Photos by Nhi Casey and Michael Wong.
PASADENA, Calif. (Nov. 13, 2015) – The most SCIAC wins in 54 years – equaling the total over the previous 43 years – the conference's top free-throw percentage and several individual and team records made 2014-15 a banner season by all accounts for Caltech men's basketball. This year could be even better.
Head Coach Dr. Oliver Eslinger has built a program not long ago featured nationally due to its past struggles into a legitimate competitor that has several teams warily looking over their shoulders. In the final month of the season, Caltech won three consecutive home SCIAC games to rank fifth in the conference standings from Feb. 1 on and just a single game out of fourth. Despite the graduation of two four-year fixtures in Andrew Hogue and Bryan Joel, the Beavers are poised to carry that momentum into 2015-16 as a tight-knit group that also happens to be arguably the most experienced and athletic in program history. The 1953-54 team can still claim to hold the program's only SCIAC Championship, but this team has its sights set on its first-ever conference tournament appearance and NCAA bid.
"Our goal is to win a SCIAC Championship," Eslinger said. "We came up short last year, but if we had managed to win four or five more games earlier in the conference we might have had a chance to win two or three more in the tournament. We definitely want to give ourselves a chance this season in the Postseason Tournament and are in a better position for that than we've ever been."
Caltech opens the season with the second annual 110 Freeway Rivalry at Occidental College on Saturday, Nov. 14 and will take on several regional opponents in non-conference play, including the preseason No. 3 team in the country, Whitworth University. The Beavers are already battle-tested in 2015-16 after exhibition games at NAIA Division I The Master's College and NCAA Division I University of San Diego.
"It's a doozy of a schedule, and one well thought-out," Eslinger explained. "We know it is important to challenge ourselves on the road before entering conference play and want this group to learn how to manage travel."
Caltech's identity will remain one based on interchangeable parts as Eslinger continues to preach his system which values versatility. Fans can expect to see significantly varying lineups, including a fair share of unorthodox ones. One constant will be fast-paced, high-efficiency offense and fearless, unyielding defense, both of which are fueled by one of the program's best players in history.
Second Team All-SCIAC wing Kc Emezie (Waxhaw, N.C. / Marvin Ridge) takes over the reins in his senior year after leading the team in scoring over the past two seasons. A rare four-year starter, the 6-6 swingman has added significant muscle to a frame that already oozed All-Region ability and is well-positioned to become the program's No. 2 all-time leading scorer. Emezie filled up the box score last year with 13.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks per game while shooting 49 percent from the field, 38 percent beyond the arc and 81 percent from the free-throw line.
"Kc came back from the summer much stronger, more aggressive and confident," Eslinger said. "He truly can be as good as he wants to be and I would expect all of his stats to increase this year. He certainly learned a lot from Joel's and Hogue's examples of stepping it up as seniors last year."
Joining Emezie as returning starters and captains are juniors Nasser Al-Rayes (Doha, Qatar / American School of Doha) and Ricky Galliani (Menlo Park, Calif. / Sacred Heart Prep). Al-Rayes was absolutely unstoppable at times on both ends of the court last season, leading the SCIAC in blocks per game (2.2) and posting four double-doubles, including a ridiculous 22-point, 12-rebound, six-assist, six-block night in the win over Whittier College on Feb. 7. Galliani improved throughout last season, averaging 1.4 more points per game in conference play, and was particularly crucial in the Beavers' four victories as he averaged 2.3 more points while shooting 21 percent better from the field, 34 percent more from three and an additional eight percent at the line for an astounding 53-58-83 percent line. He is set to shoulder the outside scoring load for the 2015-16 squad while continuously growing as a playmaker and defender.
"Nasser and Ricky both really honed their shots in the offseason and have expanded their games," Eslinger said. "Ricky's additional strength and explosiveness, plus another level of commitment on the defensive end, have him on the brink of being a serious impact player for us. Nasser got some great experience abroad this summer and has stretched his shot considerably further out, adding another element to his game."
