AZUSA, Calif. -- It won’t take long for Azusa Pacific to find out how well its adjustment to NCAA Division II competition is progressing.
The Cougars, who have been picked to finish fifth in the Pacific West Conference preseason coaches poll, open the season with back-to-back tests against a pair of quality Division II West Region opponents this weekend. After that, Azusa Pacific hosts Biola, the only non-NCAA opponent on the 2013-14 slate, in the continuation of the long-running rivalry series, which will be followed by two additional games against Division II in-region foes over Thanksgiving weekend.
The opening stretch is an early litmus test for the Cougars, who have spent the past two years developing a young, talented roster with on-the-job training during the program’s transition into NCAA and PacWest conference membership. The final year of that transition has arrived, and head coach Justin Leslie expects his young talent to translate last season’s hard knocks into the building blocks that develop Azusa Pacific into a consistent conference and regional title contender.
“Even though I still think we have a lot we need to learn about competing in the PacWest, we’re certainly capable and talented enough to beat anybody,” Leslie said. “We have to focus on the things we can control, which are our effort, preparation, and consistency. We want to challenge ourselves each day, not to beat any specific opponent, but to go out and see how good we can be.”
Leslie seems to have the ingredients in place to formulate a recipe for success, starting with the top returning scorer in the PacWest, junior guard Troy Leaf, who is a Preseason All-PacWest pick after earning all-conference first team recognition last year when he ranked second in the league in scoring (18.7 avg.).
Joining Leaf are two returning redshirts who were all-conference selections in 2012 before sitting out the Cougars’ inaugural PacWest campaign last year. Junior point guard Robert Sandoval resumes the point guard duties, joining Leaf to form what should be one of the most effective backcourt tandems in Division II’s West Region.
“You aren’t going to find many successful teams that don’t have good guard play,” Leslie said. “In past years, we’ve been solid, but I think this backcourt should be among our best in a while. Troy and Robert are veterans who understand how to compete consistently, and they really set the tone for the rest of the group and give us a great place to build from.”
Also back is six-foot-seven senior forward Tyler Monroe, an athletic, versatile big man whose strengths fit perfectly into the faster style of play Leslie intends to push this year.
“We’re going to be a team that can score,” Leslie said. “This team will change ends of the floor really quickly. We should have more opportunities in transition than we’ve had in our recent past, and it will be exciting for our players to play in that type of system.”
Leaf is a dynamic scorer who can create his own shot and get to the foul line while posing a dangerous threat from beyond the three-point line. He averaged 18.7 points per game, ranking second in the PacWest in scoring, and he is also a solid rebounding guard as he averaged 4.7 boards per game to go with 5.3 assists last season.
Sandoval averaged 8.4 points and 4.1 assists his sophomore year, earning All-Golden State Athletic Conference recognition after helping lead the Cougars to a 24-8 campaign in their final season before joining the PacWest. Sandoval started all 32 games that year, averaging a team-high 27.7 minutes per game as he rapidly developed into a court general who orchestrates and directs traffic at both ends of the floor.
“It’s great to have Robert back, because he makes everything run smoother,” Leslie said. “Not having him on the floor last year made us realize how much we missed him, and he has an opportunity to set the tone for the team and impose his will on the guards he faces this year.”
With Sandoval back to run the offense as the starting point guard, Leaf is able to move back to his natural role as a shooting guard who can pick his spots offensively and really focus on the strengths of his offensive game.
“Troy has always worked hard, but the difference between what he did last summer to this summer was his understanding of what that hark was for and how it could translate to what we do,” Leslie said. “The game has slowed down for him, and while he might have been asked to do a little too much last year, he will be able to be more successful this year because he can focus on what he does well.”
Junior Kevin Stafford is another seasoned guard who played in all 27 games a year ago, starting twice, and he was Azusa Pacific’s third-leading three-point shooter while averaging 5.3 points per game last year.
Sophomore LyDell Cardwell is now in his third year in the program after redshirting his first year and seeing limited playing time last season, and the six-foot-two shooting guard is poised for an expanded role in the Cougar backcourt. Sophomore Miller Brown returns from injury to provide further depth at the guard position.
One of three additions to the team this season is Bruce English, a six-foot-one, 195-pound junior transfer from Division I Loyola Marymount. English played in 43 games over two seasons at LMU, starting eight games and averaging 3.5 points as a sophomore in 2012-13. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining, which he will likely use after redshirt this season.
“We’re excited about adding Bruce and what he brings to the program,” Leslie said. “His quickness and athleticism at his position will make him a difference maker for us on both sides of the ball.”
Monroe, who redshirted the 2012-13 campaign after leading the Cougars in scoring (13.3 avg.) and rebounding (6.5 avg.) in 2011-12, returns for his senior year to lead a deep, versatile frontcourt.
“Tyler should be among the best big men in the PacWest,” Leslie said. “He will be someone who’s very hard to prepare for, because he might be one of the fastest end-to-end players in the league, and he knows how to finish.”
