AZUSA, Calif. -- Some programs reload, while others rebuild. The best word to describe the upcoming Azusa Pacific’s men’s basketball season might be “recalibrate.”
The Cougars, who own the second-longest streak of consecutive 20-win seasons in all of college basketball at 20 years and counting, are not only moving to a brand-new conference and affiliation this year, they’re also the youngest team Azusa Pacific has put on the floor in the past two decades. Two-thirds of the roster has at least three years of eligibility remaining, including a group of eight freshmen (four redshirt and four true), along with four sophomores.
They may be young, but the roster is hardly devoid of talent. The lingering question is just how quickly head coach Justin Leslie’s youngsters can adapt to the new challenges that await them in NCAA Division II competition and the Pacific West Conference, which is the largest Division II conference in the West Region.
“We’re certainly talented, but we’re also inexperienced. There’s a lot of growth and maturity that has to take place, and we have to be intentional to make sure that development happens,” Leslie said. “I’m most excited to see how this group embraces the challenges we’re going to face. There’s a ton of unfamiliarity with what we’re going into, but we will tell the team to control the things we can control, which are attitude, effort, and preparation, and then we’ll see how things shake out.”
Not only does this year’s team have the highest concentration of youth since 1991, it’s also the first time during that stretch where the Cougars have gone two consecutive seasons while carrying more freshmen and sophomores than upperclassmen. Yet in Azusa Pacific’s history, there is little evidence to suggest that a youth movement might prevent the Cougars from maintaining its winning tradition.
The youngest team prior to this year in the 22 combined seasons under Leslie and his predecessor, Bill Odell, was the 2004-05 squad, which had its share of ups and downs during the year before making a late run that ended with an appearance in the program’s first-ever NAIA national title game.
“Entering the start of practice, what I’ve seen from this group in terms of their work ethic and level of intensity is much higher than it’s been in the past. We’ve had a really good fall in that respect,” Leslie said. “They’re understanding how we’re going to work and compete, and that’s encouraging. They will be physical and intense in the way they compete and defend, and those characteristics bode well for the foundation we’re going to build this year.”
Trying to determine expectations for such a young team is further complicated by the plan to redshirt the only two returning starters from last year’s 24-8 campaign, point guard Robert Sandoval and forward Tyler Monroe. That leaves Leslie with a group of seven returnees with game experience, plus four redshirt freshmen, along with five newcomers to fill out a starting lineup and establish roles and rotations.
To some, a continuation of 20-win seasons will be the barometer of success for Azusa Pacific in any given season. With all the surrounding uncertainty of a young roster competing in a brand-new league and affiliation, and having to do so against a schedule that features many of the top NCAA Division II programs within the West region, that’s not necessarily the standard Leslie will use to measure his program’s development this year.
“A successful season will be getting better each day, where at the end of each day, each week, and each month, we can honestly look at ourselves and know that we’ve made significant progress,” Leslie explains. “It entails us getting closer as a team and being supportive of each other. We all have to be there to pick each other up when necessary.”
The majority of Azusa Pacific’s returning experience is at the guard position, which includes the Cougars’ top returning scorer, senior B.J. Porter, who was one of seven players on last year’s squad who averaged at least eight points per game (8.8).
“B.J. had a really good spring, and he’s getting better at playing without the ball and he’s able to do more than just be a spot-up jump shooter,” Leslie said. “His spring has carried over into summer and fall, and he’s poised to have a good senior year for us and be a more complete player.
He is joined by sophomore Kevin Stafford, who played in 27 games and averaged 2.1 points, and senior Justin Jones, a former two-sport athlete who played in 22 games last year after joining the team late to complete his football eligibility.
“Justin has never had the chance to just focus on basketball before, and he had a really good summer in developing his body to where he can take advantage of his quickness,” Leslie said. “He’s also stronger so can be a game-changer defensively, and he’ll bring a different dimension with that game-breaking speed and quickness at the point guard spot.”
Porter and Stafford were the team’s top two shooters in three-point percentage, with Porter hitting 65-of-160 (41 percent) of his three-pointers while Stafford made 16-of-42 (38 percent) from beyond the arc. With a year of live-game experience and a full offseason dedicated to training solely for basketball, Jones will likely shoulder a much larger load in the rotation at point guard than he did in his experience off the bench a year ago. Sophomore Tyler Goldston also figures into the mix after playing in two games last year, and Lydell Cardwell and Miller Brown return from redshirt campaigns.
“We have a lot of young guys, and it’s very competitive out there,” Leslie said. “Over the next several weeks, someone is going to emerge and help contribute at one of those perimeter spots. All of them have different skill sets that they bring to the table, and over the course of these next couple weeks of practice and scrimmages, we’ll have an idea of how those things line up with what this team needs.”
Leading the list of newcomers is sophomore transfer Troy Leaf, who joins Azusa Pacific from UC Santa Barbara, where he played in 29 games during the 2010-11 season in which the Gauchos earned an NCAA Tournament appearance. Leaf, who finished his prep career as San Diego County’s all-time leading scorer with 3,318 points at Foothills Christian High School, averaged over nine minutes a game for the Gauchos, scoring 2.2 points per game although he averaged 4.7 points over the final seven games as UC Santa Barbara made its postseason run.
“Troy comes in here with big expectations and a bulls-eye on his back as a highly-recruited kid to our level,” Leslie said. “He will get a lot of attention from other teams, but he’s a very talented player with an unbelievable work ethic, and he’s working very hard to be consistent and make a big impact for us this year.”
