No seniors but plenty of talent, expectations for Bulldogs

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While he doesn’t remember a time when he had no seniors on the roster in his previous 21 seasons as Barton College men’s basketball head coach, Ron Lievense has one message for his 2017-18 Bulldogs.

“I’m excited about this young group,” he said. “One thing that we’ve been telling them is that I don’t want them to have any excuses because we don’t have any seniors. It is what it is. We’re not going to give any excuses because we don’t have any seniors, we’re just going to go out there and get better every day.”

The lack of seniors didn’t seem to bother Lievense’s fellow Conference Carolinas coaches, who voted the Bulldogs and Limestone College as the NCAA Division II league’s co-favorites for the season. Barton is coming off a 20-10 season in 2016-17 in which the Bulldogs went 14-6 and finished third in Conference Carolinas. Barton, which received five votes in the NABC Preseason Div. II poll, earned a No. 6 ranking in the D2SIDA Southeast Region Preseason poll.

The season starts in a hurry for the Bulldogs, beginning Friday and Saturday against Peach Belt Conference powers Young Harris and Augusta (No. 4 in Southeast preseason poll) in Barton’s annual 45-Second Classic. Those of the first of six games in 12 days for Barton, which has had scrimmage games against Chowan and Div. I defending national champion North Carolina.

“We’re going to have a learning curve — and that’s OK — because we’re only going to get better,” said Lievense, who will count on veteran assistant coach Joel Zimmerman again as well as staff newcomer Breven Bell. “We’re going to throw them in the frying pan and we’re going to let them cook and get better.”

And getting better, little by little, is the main focus, despite the high expectations.

“Right now we are not talking about winning games; we’re just talking about getting better and the little things,” Lievense said. “I’m talking about communication. I’m talking about knowing what play we’re running. … I’m talking about the little things that become big things when you don’t do them, like boxing out and taking a good shot versus a bad shot.”

While there are no seniors, Lievense does have five players who saw significant playing time last season as well as two junior college transfers and six freshmen. Junior guards Zach Grant and Matt Woods, who averaged the second-most minutes per game (28.5), give Barton a seasoned, versatile backcourt. Lievense said that each can play the point or the 2-guard spot.

“They’re feeding off one another. They are guys who really know what each other can do,” Lievense said.

Lievense was happy to welcome back a trio that sparkled as freshmen last year — forward Isaiah Buck-Lowman and guards Michael Boykin and Jeff Gordon. Boykin was Conference Carolinas Freshman of the Year as he averaged 13.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.2 steals while leading the team in 3-point field-goal accuracy at 39.7 percent.

“Even though Jeff and Buck and Mike are just sophomores, the minutes that they played really are sophomore minutes,” Lievense said. “So they were given an opportunity last year with stuff that we went through and they got better through it. So they’re ready to go.”

However, Boykin and Buck-Lowman have both been slowed by injuries in the preseason, along with junior guard Tashawn Sampson, who missed most of last season with an injury.

Expecting to make immediate contributions are junior forwards Bobby Stenborg and Chris Cook. Stenborg, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound Garner native, received National Junior College Athletic Association All-America honorable mention last season at Brunswick Community College. His ability to score has impressed Lievense, but not as much as his work ethic.

“He’s just one, tough, hard-nosed guy who’s going to play hard the entire game,” the Barton coach said. “He’s going to be physical, he’s going to be tough, he’s going to drive the basketball, he’s going to rebound. He’s going to defend.”

Cook, a 6-7 product of Roane Community College in Tennessee, was described by Lievense as a “long, athletic, bouncy” player who can score in the paint and protect the rim. However, due to injuries, Cook has yet to develop fully.

“He’s got a ways to go to be the level of player that we want him to be, but he’s got all the tools to get there,” Lievense said.

Isaiah Reddish, a 6-5 forward from Durham Riverside High, has caught the coaches’ eyes in the preseason for his ability to score from anywhere.

“His biggest problem right now is ‘What’s the college game all about? How hard do I have to play?’” Lievense said.

Another freshman, 6-3 shooting guard Jake Kakar from Boston, should help from the perimeter while 6-8 freshman Blake Burdack from Australia by way of Fork Union Military Academy is another blue-collar post player.

Hunt High product Shemar Hudson, who took a redshirt as a freshman last season, has played in all three scrimmage games and should contribute off the bench.

In addition to the usual contenders in the Conference Carolinas race — Limestone, King and Mount Olive — Barton also will face several teams ranked in their respective region preseason polls in UNC Pembroke (Southeast No. 3), Virginia State (Atlantic No. 6) and Virginia Union (Atlantic No. 7). Compounding that tough schedule is the conference scheduling that leaves the Bulldogs playing just three of their last 12 regular-season games in Wilson Gym, including the home finale on Feb. 3, nearly a month before the Conference Carolinas tournament tips off.

But again, Lievense warns there will be no excuses for that either.

“We definitely explain to them how difficult our schedule is,” he said. “We explain to them our main focus, every day, is just to get better. That’s what we talk about every day – let’s just get better today. If we continue to get better every week, then come the middle of January and the first week of February, we’re going to be a team to be reckoned with.”