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Season preview: 2017-18 Concordia men's basketball

By Jacob Knabel on Oct. 19, 2017 in Men's Basketball

2016-17 Record: 21-10 overall, 10-8 GPAC (T-5th)
Head Coach: Ben Limback (at Concordia: 63-58, four years; career: 178-216, 13 years)
Returning Starters: Chris Johnstone (Jr.); Tanner Shuck (So.)
Other Key Returners: Jake Hornick (So.); Kyle Pierce (Sr.); Clay Reimers (So.)
Key Newcomers: Ryan Holt; Alex May; Noah Valasek
Key Losses: Seth Curran; Justin Damme; Chandler Folkerts; Eli Ziegler 
2016-17 GPAC All-Conference: Chandler Folkerts (first team; defensive player of the year); Eli Ziegler (second team); Seth Curran (honorable mention)
2016-17 NAIA All-America: Chandler Folkerts (second team) 

The days of All-American Chandler Folkerts roaming the paint or sharpshooting guard Eli Ziegler slinging treys are now in the rearview mirror. Folkerts and Ziegler helped make the Bulldogs one of the top offensive teams in the nation in 2016-17. Down the stretch, Concordia won nine of 10 games, including a memorable overtime upset at seventh-ranked Dakota Wesleyan.

Only one senior (Kyle Pierce) and one junior (Chris Johnstone) make up this season’s varsity roster. A youth movement has taken hold, bringing about a rotation loaded with sophomores. Things will look a bit different in head coach Ben Limback’s fifth season leading the program.

“This team is going to be different,” Limback said. “We don’t have The Chanimal. We don’t have some of the guys that have been around for three or four years to depend on. I don’t like using youth as a crutch. I feel like youth can be used as an incentive to have a chip on your shoulder. I think this group is very hungry.”

Combatting the lack of upperclassmen is a well-stocked sophomore group. Its development will be crucial in regards to whether the Bulldogs can outperform the expectations of outsiders (picked eighth in the GPAC preseason poll). Though Folkerts and Ziegler have graduated, Concordia packs potential star power in the form of 6-foot-4 wing Tanner Shuck and 6-foot-7 long-armed Clay Reimers. One of the top shooters in the nation as a redshirt freshman, Shuck ranked 13th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (.463) last season.

A Grand Island High School product, Shuck recorded 74 of his 103 field goals from behind the 3-point line last season. Expected to take on an increased scoring role this winter, Shuck is focused on morphing his game in the way that Ziegler did. The Bulldogs will need him to be a more versatile scorer and an improved defender.

“He had a tremendous summer,” Limback said. “He stuck around here in Seward and worked on his strength and conditioning levels. He’s in really good shape right now. He knows he’ll be more of a marked man this year without Chandler and Eli out there. I think he’s ready for that challenge. I think he’s developed his game beyond just shooting threes. He’ll need to provide some scoring for us. He’s versatile. He’s 6-4, he’s long and he can defend multiple positions.”

Reimers appears to possess the most tantalizing potential of anyone on the roster. After feeling his way through the early part of his rookie season, Reimers turned a corner late in the campaign. He took off over the final eight games, averaging 13.4 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting an otherworldly 75.9 percent from the floor. The Lincoln Southeast High School product isn’t afraid to throw it down with authority.

“Clay Reimers is an extremely dynamic player,” Limback said. “He has the ability to get a rebound and take it the length of the floor. He has the ability to defend point guards all the way to the five man. He’s a special kid. He’s starting to learn and understand the daily competition, how to compete every day and get the most out of his game. I’m really excited about Clay. He did really come on at the end of the year.”

Reimers is fully capable of running the floor in an up-tempo style. Some within the program have hinted that the Bulldogs may try to push the pace even more than last season when they averaged a school record 88.7 points per game. In order to run such a frenetic style, a reliable point guard must emerge. Chris Johnstone gave it a whirl at times last season, but he is more likely to play off the ball. He shot 38.5 percent from 3-point range in his first campaign at Concordia after transferring from Chaminade University.

Perhaps the point guard spot will also be filled by a sophomore. One candidate is Jake Hornick, a gritty defender who averaged 5.1 points and played 18.5 minutes per game as a freshman. Pierce has seen enough progress in practice to believe the pieces have been assembled to allow for some necessary stylistic tweaks.

“This year we have a much different style of play,” Pierce said. “We’ve always had an up-tempo style of play. I think we’ll be even more up-tempo this year. Our four- and five-men this year are going to be a lot smaller this year. For me personally, it’s just been a learning process to learn the new offense that we’ve gone through. It’s not so much to throw it in the post. We want to get the ball moving and get up and down.”

We’re not yet through discussing those sophomores. Several others that saw time last year could be in line for increased roles, such as: 6-foot-2 Cordell GIllingham, 5-foot-9 Brevin Sloup and 6-foot Riley Tegtmeier. They all got acclimated to the college game last season, though none of them played in more than 21 of the team’s 31 games. The large group of second-year players forms the backbone of the team for 2017-18 and beyond. Said Pierce, “They’re only going to get better. They’re only going to get stronger and more confident. We’re going to expect big things from them this year for sure.”

The roster is chalk full of two guards and wings after the departures of the 6-foot-8 Folkerts and 6-foot-10 Justin Damme. Openings abound in the post. That means 6-foot-9 freshman Alex May from Arvada, Colo., will get a shot. The same goes for 6-foot-7 sophomore Zach Friel.

If the post players need time to develop, Limback could choose to go with more of a guard-oriented lineup. It won’t be easy to duplicate last season’s 3-point field goal percentage (.414) that ranked second best among all NAIA Division II teams, but the 2017-18 Bulldogs still appear to have several threats from long range. Even the big guy Reimers likes to step out and shoot. He made each of his last five attempts of last season from beyond the 3-point arc.

There are certainly plenty of unknowns entering the new season. The questions will begin to be answered on Monday, Oct. 30 when Concordia opens up the campaign with a trip to Kansas Wesleyan University. The program is still hankering for a national tournament bid that has eluded it since 2005.

Says Limback, “We’re competitive and we’ll play hard. That’s the expectation. The execution side of the things is what we’re struggling with right now. For us to be a great basketball team we’re going to have to have a better understanding of the details that go into that preparation and not just expecting to compete and play hard and that’s going to take care of it. I think it’s in there. The biggest keys are staying healthy and being detailed enough to execute with a young group.”