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Season preview: 2016-17 Concordia men's basketball

By Jake Knabel on Oct. 21, 2016 in Men's Basketball

At a glance
2015-16 Record:
 18-12 overall, 10-10 GPAC (6th)
Head Coach: Ben Limback (at Concordia: 42-48, three years; career: 157-206, 12 years)
Returning Starters: Chandler Folkerts (Sr.); Eli Ziegler (Sr.)
Other Key Returners: Seth Curran (Sr.); Justin Damme (Sr.); Kyle Pierce (Jr.)
Key Newcomers: Connor Cook; Jake Hornick; Chris Johnstone; Clay Reimers; Tanner Shuck; Brevin Sloup
Key Losses: Rudy Knight; Micah Kohlwey; Jamie Pearson; Robby Thomas; Max Wegener
2015-16 GPAC All-Conference: Chandler Folkerts (first team); Jamie Pearson (second team); Robby Thomas (honorable mention); Eli Ziegler (honorable mention)

Season Outlook
Any conversation about the 2016-17 Concordia men’s basketball team starts with senior Chandler Folkerts. The 6-foot-8 mega star had a better season as a junior than his status as an honorable mention All-American would indicate. The Milford native averaged 19.6 points and 8.5 rebounds while shooting an otherworldly 66.6 percent from the floor.

By the time he’s finished, Folkerts’ name figures to be near the very top of the program’s all-time scoring, rebounding and blocked shots lists. Head coach Ben Limback, who enters his fourth season at the helm of the program, believes Folkerts can be even better as a senior.

“He’s a one-in-a-million type of guy,” Limback said. “Every year he’s done something to add to his game, whether it’s offensively or defensively. I can’t wait for an encore. You think after the sophomore year he had, how is he going to top that? Then as a junior he did that. Certainly he’s capable of doing even more things. What I’ve noticed in Chandler, especially this year, is a much different leader. There’s an urgency to what he’s doing.”

Folkerts will be the centerpiece for a program that says goodbye to three starters: Micah Kohlwey, second team all-conference honoree Jamie Pearson and the program’s all-time leading shot blocker in Robby Thomas. Another senior, Eli Ziegler, joins Folkerts as the other returning starter. Ziegler is a sharpshooting guard who has drained 160 triples during his career as a Bulldog. Ziegler will have a shot to reach 1,000 career points this season.

Soft spoken by nature, Folkerts and Ziegler have worked this offseason to improve as leaders for a team with plenty of new faces.

“We just want to help the coaches,” Folkerts said. “They have so much to worry about. We can teach the young guys little things and help them out as much as we can to speed up the learning process. With any of the guys, we can help keep them playing hard and keep them focused. We want to be an extension of the coaches and expedite the learning process.”

While the departures are significant, the influx of talent gives Concordia hope for continuing its upward trajectory. The Bulldogs have bumped up their win total each season under Limback, who believes he’s found a worthy replacement at the point for Pearson. Concordia won’t have to rely upon a rookie at the position thanks to the arrival of Chris Johnstone, who spent two years at NCAA Division II Chaminade University in Hawaii.

Limback calls Johnstone “dynamic” at both ends of the floor. The 6-foot-1 sophomore from Sydney, Australia, has impressed his teammates not only on the court, but also with the way he’s adjusted to another new culture.

“He’s ultra-quick,” Folkerts said. “That’s a huge thing. He’s really fast, really physical. He can do a whole lot of things. That just makes it fun, getting a transfer in. He knows how to play. He’s not a freshman that has to come in and learn a lot about college basketball. He’s ready to play.”

Johnstone will have the opportunity to run the show for what was one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation last season. While playing in a high-flying GPAC, the Bulldogs posted national rankings of third in field goal percentage (.505), eighth in free throw percentage (.750) and 17th in points per game (85.8).

Two other seniors make up this year’s roster: 6-foot-1 guard Seth Curran and 6-foot-10 post man Justin Damme. Of the two, Curran saw the most action last season, playing in 26 of 30 games with an average of 13.6 minutes per contest. Meanwhile, Damme provides another low post scoring option. He shot 64.2 percent from the floor as a junior. The next most experienced player on the roster is 6-foot-5 junior Kyle Pierce, who contributed 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds per game as a role player last season.

Considering how heavily Concordia relied upon its starters last season (all five averaged more than 25 minutes per game), it’s not difficult to conclude that playing time is up for grabs. The freshman class will have a say in how far this team can go. The long and lean Clay Reimers, a 6-foot-7 product of Lincoln East High School, has positioned himself to take advantage of aforementioned opportunities.

“We have quite a few freshmen this year that I think are in the mix,” Limback said. “It’s still a little early to tell who will ultimately surface in the rotation, but we have guys that have impressed me so far and done some neat things in practice. Clay Reimers out of Lincoln is a 6-7, long forward. He can really change the game at both ends. He can score from the perimeter. He can post up. Defensively, he’s got a tremendous ability to alter shots and also guard one through five.”

Limback also made mention of other freshmen such as Jake Hornick (Loveland, Colo.), Tanner Shuck (Grand Island, Neb.) and Brevin Sloup (Seward, Neb.) as well as Cordell Gillingham (Greeley, Colo.) and Riley Tegtmeier (Davenport, Neb.). Hornick, who red-shirted last season, is a 6-foot-1 guard that has impressed Limback with his continuous motor and activity on the glass. Schuck, who red-shirted last season, is a 6-foot-4 wing capable of playing the three or the four.

Folkerts and company will need the help of that freshman group in order to end a national tournament drought of more than 10 years for the program. Stalwarts like Pearson and Thomas may have exhausted their eligibility, but there’s a wealth of talent in the program.

What was it that prevented the 2015-16 team from reaching the heights that this team aspires to ascend to? For starters, opposing teams shot 37.5 percent from beyond the 3-point line. That won’t cut it this time around. Limback has been emphasizing more consistency on the defensive end. That will be a key in a high-scoring league. Says Folkerts, “We want to finish top three or four in the conference. That’s the big goal for me.”

There were certainly opportunities that slipped through Concordia’s fingers last season. Nearly every conference game came down to the wire. Perhaps more of those tight contests will go the way of the Bulldogs this year.

There’s a genuine belief within the program that essential ingredients are in place to make another step forward.

“Briar Cliff returns quite a few of their pieces from the championship team,” Limback said. “They’re going to be tough again. After that I think there are a number of teams, I’d like to say including us, that can fight to win the league. There’s really no down time in the GPAC. I think it’s going to be a great race to the end. We hope to be in the mix.”

SEASON OPENER: A trip to Denver, Colo., will christen the 2016-17 season. In its first of two games in Denver, the Bulldogs will take on Dickinson State University (N.D.). Tipoff is set for 3 p.m. CT.