tri-captains, including a pair of guards who have been contributing since they arrived as freshmen three years ago. Guards Kyle Bond (6-1, 185) and Jon Guest (6-2, 200), and forward Will Smith (6-5, 205) have been tasked with leading a team that is still dominated by underclassmen in terms of numbers.

Guest returns as the most experienced of the bunch, having played in 74 games with 42 starts over the course of his career. One of the Generals' most athletic players, he played in all 27 games (26 starts) last season and finished third in the team with 7.6 points per game on just under 43.0 percent shooting from the floor (.429, 85-198). He also added 28 steals and pulled down 2.2 rebounds per game. 

"Jon has always been one of our most athletic players," remarked Hutchinson. "He can defend almost anyone in the league. Offensively, he has really improved his three-point shooting ability."

Bond is also a player that has seen his fair share of action, though injuries have limited him to a degree over the past several years. He missed the first half of his rookie campaign with a broken thumb and a back injury limited him somewhat as a junior. In 2010-11, he played in 24 games with 11 starts, averaging 5.0 points, 1.5 assists and 1.9 rebounds in just under 20 minutes per game. 

"You know, Kyle has been a steady performer for the last three years and I would not expect that to change," Hutchinson stated. "He is one of our best perimeter defenders and he does a good job of running the offense and making the right decisions."

Smith, the final senior, has seen less game action over the course of his career, but his impact has been just as important. One of W&L's hardest-working players, he has found his way into the lineup with more frequency with each year, playing in 16 games season ago. 

"With his improved ability to shoot the ball as a forward, there are some spots that we can use him," said Hutchinson. "Regardless of his playing time though, he brings effort to all of our practices and makes the guys around him work and I think the guys have a lot of respect for him."

Having three senior captains this year is in stark contrast to the single captain that the Generals had a year ago. With an increase in leadership, Hutchinson hopes to be able to maintain that momentum from the 'Jekyll' half of the season much farther into the second half. 

"They definitely bring some continuity to the team and they have had some experiences in their first three seasons," Hutchinson pointed out. "We have won some big games the last three years, knocked off some ranked teams [No. 18 Roanoke and No. 19 Guilford in '09, No. 9 Randolph-Macon in '10 and No. 10 Eastern Mennonite in '11] and that experience is key."

Supplementing the three senior captains, is a junior class that, as they say, is wise beyond their years. Forwards J.D. Ey (6-6, 205) and Jeremy Adkins (6-3, 190), center Taylor Gilfillan (6-10, 235) and guard Kelton Buchanan (5-10, 170) have been logging big minutes since arriving on campus. The quartet has seen action in 189 combined games with 110 starts over the last two seasons. 

Adkins returns after leading the team in scoring with 11.1 points per game as a sophomore. Since bursting onto the scene with 14 points in his first career start, a 65-57 at No. 9 Randolph-Macon no less, Adkins has started each of the last 38 games over the last two seasons and has reached double digits in scoring in 20 of them. An efficient scorer (he shot .439 from the field, .367 from deep and .817 from the line), what has Hutchinson excited is his improvement on defense.

"We have really seen some encouraging signs on 'D' out of Jeremy," quipped Hutchinson. "Everybody knows he can score, but we like what he is contributing on defense thus far." 

Another junior who has been a mainstay in the lineup the last two seasons is Ey. He and Adkins were the only two players to start all 27 games a year ago, and with 19 starts as a rookie, Ey's experience belies his age. An Honorable Mention All-ODAC honoree following his sophomore season after averaging 9.6 points, 7.1 rebounds (5th in ODAC), 2.0 assists, 1.3 blocks (2nd ODAC), 1.1 steals per game and shooting 56.4 percent (2nd ODAC) from the floor, Ey has established himself as one of the most complete and versatile forwards in the league. He recorded four doubles-doubles a year ago and grabbed at least 10 rebounds in a game on eight occasions, the fifth-most in the league.

"J.D. has come back stronger, he is a better post defender and he is shooting better," Hutchison said. "The thing about J.D. is he makes everyone else on the floor better because he is such a good passer and he is so unselfish. He is never going to score 18-20 a game, but he is worth at least that per game with his passing, his offensive rebounding and his own scoring" 

Adding to W&L's frontcourt depth is Gilfillan. The Generals' hulking center, who has played in 25 games in each of his first two years, including 18 starts a year ago, has been plagued with inconsistency over his first two seasons, but has shown better focus thus far in 2011. He averaged 6.2 points per game on 51.7 percent (61-118) shooting to go with 3.6 rebounds last season. One area in which he has struggled is turning the ball over (44 TOs a season ago), but with his improved focus has come improved footwork.

"Taylor's footwork and conditioning are both much improved," Hutchinson noted. "His focus is better and I think he is going to have his best year yet." 

The final junior on the roster, Buchanan, has Hutchinson excited due to the amount of progress he has shown. A situational player who played in 15 games as a sophomore, but only twice saw more than 10 minutes of action, has had an outstanding camp thus far.

"It's obvious that since last year he has made a determined effort to make much-needed changes," Hutchinson stated. "He knows the offense now, and not just what he is responsible for, but what everybody is responsible for -- which is what we need out of our point guard. Also, he is in great shape and playing great on-ball defense." 

Buchanan's ascension to a reliable option at the point guard has been key to Hutchinson's early-season optimism as that was the one starting position that was lost from a year ago.

One wild card exists in the junior class in forward Matt Gaeta. The 6-5, 205-lb Gaeta is back after seeing his entire sophomore season wiped out due to injury. A skilled big man with a smooth shooting stroke, his development could provide an additional weapon in Hutchinson's arsenal. 

