Before embarking upon a new season, coaches of good basketball programs frequently retread the rallying cry of “return and advance.” It means the coach wants his team to focus on getting back to the playoffs and going farther than it did the season before.
That’s not the case for Azusa Pacific’s Justin Leslie, and he’s the coach of California’s winningest college basketball program over the past 18 years. Instead, Leslie wants his team to “Return and get another tick on the clock,” because last March less than a second was all that kept Azusa Pacific from its first-ever national championship.
Marshall Johnson’s fade away jumper at the buzzer, an arching shot that caught nothing but net, needed an up-close television review for officials to determine that it didn’t count, that it came after the final horn sounded, that it wasn’t a game-winner as some had first hoped. Instead, it was just a footnote to Oklahoma Baptist’s 84-83 victory over the Cougars in the NAIA championship game in Kansas City, Mo.
So Leslie really doesn’t want to advance this year. His team can’t go any farther. It got to the national championship game. He just wants the Cougars to return to the title game, and if necessary, make sure they have that extra second needed to knock down a legitimate game-winner, because last year was a most painful way to end a season.
“Everybody has moved on, including me,” said Leslie referring to the memories of the 2010 NAIA championship game. “It hurt for awhile, but in the big picture it was a great season and we had a great run. All eyes are looking forward now.”
And well they should be.
Azusa Pacific returns 10 players from last year’s 28-10 team, including 4 starters. The roster is dotted with 9 seniors, including 5 four-year Cougars. Depth, experience, knowledge and skill are aplenty. Toss in a rather strong recruiting class, which includes a 6-foot-9 athletic center the likes that has eluded the Golden State Athletic Conference in seasons past, and it becomes crystal clear as to why Azusa Pacific is the nation’s top-ranked team in both preseason polls of Sporting News and the NAIA coaches.
“It’s an advantage having so many seniors,” said Leslie, “and some of them who won’t start for us would be all-conference caliber players at other schools. If last year taught these seniors anything, it validated my philosophy that basketball is about team success, not individual. It’s about serving your teammates, and the returners know that and understand it.”
In keeping with Leslie-style teams, this year’s Cougars will run the floor, be quick, and play in-your-face defense. What distinguishes them from his 4 previous squads is depth, and bundles of it. A year ago, because of injuries, Leslie employed 8 different starting line-ups, the most used by a Cougar coach in over 20 years, and it wreaked havoc on the team’s continuity and won-loss record. Not until Feb. 23 was Leslie finally able to use the starting line-up that he had envisioned from the start of the season, and that line-up did exactly what he expected – win. That Cougar quintet was 9-0 before it was dismantled again by injury heading into the semifinals of the NAIA Tournament.
High on the list of returning players are Johnson, a junior guard who collected All-GSAC first team recognition last year after averaging 12.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2 assists, senior center Reggie Owens, who earned NAIA All-Tournament honors with his 17.4 points and 8.8 rebounds clips while shooting 69-percent from the floor in 5 games in Kansas City, and senior guard Mike Caffese, who has averaged over 4 assists and 2 steals and fashioned one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the GSAC during his 88-game Cougar career.
With Caffese conducting the offense and igniting the defense, Johnson knocking down perimeter shots or slashing through the key for buckets, and Owens manning the block with outstanding post moves, Azusa Pacific has the ingredients to be very good.
“We’re going to force tempo at both ends of the floor,” said Leslie. “We’re more athletic and deeper. We’ve addressed deficiencies of last year’s team, particularly those that were exposed in the national championship game.”
On their way to last year’s NAIA title game, the Cougars led the nation in 3-point field goals made (296), and despite the graduation of All-American Dominique Johnson who alone canned 67 3-pointers, Leslie sees no slacking in the Cougars’ ability to knock down the 3-ball.
“If it’s there, we’ll take it,” said Leslie. “We have a lot of guys who can make threes and several others who have really improved their perimeter shooting skills.”