The other newcomers to the backcourt are true freshmen Nick Price and Clay Ragsdale. Price joins the Cougars following a standout prep career in the Seattle area, where he led Issaquah High School in scoring three consecutive years and was named to the All-Seattle area first team. Ragsdale, who hails from Brea, Calif., played at Corona del Mar High School, where he was named Pacific Coast League MVP during an undefeated league championship season, and he was a two-time All-CIF honoree while leading his team to consecutive CIF quarterfinal appearances.
While only three players in the frontcourt enter the year with game experience, Azusa Pacific’s young forwards are talented and eager to get a taste of the college game. The only returning player on the roster with any starting experience is Andy Jones, who started four times and played in 27 games as a redshirt freshman last year. He averaged 2.0 points and 1.7 rebounds while playing about 10 minutes per game, and he is likely to see an expanded role this season.
The 6-foot-5 Jones is one of three players listed as forwards whose game involves a variety of roles and responsibilities that are part-guard, part-big man. Joining him at a position dubbed by Leslie as the “tweeners” are Sharif Watson and Jared Zoller, who both redshirted a year ago and will have a pivotal role in the Cougar system. Watson stands 6-foot-6 and Zoller registers 6-foot-5, and combined with Jones, the trio adds versatility, range, length, and quickness at both ends of the floor.
“The way we play is tailored to the ‘tweeners’ – all three can make a big impact for us,” Leslie explained. “Those three are keys to the team with their versatility, because they can all guard and play on the perimeter; at the same time, because of their length and athleticism, they may play in the forward spot. All three are developing offensively, and they will be a big key for us.”
Junior Christian Katuala has played in 64 games over two seasons, with a redshirt year in between, and his style of play embraces his ability to do the “dirty work” of basketball. He’s a fierce competitor who loves to battle underneath the basket for rebounds, loose balls, and any other duty his team can use to win basketball games. Senior Matt McHugh has seen action in 15 games over the past two years, and his steady presence also helps provide leadership for the squad.
“While unorthodox, Christian is very effective taking bigger players out of their games. He doesn’t mind if someone has a few extra pounds or extra inches on him, because the physicality of how he plays is what we need on this team to have a physical presence and intensity on the court,” Leslie said. “The rest of his game is still developing, but he can go out there and be comfortable and understand what he’s trying to do. That familiarity should serve him well to allow him to be a calming influence on the rest of the team.”
The Cougars also added a pair of versatile big men who will also figure into the rotation for minutes as true freshmen. At 6-foot-8 and 205 pounds, Mercer Island, Wash. native Brian Miller is the tallest player on the roster, while Will Ward has a solid 6-foot-6, 280-pound frame that makes him an imposing physical presence inside.
“I’m really pleased with where the two freshman are, and they’re barely scratching the surface of where they’re going to be in a few months,” Leslie said. “They have great attitudes, and they’re going to have to help us this year and get that experience on the fly. In the long term, these are guys who are going to be impact players in the PacWest. They’re skilled and intelligent, and when you couple that with their talent and attitudes, those two are going to be poised for some big things.”
Azusa Pacific certainly isn’t tip-toeing into NCAA competition. The Cougars take on some of the best programs within the West region, starting with a season-opening trip to Seattle to take on Central Washington and Seattle Pacific. First up is one of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s most consistently successful programs in Central Washington, which has posted seven straight winning seasons and was 26-4 as recently as two years ago. What follows the very next day is a matchup with Seattle Pacific, a program that owns the longest current NCAA Division II playoff streak with eight consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
The Cougars take on another GNAC foe in the Nov. 16 home opener, hosting Northwest Nazarene before taking on Young Harris College the day after Thanksgiving (Nov. 23). Young Harris is an NCAA Division II Peach Belt Conference program which is on the same NCAA membership calendar as Azusa Pacific by entering Year Two of the three-year transition.
“December will give us a great indication of where we’re at, because we’re playing arguably one of the toughest schedules in the West Region,” Leslie said. “We haven’t padded the schedule with teams with aren’t going to test us. We want to compete with the best in the West Region, and we’re going to schedule that way because we want to make sure we understand the reality of where we are and compete accordingly. Our first four games are going to be terribly challenging and difficult – there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but we need those games so we can be battle-tested and ready for our first PacWest game.”
That takes the Cougars into December, where they’ll open up Pacific West Conference play with a Dec. 1 visit to Point Loma, a fellow first-year PacWest program which is coming off a 21-10 season and NAIA National Tournament appearance. Less than a week later, it’s another visit to a former Golden State Athletic Conference rival, with a Dec. 7 clash against Biola, which has averaged 28 wins per year over the past three seasons while making three consecutive NAIA quarterfinals appearances.
Azusa Pacific was also selected to participate in the Coyote Holiday Classic, a two-day event (Dec. 17-18) hosted by Cal State San Bernardino at the 9,500-seat Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif. The Cougars’ opponents are Cal State Dominguez Hills and Cal State San Bernardino, which were both selected by conference coaches in the top-five of the California Collegiate Athletic Association preseason poll.
“How we’re playing in December will define how our season will go,” Leslie said. “We’ll have a long way to go from there to hopefully play our best basketball in February, but if we’re ready to be successful in December, I think that will bode well for the rest of the season.”
The Cougars wrap up the non-conference portion of the schedule by hosting South Dakota School of Mines, a program with four consecutive winning seasons which is also involved in the NCAA Division II membership process.
The PacWest schedule resumes with three more home games within the first two weeks of January. After that, the Cougars are back on the road for eight of their next 12 games before closing out the year at home against California Baptist and Grand Canyon. The 14-member PacWest has an unbalanced conference schedule, with Azusa Pacific taking on three of last year’s top-four programs twice (Dixie State, Grand Canyon, California Baptist), as well as two games against fellow conference newcomers Point Loma and Fresno Pacific.