"He got better," Hutchinson deadpanned. "I am not sure how, but just by sitting and watching last year he got better and he has looked good."

If the junior class is one that Hutchinson is high on, his sophomore and first-year classes have him salivating at the promise that they offer. 

Headlining the underclassmen is sophomore forward Larry Whitaker (6-6, 200). A tremendously versatile small forward-type player, Whitaker appeared in all 27 games as a rookie and finished first on the team in steals (1.2 spg), second on the team in rebounding (5.3 rpg) and fifth in scoring (6.7 ppg) on 50.8 percent (63-124) shooting from the field. He gave Generals' fans a glimpse of what he could be capable of with a 17-point, 7-board, 3-steal performance in a 66-51 win at Lynchburg in the opening round of the ODAC Tournament last season.

"Larry is shooting the ball [from the perimeter] far better than last season," Hutchinson said. "The game has slowed down a bit for him and he catches the ball on-balance better now. Before, he was just out there playing and didn't have a great feel for the offense, now he knows what we are doing and is looking great." 

Also in the sophomore class is Drew Kimberly. A 6-8, 200-lb forward/center, Kimberly appeared in 14 games with five starts a season ago, averaging 3.2 points and 2.5 rebounds, including a 13-point, 8-rebound performance against Bridgewater late in the season.

"He looks much more poised this year," Hutchinson observed. "He was always skilled and a good finisher/shooter, but he just looks more comfortable this year. He is also better defensively and should be able to see some time at both the '4' and '5' positions." 

Also in the sophomore class is Kevin Gill. The 6-0, 175-lb shooting guard averaged 5.8 points in 27 games (1 start) last season. He also boasted a positive assist/turnover ration (1.3) and proved to be one of W&L's best perimeter shooters, connecting on 46.8 percent (58-124), including 36.4 percent (24-66) from beyond the arc in addition to an 80.0 percent (16-20) mark from the charity stripe.

"He is shooting the ball really well once again," Hutchinson remarked. "He has a great 'basketball I.Q.' and could potentially see some time at the point if we needed him there." 

Another wild card exists for the Generals in the sophomores as Devin Dillard (6-0, 170) returns to the lineup. A contributor in the first half of his rookie year, Dillard was forced to leave school at the semester. He came back to W&L in the second half of last year and has worked his way back into the rotation. An athletic backcourt option with a good shooting stroke, Dillard provides even more depth to the Generals' backcourt.

"When Devin left, he told me he as determined to make it back," recalled Hutchinson. "Sure enough, he is back and has a chance to help this team." 

Six first-year players round out the roster and several of them stand to contribute in their first season.

Hutchinson especially likes what he sees out of a pair of point guards that bring a skill set to the table that Hutchinson has not seen while at the helm of the Generals. 

Javon McDonald (5-9, 165) is a guard that possesses an outstanding shooting touch, as well as the ability to finish in the lane.  Clay McLean (5-9, 160) has off-the-charts athleticism and a finishing ability from the position that has been lacking in the W&L lineup. Add in some good decision-making and defensive skills out of both and the sky could be the limit for the duo.

"Clay is totally unlike anyone we have ever had with his ability to convert tough buckets and Javon is a lot like 'Q' ['09 graduate Chris McHugh] in his ability to shoot the ball and defend the position," noted Hutchinson. "It's just a matter of catching up mentally and getting adjusted to the college game with the two of them." 

Ethan Harel (6-3, 190), Patrick O'Connor (6-3, 180), Alex Hoey (6-2, 175) and Jim Etling (6-7, 210) present Hutchinson with a stable of big, athletic bodies capable of stretching defenses and providing energy off the bench.

"Ethan is a big strong kid that can shoot the ball well, Jim has shown a good shooting touch and with all of them it's just a matter of putting in the work proving that they can get it done." 

With the talent at his disposable a 14-win season like 2010-11 is well within reach, but both Hutchinson and his squad want more.

"Five years ago 14 wins for a W&L team would have been like 'yeah, we did it', but it was a disappointment to us last year, especially after the 10-2 start. Now 14 wins feels squandered," he offered. "But what do we do with that feeling?" Are we content with the 14 wins? Or, do we take what we have learned, keep working and get to where we are capable of going? The early signs are encouraging and we have the potential, but we have got to continue to work, because nothing comes easy in this league." 

The league that Hutchinson speaks of boasts the preseason No. 1 in three separate national polls (Virginia Wesleyan), as well as the No. 23 team in the D3hoops preseason Top 25 (Hampden-Sydney) as well as a pair of teams that finished 2010-11 ranked and are receiving votes in the preseason Top 25 (Randolph-Macon and Eastern Mennonite). Additionally, the schedule makers did W&L no favors as the Generals face Virginia Wesleyan, Hampden-Sydney, Eastern Mennonite, Randolph-Macon and last year's conference tournament runner-up, Randolph College, a combined nine times as part of the ODAC's unbalanced league slate.

It's not as if the out-of-conference schedule is any easier with games against 18-win teams Christopher Newport (also receiving votes in the preseason Top 25) and Wesley, a 15-win Dickinson team, and a potential match up with preseason No. 4 Amherst (25-4 a season ago). 

"Man, who made that schedule?" Hutchinson sheepishly said in reference to his scheduling.

W&L's quest to improve upon their 14 wins a season ago and play more like Jekyll and less like Hyde begins on Tuesday, November 15, when they travel to Dickinson for a 7:00 pm contest.

 

 

--GENERALS--