Johnson leads a host of Cougars who can knock down the perimeter shot, and his wisdom from experience should help him even more in his shot selection this year.
“Marshall is a third-year player in the program,” said Leslie. “He knows what I want, and oftentimes can finish my sentences during timeouts, at halftime or in the pre-game. He totally understands our system, and he has been through the battles of the GSAC and the NAIA. He gets it, and he knows what to do.”
Senior forward Danny Nugent, a projected starter last year until a blown knee in October wiped out his season, will have a powerful impact on the Cougar offense. The sharp-shooting Nugent averaged 21.3 points in 2009 at West Valley College, making 44 treys in 33 games. He was named one of California’s 100 top juco players and conference co-MVP for that year before signing with Azusa Pacific.
“We call him 'Danny Buckets,'” said Leslie with a smile. “He is super efficient and has an advanced feel for where to be and how to make baskets. He uses his body very well and is just very intuitive about the game.”
A shooter similar in style and range to Nugent is swingman Caleb Burgess, a senior who has played in 90 games the past 3 seasons. Last year, Burgess led the Cougars with 68 makes from the 3-point line and a .436 shooting clip at the arc while averaging 10.4 points in 37 games. Slowed at the outset of this season by arthroscopic knee surgery, Burgess should emerge as a key offensive weapon as he regains his strength and mobility.
“I think Caleb should be the best shooter in the league,” said Leslie. “He needs to break our school record this season. I don’t want him to be bashful with the ball in his hands.”
With his 36 treys of a year ago, redshirt sophomore James Staniland, who appeared in all but 1 game, is another experienced long range threat, and at 6-foot-7 he not only shoots over defenders but he poses significant match-up problems when he comes off the bench.
“James is an explosive scorer,” said Leslie. “When he’s hitting, he’ll be playing.”
Perhaps no Cougar embodies the look and character of this team better than guard David Stafford, a versatile, hard-working, smart and even-keeled fifth-year senior who has developed into a valuable asset at both ends of the court. Stafford has played in more games than any other current Cougar – 106 to be exact – and has played all 5 positions in his college tenure. He can knock down the 3 (he has 68 makes from the arc in his career), effectively dribble drive in the lane, and play a physical brand of ball at both ends of the court.
“Staff is our glue guy,” said Leslie. “Whatever is needed, whether on offense or defense, he can deliver. He is as versatile a guy as there is in the league. Defensively, he can guard a short quick guard to a center and everyone in between. He’s an all-around basketball player, and he gets it done. He can manage himself and those around him. His minutes will be up and down but his impact will still be big.”
With the talent and experience already in the fold and Nugent replacing Dominique Johnson in the attack, more than just a nucleus is already in place for Azusa Pacific to be considered a viable contender for the national crown. However, Leslie would never turn down another “difference maker,” especially one who calls him. De’Angelo Riley, who played with Owens and Dominique Johnson in junior college but spurned Leslie’s initial recruiting efforts in favor of a scholarship to NCAA Division I Ole Miss, wanted more playing time for his senior season and sought out Leslie after scoring 26 points in 17 games with the NIT semifinalist Rebels last year. So the 6-foot-9 Riley transferred to Azusa Pacific, giving the Cougars an athletic, mobile, shot-blocker and rebounder that is rare for GSAC teams but seen on other NAIA Fab Four teams year in and year out in Kansas City.
“Physically, I think De’Angleo is the most talented big man in the GSAC,” said Leslie. “He has a good motor and plays with a lot of energy. The question is how quick he can adapt to our schemes at both ends of the floor. As the year goes on I expect some really big things for him. He’s just a level of talent we don’t often see in our league.”
Together as 2009 sophomores, Riley and Owens led Southwest Tennessee Community College to a 25-4 record while combining for 24 points and 14 rebounds a game and shooting at a 53-percent pace. Their interior presence for Azusa Pacific will keep opposing defenses honest with an eye on the paint while having to defend the perimeter.
