College basketball preview: Saint Francis Cougars

Saint Francis men's basketball coach Chad LaCross speaks with an official during the 2017 NAIA Division II National Tournament in March in Point Lookout, Mo. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com
Saint Francis senior guard Evan Henry looks to pass against a Goshen defender in a game last season at the Hutzell Athletic Center. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

University of Saint Francis men’s basketball coach Chad LaCross is going to find out very quickly just how well-prepared his team got during the preseason.

The third-ranked Cougars (1-0) have already gotten an impressive road win at Olivet Nazarene in front of a sold-out arena, and this weekend, the tests get even tougher.

Saint Francis will host No. 1-ranked Cornerstone (0-2) at 8 p.m. today in second game of the Northern Lakes Insurance Tournament at the Hutzell Athletic Center.

“I’ve heard comments from (Cougar veterans Evan Henry, Bryce Lienhoop and Derek Hinen), our leaders,” LaCross told News-Sentinel.com recently, “that we have to have a focus every day, whether it’s in a practice or a game.”

The Cougars’ game will follow a 4 p.m. tip-off between defending NAIA Division II National Champion Union (Ky.) and Indiana Tech.

Union beat Cornerstone 72-69 in that championship game last March and the two teams will battle again Saturday at 1 p.m., with Indiana Tech and Saint Francis playing at 4 p.m.

“It will be interesting,” LaCross said of the tournament. “It’s one of those things that sound good early, but then you get in the midst of things … .”

This is the fifth of seven college basketball preview stories that will be published at News-Sentinel.com this week. Saturday: Fort Wayne

FRONTCOURT

There will be very few frontcourts that Saint Francis battles in which it will be at a disadvantage. However, tonight just might be one of them.

As good as Cougar senior center Lienhoop is — and he is phenomenal – Cornerstone forward Kyle Steigenga just might be the best player in the entire NAIA.

But make no mistake about it; Lienhoop will be a force of his own this season.

“He needs to be on the floor as much as possible this season,” LaCross said of Lienhoop. “He’s going to get it done whether he is scoring it or distributing it.”

The 6-foot-6 Lienhoop scored 17 points in the recent win at Olivet Nazarene, but what was even more impressive was his 10 assists.

LaCross said Lienhoop may be the best passing big man that the highly-successful program has ever had.

As great as Lienhoop is at scoring and passing, he is also on the verge of becoming the Cougars’ all-time leading rebounder. He grabbed five rebounds in the victory recently and should become the program leader sometime around Jan. 1.

“People overlooked him,” LaCross said of Lienhoop’s high school career, “because of his athleticism and he’s not the strongest kid or the most vocal kid, but man, he just knows how to play.”

Lienhoop will team with fellow senior Stephen Turner, who played in 24 games last season.

BACKCOURT

Henry is one of the best shooters in the Crossroads League and dropped 18 in the season-opening win (on 6 of 9 shooting from 3-point range), but truth be told, there will be nights that he gets lost in the shuffle in the deep and talented perimeter attack of Saint Francis.

LaCross can roll with junior Chandler White (6-foot-3) at the four and any combination of Henry, Hinen, sophomores Austin Compton and Connor Lautzenheiser, junior Billy Doslak, oh, and for good measure, LaCross can also utilize a 6-foot-5 freshman that opened his collegiate career with a 25-point performance.

Huntington North High graduate Hunter Hollowell connected on 8 of 9 shooting against Olivet Nazarene and scored a game-high 25 points.

He joins Henry (43.8 percent from 3-point range) as a pair of sharp-shooters, while Hinen (11 points, nine assists in the win) is just a versatile guard that can penetrate and make others better.

As a junior at Crossroads League rival Huntington, Hinen averaged 17 points per game and dished out 142 assists.

In the case of White, a Carroll High alum, he has versatility not just in his game, but positionally, as well.

“He’s pretty versatile,” LaCross said of White. “We’re going to expect him to play the one through four (spots) on any given night, just depending on the situation.”

The Cougar perimeter players not only can hurt opponents offensively, but this roster has the capability of playing a number of varied defenses as well.

“We’re trying to mix it up a little bit more,” LaCross said of his defense, “with some pressing situations and zone situations.”

“It will be good for us to mix things up and keep the offenses guessing,” he said. “We’d rather defend for 18 seconds of a shot clock than 24.”

PREDICTION

Saint Francis plays a brutal schedule in which eight games are against teams that spent some time last season ranked in the top five, as well as 13 games against teams that advanced to the NAIA Tournament.

“With our non-league schedule,” LaCross explained, “probably being as difficult as it has ever been, we’re going to be tested early.”

The lack of frontcourt depth is an area of concern, but that backcourt is loaded enough that this should be a team that plays important games in February as it makes another run to the national tournament.

COUGAR BITS

Bright spot for Cougar Nation?

Newcomer Derek Hinen may be Saint Francis’ most valuable player, which is saying something with this talented roster.

Player to watch?

Chandler White. The Toledo transfer has to elevate his game to meet the lofty expectations this season.

Problem for Saint Francis?

Post depth. Pray for LaCross if any type of injury happens to Lienhoop.

Newcomer impact?

This has already happened. Hunter Hollowell nets 25 points in his debut. Is that a big enough of an impact for you?

For more on college basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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