Bernie Driscoll (above) guided Kutztown to a 26-win season and NCAA Tournament appearance last season. (Photo: Andrew Feruguson/Kutztown University)
Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
For the fifth season in a row, Bernie Driscoll found a way to make his team better in 2016-17.
Kutztown won just five games in 2012-13, then 10 in 2013-14 and 19 in 2014-15. The Golden Bears followed with a 23-7 record and Sweet 16 appearance in 2015-16.
Even with the standard set high, Kutztown improved its win total once again in 2016-17. The Golden Bears went 26-4 last season, including a 16-game win streak to end the regular season. Kutztown advanced to the PSAC championship game, falling to Shippensburg 73-63. The Golden Bears’ season ended with a loss to Indiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Forward Josh Johnson (15.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and guard Ryan Connolly (12.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg) are gone from the starting lineup and top bench player Austin Beidelman (5.7 ppg) graduates as well. However, the Golden Bears return a promising core.
Junior guard Anthony Lee (15.9 ppg) was the team’s top scorer a year ago. The Abington grad shot better than 50 percent from three-point range. Senior guard Ethan Ridgeway (West Chester Rustin) is his running mate in the backcourt. Ridgeway averaged 14.6 ppg and 8.7 apg in 2016-17. Junior forward Dan Cuevas (14.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is the third returning starter for the Golden Bears.
There are several newcomers who will also join the mix. Cheyney transfer Rafiq Marshall, a 6-0 guard from Simon Gratz, led the Wolves in scoring at 14.6 ppg last season and should help fill Connolly’s void. Shippensburg transfer Oenis Medina (Reading), a 6-7 center, redshirt-freshman Moe Williams (Life Center, N.J.), a 6-6 wing, and freshman Joseph O’Brien (Abington), a 6-8 forward, could earn some minutes in their first season of action.
Here are the (copy-edited) highlights of our conversation with Driscoll:
City of Basketball Love: What was last season like for you guys? Twenty-six wins, you’re at the top of the conference all year...
Bernie Driscoll: We were a senior-laden team. We had six guys that had been with us really for four years. I just liked how we came prepared to play each night. I thought their mindset was great. That’s simply because of our senior leadership. We’d go on the road, and they just played hard. It was a great year to coach. We had six players who were double figures. We were tops in the country in assists. We really played team basketball. They put in a lot of effort the first two years to really put it together the last two. But we have a couple of those kids back too. Last year was good, it was fun. It was pleasure to coach them. It was fun to coach a team who really enjoyed each other. That was really the most gratifying part of the experience.
CoBL: What’s it going to be like this year to replace those seniors, Josh Johnson in particular?
BD: Well, Anthony Lee is back, thank God. Anthony Lee’s only a junior. We have Ethan Ridgeway back, Anthony Lee’s back and we have Danny Cuevas back for center. Our core I think is very, very good. We just need to add a couple pieces and have a couple of those other pieces step up. How do you step in for Josh? You really don’t. Josh was a great player for us. There’s a lot of minutes there, a lot of points and rebounds that we have to replace. I think we have some really solid young people who are really big that could do it. I don’t think we’ll have one player do it. I think it will be one of those things where we’re going to need two, three kids to kind of take over for Josh. Besides Josh, Ryan Connolly graduated, one of the best three-point shooters in the league. Then we have our depth Austin Beidelman, three-year captain, Howard Sellars. We lost some real good kids.
CoBL: You mentioned some younger players are going to have to step up. Has anyone shown flashes they might be headed for a breakout year?
JD: I think just in a cursory look at what we’ve done so far, Moe Williams looks real good. He was a redshirt for us last year, 6-7 guard, Life Center Academy in Jersey and a Delaware kid. He’s really, really looking pretty good. Max Wagner’s stepped up. He had a real solid last month at Pennridge and we need him to continue that growth. We were very fortunate to pick up a transfer from Cheyney University in Rafiq Marshall, who’s an outstanding shooter who knows how to play. We have the candidates there to do it. We just have to do it.
CoBL: I was going to ask about Marshall because he’s a Philly kid, he went to Simon Gratz. Obviously you haven’t seen him too much, but what’s he shown you so far?
