Rocking back and forth, a giant grin on his face, Delewis Johnson embodied the buzz surrounding The Master’s University Men’s Basketball team as he fielded questions on a recent afternoon.
The hope around campus is that this will be the program’s best season in at least two decades.
The expectation is that they will play fast.
“We run every practice like a track team,” Johnson said. The junior wing said fans should expect alley-oops, a plethora of points and rabid defensive intensity in its encore to last season’s epic turnaround, when it won 23 more games than the year before.
Master’s, however, isn’t dwelling on the Golden State Athletic Conference tournament title or the NAIA Sweet 16 berth that followed.
“We’re not focusing on what we did last year. It’s a new year,” said Johnson, whose team was voted first in the GSAC and fifth in the country this preseason. “We’re trying to repeat as GSAC tournament champs and win a regular-season title and a national championship this year. That’s the goal.”
It’s a mark the Mustangs are well suited for. Master’s returns three starters; namely, All-American and GSAC Defensive Player of the Year Lawrence Russell, 6-foot-10 center Tim Soares and 6-7 sharp-shooter Travis Yenor. Johnson and point guard Hansel Atencia are both a year older after productive sophomore seasons, and the team added two NCAA Division 1 transfers in the offseason: Darryl McDowell-White from Fresno State and 6-7 Brock Gardner from Liberty University.
“I don’t even know how many guys deep we are,” said Soares, who averaged more than eight points and six rebounds as a freshman. “We just have a whole squad that’s ready to roll, honestly.”
Freshmen Hodges Bailey and Michael Taylor and junior Keegan Scott also figure to play into the rotation. The Mustangs, frankly, need the depth to play at coach Kelvin Starr’s breakneck pace.
“We should be runnin’ and gunnin’,” Johnson said. Starr has turned the Mustangs around at a similar clip. In 2015-16, Master’s won four games and missed the NAIA national tournament for the 16th straight time.
Last year, Starr’s first, the Mustangs’ season ended in a two-point loss to eventual national champion Texas Wesleyan.
“Culture. Getting people to buy in to what we’re trying to do and making sure everyone is on the same page,” Starr said. “… As a coach, you have to have talented players, too.”
Some of those players’ roles have changed slightly. As a sophomore, Atencia mostly provided an offensive spark off the bench, averaging 12 points and four assists. He started eight of the 30 games he played in.
This year, he’ll be called on to orchestrate the offense more prominently at point guard and to play defense at a more consistent level, something he’s progressed in at practice. “He’s got to find the balance between scoring and running the team,” Starr said, “which can be hard for a guy like him who’s such an elite scorer.”
Atencia may need to score more this year after the graduation of Reid Shackelford, an All-American who averaged 17 points a game.
He won’t be alone, though.
Yenor’s and Scott’s range will help stretch the floor. Johnson can slash to the hoop. And McDowell-White is another quality ball-handler on a long, skilled Mustang team that gets after it on both sides of the floor.
“Coach makes us play defense for 40 minutes straight,” said Russell, who fills the stat sheet in almost every category. “Hopefully, when they look at the Mustangs, they’re like, ‘Oh, they’re a tough team to play. They don’t allow easy buckets.’”
It came from a desire to educate.
Of the four referees addressing The Master’s University Women’s Basketball team at center court before an intersquad this week, one asked for a show of hands from the freshmen. Seven arms went up.
Over the next 15 minutes, the officials showed the newbies the ropes. What constitutes a foul in the college game. What doesn’t. It was a classroom on the court.
Such lessons – in a more fast-paced, physical fashion – will continue over the coming month as Master’s opens its season with a host of daunting exhibitions.
“They’re going to get baptized by fire real quick,” said coach Dan Waldeck.
Waldeck was speaking specially about a young group of post players. But the sentiment could apply to a team that features three juniors and no seniors.
There’s a lot to learn. And it’ll have to be picked up quickly by a squad that graduated two All-Americans in Bianca Cubello and Megan Lindsley.
Fortunately, the task of replacing those two won’t fall to any one player.
“Everybody needs to step up,” said Mustang junior Jamilee Iddings, who headlines a group of guards who have grown leaps and bounds since stepping on campus.
Sophomores Hannah Forrar, Brooke Bailey, Hannah Ostrom and Sabrina Thompson each played substantial minutes last season when the Mustangs advanced to the NAIA national tournament for the fifth straight season.
“They’re tons better,” said Waldeck, whose team opens the season ranked No. 18 in the country and third in the Golden State Athletic Conference. “Their biggest adjustment, because their role is now to carry more scoring, is how to let that come to them and not force it. To balance being in attack mode yet involving their teammates.”
As far as the frontcourt, talented freshmen Rebekah Throns, Anika Neuman and Jessica Soares, all 6-foot-1 and above, are expected to make an immediate impact, with Rebekah’s sister, Hannah, joining the team at winter break.
The young trio will be tested.
The Mustangs open the season against NCAA Division 2 California Baptist on Thursday and Division 1 Cal State Northridge on Saturday before trekking to the Northwest to play D1s Washington State and Eastern Washington.
“They are really versatile,” Waldeck said of Rebekah Throns, Neuman and Soares. “The big thing for us is how physical can we be down there. … We need to get tougher and scrappier down there.”
Of course, it’s been tough to simulate gritty post play in practice with no upperclassmen at the position. But, being a team stocked with young talent like freshman point guard Tristen Coltom has its own advantages.
“We don’t have a lot of expectations on us coming into the year,” Ostrom said. “It allows us to play more free and together.”
For more information about upcoming games, check out Mustang Athletics.