DECATUR — In February, the Millikin University men’s basketball team will be about interior defense, limiting turnovers and winning on the road.
But in late October, it’s about cupcakes and fried chicken. It’s about feeding the homeless, raking leaves and learning which players are from families bruised by divorce. It’s about paintball wars.
As practice begins, it’s also about zeroing in on team goals that haven’t been achieved in many years and it’s about realizing there is finally a roster in place — finally — that can threaten the upper division of the very difficult College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin.
It’s Year 3 of the Matt Nadelhoffer coaching era, and while I’ve tried to document the very brave and exciting renaissance of Millikin men’s basketball, Nadelhoffer is about to roll his new and improved team out onto the Big Blue runway.
He inherited a battered and broken program two years ago and limped through that first season with a 1-23 record. That he didn’t jump off the roof of the outdated Griswold Center is a miracle.
Then he stripped the roster bare, recruited from the ground up and started five freshmen last season for a 8-17 record including four CCIW victories, which is significant because the school had not won a single conference game in the previous three years combined.
Now it’s time to announce that Nadelhoffer’s program is ready for liftoff.
During a recent two-day team retreat just outside Milwaukee, one of many exercises the team participated in was setting and sharing team goals. Individual goals were set as well, but those were kept private and placed in sealed envelopes, to be reviewed when the 2013-14 season is complete.
The goal-setting process was revealing and told Nadelhoffer that his players believe they’re on the cusp of a breakthrough.
“One of our goals is to finish in the top four of the conference,” he said. Sounds modest enough in an 8-team league.
But then the national Division III rankings came out and two CCIW teams (Illinois Wesleyan and North Central) were in the top 15 and two others (Wheaton and Augustana) were national poll vote-getters last season. “We’ll have to pass one of those teams,” Nadelhoffer said, “which means we’re going to have to win on the road and make our atmosphere here much more difficult for teams to play in.”
Nadelhoffer has been addressing that since he arrived in 2011 after serving as head coach at Eastern University near Philadelphia for nine seasons.
He’s a marketing wizard who doesn’t wait for the university to open doors. Instead, he kicks them down himself.
After home attendance jumped from 8th to 4th last season, he has convinced the school to repair the east bleachers and open them up to give the Griswold Center gym a two-sided look.
He has succeeded in convincing a pep band to play for home games. Participation in the student cheer section “The Blue Zoo” will triple this season, he said.
And more and more community members are turning out for games, in part because Nadelhoffer has immersed his team in service projects and outreach efforts all over town.
That’s why he considered in a major breakthrough when players were asked this question on the recent team retreat:
“Who do we play for?”
The answers were many, but Nadelhoffer tingled with pride when more than one player said, “We play for the city of Decatur.”
“They said Decatur is something we represent and in the past that was never thought of from our guys,” Nadelhoffer said.
This is the calm before the basketball storm.
A road scrimmage at Washington U. in St. Louis will be followed by a home scrimmage Nov. 9 against MacMurray. The season begins No. 15 and the home opener is Nov. 20 against Aurora.
The current roster contains 23 players — 3 juniors, 12 sophomore, 8 freshmen and no seniors.
The only off-season casualty was St. Teresa’s Alex Tueth, who will bow out of basketball due to a recurring knee injury.
Other than that, all the veteran players are back and some are growing into their bodies. Deavis Johnson, for instance, was a 6-foot-5, 185-pounder as a freshman last season when he finished second in CCIW rebounding.
This year he reported at 6-7, 212 pounds. Bigger and stronger is not what the rest of the CCIW wanted to hear about a player who already has NBA leaping ability.
But much of this pre-season preparation is team-building. Practice began with a team dinner at the Nadelhoffer home, where 33 plowed through the chow line to gobble chicken, sides and plates of cupcakes.
Then it was up to Wisconsin for the team retreat, organized by Millikin’s “character coach,” Josh Koskinen.
That’s where the activities included winterizing the camp grounds and cabins, a paintball tournament and a session in which players were asked to reveal which of them were first-generation college students, which had experienced divorce, who felt they’d let down a teammate.
“It warmed my heart for guys to peel it all the way back to that,” Nadelhoffer said.
Feeding the homeless came when the team pitched in and Nadelhoffer peeled potatoes for a meal served at the Good Samaritan Inn.
Nadelhoffer never lets his players lose sight of public service obligations. But this season he hopes one civic contribution will be to deliver on the promise of a winning season.
Big Blue men’s basketball has done its groundwork. Nadelhoffer has recruited for a time when Millikin will turn the corner.
Put on the blinkers. The turn is about to be made.