Above photo by Olivia Champion/@byoliviarayn
LAS VEGAS-With just three days remaining in the year, the UMHB men’s basketball team holds a 7-1 record, is riding a two-game win streak, and ranks second in the conference standings. And yet, head coach Clif Carroll believes the team’s best basketball is ahead of them.
“We just haven’t gotten there yet,” Carroll said, “and it’s probably a good thing that we haven’t peaked early. A lot of times you try to play such good basketball and you peak early and you can’t sustain your level of play. We’re going to look at it from a positive spin and know that our best basketball is out in front of us.”
On Monday, the Crusaders boarded a flight to Las Vegas for the D3hoops.com Classic, with their first game scheduled to tip-off at 11:00 p.m CT on Wednesday evening. 11 teams will be in attendance at the national event, which showcases some of the country’s premier D-III programs, including No. 8 Marietta and No. 23 Maryville (TN), along with No. 19 UMHB in this year’s edition.
While in Las Vegas, Carroll’s squad is set to battle Pacific Lutheran, a 7-2 team out of the Northwest Conference, and Saint Mary’s (Minn.), who represents the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Those contests are set for Wednesday, and Thursday, respectively.
“Pac Lutheran has a chance to be a regionally ranked team,” Carroll said of the Cru’s first matchup. “Anytime you can play those games it helps you. You have to win those games when you get the chance. They’ve been playing good basketball. They’ve got a really good player who we’re going to have to do some things to guard.”
UMHB will be hard to guard when it’s on offense as well, considering the number of scoring threats the Cru has on the floor at any given time. Guard Josiah Johnson is one of the nation’s top five leaders in points per game (28.3), forward Ty Prince has posted 18.8 PPG, 5.46 assists per contest, and 7.4 rebounds per game, and forward Luke Feely is coming off a week in which he was named National Player of the Week. Additionally, Carson Hammond has proven reliable from three-point range (38%) and Ouachita Baptist transfer DJ Kane made his debut on Dec. 18.
“We’ve really relied on Ty and Josiah to start the year. If one of those guys, heaven forbid, gets hurt or is just having a bad week, we’re not going to win. So the more balanced we can be, the more dangerous we are.
“We need our shooters to shoot it better. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, we’ll see Payton Brooks really step his confidence up. We have the freshman shooter, Braedyn Dawes. He’s just a freshman, but he’s going to have moments when he breaks out. We also need to develop more of an inside presence, so Gannon Parker or Keegan Pugh may step into that role a little bit.”
Carroll specially noted Kane, a 6’2, 200 lb guard from Austin, as a player who could contribute in a variety of ways entering the week’s games and into conference play. Kane was added to the roster recently and previously spent one year at the D-II level, as well as two at Richland College (JUCO).
“DJ can be a great defender, and can cause a lot of havoc defensively,” Carroll said. “Offensively, he’s a bucket-getter, a little bit like Josiah, but in a different way. He’s more physical and gets to the rim. He was huge for us in LeTourneau, and I don’t think we would’ve won that game without DJ.”
Feely is another Crusader who has stood out as of late, starting UMHB’s final two ASC games of the month. The Argyle, Texas native was recognized by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association as the D-III Player of the Week on Dec. 21, after averaging a double-double in the Cru’s wins over UT-Dallas and LeTourneau.
“He’s worked his way into the lineup,” Carroll said of Feely. “He’s worked into being a reliable guy. He’s really starting to show some signs of being special. Defensively, he can guard anybody. He is very versatile. As he continues to play well, his confidence is going to continue to grow.”
With a critical conference matchup against Concordia (TX) on the horizon, Carroll cannot overstate the importance of these next two games. Finding the right chemistry, reliable players, and applying the game plan increases in importance as January and February near. And the best part of it for the Cru is the fact that all the pieces are there. It is just a matter of putting them together.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we can do with this team, where we can take strides and get better,” Carroll said. “We just have to continue to work and come in and create some chemistry and trust within the team.”
Both contests from Las Vegas can be seen live on Team1Sports.com. UMHB has faced Pacific Lutheran once, falling 77-74 at the 2015 edition of the D3hoops.com Classic. The meeting with Saint Mary’s will mark the first in either program’s history.
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be emailed at email@example.com.