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Season-In-Review: 2023-24 Concordia Men's Basketball

By Jacob Knabel on Mar. 26, 2024 in Men's Basketball

The 2023-24 cardiac Concordia Bulldogs sometimes gave their fans heartburn, but they also supplied memorable moments that will go down in program lore. A crazy final week of the regular season ended with the Bulldogs hoisting the GPAC regular season championship trophy for the second time in three years. Nothing came easy, but Head Coach Ben Limback effectively brought together a team of key veterans and a host of newcomers.

While rallying around the theme of “rise up,” the Bulldogs did exactly that behind First Team All-GPAC stars Noah Schutte and Tristan Smith. The group began the season off the national radar before winning so frequently that they could no longer be ignored.

“It was a tremendous season in a lot of ways,” Limback said. “There’s always a sour taste when you don’t win your last game and you don’t get to where you want to get to, but we had a lot of fun moments. We made the round of 32 at the national tournament and were co-champions of the GPAC. These are not easy things to do. We had only one loss at home, which is another great accomplishment. We had so many young guys in the mix and had to balance Tristan’s injury in a key moment of our season. I’m just so proud of our team. We’re certainly going to miss our senior leaders. This group came together – they bought in. We had a mixture of young guys and veterans and we kept getting better and better. It’s a fun group to work with. I’m just thankful and blessed to be around these guys.”

The journey began inside Friedrich Arena at the Cattle Classic and ended in Salina, Kan., in the NAIA National Championship Round of 32. Concordia settled at 24-8 overall, including a 15-5 GPAC league record. As part of the campaign, the Bulldogs captured the CIT title in Mequon, Wis., during a nine-game winning streak that featured wins over No. 19 Morningside and No. 12 Northwestern. Early in the season, Limback notched his 300th career coaching victory. Eventually, Concordia rose as high as No. 20 in the NAIA coaches’ poll and earned a No. 4 seed at the national tournament.

Following a 79-73 road loss to Dordt on Feb. 17 that snapped the nine-game winning streak, the Bulldogs came home for the final two games of the regular season with a chance to secure at least a share of the GPAC championship. The atmosphere inside Friedrich Arena on Feb. 21 was the most frenzied of the entire season as Concordia found a way to defeat rival Hastings, 69-67, in overtime. The Bulldogs won despite trailing 62-59 with 3.8 seconds remaining in regulation. When Concordia ultimately prevailed, the student crowd stormed the court in celebration.

Whatever situation the Bulldogs faced, they knew they could rely upon Schutte, who completed his fourth season in navy and white. The Laurel, Neb., native became the first player in program history to score 30 points in a national tournament game when he put up 31 in the 83-81 first-round win over Indiana University Northwest. This past season, Schutte moved into the program’s top five all-time in points and leapt into the top 10 for rebounds. He’s accumulated 1,827 points and 727 rebounds over 115 career collegiate games. Schutte has averaged more than 20.0 points per game in back-to-back seasons.

“He was incredible with his ability to score inside,” said Limback in recapping the national tournament. “He was able to get to spots whenever he wanted. He scored on post moves, on drives to the basket and he got to the line a lot. He’s been really good at doing that. He has an ability to score in different ways. When you see your guy that’s been there before get it going, everybody feeds off that confidence.”

When Schutte was on his game – which happened the majority of the time – everything fell into place. The attention he demanded from opponents surely created openings for the likes of Smith and junior Brad Bennett, the team’s All-GPAC honorees. With a mostly healthy full season following a significant injury his sophomore campaign, Smith regained his explosiveness. The Elizabeth, Colo., native and younger brother of SlamBall MVP Gage Smith made a habit out of posterizing opponents. The dunk that generated the most attention was Smith’s thunderous right-hand slam right over the top of a defender at Doane. Smith averaged career highs across the board in 2023-24: 18.0 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

While Schutte and Smith drew the most headlines, Concordia had the depth to sometimes go 12 or 13 players deep in any given game. In his junior season, Bennett averaged 10.8 points per game as a lethal outside shooter (40.0 percent from 3-point range). The senior class led by Schutte also included Joel Baker and Trey Scheef. As freshmen, Lukas Helms and Jaxon Stueve earned starting roles and fellow rookies Hayden Frank, Brooks Kissinger and Tyler Harre came off the bench to give quality minutes. Others who earned regular playing time were Zac Kulus, Brayson Mueller, Brandt Van Dyke and Jaxon Weyand.

As noted by Limback, the Bulldogs lost only once at home (12-1) and managed to avenge that defeat by getting Morningside back in a trip to Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 31. Considering the Mustangs reached the national quarterfinals, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the late January victory was Concordia’s most impressive triumph of the season. In that contest, Smith hobbled off the court with nearly 17 minutes to play as Concordia faced a 58-50 deficit. The Bulldogs were able to tighten up defensively in the closing minutes and prevailed, 99-88.

Depth and the team’s determination to push the tempo became hallmarks of Concordia Men’s Basketball in 2023-24. The Bulldogs finished the season with a scoring average of 86.5 points per game on the strength of 50.3 percent shooting from the floor. The scoring average was just shy of the school record of 88.7 produced by the 2016-17 squad paced by All-American Chandler Folkerts. Not only did Concordia entertain fans with its fast-paced play, it kept them on the edge of their seats with down-to-the-wire white-knucklers. Thirteen of the 32 games were decided by margins of five points or fewer and four went to overtime (all won by the Bulldogs).

A blueprint is in place for Concordia to potentially be even better in 2024-25. In an interview that aired on 104.9 Max Country on March 22, Limback spoke about Schutte’s decision to return for his ‘COVID year’ of eligibility. The roster will be much more experienced and seasoned next winter.

Said Limback, “His focus and our focus was on finishing this year. If it was his last, he was going to give everything he had. I really didn’t talk to him much at all about (coming back in 2024-25). In our end-of-year meeting, he gave us the biggest news of the day. He wants to come back and have another great year and take us to another level. It’s probably the biggest recruiting meeting of the season. He’s a tremendous young man and our team’s excited. I’m really pumped, to say the least, to have an outstanding man come back for that final year. It’ll be fun.”

The engagement with the men’s basketball program only seems to grow in significance. This past season, Limback and the Concordia Athletic Department helped put together a 100-year celebration of the program’s existence. Alums from many different eras returned to campus in early February to connect and relive memories from the past. It’s also noteworthy that program alums such as Derek Engelbart and Tim Schroeder became Concordia employees over the past year.

When the Bulldogs traveled to Salina for the national tournament, they enjoyed a strong show of support. Said Limback, “We had an incredible showing from our parents and alums. We had a good group of alums, some of my former teammates. We basically had a home game the first game. That was huge. Any time you go on the road and you have that type of support, our guys feed off that. It was a wonderful atmosphere.”

Concordia fell one win short of making a return to the final site in Kansas City, but the program has proven it has staying power and has turned a corner. The Bulldogs have reached the national tournament in three-straight years and in four of the past five seasons.

Said Limback of the seniors, “Those three guys are outstanding young men. I’d keep them forever if I could, but at some point you have to let them go … They should be able to look back and reflect and be extremely proud of what they accomplished as a group this season.”