SAN ANTONIO (Oct. 10, 2016) – For over a month, the Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) Saints men's basketball team has worked behind closed doors, waking up at 6 a.m. for sprints and weight room sessions while the rest of the campus slept peacefully.
On Wednesday, Oct. 12 from 7-10 p.m., the Saints will give the public its first peek behind the curtain, introducing the team at the Second Annual Hoops Madness event.
Hoops Madness has become the unofficial kickoff to the season; a night of levity and relaxation between the Saints and their home crowd in Mabee Gymnasium before their intense, breakneck style of play meets the grind of the long regular season.
"We'll have a dunk contest, 3-point contest, plenty of gifts and free food," Head Coach Ryan Wall said. "I want everyone to come out, enjoy their time for the night and meet the Saints."
Introductions will be needed with turnover across more than half the roster this summer. Only six players return from last year's Elite 8 round of the Buffalo Funds-National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Division I Men's Basketball National Championship. It was the team's first appearance in the Elite 8, finishing ranked No. 13 nationally. Still, the Saints return with a good foundation led by Joe Jackson (SR/San Antonio, Texas), their leading scorer and rebounder, and starting point guard Darion Brown (JR/Alexandria, La.)—good enough for Massey Ratings to rank them fifth in NAIA Division I. The Red River Athletic Conference's first Preseason poll will be released on Oct. 24, and the first Coaches' Top 25 Preseason poll will be released on Oct. 25.
"We've got Joe [Jackson], who's a returning [NAIA] Second Team All-American; a two-time starting point guard [in Brown] who's returning and a solid core coming off the bench," Wall said. "We lost Christian Wood-Dvorak, who made us a lot tougher last year as a group, so this year we've got to find that."
The Saints added more speed and some size in the offseason and notably retained Wood-Dvorak in a coaching capacity alongside assistant coached Robert Ford and William Bell—turning the strength and conditioning program over to last year's team captain; but eight new faces is a potential hurdle for a team that thrives on inducing chaos with a well-coordinated press.
"We've got to come together because of the way we play," Wall said. "We press and run-and-gun for 40 minutes. If we have one person not on the same page, we give up layups and dunks."
Last year, the Saints finished second in the nation in steals per game (10.61) and fifth in 3-pointers per game (10.36), hitting 36.1 percent from behind the line. It's a high-variance style that was capable of making up for the team's relative lack of height. The proficiency at which they executed it—turning the sidelines into no-man's land for ball handlers, fluidly rotating behind their traps and taking care of the ball (first in the nation in turnover margin)—allowed the team to compete nationally despite finishing in the middle-of-the-pack in rebounds and field goal percentage defense in the Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC).
Another deep postseason run will depend on how quickly the team can incorporate new faces and skill sets into its tried-and-true system.
The Saints waste no time delving into steep competition, scheduling NCAA Division I schools Rice University (Conference USA) and Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi (Southland Conference) to start the year.
The season opens on the road on Nov. 5 in Houston against Rice University and sophomore point guard Marcus Evans, a shifty ball handler who finished second in Conference USA in scoring (21.5) and first in steals (2.2). The Saints then travel to Corpus Christi on Nov. 11 for their game against Texas A&M, who lost eight seniors, but return 6'8" Southland Conference MVP Rashawn Thomas. He averaged 16.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.
"We play the [NCAA Division I schools] early, so we'll figure out what we need to work on," Wall said. "We'll find out who are going to step up and play when their number is called because they're supposedly more talented than us and we have to rise to the occasion."
On Nov. 18 and 19, the Saints are on the road in Wichita Falls, Texas, for games against NCAA Division II schools Midwestern State (one of three teams in NCAA Division II to appear in the last eight championship tournaments) and Cameron University.
On Nov. 25 and 26, the Saints travel to Shawnee, Okla., to compete in the St. Gregory's University Tournament against Oklahoma City University and St. Gregory's University.
