Men’s basketball surprise team in big dance

Junior Walter Sampson (center)  has averaged 36.4 minutes and 12.2 points per game over the last five games. (David Armelino | The Oswegonian)
Junior Walter Sampson (center) has averaged 36.4 minutes and 12.2 points per game over the last five games. (David Armelino | The Oswegonian)

The Oswego State men’s basketball team will be competing in the NCAA Div. III basketball tournament opening round on Friday, taking on the Calvin College Knights.

The Lakers will be participants in the NCAA Tournament for the third time ever, all appearances coming in the last five years, and the second time as the winners of the SUNYAC conference. After grinding out three playoff wins in the SUNYAC playoffs, the Lakers find themselves up against a formidable opponent in the Knights who hold a lot of prestige in the history of Div. III men’s basketball.

The Lakers are guided by head coach Jason Leone, the 2014-15 SUNYAC Coach of the Year. This is the second time in his first four years at Oswego State that he has received the honor. The first time he received the honor was in his debut season as Laker coach when he also won the conference championship.

He has led the Lakers to two conference championships in four seasons after what was a 47-year drought without winning the SUNYAC. The last Laker conference championship before Leone’s tenure was in 1965.

The Lakers’ leader on the court throughout the season has been Brian Sortino. Sortino was the Lakers leading scorer on the season averaging 16 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the field. He was named to the All-SUNYAC first team, the only Laker to be awarded this honor.

Sortino was a presence all season long for the Lakers with his scoring and ability to create his own shot, whether it was a pull up jump shot or drive to the basket. He also contributed greatly on the defensive side of the ball, always guarding opposing guards with top-class effort. Sortino won the SUNYAC playoff tournament MVP, officially being recognized as the best player of the tournament.

“It is an incredible accomplishment to Brian’s credit,” Leone said. “Most of the time in most leagues when your sophomore is your best player typically, from a maturity standpoint, they are not ready to lead a team that is a really good team.”

Leone credited Sortino’s success to his  flexibility as a player.

“I want him to realize what helped get there, his coachability, how humble he is, and how even-keeled he is,” Leone continued. “Those are great attributes to have as a player.”

The opponent this weekend for the Lakers will be the Calvin College Knights of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA). The Knights finished as champions of the MIAA for the third season in a row and they also boast the MVP of the conference this season in senior Jordan Brink, who is averaging 18.8 points per game on the campaign. They finished with an overall record of 21-6, including their two playoff victories.

The Knights are competing in the NCAA Tournament for the 20th time in their history. The Knights also boast two national championships, which they won in 1992 and 2000.

Their most recent championship was under the guidance of current head coach Kevin VandeStreek, who will be overseeing the Knights in the tournament for the ninth time in his 19th year as their head coach.

The Knights started off the campaign as 6th overall in the preseason national ranking, but only managed to stay in the top 25 for three weeks before falling out and never returning, despite earning some votes down the stretch. This is in contrast to the Lakers who received no national attention and pretty much flew under the radar despite the fact that they stood near or at the top of the SUNYAC all season.

“When you talk about Calvin, they’re one of the premier programs in Div. III,” Leone said. “They would be one of the programs that is on the Mount Rushmore of Div. III basketball. Their program has continuity and winning tradition.”

The Lakers and Knights will compete against each other for the first time ever on Friday. These are two teams that have contrasting histories. The Lakers, despite recent success, have only won their conference on a total of six occasions. The Knights won their 11th MIAA Conference tournament this season. The MIAA Tournament began in the 1991-92 season. Counting their 19 pre-tournament championships as well, which decided the winners based on regular season play, the Knights have won a total of 30 conference championships.

One coincidental similarity is that both teams will be the only representatives of each of their respective conferences in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

“Most teams that you play in this tournament did exactly what we just did,” Leone said. “They had to go out there and win two or three games with their backs against the wall or else they weren’t going to make it into the tournament.

“Every time you move up another notch on this ladder things become more difficult because your level has to get better, because the teams you’ll be playing will be significantly better,” Leone continued.”

Over the weekend, the Lakers entered the SUNYAC conference playoffs as the third overall seed, going up against opponents who played them tough throughout the season in the SUNY Oneonta Red Dragons, SUNY Geneseo Knights and SUNY Plattsburgh Cardinals.

The Lakers went a combined 3-3 against these three teams throughout the regular season, losing twice to the Cardinals, splitting the pair of games against SUNY Geneseo and winning two close overtime affairs against the Red Dragons.

The Lakers started to click at the right time of the season, however, as they remained focused and aggressive and were able to win all three games thanks to contributions from the whole squad. Walter Sampson and Kyle Covley were named to the all-tournament team as well, along with Sortino’s MVP honors.

“The most important thing is our guys believing in wanting to compete at a high level,” Leone said. “That will be the most important part of Friday.”

The Lakers will travel to Mount Union College this weekend for its contest. The Lakers will partake in one of two matchups as Neumann University is set to take on the hosting Mount Union College after the Lakers and Knights have completed their game. The winners of Friday’s games will face off on Saturday to decide who will advance to the sectionals of the tournament.

The Lakers will start play at 5:30 p.m. on Friday against the Knights in Alliance, Ohio.