Men’s basketball makes push for top spot in SCIAC

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Wesley Armstrong (first year) preps to pass the ball during practice in Rush Gym at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2018. Molly Kauffman/The Occidental

The men’s basketball team lost a close and high-intensity matchup Saturday to the Whittier Poets, 74–73. The game ended in a Whittier celebration that boiled over into the handshake line where a scuffle between both teams broke out. Despite Saturday’s loss, the men’s basketball team currently sits in second place in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC), contending for the top spot in the conference. Brian Newhall, interim director of athletics and basketball coach for 31 years, commented on the outbreak.

“Scuffles are never good during or at the end of the game,” Newhall said via email. “Emotions were running high on both sides — good that it did not escalate. No bad feelings.”

A SCIAC pre-season prediction put the Tigers at second to last in the league. Disheartening as it may be, Newhall said that he understood why the league predicted that the Tigers would drop in the standings.

“They were looking at what was coming back and that wasn’t irrational on them, we just didn’t have any all-league players coming back,” Newhall said. “But I kind of knew we had a lot of people who were emerging.”

Newhall’s assessment turned out to be correct, as two of the team’s captains earned SCIAC Player of the Week accolades this season: Zach Baines (junior) and Austin DeWitz (junior).

Baines, a transfer student from Middlebury College, spoke to the effect of such a harsh prediction.

“We definitely always had that in our minds — to prove them wrong,” Baines said.

Newhall summed up the team’s mindset after the preseason ranking, noting that it humbled them but kept them hungry to prove others wrong.

One non-conference game Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, a matchup against the top-ranked Whitman College, served as another humbling experience for the team while also showing the Tigers what they were capable of, according to Baines.

“That was kind of a statement game where they were number one in the nation and we lost by four to them,” Baines said. “We felt like we could play with anybody else in the conference, really.”

Newhall agreed on the effect of the Whitman loss.

“That was a wake-up call for all of our guys and it put us in the ‘good group,’ so to speak, on the national level,” Newhall said. “It gave our guys a boost of confidence; it sent a message to the rest of the SCIAC.”

After the Whitman game, the Tigers went on a 10-game winning streak. They won eight league games consecutively, thanks largely in part to their strong defense, which ranks third in the nation in points allowed per game (61.4). Occidental’s defense also ranks 13th in the nation in three-point field goal percentage against (29.7) and 14th in blocked shots per game (5.1).

Jacob Adler (first year), a walk-on, gave credit to the team’s third captain, Ryan Kaneshiro (sophomore), for leading the team’s defense.

“He’s been one of our best defensive players all year,” Adler said. “But pretty much from top to bottom there’s been contributions from everyone.”

Adler’s comment speaks to Newhall’s philosophy regarding personnel and who plays on game day. Newhall explained that they mainly use a seven-man rotation for games, a strategy he initially argued against in a friendly debate with renowned former UCLA coach John Wooden.

“I remember vividly, he said, ‘Well, Brian, all I can tell you is it worked for me,'” Newhall said.

Newhall’s hesitancy came from a sense of sympathy for the players who are left on the bench on game day. He said that the team would not be where they are without the scout team — the group of players who imitate the upcoming opponent in practice, preparing the starters for the opposing team’s strategies.

“Really an unsung hero in our success is our scout team,” Newhall said. “They’re really really giving our starters good looks, and that’s been helpful.”

Ian Bonde (senior), who Newhall labeled as the eighth man in the seven-man rotation, played football at Occidental for the past three years and is in his first year of collegiate basketball.

Ian Bonde (senior) preps for a layup during practice in Rush Gym at Occidental College in Los Angeles, on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2018. Molly Kauffman/The Occidental

Bonde reflected on the value of playing collegiate sports, whether the team is winning or losing.

“Playing sports in college at any level, I think, is an invaluable experience,” Bonde said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play on two different teams, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The Tigers look to continue their successful season and make a run for a SCIAC championship with a game 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14, against Chapman in Rush Gymnasium.