WINONA LAKE – The Grace College men’s basketball team enters the 2012-13 campaign with high expectations along with several question marks.
The NAIA Top 25 Preseason Poll has the Lancers ranked at No. 8 to kick off the season as a result of their tremendous success in recent years. Grace has made four trips in five years to the NAIA National Championships.
The Lancers finished last season with a 24-8 record, earning a share of the Crossroads League regular-season title as well as winning the postseason league tournament.
But Grace will have to replace the loss of Second Team All-League performer Duke Johnson and two other starting players who graduated last spring (Jacob Peattie, Dayton Merrell).
Head coach Jim Kessler has a plethora of talented options at his fingertips this season. The issue may be figuring out which combination to use.
“We have a lot of different pieces this year – as much as any other year,” Kessler said. “This team is more like chess. Which team do I play now? Do I play a knight or bishop? Some years we know exactly what we’ll do before the year. This year, we have great potential. If everybody does their business, this could be a really good team.”
Leading Grace’s returning players are a trio of senior guards. Bruce Grimm Jr. highlights that group as the leading scorer last year. Grimm’s 18.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game earned honorable mention status for NAIA All-American to go along with First Team All-League honors.
Elliot Smith (8.8 ppg) and Lee Ross will provide steady ball handling, perimeter shooting and tenacious defense in Grace’s backcourt.
Grace’s offense will rely on significant guard production and figures to be a more athletic, fluid attack than in previous years.
“We’ll probably be a little more perimeter-oriented than we have in some years,” Kessler explained. “We need to shoot it well, but we still want to have a post presence. The last several years, we dominated in the lane. Those players are still unproven at this point, but they will develop over time.”
One important piece to balance Grace’s attack is junior Greg Miller. The 6-foot-6 forward is a versatile player who has the ability to stretch the defense with his 3-point shooting or collect points from the low post.
Miller will be joined up front by senior Tannan Peters (51 percent field goals), junior Dennis Williams (56 percent), junior Jared Treadway and sophomore 7-foot-1 center Adrian Makolli.
Other key contributors include Karl Columbus and Niko Read, who both had strong seasons during their freshman campaigns, as well as a number of freshmen.
One freshman who has impressed in early workouts is Norwell High School’s Kyle Fillman. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 13 rebounds per game during his senior season and has been one of Grace’s top rebounders in preseason work.
Caleb Featherston is a 6-foot-3 guard with “loads of upside at the small forward position,” according to Kessler. Brandon Vanderhegghen comes to Grace from a quality Mishawaka High School program and is a fundamentally sound player who can play either the shooting guard or small forward positions.
The Lancers must navigate their way through a stiff nonleague schedule before facing the rigors of the Crossroads League season. The CL placed three teams (No. 4 Indiana Wesleyan, No. 21 Spring Arbor) in the national preseason poll with one other team (St. Francis) receiving votes.
“We won’t start out as good as we can be. We won’t peak early. It’ll be a journey with a long season. We can’t get too high or too low or that’d be a mistake,” Kessler said. “Our goal is to steadily improve so by the time it’s February, we are in the top of the league. I would strongly suspect that we will be a better team in January, February than in November, December.”
Grace kicks off its season with a homecoming game on Nov. 3. The Lancers will welcome Northland International to the Orthopaedic Capital Center for a 3 p.m. tipoff.