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Open Mike: Hilbert men’s hoops next step — NCAA Tourney bid

HILBERT TO AMCC FINAL — Hilbert shows off some of its defensive prowess during a 21-7 season, as Adrian Vasquaz (middle) and Ryan Brewster sky in the air in a block attempt. Photo courtesy of Hilbert College.
There are two goals written up on the chalk board in the Hilbert College men’s basketball practice room. They are to play in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Tournament and play in the conference championship game.

The Hawks have played in the AMCC Tournament each of the past four seasons, from 2012 – 2014 advancing to the semifinals, and this year, they played in program’s first conference championship game. The program has fulfilled those goals, and head coach Rob deGrandpre realizes it may be time to add another one to the board: NCAA Division-III Tournament berth.

“That’s everyone’s wildest dream,” the 12th-year Hilbert head coach said. “It’s not far away. It’s just another piece to the puzzle as we continue to develop as a program.”

As part of the AMCC, Hilbert is eligible to secure one of 42 bids to the NCAA Tournament, among the 416 Division III schools, but that would take winning the conference tournamenr. It’s a feat the Hawks get closer and closer to doing, but are not yet there. In finishing at 21-7 this season, one might think Hilbert should be a prime contender for one of 20 at-large bids handed out last Monday for the tournament, with a field of 62 teams, which began over the weekend.

In fact, someone asked deGrandpre about that shortly before he spoke to The Sun News. Although the AMCC continues to get stronger each season, it still has not gained the same reverence of those conferences in the Great Lakes Region, which sent seven at-large teams to the tournament, deGrandpre said. Because they play against one another, their strength of schedules are that much better.

deGrandpre knows his team is right on the cusp of a tournament appearance so he continues an attempt to beef up his schedule. However, there is only so far a team can travel on a modest Division III budget. And Hilbert has become a little too much of a risk without getting enough reward back to play for some of the more established programs.

The strength of schedule is key, but deGrandpre knows the program can do only so much about that. Scheduling many different schools in a variety of locations is not feasible and Hilbert can’t help how its opponents wind up finishing the season. Even as the conference gets better and a little more even at the top, the last time the AMCC received two NCAA bids was three seasons ago.

“The schedule is tricky,” said deGrandpre, who does have a commitment from John Carroll of Ohio to play in the Hawks’ Tip-Off Tournament next season. “You’ve got to try to live within your means and there are some schools that want to play us and others that don’t, which means you have had success.”

What Hilbert can control is how it plays against fellow AMCC foes, and potentially taking that path to the tournament. This year, it did quite well in conference play.

Coming off a season in which Hilbert won its first regular season conference title and hosted the tournament, the Hawks found themselves again in or close to the top spot throughout 2013-14.

Being on the road for five of the last six games, slowed the team, according to deGrandpre, and they fell from the potential top seed to the third seed in the conference tournament. Like the two seasons’ prior, Hilbert moved on to the semifinals and this season, defeated 2012 champion and local rival Medaille. But Penn State Behrend bested Hilbert to win its second AMCC title in a row.

The Hawks were led by sophomore forward Jerame Owens and junior guard Trevor Stark, each of whom were named to the All-AMCC First Team, having led the team in scoring in all but four games this season. Stark averaged a team-leading 17.1 points and totaled 132 assists and 53 steals, while Owens averaged 16.4 points and 11.5 rebounds and led the team with 54 steals and 35 blocks.

However, deGrandpre said he also counted on depth for a team that started 11 different players this season. Senior point guard CJ Hodge was a key cog, while sophomore Nick Nadeau (9.2 points) also come on strong and was a lock-down defender and classmate Xavier Major, the cousin of Owens, was a major contributor offensively (5.6 points and 5.0 rebounds). There was also production off the bench from the likes of Jalen Smith, averaging 9.6 points, Sean Weisansal (5.6 points), Jordan Kumro of West Seneca (4.8 points) and Ryan Brewster (3.0 points).

“Some years, you only go to one or two guys,” deGrandpre said. “Owens and Stark get a lot of the accolades but we really had a lot of balance. We’ve never had 11 guys start in a season. Some of it was to spark the team at times and other times it was to match-up. At this level, a lot of the games come down to match-ups.”

With only Hodge lost to graduation from this group, the Hawks look to match-up pretty well against most teams next season and seem closer than ever to taking that step up to a conference champion.

“It means the future looks good,” deGrandpre said.

And it also means the goals will only get loftier.

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