Conference play begins Dec. 9 at home against the University of St. Thomas with breaks in RRAC action on Dec. 19 to play Wayland Baptist University—a participant in last year's NAIA national championship tournament—at home and NCAA Division I University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg on Dec. 29.
Last year, four of the RRAC's 11 teams made the national tournament. RRAC Tournament champion Langston University visits OLLU on Feb. 9, and the Saints host LSU-Shreveport on Feb. 24. LSU-Alexandria, last year's RRAC regular season champion, on Feb. 25.
The RRAC tournament begins on March 2 and will be hosted by LSU-Alexandria.
The Saints have six returners, led by Jackson, the long-armed, sinewy 6'6" forward with a silky shooting touch. Jackson led the team in scoring last year, averaging 20.1 points per game on a hyper efficient 56.8 percent shooting from the field and 41.2 percent from the 3-point line to earn Second Team All-American, NAIA All-Tournament and RRAC All-Conference First Team Honors. He was also named the RRAC Newcomer of the Year.
OLLU's do-it-all forward also led the team in rebounds per game (9.7, ninth in the nation) and blocks per game (2.52, fourth in the nation).
"Joe Jackson is a returning senior who can do it all: shoot it, put it on the floor, play in the post or on the wing and bring the ball up sometimes," Wall said. "He's very skilled. He's got to become more of a leader to take this team where it needs to go."
Brown returns as the starting point guard, setting the tempo with his ability to press the ball handler and push the pace on offense. Brown led the team in assists per game (5.0, 12th in the nation) and steals per game (1.9, 15th in the nation).
"He's been the starting point guard since he arrived on campus," Wall said. "He's done a great job; we just need him to get more vocal on a continuous basis and become a leader."
The Saints also return Dilepso Blanco (SR/Passaic, N.J.), Dav'vin Hill (SR/Victoria, Texas), Brandell Collins (JR/San Angelo, Texas) and Kellen Sweetwyne (SR/Hayward, Calif.). Michael Hagan-Daniel (SR/Boulder, Colo.), who played in the 2014-2015 season for the Saints and red-shirted last season, will return, as well.
The Saints addressed some of their size concerns this summer with the signing of 6'8" and 220-pound Joshua Santos (JR/London, England). Last year, Santos averaged 11.3 points and 7.0 rebounds in 25.8 minutes per game for the Cincinnati State Surge of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), hitting 40.4 percent from behind the 3-point line.
His size and ability to space the floor should be a welcome addition provided the Saints find a way to incorporate his skill set into their fast-paced system.
"[Santos] can shoot it and put in on the floor, he's very skilled," Wall said. "We just need to get him more active."
Wall also added Maurice Jackson (JR/Belvidere, Ill.), a 5'9" guard out of Rock Valley College in the NJCAA to bolster the backcourt depth. Jackson averaged 10 points, 3.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game on 46.7 shooting from the field (44.0 percent from behind the 3-point line) in 23.2 minutes per game.
"He's a very quick point guard who can push the offense in our up-tempo style," Wall said.
The Saints also added P.J. Escobar (JR/San Antonio, Texas), P.J. Medrano (FR/San Antonio, Texas), Aaron Sancho (FR/San Antonio, Texas), Marko Tutunovic (FR/Cacak, Serbia) and Allen Wilcher (SR/Gary, Ind.).
On Oct. 12, fans will have an opportunity to meet new faces and see familiar ones in new roles for the first time. Nov. 5 begins the process of this team figuring each other out on the court. From the preparation going into this past month, the only certainty is this won't be a team that's outworked.
Our Lady of the Lake University is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2016-2017 as a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The University began competing in the NAIA in men's soccer and volleyball in 2007. A year later, they added women's soccer, golf and tennis. In 2009, the Saints began competing in cross-country, softball and basketball. In 2014, OLLU added two more sports — baseball and track and field. There are now 13 intercollegiate athletic teams at OLLU. All athletic alumni and up to two family members will receive free admission to basketball and volleyball games throughout the season. Baseball is not included in this special offer. All other home games are free and open to the public.