Photo: Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.–Tip-off has arrived for the Mary Hardin-Baylor men’s basketball team, whose season begins on Friday in a non-conference duel against Wisconsin-Stout as part of the Sikma Hall of Fame Invitational in Bloomington, Illinois.
Hosted by Illinois Wesleyan, one of the most storied small-college basketball programs in the country, the four-team tournament is composed of UMHB, UW-Stout, Ohio Wesleyan and Illinois Wesleyan. IWU and OWU play on Friday as well, with the winners of the two games advancing to Saturday’s championship contest at 5 p.m. and the losers playing at 3 p.m. on Saturday in the consolation game.
The Crusaders, ranked No. 15 in the nation, enter 2023-24 with high hopes for the year ahead, coming off consecutive trips to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, UMHB reached the Sweet 16, before falling to Christopher Newport, the eventual national champ and this year’s Preseason No. 1 team.
With First-Team D3hoops.com Preseason All-America guard Josiah Johnson back for his fifth year, alongside senior guard Kyle Wright, junior guard Payton Brooks, and sophomore wing Zachary Engels, UMHB is considered to be a national contender once again.
“Kyle and Jo and Payton have to be really big,” UMHB head coach Clif Carroll recently noted. “They’ve done a good job of trying to lead by example.”
The unique aspect of Johnson and Wright is the fact that the duo remains as the only two players still on the roster who were part of UMHB’s first season under Carroll in 2020-21. At that point, they were transfer guards in their first years in Belton, helping UMHB to a 16-4 record in a year where the NCAA Tournament was not even contested. Now, in 2023-24, they are the veteran leaders, especially in the backcourt, for a team with national title aspirations.
“I was at Sul Ross long enough to have a class come through like this, with four years” Carroll said. “As a coach, this is where it gets special. When you put this much time in with guys, and been on the road, and been through battles and on the highest mountains and through the darkest valleys, we really get each other. We know each other.
“Seeing these young men come in and really grow as people and basketball players, getting close to graduation and start thinking about the future [is special]. It’s a good sign of a program that we’re developing the program the right way.”
Ty Prince, Gibson Hearne, and Luke Feely graduated from last year’s squad, and several new faces are now featured on the roster. That includes Eli Beard, a transfer guard from Bossier Parish Community College, LD Butler, a 6-foot-6 transfer guard from St. Edward’s (D-II), Ryan Pondant, a 6-foot-8 forward from North Lake Community College, and Trey South, a 6-foot-4 wing from Central Arkansas (D-I). Not to mention freshman guard/forward Jayce Todd, from Milano High School, and freshman guards Preston and Pierson Cazalas.
“We have a lot of maturity,” Carroll said when asked about the seven incoming transfers. “We have guys who have played meaningful college basketball. It’s just a matter of getting them up to speed with our system and what we want done.”
The Blue Devils come off a 5-20 campaign, but have a good chance at improving on last year’s record with a more experienced roster back on the floor. Fifth-year senior guard Caden Hoffman comes into the program as a transfer who started 12 games last season at D-II Concordia-St. Paul, and reunites with his former teammate, 6-foot-5 senior forward George Scharlau who transferred to Stout from Concordia-St. Paul last season.
Headlining this UW-Stout squad is 6-foot-6 guard Brody Fox, who is athletic, versatile, and a dangerous scorer. An injury kept him off the court for the second half of last year, but in the 16 games he played in, Fox averaged 25.9 points per game. 10 of those 16 contests saw Fox score 20 or more points, including a 70-point effort at Greenville and a 42-point performance against Northland.
“The record doesn’t really indicate how good they are,” Carroll said. “Their best player [Fox] got hurt halfway through. He’s a really good player. They gained good experience last year and have good size. They’re going to be physical, and playing in the WIAC, that’s a big-time league.”
A glance at Ohio Wesleyan
Ohio Wesleyan matches up with Illinois Wesleyan on Friday, and could potentially play UMHB on Saturday. OWU comes off a 2022-23 season that saw the Battling’ Bishops post an 11-5 record in the North Coast Athletic Conference.
Though All-American Jack Clement transferred to Otterbein as a graduate student for 2023-24, OWU brings back a standout guard in Henry Hinkle, who played 30 minutes a game and averaged 12.8 points through last season. 6-foot-8 post player Tony Carter returns after starting 23 games last season and should be a major rebounding threat for head coach Mike DeWitt’s team. David Rice, a junior wing, is the third returning starter back in the lineup for OWU.
A look at the hosts: Illinois Wesleyan
Though UMHB has never faced Illinois Wesleyan, Carroll does have some prior experience against head coach Ron Rose and the Titans, who received votes in the D3hoops.com Preseason Top 25.
During Carroll’s fifth year at Sul Ross State, the Lobos faced IWU in a holiday classic played at Concordia (TX) in Austin. A tight battle unfolded, with IWU winning, 82-81, on a tip-in at the final buzzer.
“I have the ultimate respect for Ron Rose,” Carroll noted. “He’s absolutely one of the best coaches in D3. When I got into D3, I started looking around and thinking, ‘Who do I want to model? What is a program that I want my program to look like?’ Illinois Wesleyan popped off the page, with the way they do things, the way they run things.”
IWU has been playing basketball for over a century, with the third-most wins in program history amongst D-III institutions (1,483). Rose, an alum of IWU, has 306 wins at the helm of the program, having led the Titans since 2006-07.
The Titans bring back a stellar group of upperclassmen this season after posting a 12-14 overall record a year ago. Junior guard Hakim Williams returns after starting 21 games last season and senior guard Ryan Sroka averaged 11.0 points per game in 26 starts. Luke Yoder, who began his career at IWU, transferred to D-I North Dakota State, and returned to IWU for this season, also highlights the backcourt. Nick Roper, a talented 6-foot-8 guard is another scoring threat at the guard position, as is Trey Bazzell. IWU also has plenty of depth at the forward position, including 6-foot-6 senior Evan Schneider and 6-foot-6 junior Marko Anderson.
“We want to play national-level programs,” Carroll said. “Illinois Wesleyan is one of those programs that competes for conference titles and plays in a great league. It’s going to be a cool tournament.”
Final thoughts on The Cru
“I like the potential of this group,” Carroll said. “We have a chance to be even better, more talented, and deeper than we’ve been [during my time] here. But we have to get everybody on the same page. There’s a lot of new. It may take us a while to get there. The problem is, there’s not a whole lot of margin for error in D-III. In order to be on the at-large bid page, you can’t lose a whole bunch of games. But I think this team certainly has a chance to be better than any team I’ve coached here. It’s just a matter of putting them all together. I’m excited about this group.”
For coverage of UMHB men’s basketball through the Sikma Invitational and into the regular season, follow TrueToTheCru.com.