Augustana opened the 2015-16 season as Division II’s top team, and that’s where it finished after winning its first national championship. The going will get a bit tougher this year.
Head coach Tom Billeter said as much, acknowledging that it will take some time for his young, inexperienced team to mesh, despite the Vikings being ranked No. 18 in the preseason poll.
“That’s just because we won the championship the year before,” Billeter said. “We’ll be there. I love our young guys, we’re rebuilding our program. But to have lost that much firepower—those three seniors—it’s hard to all of the sudden pop back and be there again right away. We’ll be good again, but I don’t know if this is the proper time to be evaluating that.”
The firepower Billeter spoke of is Dan Jansen (the NABC Division II Player of the Year), Casey Schilling and Alex Richter—three of the greatest players in Augustana’s history.
That trio was a big reason the Vikings were among the Division II leaders in scoring and rebounding, finishing eighth and fifth, respectively, in the country.
Jansen, Schilling and Richter combined to score 1,947 points last year, which was nearly 60 percent of the Vikings’ total offense. They also accounted for more than 53 percent of Augustana’s rebounds and played 43 percent of the team’s minutes.
Junior Jordan Spencer enters his third season as the team’s starting point guard, and he said Augustana will need to be more mentally focused without those three.
“Last year, we had games where we’d blow out [the opponent] by 20, and we didn’t really have to turn up,” Spencer said. “This year, the main thing with this team is we can’t rely on that talent. We have to work every single game. … That’s the thing that we’ll have to battle with this year.”
Same old system
The production will come from different players, but the method won’t change. Billeter said his players can still execute his system.
“We play the way we play,” he said. “[Sophomore guard] John Warren played this way last year. [Senior center] Zach Huisken played this way. Jordan [Spencer] played this way. Adam [Beyer] played this way. It’s the same for them.”
Those players are the four returners who played significant roles last season. Spencer and Beyer, a senior guard, are the lone returning starters. They finished fourth and fifth, respectively, on the team in scoring last year at right around nine points per game. Spencer also finished fifth in Division II with 6.8 assists, while Beyer knocked down 51.6 percent of his nearly 100 three-point attempts.
Billeter said Spencer won’t need to try to become more of a scoring threat, but that with his skill level and more shots being available, it’ll probably just happen on its own. He would like to see Beyer become more of a scorer, as he’s a wing.
Overall, Billeter wants players to take the next step while still playing within themselves and the system.
“We never ask our guys to do anything, it just happens out of the offense,” Billeter said. “They need to find the shots that come out of the offense, and when they’re there, they need to take them. It’s not so much us saying, ‘you have to up your role,’ or ‘your role is redefined.’ Everything we’re doing is the same, it’s just with different people.”
Warren, Huisken and Mike Busack, a transfer from Minnesota State-Mankato, will likely fill out the starting lineup. Billeter, though, said it’s too early to know for sure how his rotations will shake out, and all of his players have a chance to earn playing time.
“They need to emerge and earn their minutes,” Billeter said.
The coach pointed to the team’s exhibition at Duke as evidence for that, where 10 men played at least 10 minutes. He said that wasn’t just because of the lopsided score (Augustana lost 98-45) or the fact that it didn’t count against the team’s record, but that he could see that being sustained if enough players earn the playing time.
Warren shot 37 percent from deep last year. He will likely be a solid scoring option on the wing, along with Beyer.
Huisken averaged 3.8 points and 2.6 rebounds in just over 11 minutes per game last season, but he proved in the Elite Eight he could handle a larger workload. Filling in for an injured Jansen (whose sprained foot was later revealed to be broken), Huisken played 31 minutes in the national quarterfinal against Tarleton State, scoring 13 points on 4-5 shooting with eight rebounds.
“I just need Zach to do what he did against Tarleton State and we’ll be fine,” Billeter said. “Zach doesn’t need to try to be Dan. He just needs to be Zach—10-to-15 points and six-to-nine boards. That’d be huge for us.”
Huisken has embraced his increased roles on the court and in the locker room.
“The upperclassmen have really stepped into the roles that the seniors left last year,” he said. “We understand what it takes to be successful. … It’s up to us to make sure the culture that we have built as a program over the years stays strong. As a senior, it’s important that I do everything I can in my last year to help build the program and pass on the culture that was passed down to me.”
Thrown into the fire
Augustana will get a tough test right way this season. First, the team faces a pair of Central Region foes in Weatherford, Okla. Friday and Saturday, both of whom are coming off of solid seasons. Southwestern Oklahoma State, the Vikings’ first opponent, finished 17-12 last year while the other, East Central, finished 22-8.
Augustana then plays No. 6 Northwest Missouri State on the road Nov. 17, the team the Vikings have faced in the last two Central Region Tournaments.
Despite the inexperience and youth, there’s optimism. Spencer said the Vikings shouldn’t be overlooked.
“We have 10 guys that were on the roster last year,” Spencer said. “Everyone’s a winner. We all know how to win. I thrive on [being counted out]. It gives me an extra chip on my shoulder. I think we’re going to be right up there if we stay focused on what we have to do.”