The McKendree University men’s basketball team turned a corner in Division II last season when it qualified for the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament for the first time.
“I was very pleased with the way we finished the season last year,” said Bearcats coach Harry Statham, who begins his 51st season with a record of 1,101-480. “We competed well, I thought, for the last five weeks or so of the season. It was a very positive thing for us (to qualify for the tournament). It was a dogfight.”
But Statham is anything but satisfied as the Bearcats, who were 13-14 overall and 6-12 in the GLVC last year, prepare to tip off at 8 p.m. Saturday against visiting Robert Morris-Springfield before an exhibition game against Illinois at the State Farm Center at 7 p.m. Nov. 15.
I feel good about our players. They’re positive, they’re working hard and we have some experience. Our new guys are fitting in pretty well. We’re on the upswing.
McKendree men’s basketball coach Harry Statham
If their 91-84 exhibition win Saturday at Division I Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is an indication, the Bearcats may indeed have much to look forward to this season.
“I feel good about our players,” said Statham. “They’re positive, they’re working hard and we have some experience. Our new guys are fitting in pretty well. We’re on the upswing.”
Improving the defense has been a preseason priority. Last year, the Bearcats allowed an average of nearly 82 points a game, ranking 13th of 16 in the GLVC.
“We’ve put a premium on (defense),” Statham said. “I thought we were pretty good offensively last year. We were efficient and put points on the board, but we couldn’t get stops when we needed them. We were very porous in the middle. Quick people hurt us. They would penetrate and get down into the paint, and we couldn’t stop that.
“So we’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to jam that middle more and take it away, and still be able to cover out and guard the perimeter. If that’s better, we’ll be better. It will be easier this year than last year because we have more size. But it’s never easy. A true test of your team is how you can stop people.”
Althoff graduate David Franklin, a powerful 6-foot-5 senior, averaged 21.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists last season, earning second-team all-GLVC honors.
Franklin, who came to McKendree from Lake Land College in Mattoon, has just one semester of eligibility remaining and will miss the Bearcats’ first nine games. Franklin, who had five games with at least 30 points and recorded eight double-doubles, has been recognized as a Division II preseason All-America honorable-mention.
“He’s going to be a very good player in the league and for us,” Statham said. “I’m anxious to see our team play without him and I’m anxious to see him come back.”
Other key players returning are 6-3 sophomore Nate Michael, 6-5 senior Michael Jackson, 6-6 senior Darin Winkelman and 6-2 senior Kyle Yates.
Michael, a shooting guard who started the final 14 games, averaged 15.3 points and made a team-high 56 3-pointers. He had 40 points Feb. 6 against Maryville.
“Nate came on strong for us last year, and he’s back with a little more strength and maturity and confidence,” Statham said. “He’s worked hard in the weightroom and on his defense. He’s a great shooter. He’s one of our gym rats. He’s in here all the time shooting and lifting.”
Jackson, an O’Fallon High graduate, was a consistent performer last season as he averaged 14.1 points and 4.3 rebounds. He scored in double-figures 23 times.
“Michael Jackson is a very good athlete,” Statham said. “He has 3-point range, he can get to the rim, he’s a good free-throw shooter and he could be a great defensive player and strong rebounder. He’s a nice guy, but sometimes he doesn’t get mean enough. We’re trying to get him to be a little more aggressive and play tough. He can do that. I think he’s going to step up and really try to lead for us.”
Yates is a graduate of Civic Memorial High who again will handle the point-guard spot. He averaged 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds and ranked third on the team with 50 assists.
“He understands the game well,” Statham said. “He’s a student of the game. Last year, when A.J. (Schmidt) went down, it opened the door for (Yates) and he stepped in ready to go. Our team picked up. He runs the offense well, understands what we’re trying to do defensively and communicates well with the other players. We’re high on his leadership and ability.”
Winkelman averaged 9.3 points and was second on the team with 42 3-pointers. The Steeleville High graduate also ranked second with 4.8 rebounds a game.
“Darin’s worked hard in the offseason trying to improve his defensive skills,” Statham said. “He’s got a lot of strength and he shot the ball well. (But) we needed to get more defense and rebounding from him. He’s better. We hope he continues to improve in those areas. It will be a key for us on how he can guard a 4 (power forward).”
Rounding out the roster are 6-9 redshirt freshman Nolan Gerling, 6-9 junior Joel Atabo, 6-1 junior Gianni Otto, 6-6 junior Rob Hudson, 6-4 junior Justin Blanks, 6-5 senior Brian Koch, 6-3 redshirt freshman Troy Pedtke, 5-10 freshman Jarad Steenbergen and 6-1 freshman Feron Doss, a Belleville East graduate who is battling a knee injury.
Gerling, who as a senior in 2015 helped Mater Dei finish fourth in the Class 2A state tournament, had 32 points and 14 rebounds against SIUE. Gerling missed last season with a broken arm.
“He’s improving daily,” Statham said of the 230-pounder. “He’s got a good, positive attitude and he’s getting better as we go. That’s the big thing. He has good hands and he understands the game. It’s a matter of him getting toughness and tenacity.”
We’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to jam that middle more and take it away, and still be able to cover out and guard the perimeter. If that’s better, we’ll be better.
McKendree coach Harry Statham
Atabo is an athletic 220-pounder who, along with Gerling, is expected to boost the Bearcats’ efficiency in the lane on offense and defense. He is a transfer from Lake Land.
“He can run and jump and is a shot-blocker and dunker,” Statham said. “He has good range; he can probably shoot from 12 feet. And he can guard people a little further out on the court.”
Otto is a native of Germany who will back up Yates at point and provide a scoring threat. He transferred to McKendree from Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg, where he averaged 7.1 points and racked up 110 assists last year.
Hudson played in 22 games last season and averaged 2.5 points. Koch played in 17 games and averaged 1.7 points. Blanks, who can play guard or forward, comes to McKendree from Kennedy-King College in Chicago, where he averaged 10 points and 3.7 rebounds. Statham expects Blanks to see significant playing time.
Pedtke, a graduate of Nashville High, was redshirted last season. Steenbergen, a Wesclin High graduate, gives McKendree a third point guard and a 3-point threat.
The GLVC long has been regarded as the most competitive Division II league in the country. This season will be no different.
Bellarmine, which plays in the GLVC East with McKendree, is ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll. Another East Division opponent, Indianapolis, is ranked No. 11. Drury, which plays in the West Division, is ranked 17th.
McKendree was picked by league coaches to finish sixth in the East Division.