A senior-driven Hope College men’s basketball team is ready to create a 2015-16 season to remember.
Five seniors are leading the Flying Dutchmen this season, head coach Greg Mitchell said: co-captains Brock Benson and Ben Gardner, Alex Eidson, Sam Otto and Stephen Wittenbach.
“The ceiling is high with the returning veterans we have,” Mitchell said. “We have five great seniors playing their last basketball at Hope College. When that’s the case, typically you have a sense of immediacy and how guys want to take care of things right now because that’s it.”
Hope tips off the 2015-16 season this weekend with two games in Wisconsin. The Flying Dutchmen, ranked No. 16 in the preseason D3Hoops.com poll, plays at Wisconsin-LaCrosse on Friday and reigning national champion and ninth-ranked Wisconsin-Stevens Point on Saturday.
Hope is coming off an 18-9 season in Mitchell’s debut as head coach that included a runner-up finish in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Tournament. The Flying Dutchmen lost to Calvin in the closing seconds of the title game after leading for most of the game.
Last season’s disappointing finish provided ample motivation this offseason that already is paying dividends on the court, Mitchell said.
“We have been in a sense been able to pick up where we left off,” said Mitchell, whose team returns 13 players after graduating just one senior: reserve guard Corey McMahon.
“I think what’s most significant about the seniors is the work ethic they put into themselves individually in the offseason. I think everybody came in in better shape with a great resolve, especially with the way things ended last season. I’m real excited for kind of that commitment to this season.”
Three of Hope’s returning seniors scored in double figures last season.
Benson led the Flying Dutchmen at 12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. The 6-8 center from Willowbrook, Illinois (Hinsdale South HS) ranked sixth in the MIAA and third in rebounding. He also led the league with a 64.2 field-goal percentage en route to All-MIAA First Team honors.
Gardner chipped in 11.6 points and tied for third at 3.1 assists per game. The 6-0 guard from Carmel, Indiana (Carmel HS) was an All-MIAA Second Team selection last season.
Eidson contributed 10.7 points per game. The 6-2 guard from Grand Haven, Michigan (Grand Haven HS) started 24 of 27 games.
Otto contributed 5.8 points per game off the bench last season. He is a 6-3 forward from Wheaton, Illinois (Wheaton North HS).
Wittenbach saw in action in 25 games in a reserve role. The 6-4 forward from Grand Rapids, Michigan (Forest Hills Central HS) contributed 3.4 points per game.
The five seniors lead a deep group of players, Mitchell said.
Junior Harrison Blackledge placed eighth in the MIAA in scoring at 12.7 points per game and eighth in rebounding at 5.3 to earn All-MIAA First Team recognition. The 6-6 forward from Canton, Ohio (Hoover HS) was fourth in field-goal percentage at 58.0 percent and eighth in foul shooting at 84.0 percent.
Junior point guard Chad Carlson of Rockford, Michigan (Rockford HS) is a returning starter for the Flying Dutchmen.
Other juniors back as contributors are 6-6 forward Keith Brushwyler of St. Joseph, Michigan (Stevensville-Lakeshore HS), 6-4 guard Zach Littleson of Rochester Hills, Michigan (Adams HS), 6-2 guard Mitchell O’Brien of Manteno, Illinois (Bishop McNamara HS), and 6-7 forward Cody Stuive of Hudsonville, Michigan (Hudsonville HS).
Junior Reece Dils is new to the team. The 5-11 guard from Saline, Michigan (Saline HS) is a transfer from Division II Ohio Dominican.
Two sophomore guards are expected to contribute as well: 6-2 Luke Dreyer of Zeeland, Michigan (Zeeland West HS) and 5-10 Dante Hawkins of Holland, Michigan (Holland HS).
“Our overall strength is our depth. We definitely have a group that can go deep,” Mitchell said. “We might not always know who’s going to lead us from night to night, but that’s a good problem to have as long as guys buy into that and understand that sometimes we have to sacrifice our individual accolades and abilities for the team. I think we do have (that understanding). That’s a credit to our seniors and to our captains.”
Hope opens the season with four games away from home.
The Flying Dutchmen debut at DeVos Fieldhouse on Dec. 4-5 with the Midwest Challenge that will bring games against Carthage, Wisconsin and Wheaton, Illinois.
Hope will host holiday tournaments on Dec. 21-22 with the Holland Sentinel/Russ DeVette Holiday Classic and on Dec. 29-30 with the RDV Sportsplex Tournament in Orlando, Florida.
The Flying Dutchmen begin their quest for a MIAA championship on Wednesday, Jan. 6 against Albion at DeVos Fieldhouse.