Essentially splitting the team's sixth man role last season, juniors David LeBaron (San Diego, Calif. / Francis Parker) and Lawrence Lee (Hong Kong / Hong Kong International School) step into the starting lineup full-time with a combined 35 games started over their first two years. The pair averaged a combined 9.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.0 assist and 0.5 blocks in 32.5 minutes per game last year. LeBaron's versatility should see him fill all five positions in the Beavers' fluid lineup, but his primary responsibilities will likely be ball-handling and defense. His aggression, awareness and driving ability could be the perfect fit as the initiator of this Caltech offense. Although Lee's numbers were down across the board from his stellar rookie year, the big man certainly had his moments, none more superlative than his program-record 38 points and 14 field goals in an NCAA game at George Fox University on Nov. 21. An all-around talent in the post, Lee will look to get back to or even surpass the 10.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.8 blocks he averaged as a freshman.
"David is our catalyst at both ends of the court," Eslinger said. "He can and will play every position, is a heck of a defender who really understands team defense and can make plays in the backcourt. His serious backgrounds as both a football and lacrosse player in addition to basketball become more evident every day as he taps further into his athleticism and instincts. Lawrence has improved his shot too and can be a real mismatch down low with his ability to step back or bang inside. He can be a real difference-maker for us."
Seniors Robert Anderson (Orono, Minn. / Orono) and Naveen Tadepalli (Calabasas, Calif. / Agoura) and junior Matthew Edwards (Canyon Country, Calif. / Canyon) round out the upperclassmen. Anderson's and Edwards' length and shooting ability will have them eyeing key floor-spacing roles while Tadepalli's ball-handling and eye for a pass give the Beavers more depth at point guard.
"Rob is another guy who has significantly improved his shot and confidence and has every intention of making something out of his senior year," Eslinger said. "Matt just needs more reps to get more comfortable in our system before his considerable ability shines through. We are depending on him to come in, play some tough defense and knock down some shots. Naveen gives us some crucial depth as a reliable ball-handler who is always looking up court."
The impact the team's lone sophomore, David Kawashima (Studio City, Calif. / North Hollywood), made once he broke into the rotation midway through the season cannot be overstated. His relentless drive, intensity and pace shifted the Beavers' offense into another gear whenever he took the court and will surely be on display considerably more often than the 4.6 minutes he averaged over 16 games as a rookie.
"DK is a tremendous playmaker with some flashy skills that add an extra element to the team," Eslinger said. "His hustle and grit are going to be a vital part of what we do this season. He's a heck of a package with improved shooting and an ability to finish either way at the rim."
A trio of freshmen will look to make their mark within a group which could use the added depth. Steven Brotz (Santa Clarita, Calif. / Canyon) and Andrew Wang (Germantown, Md. / Poolesville) should see time at the guard spots, while the explosive and heavily decorated Brent Cahill (Laguna Beach, Calif. / St. Margaret's) rotates in on the wing after averaging well over 20.0 points per game as a senior.
"All three of the freshmen will have immediate impacts," Eslinger said. "Stephen is a high-IQ shooting guard, Andrew – the younger brother of 2013 alum Pan Wang – is a terrific defender and heady point guard and Brent is a spectacular, versatile wing. They have all been quick to fit into our style and pick things up."
Returning to the bench are assistant coaches Dave Briski and Ronn See for their fourth and second seasons, respectively. They are joined this year by Gonzaga alum Jordan Mast, whose collegiate career netted two WCC Championship titles and NCAA Championship appearances, including the storied 2005-06 Sweet 16 team.
The Beavers will focus on improving their shooting percentages and, by extension, assist-to-turnover ratio – two areas Eslinger has identified as key to the team's competitive success in 2015-16.
"We have good shooters on this team yet finished last in field goal percentage and second-to-last in three-point percentage," Eslinger said. "We need to take better shots, and that comes from better ball movement, utilizing screens and making sure the ball doesn't stick at any point. Most of our good shots are assisted as well, so finding better looks should bring our assist-to-turnover ratio closer to the 2:1 it needs to be."
Eslinger and the Beavers will take their first step toward history at rival Occidental in the non-conference 110 Freeway Rivalry on Saturday, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. Caltech takes the court in front of its home fans for the first time on Wednesday, Nov. 25 at 7 p.m.