He is joined by two other senior big men in six-foot-five, 240-pound Christian Katuala and six-foot-six, 220-pound Bertram Hall. Katuala has the most game experience of any player on the roster, appearing in 91 games in three seasons of action including over half a season in a starting role last year. One of seven returning players on the roster who averaged between four and six points per game last season, he is a hard-nosed rebounder and defender who embraces his role as an intense, physical presence in the paint. Hall appeared in 17 games last season, averaging 4.2 points and 3.1 rebounds in a reserve role. He is another versatile big man who has a good understanding of his role within the Cougar system.
Four other forwards return with starting experience, led by junior Andy Jones along with the sophomore trio of Sharif Watson, Jared Zoller, and Will Ward. Jones has appeared in 54 games over the past two seasons, starting 18 times, and he averaged 4.1 points and was the team’s third-leading rebounds with a 4.1 rebounding average last season.
Watson started 20 of the 27 games he played as a redshirt freshman a year ago, and he finished the year as Azusa Pacific’s top shot-blocker averaging over a block per game to go with 5.3 scoring and 5.9 rebounding averages.
“It should be a fight between Sharif and Tyler for who’s going to lead the league in rebounding this year,” Leslie said. “Sharif is starting to get comfortable in who he is as a basketball player, and defensively he has the opportunity to be one of the best defenders and rebounders we’ve ever had. He can impact the game without a lot of offensive touches, and we provide the perfect system for him to take advantage of the intangibles he brings to the table.”
Zoller started 13 times as a redshirt freshman last year, averaging 5.6 points and 2.5 rebounds per game, while Ward was an impact true started nine times and played in all 27 games as a true freshman. Ward was the Cougars’ third-leading scorer last season at 6.0 points per game, and he also posted a rebounding average of 3.3.
Other than Ward, who plans to redshirt, the remaining group should all be counted on for time in the regular rotation. They’ll be joined by a pair of true freshmen from the Pacific Northwest. Corey Langerveld, the Washington State Class 2A Player of the Year out of Pullman, Wash., has quickly emerged by adapting his game to the college level, displaying a good feel for the game and understanding of how to use his strengths to contribute to the team. Austin Dyer is a six-foot-seven, 220-pound inside presence from Portland, Ore., who brings a great low-post game to the Cougars but will redshirt the season.
Following the initial five-game measuring stick against four programs from Division II’s West Region along with the rivalry game against Biola on Nov. 23, Azusa Pacific jumps right into PacWest play with the program’s first-ever visit to two of the conference’s Bay Area programs. The Cougars open up conference play with road games at Dominican and Notre Dame de Namur the first week of December, which is followed by a Dec. 16 home matchup with last year’s PacWest runner-up, Fresno Pacific.
The Cougars wrap up the non-conference schedule with a Dec. 18 matchup at home against Eastern New Mexico, which posted a .500 conference record in the Division II Lone Star Conference last year.
“Our non-conference schedule is pretty ambitious,” Leslie admitted. “We’re going to continue to schedule ambitiously in the future, because we want to put ourselves in position to not only win conference championships but also qualify for NCAA Tournaments. These are the high-caliber programs we have to face in order to put ourselves in position for long-term success in this region.”
The PacWest schedule continues in earnest after New Year’s, starting with the first two of five January home games when Azusa Pacific hosts Holy Names (Jan. 4) and Notre Dame de Namur (Jan. 6). The Cougars visit defending conference champion Dixie State on Saturday, Jan. 11, squeezing in a home game against Dominican (Jan. 14) and a road game at Point Loma (Jan. 17) before hosting the rematch with the defending PacWest champs on Monday, Jan. 20.
“I like the new 20-game conference schedule, because even though it isn’t truly balanced and even, this is about as close as you could hope,” Leslie said. “There are some parts that are more difficult than others, but you’re going to have a more even mix across the board.”
The Cougars then square off with California Baptist at home on Friday, Jan. 24, before going back to the island of O‘ahu for the second consecutive year for games against BYU-Hawaii, Hawai‘i Pacific, and Chaminade. When Azusa Pacific returns from the Hawaiian Islands, it heads back out on the road for the rematch with California Baptist in Riverside (Feb. 8).
“The stretch of mid- to late January, where we play Dixie State and California Baptist twice, and go to Hawai‘i is a stretch that will probably dictate the difference between finishing sixth and finishing first in the league,” Leslie said. “That difference is only going to be a couple of games, so that stretch will likely determine that order in the standings.”
The home schedule wraps up with four consecutive mid-February home games, and the Cougars end the campaign back in the Bay Area for visits to Academy of Art (Feb. 27) and Holy Names (March 1).
LIVE VIDEO STREAMING
All 12 of Azusa Pacific’s regular season home games will be streamed live online through Stretch Internet. Video streaming offerings also include all four games of the Cougar Classic, with live stats also available online for every game. The video streaming cost for each game is $7.95, and a full-season subscription provides the entire season of games at a discounted rate.