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Men’s Basketball: Great expectations for the Oilers

With great success comes great expectations.
The potential brewing in the University of Findlay men’s basketball team for the past few years finally transpired.
They might have only scratched the surface.
“It creates a blueprint for our team to see what’s needed, the margin of error,” UF coach Charlie Ernst said. “Maybe the difference between teams that don’t make the conference tournament and the teams that do is not as great as you would think, and the importance of every game you play.”
A memorable season full of highs came to fruition and along the way they captured a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference South Division title in their final year in the league.
The ride ended in the Sweet 16 — a spot the program hadn’t reached since winning it all in 2008-09 at 36-0.
And it nearly never happened.
Two starters went down early to season-ending injuries six and 11 games in.
The Oilers didn’t falter, going 16-4 after the second devastating blow and finished with their highest win total (25-7) since the 2008-09 team.
They were more than battle tested come NCAA Tournament time with 11 wins coming by 10 points or fewer.
“As an example, had we lost that home game to Lake Erie (81-79) last year, maybe we don’t make the regional and if we don’t make the regional we don’t make it to the Sweet 16,” Ernst said.
Once in the tournament, the Oilers went on a tear.
They stunned Southern Indiana 70-69 with the game-winning layup in the final seconds and dispatched GLIAC rival Ferris State 68-63.
Ultimately, their season ended on Bellarmine’s home court 84-66.
There’s plenty of talent returning to think they can do it again.
Only Ricardo Smith and Tyler Stern-Tucker graduated, but the Oilers get back their starting point guard in Austin Gardner and starting center Alex White — both recovering from knee injuries.
Smith (4.5 points per game), an all-GLIAC defensive team player, started all 32 games while Stern-Tucker (10.3 ppg) filled in for White, making 20 starts.
“On the court, I feel like we’re not even thinking about them, we’re just kind of moving on,” Gardner said. “This is the team we’ve got. We’ve got a great team. We got the pieces to the puzzle. Now it’s just the execution standpoint and giving it every day.”
UF not only starts the season ranked No. 22 in the coaches poll, but was tabbed to win the Great Midwest Athletic Conference after receiving 11 of 12 first-place votes.
Seniors Martyce Kimbrough and Taren Sullivan possess preseason All-American hype after standout junior years.
Kimbrough (19.3 ppg) is the returning D-II leader in 3-pointers made (114). Meanwhile, Sullivan was second on the team in scoring (18.1) and led with averages of 7.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals.
Both surpassed the 1,000-point mark late last season and expanded on their ability to become go-to and clutch scorers.
Sullivan had 11 20-point games and eight double-doubles. He also averaged 21.3 points during the postseason.
Kimbrough canned eight treys in a game three times, including a school-record 11 in UF’s 105-87 win over Tiffin where the team also tied the single-game mark of 19.
As a team, the Oilers drained 312 of 798 attempts from beyond the arc — both single-season highs.
Fellow seniors Gardner and Elijah Kahlig comprise a senior class with 198 starts under their belts.
“The thing I like to point to with this senior class, not only are they all talented players contributing different parts to our team,” Ernst said. “The thing that is the same for all four, they’re quality kids.”
Gardner’s injury bumped Kahlig into the starting lineup at the 3 and moved Smith to point. Kahlig turned career-highs of 10.9 ppg while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range (76 of 184).
White, now a junior, was just finding his stride as a sophomore before tearing his ACL on a fastbreak lay-in. He averaged 7.5 points, 5.7 boards and one block.
Following all of the players with starting experience is a nearly endless list of youth at Ernst’s disposal.
“Tough decisions to make,” Ernst said. “We’ll keep guys competing hard; there’s going to be sickness, injuries. The best teams can overcome that because they’ve got a lot of quality bodies, case and point last year.”
Sophomore Aaron Overhiser (3.8 ppg, 3.5 ppg) saw an increased role as backup center and is expected to do the seame this season.
Ernst says Overhiser “relies more on outrunning and out-toughing you” while White is “a little more effective close to the rim” with a great jump hook.
Backing up Gardner at point will be junior Trey Smith and true freshman Tommy Schmock who each provide plenty of quickness.
Smith (3.6 ppg), who had his redshirt burned once Garner went down, earned a reputation as a pest on the defensive end and knocked down 17 3-pointers.
“What we have to do is figure out a way to get all of our point guards the time they need to be effective,” Ernst said. “We’re looking at maybe some opportunities for (Austin) off the ball because he’s got pretty good size (6-3).”
Ernst said most of the main bench competition is between sophomores Matt Ashley (6-foot-6) and Chazz George (6-4) plus true freshmen Brady Wildermuth (6-5) and Anthony Masterlasco (6-4, Liberty-Benton) at the 3 and 4 spots, respectively.
Ashley and George played very sparingly as true freshmen, mostly in garbage time or in nonleague tune ups.
True freshman guard Ethan Linder will miss about two months with an injury sustained in early October.
The team has yet to talk long-term expectations and goals.
First, Ernst is worried about a “mountain” of a nonconference slate beginning with the two-day Hall of Fame Classic in Evansville, Ind.
The Oilers tip off against preseason No. 6 Indiana (Pa.) 3:30 p.m. Friday and then No. 5 St. Thomas Aquinas 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
They then host national runner-up Fairmont State on Nov. 15 before hitting the road to take on Lake Superior State on the first day of the Cedarville Don Callahan Classic. Both teams delivered UF losses last season.
UF ends its nonleague slate with road contests against Ferris State and Northwood.
Up next is their first go-round in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
“I think it’s probably a more quality league in men’s basketball than people realize,” Ernst said. “I think that will play out in the exempt crossover games that are played in early November.”
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