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Bulldogs grab national spotlight with unique mix of veterans and newcomers

By Jacob Knabel on Feb. 14, 2024 in Men's Basketball

Keep winning and the outsiders will have no choice but to pay attention. Such is the case for the 2023-24 Concordia University Men’s Basketball team, which has had to earn its way onto the national radar. Thanks to an eight-game winning streak featuring two top 25 wins, the Bulldogs find themselves soaring in the national rankings. This comes after the Bulldogs received nary a sniff in the first six official NAIA coaches’ polls of this season.

In the NAIA coaches’ poll released on Wednesday (Feb. 14), Concordia crashed the party in landing at No. 21. In addition, the “Road to Muni Podcast” hosted by NAIA Hoops Report invited Head Coach Ben Limback onto this week’s show. NAIA Hoops Report ranks the Bulldogs at No. 15 while Victory Sports Network has them all the way up to No. 8 and Massey Ratings slots them in at No. 11.

As Limback said on the podcast, “I think this is a unique team where you have a good returning class. Noah Schutte’s been on the NAIA All-Tournament Team, and he’s had a great year. Tristan Smith has been tremendous this year – a double-double machine. Then you have all these young guys paired with them. That’s been the challenge – the consistency and day-to-day things. I also told our guys we have a lot of room for growth with this team.”

The growth has been immense since the calendar flipped to 2024. Limback and his staff already had a good start on the 2023-24 roster knowing they would return proven veterans like Schutte, Smith and Brad Bennett. Those three Bulldogs have not disappointed while providing leadership and production on a consistent basis. However, Concordia would not be where it is currently with those three players alone. Other returners have made key contributions, and the Bulldogs just might have the best freshman class in the entire GPAC. Two of those rookies, Lukas Helms and Jaxon Stueve, have cracked the starting lineup.

From a bench perspective, the rotation has also regularly included Joel Baker, Hayden Frank, Tyler Harre, Brooks Kissinger, Zac Kulus, Brayson Mueller, Brandt Van Dyke and Jaxon Weyand. The immense depth gives Limback plenty of options and allows him to keep his players fresh. The problem lies in finding enough minutes for each of them.

“From day one we felt like we had the guys back from last year that had the ability,” Limback said. “When your five man is Tristan Smith, you can really run. He can rebound and handle it. That changes the way you can play. I thought the depth we had throughout our team would enhance our speed and ability to push. We have a lot of guys who can get out there and run. Guys like Lukas Helms and Jaxon Stueve are really good at running. I think it’s a combination of the style we like and then our personnel and depth.”

With an average of 88.6 points per game, the ’23-24 team is in line to challenge the school single season record of 88.7 by the 2016-17 squad. A hallmark of this current club is its ability to play together and play efficiently. Concordia shoots 51.3 percent from the floor and 37.4 percent from 3-point range. In the preseason, Schutte hinted at what we might see this winter. Every time out, the Bulldogs want to play fast and score in transition.

As Schutte said back in October, “We have a lot of young talent that I think is really good. We’re looking to create that depth this year, especially in the backcourt. I think we have a lot of guys that can stretch the floor and a lot of athletic and quick guys. We’ll have a lot of tempo this year, which I think will help us a lot.”

Concordia pushes the tempo despite not necessarily employing a single primary point guard. It’s not unusual to see Schutte or Smith bring the ball up the floor or for the Bulldogs to have five guys on the court with capabilities as ball handlers. When a defensive possession shifts to offense, the emphasis is on all five players sprinting the other way, even after a made basket for the opposition. The yields can include acrobatic dunks and open looks from 3-point range for deadeye shooters like Bennett, who just torched Dakota Wesleyan for a career-high 26 points.

It’s all about keeping foes on their toes. At the same time, playing fast won’t work unless the team is also playing smart. “Whoever gets it, we run to our spots,” Limback said. “That can be good and bad at times. With this team, it’s learning that we don’t have to shoot it every time we push it. Our shot selection is getting better. That’s the struggle for me as a coach – how much freedom do you give them and how much do you have to pull the reins back a little bit? I think we’re becoming better decision makers while playing fast.”

The dynamics as they are, it was natural that the Bulldogs would need some time to mesh. They dropped games early in conference play to perennially strong GPAC rivals Morningside and Northwestern and fell by a single point twice – to NCAA Division II San Francisco State and at fellow GPAC co-leader Hastings. Along the way, the analytics have taken a liking to this team’s efficiency and foreshadowed the string of victories Concordia has rattled off in January and February.

As senior Joel Baker said after a victory, “We’re really confident. The young guys are getting better every time we step on the floor.” One of those young guns is the Malcolm product Frank, who is averaging in double figures in scoring during the streak. After a 17-point performance in a CIT victory, Frank gushed about the harmony this team seems to have found between coaching staff and players.

Said Frank then, “Our coaches trust us as players and as players we have confidence in each other. It doesn’t matter who shoots the ball, we believe it’s going to go in every time. Our coaches teach us and give us the knowledge. Our scouting reports are almost perfect. They prepare us to the best of our ability. We just have to go out and play.”

The makeup of the roster plays into what the Bulldogs want to do each time out. Limback and lead assistant Ryan Tegtmeier seem to be collecting 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-6 wing players like they’re trading cards. There isn’t a 7-footer on this roster, but there’s length one-through-five in the starting lineup with no player shorter than 6-foot-1. Most opponents can’t help but have some matchup issues in response to the combination of overall athleticism, length and perimeter shooting prowess.

As Limback said, “That length and athleticism allows you to attack from a lot of areas. Defensively, I think it allows us to play different lineups. You can have Tristan Smith switch and guard a point guard because of his agility and speed.”

Down the stretch, Concordia’s improvement defensively may be the most important factor as to whether it can win the GPAC regular season title or make a run at the national tournament. What seems clear at this point is that the Bulldogs are capable of achieving those things. Two seasons after a historic 2021-22 campaign, Concordia is hoping to write another special chapter in the program’s history.

When asked about the GPAC race on the Road to Muni Podcast, Limback replied, “This is my 11th year. This is a unique situation where we have that many teams tied for first and fighting for position. There’s a lot yet that needs to shake out, but to be in that mix with some great teams is where you want to be this time of year. Every team in the country sets goals to be in that mix. We’re pretty blessed to be in that position right now.”