By Paige Carswell
Things sure have changed fast for the men’s basketball team.
When the preseason polls came out for the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference basketball season Oct. 14, the coaches and media were in definite disagreement. The University of Saint Mary men’s team was picked third by the media but was picked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll. Southwestern, on the other hand, was picked first by the media, but in the bottom half of the coaches’ poll at sixth.
Matt O’Brien, head coach, said that the media’s pick was the most surprising. O’Brien is beginning his first year as head coach and at the time the polls came out, he had five seniors on the roster.
Only two days later, he was down to four when first team all-KCAC center David King, senior center, went down with a knee injury during practice.
“We find out more on Wednesday when he visits with the doctors,” O’Brien said, “but everything that we hear from the trainers is that it’s more than likely an ACL injury.”
Having King gone is bad news for the team. He was the leading scorer for the men last year with 17.7 points per game in addition to being ranked fourth in the conference in scoring and third in the nation in field goal percentage. But, O’Brien also said that he was mostly worried for the injured senior.
“The media probably wouldn’t have picked us first if they knew David was out for the season,” O’Brien said. “I think initially, everyone feels bad for David. Injuries are always difficult but I think in your senior year it’s even more of a difficult thing to deal with.”
Still, O’Brien said what they worked on during preseason may have saved the team some headaches at this point.
“In the preseason we have worked exclusively on getting the basketball from one end of the floor to the other in a fast pace,” he said. “We haven’t spent much time walking it up and getting the ball to David. We had no idea that David was going to have an injury and be out, but it turns out to be a blessing that we played our pickup games at a fast pace in the preseason.”
Even without King, O’Brien is positive about the team’s chances of competing this year. The team brings back senior all-conference guard Justin Diggles, who will most likely start as point guard for the men since Avery Richardson, who averaged 14 points per game last year for the Builders, transferred to Friends University. The upperclassmen returning with Diggles are Jason McCormack, senior guard, Tim Miser, senior guard, Marcus Batiste, senior forward and Stuart Ballard, junior forward.
Batiste said although King is out, having Diggles back will be a catalyst for success for the men. “It’s going to hurt us a lot inside,” he said of King’s injury, “but we’ve got a lot of people on our team who know their role and know how to win.”
The men have eight new players for the season—six of whom are transfers—and O’Brien said that several will have to make contributions right away to help the men compete.
“I’m confident in our basketball team,” he said. “If our players play with the confidence I have in them and if they have that much confidence in each other, we’re going to be a good basketball team.”
O’Brien has already experienced success as a coach. After graduating from Friends University in 2000, he spent the next few years there as an assistant coach before spending his last three seasons as Central Christian University as the head coach. O’Brien led Central Christian to two consecutive appearances at the National Christian College Athletic Association post-season while also breaking win records in those two years. When a job came open at Southwestern, the coach couldn’t pass it up.
“Southwestern was probably the only job that I would have gone after,” O’Brien said. “This is just a special place. I think the tradition, both academically and athletically, is superior to a lot of colleges in this area. The combination of the community here and the strong academics and athletics tradition really led me here.”
O’Brien fills the place of Doug Hall, who left for the University of Missouri Kansas City to be the director of basketball operations. Hall was head coach for eight years and had the third-most amount of wins in the history of the program. Still, O’Brien said although there’s pressure, he isn’t necessarily trying to fill Hall’s shoes.
“Coach Hall did a great, great job here at Southwestern,” said O’Brien. “He built a great program. I’m not really trying to live up to what Coach Hall did. I’m just doing the best I can each day and coaching the best way I know how.”
O’Brien’s coaching technique is having a sense of community within the team that he’s coaching.
“I try to treat each player like they were part of my family,” O’Brien said. “Hopefully I’m not trying to do what’s best for me, I’m trying to do what’s best for each individual on the team. There’s definitely a respect from the players that we demand as coaches, but I want there to be a personal relationship with each one of our guys where they feel comfortable in coming and talking to me about different things. That’s important to me.”
Batiste said his main goals for the season were to make it to the NAIA Tournament and win the KCAC, but O’Brien’s main goal for the team right now is simple: to be the very best they can.
“My goals for the team right now are to do the very best they can every day in practice and every game,” O’Brien said. “I think that’s what really I’d like for us to focus on is just effort day-in and day-out doing the best we can.
“I’m not focused on polls. I’m not focused on how many games we’re going to win. I’m focused on how hard we’re going to play and that we’re doing the best that we can in all areas. If we’re doing the best in the classroom, if we’re doing the best on our sprints and we’re treating our teammates the way we like to be treated—that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
The men’s season begins Nov. 5 at Mid-America Christian University at 7 p.m.
Paige Carswell is a junior majoring in journalism. You may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.