2002-03 Men's Basketball
Neal has Bluffton ready for return to HCAC contention in 2002-03
By Tim Stried
November 5, 2002
Bluffton College head coach Guy Neal has the biggest men's basketball team in school history-in more ways than one-and that size is what could take BC back to contention in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, which most analysts consider one of the toughest NCAA Division III conferences in the country.
A total of 26 players are in the program preparing for the upcoming 2002-03 season, which stands as the most players that have ever suited up for a Beaver basketball squad. And 10 of those players measure up at 6-feet-3 inches or taller, also the most in school history. Specifically, five players are 6-4, one is 6-5, two are 6-6 and one is 6-7.
"It's the largest group we've had in terms of numbers, and it can be attributed to an unbelievable effort in recruiting last year," said Neal, who returns for his 13th season with 125 wins under his belt. "We hope that the numbers will provide us with more depth not only for this year, but for the next couple of years."
Six letterwinners are back from last season's squad, including co-captains Marcus Bixler and Mike Leimeister.
"Both Marcus and Mike have matured as leaders and players in our program over the last three years," commented Neal, who will be joined on the coaching staff this season by Blake Kindle. "The success of our team is truly important to them and they want to win a championship before they graduate. They have worked extremely hard over the off-season and they are doing a great job as captains."
Graduation took two players from the program following last season as wing Rod Overmyer and guard Kevin Grey will be missed this season. Both started all 26 games last season and turned what could have been a rebuilding season into a campaign highlighted by big wins. Grey co-captained last season's squad along with Bixler, while Overmyer, who led the league in scoring at 19.4 points per game, was a two-time All-HCAC selection and is playing this winter in France.
Prior to last season, Bluffton fans realized that with the loss of all five starters from the 2000-01 team, a repeat of that season's 16-9 overall record and 6-6 mark in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference might not be in the cards for two years in a row.
Neal agreed, but said Bluffton really wasn't too far away from having a fine season.
"When last season ended, which was a rebuilding season in many ways, we felt that we might not be that far from where we were in 2001," analyzed Neal, who said a five-win season wouldn't have been too surprising last year. But BC ended the season with 10 wins and showed rapid improvement during the season as Bluffton finished 10-16 overall and 3-11 in the HCAC.
And to continue that improvement, Neal has identified a few starting points.
"We simply have to do the little things better game in and game out," he said. "Specifically, we need to defend better than we did last year while trying to stay as good offensively as we were down the stretch. If we can establish more depth, that will help as well."
Not only did Bluffton have the HCAC scoring champion last year in Overmyer, but also the number two man on that list as Leimeister ranked second in the conference with 17.3 points per game and was also named All-HCAC. He ranked fifth in the HCAC in rebounding (6.3 rpg), third in field goal percentage (.579) and ninth in free throw percentage (.807). A two-time HCAC player-of-the-week selection, he scored 30 or more points six times last year and his 14-for-15 shooting performance against Defiance on Feb. 13 set a BC single-game record.
Bixler returns to run Coach Neal's offense after an outstanding season as Bluffton's point guard. He led the HCAC in assists with 125, which ranks as the sixth-best single-season total in BC history and he set a single-game record with 13 assists against Concordia on Nov. 17. His 5.7 points per game ranked fifth on the team and he led the squad in steals with 47, which tied the eighth-best single-season total in BC history.
Guard Derek DeNero completes the senior trio and is also one of the top returning scoring and rebounding threats in the HCAC. He averaged 14.5 points per game last season, which ranked eighth in the league and his 6.7 rebound per game ranked third. He ranked eighth in the HCAC in steals with 39, ranked seventh in free throw percentage at .817 and earned the HCAC player-of-the-week honor once.
Those three players, along with last year's seniors Overmyer and Grey, comprised Neal's starting lineup in all 26 games last year as Bluffton ranked among the best shooting teams in the HCAC. The Beavers led the league in free throw percentage (.766) and ranked third in both total field goal shooting percentage (.461) and 3-point shooting percentage (.373).
In addition, four other players return after their first season with the varsity last year, including juniors Brad Boyles and Ryan White along with sophomores Bryce Beilharz and Ken Vana. Of those four players, Boyles, who saw action in every game last season, played the most minutes (17.8 mpg) and ranked sixth on the squad in scoring (5.3 ppg). He shot an impressive 58.1% from the field and 84.2% from the free throw line. Beilharz (1.5 ppg) also played in all 26 games, while White (0.8 ppg) played in 20 games and Vana (0.5 ppg) played in 10 games. Sophomore David Schwartz will miss this season with a leg injury.
Among the first year players are junior Neal Finch (6-4) and sophomore Nathan Chivington (6-2, Fletcher) to go along with 16 freshmen who bring most of the aforementioned height. Michael Klotz (6-7, Wakarusa, Ind./Northwood), Todd Brzozowski (6-6, Jackson, Mich./Jackson H.S.) and Eric Sweet (6-6, Ottawa/Ottawa-Glandorf H.S.) top that group, followed by Scott Bergman (6-2, Elmore/Woodmore H.S.), Shaun Boening (6-1, Clinton Twp., Mich./Chippewa Valley H.S.), Darren Clark (6-1, Plain City/Jonathan Alder H.S.), Paul Driskell (6-4), Joe Duzan (5-10, Dublin/Scioto H.S.), Paul Jackson (6-3, St. Paris/Graham H.S.), Brett Mitchell (5-11, Avon Lake H.S.), Zach Nussbaum (6-0, Berne, Ind./South Adams H.S.), Don Schmidt (6-2, Greenville, Pa./Reynolds H.S.), Simeon Talley (6-0, Columbus/Centennial H.S.), James Washington (6-0, Indianapolis, Ind./Arsenal Technical H.S.), Nick Winslow and Bryan Yelley (6-4, Wheelersburg).
"The HCAC will be as strong and balanced as ever," said Coach Neal. "As we have been saying for four years, this is a great division III league. Defiance will be strong and I expect Manchester and Hanover to be picked high. Anderson has some really talented players back along with Franklin, and Mt. St. Joseph and Transylvania will be very good, as well. There are no weak or down programs in the HCAC."
Bluffton will tip off their season on November 22 and 23 at the North Central College tournament in Naperville, Illinois.