“We’re expecting big things from Reggie,” said Leslie. “There isn’t a more dynamic low-block scorer in the NAIA than Reggie. One-on-one, he cannot be guarded, and together with De’Angelo there, he’ll be even better.”
Last year, 7 players combined to miss 30 games due to injury and sickness. Determined not to allow physical ailments take such a significant toll on the progress and goals of the team, Leslie sought to stock the roster with quality back-ups, all of whom will push for key playing time, if not starting assignments.
Guards Dallas Rutherford, Robert Sandoval, and Nolan Abernathy add to the interchangeability of the Cougar backcourt. Rutherford, who comes over from Moorpark Community College, was a prolific scorer in high school, playing alongside current Philadelphia 76er guard Jrue Holiday at Campbell Hall High, where he averaged 19.1 points as a senior. Sandoval was an all-state guard at Clovis (Calif.) East High last year where he averaged 17 points, 5.8 assists and 3.8 steals. Abernathy was a 3-time all-league honoree and an All-CIF pick as a 2009 senior at Bonita High in La Verne, Calif., when he averaged 13 points, 5.2 assists and 3 steals.
While Rutherford’s offense is what has caught people’s attention in the past, it’s his defensive skills that may impress many this year. Sandoval is a crafty floor general and therefore the heir apparent to Caffese at the Cougar point, but he can also play a wing and is expected to see plenty of time in his first season. Abernathy is a blend of Rutherford and Sandoval, a terrific athlete who does a little bit of everything quite well.
“In terms of a freshman backcourt, Nolan and Robert is a dynamic pair,” said Leslie. “Either one of them can play with the ball in their hands, and they can play off the ball just as well. And Dallas could be the best defenders in the GSAC. He can handle the ball, shoot, get into the lane to distribute the ball, but we have a lot of guys who can do that. He’ll distinguish himself at the defensive end of the floor.”
Leslie has yet more experience at his disposal too. Senior guard Ashton Roberts, a quick player who has a vastly improved 3-point shot, has appeared in 69 games through 3 seasons in the program. His familiarity with the system and the GSAC will be invaluable as the Cougars enter into the rigors of conference play.
“We have a lot of interchangeable parts,” added Leslie. “We don’t have just a point, just a wing, just a power forward per se. We have a lot of guys who can play a lot of different positions, and we’re going to need everybody at different points during the season.”
Center Mason Maynard started 24 games last year, but the 6-foot-8 senior will be slowed at the outset of the season as he continues to rehab a broken foot suffered in the NAIA Tournament. When he becomes available, Maynard gives Azusa Pacific great depth and a quality option along the front behind Riley and Owens.
“Depth is no issue at any spot on this team,” said Leslie.
The third fifth-year senior in the program, center David Gantt understands Leslie’s scheme and offers an added shot-blocker, while redshirt freshman Matt McHugh gives the Cougars a burly body to throw at people around the basket.
Sophomore Christian Katuala is likely to redshirt the season as he recovers from knee surgery to repair an injury suffered last year. As a 17-year true-freshman last season, Katuala put together a manly effort at the NAIA Tournament as a reserve, averaging 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 5 games. However, unless unforeseen circumstances come upon the Cougar frontcourt, Katuala will likely use this year to add to his 6-foot-5, 235-pound growing frame.
Given the Cougars’ great depth on the bench, true-freshman Tyler Goldston and Andy Jones, both of whom have promising futures ahead of them, are destined to redshirt the season as they adjust to the college game.
“By season’s end this team could be considered among the best in school history,” said Leslie. “It has the talent. However, it’s a matter of how well they can come together as a unit, as a team, and then how well they can maintain their focus throughout the entire season. The season is long, and it will be hard at times, both for the individuals and the team. I want to win the GSAC, because if you can win this conference, you’ll be ready for everything that comes your way in March.”
Including, every second on the clock.