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Excitement was building and expectations soaring on Championship Drive.
With the Nov. 9 season opener just days away, the Barton College men’s basketball team eagerly awaited to test the merits of a roster composed of a whopping 16 returnees and three walk-on freshmen.
Buoyed by a productive scrimmage outing against Chowan University, veteran head coach Ron Lievense considered everything in place.
Why wouldn’t he?
Every point and within 0.4 of every rebound returns from a 2017-18 team that compiled a 17-13 record, finished third in the NCAA Division II Conference Carolinas regular season with a 12-6 showing and reached the semifinals of the conference tournament.
The Bulldogs turned heads to the point, in the preseason poll of the head coaches, they were projected to share conference supremacy with King University. For the second straight year, Barton deadlocked for the top spot in the balloting.
Then, it happened.
Lievense, beginning his 31st season at the helm, announced Tuesday morning that star 6-foot-6, 245-pound junior Isaiah Buck-Lowman, a huge inside presence, will be lost for at least eight weeks with a knee injury that will require surgery.
Buck-Lowman averaged 13.5 points and 5.7 rebounds in 2017-18 and earned All-Conference Carolinas third-team acclaim.
“A little bit of adversity early,” Lievense commented. “A tough blow, a huge loss. If we had him, I would be a happy man right now.”
But the mood is not unhappy. The commitment remains to elevate defensive efficiency and rebounding and pursue the goal of a conference championship in a league where Lievense and Joel Zimmerman, promoted to associate head coach, believe King, archrival University of Mount Olive, Emmanuel College, Limestone College and defending champion Lees-McRae are capable of ruling.
“We have a great group of young men,” Lievense hailed, “and we do have a lot of very talented young men. I am really excited about this team; I love this team. It’s a fun group to work with and watch play.”
Added Zimmerman, in his ninth season: “It’s a fun group to go to work with every single day.”
From the start, the Bulldogs will turn to the trio of 6-5 senior Bobby Stenborg, 6-1 junior Michael Boykin and 6-3 junior Jeff Gordon.
Stenborg was named to the all-conference first team a season ago in producing a team-high 16.7 points and 5.9 rebounds. Boykin contributed 12.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest. Gordon added 11.3 points and 4.9 rebounds. Boykin reigned as the league freshman of the year in 2016-17.
“Stenborg is playing really well,” Lievense observed. “He plays so hard — he’s blue collar. Boykin was hurt all last year and he’s healthier. Gordon has been solid.
Either senior Zach Grant or 6-2 junior Matt Woods will run the point. They will also form a backcourt tandem at times. Grant netted nearly eight points per game last season and Woods nearly seven.
“They play well together,” Lievense noted.
With Buck-Lowman shelved, the proverbial door is open for 6-8 sophomore Blake Burdack, 6-7 senior Chris Cook, 6-5 sophomore Isaiah Reddish, an excellent leaper; 6-3 sophomore Jake Kakar and 6-3 sophomore David Campbell to step up.
Among this group, Burdack, from Melbourne, Australia, managed 3.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per outing, while Reddish’s norms were 2.9 points and 4.7 rebounds.
Lievense indicated Buck-Lowman will be replaced “by committee.”
Burdack’s play encourages the coaching staff, and Lievense describes Reddish as an “unbelievable athlete.”
“Kakar is doing a good job,” Lievense added. “Campbell has come back better, and Cook must increase his role.”
“We have a lot of tools. They have to play together and step in.”
Lievense mentions that Shemar Hudson, a redshirt sophomore from Hunt High, has returned an improved player. The freshman trio includes 6-2 Eli Batts of Charles B. Aycock High.
Fans need not expect a dominant starting five this season.
“We have eight guys in the rotation,” Lievense said. “It will vary; those eight are pretty equal. We will probably play a lot of ‘small ball.’ But we are OK with that; we’ve done that for the last 14-15 years.”
The veteran head coach rates an offense that scored at a clip of 84.2 points per game last season as efficient. The Bulldogs topped the conference in 3-point shooting at 40.4-percent accuracy.
But yielding 82-plus points per tilt and a norm of 37.1 rebounds disappointed. Defense and rebounding are the staples of Lievense-coached teams.
“Defense is where we weren’t as strong,” he reviewed. “Two-thirds of our practices are devoted to defense and rebounding. We are hoping we get the carry-over this year. We’ve got guys that can defend.”
Barton will be sternly tested before the arrival of conference play. Seven opponents played in the NCAA Division II tournament last year. Georgia Southwestern, Augusta, UNC Pembroke and Clayton State are considered in the top Peach Belt Conference echelon, and Virginia State and Shaw University are mentioned among the top Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association teams.
The conference is without — as Lievense expressed — “easy outs.”
“We have to continue to grow and take pride in stopping people,” Zimmerman challenged. “We were in a really young league last year. There are a lot of good young players returning.”
ABOUT THOSE GOALS
“The goal is to win the conference,” Lievense added. “We are always setting high goals and aspirations. The guys certainly work hard enough in practice to be successful.
“To be a championship team, we’ve got to rebound and play defense better — we’ve GOT to do that. If we want to win championships, that’s where we’ve got to grow.”