STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON
Ray Giacoletti moved into the Knapp Center as the new men’s basketball coach in the spring of 2013. Now with a team built to his liking, he’s made the 7,152-seat house on Forest Avenue his home.
Giacoletti told reporters at Drake’s annual media Monday that the Bulldogs were his team the moment he was hired two-and-a-half years ago. That is absolutely true, but his first team was made up mostly of players he didn’t recruit.
That 2013-14 team, led by Richard Carter and his 16.6 points per game, went 15-16. Last year, Giacoletti brought in five freshmen to continue the rebuilding and the Bulldogs went 9-22.
Now it’s the start of year three. It’s the unofficial checkpoint to evaluate a new coach’s progress after he’s had the time to construct the team and install his system. Giacoletti recruited 13 of the 14 players on the 2015-16 roster. The team is now truly his, and he’s confident.
“I think you will see a big jump with this team, just talent level alone,” he said.
It’s a young roster, featuring 11 players who are redshirt sophomores or younger, so it’s unlikely Drake will compete for a Missouri Valley Conference title this season. Giacoletti took the middle ground: Expect improvement, but a high finish in the MVC could still be a year away.
“I think, right now, we make a huge jump in year three,” he said. “And, I think, then moving into year four, we can start talking about getting into the upper third, and when you do that, you give yourself a chance to compete for championships.
“I’m not saying we can’t do that now, but there’s a slow, correct progression that it takes. You’ve got to walk before you run.”
The basis of the transition to long-term improvement will be managing the young roster. Giacoletti, who has yet to decide a starting five, can experiment with an interesting mix of old, new and semi-new.
Providing the experience component are three starters from last year’s seventh-place team: Reed Timmer, Jacob Enevold Jensen and Karl Madison.
Timmer, the point guard who led the Bulldogs in scoring as a freshman in 2014 (11.5 points per game), is expected to run the offense that averaged a paltry 59.5 points per game last season.
“Instead of being individually oriented, we want to be team-oriented, get the best shot that we can get every time down the floor instead of taking the ball individually and jacking up a shot,” said Timmer, who was named to the MVC All-Freshman team.
Enevold, a 7-foot center from Denmark, is the only true junior on the roster. He averaged 8.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in his sophomore campaign. He is one of four Bulldogs who measure 6-10 or higher.
Madison is the lone holdover form the Mike Phelps era. After missing his freshman and redshirt sophomore seasons because of injury, he is, in basketball terms, a sixth-year senior, taking graduate courses in public administration.
“I’m really fortunate to get my sixth year, to play a full four years of college basketball and get some education along the way,” Madison said.
The four true freshmen will likely start their careers on the bench, filling in where they’re needed. At the very least they’ll provide size; each of them is 6-6 or taller.
“I guess our role is kind of just finishing the puzzle,” forward Billy Wampler said. “The freshman class this year is really talented, and so we’ll be able to provide some extra talent.”
Giacoletti had praise for his other 7-footer, freshman Dominik Olejniczak from Tourn, Poland. He called Olejniczak a “freak of nature,” saying, “He probably has as high a ceiling as anybody I’ve coached.”
The Bulldogs will also get help from some familiar faces who will get to see game action after sitting last season. Big Ten transfers Kale Abrahamson and Graham Woodward, from Northwestern and Penn State, respectively, finally get to put on game jerseys.
“It’s been one of those things where you’re with these guys all the time, you’re in the locker room with them,” said Abrahamson, who is from West Des Moines. “I was on the bench with them last year, but I never got to experience that bond that you get from playing on the court, and I think we’re going to make some really special memories.”
When you add up the mix of returning players, freshmen and transfers, you get something that was absent during Giacoletti’s first two years: depth.
“Every day we have someone across from us that’s trying to get us better, trying to compete for time, and we do that in hopes that we all get better,” Timmer said.
Even with Wichita State as the heavy — if not unanimous — preseason MVC favorite this season, the Bulldogs’ expectations are to jump a few spots in the standings. Coming to Drake last season, Timmer knew he was in for a rebuilding year. Now it’s different.
“We have the capability,” he said. “We have the tools now to make a big leap and I think we’ll be able to do that. It’s just a cool dynamic to be able to have an expectation like that now.”