Photos by Adam Rogan
BY ADAM ROGAN
“There’s no better time than right now,” Drake Men’s Basketball head coach Ray Giacoletti said at the team’s annual media day on Oct. 6. “The (Missouri Valley Conference) is wide open. There’s no better time for us as a program to take a step forward.”
Giacoletti, primed to start his fourth year at Drake, and the Bulldogs team fielded questions from the press in the Paul Morrison Room and Shivers Basketball Facility to give a preseason taste of what can be expected from Drake in 2016-17.
After finishing dead last in the MVC last season with an overall record of 7-24, a more experienced Drake squad has brought in several new pieces that could help the Bulldogs finish above .500 for the first time since 2011-12.
Big shoes to fill
The biggest story over the offseason was the departure of 7-footer Domink Olejniczak. He started the final eight games of his freshman season last year, but transferred in May to the University of Mississippi, more commonly known as “Ole Miss.” He averaged 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game during his eight starts.
Although the offense may suffer without Olejniczak, the defense could see improvement.
“(Olejniczak) was not a great defender,” Giacoletti said. “His strength was scoring the basketball, and so we’ll be better defensively … (Forwards) Kory (Kuentsling) and Nick McGlynn have more of a defensive mindset.”
After playing as a freshman in 2014-15, the 6-foot-11 Kuentsling sat out last season but will be back in 2016-17 as a redshirt-sophomore. Giacoletti sees him becoming a major player in Drake’s rotation for his high basketball IQ, team-focused mindset and ability to score in the post.
“Kory Kuenstling might be the biggest surprise of anybody on this team,” Giacoletti said. “People will be excited to see how his body has changed. I can see how he’s changed mentally. He’s our best talker of the big guys.”
The Bulldogs also acquired junior T.J. Thomas in the offseason, a 6-foot-8 forward whom Giacoletti praised for his work ethic, blocking ability and athletic prowess. Giacoletti mentioned that Thomas could be “a big help to our program” in terms of offensive rebounding, an area where Drake ranked eighth of 10 in the MVC.
“We’re probably deeper in the big spots than any place else,” Giacoletti said.
The main responsibility of filling Olejniczak’s shoes will fall on Drake’s only remaining 7-footer, senior Jacob Enevold.
As Olejniczak improved last season, Enevold floundered.
After starting the season with 6.3 rebounds per game, Enevold finished with an average below five. His scoring slipped similarly. He was also averaging 6.1 points per game on Jan. 17, but had dropped down to 5.0 a month and a half later.
Part of this could be blamed on sacrificing minutes to give Olejniczak more playtime, but some also fell on Enevold’s preparedness.
Enevold saw a sport psychologist over the summer to help correct and prevent some of his mental mistakes and nerves.
“My attitude is always good. Obviously, I want to play good every game,” Enevold said. “The more I think about (the game) the more tense I’m going to be. … The mind is the most powerful thing. … Just getting into the right mindset, and it’s harder than it seems.”
Defense looks to improve
Last season, the Bulldogs allowed the most points in conference play and recorded the fewest steals. To compensate, Giacoletti plans to employ a defense that will switch between zone and man more often in order to keep opponents “off-balance.”
“How this team gets better is at the defensive end,” Giacoletti said. “That’s where we have the most room to get better at.”
“I think that’s important, just having ball pressure kind of disrupts the other team’s offense,” Woodward said. “I think that’s something I can really bring to the table … Increasing that this year can help us tremendously.”
New guard brings options with experience
Besides more depth in the post, Drake’s guards will be adjusting to a new rotation. Junior De’Antae McMurray transferred in from Southwestern Illinois College and is expecting to see significant playtime in his first season as a Bulldog.
McMurray comes in with a reputation of being a good distributor with a solid jump shot. As a sophomore at SWIC, he averaged 11.5 points, 5.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game on a team that finished 27-6. With experience on a winning college team, McMurray could prove instrumental in shifting Drake’s seasonal momentum in a positive direction.
“My biggest thing is getting people involved, getting my teammates involved in the game,” McMurray said. “Passing the ball is probably my biggest thing.”
McMurray will most likely split time with Woodward at the point guard position, but nothing is locked in yet with the start of the season still a month away.
As for who else will round out the rest of the starting five, Giacoletti said, “It’s open competition.”
“It’s always great when you have competition in practice,” Woodward added. “We’re all able guards and we can all help the team in different sorts of ways.”
Timmer remains among the best in fluctuating MVC
One thing that is essentially guaranteed will be the contribution of junior guard Reed Timmer. With the graduation of Evansville’s D.J. Balentine and Southern Illinois’ Anthony Beane, Timmer’s 16.8 PPG in 2015-16 makes him the best scorer left in the conference. He is also the 19th player in Drake history to score more than 500 points in a season.
Besides Balentine and Beane, the MVC lost an excess of talent last season.
“Nine of the (MVC’s) top 10 players last year are gone,” Giacoletti said. “…There’s going to be opportunities that the league presents with a lot of guys being gone.”
Drake, on the other hand, has eight players who averaged 10 or more minutes per game last season, six of whom recorded at least one start.
The season tips off on Nov. 11 when the Bulldogs host the University of South Dakota in the Knapp Center.