Cullen Maksimowski, LSSULakers.com
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich.--The Lake Superior State men's basketball team enjoyed very successful 2017-18 campaign highlighted by 25-8 record overall, a 12-0 mark inside the Bud Cooper Gymnasium, a runner-up finish in the in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and a trip to Division II NCAA Tournament. With the offseason officially underway, we sat down Lakers Head Coach, Steve Hettinga, to recap the season and take a glance into the 2018-19 season.
Q: With the 2017-18 season behind us, just give us a review of the season from start to finish and the progression you noticed in this group of guys.
Hettinga: Obviously a very successful season for us and we accomplished a lot of our goals. Getting to the national tournament was certainly the goal all year for us but there is a lot of mini goals you have to achieve along the way to get there. We wanted to win our conference and ended up coming up a little bit short on that. Throughout the season, I thought we made some great strides. We came out playing very well. Hit a little bit of a rut in the middle of the season where things were tough for us and like most teams we had a lot of adversity. Some injuries, a little bit of the flu bug and just getting through some other stuff as a team. I was really proud of how we persevered and fought through some of those things and I think we were a better team because of it. Our guys found a way to push through the adversity and it certainly a testimony to their character and the type of leaders we had to keep the team together through some of those tough times. A lot of lifelong memories from this season and certainly one I will cherish.
Q: When you start to compare this year's team to some of the most successful groups you've had in the past, what are some of the similarities/differences?
Hettinga: The similarities with our teams that have been very successful is we've had great guard play and we've really taken good care of the ball. In the year's where we've been really good, we ranked highly in turnover ratio and have traditionally been a very good three-point shooting team. I thought we were a really good three-point shooting team this season and our guys really valued the ball. We averaged under 10 turnovers a game, which is phenomenal and were ranked nationally in that category all year. On the floor, I think those are the main similarities of our most successful teams on the court. Off the floor, I think some of our most successful teams have been our closest teams. They got along well, which is not always mandatory for good teams to have but it certainly makes it a lot easier when the guys really love each other, which this year's team certainly did.
Q: We've talked about that senior class a lot throughout the season (Akaemji Williams, Michael Nicholson, Josh Goldschmidt, Lance Monroe). They obviously meant so much to the program when you start to move on without them in the gym, what's that like?
Hettinga: It's certainly different and still a little surreal to not have those guys working out with us. It's nice though, I still have (the seniors) pop into my office to say hi. It's certainly going to be different though. I don't know if I'll completely grasp it until we have some real team workouts, we're still doing individual workouts right now. When we have that first team workout in the fall and those four guys aren't there, It's certainly going to seem different. We're going to miss them because of the type of people they were but also how good of players they were for us. It's the way it goes though, we have to start to move on and hopefully they've left an impact on our guys to help us with what we are building towards next season.
Q: Ferris State wins the national title a couple weeks ago, obviously good for the conference. You've had a lot of battles with them over the last few years, gave them their only loss of the season. Obviously disappointing to fall short against them in the postseason, but it has to feel good that you've built a program here that can go toe-to-toe with the best in the nation.
Hettinga: It's great for our conference but I've felt like our conference was the strongest conference in the country all year and certainly Ferris cemented that by winning a national championship. There were four or five other really good teams in our conference this season, that on any given night, were capable of beating Ferris and we were one of those teams and proved it. It's good for the conference and it's good for us to know that we are close. We've proven that we're a nationally contending team, getting to the NCAA Tournament four times in the last 10 years. We're no longer the team that people assume that they're going to beat, we're a team that other programs have to gear up and prepare to beat us. I think our program has come a long way, especially recently, but there are still some steps that are out there for us to take. That ultimate goal is really for us to get to the Elite Eight. Once you get there, anything can happen. We've gotten to the round of 32 four different times, so right now, we're looking to get to the sweet 16 and hopefully the Elite Eight and that's where we are at with our recruiting trying to get those right pieces in here that can get us to that next level.
Q: Losing four senior and three starters on the floor, this team is going to look a little different next fall. Who are you expecting to step up and what kind of adjustment in play style do you anticipate?
