Four months removed from being hired by Oswego State, 13 years since taking his first collegiate coaching job, and 17 years since he laced up his own sneakers and played his first collegiate basketball game, head coach Jason Leone is anxious to begin another basketball season.
“There’s a lot of emotions going into the first game of the season,” Leone said. “I’m very excited because I enjoy the competitive nature. It’s being a part of something bigger than yourself that we are working hard and preparing for.”
When Leone makes his Oswego State debut Tuesday against St. Lawrence, he will be accompanied by the No. 8 team in the country, the highest ranking team of Leone’s career. Conversely, the lengthy expectations of leading a national contender have not shaken Leone leading up to his debut.
“The pre-season has gone very well. The team has had a good attitude,” Leone said.“Practice has been a quality environment and the upperclassmen have set great examples.”
“Coach keeps us level headed. He always tells us that no team we play is going to let us win,” said senior Chad Burridge, the Sporting News pre-season All-American and reigning SUNYAC Player of the Year. Coach Leone loves repetition. Two hour practice after two hour practice; we have been running all preseason.”
Leone’s aggressive preseason regiment has extended to scrimmaging top notch programs in preparation for the regular season. One such scrimmage against the University of Rochester left a lasting image in the opposing coach’s head.
“Coach Leone has them well prepared and playing true team basketball,” said University of Rochester head coach Luke Flockerzi. “They compete very hard and dictate on defense. Offensively, they are executing their team concepts well and playing as a unit.”
The Oswego State upperclassmen have seen some monumental changes over the last three seasons. Since 2008, the program has seen two coaching changes, the first NCAA tournament victory in program history, and an ascent to the top 10 of the national polls.
“It’s not easy for these upperclassmen,” Leone said. “The seniors have had three different head coaches in four years. But the team has bought in, learned the system and showed good basketball character.”
“I was on the interview committee to hire coach Leone,” Burridge said. “After being hired, he called me right away and we talked basketball. We had the same expectations for the season, and we have been on the same page since day one.”
“Coach Leone has a good, offensive mind. He wants us to push it up the court and get everybody involved in the offense,” said junior forward Hayden Ward, Third Team All-SUNYAC and the team’s leading rebounder last season.
The Oswego State offense, which led the SUNYAC in points scored and total assists, is not the area Leone is most concerned about heading into Tuesday’s season opener. According to Leone, there is room for improvement for a defense that finished among the worst teams in the SUNYAC last season against the 3-point shot.
“The team needs to be more consistent on the defensive end,” Leone said. “What I’m looking for is being consistently good on the defensive glass, consistently staying focused and getting stops. We show 15-20 minutes of being good on defense, but then we lose focus.”
“We have to be focused and ready because every game is important,” Ward said. “We want to start the year off strong.”
“Defense is a very interesting side of the ball,” Leone said. “It’s easier to teach defense than offense because there aren’t many different ways to be successful on defense. It’s about making a stop. Offense is an art form, it takes time.”
Oswego State was one stop away from beating St. Lawrence last season, when it gave up the game-winning offensive basket with 5.8 seconds left on the clock. Oswego State scored just 57 points against St. Lawrence, a full 13 points below its season average.
Leone has made it clear that despite the team’s struggles last season against St. Lawrence, the Lakers will not be fraying at all from the common game plan.
“We want to keep it simple against St. Lawrence,” Leone said. “I try not to give my players too many things to work on before each game. They trust me, I trust them, and we will have a lot of confidence going into that game.”
“We are the highlighted team on everybody’s schedule. We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” Burridge said. “Any team on our schedule can beat us and they want to beat us.”
“I’ve tried to stress to the team that it doesn’t matter who you play or where you play, but it’s how you play that makes you a good team,” Leone said.
Leone has taken a program with the utmost confidence following the greatest season in program history and convinced them he can take them to the next level. After 17 years around the game of college basketball, Leone is sure he has the right approach to follow through on the striking expectations awaiting the 2011-12 season.
“If we stick to our core values and stay mentally tough, than our talent will take over,” Leone said. “Winning is a by-product of those things.”
“The team has been ready to go. It’s been a long preseason and we want to get on the court,” Ward said.
Leone’s home debut as Lakers head coach will be Friday, Nov. 18 in Laker Hall against Ithaca College. The team hosts a round-robin style tournament that weekend, which includes both Ithaca and Wells College.