For the first time, the McKendree University men’s basketball team appears to be armed enough to combat the rigors of a Division II schedule.
Coach Harry Statham’s team features a deeper and more versatile attack, which will provide the Bearcats with a chance to snap their string of three consecutive losing seasons.
“We do have some offensive potential,” said Statham, in his 50th season. “We’ve got 3-point shooters and guys who can get to the rim. I think we’re going to be much better. It’s taken some time to get here, but I think we’ve turned the corner.”
McKendree, which opens its season at 7 p.m. Tuesday against visiting Blackburn, was 11-15 overall and 4-14 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. The Bearcats graduated Logan Carson and Matt Holmes, two of its four leading scorers.
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But 6-foot-6 senior Brandon Book (Central) and 6-5 junior Michael Jackson (O’Fallon) return along with 6-1 senior A.J. Schmidt, 6-6 senior John Murphy, 6-2 junior Kyle Yates (Civic Memorial), 6-5 junior Brian Koch and 6-8 senior David Newton. Nate Michael, redshirted because of injury last year, will return at some point early in the season.
Adding to the mix are two key newcomers from junior colleges: 6-5 junior David Franklin (Althoff, Lake Land) and 6-6 junior Darin Winkelman (Steeleville, Kaskaskia). Both are gifted offensive performers who figure to complement the returning talent.
“At Drake, Darin had a terrific game,” Statham said of a 95-78 exhibition loss Saturday. “He played superb post defense on their big guy, a 7-footer, and shot the lights out from 3-point range. He had a solid game; he played very, very well. He’s a very intelligent guy, an A student, and he’s very smart on the court, too.
“Franklin is going to be a load. He can shoot the 3 and get to the rim off the dribble. He’s a smart player, a good free-throw shooter. He’ll do a lot for us.”
Jackson, with more consistent minutes, made steady improvement in the second half of last season. He averaged 12.9 points and ranked second to Carson in 3-pointers with 33. Jackson’s continued maturity, another strong season from Book (14.2 points, 32 3-pointers) and steady play from Schmidt and Yates on the perimeter could make McKendree dangerous.
“Jackson works very hard, is a great kid and he’s getting better,” Statham said. “He plays excellent defense, runs the floor well, attacks the basket. He’s going to be a solid player. He got better game by game.”
Book battled several injuries last season, including a torn meniscus, and was limited to just 10 games. Book underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his ankle a few weeks ago and still hasn’t returned to form. But when healthy, he makes an impact.
“He’s been out for a while, but we expect big things out of Book,” Statham said. “He’s a great 3-point shooter and free-throw shooter, and he knows the game. It’s just a matter of getting him back into shape and getting his timing back. We’re counting on him.”
Murphy started all 26 games last season and averaged 8.7 points and made 28 3-pointers. Statham wants to see Murphy improve his defense and toughness as a senior.
Sophomore Rob Hudson is a newcomer who joins the Bearcats after one season at Harper College in Chicago. The 6-6 Hudson averaged 11.9 points and 4.7 rebounds. He has three remaining years of eligibility who can play four positions.
“He’s a wiry, athletic kid who understand the game,” Statham said. “He’s got 3-point range, good moves inside and is very good defensively.”
Newton isn’t overly mobile, but Statham said his height and strength could make him a factor in some games. Another post player, 6-9 Noah Gerling (Mater Dei), will be redshirted after breaking his arm in May. He was cleared to play in late October, but his arm became infected.
Heart and soul
Schmidt, the co-captain with Book, is the Bearcats’ lone four-year player and represents everything Statham likes about in terms of personality, effort and determination.
“He’s been through it,” Statham said. “He understands what’s happened in the past. He wanted to have an impact last year, but we didn’t do as well as we wanted to do. This year, it’s his last year. He’s playing solid defense, taking charges and is our floor leader. He’s a smart player who plays within himself.”
Schmidt is an unselfish performer who Statham believes can provide more on offense.
“He’s an excellent free-throw shooter and has good 3-point range when he has a little time to shoot,” Statham said. “He keeps us going. I think he can give us a little more (offense). He’s smart and doesn’t overdo it, but we don’t want him to. We want him to take the high-percentage plays, which he does. He makes the other players better.”
Michael, the son of former University of Illinois and Carlyle High star Tom Michael, played the first three games of last season before a stress fracture in his foot sidelined him for the rest of the year. Michael, who has four years of eligibility, was a solid scorer and playmaker at St. Joseph Ogden High.
“He’s out of the boot and back in basketball shoes,” Statham said. “He’s running drills this week, so far, but I’m not sure when he’s going to play, if it’s going to be two more weeks or sooner. Hopefully, it’s sooner, but we’re not sure about that.
“We want him to play as soon as he can, just for experience and helping our team. But we don’t want to do anything prematurely and cause damage down the road. We want him to come back solid and just get better and better and better. It will be a day-by-day kind of thing with our trainer and the doctor. We’ll see how it plays out.”
The Bearcats have Yates to fill the void until Michael returns. Yates played in 22 games last season and Statham said he continues to evolve.
“He learned a lot last season and he came back this year bigger and stronger,” Statham said. “He’s matured over the summer and has more confidence.”