Hettinga: Well I think we're going to be a much different team next year. Certainly, Akaemji was special and the ball in his hand a lot for us. Now, I think we're going to have to be a team that spreads people out more and we're going to have to win a different way than we have in the past. That's my job as the coach to see, ultimately, what we do have once our recruiting is over with and we have that core group of 14-15 guys. I need to figure out how can I best get those guys where we need them to be. I also have to use their talents they've been blessed with. I can't just try to force them to play the style I would prefer. I'm going to have to look at what we have and look to maximize the abilities we have as a team and that's going to be the goal all summer. It's comforting to know that we have a lot of guys back and we still have 10 guys returning of our 14 so in that aspect, that's a really high number. I also felt really comfortable with our bench this year. We have five guys, Tim Cairinduff, Malek Adams, Ke'Montrece Collins, Rog Stein and Carson Manger that played a lot for us this year all returning. We also have some freshman that didn't play a ton, Jackson Schrameyer, Brandon Allen and Sam Cornett Jr who are all very capable players and when they had their opportunities, they proved it. I like the group we have coming back. Hoping to add some depth, especially at the post position with our recruiting here in the next month or so but we're very optimistic about our future.
Q: With three starters moving on, there is a lot of minutes/starting roles out there for some of your key reserve players you mentioned. How much of a role increase do you anticipate for those players?
Hettinga: As much as they want. The guys that are leaving for us, are leaving probably close to 100 minutes of playing time on the floor. Akaemji was 30, Josh was close to 30, Phil was probably 20-25 and Lance started his share of games this season so there is a lot of minutes out there for them. You look at the play of (Collins, Adams, Manger) down the stretch, those were the guys that stood out late in the season. Blake Marquardt has certainly had a huge role in what we're doing the last three years. Those guys are certainly the core guys that have played the most minutes coming back. There is always a surprise too. Always one or two guys that surprise you and have an amazing offseason. Between right now and October, when we start our official practices, guys can really improve and make strides on their own and that's certainly what we're encouraging them to do.
Q: From a leadership standpoint, you have Tim, Blake, Carson, Cody stepping into those senior leadership roles. What are your expectations for them and which of the underclassman do you expect to take on more leadership responsibilities?
Hettinga: Well I think that some of our best leaders are coming back. Tim Cairnduff is great leader, Malek Adamas has been a great leader on the floor for us. Cody Ley has been really a good vocal leader on the bench. (Ley) is a guy that really works hard and didn't see a lot of minutes. He's someone that the guys truly respect and a guy that does it by example and really works hard off the floor getting extra work in. It certainly helps if there is a leader that's in the playing group that can really be vocal and someone who has some street credit. You can't have a guy's telling guys what to do, if he's not putting the work in himself, in the gym and the weight room. I'm looking for some other guys to step up in that role and that's what this postseason is all about to see who does take the baton, so to speak, and leads our team.
Q: You bring in Justin Fischer next season after signing his NLI this past fall. A few guys in the mix for spring signing day coming up. What are you overall thoughts on the new guys you have coming in next year?
Hettinga: We feel really good. Justin Fischer is the one guy that we have signed to a National Letter of Intent. We have other guys verbally committed that will have to wait a few days to announce on signing day next week. Certainly there is a couple pieces out there that we still have to get. We're in good on some really good potential players and hoping for the best there and certainly we'll make the most of whoever we get. We're in a good position coming off another successful season. There is recruits that have heard of us and know who we are and certainly getting someone like Justin helps with other potential recruits that know who he is and what he brings to the table and also with the returning players we have on our roster. We're excited with where we're at right now with recruiting.
Q: As a coach you obviously have a pretty good gauge on the teams in the conference (who's leaving/returning etc…). When you look at the top teams from this past season, what are your initial thoughts on how your team stacks up?
Hettinga: There is still a lot yet to be determined with recruiting. There were also some teams this year in our conference that had some key injuries and lost some key players that will be back next year. I think we'll have really good teams throughout the conference. Certainly Ferris is the team to beat right now no matter who they have back. They do lose a lot of really good players but until they're knocked off the top than they're the team to beat. You then look at the Upper Peninsula, Northern Michigan is going to have a really good team back and so is Michigan Tech. Even in our own back yard, it stacks up. I'd say probably the three closest schools to us all are going to have really good teams and they're all in the North Division but there is certainly going to be other teams that are good as well. Right now we're not really trying to matchup with other teams as much. We're trying to make our team the best it can be and put the best product we can on the floor before that first game. First thing is making our players better, getting bigger, stronger, quicker in every aspect of the game and the second part is to get the best recruits in here that we can to really solidify our roster.