Jim Hayford knows he isn’t going to fool anyone who matters – like opposing Northwest Conference coaches, for instance – by downplaying the potential of his Whitworth University men’s basketball team.
So the Pirates’ ninth-year head coach has opted to be almost as candid with his own assessment of this year’s team as his players are optimistic about their postseason chances.
According to Hayford, who has led Whitworth to three straight appearances in the NCAA Division III tournament, his players have set the lofty goal of going deeper into this year’s postseason event than even the 2007-08 team that made it to the sectional semifinals or Sweet 16.
“That’s how 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds are talking right now, anyway” Hayford said. “But I do believe there is the potential for this to be one of our better teams, so their goals are not unrealistic from my own expectations.”
The optimism shared by Hayford and his players is rooted in the number of talented players – including first-team all-NWC guard David Riley – returning from last year’s team that finished 23-6, with three of those losses coming to unbeaten regular-season NWC champion Puget Sound, the team the Pirates defeated in the finals of the league tournament to earn their automatic berth in the NCAAs.
Riley, a 6-foot-5 junior wing, averaged a team-high 16.4 points per game and shot 46.7 percent (84 of 180) from 3-point range.
“David is a gifted scorer who can score in bunches,” Hayford said, noting that Riley scored 34 points in the first half of an 88-60 home win over Pacific Lutheran last winter. “He’s one of the two or three premiere returning players in our conference.”
Other returning starters include 6-8 senior center Nate Montgomery, who averaged 14.3 points and a team-best 6.9 rebounds last season, and 6-1 junior guard Clay Gebbers. Bo Gregg, a 6-5 forward who started most of the year, is also back.
The Pirates also have several newcomers who are expected to have immediate impacts, including 6-6 sophomore forward Jack Loofburrow, a former Big Nine Conference Player of the Year, who did not attend school last year after playing in 14 games as a redshirt freshman at Eastern Washington University in 2007-08.
Hayford said Loofburrow will be asked to man the power forward position left vacant by the graduation loss of Calvin Jurich.
The biggest graduation hole is at the point, where Hayford must find a replacement for four-year starter Ross Nakamura, who led the nation in assists-to-turnovers ratio last winter.
The young man brought in to trigger the Bucs’ offense is former North Central High School and Community Colleges of Spokane standout Eric Beal, a first-year senior transfer from Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., (Calif.), who was a backup at the point for the perennial NAIA power last season.
Beal will be playing for his fourth team and fifth different coach in five years, which is one reason Hayford feels he will comprehend and adapt to Whitworth’s system quickly.
“Just through pure basketball Darwinism, he had to figure out how to make style-of-play adjustments in a hurry,” said Haywood, who knows and greatly respects all of Beal’s former coaches. “So, I think he’s going to make another smooth transition for us here.”
When asked to compare Beal to the rock-steady Nakamura, Hayford added: “Ross was very steady, seldom flashy and always efficient.
Eric, on the other hand, will make a few more ‘Wow!’ passes and shots and be more of a scoring threat – but still very capable of having high assists games.”
Hayford expects to give Beal a freer rein than he gave Nakamura.
“So he’s probably going to have a few more turnovers than Ross,” Hayford said. “They’re obviously different players, but I don’t think we’re going to take a step backward with Eric.”
The Pirates, who are ranked 16th in the preseason D3hoops.com top-25 and favored by conference coaches to win this year’s regular-season NWC title open play Friday against 10th-ranked Wisconsin Stevens Point in the Puget Sound Tip Off Classic in Tacoma.
It’s a season opener that only a coach with a veteran team and high expectations would embrace.
“It’s going to be like going to the dentist without Novocain,” Hayford said of facing the Pointers, who still play the same kind of suffocating half-court defense and deliberate offense they did when former Wisconsin and Washington State head coach Dick Bennett was in charge.
“You’re going to have to work the shot clock, and you’re going to have to defend through what seems like a hundred screens on every possession.
“But the great thing about it is that if we’re fortunate enough to win, we’ll have national recognition right from the get-go.”