The Penn State Altoona men's basketball program will be looking to answer some important questions during the 2019-20 season. The Lions return seven players from last season, including three members of their starting lineup. But the team will also be relying heavily on newcomers, as well as expecting returners to take on significantly expanded roles.
This season, the men's basketball team hopes it can answer these questions by exceeding expectations around the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference. The Lions were picked to finish eighth in the 2019-20 AMCC Preseason Poll, and the program knows that it must find ways to silence its doubters around the league.
Penn State Altoona went 8-17 overall last season, including a 6-12 mark in the AMCC that tied the team for seventh place in the regular season conference standings. Head coach David McGreal understands that the team will need consistency from its returners, along with some unproven players stepping up and performing well, to improve upon last season's finish.
"We head into the season with a lot of questions about the direction of the program, coming off of a not-so-stellar campaign last year," said McGreal, who is entering his fourth year as the Lions' head coach. "A lot of those questions have to do with players lost to graduation, attrition, and injuries, and we have to find out who will step up into those voids."
Two returning starters who McGreal plans to rely on significantly are senior center Cameron Gardner-Nicholson (Philadelphia, PA/Boys' Latin Charter) and senior guard/forward Austin Krise (Allport, PA/West Branch).
"We're looking forward to finding guys who can step up into more expanded roles, but hopefully our senior leadership can help carry us in the early part of the season while we're still trying to figure out our identity," McGreal stated.
Gardner-Nicholson was voted the AMCC Defensive Player of the Year last season, and he also took third team All-Conference honors. Gardner-Nicholson led the conference last season in blocks (71), blocks per game (3.0), and field goal percentage (64.2%) while averaging 10.6 points per game and 9.8 rebounds per game. Krise was fourth in the AMCC last year in steals per game (1.9), fifth in steals (48), and 10th in field goal percentage (50.0%) while scoring 9.0 points per game.
"Cam and Austin have been through the battles within Division III basketball and the AMCC. We will obviously lean on Cam on the defensive end, and hopefully he will continue his dominance in the paint on that side of the ball. But we'll also look for him to take on more of the scoring load this season," McGreal explained. "We're also looking for Austin to step up his game on the offensive end. He had a very strong junior campaign shooting the ball, especially from two, and he was a very solid defender in the AMCC."
A third returning starter, sophomore guard Jack Kusters (Quakertown, PA/Lansdale Catholic), will also be a key player for the Lions this season. As a freshman last year, Kusters led Penn State Altoona in scoring and was 12th in the AMCC in three-pointers made (46) and 15th in points per game (12.5).
"Jack is coming off of a very strong freshman campaign, in which he led our team in scoring and three-point makes," said McGreal. "He continues to improve on other facets of his game, including his passing and defense, to hopefully take his game to the next level."
McGreal also expects four other returners to have a shot at expanded roles this season: senior guard Trey Butterworth (Clarence, PA/Bald Eagle), senior forward Clevon Scott (Raeford, NC/Hoke County), junior guard Nate Gillen (Johnstown, PA/Central Cambria), and sophomore guard Robbie Hicks (Rockledge, FL/Rockledge).
"Robbie and Nate both showed flashes last year of their ability to stretch the defense with three-point shooting, but they also both had positive effects on the defensive end, as both players are tenacious defenders. Both have really improved over the summer, and we're looking for big things from both of them," said McGreal. "We're also looking for Trey to provide solid minutes at the point guard position, knock down timely shots, and facilitate our offense. Clevon will be a nice addition to our post rotation, where he can provide a spark with his defense and rebounding."
Penn State Altoona will also welcome four transfers to its roster: junior guard Bryan Acosta (Orlando, FL/Wekiva), sophomore guard Trevor Hunter (Baltimore, MD/New Town), sophomore guard/forward Andruw Harman (Chesapeake, VA/Great Bridge), and sophomore forward/center Dominic Frucella (Duncansville, PA/Hollidaysburg). McGreal hopes that these players' previous experience of playing basketball at the collegiate level will help shorten their learning curve of joining a new program.
"We've got a tried and true junior college transfer in Bryan, who played at Penn Highlands Community College, where he was seventh in the NJCAA in assists per game," McGreal explained. "Also transferring in and looking to make immediate impacts within our rotation are Andruw and Donte', who both come from Radford University, and Dominic, who will provide some depth at the post position after transferring in from Washington & Jefferson College."
The Lions will also include five freshmen on their roster: guards Alex McClellan (York, PA/West York) and Michael Schermerhorn (Kingsley, PA/Mountain View), guard/forward Larry Cowder (Morrisdale, PA/West Branch), and forwards Dominique Campbell (Lansing, MI/Purchase Line) and Mason Marks (Hollidaysburg, PA/Hollidaysburg).
"Alex, Michael, Larry, Dominique, and Mason will look to provide depth, coming in as talented freshmen," said McGreal. "Each one is coming off of distinguished high school careers, and they will be looking to make an immediate impact at the varsity level."
In addition to the program's NCAA Division III varsity schedule, Penn State Altoona men's basketball will again field a varsity reserve team. The unit, which will consist of freshmen Michael Filardi (Hermitage, PA/Hickory), Andrew Griffiths (Pine Grove, PA/Pine Grove), Joshua Potutschnig (Flinton, PA/Glendale), Adam Ratkus (Blairsville, PA/Blairsville) and several other depth players on the varsity roster, will play a slate of exhibition games throughout the course of the season in order to gain valuable experience. The varsity reserve team will be coached by McGreal and assistant coach Arin Wade.
"On top of our varsity schedule, we have scheduled 10 games for the program's varsity reserve team to compete against several opponents, including some junior colleges and junior varsity teams," McGreal explained. "The varsity reserve team will allow us to continue to develop some of the freshman and sophomore players through game experience that they might not otherwise get during the varsity schedule."
Penn State Altoona men's basketball opens its schedule on the road on Saturday, November 9, traveling to face Bethany College at 4:00 p.m. The Lions' home opener follows on Saturday, November 16 against Juniata College at 2:00 p.m.
Other dates of note include: Saturday, November 23, when the Lions will travel to play Division II opponent Walsh University at 2:00 p.m. in what is an exhibition game for Penn State Altoona; Friday, December 27 and Saturday, December 28, when the Lions will compete in the Shenandoah University Shootout; and Wednesday, February 12, when Penn State Altoona completes its non-conference schedule on the road at Grove City College for a 7:00 p.m. game.
The highlight of Penn State Altoona's schedule, of course, will be the team's 20 AMCC games, opening on Tuesday, November 26 at 6:00 p.m., when the Lions will face defending conference regular season champion La Roche University.
Penn State Altoona's full 2019-20 schedule can be viewed HERE.
"This season will be a special one, as it is the first season where everyone within the program is someone I've either recruited myself or have coached for four years," said McGreal. "Hopefully, we can get this new era started off with a winning season, a berth into the AMCC Tournament, and if we're lucky, a postseason berth to either the NCAA or Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament."