Familiar formula pays early dividends for men’s basketball
Note: This edition went to press before Augustana’s Thursday matchup against No. 6 Northwest Missouri State. Fear not, for this article is still worth reading.
In case you haven’t heard by now, Augustana lost three of the best players in program history after its national championship run last season.
Two starters stayed behind, however—junior point guard Jordan Spencer and senior guard/forward Adam Beyer—and while this year’s squad lacks the talent of last year’s juggernaut, their returns mean the program remains in good hands.
The Vikings’ 3-0 start gives testimony to that.
While head coach Tom Billeter stressed that his team is “a work in progress,” he was nonetheless impressed with its early season success that included a pair of wins against regional foes in Oklahoma last weekend, the second of which over an East Central team that returned four starters from a conference championship-winning team last year.
“To go 800 miles down to a gym that [East Central plays] in regularly and beat them, that was a pretty good win,” Billeter said. “Overall, to be 3-0, it’s a good start.”
Spencer and Beyer have scored the first and third most points, respectively, in those first three games. Junior guard Steven Schaefer is second on the strength of 8-for-13 three-point shooting.
Schaefer and sophomore guard John Warren should play bigger roles this season, and graduate transfer Mike Busack (from Minnesota State-Mankato) should, too.
Busack has been dealing with a recently sustained ankle injury, which forced him into a reserve role in the Vikings’ first two games. He started at pseudo-power forward Monday in the Vikings’ 80-64 win over Valley City State, scoring 16 points and grabbing eight rebounds while shooting 4-for-8 from three.
He said his screen-and-roll game with Spencer should continue to be difficult for opponents to guard.
“[Spencer] was one of the big reasons I wanted to come here [from Mankato],” Busack said. “He’s one of the best point guards in the country, I firmly believe that. To be able to be the guy that’s setting him the screens—I take pride in setting my screens—he’s going to find me so many times throughout the year.”
Spencer has 21 assists to five turnovers so far this year after sporting a 3.39-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last year, good for third in the nation, according to ncaa.org archives.
Billeter said the team’s offensive system puts Spencer into positions to succeed.
“He can have full vision of the court in front of him,” Billeter said. “Our offense, our guys don’t move a ton, so it’s always up to the defense, and we feel whatever the defense is doing, they’re wrong. So if they want to overplay, we have lanes to penetrate. If they close poorly, we attack the rim. If they don’t close well, we can shoot a three.”
The Vikings also try to exploit matchups when they present themselves. Last year, Al Richter feasted on those opportunities by ducking into the post when guarded by an undersized defender, according to Billeter. Beyer played a similar role in the win over East Central on Saturday.
“Al was really good at it, and Adam’s pretty good at it, too,” Billeter said.
During the waning minutes of the Vikings’ 67-61 win—which was tied at 56 with less than five minutes left—the offense ran through Beyer in the post. Beyer said he’s practiced that position since his sophomore year and that he’s comfortable near the basket.
“It’s just a different look for teams,” Beyer said. “I’ll play more inside this year than I did last year, for sure. … I know all the plays from that position.”
Barring foul trouble or mismatches, though, Billeter said he will utilize a four-man post rotation featuring Busack and senior Zach Huisken as starters with freshman Lucas Walford and junior Marcus Asmus backing them up. He said Beyer would, in a pinch, essentially be a fifth big man.
Walford has impressed in early-season action, demonstrating startling tenacity on the offensive glass and explosion to finish around the basket. Busack said Walford’s ability has “surprised the heck out of me.”
Busack also singled out Beyer as a former opponent whose contribution he especially values now as a teammate.
“I had a decent sense of what Adam does, and he’s my roommate now, but I really appreciate the way he goes about playing basketball,” Busack said. “He’s one of the most unselfish players, he’ll do anything that the team needs him to do. It doesn’t show up all the time in the stat book or anything like that, but it’s that kind of player that you need on your team to go to the next level and win in those playoff games. You grow to appreciate [him] the longer you’re around him.”
Billeter said he’s appreciated his team’s effort so far but that huge win streaks shouldn’t be an expectation, even though the Vikings have won 68 of their 73 games since the start of the 2014 season.
If Augustana ended up beating Northwest Missouri, fans may continue to expect those winning streaks, whether Billeter likes it or not.