Lakers looking to repeat

Senior guard Sean Michele returns to the men’s basketball team after averaging 9.9 points last season.

It can be very difficult for a team to change its perception after decades of unremarkable play, particularly at the collegiate level where programs are defined by their ability to recruit, and recruiting hinges on team expectations. The Lakers won the SUNYAC title in 1965, but a long four decades ensued without a return to the top of the conference.

Oswego State has had its shares of lows over the last 46 seasons. The team won just one game in ’79-’80 and again twelve years later in ’91-’92. The program posted losing records in nine out of ten seasons during the 70s, eight of ten seasons during the 80s, eight of ten seasons in the 90s and the first two seasons of the new millennium.

Respected former head coach Kevin Broderick brought the Lakers back into the conference’s competitive ranks, posting a 153-78 record between 2001 and 2009, including three seasons with 21 or more wins. But Broderick stepped down from the program without capturing the elusive conference title.

Broderick’s successor, Adam Stockwell, saw the team go 13-13 in ’09-’10 before leading the Lakers to the largest turn-around season in school history. The Lakers went 24-5 in ’10-’11, earning the program’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament as well as the program’s first ever NCAA tournament victory. But the appearance was a result of an at-large bid as The College at Brockport upset the Lakers in the semi-finals of the SUNYAC tournament, and once again the Lakers failed to win the conference championship.

It was not until last season, in head coach Jason Leone’s debut with the Lakers, that the team was able to win the conference tournament while posting a perfect 18-0 conference record. Led by two-time conference player of the year, Chad Burridge, and a well-rounded senior class, Leone and the Lakers eclipsed 26 wins, marched to the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season and again advanced to the second round.

In many regards, Oswego State is the team to beat in the SUNYAC, coming off the two most successful seasons in program history. And yet, after losing the most accomplished senior class in school history – and the two-time D3hoops.com East Region player of the year, Burridge – Leone notes that the Lakers are in a different place this year compared to last.

“We are in a much different position than last season,” Leone said. “We are not the consensus favorite. There are new challenges compared to last season.”

Leone admits the conference was “top-heavy” in ’11-’12 but notes that the conference will be much deeper this winter. More competitive balance, coupled with the conference changing its tournament format from eight teams to six, will make it that much more challenging for the Lakers to repeat as conference champions.

“The team is going to have to stay focused,” Leone said. “Most conference games are decided in the final minutes, so execution is important. There are plenty of dark horses in the conference this year. Anyone can win it.”

On the Lakers’ side in ’12-’13 is a strong senior class that has a 2-2 record in the NCAA tournament the last two seasons and has not lost a conference regular season game since Jan. 11, 2011. The class is fronted by first-team all-SUNYAC selection Hayden Ward, second-team all-SUNYAC selection Sean Michele and Chris Gilkes, the team’s third-leading scorer over the last two seasons. Among the senior class’s largest responsibilities this year will be helping along the seven freshmen Leone added to the roster.

“We will be relying on our seniors to help teach the young players,” Leone said. “We want to reinforce good habits in practice. It is difficult to achieve success and winning is a byproduct of hard work.”

The conference title defense begins on Nov. 16 against D’Youville in the Max Ziel Men’s Basketball tournament, which also includes Medgar Evers and Morrisville. The Lakers hit the road to take on Ithaca College on Dec. 8 following their three-point win in Oswego last year. Other notable nonconference matchups are a road game against Cobleskill State on Nov. 27 and home games against St. Lawrence on Jan. 4 and R.I.T. on Jan. 5.

The conference play schedule opens with a road game against SUNY Oneonta on Jan. 8 and returns to Oswego for a Jan. 11 game against SUNY Fredonia, before the much-anticipated affair with Buffalo State on Jan. 12.

Buffalo State might be the most talented team in the conference, as seniors Jake Simmons and Norman Simmons create the premiere backcourt in the SUNYAC and senior forward Justin Mitchell has averaged 13.7 ppg and 7.7 rpg the last two seasons. The two teams battled on Feb. 17 and Buffalo State had a lead as late as 4:31 in the game, before Oswego State pulled away with a 78-73 victory.

The spring semester will not be in session when the Lakers take on conference power SUNY Cortland at home on Jan. 26. The Lakers hosted the Red Dragons twice last season, defeating the Red Dragons on Jan. 21 by just two points and also in the SUNYAC championship on Feb. 25.

Notable conference home games during the spring semester include SUNY Geneseo on Jan. 29, SUNY New Paltz on Feb. 5 and SUNY Oneonta on Feb. 12. The Lakers close out the regular season on the road Feb. 15 against Potsdam and Feb. 16 against SUNY Plattsburgh.

The SUNYAC championships begin on Tuesday, Feb. 19 and continue through Saturday, Feb. 23. A change from last season is that the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament are separated by a week, with the first round being played out on March 2 and the second round on March 9.

Oswego State has hosted all five SUNYAC tournament games and four NCAA tournament games they have appeared in the last two seasons.

“It is a long season, and where you start is not always where you’ll finish,” Leone said. “I’m not worried, I am going to rely on my players.”