BD: He’s a Philly kid, he’s a Philly guard. He’s tough, hard-nosed. He’ll defend you. He shoots the ball well, handles well. He’s just gritty, a real gritty kid and I’m really looking forward to having him defending our perimeter. He’s got a little funky shot, but it goes in. He’s going to give us some really good depth at that shooting guard spot. Certainly Anthony Lee is one of the best shooters in the league, Max can shoot so, we’re going to continue our three pointers from where we were last year.
CoBL: Obviously you had a great year. Shippensburg had a great year. Do you have any thoughts about what they accomplished last year?
BD: I thought they accomplished a lot. They’re extremely well coached. You’ve got one of the best players in Division II in Dustin Sleva. Abe Massaley from Imhotep that was their point guard. They were outstanding. They had a great year, and they’re going to be tough again this year because Sleva’s back. They did a real nice job. Coach does a good job and our three games with them were tough. Every one was a good hard fought game.
CoBL: Do you have any keys to what will determine your success this season?
BD: Our younger kids have to play Kutztown basketball sooner than later. We kind of start in the league rather quickly, and we start on the road at Cal and Slippery Rock. We need these guys to get up to snuff real quick and get back to us pushing the ball distributing the ball. I think we can do it. I think they have it in them. I think it will be our job as coaches to really push team basketball and do what we do best, which is run the ball, push it, assist, try to lead the league and country in assists, that’s something we preach from Day One.
CoBL: You mentioned Anthony Lee before, does he have the potential to grow and be even better this year?
BD: He’s put on about 15 pounds of muscle. Anthony really looks good. I think he wore down a little bit toward the end of last year. What we want from him, he’s always going to have that shot, we’ll always be able to get him that shot. We want him to be a little more aggressive off the dribble. We’ve really worked hard last spring and this summer on a mid-range game for him, that little 15 to 18-foot pull-up. If we get Anthony a little bit more comfortable doing that, I think he’s going to be real difficult to guard, extremely difficult to guard. In the past, he’s been at the three or at the rim, so we really, really worked hard on that little mid-range pull-up. We’ll see how he does, but he looks pretty good so far doing it.
CoBL: How do Lee and Ridgeway complement each other in that backcourt?
BD: Ethan looks for Anthony all the time. Ethan’s the most unselfish point guard we’ve had and we’ve had some real good point guards. He looks to pass, he looks to distribute first, and Ethan and Anthony are just on the same page. They’ll do things in the game that we don’t coach. They know each other’s moves and they take that baseline step. They just hedge a little to the weakside and next thing you know, Ethan’s distributing the ball and Anthony’s shooting it. They’ve been together really now for three years and that chemistry shows. We want Ethan to keep doing what he’s doing, and we want Anthony to probably be a little more aggressive off the bounce. If we can do that, I think we’ll be OK.
CoBL: Anything else interesting about your team that I didn’t touch upon?
BD: We’re a lot bigger than we’ve been in the past. We got Joseph O’Brien, a 6-8 kid from Abington. We got Oenis Medina, a 6-8 kid from Reading. This will give us the flexibility to move Dan Cuevas away from the basket a little bit, these two guys inside. We’ve really not had that consistent height, so that’ll be nice this year. We’ll be looking forward to that. Both young men have really had a good fall so far.
CoBL: Will that affect the way you play at all?
BD: Hell no. If we have to run with four guys, we’ll run with four. The big guy, it’s his job to get down the floor if he wants to score. We’re going to continue playing Kutztown ball. We’re going to continue to push it. We want the game in the 90s and our personnel kind of leads us to that. And Joseph and O are pretty athletic guys. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how athletic those guys are. I think in the long run, it might help us be pretty good.
CoBL: You mentioned the younger guys have to get up to speed. Is that kind of tough for them to get conditioned and ready? Does that take a year or two sometimes?
BD: Sometimes it does, but we’re not afforded that opportunity at Kutztown. We have to get up, get it going. I think having Rafiq Marshall, the young man from Cheyney, that’ll take a little bit of pressure off the guys at the beginning, but certainly by Christmas we need to look up and ready to go.